Embedded in Najaf

The Whale Swallows Me Whole
Notes from different corners of the world.
Nov. 4 2004 11:43 AM

Embedded in Najaf

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Though the I-5 Cav, the Army battalion fighting in northern Najaf, long ago gave up its horses for Humvees and tanks, Robert E. Lee would have easily recognized its officers. The unit was commanded by Myles Miyamasu, a lean lieutenant colonel who never seemed to lose his cool or even raise his voice. His sole vice was smoking, so far as I could tell. Maj. Bob Pizzitola was second in command, responsible for overseeing the battalion's command center. He would rather have been at the front lines and told everyone as much at least three times a day, frequently in salty language. Pizzitola spoke quickly, clipping his words. One of my colleagues tried to get him to say "attrited," as in, "We attrited the enemy today," but he never pulled it off.

The man who had the job that Pizzitola wanted was Maj. Douglas Ollivant, the battalion's S-3, or senior field officer. Ollivant didn't seem as though he belonged on the front lines. He had taught at West Point, and he clearly craved the chance for contact with civilians; he showed up in the reporters' tent at night to talk.

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Yet Ollivant was smooth and efficient under fire. I saw him in action the last night of the battle, as the tanks and Bradleys of the 1-5 rolled up almost to the shrine of Imam Ali. We had taken a position about 200 yards north, on a wide street that connected the shrine and the cemetery, with six- and seven-story buildings on either side.

With the electricity cut, the only lights were the stars and the golden dome of the shrine, illuminated by a generator inside. The guerrillas fired mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. The Bradleys—a combination tank/personnel carrier that is devastating in urban combat—responded with streams of 25mm shells that glowed red in the night.

When dawn broke, a half-dozen buildings were burning around us, yet the shrine stood unscathed. I will never forget that night, and my only regret is that I didn't have a camera. None of the soldiers did either, and the photographers were with the Marines, a few hundred yards west.

That fighting took place on a Thursday morning. The next day, the two sides reached a cease-fire, after Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani told Sadr to leave the shrine. And then I had my close call.

I had ridden down from the base to the front lines, the same position where I had been the morning before. The truce had taken hold. Iraqis walked freely from the shrine past the American Humvees. I decided that I would walk down to the shrine to see what was going on. I knew I was taking a chance, because I didn't have a translator with me, and I don't speak Arabic, but I didn't plan to stay long.

Unfortunately, a few minutes later, at the northwest edge of the shrine—out of sight of any American soldiers—I ran into the wrong guy. He decided I was an American spy, and things got very hairy very fast, cease-fire or no. Sadr's guys had watched the American military kill their friends for three weeks, and their blood was up. It's amazing how fast a mob can form. Beyond that, I'd rather not go into details.

Free at last. The author after his release.
Free at last. The author after his release.

But they got me to Sadr's office, and after another rocky hour, I was free. Inshallah, as Muslims often say: It's God's will. The whale swallowed me whole and spat me out; the knife stayed sheathed—who knows why? Inshallah. I say grace now at meals, when I remember.

And that was that. Groundhog Day ended. The cease-fire held. Sadr's guerrillas left the mosque, and the American forces pulled out of the Old City that surrounds it. We reporters said goodbye to the 1-5 and the Marines, the ones were talking to us, and looked for a helicopter north. Three days later, I was having a beer—actually a whole bunch of beers—at the New York Times compound in Baghdad. I never thought Baghdad would look so good.

Ten Marines and soldiers died in the fighting, along with several hundred guerrillas and lots of civilians—though exact civilian casualty counts don't exist. Still, the battle turned out to be a provisional victory for the U.S. military and the Iraqi government. Sadr left the shrine without blowing it up, and he and his fighters seem ready to join the political process.

Alex Berenson is an author and journalist. From 2000 to 2010, he worked as a business and investigative reporter for the New York Times. His seventh novel, The Night Ranger, will be published in February.