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Search for U.S. soldiers, answers after May attack

A report and interviews point out lapses that may have left the unit in Iraq vulnerable.

July 19, 2007|Tina Susman | Times Staff Writer

QARAGHUL, IRAQ — On the night of May 9, an insurgent leader gathered recruits at a farmhouse in this lush agricultural region along the Euphrates River. He handed out weapons and then, after midnight, led his followers to a road on which two U.S. Humvees sat guard.

As the insurgents, moving on foot, neared the Humvees, they heard the engines running. They retreated into the thick foliage lining the road, apparently thinking the troops were on a heightened state of alert.

Two nights later they returned. This time, the Humvees were silent. The insurgents struck.

Within minutes, four Americans and one Iraqi soldier were dead. Three U.S. troops were captured; one, Pfc. Joseph J. Anzack Jr. of Torrance, later was found dead. Two soldiers, Spec. Alex R. Jimenez and Pvt. Byron W. Fouty, remain missing.

A military assessment of the incident, based in part on statements by some of the scores of people detained after the incident, and interviews with soldiers familiar with the case provide previously unknown details of the carefully planned attack.

They reveal the disquieting ease with which a large team of insurgents staged a successful assault on U.S. troops, a success particularly striking because the area, south of Baghdad, is known for insurgent activity. Eleven months earlier, a similar attack occurred nearby, leaving three soldiers dead.

The incident haunts the soldiers of the 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment, who are still deployed here, an area widely called the "triangle of death."

Some of them say the attack has affected their ability to trust locals because they are certain those responsible are from this area. For many, their worst fear is that their deployments will end before the case is resolved.

"It has taken a big part of their heart," said Staff Sgt. Alan Ecle, speaking at a small patrol base half a mile from where the men were attacked.

"We know sometimes people are rescued or escape these situations, and we hope the same thing can happen for our guys," Ecle said. "But being out here on the front lines -- we're soldiers. We know how it works. Each day that passes diminishes your hope."

The military assessment of the attack and interviews with soldiers here point out apparent mistakes that may have made the troops more vulnerable.

The two Humvees, each with four soldiers, had occupied the same spot for at least three straight nights, which would have made it easy for the insurgents to plan the assault. According to the assessment, the vehicles were about 165 feet apart and faced opposite directions, as did their gun turrets, leaving a stretch of unguarded space between them. The attackers used that space to approach each vehicle from the rear and hurl explosives into the gun turrets.

The military assessment said no soldiers were observed in the gun turrets when the insurgents made their move in the early hours of May 12.

A spokesman for the 10th Mountain Division, Maj. Webster Wright, said the space between the vehicles was "right in line with doctrine," the purpose to prevent a mortar round from taking out both Humvees.

Lt. David Spangenberg, a platoon leader with the 4th Battalion, said that after so many months in an isolated region with few roads, it is virtually impossible to avoid setting patterns as the Humvees may have done by staying in the same spot night after night. But, he said, the failure to safeguard all sides of the Humvees was troubling.

"You have to make sure you have 360 security," Spangenberg said. "It sounds to me like no one pointed out the glaring hole."

That no soldiers were observed on guard in the gun turrets at the time of the attack may have reflected the troops' fatigue, said soldiers here.

The region, with its concentration of Sunni Arab insurgents, is among the most dangerous for U.S. forces. Although all U.S. troops in Iraq have to complete 15-month tours instead of the usual 12 months, few have faced the rattling barrage of roadside explosives encountered by the soldiers with this unit, which arrived in September. Most are on their second or third tour in Iraq. At least 18 members of the battalion have been killed in action.

"You've got guys going on 10, 11 months now. The guys are just worn down," Spangenberg said.

The conditions under which most troops in this area of operation live add to their weariness.

Most, including the soldiers who were attacked, stay in austere bases that are little more than empty buildings turned into dorm-like dwellings with no running water, plumbing or privacy. They are cold in the winter and hot in the summer, when the temperatures rise above 120 degrees. Human and other waste is disposed of in fiery pits that create a smoky stench and add to the searing heat.

Troops must keep watch around the clock, as well as conduct foot patrols to try to foster relations with Iraqis in the area and gather information on insurgent activity.

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