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
The next morning, as an American interrogator questions Nashwan in an office at Four West, Fox approaches the steel bars of the station's holding cell. With a ruddy face and a wad of tobacco jammed behind his lip, Fox is a guy who just can't sit still. The police have captured another suspect in the shooting attack on the poll workers. He goes by the name Adel and sits disconsolately on the cell floor, his foot wrapped in a filthy bandage. Fox begins questioning him: "Are you attacking Americans?" Fox's interpreter, Mushtag Alleathe, who goes by the nickname "Mitch," translates.
"Yes," Adel responds, "I kill Americans."
"Why?" Fox asks.
Adel stands up and walks to the bars of his cell. "Because you attack Iraq."
"We are in Iraq to make it a free country," Fox says. Adel glares. "What is your end state?" Fox asks.
"Let America leave," Adel says, "and I will solve the problems of Iraq."
"If you keep fighting," Fox responds, "we will kill you, and we will stay longer."
"I will kill you," Adel says defiantly.
"If you want to fight, let's fight one on one, mano a mano ," Fox replies.
As Alleathe translates, 1st Lt. David Musick steps up, eases Fox back, and pushes forward a sergeant, one of the battalion interrogators. Musick respects Fox but thinks interrogation should be left to the professionals.
On the move. Major Fox, known in military parlance as the S-3, serves as the operations officer and a planner for the 1-17 battalion. But he hates being behind a computer or conference table and so spends much of his day driving around Mosul, checking on the Iraqi police and Army units. His admirers call him the Arctic Fox--a nod to his wily thinking and the fact that the battalion is based in Alaska. His detractors refer to him as the Arctic Squirrel--because of his habit of dashing hither and yon on impromptu missions.
Still, Fox has a clear perception of the larger mission for his battalion--and that of all the American forces in Iraq: getting rid of insurgents by building the effectiveness of the Iraqi Army and police. The 1-17 battalion's senior officers all share that vision. But they are divided on how best to achieve the goal. The battalion's top leaders, the commander and the executive officer, are by-the-book soldiers who believe that bending the rules could cause the American Army to lose its way in Iraq. Fox, on the other hand, is a get-it-done guy. He began his career invading Grenada as an enlisted grunt. And today, he is the kind of officer who chafes at rules when they seem to stand in the way of taking down a terrorist cell. Although he believes America must teach Iraqis, he also believes in letting the Iraqis carry out missions in their own way.
It is an important debate about the way ahead in Iraq. How should America balance winning the war against the insurgency with maintaining its image and values? And how should American soldiers balance letting the indigenous police and Army do things their way while making sure they comply with western standards? These are questions the military has not faced since Vietnam. The arguments in the 1-17 battalion also show how the American mistreatment of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison--and fear of another scandal--continue to loom over everything the military does, further complicating a mission rich in complication.