“Here in Baghdad We are Facing a Serious Sustained Terrorist Offensive”

In the last few days, the Washington Times, New York Times and Washington Post (here and here) all have run stories about the work of the 1st Armored Division in Iraq. This is, of course, the division to which our corrrespondent Joe Roche and his unit, the 16th Engineers, belongs.

Joe’s unit is in Baghdad now and very, very busy. Joe says he’s living on MREs and cold water, very little sleep and no time for showers. His last e-mail was short — he didn’t even have time to read his incoming e-mails before signing off to return to duty. It might be a while before he writes again.

But before that, on June 23, Joe had time to write a long e-mail for this blog and convey much information about the foreign enemy fighters U.S. servicemen have encountered in Iraq, examples of the dedication of U.S. troops, and much more. I recommend his entire piece, which is posted unabridged:

I know you are overwhelmed with news and analysis that tells you how bad things are here and how little we have accomplished. Please bear with me a little because I know the reality is far different. I believe you’ll see this a bit more clearly from understanding what my fellow soldiers have done.A few months ago, I recounted to you our efforts and achievements over a full year of missions in Baghdad, as a soldier in the 16th Engineer Battalion. Now I want to focus on our military combat efforts against the uprisings and our continued missions to secure Baghdad against the terrorist assault under way. This has been our primary focus over the past few months since being extended.

The 1st Armored Division, of which the 16th Engineers are a part, led the charge against Muqtada Al-Sadr’s uprising. The 16th was in the front in all this in Karbala, Najaf, Kufa and Baghdad. And contrary to the negative news coverage, the reality is that we have won some major victories that are having dramatic impact region-wide. I don’t think most Americans are aware of the seriousness of the threats we confronted and defeated.

Sadr’s Mahdi Army was backed by extensive foreign fighters and a huge amount support. Iran’s formidable Al-Quds Army (named for the conquest of Jerusalem, Israel) directly assisted their attacks against us. They trained some 1,200 of Sadr’s fighters at three camps they ran along the Iran-Iraq border at Qasr Shireen, ‘Ilam, and Hamid. This was backed by what one Iranian defector to us has said was $70 million dollars a month given by Iranian agents to our enemies — from which Sadr’s forces were directly funded in just the past few months by up to $80 million more. The Iranian Embassy distributed some 400 satellite phones in Baghdad to Sadr’s forces, while 2,700 apartments and rooms were rented in Karbala and Najaf as safe houses. Sadr’s ability to influence the Iraqi people was further enhanced by 300 “reporters” and “technicians” working for his newspaper, radio and television networks — persons who are actually members of the Al-Quds Army and Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards.

We also faced Chechen snipers in Sadr’s forces who were being paid anywhere from $500 to $10,000, depending on differing accounts, for each American soldier they hit. One sniper hit five soldiers in less then a minute-and-a-half, killing one with a shot in the neck. These mercenaries were sending this money back to Al-Qaeda-allied guerrillas in Chechnya to fight the Russians.

We also have constantly faced Lebanese and Palestinian Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon mixed in the fighting. Their claim to fame for the killing of 241 U.S. Marines in Beirut in 1983 is something we have had to consider every day and on every mission.

Najaf and Karbala are the two most important Shiite cities in the world. They are very densely packed and overcrowded tightly around the mosques that dominate the center of each. Baghdad’s Sadr City has a population of over 2 million even more densely populated. Do you see what I’m getting at? The odds against us were extreme and it looked for a while like all of Iraq would collapse in an orgy of violence and chaos that threatened to erupt the entire region. The enemy tried constantly to force us into killing innocent civilians. This didn’t work.

The people of Najaf and Karbala were extremely friendly. Kids poured out at times to greet U.S. soldiers because it was the first time many of them saw us. They knew the Mahdi Army was an alien outside militia, backed by foreign fighters, seeking to hijack their holy sites and force a larger regional conflict upon the U.S. When our patrols would go into the cities to clear schools where the militia hid weapons, or to secure government buildings, the Iraqis were very helpful and welcoming, giving much information to us to find and destroy Sadr’s forces.

My battalion sent us in different directions to each of the combat zones. We had a myriad of different missions to perform every day and night, no matter how hot or stressful the conditions were. Constantly under the threat of enemy fire, your soldiers performed brilliantly and heroically. One group of my battalion was attacked 139 times by RPGs!

Casualties did occur, and soldiers have died and been wounded severely, including some in my battalion. Nothing of these past few months has been casual or easy. And though being crushed by the extension in April when we all thought we were headed home, how did your soldiers carry on?

Specialist Rodriguez is one example. He broke his leg some months ago. He was offered the chance to deploy out of Iraq. He chose to stay. When his unit was deployed to Karbala, he cut off his cast. A person told him today that “we aren’t paid enough to do that.” Immediately, he and the other soldiers responded that it isn’t about the money; that we do this for much more important reasons.

Others of us faced down car bombs on streets under sniper attack; some carried out sweeps and raids against enemy-held locations; some have been constantly building and reinforcing defenses and holding high-danger critical locations. There is too much to try to list it all. Everyone has been a part of the full scope of the challenge.

In the first 14 days of this month there were 17 car bombs. Several hit locations at which we work. What can I say? The enemy is vicious and desperate. That is no excuse for anyone to retreat in defense of this mission. Bear in mind one of our past war leaders…

“Enduring peace cannot be bought at the cost of other people’s freedom,” Franklin Roosevelt said. “We will not be intimidated by the threats of dictators (against) our aid to the democracies which dare to resist their aggression.”

You saw the most recent bombings that targeted Iraqis trying to join the new police and military services. There is no denying that it is the Iraqi people who are under attack by evil terrorism. Some people get confused when they hear that other Iraqis are participating in these attacks, as if that means all Iraqis are against us. But wasn’t Timothy McVeigh an American, and in fact a combat engineer in the Army just like me? His terrorist attack in Oklahoma City never meant that Americans supported him, so why should the terrorism of a few demented Iraqis working with foreign terrorists mean more?

We are confronting a massive terrorist assault against the hopes for freedom here. Yes, we are targets, but so are the Iraqis. Therefore, it is vital that we remain committed to this mission.

We have defeated Sadr’s uprising and dealt him a powerful blow that has signaled all potential would-be tyrants that the U.S. is serious. Contrary to the fudging news, Karbala, Najaf and Kufa have all been abandoned by the Mahdi Army. The local people turned on them, sometimes violently. Today local Iraqi forces secure those cities while the U.S. military is present to support them. Going to these cities was Sadr’s ultimate move against us, and it was backed by a huge investment by his foreign allies. All that failed, and now he has retreated and is attempting to save face in politics. He offended the people of the cities his forces invaded, he offended the Iraqi people by claiming alliance with Lebanon’s Hezballah and the Palestinian Hamas terrorist groups, and he has disappointed his foreign supporters who thought he would derail our mission here in Iraq.

Here in Baghdad we are facing a serious sustained terrorist offensive. This we expected. Just at the point that democracy and self-determination are being advanced for the Iraqis, there will always be these terrorist offensives meant to destroy the progress. We must not cower and apologize for our being here at this time. This is, in fact, the most important time for us to show our resolve. And your soldiers are doing this valiantly.

Next to my housing is a Military Police unit that has suffered several serious casualties in the past days. The destroyed hummwvs are a constant reminder. Memorial services for these soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country have been too frequent. Yet, in the face of this tragedy, those soldiers are holding American courage up like the best heroes we have ever had.

One of those MP soldiers has been wounded in two separate attacks, shrapnel going through each arm. You might think he is full of fear and wants out of here. He was in fact offered the chance to leave Iraq. Instead, he chose to stay. His commanders told him that if he gets hit four times, they’re going to force him to leave. He responded, “then I have two more to go.”

That MP unit has only been here for five months, but now has several Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts being awarded, in addition to the lost soldiers. …This is your American soldier.

Baghdad will be the focus of the terrorist offensive for a long time. We accept that and are determined to stick it out. You at home need to remain strong in your support and faith in these soldiers. I will be leaving here soon, but the soldiers that remain will need your strength, courage and prayers.

The enemies we face are trying to wear us down, to demoralize us, and to take advantage of the political season now under way in America. Don’t let them succeed. I think that the weakest point of our whole campaign is actually back in the U.S., because people are being impacted by so many negative and dismaying reports and political discourse. I don’t want to sound like a recruiter, but I do believe that at a time when the military is so involved in combat operations world-wide, now is the best time ever for you to volunteer to serve.

I’m 36, joined late, and I’m not in good shape. Pat Tillman passed up a $3 million NFL contract to join the military. …What better way to show the enemy the depth of our resolve than for Americans to volunteer a few years of their lives into our military?

This is an extraordinary group of Americans, your soldiers here. While I’m not as capable as most soldiers are, I am glad that I’ve been able to spend this time with them, serving our country. The challenges are huge, and the prospects for failure are great, but we are doing the right thing and are on the right track. Every day we are making progress, and these changes are influencing the entire Arab world. This is no small matter.

I read the same reports you do from so many experts who despair of our victories. Some of them have been angry with me and called me a dreamer. I take that as a compliment. Americans are dreamers, after all, who have made the impossible come true time and time again throughout our history. One such dreamer said in 1964 when looking at the overwhelming odds faced then in the world, “If we fail, at least let our children, and our children’s children, say of us we justified our brief moment here. We did all that could be done.” That was Ronald Reagan. He kept the faith and remained strong in his resolve, and he won the Cold War.

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