The Magazine

Under Fire in Baghdad

From the November 10, 2003 issue: Distinguishing foe from foe.

Nov 10, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 09 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Baghdad

IT WAS 6:03 A.M. on my Timex Expedition watch, which I always keep four minutes fast. The phone in our room at the al Rashid Hotel rang and my roommate, James Kitfield of National Journal, thanked the person for the wake-up. Bleary-eyed, we exchanged incoherent small talk. When did you get back last night? Sleep well? Hear about the Black Hawk downed in Tikrit?

We spent a little extra time on that last one. We had both been in Tikrit the day before. I learned about the helicopter at the filing center for journalists set up near our Baghdad hotel. Jim had already gone back to the room and saw the news on CNN. The Black Hawk hadn't actually been shot down, as CNN initially reported, but had taken fire from a rocket-propelled grenade after landing. One soldier had been wounded. We joked a bit about how this wouldn't help us convince loved ones back home not to be worried as we zipped around Iraq for three days with Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz.

Because he'd gotten a couple more hours of sleep than I did, Kitfield volunteered to shower first. But I couldn't sleep. I stood in front of the picture window in Room 1136 of the al Rashid, looking at the small courtyard below and the vast public park beyond the concrete wall that enclosed the hotel grounds. In the distance on my left, I could see Saddam Hussein's old parade grounds. I've long been fascinated by the monuments that mark the beginning and end of the parade route--identical sets of arms holding two swords that cross over the street. The blades form arches, maybe 10 stories high. Processions of soldiers used to pass underneath these arches in celebrations that were not infrequent in the late 1980s, when Iraq was a military power.

More than almost anything else in Iraq, this display--the giant arms are said to be exact replicas of the former Iraqi dictator's, down to the hair follicles--captures the egomania and megalomania of the old regime. The ground beneath the arches is paved with the helmets of dead Iranian soldiers. I hadn't yet seen it up close, and I began to think through how I might propose a brief visit to one of Wolfowitz's top aides, Kevin Kellems.

As my eyes wandered, my gaze passed over a bright blue trailer just on the other side of a wall near the al Rashid. It was parked at the end of a cul-de-sac off a newly opened road just outside of the heavily fortified "green zone," maybe 200 yards from the hotel. That it was out of place--a small patch of color in a landscape that was otherwise desert brown to the horizon--seemed curious but not threatening.

A moment later, I watched as the first rocket left the trailer and whizzed over the wall toward the hotel. Then came another, and another, and another, and another, and another--flares of orange on a straight-line trajectory into the lower floors of the hotel. I suppose I expected them to stop, figuring whoever was shooting would have to pause and reload. So for probably 15 or 20 seconds, I stood at the window and watched. I looked in vain for the people firing at us. And the rockets just kept coming.

It finally occurred to me that standing in front of a window was not a good place to be, so I turned and ran out of the room. In the time it took for me to get from the window to the door--maybe two seconds--one of the rockets hit our floor. The hallway was filled with smoke, so, taking my cues from two soldiers crawling on their knees and elbows, I dropped to the floor. The door to my room shut behind me. Remembering that Kitfield was still in the shower, I pounded on the door to get his attention, but he was already on his way out. He joined me in the hallway and we waited until the concussive blasts had ended.

The hallway had already begun flooding. Six rooms down from ours, an internal wall had been blown into the hall by the rocket. The smoke seemed to be getting thicker, and there were shouted warnings of a "big fire," though I never saw one. I stopped in the room next door to ours, where NBC News cameraman Jim Long and veteran Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski were standing in front of the window. Long was shooting video of the smoke near the blue trailer.

I walked down the hall to survey the damage. It was restricted to one room, but extensive. Water on the 11th floor was more than ankle-deep. The man staying in the room that was hit, Lt. Col. Charles Buehring, was a top adviser to L. Paul Bremer, the civilian administrator of Iraq. Buehring, described to me by several of his colleagues as a "true American hero," did not survive his injuries. In all, 16 al Rashid guests were injured.

As I walked down the 11 flights of stairs to the lobby, I noticed a small drop of blood near the fourth-floor landing. By the time I reached the ground floor, the white tiles were mostly covered with red footprints--some showing the treads of shoes, others the imprints of bare feet.

The attack could have been far worse. The blue trailer held 40 anti-tank rockets--20 Russian and 20 French. Just 29 of the 40 rockets fired. Seventeen of those 29 hit the building. And only six of the 17 rockets that hit the building exploded. Six out of 40 did what they were supposed to do.

The French rockets, according to three U.S. Army ordnance experts who examined them, were of recent vintage and were almost certainly produced after their export to Iraq was prohibited by the cease-fire that followed the 1991 Gulf War.

"They were the newer version," said one soldier who inspected the rockets. "So they were sold after the embargo was in place."

Weapons from a variety of countries are available on the black market in Iraq, including American-made "Stinger" surface-to-air missiles. The Bush administration has been careful to avoid speculating about French and Russian commercial interests contributing to their opposition to the Iraq War. But military officials here say they have found dozens of examples of French armaments, many of which were manufactured after the embargo and some of which have dates as recent as 2002.

Wolfowitz, who appeared concerned but composed throughout the morning, issued a strongly worded statement about the attacks. "This terrorist act will not deter us from completing our mission--which is to help the Iraqi people free themselves from the type of criminals who did this and to protect the American people from this kind of terrorism," he said. "There are a few who refuse to accept the reality of a new and free Iraq. We will be unrelenting in our pursuit of them."

I WENT TO IRAQ HOPING to return with answers to two questions. (1) Who, exactly, is attacking American soldiers and Iraqi civilians? and (2) Can we be more effective in stopping them?

The answer to the first question is unsettling: We don't know. In talking to military officials--high-ranking officers as well as grunts--I heard a wide variety of guesses, sometimes in the same discussion.

The Pentagon last week put the number of foreign fighters at 3,000 and suggested it was growing. General Norton Schwartz, in a briefing on October 23, didn't get into numbers but called the al Qaeda-affiliated Ansar al Islam the "principal organized terrorist adversary in Iraq right now."

But the day after Schwartz's briefing, the press traveling with Wolfowitz arrived in Baghdad and received a briefing from a senior military intelligence officer. His answer was different. "The foreign fighter piece of this is very small," he said. "We're talking hundreds. That number is pretty small."

In central Iraq, site of Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of the 4th Armored Division, seemed to concur. He reported that his troops spend most of their time fighting FRL--former regime loyalists--and "have not seen any al Qaeda yet." But minutes later, he said it's religious extremists who pose the "most enduring threat to the coalition."

Last Monday, after the attacks on the al Rashid and the car-bombing of the Red Cross in Baghdad, Odierno was asked directly "what percentage of the forces opposing you are foreign born, Baathist, and criminals?"

His response: "I would say that 95 percent are former regime loyalists. . . . There's a mixture of some people in it for criminal activity, but a lot of them are conducting criminal activity in order to pay for their operations against coalition forces, so I kind of wrap them together. And really it's a very, very small percentage of foreign fighters--2, 3, 4, 5 percent. We've really only picked up a few of those, a couple from Syria, some Wahhabists from other countries. But that's really been it. We have not seen a large influx of foreign fighters thus far."

Military officials near the Syrian border disagree with that second point. Jihadists are "streaming in," they say, and the strict rules of engagement imposed on American soldiers are making it difficult to stop the foreign fighters. (Soldiers on the border don't like the fact that they have to quickly remove and bury the terrorists they do kill, saying they would prefer to leave the bodies where they fall as a warning to other would-be fighters.)

It's hard to overstate the difficulty in collecting intelligence on the nature of the threat. But the answers above, while not necessarily contradictory, do suggest deep confusion about the answer to the most important question of postwar Iraq: Who are we fighting?

If military officials can't agree on the number of foreign fighters, there is no disputing that they have become increasingly effective. The four simultaneous bombings in Baghdad on October 27--the headquarters of the International Red Cross and three police stations--had classic al Qaeda characteristics. The attackers used 1,000 lbs. of plastic explosives and sent decoy vehicles ahead of the trucks carrying the bombs. The terrorists who bombed a housing complex in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on May 12, 2003, employed similar tactics.

The attack on the al Rashid, however, is believed to have been the work of former regime loyalists. So, too, are most of the attacks on coalition troops. Shortly after the war, the military recorded attacks at a rate of about 12 per day. That number has tripled--now averaging 36 per day.

In Tikrit, the heart of the so-called Sunni Triangle where most of these attacks take place, Odierno briefed the delegation on the nature of the threat. In that region, 20 to 30 percent of the Iraqi population is actively cooperating with coalition forces--meaning that they work for security forces or otherwise provide intelligence about who is resisting. Another 10 percent, says Odierno, actively oppose the coalition. And only a small fraction of those actually conduct the attacks. "The vast majority is indifferent," he says, though some "60 percent hate the old regime."

Those numbers tell only part of the story. President Bush was roundly mocked last week for claiming that the increased attacks are a sign of progress. If that argument seems counterintuitive, it's similar to one you hear from soldiers here all the time. "The resistance," they say, "targets our successes." But at some point, of course, for the successes to continue the attacks must decrease.

If the more-attacks-equals-success logic doesn't quite work, there are reasons to be optimistic about the changing nature of the incidents. First, the targets chosen are increasingly "soft," or easy to attack. The International Red Cross, with little more than sandbags as security precautions, was one of the softest targets in Baghdad. (The attack on the al Rashid, a harder target inside a secured zone, was an exception to this trend.) Second, the insurgents are increasingly targeting Iraqi civilians. "Half of the violence now is not directed at us," says one officer in the Sunni Triangle. "It's been redirected at the population. This is a big change." As Iraqis themselves become victims of terrorism, the ambivalent majority in the Sunni Triangle is beginning to take sides against the terror.

Third, the anti-American forces are having to pay their mercenaries more. Shortly after the war, Iraqis could earn $200-$500 for each attack on coalition forces. Today, those same attacks are costing the terrorists $5,000. And the insurgents aren't paying just for attacks. The military has intelligence indicating the three largest anti-American factions--FRLs, foreign fighters, and Iraqis affiliated with radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr--all have to part with significant sums of cash just to stage a protest. Participants in anti-American rallies earn $50. Such tactics may work while half of the Iraqi populace is unemployed. But as electricity comes back on line and jobs become more plentiful, fewer and fewer Iraqis will be wooed by such financial incentives.

AT BREAKFAST EARLY SATURDAY MORNING, I ran Odierno's breakdown by three young soldiers inhaling eggs, bacon, and French toast. Televisions in the background were tuned to ESPN. It was halftime of the Los Angeles Lakers game. As these young men prepared for another day of manning a checkpoint near an opulent palace, their friends back in the United States were probably swilling beers at a bar.

Two of the soldiers had been in Iraq since April and seemed relaxed as they related their experiences. The third had arrived a week earlier. Although we were well inside a heavily fortified perimeter, he was wearing his flak jacket as he ate his cereal. No one else was. He didn't appear scared, really, just wide-eyed and new.

The three soldiers largely agreed with Odierno's analysis of the population in their area of responsibility. I asked them if they felt threatened on a daily basis. Not really.

"But it can be tough sometimes," one of the soldiers volunteered before excitedly launching into a story of an attack that had taken place two nights earlier. "We were manning the checkpoint and heard gunfire nearby. We weren't sure whether it's coming at us or if it's us shooting at them. Then, all of a sudden, we see a civilian [an Iraqi] come running at us out of the darkness. Hang on--"

His commanding officer stopped and whispered something in the soldier's ear. He gave me a chastened look and, after his superior left, ran his finger across his neck. "That's it," he said. "Sorry."

After breakfast, we visited a training session of the Iraqi Civilian Defense Corps (ICDC). The group, more than police but not quite an Iraqi Army, is helping coalition troops go after insurgents. There were 20 of them gathered on a dusty field next to their makeshift classroom. Those in training were dressed in bright green, one-piece jumpsuits, which they wore with evident pride. As Wolfowitz and his entourage strolled past, the Iraqis stuck out their chins and stiffened their backs. They stood at attention--no doubt coached by their American trainers--afraid to twitch lest they stand out to the visiting dignitary. When instructed, they belted out their initials with deafening enthusiasm. "I-C-D-C!"

An American trainer began to put two ICDC recruits through the paces of a confrontation with the enemy. If done correctly, once the Iraqis face the enemy, they are to stagger their approach. One soldier will run forward, drop to the ground and provide cover to his partner, who once his partner is in position, runs forward, drops to the ground, and returns the favor.

Two Iraqis in green suits walked forward slowly, with a seriousness about them that suggested they might actually confront an enemy on the premises. Suddenly, the instructor shouted out a warning. "Enemy!" But rather than execute the plan laid out for them in English, through a translator, the two ICDC recruits jogged forward together and begin making the staccato "bup, bup, bup, bup, bup" noise that indicates they're shooting. The frustrated American trainer rushed forward and pushed one of the Iraqis to the ground. The other Iraqi, surprised to learn that they hadn't successfully executed the drill, looked bewildered but kept up his pretend shooting. "Bup, bup, bup, bup," he said more slowly, at this point not even looking in the direction he was "firing."

The American soldier quickly ended the botched drill. The Iraqis, through a translator, were told what they had done wrong and looked embarrassed. After a brief review of the proper tactics, they were given a second chance. This time, it was perfect and they were brought to Wolfowitz for a chat.

He asked one of the soldiers about the training. "The training is good. The only thing we want to change is the uniform," he said, pointing to the tan one-piece suit worn by an Iraqi who had completed training. "This is the uniform of the old regime."

Captain Jason Deel, in charge of this ICDC training program, says that a near riot broke out when the recruits were told that they would have to wear the uniforms worn by the old Iraqi Army. "They are not happy about it," he says.

Wolfowitz asked the Iraqi soldier if there is anything else he needed. "Maybe a pistol for when we go home" each night.

The ICDC is one small part of the rapidly expanding Iraqi security forces. Since June 1, according to Wolfowitz, some 86,000 Iraqis have begun working with the coalition on one aspect or another of the security situation. Intense training of new recruits continues throughout the country.

Deel has trained 62 ICDC soldiers thus far. They have begun to operate in and around Tikrit, yielding what the Americans here have characterized as "a windfall of intelligence." Lt. Col. Steve Russell explains: "They can go into homes of average Iraqis and talk and we cannot. They can go into mosques, places we do not go. They can communicate instantly. That's something we cannot do--translating takes time. They gather information from friends and peers. Iraqis feel confident about cooperating with them."

Deel says placing ICDC soldiers at checkpoints has already proved fruitful. "They can see a truck coming down the road and say, 'Stop that truck. It's stolen,' and sure enough, we'll stop it and the driver will have no ID. We'll investigate and find out later that [it] was stolen."

Coalition officials say this kind of intelligence will be the key to improving security in Iraq. Late last week, coalition officials said they had learned through several tips that a former top-ranking official of Saddam Hussein's regime was coordinating the attacks with Islamic fundamentalists. Former vice president Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, No. 6 on the most wanted list, is believed to be running large parts of the insurgency.

That's a curious development. Most of the contacts between the former regime and Ansar al Islam and al Qaeda had been handled by another of Saddam's vice presidents, Taha Yasin Ramadan. Administration officials are unsure if Ibrahim is building on that relationship or starting anew.

Either way, if the new intelligence is accurate, it may help explain why so many coalition officials in Iraq have described in recent weeks an increase in the coordination and effective execution of the attacks. And most important, the revelation may begin to provide an answer to the crucial question that has vexed the coalition since the fall of Baghdad on April 9, 2003.

Who, exactly, are we fighting?

Stephen F. Hayes is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.