First Published: June 30, 2007
On 29 June, American and Iraqi soldiers were again fighting side-by-side as soldiers from Charley Company 1-12 CAV—led by Captain Clayton Combs—and Iraqi soldiers from the 5th IA, closed in on a village on the outskirts of Baqubah. The village had the apparent misfortune of being located near a main road—about 3.5 miles from FOB Warhorse—that al Qaeda liked to bomb. Al Qaeda had taken over the village. As Iraqi and American soldiers moved in, they came under light contact; but the bombs planted in the roads (and maybe in the houses) were the real threat.
The firefight progressed. American missiles were fired. The enemy might have been trying to bait Iraqi and American soldiers into ambush, but it did not work. The village was riddled with bombs, some of them large enough to destroy a tank. One by one, experts destroyed the bombs, leaving small and large craters in the unpaved roads.
The village was abandoned. All the people were gone. But where?
As often happens in Iraq, the first time I meet American combat soldiers, we are going off to do something serious. Although the soldiers usually do not know me, they are courteous and professional, and always watching out for me. And so it was with LT Baxter, who was commanding the M-1 tank that I’d be riding along in, and who made sure I didn’t break my neck getting into the tank. I nearly pulled him off the tank while climbing aboard.
Captain Clayton Combs has been fighting hard in Diyala for about ten months, much of it side-by-side with Iraqi soldiers from the 5th Division. Each time I’ve come into contact with the 5th, they seem far better than most. American officers and sergeants who work with the 5th have good things to report about them, saying that although the 5th still has far to go, and cannot sustain itself logistically, it can fight.
Captain Combs said this particular Iraqi unit, the 3-25, has never run away from combat, and never refused to close on the enemy. Combs said, “I’ve fought with 3-25 for 10 months in Diyala and they have always come when I am in trouble. They always go on patrols when I ask. They never back down.”
I asked Captain Combs to repeat what he said, making sure he knew I was planning to quote him directly. A veteran like Combs would be unlikely to append his name to such words if he weren’t dead serious. Captain Combs repeated his words and stuck by them. He then demonstrated that faith when we took off deeper into the danger zone with nine soldiers from 5th IA: just Captain Combs, Iraqi soldiers and me. As we passed through the village, Captain Combs pointed out the nice houses, saying the people had been simple farmers with comfortable homes and lives.
Until al Qaeda came.
I told the Iraqi commander, Captain Baker, that it was important that Americans see this; he took me around the graves and showed more than I wanted to see. He said the people had been murdered by al Qaeda. I made video of him speaking, and of the horrible scene. The heat and stench were crushingly oppressive and broken only by the sounds of shovels as Iraqi soldiers kept digging.
Later in the day, some of the soldiers from the unit I share a tent with, the C-52, told me that one of their Kit Carson scouts (comprised of some of our previous enemies who have turned on al Qaeda) had pointed out an al Qaeda who had cut off the heads of children. Soldiers from C-52 say that the Kit Carson scout freaked out and tried to hide when he spotted the man he identified as an al Qaeda operative. Just how (or if) the scout really knew the man had beheaded children was unknown to the soldiers of C-52, but they took the suspected al Qaeda to the police, who knew the man. C-52 soldiers told me the Iraqi police were inflamed, and that one policeman in particular was crazed with intent to kill the man who they said had the blood of Iraqi children on his hands. According to the story told to me on 30 June, it took almost 45 minutes for the C-52 soldiers to calm down the policeman who had drawn his pistol to execute the al Qaeda man. That same policeman nearly lost his mind when an American soldier then gave the al Qaeda man a drink of cold water.
While that was happening elsewhere in Baqubah, we stood around the stinking graves of people who had gotten a close-up view of al Qaeda-style justice. The villagers’ bodies were rotting in the heat before us.
Captain Baker gave an important interview on video. Captain Baker, who in Captain Combs’ words is “an excellent soldier,” is from the Kurdish north, but Baker said he is Iraqi first, Kurdish second. He told me American Special Forces had trained him, and he shared some interesting details about the killing of Zarqawi which occurred back in 2006. Zarqawi had been the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, until he was killed nearby by U.S. bombs.
LT Baxter, the tank commander, was concerned that the heat was getting to me, and checked my uniform for sweat, asking several times if I was okay. They always watch out for me. But I was okay from the heat; I can take the heat as well as our soldiers can. Still, I felt very sick, the kind of sick that no amount of cool water can fix. I put on the comms in the tank, then ripped them off and left off my helmet and held the jet hose of the air conditioner on my face as the tank rumbled back to base.
Bless the Beasts and Children, Part 2
Bless the Beasts and Children, Part 3
Update on “Bless the Beasts and Children”