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Operation Mercer

Taking charge: 48th Brigade goes on offensive to root out insurgents

By Gray Beverley GEORGIA NEWS SERVICE

BABIL, Iraq – Over the Humvee loudspeaker came:

Al-kwat Al-America … Forces of America É

Ladiha mohoma fe hathhe al-montoka É have an operation in this neighborhood.

Al rajaa al-baka beauticum É Please stay in your house.

Infantry soldiers of the 48th Brigade Combat Team then went house to house, kicking down doors when necessary and snapping the locks on others.

Operation Mercer had begun.

The goal: sweep a neighborhood of insurgents and the weapons they use.

The mission was named for the popular Sgt. Chad Mercer, a former Georgia Military College cadet and brigade non-commissioned officer of the year. Mercer, of Waycross, died in June – days after his 25th birthday – after his Bradley fighting vehicle rolled over while patrolling a dark Iraqi road.

Last month\’s mission marked the start of a wave of brigade offensives – the first large-scale retaliation against those who have been terrorizing greater Baghdad streets. It occurred before the recent wave of bombings that cost the Macon-based National Guard brigade 11 members.

The night before the offensive, Spc. James Mosier of Warner Robins said he wasn\’t sure if he should have told his family about the danger ahead. But Mosier, a 48-year-old landscaper, said he wanted to hear their voices one last time, just in case.

He said he swallowed his heart when his little girl said, \”I\’m praying for you, and I want you to come home.\”

Spc. Robert Walton, 36, of Columbus, said his 4-year-old daughter asked if she could get in the minivan and come visit.

Spc. Tashana Luz, a manager of a Columbus shoe store, said she felt honored to be among the few women assigned to the infantry. Her role was to search any female suspects.

\”It\’s a good thing seeing what they do,\” the 23-year-old said. \”I like that I\’m here with them, rather than being blind – just cooking or guarding.\”

Luz said she was not nervous being \”outside the wire,\” because \”I\’m probably with the safest people out here – the infantry.\”

Spc. Travis Felton of Cordele was chosen to kick in the front gate and door of a home whose family reportedly had gone into the city. \”Y\’all got me being the hammer today,\” said the 25-year-old Felton, who hopes to get a coaching job when he returns home.

Capt. Brian Lassetter of Moultrie, commander of the infantry unit based in Cordele, said the operation hampered the enemy\’s ability to attack, let them know that Americans are in control and offered protection to local residents.

The residents looked resigned to the hunt but not necessarily angered by it.

\”You can see it in their eyes,\” said Lassetter, 37. \”They\’re scared to talk to you because there are people watching them.\”

For the most part, only women and children were at home. Almost everyone complied without a fuss, although at least one woman seemed upset that a closet door was busted open (she had not produced a key).

One young man was killed by the Americans as he approached soldiers and refused to stop, even after a warning shot was fired, Lassetter said. The captain said that perhaps a journal the man kept will explain why.

Soldiers then had to comfort the man\’s father.

Unlike the litter-lined walkways, the homes were tidy. Almost all had a television set, a living room with bare tile floor, sparsely equipped kitchens and back rooms with stacks of belongings against the wall. Most were a single floor, spacious, pink or tan on the outside, with peeling paint inside and apparently a scant amount of electricity.

About 200 soldiers took part in Operation Mercer. Some went through about 250 houses, while others guarded the streets. A psychological operations squad made public address announcements. Two civil affairs teams watched from a distance, gauging local reaction and passing out gifts to children.

The operation covered about 14 kilometers in what is dubbed \”IED Alley.\” Twenty people were detained and a weapons cache was uncovered, Lassetter said. Soldiers also found five duffel bags containing items used for making IEDs, as well as a bomb schematic and a large amount of dinars, the Iraqi currency, he said.

One man apparently claimed to be a veterinarian, but a gutted radio and his home\’s proximity to a mortar attack made soldiers suspicious.

For the next seven days, in what was called Operation Scimitar, brigade infantry units set up blockades so that Marines could funnel insurgents into one town. Then the troops swooped into that town and captured dozens of suspects, Lassetter said.

At one point, he said, infantry soldiers stabilized a young boy who had sliced off part of his thumb and was in shock, and then they called for a helicopter to whisk him to a hospital.

It\’s episodes like this that Lassetter hopes will overcome a lifetime of anti-American propaganda and any hard feelings about the home invasions.

Lassetter said the Iraqis he\’s met are thankful for the security the Americans provide and that they can now get satellite television. He said some have expressed relief that Americans are at their door, rather than Iraqi soldiers, who allegedly are less deliberate in their investigative techniques.

The Iraqi army also is productive in gleaning information, having less restrictive rules about interrogation than American forces.

But there\’s more to the local soldiers.

Lassetter said the local soldiers \”bring a lot to the fight,\” because they know the neighborhoods, the culture and the people, and therefore it\’s easier for them to spot dubiety.

Moreover, Iraqi people who want to help are more apt to approach their countrymen, who are here to stay, he said.

Later, U.S. Army JAG officials likely will take claims of damages, and the American civil affairs teams will do \”consequence management\” – talking with residents and explaining why the soldiers did what they did.

More than one American soldier has said that he doesn\’t want any new enemies.

Lassetter said Operation Mercer disrupted the enemy, who seemed poised to attack on that day but was surprised.

\”Here\’s what happened today,\” the captain said. \”When we squeezed \’him\’, \’he\’ didn\’t know what to do. \’He\’ was looking for a regular patrol.\”

Lassetter said the Army can\’t help build bridges, schools or a stable government without security. He had another way of putting the operation\’s success.

Operations like these continued throughout July. Infantry brigades have nabbed more than 300 suspected insurgents to date and, by most accounts, have disrupted many enemy attacks.

Lately there\’s been a price. Since Mercer\’s death, 11 soldiers have fallen on these same roads. Some officials have said that the extraordinary blasts that claimed these lives during the past two weeks are evidence that the brigade is making progress.

Whatever the long-term outcome, patrols continue day and night, searches have produced more weapons and suspects, and the infantry soldiers seem resolved to take charge of these neighborhoods.

To contact Gray Beverley, e-mail gray@ganews.org.