[Marxism] Baiji: this year's Fallujah
lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Jan 19 12:45:54 MST 2006
In Iraqi Oil City, a Formidable Foe
Airborne Soldiers Struggle to Break Grip of Insurgents
By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 19, 2006; A01
BAIJI, Iraq -- Pfc. Robyn Houston fires bursts of bullets into the air as
his Humvee swerves around a pothole and lurches over a highway median. His
convoy bears down on oncoming traffic, forcing Iraqi cars to swerve onto a
Roadside bombs "are really bad here!" the vehicle's commander, Staff Sgt.
Sean Davis, 30, of Crestview, Fla., shouts over the gunfire and growl of
the Humvee. "We're firing warning shots to get them off the road!"
It's a tactic Davis and his platoon resort to daily to avoid deadly
explosions in Baiji, a Sunni Arab city long neglected by American forces
and still firmly in the grip of insurgents, soldiers here say. In the first
month after the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division took over security
duties in northern Iraq in late fall, roadside bombs killed or wounded more
than a quarter of the 34-man platoon.
Baiji has emerged as a critical priority for the U.S. military because of
its importance to Iraq's oil industry, a fact underscored last month when
insurgent threats forced officials to shut down the country's biggest oil
refinery here, which handles 200,000 barrels a day.
But the city was virtually unknown territory when Davis's platoon -- part
of Bulldog Company of the 1st Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment -- and
hundreds of other 101st Airborne soldiers were dispatched into the heart of
Baiji for the first time last fall, Army officers here say. The knowledge
deficit has proven to be deadly.
Like many small cities and towns in Iraq, Baiji, with a population of about
60,000, has long festered as an insurgent haven while U.S. commanders
concentrated their limited forces in large cities such as Baghdad and
Mosul. Previous American units stayed mostly outside the city, and
intelligence was minimal, officers say.
As a result, even these battle-hardened troops from the 101st, many of them
veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, have fallen into the pattern of many Army
units that suffer high casualties in their first six weeks in Iraq, as
insurgents test them in unfamiliar terrain.
This month, Army commanders frustrated by fatalities from bombs, mines and,
more recently, suicide car bombings began building up sand walls with
bulldozers, digging ditches and setting up barricades to sharply restrict
entry to the city. They completely sealed off a section of Baiji -- the
village of Siniyah -- with a six-mile-long, eight-foot-high berm.
Meanwhile, Davis's platoon resorts to do-it-yourself tactics to try to stay
safe. They scour their base for concrete, mixing it with water and pouring
it into potholes where insurgents could hide improvised bombs. "I've been
trying to find some Quikrete" concrete mix, said Sgt. 1st Class Danny Kidd,
36, of Fulton, N.Y., who like many in his unit is surprised by the
intensity of attacks. Other soldiers have mounted shrieking police sirens
on their Humvees to clear Iraqi traffic off the roads.
"It's definitely more dangerous this time around," agreed Spec. David
Jones, 24, of New York, on his second tour in Iraq with the platoon. "I
didn't expect to lose so many friends so soon."
Hostility on the Rise
Lying 120 miles north of Baghdad on the Tigris River, Baiji's huge
industrial complex rises like a metallic jungle out of a scrub desert
landscape. A town with a population that is 98 percent Sunni Muslim, Baiji
prospered under Saddam Hussein, who paid favored tribes handsomely to run
and protect the oil and electricity infrastructure.
After the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, those patronage jobs disappeared,
generating hostility against American forces as well as recruits for the
insurgency, Baiji residents say. Heavy-handed sweeps through Baiji by U.S.
forces in 2003 and 2004 left many people angry, frightened and humiliated,
"Most of the people fighting the Americans tell me they do nothing for us
but destroy the houses and capture people," Adil Faez Jeel, a director at
the Baiji refinery, said of the U.S. forces. "There are no jobs, no water,
Meanwhile, U.S. military convoys passing Baiji along the main north-south
highway from Baghdad to Mosul have killed some residents in hit-and-run
accidents, according to local leaders. "A lot of people from my tribe are
dead, and I don't know what to say," said Ghaeb Nafoos Hamed Khalaf, leader
of the Qaysi tribe, one of the largest in Baiji.
Insurgents have used Baiji as a base for staging attacks on Mosul and
Baghdad while skimming funds from the oil trade, U.S. officers said.
Together with criminal networks, they began profiting by cutting pipelines
and trucking oil products to be sold on the black market. "No one makes
money when oil flows. They make money when it's disrupted," said Lt. Col.
Mike Getchell, an operations officer with the 101st in Tikrit.
In Baiji, the black market for gasoline bustles, with vendors often
reappearing within days or hours of being detained by U.S. troops. "They're
all over the place," Houston, 20, of Cincinnati, said on a recent patrol
About 150 Iraqi soldiers oversee checkpoints around the city but have
failed to stop the attacks. Inside Baiji, the police are ineffective --
they often sleep on night duty, U.S. officers said. The police and army
"are fence-sitters -- they don't like the coalition or insurgents, and
they're just trying to stay alive," said 1st Lt. Billy Bobbitt, 24, of
Woodstown, N.J., an Army intelligence officer in Baiji. "We're already on
our second police chief. The other one was going to be fired, but then he
got blown up" by a roadside bomb.
U.S. troops have made some headway, recently tracking down a key weapons
smuggler and a large cache of munitions. But residents say security in
Baiji is far worse than it was under Hussein. Many residents, fearful of
insurgent threats, refuse to tell U.S. soldiers who is planting the bombs
in their neighborhoods. Insurgents target Iraqis who work for Americans;
one man who cleaned toilets at the U.S. base was recently beheaded, Baiji
residents and a U.S. officer said.
"When Saddam was in power, we used to go to Mosul, to Tikrit, to Baghdad. .
. . It was safer all over," said Salah Aub Ramadan Obaydi, 65, a retired
teacher, serving tea and pastries to visiting American soldiers in the
curtained sitting room of his east Baiji home. Now "people get shot every
day and no one cares."
Outside, on a wall along a trash-strewn street, graffiti declare: "Long
live the resistance" and "We're the Baiji heroes, we still resist."
The soldiers go door to door, seeking to identify and photograph all
military-age males as part of a tedious effort to figure out who's who.
Iraqis oblige, sometimes grudgingly. No one offers information on attackers.
"They have the place locked down," Kidd said of the insurgents. "We have
almost no support from the local people. We talk to 1,000 people and one
will come forward."
First Sgt. Robert Goudy, of Bulldog Company, summed up the soldiers'
frustration in fighting an elusive enemy: "It's like an elephant trying to
catch a mouse."
A Deadly Ruse
At the home of Ghaeb, the Qaysi tribal leader, Capt. Matt Bartlett leans
forward and directs a piercing gaze at the sheik, who is dressed in a gold
tasseled robe and red-checked headdress.
"You may know, down past that bridge four of my soldiers were killed," says
Bartlett, the 29-year-old company commander, of Montville, N.J., his voice
low and tense.
Ghaeb bursts into rapid-fire Arabic. "From the bridge to the island is not
my area!" he says, gesturing toward the Tigris flowing just beyond his
Bartlett wasn't impressed. "They are scared of us and of being seen with
us," he explained later. "They go along with the status quo."
A few weeks before, Bartlett and others recalled, the captain and one of
his platoon leaders, 1st Lt. Dennis W. Zilinski, of Freehold, N.J., had
visited the neighborhood to try to gain information from Ghaeb about a cell
of bomb-makers. Zilinski, an amiable young officer and captain of his West
Point swim team, brought toys for Ghaeb's children and traded high-fives
The sheik was holding a large gathering and was unavailable, they were
told. The American convoy tried to turn around, but Iraqi cars blocked the
way and people waved the soldiers down an alternative, dirt route along the
Tigris nicknamed "Smugglers' Road."
"It was weird," Bartlett recalled thinking. A few hundred yards down the
road, bordered by fields, the convoy was hit by a massive explosion.
Behind the blast, Goudy jumped out of his Humvee and ran forward toward the
huge cloud of smoke and debris. As it cleared, he was confused by what he
"I saw this big piece of flesh and thought it was a goat or cow. I thought,
'Wow, these guys put an IED in a dead animal,' " he recalled. He went on,
hoping to find his men sitting in the truck. But as he got closer, he
recalled, "I didn't see the truck. I started seeing limbs and body parts."
Goudy tripped over what was left of one soldier. Then he found the only
survivor of the five soldiers in the Humvee, blinded and screaming.
"It was horrible," Bartlett said. "We had to pick up body parts 200 meters
away." The Humvee was "ripped in half and shredded," he said, by a monster
bomb later found to contain 1,000 pounds of explosives and two antitank
mines, with a 155mm artillery round on top.
The attack left the platoon outraged.
"I felt so angry and violated," said Goudy, of Clarksville, Tenn. "We all
wanted to go out and tear up the city, kick down the doors, shoot the
civilians, blow up the mosque." Goudy and others were convinced Iraqis
living nearby knew about the bomb but did nothing to warn them.
Sitting at a wooden table outside his crowded bunk, Sgt. John Coleman, of
Greenwood, S.C., dismantled a machine gun for cleaning and recalled his
There was Zilinski with his upbeat charisma, and the husky, 5-foot-3 Spec.
Dominic J. Hinton, 24, of Jacksonville, Tex., who beamed with pride over
his two young children and called home every few days. Staff Sgt. Edward
Karolasz, 25, of Powder Springs, N.J., was a rare squad leader who
cultivated friendships with the men under him. But it was Cpl. Jonathan F.
Blair, of Fort Wayne, Ind., the tattooed and tough-looking machine-gunner,
who galvanized the men with a note he left behind:
"Don't blame anyone for my death, as much as you may want to. It was my
decision, my life and my choice. . . . To all the boys still fighting --
keep going, stay strong, and remember you'll all be home soon."
Coleman paused from wiping down the gun. "If we leave and this place falls
apart, they will have died in vain," he said.
The same day as the attack, the platoon headed off base for another
mission. Two days later, they received a bit of good news: An intelligence
report recounted insurgents as saying that the recently arrived American
troops "aren't scared of anything."
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