Pat P. sends this Time article about one of the most dangerous ops in Fallujah. It also includes a paragraph about Captain Sean Sims. Seriously, the first few paragraphs are awesome...oh, and SSG Bellavia is badder than John freakin' Wayne.
After weeks of preparation, the U.S. launches a full-scale assault to take back Fallujah. TIME follows one platoon as it carries out the most dangerous operation since the beginning of the war
By Michael Ware
“We’re not going to die!” yells U.S. Staff Sergeant David Bellavia as his rattled platoon of soldiers takes cover from machine-gun fire in the streets of Fallujah. The platoon has been ordered to hunt down and kill a group of insurgents hiding somewhere in a block of 12 darkened houses. It is 1:45 a.m., and the soldiers have been running from fire fight to fire fight for 48 hours straight with no sleep, fueled only by the modest pickings from their ration packs. As they searched through nine of the houses on the block, the soldiers turned up nothing. When they trudged into the 10th house, though, a trap was sprung: the insurgents had lured them in and then opened fire, forcing Bellavia’s men to scramble out of the house as shards of glass peppered them and bullets ricocheted off the gates of the courtyard. Bellavia yelled for a Bradley armored fighting vehicle to get “up here now!” The Bradley drew along the gate and poured 25-mm-cannon and M-240 machine-gun fire into the house, blasting a shower of concrete chips and luminescent sparks.
Bellavia, a wiry 29-year-old who resembles Sean Penn, is pacing the street, preparing to go back in. Bellavia’s bluster on the battlefield contrasts with his refinement off it. During lulls in the fighting, he could discuss the Renaissance and East European politics. “Get on me now,” he says, ordering his squad to close in. There is little movement. He asks who has more ammunition. Two soldiers stand up and join him in the street. “Here we go, Charlie’s Angels,” Bellavia says. “You don’t move from my goddam wing. You stay on my right shoulder. You stay on my left shoulder. Hooah?” The men nod. “I wanna go in there and go after ’em.”
Reaching the barred window near the front door, Bellavia tells two soldiers to perch by the house corner and watch for insurgents trying to leap out the side window. He looks at Staff Sergeant Scott Lawson and says, “You’re f______ coming. Give suppressive fire at 45 degrees.” Bellavia and Lawson step nervously into the house. From the living room, Bellavia rounds the corner into the hallway. The insurgents are still alive. Their AK-47s fire. Bellavia fires back, killing them both. “Two f_____s down,” he says.
Lawson stays downstairs while Bellavia scours the first floor for more insurgents. A string of rapid-fire single shots ring out. Then silence. Then a low, pained moaning. The two soldiers waiting in the courtyard call out to Bellavia, “Hey, Sergeant Bell,” but get no response. “Sergeant Bell is not answering,” a message is shouted back to the platoon members across the street. “We need more guys.” The platoon’s other staff sergeant, Colin Fitts, 26, steps up. “Let’s go,” he says.
Fitts takes a small team over the road. “Terminators coming in,” he bellows as he goes inside, using the unit’s name in a code to warn that friendly forces are entering. Inside they find Bellavia alive and on on the hunt. Upstairs he scans the bedrooms. An insurgent jumps out of the cupboard. Bellavia falls down and fires, spraying the man with bullets. At some point another insurgent drops out of the ceiling. Yet another runs to a window and makes for the garden. Bellavia hits him in the legs and lower back as he flees. When it’s over, four insurgents are dead; another has escaped badly wounded. To Bellavia, Fitts says, “That’s a good job, dude. You’re a better man than me.” Bellavia shakes his head. “No, no, no,” he mutters.
When it kicked off last week, the battle of Fallujah was billed as a climactic clash between roughly 10,000 U.S. soldiers and Marines and about 2,000 newly minted Iraqi fighting men against the 1,500 to 3,000 armed militants who have turned the city into Iraq’s biggest insurgent haven. But the battle has not involved any single Armageddon-style showdown with massed insurgent forces. Instead, for men like the soldiers of Alpha Company’s 3rd Platoon, part of Task Force 2-2, the fight was far more intense, chaotic and harrowing. The Americans battled armed insurgents not just street to street or even house to house, but also up close and personal with their enemy, fighting him room to room at point-blank range. Measured by the military’s strategic objectives, the assault’s first few days produced success. U.S. forces, led by the members of Task Force 2-2, swept down from the north and punched deep into the city, seizing one of Fallujah’s most important assets, Highway 10. The Army’s assault opened the way for more forces to pour into the center of Fallujah and advance toward the south of the city, with the intent of delivering a blow to an insurgency that has overrun parts of Iraq. Ripping out the heart of the resistance in Fallujah is a necessary step to prevent the insurgents from tearing the country apart.
The U.S. offensive has left much of Fallujah in ruins, as air strikes, artillery barrages and ground fighting destroyed homes and damaged many of the city’s mosques. It’s impossible to count the number of enemy slain across Fallujah, but the attrition of insurgent forces in the city was decisive. In the long run, however, the rebels haven’t been beaten. From the nature of the fight and interviews with insurgents before the attack, it seems clear the nationalist and jihadist leadership had by and large already left the city along with much of their ranks, leaving behind, in classic guerrilla style, a rearguard detail to harass and interdict U.S. forces. The Americans in Fallujah got a taste of what they may confront across Iraq’s restive Sunni triangle as the military command attempts to root out the insurgents from their sanctuaries. They are a tenacious enemy who fight as any guerrilla force might—never head on, always from behind or the sides at moments when it’s least expected, initiating combat at weak points and then pulling back to strongholds, ducking and weaving all the while.
The U.S. invasion of Fallujah exacted a price. Of roughly 400 men and women from Task Force 2-2, four were killed in action. All told, the battle’s first days left at least 24 service members dead and more than 200 wounded. It was a stunning success militarily, but in human terms each loss was deeply felt, etched into the face and being of every soldier. For those who were there, the manner in which this battle was fought and victory claimed will never be forgotten. These are a few of their stories.
Shortly after 7 p.m. on monday night, Alpha Company paved the road into Fallujah. Engineers used a minesweeper to shoot forward 91-m lines of C-4 explosive to destroy or trigger any booby traps in its path. Battle tanks followed a channel marked in chemical lights, taking positions on the railway berm to cover 3rd Platoon’s advance to Objective Lion, a hunk of two- and three-story buildings known to be insurgent strong points. It would be the foothold for the entire Task Force’s advance.
Within the Bradley’s cramped and musty hold, the shock of the minesweeper’s explosion was felt by the infantrymen huddled inside. Among them is Fitts, a lithe, expressive Mississippian and father of three who joined the military eight years ago. He warns his team to “get ready to get out of this big metal bitch.” With the bulk of the Marine-led assault force poised on the northern side of the railway, 3rd Platoon plowed forward, bringing its Bradleys to a halt beneath Fallujah’s first houses. The platoon radio net crackled, “Drop ramp. All 3rd Platoon elements drop ramp, drop ramp.” And with that, the ground battle began.
Despite all the intel showing heavy movement within the buildings, Object Lion was not defended. But in the street behind it, a mammoth propane tank lay on its side; wire ran from it to a nearby house. A squad was detailed, and went in only to come scurrying straight back out. The presence of gas cans and a car battery suggested that the propane tank and probably the house were rigged to blow.
The long-awaited assault on Fallujah was officially dubbed Operation Dawn, to signify the promise of a new beginning. But the name the U.S. military had originally given the operation—Phantom Fury—seems more appropriate for the kind of war U.S. forces are fighting. At times the soldiers and Marines trawling Fallujah’s alleyways feel as though they are chasing ghosts. Insurgents vanish as the armored columns rumble into town, only to reappear somewhere else, firing from minarets and hiding in houses booby-trapped to blow up. U.S. and Iraqi officials say that their forces have killed as many as 1,000 enemy fighters and that most of the ravaged city is under U.S. control. If the goal, as a senior U.S. official says, is to “break up the scorpion’s nest’’ that Fallujah has become, the military is willing to inflict as much punishment as needed to achieve it.
But after a week that witnessed the most brutal up-close combat conducted by the U.S. military since Somalia, victory over the insurgency in Iraq isn’t necessarily any closer. Many fighters and the majority of the rebel leadership—including Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, the most wanted terrorist in Iraq—apparently slipped out of the city in the weeks leading up to the assault. A Pentagon official says that at most, 10% of the enemy in Iraq has been killed or captured in Fallujah. As the U.S. fights there, violence is rippling across the center and north of Iraq, engulfing the increasingly restive city of Mosul, the third largest in the country. The violence has raised the prospect that the siege of Fallujah could be a prelude to a series of nasty urban street fights—precisely the sort of war the U.S. military had desperately hoped to avoid when the invasion started in the spring of 2003.
U.S. commanders acknowledge that Fallujah is only the beginning. But they hope that the show of force there is the first step toward gradually eroding the insurgents’ ability to coordinate activities around the country. Senior U.S. officials say the coming months will be like playing a deadly game of “whack a mole” across the country: attacking insurgents wherever they rise up and trying to take back enough rebel-held areas to hold credible elections in January. The U.S. does not have enough soldiers in Iraq to crush a growing insurgency in multiple locations at the same time. But officials believe they won’t actually face that challenge. As messy as the Sunni triangle and Mosul now appear, so long as the insurgency doesn’t ignite a nationwide conflagration, the Pentagon believes it can contain the threat. “What we’re trying to do in the short term, through the elections, is make sure that there are no no-go zones,” says a senior Western diplomat in Baghdad. “To the extent possible, we [will] attrit their capability to launch violent attacks.”
Critical to that plan is making sure Fallujah stays secure once the insurgents are routed. Toward that end, the Pentagon says money will start to flow into the city as soon as the military operation is over. The Pentagon says it has some $100 million ready to pour into a variety of civil works in Fallujah, including improvements in water, sewage and electrical systems as well as the construction of schools and health clinics. Army Lieut. General Thomas Metz, U.S. ground-forces commander in Iraq, says it will take “weeks, maybe months, to get the city to a normal operating level.”
Once Fallujah is pacified, the U.S. plans to rely on the newly trained Iraqi police and national guard forces to perform the bulk of security tasks required to begin the delivery of reconstruction aid. That transition won’t be easy. Among ordinary citizens, there is almost no confidence that the Iraqis will be up to the task, and they are almost certain to face fresh attacks. “Let the Americans think they are winning,” a fighter in Fallujah told Time. “We are not going anywhere.”
The whack-a-mole strategy may already be getting its first test in Mosul. The city is home to a heterogenous population of 1 million—Sunni, Kurd and Turkoman—and for months after the invasion was viewed as one of the occupation’s few success stories. But locals warn that the city is slipping out of control. Foreign terrorists streaming across the border from Syria have joined forces with a Baathist resistance stocked with unemployed ex-soldiers. Insurgent attacks have grown significantly in number and lethality in recent months, and at least two or three assassination victims arrive each day at al-Salaam Hospital, the city’s largest, doctors say. After insurgents staged attacks against six police stations in the city last week, a unit involved in the U.S. assault on Fallujah had to peel off and head to Mosul to help put down the unrest there. Local political leaders fear that the violence may make it impossible to organize elections in Mosul by January.
The risk for the U.S. is that, rather than make the Sunni triangle secure for democracy, the assault on Fallujah may instead inflame Sunnis and scatter insurgents across a wider area, which could scuttle hopes of broad Sunni participation in the voting. The Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest Sunni political party in Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s interim government withdrew last week, saying it could not abide the attack on Fallujah. Meanwhile, the influential Association of Muslim Scholars, a Sunni group, has called for a total boycott of the elections. The association’s leader, Harith al-Dhari, told Time he was “very close to calling for jihad” against the Americans and the Allawi government.
Yet even after the violence and inflammatory rhetoric of the past week, not all Iraqis are convinced the Sunnis will sit out the vote. Sunni leaders are acutely aware that the majority Shi‘ites—who make up 60% of Iraq’s population—seem united in their desire for elections. Optimistic U.S. and Iraqi officials believe that as elections draw near, at least some Sunni leaders will recognize their interest in having a say in Iraq’s first elected government. As Sarmad Mohammad, a Sunni fruit vendor in Baghdad, says, “If there are no Sunni leaders in the new government, all the jobs in the government, police and army will go to Shi‘as and Kurds.”
However tumultuous the January elections prove to be, it’s clear that the ultimate outcome in Iraq—whether it moves toward a semblance of stability or civil war—comes down to a test of wills. The U.S. command believes that the supply of suicidal Baathists, Islamic holy warriors and Iraqi nationalists will eventually exhaust itself. Robert Scales, a retired Army major general, says history teaches that violent attacks on insurgencies such as the campaign mounted by the U.S. in Fallujah can work. “You don’t just keep growing insurgents,” Scales says. “By effectively eliminating the hard-core terrorists, the fellow travelers see the handwriting on the wall. While the insurgency doesn’t disappear, it tends to collapse to something down around noise level.” But if Fallujah is a sign of things to come, the volume is likely to get cranked up first.
—By Bill Powell.Reported by Andrew Lee Butters/Mosul, Aparisim Ghosh and Phil Zabriskie/Baghdad, and Mark Thompson/Washington
It was a sign of things to come. Two days later, the platoon took up a position in a three-story house, overlooking the platoon’s new domain. In the side street below, twin bombs erupted. A detonator cord led to the adjoining home, and someone thought he saw movement. The platoon lit up the house with volleys of automatic fire, tripping a battery of hidden devices. The house blew forward, and a young sergeant on a balcony took shrapnel in his groin. At every stop in its advance, the Wolf Pack, as 3rd Platoon is dubbed, found countless bombs, plus doors booby trapped and walls set with explosives. The enemy tactic accounted for the soldiers’ unforgiving approach to entering buildings, traversing streets and tackling even lone snipers: if it looks suspicious or shoots at you, blow it up with a grenade, a cannon or the main gun of a tank. The U.S. didn’t plan on taking any chances.
By dawn the next day, the Wolf Pack had reached Objective Cougar, the Imam al-Shafi Mosque that insurgent leaders used as a meeting point and command center. It sat midway down 3rd Platoon’s southward advance through Fallujah’s Askari district, home to many former Iraqi military officers. It had been long evacuated and been heavily fortified in anticipation of a U.S. invasion, but commanders had received reports that as many as 150 foreign fighters were ensconced in the area; the battle figured to be tough. Footage taken by an aerial drone earlier in the week showed that the area was strewn with buried explosives. When a U.S. warplane dropped a 225-kg bomb on a weapons cache, it set off a daisy chain of roadside bombs for 90 m along either side of the block. Hoping to stymie any U.S. advance and herd troops into canalized killing zones, insurgents positioned dirt-filled barriers and concrete blast walls throughout the streets. The raw materials they were using had been supplied by the U.S.-led coalition to the Iraqi police and Iraqi National Guard in Fallujah, many of whose ranks have since joined the insurgency.
To breach the mosque and allow Iraqi Intervention Forces to search it, the U.S. employed a Bradley to smash the compound’s walls after 25-mm cannon rounds failed to dent its iron gates. The Wolf Pack searched and secured a three-story building, taking a high spot overlooking the mosque and its minaret. At night it almost felt safe inside, but daylight brought the snipers and insurgent cells out into the streets. The attack started in the east but was soon joined by shooting from the north. From three edges of the roof, the soldiers fired at the insurgents, who wore tracksuit pants and the uniforms of the Iraqi National Guard as they dashed back and forth across roads or popped up in windows. The fight lasted nearly two hours. The young grunts defended themselves with all manner of fire, including AT4 antitank rockets, M-203 40-mm grenade launchers and tow missiles from the Bradleys supporting them. A young sergeant went down, shrapnel or a bullet fragment lodging in his cheek. After checking himself, he went back to returning fire.
The heaviest fighting was still to come. The next day the 3rd Platoon and the rest of Task Force 2-2 reached Phase Line Fran, Fallujah’s central bisecting road. From there they could stare into the city’s notorious industrial area, a hot spot particularly for foreign fighters and the scene of innumerable past battles with the Marines. Sporadic gunfire from the decaying warehouses, cement plants and junkyards provoked U.S. tanks to unleash high-explosive rounds at insurgent positions. The Wolf Pack’s fire-support officer called in mortar fire on buildings and locations where movement was seen. Even in lulls in the gunplay, the Fallujah sound track was alive with detonations and the whomps of tank rounds.
The insurgents had studied the Americans’ methods well. To negate the U.S.’s preference to fight in the dark using night-vision equipment, the insurgents focused their attacks in the dim light of dawn and dusk. As the sun set, a decrepit warehouse suddenly sparkled with at least a dozen muzzle flashes. Bullets flew thick over the unit’s commandeered building. “Look at the industrial complex,” Bellavia yelled at his men. “I want you to shoot, shoot.” The Wolf Pack lashed back with chattering automatic-weapons fire. A sister platoon, bunkered down a few hundred meters to the west, joined in, bringing a deadly cross fire to bear on the insurgents. Streams of red tracers scorched into the building as a soft golden sun emblazoned a graying sky.
“The enemy picture is so murky we just don’t know anything for sure except for what you see with your own eyes,” Alpha Company’s commander, Captain Sean Sims, told his officers. The soldiers pushed south into the industrial zone along the eastern corridor, moving into the thick of the cement plants and metal-strewn yards. The soldiers geared up to drive into the teeth of the resistance—the kind of fight the military had been spoiling for. Jdams rocked the earth and artillery carved a path forward as the sounds of fire fights resonated in all directions.
Winding their armor through the desolate buildings bound for their first target—Objective Bud, identified as a congregating point for foreign fighters—the Wolf Pack started taking fire immediately. A Bradley vehicle piloted by Sergeant First Class James Cantrell shuddered and filled with dust as it ran over a roadside bomb. The blast was so powerful it was at first mistaken for a bomb dropped by one of the many warplanes screeching overhead. “Goddam,” said Fitts, locked down inside the mechanical beast, his shotgun nestled under his chin.
Within minutes, a thumping clunk beat the vehicle’s left side. “Damn, an rpg,” shouted a soldier. When they reached Objective Bud, a figure was seen scurrying through a window. The 3rd Platoon spilled into the compound, cutting off any escape. Cantrell maneuvered his Bradley to face the building. The high-explosive rounds set the bottom floor ablaze. First Lieutenant Joaquin Meno called up for the first story to be torched as well. “Let the f_____ burn,” said a squad leader. When a group of insurgents brandishing RPGS was spotted 365 m south, Meno called in mortar fire from the rear and Abrams tank fire from the front. The insurgents had no chance. “Hey, LT, good call. That’s perfect,” said Bellavia. As if to punctuate the score, a direct hit on the building where the insurgents had taken cover set off repeated secondary explosions.
Late that night, while waiting for the Marines to match the pace of 2-2’s advance, the platoon occupied a tall house on the northern outskirts of an area code-named Queens. It gave the exhausted grunts a rare respite—an hour’s sleep. At 4 a.m. they moved out and took up positions in another building. Within hours they encountered one of their most vicious confrontations yet, as insurgents riddled the rooftop with RPGS and sniper fire. The insurgents weren’t intimidated even by the fury of the tanks, daring to step from behind corners to vainly hit them with RPGS. A soldier’s ankle was shattered when an rpg sent concrete flying. Linking up with 1st Platoon to consolidate its position, the Wolf Pack fended off the attack.
On Saturday the final assault got under way as the Wolf Pack drove farther south, positioned to swing west to complete the sweep of the city. Alpha Company took more casualties, one a key member that was particularly bitter, as the battle’s end was so close. As the soldiers evacuated their wounded, military sources said Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi was readying to announce the end of combat in the recaptured city. As the fighting in Fallujah dies down, the Wolf Pack and the rest of Task Force 2-2 are due to return to their usual area of operations in Diyala province north of Baghdad. But with the insurgents showing little sign of giving up, the Americans face more battles ahead. The men of 3rd Platoon just shrug their shoulders at the thought. It’s as though they were bred to fight. Says Fitts: “I don’t know how to do anything else.”