Under Fire on a 'Fallen Angel' Rescue
Forward Operating Base Kalsu, Iraq"Fallen Angel" is the call that no one wants to hear on the radio. It's the Army's code name for a downed coalition aircraft.
When soldiers in the Army's 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment got that call on January 28, they began collecting the tools they'd need.
"I asked my company commanders if they had enough quickie saws to cut up the wreckage, enough flatbed trailers to haul it away, and body bags for the pilots," says Lt. Col. Barry Huggins.
When soldiers from the 2-3 arrived at the crash scene, they unexpectedly came under heavy fire from a compound of buildings and found themselves in one of the largest engagements since the fall of Baghdad.
"By the end of the night," Huggins recalls, he was asking his men: "Do you have enough mortar rounds left, and how many hand grenades do you think we'll need if we have to assault ... on foot?"
The battle against a heavily armed, well-entrenched group known as Heaven's Army left hundreds of enemy fightersand some civiliansdead after American planes rained down bombs for hours against their compound.
The following description of that battle comes from the Army's after-action report, reviewed by U.S. News, and interviews with American soldiers and Iraqi translators who were present those days, January 28 and 29, 2007. They paint the picture of a stunningly one-sided fight against what the military calls a Shiite doomsday cult.
"The destruction," one soldier says, "was almost biblical."
It happened northeast of the city of Najafa city holy to Shiite Muslimsin southern Iraq. It was the beginning of Ashura, the holiest month in Shiite Islam, and a local official accompanied by a group of Iraqi policemen was meeting with a religious sect at its compound several miles outside the small farming village of Zarga.
The group had recently bought several adjoining properties and begun minor construction at the compound. Members of the group had been exhibiting what officials later called "a disturbing pattern of behavior" that concerned local officials.
Something happened during the meeting, and a gunfight broke out around 8:30 a.m.
Elements of the Iraqi Army and the Iraqi police were called to the scene. American Special Forces teams were also operating in the region, supporting the Iraqi fighters. An Apache helicopter was called in to overfly the area. At 1:30 pm, an antiaircraft gun, which had been concealed in the compound, fired on the helicopter as it was crossing the Tigris River and sent it crashing to the ground, killing the two U.S. pilots.
The 2-3, which was at Forward Operating Base Kalsu, 55 miles north of Najaf, was preparing for a series of night raids against local enemy targets. Twenty minutes after receiving the "Fallen Angel" report, the unit's three companies of Stryker armored vehicles were heading south, anticipating a recovery operation for the downed chopper.
When they arrived at the scene of the wreckage, they found both pilots dead. As the soldiers were cutting and retrieving the scraps of aircraft, they began taking heavy fire from the compound where the cult had dug in.