Ar Ridwaniyah, Iraq – On a recent morning here south of Baghdad, insurgents detonated a remote-controlled bomb. It blew a crater in a hard-packed rural road seconds before a U.S. armored vehicle passed.
Within hours, Iraqi troops backed by the Colorado-based 3rd Armored Cavalry stormed into a farm compound half a mile away. They’d planned to hit it the night before, when Iraqi Lt. Col. Jassim Abbas received a tip from a vegetable-warehouse caretaker that this was where killers hung out.
Now U.S. Capt. Andy Watson was inside the home, looking over items found around the farm. A bundle of batteries wrapped in black tape with wires sticking out. Switches and plugs disconnected from appliances. Cellphone chargers and boxes, minus the phones. Bullets swept under plush rugs. A pencil sketch showing main U.S. military routes through Iraq. Downloaded propaganda printouts urging Iraqis to join the Islamic Army and “do anything you can to resist the Americans.”
Watson and 1st Lt. Carlos Montalvan, liaisons working with the Iraqi troops, smiled.
“This guy makes bombs,” Montalvan said.
Nodding, Watson spoke into his radio headset to Capt. Michael Davis in a Humvee outside, coordinating this raid with others.
“Definitely a good hit,” Watson said. “Good info” gleaned by the Iraqis, he added.
Now they needed the triggerman who set off the bomb that blew that morning.
Three women sat silently in their kitchen as a dozen or so U.S. and Iraqi soldiers combed their home. A blue flame burned beneath a pot on the stove.
The owner’s two sons and a cousin next door were telling conflicting stories – that the father was at a hospital working, that he was a patient in the hospital, that he was away at a funeral.
Montalvan held up the sketched map and confronted the 15-year-old: “A map. Explain it.”
Watson figured: “Papa might be hiding in the mosque.” He radioed Davis, who had helicopters circling already. “I recommend we talk to people at mosques in this area,” Watson said.
Meanwhile, another team of troops pulled a man from a field near where the bomb exploded. They zip-tied his hands in front of him and led him to a truck for questioning and then detention.
“One of the guys who detonated the bomb,” Davis said.
Raids starting to pay off
These recent U.S.-Iraqi joint raids, part of a five-day “Operation Tigerwalk” blitz south of Baghdad, had started to produce results.
Troops in this area caught 10 suspected insurgents and, after initial questioning, ended up holding six for further questioning. They found three roadside bombs, a car bomb and four weapons caches. A cavalry squadron working to the east in the Tigris River Valley had found similar bombmaking materials, including a heap of explosives.
Iraqi troops played key roles. “They can get intelligence we can’t,” Davis said. “Not to mention the psychological effects on Iraqis. We’re genuinely trying to let the Iraqis take over. It’ll help us in the long run, because we are the ‘infidel.’ Some people may see the Iraqis as our puppets. But I don’t see them that way.”
With roadblocks everywhere, local farmers cowered and stayed home. American troops did what they could to be friendly. Following a meal under a palm tree, Pvt. Jose Martinez, a 21-year-old from Loving, N.M., shared his Skittles and oatmeal cookies with children during house-to-house patrols. Lt. Brian Hollandsworth gave out soccer balls and “Beanie Baby” ponies.
Still, the sight of big, armored men in splotched uniforms carrying guns and speaking a strange language, with helicopters clacking above them, made some kids crinkle their small faces and cry.
They “are terrified. They think you are going to kill them,” farmer Salman Muneef told Hollandsworth. Muneef later served soldiers tea.
Some Iraqis fumed. “As you have wives and children, we also do, and we are afraid for our families,” said Ahmad Suleyman, 36, brother of the owner of the house troops raided that morning. “We want the Americans to help us stay safe and walk on our roads without fear.”
After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Saddam Hussein’s henchmen killed hundreds of Shiite farmers south of Baghdad. Then regime insiders moved in, pushing some farmers to marginal land and then building big houses along the Tigris and Euphrates. U.S. commanders suspect these former insiders now may be orchestrating attacks.
The next day, as Davis and his contract interpreter, Somalian refugee Ahmed Hassan, 24, joined soldiers on patrol, an Iraqi woman in a headscarf dared to approach them. Davis hung back, letting Hassan listen to her.
She told him a man named Rahman Hamzi Mohammed, 25, who lived nearby, made remote- controlled bombs for insurgents. She gave directions to his house.
Troops then found Mohammed hiding – and also propaganda urging Iraqis to join Islamic Army fighters against America. They zip-tied his hands behind him.
Iraqi troops began questioning him. They hit his left shoulder with a bamboo switch repeatedly, just enough to cause welts to appear. They hauled him, blindfolded, back to a joint U.S.-Iraqi staging area, where they held him in the back of a civilian sport-utility vehicle. U.S. soldiers arranged to detain him officially in a guarded pen overnight, then later move him for further questioning.
Now guarded by Iraqi soldiers, Mohammed rubbed a swollen red welt on his left shoulder, wincing.
Speaking through an interpreter, he told a reporter he was innocent. “Some people don’t like me, and they gave false information. The first thing I wish is that our farms and villages are safe.”
Iraqi soldiers then pulled up his blindfold – his eyes darted side to side, scared – and thrust handfuls of water toward his mouth. He gulped water, gasping.
If anyone approached him about joining the Islamic Army, “I’d go report him,” he said. A grocery stall manager, he lived a simple life, playing soccer in the afternoons, he said.
“Don’t believe what these people say about me. If I was doing something bad, why would I stay in my house and not run away from you when I had the chance?”
Davis figured “he’s a little fish” but had him held nonetheless so that intelligence specialists might learn more.
U.S. commanders weren’t overly concerned about detainee treatment when asked about the interrogation. There were more raids to do.
“I’m concerned if the Iraqis go in too rough,” Davis said. “Obviously, that’s not our standard. … It’s their army, and I didn’t see any of that.”
Tall Afar, Iraq – U.S. soldiers in armored vehicles rattled in recently and stopped by the bullet-riddled Al-Farouk mosque. The soldiers stormed out of their vehicles and, crouching with rifles raised, dove into combat positions.
Lying on gravel, goat horns and excrement, Spec. Kris Guido, 21, of El Paso, peered through his rifle scope at what appeared to be masonry workers a quarter-mile away.
When one of those workers moved behind a dirt heap and lit a fire, Guido spotted it instantly. “Hey,” he said, notifying Sgt. Charles Rumschlag, 25, of Colorado Springs, also on his belly a few feet to the left. Rumschlag took a look and reckoned the workers might be “signaling.”
The soldiers – members of the Colorado-based 3rd Armored Cavalry – were poised to fire on anybody raising weapons or placing roadside bombs.
A few hours before, anti-U.S. fighters in a building nearby had fired a rocket-propelled grenade at an armored Stryker vehicle. The grenade hit a protective grill, bounced off and exploded far enough away that no one was hurt. The day before, other 3rd ACR troops had hit a remote-controlled bomb and endured the blast – along this same strategic road in front of the mosque. The road, linking Syria with Tall Afar (population 200,000) and the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, is considered a major supply route for insurgents.
A day after this mission, a bomb nearby would seriously injure four U.S. troops, including two from the 3rd ACR, and hurt two other people.
Now on this morning, Guido, Rumschlag and about 25 others were acting on recent intelligence. Insurgents apparently were using the Al-Farouk mosque to stage attacks, according to a U.S. military intelligence file reviewed by The Denver Post.
Led by an imam named Mohammed, the mosque was “reportedly used nightly by AIF (anti-Iraq forces) to coordinate attacks,” the file said. Attackers had fired from its walls at soldiers. U.S. troops have avoided raiding mosques or other actions that would threaten similar holy places.
Young men recruited for attacks
Around June 2003, Sunni Iraqis who run the Al-Farouk mosque began recruiting jobless young men in the area to attack Americans, said Tall Afar men hired to work as interpreters. The recruiters offered $50 for attacks. Then they tried to coerce recruits into making more attacks by threatening to report their first deeds.
One 29-year-old interpreter working at the U.S. base south of town, who asked not to be identified for fear his family could be hurt, said people in Syria supported the mosque and took recruits to a terrorist training camp at Latakiya, along Syria’s northern coast.
“We hate them,” the interpreter said of the insurgents. “We know they are damaging our community.”
So the soldiers’ positioning on this recent morning also served as a show of force.
Yet troops peering through their rifle scopes also saw civilians just going about their lives: a man on a motorcycle passing a metal storage shed, a farmer leading geese, children walking to and from school, including girls in prim uniforms and head scarves.
Hard to know what was what. The strength of Iraqi insurgents today, says 3rd ACR commander Col. H.R. McMaster, “is their ability to blend into the local population.”
And the more insurgents increase the effectiveness of their bombs, the more they force U.S. soldiers to adopt a menacing posture. Armored Humvees that the 3rd ACR brought to Iraq on this second combat deployment no longer are sufficient. On this day, Guido, Rumschlag and others arrived outside the mosque in four M1A2 tanks and two Bradley Fighting Vehicles.
As they trained their rifles on possible enemies and watched traffic along the road from tank turrets, Apache attack helicopters swooped overhead. Guido heard them as he lay on his belly. “Cool,” he said, without looking up. “Feel safer.”
Interpreter exhorts troops
Inside Guido and Rumschlag’s Bradley, an interpreter waited – a 39-year-old father of eight from a religious sect that worships fallen angels – the Yezidi people.
“We belong to Malak Taus,” he said, referring to the “peacock angel” the Yezidis revere at a mountain shrine nearby. Like other religious and ethnic minority groups, the Yezidis had suffered under Saddam Hussein.
Now this interpreter was frustrated. Security in Tall Afar and other cities around here “is getting worse,” he said, asking to remain anonymous because he had been threatened after he began working for America.
The fire Guido and Rumschlag suspected might be used for signaling actually was for making gypsum for road construction, he said. And U.S. soldiers here by the mosque “aren’t doing anything. They’ve got to seize the city center. All the bad guys are in the city center.”
Around noon, troops atop tanks spotted a man along the road digging. Engines revved. The troops raced en masse to the scene. A crowd gathered, watching as the Americans in their armor stormed out and converged on the digger, who quickly set aside his shovel.
Rumschlag approached him. “Salam,” he declared. Peace.
The man stared back, dumbfounded.
And then, through the interpreter, Rumschlag demanded: “What are you doing?”
The man said he was Asad Rasol, an unemployed father of 11. He was digging to clear a roadside sewage ditch backed up with water that smelled bad, he said.
“Every day, we dig out this ditch to make the water drain better,” he said. Eyeing the soldiers and their tanks, he added: “We need this area to be safe.”
The troops accepted that, and with their interpreter rolled back to their position across from the mosque. They would sit there watching the road for another two hours, when another crew from the base would relieve them.
Lying again on his belly, Guido now spotted one of the masonry workers rising and falling in prayer.
He felt awkward training his rifle on this worker even though the man might not notice, he said. A matter of “respect,” Guido said. “I’ll just glance back and forth” at him now and then. “When they are praying, they don’t seem to pose a threat.”
Ar Ridwaniyah, Iraq – Hunting farm-to-farm for insurgents, Staff Sgt. Jeremy Daniel tramped through chest-high green wheat, drenched in sweat under his armor and helmet, boots caked with mud.
He sang, “Got to get some way out of here, said the joker to the thief.”
The 25-year-old from West Fork, Ark., said the slog through the field was probably what soldiers must have felt like in Vietnam. His father fought in Vietnam and returned home to jeers after thousands died on counterinsurgency missions like the one he was on now.
On a recent sweep south of Baghdad, the Colorado-based 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment began a mission intended to help stabilize the country without getting bogged down in a complex scenario similar to Vietnam’s.
Daniel and fellow soldiers from the 3rd ACR teamed up with 140 Iraqi soldiers – putting an Iraqi face on the fight against insurgents. So to his left and right and left, Iraqi troops also searched the wheat field.
One of the American soldiers found two Kalashnikov assault rifles and two green Russian crates full of ammunition stashed in the wheat. At a nearby farm, Iraqi Lt. Col. Jassim Abbas decided to question resident Ayad Talal about his neighbor.
At first Talal had said his neighbors were “good people.” But when told the neighbors had illegal weapons and ammunition stashed in their field, along a road where soldiers had been regularly attacked, Talal pretended not to know them.
Abbas had Talal kneel in the dirt with his hands tied behind him.
His brother, Faisal Talal, insisted they knew nothing. “If we knew anything, we would tell the American soldiers. Bad people put bombs on the roads. We are afraid of them.”
Abbas still pressed, alternatively standing over Talal, then squatting close to him and peering into his face.
U.S. 1st Lt. Carlos Montalvan watched the encounter. Talal “is probably thinking these guys could shoot me in the back of the head,” said Montalvan, 31, a burly ex-cop from Rockville, Md. “It is especially good in this case, because it is an Iraqi taking him away. It is Iraqi enforcement of law. Everyone in this area will know about this, and they will know that Iraqis, and the Americans, mean business.”
During a break on this recent day, Daniel and his cohorts slumped against the front bumper of a Humvee in 100-degree heat eating pre-packaged meals, sizing up their new partners.
“Last time, you wouldn’t hang out with any Iraqis,” Daniel said, comparing this with the cavalry’s first deployment in 2003 and 2004. “Now, we got ’em walking with us. I almost feel like a waste here.”
These Iraqi soldiers from an elite brigade seemed disciplined, said Daniel, the father of an 8-month-old girl. “If we could get a couple thousand more Iraqis like these, could be good.” One Iraqi that morning seemed eager to learn how to run a metal detector.
Staff Sgt. Gerald Betances nodded. “It’s easier having them with us, (to) deal with the detainees.”
These Iraqis eventually “could do this mission by themselves,” Sgt. 1st Class Robert Metzger said. “I’d have no qualms with that. That’s what we want. Then we could go home.”
Tall Afar, Iraq – The soldiers marched half-step – boots thudding softly, rifles barely rattling – and stood silently by the airstrip at twilight.
Nobody had ordered them here. Yet more than 200 massed to send off their dead.
A few hours before, insurgents in Tall Afar had killed four of their comrades – including two from the Colorado-based 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment.
And now – as the gray-blue sky broke into bright constellations and many men wept at the sight of a helicopter lifting off with the flag-draped bodies – these soldiers wanted payback.
“I want to go out and find the bad guys,” said Sgt. Jean-Marie Alexis, 37, a Haitian-born member of the reconnaissance squadron. “This is really frustrating. We can’t see them.”
Lt. Col. Chris Hickey, leader of the Sabre Squadron that lost two of the four, sympathized with Alexis and the others. His squadron lost eight during its year-long deployment in Iraq. Yet now, Hickey faced his men solemnly. He ordered restraint.
“What we cannot do is go into that city and burn it down,” Hickey said. “That’s what the enemy wants us to do. We are here to help the Iraqis establish democracy.”
So instead of lashing out the way armies have done for centuries, these soldiers stood silently on cold gravel, muffling inner wails.
“We have a plan,” Hickey told them. He reviewed how winning over Iraqis and harnessing Iraq’s soldiers would prove far more effective to defeat the anti-U.S. fighters.
But nothing will ease this “tremendous loss,” said Staff Sgt. Scott Muirhead, who rode alone in the back of a medic Humvee escorting the wrapped bodies to the waiting soldiers. “This is like getting kicked in the gut, and it takes all the energy out of you.”
This was an unofficial ceremony, the one that happens in the field when soldiers die. Official ceremonies are to be held next week.
Army officials identified the Fort Carson-based soldiers Monday as newly married Spec. Ricky Rockholt, 29, of Roseburg, Ore., and Pvt. 2 Robert Murray, 21, of Indianapolis, who dreamed of flying.
Also dead were 1st Lt. William A. Edens, 29, of Columbia, Mo., and Sgt. Eric W. Morris, 31, of Sparks, Nev. Both were assigned to the 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division (Stryker Brigade Combat Team), based in Fort Lewis, Wash.
The soldiers were killed on a reconnaissance mission Thursday afternoon. Army officials requested that The Denver Post not publish an account of the mission until relatives had been notified.
A convoy of five armored vehicles – two “Strykers” with rubber tires and three M1 tanks – had entered southwestern Tall Afar.
The city of 200,000 west of Mosul has become a hotbed for anti-U.S. fighters who have coerced residents to support them in battling “infidels,” U.S. officials and local men say.
The 3rd Armored Cavalry, along with a Fort Lewis-based reconnaissance squadron, are trying to help isolate and destroy the insurgents.
Around 4:20 p.m., one of the Strykers, carrying troops from both units, hit a bomb planted in the center of a dirt road. It blew through the bottom plate, right through where soldiers were sitting, and through the roof and rear of the vehicle. It flattened six tires.
The three tanks circled around the Strykers, firing at a man nearby who seemed to be running away, platoon leaders said later.
Two specialists newly trained in emergency medicine pulled out the wounded. Choppers clacked in to evacuate them.
But four soldiers died. Two other 3rd ACR soldiers – Spec. Nicholas Beintema and Spec. Bryan Lofton – were injured.
They are expected to recover.
Regimental commander Col. H.R. McMaster flew to the scene Friday morning and met with troops, then flew to Mosul and pinned Purple Hearts on blankets covering the wounded and dead.
This town, where insurgents have holed up, “is a tough place. We’ve got to figure it out,” McMaster said.
“The enemy wants us to overreact,” McMaster said. “We’ll pay them back. But we’re going to do it in a smart way that is consistent with our ideals and values.”