This week in Iraq

By Dr. Peter (LTC) Published - July 26, 2004


Funeral procession through one of the little towns locally. Note there are only men in the procession. It was peaceful.

Photo by LTC Peter

 Funeral procession through one of the little towns locally. Note there are only men in the procession. It was peaceful.

     Baghdad, Iraq – I just heard my first rocket attack close up. I was walking out of my quarters when I heard and felt a deep "whoomp!" which was profoundly resonating and shook my intestines. It was sort of a mushroom-cloud shaped sound. I froze. It came from behind me, to my right. This was followed by a subdued hissing through the air, maybe 200 yards above me and to my right, like a very small jet tearing through the air. This second sound almost didn’t register as related to the "whoomp" until I heard the impact, not quite two seconds later, and mentally connected the three sounds. That third one was a different sound. A smaller, more compact, rounded, and slightly higher pitched explosion, with less intestinal vibration. It was in front of me and to my right, in the distance, but not far off. Not far enough off.

Only three sounds, each distinct. Taken together, a menacing message. Would there be a second launch? I looked for cover, none handy. I felt better that I was wearing my IBA and helmet, as required whenever we were outside during the week of the transfer of authority, when we were expecting a bit more badness than usual.

There was no second launch.

My radio crackled as the tower guards reported the rocket’s impact. It missed our base, having traveled completely over the compound, exploding about 250 meters beyond our wall on the other side. Were they aiming at us? If so, they need to juice down their launcher a bit.

Another new experience, these three sounds taken together. This one, I can live without.


Dearest Readers,

I wrote this June 30, immediately after the rocket attack. I was quite shaken for a day or two after this very close "reality check." I truly am living in a war zone. Bad things can happen, even if somewhat randomly. I still wonder, however, if the statistical risk of death or major injury is higher here, or is it actually more risky driving 30 miles each way to work and back on the freeways in Salt Lake. I have since gotten somewhat accustomed to the sounds of the occasional mortars and car bombs exploding around us. This is a good thing in that I don’t dwell on it so much anymore. Kind of like hearing sirens in the background in a large city at night, you get to a point where you don’t notice it as much.

The three Saddam Heads. These are huge busts of Saddam. There used to be four, one on each corner of our palace grounds, sitting on giant pedestals. One was destroyed, and the other three are stored in the junkyard here.

Photo by LTC Peter

 The three Saddam Heads. These are huge busts of Saddam. There used to be four, one on each corner of our palace grounds, sitting on giant pedestals. One was destroyed, and the other three are stored in the junkyard here.

I have also learned why the bad guys seem (blessedly) to be such crummy shots with rockets and mortars. They actually launch these rockets from the beds of small pick-up trucks. They will pull up to a site, rapidly uncover the rocket and launcher, then "aim" and fire. Aiming basically involves pointing it in the general direction that they would like it to go. They immediately cover the launcher and drive off. They have realized that we can quite accurately back-calculate where the launch occurred, based on the impact. If they hang around to adjust the launch and fire again, we’ll catch them. They also have no spotters. Spotters are the people who are supposed to be near the intended impact site and report to the launch team where it landed, so the launch team can adjust the aim for the next try. Again, they don’t have the luxury of waiting to adjust and fire again. So they shoot and split, and hope for the best.

Unfortunately for the locals, the result is usually the injury, destruction, and death of civilians rather than a successful strike at the military. This is a good case in point. They completely missed our base, and the rocket landed about 250 meters beyond our wall. It completely destroyed some innocent family’s home, piercing the roof, traveling through the house, and exploding in the basement, leaving a large crater where the house used to be. Miraculously, no one was home at the time, and there were no major injuries as a result. However, I suspect the residents of that neighborhood were badly shaken, the children terrified, and the parents and families there left gun shy and anxious. Not to mention some folks came home to a crater and now have no place to sleep and what little they own is destroyed.

This morning after breakfast a very big explosion occurred, even bigger than the rocket I described. It shook the building I was in, rattling the glass. This building is constructed of solid concrete. We all crowded into the center of the building, away from the windows, until we were sure there wouldn’t be a second, closer impact. A few minutes later, the tower guards reported that it was a huge VBIED (military lingo for "vehicle-borne improvised explosive device" or car bomb) that went off about 500 meters outside of our gate. This bomb must have been huge, because this was a half mile from me, but still it shook our building mightily. At that point, we relaxed a bit, as VBIEDs usually come as "onesies" and are not immediately repeated, unless they set a second one to explode when the rescuers arrive, which didn’t turn out to be the case today. You’ll see it on the news, I suspect. Don’t know the casualty count yet, but in that location, it will certainly hurt more innocent civilians.

(I just read on Yahoo that 11 were killed and at least 30 wounded, all Iraqis, including four Iraqi National Guardsman. All the rest were civilians. No Americans were involved, amazingly.)

The good news recently is that the Iraqi populace is tiring of these terrorists killing them. It’s very much easier to kill or maim civilians, either purposefully or accidentally, than it is to kill a well-protected, well-trained, and very alert military. Recently, the local neighborhood councils have begun reporting to the police and to us suspicious characters and activity, so they can be investigated and arrested. There has been a civilian counter-terrorist organization begun recently. These are vigilantes who are seeking out the violent terrorists and are simply killing them. This seems to be a traditional, if unofficial, form of Iraqi justice: just kill them. The tribes and clans here don’t forget when someone injures one of their members. As brutal as this may sound, it is actually one of the best developments to date: the people starting to rebel against the terrorists and taking on some of the responsibility for their own protection.

This morning it was reported that the Iraqi police rounded up over 500 suspected terrorists over the few nights in a huge, well-coordinated operation. They have been doing a much better job of policing themselves recently, as a result of our support and training and the recent handover of sovereignty. They recently discovered and safely detonated a huge VBIED that they discovered at a checkpoint in town. Our guys say they still don’t know how the Iraqi National Guard new to check that particular car, but they did! You see, they know their own people much better than we can ever hope to. They know when a car doesn’t look right, when a person doesn’t belong in a certain neighborhood, or isn’t even Iraqi at all. They know if a Sunni is in the wrong part of town, a Shia is outside the wrong mosque, or if someone is Iranian or Syrian at a distance. This is the great advantage that they have over us, who can’t even speak the language, for heaven’s sake, much less pick! out what mosque someone is from as they drive by in their car! Once trained well (and they are making great progress) they are able to protect themselves and their people quite admirably. And again, as we continue to find out, they don’t do it our way. They have their own techniques, hunches, customs, and sense of justice. So be it. It’s their country. They have to run it and protect it the way that works best for them.

Still, "the word on the street" is: now that they "own" the country again; they don’t want us to leave until the security is stable. The regular Mohammeds are beginning to see that they can have control over their lives, which they didn’t have with Saddam, and we really do just want to help. They are beginning to appreciate that.

So we are making some progress, too.