Desert Battles are unfolding in hidden and faraway places. Bullets snapp through air, then splap through flesh and men fall. Bodies crumple onto the desert, a fly lands on the lip of an open mouth, fingers twitch as the flesh dies and the winds kick up and dust settles on unblinking eyes. The dry earth drinks their sticky blood and they are forgotten. Their families do not know they are dead. They came to kill Americans and innocent Iraqis. Instead, they were killed themselves. In a desert landscape, sometimes the color of a war can bleed out into black and white.
On March 2, an American Special Forces team along with Iraqi SWAT (ISWAT) moved on a terrorist cell near Tal Afar. There was specific intelligence that this cell had conducted assassinations and other attacks against Iraqis and Americans. As ISWAT and Special Forces closed in on the target, the enemy answered with bullets. Bullets ripped through an ISWAT truck, killing three police. Bullets struck a Special Forces vehicle and a tight firefight followed. The enemy was well prepared. Muzzles flashed from different locations. The fighting continued until nine enemy were killed and eight suspects captured. Three civilians were wounded along with three police wounded and three killed, for a total of a dozen people killed.
Ammunition, grenades and other weapons were captured, but after that Special Forces/ISWAT mission, attacks in the vicinity decreased. Tal Afar, formerly “Al Qaeda City,” is mostly quiet these days. Normally we have far less than a hundred soldiers in the city, but we do need money for civil affairs projects. This money truly is critical. Otherwise, the situation improves, though without investment this could be reversed.
The few remaining serious troublemakers are being hacked off and mulched in these incessant operations, which gives the enemy no rest (in the old days, when they were murdering Iraqis and Americans by the thousands, AQI used Tal Afar for training and R&R). These types of terrorists used to lay up with prostitutes in downtown Tal Afar, which isn’t so uncommon – for years brothels have been an excellent source of information against al Qaeda from Mosul to Baghdad. The al Qaeda terrorists don’t save themselves for the seventy two virgins promised to suicide bombers. They love drugs, prostitutes, and the power of the gun. The gay al Qaeda informant in Moment of Truth in Iraq is classic. Whenever his al Qaeda lovers abused him, he supplied American forces information to kill them.
The writing on his chest says “Mujahadeen Tal Afar.” American soldiers told me this image was captured in a raid. The ring and watch on his right hand and wrist indicate he is a “holy warrior,” although his beard might have been shaved as cover. Officers told me this guy was killed, but they had no ready confirmation. In any case, it would be interesting to see the faces of al Qaeda financiers in places like Saudi Arabia, if they saw how their money is being spent. And that’s the truth about al Qaeda.
Today I am in Iraq. Tomorrow Europe, and within the week, back to Texas. About a month later, I should be back in what is left of the war. There is relatively little fighting going on these days.
Please buy a copy of Moment of Truth in Iraq. The book will ship immediately if you buy here, and proceeds will help me get back to Iraq and Afghanistan. The book will arrive in stores on 23 April.
[Note from Webmaster]: I spoke to Michael by phone shortly after publishing this article. He was standing in an airport in Irbil, Iraq waiting to board a flight. I mentioned to him about one of the comments pointing out the photo being altered. He wanted me to convey that he was aware that the text appearing across the man's chest was not a tattoo. He also advised that the photo was as he received it, and that several Iraq men he had shown it to had also commented about the writing.
The sun was setting over Nineveh as four terrorists driving tons of explosives closed on their targets. On August 14, 2007, the Yezidi villages of Qahtaniya and Jazeera were under attack, but only the terrorists knew it as they drove their trucks straight into the hearts of the communities.
The shockwave from detonation far outpaced the speed of sound. Buildings and humans were ripped apart and hurled asunder. Superheated poisonous gases from the explosions gathered the smoke and dust and lofted heavenward, while the second detonation quickly followed. The terrorists had landed their first blows straight through the heart of the Yezidi community, turning a wedding party into hundreds of funerals.
But the attacks were not over. Yezidi men grabbed their rifles, and while two more truck bombs rumbled toward Qahtaniya and Jazeera, a hail of Yezidi bullets met them. The defenders who fired the bullets were killed with honor while standing between evil and their people. Two other truck bombs detonated on the outskirts of the villages.
Men crept in darkness to plant a bomb. They moved in an area where last year I was helping to collect fallen American soldiers from the battlefield.
Terrorists. The ones who murder children in front of their parents. The ones who take drugs and rape women and boys. The ones who blow up schools. The ones who have been forcibly evicted from places like Anbar Province, Baghdad and Baqubah by American and Iraqi forces. Terrorists are here now in Mosul. They call themselves al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). AQI cannot win without Baghdad, and cannot survive without Mosul. The Battle for Mosul is evolving into AQI’s last great stand.
And there were the men planting the bomb. It is unknown if the men with the explosives were al Qaeda, but they were planting a bomb and that was enough. Many terrorists murder only for money. Like hit men. They might have nothing against the victim. It’s just business. Although understanding enemy motivations is key to winning a war, out on the battlefield, such considerations can become secondary, as divining the motives of a would-be killer is less important than stopping him.
The bombers were being watched. Invisible to them, prowling far overhead, was a Predator.
The Predator is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) whose eye sees through the darkness. The night sky is the jungle where it hides. The Predator strikes with more suddenness and force than any tiger. I often watch the live feed streaming down into the Tactical Operations Centers (TOC) around Iraq, while crosshairs track the enemy, and the screen lists data such as altitude, azimuth, ground speed, and the precise grid coordinates of the target. The Predator carries a deadly Hellfire missile, but also has other weapons, like the crosshairs on its eye, which links down to soldiers watching the video and data feed. The soldiers have radios to other soldiers with massive arrays of weapons. With that combination, every weapon in the US arsenal can be brought into action. Unarmed spy planes, like the Shadow, often allow enemies to escape—the difference between success and failure is often measured in seconds. The Predator can launch an attack with its Hellfire, but the most devastating attacks are usually the result of closely-coordinated teamwork between soldiers on the ground and in the air, using information provided by the Predator above. Combat at this level is an elegant dance under a burning roof.
“And gentlemen in England now-a-bed Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here, And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”
William Shakespeare, Henry V
During my recent embeds with British forces, I suggested numerous times that Prince Harry could quietly serve in Afghanistan without the attracting media coverage that would make targets out of him and his fellow soldiers. Apparently the Brits had the same idea. Along with his unit the Household Cavalry, Harry was sent to a forward operation base in the Helmand province. Credit to the Royal Family for allowing Prince Harry to serve in a dangerous environment.
On 23 February at FOB Marez in Mosul, I saw a dove on the ground. The bird was still alive but obviously sick. It looked up at me blinking, yet made no move to escape. The feathers were not groomed and it appeared to have a small growth near or at the leading edge of its right wing.
On Monday, while conducting operations in west Mosul, a voice came over the radio saying troops from our brother unit, the 3-21, were fighting with the enemy in east Mosul on the opposite side of the Tigris River. Moments later, SSG Will Shockley relayed word to us that an American soldier was dead. We began searching for the shooters near one of the bridges on our side of the Tigris, but they got away. Jose L. Ruiz was killed in action.
Although the situation in Mosul is better, our troops still fight here every day. This may not be the war some folks had in mind a few years ago. But once the shooting starts, a plan is just a guess in a party dress.
Mosul, Iraq The first person to use a shield might have been a hairy man who, days earlier, barely survived a barrage from the stone-throwing man in the cave next door. As the use of weaponized sticks and stones spread, improved shields probably were not far behind. Throughout recorded history, bigger and better shields always play catch-up to their bigger and better ballistic brethren. Common wisdom posits that defense systems are preventative measures, but in fact, they are reactive. Every castle wall can be defeated. Somewhere along the line people realized, “the best defense is a good offense.” Adherence to this maxim provided at least one of the philosophical rubicons to our landing in Iraq.
Major Mark Bieger found this little girl after the car bomb that attacked our guys while kids were crowding around. The soldiers here have been angry and sad for two days. They are angry because the terrorists could just as easily have waited a block or two and attacked the patrol away from the kids. Instead, the suicide bomber drove his car and hit the Stryker when about twenty children were jumping up and down and waving at the soldiers. Major Bieger, I had seen him help rescue some of our guys a week earlier during another big attack, took some of our soldiers and rushed this little girl to our hospital. He wanted her to have American surgeons and not to go to the Iraqi hospital. She didn’t make it. I snapped this picture when Major Bieger ran to take her away. He kept stopping to talk with her and hug her.
It was noisier than usual last night on Marez; our soldiers were firing 120mm mortars. When large cannons or mortars are fired around you daily, like they were in Baquba, it’s easy to start sleeping through the racket. But since outgoing fire is not common on this FOB, the booms kept some people awake. Then, shortly after sunrise, two rockets flew into base and exploded nearby, causing more sudden noise and injuring a few civilians.
Surrounded by IEDs
Deuce Four headed downtown this morning with several items on their to-do list. One task was to recon a gasoline station that was attacked and destroyed a couple of weeks ago. While we walked around the rubble of the abandoned station, the commander noticed two artillery rounds on the ground. A minute or so later, someone spotted a radio command switch for a very large booby trap.
Order your Special Signed Edition of Michael Yon’s New Book Moment of Truth in Iraq And help rush vital support to Michael’s mission
Here’s what Michael says about his new book:
“Moment of Truth in Iraq, due out in April 2008, will be packed with battlefield coverage, including some I have never published before.
“But it will also include more from behind the scenes, as I travel up and down the back country to systematically report on the astounding campaign of 2007 to snatch Iraq back from the abyss. . . . I’ll introduce you to key American and Iraqi commanders who are making it happen in a place most were writing off as a crash site.”
In Moment of Truth in Iraq, Michael sends a strong message: In 2007 we averted disaster and made great progress. But we still face grave dangers—and critical moments just ahead. That’s why he is returning to Iraq and will continue reporting exclusive material until the day the book hits the presses.
Major operations against al Qaeda have begun in northern Iraq. Al Qaeda is in serious trouble. These are not ad hoc operations, but are deliberate, systematic, well-planned and working. I’ve been watching this unfold for months but have not reported due to sensitivity, but the real shooting has started and Maliki has announced it. There is every indication that this series of operations could be the death blow for al Qaeda in Iraq. AQI can continue to murder people here and elsewhere for years to come, but their grip on Iraq is weakening faster than I can track. The Iraqis and Americans have seized the initiative. Al Qaeda is on the run. Due to these operations, I anticipate an increase in US casualties, but the operations are working.
New York Times reporter Richard Pérez-Peña interviewed Michael and numerous sources in both America and Iraq to complete a profile on Michael that is featured on the cover of the Business Section of the 21-Jan-08 edition of the New York Times.
In “Frontline Blogger Covers War in Iraq With a Soldier’s Eyes” Pérez-Peña writes:
“… he has spent most of the last three years in Iraq, writing prolifically and graphically, and racking up more time embedded with combat units than any other journalist, according to the United States military. He has been shot at, buffeted by explosions and seen more people maimed — fighters and civilians, adults and children — than he can count.
In a counterinsurgency, the media battlespace is critical. When it comes to mustering public opinion, rallying support, and forcing opponents to shift tactics and timetables to better suit the home team, our terrorist enemies are destroying us. Al Qaeda’s media arm is called al Sahab: the cloud. It feels more like a hurricane. While our enemies have “journalists” crawling all over battlefields to chronicle their successes and our failures, we have an “embed” media system that is so ineptly managed that earlier this fall there were only 9 reporters embedded with 150,000 American troops in Iraq.
[Note: Readers who have been tracking this morning’s news reports about a “serious confrontation” between the US and Iranian Army in the Gulf, might recall that I was the first to report on the Iraqi oil terminals in the North Arabian Gulf during my first embed in 2005. The security of these facilities is the shared responsibility of the Navy’s of several Coalition member nations. The dispatch, called “Critical Nodes,” is published in its entirety below:]
JULY 29 WAS a night of celebration for many people. It was, for instance, peak tourist season and the twenty-third birthday of a man who was about to enter and forever change my life. He had dropped out of high school after a run-in with a teacher, and then drifted around the country for five years until our paths crossed on the Atlantic coast.
Most of al Qaeda in Iraq consists of Iraqis, not foreigners. Even the animals had been “murdered.” I saw these things with my own eyes, recorded them with my video and still cameras, and provided the map coordinates and names of American and Iraqi officials. Media ignored this massacre until pressure mounted from home to report it.
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