Firsthand: Operation Vigilant Resolve
A firsthand account of a former commander of a US military antiterrorism unit
May 6, 2004, Midnight, Fallujah, Iraq
I lay in darkness behind a tree, clutching my rifle and watching silent Marines around me as I tracked the countdown. I checked my watch and closed my eyes. Our breaching charge exploded. I felt the shock and saw the fl ash through my eyelids.
Marines were now pouring through the hole in the courtyard wall. I followed them in. Clusters of Marines were stacked on each structure. This unknown compound was one of the first objectives of what was later titled “Operation Vigilant Resolve.” The sounds of breaking glass and “hooligan tools” ripping open locked doors were interspersed with the sounds of flashbangs. It was exhilarating, yet I knew that each breath could be my last. There was still no gunfire. As I heard Marines issuing instructions and reassurances in Arabic, I kept moving north.
Eric P, my 20-year-old radio operator, tagged along. He had experienced problems in the rigid world of the Marine Corps, but in the months to come, his tenacity would prove him to be the equal of our finest predecessors. We linked up with a two-man sniper team and silently made our way through the shadows, stepping over slum debris and navigating an urban maze.
We reached the last strip of buildings on the main east-west highway dubbed “Michigan.” Eric and I tucked ourselves into the shadows to provide security for our companions as they crept up a collapsing set of concrete stairs. They signaled down and we moved up to the roof. We had a commanding view of the highway and much of the city to the north.
And then the curtain dropped. To our immediate right on the opposite side of the highway a volley of rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) erupted. Green tracers of automatic fire poured from the enemy positions. The noise was thunderous and unmistakable.
This was a heavily armed enemy positioned to ambush traffic coming into the city. The enemy had glimpsed Col. Toolan’s element in the direction of the compound our Marines were clearing to the southeast, but it did not detect us.
I spoke into my radio to the AC-130 above while “S,” our congenial sniper who looked young enough to be at home in study hall, released his first shot.
A terrorist in the middle of firing a burst fell lifelessly behind a wall. As the gunship orbited invisibly overhead, the short wall covering the ambushers erupted in a 20-foot shower of sparks.
Night turned to day as hundreds of rounds of automatic cannon fire ripped precisely through the ambushers. “S” cycled the bolt on his Remington rifle and cracked off a second shot.
A terrorist fell clutching his side. Immediately, a pair of hands dragged him behind cover. Both snipers scanned for targets.
Three of the remaining ambushers loaded into a battered white pickup and Made a run to the west. With the rules of engagement we were operating under that day, I did not authorize the gunship to fire on the vehicle as it disappeared into the city, but I instructed it to follow the truck.
The pickup drove downtown to one of the mosques and then turned back. There was no longer any conceivable legal or moral justification for sparing terrorist combatants returning to a gunfight.
I nodded to the second sniper, a selfassured rancher we called Sgt. E, and spoke the words, “Slayer, clear to engage” to the gunship crew.
The cowboy sniper put a thundering .50 caliber Raufoss round through the engine block of the pickup. Instantly halted, it exploded with the direct hit of Slayer’s high-explosive round from the night sky.
The driver sprinted into the nearest building’s entrance. A second round from the invisible aircraft slammed precisely into the truck and set it ablaze.
The flickering light revealed our final ambusher’s haven to be a hospital. He was safe for the moment. The engagement had been won. No Marines were injured, and all but one of the ambushers appeared to have been killed.
My radio operator whispered “holy shit," and I grinned back and nodded, pretending this was just another day at the office.The remaining hours of darkness passed uneventfully. Sunrise revealed a line of Marines standing as Far as I could see along the roof line with bayonets fixed and weapons at the alert.
On our third day in the city, I found myself peering from behind the decaying hulk of a junked car. I looked across the rooftops of Fallujah. Even with the abundant squalor I couldn’t guess why people had moved trashed cars and auto parts to the rooftops.
With my radio operator and two man sniper team, I watched the sunrise, looking forward to the warmth of daylight.
I savored the moment, reflecting on the fact that this might be the last sunrise I would experience. Since our initial exchange with the terrorists, we had moved our position frequently and exchanged occasional shots with enemy harassers.
As the cold night gave way to a Comfortable day, I was given a folded note. I was passed the congratulations of battalion staff members for a comparatively minor previous engagement and apprised of the aircraft that would be supporting us for the rest of the day. In addition, I was reattaching to the element that would be taking over the battalion’s main effort in the attack. The adrenaline flow that came from walking into the violent unknown kicked in again.
Eric and I climbed into the back of 1st Lt. Josh G’s Hummer. Lt. G., a very professional young officer who went by the call sign of Red Cloud, was going to lead this part of the attack. Riding in the third Hummer from the front, we raced westward on Michigan toward the center of town. I forced myself to breathe deeply and overcome the hollow feeling In my stomach as we all waited for the first shots. Mobs we had seen earlier had dispersed. The city appeared to be a ghost town again.
We paused briefly as Marines dismantled a barricade of cinder blocks that had been placed in our way. At the Center of Fallujah, we passed an enormous blue-tiled mosque. We had been familiar with the mosque because of its incessant speaker messages promising paradise for anyone who killed an American. Two tanks that were supposed to rendezvous with us were nowhere to be seen, but Red Cloud refused to slow our momentum. In front of the mosque, we turned south on a road dubbed “Violet.”
The silence was broken. Rifle and RPG fire cut through the air. I attempted to reach our helicopters on my radio. For all the incoming rounds, targets were elusive. The two lead Hummers opened up with disciplined bursts of machine-gun fire.My engine was instantly killed by enemy gun fire. The terrorists were firing from hidden positions. The volume of enemy fire increased and we needed to back off the street. The two lead Hummers were reversing, while we sat dead in the road. The second hummer slammed into us And launched us rearward. We made it back around the corner onto Michigan.
Shielded from fire, our two tanks joined us. They hesitated to lead, so with our Hummer towed by chains and Red Cloud directing the tanks on foot, we led the way back onto Violet.
With small arms and RPG rounds flying everywhere, we were stationary in the middle of the road. Every Marine was firing at the muzzle flashes of concealed terrorists. I paused from firing to try the radio again. I thought through everything I was going to say and then deliberately spoke slowly so as not to give the impression to the Marines around me that the hundreds of rounds passing between us were cause for concern. There was no way anyone could hear me over the barrage of machine-gun fire and explosions.
I threw down my radio and went Back to firing my rifle. I watched three RPG rounds explode on a telephone pole diagonally in front of me. A distant part of my mind was amused, thinking that the enemy gunner would have been unlikely to be able to deliberately perform that feat, and that a platoon of Marines had been given cover by a single telephone pole.
I picked up the radio and the Cobras informed me that they would not be flying downtown.
A Marine M203 gunner fired a 40-mm grenade in a softball-like arc at the open window of an enemy gunner. It looked like it would go low; our fire tapered off , and we collectively inhaled. The round made the window and we cheered like spectators and resumed firing.
One of the tanks moved forward to our right and fired a round that raised a dust cloud where that enemy position Had been. According to the plan, “A” Company was racing to clear the remainder of the city to our southeast and catch up to us. Eric and I ran to a nearby building and scaled the outside of it.
With rounds still flying, I positioned myself on an awning on the protected side of the structure, able to see over the top, but retaining two walls of protection. Eric jumped on the roof and I ordered him back. As he joined me, machine-gun fire ripped through his previous position.
With Eric next to me on the awning, we found an AK-47 round embedded in the accessory rail on his rifle. I convinced the Cobras to come in and threw a smoke grenade to mark our position. It rolled into a hole and fell inside the building doing no good.
I directed the helicopters in for one pass. With the terrorists spread throughout the city, the gunships had limited value. They faced a volley of RPG air bursts as they flew through, but the Marines were grateful for the assistance.
Eventually, the enemy fire died out.Shortly after we had begun our push through the terrorist haven we were told that “city fathers” had approached the Iraqi governing council and coalition forces to negotiate on behalf of the terrorists. Our offense was suspended and we simply held our positions. The cool weather became scorching and a daily monotony set in.
We slept on piles of debris on rooftops and feasted on Meals Ready to Eat (MREs). Marines began rotating to a forward operating base (FOB) for a shower and a meal. After the Marines had the opportunity for rejuvenation, the officers began rotating to the FOB also. I was able to replace a tooth filling I had lost a couple of weeks earlier and check my e-mail. I was ecstatic. My girlfriend was in love with me at that time and my inbox was full of her sexy plans for my Return to the United States. I returned to the city with a smile on my face.
The daily tedium was intermittently broken by bizarre events. We grew accustomed to shooting snipers and others who attacked us during the “cessation of hostilities,” and we occasionally shifted positions to dodge Mortar and RPG attacks. We were ordered to shoot only terrorists who were displaying “hostile intent.” Terrorists began to move openly with AK-47s in hand.
We regularly observed armed terrorists emerging from their favorite taxi: the Red Crescent ambulances. We continued to plan and stand by for the resumption of the offensive. We received reports that the terrorists were using the time to fortify their positions and booby trap the remaining portions of the city.
We were told that the terrorists agreed to surrender their weapons and in return a small number of families would initially be allowed to return to the city the following morning. When almost no functioning weapons were turned in, we were surprised to see the stream of people passing our position back into the
City. Fifty families at a time consisting of up to 50 people each were allowed back into the city anyway. Many of the families I observed consisted solely of males in their 20s and 30s. Each day more were allowed in.
Mosques were abundant enough in Fallujah that one was never deprived of their almost continuous speaker messages. “Allah Akhbar,” ”God is greatest,” was common and we all grew to recognize the regular calls to prayer. We listened with interest as exhortations to murder those who supported the new Iraqi government were translated to us. On one occasion, when Marines were forced to defend themselves against a terrorist attack, our translator shared the mosque’s immediate message, “Thank you for your sacrifice. Come to me. Come to me”— the results of a gun fight being a foregone Conclusion, even for the supporters of the terrorists.
I observed an armed terrorist crawl up to our position in the dark and yell “Help me, help me” in English in an attempt to draw us into an ambush. The daily heat and monotony contrasted sharply with the surreal qualities of bizarre events. I was told that the news of the two bridges on the west of Fallujah being dropped to prevent terrorist escape was premature and that had not been approved. I was updated daily on our newest plans for the offensive until the end of the month approached.
I was on the roof of a hotel just south of the Blue Mosque at the center of Fallujah. Eric and two, two-man sniper teams scanned the darkness for our next attackers. As I lay on my stomach looking through a thermal scope, a Marine called to me from inside the ladder well. I crawled over to him. He told me we Were withdrawing. There was a Hummer waiting for us behind the building. I couldn’t believe it. In a matter of minutes the Marines left Fallujah.
First Marine Expeditionary Force Commander (later promoted to commandant) Lt. Gen. James Conway publicly expressed regret that we were ordered to leave the city to the terrorists. I may be alive today because of that order. Some lives were certainly spared for the short term because of it, but our commander’s sentiment coursed through our veins.
After the Battle of Fallujah, I reattached to an element raiding and patrolling against Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s organization and other terrorists in the surrounding areas. I submitted Eric for the Navy Commendation Medal for valor for his cumulative acts of bravery during this Iraq tour. He received it and immediately volunteered for Another deployment. I rotated to a new assignment, returning for a third tour in Iraq commanding an Anti-Terrorism Task Force in Diyala province.
My Iraq tours taught me many lessons. Those involved in counter-terrorism work must understand that we face a determined enemy. This enemy makes great use of deception. This enemy exploits vulnerabilities in our cultural, religious, and moral presuppositions.
I will never forget the Marines we lost. Every day, I think of our brothers who came home with wounds far greater than my own. I am proud to have served with men willing to risk all to oppose evil.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Abu Niza (pseudonym) is the former commander of a US military antiterrorism unit.