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Christmas Day Raid


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http://www.armytimes.com/news/2008/01/gns_mosulraid_080114/By Tom Vanden Brook - USA Today

Posted : Tuesday Jan 15, 2008 5:53:45 EST

When the two Army Rangers slipped inside the house of suspected assassins in the dark on Christmas morning in Mosul, they expected a fight. They got one.

Two gunmen, using an 11-year-old boy as a shield, confronted the soldiers. One, a Ranger staff sergeant, shot them dead with his rifle. The boy was unharmed, according to an Army document that outlined the assault.

That clash — recounted to USA TODAY by four of the Rangers involved and confirmed by the military command in Baghdad — kicked off what U.S. military officials say was a 17-hour firefight that resulted in the deaths of 10 al-Qaida in Iraq insurgents, including the head of an assassination cell, a financier and a military leader. At least one fighter was from Saudi Arabia, according to the military account of the raid. Intelligence gleaned from the fight led to 10 follow-up operations, the Rangers’ commander said.

The Dec. 25 raid occurred in what military officials say has become the most dangerous part of Iraq — Mosul and surrounding areas, about 200 miles north of Baghdad. The assault was a preview of a U.S.-led campaign to root out insurgents in Mosul and Diyala province who have targeted those who cooperate with Americans. It was part of a broader operation that led to the combat deaths of nine U.S. soldiers last week in Diyala.

Taken together, the episodes show that beyond the threat posed by insurgents’ roadside bombs, U.S. troops still face tough fighting in Iraq.

“The operation in Mosul is part of a plan to pursue al-Qaida in Iraq tenaciously,” Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, said in a statement. “Though we have dealt serious blows to al-Qaida this past year, its elements remain lethal and we must keep the pressure on them.”

As the counterinsurgency strategy and the addition of 30,000 troops into the Baghdad area last year has helped to quiet much of the capital, insurgents have moved to the north and east, where fighting, as the Dec. 25 raid showed, can be fierce. More than half of all attacks in Iraq now occur in the north, according to the U.S. military command in Baghdad.

In December, there were about 600 attacks on coalition troops each week. In northern Iraq, there are about 210 attacks a week. That’s down about 40 percent compared with this time last year, but attacks in the north have declined at a lower rate than for Iraq as a whole. Nationwide, attacks are down 60 percent.

Last Tuesday, the military announced a major offensive, called Operation Phantom Phoenix, against al-Qaida in Iraq in the Mosul area. About 24,000 U.S. troops and more than 130,000 Iraqi security forces are taking part.

“Mosul is a key strategic crossroads for the al-Qaida both from a financing point of view and foreign-fighter facilitation networks,” said Navy Rear Adm. Greg Smith, spokesman for the command in Baghdad, who confirmed the Rangers’ account of the Dec. 25 fight in Mosul. “It’s the one area in the north that al-Qaida really wants to hang onto, as well as Diyala.”

Many attacks on Baghdad, Smith said, have been staged from Diyala.

Mosul, a city with a population of 1.8 million, is a mix of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.

Al-Qaida in Iraq, made up of homegrown Sunni extremists and some foreign fighters, may find blending into the population easier in Mosul, where there are fewer U.S. troops to root them out than in Baghdad, says Michael O’Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution. Engagements such as the Dec. 25 raid may reflect the future of security crackdowns in Iraq, he says.

“Al-Qaida is adaptive,” O’Hanlon says. “They recognized American forces are relatively lacking in Mosul. It is sobering because it reminds us of the difficulty of dealing with these people nationwide. It also underscores how much we’re still needed there. It tells you about the adaptability of the enemy and tenuousness of progress.”
A tip about assassins

The Rangers involved in the Dec. 25 raid spoke with USA TODAY by video conference from Mosul and Baghdad. Special operations units’ rules prohibit the use of last names of its elite troops.

A tip prompted the Christmas raid, said Blake, the Rangers’ company commander, a 32-year-old major from Manassas, Va. An Iraqi man had reported seeing al-Qaida terrorists execute a man in public. The witness told U.S. troops where the extremists had gathered.

A few hours later, at 2:04 a.m., Pete, 26, of Marlboro, N.J., and his fellow Rangers, with M-4 rifles and night-vision goggles, arrived at the suspected insurgents’ doorstep.

“You don’t go into anything thinking the best-case scenario,” Pete said. “Anytime you go through a door, you’re expecting someone there with a gun waiting on you. Or someone with a suicide vest, grenade or whatever their weapon of choice is at that particular time. You’re always thinking for the worst.”

Six minutes later, he had killed the two gunmen, Pete said, and Rangers had found 10 women and children huddled in the back of the house. The Iraqis conflicting accounts of how many men remained in the house made the soldiers suspicious. Lashaun, 27, a sergeant first class from Chester, Va., searched a bathroom and noticed a nylon strap protruding from the bottom of a shower basin.

“That’s when I called in Pete and told him to help hold security on the shower basin as I pulled the strap out of the floor,” Lashaun said. “That’s when the basin came up and revealed a hidden passageway to a hidden bunker.”

When he rolled back a concrete block that was sitting on rails, gunfire erupted. Pete estimated the entrance at 2-by-2 feet, barely large enough for a Ranger with 45 pounds of gear to pass through. Lashaun and Pete fired into the hole and backed out of the room.

Pete tossed in a grenade. After the grenade exploded, the Rangers moved back into the shower room, Lashaun said. Suddenly, he said, grenades started flying back at them.

Lashaun said he saw one grenade bounce, so he and another Ranger dove through a door before it exploded. Pete and the Ranger retreated to a different room.

Blake, the company commander, said the soldiers had split into two groups of nine each. Gunfire from the insurgents poured out of the bathroom, while Lashaun’s Rangers fired back. Pete figured bullets passed within 1 foot of him.

“I was really stuck basically in a crossfire,” Pete said.

Meanwhile, Lashaun hustled the women and children toward safety over a courtyard wall. “He’s risking his life, taking enemy fire, while he’s literally extending himself and pushing women and children over the wall,” Blake said.

Lashaun then linked up with two Rangers, re-entered the house and fired into the bathroom.

One insurgent came around the corner, Lashaun said, and the Rangers killed him “right there on the spot.” As the Rangers tried to move into the shower room, “another guy came up out of the hole.” The Rangers shot him dead.

“After that we came to the conclusion that we need to get out of the house,” Lashaun said.

Their commander agreed. Blake ordered the split-up forces to pull back so they could regroup. Residents in neighboring homes were evacuated.
A call for an airstrike

The Rangers called for an airstrike.

An AC-130 gunship swooped above the house. The plane, whose two models are known as “Spooky” and “Spectre,” is a workhorse for Air Force Special Operations. At 3:05 a.m., its crew fired five 105mm rounds into the house. Delayed fuses allowed the shells to penetrate the roof and explode near the bunker.

“I called that fire onto the house and watched every single one of those rounds as precision as I’ve ever seen it,” Blake said.

They waited until 9 a.m. before re-entering the house, according to a timeline provided by the military.

The task of re-entering the house fell to J.R., a 26-year-old first lieutenant from Thomaston, Ga. Pete volunteered to join him. Inside the house, they found two dead insurgents wearing unexploded suicide-bomb belts.

They moved downstairs, where a wall concealed the concrete bunker. J.R. spotted a man there wearing a vest and holding a pin in his hand. He sensed that there might be others. J.R. began shooting and backing out as the man yanked on the pin.

“His vest detonated, clouding the whole area with dust,” J.R. said.

They dropped a grenade in the basement. “No noises or sounds were made after that grenade,” J.R. said.

They dropped another grenade inside the bunker and left the house. “We then moved back inside the house again to see if there were any more enemy (killed) or any movement inside the house,” he said. “We decided to go down inside the basement to ensure there were not any more enemy personnel down there.”

J.R., Pete and another Ranger found two dead insurgents and another crawling away, pulling on a pin. It might have been a suicide vest or another grenade, Pete said. Their suicide vests look like a cummerbund, the garment men wear with tuxedoes.

The Rangers shot him, Pete said.

They heard more voices, saw more movement. J.R. ordered the Rangers out of the house and called Blake. “At this point, we have eight enemy killed in action that we have engaged.” Blake said. “Four of those we have confirmed the wear or use of a suicide belt.”

There still may have been three more insurgents inside. Blake called in “a little bit more firepower,” he recalled.

They cleared the neighborhood before two Air Force F-16 fighter jets arrived. At 11:15 a.m., the warplanes dropped two 500-pound, satellite-guided bombs on the house, destroying it.
Al-Qaida on the move

The Mosul raid, Smith said, is part of the military’s effort to maintain pressure on al-Qaida and force members to try to survive rather than carry out attacks.

“What we’ve seen with al-Qaida is the ability to regenerate,” Smith said. “It’s hard to say specifically whether this particular operation on Christmas Day caused significant degradation to (al-Qaida in Iraq’s) presence in Mosul, but it sure will hurt them in the short term.”

Last week, the military identified one of those killed as Haydar al-Afri, a senior leader of al-Qaida in Iraq for western Mosul, who allegedly had planned attacks against U.S. and Iraqi forces.

Dakota Wood, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, predicts difficult fights will continue in northern Iraq until U.S. commanders commit more troops, or more Iraqi soldiers backing U.S. troops become competent. Al-Qaida terrorists will keep moving to where the U.S. troop presence is lightest, Wood said.

“It’s a consequence of not having enough boots on the ground,” Wood said. “If you have enough force, you can handle all the trouble spots simultaneously.”