Though almost a completely Sunni city, Samarra is probably best known for its lone Shia holy site - the Golden Dome mosque, built in 954 AD. It is the burial place of Islam's tenth and eleventh Imams, and was destroyed in February 2006 by al Qaeda in a massive attack that reignited mass sectarian violence in the region. The mosque's twin minarets were destroyed in June of this year, further inflaming Shia throughout the region.
The city, north of Baghdad along the east side of the Tigris River, is still in the "clear" phase of the three-step "clear-hold-build" counterinsurgency progression advocated by MNF-I Commanding General David Petraeus. Al Qaeda is the number one, and essentially only, enemy in Samarra, and maintains a large and forceful presence in the city. Most insurgents appear to come in from the north by the main road (which has a great deal of civilian traffic), execute their attacks, and leave.
"We've been told that 'no al Qaeda sleep in the city,'" Captain Buddy Ferris, commander of the 82nd Airborne's Charlie Company 2-505 (also known as Charlie Company "2-Panther"). C Co. is the lone conventional unit responsible for Samarra and the entirety of the sparsely populated surrounding countryside, which is perfect for hiding people and weapons. "They know that we'll hunt them down and kill them."
Charlie Company's missions in Samarra largely entail joint (Iraqi Police and U.S. Army) patrols, searches, reconnaissance for future raids, pursuit of high-value targets, and meetings with police, potential resistance leaders, and potential contractors to whom reconstruction projects can be allotted, should the city ever become more secure.
The action began on Tuesday at 1000 local time. Charlie Co.'s 4th Platoon (or "Green" Platoon) left the Company's headquarters, Patrol Base Olson, located on the extreme northwest edge of the city directly on the Tigris. Charlie Co. pursued an Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) sheik who had been spotted by an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that morning. After thirty minutes of running from house to house while conflicting directions were passed from UAV to the ground commander like a bad game of telephone, Green Platoon was harassed by several men firing AK-47s from a pair of sedans.
The Quick Reaction Force ("QRF"), Charlie Co.'s 1st Platoon (or "Red" Platoon), was ordered to mobilize and hunt down one of the two cars harassing Green Platoon and providing a moving "screen" from hostile fire. I mounted up with the QRF, and within two minutes of receiving the order, we were through the gate, through the National Police Battle Position just outside our patrol base, and out in sector.
The sedans were difficult to locate on the ground, and after about an hour of high-speed driving on both main and side roads, word came across the radio that the particular car had made it to the road north of the city and was on its way out into the hinterland where many of the terrorists who operate in Samarra hide.
As our Humvee column had no chance of catching the sedan before it escaped into the mountains northeast of the city, Apache helicopters were called in to destroy the vehicle -- which they did with a Hellfire missile.
THE SEDAN WAS still burning when we arrived. All four men in the car were dead: two outside of the vehicle, two inside. A soldier with a fire extinguisher dampened the flame. We found four AK-47s, an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade), and a PKC machine gun in and around the destroyed car. As Red Platoon's soldiers put the two salvageable bodies into body bags, one soldier - seeing only the smallest corner of what looked like a cell phone covered in bubble wrap - realized one of the bodies was outfitted with a suicide vest. The men quickly moved away from the bodies and called in Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD), who blew up the car and the suicide vest, along with an unexploded RPG round that had flown out of the vehicle when the missile had struck it. The one recoverable body that was not rigged to explode was put into a body bag and brought back for identification and burial by any family members who would claim it. It was all very humane.
Farther south in the city, an Apache destroyed the remaining sedan, though the people inside escaped before it was hit. A third car was struck, as well, and a person inside who had been firing at the Americans was killed.
The total count for the morning: five terrorists killed, three cars destroyed, six AK-47s, one RPG, one PKC, and one suicide vest found and destroyed, and no civilians or Americans killed or wounded.
It was a successful day in Samarra for Charlie Company.
Jeff Emanuel, a special operations military veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, is a columnist and a director of conservative weblog RedState.com. He is currently embedded with the U.S. military on the front lines in Iraq and his reports, which are funded by reader donations, can be seen at http://www.JeffEmanuel.com.