30 KM. NORTH OF NAJAF, IRAQ – 'Handling threats posed by civilians is a new situation for the US Army [in Iraq]. Precedents are being set today by the guys on the ground at the battalion level.'
So ruminated Lt.-Col Scott Rutter, commander of the 2-7 mechanized infantry battalion of the army's Third Infantry Division's First Brigade, hours after four of his men were killed by a car bomb at a roadblock at 10:30 Saturday morning in the first Iraqi suicide bombing of the war.
'It is important to bear in mind that these men were not sitting ducks. By manning our roadblocks, they kept these terrorists away from the brigade. They did their job defending the force and their country,' Rutter said.
News of the suicide car bombing was relayed to the battalion's operations tent immediately. The incident occurred at a manned checkpoint, or 'blocking position,' 30 km. north of Najaf, along Highway 9, which links Baghdad with Najaf.
Since last Monday, a platoon of soldiers has been manning this blocking position – the northernmost post for US forces in western Iraq – whose purpose is to prevent north-south traffic from Baghdad. The attack occurred just as another platoon had arrived to relieve the soldiers.
Some 10 minutes before the attack, an Iraqi civilian arrived at the scene complaining of a broken ankle and indicating to soldiers that he was waiting for a taxi. A taxi pulled up, the driver called out to the soldiers in English that he had come to pick up a passenger. The four soldiers approached the taxi to inspect the vehicle. When the driver opened his trunk, he detonated the bomb made of plastic explosive.
The terrorist, his accomplice, and the soldiers were killed instantly by the blast, which was so strong that it shook a Bradley fighting vehicle located some 150 meters away.
After the attack, officers explained that, for the previous five days, Iraqi drivers had been instructed to turn around before reaching the blocking position.
'The rules of engagement were vague. This is what enabled some civilians to get through after inspection,' Rutter said.
'The fact is we were so effective at keeping enemy forces away from the blocking position that they were forced to use terror tactics to harm us.'
In the past five days, some 20 vehicles have been engaged by the soldiers at the blocking position for attempting to evade the concertina-wired checkpoint. There is a sense among the soldiers that the main reason the attack occurred is because the forces at the checkpoint perform their duties as they would have in peace-keeping operations like in Kosovo.
'This is how we do roadblocks in Europe,' said Master-Sgt J.B. Bruening, the battalion's air force liaison officer. 'Unfortunately this isn't Europe.'
The reality of the situation in Iraq as clarified by the suicide bombing caused an immediate overhaul of the rules of engagement at the highway. No Iraqi vehicle will be allowed to pass through the battalion roadblock under any circumstance any longer.
'If a vehicle approaches a roadblock, the soldiers will count slowly to five. If, at the count of five, the vehicle has not turned around to leave, we will engage it,' explained Rutter.
The 3rd Infantry Division provided the First Brigade with new Arabic road signs instructing Iraqis to turn away or be shot. The battalion's psychological warfare team was deployed to the highway, where they broadcast orders to all civilians around the blocking positions to leave immediately. The Iraqis complied in short order.
'We are dealing with an enemy that is both an army and a terrorist force. Unless we are given an order to directly fire at civilians, incidents like this can happen. The problem for us is how do you define a threat in this environment? After what just happened, my men know that everyone moving south is to be considered hostile,' Rutter said.
For their part, the soldiers of the 2-7 Battalion reacted with sadness and anger to the attack. 'I cried when I heard about it,' said PFC Robert Herrera from New York City. 'This is our family. But after I cried, I just got mad.'
Sgt. Suchai Vongsirates, who leads the psychological operations (psyops) team, arrived at the highway shortly after the bombing. 'It really upset me. I guess it looked sort of like the bombing we see on TV, but it was different because you know it was your brothers who were killed,' he said.
Vongsirates said the taxi-bomb was reduced to chunks of metal strewn all over the place.
'There were bits of the red-checked keffiyehs stuck in the concertina wire and bits of uniform strewn around. It doesn't make me think differently about the war. We knew it would probably be like this. It just makes me really angry and more determined to get these dogs out of power,' Vongsirates said.
Barely repressing the furor in his voice, battalion executive officer Maj. Kevin Cooney said: 'Saddam Hussein says he's not a terrorist. If he's not a terrorist, it's remarkable, because he's using every terror tactic in the handbook.'
The battalion's Command Sgt-Maj. Michael Fox was in charge of removing the soldiers' bodies from the scene. 'It was very hard to see that. This is a whole different kind of war for the US Army. The Israelis already know all about this. We're just beginning, but we'll handle this.'
Terrorist tactics like Saturday's bombing make it clear to Fox that, 'We'll be here for a long time, and it won't end. There will always be people trying to shoot at us. There will always be someone trying to kill Americans for Allah. Obviously, not all Iraqis are bad people. But what our soldiers need to understand is that we need to look at them with suspicion.'
As the battalion forces began implementing their new rules of engagement at the highway, they engaged Iraqi forces throughout the evening. As a result of Iraqi shooting attacks, battalion engineers levelled the positions around the blocking position and bulldozed trees that provided cover to the enemy. To prevent infantrymen from being lured into an ambush as Iraqi gunmen shot at them from a distance of 1,200 feet, artillery batteries targeted the sources of fire, killing some gunmen and forcing others to flee.
In the battalion's operations tent, officers, NCOs, and soldiers at one table coordinated firing missions, while another group sat at a nearby table putting the finishing touches on their plans for future battles on the way to Baghdad.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.