By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
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."'Black on Ammo'
"Red 6, move . . . on line!" Young shouted over the radio to Nagelmeyer, using an expletive.
A 16-year Army veteran, Young knew the situation was dire. "We had to kill as many of these guys as we could before they overwhelmed us," said Young, 35, of Oklahoma City. He, Stark and Nagelmeyer backed up their Humvees 100 yards, taking cover behind a low dirt ridge. Then they lined up three abreast facing the semitrucks, guns blazing.
"Bullets were pinging off the windshield, the tires, the side," said Young's driver, Spec. Jason Willette, 33, of Honolulu. The insurgents' marksmanship was extremely accurate, aided by the moonlight, which diminished the advantage of the U.S. troops' night-vision goggles.
Young's gunner, Sgt. William Fellows, had nearly exhausted the 1,800 rounds he carried for his M240 machine gun. So the 24-year-old from Springfield, Mo., grabbed a Vietnam-era M-14 rifle and fired off five magazines. With only 100 rounds left, he was minutes from running out, he recalled: "We all basically went black on ammo."
At a mud-brick outpost a few miles southwest of the battle, a scout platoon set off in seven Humvees loaded with machine gun rounds. They arrived about 11 p.m., just in time to resupply Stark's patrol, and together the soldiers advanced toward the trucks.
"Spray it down!" ordered Capt. Jimm Spannagel, the scout platoon's leader. The trucks caught fire, munitions inside shooting off like fireworks, then exploded in gigantic red balls. Meanwhile, the insurgents, who outnumbered the Americans throughout the battle, were repositioning. Some swam across the canal to set up machine gun nests midstream on a small piece of land known as Donkey Island. Others dug in on the canal's beaches or behind its four-foot-high banks.'Can You Walk?'
Capt. Ian Lauer, commander of the 1-77's Charlie Company, sped to the scene from the U.S. base in Ramadi and instructed his men to "assault to the south" along the canal.
As tank gunner Sgt. Vicente Nicola, 28, of Brentwood, N.Y., walked south along the beach with two other soldiers, he recalled, he noticed something in the moonlight that perplexed him: a pool of blood with no body at the end of it.
They passed a burned-out car. A bigger spot of blood. Still no body. Then suddenly, white muzzle flashes and gunshots. The insurgents -- apparently wounded but lying in wait -- had opened fire from behind a dirt berm 25 yards ahead.
On Nicola's right, Spec. Brian Taylor went down instantly. "Contact!" Nicola yelled, as he and Sgt. Mike Ayrlen fell to their knees and fired back. Nicola turned to check on Taylor, who had been shot in the leg and arm. Just then, he heard a loud bang, felt his neck grow cold and realized that he, too, had been hit, in the head.
Under escalating fire, Nicola dragged Taylor back to a small dip in the beach. The two soldiers lay gazing at the tracer rounds filling the sky, with Nicola half covering Taylor, 23, of Detroit. "You're gonna be all right," Nicola said softly.
Dizzy, Nicola then stumbled and crawled to the nearest Humvee, calling out, "Friendly!"
Sgt. Brian Nethery, of the scouts, turned his flashlight on Nicola's bloody face and gave him a dumbfounded look. A bullet had entered Nicola's head, passed around his skull under the skin and exited the other side, punching a hole in his helmet. "Get your ass to the medic! I'll get Taylor," Nethery said. Nicola survived.
Nethery's Humvee, together with Lauer's, crept along the road. Insurgents on the adjacent beach tossed up homemade grenades -- water bottles filled with explosives and nails -- that exploded in front of the vehicles.
Down the bank from the Humvee, three insurgents fired armor-piercing rounds. Unable to pivot his machine gun down steeply enough to hit them, Spec. Jeffrey Jamaledine lifted the gun from its mount and reached over to spray them. As he did, he was shot in the jaw.
Jamaledine was later evacuated by an Apache helicopter, one of whose pilots, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Allen Crist, gave his seat to Jamaledine and rode strapped to the aircraft's exterior.
Meanwhile, Lauer, out of his Humvee, had been shot in the shoulder and was pinned down in a ditch.
Nethery left his Humvee and crawled over the beach to find Taylor.
"You good?" asked Nethery, 24, of Englewood, Fla.
"Do I look good?" Taylor responded, adding an expletive.
"Can you walk?" Nethery asked.
"Do you think I can walk!" came the reply, again with an expletive.
"Can you crawl?"
Nethery grabbed Taylor by his gear. "One, two, three, push!" he said, pulling while Taylor shoved with his good leg until they finally reached the Humvee.Unsettling Determination
While the Americans evacuated their casualties, the insurgents bandaged themselves so they could keep fighting, said soldiers who saw them or found them the next morning.
Fighters in white tunics and running shoes moved like ghosts over the battlefield, displaying tactics that the Americans said mirrored their own. They signaled with flashlights, bounded into position and crawled to try to evade the superior U.S. firepower.
Even when dozens of the fighters lay dead, Stark and his platoon mates discovered that their enemy possessed an unsettling determination. Making a final push toward the canal in his hobbled, bullet-pocked Humvee, Stark saw a wounded insurgent on the ground with a hand behind his back.
"Turn on your stomach!" Gilbertson, the gunner, yelled, intending to detain the man. But the insurgent hurled a grenade at the truck. The pin failed, and Gilbertson shot him with his machine gun.
The Humvee lurched forward, and Stark saw an insurgent curled in the fetal position but still moving. Wary after the grenade incident, Gilbertson recalled, he pulled out his 9mm pistol and shot the man, who then detonated his suicide vest. Flesh and ball bearings splattered the right side of Stark's Humvee, which was lifted off its wheels and thrown down, causing its third flat tire.
After that, the soldiers said, they decided to kill any wounded insurgents able to move. At 1:35 a.m., as a group of insurgents was evacuating casualties to tents to the north, Young ordered a Bradley Fighting Vehicle that had arrived on the scene to open fire. Eight insurgents and five civilians, three male and two female, were later found dead in two tents, the military said.
At 5:30 a.m., Nagelmeyer, the platoon leader, decided to clear the entire area. Earlier, he said, he had shot a wounded insurgent in the head. But this time, when an insurgent on the ground raised his hand in surrender, he hesitated.
"We made him take off his man dress and shimmy toward us," Nagelmeyer said. Then soldiers wrapped his wrists together using duct tape and dragged him into a Bradley. "All he would say was, 'Death to America in al-Anbar.' "A Burst of Gunfire
In the searing heat later that morning, Sgt. 1st Class Raymond R. Buchan of the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, escorted a U.S. explosives team to disarm the suicide vests on the bodies littering the ground around Donkey Island.
Buchan, known for his many Iraqi friends, walked north to look at the Bedouin tents. Inside, he found two dead Bedouin women, whom he covered with a blanket. Returning along the road, he noticed a link of PKC machine gun bullets and bent to pick it up to give to the Iraqi police.
Just then, gunfire burst from behind a bush a few feet away. Buchan and the soldier next to him, Staff Sgt. Michael L. Ruoff Jr., 31, of Yosemite, Calif., collapsed.
"Contact front!" yelled Staff Sgt. Damaso Rosa, 28, of Lyndhurst, N.J., returning fire from near Buchan. A Navy SEAL medic said Ruoff was dead. Buchan, 33, of Johnstown, Pa., who had been shot in the left collarbone and jaw, died on the way to Ramadi.'The Enemy Is Patient'
In the end, the battle of Donkey Island left 11 U.S. troops wounded and two dead, while an estimated 32 insurgents were killed. The heavy fighting between the Americans and the al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgents had deep repercussions across Ramadi.
Iraqi police officers close to Buchan "lost it" when they heard of his death, Rosa said.
"I love Sergeant Buchan. When he died, all of the police cried," Col. Jabbar Hamid Ajaj said in his Ramadi office, plastered with posters he had made featuring Buchan.
At his mansion near the main U.S. base in Ramadi, Sattar, the tribal leader, was alarmed to learn that he had been the insurgents' prime target but took comfort in the U.S. tank stationed outside his home.
"If al-Qaeda gets away from the Awakening, they won't get away from the American forces," Sattar said. "We are allies," he added as he shared a tiny cup of bitter coffee with Lt. Col. Miciotto Johnson, commander of the 1-77. "I defend Col. Johnson, and Col. Johnson defends me."
U.S. commanders said the battle was a major defeat for al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgents, showing how hard it is for them to operate in Anbar, where they face an increased U.S. troop presence and rejection by the Sunni population.
"Al-Qaeda is on its back foot," said Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. "They have largely lost Anbar province."
But U.S. officers in Ramadi say it is only a matter of time before al-Qaeda in Iraq strikes again.
"We're still expecting attacks similar to this one," said Maj. Andrew Wortham, the 1st Brigade Combat Team's intelligence officer in Ramadi.
Soldiers who fought in the battle say they feel extremely lucky to have happened upon the insurgents -- and to have survived. They're concerned that if U.S. forces leave, the insurgents will return and easily kill local police and officials. "I worry about pulling out of this area early. If we do, these guys are dead meat," Lauer said.
Spannagel, the scout leader, said the fighting revealed "a false sense of security that we'd won the battle in Ramadi."
In fact, he said, "this shows the enemy is patient. This is his land. He's got all the time in the world. . . . They're going to continue to fight in Anbar."