At 5:30 on the morning of June 24, a North Carolina National Guard platoon from Forward Operating Base Warhorse is ambushed on routine patrol in western Baqubah. In a series of drawn-out firefights eventually involving two platoons in Bradleys, two soldiers are killed, including a captain, and seven men injured. The battle for Baqubah, one of five cities hit this morning in coordinated attacks across central Iraq, has begun. Over the next couple of hours insurgents will overrun and occupy several key buildings in eastern Baqubah, including the Civil-Military Operations Center, a vocational college, the civic center and two police sub-stations, reportedly killing 20 Iraqi cops. Colonel Dana J. H. Pittard, 3rd Brigade commander from the 1st ID, readies his companies for a counterattack.FOB Scunion, on the edge of western Baqubah
Shortly before 8:00 am I walk over to 2-63 Armors Alpha Company Tactical Operations Center, expecting to join a patrol; the atmosphere is unusually tense and excited as soldiers hasten to gather equipment and water bottles while humvees and armored personnel carriers idle. Capt. Paul Fowler, the company commander, tells me about the takeovers in the eastern sector of Baqubah, which is normally controlled by 1-6 Field Artillery Battalion; a battle has been raging there since early this morning and 1-6 needs this armored battalions tanks to seal the bridge that divides the east and west sides of the city. Well go via the main street in western Baqubah where the firefights occurred a couple of hours earlier. He adds apologetically that theres not room for me at the moment.
I hang around talking with the XO, Lt. Joshua Kaser and 1st Sgt. Andrew Richard, and at last Fowler says theres room in a 113, a Vietnam-era tracked personnel carrier -- a kind of big metal box on tracks with an opening on its top at about chest height -- that belongs to a squad from the 82nd Engineers. He makes it clear that fighting is likely. Im feeling some fear and ambivalence, but I came to Iraq to make art about the war so Im determined to go along.
Inside the 113 are Sgt. 1st Class Ricky Cliat; squad leader Sgt. Jason Theis, who fires the vehicles mounted 50 caliber machine gun; Pfc. Jason Gayer, who is driving; Spc. Ronald Camp; and Sgt. Aaron Ledlow, the medic.
Leaving the base, we make a right onto the highway, and soon pull up next to a university campus, fields on our left. Up ahead we hear bombs landing on the college across the bridge, and see plumes of smoke rising into the clear sky. Apache helicopters are circling back from strafing runs in eastern Baqubah. We set up a traffic block. Sporadic traffic ahead of us is turning around and heading back towards town. Incongruously, several people are walking and bicycling towards us along the road. We search them and let them continue. One man mimes an Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) shooter to Doc Ledlow, pointing towards town.
After about an hour, Theis, on the radio, says were going in. Its just before 11:00. Were to respond to any attacks, and halt at the bridge at the end of western Baqubah, preventing anyone from crossing it. Capt. Fowler has arrived with the 1st Sgt. in a humvee, his command platform. At the lead are four tanks from 1st Platoon, followed by four personnel carriers, and two tanks in the rear.
1st Lt. Neil Prakash is the platoon commander, in the lead tank. Prakash was born in Bangalore, India, and came to the U.S. as a baby. His parents are both dentists and he was planning a career in medicine like his siblings when he enlisted in ROTC and discovered his true passion. Prakash doesnt smoke, but hes having a cigarette now. While waiting for the order to go in, hes just gotten word of video images from an overhead drone. They indicate that squads of insurgents are on many rooftops armed with machine guns and RPGs.
Our 113 is towards the end of the line. We start rolling. Sgt. Cliat tries to organize everyone quickly, telling his men to keep their heads down. Ahead of us are three tall concrete forms marking the entrance to Baqubah. Ledlow says after we pass those we can expect trouble. Everyone is crouched in the 113s open hatch, guns ready. Its cramped and the hatch is too low to crouch comfortably but too high to kneel. Theis is the highest, up behind the big mounted 50-caliber machine gun. Hes gathering boxes of rounds.
"Get the fuck down, man!" shouts Cliat.
"Then how the fuck am I supposed to fire? Whats the purpose of that?"
"The purpose is for you not to fucking get hit with enemy fire! If you got to fire, you get up and then look through!"
We pass the concrete gate and for several minutes roll past fields, partly obscured by tall reeds and trees. Now were approaching houses, and in front of us theres a footbridge crossing the highway. As we near it, theres a shockingly loud explosion ahead, and a plume of smoke comes off Lt. Prakashs tank in the lead. The column stops. His tank has been hit with an RPG from over a wall on the left, and his gunner blasts a round through the wall.
I dont remember gunfire starting, so much as surging towards us like a wave. I can see smoke coming off the 50 caliber guns from the vehicles ahead. Now the column is moving again, and were entering the battle. On our left is a gas station, one of its trucks ablaze. There are two- and three-story houses on both sides of the road.
Theis, Cliat, Doc Ledlow and Camp are all firing, looking for targets in windows and down alleys and side streets. The din is terrifying, big explosions punctuating the roar of machine gun and small arms fire. I drop below to take cover and pass up ammunition.
Theres a huge bang; the 113 rocks and Ledlow, Cliat and Camp fall to the floor. Im afraid theyre dead. An RPG has just hit the side of our vehicle, between Cliat and Gayer, the driver. Gayers fallen too, and Theis is shouting at him through his headphones to get up. Smoke and the acrid smell of magnesium powder are everywhere.
Doc saw the RPG round fired at us by a man from behind a tree, his head covered in a black hood. Later, he says it looked like a baseball coming straight for us. Pulling himself back up, he locates the shooter in his rifle sight, peering from around the tree. Doc fires off two rounds and sees the man fall, but cant tell if hes killed him.
Groggily, Camp and Cliat stand up. Camp complains hes not seeing straight, but goes back to shooting.
"Are you alright?" Doc shouts at Cliat, who doesnt answer, but leans up against the lip of the hatch and starts looking for targets.
The RPGs are coming from our left; Ledlow has relieved Camp to defend that side. Theres another terrifying explosion against the 113, as a grenade lands low on our left track, damaging but not disabling it. An armor piercing round, it destroys one of the plates, but somehow misses the pin, which would have cut the track and rendered us unable to move. Nevertheless, the sprocket cant engage and weve come to a halt: Gayer cant get the vehicle to move forward. Theis tells him to reverse it and we lurch backwards.
"What the fuck are you doing?" Cliat shouts at Theis. "You dont never go backwards in a firefight! Move this fucking thing forward! Forward!"
Theis tries to explain, but its pointless over the din.
Gayer finally succeeds in thrusting the shifter into forward and we race towards the column, which seems to be moving at an agonizingly slow pace. We can hear explosions up ahead, and the constant roar of guns.
Theis, demonic with his 50-caliber machine gun, sees a man running and sends rounds flying down a side street, then shoots up an old car on its rims. Cliat, dazed but furious, claps his hand on Theiss arm and screams at him to quit wasting ammunition.
The column again grinds to a halt. Were across from an industrial building with large curtained windows, and Camp, seeing a man dash past, pours rounds through the glass. We start moving again.
Up ahead, the tanks have been hit with RPGs from the alleys and machine gun fire from the rooftops, and theyre responding devastatingly with their main guns and built-in machine guns. Insurgents are running parallel to the street, one block over, stopping and firing down the alleys at the column.
In the rear, theres chaos as one of the Abrams, attempting to flank the insurgents, has gone down a side street and entered a compound; while turning around, it has fallen backwards into a large ditch and sheared a sprocket, the gear that moves the track. Another tank pulls security while someone radios for an 88, a huge armored tow truck with a crane, to come and recover the disabled tank.
Lt. Prakashs lead tank has taken multiple hits from IEDs, machine guns, grenades, and 8 RPGs, but the insurgents have failed to penetrate its depleted-uranium armor. One RPG strikes between the turret and the body, bending enough metal that the turret can no longer move back and forth.
Sgt. Cliat suddenly slumps over and falls. Someone drags him onto the berth below. Doc Ledlow checks him out. Hes not injured, but hes falling in and out of consciousness.
"Its the concussion from the RPG.," Says Doc. "It hit right below him. Its like getting your ass whupped for the first time."
Ledlow has remained calm and focused throughout the ordeal. Hes a big, affable guy who seems to take everything in stride, as if his bulk could absorb the psychological blows of combat. Hes a reassuring presence in the vehicle.
Were near Mufaric traffic circle, where Route 5 snakes left towards the bridge. Ahead of Prakashs tank a group of fighters with RPG launchers dashes across the street, and takes refuge behind a trash dumpster. Prakashs gunner sends a round into the dumpster, immolating it.
A convoy of humvees passes us and joins Capt. Fowlers humvee at the circle. I learn later that its Col. Pittard, who wants to see for himself what the situation is. Fowler briefly updates him. The shooting has died down but Fowler wants to press the attack by going back up the street. Satisfied, Pittard signals to his men to turn around.
My heart is racing. Everyone is braced for the firefight to resume. The column has stopped while the tanks are turning around. Were going to have to run the gauntlet again and a feeling of dread creeps back over me. But as we race back, guns ready, the town remains quiet, save for some gunfire in the rear. Were all afraid that were giving time to the insurgents to regroup. Doc decides that well bring Sgt. Cliat back to Scunion. Hes still semi-conscious, lying on the canvas berth below.
Our 113 and Lt. Prakashs tank rumble back to the base. We drop Cliat off, amidst an atmosphere of tense confidence in the TOC, while Prakash gets his tank quickly repaired. The mechanics beat the twisted metal plate down with sledgehammers until the turret can move.
I have a powerful instinct to get off here and head back to my cormex. Doc looks at me and says, "OK, lets go," and I follow him back into the 113.
Im thinking: tenuous as my bonds are with these men, Ive been with them through this much, it would seem cowardly to pull out now. Perhaps I want their approval, the damn reporter, as Sgt. Cliat called me, without malice, when he didnt know I was right behind him. Or perhaps I feel guilty that I have the luxury of deciding not to get back on the 113.
We roar back to the column and wait for the 88 to arrive. A plume of black smoke is rising in front of us. Finally the massive vehicle rumbles past, and perhaps an hour later the disabled Abrams is towed past us, a canvas bag burning on the turret from the fighting.
Eventually a tank pulls up to us, the gunner tosses over a half dozen ammunition boxes, and the column starts to roll back into town towards the bridge, our original objective.
As we approach the footbridge we see whats causing all the smoke: a car burning in the street, just past it a womans crumpled body, bent over itself like a rag doll. Later we learn that the car emerged from a side street and sped towards a tank.
Platoon Sgt. Myron Kennedy ordered his gunner to fire warning shots in front of the car. It stopped, but then began moving towards the tank again, picking up speed. Kennedy again fired warning shots, but the car kept coming and he was faced with a terrible choice. Earlier, intelligence had indicated the possibility of car suicide bombers, so he and his gunner opened fire. The car collided with the tank, and the crew braced themselves for an explosion. Capt Fowler, just behind the tank, remembers clenching his teeth in expectation of the blast. Instead the car just caught fire.
I hear several versions of the story; in one, a man emerges from the car, unscathed, and walks away calmly through the fire. In another, just the woman emerges, pulls herself out the broken windshield and then dies on the pavement.
Back on the main street its quiet. Up ahead I see more black smoke. A tank has discovered a truck loaded with RPGs attempting to get away. Its destroyed, killing the two men in it.
We finally reach the bridge, and form a cordon around it. Everyone is soaking wet and filthy; its 115 degrees. Im sitting back against the 113s door, making a drawing to calm my nerves, when Camp suddenly throws up on the floor and stumbles past me onto the road. A medic comes by and administers an IV. A lot of the men are suffering from heatstroke and getting IVs. Some are sitting in the late afternoon shade of a monument at the traffic circle next to the bridge, trading stories of kills and RPG near-misses.
Scunions commanders are assessing the situation, talking with the men. General Walid Azzawi, the provincial chief of police, arrives with several cars. He knows theres a price on his head; the insurgents destroyed his house this morning, but Lt. Col Jeffery Kulp, 2-63s commander, eventually convinces him to return to his offices with an American escort.
1-6, meanwhile, has apparently regained control of eastern Baqubah, after a morning of fighting and artillery strikes.
Doc Ledlow has been on one of the side streets watched over by a tank, where he tried to stabilize an Iraqi whod been shot in the jaw. The mans friends took him to the hospital.
"How you doing, Mr. Mumford?" asks 1st Sgt. Richard. "You look a little tense!"
"I am tense!" I say, but its slowly dawning on me that were safe for now.
A plan is floated that we might stay here for up to 72 hours. Suddenly the call to prayer from a nearby minaret pierces the silence.
"Jesus fucking Christ," somebody groans, but at that moment the town starts to come back to life. People begin to emerge and walk around. The fighters appear to have left. Its decided to bring everyone back to Scunion, and we convoy up and rumble back along the main boulevard.
Everywhere theres evidence of the fight: the buildings are pockmarked with gaping holes, glass shot out, and several vehicles are smoldering along the route.
Small groups of Iraqis watch us go by impassively. I wave at one group and they wave back. Just before we enter Scunion we pass an old man in a khafia holding the arm of a tall, skinny young man with delicate features and a wisp of a mustache, perhaps 16 years old, peering up at us as we roll by. Theres something so graceful about them, in stark contrast to all the mayhem weve experienced. I snap a picture, and then lower the camera.
I wonder if this drive-by photography isnt another form of intrusion, like the hail of bullets weve brought to this town. Our eyes meet and I say, wordlessly, "Salaam," over the roar of the engines. The young man nods at me politely and then were swerving into the base.
In our sector alone its estimated that there were 100 insurgents, with 25 confirmed killed, but likely many more. Miraculously we suffered no casualties. The coordination, firepower and numbers of men involved in this ambush were different in scale from typical engagements the army has faced since the invasion, perhaps reflecting increased confidence and organization on the part of the insurgents following the marines stalemate and subsequent withdrawal from Falluja. Fowler says hes never seen anything like it.
Probably the insurgents werent expecting tanks. In my estimation, 2-63s Abrams tanks were crucial in the brigades victory. If the insurgents had succeeded in immobilizing one vehicle the battle might have gone quite differently. The soldiers are convinced these were fighters brought in from outside Baqubah, since resistance in the town has usually been limited to IEDs and the occasional mortar round. The insurgents also blew up three liquor stores, attesting to the fundamentalist nature of their fight.
The police succeeded in recapturing the substations in eastern Baqubah on their own.
Over the next days its reported that between 30 and 100 civilians were killed in the crossfire of various firefights in the city, numbers that will surely remain controversial and likely include insurgents. The round from an Abrams tank is capable of going through a couple of houses, burning everything it touches. Yet Doc Ledlow tells me that the next day many civilians were giving him the thumbs up as he patrolled.
Baqubans who lost family members, suffered injuries, or whose property was damaged are seeking redress at the CMOC, which investigates the claims and is authorized to give out settlements. The occupants of the car that was mistaken for a suicide bomber turned out to be family members of the local director of electricity, apparently attempting to flee the city. Everyone in the car died. In the final settlement he will get monetary compensation, an official apology from Pittard and Fowler, and the two children of his nephew, who was driving the car, will get their future college educations paid for.
Fowler faced an army investigation over the shooting, but was cleared of any negligence. He says, "To the day I die, I will think there was something else going on with that car. It just doesnt make sense. Other cars stopped and turned around when we fired warning shots -- its a pretty clear message. Ill never understand why they stopped and then kept coming."
Talking with the bases translators, two of whom are from Baqubah, I get the sense that the citys population is divided about the battle. Thirty-five miles northeast of Baghdad, the region around Baqubah is home to many former Iraqi army officers, disenfranchised since Provisional Authority chief Paul Bremer disbanded the army (two weeks after the battle, a pro-Saddam rally is held downtown).
One of the bases translators from Baqubah says about the insurgents: "No, they are not mujahudeen, they are terrorists. They use civilian areas, shoot Iraqi police; they hide in families houses. Most Baqubans are afraid terrorists will kill them."
Another translator says, "Much depends on the new government -- if they have the authority to really start, many things will change. After these accidents [in Baqubah] there are many people against the terrorists. If the government succeed, keep control over security, then some people will change minds, terrorists will lose their support."
A third man argues, "Listen, this problem belong to the past, that makes our people dont trust the Americans. You know what happened after the first Gulf War, you know the situation in Palestine. . . you have to find the solution there."
The first man disagrees, saying, "These people putting out IEDs, not fighting for country or Islam -- just looking for money. Al Quaeda pays $400 for these activities. Sometimes I recognize these guys. Some have higher education, some uneducated -- its a mix. Most fighting for the money."
STEVE MUMFORD is a New York artist. This is the 12th installation of his "Baghdad Journal."