Apache pilots see new tactics from insurgents
Stars and Stripes March 29, 2008
TAJI, Iraq — From their vantage point in the air, Apache pilots have noticed a big change over the Sadr City area of Baghdad during fighting this week, according to leaders from units responsible for the skies over the city.
Sadr City, along with Basra in southern Iraq, has been the center of heavy fighting with Shiite extremists that’s broken a months-long lull in violence. Many U.S. officials think disgruntled Shiite elements inside the area are fueling violence in neighboring areas.
Helicopters, like ground forces, are not allowed to enter Sadr City itself, said Lt. Col. Todd Royar, a pilot and commander of 4th Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, the attack helicopter unit responsible for Baghdad. But their advanced optics give them a good look inside the city and at the surrounding neighborhoods.
“The soldiers on the ground can see to the next corner,” Royar said. “We can see not only to the next corner, but around the corner and on top of it.”
Lt. Col. Charles Bowery Jr., a pilot and executive officer for the 12th Combat Aviation Brigade, the brigade over 4-3, said he’s now seeing many small firefights taking place across an area littered with burning tires and crowds roving from place to place.
Royar said insurgents once concentrated their efforts on roadside bomb attacks that were well thought out and deliberate. Other pilots noted that their direct attacks were usually limited to firing a few shots, then running off and hiding.
But the attacks have become more direct, and Bowery said the insurgents are staying in the fight longer. They often attack, back off and reposition to pick away at coalition forces.
“It’ll go on for a couple of hours,” he said.
They’ve also become bolder with the changing atmosphere around Sadr City. In the past, pilots might have seen suspicious characters in the area, Bowery said. But they usually kept a low enough profile to prevent the pilots from confirming that they were insurgents — however much a pilot’s instincts told him or her that they were bad guys.
“We had hardly seen an RPG in the past few months,” he said.
But gun camera footage shows just how barefaced the attackers have become. A row of rocket launchers sits in an open field ready to fire instead of concealed within palm groves in ones and twos. Insurgents load weapons onto a waiting van to distribute later to crowds instead of keeping the guns and RPGs tucked away in hidden caches.
The number of engagements paints a clear picture of the change the Apache pilots have seen. The 4th Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment had just two or three engagements in the first two months after the unit took over responsibility for Baghdad skies in December, Bowery said. But between 12:30 p.m. Wednesday and 7:30 a.m. Friday, the unit opened fire 17 times, killing more than 45 people, according to a brigade spokesman.
“I think this is what we all expected when we arrived,” Bowery said. “I think the suddenness was what took us a little by surprise.”