Tuesday, November 25, 2008

US Troops Take Pride in Quest: Capturing Al-Qaeda in Iraq Leaders

A Multi-National Division – Baghdad soldiers from Company A, 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment “Golden Dragons,” 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, prepares for mission designed to track al Qaeda in Iraq terrorists in the Tarmiyah area north of Baghdad. Since arriving in the area, the soldiers of Co. A have captured 265 extremists. (Photographer: 2nd Stryker Brigade 25th Infantry Division.)

Dispatches from the Front:

TARMIYAH, Iraq, Nov. 25, 2008 -- A masked, nervous man walked into the joint security station, scared for his life, with the kind of information a commander might pray for: he knew where an al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) leader was hiding – and was willing to tell.

Abu Ghazwan, the al-Qaeda in Iraq northern belt emir, had been dead nearly two weeks, and his subordinates were scrambling to fill his shoes while Multi-National Division – Baghdad soldiers from 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment “Golden Dragons” tracked their nearly every move and prepared to kill or capture anyone who stepped up.

“These guys are smart. They’re wily, and they’re good at hiding … but they can’t hide indefinitely,” said Capt. Kurt Pressell, a Simone, Ohio, native, who commands Company A, 1-14th Inf. Regt., 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division.

And he should know. Thanks to informants like the mystery Iraqi citizen and other intelligence methods, his unit has made life a living hell for the extremists. Company A alone has captured 265 extremists since arriving in December. Tarmiyah used to be an extremist stronghold, but AQI is finding more and more that they’re unwelcome – as evidenced by the growing number of citizens coming forward with information.

Ali, a local Sons of Iraq (SoI) leader, sat with the informant and unit leaders. He was part of mass celebrations in the streets of Tarmiyah after a member of his SoI group shot and killed Ghazwan Nov. 6.

“It’s true – nobody here supports AQI anymore,” Ali said.

With Ghazwan dead, Ali now poured over maps and contributed last-minute details with the informant as he prepared for an operation to capture or kill Ghazwan’s likely successor.

In the tactical operations center, the room buzzed with excitement. Radios relayed priority messages around the room as soldiers put on their body armor and slung weapons. A few soldiers double checked ammo and made last minute adjustments. Whoops and hollers rose above the chatter as they prepared themselves mentally and physically for what they thought would be an exciting night.

“If you haven’t seen the plan yet, we’re moving down these two paths simultaneously to the Tigris River. There used to be a bunker here, and we believe it’s active again,” said 1st Sgt. David Dougherty, the unit’s senior enlisted member, as he pointed and dragged his finger along a map for a couple stragglers.

After explaining a few more details, the plan was in motion. Stryker vehicles in a single column sped through the dark toward the objective. Once there, squads consolidated and moved stealthily down the pitch-black trails while looking through the green glow of night-vision goggles. The assault force moved swiftly but deliberately, cautious of booby traps. The soldiers saw everything in great detail through the trademark green glow of night vision – a serious advantage on dark nights like this one.

A few short minutes into the movement, Pressell received a call on the radio.

“We’re on the objective. No sign yet. Still searching. Over,” the voice said.

The rest of the tactical column moved up as soldiers in front poked around in bushes, brushed aside bundles of palm fronds and searched for weapons and bad guys. At the river, they looked for fresh tracks and scanned the horizon for any movement.

“He could be there six of seven nights, and you go on the one night he isn’t there,” Pressell later explained.

Fortunately, at the moment the soldiers concluded no one was there, new intelligence came to light: the extremist they suspected would take Ghazwan’s place was in a house less than a kilometer away. The source, along for the ride and still masked, confirmed this was a possibility.

Shortly after that, the unit had surrounded their new objective. An interpreter shouted over a bullhorn in animated Arabic. He informed neighbors to stay in their houses and demanded anyone inside the surrounded house exit immediately.

“Someone’s coming out! They’re coming out!” another soldier yelled.

The unit had showed great restraint – and it paid off. Instead of an extremist, three women with their children exited the house.

The women, covered in hibayas and blankets, were hurried to an area outside the perimeter by Sgt. Amber Gil, a female member of the team. Gil, a Dallas native, is an armorer by trade and is attached to Company A to search and interact with females.

With the civilians out of the house, Pressell considered lethal options but again decided to show restraint. After a quick conference with his leaders, he sent in a robot from the Explosives Ordnance Disposal Team.

“We’ve had three suicide bomber incidents in the city – two suicide vests and a moped. Every mission we go on, we take SVEST mitigation very seriously,” Pressell explained, after the robot, followed by soldiers, cleared the house. “I really felt he was in there – I know he was at some point.”

So far the unit had been unlucky but that was about to change.

“Okay it has to be this third house,” a few of the soldiers agreed. “He’s in there – definitely.”

With momentum on their side, a squad stacked on the house but an older man quickly exited. He told an interpreter his son was upstairs. It turned out it wasn’t the AQI member they were looking for, but, as luck would have it, he was a couple rungs below in the rank structure.

The informant confirmed the man’s identity and his involvement in extremist activities. A sensitive site search by the soldiers indeed turned up contraband, and that was enough for the commander.

“Alright, get him flex cuffed. Get him in the Stryker,” Pressel said over the radio.

Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Wessling, a platoon sergeant, got the call and relayed the order to his men.

“I’ve been here before. I know this is a bad guy, and we’ve been looking for him,” Wessling said. “But this is my backyard. They can’t hide from me.”

The suspect and contraband were then on their way to an undisclosed location, and at about 5 a.m., the soldiers were finally on their way back to base to get some rest.

But with their main objective still on the loose, they could easily expect to do it all over again tomorrow. As one leader is killed or removed, another eventually steps up to take his place – although each replacement is generally less skilled and less respected, according to the unit’s leadership.

“Nobody wants to step up because there is no sanctuary,” concluded Lt. Col. Tom Boccardi, 1-14th Inf. Regt.’s commander.

(Report by Ken Griffin, 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division.)

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