Mopping Up

The ordeal of the New Yorkers sent to clean up the mess at Abu Ghraib

Over the initial months of their deployment, the soldiers in Abu Ghraib knew that the insurgency existed outside the walls only because of the shells that were lobbed randomly into the prison. But on the evening of April 2, 2005, that changed. Shortly after 7 p.m., Gerald Della Salla was walking across the compound toward his room when mortars and rockets began arcing their way into the facility. His boots blew up clouds of orange dust as he ran for cover.

Small arms fire soon started up from the south, and then, from the northwest. Marines in the tower opened fire with heavy machine guns.


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Della Salla found himself helping a major fetch medical supplies as rounds continued to impact around them. Both men were knocked over by the concussion wave from a shell, and each wound up in the hospital.

In Level 1, Guiliani had been watching from the bunker as a detainee named Ali swept the area outside one of the camps. Normally, Guiliani would have been out watching him, but he trusted Ali to work alone. Two years earlier, Ali had been working at a base when he was spotted removing a television from a garbage bin. Ever since, he had been a prisoner at Abu Ghraib.

"He was one of those guys who I couldn't understand why he was there," Guiliani says.

Then a mortar shell exploded, followed by a second. As Guiliani walked outside to yell at Ali to return to his compound, a third shell struck between the two men. The blast blew Guiliani backward into the bunker, leaving him with throat burns. Ali lost a chunk of flesh from one leg. Soldiers dragged him into the bunker. Ali survived, and finally got his release at the end of the year.

video: Abu Ghraib was attacked over a three-hour period by at least 60 and as many as 100 insurgents as part of an elaborate attack to breach the walls and free detainees.
Suzanne Rubenstein, meanwhile, went looking for two missing soldiers. Later, she and Bogart made seven trips under threat of incoming fire to help transport doctors and nurses from the mess hall to the hospital to treat wounded troops and prisoners. Only later, as the unit pieced together what had happened, did they realize that the rain of artillery had been part of a large, coordinated attack on the prison by insurgency forces.

The operation had begun earlier in the day with a series of ambushes and roadside bomb attacks on the roads approaching the prison. The aim of those initial feints was to prevent reinforcements, according to a written account of the battle by Maj. Robert Berry of the 306th. Insurgents even stationed someone outside the base with a video camera to capture the attack. The video was later posted on the Web.

At 7:35 p.m., insurgents attacked Tower 4 on the southeast corner of the base with AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades, and hand grenades. The apparent plan was to distract the soldiers with the multiple attacks and then drive a fuel-laden truck bomb into one of the corners of the wall. Once the wall was breached, insurgents would rush inside, free the detainees, and cause as much chaos as possible.

But the truck detonatedpossibly from Marine fire200 feet from the wall, too far to knock a hole in it but close enough to wound several Marines manning the tower. When the insurgents rushed in, they found the wall intact. Catching them in the open ground, Marines cut them down with machine gun fire and grenades.

video: Here the fuel truck explodes during the April 2, 2005, attack on Abu Ghraib prison. The truck exploded, either by the bomber or from Marine fire, 200 feet from the wall, failing to breach it. Still, the explosion was enormous.
Inside the prison, meanwhile, prisoners chanting "God is great" picked up homemade knives and clubs, lit fires, tossed rocks at watchlights, and tried to escape. In one camp, the prisoners set fire to their mattresses to create a smokescreen and cut a hole in the fence. A lone soldier, Angus McClellan, used non-lethal rounds and drew his pistol to prevent them from wading into the rest of the prison.

"He saved a lot of lives that day," Guiliani says of McClellan. "If they had gotten out, we would have had to open fire on them, and there were so many, some of them probably would have gotten close enough to hurt us."

With small arms fire coming from several sides of the prison, it was difficult for the men and women inside to determine the direction of the attack. Some of them fired their weapons, and in the confusion, nearly shot other soldiers. At one point, Hussey himself believed that the wall had been breached and prisoners and insurgents were loose inside the base.

In the end, the three-hour assault didn't receive much attention outside of Iraq. But it has been described as one of the war's most coordinated attacks on a U.S. base. The most important lesson, Berry wrote, was "not to underestimate the enemy," even one which appears to have limited resources.

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