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THE ROAD TO TAL AFAR
by Steve Mumford
 
Steve Mumford originally went to Baghdad in 2003 to work as a war artist, embedded with the U.S. military, both writing a journal and making drawings and watercolors of what he saw there. He has been back several times; the text that follows is a report from his current visit. The archive for Mumford’s original "Baghdad Journal" can be found here.

In the first week of May the new vehicles for Military Transition Team 172 are finally ready. After a week-long absence the 11 members of the team will head for a combat outpost, a small base where an Iraqi army battalion is waiting for their help. The base sits on the dangerous western edge of Mosul, overlooking dry, rolling hills through which winds the road to Tal Afar and the Syrian border. The mission of the U.S. army’s military transition teams, or MTTs, is to help and advise units of the Iraqi army, so that they can stand and fight against the insurgency on their own.

Military Transition Team 172 is led by Major Jimmy Johnson, a broad-shouldered and thoughtful African American, and his Executive Officer, Capt. Ramon Salas. Major Johnson runs a collegial crew of men, ten officers and NCOs, plus their Iraqi translators. None of these men had ever worked together until tapped for this team.
MTT 172 is largely African American and Latino, notable at Camp Marez, which on the whole has a larger proportion of white soldiers. They face an unusually challenging assignment: the Iraqi battalion they’re working with has one of the most checkered pasts of any unit in the Iraqi army, a history that includes everything from rank incompetence to mass desertions and murderous betrayal.

Yet, amazingly, the Iraqis are emerging as a stronger force under a new commander. And unlike many Iraqi units, this battalion has gradually acquired a genuinely diverse rank and file made up of Sunnis and Shias, Arabs and Kurds, even Christians and Yezidis, a true reflection of the face of Iraq itself. Their new-found if tentative morale has been forged in the ashes of failure and tragedy.

First constituted from members of the al Jabouri tribe west of Mosul with the help of U.S. advisors in early 2007, Iraqi Battalion 172 was ordered to Baghdad as part of the joint U.S.-Iraqi surge last year. Not wishing to leave their tribal lands, the unit mutinied, loosing most of its officers and reducing the number of soldiers to about 150. This remnant continued to Baghdad, leaving most of its equipment behind, as well as their U.S. advisers.

Then came a fatal mistake: they attempted to rebuild their numbers in Baghdad, taking in recruits more or less indiscriminately. Infiltrated with insurgents, the unit proved combat ineffective and the Iraqi Ministry of Defense eventually sent it back north to Mosul, assigned to the combat outpost overlooking the road to Syria.

On Dec. 26, 2007, Captain Rowdy Inman of 3rd Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment arrived at 172’s combat outpost with a small contingent of American soldiers to formally meet the Iraqi unit’s commander and see what the U.S. regiment could do to help them secure the road. Going up the stairs to the meeting he was shot and killed by one of the Iraqi soldiers, along with Sgt. Benjamin Portell. Two other soldiers and an interpreter were wounded. The gunman managed to slip out of the building.

From that moment on, it seemed that 3rd ACR, the U.S. command overseeing most operations in Mosul then and now, wanted nothing more to do with Iraqi Battalion 172, which it considered hopelessly infiltrated by insurgents. One and a half months after the assassinations, Major Jimmy Johnson’s MTT was sent to try to pick up the pieces. (The MTT command is independent from 3rd ACR but generally works with it.)

Then, in short order, another terrible fiasco struck the Iraqi battalion. On Easter Sunday an insurgent suicide bomber managed to drive an armored truck carrying high explosives and filled with bolts cast in concrete right into the battalion’s compound. He parked directly between the three main buildings and detonated the truck bomb, destroying the combat outpost. The explosion created a hole 25 feet wide and 6 feet deep, tearing the facades entirely off all three of the outpost’s buildings. Miles away chapels on U.S. bases holding Easter services that morning had their doors slammed open from the concussion. Thirteen Iraqis died and 42 were wounded.

Major Johnson and his team had been warning the Iraqi battalion commander, Lt. Col. Fadthel, that his defenses weren’t adequate. Johnson also suspected the continued presence of insurgent infiltrators, and had refused to allow his team to spend the night at the outpost despite pressure from his higher-ups and the 3rd ACR commanders to do so. Later Johnson was credited with saving the lives of the team members of his MTT -- many would certainly have been killed along with the Iraqis in the VBID explosion (VBID stands for "Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device"). Col. Fadthel was eventually sacked for incompetence and a new commander, Lt. Colonel Attiya, put in place. Naturally the bomb also wreaked havoc on the already low morale of the Iraqi troops.

Major Johnson found himself with precious little support from 3rd ACR. About half of Mosul’s combat outposts have a U.S. platoon sharing the compound with the Iraqi soldiers, for protection as well as to provide a formidable quick reaction force in the neighborhood. But not Combat Outpost Inman, now named for the U.S. officer killed there in December. This despite the base’s strategic location overlooking the route most convenient for smuggling arms and fighters to the al Qaeda-affiliated insurgency in Mosul and northern Iraq.

"Even with us here, the coalition won’t come out -- we’ve gotten zero support," says one MTT member bitterly.

Major Johnson gives the pre-mission briefing, warning the team members to be aware of where they walk when they leave their vehicles. A 3rd ACR soldier had both legs blown off by an IED two days previously, and died from his injuries. The soldiers link up and bow their heads as Johnson leads a brief group prayer, thanking the Lord for His protection and asserting the MTT’s faith and conviction in their good purpose.

In my vehicle are Capt. Salas; Capt. Mark Whitehead, the intelligence officer, at the wheel; Capt. Matt Miller, who’s on the main gun; and Finch, one of our Iraqi interpreters.

Miller is swinging his turret around, checking its mobility. "I tell you, I’m really impressed with the 1151 gun turret -- I get beaucoup situational awareness," he says over the intercom. At the test-firing pit he snaps off a few rounds from the fearsome .50 cal gun. Someone comments, "Man, you gotta love that bitch. She does put out. . . ."

To my surprise Miller says to me with some formality, "Steve, you’ll have to forgive our profanity at times!"

"Our pro-what? Man, you and your $50 words! I just call them swears!" interjects Capt. Mark Whitehead. Whitehead is an enthusiastic burly ex-law enforcement officer who worked undercover in Florida. Though approaching retirement age like many of the MTT members, he still seems to thrive on the adrenaline rush of danger and expresses himself with a sense of humor honed on the streets of Miami.

Whitehead swings the big mine-resistant vehicle past an Iraqi army checkpoint at the outskirts of Camp Marez. "Ma Salaama (in peace), my brothers, ma salaama!" he shouts to everyone and no one in particular.

COP Inman sits on a bluff just where the city gives way to mostly featureless hills, dotted occasionally with small farms and factories. We wind our way up a switchback and into the combat outpost. The three large buildings that first come into view look like smaller versions of the bombed Federal Building in Oklahoma City, with dollhouse views of once-private rooms, now open and scarred. Though partly cleaned up, the site still looks raw. Next to these buildings sit several more which had housed a community of squatters. The battalion evicted them and commandeered the buildings, enlarging and finally strengthening the base’s defensive perimeter.

We pull up to these buildings, and are met by several Iraqi soldiers. Lt. Colonel Attiya isn’t in, but they escort us to the battalion’s second in command, Major Jaleel. Jaleel is a friendly, reserved man who invites us in. A soldier serves us soda and chai, while Capt. Salas discusses the Iraqis’ supplies, the major issue facing the battalion. As Miller had told me, they’re hard-pressed to provision such basics as vehicles and parts, ammunition, sandbags and razorwire, not to mention clothing and food. The Iraqi Ministry of Defense had just allocated $8 billion in oil money for supplies for its army. However, hoarding is often the rule, and many far-flung battalions don’t get their due.

Jaleel brings us down to the building’s new cafeteria where soldiers are ladling lamb stew from a big vat onto rice. The MTT soldiers eat in one of the newly painted dining rooms with the Iraqi major. Capt. Miller is ecstatic at the improvements undertaken by the Iraqis on their own initiative. "In one week I’ve seen such an incredible change. These guys had no place to eat before -- this is great!"

Capt. Miller has himself been scrounging for the Iraqis, including a recent "find" of an arc welder stored at Camp Marez, which the Iraqis are using to repair their damaged humvees. Out of 20 lightly armored humvees, only five are operational. Miller is also looking to scrounge 1,000 sandbags and two dozen bales of razorwire.

That evening back at Camp Marez, the team is sitting around a makeshift fire-pit. Miller gets out his Iraqi waterpipe, lights up some flavored tobacco and starts to examine the shape-shifting insurgency as well as the U.S. army’s new counter-insurgency tactics.

"The one thing that will get the U.S. out of here is logistical support for the Iraqi army -- they often don’t have the basics: force protection, food, ammunition, what you need to sustain a fighting force. Can you blame them when they don’t want to fight? This is a very contested part of town. Before the Easter bombing the enemy warned them to stay put -- ‘Don’t mess with us!’ And so the battalion hardly even left the combat outpost. Well guess what? They looked weak. Hell, if I was the enemy, I’d say, ’I’ll kill you now’. And they did. Things were bad, but they’ve changed a lot since the new Iraqi commander and his executive officer have come in."

The next day we’re headed out to COP Inman to meet with Lt. Col. Attiya and review plans for an upcoming raid to be carried out by his battalion. This will be another test to see how well the Iraqis can handle planning and logistics on their own. The MTT will review Atiya’s plans, suggest improvements and plan U.S. combat support.

The drive out to Inman is tense as usual. The radio is buzzing with threats: an insurgent walked up to the gate at Combat Outpost Hotel in a suicide vest, killing an Iraqi soldier. An earlier VBID, now a burning wreck, is being towed off somewhere near Route Santa Fe; a patrol has spotted a suspicious-looking dog carcass on a highway ramp. We notice a yellow sedan, the same one, Capt. Miller insists, that we’ve seen three days in a row, seemingly monitoring us.

We’re traveling down route Santa Fe in a usually crowded area when we notice that people seem to be leaving the street.

"Everyone’s getting the hell out of here, that’s for sure! Alright, game time!" says Whitehead, with a savage chuckle. Quiet when bored, he’s given to explosive bursts of enthusiasm when danger threatens. We pass a lonely Iraqi police checkpoint. Whitehead is on a roll. "Way to go, boys! Fight the Power -- Right on!"

"Dude, it’s really, really, really quiet. . . . I hope we’re not being baited," says Miller. Drives around Mosul are often like this, everyone’s senses attuned to the smallest differences in street life and traffic. Some Iraqi men running down a side street might simply indicate a friendly race to a CD store or it could signal the start of an attack.

We finally arrive at COP Inman without incident, and get escorted up to LTC Attiya’s office. The MTT’s operations officer, Capt. David Kopecki, and Capt Salas pour over a map with LTC Attiya, Finch doing the translating. Attiya is a melancholy bear of a man, a bit stooped, with a surprisingly high-pitched nasal voice. His lined, hangdog face looks like little would surprise or perturb it. He gestures lazily as he talks but responds with animation and interest to Kopecki’s suggestions about the placement of his forces and coordination with the Americans.

Over lunch Attiya broaches a problem. A man drove up to the combat outpost, not heeding the signs to stop. After the horrendous Easter car bombing the soldiers were not about to ignore a car incautiously approaching and fired warning shots. The car kept coming, so they shot at the engine, disabling it.

"Now, this man wants compensation for his car." The MTT soldiers are shaking their heads in disbelief.

"Well, Colonel, he should have stopped," says Salas.

"Yes, but last week he visited me in my hometown. He knows where I live -- some soldiers must have talked -- and he made it clear that he expected money or there would be trouble. That’s how the tribes work. If you can’t help me then I’ll have to pay him from my salary."

Salas says he’ll see what he can do, but getting money for Iraqi army matters has become extremely difficult. We’re all chewing over the notion that the commander of a battalion could be extorted in this way -- or wondering whether we’re the ones that are being extorted -- when Attiya rather casually mentions that his men have located an IED in the road a few miles away from here. It’s a pressure-plate device, designed to detonate when a vehicle is driven over it.

"We were tipped off -- there was a box over it, but it was windy last night and it got blown off. The insurgents used the cover of the sandstorm to place it. Now it’s just sitting there," says Attiya mildly.

The Americans exchange surprised looks. We must have driven right by it.

"That’s great that your men found it. Please let us know as soon as possible when you find these," says Salas, smiling. "Have your guys cordoned off the road around it?"

"Not mine, but I ordered that the soldiers at COP Alamo nearby do so. We’ll send for our demolition team to dispose of them."

"Excellent, my friend, good work."

However, when we get there 45 minutes later there are no soldiers to be seen. Salas, in the lead vehicle, unknowingly drives right by the plate. Miller, our gunner, thinks he sees it and we quickly brake, but find ourselves dangerously near the metal plate. Capt. Robin VanDeusen suggests driving by fast to verify it; Whitehead guns the engine and we sail past the bomb.

Miller is sure that he has seen another suspicious object lying in the opposite lane across from the pressure plate.

Traffic is cautiously moving in the eastbound lane, while pedestrians are casually walking across the two-lane avenue, right next to the probable IEDs. The Iraqis obviously know what they’re strolling by and studiously ignore us. All three of our vehicles are now east of the bombs. Salas says over the radio, "Maybe one of us should drive past them again and set up a traffic block on the other side. What do you guys think?"

"Roger, we’ll proceed west," radios VanDeusen.

"That’ll be the third time we’ve gone by them -- it’s a good thing I’ve already got two kids!" says Miller.

"Yeah, boys! Let’s do it!" shouts Whitehead as he floors the accelerator. We tighten our stomachs and clench our teeth as we dash by the bombs again. The men cordon off the lane and we settle in to wait for the bomb team, watching the sporadic foot traffic of adults and children briskly stepping around the pressure plate in the road. Near us a long wall separates the houses from the sidewalk. The wall has a continuous scrawl of anti-U.S. graffiti in Arabic, and then in large red letters proclaims, "Booosh Dog."

Within an hour the explosives-and-ordinance team has arrived and sent a robot out to examine the objects. They report that the pressure plate was evidently left exposed in order to force a vehicle to cross to the other side where a command-detonated bomb wired to a cell phone was lying. The EOD team blows the latter in place after removing the cell phone to collect evidence. I ask if I can open a hatch to get some fresh air and a clear view of the detonations but Miller tells me it’s too dangerous.

While we’re waiting for the pressure plate to be wired for detonation, an unexpected blast shakes the road.

"What the fuck was that?"

"I think someone threw a grenade from over the wall!"

Overhead, Apaches respond, and try to get a look at the grenade thrower, but can’t see past the foliage of the trees. At that moment the Iraqi demolition vehicles arrive, to the annoyance of the Americans, as they have to be stopped from driving up to the pressure plate.

"It’s too late, bitch!" says John, the interpreter in our vehicle. Iraqi interpreters often swear liberally in English.

"Hey, listen, they showed up, that’s great!" Eventually the second bomb is blown up and we head back to base.

Capt. Whitehead tells me, "It’s a tricky thing, working with the Iraqis. We can’t breathe down their necks. It’s like raising your kids: you show them how to clean their rooms, but then you gotta step back and let them do their thing, step in if they really fuck it up. I’ll go there to talk to their intelligence guys, and the intelligence officer is just going on leave -- they got a very liberal leave program. We can’t tell them to be there when we come, we can only suggest.

Then, the officers, they tend to treat their NCOs like crap, yelling at them. The officers think they can just sit in their offices all day? Some of those NCOs, they know their shit, let them go out and hunt and kill!

In civilian life I’m used to being undercover, it’s what I did back in Miami. And sometimes my Spidey sense goes off around some guy -- I don’t know if I can trust him. But weeding out the bad guys isn’t our main mission here. We’re here to advise the Iraqis. We’re stuck in between the Iraqis and our army. We’re conventional forces playing an unconventional role. And we have to educate our army about what we do! The regular army units, they know one thing: how to go kinetic, fire their tanks and weapons, kill stuff! Some of them have no idea what a MTT is supposed to do. You can’t just come here and throw lead downrange – you have to sometimes throw kind words!"

*     *     *
In late June Capt Matt Miller writes:

". . .our [Iraqi battalion’s] Executive Officer, Major Jaleel was baited by a false tip on the hotline we distributed. He and his entire security detachment walked right into a suicide bomber’s trap. Thank God, they all survived, but they all had to be MEDEVACed and are currently on medical furlough for a month.

[On other fronts] things are coming around beautifully. We are making substantial progress and the [Iraqi] battalion is gaining much "wasta" [Iraqi Arabic meaning credit and respect] for its significant role in the capture of over 1300 personnel during the two weeks of Operation Lion’s Roar, with over 200 being on the high value target list.

We’ve just completed the "mop-up" phase of Operation Mother of Two Cities.

This basically focused on repetitive presence patrols through neighborhoods that were already swept, but with a focus on winning hearts and minds. I asked the commander to give me permission to direct Iraqi soldiers in handing out candy and cold water bottles to the neighborhood children. This was a particular success as parents came out and allowed personal conversations and issued invitations for chai. Our [Iraqi] soldiers performed admirably. The local sheiks made a point to visit the commanders and mention that the soldiers were respectful and that they’re glad to have them patrolling their streets.

It was a marked improvement from where we started.

Now, we are starting a city-wide reconstruction of roads, lighting, water and sewage, etc. . . . things have changed so much that route Santa Fe is completely open to traffic (this makes us very nervous, though) in order to increase commerce. This is particularly evident in the marketplaces.
Also, today was the beginning of the Inman trial in Baghdad. We had to be particularly alert in case some of the battalion’s sympathizers for Capt Inman’s killer were unhappy with the process.

Our [protective] T-Walls finally showed up. (Which will allow MTT 172 to stay overnight at the combat outpost.) We are patiently waiting for our cage, generator and HVAC systems. Hell, we even managed to convince the local energy authority that providing power to our battalion would ensure some mutual support.

Bottom Line: the bad guys are on the run for a little while until they figure out how to deal with a significantly improved and motivated Iraqi Army.


STEVE MUMFORD is a New York artist and author of Baghdad Journal: An Artist in Occupied Iraq (2005). His artwork is represented by Postmasters in New York.



 



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