Hunt for Syrians leads to mosque

Raid: Informant's tip forces U.S. troops to weigh objectives and religious sensitivity.

War In Iraq

April 13, 2003|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Three dozen soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division raided a mosque here yesterday after an informant said 30 armed fedayeen fighters from Syria were holed up inside.

What they found were 15 stunned Iraqi men, a wailing baby and a doctor who has turned part of the Al-Rahman Mosque into an informal clinic since hospitals in this war-battered city are so hard to reach. They found, too, a sobering reminder of the very difficult engagements awaiting them off the traditional battlefield: the clashes of two different cultures, the dangers of fighting in a city, the potential for manipulative foes to trick them into a mistake.

Before yesterday's mission, Lt. Col. Ed Palekas had cracked a joke that masked a very real concern. "Hopefully," he told his troops, smiling and flexing his eyebrows, "we won't create an international incident."

A small payoff

The division's brass had clearly hoped that the raid would prove important, or at least recognized the touchiness of the situation. Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander, arrived a few minutes after the soldiers. CNN and other media outlets were there to record what officers expected to be a major rousting.

As soon as it was clear the tip was old or bad, the Army beat a hasty retreat, taking only a loaded AK-47 found stashed under a mattress. But damage was done.

"This is a mosque and a holy area and should not be invaded like that," said an angry Dr. Ahmad Fahad, who has stockpiled gauze, pills and intravenous bags to care for Iraqi soldiers and civilians alike.

The 101st and its light infantry units have been ordered to search the capital's middle-class neighborhoods and slums for arms caches and forces loyal to Saddam Hussein.

Experience on the road to Baghdad has taught U.S. soldiers that their foes may seek shelter in mosques, rendering them legitimate military targets. But the Army also knows how deeply people here revere the mosques and how angry they are at the possibility of armed men from another culture storming in. Any move against a mosque risks jeopardizing delicate public opinion.

If not an international incident, the hourlong raid at least created a minor local incident. Afterward, crowds on the street showed noticeably less enthusiasm for soldiers. More blank stares, and even some glares, greeted soldiers walking back to their base camp in a school across the street - a big change from the earlier waves, smiles and friendly cries.

Palekas, commander of the division's 3rd Battalion, 327th InfantryRegiment, took the order just after lunch. Get the people inside, the higher-ups told him. When he checked the coordinates, he was surprised at how close the mosque was. "You gotta be kidding," he said. "That's right across the street from us."

Palekas laid out the basic plan: Gun trucks would block traffic in all directions. Bravo company troops would make sure no one could flee out the back. Alpha company would lead the charge.

A squad of eight Alpha soldiers would be first through the gate. A second squad would follow and set up security inside the gate. A third would run in last and join the first squad.

Palekas, his radio operators and other officers would go along, putting some three dozen Army men in and around the mosque, a blocky structure with no dome or minaret.

To get a better look, Palekas and some Alpha soldiers climbed on the school's roof. They could see a few people milling about between the mosque and a one-story, rear building, but it was hard to tell any more than that. "Let's quit looking around," the lieutenant colonel said, realizing they could blow their cover by staring too intently.

Walking back to the ladder, he warned Lt. Jeff Shelnutt to be careful. "Obviously it's a mosque," he said. "If you see weapons, you hope they drop them. If they don't, wipe them."

Word of the mission excited some soldiers, who shrugged off the danger and sensitivity. "I don't care - I'll go in," said Sgt. Adam Jablonowski.

Quoting from a John Wayne movie, he said, "Ride boldly, ride, to that place called El Dorado."

After sketching the raid plan on the hood of his Humvee a few minutes later, Palekas again stressed its delicate nature.

"You want to use minimum force. It's a mosque. If you see a guy with a gun, obviously he shouldn't be at a mosque. If he seems like he's going to shoot, shoot first."

Jablonowski, in a quick run-through with the handful of soldiers in his team, said that when they entered the compound, they were to shout, "Everybody on the ground!"

"Anybody who does not comply gets handled roughly," he said.

"What do you mean rough?" asked Cpl. Travis Atkins.

"If you're threatened, kill it."

As troops lined up in the hallway, Jab, as he is known, shouted out, "Time to earn your combat pay!"

"Aaaaah!" came the reply.

Palekas walked to the head of the line. This was one mission he would accompany rather than stay behind at the operations center, listening and calling shots over his radio.

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