Hunting insurgents a frustrating lesson in detective work
Stars and Stripes August 30, 2006
RAMADI, Iraq — For Capt. Jeffrey Kersey and the rest of Company C, it was one of those minor victories that U.S. troops are often left with when waging a counterinsurgency war.
On paper, the plan called for the capture of no fewer than four high-value insurgents in eastern Ramadi’s notorious Ma’laab district — an area that saw some of Ramadi’s heaviest fighting after it was inherited by the 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, almost nine months ago.
In a series of simultaneous raids, U.S. troops, Iraqi army soldiers and Navy SEALS were to capture the leader of an intimidation-and-beheading cell, a deadly sniper and two other undesirables as they slept in their safe houses several hours before dawn.
In the end, though, the Iraqi army soldiers took a pass on the operation and the SEALS struck out.
Kersey’s men nabbed the suspected sniper — although they failed to find a weapon that would give them an airtight legal case.
“This happens,” said Kersey, 30, of West Palm Beach, Fla. “The operation looks good on paper, but it’s only as good as the information we get from people. Sometimes that information is kind of, well, not the best.”
As U.S. and Iraqi army troops wage a renewed campaign to neutralize insurgents in this restive, Sunni Arab city, soldiers such as Kersey have found themselves in a sometimes exasperating cat-and-mouse contest to root out top-tier insurgents.
While troops under the command of Lt. Col. Ronald P. Clark have killed many insurgents in heavy fighting throughout eastern Ramadi over the last nine months, identifying and capturing those enemy figures who work behind the scenes is a little more difficult, particularly when insurgent threats and intimidation have scared much of the general population into silence.
Such was the case recently when the Baumholder, Germany-based “Commando” Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division set off in search of a sniper who had killed or wounded a number of Iraqi army soldiers at east Ramadi outposts.
As Kersey’s troops worked their way down a city block, searching homes and questioning residents, they eventually picked up the trail of a short, stocky sniper suspect known as Majid. When they finally tracked him down to a living room in his family’s home, the target — not surprisingly — told Kersey they had the wrong man.
“I’ve spent the whole year running away from the insurgents,” the suspect said through an interpreter. “Look at my back. I have marks where the mujahedeen hit me for swearing.”
As the suspect was blindfolded and told that he was being taken into custody, he began coughing and spitting on the floor. Then he lay down on the ground.
“They do this,” Kersey said as a medic examined him. “When they realize you’re taking them into custody they start acting like they’re sick.”
When the medic failed to find anything wrong, the man was helped to his feet by soldiers and walked to a Bradley fighting vehicle.
“I wish we could find a weapon,” Kersey said. “That would just complete this day.”
None was found. Still, Kersey said the suspect might be able to offer interrogators useful information that might lead to subsequent and more successful raids.
“We’ve been looking for this guy for three months,” Kersey said. “Just knowing that he’s a player is something. Hopefully, he’ll be able to lead us to somebody else.”
Kersey’s company is one of the more recent arrivals to Ramadi, and is part of that element of the 1st Armored Division that spent six months in Kuwait before deploying to Iraq.
What they found waiting for them at Combat Outpost Corregidor was an isolated outpost mired in deep, flourlike dust. When tanks and Humvees roll through, the resulting milky-colored mist blocks out the sun like a partial eclipse.
What they also found was Clark’s Fort Campbell, Ky.-based 1-506th — a collection of infantry, armor and Navy SEAL units that had been battling insurgent attacks since the beginning of the year. Attacks have dropped significantly from the time of their arrival, when insurgents would step out into the street and launch rocket-propelled grenades into the camp or lob mortars from just a kilometer away.
“That doesn’t happen anymore,” Clark said.
For the units, success has meant the establishment of a series of combat outposts and traffic checkpoints that spread their reach deeper into the eastern part of the city, just as troops with the 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division are working to establish similar outposts in the western part of the city.
“We used to have to fight our way into the Ma’laab any time we went there. Now we’ve got an observation post there,” Clark said.
Another key outpost stands beside a notorious soccer stadium that served as a place for insurgents to hide their weapons and launch mortar attacks.
“Today, we own the stadium,” said Maj. David Womack, operations officer for the 1-506th. “There are people playing soccer in the stadium now.”
Now, with just a few months remaining before the 1-506th returns home, commanders say they can identify with what 1-1 AD units like the 1st Battalion, 37th Armor Regiment are going through as they battle insurgents in the south central part of Ramadi.
“They’re going through a lot of the same stuff we went through six months ago,” Clark said.