Editor's note: This is a story you have to see to believe, and you will, tonight, as Mike continues his reporting from Iraq as part of the broadcast's 'On the Line' series.
FORWARD OPERATING BASE KALSU, Babil Province, Iraq -- I looked up at the cold, starlit sky and saw I was bedded down beneath the handle of the Big Dipper. It made me smile to see something so familiar, because nothing else about the night was.
In a convoy of Bradley tanks and Humvees, producer John Zito and cameraman Bill Angellucci and I had been returning with an infantry company from a frustrating raid on a suspected al-Qaida stronghold in Diyala Province only to run into a nest of IEDs -- the dreaded improvised explosive devices that have become one of the signatures of this protracted war. One explosive had been touched off by Zito's Humvee, and another, a huge one, literally blew the track off the 37-ton Bradley tank that was next in line, disabling it completely and blocking the narrow dirt road that was our way home. Amazingly there were no casualties or serious injuries, though a piece of flying shrapnel sliced the cheek of one of the Humvee gunners. When help had been summoned, those support vehicles ran into more IEDs -- we counted seven in all and were told later there'd been at least a dozen -- and the decision was made to stay put, keep a rotating watch of soldiers for protection, and wait for daylight when the rescue could resume.
I didn’t think I’d be able to sleep at all jammed among six other guys wearing full armor and helmets in the back of a Bradley, so I crawled into a sleeping bag on the slope of a berm outside, knowing soldiers on rotating watch would always be nearby, and tried for sleep there. By midnight it was freezing but I’d pulled the bag closed and somehow drifted off, and when I came out of a deep and dreamless sleep it was nearly 4 a.m. Four good hours. Enough. I talked to some of the soldiers then awake, told them I thought as I’d drifted off that I’d heard bursts of small arms fire and a few more explosions. Snipers and mortars, they confirmed, who knows where they were firing from. The infantrymen, though alert for a fight, didn’t know where exactly to aim it and so hadn’t returned fire. Our convoy was intact, if paralyzed around the disabled Bradley. One of the soldiers said they’d all had a good laugh when they checked on me at one point: their flashlight had confirmed that I was snoring away, just fine, even as a brace of warthogs and a couple of rats were foraging away just over the berm behind my head. I didn’t think that was nearly as funny as they did.
Photo caption: The disabled Bradley with its blown-off tread. Photo by Mike Taibbi.
From daybreak on, when the rescue effort fired up, it took seven long hours for a clearance team to tediously check the road leading to our position for more IEDs, and to lead a huge Hercules tow vehicle to the crippled Bradley. As we limped back up the road our Bradley and one other hooked up two more vehicles that had been struck by IEDs, a Humvee and an older troop carrier, and towed them back to a secure staging area called Copper, near the Tampa Highway that would lead us all back to Camp Kalsu some 20 miles to the south.
By the time we entered that secure base, our NBC team had been gone two full days for what was supposed to have been a quick strike lightening raid, with air support and clear objectives; two full days that ended up including one long tense night as sitting ducks deep in al-Qaida country, with a $30 million Bradley and at least one of the Humvees toasted completely.
Photo caption: From left to right, producer John Zito, Taibbi and camerman Bill Angellucci moments after returning safely to base. Photo by NBC sound technician Stan Ouse.
The raid had been triggered by local intelligence, including meetings with the leaders of several of the 30 or so local tribes, suggesting al-Qaida had been making a big time move into the farm country west of the Tigris River about 30 miles south of Baghdad. We'd sat in on one of the endless "sheik meetings" and saw how frustrating that process was.
The sheik, Haji Mahmood al Joubady, complained his family's weapons had all been confiscated in an earlier house search and he wanted them back. He said he had two wives, seven brothers and nine sons, most of the brothers and sons former soldiers and intelligence officers in Saddam's army, and that some in his family thought he was a traitor for working with the Americans. "We need our weapons back for our protection," he kept saying through a translator. When told he might be able to get one of his AK-47s back, at some point, he shook his head unhappily, saying "Why do the Americans do this to me?"
Everybody sipped sweet tea and there didn't seem to be any tension in the room, but the army officers we were with knew two of the sheik's nephews were already jailed for insurgent activities and suspected some of his brothers and sons were among those setting off IEDs locally. Still, they nodded in sympathy at the sheik's complaints and thanked him in advance for the help they asked him to continue giving. Capt. Jim Browning of the infantry company we'd been embedded with said to us on the way out, "What choice do we have? We have deal with the sheik, and with all the others. It's a slow, slow process..." I thought, no kidding.
Those sheik meetings, as well as other intelligence sources, contributed to the belief that al-Qaida types had been terrorizing local farmers into leaving their homes and had set up shop on the grounds of an old zoo, storing weapons and gathering and maybe training recruits. Aerial photos showed a lot of truck traffic on the zoo grounds, and seemed to support the notion that something was brewing. Hence, the mission we'd joined.
But our element of the raiding party, including a platoon from the Third Infantry Division that we'd been following since their training days stateside in January, had the job of checking and securing the houses near the zoo grounds and came up just about empty. One farmer approached the soldiers and volunteered that al-Qaida "terrorists," as the interpreter translated, had in fact come through only the week before and had driven even more of his neighbors from their homes. The farmer explained he and his extended family were gathered in a house up the road. When we got there an obligatory search turned up clips of ammo and a coil of command wire in a car with identification papers for the farmer's nephew, who was immediately handcuffed and detained. That copper wire, said Capt. Phil Denton, was the type used almost exclusively in this war to set off IEDs.
Suddenly there was a fearsome wail of anguish from the mother of the man being detained. She broke away from her husband and others who were trying to restrain her and dove at the Humvee carrying her son even as the vehicle got underway, almost falling under the wheels before the vehicle could slow to a stop. Finally her family caught up with her and literally dragged her back to the house; we could hear her screaming long after she was out of sight.
Capt. Denton had seen that sort of thing before. "Nobody likes to see their relatives leave like that," he said, but he also knew the broader truth, that IEDs are the scourge of this war and U.S. forces need to get a handle on how to control their use. Some might be set by al-Qaida forces openly at war with the U.S.; some by militias or extremists on either side of the Shia-Sunni divide; and some just by desperate people looking to make a few bucks. We had no way of knowing who had planted the IEDs we ran into, only that that primitive device had paralyzed a convoy of high-tech, high-powered war-fighting vehicles along with a company of eager and able infantry, and kept us all at bay for a full night and most of the next day.
We were lucky -- no casualties. But what exactly had been accomplished? A few marginal suspects, none apparently al-Qaida imports, and no piles of weapons. No proof the American war effort was winning over any more hearts and minds, not in this rural swatch of the country anyway, despite the genuine efforts we saw firsthand. Proof instead that here, as elsewhere in Iraq, it is unsafe and uncertain and far from any concept of "victory" for virtually everyone.
This is the war away from the headlines -- days of routine, grave danger infused not so much by boiling rage or pointed politics, as by sadness and deep frustration.