'I don't know what I'm doing here in this city'

Sitting ducks for snipers' bullets, far from home and unable to contact their families, US troops in Iraq are finding their morale slipping away. Lee Gordon talks to servicemen and women for whom victory in the Gulf now has a hollow ring

'We didn't win this war, not at all," said reserve infantryman Eric Holt, on guard outside the Republican Palace in Baghdad. "I don't know what I'm doing here and I don't like what's happening in this city," continued the 28-year-old from New York State. "It ain't right for the folks here. You know, there are a whole lot of our girls getting pregnant just so they can go home quick."

Morale among troops in the Iraqi capital has plunged, not least because of new orders that could see them there for a year instead of six months. Four soldiers have been shot by snipers or at close range near Baghdad University in the last seven days, in apparently random killings similar to that of the British journalist Richard Wild last weekend. The 24-year-old former British army officer was killed by a single shot to the back of his head after leaving the university, where he had been meeting Islamic groups.

The investigation into Mr Wild's death has been hampered by the decision of the military police to withdraw from the campus, where religious edicts have appeared on the walls ordering females to cover their heads. Only one company of about 100 former New York and LA army policemen is responsible for investigating crimes, and the order to stay away from the university means it has not been able to interview witnesses or find forensic evidence such as the spent bullet. Meanwhile Mr Wild's body is understood to be at the airport waiting transfer to Britain. The British embassy has declined to say more.

Violence is commonplace in Baghdad. On Monday a soldier was killed and three others injured when a home-made bomb was tossed on to a military convoy as it emerged from an underpass. The explosion ripped into a Humvee military car, tossing it across the road.

A crowd gathered to watch as the three injured soldiers were loaded into another Humvee. The driver, who bore the brunt of the explosion, lay across the front seat of the damaged vehicle holding his torn and badly burnt arm, screaming for help. He was helped into the rescue vehicle but later died of his injuries. Asked about the incident, a sergeant in the military police smiled and lifted his helmet to wipe the sweat that was running down his face. "We're going to help clean up this mess and move out of here. Quickly. There is no damn chance of us catching anyone." Pointing to his men, who were trying to hold back a crowd of around 100 pushing towards the debris, he said: "There is nothing more we can do."

Outside Baghdad the situation is also difficult. Border guards, far away from internet cafés and international telephones, find contacting their families particularly problematic. Forbidden from using military satellite communications, they often stop passing Iraqi traders and ask to use their telephones. A 22-year-old guard, part of a tank unit at the border, said he had not spoken to his wife for three months. It takes at least two months to receive a reply to a letter.

Perhaps not surprisingly, anecdotal evidence points to a growing number of breaches of military discipline. A spokesman said any soldier who fell pregnant would almost certainly be dishonourably discharged from the army and might even face a court martial, unless she was pregnant by her husband.

Prostitutes have now appeared. Rana, a 21-year-old Iraqi woman from Saddam's home town of Tikrit, said she had been working as a prostitute for a month near the army barracks in Abu Nawaz Street, central Baghdad. Most of her clients are US soldiers. She charges $50 for a night, including a room in a hotel in nearby Saddoon Street.

A receptionist at the hotel, where rooms are $30 for a twin, said there was no prostitution before the invasion. "We don't want our women to do these things," he said, adding that soldiers also try to sell handguns to make money. "They come in here and ask if I want to buy small guns a few times a week but we don't need any, we have a Kalashnikov."

The 11pm curfew means prostitutes and the brothels conduct their business early in the day. "Commanders turn a blind eye to soldiers who consort with prostitutes," a tank soldier said. "They understand the pressure on their troops."

"We're working 14 hours a day guarding and on patrol," a 21-year-old female reservist from Oklahoma said. "I finish and go straight to sleep then wake up an hour before duty, shower and start again. I don't think I can take an extra six months. I was looking forward to going home in October. But we're lucky in our squad because we drew down some cops from New York. The sergeant is from the Bronx. They're real tough and they're holding us together."

She spoke on the condition that she remain anonymous after her commander ordered troops not to give media interviews. Her colleague, a 26-year-old reservist from Houston who was studying to become a police officer, said she planned to quit the army as soon as she got home. "I've been in the army eight years and I can't do it any more, not after this. We're sitting here like targets and the Iraqis are getting bolder. They're taking a pop in broad daylight." One of the military policemen from her squad had cracked up and been sent home this week after a skirmish with Iraqi attackers, she said. "When I heard we might get another six months I wanted to cry."

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