Into The Cauldron

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Jerry Zovko was muscle for hire, and he plied his trade, private security, in a place that for Americans is perhaps the most dangerous in the world. Zovko joined the Army in 1992, serving in the 82nd Airborne Division and qualifying for the Ranger corps. After tours of duty in Bosnia and Kuwait, he left the Army in 2001 and worked as a bodyguard for executives in Dubai. But Zovko, friends say, still yearned for adventure and the chance to make a difference in the world. As an employee of Blackwater USA, a private company hired by the Pentagon to provide security for nonmilitary personnel in Iraq, Zovko recently returned to a war zone: Iraq's Sunni triangle, home to Saddam Hussein loyalists and those who do their killing. Fallujah, a city of about 300,000, is the hotbed of this bandit country, and it was there that Zovko, 32, was passing through with three colleagues on the morning of March 31. Like Zovko, all the others — Scott Helvenston, 38; Wesley Batalona, 48; and Michael Teague, 38--had served in elite fighting units in the U.S. military. If Zovko thought he was risking his life, he did not let on to his family in Willoughby, Ohio. "He made all of us believe," says his aunt Marija, "that what he was doing had to be done." But no amount of training or experience would enable him to survive what was coming.

On Wednesday morning, Zovko and his team set out in two SUVs on Highway 10, a four-lane strip that runs through Fallujah. Shortly before the vehicles arrived in town, according to eyewitness accounts, a small group of men in masks detonated a small explosive device, clearing the streets and prompting shopkeepers to shutter their doors. The attack, locals later said, was hardly a surprise: insurgents reportedly set up ambush points around the city, waiting to assault any foreigners who might venture in. As the Blackwater vehicles made their way down the divided road, according to reports, at least three men cut the convoy off and opened fire with assault rifles. An eyewitness says the assailants threw two grenades at the SUVs. Three of the Blackwater employees apparently died instantly; another was badly wounded, only to be beaten to death with bricks by a mob that gathered at the scene. As horrific as the killings were, what happened next would soon be televised around the world, forcing the U.S. military commanders to plan retaliation and bringing Americans face to face with demons that, one year into a war that has cost the lives of more than 600 American soldiers, the U.S. has failed to exorcise.


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As captured by a cameraman who taped the scene, a small crowd of perhaps 15 young dayworkers who were hanging out in front of a kebab restaurant gathered around the shot-up SUVs. As the crowd grew, it began burning the cars, reducing the bodies inside to charred, unrecognizable shapes. A young man held a sign that read FALLUJAH, CEMETERY OF THE AMERICANS. After the flames died down, a couple of men pulled the burned bodies from the vehicles. A man stomped on a headless corpse while the crowd chanted, "God is great." The mob tied yellow ropes around the neck and thigh of one body and dragged it along the road. Another man ran up to the body and slammed a 4ft.-long water pipe down on what remained of the torso. About half a dozen men then affixed two of the bodies to the back of a dark red Opel sedan and dragged them about two miles to a bridge over the Euphrates River, where they were suspended from a girder for all to see. A man climbed onto a donkey cart positioned under the bodies and beat one of the swaying corpses with a pipe. The surrounding crowd chanted, "We are Fallujah. We are brave. Who asked you to mess with us?" Six hours later, members of the Iraqi security force that the U.S. created to maintain order finally showed up to disperse the mob and claim the mutilated bodies.

To many ordinary Iraqis, for whom sadistic brutality was a regular feature of life under Saddam, the scenes in Fallujah provoked outpourings of shame over the mob's desecration of the dead. Because of the sheer savagery of the attack and the likelihood of U.S. retaliation, last week's massacre also heightened the sense of uncertainty about what comes next. The Bush Administration insists that it will hand over power to some form of interim Iraqi government by June 30. By then, the White House fervently hopes, coalition forces will have imposed sufficient order and made enough progress in Iraq to provide an implicit rebuke to critics of the Iraqi invasion. The last thing it needed, as the June 30 deadline creeps closer, was a grotesque scene that immediately conjured images of another American nightmare — Mogadishu, when a Somali mob killed 18 U.S. soldiers and dragged an Army Ranger's corpse through the streets. The Clinton Administration withdrew U.S. forces soon afterward, leaving that benighted nation to its warlords.

Iraq, of course, is not Somalia. The military is not going anywhere, even if the civilian authority operating under L. Paul Bremer checks out on schedule early this summer. But the attacks last week once again threw into grisly relief the dilemmas that have plagued U.S. forces since the occupation began. Military commanders could not determine with certainty whether the atrocities had been carried out by remnants of Saddam's security forces, foreign terrorists or some combination of the two — or simply by hateful thugs who lurk in areas the military has failed to pacify. The confusion over the killers' identity complicated the task of deciding how — and how savagely — to respond militarily, given that winning Iraqi hearts and minds has been a chief goal. And the shock of the murders of the Blackwater contractors threatened to ripple through the U.S.'s rebuilding effort, as the insurgents no doubt intended. Political stability in Iraq flows in part from economic progress, and both depend on security — the ability of civilians, Iraqis and foreigners alike, to get on with their lives without fear. "There's a tipping point," says a senior military official with the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, "and it's clear the insurgents and the terrorists are trying to find that tipping point." In an interview on his plane returning from a trip to Europe, Secretary of State Colin Powell acknowledged that, while "a lot is being accomplished ... the security situation has to be brought under control for us to be able to be in full swing with the reconstruction and rebuilding effort."

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