Progress, One Raid at a Time

Ar Ridwaniyah, IraqOn 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.

Chasing leads

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.”