The Road to Mosul

U.S. troops patrol the insurgency's front door

 Qayyarah, Iraq—One night this spring, a Stryker armored vehicle carrying an American unit on patrol sits in the desert on the outskirts of Mosul, near the town of Qayyarah. It's cold. It's windy. Everybody is tired.

A soldier in the back of the Stryker—a boat-shaped vehicle with a missile launcher—is fast asleep. The driver, Captain Kyle Pennington, 26, hasn't made a peep in half an hour. Second Lieutenant Tom Burns is leading this four-vehicle patrol, part of the 25th Infantry Division out of Fort Lewis, Washington. (They're part of the 2-8—the Second Battalion, Eighth Field Artillery Regiment.) The Americans' Iraqi comrades huddle in the back of nearby Toyota pickups.

Burns, 22, only three weeks in country, is tinkering with the Stryker's infrared sight. He steers his sight left. He steers it right. He spots a flock of American helicopters darting on the horizon. Then he sees it: a lone pickup truck tearing down a remote road.

photo: David Axe

Firing up a radio, Burns orders two Iraqis from one pickup to hop into the back of the Stryker. He tells Pennington to catch that truck.

The Stryker roars to life and speeds down a steep hill and across the sandy wastes at more than 40 miles per hour, churning up a cloud of dust that reflects the full moon. The Iraqis in the back are grinning and shaking like honeymooners on a vibrating bed. Burns loses sight of the suspect truck.

It was probably nothing. Probably not an insurgent with a bedful of rocket-propelled grenades. Probably not a budding suicide bomber en route to some crowded marketplace in downtown Mosul. Probably nothing to disturb the hard-earned peace of this cold desert, the front door to one of the most dangerous cities in Iraq, a desert patrolled by just 300 Americans from wet, green Washington State.

Back up the hill they go. Back to their pickup go the Iraqis. Back to sleep goes the soldier in the rear.

Some time later, Sergeant Tracy Toliver spots something with glowing eyes and several legs. "It's a dog!" he says.

*For the past few months, the worst place in Iraq has been Mosul. Violent death is only part of the equation. A certain number of suicide bombings are required. But it's more than just the number of attacks times the average body count, divided by the time span.

Wherever you get a really bad feeling just walking the streets, wherever the walls of your barracks seem to curl in around you, wherever the food tastes wrong, the air seems stale, and the local fauna looks, well, apprehensive, that is the place. That is where you don't want to get deployed. That is where you don't want your helicopter dropping in for gas. If you're an American soldier on a bus somewhere—in Kuwait, maybe—and some rear-echelon type asks you where you're headed, and you say, "[Fill in the blank]," and they wince and say, "That sucks"—that's when you know.

There's a reasonable explanation for the problems in Mosul. For much of 2004, Falluja was an insurgent stronghold. In November, the U.S. military all but leveled the city. The smart insurgents hit the road, north along the main highway to Mosul, an impoverished, ethnically divided city.

They decided to stop along the way, in the Sunni bastion of Qayyarah and its surrounding towns and villages, collectively known as Q-West to Americans.

So now the stakes in Q-West are high. A key to stability in Mosul is keeping bad guys and guns out. And the key to keeping them out of Mosul is securing the highway, the Tigris River, and all the little towns and villages in Q-West. But while the 2-8 can jump-start security here, only Iraqis can drive it home.

It didn't help that the insurgents' flight from Falluja late last year coincided with Ramadan, which inspired anti-American violence all over the country.

Q-West, which had been pretty peaceful to that point, "fell apart," in the words of Major Kevin Murphy, 36.

"It all happened in two weeks," recalls Lieutenant Colonel Bradley Becker, commander of the 2-8, which since October has patrolled the approaches to Mosul.

Police stations were attacked all over Q-West. Iraqi Army bases were attacked. Most Iraqis in uniforms here decided that being Iraqis in uniforms was bad for their health. They deserted by the thousands. Meanwhile, people were dying in the streets.

"I went from 2,000 police to 50," Becker says, adding that there was a similar exodus from the Iraqi Army.

Fires burning all around them, Second Battalion swung into action. With so few Americans in such a large place, that meant reconstituting Iraqi forces to do the bulk of the work.

And that meant firing the old Iraqi officers and police chiefs—the ones that could still be found. Raad, a former soldier running a private security company at a refinery in Qayyarah, found himself with a brand-new colonel's commission from the Americans after he voluntarily fought back against insurgents.

Taking back Q-West has been messy. But 2-8 has been lucky. Despite the level of violence and the number of Iraqi casualties, not a single soldier from the unit had been killed in Iraq as of a couple of weeks ago, and only five had been seriously wounded. But their luck can't hold forever. Besides, Becker's goal is to begin turning over Q-West security to Iraqis in July.

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