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`Fear took over'

U.S. advisors lament the conduct of Iraqi troops ambushed during a joint raid. `They refused to move.'

December 04, 2006|Solomon Moore | Times Staff Writer

Forward Operating Base Al Rashid, Iraq — BURSTS of AK-47 fire hissed past them from several directions at once, showering the U.S. and Iraqi soldiers with pulverized cement and slapping spider-web fractures into their Humvees' bullet-resistant glass turret-guards.

The joint security forces, undertaking what officials described as a major counterinsurgency operation, were in pursuit of 70 "high-value targets" in Baghdad's crowded Fadhil quarter, a Sunni Arab neighborhood of multistory tenements along the east bank of the Tigris River.

Instead, the soldiers of the Iraqi army's 9th Mechanized Division and their American trainers had walked into a deadly ambush Friday. From upper-story apartments, insurgents stopped the soldiers' advance with grenades and shoulder-fired rockets. Others launched coordinated mortar strikes, hitting one of two nearby Iraqi field posts.

By the time the 11-hour battle was over, one Iraqi soldier had been killed and six others wounded, including one who shot himself in the foot. A U.S. soldier was also wounded and, according to American troops interviewed, additional casualties were averted only because U.S. Apache attack helicopters were called in and American trainers shot their way out of the ambush.

"Fear took over" among the Iraqis, Staff Sgt. Michael Baxter said.

"They refused to move. We were yelling at them to move," he said. "I grabbed one guy and shoved him into a building. I was saying, 'God get me out of this, because these guys are going to get me killed.' "

The offensive was initially billed by U.S. officials in Baghdad as an Iraqi-led success and a case study in support of the Pentagon's increasing reliance on using American troops as military advisors as a way to shift security responsibilities to Iraqi soldiers.

Expansion of teams

U.S. officials say an imminent expansion of the Military Transition Teams -- squads of American military advisors traveling with Iraqi army units -- will meet demands Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki made of President Bush at their meeting in Amman, the Jordanian capital, last week for more authority over his own security forces.

But interviews at their joint Rustamiya base with U.S. advisors and Iraqi soldiers involved in Friday's battle revealed a different story. The operation was hastily prepared and badly executed, they said, and plans to let the Iraqis take the lead in the battle were quickly scrapped.

"It started out that way," Baxter said. "But five minutes into it, we had to take over."

Staffed with veterans of the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s and equipped with a complement of refurbished Soviet tanks and American Humvees, the 4,000-soldier 9th division is considered Iraq's best hope for an eventual U.S. troop withdrawal.

But confusion swiftly reigned as insurgents in Fadhil pummeled dismounted Iraqi troops and their American advisors. U.S. radio jammers seeking to hinder communications between insurgents ended up blocking the Iraqi soldiers' walkie-talkies, forcing them to use unreliable cellphone signals to stay in contact. Voice commands were lost amid the explosions and gunfire echoing off the walls.

At one point, U.S. and Iraqi troops piled into a Humvee to escape the hail of insurgent bullets pinging off the armor cladding.

"I was pulling people in," said Army Sgt. 1st Class Kent McQueen. "We were all bunched in there together with the gunner. It was like a game of Twister."

An insurgent tried to throw a grenade into a Humvee's top hatch, but it bounced off and exploded on the ground.

At times, the overwhelmed Iraqi soldiers fired wildly, sweeping their machine-gun barrels across friendly and insurgent targets alike, witnesses said.

"I had to throw bullet casings at them to get their attention," said Sgt. 1st Class Agustin Mendoza, another U.S. trainer who manned a Humvee gun turret during the battle. "They had no weapons discipline."

"A round hit the glass shield of my turret behind me," Mendoza said. "I hit a guy down the alley and a propane tank. It exploded in a big fireball."

The number of insurgents in the area was estimated at more than 100. Soldiers said they killed 20 and detained 43 others, including three foreign fighters.

No count was made of the number of civilians killed in the densely populated neighborhood, but U.S. and Iraqi soldiers acknowledged a significant amount of "collateral damage."

Apache helicopters beat down on the dilapidated tenements, drilling hundreds of .50-caliber rounds into concrete walls and rooftops. At least twice they unleashed Hellfire missiles, shattering walls and rooftops with flashing thunderclaps. On the ground, Iraqi T-55 tank commanders fired their main guns down the narrow alleyways, smashing structures into an avalanche of bricks.

McQueen felt something jerk his head back violently and then pressed his finger into a bullet-sized dent in his Kevlar helmet.

At one point he noticed Iraqi soldiers in their armored Humvees pulling away in panic.

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