Military history

THIRTY

To our surprise, the Turnover of Authority went two days earlier than announced, on June 28 instead of June 30. Ambassador Bremer, former head of the now-defunct CPA, flew home, anticlimactically, the very next day. We, however, stayed and dealt with the aftermath of the CPA’s regime: a splintered and ineffectual Shia-dominated central government that couldn’t provide even the most basic services—water, electricity, a functioning police force—for its citizens in the predominantly Sunni province of Anbar.

As a result, the much-anticipated turnover brought us nothing but more of the same: more OP missions at the oft-attacked Ag Center, more twenty-four-hour postings at the extremely vulnerable Government Center, and more frustration and disappointment with the complete failure of Ramadi’s Iraqi security forces. Even worse, the attacks on us increased sharply after we turned over security responsibilities to the Iraqi police and army. The enemy activity grew in ferocity and frequency throughout July, and by the end of the month, Golf Company found itself fighting large-scale, citywide battles at least once a week.

The first of these fights occurred on Wednesday, July 14. A group of insurgents attacked Weapons Company just west of the Saddam mosque, and, after about ten minutes of exchanging rifle and rocket fire, it became apparent that the enemy’s numbers were sufficiently large to warrant reinforcements. Our platoon, along with third and fourth, launched out of the Combat Outpost on foot, with two Humvees mounting medium machine guns in support. After fighting our way west through the city for an hour or so, Joker One received orders to hit a building “just north of the Saddam mosque minaret, at the very middle of the city.”

Immediately, the Ox’s voice crackled over the radio. “Roger, Bastard Five, will do. Be advised, what’s a minaret? Over.”

A long silence followed, then the radio barked back: “Joker Five, the minaret is the large tower that every single mosque in the city has next to it. Looks like a big dick. Over.”

Even in the middle of a firefight, the sheer magnitude of the Ox’s lack of knowledge brought me up short for a bit, but the moment didn’t last for long. Less than five minutes after receiving the order, we stormed across an open field, weapons at the ready, and hit the designated building. Weapons Company had received heavy fire from its top floors, so we expected to have to fight our way up to the roof. However, on entering we encountered no resistance—the building was eerily quiet. Soon we found out why: Every one of Weapons’s ambushers had been wounded during the company’s fierce counterattack. When we made our way carefully to the building’s second floor, we found four bearded men, surrounded by spent bullet casings and bleeding from their chests, stomachs, and legs. They were shrieking and groaning and rolling slowly over the floor. Smith and Camacho immediately got to work.

The wounded weren’t all that we discovered inside the building. Shortly after the docs had stabilized the enemy fighters, Noriel motioned me over to a door that was barely hanging off its hinges. As my squad leader ushered me inside, I found a large room lined with storage lockers and brown crates. Noriel’s men had smashed open the crates, and each of them contained dozens of RPGs. Ten or so AK-47s littered the room, stacked up against the wall or scattered on the floor. Propped up in the corners were several RPG launchers, and assorted ammunition crates, knives, swords, machetes, and machine gun bandoliers rounded out the room. Even for Iraq, it was an impressive display of hardware.

A few minutes later, Carson and Noriel began kicking at closed storage lockers. Very few things that the Iraqis had constructed could resist Carson, so after about the fourth blow, the doors buckled inward to reveal their contents. More RPG rockets. Dragunov sniper rifles. Crates of mines and hand grenades. Mortar rounds. In our five months in-country, Joker One had yet to find a weapons cache of this magnitude. For the next ten minutes, Noriel and I moved from room to room on the second floor, discovering more of the same in each. Once our survey was complete, I headed back down to the first floor, out into the compound courtyard to report our findings. On the way out of the building, the white sign we had noticed coming in caught my eye. The English letters ANCstood out from the Arabic lettering all around, and I finally realized why they seemed familiar. The ANC was a legitimate political party, one that was supposedly cooperating with our battalion’s efforts to build a peaceful political process in Ramadi. I shook my head in disgust.

We radioed our find in to an incredulous battalion headquarters, and after three recitations of our cache’s contents, they finally believed me. Five minutes later, Lieutenant Colonel Kennedy showed up with a TV news crew in tow. Kennedy took a quick survey through the upper rooms and then ordered us to move the cache from the building’s second floor to its courtyard. Properly arranged, the weapons would make a nice picture for the cameras.

So, as the fighting all around us began to peter off, we slung our weapons across our backs and started passing the rockets, mortars, swords, and other assorted instruments of death down to the first floor. In the courtyard, Bowen and I supervised the arrangement of the weapons under the battalion CO’s watchful eye. I felt like a perverse florist. Halfway through this process, the ANC party leader showed up at the compound, brandishing an English-language letter from an Army colonel who, he claimed, had allowed him to keep these weapons for “defense.” On the CO’s orders, we arrested the party leader, zip-tied his hands behind his back, and placed him in the back of a truck. Then we continued the unloading.

Twenty minutes later, we had brought down all the weapons and were preparing for the photo shoot when the battalion CO stopped us. He wanted the ANC sign placed in the middle of our layout, so we pulled it off the wall and propped it up behind the water-cooled machine gun. It was a bizarre sight—”Iraqi National Unity Party” was written in English and Arabic below the letters ANC, but surrounding the sign were all the implements of national discord. Staring at the weapons and the sign among them, I lost most of my hope that local city leaders would be able to use the political process to build a more stable, more peaceful Ramadi anytime in the near future. If they were anything like the so-called “National Unity Party,” these politicians probably didn’t want to. Across the city, there were almost certainly political-party arms caches such as this one, all of them just waiting for the day when the U.S. forces would leave and the real political process—a winner-take-all fight to the finish—would begin. Given the short occupation time frame predicted by our civilian leadership before the war, I didn’t know whether the U.S. military would be allowed to remain in Iraq long enough to convince the people that political reconciliation was the best, and only, way to resolve their differences. That sort of change has historically taken roughly a decade, but we were furiously engaged in it nonetheless. Apparently, the citizens of Ramadi didn’t know whether we’d stay long enough, and they were definitely hedging their bets.

I’m told that our little weapons arrangement made the evening news back home. Even if we had had access to network TV at that point, I wouldn’t have watched it. I hated being reminded that the world outside Ramadi still existed.

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