Bread and a Circus, Part I of II

[Note: Before we begin, a huge congratulations to Iraq for winning the Asian Cup in soccer. As an American, I felt a sense of jubilation when Iraq took the title. I have temporarily left Iraq, for my only “break” this year, and am in Singapore. Singaporeans are talking about the Iraq soccer victory today. It’s all over the news here.]

Bread and a Circus, Part One

Operation Arrowhead Ripper Launched on 19 June 2007 and continues today.

Baqubah

Iraqis and cameras are a sight. “Everyone” “knows” that Iraqi women are not to be photographed; but in reality this is situational. Some Iraqi women definitely avoid the shutter, but for others it’s no more taboo than it is to photograph an American woman. But Iraqi men and children (both girls and boys) seem to get vacuumed into the lens. Iraqi parents carrying babies will often practically force you to take a photo of their baby. They do it with smiles and holding up the baby; and looking at the camera; then back at the baby; then again at the camera; and then back again to the baby. If the photographer hasn’t caved by then, they pull out the big guns: they kiss the baby and look at the camera; then look at the baby; and then, kiss the baby while looking at the camera, until . . . Stop the madness! I take the photo. Some of the babies are so cute that it would be hard to resist even without the pressure.

The Battle for Baqubah (or “Baqouba” according to the story above) is still underway. Small TICs [Troops In Contact] continue to occur, but those enemy attacks have had little effect since combat kicked off on 19 June. As of 30 July, we lost one soldier, while the enemy losses number about a hundred. This battle is best measured not in the losses, but the gains. The people of Baqubah have been demonstrably ecstatic. Other than in the Kurdish areas, I have never seen such overt gratitude from so many Iraqis. Iraqis continue pointing out al Qaeda operatives and their hidden bombs. Despite that many al Qaeda escaped, the success so far is overwhelmingly obvious. The challenge remains to make it stick, but the gains are undeniable and the sense of momentum is palpable.

 

Before the Battle for Baqubah (Operation Arrowhead Ripper), thousands of refugees had streamed out of Baqubah and the surrounding towns. I’ve heard Iraqis throw around a number of 17,000 IDPs [Internally Displaced Iraqis], although I have no idea how accurate that is, if at all. Two weeks after the start of Arrowhead Ripper, 3-2 SBCT was tracking just over a thousand IDPs, and since I shared a tent with the soldiers who did most of the counting (C-52), I put stock in that number and believe it to be roughly accurate. I saw many of the IDPs with my own eyes.

Some of the fleeing families had kept out of the sun by moving inside Baqubah’s electrical plant. The plant had been captured by C-52, a group of 54 soldiers who have fought all over Iraq. I accompanied C-52 on the night of 19 June.

I was expecting that we might have dozens killed in action. Maybe hundreds wounded. Baqubah was truly a giant ambush.
Having seen some of the most intense combat this year, C-52’s mission was to seize the electrical plant so it could be used to help screen the IDPs.
C-52 was preparing to fight into Baqubah to seize the electrical plant. Although using less force is always more dangerous to soldiers, the electrical station is critical infrastructure, so the plan was to use minimal force to take the facilities.
The veterans were ready to go.
After the briefing, C-52 soldiers headed to their Strykers to make explosive charges for blasting down a certain wall that might be needed to breach into the electrical plant. LT Kraus, whose Stryker being blasted into the air made the news, had returned to duty shortly after that attack and was coming full guns back at al Qaeda. Kraus began preparing the explosives. Sergeant Hawkins, whose arms are crossed in the photograph above, is a soft-spoken veteran who looks strong enough to toss a Stryker in the air.
Final preparations the night before the attack. After PCIs [Pre Combat Inspections], the soldiers from C-52 headed to sleep knowing it might be days before they got another minute of rest or ounce of comfort. In fact, C-52 would go more than 10 days in the molten heat before their next chance to wash. Others would have it much worse.

 

The people of Baqubah learned to hate and be terrified of al Qaeda. On the evening of the 18th, just hours before the attack scheduled for 0100 on the 19th, C-52 gathered around the back of the Strykers. Men and machines were loaded for toe-to-toe combat with al Qaeda. But they were not going in alone. Local enemies, who previously were deeply entwined with al Qaeda and had blown up and shot Americans, had turned on al Qaeda, and their help would lead to the death and capture of many of our now common enemy.

The attack was on.

Jets, gun ships, helicopters and UAVs were in the air. A helicopter air assault was preparing to launch. Cannons steadied on their targets. Large MLRS rockets dozens of miles from Baqubah were dialed in. Special Forces, spies, lies and tricks of all sorts were arrayed against those who would stand and fight. And those who would stand had prepared massive ambushes for us.

Shortly before they closed the back ramps on the Strykers, Venus emerged from behind the moon.
We drove a short distance, and waited for other units in Baghdad to reach their departures before we launched to Baqubah. I had found a prayer card in Anbar, and carried it in my pocket: Be Not Afraid

It was close to 120° the day I took this photograph. When it’s that hot, the wind blows like a hair dryer in the face and it’s hard to drink enough water—just keep schlucking it down. Some of the soldiers go more than ten days without a shower, all while wearing great amounts of gear and often sleeping in baked-on filth. But when the fatigue of fighting and clearing dangerous ground catches up, the heat is secondary. Soldiers this tired will sleep on hot, broken glass, or in this case, on the ground outside a blown-up building.

By the time we arrived at Baqubah, we were hours late due to difficulty other units had along the way. The attack was well underway, and C-52 took the electrical plant. But I was not with them when they took it. After we got to Baqubah, I unexpectedly ended up on a different mission with LTC Fred Johnson when he rolled off to tell Iraqi commanders that Baqubah was surrounded and that Coalition Forces were attacking al Qaeda with intentions to kill them. LTC Johnson asked for the help of the Iraqi commanders.

Women and children were let inside the electrical plant to get away from the sun, but the men had to sit out in the shade. The moms looked worried, though the kids were playing and wanted American soldiers to pay attention to them. When they saw the camera, the normal Iraqi-kid response happened and the kids started posing. One day, after the kids and their moms and sisters were gone, I noticed they had been making drawings in the dust that covered a glass case.

As the attack unfolded, about a thousand Iraqis fled their homes, and it was the job of C-52 to screen for al Qaeda. Some al Qaeda—who cross-dressed and tried to slip out as women—were caught when their disguises failed. Some Iraqis reported that homes in their areas had been destroyed, and I recall one saying that people were trapped in the rubble, though civilian deaths from our attacks were so low they were difficult to count. (I had free range and was specifically watching for civilian fatalities, yet did not see any civilians killed by us during the attack.)

The deliberate pace of the attack, the systematic and thorough process of clearing the city house by house, street by street, and block by block, were factors in this; but the civilian and military casualties were also kept low by the unexpected and overwhelming cooperation of ordinary Iraqi citizens, who pointed out the enemy and many of the bombs set to ambush troops.

There were interesting dynamics unfolding. For instance, our soldiers were much more reluctant to use force when civilians were helping. I saw numerous occasions where soldiers cleared out all the civilians in areas before attacking known targets that civilians had pointed out. For instance, in the more than two dozen houses and buildings rigged as giant bombs, civilians pointed out many of those bombs. Our soldiers and Iraqi soldiers simply stopped, cleared out the people, and then destroyed the buildings, but each time they worked harder to mitigate damage to surrounding houses, and paid people for the unavoidable damages when they occurred.

As of midnight on 30 June, 3-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team was tracking the following on their internal reports:

  • 1 American soldier Killed in Action
  • 23 WIA
  • 20 were RTD (Returned to Duty)
  • 3 were evacuated
  • 3 Iraqi soldiers Killed In Action
  • 5 WIA
  • 23 citizens were killed
  • 14 wounded
  • 54 Enemy killed, with some estimating that greater than 101 were killed
  • 127 were arrested
  • 4 were released
  • 53 have gone to long-term detainment
  • 70 pending

But the killing, scattering and capturing of al Qaeda was only part of the fight. During the invasion in 2003, the Coalition did the same to Saddam’s Army, and then mostly sat down and watched Iraq fall apart, or made decisions that helped to hasten and worsen the collapse into civil war. An exception was in Nineveh Province when, while the guns were still firing, then-Major General Petraeus was already restoring a sense of normalcy, and his efforts were working. Yet here in Baqubah it was not just any old attack-and-wait unfolding; this was a “full-spectrum” operation where the perceptions of local people were of primary importance.

Because perception is not reality, the push was to actually make palpable changes that could withstand the propaganda challenges that al Qaeda was already firing back in the wake of their embarrassing descent into cross-dressing desperation. I was copied on an email that described their first media counter-punch:

Classification: UNCLASSIFIED
In case you didn’t hear the AIF’s version of our current Ops:
National Reporting: (The World News Network posted a statement issued by The Islamic State of Iraq)
-AQIZ (ISI media department) Issues statement refuting CFs activities in Baqubah.
“The strongest kinds of explosives are awaiting them on the streets and in the allies. Snipers of the Islamic State of Iraq are going ahead hunting down dozens of soldiers. They are in control of the high-rise buildings, and ambushes and traps are awaiting them everywhere. The American Army, in spite of its numbers and equipment, could not penetrate the region except for a couple of minutes to film so as to sell the photographs to the lying media. It is during those few minutes that a great number of airplanes were downed. We are announcing this good news to the nation as the soldiers of the Islamic State of Iraq are basking in their victory in all parts of this and the rest of the provinces, while the Crusaders will not escape this fierce battle but with slit throats and a defeat, the likes of which has never been witnessed.”
4-2 SBCT Daily Intsum

Dissecting for accuracy:

“The strongest kinds of explosives are awaiting them on the streets and in the allies(sic). [This was true: we lost a soldier to an IED. But our guys caught most of the bombs, in many cases when local Iraqis pointed them out. Others that remain hidden will be neutralized by our engineer and EOD teams in a thorough, methodical process that will continue until the city is cleared.] Snipers of the Islamic State of Iraq are going ahead hunting down dozens of soldiers. They are in control of the high-rise buildings [They were until our guys killed them], and ambushes and traps are awaiting them everywhere. [This was true: there were ambushes and traps everywhere. But our guys killed them, ran them off, or foiled the ambushes in nearly ever case. We did lose one Stryker and one Bradley.] The American Army, in spite of its numbers and equipment, could not penetrate the region except for a couple of minutes to film so as to sell the photographs to the lying media. [The penetration was persistent and pervasive and eventually complete, something captured on film by dozens of reporters who finally embedded for the initial days of the operation. A minor point: the military’s own photographs and videos are always available free of charge to media agencies.] It is during those few minutes that a great number of airplanes were downed. [Completely false.] We are announcing this good news to the nation as the soldiers of the Islamic State of Iraq are basking in their victory in all parts of this and the rest of the provinces [It would be dangerous for al Qaeda to celebrate here in Baqubah, or in Anbar, or up in Mosul, or down in Basra, or in Sadr City. In fact, they are running out of places to peek out from, let alone bask in.], while the Crusaders will not escape this fierce battle but with slit throats and a defeat, the likes of which has never been witnessed.” [There are many American soldiers on FOB Warhorse in Baqubah. They’ve extended their invitation for al Qaeda to come visit.]
4-2 SBCT Daily Intsum

 

 

IA soldiers with the Mayor of Baqubah (on the right).

While al Qaeda media executives responded with nearly crystalline lies—sprinkled with some heavily distorted truths—3-2 SBCT was still killing and capturing their foot soldiers in Baqubah. Just as importantly, American commanders were practically diving off the battlefield for meetings with local Iraqi leaders to simultaneously jump-start the process of rebuilding the city under more robust and responsible local leadership. In the days just after the start of Operation Arrowhead Ripper, I reported that Baqubah had not had a food shipment in 10 months and concerns about a possible humanitarian crisis were emerging. When it comes to the battle of perceptions, a full belly trumps an empty stomach every time.

Iraq has an interesting food distribution system. The short version is that each family gets a stipend from the Iraqi government, and some of that money is automatically deducted for food. In a sense, the people of Baqubah had been paying for food for 10 months, but not getting any. People weren’t starving in Baqubah, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t care that the food shipments they were entitled to receive, and for which they’d already paid, were being held back in Baghdad. Digging deeper into the system, I learned that there are “food representatives” who represent a certain number of families (for instance, one food-rep may cover 200 families), and each family has a voucher.

Al Qaeda, like many serious terrorist organizations, uses food as clout and for pocket money. They had seized the food warehouse in Baqubah. The authorities in Baghdad responded by cutting off food shipments to Baqubah because they would fall into the hands of al Qaeda. This is where al Qaeda’s plan truly was working in the invisible ways—unlike but in addition to the very visible mosque bombings, for instance—because they had effectively cleaved Baqubah off from Baghdad. The mostly Shia government in Baghdad became the bad guy for cutting off the food.

But it gets worse; we are only getting started. As part of its ongoing effort to stoke the civil war, al Qaeda at first allied itself with Sunnis (until they started raping and murdering Sunni and burning down their homes) and tried to increase the hostilities between the Sunnis and the Shia. Civil war is undoubtedly the best method for running the Coalition out of Iraq—one need only follow US media to figure that out—one which would leave al Qaeda with, ahem, a David vs. Goliath glory.

The sectarian divide here was not manufactured by al Qaeda. Most countries have societal fissures that can be exploited, and the Sunni-Shia divide is like a tectonic plate. It’s actually somewhat stable, except for al Qaeda stuffing bombs in the cracks. The new government in Iraq is Shia dominated, and the Food Warehouse is in Sadr City, basically dead-center for Shia-land. Baqubah, on the other hand, is a Ba’athist haven. And so there you have it: Al Qaeda drove a multi-dimensional wedge using the food as one of those quiet bombs that never popped up on the radar, but nonetheless had a real impact on this war.

Because the one thing that definitely can run us out of here is the civil war, it follows that disrupting al Qaeda is like taking the blowtorch off the curtains. And for the beleaguered people of Baqubah, something nearly every family could see instantly as a positive sign would be the renewal of regular food distribution. There are many other shortages and problems for military and civilian leaders to sort through, but a food shortage is something that could be immediately ameliorated. Iraq is a breadbasket: there’s plenty of food here, it only takes trucks to move it around.

That, as it turned out, was just one part of the problem.

The Mayor of Baqubah, and all the king’s horses and men, were afraid to try to get that food from the warehouse next to Sadr City. The Mayor told me that when a representative from Baqubah went to another warehouse to get medical supplies, he disappeared. And then the Mayor told me flat-out that he knew if he went to the food warehouse, he would be killed.

Watch video footage taken at the Ministry of Trade in Baghdad as the Mayor and other representatives of Baqubah described their frustrating experiences and very real fears in trying to get regular food shipments to resume.

[Note: Anyone experiencing technical difficulties with the above video player can follow this link to watch the video on Michael Yon’s You Tube channel. ]

The foodstuffs are handled through the Ministry of Trade. LTC Fred Johnson was using force of will to get a frightened and inertia-laden local civil leadership to mount a convoy to Baghdad. He brought along an Iraqi journalist because he knew food distribution was a critical battle, and any victory could be hugely accentuated by getting it into the Iraqi media. Most of the Western press was now leaving Baqubah just when the real story began unfolding. Western media mostly missed the initial fight because they missed the signs, and then left immediately after seeing there was no brawl. 3-2 SBCT made no pretension of hiding their motivations for inviting me: they knew I was apt to stay around even if there was no fighting. They are a smart lot.
The problems began as we lined up the trucks in the morning. About half the trucks did not have enough fuel. While the commander struggled through various issues (the least of which was fuel), Iraqi civilians passed by. Many of them are natural-born actors, and when a camera comes out—not just any camera but one in the hands of the media—the gesticulations begin, followed by the wailing and so on and so forth.
This woman was waving, smiling, raising her hands to God. She was like someone we might expect to see in the news, except that she was smiling.
We were lining up trucks to go to Baghdad to get the people of Baqubah their food, and heavily-armed American soldiers were all around, as were Iraqis, both Sunni and Shia, yet family after family came through. Some were on carts wheeled by donkeys. One family was walking, and the father came to brag about his beautiful baby, insisting that I take a photograph.
Then he waved and smiled and walked away.
The trucks were lined up but about half did not have enough diesel fuel to make the trip. The truckers agreed to go to Baghdad to pick up the food but only because Americans were going to escort them. They said explicitly that they knew Americans would not leave them if something happened. They see that we bring far more justice than injustice. I would like to say that I write these words without moments of doubt about Iraq, but that would be a stretch towards untrue.
Many of the Iraqi trucks showed up without fuel. Apache helicopters patrolled overhead, as Major Kenneth Daniels sat down to talk with truck drivers, soldiers and government officials.
16 trucks were ready to go, but needed fuel, so LTC Fred Johnson called another American unit at FOB Warhorse. The refuelers had no idea about the problem, but loaded up and brought two trucks of fuel into Baqubah.
Once the fuel problem was solved, the convoy headed to Baghdad (more specifically, to Sadr City in Baghdad) to the food warehouses and Ministry of Trade. The real hard part of Operation Arrowhead Ripper was unfolding.

It’s time to end this dispatch with a shameful teaser:

This is where it really started to get exciting.

End of Part I of II

 

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