[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.]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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
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.
It’s time to end this dispatch with a shameful teaser:
This is where it really started to get exciting.