BURSTS of AK-47 fire hissed past them from several directions at once, showering the U.S. and Iraqi soldiers with pulverized cement and slapping spider-web fractures into their Humvees’ bullet-resistant glass turret-guards.
The joint security forces, undertaking what officials described as a major counterinsurgency operation, were in pursuit of 70 “high-value targets” in Baghdad’s crowded Fadhil quarter, a Sunni Arab neighborhood of multistory tenements along the east bank of the Tigris River.
Instead, the soldiers of the Iraqi army’s 9th Mechanized Division and their American trainers had walked into a deadly ambush Friday. From upper-story apartments, insurgents stopped the soldiers’ advance with grenades and shoulder-fired rockets. Others launched coordinated mortar strikes, hitting one of two nearby Iraqi field posts.
By the time the 11-hour battle was over, one Iraqi soldier had been killed and six others wounded, including one who shot himself in the foot. A U.S. soldier was also wounded and, according to American troops interviewed, additional casualties were averted only because U.S. Apache attack helicopters were called in and American trainers shot their way out of the ambush.
“Fear took over” among the Iraqis, Staff Sgt. Michael Baxter said.
“They refused to move. We were yelling at them to move,” he said. “I grabbed one guy and shoved him into a building. I was saying, ‘God get me out of this, because these guys are going to get me killed.’ ”
The offensive was initially billed by U.S. officials in Baghdad as an Iraqi-led success and a case study in support of the Pentagon’s increasing reliance on using American troops as military advisors as a way to shift security responsibilities to Iraqi soldiers.
Expansion of teams
U.S. officials say an imminent expansion of the Military Transition Teams -- squads of American military advisors traveling with Iraqi army units -- will meet demands Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki made of President Bush at their meeting in Amman, the Jordanian capital, last week for more authority over his own security forces.
But interviews at their joint Rustamiya base with U.S. advisors and Iraqi soldiers involved in Friday’s battle revealed a different story. The operation was hastily prepared and badly executed, they said, and plans to let the Iraqis take the lead in the battle were quickly scrapped.
“It started out that way,” Baxter said. “But five minutes into it, we had to take over.”
Staffed with veterans of the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s and equipped with a complement of refurbished Soviet tanks and American Humvees, the 4,000-soldier 9th division is considered Iraq’s best hope for an eventual U.S. troop withdrawal.
But confusion swiftly reigned as insurgents in Fadhil pummeled dismounted Iraqi troops and their American advisors. U.S. radio jammers seeking to hinder communications between insurgents ended up blocking the Iraqi soldiers’ walkie-talkies, forcing them to use unreliable cellphone signals to stay in contact. Voice commands were lost amid the explosions and gunfire echoing off the walls.
At one point, U.S. and Iraqi troops piled into a Humvee to escape the hail of insurgent bullets pinging off the armor cladding.
“I was pulling people in,” said Army Sgt. 1st Class Kent McQueen. “We were all bunched in there together with the gunner. It was like a game of Twister.”
An insurgent tried to throw a grenade into a Humvee’s top hatch, but it bounced off and exploded on the ground.
At times, the overwhelmed Iraqi soldiers fired wildly, sweeping their machine-gun barrels across friendly and insurgent targets alike, witnesses said.
“I had to throw bullet casings at them to get their attention,” said Sgt. 1st Class Agustin Mendoza, another U.S. trainer who manned a Humvee gun turret during the battle. “They had no weapons discipline.”
“A round hit the glass shield of my turret behind me,” Mendoza said. “I hit a guy down the alley and a propane tank. It exploded in a big fireball.”
The number of insurgents in the area was estimated at more than 100. Soldiers said they killed 20 and detained 43 others, including three foreign fighters.
No count was made of the number of civilians killed in the densely populated neighborhood, but U.S. and Iraqi soldiers acknowledged a significant amount of “collateral damage.”
Apache helicopters beat down on the dilapidated tenements, drilling hundreds of .50-caliber rounds into concrete walls and rooftops. At least twice they unleashed Hellfire missiles, shattering walls and rooftops with flashing thunderclaps. On the ground, Iraqi T-55 tank commanders fired their main guns down the narrow alleyways, smashing structures into an avalanche of bricks.
McQueen felt something jerk his head back violently and then pressed his finger into a bullet-sized dent in his Kevlar helmet.
At one point he noticed Iraqi soldiers in their armored Humvees pulling away in panic.
“I tried to halt the Iraqi army trucks to stop the trucks to give us cover,” he said. “The driver gives me this dumb look.”
The U.S. military is ramping up its training program to add 30,000 Iraqi troops by mid-2007 to make up for soldiers who have abandoned their posts or died. The new recruits are also intended to supplement the small number of Iraqi troops willing to travel away from their home bases despite dangerous conditions or the possibility of being ordered to fight against members of their own sect.
Most soldiers in the 9th division, for example, are Shiites, and U.S. and Iraqi officers said they doubted the troops would obey if ordered to fight in Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad such as Sadr City.
“In August, when we started Operation Together Forward to secure Baghdad, we called on a bunch of units to assist,” said U.S. Army Col. Douglass S. Heckman, the commander for the 9th Division Military Transition Team. “This division was the only one that moved into the operation. The others balked.”
But Friday’s battle suggested that even Iraq’s best trained and equipped division is far from having the ability to operate independently. Heckman said attrition and liberal leave policies meant that only 68% of the 9th division is even on duty at any given time.
Another American advisor complained that the division had only 65% of the weapons and other equipment that it had been allocated by the U.S.
“And it’s not just my guys,” said the advisor, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “As I look across the division MiTT teams, they all tell me the same thing. Some of them have 50% of their equipment, some have 75%, but it’s the same thing all over Iraq.”
Despite efforts to get more financial support from the Iraqi Defense Ministry, the division stays operational only with help from the U.S. military, which provides everything from food to batteries.
Iraqi unit well regarded
Still, the division had conducted a number of successful joint U.S. and Iraqi operations north of Baghdad, officials say, and is well regarded by American commanders. The U.S. military believed the unit was ready to conduct the latest operation with minimal American ground support.
The operation was proposed by the Iraqi Defense Ministry and approved by U.S. Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top commander in Iraq, only hours before it was carried out.
“We could have used two more days to plan,” said U.S. Army Maj. Thomas J. Boczar, who organized the strike with Iraqi division commanders.
Iraqi army Col. Bassim Mohammed, assigned to the division’s reconnaissance company, said he learned about the mission only three hours before it began at 4 a.m. Friday.
“We didn’t do any reconnaissance. Nobody was briefed on the area. We didn’t know the area 100%,” Mohammed said. Units that went into Fadhil hadn’t plotted egress routes, he said.
U.S. advisors said impending operations were often kept secret because of infiltrators within Iraqi ranks.
But Boczar suggested that insurgents knew the attack was coming. Aerial drone footage captured before the assault appeared to show them positioning themselves in preparation for the raid, he said.
“This was a coordinated, complex attack,” Boczar said of the insurgent ambush. “And the way they maneuvered shows us that they were ready for us.”
Having learned from previous encounters that rooftop snipers would be exposed to U.S. helicopters, insurgents fired out of second- and third-story apartments. And like the U.S. troops who called in helicopters for air support, the insurgents staging the ambush called on others to strike Iraqi army positions with mortar rounds.
U.S. Army Lt. Col. Mathew Stanton acknowledged that it was a tough fight, but said he was all right with that.
“It was hard. I understand that,” Stanton said shrugging his shoulders. But he was satisfied. “You know what? We’re not going to be here forever.”