At Large

My First Time Under Fire

In the end, was there too much "friendly" fire? A report from Baghdad.

By 8.5.05

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BAGHDAD -- Four of us were driving the dangerous BIAP road to take CJ to catch a plane back to the States. When we were about 300 yards from the airport gate, all traffic came to a stop and it started to pile up behind us. Soon, a fair-sized traffic jam had been created. CJ was able to call a "source" who informed him a car bomb had been found near the gate and its imminent detonation was the reason for the delay. Our driver, Khattab, walked up in that direction to check and confirmed that a car bomb was being de-activated so as not to explode and put the road out of service.

After a 45 or 50 minute wait, there was a monstrous explosion and a large shower of dirt and debris and "stuff" came flying from a spot about 25 yards from our car. It was not the car bomb being detonated. It was an 82mm mortar shell fired at us from a spot about 125 yards to our right. The caliber was determined by someone more familiar than I with the relative decibel sounds of exploding mortar shells.

On the road ahead of us were about 200 cars in rows, three or four abreast. It looked like the start of a NASCAR race. Behind us, a line equally long extended to what seemed the horizon. I would guess half the cars were armored SUVs belonging to Private Security Companies (PSCs). They are a modern-day version of "Have Gun Will Travel" -- soldiers of fortune and mercenaries from all the usual countries: the U.S., South Africa, Australia, the U.K., Ghurkas and so on. As soon as the shell exploded the traffic jam was paralyzed in place. It's hard to know if the episode was planned, or if it was simply coincidence. The terrorists are very good at putting a mortar on the back of a pick-up truck and heading for any traffic jam they hear about, then firing shells into the jammed up cars, trucks, and SUVs. In fact, it is possible the reason for placing the car bomb where it is, is to cause precisely the traffic jam that has now resulted.

Also in the traffic jam with us were two convoys of about eight or ten Humvees each, and a Bradley Fighting Vehicle which is a thing that looks like a tank but isn't one. That made me feel a bit reassured. Ordinarily, convoys stop for absolutely nothing since they quite rightly perceive that it is THEY who are the most desirable group of targets to isolate in a traffic jam. Usually they just barrel down the outside lane and go wherever they are going and, if necessary, they will literally push others off the road. This time they did not. My guess is that they wanted the car bomb up the road to be eliminated so they held their positions. As soon as the explosion took place, however, they roared off.

A split second after the explosion, every car and SUV in the quarter-mile-long line of cars started to disgorge small armies of heavily armed mercenaries and ordinary civilians. Every last one of them was armed with an AK-47. (Male babies in the Middle East appear to come out of the womb with an AK-47 in their hands!) My guess is that from front to back there were about 300 to 400 people firing wildly at targets I could not see, and I am sure they couldn't either.

The four of us also dismounted, but none of us fired since we could not see anyone at whom to fire. Our driver was able to swing the SUV around sharply to the left and we made for the median strip, which was three feet or so below the level of the road, thus providing some natural shelter. There I was told (God knows by whom) to take cover behind the wheels of our car. I could hear wild shouting in five or six different languages.

In the midst of all the firing and confusion, the Bradley came racing up the road and made a right turn toward the tree line, crossing the highway about ten feet in front of me. The gunner standing in the turret smiled at me, gave a thumbs up, and continued drinking from a quart of Pepsi in his other hand. The whole thing lasted three or four minutes. It stopped of its own accord, probably because everyone ran out of ammunition.

A few minutes later, I saw a number of U.S. soldiers, holding a stretcher, race toward a clump of trees. Soon they came back carrying a boy between eight and ten, his arm hanging limply over the side of the stretcher. The sight of this kid who was hit by a bullet recklessly fired by one of these PSC thugs made me very angry. Later we heard the boy died, but I don't know that for a fact.

IT WAS INTERESTING TO NOTE that throughout this chaotic free-for-all, the American soldiers never fired a shot. Their "rules of engagement" authorize firing only when they see a target, and that target represents an ACTUAL threat. In this engagement there were no targets to be seen. The PSCs have a lot to learn from the Army.

The mercenaries fired non-stop. One of them explained to me that their "rules of engagement" dictate you immediately fire in the direction from which the fire is coming, whether you actually see anything or not. In this case, the mortar shell had clearly come from the right so everyone fired blindly toward the right. Pretty undisciplined and self-indulgent, I thought.

As far as I know, whoever fired at us got away. I don't think anyone in the long line of cars was hurt -- perhaps a few scraped knees from diving down the embankment. There were no casualties among the passengers in our car.

What was my sense of all this fire and brimstone? Other than being very startled by the sound of the huge explosion 25 yards away, I never felt any concern, fear, apprehension, or foreboding. I found it very difficult to stay behind the car wheels when I was down in the ditch and continually stood up for a better look at what was going on. After it was over I was very relaxed and thought to myself: "That was interesting! Was the first time someone tried to kill me what I thought it would be?"

I didn't fire my pistol for two reasons; there was never a visible target trying to shoot at me and, you don't use a 9mm pistol to fire at a target 125 yards away.

During the three or four minute "battle" several thousand rounds were probably fired. We have seen it dozens of times on the evening news when they show stuff from the Middle East. It is always hundreds of young men running around to show their "machismo" and metaphorically claiming "mine is bigger than yours" by firing their AKs in the air. It's called "happy fire."

The rest of the day was quite normal. The plane was about five hours late taking off. On the way back there wasn't a single car on the road. It all made for a very eerie feeling. As we approached Baghdad we encountered a lot of U.S. troops. Normally, this is a signal of time-consuming checkpoint delays, but this time they were a welcome sight.

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