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U.S. soldiers unearth thousands of munitions in Al Anbar Province, Iraq

21 Feb 2006 | Staff Sgt. Jim Goodwin

In this once insurgent-heavy region in northwestern Iraq, U.S. soldiers here have unearthed one of the largest weapons caches discovered to date by Coalition forces in Iraq.

More than 3,000 pieces of various types of munitions, ranging from mortar, artillery and tank rounds to anti-personnel and anti-tank mines, was discovered Feb. 19 by U.S. soldiers conducting a reconnaissance patrol near Al Quratiyah located along the Euphrates River about 220 miles northwest of Baghdad.

The soldiers, from the Fort Wainwright, Alaska-based 4th Squadron, 14th U.S. Cavalry Regiment, assigned to Regimental Combat Team-7, were conducting a routine reconnaissance patrol when they discovered two displaced piles of dirt and rocks near a vehicle trail. Upon further investigation, the displaced areas were discovered to be weapons caches and the two sites were excavated.

This latest cache is the 118th found in western Al Anbar Province by soldiers here since the U.S. Army arrived here last August.  In a similar find last October, soldiers here discovered about 1,000 122 mm artillery rounds, 40,000 armor piercing bullets, 1,000 .50 caliber rounds, detonation cord and various bomb-making materials.

“This means a serious reduction in the IEDs available for anti-Iraqi forces to use in cowardly attacks,” said Army Maj. Doug W. Merritt, operations officer for 4th Squadron, 14th U.S. Cavalry Regiment.

A bit of good news

Munitions, such as those discovered in this recent cache site, are typically used to make roadside bombs – commonly referred to troops in Iraq as “Improvised Explosive Devices” - that injure and kill Iraqi civilians, coalition forces and Iraqi Army soldiers.

“We didn’t know what we were looking for, we were just looking,” recalled Army Staff Sgt. Steven J. Doolittle, a 32-year-old Chelsea, Oka., native and Scout section leader for the unit’s 1st Platoon, Assassin Troop.

Doolittle was one of about 12 soldiers, who were patrolling on foot in this desert-region about four miles west of the city of Rawah, where the discovery was made. The platoon was about to “call it a day” when they discovered the cache.

As one pile of weapons was being excavated, more were found. Nearly seven hours later, the soldiers had piled the thousands of rockets, mortars and other IED-making material for a final count before using C4 charges to destroy the weapons – a procedure which ensures no chance for the material to end up in insurgent hands and ultimately as a roadside bomb targeted at U.S. servicemembers and Iraqi soldiers.

Army Pfc. Christopher Jackson was one of the soldiers who made the initial find. Metal detector in hand, the 19-year-old was one of two soldiers who discovered the first two piles of rocks, which concealed thousands of munitions.

Jackson, who turned down a full college academic scholarship to join the Army, looks at the munitions cache discovery as a bit of positive news for coalition forces’ efforts in Iraq.

“All you see on the news is, ‘This person died,’ and other bad stuff; but there’s more to it,” said the Ft. Hood/Killeen, Texas, native, who added that the cache discovery was “cool.” 

“There’s a lot of people now who can come home to their wives,” he said.

One less IED on the roads

Typically, most weapons caches discovered in this rural region consist of about five to 30 rounds or weapons, according to Army officials here.

In comparison, according to one soldier, typical caches found are “like a corner grocery store or newsstand. This one was like finding a Super Wal-Mart.”

Since January 2005, IEDs have accounted for about 50-percent of all U.S. fatalities in Iraq, according to the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count – an organization which tallies U.S. and coalition casualties based off Department of Defense press releases.

For the soldiers of the “4-14” who travel Al Anbar’s roads daily, the find translates into less IEDs they’ll have to encounter on Iraq’s roadways. Moreover, the rising, mushroom-like smoke cloud caused when the soldiers detonated and destroyed the munitions means less chance of an attack on Iraq’s roadways.

“That’s one less IED that’s gonna be out there,” said Army Sgt. Kevin D. Rice, one of the unit’s medics.

Like many of the Squadron’s soldiers, Rice travels daily in the large, six-wheeled armored vehicles, called “Strykers,” during mounted patrols and convoys throughout western Iraq. The 27-year-old from Chicago has experienced two direct IED blasts since arriving in Iraq last August and has had several friends maimed by the bombs.

Three of the unit’s soldiers have been killed by IEDs, others hospitalized. One of the unit’s soldiers, a noncommissioned officer who worked with Rice, is still recovering from an IED attack several months ago.

“He had to relearn how to walk, talk, everything,” said Rice during a recent convoy from Al Asad – a nearly two-hour trip along a road which has been the site of many IED attacks. “Before I go out, I need at least an hour to prep my mind. Every time is like the first time.”

Tip of the iceberg

The cache discovery is just the tip of the iceberg of the progress these soldiers have made in the region since arriving here six months ago.

The soldiers’ overwhelming presence throughout this region has quelled the insurgency and reduced the amount of anti-Iraqi activity here. Six months ago, when the Squadron took operational control of the 28,000 square kilometers of desert here along with a handful of towns along the Euphrates River, insurgents had nearly free reign. The soldiers faced multiple IED attacks, weapons smuggling in the towns, indirect fire attacks against there posts, and a less-than-friendly local populace, according to Army leadership here.

Progress here has been steady, and the Squadron’s efforts are noticeable – less IEDs on the roads, insurgent activities have been reduced, Iraqi soldiers and police are advancing in their training under 4-14’s wing, and perhaps most importantly, U.S. soldiers here have begun to earn the trust of the locals.

“Progress was slow in Mosul, too. It took six months to see change and they (U.S. soldiers) know and understand that,” said Army 1st Lt. Richard A. Low, a 25-year-old from Summerville, S.C., and platoon leader for 1st Platoon, Alpha Company of the Army’s 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment. Low’s unit spent six months in Mosul, Iraq, before arriving here in January to work with 4-14.  

Though progress, more work to be done

But there’s still more work that needs to be done here before 4-14, and ultimately all U.S. forces, can leave Iraq. There are still IEDs on the road and more insurgents to be captured as evidenced by last night’s raid in Rawah. Moreover, Iraqi soldiers and police require more training before U.S. commanders deem them capable of taking complete operational control of Iraq. There are also more hidden weapons and explosive devices to be found before they can be used to hurt and kill U.S. and Iraqi forces and civilians.

“This was not the last one by any means,” said Low, who added that soldiers who operate outside the wire on a daily basis have “gotta be tough, both physically and mentally.”

“There’s days here when they’re on (working) for 24 hours,” he said. “I tell my soldiers, ‘Your actions won’t get you home tomorrow, but they will keep you from coming back (to Iraq) in six months to a year.’”

Until these men and women return to their home base in Alaska in six months, they’ll continue working toward keeping this barren area in what was once known as Iraq’s “Wild West” secure and on the road to self-governance.

For at least a little while, they’re content with knowing they’ve kept a good number of IEDs off Iraq’s roadways – signified by the large ‘boom’ and mushroom cloud of rising smoke caused when they used C4 to destroy the would-be weapons they found two days earlier – at least until they find the next munitions cache.

“When you look at that (cloud), you’re watching Marines’ and soldiers’ lives being saved,” said Capt. Michael Hays, a U.S. Marine attached to 4-14 and Murphy, N.C., native. “One of the (3,000) rounds would have killed one of them one of these days.”