Battle for Baqubah
22 June 07
First a quick media round-up. (This is not all-inclusive.)
Alexandra Zavis from Los Angeles Times is down in the heat of the battle bringing home information. Michael Gordon from New York Times is still slugging it out, and his portions are accurate in the co-authored story, “Heavy Fighting as US Troops Squeeze Insurgents in Iraqi City.” (Long title.)
CNN has joined the fight. AP came but will stay only a few days. Joe Klein from TIME was here on the 21st and his story posted the same day and was accurate. We rode together in a Stryker. Like magic, Joe’s story was out before I got back to base. Joe took a helicopter out and filed from elsewhere. I’m having comms problems here which is greatly slowing the flow. My Thuraya satellite phone and RBGAN satellite dish are not working for hours each day. The AP reporter is having the same problems. The signal degradation is caused by a special sort of RF interference. Moving our antennas around won’t work. We simply get cut off for long periods.
I am with 3-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team. I’ve run a few missions with them in Baghdad, and they have fought all over Iraq. This Brigade has much recent combat experience, and is expertly commanded. A person does not need to even meet the commanders (though I do each day) to know they are running a tight ship. The professionalism of 3-2 is particularly high, and they are very competent fighters who are maximizing their assets, including the incredible Stryker vehicles.
While the name “Stryker” is on the table, apparently controversy is brewing back home whether Strykers should be in our arsenal. The answer is YES: we need all we can get. The Stryker might be the finest all-around combat vehicle in Iraq. But that is a matter for another day, and for professional soldiers to answer.
The combat in Baqubah should soon reach a peak. Al Qaeda seems to have been effectively isolated. The initial attack on 19 June achieved enough surprise that al Qaeda was caught off guard and trapped. They have been beaten back mostly into pockets and are surrounded and will be dealt with. Part of this is actually due to the capability of Strykers. We were able to “attack from the march.” In other words, a huge force drove in from places like Baghdad and quickly locked down Baqubah.
LTG Ray Odierno visited Baqubah on the 21st. Odierno clarified that this battle is to be final: we are not going to do this again. Odierno stressed to our commanders that they need to be thinking of an end-state that results in Iraqis taking charge, but that Iraqi commanders should not be given the reins until they are ready, so that the result is we set them up for success. Odierno’s timing was remarkable: even before he arrived, the commanders here were talking about end-state daily and, on a more sour note, our commanders have their hands full with the local Iraqi commanders who seem less competent (to be kind) than those I have seen elsewhere, such as in Mosul.
Our guys are winning. Al Qaeda is about to be strangled and pummeled to death in this town, but the local Iraqi leadership is severely wanting. This was most obviously noted in one area in particular, where there were some slight indicators of a possible humanitarian need. “Crisis” certainly is not the correct word, but there are displaced persons numbering at least in the hundreds. LTC Fred Johnson actually took me out there. (The access even to “bad” news is amazing with this Brigade.)
I have been with LTC Fred Johnson for several days. LTC Johnson seems to recharge on sunlight or moonlight and can run a man into the ground. After seeing the humanitarian need building with no action to abate it underway, Johnson was very unhappy. He immediately started jerking choke chains on the people who are supposed to be handling humanitarian need, trying to avert having it build into a crisis.
This is where the inept local Iraqi commanders come in. I’ve seen them in meeting after meeting, over the past few days, finding ways to be underachievers. The Iraqi commanders have dozens of large trucks and have only to drive to our base to collect the supplies and distribute those supplies to the people displaced in the battle. Our troops are fully engaged in combat, yet the Iraqi leaders were not able to carry that load without LTC Johnson supplying the initiative. The Kurds would have had this fixed yesterday. The Iraqi commanders in Mosul would have fixed this. The local Iraqi command climate is disappointing by comparison.
Later I spoke with Major Jerry Gardner who is in charge of humanitarian needs. Gardner said he has 70,000 kilos each of flour and rice (bought from Iraq), and enough bottled water to keep 5,000 people going for 15 days. He can get three times that amount with a phone call. He’s got about 30,000 MREs, and also a complete “W.H.O. kit” that he says can feed 30,000 people for a month. Gardner said he can get four more kits like that if needed.
The need is not at the level of a crisis, but the need for those few hundred is becoming more serious. They have small children. Our soldiers took me out there and let me talk with the people as long as I wanted to. The kids wanted their photos taken and were happy, but the moms looked worried. All males between ages 15-55 are being screened before being allowed to pass through the cordon. People are trying to escape the fighting, but we made this mistake in places like Tal Afar and Fallujah where our people attacked and left huge escape routes. This time, the number one priority is to trap and destroy al Qaeda.
On information flow, as of noon in Baqubah on 22 June, the press is starting to flood in. The Public Affairs Office and the press climate at this Brigade are A+. Access is actually better than I have ever seen, and that is saying a great deal. A PAO officer told me that about 20 press should be here over the next days, so we should be able to get reports from many independent sources and compare and contrast. The access is unbelievably good. They are not holding back the good, bad or the ugly. Press who aren’t here in Baqubah with 3-2 Stryker Brigade are missing out. However . . . the press who are here are wasting huge amounts of time on trivial matters that are occurring above the level of 3-2.
There are serious technical problems that I have brought up privately to high-ranking PAO officers over the past nearly two years which persist today, despite that any one of them could be easily resolved with better planning on the part of PAO. I’ve found that communicating with them privately is generally useless. (Obviously, as the problems persist.) A person has got to tell a million people before they are heard. Since it will affect how the news from here gets reported, and since I know the other writers here are often afraid to speak up about this stuff (one senior PAO officer actually threatened to kick me out a few months ago), I’ll take the heat on telling the million people:
I could be in combat now, but have been wasting time trying to get a badge to get into the dining facility. Got one. Not a big deal, until you add that up for 20 reporters all wasting part of their very limited time (we are in a war), and soldiers’ time (they are fighting it) getting ridiculous paperwork when the Press ID could simply say, “Unescorted access to dining facilities is authorized. Please call DSN 867 5309 with any questions.” Simple solution. I have wasted hours on the issue of eating over the past few days. It adds up when your time windows open and close unpredictably and rapidly.
On communications, senior Public Affairs officers knew this battle was unfolding. It would have taken practically zero assets to set up a media shack or tent in advance. The shack or tent only needs to have electrical outlets and an internet dish, along with phone lines. Cots would be nice but I can sleep in the dirt. (Sleeping arrangements here are excellent. I’m in a tent with soldiers and have a cot.) We need a dedicated dish and phone lines because for hours each day our RBGANS are not working, nor are our Thuraya sat-phones. All those reporters flooding out here are about to flood into difficult reporting terrain. Cell phones do not work in Baqubah.
Public Affairs should have known this months ago. Valuable stories about our soldiers and the battle are being lost and will never be filed because reporters, after a long day of being on the battlefield, cannot make a simple phone call, or file a story. Why be here? It’s pretty dangerous, and insurance is expensive. I had to skip a mission this morning because I cannot make communications, and am down to filing stories on the fly again without time for editing. There is no other way to keep the flow open, and if you are reading this, it’s only after I’ve wasted hours trying to upload it. Hours I could have been with our soldiers, telling about their days in one of the most important battles of this war.
Otherwise, the battle is going very well. A big fight seems to be brewing. As of about noon in Baqubah on the 22nd, there seems to be a lull in the fighting. A calm. This is about to get wet. At the going rate, al Qaeda in Baqubah will soon have two choices: Surrender, or die.