A Deadly Clash at Donkey Island
Sunday, August 19, 2007
Staff Sgt. Norman Stark had never seen combat. Nor did the 32-year-old soldier from Baltimore expect it, after many uneventful months in Iraq's Anbar province, as he jostled over the rough terrain of brush, fields and irrigation ditches in the lead Humvee of a routine patrol on the night of June 30.
Stretching before him under a full moon were the flat lands near the village of Tash, south of the city of Ramadi. Violence had plummeted in recent months in Ramadi -- long one of the deadliest cities in Iraq for U.S. troops -- as powerful tribes in the predominantly Sunni region joined forces with the U.S. military to uproot Islamic insurgent groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq.
For Stark and the eight other soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 77th Armor Regiment, it seemed like just another tedious night in the desert, they later recounted.
But ahead lay a vicious battle, which would not only reveal their enemy's determination to retake Ramadi but also throw into question the region's long-term stability if the Americans were to leave. It suggested, moreover, that preserving the city's fragile, hard-won calm would call for heavier fighting than anticipated.
Yet U.S. commanders say the all-night firefight, dubbed the battle of Donkey Island, also demonstrates progress, by showing how an increase in U.S. troops and Sunni cooperation makes it much harder for insurgents affiliated with al-Qaeda in Iraq to operate in Anbar.
The account that follows is based on interviews with three dozen U.S. soldiers and Iraqis with direct involvement in or knowledge of the battle and its aftermath, as well as official U.S. military accounts and maps detailing the fighting, insurgents' videos later obtained by the U.S. military, and a Post reporter's survey of the battlefield.
Stark and his men exchanged few words as their Humvees turned east, progressing with more difficulty along narrow and sometimes swampy trails as they neared the Nassar canal, looking for possible weapons smugglers using wooden boats. Just after 9:15 p.m., the heat was still sweltering, and the armor-clad soldiers were soaked with sweat.
About 200 yards from the canal, Stark's Humvee crested a small dirt berm, and his driver, Spec. Kevin Gilbertson, saw something odd: two large semitrucks parked just to the left of the road ahead.
"I wonder what they're doing?" Gilbertson called to Stark. Then they spotted a few men fleeing across the field to the south and accelerated toward the trucks.
Stark recalled that he turned and to his disbelief saw clustered behind the trucks -- only a few feet away -- at first 10, then 20, then as many as 70 heavily armed men.
"Traverse left, open fire!" he yelled instinctively to his gunner. Startled, Pfc. Sean Groves unleashed a rapid burst from his M240 machine gun.