Drilling for Justice
On 19 June American forces sealed off Baqubah and began attacking targets within the city. The immediate goal of Arrowhead Ripper was to free Baqubah of al Qaeda, by trapping and killing its members, but according to American officers here, public remarks by senior military officials may have flushed many AQI leaders before the attack. Despite this frustrating and significant setback, progress toward the end-state goal of Arrowhead Ripper—turning over Baqubah to Iraqi government control—appears to be working, at least in terms of the removal of the current AQI leadership and its quasi-government. There are conflicting signals about how many of the AQI leadership escaped before Arrowhead Ripper launched. This weekend’s capture of a possible high-value target in Baqubah indicates that not all AQI leaders successfully fled the city before the attack.
Media reports indicating that many top leaders escaped before Arrowhead Ripper began appear to be mostly true. But other information suggests some AQI leaders are trapped just down the road from where I write. In addition to the seven men who were caught trying to escape while dressed as women, there is information that some AQI leaders remain trapped in a constricting cordon.
For security reasons, the Iraqi Army (IA) was not included in the initial planning of Arrowhead Ripper, yet with each succeeding day the IA has taken a larger role in the unfolding attack. The Fifth Iraqi Army Division is considered an increasingly competent group of fighters, and from the limited scope of 5th IA that I personally witnessed, that judgment seems correct. The 5th is committed to battle. Whereas the Iraqi Army is coming into the fight, and playing increasingly critical roles, the local police force is less impressive.
On the night of the 23 June, for instance, a police checkpoint called in to say they were under heavy small-arms attack. The same checkpoint then called frantically saying they were under RPG attack. The next even more frantic call was about a mortar attack. Yet when a Shadow UAV and Apache helicopters were dispatched, they saw no activity in the immediate area. Colonel Steve Townsend, commander of 3-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team, brought this up to a senior Iraqi officer at a meeting on Sunday the 24th, and the Iraqi officer answered with some disgust that those particular police panic at the sound of two shots, and that each member of that police detail needs two Humvees protecting them in order to feel safe.
Also on the 24th, while I accompanied LTC Fred Johnson at a downtown meeting regarding humanitarian assistance, local enemy fighters were attacking the Iraqi Army convoys each time they passed by, about 500 yards from the meeting. The sounds of battles sometimes echoed through the police hallways, yet the Iraqi police refused to respond. Two of Johnson’s men went up to the dangerous rooftop, and SSG Matt Hudgeon patiently waited for a shot on a man about 500 yards away who had been attacking IA convoys with RPGs. Hudgeon saw the man fire two rockets, and he kept trying to get crosshairs on the enemy. When he finally got a shot, Matt steadied his breathing, slowly exhaled and squeezed the trigger of his M-14. Bam! Matt’s bullet shot the man in the stomach, and the man rolled off the two-story roof, landing in the dust next to his RPG.
Iraqi police were called—they were all around us—to recover the body or at least the weapon, but one hour later when we went to lunch, the body was still on the ground near the RPG. Although we tried to get to the RPG later, we were in a hurry to get to a cache that had just been discovered by the Iraqi Army, and our Navy and Army were on it. An F-16 was about to drop a 500-pound bomb onto a house rigged with explosives 300 yards from us and the cache but the F-16 broke off to refuel. By then, we were heading to another meeting. The body and the RPG were abandoned.
There is much work to do here, especially if the Iraqi Police continue to perform below expectations. The absence of strong local leadership is a large part of the reason AQI was able to move in and set up a shadow government in Baqubah, complete with its own court system, torture house and prison. These three pegs of the AQI justice system have been found here in the past week. The judges who administer Sharia law and issue fatwas are called Muftis. A Mufti is a “high value target” because he would have deep connections in AQI in order to have such a trusted position of power.
Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) had tarnished its name here by publicly attacking and murdering children, videotaping beheadings, all while imposing harsh punishments on Iraqi civilians found guilty of violating morality laws prohibiting activities like smoking. The AQI installed Sharia court had sanctioned the amputation of the two “smoking fingers” for those who violated anti-smoking laws. In part because local sentiment was shifting against it, AQI synthesized with other groups and undertook an image makeover, christening itself “The Islamic State of Iraq.” But the new name was just lipstick on a pig here.
On the evening of the 24th I spoke with a local Iraqi official, Colonel Faik, who said the Muftis would order the severance of the two fingers used to hold a cigarette for any Iraqis caught smoking. Other reports, from here in Diyala and also in Anbar, allege that smokers are murdered by AQI. Most Iraqis smoke and this particular prohibition appeared to have earned the ire of many locals. After an American unit cleared an apartment complex on the 23rd, LTC Smiley, the battalion commander, reported that residents didn’t ask for food and water, but cigarettes. In other parts of Baqubah, people have been celebrating the routing of AQI by lighting up and smoking cigarettes.
Other AQI edicts included beatings for men who refused to grow beards, and corporal punishments for obscene sexual suggestiveness, defined by such “loose” behavior as carrying tomatoes and cucumbers in the same bag. These fatwas were not eagerly embraced by most Iraqis, and the taint traveled back to the Muftis who sat in supreme judgment. Locals, who are increasingly helpful in pointing out and celebrating the downfall of AQI here, said that during the initial Arrowhead Ripper attack the morning of the 19th, AQI murdered five men. Townsend’s men found the buried corpses behind an AQI prison, exactly where they’d been told to look for the group grave. Locals also directed Townsend’s men to a torture house. Peering through a window, American soldiers saw knives, swords, bindings and drills. AQI is well-known for its macabre eagerness to drill into kneecaps, elbows, ribs, skulls, and other parts of victims.
One local Mufti who was said to have always worn a hood and sunglasses—and to have somehow disguised his voice—was pointed out to the Iraqi Army this weekend, who promptly captured him. Iraqi officials said today that although they did not previously know that this man was a Mufti, his name had been on their target list. The Mufti is being questioned and his name has not been released.
Although the battle is still unfolding here in Baqubah, Colonel Townsend reports that at least 50 AQI have been killed. Townsend’s subordinate commanders put the number as high as 100. More than 60 suspects are in custody, but Townsend is unsure how many of the suspects are truly AQI versus innocent men who will be released.
American losses include one soldier killed in action, with 21 wounded. One Bradley and one Stryker have been destroyed. The low numbers of friendly casualties have been largely due to the slow, methodical clearing operation where success is not measured against the clock. In meeting after meeting, I have seen Townsend stress to his subordinate commanders the importance of moving deliberately and at their own pace. Given the massive amounts of IEDs that have been found, my guess is that we might have taken dozens more killed by now if the clearing operation had been rushed. Doubtless many American lives have been saved by locals just saying “stop,” and pointing to bombs.
Another part of the success is just plain luck. On Sunday for instance, soldiers entered a home filled with explosives, but somehow escaped without injury. About 15 houses and buildings have been found rigged to explode. The Air Force has helped by dropping bombs on some of the rigged homes, and MLRS missiles have been fired into others. Early on Sunday morning, before embarking on the mission, I was doing a rapid bit of bird photography with an ornithologist named Captain Pike, when an Apache helicopter shot 30mm cannon into a car bomb downtown. We did not see the attack, but a mushroom cloud billowed in the background as I was rushing to photograph a beautiful bee-catcher. (Iraq has fascinating array of birds, and when this war is over, I’m coming back with a long lens and a tripod.)
The fight goes on. Sunday, Colonel Townsend said he was considering bypassing one area where many if not most of the homes appear to be rigged to explode. He doesn’t want to level the whole neighborhood. Al Qaeda has hijacked people’s homes and businesses. To save his own soldiers’ lives, he’ll destroy what needs to be destroyed, but always mindful that most of the citizens of Baqubah did not volunteer to turn their homes into bombs. Townsend’s people have learned, after hard fighting and serious losses throughout Iraq, that the best counter-IED “technology” we have is just getting out of our fighting vehicles and talking with Iraqis. Although I have seen Iraqis do this, most cannot safely shout “stop” and point to IEDs while our soldiers are driving by. Surely we have many intractable enemies here, but the Iraqis have proven countless times that engagement works.
But the enemies who remain here keep on fighting. This weekend, while soldiers continued clearing Baqubah on foot, Townsend’s soldiers returned to an area they had just cleared. The squad leader spotted a vegetable can that had not been there minutes earlier. But it was too late: the vegetable can blew up, the squad went down from the blast, and the enemy started shooting. It was all in a day’s work here. All six of those soldiers are expected to return to duty by today, Monday.
It would be nice to wrap up this dispatch with a neat ending, but accuracy requires this ending be jagged. While typing these last few words, there have been explosions, gunfire, and the sounds of helicopters and jets. The fighting has decreased remarkably over the last few days, but the last pockets have not been cleared, and nobody knows what awaits. So the battle is on and it’s time to get back with the soldiers as they clear Baqubah inch by inch, street by street.