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Feature: Raid in Iraq's 'Indian Country'

By PAMELA HESS   |   Aug. 6, 2003 at 6:20 AM
CAMP SCORPION, Iraq, Aug. 5 (UPI) -- Northern Babil province is what the Marines call, in their typically politically incorrect way, "Indian country." When there are ambushes on Army supply convoys, when roadside explosions claim the limbs and lives of American servicemen driving in Humvees, when humanitarian aid workers' cars are shot at, this is usually where it happens.

The army has lost about 50 soldiers to enemy fire since the war ended. Task Force Scorpion is here to do something about it. What was once a clash of armies has come to this: painstaking detective work, and then a hunt for the "bad guys," one at a time.

The 4th Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion heads Scorpion. They have moved from hot spot to hot spot throughout Iraq and have now brought their peculiar blend of high spirits and blood thirst to north Babil. Their morale is disproportionate to the squalid conditions in which they live.

Mad Max would turn his nose up at Camp Scorpion. There is nothing but garbage and dirt and sand as far as the eye can see. Marines live and sleep in the open air of a gravel parking lot, except for the few one-story concrete buildings that are air conditioned on the rare occasions the generators can be coaxed to work. They have no chow hall (they drive to an army supply outpost a few miles away to eat twice a day) and until portable toilets arrived recently, bathroom facilities were a plywood bench with four holes in it, side by side. Powerful winds sweep the grounds, kicking up massive dust clouds that coat everything in dull brown powder several times a day.

"This is the best we've had it!" laughs Master Gunnery Sgt. Paul D. Clark, from Austin, Texas, the battalion's operations chief.

Clark is not kidding. It's better than the underground bunker, where their faces and hands inexplicably swelled like sausages. It is better than the sheep farm, where they were covered head to toe with unknown insect bites. It is better than the castle on the Iran-Iraq border where it was never less than 115 degrees and the rooms were filled with flies and mosquitoes.

Once they cleaned out months of accumulated human and animal feces -- origins unclear -- with shovels and wheelbarrows, Camp Scorpion became Club Med in comparison.

"See that brown line?" Clark asks, enjoying the telling, pointing to a faint horizontal mark circumnavigating the room about a foot off the floor. That was the top of the pile, he says.

The rough concrete walls are covered in Arabic graffiti. There is a framed picture of a young Saddam Hussein that one sergeant intends to "liberate" when he leaves. Camouflage ponchos cover the doors, and the harsh sun is blocked with torn cardboard boxes in the window frames. It looks like every war movie set ever built, but 100 times worse.

The 4th LAR is the only Marine reserve battalion commanding active duty forces in Iraq, says commander Lt. Col. Anthony Pappas. Like most of the men in the 1,000-man task force, Pappas is a civilian most of the year. He works at the Drug Enforcement Administration in southern California.

The 4th LAR moved to north Babil in June from the castle on the Iran-Iraq border at the Army's request.

The Army had set up its main resupply depot at a desolate place known as Dogwood. It is a relatively straight shot north to the bulk of Army forces at the Baghdad International Airport. It has good roads, but they require passing through a highway intersection known as the "Mixing Bowl."

"The army out of the blue picked Dogwood. It is the most ambush-friendly place in Iraq," Pappas says. "Every terrorist-wannabe is coming here to kill Americans."

While the Army loses soldiers to guerilla attacks on an almost daily basis, the Marines have not lost one. They have suffered heavy casualties, however.

"We've had a lot of wounded," says Maj. Joe Cabell, who in his civilian life plans military exercises in Hawaii. "My detachment of 50 has had five injuries. Three are back on duty and two had to be medevaced. Still, that's 10 percent."

Although the area is close to Baghdad and it was Army convoys being attacked, Babil is technically within the 1st Marine Division's area of operation. It falls to them to get it under control.

"It was a joke when we came here," Pappas says of the security situation.

Like Fallujah and Baghdad to the north, north Babil is dangerous.

"It's our problem child," acknowledges Lt. Col. David Furness, operations officer for the 1st Marine Division based in Babylon.

In the haste to get to Baghdad during the war, no forces stayed behind to tame the area. Most of the Marines' progress to the capital city was conducted as a leapfrog operation: One unit would fight forward, then stay in place for three or four days while another pushed ahead. The Marines left back would resupply, rest, clean their weapons and then fan out into the villages to hand out candy and food, assess their humanitarian needs, and forcibly bring order where it was needed.

North Babil never received such attention.

"They roared through the area because they were wanting to hit Baghdad," says Maj. Dave Bellon, a lively San Diego personal injury attorney and the task force's operations director.

The problem, say Pappas and Bellon, was standard Army land-warfare doctrine. When a supply convoy is attacked, it is supposed to speed up and get out of the danger zone. Once the vehicles are through the ambush area, the force can swing around and go after the enemy if it has the firepower to do so.

That response only makes sense, however, if the convoy were attacked by an enemy that knows how to ambush, Bellon says. A well-trained enemy would shoot the first and last vehicles in line, halting the procession in place, and then destroying it in its own good time.

The 4th LAR soon figured something out.

"They didn't know what they're doing!" Bellon says. "They fire at the middle truck and then run away. If Marines were doing the ambushes, they'd all be dead."

But it was enough to do serious damage to the Army: The lumbering supply convoys were sitting ducks, as the Marines tell it. The drivers sometimes wore flip-flops and headphones instead of Kevlar and body armor, and they frequently stopped at roadside stands for sodas, Bellon says.

"This place was going off like a firecracker," he says.

What the Marines did was simple: They escorted the convoys and fired back. In the two weeks before the 4th LAR arrived, there were 51 ambushes on convoys. For the first eight days after the Marines arrived and began work, there was none.

"We thought we had it pretty well snapped," Bellon says. "Marines were stopping and fighting, and they (the shooters) were getting killed."

The shooters, who the military says were generally out-of-work locals paid by remnants of Saddam's Baathists to take potshots at Americans, were no match for Task Force Scorpion. Gunmen who survived contact with the Marines went back to their villages and told of their enemy's mystical powers -- the force-field that protected the snub nosed, 14-ton Light Armored Vehicles, and the "magic eyes" -- infrared sensors -- that let them see at night.

"Suddenly it became a bad summer job to have," Bellon says.

With the enemy now engaged on the roads, Task Force Scorpion turned its attention to a "hearts-and-minds" campaign for the two main towns, Yusifiyah and Mumadiyah. The 4th LAR has begun what will be $350,000 worth of projects that will be completed next month.

Of critical importance is electricity. Hundreds of miles of canals crisscross the area, providing the only irrigation; it almost never rains. It takes three full days of electric power to pump water through the canal system from start to finish. The best the Marines have been able to muster is about 3 hours on and 3 hours off.

After a month of working in the villages -- handing out candy and toothbrushes to children, refurbishing schools and running 3,000 meters (nearly 2 miles) of electrical wire to hook into the Baghdad power grid -- they began to see a change. The people, if not waving from the streets, are at least beginning to point out the "bad guys" to them in private. Sometimes a sheikh appears at the camp gate with a note, other times the information comes when a Marine is walking a patrol.

"For 35 years, anyone with an innate leadership either was on board with the Baath party or killed. This is an entire generation of people who watch and wait," Bellon says. "We also told them not to let their sons take the money, because we'll kill them (if they shoot at us)."

But one day in June, someone fired a rocket-propelled grenade into a military ambulance and then moved in for the kill with guns. The daylight attack -- the first one Task Force Scorpion had seen -- claimed one soldier and critically wounded two, including the injured man being transported.

"The day we lost that soldier was like a gut shot. There was a lot of anger," Bellon says. "That was the first indication we were involved in a chess match. They were evolving, and we were evolving."

Forced to fire from farther and farther away from the road to avoid certain death, the shooters soon switched to "improvised explosive devices" -- often a 120mm artillery shell with a fuse, or a car battery packed with C-4 explosives. As days wore on, the devices got more sophisticated, evolving from command detonation -- with the attacker on the scene to set off the bomb -- to trip wires and timing devices. Sometimes a motorcycle will pull up next to a convoy and toss a landmine underneath.

Despite the escalation, a Marine intelligence officer sees an improvement.

"They are afraid to engage us up close," he says. "We're winning."

But defensive operations can no longer handle the threat. The 4th LAR is now on the offensive, collecting intelligence and swooping down on their enemies' homes in the minutes before dawn. They have conducted more than 20 raids on the houses of people suspected of organizing the attacks.

"We're right in their face. It's great!" says Pappas, gleeful in the hours before the night's raid.

As godforsaken as Camp Scorpion seems, a few miles west on the banks of the Tigris is a shady green paradise that would not look unfamiliar to wealthy Floridians -- blue sky, palm trees, jasmine and a fast-moving waterway behind well-kept, large, modern homes.

"This is beach-front property for Baghdad," Bellon says.

The Marines are convinced these are the homes of the moneymen -- the brains and resources behind the attacks.

This weekend, the 4th LAR saw something new: an Improvised Explosive Device -- or IED -- made from a soda can sitting on a pile of rocks a few feet high on the side of the road. The added height allowed the bomb to bypass the armored undersides of the target vehicle and to spray its shrapnel at a level calculated to do maximum damage to the person. On Friday, a Humvee drove into the trip wire, about a kilometer -- just over half a mile -- from the task force command center. The can exploded, firing rocks and gravel at the driver and tearing apart his arm. It may have to be amputated.

This was especially dispiriting news at command headquarters. On July 22, they had captured a man they believed to be behind the 18 IED attacks on the roads near the Mixing Bowl. They were pretty sure they had their man, as there had been no attacks for 10 days -- until the soda-can bomber.

Friday night's raid, however, had a different quarry.

The raid went after one man, a well-heeled resident of the Baath neighborhood with a house on the river, a Mercedes and a satellite dish.

"This is the suburb of Baghdad where all these knuckleheads live," Pappas says.

The raid involved two UH-1 helicopters with forward-looking infrared sensors in case there are "squirters" -- people who escape and hide in the surrounding vegetation.

Also participating were almost 50 Marines, four Light Armored Vehicles, two Humvees and a team of engineers that will use metal detectors to look for buried weapons or explosives on the property. Cabell, the military-exercise planner who lives in Hawaii, planned the raid.

"We've had this guy's name for four weeks," he says.

Task Force Scorpion asked that the target's name not be released.

They have information that this man planned and financed a late June ambush against a military police convoy that was heading to repair a water-treatment facility. The attack seriously wounded one Marine and hurt two more. An LAV unit got the distress call and raced to the fight. It flipped in a gully. One Marine was crushed and seven more were wounded.

"That was a big day for us," Bellon says. "We've been waiting for this guy."

After a series of briefings and small unit rehearsals, the raid party left Camp Scorpion at 3 a.m. local time. The LAV units were to arrive at the house about 45 minutes before dawn and knock on the door. An Arab linguist would direct those inside to open the door and ask for permission to search.

"We search anyway," Cabell says with a sly smile. "But it's good to ask."

But there's a snag -- the raid party arrived 15 minutes late. The helicopters had been waiting in the air, burning fuel.

Finally in place, the raid party knocked on the door and asked for permission to enter. No response. They kicked in the door.

"We've got a squirter!" a voice crackled over the radio.

They found seven sleeping men on a roof deck. The eighth man heard the raid and launched himself -- wearing nothing but underwear, according to the Marines -- from the deck to the backyard, and slid down the steep, muddy slope to the Tigris.

The Marines gave chase but couldn't find him. His ride down the bank had camouflaged him in mud. They were 2 meters away from his hunched form and had no idea where he was.

Overhead, the Huey turned on its infrared sensor and quickly located the man in the mud. With a laser pointer, Bellon designated the target's body. At that moment, he lurched into the river and disappeared into the reeds that stand 6 feet tall.

Three Marines tore off their body armor and boots and dived in after him. At the same moment, the Hueys had to pull off. They were out of fuel.

The search continued on the river. Without the Hueys, though, they had no way of distinguishing their well-hidden target in all the vegetation. The sun was fully up now, diminishing the edge that thermal sensors would give them when the helicopters returned.

In the backyard of an adjacent house, seven handcuffed men knelt in a circle, facing out, on a patch of grass surrounded by bedraggled rose bushes and Marines whose M-16s pointed at the ground or hung off their backs. Nearly a dozen pajama-clad children and four women watched through curtains from inside the house.

Two boys brought water to the captives. A Marine grabbed one of the captives who was watching the search party and forced him to look down.

The Hueys returned and flew low over the reeds, using the powerful downwash of the rotors to flatten the thick brush on the banks. They saw the escapee pop up once before he disappeared again. The helicopters pulled off for more fuel.

"When the helos had to refuel we lost him on IR," Cabell says, shaking his head, angry. "I had to blow one of 40 raids. I'm almost perfect every time. I miscalculated by 15 minutes."

The prisoners told the Marines the man they were looking for was not there. He had left the house the day before, they said. Moments later, Saudi-born Staff Sgt. Rashed Qawasmi emerged from the house with the man's wallet, driver's license and car keys. He also carried a letter that discussed the jihad against the Americans at length.

"Left yesterday? Without his keys and wallet?" Cabell asks. "These people must think we're retarded."

He gave the order and one by one the men's heads were hooded with empty sand bags. Although they could breathe -- the plastic fabric is porous -- it is a frightening experience for them and their watching families. The Marines use the hoods to control their prisoners without having to use force, and to keep them from knowing where they are going.

"It keeps 'em from looking around," Cabell says grimly.

The children came to the door and then into the yard, crying and beating their legs and arms in fear and anger. The women pleaded in Arabic, pointing to the crying children. It was an awful scene.

"I told her to keep the damn kids inside, they don't need to see this," Cabell said sharply to Qawasmi.

This is the hardest part for the Marines, who are well aware these women and children think their loved ones are going to be executed -- because that is what Saddam used to do when he brought out the hoods. But most of these men will be home within hours or days, they say.

"The kids just kill you," a sergeant says. "They break your heart."

One of the hooded seven was about 17. As he was led away, he began to sob and beg to see his mother one last time. Qawasmi pulled him aside. Still, in the hood, the boy began to whisper: Three of the men came here for a meeting last night with the Iraqi who disappeared into the brush. They are planning an attack on the Americans. The man who fled is the man the Marines want.

The boy was allowed to see his mother, and then was put in an LAV with the others. He was warned not to speak to them.

All the prisoners would return to Camp Scorpion's detention facility where they would sit for 8 hours before anyone interrogates them. They would get food and water, but the wait is critical for wearing them down, an intelligence officer says. U.S. military rules say they can only be kept for 72 hours at Camp Scorpion. At that point, they will either be freed or sent to a prisoner of war camp in southern Iraq, said an intelligence officer.

A young sergeant told Cabell he found fresh tracks in the mud, leading away from the river. The man somehow got from the water, around the Marines looking for him, and past the point guard on the road.

"He's probably in someone's house by now," the sergeant says.

Cabell reluctantly called off the raid, most of which United Press International was present for. His man got away. But they have a huge haul -- they've never pulled in seven potential plotters before, and they are sure they disrupted a future attack. And they also have their target's Mercedes.

"We'll give a receipt to his wife and tell her he can come pick up the car tomorrow," Cabell laughs. "You wouldn't believe how often that works. These guys will just come to the gate."

Despite the escape and fruitless search, Pappas says the mission is a success.

"He's running around in his underwear, covered in mud and smelling like the river and he knows we're looking for him," Pappas says. "That's not small."

The psychological blow to the men who are targeting the Americans will be major, Pappas says. They know their neighbors are giving up their names and their addresses. They no longer act with impunity.

Besides, Pappas has something else in mind for the man who got away.

"We're telling the seven guys we got that he didn't escape. We let him go," he laughs. "The search was for show. We're telling them he is working for us."

After the 6-hour mission, which has caused them to miss breakfast, lunch will likely be a small can of tuna and an orange, the 50 exhausted Marines return to Camp Scorpion.

Six sweating engineers and a Navy medic tumble out of the back of the cramped LAV and unload their gear under the scorching sun. Their home is a taped off square of gravel parking lot, wedged between LAVs and Humvees and port-a-potties. They have eight nylon cots among them. They do not have a tent. A dust storm is kicking up, coughing hot, dry sand all over them.

They have another mission in 18 hours: to capture three men who have put a bounty on Qawasmi's head.

"The latest intel says its about $2,000," Qawasmi laughs. "That's cheap, huh?"

The Saturday night raid yields two of the three men. The most important one got away, a senior military official told UPI.

© 2003 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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