Page 3 of 3   <      

In Iraqi Oil City, a Formidable Foe

Soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division arrived in Baiji in the fall to find the oil city an insurgent stronghold and its residents resentful of U.S. troops.
Soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division arrived in Baiji in the fall to find the oil city an insurgent stronghold and its residents resentful of U.S. troops. (By Ann Scott Tyson -- The Washington Post)

"You may know, down past that bridge four of my soldiers were killed," says Bartlett, the 29-year-old company commander, of Montville, N.J., his voice low and tense.

Ghaeb bursts into rapid-fire Arabic. "From the bridge to the island is not my area!" he says, gesturing toward the Tigris flowing just beyond his courtyard.

Bartlett wasn't impressed. "They are scared of us and of being seen with us," he explained later. "They go along with the status quo."

A few weeks before, Bartlett and others recalled, the captain and one of his platoon leaders, 1st Lt. Dennis W. Zilinski, of Freehold, N.J., had visited the neighborhood to try to gain information from Ghaeb about a cell of bomb-makers. Zilinski, an amiable young officer and captain of his West Point swim team, brought toys for Ghaeb's children and traded high-fives with them.

The sheik was holding a large gathering and was unavailable, they were told. The American convoy tried to turn around, but Iraqi cars blocked the way and people waved the soldiers down an alternative, dirt route along the Tigris nicknamed "Smugglers' Road."

"It was weird," Bartlett recalled thinking. A few hundred yards down the road, bordered by fields, the convoy was hit by a massive explosion.

Behind the blast, Goudy jumped out of his Humvee and ran forward toward the huge cloud of smoke and debris. As it cleared, he was confused by what he found.

"I saw this big piece of flesh and thought it was a goat or cow. I thought, 'Wow, these guys put an IED in a dead animal,' " he recalled. He went on, hoping to find his men sitting in the truck. But as he got closer, he recalled, "I didn't see the truck. I started seeing limbs and body parts." Goudy tripped over what was left of one soldier. Then he found the only survivor of the five soldiers in the Humvee, blinded and screaming.

"It was horrible," Bartlett said. "We had to pick up body parts 200 meters away." The Humvee was "ripped in half and shredded," he said, by a monster bomb later found to contain 1,000 pounds of explosives and two antitank mines, with a 155mm artillery round on top.

The attack left the platoon outraged.

"I felt so angry and violated," said Goudy, of Clarksville, Tenn. "We all wanted to go out and tear up the city, kick down the doors, shoot the civilians, blow up the mosque." Goudy and others were convinced Iraqis living nearby knew about the bomb but did nothing to warn them.

Sitting at a wooden table outside his crowded bunk, Sgt. John Coleman, of Greenwood, S.C., dismantled a machine gun for cleaning and recalled his lost mates.

There was Zilinski with his upbeat charisma, and the husky, 5-foot-3 Spec. Dominic J. Hinton, 24, of Jacksonville, Tex., who beamed with pride over his two young children and called home every few days. Staff Sgt. Edward Karolasz, 25, of Powder Springs, N.J., was a rare squad leader who cultivated friendships with the men under him. But it was Cpl. Jonathan F. Blair, of Fort Wayne, Ind., the tattooed and tough-looking machine-gunner, who galvanized the men with a note he left behind:

"Don't blame anyone for my death, as much as you may want to. It was my decision, my life and my choice. . . . To all the boys still fighting -- keep going, stay strong, and remember you'll all be home soon."

Coleman paused from wiping down the gun. "If we leave and this place falls apart, they will have died in vain," he said.

The same day as the attack, the platoon headed off base for another mission. Two days later, they received a bit of good news: An intelligence report recounted insurgents as saying that the recently arrived American troops "aren't scared of anything."

<          3

© 2006 The Washington Post Company