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Ashes and Dust: In the Aftermath of an Attack on an Unarmed Population

WUERDIYA, IRAQ – A key attribute of the enemy in Iraq for the past few years has been its unwillingness to directly engage coalition soldiers in armed combat. Whether this is a result of the enemy’s good sense or its cowardice (or, likely, both), insurgents and sectarians from al Qaeda in Iraq to the Jaisch al Mahdi have almost entirely avoided direct confrontation with the coalition, instead choosing to target soldiers with IEDs and snipers, while saving their more aggressive attacks for softer targets like the Iraqi National Police (NP) and surrounding civilian populations.

“It’s very clear that they want nothing to do with us directly,” said Captain Rich Thompson, a former enlisted Ranger and currently the commander of Baker Company, 1-15 Infantry (from the 3rd Infantry Division). Lieutenant Colonel Jack Marr, the 1-15 Battalion Commander, echoed the sentiment, observing that “They will go out of their way to avoid targeting us with their big operations, and to focus them on the NPs or another target they perceive to be weaker.”

As a case in point, Captain Thompson told of a recent attack on a National Police checkpoint. With one of his platoons securing the checkpoint on the western side – the side where the insurgents were originally coming from – the attackers had purposely abandoned their original line of approach, looped all the way around the formation, and attacked the NPs from the east – then abandoned their assault when the American platoon came to the Iraqis’ aid.

The soft-target strategy (a favorite of terrorists worldwide) was again demonstrated this week in Wuerdiya, a small community on the road from Baghdad to Salman Pak (known to the troops as “Route Wild”), when insurgents fired on, destroyed, and set fire to the houses there, displacing the people, and leaving the village in ruins.

Staff Sergeant Matt Jemison, from Baker Company 1-15 Infantry (3/3 ID), gives water to a newly homeless Iraqi girl in the village of Wuerdiya, south of Baghdad. Militants from Muqtada al Sadr's Mahdi Army attacked the small community and burned several homes to the ground, escaping before the Iraqi National Police could marshal their personnel and arrive there, despite having a large outpost less than a mile away.
(photo © Jeff Emanuel 2007)

For the soldiers of Baker Company’s 3rd Platoon, it began as a routine mission to the local NP headquarters, to input into the system those police who were not yet in the biometrics (retina, fingerprint, and face) database maintained by coalition forces in Iraq.

As the three-Humvee column approached an NP checkpoint near the Police headquarters along Rte. Wild, it became evident that something was amiss. A crowd of civilians – mostly black-clad women who were behaving very erratically – was congregated around the police there.

“One of them just tried to wave us down, sir,” said the gunner of my Humvee to the Platoon Leader, First Lieutenant Patrick Geiger, who was sitting in the front passenger seat. “Pull around here and we’ll see what’s going on,” said Geiger, as the vehicle came to a stop near the checkpoint.

As we climbed out of the Humvees, it was immediately obvious that something was wrong; the women congregated at the checkpoint were wailing in agony and beating their chests, and the few men with them were jabbering agitatedly at us in Arabic.

“They say their village is under attack,” said ‘Steve,’ one of Baker Co’s Iraqi interpreters. As we turned around to look, the truth of that statement became obvious – clouds of smoke were billowing from a location less than a quarter of a mile from us, just west of the main road, and the telltale sound of small arms fire was clear and sharp in the still, hot air.

Geiger turned to one of the NPs and inquired whether they were planning on doing anything about the situation. The Iraqi responded that they had called for reinforcements in the affirmative; however, neither he nor his men appeared to be in any rush to move in the direction of the small neighborhood that was currently under attack.

“Thirty, maybe forty men, wearing black,” one of the women said when Lt. Geiger asked how many insurgents were currently in the village. Conflicting with her report was the claim by one of the men in the group that the insurgents were driving away, down the road in front of us, at that very moment.

Geiger grabbed the Iraqi policeman again, instructed him to request that armor (the NPs have some old Saddam-era T-55 tanks in their arsenal) be brought along with the reinforcements and, ignoring the repeated protests by the aggrieved women that the National Police would be unable to do anything about the situation, retreated to his Humvee, intending to call for a helicopter to get a look at the scene from the air.

“You may get to see some action today after all,” he said sardonically to me, as we walked back to the vehicle. Once we were safely inside, and he had made his request for a helicopter (none were available), Geiger said to me, “We have to let the National Police handle this – we can give them backup and moral support, but this is their show, for two reasons. One, we don’t have enough people to go running into a situation that we just don’t have enough information about” – a true statement, given the fact that the squad he had brought with him consisted of six total dismounted soldiers. The rest of his platoon – scarcely half a dozen more dismounts – was carrying out a different tasking at the northern camp of Rustamiyah. (Baker Company – like so many currently in the Baghdad region – suffers from being chronically undermanned for the size of its area of operations.)

“Second, did you hear the woman saying that the NPs couldn’t do anything? We’re going to be gone from here sooner or later, and we have to leave a police force that is used to taking on things like this – and a population who knows that they are capable of it.”

Instructing his gunners to positively identify as hostile, then feel free to engage, any “targets of opportunity,” Geiger settled in to the vehicle’s passenger seat, and he and the Humvees with him drove down the rode a short ways to the first car that they came across. The passengers turned out to be ordinary citizens out for a drive.

As the column turned around and headed back in the direction of the checkpoint, the cavalry began to arrive, in the form of multiple armored pickup trucks full of Iraqi Police, as well as the big guns of that force’s armored fleet. By that time, the gunfire had completely died out from the village, though smoke was still rising in thick, black clouds from somewhere off of the road.

* * * * *

The National Police – along with a single red truck from the local Fire Department – took the lead, driving (with foot-soldier escort) into the village. While we waited, the remainder of Geiger’s platoon arrived, having jumped back into their Bradley Fighting Vehicles and driven down to the scene as quickly as had been possible.

The small American force held back for several minutes, both to give the NPs the opportunity to sort the situation out on their own, and to give the local NP Battalion Commander, a Sunni Kurd named Colonel Mohammed, a chance to arrive and to take charge. After thirty minutes or so, Geiger led his squad down the dirt road to the small, cement-and-mud-home village. The scene which met our eyes was one of total devastation – one house was still ablaze, and piles of ash and coals burned in different areas, mostly from the remnants of thatched roofs and fences from the surrounding dwellings, which had gone up in flames like kindling.

The heat of the day was already suffocating, especially in pounds of body armor and a skull-compressing helmet; further, the acrid fumes from the smoke burned the eyes mercilessly, and I was forced to remove my sunglasses to wipe my tear-filled eyes several times a minute, in a futile attempt to lessen the irritation.

Crying women in black, holding their children in one arm and shopping bags containing all of their remaining earthly possessions in the other, beseeched the NPs and the small contingent of American soldiers to help them. Staff Sergeant Matt Jemison, leader of 3rd Platoon’s first squad, brought bottles of cold water from his Humvee, which he poured into the parched mouths of the young, newly-homeless children who were being held tight by their mothers. He then passed them around to the adults before using the remainder of the cool water in the bottles to wipe down the children’s hot, sweaty faces.

“This is crazy!” declared 'Jim,' Baker Co’s other Iraqi interpreter. “To attack civilians? This must be stopped!” I turned to him and inquired just what it was he thought that the U.S. was trying to do in Iraq, if not to stop just this. “I know,” he replied. “That is why I help you, even though it puts in danger not just me, but my family – my wife, my children.”

He kindly asked – for just that reason – that he be removed from any photos I took, there and elsewhere, that he might have appeared in. Of course, I agreed.

* * * * *

More than one of the adults declared the devastation before us to be the work of the Jaisch al Mahdi (Arabic for the “Mahdi Army,” or the militia loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al Sadr – also known as “JAM”).

Pressed further by the Lieutenant, the women offered no proof or substantiation for their claim, nor were they able or willing to give names or to sign sworn statements identifying their attackers. “I want to help you,” said Geiger to the assembled, newly-homeless crowd. “But I can’t do it without information. I need lots of people to tell me the same thing that one or two of you did, and to sign sworn statements, or else I can’t go arrest anybody for this.”

The Lieutenant tried his best to explain the current situation to the woman. “This is what the terrorists want,” he said, pointing around them at the burning house and the various smoking ash heaps. “All they want to do is to destroy your villages, kill your people, and burn your houses. We want to protect you, but you have to help us. You have to give us information.”

One of the women pointed out three men whom she claimed were affiliated with JAM, and whom she believed had a and in the chaos of the day. However, as Geiger explained to her repeatedly, “without anything on them, we can’t take them anywhere – all we can do is talk to them here, and then let them go. We need more people than just you to say that they are JAM, and we need you to be willing to sign papers saying that it’s true.”

“We need your protection,” said the woman through the Platoon’s interpreter – but she demurred on the idea of attaching her name to anything official which would be used against the men in question, as did all of the other adults at the scene.

The soldiers took the three men around to the front of the neighborhood, fronting onto Route Wild, for questioning – and, as Lt. Geiger had truthfully told the woman inside the village, with no proof (no sworn statements, and no trace of gunpowder or explosives on the men themselves), the soldiers had no choice but to ask a few questions, enter the men into their biometric database (all the better to identify them should they turn up in close proximity to a terror attack once again), and let them go.

As we walked away, we left behind a dissipating crowd of National Policemen and newly homeless Iraqi civilians, as well as a fire truck whose crew was still hard at work trying to put out the house which they had been dousing with water when we had initially arrived on the scene.

Without more civilian willingness to go on the record in an effort to help themselves, there was nothing more that Baker Company could do there.

Jeff Emanuel, a special operations veteran, is a columnist and a director of conservative weblog He is currently embedded with the U.S. military on the front lines in Iraq.

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