Search for U.S. soldiers, answers after May attack
On the night of May 9, an insurgent leader gathered recruits at a farmhouse in this lush agricultural region along the Euphrates River. He handed out weapons and then, after midnight, led his followers to a road on which two U.S. Humvees sat guard.
As the insurgents, moving on foot, neared the Humvees, they heard the engines running. They retreated into the thick foliage lining the road, apparently thinking the troops were on a heightened state of alert.
Two nights later they returned. This time, the Humvees were silent. The insurgents struck.
Within minutes, four Americans and one Iraqi soldier were dead. Three U.S. troops were captured; one, Pfc. Joseph J. Anzack Jr. of Torrance, later was found dead. Two soldiers, Spec. Alex R. Jimenez and Pvt. Byron W. Fouty, remain missing.
A military assessment of the incident, based in part on statements by some of the scores of people detained after the incident, and interviews with soldiers familiar with the case provide previously unknown details of the carefully planned attack.
They reveal the disquieting ease with which a large team of insurgents staged a successful assault on U.S. troops, a success particularly striking because the area, south of Baghdad, is known for insurgent activity. Eleven months earlier, a similar attack occurred nearby, leaving three soldiers dead.
The incident haunts the soldiers of the 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment, who are still deployed here, an area widely called the “triangle of death.”
Some of them say the attack has affected their ability to trust locals because they are certain those responsible are from this area. For many, their worst fear is that their deployments will end before the case is resolved.
“It has taken a big part of their heart,” said Staff Sgt. Alan Ecle, speaking at a small patrol base half a mile from where the men were attacked.
“We know sometimes people are rescued or escape these situations, and we hope the same thing can happen for our guys,” Ecle said. “But being out here on the front lines -- we’re soldiers. We know how it works. Each day that passes diminishes your hope.”
The military assessment of the attack and interviews with soldiers here point out apparent mistakes that may have made the troops more vulnerable.
The two Humvees, each with four soldiers, had occupied the same spot for at least three straight nights, which would have made it easy for the insurgents to plan the assault. According to the assessment, the vehicles were about 165 feet apart and faced opposite directions, as did their gun turrets, leaving a stretch of unguarded space between them. The attackers used that space to approach each vehicle from the rear and hurl explosives into the gun turrets.
The military assessment said no soldiers were observed in the gun turrets when the insurgents made their move in the early hours of May 12.
A spokesman for the 10th Mountain Division, Maj. Webster Wright, said the space between the vehicles was “right in line with doctrine,” the purpose to prevent a mortar round from taking out both Humvees.
Lt. David Spangenberg, a platoon leader with the 4th Battalion, said that after so many months in an isolated region with few roads, it is virtually impossible to avoid setting patterns as the Humvees may have done by staying in the same spot night after night. But, he said, the failure to safeguard all sides of the Humvees was troubling.
“You have to make sure you have 360 security,” Spangenberg said. “It sounds to me like no one pointed out the glaring hole.”
That no soldiers were observed on guard in the gun turrets at the time of the attack may have reflected the troops’ fatigue, said soldiers here.
The region, with its concentration of Sunni Arab insurgents, is among the most dangerous for U.S. forces. Although all U.S. troops in Iraq have to complete 15-month tours instead of the usual 12 months, few have faced the rattling barrage of roadside explosives encountered by the soldiers with this unit, which arrived in September. Most are on their second or third tour in Iraq. At least 18 members of the battalion have been killed in action.
“You’ve got guys going on 10, 11 months now. The guys are just worn down,” Spangenberg said.
The conditions under which most troops in this area of operation live add to their weariness.
Most, including the soldiers who were attacked, stay in austere bases that are little more than empty buildings turned into dorm-like dwellings with no running water, plumbing or privacy. They are cold in the winter and hot in the summer, when the temperatures rise above 120 degrees. Human and other waste is disposed of in fiery pits that create a smoky stench and add to the searing heat.
Troops must keep watch around the clock, as well as conduct foot patrols to try to foster relations with Iraqis in the area and gather information on insurgent activity.
Looking at the bucolic landscape on the other side of the base’s sandbags and concertina wire, it is easy to be lulled into a false sense of security. Unlike the cacophonous, concrete atmosphere of Baghdad, the villages lining the road dubbed Route Malibu are scenic and tranquil-looking.
During Saddam Hussein’s time, the area was occupied by wealthy landowners who built Mediterranean-style villas amid emerald-colored orchards and groves of date palms. The Euphrates River, about a mile and a half to the west, keeps the area verdant even in the blazing heat of summer.
Other than the hum of power generators at the U.S. bases, the only sounds are the putt-putt of farmers’ pickup trucks and the braying and barking of their donkeys and dogs.
“Even the most motivated soldier is going to get complacent after too long,” said Sgt. Clark Merlin. “After about eight months, things stay the same, and people might start falling asleep on duty.”
The details of the May 12 incident are troubling given the attention to safety flaws that came about after the attack in June 2006, which occurred 2.8 miles away. A military investigation of that incident concluded that the three soldiers killed had been in a lone Humvee in the same spot for 36 hours.
The military assessment of the recent attack suggests the insurgents were probably helped by the mastermind of last year’s assault. U.S. forces detained the man, whom they identified by his moniker, Abu Rus. He is also a suspect in the downing of a U.S. helicopter in April 2006.
According to the assessment, the purpose of the attack was not to kill U.S. troops but to capture them. The explosives hurled into the Humvees proved more lethal than anticipated, however, and killed some soldiers.
Those who survived and emerged from their vehicles were fired on by a second wave of attackers armed with automatic rifles. As the firefight raged, a third team of insurgents placed bombs on either side of each Humvee to slow U.S. troops trying to respond.
In the days after the attack, thousands of troops were deployed to search for the missing soldiers and their attackers.
Today, the effort continues on a smaller but still intense level.
In the starry, moonless hours before dawn on July 14, four Black Hawk helicopters carrying dozens of soldiers and two search dogs thundered over the Euphrates to its western bank, where intelligence suggested that evidence might be found. At the same time, eight soldiers, including Spangenberg, trekked on foot to a spot on the river’s eastern edge, to block insurgents who might try to flee by boat.
Troops rounded up several men for questioning and gathered valuable intelligence, said Capt. Shane Finn, who led the air raid. That made the mission worthwhile, the troops said. But they did not find the missing soldiers, their remains, or the men they suspect of masterminding the attack.
“From that perspective, it is a disappointment,” said Finn, who like others refuses to give up hope of finding the soldiers alive.
“All I know is that it’s the first thing I think about when I wake up, and it’s the last thing I think about when I go to sleep -- finding these soldiers.”