"It'd be great to know where he's shooting from," mutters Austin. The 26-year-old Texan play-acts calling in an air strike on the shooter's position. "Drop a 500-pound bomb right here."
Turning away from their invisible enemy, Austin and his patrol make the rounds of the large Shi'ite families eking a living on the riverfront. Moving from house to house, greeting weary, wary parents and bouncing children in halting Arabic and with the aid of a sleepy-eyed Iraqi interpreter, Austin inquires about everyone's health, asks how the kids are doing at school, dispenses candy and has his medic Pvt. Kyle Elsea, 20, hand out Ibuprofen and basic medical advice. Politely declining offers of tea and cigarettes, Austin ends each conversation the same way: "Has anyone shot at you?"
Some shake their heads or shrug. There's a lot of shooting around here, after all, and it's not always clear who the target is. But others say yes and point across the river.
"Do you know who it is?" Austin asks. But no one does, and the lieutenant thanks them anyway and orders his soldiers on.
"We're trying to befriend a lot of them so they can tell us about movement on the river," Austin says. "We give a lot of stuff to the people here." He says his unit -- from 1st Battalion of the 8th Infantry Regiment out of Fort Carson, Colo. -- is like the Salvation Army, but with guns.
Austin's strategy reflects a gradual shift in the U.S. military's approach to the pacification of Iraq. Increasingly, the Army and Marines are asking Iraqis to take responsibility for their own security. In Balad, as elsewhere in Iraq, the military has cut its troop strength in half in favor of standing up more Iraqi Army battalions. And more than ever, U.S. troops rely on a sometimes ambivalent populace to provide the information they need even to support Iraqi forces.
Austin says the softer approach to occupation is working. He points out the invisible border between his company's quarter of Balad and that of a sister company he says is less gentle. The other company's area is pocked with craters from the Improvised Explosive Devices that routinely kill American and Iraqi troops, but Echo's area is relatively undisturbed.
"It's been suggested that the reason we don't get hit as much is because we're nicer to people," Austin says. Other units shoot up the countryside to test their weapons -- and as a show of force. But not Echo. "We don't do test fires. You don't know where that round's going to go." He says the unit that Echo replaced accidentally shot an Iraqi woman during a test fire.
While Echo has fired warning shots at cars that get too close to their convoys, they've done so as a last resort -- and only twice in two months. Austin says one of the key tenets of Echo's strategy for winning the support of everyday Iraqis is that "we just don't shoot at them."
Teaching, Not Fighting & r & At Logistics Support Area Anaconda, the sprawling U.S. base near Balad, the intelligence officer for 3rd Battalion of the 29th Field Artillery Regiment -- 1-8 Infantry's sister unit -- rattles off a long list of high-tech tools at his disposal: smart aerial drones with infrared cameras, high-fidelity tower-mounted sensors, a battlefield wireless network that lets him swap encrypted messages with soldiers on patrol.
"It's incredibly cool," says 36-year-old Capt. Pete Simpson.
Even with all the gadgets, Simpson says he still relies on the troops on the ground to gather the bulk of the information he needs to propose operations. And the troops on the ground rely on local informants. "It's the basis for almost any operation. Without informants, the location of bad guys and [weapons] caches is almost impossible to find -- they hide so well."
On one February patrol, Austin halts his vehicles on a tree-shaded road bisecting expansive fields and groves. This is what Maj. Conor Cusick, planning officer for 1-8 Infantry, calls "the bread basket of Iraq," and it makes for a pleasing exception to Iraq's predominantly barren landscape. But its lushness offers ample cover for bad guys, and somebody's been firing mortars at a U.S. base from these fields.
Austin points to a distant grove where, he says, a paid informant led Echo Company on a "wild goose chase" for the mortar position. He wonders aloud if the informant weren't deliberately misleading them, whether for money or for some more sinister reason. "But he's generally reliable, and he might come back with something useful," Austin says, surrendering to the ambiguity that, in this culture of distrust, makes everyone's motives suspect.
Down the road from Anaconda, at a tiny U.S. base called Paliwoda, Cusick uses a laser pointer to parse a map of the area that's tacked to the wall.
"It's an interesting dynamic," he says. "The city is Shi'ite, but the suburbs are Sunni. They're former regime, the haves. Now they don't have much. The big challenge is making [all of] them realize they've got to get along."
Cusick says that means building up the kinds of basic civic functions that Westerners take for granted: local government, garbage collection, schools. Meanwhile, U.S. forces must convince disenfranchised Sunnis and survivalist Shi'ites that these functions belong to them jointly -- and that they're not just extensions of the American occupation.
Cusick grimaces. "It's a large scope of work. Obviously, the most important thing is understanding the culture." Lasting reform might take centuries, Cusick adds.
In the meantime, U.S. forces will settle for winning over Balad's Shi'ites, using them as informants in the fight against Sunni insurgents in Ad Duluyah and other disaffected towns.
One Street at a Time & r & A 4-year-old boy named Rafat is screaming in pain. Last month, he had a hurt knee. This month he has pneumonia. Rafat's mother injects the boy's medicine while Elsea, the medic, presides. Austin and his interpreter confer with Rafat's father while two Echo Company soldiers stand guard under a tree, watching Ad Duluyah across the river.
It's been a long day and the Americans are tired. In six hours, they've put into practice all of their commanders' theories on how to win this war. They conducted what Austin calls "presence patrols," cruising up and down Balad's streets to show Iraqis that they're there, they're watching. They dropped in on a Shi'ite boys' school, where an exasperated teacher explained that he had no textbooks and Austin promised to do what he could to help. They hooked up with an Iraqi Army patrol and supervised as the Iraqis manned a road checkpoint. They waded through crowds of grabby children, handing out candy. They made their usual rounds of the riverside homes, pressing the flesh, hearing complaints, trying to pinpoint the Ad Duluyah sniper. And they went looking for one of their new allies in the area, a tribal sheik whose son was killed in an insurgent attack.
Amid the area's complicated politics and divided loyalties, the sheik's allegiance at least is clear. He has promised to shoot any bad guys he sees crossing the river.
That, to Austin, is progress.
David Axe is an independent journalist working in Iraq. His stories appear regularly in New York City's Village Voice. Next week, he'll take you to western Iraq, where a battalion of Navy Seabees is struggling to build a new military base.