Saturday, November 19, 2005

IED Patrol

near Radio Relay Point 3, Iraq
130 miles south of Baghdad
November 11, 2005
with Charlie Co, 142nd Infantry, Texas National Guard

Early morning on the main supply route running south from Baghdad to Kuwait. The soldiers based at Radio Relay Point 3 (RP3) are out checking the highway near their base for improvised explosive devices, called IEDS, which is the official name for the roadside bombs that do so much damage to American forces.
This area is relatively quiet. There have only been a couple of IED attacks on this stretch of road in the past six months.  Usually what happens is the insurgents come through the area, lay the bomb and then get out.  The locals are not generally cooperative.  The soldiers say a local who shot a mortar bomb into the nearby American base, called Scania, was caught buy the local sheikh, who beheaded him and stuck the head on a pole.  The sheikh didn't like the loss of business caused by the local market shutting down after the attack.
On the other hand IEDs are no joke.  More than half of American casualties in this war have come from roadside bombs, according to one study.  A vehicle-borne bomb at a checkpoint about 10 miles north of here took out all the soldiers at a checkpoint this month.  Improvised bombs are bad news.
The soldiers drive steadily down the road, looking at the sides.  They look for anything with wire sticking out of it.  Parcels, packages dead animal, anything that the insurgents might stuff with an IED.  This highway is asphalt, which helps, as the insurgents would have to burrow under the surface to get the bomb close enough to vehicles to do much damage.  A fanciful threat, but real.  They�ve taken out vehicles in other parts of Iraq doing just that.
The soldiers stop at each bridge in their area.  They scan underneath the bridges.  Insurgents like to place bombs tucked up under the ceiling of the overpass, because the blast can more easily get at the gunner standing in the open-topped turret of any vehicles passing underneath.  They check the road surface on top of the overpass as well.  Many of these roadways on top have holes dug along the edges, required for some inexplicable Iraqi construction technique. All must be checked.  One humvee tackles the west two lanes, another humvee takes the east two lanes of this four-lane highway.
They are complementing the specialized anti-IED vehicles that also make the morning patrol looking for roadside bombs along this route.  The Buffaloes and other South African vehicles, manned by Americans, are ugly but highly effective, developed over 20 years fighting the African National Congress in their own guerilla war that finished in the '90s.
The soldiers drive down the road and stop near an abandoned car. This deserves special attention.  Vehicle borne IEDS are among the worst, because a car can easily carry 500 pounds of explosive, enough to probably destroy a humvee.  This car is propped up on a jack, its left rear tire missing.  A soldier looks inside anyway.  Better safe than sorry.
The soldiers roll on, and talk with two Iraqis standing under a bridge.  They see these two men often, and chat on most days. It�s not exactly hearts and minds, because the Iraqis are willing to talk and its no great effort.  More like an easy exchange borne of familiarity rather than forced fellowship.
Then the patrol reaches the end of its terriroty, turns aroudn and passes back up the road, heading for another days work in their area.  They'll be on this same road several more times today.  
All eyes in the humvee watch for IEDs every time they are out, on this main supply route or on the back country tracks surrounding their base.  The threat is that strong, and no one wants to be the dummy who gets killed and becomes an example to other soldiers about the dangers of complacency and letting your guard down.

Radio Relay Point 3

at Radio Relay Point 3, Iraq
135 miles south of Baghdad
November 10, 2005
with Charlie Co, 142nd Infantry, Texas National Guard

Soldiers here with Charlie Company have spent 11 months at this small base, called a radio relay point or RP  It lies next to the busy north-south main supply route, with plenty of traffic pushing past on the highway half a mile away.  This place is less than an acre, and holds only enough men to man the radios and patrol the area around the RP.
For the men who live here there is plenty to keep them busy.  There is guard duty, radio duty, and patrols which the soldiers run out of here three or more times a day, both day and night.
Most soldiers in Iraq never get off their base.  On a large base like Anaconda in Balad, or even Victory in Baghdad which surrounds Baghdad Airport, the majority of soldiers never go outside the wire.  Except for their two-week leave midway through their year-long deployment, those soldiers are, in effect, in prison.  
On larger bases life is not easy, since there are attacks by mortars or rockets in many areas, and the soldiers live in trailers, four to a trailer, and the work hours are long.  But on a large base there are comforts, such as a huge supply of varied food served four times a day, not to mention ping pong and movies and PXs.  Despite that many soldiers feel imprisoned on their large base for their year in country.
Soldiers at RPs have a situation both similar and completely different.  Instead of 20,000 soldiers there might be a minute fraction of that;  instead of covering 10 square miles or more, their base covers an acre;  and of course the idea of a PX is laughable.
But it turns out most of the soldiers who have been here on RP3 for 11 months prefer these small bases to the standard-size ones.  Sounds incredible - more work, fewer amenities, less space.  
But the soldiers here get off base regularly, on patrol and an occasional trip to their local large base, a transport hub called Scania.  And though they have a limited exposure to people outside their unit, that cuts both ways, because personality clashes are tempered by the absolute necessity of getting along.  And when it comes down to it, most people in a unit would often hang together anyway.
Soldiers here make their own breakfast, lunch and dinner, preparing it from frozen and boxed supplies given to them back at Scania.
What could easily be considered to be a narrowing of horizons - cutting their view down to the acre area inside their wire, behind the razor wire and fortifications that ring their compound - life here is in fact the opposite.  The number of patrols these men have to do ends up opening up their daily routine. Whereas many people on a  larger base go to the PX for variety, out here there is an enforced variety of scenery dictated by the need for near-constant patrolling in local Iraqi villages and towns.
No, it�s not as relaxing as being on a large base.  But, for most soldiers (and this is not true for all) this enforced rigor is, well, invigorating.  They prefer the RPs to bases like Scania.  That's the reason a small number of men can spend 11 months on a base the size of an acre, and end up liking it, while for other soldiers a year inside 40 square miles still feels like being in prison.
These guys at RP3 should know - they�ve been here long enough to get the full flavor of it, and they'll be going home at the end of their tour in the next couple of weeks.  

Street Patrol in Suma

near Convoy Support Center Scania, Iraq
120 miles south of Baghdad
November 9, 2005
with Charlie Co, 142nd Infantry, Texas National Guard

Soldiers stand in the center of the town of Suma.  They are about 100 yards down the road from the police station.  Beyond the police station is the market they have just driven through.  In the road facing the opposite direction sits a long line of beat up old cars waiting for gas.  The nationwide shortage of gas touches this part of the country as well. In many places people can buy gas without a wait from local fix-it men.  But, depending on who you ask, the fix-it men here were kicked out by the local sheikh, who has an interest in the gas station, or there just isn't any gas.  It�s hard to say.
The soldiers come through here about once a day.  They patrol this whole area regularly.  Its about 12 miles soth of the main base in the area, called Scania, a place where convoys plying the main supply route between Baghdad 110 miles to the north and Kuwait south 225 miles to the south can pull over, refuel and then keep going.  Keeping the area around the main supply route quiet is key to supplying the rest of the US forces in Iraq, so these three humvees in the main street in Suma is, tangentially, helping the guys fighting insurgents in Ramadi, Fallujah, Samarra, Baqqubah or one of the other hot spots that make the news each night.
Here the soldiers seem to be pretty well known and even trusted.  They are actually paying $103,000 to refurbish the school on this street.  In Iraq, with an average annual income of $3,600, the US could probably buy the whole building for less than that, but the US is not in the school-owning business.  So it fixes the windows, paints the walls and cleans up instead.
In some parts of this area soldiers receive blank looks and hostile stares. In this town that's not the case.  There are occasional waves.  Kids come up to a soldier standing beside a humvee and take handouts of candy. This is business as usual in this town, in this part of Iraq.
Suddenly shots ring out to the west, over on the other side of town.  Two, three or four, no one is absolutely sure.  A patrol goes a few blocks into town to take a look but they come back with no further information.  That's common here.  So are the gunshots.  Every Iraqi male is allowed to keep an AK-47 assault rifle in his home, but is not allowed to take it outside.  With everyone owning a gun, and the Iraqis notorious for lighting up for just about any reason, shots happen... a lot.  It�s hardly worth bothering about, and the soldiers hardly bother.
Ten minutes later the soldiers are mounted up and driving off.  Everything here is quiet.  The local Shiite sheikh is pro-American, and like most everyone else in this area, he is not keen on the insurgency getting a hold here.  This is the ideal way to wage a counter-insurgency war - to have a situation where hardly any of the locals is excited about fighting, where very few care to support insurgency or let it get established.  This ideal situation is not so easy to develop, but these soldiers from Texas are surely benefiting from its existence in this town.


Tallil Iraq
275 miles south of Baghdad
October 30, 2005
with E Troop, 108th Cavalry, GA National Guard

The soldiers of the Echo Troop of the 108th Cavalry from Georgia are taking a few days off.  They are sitting in tent city here at Forward Operating Base Adder in Tallil.  They arrived from Mumadiyah south of Baghdad a few days ago, and are taking some time off before taking over from a brigade from Texas which is heading home.
It has been quiet in this area near Tallil.  It wasn�t quiet in the Mumadiyah area, where the troop had casualties.  Each day was a running battle with insurgents, who laid roadside bombs, called improvised explosive devices or IEDs, pretty much every day on the approaches to their camp.  The soldiers were mortared down there as well on their base.  Small arms fire against their patrols was so frequent as to become something of a joke.  
The insurgents called that area the Triangle of Death.  The soldiers were just happy to leave and come down here, where they�ll be escorting convoys for the second six months of their deployment.
This company was lucky, or handled themselves well, or both.  Either way their casualties were relatively low.  But still the toll included 3 men killed in action.  
The soldiers see this area around Tallil as a welcome relief.
But they are proud of the work they did farther north.  They got so used to getting fired upon; they developed a technique for tracking down the insurgents' triggerman.
Generally if a bomb goes off on one side of the road, the triggerman will be waiting on that side as well.  If he were on the other side the wires to the IED would run across the road and be exposed and the IED would be easier to find.  The triggerman needs a clear line of sight to guage when to blow the bomb.  He wants the vehicle to be passing broadside when it goes off.  It helps to have a straight shot.
So if a bomb goes off, the cavalry soldier of E Troop would swing several of their humvees off the road on the side the triggerman would probably be on.  They dismount two teams of soldiers.  These men form two lines of a box.  The humvees drive on, and form the two other sides of the box.  Each element can see two other elements others.  Now the soldiers start by foot and by vehicle to constrict their box. This takes time and patience.  When someone pops up and starts running, that their man.
They figure this technique works more than half of the time.
Finding the triggerman is an art in Iraq.  Most of the time an IED explodes, the triggerman gets away 95 to 99 percent of the time.
Most times the triggerman runs off even before people get collected and get looking for him. This is especially true in towns.
The cavalry soldiers have a pre-set plan, and waste no time implementing it, driving off the road immediately in search of the triggerman.  They use a simple technique to search - if they run into a man of military age they search him.  They try to question everybody.
Blowing IEDs is a deadly game that insurgents for too long have got away with, treating IEDs like a crime that has few downsides.  A major key to eliminating IEDs is consistently eliminating the triggermen.
The soldiers of E Troop are glad to have the time off.  They play video games and catch up with the folks back home.  They are glad to be in Tallil and have a change of mission that hopefully will not require them being fired upon every day, several times a day.
But they regret their technique not being put to good use.  They will from here on otu do convoy escort.  If a convey they are escorting is fired upon, they will shepherd the convoy through the danger zone and keep going.  Hunting triggermen not allowed.  Priority one is reaching the destination.
They consider themselves the kings of this game in theater.  They hope the army will adopt their tried-and-true methods.  But for them the application of their theory has become theoretical; not practical.  These hunters are hunters no more.

Night Convoy Northwards

Tallil Iraq
275 miles south of Baghdad
October 30, 2005
with the 56th Brigade Combat Team, TX National Guard

It is past midnight when about twenty huge tractor trailer trucks roll out of the front gates of the base here in Tallil.  We are going north, toward Baghdad.  Elaborate precautions have been taken.  Patrols sweep this road constantly, keeping it clear of improvised explosive devices. The civilian trucks are all in top condition to minimize breakdowns.  Things are organized as tightly as possible.
This convoy will finish up in Baghdad; it is on the airport run.  America�s biggest base in theater sprawls around the airport.  This convoy will be making the run of almost 300 miles as quickly as possible, but it will likely arrive in daylight.
This area down here at Tallil is actually one of the quietest parts of the country.  There are only a few ied's here, planted generally when insurgents come through and put them on the road. The population in this area is not sympathetic - the soldiers say the locals prefer making money and getting on with their lives than acting against the government. It helps that they are Shiite, and the bulk of the insurgency is made up of Sunnis.  This area is far enough south to be away form the Sunni insurgency, but not so far south as to be caught up in the Iranian-inspired ruckus being kicked up by Shiites in the British zone around Basra.
The convoy grinds north.  A lot of the soldiers have downed Cokes or Pepsis or more highly caffeinated drinks before hitting the road.  The loud whir of the humvee, the occasional thump of the road, the darkness outside relieved by a wan moon. For myself I find it difficult to stay awake on these after-midnight humvee drives.  I have seen soldiers stay awake all night in their turrets, and then slump once inside the wire on the other end.
Heading north things are quiet tonight.  The convoy stops at Scania, a logistical base about halfway to Baghdad.  Then it heads out the gate again.  The going gets steadily more tense after Scania, 110 miles south of Baghdad.  It�s all right for the first 30 or 40 miles, but then the convoy enters the Triangle of Death, so-called by the insurgents, a subset of the Sunni triangle that extends south of the city.  Hilla south of Baghdad is roughly the turnover point.  One starts to tense a bit more north of Hilla.
But this convoy arrives as scheduled, and a journey that takes an hour by air has taken more than 6 by road.  This convoy is an unremarkable episode on an unremarkable day.  As the soldiers here say, the best days are the ones where nothing happens.

Tank Patrol

near Habbaniyah Iraq
45 miles west of Baghdad
October 31, 2005
110th Infantry Task Force Panther, PA National Guard

An M1 tank rolls down the road in central Iraq.  It is midway between Habbaniyah and the town of Ramadi off to the west.  The 15 miles separating these towns are literally the worst stretch of road in Iraq.  Coalition forces say they have discovered over 150 improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, in the past 5 months on this stretch of road.
Small arms fire is too common to really pay much attention.  Suddenly a burst of four shots from an AK-47 assault rifle rings out and the soldiers in the tank hunker down and look out of their gun sights.  It�s tough to see anything.  Tanks are notorious for their poor ability to see out, and this is no exception.  No one saw the gunman.  He probably dropped below the parapet of some balcony within 2 seconds of firing; so even as the soldiers instinctively ducked he was already dropping out of sight.  The soldiers keep a sharp eye out all the time, but it�s difficult to see people before they fire.  It�s even more difficult to see them after they fire, unless the stand and fight.  That is rare.  The gunmen can easily escape into the maze of houses and, along this particular half-mile section which lies inside a village, alleyways, flanking the main road.  To make matters worse, there are reeds and plenty of vegetation near the road because this is river country, with the Euphrates flowing close by.  
These days the small arms fire problem has taken on more than its normal nuisance value.  Generally the Iraqi attitude is to spray and pray - literally that if Allah wills the bullets to strike home, then they will.  Thus most often this small arms fire is merely nuisance fire.
Except not anywmore.  In this sector a real marksman has been operating lately.  He has hit several soldiers over the past few months.  He is a Muslim sniper, and soldiers here speculate he might be Chechen.  He is worse than a nuisance, he is for real, and the soldiers keep their heads down, and try to extract information from the local populace as to his whereabouts to nab him.  
But there are more pressing issues today.  Down the road an ied is found and the team from EOD (explosive ordnance disposal, the bomb squad) is called in to dispose of it.  It is a busy day for EOD.  Another suspected ied site nearby ends up being a false alarm.  
The crew of this tank is wary in this area. The local village of Mudiq has a mosque which sometimes hosts imams who preach against the Americans.  This is the heart of the Sunni triangle, here 11 kilometers west of Habbaniyah.  There is no love lost for Americans here, and little regular information comes out of this village.  Opinion differs in the crew whether this is primarily because the populace is scared of appearing pro-American when insurgents hold so much sway here, or whether they truly hate Americans.  Either way, no one is keen on the idea of getting out of the tank to test the sympathies of the locals.  THey prefer to have a thick shroud of armor between them and any stray bullets.
The patrol ends as the sun is getting low. The tanks leaves the village behind and rumbles past the blown up mosque outside town, where a few months ago insurgents who were building roadside bombs under the mosque's dome blew themselves up along with the entire mosque.  The dome lies drunkenly to one side on the shattered building, with a blast hole in the round roof.  As the rumbles back onto its base artillery is firing a few rounds to support operations farther north.  It�s another day gone by in the worst part of Iraq, and tomorrow promises to be much the same.

Cordon and Knock

near Habbaniyah Iraq
45 miles east of Baghdad
October 30, 2005
110th Infantry, Task Force Panther, PA National Guard
6 kilometers east of the small town of Habbaniyah Iraq a patrol of infantry is knocking on doors of houses. 
This area is midway between Fallujah and Ramadi and is about 45 miles west of Baghdad proper.  This is not one of the worst areas of Iraq, this is the worst area of Iraq for insurgent activity.  Regular small arms fire, improvised explosive devices (the roadsides bombs called ieds by the military),  RPG rounds fired at vehicles.  It is all here.
But amazingly enough in the middle of the worst area of Iraq there are quiet spots too.  It is in just such a quiet spot that soldiers are knocking on the doors of houses and asking the residents if they have seen any insurgents, or have any information of use to the coalition (American soldiers in these parts).
 A cordon and knock is simple.  Soldiers of the 110th Infantry (Pennsylvania) task forces roll up to a houses or row of houses, surround it, and while some soldiers question the occupants other search the houses, the back yard and grounds.
In the first house the man is friendly.  He talks to the soldiers, smiles and generally is cooperative.  He says a few details that might be of use.  Soldiers meanwhile check his house, walking past a nervous calf tethered in the back yard with a few scraps of grass strewn about. 
Two young men run off into the grove of palms behind the house.  This area is not friendly and their running is either significant or, then again, maybe not.  Plenty of people fear the soldiers, plenty more hate them. This is the heart of the Sunni Triangle. 
Whether the running is significant or not is something the soldiers will never find out, as the runners are off and away and the soldiers, burdened with 65 pounds of gear, are not likely to ever catch up.
The soldiers wrap this up, and head off to the next house, and the next and then they are done.
Soldiers say this is one of the best methods of picking up information.  Insurgents cannot target the householders if they talk , because the soldiers visit so many people the source is concealed.
But then again, in this province meaningful information is not easy to come by.  Incidents happen every day and the locals play dumb.  For the most part it�s a brick wall of silence here.  Those that are sympathetic are cowed.  The Sunnis have little to gain from the new national government and are not well disposed to helping soldiers.  This will be one of the last provinces to be pacified, and that day is a long way away.

CH-46 Night Flight

near Ramadi, Iraq
50 miles west of Baghdad
October 29, 2005
with Marine Air

This time of year it gets cold waiting on the landing strip for your flight to the next place in Iraq. You wait hours for the bird to come in.  In this part of the world you are in the hands of Marine Air.  There are a few army helicopters flying - the ubiquitous Blackhawks - but mostly it�s CH-46 Sea Knights.  These are huge beasts with twin rotors, which come swooping in with a tremendous blast of air, filling the night with the beat of their rotor blades.
Soon enough two do swoop down.  There are a handful of people pile off and we pile on to take their places.  It�s a rush in the darkness but the cabin lights are on and so you throw your bags on he floor and yourself on a bench and pretty soon the lights go out and the plane (helicopters are planes in this part of the world) lurches and pulls itself off the ground and drags itself into the air, reaching higher and higher into the nighttime sky.
These helicopters are not invulnerable,  This same week insurgents down another Marine helicopter, a two-seat gunship operating at midday, not one of these cargo buffaloes flying at night.  Blackhawks and Apache gunships have been lost.  It ought to give us al line dup in the back on the bench seats pause for thought, but it doesn�t.   Now you look out the portholes and see the ground floating by.    
What you really think about are all those guys on the ground fighting it out with the insurgents.  There is a continuous line of lights following the Euphrates which we are loosely following for a flight path to the next stop, Al Taqqadum, 15 miles away.  This is heavy insurgent country.  You wonder about the guys on patrol out there, driving down streets where they know insurgents will have left improvised explosive devices waiting for them.  You know there will be firefights tonight.  It looks awfully dark down there.
Up here the aircraft wiggles sideways, as the counter-rotation forces of its two opposite-turning rotors tug at the long hull in momentary discordance.  The it does it again, and again.  The CH-46 sort of crawls through the air like a dog worming toward its master, begging for a treat.   But it's warm up here, and the cold of the tarmac is a memory.  The darkness beckons out the half -open rear clamshell door, inky blackness out there.  But it's warm in here.  No shooting either.   No you don't worry about being shot down. You're just thankfully, shamefully, glad you're not down there with those brave, long-suffering guys in the humvees, Bradleys and tanks, getting shot at for real.

Sniper Snatch

near Ramadi, Iraq
55 miles west of Baghdad
October 27, 2005
with Task Force Saber, 172nd Armor, VT National Guard

The soldiers based here at Ramadi have a problem.  A sniper has been working in the area, and he is good.  One soldier has been shot. Tonight these soldiers are going out to get him, and his brother too.  
And they are taking the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), also called the Iraqi Army, with them.
It is a dark night out.  A convoy moves out near midnight.  Two trucks are filled with ISF soldiers, and there are other humvees and an armored personnel carrier to back them up.
Other Americans are converging on the site on the ground.
It�s a funny feeling being out at night.  This is one of the worst places in Iraq for insurgents.  Its difficult not to think every parked car and every empty trash dumpster, might hold a massive roadside bomb, called an improvised explosive device, or IED.  But nothing goes off and the ISF and Americans dismount at a block of houses where the sniper and his brother seem to live.
The ISF surround the place.  They'll haul in every male of military age, and question them back home.
Things start to drag.  A one-hour operation to clear 8 or so houses turns into 1 then 2 hours.  Turns out the ISF have decided to question some of the men here, before taking them back.  The Americans aren�t happy but there is little they can do about it - they are officially here as advisors, and they'll advise unless things turn hairy.
The problem with sitting around is there are only a few ways back out.  The insurgents in this area have been known to place an ied within half an hour or less if they believe a patrol will be passing by.  If the convoy is at this place and there are few ways to get out, so sitting there leaves the insurgents more time to figure that out and get an ied into one of the trash containers.
Some of the alternate routes out are so badly infested with IEDs that the soldiers won�t go on them.
At last the ISF bring their detainees out (it would be wrong to call them suspects when 15 or so people are randomly all caught up in the search).  
The detained are pushed and lifted onto a flatbed truck.  The ISF pile into their armored trucks, the Americans into their armored humvees and their APC and everyone moves off, retracing their route.
Twenty minutes later they are back at base.  No incidents - this time.
Turns out the dismounted Americans caught the man they suspect to be the sniper.  No word on the brother though.
One of the ISF lets off his rifle with an accidental discharge as he walks away form his truck.  He gets a severe yelling from his sergeant.  The Americans roll their eyes.  Its the second AD of the night.
Its been one of those nights, and it's now turning rapidly into day.

Information Operation

near Ramadi, Iraq
55 miles west of Baghdad
October 27, 2005
with Task Force Saber, 172nd Armor, VT National Guard
Soldiers hop out of their Bradley fighting vehicles and fan out. 
This is a quiet sector in one of the worst parts of Iraq. That combination means extreme caution.
The soldiers are moving house to house in this neighborhood of well appointed houses.  They talk to the locals, ask questions, ask if there are any signs of insurgents.
In this neighborhood there is no great support for the insurgents.  But life is tough for the locals.  It isn�t far from an American checkpoint on the highway. The large houses with courtyards, set among groves of tall palm trees look nice.  This would be prime real estate for insurgents collecting money forcibly. Not all insurgent money comes form abroad, or was squirreled away by Saddam before the war started for an insurgency that would require money.  A love of it now comes from ordinary Iraqis, at gunpoint.  The insurgents have turned into an armed mafia, with political aims.  Think Chicago 1920s, and those are the same rackets.  Booze, protection and coercion. 
That is all seemingly removed from this quiet neighborhood.  A medic treats child after child who comes up needing help.  One 10-year-old boy has hurt his wrist, which is swollen.  A 4-year-old boy has a burn. This one needs an IV.  The list goes on.
The kids know they on to a good thing.  They congregate and ask for candy, which the soldiers hand over.  The soldiers also hand over a soccer ball, with the idea the assembled kids might start a game.  But the kid who gets the ball bolts immediately for home.  He knows what�ll happen here if the game gets started - the older, stronger kids always keep what they get their hands on.
Appearances are deceiving.  The soldiers man the rooftops looking for snipers.  More than a month ago an insurgent shot at them here.  They keep a sharp eye out wiht binoculars.
Then the soldier pull back to their Bradleys, tumble in and head home.  No great strides.  No drama.  Just another day in Iraq.

Mosul Police Visit

Mosul, Iraq
250 miles north of Baghdad
October 22, 2005
with 4/23rd Infantry, 172nd Stryker Brigade, US Army, Anchorage Alaska

The huge bulk of a Stryker vehicle pushes its way through the streets of Mosul, Iraq.  It�s not too bad here in this part of the town, the southeast corner.  The streets are reasonably wide, the crews well rehearsed in maneuvering in tight spaces.  The streets isn�t as tight as the old city to the north.  The crews don�t have to worry so much about narrow alleys. and they appreciate the armored car's tough hide.  One of the Strykers in this patrol of three has been "blown up" by IEDs, or roadside bombs, three times.  The damage was losing a couple of antennas, several blown tires and a ringing in the ears for the crew.
This unit has been here since September.  The insurgents saw the big green Strykers and the new green army uniforms and thought 'easy meat'.  Unfortunately for the insurgents the army carries out a left seat/right seat-ride changeover routine.  Old units help the new ones get settled in.  So when the insurgents attacked using relatively simply tactics, expecting to push over the inexperienced newcomers, they got a surprise because the older guys were in the big new green vehicles as well. That lesson lasted about two weeks of fighting.
Since then the insurgents� activity has dropped off.  The soldiers say they have set back the insurgents, and that's almost certainly true, since the tempo of insurgents operations is much lower now than it was six months ago.  But there is still a major insurgent problem here in Mosul, as the soldiers readily describe.  This town is majority Sunni.  A few miles away from here the Kurdish area begins, but here is a battleground that might as well be farther south in the Sunni Triangle.
The soldiers stop by an Iraqi Police station.  This station is near the edge of town.  It located in an area where the insurgents used to run the police out regularly, where old Baathists and retired military officers give money and support to the insurgents.  These police ought to be in major trouble - the station has such lousy resources one corner is completely open to the elements.  The roof isn�t even properly closed off.  It�s a mess, and the regional government can't be bothered to give them the money they need to fix things up.
But far from run the Iraqi Police, or IPs, out of here, the insurgents are having a difficult time cracking this nut.  Today eight insurgents are being held for questioning. 
The police show the soldiers a sophisticated detonation device used by one of the suspects.  It was placed about 10 feet form the bomb, and linked by a wire to the explosives.  It included a Motorola talkabout, and  is rigged to after receiving a signal from the triggerman it trips an attached egg timer, which counts down about 15 seconds before sending a current to the explosive.  The 15-second delay makes it possible for the triggerman to walk innocently off before the thing blows up.  The device normally lies far enough away from the explosion to be recovered and used again.
The IPs caught the suspects, confiscated the detonator, and are proud of it. 
But they have little to work with, besides guns, ammunition, a few vehicles, and are doing alot of work with many fewer resources than they ought to have (everything is in short supply - generators, uniforms, and and virtually any supplies needed to run a station).
Yet the future relies on police like this taking charge of the country.  The police in Iraq are notorious for being infiltrated by insurgents.  Not so here.  The IPs at this station are in a running battle with insurgents, have a good commander, and their morale is high.
The soldiers promise to deliver generators and other supplies. They then saddle up in their Strikers and move off to patrol the city. 
They respect the police here, they say.  They are impressed by the suspects, and the detonator.  They will do what it takes to make them better and better. 
The only way for these soldiers to get out of Iraq once and for all, is to help build a better Iraqi security force that can stand up to the insurgents in the toughest areas, and prevail.

Cordon and Knock

Mosul, Iraq
250 miles north of Baghdad
October 21, 2005
with 4/23rd Infantry, 172nd Striker Brigade, US Army, Anchorage Alaska
The soldiers of the 172nd Striker Brigade have a problem.  The insurgents in this town are stubborn, and the soldiers deal with small arms fire sprayed at their vehicles every day.  IEDs, or roadside bombs, are set several times a week in this city, as the insurgents try to catch American vehicles in the blast of a roadside bomb.  That's no easy matter, especially as these soldiers run the Striker armored cars which, contrary to media reports, have the confidence of these crews on the mean streets of Mosul, if not that of many commentators.
The problem is how to generate the information that will finally, successfully, undermine the insurgency in this area.  The insurgency here used to be much more aggressive.  Compared to six months ago, there is much less activity than there was.  But there is still plenty of activity.
The operations officer of this unit, the 4-23rd Infantry, is taking as holistic approach as possible.  There have been a number of successful counterinsurgency campaigns this century, including Malaya and Northern Ireland.  Others such campaigns have been failures, think the (somewhat parallel) Vietnam or Rhodesia.  These provide some guidelines on what and what not to do.
There is also the broader approach these operations-section soldiers are taking, like contacting university professors to find out what the dynamics in the city really are like.  Yes, this unit is doing all this, and it�s a good start.
But more is needed than theory.  The soldiers are trying to apply the right theiory to the area they cover in southeast Mosul. 
Hard information is the goal of this effort, as well as that information's inescapable flip-side, the cooperation of the populace necessary to supply it. 
And while most US givernment agencies are in town trying to dig out what is needed, the units here on the ground are the key interface between the theory and the local population.
So every day and night the soldiers knock on doors and talk to the people in their own houses.  This sometimes yields good information, sometimes no information, and occasionally a sullenness and unwillingness to talk.
But the soldiers who walk into the front yard, knock on doors and spend ten minutes with Iraqi families inside the houses feel this is one of the best ways the war can be won. In the living rooms of Iraqi families, talking one on one.
The insurgents here don�t like it when the local Iraqis offer up information.  They recognize this as their weakness. A popular 1-800 telephone tip line yielded so much information that the insurgents blew up the mobile phone towers around this hill-locked town, cutting phone service and, more importantly, access to the tips line.
Anonymous, accurate information is what's needed here.  It's access and denial is the central battleground of this conflict.
For the soldiers based in Alaska, that mans visiting one house at a time, generating one anonymous tip after another that has to be chased down.  Using this model this is going to be a long war.  But until the operations people can dig out a better paradigm from the depths of military history, this is what it�s going to take.

Night Arrest

near LSA Anaconda
45 miles north of Baghdad
October 13, 2005
100-442 Infantry Battalion,   US Army Reserve, Honolulu HI
It is nighttime in Iraq.  Soldiers run their humvees quietly along the street of an Iraqi village.  They stop, slip out, and wearing night vision goggles surround the house of an Iraqi known to support the insurgency.  Two soldiers hide out the back to catch anyone running away.  Then the others pile in the front door.
The soldiers are not polite.  But they are not threatening either.  There is no shouting, no yelling, no shots.  But there is plenty of adrenaline on both sides.  The soldiers don�t know if they will be shot at.  The Iraqis don�t know whether the force used will be deadly. 
Turns out on this night the suspect is not home.  That�s OK. The soldiers find evidence that he has been there.  The residents deny everything, before, after and despite the evidence being found.  The soldiers turn the place upside down looking for more evidence.  It is done deliberately, not maliciously.  But the soldiers are unapologetic.  Talk and they won�t have to do it.  Household items come out of drawers.  Boxes are pulled from cupboards and emptied onto the bed and floor.  The soldiers need a good picture of the suspect, and they are going to get it if they can.
The interrogator - a female - is forceful.  No one likes being lied to.
The suspect most likely gives the insurgents money if he doesn't pull triggers himself.  The soldiers arrest two men at the house for not cooperating and denying what the evidence affirms.
The war in Iraq is, at the cutting edge here, two parallel wars.  One is the war on the roadsides - the coping with small arms attacks and roadside bombs.  This war is the hunt for the trigger man who has just set off a homemade bomb (some are actually quite sophisticated). 
The other is this - tracking down information about the insurgents and their supporters, the people without whom the 20,000 or so insurgents cannot survive, the people who signal, finance, and support.
Soldiers say they already know who the bad guys are.  Where they live.  Its catching them is the tough part.
The soldiers leave eventually with about $850 in Iraqi currency.  Is it a fund for insurgents, or the household savings in a country with a poor banking system?  Who knows, that�s what interrogators are for.
They leave after about 3 hours, and 8 kids sleeping in a couple of the rooms still slumber. The soldiers searching inches from their reclining forms never even woke them up.

Day Patrol

near LSA Anaconda, Balad Iraq
45 miles north of Baghdad
October 13, 2005
100-442 Infantry Battalion, US Army Reserve, Honolulu HI

A vendor in a small village near LSA Anaconda, a major US base near Balad, Iraq, used to sell grilled chicken to soldiers that came through on patrol.  He doesn�t any more - the insurgents came and told him they would kill him if he sold any more chicken to an American. His stand is locked and quiet.
This is the Iraq war in a nutshell.  Set aside the problem of quelling insurgents, or those stopping the activities of those people sympathetic to them and help them.
The problem in Iraq is how to assist the Iraqis who want to help Americans.  How to let them help Americans or even interact with them without getting killed in the process.  How to help Iraqis resist insurgents that come into their homes late at night and demand help.   Or threaten to kill entire families if any of them so much as talks to the Americans.
Soldiers here say they need the regular Iraqis;  they need them to supply the information that will enable coalition forces to track down and pick up insurgents.
As it is, these soldiers face roadside bombs (called improvised explosive devices or ied's every day).  Often the soldiers find the roadside bombs lying there.  Sometimes they go off, and sometimes when they go off they hurt someone.  Sometimes when they hurt someone the soldier is hurt badly, and sometimes he (or she) is killed.
So Americans patrol the roads, tracks, villages and towns around here.  Information does come in. they do catch bad guys.  But it isn�t easy.