This month marks the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. For many of the journalists who have covered it, it has been the story of their lifetime, but we’ve nevertheless seen coverage of the war slip off the front pages over the last few months. While there are still plenty of reporters risking their lives doing great work in Iraq, much of the political, social, and economic complexity of today’s war seems to be getting lost in the election-year crush, even as the war continues to be a major issue in the campaign. This series is CJR’s attempt to add a little bit of context to the whole, while digging into stories that don’t always make it into our morning newspapers. This is Part Four in an ongoing series.
“Looks like most of this stuff has been placed here pretty recently,” Captain Jeffrey Higgins observed as we walked along a reed line along a canal with Sergeant Jamie Giles, inspecting a weapons cache 1st platoon found there earlier that morning. The two noted that the jugs of homemade explosives, 155mm and 120mm projectiles, blasting caps, and command wire (commonly used for IEDs) looked relatively clean, meaning they hadn’t been sitting outside for very long. They also found a Soviet DSHK (“Dishka”) rifle, a mounted heavy machine gun that can burn through several hundred rounds a minute, which is a pretty heavy-duty piece of weaponry to have lying around.
The cache was spread over a couple hundred meters, and to walk the dirt road next to the canal was to find an insurgent arms bazaar. The canal ran smack up against a tan brick farmhouse, unremarkable in this part of the country, but close enough to the canal to deduce that even if the people who lived there didn’t place the stuff there, they certainly knew who did.
The house wasn’t set too far back from the main road, but the tall reeds mostly hid it from view of passing traffic. It was a small, two-story structure with a wire-mesh chicken coop and a donkey tied to a pole out back, and an empty black plastic water tank next to it. The place was occupied by a young man, two women and a little girl, about five years old. When the platoon first rolled up on the house earlier that morning, Lt. Max Pappas asked the young man if he had seen anything suspicious in the area. He said he hadn’t, but he “looked nervous. Even if the guy hadn’t placed the stuff in the canal himself, he told me, “there’s so much of it, and it’s so close to the house, he had to have at least known about it.”
Sgt. Giles told Captain Higgins that “the guy started off pretty cool, but right now he’s about to have a heart attack.” I asked Sgt. Giles why the guy would be so stupid as to hide weapons so close to his own house. The locals, he said, “hide things in the reeds in the canals because they consider it public property, and they think we can’t tie it to them when we find it.”
Like many houses in the region, the farmhouse had a large concrete front porch, and the soldiers not checking the reed line had brought the women out on the porch while they checked the house. Three women sat against a wall, staring hard at the ground. The little girl looked confused and frightened, but the women remained motionless.
After 1st platoon radioed back to the base that they were pulling a significant amount of munitions out of the canal, and I went with Cpt. Higgins to investigate. The drive to the site bore testament to the recent violence in the area—the roads were scarred with a number of old, deep-buried IED craters. And the danger hadn’t passed. The convoy passed over one known live IED that wasn’t charged to go off. The team saw the wires, but it was a command-detonated IED and there was no one there to blow it. It had been marked, and would be taken care of later.
Leaving the reed line, I joined the soldiers searching the house. It was empty of furniture, save for a bed in one room, and a few mats and a small stove with some cooking utensils in the other two rooms. On the narrow back porch the young man, skinny, wispy-bearded and probably in his mid-twenties, had been flexi-cuffed and was standing in front of a pile of ammunition and some blasting caps that had been placed before him. Dressed in dirty pants and a jacket, wearing only sandals in the winter cold, he seemed somehow detached from what was going on around him.
The suspect was told to kneel in front of the cache for a picture to submit for evidence. “Hey, tell him to look up!” one of the soldiers told the interpreter. The terp translated, and the suspect furtively glanced up, then back down. “Up, up! Hey, look at me!” The order was translated again, but the suspect couldn’t—or wouldn’t—keep his head up. Finally, the terp forcibly lifted his chin up. The pictures were taken, and the suspect was hauled to his feet.
Out front, a shouting match had erupted between one of the women and a local man from the Sons of Iraq movement who we had brought along because he claimed to have additional information on more weapons in the area.
The two were shouting and gesticulating wildly, and the man had started to get uncomfortably close to her—close enough to hit her, I thought—and I began to wonder if someone was going to put an end to it. The little girl started crying. Finally, Lt. Pappas quickly walked up and shoved the man back, “Jesus Christ, knock it off! Go! Go!” he yelled, pointing to the Strykers parked nearby. The guy backed off, but the woman kept at it, and according to the terp was accusing the soldiers of scaring the little girl. One of the soldiers turned to her and yelled “Just shut up already! You’re the one scaring her with your yelling! Fuck!” Some messages don’t need a translator to be understood and she finally stopped, and sat back down.
Come mid-afternoon, the cache had been assembled in a pit and photographed, and the Explosives Ordinance Disposal (EOD) team had been summoned to blow it up.
By this time I had fanned out to the fields behind the house with 1st Lieutenant Mark Davis to check a few other smaller irrigation ditches and reed lines, where he found a tripod that he thought might be for a the DSKA rifle. We were walking back up the dirt path toward the farmhouse when the rest of the platoon up the porch started yelling “get down!” A second later, a deep “BOOM” rolled across the farmland behind us. We turned, and saw a plume of black smoke beginning to snake it’s way skyward. Lt. Davis, struggling under the weight of the heavy, rusted tripod, ran with it for a few steps before throwing it down. We got to the porch and knelt down near the other guys, and one of the men turned to me and said. “Dude, that was fucking big. We saw the fireball before the sound hit us.” Someone else chimed in, “That looks like it was back near the base.”
As we watched the line of black smoke rise, word came from the base that a bomb went off only about two hundred meters outside the gate at the house of the leader of the local Sons of Iraq group. A few minutes later we learned that the target of the attack, Abu Zakaria, had survived the suicide car bomb attack, but that it looked like a “mass casualty event.”
Captain Higgins ordered a quick response team to load up and head back to the base, not knowing if this was the start of a multiple bomb attack. A Sergeant told some his men to load up, but a few of them had ammunition in their pockets that they had picked up in the reed line. They started to dump the ammo before getting in the Stryker but one of the guys started yelling at a buddy for throwing ammo around. An NCO stepped in and yelled “Guys, calm down.” His voice grew louder, “calm the fuck down! Calm down!” He seemed to be saying this to himself as much as to his soldiers, since they actually weren’t making too much of a scene. They finally emptied their pockets of rusted rounds, loaded up a Stryker and headed out.
I tried to go with them but they needed the space for troops, not reporters tagging along, so I stayed to watch the EOD pack the cache with thirty pounds of C4 explosive and blow it in an impressive blast. At the same time, Lt. Pappas took the suspect to a larger forward operating base for processing and interrogation.
Leaving the farmhouse with Cpt. Higgins and the explosives team to investigate the suicide bomb site, we stopped at the IED that we had identified earlier—just long enough for the EOD team to frantically tell us that were sitting on top of an IED, and refuse to go any further. We moved on while they stayed behind to blow it.
By the time we made it to the scene of the suicide bombing, the force of the blast was evident. Twisted cars were still smoldering on the side of the road, walls of a makeshift guardhouse had been knocked down, and there was a blast pit ten feet by twelve feet, six feet deep. The bomb had killed one of the Sons of Iraq as well as the bomber, with fourteen others wounded, including eight that the Americans had helicoptered out for treatment. All that was left of the bomber were a few fingertips and the front halves of his feet, attached to blackish red slop that represented what once the bombers’ legs. When I started to photograph the remains, an Iraqi moved in to the frame to pose with them, then led me over to another pile of reddish black muck. He would point to it, then his stomach, and I assumed he was telling me that this was some part of the bomber’s intestines.
Abu Zakaria, the man whose house was hit, leads a group of 395 Sons of Iraq volunteers in the area, and apparently got the job because his brother is a big political player. Still, Higgins and the other officers at IBA sang his praises, telling me he ran a tight ship, and kept his men alert and well-disciplined. A short, solidly built thirty-six year-old with a neatly trimmed beard, Zakaria was clutching a small club behind his back when I saw him, and he looked shaken, but angry. He and Higgins walked through the crumbled bricks and the still-smoking debris, with Zarakia assuring Higgins that he was committed to staying put, and Higgins offering suggestions for securing his property.
One young Sons of Iraq member with cuts on his arms and face told me that he had seen the whole thing. A “foreigner” with a “pale face and a long beard” pulled around the corner in his car and stopped directly in front of the checkpoint in front of Zakaria’s house. Waiting to be checked, the driver pulled out a grenade and tossed it under a truck in front of him that was carrying large 55-gallon drums of diesel fuel, and just before the explosion, the young man said, he jumped into a canal across the street to save himself.
1st Lieutenant Pete Cox, a twenty-three year-old Class of 2006 West Point grad, was in the base at the time of the explosion, and helped coordinate the treatment of the wounded Iraqis. There were no interpreters on base at the time, so Cox and others had to rely on their rudimentary Arabic and sign language to communicate. “Remember that famous picture from Vietnam with the little girl running from the napalm?” he asked, “it reminded me of that scene. I’d never seen injuries like that, I’d never seen burns like that. You had some guys with small shrapnel cuts and burns, and then you had guys with compound fractures and cuts all over their body and burns all over their body.”
One of the injured was a young boy, who had been at Zakaria’s with his father. His face was badly burned. “He looked like his face had been exposed to the flame, but the rest of him was fine. It looked like he was behind a wall, maybe, and only his face was exposed.”
The explosion and the aftermath was a test Lt. Cox felt that the patrol base passed. “The soldiers were pretty inventive about where to hang the IV bags, and figure out ways to help these people. You only have so many medics and when you have a mass casualty situation like that, you just don’t have enough, you can’t tend them all at the same time.”
Within thirty minutes of the blast, two Army helicopters actually landed on the small patch of land inside the base to ferry the most badly wounded Iraqis to an Army hospital, a risky move that impressed Cox, and one he hoped impressed the Iraqis, as well. It showed the Iraqis, he believes, that while groups like al Qaeda want to sow death, the Americans are willing to risk their lives to save Iraqi lives.
The attack came at a time of increasing al Qaeda attacks on Sons of Iraq checkpoints, a gambit that doesn’t seem to be accomplishing its objective of getting Iraqis to quit the groups.
“That we’re taking more Iraqi casualties means that they’re getting involved,” Cox told me that evening. “And it’s not just bystanders but guys who are putting their life on the line. The fact that they were targeted—Abu Zakaria and the Sons of Iraq—means that they’re considered a threat. And if al Qaeda thinks they’re a threat that means that they’re doing something right.”
Still, while that may or may not be true, the events of a single day at combat outpost IBA show that this war is far from over, and the complex maneuverings of fighting a counterinsurgency are only now starting to become fully apparent.
Part One, “The Rejected,” is here.
Part Two, “Men With Guns,” is here.
Part Three: “Night Patrol,” is here.