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By Nir Rosen, with the US 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment
in Iraq

Operation Decapitation

AL-QAIM, Iraq - In early October, Lieutenant-Colonel
Gregg Reilly, the SCO, or squadron commander, of the
3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment's (ACR) Tiger Base in
western Iraq decided he had enough "actionable
intelligence" to pursue those Iraqis attacking his
soldiers every day.
"We have the most concrete set of targetable data in
Iraq," the SCO says of the operation code named Tiger
Strike. "We have built this over many months with
multiple sources." He has two organizational charts on
his wall. One chart is for al-Qaeda cells, including
safe houses, financiers and fighters. Reilly and his
intelligence staff do not know why the cells are
alleged to belong to al-Qaeda. "Other sources have
said they are al-Qaeda," they explain. The other chart
is for the resistance led by senior military officers
from elite units of the former Iraqi army. It, too,
contains the names of several high-level officials who
coordinate cells of suppliers, trainers, financiers,
suppliers and trigger pullers.

Altogether there are 62 names on the wanted list. On
the wall beside the charts are large satellite images
of the towns with the targeted houses marked and
numbered. A minimum of 29 locations will be raided,
taking out the "nervous system of the area" resistance
"and the guys who actually do the shooting".

Reilly slaps the satellite images on the wall.
"Everything I have here will be there, two cavalry
troops, 14 tanks, 23 Bradleys, 15 gun trucks, 100
dismounts, a total of 300 soldiers." He will also be
using all his human resources, including a
paramilitary officer from the OGA, or "Other
Government Agency", as the Central Intelligence Agency
(CIA) is euphemistically known in Iraq, and a team of
ODA, or Operational Detachment Alpha, as the special
forces are called.

In case he needs it, the SCO can call on an Orion spy
plane and a UAV, or unmanned aerial vehicle, as well
as the listening capacities of several different
intelligence agencies. The plan is to target the
leaders' homes and the "al-Qaeda" safe houses first.
This will be a "dynamic operation", he says, meaning
they will not be knocking on doors.

On the afternoon before the mission, Captain Justin
Brown, commander of Apache Troop, call sign Apache 6,
gathers the key officers and non-commissioned officers
of his troop's 133 soldiers outside their TOC, or
tactical operations center, called Apache X-Ray, for
the "rehearsal" of Operation Decapitation, as he has
called his half of Tiger Strike. Seated on plastic
chairs, his men encircle a satellite image of the town
placed on the floor.

Brown, a 29-year-old Texan, reminds his men that
"decisions are going to be made at the lowest level
... we will dominate our battle space. Nothing will
move in your area without you having control over it
... Tiger 6 has defined success on this mission as
getting 50 percent of the people on list ... we will
bring in every person on this list one way or the

Brown exhorts them to watch roofs and windows and
urges them to drink enough water and make certain
their men stayed hydrated. Brown tells his men to
"maintain momentum, keep adrenaline flowing". Because
teams will be operating close to each other, Brown
warns them that "fratricide is the biggest risk in
this mission". Several times in the briefing he
discusses precautions to avoid hurting innocent

Brown has divided the 100 men in his six platoons into
three teams, Vodka, Scotch and Bourbon. Each team was
then subdivided into an outer cordon, inner cordon and
entry team. One by one the leaders of Vodka, Scotch
and Bourbon brief Apache 6 and the others present on
their operations. A minimum of 27 locations will be
raided. Brown questions each leader to see whether
they have considered every detail and prepared for
every contingency.

"Where will your detainees go, how will you
communicate with each other, talk us through movement
to subsequent locations, what will you do if a vehicle
is disabled, how will you evacuate your wounded, where
would the QRF [quick reaction force] be?" he demands.
Each team will also have an interpreter or army
linguist accompanying it.

The Long Range Surveillance Team leader, a staff
sergeant, then briefs Apache. LRS, pronounced "lirs",
is part of the 51st Infantry Division, and is a "gun
for hire" called in whenever somebody needs a team.
They will be using the call sign Ghost Rider. The
staff sergeant has seven years' experience conducting
long-range surveillance operations in locations such
as Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina. His small teams were
inserted 300 kilometers behind enemy lines during
Operation Iraqi Freedom. They will depart earlier to
get "eyes on" the target. During the operation, if
they see guys with guns leaving they will "take them
down", aided by the night scopes on their weapons.

Chief Warrant Officer "Big" Fred Denning, a Nomad
pilot, sits and takes notes. The 30-year-old Kiowa
Warrior helicopter pilot from Texas reminds the men of
Apache that they will have to rotate "birds" if they
run out of fuel, but because Tiger X Ray is only five
minutes away he can fly back on fumes.

Each Kiowa has a crew of two pilots, one flying and
the other conducting reconnaissance. Capable of speeds
up to 90 knots, he will fly far slower, hovering or
circling above the target areas, sometimes 1.5 meters
off tanks, usually about 30m above. When daylight
breaks, Nomads will have to return to base to switch
from night-vision mode, he cautions.

"When we're coming up to the target all we see is an
eight-foot wall," Brown explains of the importance of
Nomad. "Nomad tells us if it's four men on the roof,
two men in the courtyard, two trucks in front so when
my guys hit the ground running they know all the
possible target locations." He adds that the mere
presence of a Nomad, which is also equipped with
defensive weapons, is intimidating to the enemy.

Brown's XO, or executive officer, gives the order of
march, the order in which the vehicles will proceed
out of the base, following routes with such names as
Penthouse, Playboy and Hustler. Brown reminds his men
about the PIRs, or Priority Information Requirements,
including cellular phones, computers, notebooks, photo
albums and any documents or other potential
intelligence resources.

To avoid having the women in the house call other cell
members, he tells his men to disable landlines - "Rip
them out of the walls." Finally, he urges them to tell
their men to sleep before the mission, which will
begin at 0200. "I'm fuckin' excited about this,"
Apache 6 says. "The bottom line is we're gonna get 38
motherfuckers who shoot at us on a daily basis." He
tells his men that one day they will tell their
grandchildren about the operation.

By 0100 the vehicles are being moved into position,
guided by flashlights and their own headlights. The
mood among the men is like that of athletes before a
big game. They joke, psyche themselves up and receive
final reminders from their team leaders, like coaches,
to focus, to keep their eye on the ball.

One after another the vehicles in the convoy rumble
out the gate of Tiger X Ray, round the bend, go past
the electrical station, and stop at the test fire
range. Some of Bandit's vehicles get lost and Tiger 6
gets on the radio: "We have some roaming elephants,"
he says, in jest. Bandit 6 is not amused.

Apache 6 and his driver Sergeant Bentley discuss
football. Brown likes the Dallas Cowboys. "The hardest
part of the mission is going in there and pulling some
father away from his kids," says Brown. "Yeah, it
sucks," sergeant Bentley avers. "But," continues
Brown, "if it's gonna let my men get home safe to see
their kids, I'll do it."

Apache's teams drive in black light, guided by the
nods, or night-vision goggles, worn by the driver.
After half an hour of navigating in the dark, the
convoy approaches the first house, and the vehicles go
into white light, illuminating the target area as a
tank breaks the stone wall. "Fuck yeah!" cheers
Sergeant Bentley. "Hi honey, I'm home!" The teams
charge over the rubble from the hole in the wall,
breaking through the door with a sledgehammer and
dragging several men out.
The barefoot prisoners, dazed from their slumber, are
forcefully marched over rocks and hard ground. One
short middle-aged man, clearly injured and limping
with painful difficulty, is violently pushed forward
in the grip of a soldier who says: "You'll fucking
learn how to walk."

Each male is asked his name. None of them match the
names on the list. A prisoner is asked where the
military officer lives. "Down the road," he points.
"Show us!" he is told, and shoved ahead stumbling over
the rocky street, terrified that he will be seen as an
informer in the neighborhood. He stops at the house,
but the soldiers run ahead.

"No, no, it's here," yells a sergeant, and they run
back, breaking through the gate and bursting into the
house. It is a large villa, with grapevines covering
the driveway. The women and children are ordered to
sit in the garden. The men are pushed to the ground on
the driveway and asked their names. It is indeed the
first high-value target. His son begs the soldiers:
"Take me for 10 years but leave my father!" Both are
taken as the children scream, "Daddy, Daddy!"

House after house meets the same fate. Some homes only
have women in them; they, too, are ransacked, closets
broken, mattresses overturned, clothes thrown out of
drawers. In one house, the CIA commando and soldiers
fail to recognize the smiling face in the large
picture pasted to the suspect's bedroom dresser. It is
Oday, one of Saddam Hussein's notorious sons, dressed
in tribal clothes.

As her husband is taken away, one woman angrily asks
Allah to curse the soldiers, calling them "dogs!
Jews!" over and over. When his soldiers leave a house,
Brown emerges to slap them on the back like a coach
congratulating his players during half-time in a
winning game.

In a big compound of several houses the soldiers take
all the men, even the ones not on the list. A sergeant
explains that the others will be held for questioning
to see if they have any useful information. The men
cry out that they have children still inside. In
several houses soldiers tenderly carry out babies that
have been left sleeping in their cribs when families
are ordered out and hand them to the women.

When a house is complete, or at the Home Run stage
(stages are divided into 1st, 2nd, 3rd, Home Run and
Grand Slam, meaning ready to move on), soldiers relax
and joke, breaking their own tension and ignoring the
trembling and shocked women and children crouched
together on the lawns behind them.

Prisoners with duct tape on their eyes and their hands
cuffed behind them with plastic "zip ties" sit in the
back of the truck for hours without water. They move
their heads toward sounds, disoriented and frightened,
trying to understand what is happening around them.
Any time a prisoner moves or twitches a soldier
bellows at him angrily and curses.

By daylight the whole town can see a large truck full
of prisoners. Two men walking to work with their
breakfast in a basket are stopped at gunpoint, ordered
to the ground, cuffed and told to "shut the fuck up"
as their basket's contents are tossed out and they are
questioned about the location of a suspect.

The soldier guarding them speaks of the importance of
intimidating Iraqis and instilling fear in them. "If
they got something to tell us I'd rather they be
scared," he explains. An Iraqi policeman drives by in
a white sport-utility vehicle clearly marked "Police".
He, too, is stopped at gunpoint and ordered not to
move or talk until the last raid is complete.

>From the list of 34 names, Apache brings in about 16
positively identified men, along with another 54 men
who were neighbors, relatives or just happened to be
around. By 0830, Apache is done, and starts driving
back to base. As the main element departs, the
psychological-operations vehicle blasts AC/DC rock
music through neighborhood streets. "It's good for
morale after such a long mission," Captain Brown says.

Crowds of children cluster on porches smiling, waving
and giving the passing soldiers little thumbs up.
Sergeant Bentley waves back. Neighbors awakened by the
noise huddle outside and watch the convoy. One little
girl stands before her father and guards him from the
soldiers with her arms outstretched and legs wide.

Bandit Troop handles the other half of Operation
Decapitation, aimed at the "al-Qaeda elements". A baby
girl blows a kiss at Bandit Troop's 1st Sergeant
Reiss. His men discover Osama bin Laden pictures and a
thin book supporting bin Laden and defending his
actions titled Bin Ladin: Our Enemy is America, as
well as a grease gun and a rocket-propelled-grenade
launcher. In one house they raid a woman runs out
carrying several AK-47s and their magazines.
Bandit troop does not return to base until 11am. They
have arrested 38 men. Six of them were from the list,
three others were relatives and the rest were
"military-age males" who were present. One man
confronted Bandit troop demanding, "Arrest me, I have
some information for you." Like many sources, he did
not want to be seen as a collaborator.

That night the prisoners are visible on a large dirt
field in a square of concertina wire, and beneath
immense spotlights and to the sound of loud generators
they try to sleep on the ground, guarded by soldiers.
One non-commissioned officer is surprised by the high
number of prisoners Apache has taken. "Did they just
arrest every man they found?" he asks, wondering
whether "we just made another 300 people hate us".

The following day 57 prisoners are transported to a
larger base for further interrogation. Some are not
the suspects, just relatives of the suspects, or men
suspected of being the suspects. Three days after the
operation, a dozen prisoners can be seen marching in a
circle outside the detention center, surrounded by
barbed wire. They are shouting "USA, USA!" over and

"They were talkin' when we told 'em not to, so we made
'em talk somethin' we liked to hear," grins one of the
soldiers guarding them. Another gestures up with his
hands, letting them know they have to raise their
voices. A first sergeant quips that the ones who are
not guilty "will be guilty next time", after such

Even if the men are guilty, no proof will be provided
to the community. There will be no process of
transparent justice. The only thing evident to the
Iraqi public will be American guilt.

(Copyright 2003 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights
reserved. Please contact for
information on our sales and syndication policies.)

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