• U.S.

Into The Cauldron

13 minute read
Bill Powell

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.

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.”

That’s why the White House and Pentagon moved quickly to formulate the right response. President Bush spoke last Thursday with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and General John Abizaid, the head of U.S. Central Command (Centcom), to discuss how to retaliate. According to a senior Administration official, Abizaid called for “a specific and overwhelming attack to restore justice.” It would be accompanied by an information campaign that would spread the word “that this won’t be tolerated,” the senior official said. The decision by commanders in the field to respond with such force, he added, “obviously pleased” Bush. “He understands that [the enemy] is trying to rattle us and break our will. It’s important that we demonstrate our resolve, and this is what he wanted to hear.”

No one doubted that the military’s response would be massive. “We have to win this war in Fallujah one neighborhood at a time,” said U.S. Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, deputy head of operations in Iraq. “We’re going to do it on our terms, on our timeline, and it will be overwhelming.” In a reflection of the anger the attacks induced, coalition officials said trying to earn the affection of local Iraqis was no longer the objective–at least not when it came to responding in Fallujah. “In no meeting that I have been in has anybody mentioned the hearts-and-minds issue,” says a senior coalition official. “That’s simply not the issue right now.” Still, the retribution–and the message accompanying it–couldn’t come fast enough. Economically, the fallout was immediate. A Baghdad investment expo, which for months the Administration had aggressively pushed to get private-sector money flowing into the country, was delayed indefinitely. More than 200 companies had signed up for the conference, which was to have begun April 5. “This is not an environment in which people can conduct peaceful business,” says Mohammed al-Eshaiker, 51, formerly of Irvine, Calif., but now in Baghdad looking for real estate deals. “A lot of companies are going to say, ‘Let’s wait a month or two or a year or two and reassess the security situation after that.’ For Iraqis, that’s serious.”

The Fallujah attacks raised questions again about how eager the U.N. will be to assume a larger role in sorting out the future governance of Iraq–something the U.S. desperately wants to bring about. The U.N.’s envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, is due back in Iraq this week to help hash out what the post–June 30 political arrangement will be. The carnage could also complicate the Administration’s efforts to shift some of the burden for pacifying Iraq to its allies. The new Spanish government had already vowed to pull out its 1,300 troops in the wake of the Madrid terrorist attacks last month. Retired General Anthony Zinni, a former Centcom commander, argues that part of the solution to Iraq’s security problems is to internationalize the occupation. But last week’s scenes hardly seemed likely to entice volunteers.

Among the many questions that remain unanswered is whether the horror in Fallujah represented an isolated spasm of mob violence or a more corrosive, widespread streak of anti-American hatred. On Saturday, Shi’ite followers of firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr marched and burned American flags, promising if asked to be the hand of Hamas and Hizballah in Iraq. But galling as the images in Fallujah were, U.S. commanders say the city and the surrounding area remain a uniquely difficult problem, with little bearing on what’s happening in the rest of the country. The military continues to believe that the insurgents–while still capable of killing small numbers of soldiers with “standoff” weapons like roadside bombs–are no match for U.S. firepower. “Look,” says a Pentagon official, “Fallujah is a problem right now, but we’ll deal with it.” In recent months U.S. forces have claimed some success in subduing resistance in other Sunni-triangle hot spots. That includes Tikrit, Saddam’s hometown, where the military responded to attacks by demolishing homes and cordoning off the entire city with barbed wire. The military has avoided such blunt tactics in Fallujah, a town 35 miles west of Baghdad that has long been prone to unrest and intense tribal rivalries. Even under Saddam, locals resisted control: the town erupted in murderous riots in 1997 when Saddam arrested a prominent general from the area. Since Saddam’s removal, Fallujah has been hostile to the presence of Americans. Nearly a year ago, soldiers stationed in the town opened fire on a crowd of demonstrators, killing 15 civilians. The incident sparked a mood of mutual antagonism that has sporadically erupted into clashes. In November insurgents shot down a U.S. helicopter outside the city, killing 16. And earlier this year bandits broke into a city jail and freed dozens of prisoners.

The military may bear some responsibility for the town’s unstable, dangerous condition. Fallujah has had six commanders in the 12 months since the end of the war. At first, troops were a visible presence in the city, routinely patrolling on foot. But after making deals with the local sheiks last winter, troops from the 82nd Airborne Division pulled back to a base 5 miles from the city center. While the retreat protected U.S. forces from attacks, it allowed criminals and ex-regime loyalists to have the run of the place. The city’s chronic violence also dissuaded reconstruction workers and relief agencies from venturing in, fueling local frustration over the lack of jobs and services. On March 24 control over the city was handed to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, which has vowed to take back the streets. But the Marines have encountered resistance in their attempts to fight their way in. Two weeks ago, they fought a battle with insurgents that left several civilians dead and had locals vowing revenge.

It was into this cauldron that the four American Blackwater contractors headed last Wednesday. Spokesmen for the company say the contractors, who typically travel armed with automatic weapons, were guarding a convoy of trucks loaded with food. But the reasons for their decision to drive through such a hostile neighborhood remain murky. Sources familiar with Blackwater’s operations say an investigation will have to determine whether the contractors, one of whom had arrived in Iraq only two weeks earlier, received sufficient training in avoiding and responding to ambushes. Standard operating procedure for security teams like Blackwater’s, according to a former private military-company operator with knowledge of Blackwater’s operational tactics, is never to stop the car in a potentially hostile area and “not to aid the other when one vehicle is hit in an ambush. They are taught to get off the X. Your own survival is the ultimate monkey.”

To be sure, given their military backgrounds, the four victims were not shy, retiring types. They were in Iraq because they wanted to be there, and they were under no illusions about just how dangerous it could be. Scott Helvenston, 38, was a former Navy SEAL who had appeared on the reality-TV show Combat Missions and was seeking to carve out a life for himself beyond the military, says friend George Ciganik, a former Marine reconnaissance officer. Working for Blackwater was about as close to combat as Helvenston and the others like him could get. “We’re adrenaline seekers,” says Ciganik, “passionate about freedom and serving our country.” Just two hours before he was killed, Michael Teague–“Ice Man” to his Army buddies–sent an e-mail to a friend back home in Clarksville, Tenn., saying he loved Iraq and the excitement of his new six-figure-salary job. A former member of the Army’s fabled Night Stalkers, the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, Teague had gone to Iraq just two weeks after his seventh wedding anniversary, hoping to help pay for his son’s college education and get back in the thick of things. “This was the kind of work Mike loved,” says friend John Menische. “He was a soldier and a warrior.” The gruesome deaths of Teague and his colleagues on the road to Fallujah made one thing clear above all: for their former brethren in the U.S. military, there are still battles to fight.

–Reported by Massimo Calabresi, Timothy J. Burger, John F. Dickerson and Sally B. Donnelly/Washington; Brian Bennett, Stephan Faris and Vivienne Walt/Baghdad; Paul Cuadros/Chapel Hill; Elisabeth Kauffman/Nashville; Jeanne McDowell/Los Angeles; and Fran Stewart/Cleveland

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