Handing Off a War, Dispatches From Iraq

"IED Dead Ahead!"
Notes from different corners of the world.
May 24 2006 10:22 AM

Handing Off a War, Dispatches From Iraq

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RAMADI, Iraq—Two and a half years ago, I drove into Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, in a civilian SUV. Back then, the highway cutting through the city of 400,000 residents and 40,000 buildings was clogged with cars, their rusted-out mufflers emitting clouds of noxious smoke. I walked unarmed through the crowds of Iraqis standing outside the government center seeking contracts, medical care, job interviews, resolution of disputes, and news of missing relatives. Inside, American soldiers sat alongside Iraqi office workers listening to complaints, offering reassurance, and entering data in computer spreadsheets. The nearby open-air market was packed with men wandering idly around stalls.

Today, no Westerner would make it through the city in a civilian SUV, let alone survive in the souk. The population has decreased by half, and traffic jams are a long-ago dream of normal times. Ramadi bears the scars of repeated battle—shuttered storefronts, burned-out cars, and raw, black splotches in the pavement from multiple explosions. Those local leaders and sheiks who escaped the al-Qaida assassination teams have fled. In the last two and a half years, nine U.S. battalions have rotated through Ramadi, where four governors have been killed, kidnapped, or forced from office. The current governor survived a suicide bomber who smashed into his car a few weeks ago and killed the official sitting next to him.

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On patrol, the Marines run across the open spots and duck in and out of doorways. Insurgents hiding in plain sight among the civilians watch, choose their spot, and, sooner or later, take a shot. A few nights ago, I accompanied Weapons Company of the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment on a routine evening patrol. Just before the four armored Humvees left the base, Gunnery Sgt. Brendan Slattery, 32, introduced himself. He and I both graduated from Boston College High School.

"You two speak with the same strange accent," Capt. Mark Liston, the company commander, said.

While his men checked their weapons, Slattery and I talked about sports against the background snick of machine guns being readied for action. In the dim twilight, we rolled down an empty highway bordered by shell-shattered buildings. Not a vehicle or a person could be seen. Within five minutes, a sharp bang,followed by the brief chatter of a machine gun, echoed down the street. Slattery's matter-of-fact voice came over the radio inside our armored Humvee.

"One Alpha, this is Three Alpha. I've been hit by an IED at Michigan and Sunset. One cas [casualty] and one damaged victor [vehicle]. Am towing it back to base."

The blast from a 120 mm shell had torn the right tire off Slattery's Humvee, smashed in the steel door, and badly bruised the knee of Lance Cpl. Jose Torres, 21. Slattery, who already has one Purple Heart, was not hurt, but he had to return to base.

Our Humvee pushed up to Sunset to replace Slattery and was about to hop a curb when Cpl. William Kittell, 21, yelled out: "That's not a curb. IED dead ahead!"

An IED on the road. Click image to expand.
An IED on the road

The insurgents had molded a square package of explosives to look like a loose curb block. What gave it away in the falling light were two blue wires protruding from the end. The ordnance-disposal team arrived in minutes and sent forward a little robot attached to a cable. The three Humvees sat with engines idling while the drivers scanned the bombed-out buildings around us. The Marines were edgy.

"The trigger man is inside one of those buildings, watching us," Lt. Devin Blowes said. "He'll detonate the package. Then they'll hit us."

An IED explodes in Ramadi. Click image to expand.
An IED explodes in Ramadi

BLAAM! The curb erupted in a cloud of black smoke as shards of macadam and debris whizzed by. The bomb-disposal team reeled in their robot and headed back to base, and we drove forward down the dark road. Sure enough, bursts of wild AK fire came from our right.

"Got eyes on, roof left, 9 o'clock," Lance Cpl. Brian Wilson announced over the radio. "It's a PID [positive identification]." Wilson, 23, fired a five-round burst of 40 mm shells that exploded on a flat roof to our left. The Humvees roared down a side street and skidded to a stop in front of the house. Five Marines tumbled out, smashed open the metal courtyard door, burst into the house, and raced up the stairs to the roof. In the living room, a man crouched in a corner, arms around his wife, who was screaming in terror. Excited Marine voices boomed down the stairs.

"He's off the roof, heading for the abandoned apartments on Market Street!"

Three Marines hopped a wall and took off in pursuit. I walked back into the courtyard. In the pitch black, I felt for a side door.

"I wouldn't open that. A muj gets off a burst that hits you, and the gunny will be all over me. We'd better wait here for backup before moving outside."

As the outside-cover man, Lance Cpl. Richard Crane had been watching me through his night-vision goggles. Sharp, quick exchanges of gunfire punctuated his sentences.

"Typical night," he said.

The next morning, Staff Sgt. Christopher Winship, 29, left the base with four Humvees for another patrol downtown.

"We'll get hit in an hour or two," he said. "Depends how long it takes them to figure out our route."

As we drove down Michigan, the main street, the oncoming cars stopped, turned around, and drove away. Winship directed the Humvees from one street to another, changing direction abruptly, never going down the same street twice. Under a warm sun, children with backpacks were walking to school, shops were open, and a long line of cars were waiting in front of the city's only functioning gas station.

Things seemed normal until an AK opened up and bullets whizzed by the Humvee, followed by a rocket-propelled grenade. As people scattered from the sidewalks, Winship yelled over his radio: "COC, get off this net! You're blocking me. Shut the hell up!"

The company operations center had cut in on Winship's radio, preventing him from contacting his men,just as the firing had broken out. Frustrated, Winship directed his driver to cut down a side street. The other Humvees followed, and a minute later, a half-dozen Marines leapt out of their vehicles behind the building where the shooters had been hiding.

Iraqis in civilian clothes were running every which way. There was a short burst from an AK, followed by a two-round burst from an M-16. Hit in the crossfire, a portly man in his mid-40s lay in a courtyard, his white dishdasha spotted bright red, a bullet hole in his right thigh.

"Corpsman up!" A corpsman responded to the call for a medic and ran from a Humvee carrying a satchel of medical supplies. He applied a tourniquet as the man grimaced and looked at his wound. Another short M-16 burst, two or three rounds fired by a Marine covering a cross street.

"They're behind us, turkey-peeking around the corner!" the Marine shouted.

"Get those Humvees out of here!" Winship yelled.

The Marines mounted up, drove hastily around the corner, then slowed down and scanned the houses. Nothing. Not a single person. Not one moving car. The Humvees turned back onto the main street, Michigan, where people were walking along the sidewalk and shopkeepers were tending to their wares.

Shortly before he was killed in Ramadi in 2004, Lance Cpl. Pedro Contreras of Jacinto City, Texas, said, "We keep pressing. The fuckers keep shooting. … It's fucked up. They know who we are 'cause we got uniforms. They dress like civilians. We ain't going to stoop to their level. That's all I got to say."

That description by Cpl. Contreras was still accurate in May of 2006.

***

A senior American officer, who asked to remain anonymous, vented his frustration at the battle of attrition Americans could not win.

"I'm damned mad. Close to a hundred Americans have died in Ramadi," he said. "We need more troops to saturate that city and clean it out. We need Iraqi soldiers in the fight—four or five battalions of them. The Iraqis have to stand up."

Of the nine critical cities in Iraq, Ramadi is the last armed stronghold of the extremists. The incessant violence there symbolizes the senior Iraqis' failure to lead. The Iraqi army is emerging as the cement that holds the country together. And it is in Ramadi that the Iraqi army faces a major test of its ability to defeat the insurgents while treating the Sunni population with respect. Two Iraqi battalions have arrived, and Lt. Col. Steven Neary, who commands the Marine battalion, is gradually inserting them into the fight.

"It'll take at least 45 days before they're ready for major combat ops," he told me. "Most of the jundis [soldiers] are Shiite. The locals must respect them, and vice-versa. I have them working with Barela's company to gain confidence and professionalism."

Capt. Max Barela is responsible for security in eastern Ramadi. On routine patrols, the Marines brought the jundis with them, and things went smoothly. When Barela went out without the Iraqi soldiers, though, he sometimes encountered complaints. Some residents complained that the Shiite soldiers looked at women's underwear and helped themselves to food in the houses. Barela promised to investigate. It's better if the Marines do the searches, some of the local men said. They called the jundis "gypsies."

"If you like Americans so much," Barela said, "why do you shoot at us?"

No, no, the Iraqis protested, not us. It is bad men from outside. Barela laughed good-naturedly at the standard reply. Then join the army and fight them, he suggested. The army will not take us because we're Sunni, the men replied. Barela knew the army was doing all it could to recruit Sunnis, but it was not worth arguing. As the crowd dispersed, one man tarried. "I have joined," he whispered, "but my neighbors cannot know."

"Fear and mistrust are smothering this city," Barela said later. "I tell my Marines and the jundi—treat everyone with respect. On raids, knock—don't smash the door down. Don't throw suspects to the ground. If making an arrest, ask the man to tell his family he's going away for a few days. Put the cuffs on outside. When we get fire on a crowded street, I tell my Marines not to shoot back. We'll get the shooter another day. Most of these poor people are just trying to survive. The sooner we have jundis who can replace us, the better for everyone."

Bing West, a former assistant secretary of defense and combat Marine, has written six books about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.