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Chapter 17 — Muqtada al-Sadr

Arab prejudice.

Origin of the Mahdi Army. Muqtada’s family and lineage. Twelvers.

The Mahdi Army, the people who were making things difficult for everyone at FOB Loyalty, began as several hundred seminary students from Sadr City in east Baghdad whose initial work after the American invasion was dispensing aid, social services and various kinds of community service such as directing traffic. Due to the lawlessness that occurred following the fall of Hussein they found themselves providing security and in April of 2004 they became an armed militia under the leadership of Muqtada al-Sadr, a middle ranking Shi’ah cleric from a prominent Iraqi ruling class family. Sayyid Mohammad Al-Sadr, Muqtada’s grandfather, was Iraqi Prime Minister in 1948, and Muqtada’s father, also named Mohammad, achieved the rank of ayatollah and was assassinated by agents working for Saddam Hussein in 1999. Because of attacks in Najaf, Kufa, Kut and Sadr City following the forced closure in 2004 of the newspaper, Al Hawza, Muqtada’s mouthpiece, the Iraqi government announced that JAM (Jaysh al-Mahdi) membership was a criminal act. Muqtada’s quickly acquired prestige fed an ego that led to an extraordinary and important choice in naming his militia. By calling it the “Mahdi” Army he invoked the name of the Twelfth Imam who the “twelver” Shiites believe to be the redeemer and the end times figure who will aid Christ in establishing the final Islamic caliphate that will precede judgement day. Muqtada hasn’t claimed to be the Mahdi, something that relatively few have done since the eleventh Imam, Hasan ibn Ali, died in 874 AD. According to the Hadith, at Hasan’s funeral his five year old son, Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥasan al-Mahdī, announced he was the Twelfth Imam and immediately went into “occultation”, or hiding, until his second coming. The Twelver Shi’ah sect, of which the Iranian nation and leadership as well as Muqtada are a part, believe that the Mahdi is among us today in some form and is able to influence events in any way he wishes in order to prepare for his reemergence. Ayatollah Khamenei in Iran, their current “Supreme Leader”, is waiting for the Mahdi’s direction or appearance. To be a member of the Mahdi’s “Army” is the greatest honor a Muslim could hope for and a guarantee of heavenly reward. To have formed an effective military force of 60,000 in the name of the Mahdi to defeat the infidels in the city that was once the capital of Abbassid caliphates is a historical accomplishment and at least a figurative godsend for an ambitious cleric but it’s just one of Muqtada al-Sadr’s many political accomplishments. People in the Middle East and Arabs particularly typologize humans according to a fairly long list of characteristics. Race is one item on the list but for most that feature of a person’s make up is less important than nation, occupation, residence or faith. Arabs and Shi’a Muslims regard lineage as the most important means of prejudging others. Muqtada’s full name, like the other males in his line includes the honorific title of Sayyid because he is a descendant of the prophet. For a Muslim, there is no better lineage so Muqtada has a that very important characteristic in his favor. His army is a means to political power and wealth for Muqtada through the same means afforded all the caliphs, and the prophet himself, which are the concessions at the pilgrimages and control of the shrines. Travel to the shrines is a fundamental practice of the Shi’a and control of the concessions to, from and at the shrines is big business. Charitable giving is a tenet of the Muslim faith and the clerics who control Iraq’s shrines and mosques receive and dispense, or retain, millions of dinars and dollars donated each year. The attacks by Muqtada’s men in Najaf and elsewhere were to physically capture the shrines to derive all the benefits of controlling such important sites, especially receipt of the Zakah (obligatory) and sadaqa (optional) charitable donations given by the faithful. Stars and Stripes newspaper is widely distributed and free to all at the FOBs and camps in the war zones and it includes considerable information on Middle Eastern religious and political leaders, much of it by Arab journalists. The articles about al Sadr in Stars and Stripes were studied by all of us who wanted to know why things were happening as they were. Muqtada’s edicts, commands, cease fire announcements and retractions were more important news to us than anything announced by General Petreus or President Bush.

Chapter 33 — Urge To Jump

Synopsis of the operational restrictions. How leaks are found and the time Ron Laniere and I are fired on during a leak inspection.

As soon as the wind stopped the tether tension dropped precipitously so I knew Don and I hadn’t patched all the holes in the balloon that first night, not by a long shot. There was still enough helium in the balloon to prevent the condition I feared but barely. To verify the alarmingly low tension reading on the GSHS screen I went up on the platform and pulled on the tether. I was able to pull the balloon down with one arm! With the lift that low, at the leakage rate we were suffering, the emergency would have happened within hours so once again we had to recover the balloon with little notice and the work that we were scheduled to do with the camera was cancelled. Fortunately, we weren’t supposed to do anything critical that night. Kite balloons have been operated in difficult environments including the North Atlantic, the South Pole and other war zones but the conditions in the New Baghdad security district in the summer of 2007 were in many ways unique. You can’t recover a kite balloon anywhere if the wind is too high. Officially we weren’t supposed to launch or recover the balloon in winds greater than 20 knots. We couldn’t recover in daylight without drawing fire and if the tactical need was urgent, which it often was, the Army wouldn’t let us come “off-mission”. Finding out, when it’s too late, that there wasn’t enough helium in the balloon to stay aloft may never have happened before and I was almost the first flight director to have that dishonor. Finding and repairing the leaks became an obsession. During the next six weeks we conducted seven leak inspections.

Dave Cole At The mIRC Station & Ron Lanier On The Camera Ron Laniere and I went up to do the first one after that first night when Don and I did the repairs. This time both of us wore our helmets and vests. Ron wasn’t one of those who spoke of the bullet with his name on it. Using the pressure washer we covered one panel at a time with soapy water to produce bubbles and reveal leaks. After finding and repairing several I became absorbed in the task and stopped worrying about the windows and shadows outside the wall. Finding a hole was a victory and with each we’d call down, “Found one!” And the others literally cheered. A couple hours before daylight, with sweat pouring out from under the vest and helmet, when our location and the circumstances were completely forgotten, we heard gunfire. Turning toward the sound we saw tracers coming over the wall near the guard tower and toward us. The same feeling I’d had before when Winston and I were outside at Site One and a single round zipped by came over me but this time it was much worse

and I couldn’t take cover. The troops in the tower fired back and more rounds came in. Terror siezed me and I had the urge to leap out of the basket just like those who jump from burning buildings. It was nearly irresistible and completely rational. Two broken legs seemed better than a rifle bullet in just about any part of my body. But rather than jump Ron and I made ourselves as small as we could as I swung the boom away from the balloon and took us down, at a sickening slow pace. The rest of the crew were behind T walls by the time Ron and I got down. We joined them and talked about what had just happened and whether or not the balloon had more holes now. We couldn’t wait much longer to go back out and launch the balloon. Sunrise was at 04:30 which was less than two hours off. The shooting stopped almost as soon as Ron and I got down. The BDOC told us the men in the towers couldn’t see anyone outside so it was probably over. We went back out and got the balloon up in time but we were worried that we were losing ground. If we drew fire during leak inspections we might never get ahead of the problem and we might also be killed. That possibility prompted one member of the crew, Mike Camp, to refuse to work above the wall. I wouldn’t have blamed them if they all had.

Chapter 40 — We Watch Mortars Launched At Us see them killed.

We catch the mortar team firing on us and

I was stepping off the mooring platform when the alarm sounded, a series of short horn blasts and an announcement, “INCOMING, INCOMING”. I’d heard it several times and before that day it never sounded more than a couple of seconds before the incoming round landed. Often the first round landed before the announcement. If you’re out in the open when mortars fall nearby the best thing to do is get on the ground, but if you can get behind cover before a barrage begins that’s much better, so I ran, and I covered the space, about 150 feet, between the platform and the TMOS, in a dead sprint. I dug so hard I may have still been accelerating when I cleared the T wall that surrounded the GCS and the TMOS. When I chose to go through with my last knee surgery one reason was so I could run from danger or to someone’s aid if I had too. That was one of the best decisions of my life. The second I closed the door the first round landed. Don and I joined Mike Camp, who was at the camera, and Ron Laniere in the GCS. The overhead cover was in place by then so it was a well protected space. We always went in the GCS when attacks were going on to see the action and to help. There’s a lot to cover during a battle or attack and when the rounds are falling on the FOB the GCS is a highly charged space. If the operators are willing to accept the help, additional eyes and hands can be very useful. The camera slewed to a spot near the launch point and Ron had given the grid location to the TOC just before Don and I entered the GCS. Mike hadn’t located the mortar team yet so we all studied the monitor as he panned from place to place. The camera target was just a few kilometers out so the look angle was high and therefor good. A lot of places they could have fired from were behind buildings but there were unobstructed views of good launch sites too. Mike jumped from one to another just as he should have. He only had to go to a few vacant lots before seeing two men squatting next to a mortar tube. One of them was holding the round at the top of the tube and he released it just as Mike zoomed in. Twenty-six seconds later the round hit just inside the FOB’s north wall destroying a fuel tank. Before that second round landed he dropped the third which exploded a little further inside the FOB before he dropped the forth and the fifth. We watched him launch round after round and heard them land. He wasn’t adjusting his fire but every round landed further into the FOB and closer to us. He fired seventeen all together with the last one landing outside the wall and the one before that close enough for us to feel it. One round killed a KBR truck driver. The second KBR employee to die there so far that year. After the last round was fired they picked up the tube and base plate, ran to a van that was parked on the street at the end of the vacant lot and drove off. Our job then was to follow them until attack aviation could get

to them. They drove quickly through the morning rush-hour, weaving in and out and occasionally even stopping with the other traffic. They were traveling through a part of town that was fairly open so our view wasn’t blocked by buildings. Unless it’s brief, loss of visual contact means loss of certainty about the target, “no PID”. When that happens the rules of engagement prohibit firing on the vehicle. They went several miles through the city before stopping at an equipment yard that occupied about half a city block. There was a shop in the middle of the yard which was surrounded by vehicles of various kinds, trucks, cars and tractors. About ten people were there engaged in various tasks. Several were teenage boys. The car with the mortar team and two others drove to the center of the yard and parked next to a gasoline tank truck, a big one. Two other tankers were next to it. If the bad guys stayed in the car in that yard we would catch or kill them. Several times during the chase Apaches crossed our field of view so we knew they had them in sight. The men stayed in the car. They may have thought it would be safer to wait awhile before transferring the weapons to another vehicle or leaving. For them, it was the worst thing they could have done. For us, it was the best. All we had to do was keep a stationary target in out sights. When a mission like this one was going on the GCS was an exciting place. We were the eyes of the United States Army in contact with the enemy. Our team that morning was working together, obeying orders, and fired up. Most of the discussion was serious and professional, but not all. Even when we were under attack, people cracked dumb jokes. With the chase over, at least temporarily, what we hoped and expected to be the fate of the men in the car colored our conversation. I had taken over at the mIRC station by the time the mortar team left their firing position because I was the fastest typist. I typed in a message that there were gasoline trucks parked next to the target vehicle and that some of the people working in the yard were teenage boys. They wrote back, ”rgr, sb “,shorthand for “roger, standby”. They asked me if I was sure the trucks were gasoline trucks. I told them yes and we zoomed in on the diamond placards on the back of a truck that indicated they were carrying gasoline, and then on the side of the trucks and the word “Esso”. They responded “rgr”, again. A few seconds passed and I thought they weren’t going to take the shot. Then the car was hit and burst into flame. We zoomed back one step to see if any one had been struck by shrapnel or the blast and it looked like everyone was still on their feet and bugging out. They all went to the other side of the street and watched as the car burned. Hundreds of people came out of their houses and shops to watch. The shot, a Hellfire missile, was dead on, which doesn’t always happen. The smart bombs going through windows and down air shafts are part of the fight but a lot of ordinance misses the target. If this had missed by fifteen feet the tanker, if there was anything in it, would have gone up. With the car fire still burning it was possible it still might. But the fire department was on the scene almost right away. The Baghdad emergency services were very good at getting to fires and accidents quickly. They didn’t always act well when they got there. Once I saw a man struck by a car while crossing the street lifted by paramedics by his arms and feet and swung into the ambulance. This time they did a great job putting the fire out before it spread. The mortar team and their accomplices were dead instantly or burned to death but no one else at the scene was hurt.

"Balloon Wars" Chapters 17 33 and 40  
"Balloon Wars" Chapters 17 33 and 40  

Sample chapters from Rob Crimmins' memoir, "Balloon Wars: An ISR* Operators Account Of The Wars In Iraq And Afghanistan" * ISR - Intelligen...