Tall task for 10th Mountain in Mahmudiyah
October 8, 2006
MAHMUDIYAH, Iraq — “People talk about Mahmudiyah as if it’s Dien Bien Phu,” said Col. Mike Kershaw, referring to the Vietnamese battleground in which the local insurgency overcame a better-trained and better-equipped national army.
By contrast, he said, Mahmudiyah, the small, ethnically mixed town inside Iraq’s “Triangle of Death,” is “not the worst place I’ve ever been in the war on terror.”
But the town of about 110,000 residents has had its share of notoriety, grabbing headlines earlier this year while under the purview of the 101st Airborne Division’s 502nd Infantry Regiment. In June, two 502nd soldiers were abducted by insurgents, tortured and killed. Later that month, a soldier from the unit accused five other soldiers of gang-raping a 15-year-old girl, then killing her and four members of her family in March.
It would appear that Kershaw, commander of the 10th Mountain Division’s 2nd Brigade, has a tough year ahead of him.
Roadside bombs are still a daily occurrence, and snipers still stalk rooftops, occasionally provoking firefights. In less than a month in sector, the brigade has already lost one soldier to a sniper. Local militias skulk beneath the surface, all but invisible to American soldiers, quietly building up their power base.
To accommodate, Kershaw has made some changes. Rather than occupying one central location, battalions will push out from the base in Mahmudiyah to smaller patrol bases around the area. Also, there will be more soldiers in the area — about a battalion’s worth, Kershaw said.
“We hope to put more troops to the task than they were able to,” he said, speaking of the 101st soldiers. “We certainly think we’ve been able to man all positions with more people.”
Kershaw also said he’ll build on some of the previous unit’s more positive legacies.
“The 101st did a great job for putting in place a lot of programs in Mahmudiyah,” he said. “They really did a lot of hard work in those areas that we’ll be able to build on.”
He said he felt the area was essential to security in Baghdad.
“It’s a gateway to Baghdad from the south and the west,” he said. “A lot of the insurgency that hits Baghdad either passes through this area or originates in it.”
That much was clear Wednesday as Lt. Col. Michael Infanti, commander of 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment, strolled down a lonely canal road, inspecting nearly a dozen piles of bomb-making ingredients dug out of barrels buried near a field: detonators, explosives, rifles, rusty mortars, a video camera, and several ready-made bombs.
“We’re attacking all the bad guys who are attacking the guys who just want to be left alone,” he said, gesturing towards the gently swaying fields, in which a solitary farmer toiled. He said locals have been mostly appreciative. “They’re thanking us for providing more security for them,” he said.
American officials say, the alleged rape and the killings have played only a minor role in discussions with local leaders.
“That has not come up,” Kershaw said said. “When I came in, I expected to hear about that upfront.”
“I ask, but they don’t want to talk about it. They’re just not dwelling on that,” said Infanti.
The reaction from the town’s mayor to the alleged rape was, to say the least, surprising.
“The family wasn’t a good family,” said Mahmudiyah mayor Mouayad Houssen, 50, through an interpreter, saying some people felt it was deserved.
Houssen, whose praises the American military, said he predicted an easy tour for the brigade.
“I think the new unit, they can make an easy victory with the people,” he said. “They are doing a good job. I have big respect for the previous unit. They were so good to us.”