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From: Scott Anger · Re: Hawija · Date: Dec. 2, 2003

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Introduction: A Long Road

Soldiers swarmed from room to room ... Two kids here! one yelled. Be careful of the kids!

With its muddy, trash-strewn streets and dilapidated buildings, the northern Iraqi town of Hawija resembles many other impoverished towns in this country. But in one way, at least, it stands out. According to the U.S. military, within the town's boundaries live a large number of anti-coalition fighters, including the second-most-wanted man in Iraq, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, the "King of Clubs" in America's "deck of cards" of the most-wanted Iraqis. The U.S. military said last month that Ibrahim was directly involved in attacks on U.S. troops, and as a result it has put a $10 million bounty on his head.

I was invited to accompany nearly 1,000 U.S. soldiers on a series of raids in and around Hawija on Dec. 2, as part of an attempt to stem the increasing number of attacks on coalition forces in the region.

It was damp and cold at 2 o'clock in the morning as our small convoy drove from the T.O.C., or Tactical Operations Center, to the flight line at the Kirkuk airbase that was serving as the gathering point for commanders involved in the raids. Seventeen Black Hawk helicopters sat idle in the darkness as last-minute coordination between the commanders took place. The pilots tried to stay warm as they waited for weather updates. But a quick glance skyward made it obvious that the helicopters were not going to lift off for many hours. A layer of fog had formed and was slowly enveloping the area, reducing visibility to just a few yards. The plan to drop "Chalk Teams," or squads of soldiers, dramatically down ropes from hovering helicopters was scrapped. A decision was made to drive instead. Everybody would be entering the town in tanks, armored vehicles, and Humvees.

After two bumpy, bone-jarring hours on the road, the soldiers in my Humvee clipped their night-vision goggles into place and switched off all the lights. It was incredibly dark. Millions of stars filled the night sky. Inside the vehicle I could only see a faint circular glow around the soldiers' eyes.

We arrived at a base outside of the town. I entered the command tent where Col. Bill Mayville, commander of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, and others drank coffee quietly while listening to radio chatter. I was surprised at the subdued atmosphere. Everyone knew their job, and the commanders were standing by in case something unforeseen popped up.

At about 6:30, as dawn began to outline the horizon, I climbed into a Humvee with a public-affairs officer and a journalist from the Reuters news agency and headed into town. We quickly joined up with a squad standing relaxed in front of a house.

A man wearing a traditional Arab dishdash was kneeling on a dry patch of dirt in the middle of the wet street. He had an orange bag over his head and hands tied with plastic zip-ties behind his back. Nearby, two children held tight to a woman as the soldiers talked about what they had found inside the house: one AK-47 rifle and a couple of Saddam posters. I filmed the scene.

After the man was led away, the soldiers regrouped and headed for another house around the corner. Quickly and quietly, in single file, they moved along a mud brick wall until they reached a metal gate. I followed. They took up positions and pointed their weapons. A burly soldier then used a metal ram to bash the gate open. Everyone yelled and rushed into the yard. Screaming and shouting, someone from the group kicked in the front door of the house. Soldiers swarmed from room to room, calling out how many people occupied each room. "Two kids here!" one yelled. "Be careful of the kids!"

I heard a soldier shout from another room that there was a man asleep. At the same time, a soldier with a machine gun, field pack, and radio took a running start across the living room and jumped into a locked metal door. The door didn't open. The soldier winced in pain. Two or three others started screaming at the women and children filtering out of the room: "Somebody better open this fuckin' door or we're going to blow it open!"

Soon the half-awake man came out, fumbled nervously with a ring full of keys, and unlocked the door. It contained the family's foodstuffs. When we left the house, the children were crying, the women were consoling them, and the man said, "OK, OK, no problem," as the soldiers left behind muddy footprints all over the family's living room.

The house-to-house searches continued all morning long. I was told the raids were going well, with more than 15 people captured by mid-morning and an unknown number of weapons seized. Lots of recently posted Saddam posters, which were attached to light poles, shop walls, and street signs throughout the town, had been torn down or painted over. A few blocks away, in the town square, a Bradley Fighting Vehicle used a heavy chain to pull down a recently cleaned-up mural of Saddam, which was probably one of the last in the entire country.

By noon, many of the squads were tired. They rested in groups around Humvees on the edge of town eating MREs (Meals Ready to Eat). They gave the candy to the gathering children.

I was dozing off in the back seat of a Humvee, listening to the monotone chatter of soldiers on the radio, when I heard someone call for an M-1 tank. I woke up and listened more closely. A chalk team had found some explosives and weapons in a house, and the soldiers wanted to use the tank to knock down the front wall of the house in an effort to get more information out of the people who lived there. We got directions and drove over.

When I arrived, the soldiers at the house were interrogating Aziz Abdel-Wahhab and his elderly wife, Bushra. The soldiers found eight tubes of C-4 plastic explosives, more than 30 blasting caps, yards of electrical wire, a number of AK-47 rifles, and a handwritten banner proclaiming complete loyalty to Saddam Hussein. In the same room, they also found an identification card that belonged to the couple's son Adel.

The couple refused to cooperate with the soldiers by providing information about their son, so a decision was made to carry out swift and direct punishment. The soldiers were going to destroy the house.

A soldier told me that CPA has said it is within the military's rules of operation to destroy houses used by terrorists and anti-coalition elements. Nevertheless, I could tell some of the soldiers were nervous about having a camera present. Major Andrew Rohling, who was directing the operation, made a point of telling me and another journalist, "OK, I'm not gonna destroy the house. Just the front as a show of force." He said he just wanted to jog the couple's memory.

A bucket-loader, not a tank, showed up to do the job. As the big machine was maneuvered into place, Major Rohling explained to the couple through an interpreter that if they didn't tell the soldiers where they could find their son, the house was going to be destroyed. The husband, on crutches and obviously ill, mumbled quietly. His wife finally said the son was across the street, then quickly changed her story by saying he was working at a gas station.

Exasperated, Major Rohling gave the order. I followed with my camera as the couple was guided out the front gate of their yard. The man wandered, still mumbling, into the muddy street, and his wife, still changing her story, was taken in the other direction. The loader raised its bucket and drove forward until it hovered over the front wall. In one motion the bucket was lowered, the machine drove backwards, and the wall came down.

After witnessing the destruction, Bushra told the soldiers that her older son would know exactly where Adel could be found. So the soldiers and the old woman climbed into the Humvees and raced off across town to find the older son.

The convoy stopped short of the older son's house and the soldiers got out, lined up, and ran through the open front gate. With weapons alert, the front door was kicked in. The older son was standing in the living room smiling and saying, "Welcome, welcome," in English. He was quickly taken outside and, through an interpreter, told the soldiers that Adel could be found on a tractor plowing a field just outside of town. Everyone climbed back into the vehicles and headed for the fields.

Once outside of town, it was discovered that the field lay outside the area of operations for the units conducting the raids. It was outside their jurisdiction. The proper units were informed, and four Humvees full of heavily armed Army Rangers appeared.

The plan for the capture was mapped out and the group of Humvees headed out along a ditch bank into the fields. We drove past women stooped over picking the last remnants of the year's cotton crop and at least six young men plowing fields atop tractors.

One of the soldiers pointed and asked, "Is that the guy?" No.

Finally, more than a mile off the main road, the convoy stopped at the edge of a field. A young man in the distance waved, stopped the tractor he was driving, and stepped off. The soldiers, ankle deep in mud, walked slowly toward the man with their guns drawn. Soon he was kneeling in the mud having his hands zip-tied behind his back.

The soldiers positively identified the man as Adel Wahhab. He was cooperative and smiling. When the soldiers asked about the explosives, he told them that he uses the C-4 for fishing in the nearby canals. When asked about the guns, he told them he owned one and didn't know where the others had come from. A soldier asked about the banner. He replied that he found it on the street one day and was planning on using the cloth to make something.

I asked one of the interpreters who work for the U.S. Army about the man's story. He said, "Yes, people use explosives to fish all the time here in Iraq. It is not unusual."

In all, the U.S. raids on the town netted 26 detainees and killed, according to the military, one "enemy combatant." Two other Iraqis were reportedly injured. There were no U.S. casualties. An unspecified number of weapons and explosives were found throughout the town.

As for the "King of Clubs," a spokesman for the 173rd Airborne Brigade told Reuters, "We had expected to find Izzat Ibrahim (al-Douri) himself in a house in Hawija, but he wasn't there. It was pretty clear he had been there recently."


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posted february 12, 2004

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