(by Eli Lake, NYSun.com) BAGHDAD, Iraq Ã¢â‚¬â€ The bodies on Haifa Street were stacked like “bales of hay.” That’s how Specialist Matthew Snyder described the 27 dead men, women, and children he encountered on January 6. The victims, all of whom were shot in the head execution-style, were believed to be the extended family of a police captain in nearby Dora.
The American soldiers of the military transition team attached to the Iraqi army battalion responsible for keeping order on Haifa Street first found them at around 11:15 a.m., an ominous sign that kicked off an eight-and-a-half-hour battle for control of this swath of Baghdad that was briefly declared in a 2006 Web video to be the sovereign territory of Al Qaeda.
Before that, Haifa Street under Saddam was known for its residential towers and as a haven for organized crime, with brutes so tough the locals say even the dictator’s secret police would not interfere. Today, the area is beginning to revive, with some of the markets that had long been shuttered reopening, the refuse collected on the streets, and some of the residents returning from their exiles in nearby Damascus and Amman.
When the 16-man transition team began to patrol the street in November, the scene was more like a ghost town. “No one would come out of their homes,” First Sergeant Joseph McFarlane said. He recalled how it was normal to find dead bodies on regular patrols of the Haifa Street neighborhood, as if the local terror masters in the neighborhood were in competition for how many people they could murder. But even for Haifa Street, 27 dead bodies was unusual.
For the top, as Sergeant McFarlane is known because he is the highest ranking noncommissioned officer on the transition team, he said he initially felt a sense of grief after seeing the stacked bodies. But that emotion “immediately turned to controlled aggression, towards the enemy,” he said. “The message was you can tear our bunkers down, but look what we can do. They dumped them there for us to find them, purposely.”
The transition team was dispatched to Haifa Street that day after receiving a distress call from the Iraqis who had already encountered the enemy there. The Iraqi army was in Haifa Street to conduct a raid on the quarters of Ous Abu Ali, a Sunni gang leader and the number three high value target for the battalion. In the initial action, insurgents killed an Iraqi soldier and four men were wounded.
When the Americans arrived in three armored humvees, the Iraqi army platoon was inconsolable. “The soldiers looked completely dejected,” the American team’s commander, Major Chris Norrie, said. “The thought was, Ã¢â‚¬ËœWe are not going to let these guys lose.’ If they lose this fight it will get much worse.Ã¢â‚¬Â¦We told them, Ã¢â‚¬ËœWe will go with you, we will go back to the same spot they shot from, and show themÃ¢â‚¬Â¦ these are the consequences.'”
Major Norrie’s job is not only clearing places like Haifa Street, but also building up the Iraqi military so that in the future American soldiers will not need to be called when the fighting gets tough. He checks on the delivery of rations to forward operating bases, spare parts for vehicles, prompts officers to investigate potentially corrupt colleagues and serves as a liaison between local sheikhs and politicians an Iraqi army that in some cases has lost the trust of the people.
Back on January 6 though, Major Norrie’s main concern at the beginning of day was making sure the Iraqis to whom he was assigned would fight. By 1 p.m. when he returned to the place of the original engagement Ã¢â‚¬â€ the alleys off of Haifa Street between 6th and 7th streets Ã¢â‚¬â€ Major Ahmad, the operations officer for the Iraqi platoon in the fight, refused to issue orders and locked himself in his humvee. “We had to go to their vehicles and in some cases pull Iraqi soldiers out,” Major Norrie said. Major Ahmad sat the fight out, but many Iraqi soldiers did not. The first engagement with the Americans was a draw, with one American sergeant suffering a shot to his forearm. The team departed back to base to get him medical attention.
The next engagement began at 5:40 p.m. at what is called the Haifa Palace. Major Norrie, along with four of his soldiers, found themselves receiving fire from three directions, including from a machine gun nested at the end of an alley. “I just wanted to take as many of them out as I could,” Sergeant Karl Lay remembered. Lieutenant John Forehand said he had a headache for five hours after the fight, and he remembers the engagement sounded like hundreds of jackhammers. All the members of the transition team credit Major Norrie’s calm under fire in the battle. Major Norrie, who managed to withstand the barrage in an uncovered area, says in part he thinks he was protected by a pocket angel his daughter sent him a few days before that he kept in his wallet. But despite the bad positioning, the Americans managed to come out without a scratch from the second engagement.
After briefly clearing the area, the team went back again to base with some of the vehicles badly shot up. One humvee withstood a grenade explosion. The team had sent for a quick reaction force as back up. Major Norrie though decided that his team would return to the battle a third time to finish off the insurgents, who went down fighting. The after action review found that the Americans and Iraqi Army fought off between 30 and 40 enemy fighters. At the endof the day 18 of the enemy were killed in action. Later intelligence reports found that the same enemy positions hosted fighters from Iran, Sudan and Syria. as well as Iraqis loyal to al Qaeda in Iraq.
Major Norrie said the real victory was the effect the battle had on the Iraqi Army battalion. “You just knew, if you were an insurgent it was going to be a bad, bad night. It was a tremendous thing to be part of. At 1400 it was a clear loss and at 2300 it was a clear win,” he said.
When the soldiers returned to the scene of the battle almost five months later, many were pleased that Haifa Street had changed. When this reporter toured the scene of the January 6 battle, a throng of 40 children ran after the American soldiers, at one point chanting the last name of one of the sergeants, “Tamu.” Men in white head-dress kafiyehs and dusty shirts came out to greet the men as recent liberators from the terror bosses who once ruled the blocks. One university professor, who had just returned with his family from Damascus, urged for the Americans to stay, noting the latest news from Washington.
But the pockmarked buildings and recollections of the soldiers who have known this neighborhood since they started their patrols of it in November suggest the signs of life here are fragile. Today, the Americans and Iraqi military worry about car and truck bombs and the improvised explosives that have claimed most of the soldiers lost in the war.
There are some Iraqis here who remember that Haifa Street appeared to be turning around in 2005 as well. Back then, the Iraqi and American commanders in and around Haifa Street also thought that they had turned a corner. But the neighborhood fell back into the hands of al Qaeda and Mahdi Army after the Americans ceded its control to the Iraqi army and the Iraqi police, a mistake that could be repeated if the surge in Baghdad ends prematurely.
Reprinted here with permission from The New York Sun. Visit the website at NYSun.com.
1. What was Baghdad’s Haifa Street like under Saddam Hussein’s rule?
b) What was it like when the 16-man transition team (attached to the Iraqi army battalion responsible for keeping order there) first began patrolling in November 2006?
c) What is it like today? or How is it different today?
2. a) Who is the U.S. transition team’s commander?
b) What do his responsibilities include?
3. a) On January 6, 2007, who was found dead on Haifa Street by the U.S. transition team?
b) After seeing the bodies, how did Sgt. McFarlane’s emotions change?
c) How did the American transition team encourage the Iraqi army platoon who had called for assistance (after engaging the enemy on Haifa Street)?
4. a) Why do you think that the Iraqi officer refused to issues orders and locked himself in his humvee, and also sat out the fight?
b) Why do you think many Iraqi soldiers fought anyway?
5. What adjectives would you use to describe the members of the U.S. military transition team?
6. Does this article give you hope for Iraq’s future? Explain your answer.
Daily “Answers” emails are provided for Daily News Articles, Tuesday’s World Events and Friday’s News Quiz.