Anatomy of an IED Attack
by Sgt. Roy Batty
The chickens are driving me crazy. Bonkers. They won't quit. Surely this counts as 'cruel and unusual punishment.' After eating nothing but MREs for the past two weeks, I am dying for some real food, and the Iraqi vendors in our patrol area are not helping. You see, while Iraq does not have McDonalds, or even a McHommad, or any other kind of fast food for that matter, they do have a plethora of sidewalk cafes and vendors.
In a city that averages three car bombs a day, I'm not convinced of the wisdom of sitting next to a busy road while munching on your falafel. Nevertheless, they are everywhere. Falafel I can resist, but the locals in our neck of the woods are particularly ingenious, and they have somehow pieced together these propane fired rotisseries, stocked full of plumb chickens.
At least I think they're chickens.
Our patrol route today takes us up and down a main business route, checking on the local Iraqi cops to make sure they are actually doing something vaguely definable as law enforcement. Every time we pass one of the rusty cabinets with their greasy avian treasures, my stomach growls like one of the junkyard dogs by the side of the road, and I start bugging my squad leader on the SINCGARS radio again:
"Hey, SSG H., can we stop and get some chicken?"
"Please? Just one?"
"C'mon! I'll be the test subject. If I'm still alive 24 hours later, we'll know they are okay....."
"Pllllleeeeeeeeeeez? Pretty please? I'm dyin' back here!"
"SGT Batty, if you come down with freakin' salmonella poisoning, the platoon sergeant would chew my ass. I'd never hear the end of it! Have another MRE, you have plenty in the back of your truck....."
At which point I shut up, my soldiers start making fun of me, and my stomach rumbles away like distant artillery. It fades resentfully, just in time to pass another cafe, and then the whole routine starts up again.
In the midst of licking my ballistic window out of desperation, our top SINCGARS radio, tuned to our company frequency, beeps and crackles urgently. One of the OPS sergeants comes over the net, and reports a IED explosion on another unit, just a few klicks away. He gives the grid coordinates to it, and I grab the wet-erase pen that's hanging off of one of the speakers, and scribble the numbers on the windshield in front of me. It's only a couple blocks north of our current location.
OPS is sending our other squad there, but SSG H. knows they will need all the help they can get, so our column of humvees pulls a U-turn across the dusty median, scattering a group of sheep as it goes, and we gun the lumbering vehicles back down the way we came. Sure enough, we get the directive to head that way a minute later. We're only seconds away.
I prepare myself for what we may be about to see. Burned bodies. Missing limbs. Humvees blown apart and scattered across a scorched street. It wouldn't be the first time. I brief my team as we rock and lean from side to side, the big truck maneuvering around the traffic on our way in.
"Okay, guys, we're heading to the scene of an IED. When we get there, make sure to do a quick '5 and 25' around us. There may be secondaries in the area. N., if we dismount, grab the fire extinguisher. I'll grab the extraction tool and the fire blanket. C., make sure you're looking for a triggerman, and watching the houses for snipers."
The radios are full of chatter, urgent, clipped. Various units are vectoring towards the scene. C., my gunner, yells down to me that he can see Apache helicopters coming up behind us, and a second later I can feel the basal thumping in my chest as two of them roar over us, low and fast. It's a good feeling to have them overhead and leading the way, not to mention having the extra firepower in the skies above us.
We're about half a block away from the scene when the buildings around us change from residential houses to a market place. The roads are choked with cars, trucks, vans, makeshift vendor stalls, and people. At the best of times, these open air markets are an exercise in barely contained chaos, and the addition of high explosives, assault helicopters, and the high speed approach of tan-clad Crusaders only increases the effect. The crowd is mostly women, uniformly clad in their traditional black robes, and a lot of kids, who stand in stiff postures with open mouths, the way that kids do in third world countries. Nobody wants to get out of the way.
Our progress slows to a maddening standstill, made all the worse because we know that our fellow soldiers may be seriously injured just ahead. SSG H. has a siren on his humvee, and Fish, his driver, feverishly works its dial, switching from wail to yelp and back again. The gunners on the trucks gesture wildly, blowing on their whistles, trying to move the people and the vehicles. A couple of IP pick-up trucks fly up behind us, and the blue shirted cops dismount, amid their own sirens and some high pitched Arabic screaming on their PA systems. Add to this the roar and rattle of the gunships circling overhead, and the constant blare of the SINCGARS radios, with their weirdly mechanical voices, and you have an idea of the scene in which I found myself.
The IPs soon found the most effective way of moving the people out of the way, which was to simply shoot at them with their AKs, which IPs like to do. Okay, maybe not at them, but very close to them. This is the normal way of moving traffic in Baghdad, and I have to say that it works pretty well, although it's a little hard on the nerves if you are not expecting it, and you are expecting things by the side of the road to go boom. Still, we got through the crowd.
On the other side of the crowd was a large, triangular field. I guess you could call it a field, although it was really just a large patch of trash-strewn mud and rocks, crisscrossed with holes and ditches and general debris. Pretty standard for the eastside. Pretty standard for any Iraqi city. The term field always brings to mind an Alpine wonderland of greener-than-green grass and a riot of wild flowers, the kind you see in Bavarian postcards, but such things tend to get mugged quickly in Baghdad, and most of them left town years ago. This one looks more like a cross between a lunar crater and the aftermath of Woodstock.
Across the 'field' we can see a column of humvees. We bounce our way across to them, eyeing every tussock of mud and plastic bag with distrusting eyes. The awful truth about IEDs is that they are incredibly easy to conceal, particularly in Baghdad with its decades of accumulated garbage, and this would be a great place to have a secondary one, just waiting for us. The insurgents like to take advantage of Good Samaritans coming to the aid of stricken people, and we want to make sure we don't walk into their trap.
We make it across without any unwelcome detonations, and my squad leader dismounts to check on the stricken convoy. I get out, along with the other team leaders, to pull security on him, and to render aid to any casualties. We walk down the road, rifles up and at the ready, scanning the facades of the houses around us, ready for trouble. I can see the humvee that got hit, the asphalt beneath it scorched black from the blast. The vehicle doesn't look too bad, just some damage to the engine and the right front door, but looks can be deceiving. I've seen trucks that have been absolutely mangled, and everyone inside is untouched, and on the other hand, seen vehicles with a single neat hole in a door, with a dead man behind it.
The 82nd guys are out and pulling security, and quickly tell us that there are no injuries. The truck is disabled, and a wrecker is on the way. They have been very lucky, and I breathe a sigh of relief. I don't know these guys, but in the valley of the shadow, you don't need to. We all have American flags on our shoulders, and that is all the connection we need.
We relay the info back to our TOC on the radio, and then the question turns to finding the SOB that did it. There is a lot of talk of the triggerman, of people in various shirts of various colors seen running from the scene. Eventually the ID coalesces to a young guy in a green shirt with black stripes, running across the field to the east, and so we decide to head that way. More elements of the 82nd are coming in, and they are going to start searching houses in the area.
I'm impressed with the response to this IED strike. We've got multiple squads of infantry and MPs in the area, along with Iraqi Police and EMS, and the Apache gunships overhead. In the past few months, I've been to the scene of a number of IEDs, and often it has just been us and the element that got hit, alone, on some deserted street in the middle of the night. The 82nd is rolling out heavy, as we say, and it feels good to have this amount of back-up around us. I only wish that we could fix the insurgents in the process, and put a ton of lead down on top of them. Too much of my time here, we have felt like the hunted, instead of the hunter we need to be.
Now to find that damn triggerman...
Our squad moves into the mahallah across the field, and sets up blocking positions along a residential road. Apparently this is the street that the infantry saw Mr. Greenshirt run down, after the EFP went off. My truck is at the end of our convoy, and I position the vehicle to block the road, and then dismount to pull security.
As usual in Iraq, normal everyday life goes on in the midst of a guerilla war. Apparently a school is just down one of the sideroads, and a steady stream of schoolgirls walks past our instant checkpoint, uniformly clad in black and white robes. The girls all have the same look on their faces, steadfast, almost fixed, maintaining this aura of disdain while refusing to look at us, as if we were filthy beggars panhandling, instead of just filthy soldiers looking for neighborhood terrorists. I scan the rooftops and balconies for snipers, a habit that is, by now, so ingrained that I found myself doing it subconsciously during RnR, back in Germany. That was less than two weeks ago, and already it seems like a movie I once watched as a kid.
"Hey, SGT B, over here."
One of my counterparts, SGT Y., is calling for me, and I turn to see what he is up to. His weapon is up, and he is sighting down another side road. I jog over to him, and ask him what he has.
"That kid just ran into that house over there!" he says excitedly.
"The one with the green shirt, with the black stripes! The suspected trigger man...." he replies, dropping his rifle to his side for a second and looking at me.
"Which house? Where?" I ask, peering down the street.
"That one right there, with the old lady outside it." He points a dirty nomex glove towards one on the left, just a few houses away from us.
I look over. There is one of the ubiquitous ninja women standing next to a iron gate and, as I look, a kid of about 12 years joins her from inside. I motion the kid to come over, which he does, apparently without fear.
I ask him in Arabic if a man just went in the house. No, no, he just left, is the reply, which is sort of a confusing answer, but I relay it to Y anyway. SGT Y's reply is short and to the point--bullshit! I ask the kid again if a young man with a green shirt went in the house. Damn, how do you say 'green' in Arabic? I pull out my little phrase book and leaf through trying to find the word. How come you can never find the phrase or word when you really need it? Screw it; I point to an olive drab pouch on Y's body armor, and then to the kid's shirt. The kid figures it out.
Oh yeah, yeah, he went inside! He ran up to the top floor just a minute ago.
I thank the kid, and then tell SGT Y that yes, the guy is inside. "Let's get in there and clear the building!" I'm getting pumped right away. I spent six years on MP Special Reaction Teams, doing SWAT operations, and room clearing is just my thing.
SGT Y is a little more cautious. "Just the two of us? Umm, let's get SSG H up here..."
Just then SSG H. walks up, but before we get to tell him the deal, he chews my ass for leaving my team. I look at my truck, only twenty feet away, and then back at him.
It's no use. He's right, I guess, but my soldiers are not privates and can handle pulling security by themselves for a few minutes. I stomp back over to them, slightly fuming. It's one of those little disagreement moments that happens when everyone's adrenaline is up. I know that if I just stay cool that SSG H. will be open to listen a little bit later. I tell myself this a couple times while watching them go upstairs, and move across the balcony, rifles at the low ready.
In any case, the dude is not in the house. He probably sprinted upstairs, zipped across the roof, and crossed over to any number of neighbouring houses. That's the other problem with battling insurgents on their turf; they grew up here and know the terrain far more intimately than we ever could. SSG H and SGT Y trudge back outside, and SGT Y looks at me from the gate, shrugging his shoulders.
More elements of the 82nd show up, and they start cordoning off the neighbourhood. It seems that they are preparing to go door-to-door, and they request that we move down this street and block it off at the other end. We move our trucks down the road slowly, the team leaders walking beside the HMMWVs as we go, along with some of the dismounted infantry.
The stroll is another one of those slightly surrealistic Baghdad moments. Bright sunshine, cool breezes, rustling trees. The rumble of our vehicles next to us, .50 caliber machine gun turrets rotating as the gunners change their tactical angles. The feel of rough concrete through my Oakley boots, and the weight of the carrying strap of my 203 across my armored shoulders, bouncing as I walk. Watching rooftops, windows, and balconies for gun barrels, or muzzle flashes, or anything suspicious, and only finding scarfed women hanging up laundry. The rising tone and flashing roar of the Apaches circling overhead, contrasting with the flap of the black martyr flags on the tops of some of the homes. The reaction of the neighborhood people adds to the dreamlike effect. They are not scared, or intimidated, or fazed in any way. They act as if we were tourists out for a stroll, looking for nothing more interesting than a good photo opportunity. One old guy lies supine on the ground, barely moving as we walk past him. I dunno if he is drunk, or just taking a nap, but he seems completely unconcerned at our approach.
We reach the end of the street and set up another roadblock, without the sudden report of a sniper rifle. Some of the infantry squads continue on, striking off down alleyways, while behind us another squad of motorized infantry rolls in behind us, and starts disgorging more troops. A sudden "bang bang bang" makes me jump for a second, but it is only the soldiers kicking against the metal gates to the houses. Apparently it is the kindler, gentler method of conducting a cordon and search, at least for the 82nd.
I'm joined, after a little while, by a short Hispanic paratrooper, Jose, sent down from his squad to make sure no one enters or exits the street during the search. I ask him the usual questions, how ya doin', where ya from, how long ya been in country--the same questions that American soldiers have been asking each other through all of our foreign wars, from Bastogne to Pusan to Nha Trang and now to Baghdad. He answers reluctanctly, almost resentfully, in monosyllables. I guess leg MPs are almost as suspect to him as Iraqi insurgents. About the time that abortive conversation ends, we start getting the usual crowd of locals gathering at our makeshift roadblock--mostly kids, but also some men and a couple of housewives trying to get back to their homes from market, or school, or work.
Jose's social skills need a little work. Maybe it's because he's only been in-country for two months, or maybe it's just because he's Airborne and therefore of a higher order than us mere mortals, but he barks rough commands in English at the waiting people, who stare at him uncomprehendingly. This is usually just after I've done my best to explain the situation to them in Arabic. He finally resigns himself to squatting across the street and glaring at us, the barrel of his rifle pointed in our general direction.
I recently learned the single most useful phrase of Arabic yet. Schloon tgul......im Arabii? 'How do you say.....in Arabic?' If you fill in the blank with either some earnest pointing at the object in question, or some really good Charades acting, you can learn how to say just about anything. It comes in handy over the next two hours, since that's about how long the folks in front of me end up waiting to go back to their houses. Instead of having a small riot on our hands, we end up having a blast. People generally love teaching their language to foreigners, whether it's in a village in Honduras, a city in Korea, a refugee camp in Bosnia, or here in a backalley 'hood on the eastside of Baghdad. It helps if the foreigner is holding a very large assault rifle, and is festooned with a variety of grenades.
Whenever the search teams find a military age male, they send them down to my group, and presently I have about twenty of these guys sitting next to a garden wall. We talk about guns, girls, the United States, George Bush, mobile phones, girls, cars, money, pornography (a relatively new development in Iraq), swear words in multiple languages and, oh yes, girls. I hand out cigarettes and bottled water, and somehow manage to keep the motley crew entertained and not thinking about ways to cause problems for the infidels, at least not right now.
In the midst of our language lesson, the radio crackles with some disturbing news. One of the scouting infantry squads has come across what they think is a car bomb, nestled in an alleyway just behind the houses behind us. It's a old junker with wires and bailing wire protruding from the hood and the trunk. Kind of a weird place to put a car bomb, since a humvee won't even fit in the alleyway, but I suppose it's possible that they stumbled across one being put together. Privately, I suspect it's just another Baghdad hoopty, held together with ingenuity and duct tape.
Still, the infantry lieutenant wants EOD to check it out, which makes the wait even longer. My crowd gets larger, since it is now late afternoon and folks are starting to make their way home. It's only a matter of time until I am faced with the most challenging of Iraqi denizens to control: a very short, very round, Arabic grandmother.
Granny is classic. She's loud, and alternates between being funny, gregarious, tearful and demanding--and the cycle rotates every minute or so, with frantic energy. There is lots of hand gestures and dramatic pleading to the heavens. Her black robes swirl about her like an Old Testament cloud, and the beads and metal necklaces around her thick neck clank and tinkle against each other as she gestures wildly. She's says she's tired and hungry and her house is only right there and there are no terrorists in the neighborhood and even if they are she isn't a terrorist and she doesn't even know any terrorists and her son is coming over later and she has to make dinner for him and she just doesn't understand what the American soldiers are doing here anyway and can't she just go home because she won't cause any problems swear to Allah the most merciful praises be upon him.
After a while, the guys along the wall help me out and try to tell her the deal, too, but even that doesn't work. Granny is on a roll, and surely the damn crusader is about to crack.
It's at that point that the radio crackles to life--EOD has decided to blow up the suspected car bomb, just to be sure, and also because it's fun. EOD loves to blow shit up, and usually without telling anyone, so I should at least be grateful for the heads up. I turn to the crowd and gesture wildly, trying to remember the word for explosion, and finally resort to putting my hands over my ears, and squinting my eyes shut, except for one. Everyone instantly follows suit, and the sight of twenty five people looking like the 'Hear No Evil' monkey is pretty funny, if not for the thought that a big freakin' amount of high explosives is about to detonate half a block away.
There is a reasonable sized BOOOM from behind the houses. Nothing too crazy, about the noise level of your average hand grenade, but enough to make some of the waiting guys jump. The only problem is that the relatively low noise level means that it wasn't a VBIED, and we just demolished somebody's family car.
Jose comes over and announces that all of the guys need to go down the street to be ID'd by some witnesses to the roadside bomb. I do my best to explain what's going on, and we have the lads get in a line and put their hands on the shoulders of the guy in front of them, like some sort of kindergarten field trip, and off they go down the road. Granny tries to join them, and I have to grab her off the end of the line.
Apparently no one fits the picture, as I can see the guys being dismissed just a few minutes later. I wave Granny and the rest of the housewives on, giving them the all clear, and she wafts past me blowing kisses with one hand and waving to Allah with the other, babbling on all the while. She's good people, and I smile at her as she waddles down the dusty street.
We load up shortly afterwards, amid the younger kids begging and pleading for soccer balls, candy and money, none of which I am inclined to give them. We didn't find a single piece of contraband, or any suspects during the search, but I still come away with a feeling of having done some good. Perhaps, at the very least, we've managed to put a human face on the occupying Americans, and my Arabic phrase book is full of scribbled new words and phrases. This is the way that counter-insurgency wars are fought--a quick blast, lots of slow searching and a ton of effort, and nothing material to show for it at the end of the day. If you're lucky, though, perhaps you made a friend or two along the way. Maybe it will make a difference.
As we pull away from the street, I see a kid run out from behind the houses, and disappear down a back alley way, just a flash in the growing dusk of the evening.
And wouldn't you know it. He was wearing a green shirt with black stripes.Sgt Roy Batty is a pen name for an MP stationed in Baghdad. The picture at the top comes from thetension.blogspot.com.
Cross-posted at the Military.com Warfighter's Forum.