The stories told at Educated Soldier have lately taken a positive tone in sentiment. This isn’t reflective of my two years experience in Iraq necessarily; in fact, there were many periods during my deployments that were very much void of positive elements. However, the vast majority of news coming from Iraq is negative. And since both negative and positive details exist in the country and I choose to report events that others withhold, I tend- in result – to publish these “happy-go-lucky” Iraq tales.
Tonight’s account is going to be a different case. I want to put each of my readers in my shoes during a very significant day during my Ramadi tour. The mission completed that day met every adjective available on the spectrum including both positive and negative connotations. It was both wildly successful in its completion but probably horribly misjudged in its authorization. It was done with the foremost consideration for collateral damage but resulted in one of the most destructive displays of American exploitation of force that I have borne witness. The mission was the scariest of my life for moments and also one of the most boring in its prolonged conclusion…
First, however, I want to display credit where it is just due. The inspiration for tonight’s story and, in fact, inspiration for most of my continued recollections belongs to the continued efforts of two embedded journalists that I have the utmost respect for: Michael Yon and Michael Totten. In both of their recent dispatches, they tackled the peculiarities faced by an American military that struggles between effectively killing an enemy while doing as little in the way of disturbing the warming general populace as possible.
In Mr. Yon’s last report, he observes mid-level officers as they work diligently from their tactical operations center and debate over what level and means of force to use in an attempt to destroy an enemy that has since fled to a permanent residence within their city’s limits. The options that are available to the military officials are interesting in and of themselves. To give you a taste without telling Mr. Yon’s entire account; one of the options available is an airplane-dropped, concrete-laden bomb; the first of its type that I have been made aware of. Just as fascinating is the thought process that is completed by the various soldiers in charge. They want to kill an enemy that has attempted to kill their own men. But they don’t want to do so at the expense of upsetting a civilian population that is slowly coming to understand the benefits of the unit’s presence in their city. Again, the report is located here and I highly recommend that you take the time to access it.
Mr. Totten’s latest transmission from Baghdad relates directly to the story that I am prepared to tell tonight. The unit is which he is embedded is attempting a night time raid; a mission that I, myself, have undertaken countless times. Mr. Totten describes the intricacies of such a raid exactly as I remember them. His unit then faces the exact issue that will be the heart of tonight’s Educated Soldier tale: a possibly hostile mosque. It is well worth your time exploring Mr. Totten’s own adventures; no one does a better job of detailing exactly how it is over there. He neither glorifies the violence nor exaggerates the serenity. He tells the true story of Iraq; a land conflicted by those who want to promote stability interlaced with a small but persistent existence of a group that wants to see nothing of the sort achieved. His stories are a salad bowl of continued boredom and brief instances of sheer terror. Such a mix existed in the Iraq that I came to know very well.
On Sacred Grounds…
A hostile mosque… pictured to the right is “Saddam Mosque.” This facility exists in Ar Ramadi, Iraq. My unit, at the time I was there, was given the duty to serve the eastern half of the city. The Marines, whose command overrode all American jurisdictions in Al Anbar province, were tasked with the direct oversight of the western half of the city. Saddam Mosque’s location sat dead center of our own area of operations. It was in the middle of all confluences; north, south, east, and west. Running directly adjacent to this rather large mosque was the main thoroughfare of Ramadi. While the codename to this road is all too available on soldier-submitted YouTube videos, I am going to withhold such detail because of continued operational security.
This road traveled past the mosque and just west of its location was a large traffic circle. When the 1/503rd Infantry, of which I was assigned, first arrived in-city, this traffic circle was plagued by enemy activity. During our first sweep of the location, our unit’s engineers located no less than sixteen planted improvised explosive devices. After clearing these dangers, an almost immediate return to the area presented at least ten replaced explosives. During our initial time in Ramadi, this traffic circle was also home to many a fire fight. Ultimately, the dangers of this traffic circle would become case-in-point testament to the Ramadi turn-around; upon exiting the city after our year tour, nearly no danger ever presented itself at the traffic circle.
Before achieving these successes, however, much work had to be completed to set the foundation for such a turn-around. Much of this work focused on the ever present “elephant in the room,” the Saddam Mosque.
The Ramadi residents who were ready to embrace peace would often tell us that Saddam Mosque was a major tactical host for the enemy that we faced. Moreover, during most firefights, we were engaged directly from the Mosque itself. However, we were ever hesitant to enter such a sacred facility. This is the dilemma presented by counter insurgency warfare of the type now faced in Iraq. Americans are ever cognizant of the feelings and dignity of the surrounding populace. Our enemy worries less about such things.
The 1/503rd did everything short of actually entering the mosque in attempts to negate its effectiveness as an enemy stronghold. We observed it from surrounding facilities for weeks on end. We patrolled its local area often, both on foot and in humvees, in attempts to provoke the enemy. The hope was that they would be as unwise enough to leave the safety of the mosque and fight us in the streets. This rarely happened. The enemy had the upper hand and they were well aware of this tactical advantage.
Eventually, however, American forces in the city were augmented quite substantially by Iraqi forces. This new battlefield dynamic presented new options in dealing with the Saddam Mosque. After being harassed heavily by occupants of the mosque, it was decided that some attempt had to made to gain authorization to demilitarize this facility. Ultimately it worked like this: one day a platoon lieutenant tired of his men getting shot at from perpetrators in the mosque. He, therefore, implored the company commander to authorize entry into the building. The company commander then asked for the same authorization from the battalion commander. This level of authority wasn’t high enough to allow such action, so he- in turn- asked permission from the brigade commander, a “full-bird” Colonel. Even his power fell short of the necessary level to give the mission a go. So he contacted the Marine commander of all ground forces in Al Anbar. From my understanding, it was at this level that authorization was finally ceded for actions on the mosque.
However, unilateral American actions on such an establishment of Islamic importance would ultimately negate the successes being made in winning the city’s “hearts and minds.” It was decided, instead, that our Iraqi army and police brethren would lead the initial assault on the mosque. However, the gravity of such a mission warrants days of preparation, not hours. First, American soldiers had to patrol throughout the city and inform all the citizens that such an action on the mosque was being considered. We had to convince the populace that our intentions were totally noble and in the best interest of the safety of the city as a whole. Local television stations even warned the citizens that a vehicle restriction was being imposed on the day of the Saddam Mosque raid. Our psychological operations soldiers declared from the loudspeakers mounted atop their humvees that the mosque would be off-limits and that a mixed Iraqi / American force intended to clear the facility of enemy opposition. We were prepared to lose the element of surprise in return for gaining the goodwill of the more peaceful-minded people.
The preparation for the raid of Saddam Mosque constituted the positive elements of such a mission. Americans did everything in their abilities to inform all interested that we were only intruding on sacred grounds for the establishment of the better good of the community. The mission, itself, was ultimately successful in its initial actions. Our entire battalion stormed the grounds and the Iraqi ground soldiers led the way in entering the Mosque. American soldiers eventually entered and, in a city whose level of danger rarely allowed visitation from journalists, one of our soldiers gained his 15 minutes of fame when such a reporter documented his efforts crawling through the building’s ductwork, eventually locating a substantial cache of enemy weapons and materials.
However, in an endeavor to be totally forthcoming, my obligation causes me to tell the entire story. Eventual events of the day’s raid were much less positive in retrospect. To understand what happened next, one must be aware of the composition of the force that occupied the mosque after its initial raid.
On the grounds of the facility, were at least two companies worth of armored humvees. This is to say that there were upwards of forty vehicles all positioned surrounding the mosque, their 50-caliber machine guns and automatic grenade launchers prepared for action. My company was positioned on the roof of the mosque. Inside the facility were the Iraqi forces.
My company was receiving sporadic “harassing” fire from areas throughout the city. Harassing fire is the military’s way of describing what amounts to “pop shots.” However, this could be expected as we were occupying the most prominent figure in the Ramadi skyline, save for the hospital to our distant north. Our complacency was causing many of us to be less than cautious in our attempts to find cover. Many of our torsos, to upper enlisted members’ chagrins, were completely exposed to the entire city. We were a brave, sometimes strategically lazy, bunch.
Of the negative things that occurred that day, this was the first: While occupying the mosque, it was made absolutely clear throughout the city that it was expected for individuals to remain in their residencies. Occupying a sacred mosque and receiving continuous fire found all soldiers a bit edgy, despite our battle-tested demeanors. To the west of the mosque, around the area of the above-described traffic circle, much fire was being generated in our direction. We kept a watchful eye and, to our surprise, after time a large group of men, clad in black and wearing winter ski-masks made their presence known. For reasons still unknown, they decided to attempt to run across the street from the building we were receiving rounds to the opposing side of the thoroughfare. While they weren’t firing at the time we located them, the dynamics of war led all to believe that these were indeed enemy forces. There were plenty of reasons to arrive at such a conclusion: the black uniforms, the ski masks, the continuous gun shots that had preceded their daring dash. In retaliation, about a platoon of us from the mosque’s roof fired on these individuals. I fired on these individuals. To this day, I have little regret for participating in such actions. The fog of war was thick and there was little time or opportunity to stop these men and ask them whether they were friend or foe; circumstances had already dictated their guilt.
Time passed after this activity and soon we faced the second of the mission’s ultimately negative points. No vehicular traffic made its way in the vicinity of the mosque nearly the entire time that we were there. The Ramadi citizens had been warned against such excursions and they seemed to be complying. In a war laden with vehicular explosives, it wasn’t wrong for my unit to expect the worst from any car or truck that approached Saddam Mosque’s grounds. In time, however, one did. Again, from the west, a red hatchback raced toward our location. Our best efforts were made to get this vehicle to stop, but one may be able to imagine the difficulties in such a task given the environmental situation. Despite warning shots, this car continued to speed toward the mosque grounds and was on a collision course with any of the several military vehicles positioned around the mosque. A nearly automatic reaction occurred; the humvees on the ground began to fire. They all began to fire. Machine guns growled loudly and, sporadically, the unmistakable sound of the “Mark” 19 grenade launchers made their liveliness known. Nearly every member of my company on the roof took part in stopping the vehicle via the focused fire of our M-4 carbines. Again, I was as much a part of this action as any member of my unit.
Our company commander called for a cease fire from the roof. Ground commanders ordered their humvees to halt firing. The red hatchback sat idle on the road directly across from my own location on the roof. Oil poured from under the car and, sinisterly, crept in its liquidly fashion toward the opposite side of the road. It was sinister in the fact that the oil looked very much like blood. The car was no longer a threat. However, being that it was surmised to have been laden with explosives, my unit was in no hurry to get near it. In fact, it was deemed that there was little reason to approach the vehicle. Its occupants were presumed dead. While it was military custom to assist the wounded on the battlefield, whether friend or foe, this particular situation presented no such opportunity. Instead, it was decided that we had to ignite the explosives inside this vehicle without endangering soldiers by approaching it. The tool for such a mission was the AT-4; a sort of shoulder mounted bazooka type of weapon. From the roof of the mosque, a soldier friend of mine fired the AT-4 at the car with pin-point precision. The secondary explosions that occurred after the initial impact of the AT-4 round proved our initial assessment correct; the car was indeed heavy with explosives. In stopping the car with an exotic show of force, we ultimately saved the lives of many of our brethren on the ground.
The ultimate goal of this story was to show the many intricacies that present themselves when Americans are faced with such a dilemma. This event occurred in 2005 and, presumably, occurrences of American force such as this one are becoming rarer. Ramadi, at the time, was on some days composed of war-zone activity and on others, peaceful community building. Coalition actions, these days, seem to be more constituted around the latter.
The preparations made for the raid on Saddam Mosque were perfect counter-insurgency tactics. We had to gain the will of the people. If all is told, had the citizens been totally against such a raid, one would not have been performed. We truly attempted to adhere to the desires of the people. However, the mission wasn’t without its hitches. Should we have forgone the destruction of the enemy that initially ran across the street in an effort to lessen the negative connotations that are associated with such American actions while on the grounds of a holy site? Possibly. Was the use of fire power on the vehicle-borne explosive overly aggressive? This could also be possibly true. However, judgment calls are made in the matter of seconds and retrospective thoughts last a lifetime. The livelihood and safety of soldiers demands that we rely on the judgment calls and deny our own susceptibility to submit to the possibility of negative hindsight.
The conflict that is continuing in Iraq is one neither constituted by black nor white. Everything occurs in shades of gray and the hostility and events generated by Saddam Mosque stand as testament to that fact. Our soldiers are facing opportunities of split second decisions that result in life or death and reverberate throughout an entire’s nation’s infrastructure. I implore you to remember these details when you consider the contributions that are being made daily in Iraq.
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