Poised For Engagement

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.”