Sunday, May 06, 2007

ON Point in Iraq: With 10th Mountain Division in South Baghdad

By: Andrew Lubin

“Last night we captured a .50 cal, a couple of thousands of rounds of ammunition, and a sniper rife,” Captain Ryan Liebhaber said to me. “Tonight we’re going to get the people involved. Are you in?”
Bravo Troop, 1/ 89, 10th Mountain Division is based south of Baghdad, and was one of the two Army units originally extended back in January. But under the command of Col. Michael Kershaw, morale has not suffered excessively. Kershaw consistently explains the missions and ideals to his troops, and has developed an aggressive plan of action to keep his area of operations, or AO, as quiet as possible.

The mission was simple, yet not so. This was a night-time “cordon & search” event, leaving after midnight, in pursuit of 20-25 “targets of opportunity.” The human intelligence that Col. Kershaw and his men painstakingly developed in the past months has been paying dividends. Several phoned-in tips from local residents led to tonight’s operation.

Bravo Troop is a cavalry unit that provides both a reconnaissance and fighting function. “We’re an R-S-T-A unit,” Leibhaber explained, “which means reconnaissance – surveillance – target – acquisition. We can search and we can fight.”

And Bravo Troop wasn’t alone. This was yet another joint American – Iraqi Army mission. Two trucks of Iraqi soldiers joined our small column of humvees that night.

Without moonlight at night, Iraq is an incredibly dark country. Outside of Baghdad, there is almost no artificial light, so the American convoys navigate via GPS and NVGs. As the convoy rolled through the darkness to the attack point, we broke open our infrared nightsticks and attached them to the front and back of our flak jackets. If a firefight broke out or one of the troops got separated, the infrared sticks would be easily visible to other soldiers using NVG’s.

Gun Truck # 1, whose crew is pictured above, drove out under the command of SSGT John Ferree, with PFC Caleb Couch driving, and PFC Drew Peden standing in the gun turret. PFC Wolph Rudolf and I shared the two back seats in the humvee.

Our objective was a small village about 6 kms south and west from 10th MTN. The convoy abruptly drove off the paved road onto a rough dirt track, and then bounced completely off-road up to several low, dark houses. Two humvees parked themselves in front of the house as the remaining vehicles took up positions. We had surrounded the four houses that contained our suspects.

As the radios crackled, suddenly the doors to the humvees all opened. The assault teams formed up to take down each house. With Peden and the other turret gunners staying behind to provide security, the Bravo Troop soldiers burst into each of the four houses. Lights flickered and came on as the American and Iraqi soldiers rousted the men, women, and children. They quickly separated the military-age men from the non-combatants.

Only one house offered loud verbal opposition. Some of the women shrieked in surprise as their front door burst open and the armed soldiers rushed in and flexi-cuffed their quarry. Their screams carried loudly through the village on the night breeze, and no one else was apprehended. Perhaps the women had been calling out a warning? We weren’t sure.

While the modus operandi was similar in each house, the results were all different. One house was deserted. Another had food still warm on the stove; clearly the occupants had been warned that we were coming and they scattered prior to our arrival. A total of nine military-age males who were worth questioning were rounded up, and, after sending some soldiers up to the rooftops in order to secure the roofs and provide over-watch, the questioning began.

Although Bravo Troop was looking for any bad guys at all, they were primarily looking for Dahan xxx xxx, who been fingered by an informant as the provider of the machine gun and other heavy weapons. Under the command of 1Lt John Breslin, an officer with the 1/89th's Alpha Troop, the males were flexi-cuffed for security, and placed in different rooms so they couldn’t talk to each other. Simultaneously, Lt Breslin ordered his men to thoroughly check each house for weapons, bomb-making materials, any incriminating paperwork or pictures, as well as anything else of interest. Pictures of non-family males are always of interest, as are larger-than-normal caches of food.
With the interpreter at his side, the LT questioned each suspect. He seemed to concentrate on how they answered each question as much as the answer itself. Where is Dahan? What time tonight did he flee? We know he is based here, when did you see him last? Does he have two or three followers?

We received a variety of answers. Two men admitted to seeing Dahan yesterday. Five said they’d seen him within 2 - 4 months. Another claimed no knowledge of him whatsoever.

As the interrogations continued, a large quantity of fertilizer was discovered. Diammonium phosphate 18-46-0. Since we were clearly in a farming community, the possession of fertilizer made sense. However, DAP mixed with diesel fuel makes for a potent bomb. Is the DAP legitimate, or did we stumble into a bomb-making HQ?

After we found the fertilizer, one of the Iraqi ladies came out into the night to berate us. With her chador billowing around her in the night breeze, she gesticulated wildly with her hands, expressing her displeasure loudly and concisely as she commented about who would wake her children and arrest her men.

Lt Breslin listened to her courteously, gave her a polite non-answer, and had her escorted to another room. With the interrogations going in circles, the LT brought in his trump card; an Iraqi Army soldier who would take over the questioning. The dismay of the detainees was evident, and upon continuing the negotiations, one of the men quickly mentioned that Dahan’s brother was living in the next house, some 50 yards away. We walked over and detained him.

By 0500 the questioning was over, and the group readied itself to return to base. While no weapons or arms were seized, the detainees were all marched to the awaiting trucks for further questioning in the next days. Several of the detainees appeared “almost co-operative.” Often, I’m told, they will talk more if placed under the auspices of being detained.

I left the next day, and never found out what happened with the weapons or detainees. But that night was “all in a day’s work” for American and Iraqi soldiers stationed in South Baghdad.

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