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Hunting Al Qaeda, Part II of III

 Summoning Fire Without Flint

Day break: This hilarious medic asked who would bear the Holy Hand Grenade on today’s mission.
He loads up in the Bradley. In just a few hours, he would be treating gunshot and shrapnel wounds.
During the mission, Staff Sergeant Clinton Michael taking charge: 2nd Platoon, Alpha 1-12 CAV.

When we dropped ramp in the “Mechanics” section of Baqubah, and linked up with Iraqi soldiers, I heard my danger chimes peal. Minutes after we hit the ground—POW!—a shot was fired close by and dust kicked in the air. An Iraqi soldier had managed to accidentally fire a shot from his AK-47. They are getting much better, but not there yet. I am not sure what tipped me off that this particular group of Iraqi Soldiers wasn’t entirely squared-away, but that shot only underscored the feeling. Back in 2005, I would seek cover whenever Iraqi Army approached. It’s not like that in 2007; they are becoming a real army, but there is still room for improvement.

We headed out to the palm groves next to the Diyala River. Along the way, the Alpha-company commander, Captain Sheldon Morris (photo right), kept everyone moving in the right direction.

Back at the COP, Captain Morris is quick to make soldiers laugh, but out here he’s all business. Captain Morris spotted an oxygen factory.“Hmmm…he said (which made me laugh), but then he closed in to have a look. Morris was clear that his job was to accomplish the mission and secure the population even if it meant losing himself or his people. Mission comes first.

In the groves: The gear on this Soldier’s back is called the “breach kit,” and it’s used to open just about everything.

We walked and walked, and Soldiers kept asking me if I was okay. Especially one Soldier named Staff Sergeant Chuomg Le, who kept asking if the heat was getting to me. I kept saying I would be carrying him before he would be carrying me. He just laughed. Other Soldiers said Le is a physical animal. But one of the tricks to combat reporting that I’ve learned is you don’t have to be tougher than all the Soldiers, just tougher than one. When the first one collapses, and they stop to stick an IV into him, you also get a break.

In fact, the next day three Soldiers would collapse from the heat during some fighting, and two of them were so dehydrated that their veins collapsed, proving once again that you don’t have to be tougher than everyone, just the guys who don’t drink enough water. If you can beat those guys, you are like the Lion King of reporters. Soldiers say, “I can’t believe the photographer is still standing when Sergeant So-and-So face-planted.” It’s all smoke and mirrors. I drink water like a fish and dive for every sliver of shade, thinking of the body like a battery that gets drained quickly by the heat and sun. With only so much juice, taking every sliver of shade, even if it’s only for 30 seconds, and pounding that water continuously, all adds up to a longer charge.

Al Qaeda still lurks in the area, so the farmers were happy to see us. One woman said that seeing the Army out there was a blessing from God, which made the Soldiers happy. There’s not a lot of happiness to be had here, but the Soldiers respond when people show gratitude. It charges their batteries. And they really love those cards from home where kindergartners and first graders ask all kinds of funny questions like, “Is it hot in the desert?” Yes, a little bit. But along the waterways in Iraq, such as here next to the Diyala River, it’s hot and humid. Practically steaming. Even the mosquitoes must sweat here.

Much food was growing all around us, and I was getting hungry, but for some reason I felt a twinge of danger. Couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Just a general feeling that something unexpected might happen.
Date palms: food everywhere. A perfect place for al Qaeda, where a savage enemy could live, terrorizing the people, making slaves of them, with a steady supply of food nearby and ready access to bomb-making materials.

I watched during the Senate hearings on 11 September 07 as some Senators attempted to corner General Petraeus, insinuating that the war in Iraq was a distraction from the fight against al Qaeda. It was clearly that during the initial invasion, but not today. These photos were taken at the center of what al Qaeda claimed to be their worldwide headquarters. Listening to some of the Senators’ questions, the true magnitude of the gulf between what is happening in Iraq and what people in America think is happening in Iraq became apparent. Some Senators clearly had been doing their homework and were asking smart questions—if negative at times—but others seemed completely ignorant of the ground situation, which adds nothing meaningful to the debate.

The grapes were sweet and juicy with little seeds.
Grapes galore.
Food galore.
This one not doing so well.

During the mission, we kept hearing shots maybe a quarter-mile away, and there were also some large bombs exploding in the further distance. Voices over the radio said some were just IEDs getting blown up.

Eventually we worked our way through a village then down the Diyala River, facing the river which flows from left to right, toward Baghdad. The Diyala is an old river without great elevation change in this area, and so it twists and bows several times in and through Baqubah. All along the river, as with all Iraqi waterways, people suck out the water like human mosquitoes, sucking out far more than they need, wasting the water, and complaining about the people upriver who do the same.

We took a break beside the river. Iraq Soldiers from the 5th IA started spray-painting the outside wall of an Iraqi house to show they had been there. Captain Morris heard the hiss of the spray paint, and came around the corner, fit to be tied, and told them to stop painting people’s property!

Although the Iraqi Soldiers are nearly always embarrassed when an American like Captain Morris bolts around and tells them to cut out the idiocy, the most interesting dynamic is how it also engenders respect from the Iraqi Soldiers for the Americans. Before the war, our people had no street credibility in Iraq. Iraqis thought American Soldiers were soft, and that the body armor was a type of personal air conditioner. But if the Iraqis knew back then what they know now about American willingness to suffer and fight, it’s doubtful that Saddam would have taunted an angry America. Yet today, knowing our Soldiers to be actually aggressive and able killers when the switch gets flipped to ON, they also see how our people are more competent street fighters than the Iraqi Army, even without the high-tech tools. The man-to-man respect is there. And so when someone like Captain Morris points out to Iraqi Soldiers something they already know they are doing wrong (like painting the wall of someone’s house, for instance), their respect for Americans grows. Day after day, Iraqis come to Americans asking for justice, because they see countless thousands of daily actions by people like Captain Sheldon Morris. Our military is a powerful tribe.

The break was over. We kept hearing fighting, and it seemed to be roaming around slightly downriver. Captain Morris was monitoring comms. The Bradleys that had dropped us off had been watching some activity in the area of the fighting. At 0855, for instance, they spotted a man, wearing all black, running off with an AK-47. We continued the clearance operation. At about 0905, small-arms fire was coming from the same area where the man in black had run off with the AK. We continued the clearing, but the light fighting in that area also continued.

At 0959, Apache 27 (one our Bradleys) reported a silver van carrying several men. Apache 27 saw the men drop off a large white sack on Route Burga, a few hundred meters to our south, and then the van drove west. Route Burga had not been cleared (not everything was cleared during Operation Arrowhead Ripper), and so might be riddled with IEDs. In fact, what we didn’t know was that some 1920s were in a firefight with who they later would say was al Qaeda. I heard a report that at least one 1920s guy was dead already, but we didn’t know this yet.

At around 1005 we started moving to contact (meaning: trying to engage in the fight). We walked south, moving toward the firing, linking up with SSG Michael’s squad and the IA with him. By now the fighting was a few hundreds meters away. All small arms. I didn’t hear any explosions. Some civilians were caught in the crossfire and a woman got shot in the neck and was slightly wounded, though we did not yet know this. The fighting was light: maybe 1 PKC machine gun and 4-5 AKs. But often big fights start as other elements, friendly and enemy, are drawn in.

We approached a wide open field just before Burga and we could now see Route Burga perhaps a couple of hundred yards in front of us. Staff Sergeant Le gave the hand signal for everyone to cross the open area in an inverted wedge formation. We were accompanied by dozens of Iraqi Soldiers from the 5th IA, and they recognized the signal and also got into the wedge. These Iraqi Soldiers were vastly improved from 2005.

As we crossed the field, at about 1020, the silver van started driving in front of us. We could see it driving from our right to our left on Route Burga a couple of hundred meters to our front. The van was well within accurate small-arms range. I was unaware of the radio chatter about the armed men in the van, and the white sack; so to me it was just a van that was driving near us with four men, while a firefight was going on nearby. But to Captain Morris and the others hearing the chatter, and to those Soldiers in the Bradleys peering with excellent optics, the men in the van were clearly armed and not displaying any sort of recognition signal. The van was in an area where there was fighting going on, and where American forces had killed about 7 during the past 24 hours, and where we knew for a “fact” that al Qaeda was.

My video had been running for several minutes. One of the Bradleys saw what he thought were bullets kicking up in our direction, as if someone were shooting at us, or at least in our direction. But at this time—the silver van now nearly directly in front of us—I heard no shots nor saw any contact. As the van closed the range at about 200 meters, our guys fired several warning shots. The van sped up. The Soldiers rained heavy small-arms fire and were kicking up dust, and Corporal Antony Johnson fired a 40mm grenade, but the van just kept speeding away when—BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!—a Bradley fired 4 shots from the 25mm cannon. All four high-explosive rounds impacted and the van careened off the road and crashed out of sight.

Apache 27 saw a woman rush out to the van and scarf up an AK and run off into a palm grove. I was beside SSG Le when he had her in his sights, but he did not fire, even though she was now considered an armed combatant. As we moved out toward the van, there were reports that some of the guys had gone into a house. Our guys were going to attack the house, but that report apparently was wrong. At the same time, the woman who had been shot in the neck by someone else came running to us and screaming for help. The medic went to work on her, but it was fortunately only a flesh wound and she was pretty tough and just wanted to sit down. A few Soldiers stayed back with her and for security for the rest of us as we kept closing in. We were now on Route Burga, which had not been cleared. Our guys could all be blown to pieces, but they kept moving forward.

SSG Le pointing toward the van.
Al Qaeda operatives often wear suicide vests, and given the way al Qaeda fights, our guys would have been justified in calling Apache 27 forward and ordering it to obliterate the van. Clearly the guys were armed and those who were still alive were also still combatants. But instead, at great risk to their own lives, our guys moved forward toward the van.

American Soldiers closed in. This was fantastically dangerous. I remember wondering what their families might think about them moving in to take the guys alive, when this could cost American lives. How would I write about such Soldiers should they get blown up by a suicide vest planted to specifically take advantage of our Soldiers’ sense of decency?

All four men were kitted out, and two AKs were found. One was on the scene, and the woman had run off with the other. The Soldiers would have been completely justified in shooting the woman the moment she picked up that weapon: she was then a combatant on the battlefield. Instead, other American Soldiers entered her home, got the AK and left her and the family alone.
Before the medics could go to work, the four guys who had been hit had to be searched. Hand grenades could be in every pocket.
This man was moaning and groaning. He was badly wounded, having been hit in the testicles, among other injuries.
The driver was 100% dead: hanging upside down by his foot, oozing blood and fluids into the parched earth.
Iraqi men approached waving a white flag, which often has been used as a ploy to attack our people. The one without a shirt had a bandage on his left hand. (I would recognize him in tomorrow’s fighting by that hand.) They wanted to tell us that the men who had been shot were their friends in the 1920s, but for their efforts they were taken down on the ground and detained.
The medics kept working.
The men were detained, and the treatment may look rough here, but in actuality, they were treated well, given ice-cold water, and brought back to COP White Castle.
They continued to be treated decently but firmly at COP White Castle, where one Soldier noticed that this man was in pain, so his flex cuffs were removed and he was told to keep his hands behind his back. After some hours, they were all released.

It turned out that the two men who died were 1920s men. Two others received only minor flesh wounds. The next day we would go into the same area with Iraqi Army Soldiers and 1920s irregulars, and we would see the 1920s in action, as they got attacked by an IED and engaged their enemy in a serious firefight.

Stay tuned for Hunting al Qaeda Part III: Supersonic Death.


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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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