Cracking An Insurgent Cell
Finding--and breaking--the ruthless killers of Iraq is not a pretty business. An exclusive inside look at how it's done
OSUL, IRAQ--It is 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, December 10, five days before Iraq's national elections. A red four-door sedan carrying four men cruises through the western half of this freewheeling oil town. The old beater of a car doesn't attract any particular attention before the driver, an 18-year-old called Nashwan, pulls over near a gaggle of campaign workers hanging political posters. A man known as Abu Mahmoud steps out of the car. He draws a handgun. Two other men with guns follow quickly. The campaign workers step back, then begin shouting angrily. Abu Mahmoud points his gun at one of the workers. He fires. The man falls to the ground, dead.
A hundred feet in the air, atop a mosque's minaret, an Iraqi police sniper hears the shots. The sniper draws a bead on one of the gunmen. He pulls the trigger, his bullet dropping the man to the ground. The gunfire alerts the police officers inside Four West, one of Mosul's heavily fortified police stations. They race to the scene. Abu Mahmoud hustles his men back into the car, and it takes off. But the streets are jammed, and Nashwan is forced to stop. Abu Mahmoud and a man called Adel jump out of the car and vanish into the crowd. For some reason, Nashwan does not run. The man shot by the sniper is taken to Mosul's main hospital. The police apprehend Nashwan and bring him to Four West.
Mosul is Iraq's second- or third-largest city, depending on who's counting. It is populated predominantly by Kurds and Sunni Arabs, with the west side almost entirely Sunni. A little more than a year ago, the police force in Mosul collapsed in the face of an insurgent uprising. Dozens of police officers were killed. The rest of the force quit. In the months that followed, the American battalions then overseeing the city struggled to regain control, drive off the insurgents, bring in stronger Iraqi Army units, and build an entirely new police force. More recently, since the latest American battalions arrived four months ago, the violence has begun to subside. But insurgent cells still operate here. Attacks against American forces by improvised explosive devices occur daily. Suicide bombers remain a threat, and gunmen roam the city looking for Iraqi security forces and American soldiers to pick off at random.
Barely two hours after the assassination of the campaign worker, Maj. Jonathan Fox, a 43-year-old officer with the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment, the American unit that oversees security operations in western Mosul, arrives at Four West to meet with the police station chief, Col. Eid al-Jabouri, about the attack. Nashwan, says al-Jabouri, has started talking to the Iraqi police. The police interrogator's questions focus on the afternoon attack. Nashwan confesses to having driven the getaway car, but he insists he did not shoot the party member.
What catches Fox's attention, though, is an admission by Nashwan that, six weeks earlier, he had joined an insurgent cell called the Mujahideen Army. The cell members, Nashwan tells the police, have been bringing explosives to Mosul in order to make roadside bombs to attack American patrols. Nashwan's capture, Fox believes, could be critical, an important opportunity to crack open and eliminate an insurgent cell. If the Iraqis and Americans act quickly, they may be able not just to find the triggerman in the attack on the campaign workers but to cut off a key source of the roadside munitions maiming and killing American troops. Fox tells al-Jabouri he will return with his interrogation team. Before leaving, however, he asks if Nashwan has been roughed up by his Iraqi interrogators. "A little," says al-Jabouri. The answer will severely complicate the rest of Fox's week.