Thursday, April 08, 2004

From Bad to Worse: 1st Armored Division Extended, Friends Fear for My Life and We Pack Up for Al-Kut and the Unknown

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* Early morning 08 April, 2004 0200

“Thompson, you must be very, very careful,” Haider told me very seriously tonight. “You are my brother, and I am worried about you.”
‘I know Haider, thank you,’ I answered, fully aware that Iraq is on the brink of total chaos. ‘Pray to Allah for me,’ I told him. He grabbed my hand and became gravely serious,
“I will Thompson, I will.”
Personally, I am morally opposed to the tactics we are using, because the victims of our attacks are going to be ordinary Iraqis – and every time the rebels coerce us into violence, we answer them in violence. It’s a cycle of violence that is only going to breed more destruction and upset the psychological balance here and spread desperation. We are doing exactly what Sadr wants – what Al-Qaeda wants – what Iran wants. It’s a big joke for everyone here.
Zone 23 is a pretty stable zone, but we sent tanks and scouts into the place to draw fire from gunmen. “If you have too much fun out there, I may have to pull you and go out there myself next time,” Knight 6 said. What he was saying was if any action unfolds, he wants to get a chance to get some confirmed kills. SSG Newsome and Foley asked to go out with our two headquarters tanks so they could get a chance to kill some gunmen and get bragging rights. Normally, these guys are office idiots, and not even good at that. It almost seemed we wanted to stir up trouble in a zone we haven’t had serious trouble with! Had gunfire erupted, innocent people could have been killed and property destroyed. For what? A few gunmen? It seemed we wanted to throw gas on a fire. I don’t understand this! Accelerate the chaos! Earlier, I asked why we don’t withdraw from Sadr City and cordon it off and seal it off and let them (Sadr Army) gather to no avail. It’ difficult to have a boxing match when only one player shows up. And if the Sadr Army wants to fight, they’ll have to do so along the edges of the city – and be engaged. Seal off, cool off, negotiate. Whoever wants to fight will be engaged after that. We need more air coverage. All of our air coverage and much of our radar coverage (used to alert us to incoming mortar rounds) and half of our tanks are in Kuwait. Sent there to make our redeployment easier to manage. Wishful thinking. In Fallujah, we are waging all out war. Even though American rules of engagement are generally held to, the media covers only the bombing of a mosque, and not the fact that gunmen mount attacks from the mosques. It’s a very serious situation. Many innocent lives are being wrecked, and not due to being hit by bullets, but because the perception is that chaos is upon us and Americans are to blame.
We, 3-32 AR, are now at war, and we may be moving to Al-Kut in southern Iraq next to Iran. The Ukrainian army retreated from the city, and we may have to retake it. Rumsfeld says we may have to stay longer. It’s a total nightmare – especially only days before getting to go home. I’ve got to sleep now, but Nora, I love you so strongly. I can’t wait to get home and live in peace. I want to get a nice place for us after this, and I’m going to work hard to do it. I love you, and I pray to God for peace and wisdom to come down on Bush – before this turns helpless.

I don’t know if they played a part or not, but Zone 23 became less hospitable after a series of unfortunate events. One event was the already mentioned shooting of an Iraqi youth. That didn’t help our image there at all. One day I was looking at our map board, and noticed that much of the hostile activity (cursing, rock-throwing, etc.) occurred on the north east corner of the sector. It just so happened that right across the highway from that area was our explosive ordinance disposal (EOD) disposal site. Everyday, several times a day, EOD would detonate captured explosives on the Al-Rasheed airfield. This would rock the immediate area and send people running into the TOC with the question, “Was that a controlled blast!?” We usually had forewarning about the blasts, but what about the Iraqis? Their neighborhoods were only half a mile away from the blast site. These were big explosions, and they certainly caused damage to the surrounding areas (the shock was routinely able to bust out windows and bring ceiling panels down). There had to be some negative effect on the local population. The population closest to the blast site was that of Zone 23.

A few days before Easter, Lieutenant Colonel Jagger called us all together in the auditorium of the barracks to tell us that we weren’t going home as planned. I think at that point, many of us stopped thinking about going home all together. We would get there when we got there. I felt like I was cursed. I was supposed to go home in February so I could transfer out of the Army. That was canceled due to the “stop loss” and then cancelled again because of the uprising. Later I would find myself still in the Army well past my end-of-contract date. No one really complained though. It was understood that we had a serious problem on our hands, and no one was going home until that problem was reduced. In the meantime, Sadr’s misfits were running about sabotaging bridges and seizing key community facilities. In the south, our “coalition of the willing” seemed a bit unwilling to defend their assigned territories. The Spanish withdrew from many of the urban areas they were tasked with protecting, seeking shelter in their own compounds. In Najaf, the Spanish were slow to assist several El Salvadorian soldiers who were pinned down in a warehouse facility. One El Salv corporal hid in the shadows as Sadr’s thugs overran the facility and hovered over the dead body of one of the corporal’s comrades. The corporal then pulled his knife out and engaged the terrorists in hand to hand combat. He successfully neutralized the threat just as reinforcements arrived. We developed a real respect for the El Salvs.
Not much could be said about the Ukrainians. They were in charge of the eastern city of Al-Kut, which they abandoned when fighting there became dangerous. It seemed our coalition partners weren’t willing to walk the walk. The Americans were forgiving though, reminding us that the Ukrainians were only their as peacekeepers and not peacemakers. After conferring with Kiev, the Ukrainian army pulled out of Al-Kut – claiming direct combat was not authorized. Iraq needed to be brought under control, especially southern Iraq. With coalition partners opting out of combat, it would be the Americans and the British (primarily) who would have to pacify the situation. Tanks were being brought back to Iraq from Kuwait. Helicopters were being unwrapped from their shipping covers in Kuwait. Their pilots were on the way back to Iraq after arriving home in the States for only a short while. Meanwhile, 3-32 Armor was packing up and getting ready to go to Al-Kut. Word was out that we needed Iraqi translators, anyone, to go with us to Al-Kut. Many Iraqis refused, saying it was too dangerous. The battalion offered to increase pay by several fold for any Iraqi who went with us. Only three volunteered, Ali Laundry, Ali Internet, and Sergeant Haider (Assad’s cousin).
We left on Easter Sunday. I remember thinking that would be a terrible day to die. With the situation in Iraq coming to a boil, the likelihood of encountering death seemed to have skyrocketed. The land seemed deadly. We lined up our trucks to convoy out. I ran quickly to say my last goodbyes to my Iraqi friends. They were all very scared for me, especially Haider and Assad. Assad had made me two steel plates to strap to my body. One plate covered my calf muscle, and the other one covered my thigh. He gave the plates to me and said, “I never though I would be worried this much about you, but I am very afraid they are going to try to kill you Thompson. Take this, I made it. I used this in Iran-Iraq war.” My eyes filled with tears as I left him and his brother Mazin. I felt horrible for leaving them there, and there was nothing I could do about it. I couldn’t save them, I couldn’t protect them. I ran upstairs to the internet cafe and saw Haider there. He warned me about the real danger on the way to Al-Kut. He told me, “If they kill Sadr, Iraq will explode.” We said our goodbyes all too quickly, and then I sprinted out to the trucks before we had to convoy out.
I was angry at Sadr. He started this fight. I would be damned if I was going to let one of his hoodlums kill me. Ali Laundry would be riding in my truck to Al-Kut. We were looking at a three hour road march ahead of us. As we started pulling out towards the Rustimiya gate, I drove and pieced my M-16 rifle back together at the same time. I wanted to get some last minute cleaning in to prevent it from jamming. As we left the gate and headed west, I said a quick prayer.
The drive to Al-Kut went by quickly. We expected contact, but encountered none. I did notice a white Chevy Caprice conducting surveillance on our convoy. I first noticed it in Baghdad as we left the gate. Then, the same vehicle would pass us, find a spot, and park. I told Walker about it, but there was really nothing we could do about it. We were in a convoy, and the convoy can’t stop. I remember pulling into the outskirts of Al-Kut. You could tell who was friend and who was foe. The foes would cast hateful smirks at you. I distinctly remember several children running out to our trucks yelling “Fuck you!” and making a throat-cutting gesture with their little fingers. That couldn’t be good. Others waved and cheered, more than I expected them to. It was confusing at times. All you heard about was the Sadr terrorists taking over Al-Kut and the ensuing popular uprising there. Then, you get there and all the people are cheering.
We pulled into an airbase on the outskirts of Al-Kut. Ukrainian guards in shades greeted us. We didn’t wave back. The road march seemed to last only a few minutes somehow. The city was calm as we arrived. The CPA facility in Al-Kut had been occupied by Sadr’s militia in the days before our arrival. They considered this a victory. It was short-lived though, as a U.S. AC-130 gunship hammered the leased hotel complex. 1-7 Infantry had taken the city back in the days before our arrival, and that explained the relative calm there. We were now tasked with stabilizing the area and awaiting further orders.
Easter night, I was able to break my Lenten fast at the KBR chow hall. The pickings were slim though, and items were being rationed out. Usually the contracted chow halls were chucked full of all-you-can-eat items, but now that our supply routes we impassable, items were not available. KBR truckers refused to drive due to the real dangers developing on the Iraqi highways. Reports were coming in from Rustimiya that the Diyala Bridge (a short distance from our old camp in Baghdad) had been blown. F-16 fighter jets were in the area striking insurgent positions. Some of our units remained at Rustimiya awaiting transportation to Al-Kut on large tractor trailers, called HETTs. Due to bridges being blown all over Iraq, HETTs were forced to drive longer, more dangerous detour routes. It seemed the country was falling apart.
Our battalion was originally stationed on Camp Delta, an only Iraq airbase to the west of the city. About a day after settling in at Camp Delta, it was decided that the TOC would have to move into the city. A TV station would be our new home. It was a relatively small compound. There was just enough room to place a tank at the gate of the TV station, and soldiers set up machine gun nests on the roof. It was a tight fit. It seemed crazy to put the TOC in such a vulnerable spot. We made it like home though, and soon Iraqis were earning American dollars by installing plumbing and selling Pepsi.


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