Soldiers, Spies, and Sheep
They fled. It was all over the news. When the bullets flew, they fled. Leaving stations, abandoning posts, forgetting duties, hundreds of police fled. When the police response to gunfire was to simply run away, the city fell into lawlessness. Pundits rushed to the airwaves, proclaiming the city’s future hopeless. When the news of Hurricane Katrina first reached Mosul, the parallels were uncanny.
When Katrina battered the bayous of New Orleans, she submerged most of the Big Easy, leaving her defenseless. The levees broke and the looters and lowlifes who the Governor had euphemistically called “hoodlums” began ransacking the city. Their gunfire, combined with the prospect of patrolling streets awash in waist-high fetid water, repelled hundreds of police officers from their posts. Many police were unable or unwilling to slog into stations that were under water and out of electricity. Others simply deserted. While many police stood their ground, undoubtedly performing countless acts of heroism that will never be known, the cops who fled got the most attention. Watching the storm and its aftermath from Mosul, especially seeing the wash of relief on the faces of people as the US Army rolled in to restore order, I recalled a time when Mosul, like New Orleans, needed “a few good men.”
Disaster Relief 101
The military uses catchphrases like “kinetic fight.” Kinetic fights have nothing to do with “winning hearts and minds,” building clinics or showing people new ways of living. Kinetic fighting includes jets dropping bombs, helicopters launching missiles, tanks and artillery firing rounds, and lots of bullets: open warfare.
The initial invasion of Iraq was purely kinetic. A very powerful and heavily-armed Iraqi military fought back and was crushed. The standing government was toppled along with its statues. When American leaders said that major combat had ended, many Iraqis seemed ecstatic, but the much-predicted rose parade did not happen.
The combat that ended a corrupt and tyrannical government also removed law and order. With no Iraqi government, cities devolved into lawlessness. Museums were looted and government offices trashed and burned, while nascent animosities cowed by a tyrant, were revived, strengthened from the generations of dormancy. Iraq was a mess and getting messier fast. Infrastructure that worked under Saddam—corrupt and evil as he was—did not work under the Coalition. As we learned with Katrina, people cannot really see the big picture when the lights are out.
Like those days following Katrina, when it seemed the people in charge were doing little more than handwringing, fingerpointing or back-slapping, no one in Iraq seemed to have a good plan for what to do next. The constant back and forth of shifting priorities tilled the ground for an insurgency that in some areas grew to civil war proportions. When this new and deadlier guerrilla war emerged, the Coalition switched from a purely kinetic fight to what military leaders call a “full-spectrum fight.”
“Going full-spectrum” means that schools, medical clinics, community centers and other systems are built in addition to using combat power. Government workers, including security forces, are trained and given the resources and support they need to get up and running. The full-spectrum plan divided Iraq into three areas of responsibility: the United Kingdom administered efforts in the south, Poland administered a central area; while the United States oversaw the most dangerous central and north areas.
Mosul was in the US sector, and when the full-spectrum phase of the war began, Mosul was peaceful. Falluja was also in the US sector, but was extremely dangerous and growing ever more so by the day. Full-spectrum tactics can only take hold on ground that has a potential for stability.
I woke up on a cool morning in Massachusetts in late March 2004, and turned on the television just in time to see two charred corpses hanging from a bridge in Falluja. One of those corpses belonged to a friend. The very next day, I got the news of another friend who was killed on duty in Iraq. I’d last seen this seasoned, some would say grizzled warrior, just as he was preparing to leave for the war. He had been to Iraq many times. I flew to Florida for one funeral, then straight to Colorado for the other.
The bad news from Iraq was playing in the background at both funerals. It showed a resourceful and resolved enemy. While the enemy was watching and playing to the media, apparently they were not reading or buying our propaganda. Not intimidated by our jets and steel, they quickly realized the Coalition avoids killing civilians, and this translated as weakness to them. A weakness they planned to exploit.
Falluja had long been an incubator of terrorism for Iraq. The city’s significance in the region preceded its resistance to any outside occupation—even Saddam had not been able to conquer Falluja, despite that Falluja is merely a short drive from Baghdad. But after the invasion of Iraq, resistance in Falluja coalesced and grew increasingly aggressive, gained media attention and became inspirational. After the corpses were hung from the bridge, the Coalition isolated and prepared to storm Falluja. Foreign fighters practically sprinted to Iraq.
Falluja was flattened.
The storming of Falluja created a tide of violence that surged across the desert and slammed into cities and towns, leaving a trail of fear and death. Insurgents who survived evacuated to more stable ground, blending into many largely peaceful communities, like Mosul, where the lack of serious resistance had earned its citizens the sobriquet “white chickens. ”
Fortune favors the bold and with the onslaught of insurgent refugees, Mosul’s white chickens were in for an abrupt shift in theirs. The city became a headquarters for kidnappers and beheading squads whose video calling cards became a gruesome striptease on the nightly news. The growing influence of the increasingly brash insurgents and foreign fighters wasn’t lost on the locals, who paid a high price for resistance. More than two hundred Mosulite bodies—many headless—were tossed out in the streets.
When the storm hit Mosul, the destruction was catastrophic. Katrina’s winds and water may have destroyed the property of New Orleans, but not the idea of New Orleans. By contrast, while the real estate in Mosul remained relatively untouched, the very fabric of the society had been ripped open.
The insurgents and criminals brushed aside the entire Mosul police force with what amounted to a loud bark and a stiff backhand. When they attacked two stations, 4-West and 6-West, killing about half a dozen officers in each, the police on duty frantically radioed that hundreds insurgents were storming the stations.
When the Americans arrived within the hour, they estimated the attacking force consisted of only twenty to thirty enemy fighters at each station. It was not a long or particularly hard battle to recover the stations, but what made the news lead that day was the Mosul police abandoning their stations.
To an enemy in need of assets, a press that is increasingly disengaged is like an empty car with keys in the ignition–begging to be stolen. How the keys came to be left in the car, and how the inevitable theft managed to go unreported are questions for a different dispatch. To really understand the dynamics of the Battle for Mosul, it suffices to say the enemy started with a media advantage that they continue to exploit even now.
Insurgent leaders must have spent hours watching western television, particularly news broadcasts. They planned attacks that would create dramatic footage for the nightly news, and in many cases, they provided the camera crew and made the footage available for streaming and downloads on the internet. In light of their other recent media victories, the enemy felt ready to take on the Americans in Mosul.
Our soldiers faced a complex, rugged and courageous adversary, and one which could be exquisitely brutal, at a time when enemy morale was extremely high. Propaganda wouldn’t be enough. Being tougher, smarter and more adaptable was our only chance of winning the battle for Mosul without simultaneously flattening the city.
Early on, Americans were living in downtown areas, like those emplaced in former police stations. COP (Combat Outpost) Tampa came under attack when a massive “suicide” truck bomb struck, and over forty enemy fighters attacked the outpost, putting the wounded American platoon in a fight for its life. Deuce Four rushed in more troops but they were hit with two car bombs, multiple IEDs, and heavy small-arms fire as an enemy, determined to take the outpost, tried to prevent reinforcements from arriving.
This was full-contact, kinetic fighting that claimed one Deuce Four soldier’s life left twenty others wounded, but denied the enemy their prize. More than twenty-five enemy fighters were killed and Tampa remained in Coalition control.
Deuce Four soldiers earned three Silver Stars and numerous Bronze Stars for valor in what would become the most storied battle in Mosul, setting the pace for the months ahead. The days and nights became a blur of steady combat, sometimes leaving the guns white hot: so hot, the bullets were visible flying though the barrels. Americans began naming roads after battles and events, like Seven-Body Road, where they found seven Iraqi corpses one morning, or Bieger Road, where Major Mark Bieger shot an insurgent who had pulled a pistol on his soldiers.
Month after month, the attacks continued, in combat that consumed tons of enemy ammunition and cost hundreds of enemy casualties. Stryker vehicles limped back to base, engines smoking, dragging tattered metal armor; mechanics worked twenty-four-hour days to keep Deuce Four in the fight. But the casualties extended beyond combatants and their damaged equipment. The local population, which had been friendly before, would no longer talk with the Americans, apparently fearful the enemy might either win or just outlast the Coalition. Both prospects terrified citizens into silence, and the Coalition’s best source of information fell mute. As it was for those storm-shocked people in New Orleans waiting on rooftops to be rescued, patience seemed a lot to ask from anyone in Mosul while bombs were exploding day and night.
This may have looked like typical kinetic battle strategy at work, but even as guns were firing, the Coalition was building a tougher breed of Iraqi police, to work along with a new Iraqi Army. By the time I arrived in Mosul, the Americans had, in just some months, recruited, trained, and started fighting along with the new Iraqi Police and Army, who were proving smarter and tougher than the enemy.
Captain Matt McGrew from the 1-24th Infantry Regiment was one of the Americans assigned to train and lead Iraqi forces. During the months I spent embedded with the Deuce Four, I often heard radio calls about Captain McGrew and his Iraqi counterparts fighting around Mosul.
“Come on out with us,” he’d always say, and I made repeated plans to do just that, but every time I started to, something would happen that pulled me in a different direction. We settled for many long conversations about the process he used, the progress he saw and the Iraqi police officers he grew to respect.
Captain McGrew once admitted to me—in almost confessional tones—that he had grown attached to the Iraqi unit, so much so that he would go to bat for them at times when their needs conflicted with American interests. McGrew had thrown his entire person into the fight, and this level of commitment was paying off. I was seeing signs of progress all around without always recognizing their portend, but hindsight adjusts for the haze.
Captured on Film
One day in May, 2005, Deuce Four soldiers were going downtown, heading straight for the place they’d been seriously attacked the day before. Disregarding any debris from that attack, the local population began approaching the soldiers, a few even inviting us to lunch. There was some sporadic weapons fire in the background while we talked with the small crowd. American snipers were in various perches above and around us.
At some point, I thought the fighting was getting closer to us, and I said so to the soldiers, but they were so busy talking with Iraqi people that LTC Kurilla said something like, “Don’t get paranoid. It’s just some small-arms fire. You worry like an old woman.”
“I just don’t like getting shot, that’s all,” I said, noticing people a few blocks away dashing for cover. That’s always a bad sign. “It’s getting closer,” I said and pointed to empty spaces where only moments earlier some people had been.
When bullets come really close, they go “snap!” Snap snap snap!, we were in a real shootout. I almost wanted to say, “Told you so!” but that’s not good to say to American combat soldiers, especially when bullets are snapping. While the soldiers had declined sitting down to lunch, they readily accepted the invitation for a gunfight.
The Iraqis scattered into their homes and shops. I ran for cover. Every time I found a good place to hide, soldiers started maneuvering toward the enemy. I expected to get blown up any second. But I always expect that in Iraq, especially so when people are shooting. One of our snipers fired a single bullet high over our heads. I hope he got him. We continued doing short wind sprints to the next cover, trying to locate and isolate the enemy. There was plenty of time, if we just ran like hell.
We came into a large group of Iraqi police that had joined the fight. One of them was shot in the leg and his friends put him in a protected area. Needless to say, I also found that protected area. As an American medic started working on the wound, the policeman grimaced and held his leg. Iraqi men and children can be extreme camera hounds, so what happened next might not have surprised me, but even in retrospect it remains one of the strangest moments I experienced in Iraq.
I had not been shooting photos, but when the grimacing policeman noticed the camera hanging off my vest he smiled. A smiling-for-the-camera smile. Shot in the leg, and taking a moment to pose. I was not fast enough with the shutter and I only got him as he lay back. But he did get me to start taking photos again.
When SFC Bowman met us with his soldiers, he was calmly talking into the radio like he was planning a fishing trip. Deuce Four soldiers didn’t need to be told much. The key was delivering them to the fight. After they get into the fight, they operate on autopilot. But that day, something was very different. I was actually witnessing Iraqi commanders aggressively deploying their own men, isolating the enemy.
They were in the middle of the street for chrissakes! I doubt there was a more dangerous place. Meanwhile, two other policemen on the left side of the road were pushing forward, trying to flush up some trouble. I snapped a picture just as one policeman looked like he was about to accidentally shoot his buddy. My experience with Iraqi police and guns hadn’t instilled a lot confidence in their aiming ability. I had been personally–albeit accidentally– shot at by Iraqi police numerous times, although fortunately never hit.
I yelled to an American soldier—might have been Bowman—“Look at those guys in the middle of the street! They’re gonna get shot dead!” But he just smiled, saying “At least they’re fighting!” Indeed they were. The policemen were not using the machine guns as tools to retreat, but were pushing out into blocking positions while their buddies cleared forward, and other Iraqi elements were isolating the shooters. It couldn’t be any clearer: a new sheriff was in town.
You Know You’re Good When…
I wasn’t the only man in Mosul to notice the skill spike among Iraqi police. As the big kinetic fights were drawing down, cooperation between Iraqis and Americans expanded. In just under six months, the main resistance was squashed and the Iraqi Police and Army in Mosul had strengthened to the point where the enemy could no longer mass. This harbinger of eventual success wasn’t lost on the insurgents. With the ISF becoming a formidable force in Mosul, the ever-adaptive enemy shifted from large kinetic attacks against Americans, and came gunning instead for the new sheriff.
The enemy began slaughtering the ISF, and American officers estimate that about 600-700 ISF have been killed in Mosul since November 2004. These numbers are difficult to verify; when I asked ISF officers (police and army), they agreed that this might be an accurate estimate for Mosul, but nobody seems to know and the Iraqis don’t share the American penchant for detailed statistics.
Rowan Scarborough, a reporter for the Washington Times, wrote an article headlined: “Iraqi Troops Suffer Fatalities Nearly Twice U.S. Rate.” In it, he writes:
The emerging Iraqi Security Forces have suffered nearly twice the battlefield deaths of American troops, a casualty toll that has convinced U.S. commanders they are building units willing to fight for democracy. … Defense officials say that despite the rising death toll, Iraqis continue to line up to join the ISF, which includes the army, police, navy, air force and border patrol. As of last week, the ISF numbered 194,000, including 75,000 army soldiers and 84,000 police.
There is some controversy about our Iraqi allies’ level of vulnerability. They may have more than their share of courage, but they are still made of flesh. The ISF desperately needs radios and armor. Some Americans argue that it is not our responsibility to completely re-outfit the ISF—just as we don’t need to buy jets for an Iraqi Air Force—but there is no doubt that our allies could greatly benefit from armor and radios.
Some analysts claim the increase in ISF casualties is primarily due to the increasing role they play in military and security actions. This sounds reasonable, and begs the question as to whether they are adequately protected for close combat. Smaller IEDs (roadside bombs) that are little more than tire-poppers to our armored vehicles leave our friends lying in pieces on the roads.
Amazingly, these Iraqis continue to load up in those little trucks and go to work, knowing the odds are that they will, sooner or later, get shot or blown up. In a previous dispatch I stated that the only true martyrs I’ve seen in Iraq are these men, ordinary in most respects, who step forward and put everything on the line, for the idea of Iraq. But they also have a powerful example to follow now: one that gives them the courage to face these odds. In West Mosul every one of their leaders has been wounded in combat, some more than once, but they get right back into the fight—taking up positions in front.
Mosul: Our new allies are being slaughtered. If this little truck hits an IED, there will be six casualties and there will be arms and legs in the road. They need armor and radios. American officers say the ISF have lost perhaps 600 to 700 men just in Mosul since November, 2004.
The concept of leading from the front was foreign to these recruits, but American soldiers modeled the leadership required for the Iraqi Police to succeed. It didn’t take hold overnight, but a skeptical Iraqi police officer never had to look far to see the example of leaders who inspire courage and dedication in the men they command. With the encouragement of Deuce Four officers, Iraqi police commanders stepped up to the task, and the morale among their men skyrocketed. As one American officer put it: “They wore those bandages like badges of honor, inspiring respect and loyalty among Iraqi and Coalition troops.”
Despite losing members of their ranks to violent attacks practically every day, Iraqi police fought back, only getting stronger in the process. Following the lead of the American soldiers who re-captured the police stations, Iraqi cops were again living in their own stations.
Mosul faded from the news. No one seemed eager to rush in and cover progress. So, outside of the media lights, the Coalition began emplacing more police stations, including three just last month. More Iraqi men stepped forward, responding to the call to fight for the city (plus they needed jobs). As they completed training and were deployed, insurgent and terrorist activity kept them busy. Within months the Police could operate largely without Coalition military assistance.
American commanders forged friendships with their Iraqi counterparts. The resulting confidence and camaraderie acted as force multipliers. One Iraqi police commander in particular, Major Ali, continued to request that Captain Scott Cheney, Charlie Company commander, bring his soldiers on joint raids even though, over time, the police needed the Americans less and less. To my knowledge, Captain Cheney never turned down the requests.
Although the mortar and rocket attacks on base had sharply decreased, we were still getting hit occasionally. I was writing a dispatch one day when a rocket zoomed over my head, flying toward the dining facility. That one exploded harmlessly, which was not always the case. IEDs are the number one killer of Americans in Iraq; but mortars and rockets run a close second.
Our intelligence people keep detailed records of times and locations of attacks and, along with other information, perform “pattern analysis” to predict future attacks. With persistence, these predictions produce results. American officers saw that when they shared intelligence with their Iraqi Army or Police counterparts, it was used to good effect.
The police were also developing their own intelligence and acting on it, even becoming adept at “the cascading raid,” as I began to call it. The Americans do it often, but call it “the domino effect.” Watching these raids unfold, I saw the effect was more like a cascade. Raid cascades happened like this: a bad guy is caught, and tells where other terrorists are, who are then quickly caught, and they in turn rat out a few more. One terrorist might lead soldiers to three more, who might lead them to four more, who might lead them to another one. Sometimes the cascades lasted only a few hours and netted perhaps a half a dozen fighters before petering out. Other cascades lasted days and netted dozens.
An example of a typical cascade happened when the 5-West police captured two terrorists who were handing out Jihad literature. During interrogation, they ratted the location of their cell leader. The police raided the cell leader’s house, killed one terrorist and captured seven others. The cell leader quickly broke, giving up the identity of his boss. The police continued the momentum of the cascade, capturing the higher ranking cell leader, who in turn gave interrogators the location of a large cache of weapons, mortars, and ammunition. The weapons cache validated the capture and validity of all the previously captured terrorists in the cascade.
When the Iraqi forces scored serious victories—which was increasingly common—Americans demonstrated their respect. Mindful of local culture, this often entailed a trip downtown on a mission requiring a specialized skill set. Many times, I accompanied American soldiers to the livestock market to haggle for sheep.
Paying Respect: Investing in Iraqi Leaders
A mortar cell had been attacking us, and Deuce Four wanted to kill them. The attacks were coming from the area patrolled by police from the 4-West station. [Police station #4, on the West side of the Tigris River.] The 4-West station became infamous when its former occupants fled from insurgent attacks before the elections
Even today, under the command of the fearsome Colonel Eid, 4-West is attacked regularly, but now the police counter-attack. Terrorists were also trying to kill Colonel Eid outright, even holding one prospective hit man hostage in a basement, and threatening to execute his family if he did not wear a bomb into the station. This plot came to light when one of our brother units happened to rescue the hostage during a raid.
I expected to get blown up during every meeting with Colonel Eid. One day I accompanied Deuce Four soldiers to 4-West and Colonel Eid was wearing new bandages from an attack that had just killed his driver. Eid was back at duty, talking of how Americans shot him during the first Gulf War. Luckily, he had survived. I was sitting in the meeting when American soldiers spoke to Eid about the particular mortar crew they wanted 4-West to eliminate. Eid said he would try to get the mortar crew, and sure enough, his men killed them.
So, we headed to the sheep market.
Colonel Eid certainly didn’t need the sheep—he often fed us tasty meals of chicken or duck—but it was an important gesture of respect from commander to commander. In some ways, the delivery of the gift was more important than the gift itself.
The Iraqis have great pride. If an Iraqi colonel thought someone was patronizing him with trivial gifts, not only would he be insulted, he might also think the American was feeble-minded. But when the Iraqi commander respects the gift-giver, and the sincerity of the gift is not in question, the gesture by which it’s given takes on greater meaning. Kurilla and his officers never just delivered the sheep and said, “Thanks, here’s a sheep.” The delivery was always a spectacle.
One time, the soldiers arrived at COP Eagle to deliver a sheep to the commander, LTC Ali Gharza, only to find him sleeping. So Kurilla told the Iraqi guards to be quiet, and he snuck the stinking sheep into the commander’s room, shutting the door behind it. When the Iraqi commander jumped from bed in a state of confusion, Kurilla and his men burst in and everyone got a hearty laugh. Another time, Kurilla took a sheep and plopped it right on Colonel Eid’s desk.
Eid’s men had done something sheep-worthy—I’ve forgotten what it was, but it almost certainly involved killing terrorists—and we headed to the market. I always thought we were going to get blown up at the sheep market. After shopping for the best sheep, Kurilla started seriously haggling over the price while Iraqi buyers led sheep away, putting them inside car trunks and driving away. All along I was thinking “let’s get outta this death trap!” After threatening to buy a sheep from the next guy if he didn’t get an honest price, finally the deal was sealed, and we loaded the sheep on the Stryker and headed over to 4-West.
On the wall behind Colonel Eid’s desk hang two rifles that had once belonged to terrorists killed by his men. Entering Eid’s office that day, Kurilla said, “Colonel Eid! I brought you a sheep, but this one is tied up to the tree outside.”
Eid smiled. The professional respect from another commander was worth mountains of future progress in Mosul, and so what happened next took everyone by surprise.
Kurilla smiled and said, “That’s a nice sheep. But it’s only for eating.”
I nearly fell mute. Did he really just say that? The interpreter said to Kurilla, “Excuse me sir?”
“You know what I said. Tell him the sheep is only for eating. It’s not a girlfriend. Translate it.”
That’s it. Kurilla’s lost his mind. I was ready to run for the door.
The interpreter hesitated. Then translated. Colonel Eid burst into laughter.
“I’m serious,” said Kurilla, “only for eating.” Since the two commanders were laughing, everyone who’d stiffened when they first heard the words now laughed. The commanders got down to business plotting how to kill more bad guys. But from then on, every time we delivered a sheep, even the police guards would yell down to us from behind their machine guns, “Only for eating!” and all would burst out laughing.
Humor can strengthen bonds. There were other times, when Kurilla would come in and talk about people we had captured or killed, and tell Eid, “You’re falling behind!” Or he’d bring in pictures of detainees and say, “Please circle your relatives so we can release them.”
Not all the Iraqi commanders got such treatment. American leaders practiced a strict accounting—respect had to be earned. They liked the fighters, and openly despised anyone begging for handouts or abusing their positions. CPT Scott Cheney scolded one police commander for refusing to wear his uniform and not going on missions with his men.
Tides Change for Terrorists in Mosul
Tactics based on faulty assumptions often backfire. The insurgents apparently were expecting that their strategy of targeting the police would make those who survived less committed. But the new cops were cut from stronger cloth, and similar to how those American troops who see a lot of combat in Iraq seem to have the highest morale, the increased targeting of the Iraqi Police fostered greater unity among them and elevated their status. The increasing competence of the police department in Mosul was pinching the insurgents. The better the police became, the more confidence local people had in their ability to maintain control. This confidence resulted in more tips against insurgents, more subsequent raids and arrests, the discovery of munitions caches and bomb factories, and an ever-diminishing capacity for large-scale attacks. Every bit of ground the police gained came at the expense of enemy territory. In order to maintain their tenuous grip on the local population, they resorted to another form of terrorism, but this tactic also seriously backfired.
Suffer the Little Children
Parental love and respect for children is not a given thing. I’ve been to places where kids are viewed as income generators—either as workers or sold off as surplus. I’ve seen children who were intentionally and horribly mutilated so they would evoke pity as beggars. There are more of these places than most people ever want to know about, but Iraq is not one of them. Iraqis love their kids, and they are some of the best-behaved kids I have seen anywhere in the world, and in most places (there are exceptions), the Iraqi kids love American soldiers.
Early during the war, the Iraqi kids were good predictors of attacks. In neighborhoods where insurgents enjoyed protection from residents, the sudden lack of children on the streets greeting the soldiers was a bad indicator. Sadly, in Mosul, the magnetic pull of a convoy on kids was also noted by terrorists.
This made even the children a new target for insurgents, who aim at any scent of weakness. In Mosul, the love Iraqi parents have for their children was exploited as a weakness. The apex of this tactic came early one day in May when a homicidal car bomber trailed an American combat patrol for blocks, and as the children in one neighborhood ran out to wave, the “Jihadist” detonated his bomb.
Little Farah: Her mother would later say that every time Farah heard the sounds of the American Strykers, she would run out to wave. That day, Farah ran outside.
Major Mark Bieger finds medics treating Farah, and he decides to take her immediately to the hospital. Farah died enroute.
That was a day that I kept shooting pictures, and one of the pictures of Major Beiger cradling the dying little girl in his arms made news around the world– and it exposed the terrorists in Mosul for who they really are. This was no stray bomb landing in the middle of ongoing combat. Perhaps it was a deliberate effort to kill and maim as many children as possible in order to frighten their parents, or maybe it was just bad luck that the kids were there. Whatever the case, it backfired; Iraqis love their children. When the foreign terrorists targeted kids, the citizens of Mosul grew to hate insurgents. US Army officers told me that after that photo had run on Iraqi television and in newspapers, intelligence flooded in that resulted in killings and captures of more terrorists.
Tribes and Tribulations
In Mosul, almost 90% of the police are members of a single tribe—the Al-jiburi, which many Coalition officers believe leads to endemic corruption. And the friction between the Iraqi Police and the Iraqi Army in Mosul can be severe. There is even friction between police on the east and west banks of the Tigris River. But this is not a “Mosul thing.” I was with some American soldiers in Baquba when we got into a short firefight one night. When both the Iraqi Police and the Iraqi Army arrived to help out, the first thing the American leaders started talking about was how to keep them from bickering, but without sending one or the other home. The Americans did not want to alienate one commander by asking him to leave, but also did not want the police and army to open another front. Many of these delicate negotiations are being undertaken by soldiers, on battlefields, right now.
Sometimes even American units argue with each other about “battle space.” To understand where some of these arguments arise, it helps to draw upon a sports analogy. A basketball team might play “zone” or “man on man.” If they are playing a zone, a certain player is responsible for whoever comes into his zone. In man-on-man, a player is responsible for a specific other player, and where his man goes, he follows. Our military uses a combination of both. Deuce Four was responsible for a certain area in Mosul, and that was the Deuce Four battle space. The police equivalent would be a precinct. But the most serious enemies, the so-called “Tier One” terrorists like bin Laden and Zarqawi, get a sort of “man-on-man” type play, and the Americans who track those targets are free-ranging special forces types, whose battle space basically is everywhere not forbidden by law or by American political authorities.
A battle space tiff might arise during a raid cascade, when a new prisoner tells soldiers the whereabouts of another bad guy, but that other bad guy might be on the other side of the Tigris River. In Mosul, that battle space belonged to 3-21 Infantry. Deuce Four could not simply call 3-21 Infantry and ask them to go raid the house on 1565 Main Street, East Mosul, Iraq. There are no addresses. The place is confusing. The informant often has to physically point to the door and say, “That’s it,” and then maybe even see the other suspect’s face and say, “That’s him.”
There are several work-a-rounds, but all bring headaches and delays, and this information often has a shelf-life measured in hours or even just minutes.
One morning, I walked into the Deuce Four TOC (Tactical Operations Center: Headquarters) and saw the live feed coming down from one of our unmanned spy planes. The airplane was circling a certain set of buildings, like it often does, when a bunch of Strykers suddenly wheeled into the picture, dropped ramps and soldiers ran out into some buildings. Clearly, it was a raid.
“Who’s that?” I asked someone.
“3-21,” answered one of the soldiers.
“Why do we have a feed coming from 3-21 battle space?” I asked, suddenly curious.
“It’s our battle space,” answered the soldier.
“Why is 3-21 in our battle space?” We seemed to be playing twenty questions.
“They are raiding a suspected chemical weapons factory.”
“What! Why didn’t someone tell me!!?” I knocked on LTC Kurilla’s door and asked if he had a couple minutes, and he explained that this was secret and that I was not to write about it yet. But soon after, it was on CNN.
I joked that 3-21 was paying him back for the cascade when Deuce Four drove over the bridge and did a raid in 3-21’s area. But the commander chuckled and said since 3-21 had developed the information; it was their baby, even if it was in his battle space.
Given that a chemical weapons find just might be the single most important event of the war, at least from a media perspective, that was a generous attitude. The truth is the military remains on constant vigil for elusive chemical weapons factories, and one day, we found something that smelled as awful as it looked. Maybe we had stumbled across a warehouse that could retroactively justify the entire war.
Despite the eye-watering stench, there were Iraqi men walking around, seemingly fine, and none of the kids playing nearby were keeling over. The owner came running up. Clearly, he knew what we were thinking, and he reached into a vat and pulled out a pickle-like object, and offered it to Kurilla, who said, “Not me, buddy! You eat it.”
The Iraqis and Americans burst out laughing. The Iraqi man ate a piece and laughed very hard, and then offered it again to the commander, who apparently didn’t want to be impolite, but was nonetheless not going to take a bite of something that smelled rank from a block away, so he reached for compromise.
“Lieutenant Flynn! Get over here!” Brian Flynn walked over to the barrels. “Eat that!” Kurilla said, but at this point all the Iraqis and Americans were practically rolling when Flynn politely declined.
Iraqi Government: Retaking Mosul, One Sheep at a Time
We were delivering a sheep to an Iraqi Army commander named Colonel Noradeen. Noradeen’s unit has about 700 men—about the same size as Deuce Four —and those soldiers are mostly Kurdish. Noradeen’s reputation with the Americans is as enviable as Eid’s. Major Mark Beiger was there, and soon there was a sheep sniffing around untethered in Noradeen’s office. Noradeen and everyone chuckled at the “It’s only for eating” joke that had become Kurilla’s trademark with the ISF leadership.
Colonel Noradeen wanted to put his office in the middle of Yarmook Traffic Circle, which might ring familiar to folks who have read my previous dispatches: it might well be the most dangerous traffic circle in the universe. On my first mission in Mosul, we lost two American soldiers and an interpreter just nearby after a man rammed his explosives-filled car into a B Company Stryker.
Sandbags cover the window of Noradeen’s office. During one meeting, we took sniper fire, but it didn’t make much difference—we were inside. Another day when I was not there, some mortars landed just outside Noradeen’s office and heavily damaged some American Humvees. Those types of attacks are not show-stoppers, but giant truck bombs can flatten a building and kill the entire unit. Noradeen’s current office was safe from giant bombs, but he wanted to move his office to Yarmook traffic circle—where shootouts and car bombs are guaranteed. Designing the outpost to withstand multiple simultaneous car bombs or giant truck bombs would require some thinking. When one of the American officers had asked Colonel Noradeen, “Why do you want an office at Yarmook Traffic Circle?” he answered simply, “If I build it there, they will come to me.”
That hung in the air.
Kurilla said under his breath to one of his own officers, “That’s why I love this guy.”
The best American and Iraqi leaders have some common traits: they are smart, courageous, persistent, and chose their battles wisely. They don’t throw away their men, but they are not afraid to risk their men, and they take those risks with their men. When these leaders get hurt, they try to get back with their men quickly.
I remember when an American Captain named Robert Shaw was badly wounded near Yarmook Traffic Circle. His soldiers love him. I remember that when they took him away, I thought he might die. Some days later, when he was back in America in the hospital, I overhead Kurilla talking with him on the phone: “I want you back here. I want you back in the fight. When can you get back?” After some months recuperating, Captain Shaw did come back to the fight. His return to Mosul brought renewed courage to the Deuce Four and his own men.
I visited one freshly wounded Iraqi commander and his driver in an American hospital. Although seriously wounded, LTC Amaar planned to return to the fight. Amaar pulled himself out of his bed, his white bed sheet transparent with sweat. Barely able to stand, somehow the commander limped over to the next bed and put his hand on shoulder of his terribly wounded driver. I could smell his wounds. They had been riding in an unarmored vehicle and had been ambushed from three directions with small arms. If they had been driving in an armored Humvee, small arms would not have touched them. Instead, they were laid up in the same hospital room that Kurilla would soon be lying in.
Spies among us
American commanders routinely plotted joint missions to kill bad guys with Colonel Noradeen. At one point they even had an informant taking a cell phone call from a terrorist right there in Noradeen’s office. When the phone started to ring, the Iraqi commander told everyone to go silent—like a submarine—and the spy answered the phone. There, on the other end, was a terrorist plotting to kill us, enjoying what would later prove to be one of his last phone conversations. Deuce Four and Noradeen’s Iraqi soldiers captured him that night.
By now, the battle for Mosul war was largely down to intelligence. Both sides busied themselves, recruiting well-placed spies and developing networks of part-time informants. The man who can most effectively answer Who, What, When, Where has an extreme advantage. The enemy knows this, too. The enemy also knows that interpreters occupy one of our critical information nodes. At first the enemy tried to kill off the interpreters, but then switched to a new plan—recruiting interpreters as spies. I was to factor into one of these plans.
Interpreters are at the center of most critical aspects of this war. I had gone on many missions where “Jeff” was the interpreter. After one shootout, I saw him run up and step on the hand of a man who had been shot several times. Jeff’s boot was holding down the hand, but as soon as the soldiers got control of the shot man, whose guts were hanging out, a soldier told Jeff not to step on him. The soldiers often had to control Jeff, who had a habit of smacking suspects. But his English was impeccable. I had seen him under fire a number of times; he was unquestionably courageous. I had seen him helping kids after a car bomb, and helping with wounded Americans during another attack. After one car-bombing, where a foot and a hand were all that remained identifiable of the driver, Jeff ran up and kicked the hand, which seemed quite odd, but I just thought it might be an “Iraqi-thing.”
Impeccable English, battle-tested courage, and zealous commitment to the cause. Apparently the only serious problem with Jeff was that he was a spy.
The terrorists recruited Jeff and tried to persuade him to wear a bomb and blow us up. During one firefight, Jeff somehow got his hands on a loaded American rifle and I snapped a photo. Luckily, they hadn’t succeeded in convincing him to die while killing us, or it might have been the last photo I shot.
Colonel Noradeen did not trust the American interpreters, and I remember one occasion when he sent an American interpreter out of the room. The battle for Mosul had largely come down to information, and Colonels Noradeen and Eid both placed great value in developing networks. From the American side, LTC Kurilla had built his own intelligence team into more than three times the normal size, from seven to twenty-four personnel, all of whom were focused on breaking the terrorist networks and generating actionable intelligence. By mid-2005, the terrorists’ networks in Mosul were increasingly infiltrated and weakened. Iraqi authorities and Americans had killed or captured their top leadership.
In a previous dispatch I referenced a possible kidnapping plot revolving around me. I had only left US troops twice while in Iraq. “Journalists” are probably per capita at much greater risk in Iraq than even the soldiers. Journalists are regularly killed there. I had planned to leave the Army for a break and go to the Kurdish region alone, and it so happened that Jeff is Kurdish. I asked Jeff about traveling in the Kurdish region, and he eventually said that he was going on vacation and tried to convince me to come visit his family. But my danger chimes rang softly. Ever so softly.
Over the days and weeks, Jeff repeated the offer a number of times, and always I got the same vague feeling: danger.
So, I knocked on the commander’s door and told him what I was thinking, and told him about Jeff’s offer. I knew Kurilla would not let me walk into death, and if Kurilla knew anything, if his chimes were ringing even slightly, he would wave me off. Over the next week or two, the topic came up about a dozen times, and the conversation always ended with a “Mike, don’t do it.” Whether it was the man’s legendary sixth sense, or the result of his super-sized intelligence hub, I wasn’t going to argue or ignore his advice.
Jeff was spying. In the process, he had tripped someone’s wire. The commander was sitting at his desk, with men from the dark side standing next to CSM Prosser’s desk. Specialist Welch, who might be able to bench-press a cow, was standing just outside the door. Jeff was called into Kurilla’s office.
Jeff is a smart man, and has a sensitive nose. Nervousness fleeted across his eyes when he walked in and saw the strange men standing there. Jeff was confronted, then detained by Welch. The men from the dark side took him away. Among his other acts of espionage, Jeff was plotting my kidnapping. I have no proof of this, other than that I “know” he was.
Running out of Targets
Late in the fight, many terrorists realized that killing children was hurting their own chances of survival. Iraqis were not cowering, they were turning on the killers. And they were learning that it was easy to rid the town of the killers; just call the JCC (Joint Communications Center) or police and tell where the bad guys are. The American or Iraqi forces would launch out and kill or capture the bad guys and, if fortune smiled, they might even get a cascade started.
Many people have asked a smart question, “Why are the Iraqis allowed to have cell phones during war?” The answer is simple: the cell phones hurt the enemy much more than they help, especially so when people start using the cell phones to give tips.
The terrorists tried to stop hurting kids in Mosul, but only to replace one failed tactic with another equally self-defeating one. They began to eye certain factions of their loose assemblage of terrorists as more expendable than others. Suddenly the ugly hydra of tribal, regional and even national identity slithered in the mud.
Strangely, foreigners captured by Americans in Mosul always seemed intent on telling every secret they knew as fast as possible. This seems counter-intuitive. It seems reasonable that the foreigners would have the strongest resolve. But in fact they are alone, without support and very easy prey for local terrorist cell leaders. Terrorists feeding on terrorists. It’s no wonder that when they are captured, foreign fighters typically tell everything.
From these “tell-all” interrogations, we’ve learned how local insurgents recruit foreigners, including how they coerce some of the “jihadists” to carry out homicide attacks. Time and again, the soldiers in Mosul would capture foreigners, and the jihadists would tell everything. The Deuce Four captured a Libyan who then complained loudly to the Americans that the Iraqis wanted him to commit suicide while killing Iraqi police. He wanted to fight Americans mano-a-mano, and the alternate plan was not a worthy substitute to his thinking. Strangely, in sense, the Americans rescued an enemy from his enemies, who were also our enemies.
Just recently, this report from Tarek El-Tablawy of the Associated Press offered additional confirmation:
BAGHDAD — A suicide bomber captured before he could blow himself up in a Shiite mosque late last week claimed he was kidnapped, beaten and drugged by insurgents who forced him to take on the mission. The U.S. military on Sunday said its medical tests indicated he was telling the truth.
The writer further described the 19-year-old Saudi man’s plight:
His story was similar to those recounted by other captured militants who claim they were coerced or fooled by insurgent leaders who promised them a role in the holy war.
A reasonable conclusion is that the terrorists are desperate.
While open warfare still rages parts of Iraq, in Mosul the war is becoming more like police work. Most of the top enemy leadership in Mosul has been killed or captured, and the replacements of the replacements of the replacements are the new targets. But these new quarterbacks recruited from the fans in the stadium are progressively less adept at staying alive in an increasingly terrorist-hostile environment. They face an increasingly sophisticated ISF. The rates of incline (the ISF) and decline (the terrorists) sharply intersect to form an “x.” The ISF grows stronger every day, while the insurgents weaken and stumble.
The people of Mosul, too, have demonstrated newfound trust in their new government; an expectation that sometimes extends to patience with the inevitable glitches that have to be worked out of any new system. In a period of months, they have gone from not talking with the Americans to providing a flood of information that increases in scope and value, resulting in the elimination of terrorists, and the discovery and removal of weapons and bomb-making materials, items they don’t want near their children.
The terrorists feel their own grasp slipping off of Mosul. One night, during a raid, our soldiers captured a letter from the latest “top enemy leader” in Mosul. The letter was a plea to the most ruthless terrorist leader in Iraq: Abu al-Zarqawi.
We thank God and may our prayers and peace be on the Prophet of God, His family, his followers and on everyone who endorses him.
May Peace and God’s blessings and mercifulness be on you. From the Mujahadeen of Abu Zayd unit to Sheikh Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi (may God protect him), and we ask god to guard you and may you remain a thorn in the throat of the atheist and the ones who went off the course.
- The incompetence of the Emirs:
- The battalion Emir’s lack of military experience and strategy, and their lack of training and the training of the Mujahadeen.
- The Emir’s hold on to power until their capture or death and refusal to designate a successor, despite their incompetence.
- The lack of diversity in the attacks, and the unwillingness to go after the centers and headquarters especially when they are easy targets, and being content with sending suicide bombers after armored vehicles.
- Going after quantity in the suicide bombing and not concentrating on quality.
- The absence of any legitimate organization in Mosul, in spite of the presence of rightful knowledge seekers in Mosul.
- Squandering the Muslims money on petty expenses, cars and phones.
- Lack of collaboration between the battalion Emirs.
- Absence of obedience.
- Numerous security violations when it could have been easily avoided.
- Reports to the Sheikh about the situation in Mosul are inaccurate and blurred.
- The deplorable situation of the immigrants [TC: Foreign fighters]:
- Lodging problems
- Marginalization of immigrants and lack of training
- Absence of a special battalion for them or a command to refer to.
- Absence of any monthly monetary compensation
I’ll not abet terrorism by publishing Zayd’s proposed solution. The letter ends signed by Abu Zayd:
Emir of Farming Reform Battalion on the west side
Reading this now, where the leader of a failing regime admits to the failure, then blames it on everyone else’s incompetence, it seems a bombastic self-portrait of a drowning man. Or at least of a man who is in over his head. The thesis that leadership is the fulcrum by which we can leverage success in Iraq can been called simplistic (among other descriptors). That may be true, but it doesn’t make the central claim false. I wonder how many people, when first seeing the cascade of disasters Katrina initiated in New Orleans, thought, “What that city really needs right now is a Rudy Guiliani.” It may be simplistic, but it also happens to be true: in times of trouble, ordinary people seek out leaders and leadership matters.
Interestingly, one of the very problems that Zayd complained about in his letter—incompetence and discontinuity of leadership—were the opposite for American forces. While the Deuce Four was preparing to leave Iraq, it was familiarizing the 1-17th Stryker unit from Alaska with the battle space. Basically, a bunch of new soldiers from, of all places, Alaska , were deploying in a city in the desert, taking over in what amounted to the terrorists’ proverbial backyard. Yet no sooner did the 1-17th take over, than they started killing and capturing bad guys.
The 1-17th is working with seasoned and effective Iraqi Police and Army units. These units are models of leadership development—senior officers lead from the front, seek out and reward excellence, and isolate and eliminate bad performance. The Zayd letter exclaims what captured enemies have been telling us for the past six months: the insurgency uses a very different, and clearly inferior, system for leading their fighters. They recruit foreign fighters—forcing them at times—to do the worst of their fighting. They intoxicate youth with drugs, and force them to drive their car bombs. As one officer succinctly put it: “If they believed their own bullshit, they would strap the bomb to themselves.”
Deuce Four goes Home
I attended the Warrior Ceremony that marked the departure for the “Deuce Four,” presided over by the much respected Brigade Commander, Colonel Robert Brown. In doing some homework before coming to Mosul, I learned that Colonel Brown had gone to West Point and played basketball. I may never have mentioned Colonel Brown, but he was running the show in Mosul. There were other American units in Mosul who also fought hard in their battle spaces, and these units, including the Deuce Four, were all under the command of Colonel Brown. Mosul was his battle space.
Throughout the year, no less than fourteen US Army Battalions served under Colonel Brown’s command. That’s about 10,000 soldiers, and roughly 530 of the American soldiers under Colonel Brown’s command were wounded or killed in Mosul. Of those, 157 were in the 1-24th, led by LTC Erik Kurilla, who was the last Deuce Four soldier to be wounded in Mosul. He was shot down and continued to fight. That might be the most telling explanation for why the Coalition is winning in Mosul.
It bears repeating that the Coalition IS winning in Mosul. Here’s why: while the enemy commander Abu Zayd was hiding in and around Mosul, and complaining about his fellow terrorists squandering money on phones and cars, American and Iraqi commanders were physically fighting alongside their men, instilling confidence in the mission, sharing the risks.
It’s more than just a debate about the semantics of leadership systems. The same week the soldiers of Deuce Four packed up and began heading home, Abu Zayd was lying dead on a mortuary slab, and his replacement was behind bars. The Iraqi Police were aggressive. Acting on intelligence they had gathered through their own sources, they launched a unilateral raid against a suspected car bomb factory the same night we lit the Warrior bonfires at FOB Marez. During a firefight, they killed one terrorist, wounded and captured three others, and they found and rendered safe two car bombs before the terror cell could strap in drivers and aim them at crowds.
In some wars, it’s about the resources. In other wars, it’s about the equipment or manpower. In some, the weather turns out to be the Great Decider. This one is about the expectations, philosophies and individuals who wear the mantle of leadership. As for these individuals, from the young sergeants to the senior officers, the Coalition simply has superior leaders, and they are mentoring the best Iraqi leaders, and the results are transparent.
After the ceremony, I walked through darkness back into the TOC, and there was hot information arriving that we might be closing in on Abu Zayd, the hand-wringing, finger-pointing scribe. I ran to don my gear, but missed the mission. Zayd was not caught that night.
So that was it: I flew away to Qatar, then to the United Arab Emirates, where a message was waiting that Abu Zayd had been tracked down and killed near Mosul. Then, just days later, Zayd’s successor was captured. At this rate, his successor’s successor will probably be killed or captured before he can volunteer for the position. I emailed Kurilla– who was back home in the states, recovering from his wounds — and asked for his take on this development.
“Did you ever notice that the news always says ‘Top Zarqawi Lt or aide arrested’? You would think that the Army is trying to dupe the press or else that there are thousands of Zarqawi Lieutenants. But the fact is, we capture so many of the top leadership that they replace them and we fail to say that this was the replacement cockroach.
Apparently, Abu Fatima took over Al Qaeda leadership in Mosul when Abu Zayd was killed. He was captured on 5 Sept, 12 days after he took over from Abu Zayd. I have none of the details…but it shows once again how effective we are at taking down the leadership. While they will always replace their leaders, you get a far less effective cockroach when the new guys take over.
The new leader does not have the experience and all the tricks of the trade to stay alive or not be caught. They do not have the connections, the skill set etcetera, and because we have taken out so many of the network it leaves only a few remaining. Instead of spreading all of our targeting assets out over the entire network when there were so many at the beginning, we can now focus all the targeting assets on just the few that are left. Hence, the many successes.”
Now Comes the Hard Part
When I first stepped off the plane in Iraq, the three most dangerous places were Baghdad, Al Anbar province, and Mosul. Somewhere in the span of nine months Mosul fell off that list. The rest of Iraq may yet devolve into a large civil war. Zarqawi clearly intends to incite full-on hostilities between the Sunnis who still follow his insurgency and the Shia majority who have so far resisted his call to Armageddon. I do not know if their forbearance will outlast his insurgency. But I do know it would be a mistake to think of this as a strictly “Sunni thing.”
After all, the Kurdish regions to the north are an unqualified success, and the Kurds are mostly Sunni Muslims. And Col Eid, and most of the men who serve under him on the Mosul Police Force are Sunni. Despite their key role in the problems in Iraq, the Sunnis are even more effective parts of the solution. The “full-spectrum” techniques that have shown so much promise in the Battle for Mosul, and before then, with the Kurdish resistance in the North, are also being used in other parts of Iraq.
The decreasing combat operations in Mosul will allow for a more selective distribution of those assets, focusing on the more perilous areas such as Ramadi, Falluja and Baghdad. The lesson of staying in the fight long enough to prevent any embers of discontent from flaring up and rekindling an all-out conflagration cannot be sacrificed to budget-induced amnesia. Short-attention spans notwithstanding, Americans don’t like it when friends and allies are wallowing in danger. The question we need to answer is not “do we help?” but rather “how do we best help?”
Like those breeched levees, we can air-drop sand bags every time the flood waters rise, or we can move in the engineering and construction assets to make permanent repairs.
Building a new and strong government takes work. The full spectrum of civil affairs projects, training and equipping the ISF–all while conducting combat operations–requires a heavy investment of resources over time. Some of our most senior and intelligent advisors, such as retired Army General Barry McCaffrey, caution that Americans need to be told the truth that this probably will be a five-year fight. Initially opposed to the war, General McCaffrey asserts that now that we are in it, we must win.
We cannot pull out next year and expect Iraq to stand alone. That would be like pulling out of New Orleans once the water is pumped out and the levees stopped up with sandbags when one small storm would wreck the place again. We could also opt for the easiest path: we could just drop cash on the table and walk away, leaving decisions about rebuilding a city to the very people whose judgment in these matters has already proved questionable. Or we could do something that we know is always hard and time-consuming: the right thing.
It doesn’t matter whether God or Global Warming sends the storms, or whether the plans and predictions in place were up to the task. None of that matters. Not to the people clinging to chimneys. When the high water hits, we can step in, coordinate and manage the logistics of survival and security. We can ensure that the locals have the expertise and resources to stabilize the region. We can stop listening to quivering voices that lack the strength or endurance to find a lasting solution. When the Iraqis can survive the next storms—which of course will come—and also serve as a stable area where people can come to work and live in safety and peace, the “birthplace of civilization,” will be restored to the promise of its motto. Then, we can walk away.