From Sermons to Suicide Bombs

On mosque patrol in Baghdad with the 1-7 Cav.

Iraq carnage
Carnage in Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq; Feb. 18, 2005—The mission brief was simple: mosque monitoring. Twelve American GIs, an Iraqi interpreter, and a reporter climbed into three armored Humvee “gun trucks” to pay a surprise visit to the Sunni Muslim Hudheyfa mosque in the Al Rashid district of southwestern Baghdad, crowded neighborhoods home to nearly 2 million Iraqis. Mosque monitoring requires that GIs descend on the targeted mosque and record the imam’s sermon on an MP3 player so translators can determine if the cleric is preaching attacks against either American forces or Shiites to his Sunni followers. It’s the Ashura holiday, the holiest celebration of the year for Shiites. Last year, 180 people were killed during the religious celebrations.

The American soldiers that patrol these streets are from the storied 1st Squadron of the 7th Cavalry regiment, 1-7 Cav. In addition to monitoring the imam’s sermon, the soldiers will also try to gain an audience with the cleric. Every effort to corral the holy man over the previous two months has met with failure; he simply melted into the crowd and slipped away as the soldiers neared.

“We’ll approach from the rear of the mosque, out of sight. If they know we’re there, the imam will change the sermon,” Sgt. James Jennings explained. Jennings is a bear of a man; he’s 6 feet 4 inches, but his body armor and helmet make him appear even larger. He speaks with an authority gained from having spent nearly a year patrolling Al Rashid. He’s credited with breaking up an assassination ring and disrupting gun-running in a formerly hostile neighborhood. His approach is to walk the beat, make personal contacts, let residents see him and know he’s part of the community.

The closest many GIs ever get to the Iraqi people is peering out the 5-inch-thick bulletproof glass window of their armored Humvees. Jennings advises an entirely different approach: “You can’t be afraid to get out of the vehicle. And don’t drive too fast through the tight neighborhoods. Does no good to drive fast anyhow. If they’re going to hit you with an IED [improvised explosive device] they’re going to hit you.”

Once outside the heavily fortified base camp, the soldiers locked and loaded their weapons, and each soldier in turn barked out, “Red.” They are cleared to fire at any threat. The GIs know that every time they take to the streets they become a potential target for an insurgent attack. A network of informants armed with cell phones tracks American patrols and keeps insurgent cells appraised of their whereabouts. The soldiers try not to linger in any one area for too long.

On a wide street that serves as a major thoroughfare, the convoy of gun trucks picked its way through heavy traffic. They stuck to the middle of the road as far from the fertile IED ground along the shoulder as possible. The lead gun truck used a police siren to clear intersections and enter traffic patterns. Arabic-language signs on the Humvees read, “Stay back or you will be shot.” A young boy ran out into the street waving the lead Humvee to a stop, simulating with his hands the firing of a rifle and pointing wildly down the street. Abe, the Iraqi interpreter, jumped out of the lead truck to listen to what he had to say. The boy said he saw guerrillas earlier that morning.

“That’s how we get a lot of our intelligence,” Capt. Gregory Worden said. “The kids tell us a lot about insurgent movements.”

The small convoy wound its way down a side street in a residential neighborhood and pulled up next to a schoolhouse. The Humvees blocked the narrow road; the soldiers in the turrets swung their machine guns around to cover the street. Two small stores that fronted the street closed their metal shutters. The soldiers climbed up to the second-story roof of the school to get a look down at the mosque. The sermon was already underway. The interpreter listened.

Down on the street, a crowd of kids gathered around the Humvees, yelling the usual “Mistah! Mistah!” or “What eez yor nam?” This was followed by the inevitable and usually well-pronounced, “Give me money; give me Pepsi!” The young GIs played along. One led a dozen kids in an enthusiastic game of Simon Says. Capt. Worden couldn’t resist the coy stares of two little girls and gave them each a Beanie Baby from a stock carried next to the ammo cans in the Humvee. The GIs will tell you it’s the small acts of kindness that make them feel human in this war.

After an hour or so listening to the imam’s preaching, Abe came down from the roof and in his clipped English said, “No politics. Religious, no politics.”

“Well, let’s go see the imam.” Sgt. Jennings said.

About a hundred Iraqi men gathered outside the mosque stared as the small squad of soldiers approached. Some clambered into waiting cars and sped away. Sgt. Jennings told one of the Iraqi men that the soldiers wanted to talk to the imam. Ten minutes later, they were surprised to hear that the imam will see them. They’re ushered into a small courtyard and offered chairs.

The bearded imam, flanked by other Muslim holy men, sat opposite the American soldiers. Through his interpreter, Jennings politely asked the imam for his opinion of the recent parliamentary elections. He enquired about the imam’s jammat (his congregation) and conditions in the neighborhood. He asked the imam if there was anything he or the U.S. military could do to help them. The imam explained that he had heard that his mosque had a reputation for being a center of insurgent support, of anti-American propaganda. He hoped to change that perception. Then he asked if the Americans could help him locate a member of his jammat who was snatched up in the middle of the night by Iraqi security forces. He hadn’t been seen or heard from in almost a week. He’s an innocent man, the imam said.

Sgt. Jennings looked at Capt. Worden, “Sounds like MOI [Iraqi Ministry of the Interior] commandos.” The captain nodded in agreement. The Iraqi security forces operate outside U.S. control.

“We’ll look into it, and if he’s innocent, I will personally deliver him to you. Either way, you’ll hear from us. I promise,” Jennings replied.

Jennings told the imam he would soon be leaving Iraq, and the imam told him he would be missed. He mentioned having seeing the sergeant help a crippled Iraqi man to the front of a long line of people waiting to purchase kerosene months ago. He said he watched from a distance but remembered the sergeant’s face.

The soldiers took their leave and thanked the imam for his time. Outside, Sgt. Jennings answered a soldier who mentioned that the sector seemed quiet, “Just wait, Fridays are a particularly active day. At 2 p.m., prayers end, and things will begin to heat up.”

At 2:15 the war returned. A call came in about a suicide bomber at the Al Bayaa mosque in a nearby Shiite neighborhood. Capt. Worden and his men were ordered to move to the scene as a QRF, quick response force.

When they got to the mosque, Sgt. Jennings led the GIs past a whitewashed wall splattered with human remains. The mosque’s intricately carved wooden door and the ornate tile of the arched entryway were defiled by blood and tissue. They moved past a semi truck, its tires flattened, the metal walls of the cab peppered with small holes caused by ball bearings. Packed around the explosive, they act as lethal shrapnel. The bomber in effect becomes a massive shotgun shell.

A human head came into view, lying in the dirt alongside the highway, missing everything normally attached to a head from the lower mandible down. A blackened leg lay some distance away. Scattered about the dirt and the highway were bits of flesh and bone.

American GIs in Iraq have become forensic experts. With a cursory examination of these all too common scenes of violence—the pattern of blood splattered across the pavement, the way a tree is stripped of branches and shredded by shrapnel, the position of the victims’ bodies sprawled on the ground—they can piece together the madness. The bombers’ target was the mosque and the hundreds of worshippers crowded into its courtyard. Friday prayers had just ended, and the crowd was streaming out onto the sidewalks. Security guards spotted the bombers and opened fire. They threw grenades into the crowd and then detonated their loads. One bomber was close to the crowd, the other appeared to have detonated prematurely. Four people died, including the two bombers, and 20 were wounded. But for an alert security guard, it could have been much worse.

Black Hawk helicopters circled overhead, their door gunners scanning the area. American tanks and Bradleys sealed off the highway. Highly trained explosive ordinance-disposal technicians arrived to survey the site. Iraqi boys not more than 10 or 11 years old squatted on the ground using brooms to sweep away bloody remains. Men with shovels scooped up what they could and dumped the gore into a bag. A yellow strip of fat glistened in the hot sun on the black highway. Violent death has a smell. It’s something you can almost taste, metallic and acrid.

“You know, when I first got here, seeing things like this would make me sick. Now, it doesn’t even bother me,” an American soldier said, shaking his head as we walked by. “What a waste of life.”

The soldiers climbed into their armored gun trucks and resumed their patrol.