*Retold with permission.
We landed in Kuwait at the beginning of my second tour expecting to head out to western Iraq, but those plans quickly changed – the first of many surprises. Before we’d even begun heading north, a frag-o [fragmentary order] came down the line directing us to Baghdad. With sectarian violence spiraling out of control, we were among a number of units diverted to central Iraq to help stanch the flow of blood.
As the first Stryker unit to operate within Baghdad, we quickly found our vehicles relatively unsuited to the narrow streets and confusing alleyways of the city, but we maximized our maneuverability as best we could. Wherever our vehicles couldn’t reach, our dismounted Soldiers certainly could, leaving us with 100% coverage of our battlespace. We would need it badly.
Our AOR [Area of Responsibility] within the city was bisected by a single large road. To one side lay Sunnis, and to the other, Shiites. Without question, their behavior was a godawful representation of humanity. On any given day, we would find between one and ten bodies, mostly murdered execution-style. We frequently be out on a patrol, hear a brief report of gunfire nearby, and rush around the corner to find somebody else dead or dying in the street. Of course, none of the locals ever saw anything. They were either terrified for their lives or part of the problem. We could never tell.
Various Shiite militia and terrorist groups would even go so far as to create fake checkpoints along the road, too. They’d set up quickly, murder a few Sunnis as they came through, and fade away just as quickly. They were always too brief for us to pinpoint and respond. They were so prepared that they’d have weapons and other material stashed along the roads at random intervals. They simply walked up empty-handed, “fell in” on their weapons, killed a few people, dropped the weapons again, and disappeared into the city. It was completely lawless.
We were assigned to work in partnership with a local element of the Iraqi National Police, which, at least initially, was a disaster. The unit, a predominantly Shiite group operating in a mixed Sunni and Shiite area, was rife with corruption. We suspected that many of the officers were acting on personal interests rather than the law, and in some cases working directly for various local terrorist organizations, to include handing over people to the terrorists. We’d have our interpreters monitor their comm traffic and hear them talking about us using code words. Our first order of business was getting them in line.
It took a month or two to vastly improve that police unit, but we were successful. When we first started working with them, we’d tell them we would begin our joint patrol at 0600, but arrive at 0545 to find them all still asleep. After immense effort, we changed that. We’d arrive at 0600 and find them geared up and ready to step. In time, they become some of our greatest allies.
The bulk of our operations were clearing missions. Using company-sized forces of US personnel and augmenting with national police, we would completely cordon off various sections of the city, bar all entrance and departure, and methodically search every home, every room, and property, documenting every “atmospheric” we could obtain.
Abandoned properties (and there were plenty of them) were usually either safehouses for terrorist operations, or housed weapons caches. We found several caches with an alarming number of silenced weapons. Homemade though many of them were, they were highly effective. If they were fired nearby, we’d never hear a thing. We even found a torture house, complete with chains, drills and other torture devices. It was sobering, to say the least.
One neighborhood and block at a time, we cleared our entire AOR, then started over again – this time at random locations, on a smaller scale, and with absolutely no warning. It turned out to be a highly effective form of terrain denial that left the terrorists confused, constantly on the run, and unsure what area was safe, clear, and welcoming to their presence. We were highly successful.
As our AO quieted down, we were temporarily relocated down into a more rural region on the outskirts of southern Baghdad. The units down there were getting hammered constantly and overwhelmed with IEDs along one particular stretch of dirt road, and the whole area was a known hotbed of Al Qaeda activity. Just as we had before, we worked with these units to methodically clear the fields, canals, palm groves and houses.
We also helped them man checkpoints every 600 meters along the road to help reduce IEDs. Somehow, the insurgents still planted a few – even 500 pound aircraft bombs. I have no idea how they pulled that off without detection. At one point, they managed to destroy an Abrams tank down there – so catastrophically that the turret was blown off of the vehicle. We never took the same route twice. We’d go in one way, and return another. Retracing our steps was virtually suicide.
Our outpost down there was a three story house bristling with weapons. Not only were we dealing with constant attacks outside the wire, but our base of operations was equally threatened. On just the roof of this building we had counter-mortar radar, at least ten crew-served machine guns, and within the small compound we stood by with multiple dismount elements, tanks, Strykers, and a quick reaction force ready to spin up at a moment’s notice. Rockets and other indirect fire, and sniper attacks were a daily occurrence.
Directly to the south of this position was the terminus of our AOR, and an area that nobody dared venture. Anyone who did was pretty much guaranteed an attack. One tank platoon tried it, but lost a tank within a few hundred meters. Not even helicopters entered that battlespace very often. They kept getting shot down.
We were mostly successful in securing our area, and as a new unit arrived to replace us, we prepared to leave, this time for the green zone. But unfortunately, that new unit wasn’t well prepared for their mission, despite our efforts to ready them. After we left, it wasn’t long before the three story house was overrun in a complex attack.
While a maneuver element of fighters distracted perimeter security with small arms fire, a suicide bomber in a dump truck drove as close as he could and detonated himself. They’d fired on him, but he made it within 50 meters of the compound, and the blast was still so powerful that it took down the t-walls and destroyed part of the building itself. I don’t know the exact figures, but the unit there sustained a horrific number of casualties.
After a short time in the green zone, we were pushed out to Diwaniyah to help a Polish unit that was having difficulty with their area. We literally had to fight our way across the city to reach them. We were also attacked as soon as we arrived inside the base, too.
It was actually a joint base, with Polish, Latvian and Mongolian forces. I had no problems with the Latvians, but the Polish weren’t very impressive, and the Mongolians had been restricted to base for being “overly aggressive.”
As was the case on the other outpost, we sustained daily mortar and rocket attacks – deadly accurate ones, too. Even on base, we wore all our gear. We had to. We began conducting round-the-clock counter mortar patrols with air support, and little by little began killing off all the ground fighters in the region. By the time we readied to leave again, the only significant threat that still remained was the indirect fire [mortars and rockets]. All the other fighters had been killed off.
I remember the day we left that place. I was parked next to a generator on the base, so I couldn’t hear anything. I was installing the .50 cal barrel when I looked up just the right time to see a mortar make a direct hit on the laundry facility. I’ve heard that laundry soap was a major component in a lot of the homemade explosives in the area, so I think that was the reason the entire building went up in a Hollywood-style fireball. A few of us jumped in a humvee and ran to see if we could help, but we didn’t move but perhaps two feet inside the remnants of the building before the heat and the smoke pushed us back. I don’t know if we lost anybody in there, and we were literally on our way out the gate when it happened, anyway. As we drove away, we received word that we were being extended from twelve to fifteen months. Morale, as you might imagine, slumped pretty low.
Our next assignment was the infamous Haifa Street, an area of Iraq known for its enormous high rises apartments, and some of the most derelict slums in their shadows. Our base was the most heavily fortified and defended in the theater. We, unfortunately, were the guinea pigs as we rolled through there. I remember being asked if I could elevate my .50 high enough to reach all sixteen floors of the nearby buildings from our position. I could not. The best I could do was the sixth or seventh.
As we had done before, we began our clearing operations, going from one high rise to another, clearing floor after floor. I was surprised at the number of foreigners in the apartments. Most were well educated, and perhaps one in three spoke English. Sixteen stories of stairs isn’t fun in full kit, believe me. One of the more interesting things we did was paint enormous numbers on all the roofs so we could call air support on specific buildings as needed. God knows we couldn’t reach their higher floors with our weapons.
Between the clearing ops, extensive atmospheric operations, and hiring a local leader as a valuable informant, attacks dropped off significantly in the area, and we focused our attention on the corruption within the local Iraqi Army units.
When we determined who the most corrupt officers were, we set up a sting operation. Under the guise of giving those officers awards, we lured them all to separate vehicles, closed the doors, and arrested them. The culprits included a few of their company commanders and even the battalion commander. That day, as we conducted a joint patrol, I distinctly remember that our weapons were pointed inboard – on the remaining soldiers. We weren’t sure if they intended to revolt. Thankfully, they did not. The arrests didn’t really disrupt our day-to-day operations.
What did, however, were the “isolation zones.” As part of the effort to cut down on free movement of fighters in vehicles, every neighborhood or “muhalla” was surrounded by high t-wall barricades and only one vehicle entrance was left open. At random intervals, that entrance would be closed and another opened. It was highly effective in reducing EJKs [extra-judicial killings], but severely impeded our own movement.
We’d get a drive-by shooting from a dude on a moped right outside the gate, he’d cut through a gap in the barricade, yet in order to respond, we had to go out, drive completely around the compound to the entrance, and then try to find the guy again. While we found it extremely frustrating and I personally thought it was stupid, over the long haul it was very beneficial. Violence was greatly diminished in each compartmentalized area. Our part in the surge, just as it was for many others, was a rousing success.
Despite our extension to fifteen months, despite the danger, the lack of sleep, the constant movement and stress, I actually had a good time on that tour. We were doing good things. I’d lost a few close friends on the first tour, and none of it had settled well with me when I’d come home. I didn’t feel particularly connected to anybody or anything. In many ways, I felt lost.
Though I have no idea what caused it, this second tour was good closure for me, like I was finally taking care of unfinished business. Despite all that happened to us, I came home in much better shape than from the first tour. Maybe it was my age. I wasn’t a year out of high school on that first tour. Whatever the reason, I walked away from the second much more settled than after the first.
Now, things are different. We’re in a supporting role instead of a kinetic one. Rather than conducting missions with an Iraqi Security Force accompaniment, THEY conduct missions and we accompany them if they request it. Since we’re here to enable them rather than do our own thing, the operations tempo has slowed considerably.
Personally, I think the Iraqi forces need more guidance. When we help them, they usually do quite well, but they’re not so good on their own. I think they’re unready to assume total control of operations. I also think they’re stretched pretty thin in some areas. They lack the personnel and equipment they need to fully control their own battlespace. As it is, they’re more reactive than proactive.
But I’m hopeful that it’ll work. It’d BETTER work. I don’t want any more US personnel to lose their lives for a country that seems increasingly ungrateful for our help. We’ve lost enough here already. Furthermore, while I’ve received closure for my service and my tours, I want closure for this war. In fact, the entire United States needs it. It’s time for the Iraqis to take over things and fully secure their own country; and it’s time for all of us to go home. We’ve been at this long enough.
Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved