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The Road to Mosul


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.

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.

“Local cooperation is the key,” says Captain Mike Yea, 29, one of Becker’s staff. The way Yea describes it, Q-West residents keep an eye on their own streets and report anything suspicious to the police, who do what they can and call on the Iraqi Army when they’re outgunned. The Iraqi Army, in turn, calls on 2-8 when it’s outgunned.

“Case in point,” Yea says, planting a finger on a map pegged with color-coded flags representing Iraqi Army checkpoints and outposts. Under his finger is a town named As Shura, bristling with flags.

When 2-8 arrived in October, As Shura was the worst place around. And in November, its police stations were blown to pieces by insurgents. So 2-8 built a fortified outpost downtown and packed it full of recently recruited Iraqi soldiers and a handful of American babysitters.

Now, troops in As Shura get as many as six tips per night, says First Sergeant Darren Kinder, 40, from Delta Company, 52nd Infantry. Kinder’s unit, attached to Second Battalion, maintains round-the-clock presence at the outpost alongside the Iraqis. “We’ve asked the local populace to step up,” Kinder says, “and they’ve been responding fairly well.”

On March 25, Burns and his patrol stop in As Shura to check on the outpost. Inside, Americans and Iraqis sprawl around a table playing cards. Later, back at 2-8 headquarters, Becker and Murphy head to the roof to smoke cigars. “The fact that we can all relax like this,” says Becker, “is a good sign.”

So is making connections between local leaders—imams and tribal sheikhs—and Iraqi and U.S. forces. That means meeting the leaders and winning their trust, a delicate task that falls on the shoulders of officers like Captain Ryan Gist and First Lieutenant Todd Cody and soldiers like Specialist Harvey Blankenship. On March 27, they set out early in a patrol of armored Humvees to make their rounds. First stop is downtown Qayyarah, where meat vendors slaughter cows on the sidewalk and frothy blood runs in gutters brimming with trash. Gist, Cody, and a translator greet vendors and private security guards in Arabic and chat them up while Blankenship and other young soldiers stop traffic, search the occasional truck, and keep an eye out for anything suspicious—like an Iraqi teenager strolling the nearby Tigris bank in an Iraqi Army bulletproof vest.

Saying goodbye to a vendor, Gist and the others trot toward the teenager with their rifles aimed at his chest. The kid ditches the vest and raises his hands. Gist makes nice. Just then, Blankenship spots a fishing boat trawling up the Tigris, and Gist waves it in. It beaches near several fishermen making camp around a dying fire while a transistor radio warbles Arabic pop music.

Gist introduces himself and makes some stilted conversation in Arabic before switching to English. His translator listens carefully to everything Gist says before turning to the fishermen and repeating in Arabic.

“Seen anything on the river?” Gist asks.

Laa,” a fisherman says. No.

Behind them, soldiers search the fishing boats and turn up . . . fish.

They hit the road and head across Q-West, stopping at a gas station, police stations, and the Qayyarah oil refinery. Around noon, the patrol pulls onto the groomed, green, and walled lawn of one of Q-West’s movers and shakers, Sheikh Ishmael. Kids play outside. Servants tend the sheikh’s house and its grounds. Blankenship stands guard while Gist and Cody exchange handshakes and kisses with their host. Then the officers move indoors at the sheikh’s elbow. A stout, well-groomed Sunni with a trim mustache and a cigarette always in one hand, the sheikh presses the Americans into chairs and barks at a boy to prepare coffee and chai.

“I consider you my brother and my friend,” Gist says to Ishmael as he sips his chai. And then he leans forward and listens as Ishmael talks.

And talks. For more than an hour, Gist nods gravely as Ishmael cites a litany of problems, chief among them unemployment and electricity shortages. Gist sounds his refrain: “We can’t do this without you. We need you to tell us where the problems are.”

Ishmael thinks a moment, then lists the towns and villages that need attention. Cody takes careful notes.

Outside, Blankenship is besieged by ragtag kids on their way to school. He tries to ignore them as they dance around him yelling, “Mister! Mister! Pencil, mister?”

In an aside, Blankenship says, “It’s a big culture shock to see how they live. But we’re doing them good. We’re not going to see massive change in their culture overnight.”

He mentions the main conflict in Iraq, ethnic and religious rivalries, and says, “I mean, we had discrimination in the States too.”

His use of the past tense is striking, for Blankenship is an Asian American, but at least things are better in the States than they used to be for people like him. At least there’s no ethnic-based slaughter in the streets, like there is in Mosul and like there was in Q-West just months ago.

Blankenship shrugs and says, “Progress might take a century.”

On a cold night a few days later, Becker’s headquarters is buzzing. In one corner, Yea stares at his map with its colored flags. In another, Command Sergeant Major Victor Martinez, Becker’s top enlisted man, spreads his arms over another map—this one highlighting the Tigris as it nears Mosul. He says he’s thinking of strapping a machine gun to a houseboat to patrol the river. Someone laughs. Then they realize Martinez isn’t kidding.

In another corner, Becker powwows with a bunch of grinning enlisted men who have rifles slung over their backs and helmets under their arms. They’re drivers in a convoy that’s leaving in the morning. Becker briefs them on their destination. When he says, “Mosul,” every grin goes flat.

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