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An Ambush on U.S. Troops and an Election

Sudden Attack on Convoy in Mosul Underscores Risks in Securing City for January Vote

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 10, 2004; Page A01

MOSUL, Iraq, Dec. 9 -- Weaving through the open-air market in this old city on the Tigris River, Lt. Scott Smiley stopped to chat Thursday with a few men sipping tea outside stalls conspicuously empty of customers. Sides of beef swung from hooks next door, and the singsong chant of the muezzin filled the early afternoon.

"The coalition must provide security here -- there is no security," Saeb Salih Mohammed, a graying 40-year-old, told Smiley, explaining why his bins of nuts remained untouched and why he would not vote in elections scheduled for next month. "Otherwise, how do we do this?"

U.S. soldiers in the Stryker convoy guide an injured colleague to a Humvee after a bomb exploded nearby. (Namir Noor-eldeen -- Reuters)

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Scott Wilson The Washington Post's Scott Wilson discusses a sudden attack on a U.S. military convoy in Mosul.

Iraq Casualties

Iraq Casualties

Total number of military deaths and names of the U.S. troops killed in the Iraq war as announced by the Pentagon yesterday: 1,278

Fatalities In hostile actions: 1,003

In non-hostile actions: 275

Cpl. In C. Kim, 23, of Warren, Mich.; 9th Communications Battalion, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, based at Camp Pendleton, Calif. Killed Dec. 7 in noncombat vehicle accident in Anbar province.

Total fatalities include three civilian employees of the Defense Department.

A full list of casualties is available online at www.washingtonpost.com/nation


SOURCE: Defense Department's www.defenselink.mil/newsThe Washington Post

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Smiley, a blue-eyed 24-year-old from Pasco, Wash., assured Salih Mohammed that help was on the way from the novice Iraqi security forces now being trained by U.S. soldiers. Moments later, as Smiley paused to talk to a merchant with a shop full of flour sacks, the popcorn crackle of automatic-rifle fire sounded from where his platoon stood guard at the end of the street. Hunched, he ran into the emptying avenue, reaching his men to find a pool of bright blood beneath the wheels of one armored vehicle. A sergeant had been wounded.

For the next 20 minutes, Smiley's platoon engaged an invisible enemy on Mosul's streets in the kind of clattering midafternoon gunfight that has become commonplace here in recent weeks. The ensuing chase led Smiley's men and a small Iraqi National Guard contingent into a sophisticated ambush -- and exposed the risks facing U.S. soldiers here and across Iraq as they struggle to face down a determined insurgency before the Jan. 30 elections.

"Someone has to stand up," Smiley said after fighting for much of the afternoon. "Otherwise, they will continue to be ruled just as they were for all the years of Saddam."

While President Bush and Iraq's interim leadership insist that the country's first free elections are going to be held on schedule, two days of patrolling Iraq's third-largest city with U.S. forces suggests that the security necessary for that to happen remains a distant goal. U.S. troops come under daily attack from insurgents determined to derail the voting. Meanwhile, fledgling Iraqi security forces -- meant to put a local face on the military presence and win over fearful civilians -- are a shambles.

The daunting obstacles to establishing security were on display Thursday. As soon as the shots rang out, Smiley bolted toward the gathering fight. Crouching behind Stryker assault vehicles, the soldiers at the end of the avenue fired into a dun-colored building on the far side of a busy traffic circle. But in the confusion that followed the sudden attack, many of the men were unsure where the shots had come from. The Iraqi National Guardsmen blazed away with AK-47 assault rifles, obscuring the origin of the assault.

Another set of soldiers took up positions behind Smiley's men, keeping curious Iraqis away with shouts and menacing waves of their rifles.

Inside one Stryker, a medic bandaged the left arm of Sgt. Chauncey Spregner, who was suffering from arterial bleeding. Outside was a bright red puddle of blood. Over the radio linking the platoon leaders came the medic's voice.

"We have about 45 minutes," the medic told Smiley, whose men were urging him to take the fight down an alley where the insurgents may have run.

Angry and frustrated over Spregner's wounding, nine soldiers loaded into another Stryker and vowed revenge. Rushing out the back hatch moments later, the men stormed a three-story building where they suspected the insurgents might be. But the only person they encountered with their rifles raised to eye level was an 8-year-old boy. He asked them for candy.

Expressing irritation over the ambush and losing the attackers, Staff Sgt. Dustin Holcomb, 25, of Loma Rica, Calif., said, "They are our biggest liability," referring to the Iraqi National Guardsmen. Another soldier grumbled, "These guys are awful."

The convoy rolled, spinning around the Yarmouk circle in thinning traffic.

"I just wasn't ready for that," said Spec. Christopher Muse, 20, of Glendale, Calif., referring to the ambush as the Stryker buzzed along.

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