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IRAQ: Policing traffic on sniper alley

May 3, 2008 |  5:54 am

Vigeant3

Setting up traffic cones shouldn't be difficult, but setting up traffic cones on a street in Baghdad that is notorious for snipers and roadside bombs presents a new set of challenges, as Army 1st Lt. Matt Vigeant discovered recently.

Vigeant was gracious enough to let me tag along as he and some of his men from the 1st Battalion, 68th Armor Regiment went about the task a few days ago on Route Pluto, a major street that runs near the edge of Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood. The goal was to slow traffic down and watch for suspected militia members who were expected to be attending a funeral in nearby Sadr City.

Vigeant is only 25, but the Nashua, NH native appeared far older as he took command of what clearly was going to be an infuriating mission. To begin with, he didn't have enough traffic cones to position in a horizontal line across the street. Most drivers, seeing just two orange cones in the road in front of them, thought they were supposed to drive between them rather than around them.

This meant Vigeant had to keep getting out of his Humvee and rearranging the cones or giving specific instructions to soldiers and an Iraqi police unit taking part in the exercise. It was clear from his demeanor that walking around exposed on this street was not his favorite thing. High-rise buildings, perfect sniper hideouts, line Route Pluto.

"Hey guys, just keep playing the game," he yelled to his soldiers after about the fifth time getting out and rearranging the cones. "And if you're on the ground, make sure you're moving."

Vigeant said snipers weren't his biggest worry, though. What haunts him are the roadside bombs known as EFPs, or explosively formed penetrators, which can pierce the military's most heavily armored vehicles. Vigeant told of a recent mission in which an EFP exploded near his convoy. The force of the blast knocked out his platoon sergeant's shoulder. During the 40-minute firefight that followed, his men nearly ran out of ammunition.

The sergeant is recovering, but the memory is fresh. "EFPs are the worst. If one of those hits your truck, you're dead," he said. "And this has always been a high concentration area."

EFPs often are hidden beneath mounds of trash or slabs of concrete. The key is to spot the bomb before it detonates. That means creeping along streets like Route Pluto at painfully slow speed -- no more than 20 mph. "You try to see it before it sees you," said Vigeant of EFPs, which are blamed for the majority of U.S. soldier deaths.

He recalled the days of his last deployment in 2006, when Humvees would fly at high speed along the streets to evade machine gun and rocket-propelled grenade fire.

"How I wish it were still like that," he said wryly at the end of the mission, as the Humvee rumbled slowly away.

To see if Vigeant nabbed any of the militia suspects he was looking for that day, read today's story here.

—Tina Susman in Baghdad

Photos: 1st Lt. Matt Vigeant, far right, and his Iraqi translator check the documents of an Iraqi driver pulled over near Sadr City. Tina  Susman / Los Angeles Times.

P.S. The Los Angeles Times issues a free daily newsletter with the latest headlines from the Middle East, the war in Iraq and the frictions between the West and Islam. You can subscribe by registering at the website here, logging in here and clicking on the World: Mideast newsletter box here.

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