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BAQUBAH, IRAQIt's not hard to imagine what the soldiers of the 272nd Chemical Company, a unit of the New York National Guard's 42nd Infantry Division, were thinking when they spotted a vehicle barreling toward them through the falling darkness.
Strewn out on the highway near this Sunni city on January 29, their own vehicles idling as they effected quick repairs to a malfunctioning truck, the company's soldiers were probably imagining the horror stories they'd heard in recent weeks while training in Kuwait for their year-long deployment to the Sunni trianglestories about drug-addled jihadists in automobiles packed with explosives.
Just two days earlier, a foreign bomber in a compact car blew himself up alongside some Iraqi policemen in downtown Baqubah, wounding several people and scattering pieces of himself all over a city block.
To the inexperienced Guardsmen of the 272nda unit that, before now, had never been to war in its quarter-century of existencethe vehicle drawing ever closer to their vulnerable convoy could very well contain a 72-virgins-crazed suicidal terrorist heaven-bent on blowing himself up and taking some foreign infidels with him.
The driver of one of the outermost idling trucks flashed his lights as a warning to the approaching vehicle.
It kept coming.
A U.S. soldier manning a truck-mounted .50-caliber machine guna weapon powerful enough to shoot down aircraftopened fire.
And several Iraqi Army officers inside the approaching vehicle were pierced by shattered glass and thumb-sized metal slugs.
One died instantly. At least two more were badly injured. Their vehicle came to a halt.
Soon, the soldiers of the 272nd realized what they'd done. They'd killed an ally.
Wonks call it friendly fire. Military historians call it fratricide. To military planners, it's a nagging problem in a country where friend and foe are nearly indistinguishable.
Just ask Giuliana Sgrena, the Italian journalist kidnapped in Baghdad in February and released earlier this month. On March 4, Sgrena was wounded when American soldiers manning a checkpoint near Baghdad International Airport opened fire on a compact car carrying her and Italian intelligence agent Nicola Calipari only hours after Sgrena's release. Calipari was killed. Sgrena underwent surgery to remove shrapnel from her shoulder.
Sgrena said she may have been deliberately targeted. The White House said the shooting was an accident and promised an investigation. Newsweek correspondent Christopher Dickey speculated that jumpy Americans and reckless Italians shared the blame. After all, a compact car speeding toward a checkpoint looks a lot like a suicide bombing in the making.
At Camp Buehring and other U.S. bases in Kuwait, grizzled veterans teach incoming soldiers to treat every oncoming civilian vehicle as a potential threat. "They make them paranoid," says Staff Sergeant Jeff Wagoner of Second Platoon, Charlie Company, Task Force 82, part of the First Infantry Division.
Second Platoon Sergeant First Class Rufus Beamon, 34, calls the soldiers involved in the January 29 Baqubah shooting "jumpy and stupid." And some observers say that mistakes by "jumpy and stupid" soldiers will become more common as reservists replace active-duty soldiers in Iraq. Reservists of all typesincluding 2,000 members of the Individual Ready Reserve, some of whom left active service more than 10 years agonow make up nearly half of all American soldiers in Iraq and Kuwait, up from 30 percent in 2004, according to the Army.
The 42nd Infantry Divisiona National Guard outfit with units based in more than a dozen states, including New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Vermontis in the process of replacing the active-duty First Infantry Division, which has occupied Diyala Province, in eastern Iraq, since early 2004. This is the first overseas deployment of a National Guard division since World War II.
The 42nd's deployment and the IRR call-up are just the Army's latest tacit admissions that it's in over its head with the occupation of Iraq, which has cost 1,500 American dead, more than 10,000 Americans wounded, and hundreds of billions of dollars. And while the January 30 elections were a baby step toward Iraqi self-rule, the insurgency continues unabated. The potential for bloody civil war between the fractured country's major ethnic and religious groups grows as Shiites consolidate their control over the government.
After two years of fighting, the U.S. Army is all but exhausted. The powerful active-duty force that toppled Saddam Hussein's government in just weeks has given way to a much smaller active force propped up by large numbers of reservists.
Full-time soldiers thrive on doing what soldiers do, and doing it well. But reservists are civilians first and soldiers second. Their enthusiasm for the hardships of war and occupation is minimal, and their reservations great. They're scared and they act like it. And in a place as dangerous as Iraq, fear can kill.
The American soldiers' local rules of engagement usually prohibit opening fire until an enemy has been positively identified. Suspicion's simply not enough.
Back in Baqubah on January 29, Sergeant Wagoner, hearing of the 272nd's attempts to signal the Iraqi vehicle, is dismissiveand angry, saying, "How does that change the rules of engagement?"
Beamon, Wagoner, and the rest of Second Platoon are furious. For months, they've lived and trained with local Iraqi Army units at Camp Gabe in downtown Baqubah. They eat with the guys. They sleep next door to them. They're friends.