There were a lot of nasty places to be in Samarra last week after U.S. and Iraqi forces began their assault early Friday morning, but one of the nastiest was with the platoon led by Lieutenant Ryan Purdy.
Sweating it out in streets full of smoke and the odor of cordite, Purdy and his troops found cover in firing positions littered with flesh from insurgents blown apart by U.S. cannon fire from an armored vehicle. Pinned down by snipers, the men were trapped alongside the corpses, battling a stench that grew stronger as the morning wore on and the temperature climbed. When at last the platoon could move, it could do so only under the cover of chattering guns and multicolored smoke grenades. By then, the rebels that the platoon was fighting had simply melted away. "This enemy wants to erode our forces while preserving his own," a frustrated Purdy said.
If that is the rebels' goal, they will have to work hard to achieve it. The Samarra offensive played by the slippery rules of guerrilla warfare that U.S. troops have come to master more and more. The bulk of what intelligence suggests are 200 to 500 rebels is thought to be made up of local Baathists and former military officers fighting for a return of a Sunni-dominated government or national liberation. The rest are foreign jihadis and hard-core Iraqi Islamists heeding the call of terrorist leaders like Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi. For weeks, the al-Zarqawi fighters had made their presence in the city known. Only two days before the attack, there were reports of armed men roaming the city under the group's telltale black-and-yellow banners, stopping traffic and seizing music cassettes, which they consider un-Islamic, and replacing them with religious tapes.
In the first hours of Operation Baton Rouge, as the assault on Samarra was code named, the insurgents would not even have known about the thousands of troops, heavy armor and attack helicopters massing against them. Any column entering the city could easily have been taken for just another patrol or sweep. But as early as Monday, a brigade-size contingent was quietly forming around the city.
Handling the heaviest fighting would be the soldiers of the battle-hardened 1st Battalion of the 14th Infantry Regiment. Stationed in Kirkuk to the north, the 1/14 battalion knows something about the feints and vanishing acts of the insurgents, having faced them in Najaf, Tall 'Afar and elsewhere. The 1/14 would follow the 1st Battalion of the 26th Infantry Regiment, which would hit Samarra first, crossing a long bridge leading into the city to secure a staging area for the troops that would pour in afterward. Just past midnight on Friday morning, the 1/26 moved. The 1/14, not far behind, heard the firing.
"I'm nervous," confided one member of the 1/14, a 19-year-old infantryman with a wife and baby at home. "They say these guys will stand and fight." The squad commander did what he could to keep the anxious men focused on the job. "Let's make this the worst morning of their lives," he challenged.