7 signs of an ambush, pay attention:
-Following the previous Civil Affairs officers’ procedure: I told Abu Ali, our Iraqi national translator; we pick him up on 6 APR 2004, convoy south to Tikrit, conduct three school assessments. I gave him the schools names; Abu Ali knew the locations.
A school assessment is a meeting between school officials and an Army representative. We tour the school and discuss what the US Army could do to improve their situation. The discussion is ‘how can we help’ versus ‘this is what we are going to do’. This is an Iraqi school and Iraqi schools’ leaders know best. During civil-military interaction, civilian ideas and buy-in is critical for long term success. Iraqis needed to have ownership; this cannot be an ‘American’ project.
Our convoy arrived to pick up Abu Ali, he was not ready. I thought nothing of this, Abu Ali worked off of Iraqi ‘time’ not American ‘time’, meaning he is ready when he is ready. After arrival, set up ‘area security’, I left my vehicle and entered Abu Ali’s house to see when he will be ready.
In a combat zone, wait time is ambush time– a lesson forgotten at the school complex. Standing still is always dangerous, even in a pro-American village like Al Shakour, near Camp Speicher. It is easier to shoot and hit a stationary target then a moving one, a lesson I would learn in greater detail that morning.
Inside Abu Ali’s home, I saw him don a bullet proof vest under his police style light blue shirt. I thought this was standard procedure and not concerned. In a war zone who would not want to wear a bullet proof vest? In retrospect, this was the ONLY time Abu Ali ever wore a bullet proof vest. Ever, ever! Coincidence? Maybe. I do not believe in coincidence.
In the future, I kept a closer eye on Abu Ali’s, just in case he forgot which side he was on.
– Security was our first priority at the school complex, so we would not be ambushed. The problem was none of us knew what ‘good security’ looked like. We assumed we knew, which was not the case.
Our HUMMVs parked in front of the girl’s school; two HUMMV guntrucks with the gunner’s serving as security, one was placed at each end with two passenger HUMMVs in between with about five to ten feet in between vehicles. Security wise, the vehicle parking was not too bad, maybe too close to each other but we did not block the road, controlling traffic flow. Ground security was clustered and too close to the schools.
We were a cluster, in more than one way.
The school security plan was two soldiers on the roof, to control the high ground. The door leading to the roof was locked. The school administrator ‘did not have the key’. He ‘did not know’ who locked the door and why the door was even locked; or so he says. Rather unusual? I did not read this sign.
Could we have shot the lock? No one thought of it and I would have said ‘no’. If you are close enough to shoot a small door lock, you are close enough to get hit by the bullet when it ricochets back in your face. Another way to think of the situation: is shooting the lock and potential injury better or worse than being ambushed? Second guessing is a never ending game.
My team did not have bolt cutters or pry bar to cut the lock or break the door; no one would be our roof top look out. We lost the high ground and ability to see the battlefield. Given the angle of attack, right to left, and the insurgents attacked from behind a wall about 40 meters away, only soldiers on the roof would have been able to see the insurgents.
The insurgents knew what we were going to do and denied us the ability to do so. Sneaky bastards.
-We visited the Girls’ School; they were scared. The teachers [all female] were standoffish. I thought this was typical cultural behavior by Iraqi women towards unrelated males in general and American male soldiers in particular. We were in Tikrit, Saddam’s home town, loaded with Saddam’s extended family members, Saddam loyalist and former Baath Party leaders. Why would female teachers be friendly to American soldiers?
The Iraq War had been over for a year; bad feeling towards Americans was expected. Even if they wanted the teachers could not be friendly to US soldiers- insurgents have eyes everywhere. The teachers kept their students in the classrooms with doors closed. This was the only situation where this happened; all post-ambush school visits, the teachers were proud to show off their students’ abilities and kept their classroom doors open. Before leaving the Girls School we took a group photo, fear was evident on the teachers’ faces and smiles forced.
Reading body language can be the difference between life and death. I became a quick learner and eventually an expert.
-During the Girls’ School assessment, an uninvited Tikrit School District Administrator, arrived and wanted to talk to me. I wondered “Who the heck invited him? How did he know I would be there?” I was too passive and did not ask who invited this Administrator. I lost control of the situation. No one should be allowed to walk past security and talk to me. I should be the one inviting guests not Abu Ali.
The District Administrator told me the importance of his job and asked for the usual school supplies. In retrospect, if the administrator knew of our school visit, who else did? Was he sent to stall my team?
I never made that mistake again and was more aggressive towards ‘surprise’ visitors; who could expect a Bostonian ‘who the fuck are you and what are you doing here?’ welcome.
-There was little vehicle traffic and few Iraqis walking around. Nearby shops were closed during normal business hours. A dead give away [pun intended] something bad is going to happen.
Anyone with combat patrol or ‘outside the wire’ experience would pick-up that warning sign. Iraqi insurgents did not want to kill or injure locals, in order to maintain their support. If there is going to be an attack on Coalition Forces, Insurgents tell the locals to stay away.
My job was to win the Iraqi’s support for the Coalition by showing the American military’s ‘good face’ balancing security with socializing.
-We stayed too long: over 90 minutes. In 2004, insurgents could mount an impromptu ambush in 45 minutes, especially in pro-Saddam, pro-Bath Party Tikrit, where insurgents and sympathizers hid everywhere in plain sight.
Insurgent supporters start the ambush process by passing information to the insurgent network; unless they knew ahead of time. Further clouding the fog of war, the ‘April Uprising’ just began: 4 April 2004 Iraq insurgent attacked increased five-fold.
The insurgents were on the hunt and my team was their easy prey.
-The final ‘set up’: an Iraqi boy wandered out of no where and walked over towards us with a bare bloody foot looking scared and sheepishly asking for help. None of my soldiers could remember from where he came.
Looking back, a lot of dried blood was on the foot, the boy was not crying, nor any wound visible. The Iraqi boy was bug-eyed scared, which counts for something when reading and interpreting body language.
Reading body language and knowing what questions to ask could have prevented the ambush.
We saw a boy with a bloody foot as an injured child needing medical attention; not as bait keeping us in position just a few minutes longer to finalize the ambush.
I speculate Iraqi insurgents observed Coalition soldiers’ kind and friendly behavior towards children. Insurgents knew our reaction: American soldiers have a soft heart towards children and always try to help. I doubt American soldiers would use a boy to bait the enemy or as a shield.
Kindness was a weaknesses the insurgents exploited.
As the insurgents predicted, we took the bait, the bloody foot trick worked. Seeing the ‘bleeding’ child, SGT Hernandez carried him towards the HUMMVs to provide medical treatment.
Once seated on the third vehicle’s front left fender, the ambush began.