Michael Ware


TIME: Appointment in Samarra

The U.S. has a lot of work to do if it's going to take back Iraqi cities held by insurgents. The job began last week, as 3,000 U.S. and 2,000 Iraqi troops stormed Samarra. In September talks with tribal groups there helped the U.S. begin to seat a city council. But the accord broke down, and the city slipped into rebel control. Baghdad bureau chief Michael Ware reports from Samarra, which is a tune-up battle for tougher strongholds like Fallujah.


There were a lot of nasty places to be in Samarra last week after U.S. and Iraqi forces began their assault early Friday morning, but one of the nastiest was with the platoon led by Lieutenant Ryan Purdy.

Sweating it out in streets full of smoke and the odor of cordite, Purdy and his troops found cover in firing positions littered with flesh from insurgents blown apart by U.S. cannon fire from an armored vehicle. Pinned down by snipers, the men were trapped alongside the corpses, battling a stench that grew stronger as the morning wore on and the temperature climbed. When at last the platoon could move, it could do so only under the cover of chattering guns and multicolored smoke grenades. By then, the rebels that the platoon was fighting had simply melted away. "This enemy wants to erode our forces while preserving his own," a frustrated Purdy said.

If that is the rebels' goal, they will have to work hard to achieve it. The Samarra offensive played by the slippery rules of guerrilla warfare that U.S. troops have come to master more and more. The bulk of what intelligence suggests are 200 to 500 rebels is thought to be made up of local Baathists and former military officers fighting for a return of a Sunni-dominated government or national liberation. The rest are foreign jihadis and hard-core Iraqi Islamists heeding the call of terrorist leaders like Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi. For weeks, the al-Zarqawi fighters had made their presence in the city known. Only two days before the attack, there were reports of armed men roaming the city under the group's telltale black-and-yellow banners, stopping traffic and seizing music cassettes, which they consider un-Islamic, and replacing them with religious tapes.

In the first hours of Operation Baton Rouge, as the assault on Samarra was code named, the insurgents would not even have known about the thousands of troops, heavy armor and attack helicopters massing against them. Any column entering the city could easily have been taken for just another patrol or sweep. But as early as Monday, a brigade-size contingent was quietly forming around the city.

Handling the heaviest fighting would be the soldiers of the battle-hardened 1st Battalion of the 14th Infantry Regiment. Stationed in Kirkuk to the north, the 1/14 battalion knows something about the feints and vanishing acts of the insurgents, having faced them in Najaf, Tall 'Afar and elsewhere. The 1/14 would follow the 1st Battalion of the 26th Infantry Regiment, which would hit Samarra first, crossing a long bridge leading into the city to secure a staging area for the troops that would pour in afterward. Just past midnight on Friday morning, the 1/26 moved. The 1/14, not far behind, heard the firing.

"I'm nervous," confided one member of the 1/14, a 19-year-old infantryman with a wife and baby at home. "They say these guys will stand and fight." The squad commander did what he could to keep the anxious men focused on the job. "Let's make this the worst morning of their lives," he challenged.

It may have been--but for both sides. The scene in Samarra was similar to those anywhere in Iraq in which soldiers have had to shoot into cities. In one intersection, the body of a rebel lay in pieces, torn apart by 25-mm cannon fire, while a mother hurried by holding her toddler by the hand. The child stared at the remains. At one point, a group of Purdy's men tumbled into an Iraqi house seeking safety and found themselves facing a woman with her arms around five children. Figuring that the soldiers would not harm her family, she offered the Americans water. Elsewhere, heads kept popping out from front gates as quizzical residents--perhaps numbed after so many months of conflict--looked out at the commotion. "Get inside! Get inside!," soldiers screamed desperately. Children endlessly scampered across streets, forcing the troops to shoot above their heads. One old man carrying a mop sauntered between the lines. "These people are crazy," said a sergeant.

But the messy warfare produced quick results, or at least it appeared to. More than 100 rebels were said to have been killed, and the city, for the most part, was quickly brought back under military control--with the Iraqi troops taking special care to seize Samarra's Golden mosque, denying the rebels the kind of rallying point they had had when they hunkered down in the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf. Although fighting continued throughout the afternoon and sporadically into Friday night, the enemy simply seemed to evaporate afterward. "By about [2:00 p.m.] they realized what they were up against and withdrew," says Captain Jim Pangelinan, who led his Alpha Company of the 1/14 into the western edge of the city. Withdrawing, however, can be the most confounding thing the insurgents do.

Al-Zarqawi's fighters think nothing of the martyrdom that comes from dying in battle, and if they simply vanished this time, U.S. forces will surely see them again. "Our worst-case scenario is where we have an enemy who is not coming out to fight," says Pangelinan.

Many of the rebels are probably still lurking in the city, hoping to blend back in or waiting for their chance to flee. It is now up to Iraqi forces to sniff them out. Some insurgents may have already been nabbed making their getaway--like six men who were captured in a boat crossing a river on Saturday--but it's hard to tell because once they put down their weapons, they could just as easily be seen as civilians. When a platoon was ambushed on a residential street late on Friday--triggering a blazing exchange between two U.S. units--four unarmed men emerged an hour later claiming they had merely been out shopping. "I say we just kill 'em anyway," a rifleman who had been part of the friendly-fire incident darkly joked.

In a measure of the looking-glass standards that have come to be applied in this increasingly makeshift war, Iraqi Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib told a press conference on Saturday that the battle for Samarra had been a "very clean" operation. That may be, but if so, American planners won't want to see messy.