U.S. soldiers conduct sweep in Baqouba
June 22, 2007
BAQOUBA, Iraq — The Iraqi teenager hesitated for a moment when he encountered the squad of soldiers standing at the top of a dusty, rutted dirt street that he had started to walk down.
He gestured at a house, as if to say, “I’m only going over there.”
“If you want to go, dude, that’s your choice,” said Staff Sgt. Brian Piehler, 25, of Spanaway, Wash., a squad leader of Company C, 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, motioning him forward. “But you may not like what’s coming in a few minutes.”
On Monday, the first day of a massive U.S.-Iraqi offensive to clear the capital of Iraq’s Diyala province of al-Qaida and other insurgents, U.S. soldiers had been ordered to detain only suspicious-looking military-age men.
By the second day, those orders changed. U.S. forces were now instructed to detain all of the Iraqi men they encountered.
The change in orders might have sounded good on paper, but for the soldiers of Company C, it didn’t make a lot of sense. There was no way that a half-dozen U.S. troops were going to be able to detain, control and then transport the dozens of men they were undoubtedly going to encounter in their sector that day.
Still, orders are orders, and when you’re just a grunt on the ground, it’s not your job to question the logic of orders handed down by command. It’s your job to carry them out.
So when Company C entered the house that the Iraqi teenage boy had just entered a few minutes earlier, they rounded up all of the men in the house.
There were four of them in all, all teenagers. None of them protested. They just silently obeyed as the troops motioned for them to hold out their hands as they placed plastic flex cuffs on them.
The father of the house, a middle-aged man with thinning hair, told the troops he was a member of the Facilities Protection Service, but that he had to quit his job because of death threats. The man told the troops that he is now in charge of the street. Everyone who lives there fled because of al-Qaida, he said. He offered to go in place of his sons.
An interpreter arrived. A discussion ensued. Soon, one of the young detainees told the troops that he knew where a car bomb was located. The older man started naming people in Baqouba that he said are associated with al-Qaida.
Inside the house, Sgt. Rusty Christian, 21, of Greeneville, Tenn., smiled ironically.
“See what happens,” he said, “when you start flex-cuffing people up.”
Piehler said through the interpreter that if the information on the car bomb pans out, the teenager who provided it would be let go. “That dude just got a get-out-of-jail-free card,” he said.
The information on the car bomb was called up on the radio through the chain of command. The troops proceeded to the next house, their detainees in tow.
The troops waited to receive instructions either to continue clearing their sector or to escort the detainees back to their Stryker. What was anticipated as a short wait stretched into several hours in the hottest part of the day. In a typical gesture of Iraqi hospitality, the owner of the house and his sons served the troops hot tea as they wait.
Several hours passed. A jet dropped a precision-guided bomb on a nearby intersection that was suspected of being booby-trapped. A team of soldiers later walked the four detainees to the Stryker. From there, they were transported to Forward Operating Base Warhorse for questioning.
Back at the house, Piehler and Sgt. Luis Cruz, 28, of Davenport, Iowa, were subjected to intense questioning about what will happen to the young men. “You are taking the wrong men,” one of the college students said in English. “They are innocent.”
“Believe me,” said Cruz. “We don’t want to take them. But we’re stuck in a place between our orders and doing the right thing.”
The first man, two of whose sons have been detained, rejoined the group in the living room. He asked if the soldiers think his sons are terrorists. Cruz told them that he doesn’t think they have done anything wrong, but that he’s only following orders.
“It’s not easy for us,” he said. “You’ve got to understand. We have families too. We don’t want to do this, but we’ve got our orders. Believe me, they will be treated well.”
The father asked when his sons will be released. He again offered to go in their place. Piehler told the man that they can detain him, too, if that’s what he wants, but his sons won’t be let go. He’d already called in the fact that he’s detained them. The matter is out of his hands.
“You take these four today,” said the father. “What will happen tomorrow? Maybe you will come and take another four. Should we leave this area?”
Piehler suggested that would be a good idea.
“But where shall we go?” the man asked. “We can’t leave this place right now. The streets are blocked.”
“You make a good point,” Piehler said. “I honestly don’t have an answer for you.”
The conversation continued to go in circles. The father finally only wanted reassurance that his sons would not be turned over to the Iraqi army or police. A Sunni, he was afraid that the army or police, both of which are heavily infiltrated by Shiite militias, would harm or kill his sons.
Piehler and Cruz told the man that once the boys are released, they would either be brought back to the neighborhood or be set free at the base and given cab fare home.
After a while, the father shook hands with Piehler and Cruz and wished them well. The troops hung around the house for a little while longer. The other man and his two sons, the college students, disappeared into the back rooms of the house. Piehler said that he has no plans to detain any of them since they have been so cooperative and hospitable.
The troops ate, and several fall asleep in the sweltering afternoon heat, as they awaited orders over the radio to move out. Finally, the orders came.
As they left, the man of the house stood at the door and shook hands with Piehler, Cruz and the other troops. Holding a string of prayer beads, he grasped the hand of each soldier with both hands.
“Welcome, welcome,” he said.
Wrong house hit in U.S. airstrike
A U.S. airstrike in Baqouba hit the wrong house on Wednesday afternoon, injuring at least 11 civilians, officials said Thursday.
According to U.S. military officials in Baqouba, U.S. and Iraqi troops clearing the city have encountered several roadside bombs and several houses rigged up with homemade explosives. In most cases, the troops have tried to destroy the bombs or structures before insurgents could detonate them.
In Wednesday’s incident, which took place around 4 p.m., troops cleared the area around the house and prepared to destroy it with an airstrike. But, officials said, “the bomb missed its intended target and struck another structure, away from the targeted house.”
As of Thursday morning, the 11 injuries were all that had been reported. There was no information on the severity of the injuries.
The original target was then struck with a Hellfire missile “producing a large secondary explosion confirming the house as containing a large amount of explosives,” a U.S. military news release read.