The US soldiers and Iraqi police living at Joint Security Station Al Qanat at the Northeastern edge of Baghdad’s Rusafa district have “a front row seat” to the fight taking place in Sadr City. As US and Iraqi Army forces clash with the Mahdi Army, hissing RPGs and small arms fire periodically crackle during the day and are punctuated by occasional orange explosions and red tracers streaking out of the Sadr City skyline at night. Two to four Apache attack helicopters constantly prowl the airspace over the battlefield, randomly popping flares as they search for targets. The characteristic whoosh and boom of a hellfire missile sounds when they find one. But although JSS al Qanat is only 200 meters from Route Pluto, the main thoroughfare that marks the border to Sadr City, the fighting has not significantly spilled over into the northern part of the Rusafa District.
Northern Rusafa is largely composed of middle and upper-class residences, in contrast with the slum of Sadr City and the downtown urbanity of the lower half of the district. The area includes several government agencies, including the Ministry of the Interior and the Police Academy, and is home for some high ranking government officials and their families. The district is mostly Shia with a significant Sunni minority, though American personnel point out that most residents “don’t care” about the religious distinction. Many shop owners and other businessmen live across the border in Sadr City, while many residents of Rusafa work in the Shia slum. Members of the Mahdi Army also commute to their jobs in the district: multiple improvised explosive device/explosively formed penetrator cells lay roadside bombs targeting Iraqi security and coalition forces. Militia operatives also conduct intimidation and black market business activities – notably selling stolen fuel – to fund their organization.
Black market gas fuels the militias
US and Iraqi forces are executing operations to degrade the financing and military activities of Mahdi cells in Rusafa. While conducting a patrol of Northeastern Rusafa on Sunday, Second Platoon of Charlie Troop of the 3rd Squadron, 89th Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division stopped to question four men selling unauthorized fuel out of plastic cans on the side of the road. Fuel is an especially valuable commodity in Iraq, because corruption drives up legitimate prices and residents need it to run generators that augment an unreliable electric grid.
Parked behind the vendors were two large, gaudily painted commercial buses. Upon searching them, Second Platoon found huge fuel tanks spanning their length, some crudely disguised as bench seats. While selling any amount of black market gas has been declared illegal and is subject to confiscation and arrest, the huge amount found on Sunday was especially suspicious. Though mostly empty, 400-500 gallons remained in tanks designed to hold up to about 2,000 gallons of hidden fuel.
“Usually you see one or two jerry cans out there, but when you see something big like that, you usually think it’s militia or insurgent related,” said 1st Lieutenant Joseph Mobbley, the commander of the second platoon. “They have some financing.”
The US soldiers called in the 3rd Battalion, 8th Brigade, 2nd Division, of the Iraqi National Police to detain the suspects and confiscate the buses. The captured gas was a welcome find, given the chronic shortages suffered by the National Police as they requisition the resource through a corrupt, arbitrary and inefficient logistical system. The black market haul should run their generators and vehicles for some time, depending on how much they choose to sell off themselves. The suspects were detained and face the local peculiarity of the Iraqi legal system: as it’s their first offense, most likely they’ll be entered into a database and released with a warning, after signing a statement swearing to never commit the crime again. If caught selling fuel a second time, the men will face a three-year prison sentence.
“In this culture, actually putting something in writing and signing something is considered a serious contract,” said Mobbley. “It’s very significant to the Iraqis.”
Another type of anti-militia operation kicked off in the dark, early morning hours the next day. Second Platoon of Charlie Troop conducted a raid on a suspected Mahdi Army improvised explosive device (IED) cell and weapons cache in a northern section of the district. A generally reliable source had provided the tip, and Mobbley and his men opted to use a “hard knock,” or rough, fast entry.
“We use the hard knock if we feel it’s a significant threat of contact (with the enemy) going in, “said Mobbley. “Like this tip of IEDs, a weapons cache, four to five militia members – we want to go in hard and fast, before these guys can run.”
There are a few significant concerns on this type of mission: friendly fire in the confusion of an assault in a confined space, the chance of civilians getting hurt, resistance from the targeted militiamen, and the odd possibility that a house is wired to explode.
“It hasn’t happened to us, but we’ve seen reports in other areas where these guys will wire their front gate, wire their front door, and there’s been times they’ve wired the whole house, guys go in and it blows up,” said Mobbley. “You keep a sharp eye out. We have code words if we see anything and need to bug out. We’ll try to get [civilians] out of there if we can, because usually there are multiple families in these houses. So if you hear [the code word] ‘booger,’ get the hell out of the house.”
A convoy of humvees dropped off two teams of 3-89 Cav soldiers and one team of Iraqi National Police near the house. The teams fast walked to the target and lined up outside in three “stacks” – the two American groups would go in first, followed by the National Police. On command, a humvee gunned its engine, sharply turned, and smashed through the house’s front gate. The vehicle quickly backed up and the teams flooded through the hole to swarm and secure the target.
The occupants turned out to be three families with several military aged males, who were herded into separate living areas of the cluttered house. Mobbley and the interpreters explained the reason for the raid and asked questions. Most sat quietly, but an elderly woman in a black chador issued a constant, bitter monologue. When asked by a soldier what she was saying, an Iraqi interpreter said, “She is saying what old women like to say – that life is so awful.”
A thorough search turned up one AK-47 and no other weapons or explosives. The “dry hole” was probably the result of a bad tip, with the outside possibility that the source’s information was old and the items had been moved.
“It happens all the time,” grumbled one soldier. “If I had a nickel …”
The soldiers retinal scanned and finger printed the military aged males in the house for entry into a database that can immediately inform personnel on the ground if an individual has been caught or suspected of criminal activity. Mobbley offered that the folks had no illegal weapons or explosives, so they are “innocent, in my mind.” The eldest males in the household — one an employee of the government — were a mixture of angry and conciliatory, even when gently pressed by this interviewer for candor.
“I’m mad, because they kicked the doors in and scared my family,” said one middle-aged man. “They explained why they are here, and I understand it, but I don’t understand why someone [the informant] would give bad information about my family. We live peaceful in this home.”
“At first I was mad, because when the soldiers came in my house, they scared my family,” said an elderly man who has lived in the neighborhood for more than 30 years. “But when the lieutenant explained the reason they came here, I don’t have a problem with it. I will cooperate with Iraqi or coalition forces for anything, because I want to keep my neighborhood and country safe.”
Asked about the fighting just north in Sadr City, both offered a dim view of the militias.
“At first, in 2004, the Mahdi Army was good,” said the younger man. “Now they’re not good, so I appreciate the coalition forces and Iraqi security forces, because they kill the militia in Sadr City.”
“My family and I are confused – why is the Mahdi Army fighting the Iraqi security forces?” said the elderly man. “What do they need, what do they want? We don’t know. I think it’s crazy. They try to destroy my country and they have support from Iran, who send the weapons and explosives, and now the militias are soldiers for Iran.”
An hour-and-a-half after breaching the house, the soldiers and police returned to JSS Al Qanat. The next day, a member of the household came to the police station to file a reimbursement claim for the house’s destroyed front gate.
US and Iraqi forces continue to gather intelligence on criminal and terrorist activities, and daily operations against Mahdi Army terrorist cells and black marketeers continue.
Bill Ardolino’s embed is sponsored by the readers of The Long War Journal, Public Multimedia Inc., and The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Please support The Long War Journal by making a tax-deductable donation today.