Michael Totten

Guns in the Desert

ANBAR PROVINCE, IRAQ — The Humvee slammed to a halt on the desert road between Fallujah and the town of Al Farris. I peered around the driver’s head from the back seat and tried to figure out what was happening.
“Why are we stopping?” I said.
“IED,” Sergeant Guerrero said.
I swallowed and took the lens cap off my camera.
“Where?” I said.
All five Humvees in our convoy had stopped and pulled to the side of the road. None had been hit.
“We think there’s one buried off the road around here.”
Two soldiers, including Sergeant Guerrero, stepped out of the vehicle. “Can I get out, too?” I said. I had no idea how long we would stop or if they would even let me out of the truck.
“Sure,” Sergeant Guerrero said. “You can get out.”
All IEDs are dangerous no matter how much body armor you’re wearing if you’re standing anywhere nearby when they explode. Some create small explosions that are merely intended to harass convoys. Others are formidable anti-tank mines. A smaller number create explosions as big as air strikes and will absolutely destroy you if you’re not inside a heavily armored vehicle. The term IED, short for improvised explosive device, is used to describe just about any explosive that isn’t discharged from a weapon.
Below is a video of a gigantic IED explosion that looks as big as a monstrous daisy cutter bomb. Imagine standing anywhere near that when it went off.
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I slowly pushed open the vault-thick up-armored door and stepped out into the desolate countryside of Al Anbar. An Iraqi Police truck was parked in the desert a few hundred feet to our right. I hoped there wasn’t an IED trigger man lurking somewhere who was waiting for all of us to expose ourselves.
An Iraqi Police officer joined us and led us to a group of his colleagues standing around with shovels in their hands.
Leading to Cache Site Iraq.jpg
“It’s actually a weapons cache,” he said. “Not an IED. It’s out here somewhere.”
Most of the American troops in the Fallujah area are Marines, but these were regular Army soldiers and Military Police officers recruited from the Texas National Guard. They and the Iraqi Police officers have forged a straightforward agreement with the civilians in the area: we’ll protect you from insurgents if you’ll identify them and lead us to their IEDs and weapons caches. Someone from the nearby village of Al Bahuri had just called in a tip to the Iraqis. Their job was to find the cache and destroy it in a controlled detonation. No one had a metal detector, though, and they weren’t sure where, exactly, the cache was buried.
“The Blackhawk guys ought to come out here,” Sergeant Guerrero said.
IP Digging Cache Iraq.jpg
We joined the Iraqis with their shovels. Several shallow holes had been dug into the ground. They were looking for the cache, but didn’t know where it was. The caller who phoned in the tip told the Iraqis he saw insurgents burying a gigantic crate the size of a shipping container, but he could only narrow down the location within 100 meters. The same source had earlier reported a cache of rockets. The Iraqi Police found those rockets, so they figured the source was reliable.
I looked for freshly dug dirt. If this cache were really the size of a shipping container, there should be a large area where the ground was disturbed.
Our Iraqi interpreter Karim found a small section of soft dirt, retrieved a shovel from an Iraqi Police officer, and started digging.
I kept scouting the ground. I wasn’t a part of the Army unit, obviously. I’m a journalist. But I felt useless just standing around while Karim worked the shovel. I might as well help out a little and occupy myself in some way. And besides, it was cold outside. I needed to walk around to stay warm. Iraq’s climate is a ferocious blast furnace during the summer, but winter is hardly warmer than it is in my native Pacific Northwest.
Cache Hunt Desert Iraq Wide Shot.jpg
There was a small amount of trash laying around. I looked carefully for piles of cigarette butts and spit-out sunflower seeds which might suggest insurgents had been there.
“The insurgents are very good at hiding caches,” Sergeant Phillips said.
“What do you suppose is in this cache?” I said.
“It’s hard to say exactly,” he said. “Probably AK-47s and RPGs. Maybe some artillery shells.”
I walked over to Sergeant Guerrero.
“Are you going to ask the locals what they know?” I said.
“Nah,” he said. “That’s their deal. The Iraqi Police have their sources. We’re their liaisons, their trainers. We’re not in charge anymore. We’re just here to help them become police officers instead of paramilitaries.”
Sgt Guerrero Iraq.jpg
Sergeant Guerrero
I kept hearing this sort of thing, and it always slightly surprised me. It may seem like Americans are in charge in Iraq, but that is really only true to an extent.
“We make sure they follow the rule of law,” Sergeant Guerrero continued, “that they don’t abuse prisoners. We’re trying to get them self-sustaining so we can pull out and go someplace where there’s some actual fighting.”
“At this point,” Sergeant Phillips said, “we’re just waiting for the Iraqi Police to work their magic.”
Weapons caches are usually found on land somebody owns. It wasn’t clear whether anyone owned the land we were standing on, but if so they didn’t seem to mind Americans and Iraqis digging holes all over the place. No one from the village next door came out to talk to anyone. No one even came out to watch. I found that curious, and it made me slightly uneasy. Often it means the locals know an explosion or ambush is imminent.
“Hey,” Sergeant Phillips said. “They brought in a front-loader.”
An Iraqi Police officer drove up in a bulldozer. Now we might be in business. I really hoped they would find something. There is so little “action” in and around Fallujah these days that this, I realized, might be as interesting as it gets anymore.
Bulldozer Cache Hunt Iraq.jpg
The Iraqi Police officer chewed up the desert with his machine. He seemed to enjoy it in the way a twelve-year old American boy (or even me for that matter) would enjoy playing around with what is essentially a gigantic power tool.
At one point we all thought he hit pay dirt when the blade struck something solid. Everyone tensed in anticipation. But it was just rocks.
Sergeant Phillips and I wandered off and found a huge patch of soft dirt that looked and felt like sand on a beach. The ground everywhere else was gritty and hard-packed.
“Hey,” he said. “Look at this.”
He found a wire sticking out of the ground and very carefully pulled on it. I stepped back, not really far enough to protect myself if something exploded, but out of sheer instinct. Nearly half of Anbar Province was wired to blow at one point.
The wire came up out of the sand in his hand. Nothing exploded.
Wire Cache Hunt Iraq.jpg
I dug with my boot.
“It’s really soft sand all the way down,” I said. “And this soft area is bigger than a shipping container.”
“Hey!” Sergeant Phillips said to Sergeant Guerrero, who was watching the bulldozer with his hands on his hips. “Come take a look at this.”
Sergeant Guerrero walked over. Karim, our interpreter, followed with his shovel.
“It looks like someone trucked in all this sand,” Sergeant Phillips said. “Nothing else around here looks anything like this.”
“Yeah,” Sergeant Guerrero said.
It did look promising.
Karim jabbed his shovel into the ground next to the wire that Sergeant Phillips had just pulled up. I kept poking around with my boot.
“That’s the most work I’ve seen Karim do,” Sergeant Guerrero said. Karim laughed at the good-natured ribbing at his expense. “Somebody get a video camera.”
“I have my still camera,” I said. “I’m making him famous right now.”
Digging Desert Iraq.jpg
Karim dug furiously and wiped sweat from his forehead. He reached up and detached the Velcro strap on his body armor as if he were about to take his vest off.
“No, Karim,” Sergeant Guerrero said. “Keep it on.”
I sympathized with both Karim and the Sergeant. Rural Anbar Province is not very dangerous these days, but it’s still Iraq. And we were poking around where insurgents had buried guns in the desert. They could be watching us through the scope of a sniper rifle or with a manual detonation trigger in hand. No one could know that the phoned-in tip to the police wasn’t a set up. Why were no Iraqi civilians watching or talking to us? A cluster of houses stood only 200 meters away. Body armor is uncomfortable, but I wasn’t about to take mine off.
Sergeant Guerrero summoned the Iraqi Police and told them what we had found. Karim translated.
“There was a wire here somewhere,” he said. “Where did it go? Karim, did you bury it with that shovel?”
No one could find the wire. Karim had indeed buried it with the shovel. The sergeant wasn’t mad, though. It was not a big deal.
The bulldozer driver came over and moved tons of the soft sand into a gigantic pile.
Sgt Phillips Iraq.jpg
Sergeant Phillips
“I feel like Geraldo Rivera,” Sergeant Phillips said. “We’re gonna open it up! We’re gonna open it up! Doh! There’s nothing in there!”
“None of the people who live here and coming out of their houses,” I said to Sergeant Guerrero. “What’s up with that?”
“No,” he said. “They won’t.”
“In Fallujah they do,” I said. “They always do.”
“Here the men are out working,” he said. “The women are home alone by themselves, and there’s no way they’re coming out here to hang out with us.”
I relaxed a bit then.
“Please find something,” Sergeant Phillips said.
I looked at my watch. We had been out there two hours. The wind was getting colder, and this didn’t look promising.
“Alright,” Sergeant Guerrero said. “I’m done with this shit.”
*
Later we found something on the edge of the city of Karmah.
Two Marines Field Outside Karmah.jpg
I walked with a Marine unit under the command of Lieutenant Schroeder through farmland between Fallujah and Baghdad, just barely beyond the city limits. A small river flows through there, and insurgents were known to sometimes camp in the shore reeds and launch attacks inside the city from there.
Palm Trees Outside Karmah.jpg
The gentle winter sun warmed my face, and there was no wind. Iraq could not have felt more peaceful and tranquil. It seemed somehow wrong that the Marines carried rifles and that we wore body armor and helmets in this idyllic landscape. Arabic music could faintly be heard from one of the houses at the edge of the town. A black cow mooed at us. I felt like an intruder as Iraqis and farm animals watched us spread out and move through the fields.
Cow and Children Outside Karmah.jpg
Boy Field Karmah.jpg
The ground was strewn with large clods of hard dirt. White residue from an organic fertilizer looked a little like salt. A soft breeze shook the tall reeds. Otherwise, I heard only my own footsteps in the grass. I felt perfectly at ease, but it sounded like the dreadful quiet in a suspenseful war movie just before a platoon gets ambushed with machine gun fire and hand grenades.
Tall Reeds Outside Karmah.jpg
Reeds Outside Karmah.jpg
Boat Outside Karmah.jpg
Lieutenant Schroeder and his Marines peered into the reeds for signs of insurgents while an Iraqi man in the next field over waved his arms over his head and beckoned us to come talk to him.
“Let’s go see what he wants,” said the Lieutenant. So we did.
Three Iraqis Outside Karmah.jpg
“I found an IED,” the man said. His two sons stood quietly next to him. “It is over there behind a mosque.”
We stood in farmland, but were just a few meters beyond the city limits of Karmah.
“If you go looking for it,” he said, “you won’t find it. But I know where it is.”
Lance Corporal Waddle made a radio call to Outpost Delta. “It’s most likely an MRE bomb,” he said. MRE bombs are made of C-4 explosives packed in MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) packages that look like discarded trash on the side of the road.
Marines Consulting Outside Karmah.jpg
He read the man’s name off the ID card into the radio and asked Delta to check it against the list of wanted insurgents. The Marines would not let the man lead us anywhere without vetting him first.
The man’s name cleared and he led us into the city.
“I need you to stay back,” Corporal Waddle said to me,” in case we run into resistance.”
Some Marine units are more protective of me than others. Lieutenant Schroeder’s was particularly so. I was frequently instructed to stay back and, when in town, to only walk within a few inches of a wall.
Lieutenant Schroeder Karmah.jpg
Lieutenant Schroeder
The lieutenant sent a squad ahead to set up an overwatch on a roof in case we were being led into an ambush. Karmah was only very recently pacified. The war lasted longer there than it did in Fallujah, and every Marine I spoke to said it was a far more dangerous place.
We entered the town and walked past ugly repair shops on the way to the small mosque where the IED was supposed to be.
Rundown Shops Karmah.jpg
“There’s a pretty nice restaurant right over here,” Lieutenant Schroeder said. “Take a look.”
Restaurant Karmah.jpg
I popped my head in and snapped a quick picture.
“Hello, hello,” the restaurant manager said. “Welcome.”
“Shukran,” I said. Thank you.
I would have loved to stay and eat something other than the same old Marine food, but there was a job to be done.
We cut into the trash yard behind the mosque so no one would see us coming. Rusted cars were piled up against the wall behind the mosque and repair shops. This, supposedly, is where the Iraqi man found the IED, but it seemed an unlikely place for it. Most IEDs are mortar rounds, artillery shells, or anti-tank mines deployed alongside or underneath roads.
Junkyard Karmah.jpg
“Don’t get any closer,” Corporal Waddle said. “We need to stay out of the blast radius in case it blows.”
One Marine, whose name I didn’t catch, accompanied the Iraqi man to the location of the explosive. “It’s an 82mm mortar round,” he said when he returned. “It’s not an IED. Most likely a round that didn’t go off when it was fired.”
Every time I thought something vaguely exciting might happen, it didn’t happen. There is no war in Western Iraq any more. This is a mop-up.
Lieutenant Schroeder called the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Team from Camp Fallujah. Their job is the destruction of weapons caches, IEDs, and other hazardous explosives with controlled detonations. They arrived an hour or so later as a local man led his goats through the junkyard to feed on the garbage.
Goats Junkyard Karmah.jpg
The EOD team leader looked at the explosive round through his telescopic rifle scope.
“Are you going to blow it here or move it first?” I said.
“Depends on if they’ve got something hooked up to it,” he said. “Sometimes they’ll call these things in and it’s a trap.”
Lieutenant Schroeder’s Marines kept a close eye on the man who led us here, just in case.
A Marine from the EOD team parked a truck mounted with an ECM device (an electronic countermeasure) in the yard. When turned on, the device jams cell phone signals which are often used by insurgents to manually trigger roadside bombs and other explosives. Then the team sent in a robot that set down a C-4 bomb of its own next to the unexploded ordnance.
“We need to clear everyone out of here,” said the EOD team leader. Lieutenant Schroeder told his men to fan out away from the blast radius as Iraqi Police officers stopped traffic on the street and evacuated civilians to a safe location a few blocks away.
“How close can we be to the explosion?” I asked Corporal Waddle.
Corporal Waddle Karmah.jpg
Lance Corporal Waddle
“The potential casualty radius is 100 meters,” he said. “So we need to move out 300 meters or take cover.”
“How about we take cover instead of move out?” I said. I was aching for excitement, even of the controlled variety.
So he and I took cover behind a three-foot high berm. I can’t be certain, but I think we were inside the kill zone. I carefully peeked over the lip. They weren’t quite ready to blow it up yet, but I sat back down in the dirt.
“Do not stand up until after it blows,” Corporal Waddle said, although he didn’t have to.
We stayed on the ground and waited. The EOD team leader announced a one-minute countdown on the radio. I waited in anticipation. At 30 seconds to detonation, I hoped one of those gigantic camel spiders (also known as wind scorpions) didn’t decide this was the perfect time to…
BOOM!
The explosion came earlier than expected, and if you can imagine a person jumping into the air and hitting the ground at the same time, that was me. Recall the loudest clap of thunder you have ever heard in your life, then multiply the volume by four. I felt the shock wave ripple through my whole body. It damn near knocked the molars out of my mouth.
I peered up over the berm. Smoke from the explosion quickly dissipated. I fumbled for my camera and only managed to take a late picture.
Smoke from Controlled Det Karmah.jpg
Corporal Waddle and I rejoined the rest of his Marine unit.
“Too bad you weren’t in the parking lot with your camera,” one of the Marines said to me. “It was pretty funny. The Iraqis completely freaked out and hit the deck.”
The explosion startled me, too. The last explosion I heard was a car bomb in Baghdad from two miles away. I wondered if the Marines would have laughed if they were looking at me instead of the Iraqis.
“You told them there would be an explosion, right?” I said. “They must be used to hearing explosions here anyway.”
“Yeah, the Iraqi Police told ’em. But two of ’em pissed themselves right there in the lot.”
Rubble Back to Base Karmah.jpg
We walked past a field of rubble on our way back to the station.
“Three months ago, this wouldn’t have happened,” Corporal Waddle said. “The locals didn’t start trusting us until now.”
Shortly after we returned, I heard one Marine tell another that their company found ten separate caches of weapons and explosives in the last six hours alone.
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