Daring Abu Ghraib Attack Impressed U.S.

Times Staff Writer

U.S. troops were checking e-mail, lounging in their bunks, doing laundry and contemplating a game of air hockey when the first volley of rockets and mortar rounds struck. Before long, ordnance rained down on the notorious U.S.-run detention camp here. Squads of guerrillas were soon advancing to the walls from several directions in what appeared to be a highly scripted assault.

Prisoners rioted as if on cue, eyeing the opportunity for a mass escape. A thunderous suicide truck bomb struck near the southeast guard tower, knocking it out of action and sending a roiling, black cloud into the dusky sky. Some GIs contemplated the unthinkable: The place could be overrun.

“I thought it was, like, we were going to start defending the Alamo,” recalled Sgt. Maj. Chris Rodriguez, a military policeman. “I thought they had busted down the walls.”

The audacious attack in early April was ultimately thwarted, and its clear aim -- a sensational escape of some of the 3,400 detainees -- was not achieved. But the guerrillas did score a public relations coup by striking a facility that had become synonymous worldwide with prisoner abuse.

Moreover, for U.S. authorities, the lessons learned from what may have been the largest insurgent operation in Iraq to date still resonate. For example, closer attention to unusual insurgent movements in the area that afternoon could have signaled that something big was coming, said a senior military official in Baghdad who had studied the strike.


Since the attack, guerrillas have mounted other sophisticated operations, although none on the same scale. In recent weeks, they have organized two or more synchronized suicide car bombings and set up multilayered roadside ambushes. Nine days after the incident at Abu Ghraib, guerrillas about 200 miles to the west attempted to overrun a Marine base near the Syrian border, deploying dozens of foot soldiers and two suicide-attack vehicles, including an explosives-laden firetruck.

U.S. authorities are concerned that a similar-sized strike may be in the planning stages, aimed at targets in or near Baghdad that include a military base, a government installation, the fortified Green Zone or Abu Ghraib again. “We believe the enemy is ... looking for the opportunity to have large-scale, coordinated attacks,” the U.S. military official said.

The military estimates that on April 2, insurgents marshaled a company-sized assault, using as many as 200 fighters and launching related strikes in the area that evening. At least three vehicles driven by suicide bombers were deployed.

The event underscored the fact that Iraq’s insurgents retain the ability to surprise the U.S. high command, which has enlisted a multitude of experts to help overcome its spotty intelligence -- without great success.

“We’ve had the Northern Ireland guys ... we’ve had every expert from Vietnam come out of the woodwork to be talking heads,” a senior U.S. military intelligence official told reporters in Baghdad. “But I’ve got to tell you, it’s all, ‘Blah, blah, blah,’ and I’m not sure any of it fits right now. They’re scratching their heads and trying to figure this out too.”

The assault made clear again the folly of underestimating an enemy once dismissed by Pentagon officials as “dead enders.”

Iraqi guerrillas have used weapons that range from World War II-era rockets arrayed in donkey carts to sophisticated antiaircraft missiles. They’ve regrouped after massive U.S. assaults on Fallouja and other towns and the arrests and killings of thousands of fighters; circumvented high-tech jamming devices designed to cripple electronically detonated roadside bombs; infiltrated military bases and the Green Zone; and generally displayed a level of resolve and skill -- however brutally applied -- far beyond anything that U.S.-trained Iraqi forces have shown.

“We’re operating against a thinking enemy, clearly,” Marine Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week in Washington. “The enemy has changed their tactics, techniques and procedures in response to what we’ve been doing.”

The attack at Abu Ghraib spotlighted insurgents’ chilling ability to mount synchronized operations that involve heavy shelling, diversionary tactics and infantry thrusts in coordination with suicide vehicles. Highly trained former officers in Saddam Hussein’s military probably designed the Abu Ghraib attack over a period of weeks, U.S. military officials say, and conducted close surveillance of Abu Ghraib. The detention center sits just west of the capital in the heartland of Iraq’s Sunni Muslim Arab population, the insurgency’s driving force.

“These guys were pretty educated in basic infantry tactics that are taught in war colleges nationwide,” said Army Maj. Paul Melanson, the base operations officer at the camp, one of several soldiers who recently provided new details of the attack. “These weren’t your run-of-the-mill, ‘let’s go out and shoot a few bullets at Abu Ghraib’ types. It was a coordinated attack.”

Those behind what authorities say remains a decentralized guerrilla movement clearly understood the emotional and public relations significance of the strike.

Not a single U.S. soldier was killed in the April raid, nor a single prisoner freed. “But they did get some publicity, and Abu Ghraib is, of course, a very special place for the propaganda war,” a senior U.S. official here conceded.

“There’s no doubt in our mind that they are very, very focused on seizing the media attention and the popular attention back from the political process,” he said.

Although it wasn’t clear at the time, the attack also signaled the dramatic end of a period of relative calm and the opening of a bloody offensive that dashed hopes that the insurgency would subside after the Jan. 30 national election.

“We just had a sense that the elections went well, and we were seeing less and less activity,” recalled Capt. William Puopolo, who was hoping to organize an air hockey tournament the night the insurgents struck. He has since ditched the air hockey board, calling it bad luck. “We thought we’d snapped their backs, and we were looking for a calmer period when we weren’t going to face something like that.”

The first sign that something was amiss, officials said, was observed about 6:45 p.m. on the main military route between Baghdad and Abu Ghraib. Insurgents placed mines and burning tires on the road in an apparent effort to block reinforcements who would head to the base, said Col. James B. Brown, commander of the 118th Military Police Brigade. Responding MPs found mortar positions and snipers and engaged in a fight four miles east of the prison.

“They were trying to cut off access to the highway,” Brown said.

About 7:10, as the sun was setting, a Marine company on patrol in the town of Khan Dari, which is near the prison, encountered a group of armed men wearing masks. Another fight ensued. Rockets and mortar shelling -- known as “indirect fire” -- began blasting the camp almost simultaneously. That barrage was soon followed by “direct fire” from rifles, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.

“They pretty much used doctrinal military tactics,” Melanson said. “You use indirect fire to pin everybody down, then you start direct fire.”

Guerrilla forces were soon pushing in from three directions in a “feint” move designed to force U.S. troops to commit to one line of defense. Outside the base, gunmen appeared to launch diversionary strikes meant to tie down possible relief units. Inside, stunned soldiers in shorts and T-shirts left their bunks and computer screens and threw on flak jackets, helmets and boots.

“All of a sudden ... there were live rounds coming down the alleyway where we lived,” recalled Master Sgt. Joe Young, who, like many here, came from the 1-102 Field Artillery, a Massachusetts Army National Guard unit out of Quincy.

Marines posted in guard towers returned ferocious fire. About half an hour after the attack began, a large truck normally used to empty septic tanks made its way east on an adjacent road from a nearby hamlet U.S. authorities call Village 131, a largely Sunni Arab community.

The truck crossed a median and was pointed toward the southeast guard tower, called T4, the one nearest the largest concentration of prisoners. The tanker detonated 60 to 70 yards from the wall, possibly as a result of Marine fire, and ultimately failed in its probable mission -- to blow a hole in the wall, like a ramrod breaching the gates of a medieval fort.

That would have allowed insurgents to enter the camp. Some did make it close enough to toss grenades over the walls. One even managed to get his rifle inside an iron grating at the base of a guard tower and fire before he was killed.

An insurgent video of the attack, posted on a website used by militant groups and later authenticated by the U.S. military, showed masked fighters launching rockets from about 200 yards away as columns of smoke rose from the truck attack and a direct hit on a vehicle inside the compound. They set up their launching pad in a ditch alongside a public road, displaying little concern that U.S. or Iraqi authorities would discover them.

Inside the prison, rioting inmates were shouting “God is great!” as they torched canvas tents and cut holes in the wire fencing holding them in.

“It sounded like they had breached the wall,” recalled Cpl. Angus McClellan, who was guarding prisoners at the facility here known as Camp Redemption. “I was pretty much just thinking about keeping the guys inside the wire.”

McClellan, who was nominated for a Bronze Star for his actions, positioned himself at a hole in the fence and waved his pistol, fending off the rioting inmates who were thinking escape.

Amid the bewildering tableau of explosions, automatic weapon fire and red tracers streaking across the sky, National Guardsmen with little combat experience hustled to bring fresh guns and ammunition to besieged Marines in the watch towers.

But it all ended as quickly as it had begun.

Apache helicopters and artillery fire targeted retreating insurgents as night fell. By 9, it was quiet. “It was almost as if everybody blew a whistle,” Melanson recalled. “Almost everybody stopped firing, and they disappeared.”

Many fighters melted back into a sympathetic population. Afterward, troops estimated that 50 to 60 insurgents had been killed, although only two bodies were found in the vicinity of the prison. The insurgents make great efforts not to abandon their dead and wounded, U.S. officers say.

One body was found next to a booby-trapped tractor discovered outside the prison. Officials theorize that the tractor, which had 55-gallon drums of explosives concealed under loads of hay, was meant to intercept U.S. reinforcements. But the driver was killed before he could deliver his payload. The truck exploded two days later, when it was approached by Iraqi forces. Two policemen were killed.

A third truck bomb was found nearby, unexploded.

Seven U.S. troops were seriously wounded and 16 suffered shrapnel injuries. Thirteen inmates were wounded.

Whatever its publicity value, the attack failed to spring any prisoners, but U.S. commanders say the operation’s scope, complexity and boldness show how determined their enemy is.

“They did give us a blow,” Puopolo acknowledged. “But the next day when the sun rose, the bottom line was that there were 50 less bad guys in the world.”