Samarra, Iraq

'RED PLATOON,' CHARLIE Company 2-505 Parachute Infantry Regiment (from the 82nd Airborne Division) rolled out of Patrol Base Olson just after 0200 last Saturday morning accompanied by three Humvees of Iraqi Police commandos. Their destination was a house in south-central Samarra, where, armed with a name, a tribal affiliation (al Nissani), and a description (5'10" 190 lbs with blonde hair and blue eyes) they were to "kill or capture" an al Qaeda member who was the head of an IED-making (and -planting) cell. The column of seven blacked-out vehicles passed through the 'Green Zone,' the secure area between PB Olson, which sits in the northwest corner of Samarra, and the three nearby Iraqi Police Battle Positions (known as BPs 3, 4, and 5), and turned west, out into the heart of the city. The drivers carefully navigated through side streets and narrow alleyways, avoiding the dozens of possible IEDs that had been reported by Iraqi tipsters in the last few days.

After slowly and deliberately making our way across the poorly maintained roads to the established dismount point, a group of us got out of the vehicles and prepared to move on foot to the target house. Meanwhile the gun-trucks moved out to establish a cordon around the area. The first order of business was to establish an OP (observation point) consisting of two U.S. paratroopers (members of the 82nd Airborne are referred to as 'paratroopers' rather than as 'soldiers') and an Iraqi policeman who would keep an eye on operations from the roof of a house that overlooked the objective.

As this was being done, word came over the radio that our two OH-58D 'Kiowa Warrior' helicopters--our air support--had run out of fuel and would depart the station to refill their tanks. This left us without low-flying air cover for the majority of our movement to the objective--something that would not come back to haunt us in this case, but which could have been costly had we begun to take fire on the ground.

ONCE THE HOUSE had been secured and the OP established, Red Platoon moved to the target building, with Staff Sergeant Keith Bishop's squad being the first to reach the objective. Ladders were placed against the house's courtyard walls, and one man climbed over the wall, opened the front gate from the inside, and let the rest of the squad in. Moving quietly to the door, Red Platoon's 'breaching element' lined up in their order of entry. A hand-carried battering ram--called the 'basher'--was brought to the front, and with a loud Bang! the door was knocked open and the paratroopers moved into the target house.

SSG Bishop's squad moved quickly through the first floor of the house, gathering the family and moving them into the living room while him men ensured each room was secure. Once the house was cleared all the way up, the roof was marked with an infrared chemlight, and the platoon leader, 2nd Lieutenant Steve Smith, entered (along with "Matthew," his interpreter) to begin questioning the inhabitants.

It quickly became clear that the person Red Platoon was looking for was not in the house. Not only did none of the males there match the target description, but the people who lived there were members of a different tribe than the man they were after.

After thirty minutes of questioning, and after photographs were taken of all of the military-aged males in the house, the unit moved on to three more homes in the area, the last of which appeared to have housed--until very recently--the targeted individual. His wife and her friend were home, but, according to them, he had gone north to Tikrit very recently. Coalition forces in that area would be notified, and would attempt to track his movements from there; however, at this point, there was nothing more that Red Platoon could do.

AT 4:30 AM, TWO HOURS after arriving on the objective, an extremely frustrated Lt. Smith led his me back to the waiting vehicles, which we re-mounted for the drive back to PB Olson. The night was almost over--but in Samarra, danger is never far away until you are safely 'inside the wire' and back on the base. This truth was proven yet again as the convoy journeyed home that morning.

As the column of Humvees moved west toward Olson, gunfire echoed in the distance--a normal occurrence in Samarra. But this time the sound moved closer and closer, until, as we neared the western edge of the city and prepared to make our final turn north toward Battle Position 5 and the entrance to the Green Zone, AK-47 rounds began to impact all around our vehicle, which was bringing up the rear in the seven-Humvee column. Sergeant Jordan Downs, our truck's turret gunner, responded immediately.

"We're taking heat!" he yelled down from the turret, and the inside of the vehicle was filled with the noise of Sgt. Downs's .50-Caliber machine gun as he returned fire to the rear.

As we made the turn northward onto 10th Street, the entire night exploded into a storm of small arms fire--we were getting it from all sides. Downs immediately began engaging at least three separate firing positions to our rear, unleashing a hail of bullets with his .50-cal.

There was a sudden lull in the firing from our truck, during which I was able to see and hear the turret gunner in the Humvee immediately in front of us unloading his .240 machine gun into a second story window to our left. Further up the column, one of the Iraqi Police trucks engaged a firing position with its PKC, and the lead U.S. vehicle unloaded its .50-cal to our twelve o'clock. (These rounds, we later found out, cracked so low and loudly over the Patrol Base--which was less than 500 meters due north of us--that many at Olson thought that they were under attack themselves.)

The reason for the lull soon became clear.

"Ammo! Ammo!" Downs screamed into the truck from his spot in the turret. Specialist Brady Thayer, the platoon's medic (who was sitting to my left in the other back seat of the rear Humvee), and I each grabbed a heavy can of .50 caliber ammunition from within the vehicle and began to pull out the linked rounds. Thayer handed his rounds up first, and Downs reloaded his turret gun while continuing to scan for more threats (or targets, depending on how you look at it) and the Humvee column made a series of sharp left turns, taking advantage of alleyways both to escape the withering fire and to circle around and reengage the 10th Street shooters.

"Keep your head down, Downs!" Thayer called up to the gunner, his voice full of concern. "We're coming back around!"

The Red Platoon and Iraqi Police gun trucks reemerged onto 10th Street and once again made a northward turn toward BP 5 and PB Olson, but were not engaged this time, and the convoy moved through the battle position and back onto the patrol base without further incident. Nobody had been wounded in the exchange.

Though the raid had not resulted in the apprehension of the targeted al Qaeda member, it had been successful in three major ways. First, the people in that area of Samarra now know that Coalition forces can and will show up there at any time to pursue terrorists and insurgents--and that, if innocent and cooperative, the average Samarri has nothing to fear from American soldiers. Second, more understanding had been gained about this specific part of the city, including which families--and which tribes--live in different houses in this neighborhood. And third (and most important) another trip had been made 'outside the wire' into this extremely dangerous city and no one had been wounded or killed. In Samarra, that passes for a good day.

Jeff Emanuel, a special operations veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, is currently embedded with the U.S. military in Iraq. His reports are funded by reader donations and can be seen at JeffEmanuel.com.

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