Saturday, July 21, 2007

Perspective: On This Day In Iraq -- July 21st edition

July 21, 2003: After using explosives to topple a statue of Saddam poised at the front gate of his palatial grounds in Tikrit, soldiers with the 555th Combat Engineer Group carry the metal head to the back of a Humvee.

July 21, 2002:

Bush rallies US for strike on Iraq

President George Bush has told US troops to be ready for 'pre-emptive military action' against Iraq, as security sources warned that a massive assault against President Saddam Hussein could be likely at 'short notice'.

Whitehall sources confirmed that Tony Blair had decided Britain must back any US assault and had ordered defence planners to begin the preparations for a new war in the Gulf.

'President Bush has already made up his mind. This is going to happen. It is a given,' said one Whitehall source. 'What we are waiting for is to be told the details of how and when and where.'

Read the rest at the Guardian

July 21, 2003:

Wolfowitz says Iraq visit encouraged optimism about revival

Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the 101st Airborne Division, offers this motivational pitch to his soldiers on duty in northern Iraq: "We are in a race to win over the people."

That says two things about the wider U.S. military mission in Iraq: There is an urgency to finishing it, and it can't succeed without winning Iraqi hearts and minds.

Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, said Monday at the conclusion of a five-day fact-finding mission that took him to almost every region of Iraq that he sees good reason to believe Iraq will become a success story.

"I felt very encouraged overall that conditions here are better than I expected when I came," he told a news conference.

Wolfowitz, who was escorted by Petraeus in Mosul, spoke at a hotel that has been converted into a "civil-military operations center" where the U.S. military and international aid organizations coordinate on humanitarian aid projects and share information about security.

A bit later, Wolfowitz and his entourage from Washington were reminded of the continuing dangers nearly three months after President Bush declared that major combat had ended in Iraq. A C-130 cargo plane in which he was flying released flares when its sensors detected a radar threat shortly after taking off en route to the city of Kirkuk.

Wolfowitz met in Mosul with commanders of the 101st Airborne, as well as representatives of non-governmental aid organizations and the U.S. Agency for International Development. In Kirkuk he met with commanders of the 173rd Airborne Brigade.

Besides the small-scale war that continues in much of Iraq against remnants of Saddam Hussein's government, Wolfowitz said attention needs to be focused on getting Iraq's economy restarted and establishing a new, democratic government.

"I go home even more convinced than when I came of the importance of trying to move these things as quickly as we can," he said.

One topic that did not come up publicly at any time during Wolfowitz's trip was the search for weapons of mass destruction — the main justification Bush offered for going to war. Asked by a reporter at the outset of the trip whether he intended to assess progress in that search or speak with those doing it, he said, "I'm not on a hunt for WMD."

Instead Wolfowitz chose to visit places and see people who reinforced the administration's argument that it was worth going to war to remove a dictator who brutalized his people for decades.

Wolfowitz visited Abu Gharib prison, for example, where it is estimated that 30,000 or more Iraqis were executed before Saddam emptied the cells in October 2002.

Read the rest at USA Today

July 21, 2004:

Inside one day's fierce battle in Iraq

BAQUBAH, IRAQ – From the roof of a gutted, four-story building, US Army Cpl. Omar Torres peered through his M-4 rifle's thermal sight onto Canal Street, a pockmarked stretch of road running alongside a muddy waterway that meanders through this volatile city.

It was 2 a.m. on June 24, and stifling hot. Corporal Torres's sniper team was looking for insurgents planting road bombs, a persistent killer in Baqubah, with scores last month alone.

From out of the shadows 500 yards below, two men with rifles slung over their backs approached the road carrying a box. One knelt down, digging in the dirt shoulder. The snipers delicately adjusted their rifle, and fired.

Through his sight, Torres watched the kneeling figure crumble. The second man quickly reached down to continue planting the bomb, only to be felled moments later.

At that early hour, Torres had no idea of the scale of the attack that was coming at dawn.

He couldn't know that these two men were among many who were preparing one of the most sophisticated attacks yet on US troops and Iraqi government forces.

The first light was breaking at 5:30 a.m. as 1st Lieut. Max Stroud and his platoon of Bradley Fighting Vehicles rumbled toward Mufrek traffic circle in western Baqubah on a mission to clear road bombs, or IEDs. Like other North Carolina guardsmen of the 30th Brigade, an irreverent bunch of infantry veterans, Lieutenant Stroud considered the sweeps "pretty boring." But just as they paused to turn off their night-vision devices, Stroud saw the first volley of heavy machine-gun fire shoot in front of his Bradley. He ducked into the turret, expecting a brief engagement. Within seconds, though, the crescendo and accuracy of fire told him he and his buddies from "Old Hickory" faced the fight of their lives.

Machine-gun rounds were pinging off the hatches, while rocket-propelled grenades (RPG) slammed into the vehicles. A daisy chain of road bombs blew up around them, obscuring their view.

"We pushed through to get out of the kill zone, then I received an order to stay in contact, so we turned around and went back, shooting at everything we could find," Stroud says.

But the gauntlet of enemy fire worsened; soon the main guns on all three of his Bradleys were ineffective. They fixed one turret with an 8-lb. sledgehammer, and lurched again through the ambush.

Back at their base, Sgt. 1st Class Chad Stephens, sergeant of Stroud's sister platoon, was awoken at 6 a.m. by a shout from his commander, Capt. Christopher Cash of the 1-120th infantry's Alpha Company. "Third platoon's under attack!" Sgt. Stephens, a Gulf War veteran from Jacksonville, N.C., roused his men.

Within minutes of leaving the gate with five more Bradleys, they began taking sniper and RPG fire "from everywhere," Stephens says. "Button up," Captain Cash radioed. Seconds later, he looked out to make sure the hatches were closed and was fatally shot in the head. Two Bradleys left to evacuate the commander, leaving Stephens's vehicle and two others to fight past Mufrek circle and move east to secure the Twin Bridges leading to the heart of Baqubah and the governor's house.

As they advanced, they took intense fire from enemy positions that lined the route. "You could hear the rounds popping and ricocheting off the turret," says Spec. Jeffery Walton, an infantryman. Suddenly, an armored piercing RPG blasted in. It hit the gunner, Spec. Daniel Desens, knocked out the radios, and ignited high-explosive ammunition. "My eyes were on fire," said Walton, who, with five others, was hit by shrapnel and choking on smoke and gas.

As the smoke cleared, Walton saw his best friend, Specialist Desens, motionless in the turret. Disoriented, the Bradley's driver turned around and headed back into the fight, stopping only when a soldier screamed at him to go the other way. Its gun disabled, the Bradley limped forward. "Just one big target," Stephens said.

After the three Bradleys pulled into low ground between the bridges, Stephens jumped out. Wearing no body armor, he rushed under fire from passing cars to pull the wounded gunner from the turret. The platoon's medic, Spec. Ralph Isabella, a businessman from Slippery Rock, Pa., rushed over and saw Walton and other wounded soldiers walking around dazed.

"Doc! Doc! Dan's hit bad!" Walton shouted. As soon as Specialist Isabella saw the gunner, all noise faded into "battle deafness" as he labored to save his friend. His focus was broken only when bullets kicked up dirt behind him. He turned and saw a man in black rushing at them shooting until the GIs cut him down.

His Bradley now full of wounded, Stephens was leading the convoy through downtown when another RPG exploded inside, ripping his gunner's back with shrapnel and singeing Stephens's eyelashes shut. Pulling his eyelids open, he saw his gunner bleeding on the floor. "Rivera!" Stephens shouted, shaking him. "They're still shooting. You have to fight!" he said, helping him crawl into his seat.

By the time the crippled platoon reached a US base, Desens was dying. "I didn't anticipate them being that organized," says Stephens, who's been nominated for a Silver Star. "They are getting smarter every day."

At Forward Operating Base Warhorse, on the edge of Baqubah, Maj. Brian Paxton scanned live imagery of the attack from a drone hovering over the battlefield.

For Major Paxton, fire-support officer for the 1st Infantry Division's 3rd Brigade, the magnitude and precision of the ambush was unparalleled. As the guardsmen struggled through central Baqubah, Paxton was responding to multiple mortar and rocket strikes on the base, as well as guerrilla attacks on government buildings across the city.

By 8:30, insurgents with Syrian and other foreign accents had overrun two police stations stealing 140 AK-47s, 30,000 rounds of ammunition, uniforms, and at least one police truck. Then they raised over the stations Zarqawi network flags, black banners with gold discs and the words Unity and Holy War. A half-hour later, insurgents attempted to assassinate Baqubah's police chief, Waleed al-Azzawi, who escaped to the roof only to have his house set ablaze. "Foreigners went after the police stations while using locals as cannon fodder to slow us down," says Maj. Kreg Schnell, the brigade intelligence officer. "[They want to] discredit the coalition and remove capable people."

Still, Iraqi police and Iraqi National Guard (ING) responded with surprising tenacity, if not tactical skill. During unrest in Baqubah in April, the police had stripped the ranks off their uniforms and ran, while guardsmen shrank into buildings. Now, they stood their ground beside GIs, suffering dozens of casualties and taking the offense. "We shoot for you!" ING Sgt. Ali told the Americans after emptying his AK-47.

Ultimately, it took a barrage of US munitions to begin turning the tide. "The only tool in my toolbox I didn't use that day was naval gunfire," says Paxton.

Some 30 insurgents were stationed in buildings near the stadium in eastern Baqubah, apparently to obstruct US forces from reaching downtown. Rather than clear the buildings - two vacant schools and a swimming pool - Colonel Pittard decided to demolish them with four 500-lb. bombs. Soldiers later searched the area and found large stockpiles of rockets, grenades, and two car bombs.

Back at the checkpoint, the ING soldiers heard the explosions and began dancing around and slapping high fives. "Do it again! Do it again!" shouted Sgt. Ali.

At midmorning, tank company commander Capt. Paul Fowler received a mission: Fortified enemy positions still threatened the main road and bridge into town, with possible reinforcements on the way. Tanks were needed to take control.

Captain Fowler and his men from Alpha Company 2-63 had slept only an hour since an all-night raid outside Baqubah. They rushed to load high-explosive rounds into their tanks' main guns.

By about 11 a.m., Fowler was riding in a Humvee in the middle of a column of six tanks and four M-113 armored personnel carriers along the same road where insurgents had battered the North Carolina guardsmen at daybreak.

Within minutes, they were hit by what Fowler later described as an almost perfectly choreographed attack. A ring of road bombs exploded, followed by well-aimed rounds of armor-piercing RPGs targeting the tanks. Then insurgents opened up with machine guns, covering fighters who ran yelling toward the vehicles in a suicidal bid to throw grenades into the open hatches. Wearing turbans and checked headresses, some fighters came within yards before the Americans shot them.

"It was a textbook linear ambush," says Fowler, initially in disbelief. "This was a well-trained, well-disciplined enemy," he says, adding: "There was definitely someone in charge."

Baqubah, meanwhile, was a ghost town, its usually bustling streets abandoned by residents who - out of intimidation or anti-American fervor - allowed their shops, apartments, and balconies to be hijacked by insurgents.

As the column pressed through a mile-long kill zone, insurgents focused their fire on halting the lead tank, which was punched with seven RPGs. In a running battle, they expended their ammunition, fell back, and attacked farther south, resupplied by trucks filled with RPGs and AK-47s that zipped down the alleys.

"Speed up, there's a guy with an RPG on the right," Sgt. Luis Avila, Fowler's gunner, shouted to the driver. Sergeant Avila wheeled his .50-caliber machine gun around but a bullet jammed it, so he grabbed his M-16 rifle and kept shooting.

Behind them, Sgt. 1st Class Ricky Cliatt passed out from a concussion when an RPG hit his M-113, throwing the crew on the floor. Still, the column rolled on, with main tank guns blasting through walls to destroy machine-gun positions.

"The insurgents threw everything they had at us," says Fowler. "They wanted to take control of a city and show they could beat the Americans."

Read the rest at the Christian Science Monitor

July 21, 2005:

Draft of Iraq charter looks to Islam

A working draft of the new Iraq constitution cedes a strong role to Islamic law and could curb women's rights, particularly in personal matters like divorce and family inheritance.

The document's writers are also debating whether to drop a measure enshrined in the interim Constitution, written last year with American officials, that requires at least a quarter of the Iraqi Parliament to be made up of women.

The draft obtained by The New York Times on Tuesday says that the government would guarantee equal rights for women, as long as those rights do not "violate Shariah," or Koranic law. American officials and secular Iraqis had kept religious language like that from appearing in the interim Constitution.

If the working draft holds, the shift away from the more secular and equitable language of the interim Constitution would represent a victory for Shiite clerics and religious politicians, who now wield enormous power and had chafed at the influence exercised by the United States over the interim Constitution.

The working draft has been circulating discreetly in recent days and has sparked outrage among women's groups, who held a protest on Tuesday morning in central Baghdad...

References to Shariah occur a couple of times. One clause says that Iraqis will enjoy all rights stated in "international treaties and conventions as long as they do not contradict Islam."

Such language is accepted by many Iraqis, including moderate ones, who say that Islam is a vital foundation for the country.

But, women's groups are incensed over Article 14, which states that "personal status law is to be organized by the law according to the religion and sect of the citizen."

This means that in matters such as marriage, divorce and family inheritance, people will be governed by the religious codes of their individual religions.

This article would repeal a relatively liberal personal status law enacted in 1959 and still enforced. The law used Shariah to adjudicate personal and family matters, but it also used the most liberal interpretations of Koranic law from the main Shiite school and the four main Sunni sects and cobbled them together into one code.

For decades, it was considered one of the most progressive personal status laws in the Middle East, in terms of women's rights.

Read the rest at the International Herald Tribune

July 21, 2006:

Thousands of Iraqis flee homes amid rise in violence

Tens of thousands of Iraqis have fled their homes in fear as sectarian violence has turned increasingly bitter since the US-backed national unity government was formed two months ago, official figures showed yesterday.

Iraq's most powerful religious authority, the Shia Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, joined the UN and American officials in raising the alarm about a sudden rise in bloodshed and a form of "ethnic cleansing" the cleric described as "campaigns of displacement". The US military admitted violence in Baghdad was little changed despite a big security clampdown over the past month.

A day after the US issued a stern warning to both Shia and minority Sunni leaders to match talk with action on reining in and reconciling "death squads" and "terrorists" from their respective communities, the migration ministry said more than 30,000 people had registered as refugees during this month alone.

"We consider this to be a dangerous sign," a spokesman, Sattar Nowruz, told Reuters, acknowledging that many more had fled abroad or quietly sought refuge with relatives rather than sign up for official aid or move into state camps.

The increase took to 27,000 families - 162,000 people - the number who have registered for help with the ministry since the February 22 bombing of a Shia shrine at Samarra sparked renewed violence.

"These families were threatened in different parts of Iraq and that is what forced them to leave their homes," the spokesman said, adding that the ministry was building new tented refugee camps.

The US military conceded that a security operation launched in Baghdad a month ago had achieved only a "slight downtick" in bloodshed. Attacks on civilians were slightly higher and death rates little changed.

"It's a start. We're moving in the right direction," said Major General William Caldwell, adding it would take "months not weeks" to secure victory.

Read the rest at the Guardian