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Bless the Beasts and Children, Part 1

Where did they go?

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?

On 30 June, soldiers from 1-12 Cav allowed me to go to the village in one of their M-1 tanks. LT Baxter, Tank Commander.

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.

The tankers drove off FOB Warhorse, and only a few miles later, we arrived at the outskirts of the abandoned village. American soldiers began unloading dozens of body bags, which the Iraqi soldiers, with grim looks, carried into the village.

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.

The houses all were empty. We passed by two donkeys each shot in the neck. Al Qaeda had killed their livestock. Al Qaeda often plants bombs inside the dead bodies of the animals and people they’ve killed. They have rigged children’s bodies with explosives. Some steps later, we passed by a crater—one of many in this village—made on 29 June when bomb experts destroyed an IED. Then a few steps beyond the crater, Captain Combs pointed out a car that had been filled with explosives. American soldiers had destroyed it with a Thermite grenade. A short walk later, as we passed more abandoned homes, I saw an empty AK-47 magazine on the ground. The houses were in shambles: broken glass and ski masks littered the area. The Iraqi soldier with the goggles saw a photograph on the ground, and picked it up. We walked into the palm groves nearby. There was a terrible stench. The heat and the vegetation reminded me of the Killing Fields in Cambodia where I had visited shortly before the most recent trip to Iraq. Soldiers from 5th IA said they’d found some of the villagers: They were dead. Iraqi soldiers were excavating several graves. The bodies were fresh, and the smell was overwhelming. A small group of American soldiers were keeping a respectable distance, but the area was filled with Iraqi soldiers from 5th IA.

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.

There were bodies of men, women and children. Al Qaeda slaughters families everywhere: as these graves were being unearthed, more bombs were found in London. There was no sign of the sacred at this gravesite. Stashed in shallow graves. The stench felt like punches in the stomach. Some of the bodies seemed fresh. The air temperature was about 115°F. One of the graves. By the time I arrived, 5th IA had uncovered parts of six bodies. But from what I could see, they did not all appear to have been murdered at once. In one grave, there were exposed ribs and other bones, although there was still flesh on the bones. The digging was the first part of the gruesome job. Hot, hard work and as it progressed, the stench got worse and worse. An Iraqi soldier carefully sprinkled water on the corpses. Soldiers from 5th IA said al Qaeda had cut the heads off the children. Had al Qaeda murdered the children in front of their parents? Maybe it had been the other way around: maybe they had murdered the parents in front of the children. Maybe they had forced the father to dig the graves of his children. Feet of a woman. Iraqi soldiers were barely talking. All had grim looks and everybody seemed to want to be a million miles away. Yet these Iraqi soldiers helped me do my job.

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.

The blade of the shovel struck more fingers, and the Iraqi soldiers stopped and pointed to the fingers so I could film them. But I had seen enough and pulled back into the palm groves. Captain Baker, commanding the 3-25 of the 5th IA.

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.

Soldiers from the 5th IA continued with their task as Captain Combs and I departed, heading back to the M-1 tank. Along the way we passed fresh craters. The bomb that made the water-filled crater above would easily have destroyed the Bradley in the photo.

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”


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Michael Yon

Michael Yon is America's most experienced combat correspondent. He has traveled or worked in 82 countries, including various wars and conflicts.

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