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A Deadly Clash at Donkey Island

In the same instant, the insurgents returned a barrage of fire with AK-47 assault rifles, heavy machine guns and hand grenades. Bullets shattered the ballistic glass on Stark's Humvee, breaking the driver's window and cracking the windshield like a spider's web. Shrapnel tore into Groves's face and hands. He dropped down inside the vehicle. Gilbertson jumped into the gunner's sling, and Groves took control of the Humvee, now limping with two flat tires on the left side. Stark tried to radio the two vehicles behind him but had lost communication.

"Red 8, what the hell is going on?" Sgt. 1st Class Feliciano Young, the platoon sergeant in the next Humvee, recalled shouting into the radio, using Stark's call sign. There was no reply.

In the last Humvee, 2nd Lt. Thomas Nagelmeyer, a new platoon leader fresh from the United States, had no idea what was happening, he said. As the bullets started bouncing off his windshield and he realized that his nine-man patrol was badly outnumbered, he recalled, the first thought that gripped him was: "How can I get out of here alive?"

Plan for a Counterattack

Wearing matching white dishdashas, or traditional robes, and toting black backpacks filled with first-aid kits, rations and grenades, the insurgents marched down a path concealed by tall reeds, chanting jihadist songs, according to captured videos and other intelligence gathered by the U.S. military. Half of the men, who the military has said were affiliated with al-Qaeda in Iraq, wore suicide vests.

After months of planning, according to U.S. military intelligence, the well-armed and highly trained contingent of as many as 70 fighters set up a hasty camp beside a canal to make final preparations for their mission three miles to the north. It would be the first major counterattack targeting Ramadi.

Capital of the vast Sunni stronghold of Anbar province, Ramadi has been one of the most fiercely contested cities in Iraq since the beginning of the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

In June 2004, Marine Corps Maj. Gen. James N. Mattis visited the city and issued an order to a Marine battalion that was taking the heaviest casualties of the war: "Ramadi must hold," he said, or "the rest of the province goes to hell." Successive U.S. units in Ramadi suffered a high death toll as the city of 400,000 fell under the grip of one of the most lethal insurgent organizations in Iraq. Last October, its armed, masked members declared Ramadi their capital in a televised parade.

The insurgents faced a severe setback last fall when influential Sunni tribes around Ramadi, weary of the violence and executions of their leaders, joined with the U.S. military to oust the hard-core Islamic insurgents. One by one, the tribes turned and began providing men for Ramadi's police force, which has mushroomed from fewer than 200 members a year ago to 7,400 today, U.S. officers said. U.S. forces also increased, to 6,000. Attacks in the city plummeted from more than 30 a day to less than one, the officers said.

But in late June, according to U.S. commanders, senior al-Qaeda leaders dispatched scores of fighters to infiltrate the area in a plan to strike back. "They are not giving up on Ramadi," said Col. John Charlton, commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, which oversees the city.

The fighters targeted tribal leaders and police in Ramadi, according to U.S. military intelligence and video footage shot by the insurgents before the planned attack. In one video, an Islamic State of Iraq fighter dives into a lake, waves his fist and threatens Sheik Abdul Sattar Buzaigh al-Rishawi, who founded the main pro-U.S. tribal alliance, known as the Anbar Awakening. Sattar is "a dog of Anbar," the fighter said.

Trained in a lake district north of Ramadi, the fighters approached by a circuitous route carefully planned to bypass checkpoints, Charlton said. They rode in two semitrucks with false compartments covered with hay. The trucks were packed with suicide vests, pressure-plate bombs, grenades, machine guns and sniper rifles -- enough to wage attacks in Ramadi for months, U.S. military officers said.

Facilitators prepared the area for the fighters' arrival, stashing weapons caches to defend their camp, located among prickly brush in a Bedouin area south of Ramadi. Once there, the fighters posed as shepherds and used nomad tents. When the U.S. patrol stumbled upon them, the insurgents were within days or hours of launching their attacks and were ready, as one U.S. officer said, "to fight to the death."

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