Friday, March 25, 2005

Video: One Thousand Sheep

Terrorist leaves trail of Tangled Tales to foil US Soldiers. Plan doesn't work.

Camp Caldwell
Iran Border Region, Iraq

A platoon from the Tennessee National Guard was preparing to creep up to the Iranian border during the night. Using night-vision equipment, the soldiers were to employ ground surveillance radar to locate smugglers crossing the mountains into Iraq. But as the platoon prepared their equipment for the night's mission, Captain James Hite, the company commander for Team Brave 1/278th Regimental Combat Team, walked into the TOC and announced a new mission. Fresh intelligence indicated that a priority target had arrived in a nearby village. The smugglers would get a free pass tonight; the platoon was to conduct a hasty raid to capture or kill a suspected terrorist.

The target was Ali Niami Jani, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Iraqi Border Patrol, who moonlights for Iranian Intelligence. Ali Jani was apparently a proud and boastful man, saying he owned "a thousand sheep." Translation: I’m rich.

According to the Iraqi Border Patrol, Ali Jani was known to smuggle "anything that will make money" into Iraq, or into Iran: drugs, weapons, explosives. Ali Jani is also known to sell arms and explosives used to attack Coalition and Iraqi forces. This would make Jani a terrorist.

Captain Hite arrived with the orders at 1930 local time, saying that the raiding party was to depart Camp Caldwell at 2100. Reducing the situation to the essentials, Captain Hite, in essence, walked in with the photo of a terrorist and said, "We think this guy is here. Our job is to get him." The platoon had ninety minutes to make a plan and launch out the gate.

Captain Hite instructed his subordinate leaders to prepare their men, meanwhile he ordered a satellite photo of the target to be printed large, and within a short while the map, labeled SECRET, covered a desk. Several officers crowded about the map, planning the raid. "You go here, you go there, we'll go here. . . . " There was little time for "what ifs."

After the plan was set, Captain Hite called in his junior leaders to brief the operation. Eight Humvees would split into two groups of four Humvees each, and the two groups would approach the target house from two directions. Lieutenant Jeffrey Pettee would lead four Humvees, while Captain Hite took the other four. Resistance on the objective would be met with deadly force. If anyone tried to escape through the open fields surrounding the target, they would be shot.

The eight Humvees rolled out the front gate and into the Iraqi night, passing armed checkpoints and navigating in largely featureless terrain. Nearing the objective, Captain Hite's Humvee became stuck in mud, but the men knew the drill, and within a short time, they unstuck the Humvee and the mission continued. As the raiding party approached the target, two men with AK-47s stood guard near the house. They did not fire.

We drove past the guards and stopped just near an Iraqi Border Patrol truck parked in front of the target house. The raid must have come as surprise; weapons were left inside the vehicle.

The US soldiers quickly rounded up six men and one more guard armed with an AK-47, but all denied knowing the whereabouts of Ali Jani. One man offered that they had come to the house to check on the well-being of another Border Patrol agent that our soldiers had shot and killed nearby the night before.

But Lieutenant Pettee sensed the men were lying and, after much clever questioning, announced to Captain Hite that he was sure that Ali Jani was in one of the nearby houses and that his soldiers should search every house.

Soldiers fed small clues to Lieutenant Pettee and Captain Hite. For instance: The tea the men had been drinking was still warm. A door in a house that had been locked was now open. There were six ashtrays and six teacups. Fresh cigarette smoke had filled the room. But so what? Was there something useful in all this?

Soldiers outside continued to watch other houses, and at some point they saw several men peek from a door. This was the clue. The soldiers raided the house, and found Ali Jani.

After his capture, Jani said, "I should never have sold those AKs," and "I am worth a thousand sheep." Ali Jani seemed to nearly cry as the soldiers loaded him into the backseat of the Humvee.

Back at base, I asked Lieutenant Pettee why he was certain that Ali Jani was nearby, and why he thought the men were lying.

Lieutenant Pettee looked me square and said, "I'm an elementary school principal."

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