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THE TRIANGLE OF DEATH

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SECTARIAN HELL

By September 2006, Iraq had descended into a sectarian hell in which thousands of Iraqis were killing each other and millions more were forced to flee the country. Attacks against Coalition Forces had grown from about 70 per day in January 2006 to more than 180 per day by the time the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division arrived in country.

 

To Lieutenant Colonel Michael Infanti’s 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment (4-31st Infantry) fell the task of pacifying the hellish hotbed of subversion south of Baghdad appropriately dubbed the “Triangle of Death.” Of the more than 3,000 total casualties suffered by the U.S. in Iraq since the start of the war in 2003, over 1,000 had died in this region.

 

No comprehensive U.S. doctrine existed for counterinsurgency. Each unit, even down to company level, was left to its own devices on how best to secure and stabilize its area of operations (AO). Troops commonly operated out of huge forward operating bases (FOBs) far removed from the population. Lt. Col. Infanti and Colonel Mike Kershaw, commander of the 10th Mountain’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team (BCT), of which 4th Battalion was a component, would change the way the war was conducted.

 

They would live and fight among the people in small elements, first to clear the enemy out of an area and then stay and hold it. “The turning point will come,” Infanti told his men, “when the Iraqis see we’re going to stay and not run. “We can go in there and take our positions and get shot at for the next year—or we can attack where these guys live.”

 

Things were relatively quiet during battle handoff from the 101st Airborne Division to the 10th, about like two fighters checking each other out before the bell rang. During “left seat–right seat” transitions before the 101st pulled out to refit, Sergeant Ronnie Montgomery of the 10th and his 101st counterpart reconnoitered Malibu Road that followed a twisted five-mile route along the Euphrates River through a series of S-curves. They halted their up-armored HMMWV at the start of the road near the Jurf Sukr bridge.

 

DEATH ROAD

“This is as far as we go on Malibu,” Montgomery’s counterpart announced. “We get blown up every time we go there. You will never control that road. If you try, all of you will die.”

 

Montgomery was 2nd Platoon Sergeant for Delta Company, 4-31st, commanded initially by Captain Don Jamoles, later by Captain John Gilbreath. To Delta’s roughly 150 infantrymen fell the task of establishing a presence on Malibu Road. Tactics called for Delta to tame the AO step by step. Advance, occupy or construct a “fort,” hold and pacify the area, then move on down the road and do it again.

 

The river that had spawned “the cradle of civilization” was rather narrow, often shallow, muddy, and so slow moving in many places that it was practically stagnant. Houses along the road and in the small villages were mainly built of mud brick or cinderblock. Cows, geese, donkeys, hairy goats, sheep and children wandered about, rooting through trash and the occasional abandoned Toyota.

 

Explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) teams neutralized improvised explosive devices (IEDs) along the short route as Delta began its occupation. Lieutenant Joe Tomasello’s 4th Platoon took over the company’s first patrol base—a rather nice house by local standards that sat among palms about fifty meters off the north side of the road, right in the bend of the Scurves with a view of the Euphrates.

 

BLOODCURDLING WHISTLE OF MORTAR ROUNDS

The platoon was helping the owner evacuate so American soldiers could move in when the air suddenly filled with the bloodcurdling whistle of incoming mortar rounds. An explosion lifted the homeowner’s thirteen-year-old son off the ground and threw him through the air like a foul ball. When the smoke cleared, the platoon’s squad automatic weapon (SAW) gunner lay face down on the road, wounded, with bloodstains on his back. Delta Company had suffered its first casualty.

 

Lt. Col. Infanti’s 4-31st would eventually establish 23 FOBs and patrol bases in the Triangle. Of these, three belonged to Delta Company on Malibu’s five-mile stretch of narrow, brittle blacktop. The first house taken by Lt. Tomasello became Patrol Base (PB) 151. PB 152 lay down the road less than a mile away. Captain Jamoles selected PB 153 as Delta’s HQ and designated it FOB Inchon.

 

THE TRIANGLE’S LAWLESS FRONTIER

Delta began patrolling to make its presence known and felt on what was readily acknowledged as a lawless frontier and the most active area in the Triangle. Although the ordinary Iraqi did not support the insurgency, he had lived under the oppressive Saddam Hussein government for so many years that he found it safer to stand back, keep his mouth shut, and wait for the Americans to leave. That attitude allowed insurgent groups of all stripes to roam freely throughout the region.

 

The collapse of the economy and a seemingly endless supply of weapons and explosives looted from Saddam’s old ammunition depots exacerbated the situation. During the weeks ahead, troops would conduct hundreds of patrols, raids, roadblocks and traffic stops. They may as well have worn targets on their back sides. Attacks occurred almost daily. IEDs blew up their vehicles. Snipers, mortars and insurgent fighters began to take a toll. Each day and night was something to be feared, a condition that exacted a heavy psychological penalty from soldiers tasked to drive out insurgents and bring stability to the Triangle of Death.

 

CHARGE OF THE HAJJIS

1st Platoon under Lt. Allen Vargo was standing watch over a buried IED in the roadway, waiting for EOD to come out and dismantle it, when a shot rang out from a nearby orchard. PFC Sammy Rhodes had opened the back door of his HMMWV to climb inside. The bullet shattered the ballistic door glass in front of his face. But for the glass, there would have been little left of his head.

 

A sizeable number of “Hajjis” popped up out of the brush and charged 1st Platoon’s four trucks, blazing away with AK-47s and shouting “Allahu Akbar!” This was the platoon’s first time under fire. The men responded to training and crisis and returned fire with everything they had.

 

The fight was over as soon as it began. Short engagements were almost standing operating procedure (SOP) with insurgents. Typically, they attacked to do as much damage as they could within a few minutes, then hauled ass, dragging along with them their wounded and dead to blend back into a population too intimidated to snitch on them. 1st Platoon suffered no casualties other than truck tires shot out, shattered glass, and bullet dents and dings in their armored trucks.

 

Battalion commander Infanti, a former enlisted man, constantly “battle circulated” among his companies, checking on men, letting himself be seen taking the same risks they did. “Soldiers have to know that we don’t talk the walk

while they’re walking the walk,” he said.

 

He was one of 4th Battalion’s first IED casualties, hit twice in a matter of weeks. The first one injured his knee. The second IED, more powerful than the first, blew his vehicle upside down off the road, killing his Iraqi Army (IA)  interpreter and wounding both him and his driver.

 

The hospital was going to evacuate him Stateside. He had promised his troops that the battalion wouldn’t be run out of Iraq. How would it look to them if their CO took off, for whatever reason? He put on the bloody remnants of his uniform and hobbled out of the hospital. From then on, constant agony from an undiagnosed broken back allowed him only three or four hours of uninterrupted sleep a night.

 

STENCH AND FEEL OF AN OLD BUS STATION

The three patrol bases on Malibu Road were never really quiet, not with soldiers working 24-hour shifts and always coming and going. They had about them the feel of old bus stations coupled with the odd stench of occupation.

 

Jihadi shooters using the Euphrates River as a barrier to avoid pursuit constantly harassed all three Delta outposts to keep the Americans on edge. A bullet whipped so close between Sergeant John Herne and 2nd Platoon Leader Lt. John Dudish that both heard its supersonic passage. A sniper drilled 3rd Platoon Leader Lt. Westcott through the arm. Another sniper shot Specialist Jared Isbell in the thigh. Specialist Darrell Whitney was pulling security on the roof of PB 152 when a bullet knocked him flat on his back. His helmet deflected the 7.62 round so that it barely broke the skin along his hairline before blowing out the back of his Kevlar helmet.

 

Day and night Delta trucks ran that same treacherous stretch of road through and past the S-curves. There was little they could do to protect themselves against IEDs. 2nd Platoon alone was hit 47 times. Most of the explosions weren’t powerful enough to do much more than rattle the GIs around in their HMMWVs like pebbles in a tin can. What they feared most was hitting a really huge bunker buster like the one that caught Lt. Col. Infanti. Specialist Robert Pool lay awake at night in his bunk going through in his mind every bend in the road, speculating on where and when he would get it and how bad it would be.

 

Delta Company tried everything to stem the attacks—mounted and dismounted patrols, static watches, cordon-and-search, rewards, bribes, and threats. After each attack, GIs and IA pushed through the nearest villages and settlements, rounding up every military-age male for interrogation. They ransacked houses for weapons and used metal detectors to probe yards for buried stashes.

 

UNENDING ATTACKS

Nothing seemed to work. Like rats or cockroaches, insurgents kept sneaking up to the road after nightfall to plant more IEDs. It took the Army’s rapid road repair crews days to get around to filling up the numerous craters. Insurgents started planting explosives in the bottoms of the holes in order to blow up the road crews when they finally came around. That led to the establishment of around-the-clock “crater watches.” Sitting in one place too long guarding the holes was like the tethered goat in the movie Jurassic Park waiting for T-Rex to come eat him.

 

2nd Platoon attempted to speed up road repairs by taking over a share of them, thus limiting the time Delta Company soldiers spent as bait on crater watch. A sniper’s bullet whapped Sergeant Montgomery in the upper chest, shattering his chest plate armor but otherwise failing to penetrate.

 

“What’s going on down there on the Euphrates?” a doctor at the corps area support hospital (CASH) asked him. “We get two or three of you every week.”

 

“It’s called war, sir,” Montgomery said. “We’re winning, I think.”

 

The next idea was to burn off roadside undergrowth to eliminate hiding places for insurgents. Late one night, the fires cooked off a weapons cache. 2nd Platoon waited for the fire to burn down the next morning before conducting a foot patrol back into the area.

 

FATAL IED EXPLOSION

Squad leader Sergeant Chris Messer and PFC Nathan Given on point were crossing through a gap in a fence toward the burn when a pressure-detonated IED went off, mangling and killing both soldiers. Messer’s legs were blown off; he had had nightmares of losing his legs since before the 10th deployed. He died on his wedding anniversary.

 

Battalion then came up with the idea of restricting access to the road by stringing concertina and razor wire from the Jurf Sukr bridge all the way down Malibu through the S-curves, a project expected to take months to complete. Sergeant John Herne, the only member of 2nd Platoon not to have been blown up by an IED, figured the wire would channel saboteurs into planting more explosives in fewer places, thus increasing his chances of hitting one.

 

Sure enough, an explosion one night jarred off-duty soldiers awake at Inchon. 2nd Platoon‘s convoy swept through the gates. Herne, Chiva Lares and Darrell Whitney staggered in with their faces powder-stained and their hair frizzed out like they had stuck their collective finger into an electrical outlet. “We’re gonna need more wire,” Herne said.

 

The more Delta Company pressed the outlaws, the more the outlaws pressed back. Platoons always traveled in elements of at least four heavily- armed trucks. One morning, Lieutenant Joe Tomasello’s 4th Platoon roared out of Inchon to check on a Raven unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) shot down somewhere on the road—and hit a well-planned and well-coordinated ambush in the first S-curve.

 

DAISY CHAIN OF EXPLOSIONS

A concealed IED erupted beneath Corporal Begin Menahem’s fourth-position truck and flipped it through the air like a child’s toy, ripping off the doors and rear hatch and ejecting the three occupants into the roadside ditch near the concertina the company had been laying in recent weeks. A daisy chain of explosions likewise disabled the second and third trucks. Only Tomasello’s lead vehicle avoided the bomb meant for it and escaped the kill zone.

 

Mortar shells began raining onto the stalled convoy. A swarm of Hajiis popped out of the reeds and palms and charged the disabled trucks at a lurching run, firing AK-47s and shooting RPG rockets. Concertina wire in the ditch wouldn’t stop them; mortars were blowing gaps through it. 4th Platoon was in a fight for its life.

 

“Turn around! Go back!” Tomasello ordered his driver, Mike Smith.

 

Hardly had the truck re-entered the curve than an IED blasted a hole through the front floorboard directly between Tomasello’s knees. He would have lost both legs if they hadn’t been spread apart.

 

OUTGUNNED, OUTNUMBERED AND OUTMANEUVERED

Smoke boiling like a forest fire engulfed the road. Although the Joes were giving a good accounting of themselves in the developing fight, they were outgunned, outnumbered, outmaneuvered and about to be overrun. The only chance the platoon had was to withdraw in a hurry. Problem was, only one HMMWV remained operable. Mike Smith roared his truck into the fury of the kill zone. Specialist James Cook in the turret hammered away with his M240 machinegun. Everone was yelling as loud as he could to compensate for ruptured eardrums.

 

Truck Two was first in line. Its crew of four piled into Tomasello’s back seat, tumbling over each other. Then Truck Three’s crew scrambled in; Wilson was wounded. Menahem, Fletcher and Scribner came running and shambling out of the ditch where they had been thrown, Menahem and Fletcher supporting the badly injured Scribner between them. They tumbled into Tomasello’s truck on top of everyone else.

 

Everything was utterly insane. Arms and legs and blood packed tight, everyone shouting and screaming. One of the

“bulletproof” windows shattered and fell out.

 

Everybody tried to stay below window level. Joshua Parrish lay across their bodies to shoot out through the open window. James Cook in the turret kept his two-forty talking. Lt. Tomasello hung out the front door, firing.

 

CAVALY TO THE RESCUE

Just when it looked as though the HMMWV would make it out of the kill zone, it hit a length of concertina blown onto the road by mortars. Wire tangled in the front wheels and brought the truck to such an abrupt halt that it was like hitting a wall. Smith gunned the engine desperately. Back tires boiled smoke and pivoted the vehicle on its frozen front wheels until it fronted back into the kill zone and the charging mob of insurgents now running down the road.

 

The GIs jumped out of the vehicle and sought cover behind it to pound back with everything they had. It may well have been Custer’s Last Stand except for 2nd Platoon, which was patrolling nearby. Specialist Robert Pool, in the turret of the lead rescue vehicle with a two-forty, raked a web of red tracers down the center of the road, scattering enemy combatants, nailing at least three of them and sending the rest scurrying for cover. The cavalry had arrived just in the nick of time.

 

Behind the scenes, battalion executive officer Major Mark Manns worked to implement Lt. Col. Infanti’s strategy of winning the Iraqi people away from the insurgents by cultivating local sheikhs and community leaders with bribes, rewards, civic rebuilding and sometimes threats. Encouraging signs popped up when it became clear the 10th

Mountain was not going to cut and run. Farmers cleared growth from fields to make it harder for insurgents to hide. Informants started to come forward.  One village established a democratic town council. Locals began to greet American soldiers with friendly faces.

 

THE SURGE

Signs of progress didn’t mean the war was over. There were lulls in the action, then hot flashes again—the ebb and flow of a stubborn insurgency. On 20 January, 2007, President George Bush changed the war’s strategy by announcing “the Surge” and appointing General David Petraeus to oversee it. Another 30,000 troops were infused into the nearly 240,000 already in country. Rather than undertaking large sweeps, the Surge validated operations already being conducted by the 10th Mountain in the Triangle of Death. Small units would push out into communities to establish security stations and combat outposts, living and fighting among the population to create a breathing space in the violence that would allow political reconstruction and rebuilding. This became a common blueprint for the conduct of the war. Soldiers of the 10th Mountain were more optimistic when Lt. Col. Infanti assured them they were reaching a turning point.

 

THE DARK MALIBU ROAD

Winter in Iraq arrived late that year and departed early. On a hot, windy night in mid-May, nearly four months after the start of the Surge, a pair of 1st Platoon HMMWVs was on crater watch at the S-curves between Inchon and Patrol Base 152, the darkest and most treacherous stretch of Malibu Road. Insurgents could not have selected a better night for an attack, what with the wind covering any noise they made and shifting confusing shadows among the trees.

 

They were not detected when some of them crept up through the weeds to cut passages through the concertina, catching the Americans by complete surprise.

 

With blood-chilling whoops off “Allahu Akbar,” attackers sprang like big cats onto the sloped rear hatches of both trucks and slammed grenades down through the turrets, past the helmeted heads of astonished machine gunners. Detonating grenades lit up the insides of the trucks, flashing and flickering in the windows like photo flashbulbs going off. The attack lasted less than five minutes from start to finish.

 

By the time a quick reaction force arrived, both trucks were ablaze, spare ammo was cooking off, and the sickening stench of burnt flesh hung in the air with the toxic odors of burning wires, battery acid, gas and oil. Two corpses in the front seat of each truck were seared beyond recognition. They were eventually identified as Sergeant First Class James D. Connell, 40; PFC Dan Courneya, 19; Sergeant Anthony Schober, 23; and IA interpreter Sabah Barak, about 30. PFC Chris Murphy, 21, was found face down and stitched with bullet holes about fifty meters away. Missing were Specialist Alex Jimenez, 25; PFC Byron Fouty, 19; and PFC Joe Anzak, 20. Witnesses described how the three GIs, all apparently wounded, were tossed into the back of a flat-bedded “bongo” truck and hauled away.

 

The attack on Malibu Road was the second-largest capture of American soldiers thus far during the war. Soldiers in Iraq knew only too well what awaited GIs taken alive by radical extremists. A commander’s worst nightmare was to have his soldiers kidnapped and beheaded live before the world on television.

 

FRANTIC SEARCH FOR KIDNAPPED SOLDIERS

Virtually every unit in Iraq mobilized to locate the missing soldiers. The U.S. Army fought by the creed that no soldier would be left behind. Helicopters and jets filled the skies. Checkpoints and roving patrols cordoned off a 330-square-mile sector. Dogs trained to find bodies picked through cattails. Choppers dropped leaflets asking for help. Dismounted patrols swept through settlements, kicking in doors and herding anxious Iraqis to holding areas for questioning.

 

“What you are doing in searching for your soldiers will lead to nothing but exhaustion and headaches,” warned a brief message on a terrorist web site.

 

On May 23, shepherds looking for a lost goat found Joe Anzak’s bullet-riddled body floating in the Euphrates River. On 28 May, six days after the incident, General Petreaus announced that he had the names of all the Jihadists who had participated in the attack. The bodies of Alex Jimenez and Byron Fouty, buried together in the open desert, would not be recovered until over a year later, on 8 July, 2008.

 

Kidnapping American soldiers may have been the worst mistake insurgents could have made. Military presence in the AO became intense, forcing bad guys to flee and thereby providing a breathing spell for the population to cooperate with the U.S. to ensure the jihadists stayed out. Insurgents were losing friends fast. People came forward to turn in jihadists and weapons caches in tribal areas that had formerly been a tightlipped source of IEDs and manpower. Thanks to information provided by locals, six insurgents from the attack were caught. More would be captured or killed as time went on.

 

FARMERS’ MILITIA

Farmers took matters into their own hands and, using farm tools and legally-owned AK-47s, chased bad guys away from one of the largest caches of enemy ordnance every recovered in the Triangle. 2nd Platoon came upon several locals chasing another man down the middle of the road, whaling hell out of him in the Iraqi version of being tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail.

 

“He is al Qaeda and does not belong in this community,” the locals explained.

 

“Carry on,” Sergeant Montgomery said. He and his platoon climbed back into their trucks and drove away.

 

A powerful sheikh volunteered his militia as a “concerned citizens” force. Men who only weeks before may have been insurgents accepting al Qaeda cash to plant IEDs or snipe at Americans now patrolled the road and villages armed with clubs and wearing reflective vests, their badges of authority. Joes of the 10th promptly dubbed these “concerned citizens” “Consurgents.”

 

Malibu Road had never been so safe. Although the popular press back in the United States failed to acknowledge it, U.S. soldiers and the Surge were changing the country at a fundamental level. Ironically, it took a major incident and loss of life to bring about the change.

 

Over fourteen months previously, when Delta, 4-31st took over its AO, Sergeant Montgomery’s counterpart warned that “you will never control that road.” In September 2007, when the 10th withdrew Stateside for refitting, Montgomery returned the road to his 101st counterpart with a sense of pride.

 

“We paid a price,” he said, “but we control the road. We don’t call it the Triangle of Death anymore.”

 

***

None Left Behind (St. Martin’s Press, 304 pp., $25.99), by Charles W. Sasser, narrates the complete story of the 10th Mountain Division in the Triangle of Death.