Latest News

Killings in Mosul have taken a huge toll

MOSUL, Iraq—The bodies turn up at night. Pulled from the trunks of cars, throats slit and dropped off in a cemetery. Or shot in the back of the head and dumped in the middle of the road.

There's no official tally, but interviews with U.S. Army officers and soldiers in Mosul indicate that hundreds of the corpses—calling cards of the insurgency—have turned up during the past several months.

It's part of a vicious guerrilla campaign of murder and intimidation in the northern Iraq town that's killed not only hundreds of police, national guardsmen and contractors, but also interpreters working for the U.S. military. U.S. troops have proved unable to stop it.

The threat has moved inside military bases in Mosul, places usually considered sanctuaries against the guerrillas. A suicide bomber killed 14 U.S. soldiers last month in a blast at the mess hall at Forward Operating Base Marez.

Lt. Col. Todd McCaffrey sees the mess hall every day, looming behind concrete walls down the road from his office. He remembers stepping past the door, the bright flash and then the screams and the blood.

Now, McCaffrey often wonders how history will judge the U.S. mission in Iraq.

"There's a sense of `I'm not going to quit now because we've invested American blood,'" said McCaffrey, whose 25th Infantry Division battalion patrols an area on the edge of Mosul.

But, he added, "You look at our history: We don't have much glowing success with combating insurgencies."

At road checkpoints inside Marez, even soldiers in uniform driving U.S. Army Humvees are asked to show identification. Saluting is done rarely, if at all—it would differentiate soldiers of higher rank and make them targets for attack. One of the first things visitors to the local airfield see is a sign forbidding soldiers from wearing caps that would reveal rank.

"This is a different kind of war. At West Point they taught us about history, like Napoleon or World War II. But it's not even like Vietnam. There, when you were in North Vietnam, you knew you were in enemy territory," said Capt. Mickey Traugutt, 25, of Lakewood, Wash. "Here, it's decentralized."

The enemy, he said, is everywhere.

Maj. Tim Vidra, a public affairs officer with the 25th Infantry Division, said it's gotten to the point where some vendors will no longer deliver supplies to troops.

For example, he said, he had a shipment of communications equipment scheduled to come in from the town of Irbil, but then one of the contractors' men was followed in Mosul and told by insurgents that they'd kill him if he brought shipments to the Americans or anyone associated with them.

"He e-mailed me and said, `I'm sorry. I've been working with (aid groups) and the coalition since the war began, but the security situation is so bad now that I can't leave Irbil,'" said Vidra, 34, of Denver. It wasn't an isolated incident, he said.

"We've had interpreters who've been killed, interpreters whose families have been tortured," he said. "One interpreter found two brothers and a cousin stuffed in a well."

Standing in a graveyard on the northwest corner of Mosul recently, McCaffrey looked around at the tombstones. Soldiers have found hundreds of dead bodies dumped at the site during the past several months, he said.

One of McCaffrey's company commanders, Capt. Steve Szilvassy, keeps a map of the bodies his men has found. It's pockmarked with small red dots and notations such as "Bx1" and "Bx2" for the number of corpses at a particular spot.

Pointing to one of the spots recently, Szilvassy, a 33-year-old from West Paterson, N.J., said, "We stumbled here 10 minutes after the two guys were pulled out of a car and shot in the back of the head, shot throughout the body. They cut one of the guy's throats."

He continued: "Kids watched the whole thing and told us about it."

In the graveyard, McCaffrey walked over with his translator to speak with an Iraqi woman whose family lives as squatters in a nearby ramshackle house.

The woman, who wouldn't give her name, told McCaffrey that her children are more scared of his soldiers than of insurgents.

"We hope things will get better," he said.

"Allah Karim," she responded: God is generous.

A few moments later, there was a low roar. Down the road, a thick column of smoke with a ring on top shot up in the sky. A car bomb targeting a U.S. convoy had blown up prematurely.

McCaffrey shook his head.

"It's tough to measure," he said. "It's tough to know if you're having success out here."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.