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Men of Valor: Part VI of VIII


Photograph provided by Capt. Bertie Basset.

By the third month of Telic 10, 4 Rifles soldiers had been hit with about 1,700 rockets and mortars at their small encampment at the Palace. One day, more than 70 rockets and mortars exploded inside the compound. Just walking to breakfast or lunch could be a deadly mission. As a result, some soldiers ate only once per day. 4 Rifles fired more than 37,000 rounds of machine gun and rifle ammunition. They fired grenades, Javelin missiles, and artillery. American jets and helicopters launched rockets and dropped bombs. If this situation could have been impacted by artillery and ammunition, it would have given way by now, especially given the superiority of the British soldiers in Basra.

Photograph provided by Capt. Bertie Basset.

By September 2007, the red-hot guns had cooled in Basra. When the British pulled out of the Palace on 2 September it was widely misunderstood to mean that the British had entirely pulled out of Iraq when in fact the 4 Rifles Battle Group—which comprises only about 15% of the total British force in Basra—moved from the Basra Palace over to the Basra Airport taking with them the need for those long resupply convoys that looked so threatening to the Iraqis. More often than not, these convoys began and ended with combat that was proving lethal to British and Iraqis. After three months of hard fighting, suddenly 4 Rifles was unemployed, cleaning and repairing its gear.

Photograph provided by Capt. Bertie Basset.

I was a couple of days late getting to Basra, and 4 Rifles was already out near the border when, as the sun disappeared on 27 September, I boarded a Merlin helicopter with about eight British soldiers who were flying out to link up with 4 Rifles. The Merlin lifted off and the tail-gunner was perched on the ramp, machine gun ready. The gas fires of al Basra cast an eerie-orange glow that mixed with the heat and smell of the helicopter turbines as we flew into the graveyard of the Iran-Iraq War that had raged from 1980-88. It is said that over a million people died during that war. Half of them are believed to have died in the area 4 Rifles would now occupy.

About twenty minutes in the air, flying low and fast, the Merlin slowed and began to descend very slowly, as the tail-gunner leaned over the ramp, holding onto the helicopter as his night vision goggles painted green around his eyes. He was spotting the ground for the wheels, talking the pilot down. It must have taken 30 seconds to drop the final 30 feet, until the wheels touched lightly. We unbuckled and moved through the dim red light to the desert, headed toward a green Cyalume (chemlight) that was waving at us. Through the dark, against the noise of the Merlin, we moved to the side where a soldier told us to turn away from the helicopter. It lifted away blasting us with rocks and debris.

As the helicopter disappeared, our senses became enveloped by the desert silence.

The soldier said that we were in an active minefield, and that we should follow single file. We walked 400 meters with our gear in the dark finally coming to the armored vehicle camouflaged under netting. A bright moon was starting to rise. There were Cyalumes following strings marking the way between some of the groups of vehicles, but there was very little light save the moon.

A soldier gave a quick safety briefing, saying the area was “filled with unexploded ordnance (UXO) and mines. Follow the green Cyalumes and stay next to the strings. If you must depart the Cyalumes, walk only in the tracks of the armored vehicles. Do not take any shortcuts even if you are just near your cot. Red Cyalumes and red tape (for daylight) mark the known mines and UXO.”

Blue and green Cyalumes: the red, waving line is a soldier wearing a red headlamp.
“Squaddie” in the Iraqi desert: Red light is much more difficult for the enemy to see, and preserves night vision.
“Stay in the tracks.” Surrounded by defensive positions from the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran War, the berm behind the camouflage netting juts up from an otherwise flat desert.

I peered into the night and saw a number of red Cyalumes, including some that were just nearby. There was even a mine next to the “toilet,” which was nothing more than cardboard box and plastic bags.

Tiny spots of danger are difficult to spot. Red Cyalume for night, red tape for day.
Near the “toilet.”
And near to all.

A few minutes later, I had my first meeting with Patrick Sanders, who, having spent part of his boyhood in Baghdad, was now the lieutenant colonel in command of 4 Rifles. LTC Sanders and his soldiers had just fought three hard months, and were now tasked to confront smugglers on extremely dangerous ground.

From the cities to the deserts, the malarial jungles to stiff-frozen lakes, from counterinsurgencies to head-on battles in cragged mountains, it takes years to make a good infantry soldier. Just down the road was urban combat. Here were scorpions, relentless sun and heat, and mines scattered like seeds in the sand. In the city there was no need to hide our tracks, whereas out here where noise could drift for miles in the desert night, track discipline could be life and death.

Lt. Col. Patrick Sanders, Commander of 4 Rifles, in a southern Iraq desert camp, somewhere near the Iran border.

Patrick Sanders was born in Wiltshire County, just down the road a piece from Stonehenge. But he was destined to travel far as his father was an officer in the British Army. He spoke Norwegian, his mother’s language, and spent his first four years in Norway. The family moved to Gibraltar, back to England, and in 1972, to Baghdad where his father, now a full-colonel, was assigned as Defense Attaché to Iraq.

The Sanders family lived in a two-story home in the fashionable Mansour district of Baghdad from 1972 to 1976. Their green yard was home to a couple of date palms and a honeysuckle tree made for climbing. The home came staffed by the embassy with a cook named Mansour, an Assyrian Christian driver we knew as Peter, and “Hajji,” who’d been working for the British Embassy since the ’30s. Hajji was incredibly proud to have worked for the British all those years. But in truth his pride had outlasted his capacity.

Although he was old, Hajji did not want to leave and the British did not want him to go. He stayed on, dressed smartly in his white turban and flowing khamis, standing proudly and silently, serving drinks until the tremor in his hands spilled more than was served. Still the British kept him on staff, serving nuts and occasional topical commentary. Saddam was still cutting his teeth and Baghdad was still a great place to live, when Hajji was first heard to say: “Ba’ath party very, very bad.”

The Iraqi neighbors were all professionals: there was a doctor, and an engineer with a son named Mohammed. Mohammed was a couple of years older than Patrick Sanders, and stood up for the blonde-haired English boy against the older neighborhood boys. They became close friends. It was miles to school, so Patrick pedaled his bike through the streets of Baghdad. He would pedal to Baghdad pools and swim with the Iraqi kids. Sometimes the family would go camping in the desert.

But there was another side to his story: Patrick’s father was a defense attaché, which in civilian-speak translates into “open spy.” His job was to spy on the Iraqi military. Such was the nature of the business that the family was watched and followed. At that time, the Iraqi government was having a go at the Kurds, and Colonel Sanders wanted to know where the weapons were coming from. By then, Patrick had a five-year-old little sister, so the Colonel loaded the family and drove north to the wild Kurdish region. A red pickup followed them for a week, but his father somehow lost the tail, and eventually dropped the two children and his beautiful, blonde-haired Norwegian wife next to a river and disappeared. After some time, a group of Kurds arrived. They had dynamite for fishing, went about blowing up fish, while also watching out for the wife and children until Colonel Sanders re-appeared later that evening.

After four years in Iraq, the family moved back to England where Patrick attended the Catholic Benedictine Monastery School. After graduating, Patrick traveled around Australia for a year before entering Exeter University to study Arabic. He got high marks for partying, but failed Arabic. Since the Army was paying for his education, it ordered him to the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. He was eventually commissioned as an officer in the Royal Green Jackets: an infantry unit with a tough reputation. The official Green Jacket motto was “Swift and Bold,” but the unofficial and more widely used was “Everything that is necessary, nothing that is not.”

Patrick Sanders, whose father had once worked in Iraq, ended up back in Baghdad in July 2003 working for LTG Sanchez, initially as Chief Strategy, but after four months he was named the CG’s Special Assistant and held that title and post until February 2004. When Patrick’s father wanted to visit, the junior Sanders smuggled him into Iraq on a Coalition Provisional Authority flight.

His father had made an agreement with a Japanese media company, and so when he got to Baghdad, the senior Sanders hired an Iraqi cameraman and a driver for forays all over Baghdad. Father and son wanted to see their old home, and so in November or December of 2003, they headed to the Mansour district of Baghdad. When they got to a nearby main street (Arba’a tash Ramadan), the father could not find the house. Patrick—who’d pedaled his way around the area so much as a boy—recognized a water tower about a half-mile away, and they zeroed straight in.

But the old home was vacant now, and in a sorry state; hollow memories of a mostly forgotten era. However, the neighbors were all still there, and the engineer whose son had been Patrick’s boyhood pal invited the Sanderses in for drinks. They had orange juice and conversation. After some time a man arrived. When he walked into the room he stared at Patrick and said, “Patrick, can that be you?” and the two men hugged in disbelief! Twenty-one years and a lifetime had passed since Mohammed and Patrick biked and swam in Baghdad together.

From time to time, Patrick would sneak out of the Green Zone to meet up with Mohammed, or he would sneak Mohammed into the Green Zone for dinner. In the summer of 2004, after Patrick’s assignment in Baghdad had ended, Mohammed emailed from Iraq in despair; his young cousin had cancer. The closest place for adequate treatment was in Amman at the King Hussein Cancer Hospital. Patrick happened to know Jordanian Prince Hamza well, so he emailed with a request for help. Within six hours, Prince Hamza responded, asking for details and pledging any treatment, free, for as long as required. “This is my gift.”

And so it was: An Iraqi man asked an English friend who asked his Jordanian friend who happened to be a Prince to help a seven-year-old Iraqi boy with cancer, and he did. According to Patrick, the boy was cured and now lives in Jordan with his family.

Now the boy who had bicycled through Baghdad was commanding 4 Rifles as they moved out of Basra into the desert along the Iranian border to counter lethal aid and support Iraqi border forces.

According to some American intelligence officials, “lethal aid” flowing into Iraq is a persistent problem. Most reports state that this aid comes from Syria and Iran. Now, I have traveled up and down the Iranian border and have yet to meet an Iraqi, American or British officer who claims to have captured lethal aid coming from Iran. I have met officers who have captured late-model Iranian munitions already in Iraq, but this in itself is hardly a smoking gun. In fact, having traveled extensively around Iraq, I believe that Iraq could earn a lot of money supplying lethal aid to Syria and Iran, because there is no shortage of weapons in Iraq. And there never has been.

When I first arrived in the country, back in 2005, I wrote about the surplus of munitions here in one of my earliest dispatches, “Enemy Weapons”:

Baqubah, Iraq
The bomb world swims in alphabet soup. Consider the ubiquitous IED–improvised explosive device. These homemade bombs are the most lethal weapons being employed by the enemy. More troops are killed by IEDs than by any other weapon in Iraq.

Given the lethality of these bombs, a reasonable person might assume that it takes a measure of stealth and cunning to acquire the base components. But in Iraq, it can require only stooping to pick explosives off the ground, since much of the explosive material used for making IEDs is just lying around. In fact, tons of unexploded munitions lay on the surface within walking distance from my quarters on FOB Gabe.

The munitions lying on the ground, on a back corner at Gabe, are from an Iraqi ASP (ammunition supply point) that was destroyed by American forces during the initial invasion. Judging from combat videos of bombs hitting bunkers and causing gigantic explosions, viewers might assume that all the ammunition inside was destroyed in that one devastating blow. Most bombs, when hit by other bombs, simply fly away and land on the ground with a thud.

Bombs are patient. They sit and wait. Through scorching summers, freezing winters, buffeted by winds dense with dust and snow, they wait. Snakes may crawl under their metal skins, birds may light and perch on their noses, but they wait. Bombs may wait until a kid comes around and pings them with rocks, to see if one will explode. Or a bomb might have to wait for a “scrapper”—a metal scavenger—to come and hammer off its fuse. Scrappers who pick through war leftovers learn that bomb fuses are dangerous.

The bombs that don’t kill kids or scrappers wait. They wait while time helps the weather bury them. Years later, a farmer pulls open the ground with a plough and his family at home feels the impact as windows shatter. Other bombs wait longer. A century after combat, long after the battles have passed from common memory, construction workers will hit bombs with shovels and machines.

Modern bombs have long lives. This is nothing new to Iraq or to war; after all, munitions from the American Civil War still kill people. Bombs do only two things well: wait, and explode. So, of course, insurgents collect bombs. This, too, is common to many wars.

Although the idea that Iran and Syria are providing lethal aid to groups in Iraq is considered “well established” by some, my own experience wasn’t aligning with that, so I emailed some questions to General Petraeus on 30 October 2007, including the following:

Since 2005, I have asked many American and Iraqi commanders if they have caught weapons coming in from Iran, or if they have captured Iranian fighters in Iraq. The answer always was “no.” No Iraqi or American commander has answered “yes.”

About a week ago, I asked LTG Odierno if there are any instances of weapons being captured as they cross in from Iran. LTG Odierno said no such shipments have been caught.

Caveat that “Iranian” weapons have been caught in Iraq, but despite the many caches I have seen, none to my knowledge contained Iranian weapons. Yet there seems to be a growing rumble that Iran is supplying weapons to groups in Iraq.

General Petraeus responded later that day:

“There was at least one case in which the Brits captured a large cache near the border in Maysan Province, Michael. But that’s the exception, as far as I know. We have, on the other hand, plenty of evidence—including confessions of detainees and large weapons caches—that Iran has sent EFPs, 240-mm rockets, RPG-29s, and a variety of other items into Iraq.”

On Thanksgiving night, while we were flying in his helicopter over Baghdad, General Petraeus would also tell me that he has no knowledge of the Iranians helping al Qaeda in particular, though the Iranians are believed to help other groups.

The fact that I have traveled up and down the Iraq-Iran border and spoken with American, British and Iraqi commanders, all of whom said they never captured an arms shipment from Iran, can be variously interpreted. Perhaps Iran is being extremely clever, or not much aid has been coming through, or we just haven’t made much of an effort to capture shipments.

There are beliefs, suppositions, theories and rumors in roughly the same quantity as munitions. Kurdish smugglers in the north, for instance, are believed to bring in weapons from Iran into Mosul, though I have found no information about EFPs coming into Mosul. Some fighters in Baghdad are believed to come to Mosul to buy weapons because they are cheaper there. EFPs—said to be a “Shia weapon”—are constantly used in Baghdad. Hundreds of EFPs were found in caches in Diyala this past November. I’ve heard the rumors related to EFPs coming in from Iran, since my return to Iraq in January 2007. I wrote about it in “Walking the Line 2007, Part II”:

En Route to Ramadi
Apparently many of the EFPs are being factory-made in Iran, and shipped to Iraq. During 2005, I asked many American and Iraqi commanders if they were capturing Iranians. They were capturing foreigners, surely, but what about Iranians? Not a single commander, Iraqi or American, told me that his people were catching Iranians. Times have changed. Today, American commanders talk about capturing Iranians. Not rumored Iranians, but real ones; some of whom are believed to be involved in importing EFP technology into Iraq. To be sure, EFPs are deadly, but from a broader military perspective, they are merely a nuisance.

As with “shaped charges,” which have been falsely touted as high-technology imports, EFPs or Explosively Formed Projectiles (a new and fancy name for a “platter charge”) are often just easy-fab cheap weapons that an illiterate person can be taught to make. That said, there is evidence that some EFPs in Iraq are higher-tech “factory made” bombs. The cost of making an EFP or a shaped charge capable of wiping out a Humvee crew (or even a tank) might range from twenty to fifty American dollars. I do not know the cost, but the cost cannot be high. In Iraq, labor is cheap and the enemy will not run out of ammunition any time soon. There are probably hundreds of thousands of tons of UXO still in Iraq, and “plastic” explosives generally cost less than good beef in America. EFPs and shaped charges are relatively tiny but absolutely lethal when they hit the target. A large shaped charge might weigh a hundred pounds, but a person could carry several smaller EFPs in a backpack.

The texture of the smuggling is becoming curiouser and curiouser the closer one looks. “Curiouser” is not the same thing as “conclusive.”

Here in Iraq, Iran is believed to have intimate contacts.

LTC Sanders showed me a map of the old Iraq-Iran War battleground we were on. There were hundreds of square miles completely uninhabited where approximately half a million people had died. This no-man’s-land was loaded with probably hundreds of thousands of tons of unexploded munitions and gear, tanks, helmets, mile after mile of barbed wire, and human bones as well as thousands of berms, trenches, bunkers and raised tank positions. The change in mission for 4 Rifles could hardly be more drastic: from full-on urban combat to desert warfare in what must be one of the world’s largest unmarked minefields where chemical weapons had once been used.

After some time, I was sent to a cot under camouflaged netting. Soldiers I did not know asked me if I needed anything. I was okay. Sleeping bag uncompressed, I followed Cyalumes to the desert “toilet” and saw two red Cyalumes a few steps away from the path. Instructions in places like this are given clearly but usually only once. Pay attention. This is combat journalism and the only guarantee is serious danger. Returning to the cot, the moon large over the desert, I lay down. I was nearly asleep when I heard gunshots in the distance. Soldiers stirred without being told. They got up and began to assemble a small UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle). I vaguely heard radio traffic under a nearby cammo, and walked over to ask what was happening.

A lieutenant who called herself “Joe” emerged saying hello, and after a few minutes of conversation the “Desert Hawk” UAV flew quietly over our heads. The “Desert Hawk” feeds down to a screen and I peered over shoulders as it silently searched the area nearby. Soon a foot patrol of about ten soldiers headed out, clearly visible in the bright moon, followed by an armored patrol. Two mopeds had been “dicking” (British parlance for “watching”) 4 Rifles’ movement, and unknown to those two mopeds, two F-18s were dicking them. The night-drama continued as I fell asleep on the cot. This was my third night back in Iraq, and the desert sleep was the best in months. No hotel bed ever felt better than that cot.

This photo, taken during my first embed with British soldiers, perfectly captures the beauty of the night sky along the border. It’s original caption also applies: At home in the Iraqi desert, with the glow of Iran in the distance.


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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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