Friday, February 04, 2005

Please Don't Shoot Us

Mosque Man
Michael Yon

Baquba, Iraq

The media reported that about 28 people were killed in Iraq by insurgents Thursday, including three Marines. Two of the Iraqis murdered yesterday were killed because they work with the US in Baquba. A particularly tragic death seemed to somehow escape media attention: a child was shot by Iraqi security forces, when the car he was riding in failed to stop at a checkpoint.

There are frequent reports of shootings like this at checkpoints, some of which never seem to make the evening news. But whether they get media attention or not, these tragic incidents are disturbing, mostly because they are so preventable. The brief history of our involvement here has taught everyone only too well that a car is a very lethal weapon when an insurgent's hands are at the wheel. No one can afford to hesitate for even a second. But many Iraqi drivers do not understand what is expected at checkpoints. They react, or fail to, in ways that raise alarms and the results are obvious and irreversible.

Despite these three deaths, it was fairly quiet in Baquba.

It's been 24 hours since Ghost platoon came under heavy fire from the Iraqi police. It may have been accidental, but it was serious. I was grateful for poor marksmanship-- had the IPs been better shots, some of us would certainly be dead.

Having all survived the IP attack Wednesday night, we launched out the gate at midnight (about four hours ago) to once again patrol Baquba. As we drove with the lights out down dark roads, there were radio reports of various American elements in light contact here and there around Baquba, but nothing remarkable. The weather was clear and dry, and the temperature was comfortably cool. Perfect conditions for the fair-weather insurgents to ambush.

About 30 minutes into the patrol, our Humvee gunner spotted a car driving, and Staff Sergeant Richard Sturm called on the radio to report the sighting. About two minutes later, Sturm said, “Is that a blinking light down there? On the right hand side?”

There seemed to be movement, but my camera was not set to night vision; the night vision mode interferes with friendly night vision gear inside the Humvees.

Sturm was peering through his night-monocular from the front passenger seat when he announced, “Right hand side, about 120 meters.”

Nine seconds later: Blam! An explosion. Right where Sturm had spotted something. Small-arms fire came from at least three positions, and our four Humvees began returning fire from crew-served weapons.

I was seated behind the driver and searching out my window when, Blam Blam Blam Blam, explosions began occurring to the left. I’m not sure how many, but I thought it might be RPG blasts and that we might be in the kill zone of an ambush. The up-armored Humvees are excellent against small arms and many IEDs, but a square shot from an RPG can kill everybody in the vehicle.

Sometimes you can follow what is happening in the firefights; other times it’s just a bunch of machine guns, explosions, flashing lights, radios and people yelling over the noise. The closer the explosions, the harder it is to guess what causes them. At close distance, shock waves are shock waves.

The shooting stopped after only a few minutes. Apparently we didn’t even get hit. The windows were okay at any rate.

Radio traffic told us that another of our elements was in contact nearby. We dismounted and Ghost started hunting on the ground. The area had serious ambush potential with roofs all around, not to mention all the windows and alleyways.

The machine-gunner thought he killed someone. The platoon sergeant, Sergeant First Class Carlos Ybarra, along with SSG Sturm, started sleeking around in the dark looking for dead people or blood trails. I followed them but we didn’t find anything but the smell of urine and a bullet hole.

Ghost started patrolling up the street while the Humvees flanked on our left. Some minutes into this, Sturm found the seat of a blast (the origin of an explosion) in the road. We kept moving. As we crossed a 4-lane intersection where the insurgents have planted bombs before, several of us were wide open, when all the neighborhood lights came on all at once. Suddenly, we were awash in light, completely exposed. SFC Ybarra, who was using night vision, said something like, “What’s that?”

I wasn’t wearing NVGs so I saw immediately what was happening. I turned to run from the open and said loudly, “Lights are coming on!” Urban warfare environments are confusing, but insurgents are known to control streetlights or electricity during ambushes, so when in doubt, just ask one question-- What would a cockroach do?-- and immediately obey the answer. We piled into the nearest Humvee and drove to cover. This time no shots were fired. Perhaps it was coincidence that the lights came on while we were in the intersection.

A large mosque stood nearby. Another platoon had just reported taking fire from it, so we rolled there, dismounted, secured the area, and waited for the Iraqi police (who had shot at us last night.) The Iraqis would raid the mosque. While Ghost waited in the shadows of the lights from nearby homes, a Shadow UAV starting buzzing overhead. That little airplane had been the eyes of death for many insurgents in Baquba. That presence in the dark overhead was the eyes of the TOC peering down, watching our unguarded flanks.

When the IPs started to roll up in their pickups, I ran for cover. Thankfully, they held their fire. A few minutes later, Iraqi Army soldiers also arrived, wanting to storm the mosque. An argument began between the IAs and the IPs. Arguments between the IP and IA are like the inter-service rivalries between the US Navy and the Army except for this one thing: the Iraqis are apt to shoot each other.

Captain Derrick Burden, Ghost Platoon leader, separated the elements and sent the IPs with American MPs, who had arrived to coordinate storming the mosque. The American Army stayed on the perimeter, but since I’m not in the Army, I joined the IPs, who found only a family sleeping in a building attached to the mosque. However, they also found a very old RPK light machine gun, sans bipod, along with a few hundred rounds of ammunition.

When they found the machine gun, I thought they were going to rip into the man. They have a reputation for beating people down. Not tonight, however. They quickly got hold of themselves. I wondered if their self-control was due to the American MPs who were keeping the temperature down. Hard to say.

While the American Army waited outside, the IPs, wearing their black masks, disappeared with the suspect back into a building. It was very dark and they did not have night vision goggles, just two flashlights they had borrowed from Americans. I had slipped in behind them and was videotaping the scene. If they were beating the guy down, I was going to get it on tape. But they were not. In fact, they were civil about the search. And I got that on tape.

The kids were crying, but the Iraqi police were being kind to them and their mom, and the suspect sat unmolested in an adjacent room while a search of the house continued. The IPs were actually careful throughout the search not to damage any personal property. They certainly weren't living up to their reputations as thugs—and as the guys who keep shooting at us. When they realized I was there filming, they asked me to turn off the camera. So I switched to taking still photos.

Although the man in the mosque definitely had an RPK machine gun that he shouldn’t have had, he didn't seem to be one of our attackers. I could have been wrong about that, but it was just my gut feeling. He said that he had been hired to guard the mosque and he seemed to be living there comfortably with his family. When he saw me, he clearly recognized an American face, and started to make an appeal, but he was cuffed and taken to jail. If this man really was hired to guard the mosque, it would be easy to sort out in the morning and release him, minus the munitions.

Ghost loaded up and headed back to Gabe. As we passed through an Iraqi police checkpoint at about 0300, the driver in front of me said quietly to himself, “Please don’t shoot us.”

“What’d you say?” asked SSG Sturm.

“Just talking to myself, Sir” said the driver.