Title Changed

It’s official; the title of Book 2 is now “Hunting in the Shadows.”

Now I’ve just got to figure out these last two or three chapters…


Title Changes

So, I’ve come to realize that “Alone and Unafraid” really fits the storyline of Book 3 better than Book 2. This is largely because of the shift that happened in writing Book 2, which also drastically changed the third volume. So now I’m trying to figure out the new title. Some options:

Bug Hunt
Door Kickers Unlimited
Proxy War
Raiders Between Two Rivers
High Value Targets

Honestly, “Target Deck” almost fits, but Jack Murphy already used that one.


Human Terrain: Tribes

by Breach-Bang-Clear Contributor at Large and Valued Minion Peter Nealan, author of Task Force Desperate. This one talks about human terrain and negotiating it for tactical and strategic advantage, if not operational survival outside the wire.


While it may seem, on the surface, that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (Wars?  Try battles in the same war) are winding down, anyone who has been paying attention knows that the GWOT is just moving to a new phase.  It didn’t start on 9/11, and it’s not ending in 2014.

            That means we’re going to still be fighting Salafist and Shia jihadists for a very long time.  The following falls under the heading of “Know Thine Enemy.”

            Most parts of the world where Islam holds sway is very tribal.  These tribes often go back thousands of years; part of our fumble in dealing with Iraq and Afghanistan over the last ten years was not understanding at best, or flat-out ignoring at worst, the nature and power of these tribes.  Steven Pressfield [author of the brilliant books The Warrior Ethos, The Afghan Campaign and The Profession and many others] published a series of videos a number of years ago, entitled “It’s the Tribes, Stupid.”  Unfortunately, not many people appeared to have listened.

Read the rest at Breach-Bang-Clear.

Alone and Unafraid Snippet 3

            Night fell over Kirkuk with the usual mingling of the call to prayer with honking car horns, sirens, and sporadic gunfire.  There hadn’t been any IED blasts for a few days, and that night was as quiet as ever, aside from the shooting.  Of course, in Iraq, shooting wasn’t necessarily a surefire way of knowing that somebody was getting fucked up.  These people, and I include the Kurds in this, had a scary disregard for the laws of gravity.  They fired weapons into the air to celebrate all sorts of things.  Weddings, births, funerals.  It made it really difficult sometimes to tell when something was going down, or somebody was just really happy, and decided to chance getting one of their own rounds back the hard way.

            We waited until the sun was well down and the bulk of the populace had gone inside before we went to work.  Just because we were in technically friendly territory didn’t mean we necessarily wanted a lot of people see where we were going, much less how.

            Bob and Little Bob headed out first, to go retrieve the vehicles we would be using.  They were a little special, and so we kept them cached at the Liberty Petroleum compound outside the city, near the Baba Dome East complex.  We didn’t want just anybody poking around them.

            While we waited for the Bobs, the rest of us got our gear together.  We packed all of it; we weren’t planning on coming back here.  Even in friendly territory, we didn’t like to keep a safehouse in one place for long.  Hal would probably relocate a day or so after we left.

            We stacked rucksacks and kitbags full of gear and optics just inside the door.  It was dark, and most of the populace had turned in, but we didn’t want to chance wandering eyes, whether human or the electronic eyes of the UAVs that the Iraqis had bought a few years back.

            Then we sat down on our rucks and waited.  It often comes to that.  You get everything lined up, you’re ready to go into enemy territory, or at least unfriendly territory, and then you wind up just sitting there for a couple hours, trying not to let your mind get too far into how badly things could go, or how short your life could wind up becoming over the next hours.  There wasn’t much talking, and most of us tried to sleep, mostly without success.  I was still going over the plan in my head, even as I closed my eyes.  Had I accounted for all the gear and supplies?  Was the route good?  Had I gone over all the possible contingencies?

            That got me started on contingencies.  We’d all seen over the years just how pear-shaped things could get downrange.  East Africa had only been the most serious example.  Of course, it was now the yardstick for all such planning, and I found myself going back over how wrong some of that job had gone, and applying similar scenarios to the present task.

            It wasn’t terribly encouraging.


            About three hours later, the trucks showed up, rumbling and rattling their way down the street from the north.  We started stirring, and Hal pushed out security to make sure we could load up unobserved.

            There were two trucks; one a big water tanker, the other a dump truck.  Large vehicles like them weren’t all that common on Iraqi streets, but they weren’t terribly remarkable, either.  At least not on the outside.

            The inside was another matter.  While an inspection, either looking in the top of the tank or the dump truck’s bucket, would show water in one and gravel in the other, just as expected, both were blinds.  The water only filled the top quarter of the tank, with a black-painted false bottom beneath it.  The dump truck was the same.  Underneath the false floors were spaces for up to five operators, albeit cramped space, and their gear.  Fiberoptics provided the ability to look out in all directions.  An extensive comm suite was built into the trucks’ frames.  They were our UURSVs.  Ultimate Urban R&S Vehicles.  You can thank Malachi for that bit of inanity.

            Larry had, after the groans had died down, and Malachi had gotten a couple of hefty smacks upside the head for coming up with another acronym, pointed out that if you squinted at it, UURSV looked kind of like “Ursa,” the Latin word for bear.  So we started calling them Bears.  And we still gave Malachi shit for the original name.

            Loading up took some doing.  While Hal’s guys held security, we opened up the hatches on the undersides of the Bears, which really weren’t very big; they had to fit inconspicuously as far under the vehicles as possible.  It made for a tight squeeze for the rucks, and for guys like Larry and Little Bob.  We unscrewed the hatch covers and started shoving the gear through first.  Men and weapons would go last.

            Larry and Little Bob stayed out to drive.  Jim and I would ride shotgun.  Paul led the way into the tanker, wriggling his way through the hatch, pushing his ruck and rifle ahead of him.  Once he was in, he turned and reached out to take the rest of the gear before anyone else followed him in.  Bob was doing the same in the dump truck.  Once all the gear was in, Nick, Bryan, Juan, and Malachi wormed their way into the compartments.  Jim and I closed and latched the hatches.  Now the Bears looked like worn, beat-up old working trucks.

            It was almost 0300 when Jim and I finished our final walk-arounds and climbed into the cabs.  We might not see each other until we exfiltrated from Tikrit.  It wouldn’t do to have two such vehicles seen hanging around the same area.  Larry fired up the tanker as soon as I was in the passenger seat, my gear and rifle secured under the floor panel, and we trundled off to the east.  We had the longer route; Jim and Little Bob would be taking Bear B straight south.

            We wove our way through the streets of Kirkuk until we hit the main road heading southeast, toward As Sulaymaniyah province.  It wasn’t much of a road; it wasn’t paved, but was just gravel.  It was still better laid than any in Somalia.

            As we got out of the city and into the flat, open farmlands that surrounded it to the south, I picked up the intercom.  “How’s the ride back there?”

            “I’m glad we decided to pad the inside of these things,” Nick replied.  “It’s still going to be pretty fucking cramped when you and Larry get in here.”

            “Since when were you ever comfortable in a hide?” I asked.

            “Since never,” he allowed.  “So much for going private sector for an easier life.”

            “You wouldn’t want an easier life,” I pointed out.  “You told me that five years ago.  Said something about getting out because things had become too easy.  You knew where your next paycheck was coming from, etc.”

            “I don’t remember saying that,” he said.

            “Of course you don’t.  You don’t remember what you said yesterday,” I taunted.

            “Fuck you,” he chuckled.  “Your memory’s not much better than mine.”

            “Hey, it may not be by much, but it’s still better.”

            There was a pause, then, “I can still kick your ass.”

            “You wish,” I replied.  “You’re still playing catchup from after you got out.”

            Larry was listening to this byplay, shaking his head and chuckling as he watched the road.  The banter came easily, even in spite of the stress of the mission.  It was how we passed the time, and kept from thinking too much about what might be coming down the road.  We still had to think about it, and I can tell you, every one of us was.  But for a little while, as we focused on the task at hand, we could distance ourselves from it a little.

            The lights of Kirkuk dwindled in the rear-view mirror, as flat fields stretched on either side of the road.  The farmhouses, some cloaked in palm groves, but others simply standing alone among the fields, were dark.  Even in an oil-rich country like Iraq, power was getting sketchy, and usually was all but nonexistent in the rural areas.

            As we neared the small villages of Yehyavah and Leylan, we found that it wasn’t just the rural areas.  The two small towns, separated only by the road, were as dark as any of the farmhouses.  I couldn’t tell if any of the houses had a generator running; the rumble of the truck’s engine, along with the little additions we’d made to make it rattle more than it should, made hearing much of anything outside the cab all but impossible.  There were no lights showing, though, even through windows.  Granted, it was the wee hours of the morning, but I would have expected at least someone to have a light on for security.  Unless having a light on had turned into an invitation, anymore, which was entirely possible.

            The intercom crackled.  “Jeff,” Nick said, “we’re getting some chatter.”

            A lot of the money—of whatever denomination—we’d made in the last year or so hadn’t gotten banked so much as it had been put back into gear and equipment.  Among that gear was some top-quality signals intelligence, or SIGINT gear.  We could listen in on just about anything but SINCGARS frequency-hopping transmissions, or anything tight-beam.  That made intercepting Al Qaeda or Jaysh al Mahdi signals a breeze.  They were getting more sophisticated, but that sophistication hadn’t bled over into their communications, yet.

            “What kind of chatter?” I asked.

            “Nothing concrete,” he replied, “but it does sound like bad-guy chatter.  Can’t pin it down, yet, this translation program’s not that great.”

            “Does it sound like something we need to loiter for, or do we go ahead and push?”  I wasn’t going to pass up any information we could get, and if AQI or Jaysh al Mahdi was sniffing around Kirkuk, it couldn’t mean anything good for our employers, regardless of what the Iraqi government might be up to.  If it smelled like something brewing that they might need warning about, we needed to see what we could find out.  Jim could handle Tikrit for an extra day, if need be.

            That was one of the advantages of working this way.  We had a hell of a lot more operational flexibility than we ever would have staying in the uniformed military.  Sometimes our liaisons with Liberty got a little bit nervous about just how fast and loose we played with mission parameters, but one of our founding principles had been, “Ground truth trumps all.”  We had also borrowed an old Delta commander’s axiom, “When in doubt, develop the situation.”  We didn’t have the kind of support and backup that we might have had if we were working with the Army or Marine Corps in the old days, when they could still project power.  We were the tripwire between our clients and the bad guys.  So we had a tendency to check things out when they caught our attention.

            There was a long pause before Nick answered.  “I can’t be sure, but this does sound like a little more than a couple of cells talking.  I think we might want to stick around for a little bit.”

            I pointed to the side of the road, and said to Larry, “Let’s pull off and kill it.”  He nodded, pulling the truck over into the open field just to the northwest of Yehyava and shutting the engine down.

            I reached under the dash and pulled out the thermal binoculars.  They were bulkier than the thermal attachments on our PVS-14 night vision, but they had a lot better resolution.  If there were bad guys out there in the dark, I wanted to be able to see them first.  I started their cool-down, then reached under the panel and brought my rifle and mags up to where I could get at them quickly in the event we needed to shoot our way out.  That was considerably less than ideal, but it never paid to count on ideal.

            With the binoculars cooled down, I raised them to my eyes and scanned the town.  Larry, having shut down the truck, was retrieving his own night vision and FAL from their compartments under the floor.

            The town was still and cold.  I saw a few dogs rooting around in the trash on the outskirts, and a couple of donkeys, but no people were moving, at least not where I could pick them up.  Granted, Yehyava was decent-sized as far as rural Iraqi villages went, and there were a lot of cinderblock walls and narrow streets where somebody might be lurking, without being visible from outside the town.  We weren’t necessarily going to see much from here, but I figured we’d probably find out more from the SIGINT rig that Nick was listening to in back than from direct observation.

            I lowered the thermals and keyed the intercom.  “Talk to me, Nick.”

            “Stand by, Jeff.”  Nick sounded like he was rummaging through something.  I realized it was probably the little glorified Rolodex we kept with most of the major known terrorist players and their known aliases.  It was a risk taking it along, but it was a helpful little quick reference, and wasn’t all that different from the decks of cards that had been used in the past, particularly when going after HVTs in post-Saddam Iraq during the US occupation, before we had pulled out and the civil war had erupted.

            It also helped to have the hardcopy, because none of us entirely trusted anything that ran on batteries.  We’d all experienced too many instances of the fancy electronic toys shitting the bed.

            “Wow,” he finally said.  “Holy shit.  Jeff, I don’t think we’ve got an attack or anything here, I think we’ve got a meeting going on.”

            “What makes you think that?” I asked, the thermals back at my eyeballs as I held the intercom mic with one hand.

            “I’m recognizing a couple of kunyahs,” he responded.  “It sounds like Abu Fariq and Saif al Salahudin are on site.”

            “Damn,” Larry muttered.  “Those aren’t small-fry.”

            They weren’t.  Abu Fariq was a known Al Qaeda in Iraq “facilitator.”  He didn’t usually get his hands dirty himself, but he was a top supplier and smuggler.  Saif al Salahudin was a hitman, for lack of a better term.  He didn’t generally go for big, explosive ops, but he had personally killed at least twenty-five high-level government officials.  There were suspicions that several of them had been executed for not following instructions from either Al Qaeda or the Muslim Brotherhood, which was doing less and less to distance themselves from the resurgent terror organization.

            “What the hell do those two have to talk about?” I mused, watching for any sign of the entourages that Abu Fariq in particular would have along.  There wasn’t anyone outside on this side of the town.  “Al Salahudin doesn’t usually go for the bigger ops that would require Abu Fariq’s services.”

            “Maybe he’s branching out,” Larry offered.  He had his own thermals out and was scanning.  He reached for the mic.  “Nick, have we got a DF on this chatter?”

            “Working on it,” was the reply.  “It’s close, but I don’t think the meet has gone down yet.  It sounds like they’re still trying to link up.”

            “Are they trying to talk each other in?  Can we get a rough location?” I asked.

            “Let me listen, and I might be able to tell you,” Nick answered.  I shut up and kept watching the town.

            For a while, the only sound in the cab was the occasional ping or creak from the cooling engine, or the faint rustle of either Larry or me shifting our positions.

            “So if we do have two HVTs here,” Larry ventured, “how do you want to play it?  Do we break out of the op to take ‘em, or do you want to just call it in and move on?”

            I thought about it for a minute.  It was a hell of a question.  The primary mission was still to reconnoiter Tikrit.  Overall, that could be way more important than two AQI bully-boys meeting in a Podunk little Iraqi farm village.  On the other hand, none of us liked leaving any of these fuckers standing.  If we could take them out on the way to somewhere else, usually we’d take the opportunity.

            I shook my head.  “We’ll hold here for a little while, and see if we can nail them down, then call it in.  Mike’s team might be able to helo in and hit them while we move on.  I don’t want to compromise our presence before we even get to Tikrit.”

            “Guys, I think I’ve got a general location,” Nick announced over the intercom.  “I can’t give you a precise position, but they are definitely south, in Leylan.  I might have a location picked out from their chatter, but we’re definitely going to have to move to get eyes-on.”

            “Roger,” I replied.  “Where to?”  I motioned to Larry, who put his thermals back on the seat next to him and reached down to start the truck up again.  I hoped that the bad guys in town wouldn’t be able to hear the truck starting, or at least wouldn’t get too suspicious about it, but sitting here with the diesel rumbling would raise suspicions, too.  In some ways, this was turning into a dress rehearsal for Tikrit.

            “Start moving due south; I think we’re looking at somewhere close to the radio tower.”

            I looked over at Larry, who nodded.  “I see it.”

            I keyed the mic again.  “Who’s running comm back there?”

            “Malachi,” Nick said.

            “Have him get a link with Alek or Imad back in Erbil, and put me through.”  We’d have to get Mike’s team up and the helo turning fast if we were going to make this work.  Granted, the bad guys didn’t have the fear they might have had back in the days when the US Army and Marine Corps effectively ran the country, but they still probably wouldn’t hang around all that long.  We had a narrow window of opportunity, and I wanted to take advantage of it.

            It took a couple of minutes before Imad’s voice came over the little speaker.  “Hillbilly, Spearchucker.  You guys aren’t in Tikrit already, are you?”

            “Negative,” I replied.  “We are in the vicinity of the village of Yehyava.”  I rattled off the four digit grid coordinate for the town.  “We have a SIGINT hit on two HVTs, Abu Fariq and Saif al Salahudin.  They appear to be having a meet in the town; we are moving to get eyes on the exact location.  Request Speedy’s team spin up and proceed to the target once we designate it.”

            “What is the security situation on the ground?” Imad asked.  He didn’t ask if we were sure; none of us would call an audible on a raid if we weren’t.

            “We are moving toward the target area, no outer security spotted yet,” I replied.  “We will update with any and all information we gather between now and when the team gets on target.”

            “Roger,” Imad said.  There was a pause.  “Speedy is on his way to the TOC now, estimate they will be wheels up in twenty minutes.”  Mike’s team was on QRF duty, which meant they were on fifteen minute strip alert as it was.

            Let’s see…wheels up in twenty minutes, maybe twenty more minutes until the helos could be on target.  We had forty minutes, maybe, to gather all the information that we could and pipe it to Mike and his boys, so they could come up with a solid plan in the air.  More like we had about twenty minutes.  All of this was of course contingent on the meeting going that long, and the targets staying in the vicinity.  It was going to be tight.

            Larry revved the engine, sending the tanker trundling back up onto the road that ran between the two villages, then across and back onto the bare dirt next to another farm compound that barely qualified as being on the outskirts of Leylan.  After some bouncing and rocking that was doubtless getting him cussed out by all the guys back in the tank, he found a rutted dirt track between the fields, and started us down toward the town proper.

            I had kept the thermals out, and was trying to see what I could.  There wasn’t much, even in spite of the bouncing; most Iraqis headed inside as soon as it got dark.  I could see a couple of dogs, and a glimmer of something warm deeper into the town, but no people, not yet.

            “We might have to get out and see what we can see on foot,” I said.  “I don’t want to drive this thing straight into the middle of their little powwow.”

            “I think you’re right,” Larry said, as he eased off the gas.  “Do we want to get the guys out of the tank?”

            “We’re going to have to get at least one out,” I said, as I hefted my rifle and reached for the door handle.  “We’ll need somebody out on backup while we run recon.  I don’t think we’ve got time for more than a driver to get out before we take off, though.  We’ve got to get eyes-on and back to the truck in time to pass the data-dump to Mike.”  I paused and reached for the intercom.  “Nick, Larry and I are unassing to get eyes on the target.  Get Bryan out here to drive in case things go pear-shaped.  We should be back in thirty minutes.  If we aren’t, and you don’t hear a firefight, hold for another ten, then get in contact with Mike’s team and come get us.  If we take contact, we will fall back to here, and need to be ready to move as soon as we climb on.”  We didn’t really have the leeway for the usual five-point contingency plan.

            “Roger,” Nick replied. “Bryan’s coming out now.”  I put the mic back on its rack, and reached under the seat where my bump helmet was stored.  It wouldn’t provide any ballistic protection, but it was light, and provided a more comfortable NVG mount than a Halo mount.  I fitted it on my head, attached the PVS-14s, checked them, and then opened my door and dropped out of the cab.

            I brought my rifle up and took a knee after I carefully closed the truck’s door.  Behind me, I could hear the faint creak of the tank hatch coming open, then the rustling and grunting as Bryan got his lanky ass out of the tank.  Bryan was taller than me, though we weighed about the same.  It made things interesting for him in tight spaces like the concealed compartments in the Bears.  Come to think of it, we had a lot of guys who were too big for such tight spaces, one way or another.

            He managed to pull himself out by grasping one of the ladder steps that was welded on the side of the tank, and levered his legs out before lowering himself to the ground.  His rifle and vest followed, then he was pulling himself up into the cab.  “I got this,” he said.  “Good hunting.”

            I raised my hand in acknowledgement, and led out.  Larry fell in half a dozen steps behind me.

            The town was a maze of walls, houses, and shadows.  The NVGs dispelled a lot of the shadows, at least enough to keep anyone from successfully hiding in them.  Unfortunately, there was a lot of open ground between those shadows, which pretty much precluded our using them to hide as well.  We were exposed, even with all the lights off; the moon was out, and though it was close to the horizon, and therefore dimmer than it might be, it still provided enough illum to see fairly well.  Our best bet would be to get close to the buildings and keep close, avoiding crossing large open areas as much as possible.  That presented its own set of problems.

            The first of those problems presented itself as soon as Larry and I got across the open field and over the road to the first compound we could get to.  As soon as we came around the corner, the dogs started barking.

            I didn’t know if any Iraqis actually kept the dogs; none of them seemed to have a home, but just roamed the streets.  I’d heard that most Iraqis, being at least semi-faithful Muslims, viewed dogs as unclean, so they wouldn’t keep them, but just let them run around feral.  They were also the nastiest dogs I’d ever run into.  Jim had had to shoot one in Kirkuk when it came for him, and wouldn’t back down to the usual posturing that turns a dog aside.

            Now the damned chelubs, as they were called locally, were about to compromise our little leader’s recon.  Fuck.

            I froze as we crouched in the near-nonexistent shadow of the wall.  We were in another open area, without vegetation or even walls for cover.  There was just nothing.  I scanned the surrounding buildings carefully as I lowered myself to a knee, my rifle up in the low ready position, my thumb resting lightly on the pressure switch for the PEQ-15’s IR laser.  Larry took up a position beside me, faced back across and down the road.

            There was no other sound, no movement, no thermal signatures of curious people looking out to see what the commotion was about.  There was, in fact, no sign at all that the dogs’ barking had raised any kind of alarm.  I guessed that the locals were too used to the feral things yapping at all hours that they just discounted it now.

            I sincerely hoped that the AQI motherfuckers would do the same.  So far, it looked like they would.

            After a minute of waiting, acutely conscious that our time window was rapidly closing, I decided to take the chance and push.  I reached back, thumped my fist against Larry’s shoulder, and then got to my feet.  Behind me, I could hear Larry levering himself up as well.  As quietly as I could, I started forward, following the wall to my left.

            The compound terminated at another wide open space, crossed by two roads, with another cluster of houses on the far side of the second road.  There were still no signs of life, aside from the handful of dogs I could now pick out by their thermal signatures rummaging around in the piles of trash near the roads.

            There was nothing for it.  We had to get across that open space, and with the timeline being what it was, speed would have to suffice for security.  I looked back at Larry, and when he looked forward at me, I motioned that I was going to cross the danger area.  Not all that wise, running straight across a wide open danger area, but I didn’t see much choice at the moment.  If we tried going around, we’d just be on the road, which was easily as bad.  There were no good choices, especially as the minutes ticked away.

            Larry signaled that he was ready when I was, so I took off.  It was less a sprint and more a fast jog, but it got me across to the cluster of houses in less than a minute.  I dropped to a knee, already slowing my breathing, and waited for Larry, who had stayed in place until I got across.

            Larry joined me at the cluster, but rather than just following my lead, he put out a hand to keep me from moving, and started toward the opposite corner.  Continuing to make sure I covered the other way, I followed him, figuring that he’d seen something coming across that I hadn’t.

            He had.  He peered around the corner, then edged back and motioned for me to look, while he took up rear security.  I switched places with him, and eased my head around the corner.

            There was a Bongo truck sitting at the corner of the next cluster of compounds, maybe one hundred fifty meters away.  It was warm, and there were two men standing near it, both carrying AKs.  Bingo.  I took a long look around, to see if there were any others in sight, but they were the only ones.  I moved back from the corner, and motioned to Larry that we’d go the other way.  I wanted to circle around and see if we could get eyes on any more hanging around.  If we could get a good idea of the exterior security, we should be able to pinpoint the target building.  The number of vehicles outside might clue us in to how many there might be inside, as well.

            That, unfortunately, was more easily said than done.  Looking around the other corner, I could see the corner of a large compound in the vicinity of the target area, along with another man with a slung PKM.  But there was nothing but open ground to the side; in order to get a good angle on the target building, we’d have to cross at least another hundred meters, and this time within the field of view of the dude on the south side of the compound.  That was bad news.  Worse, any other way to get a better view would entail getting within twenty-five meters of the target compound.  No fucking way.

            I checked my watch, using my hand to shield the glow.  It had been ten minutes since we left the truck.  Decision time.

            I peeked out at the guy on the south side of the compound, trying to see if he had night vision.  It didn’t look like it, and as far as we’d been able to see, AQI wasn’t nearly that sophisticated yet.  Some of the other groups were; we were pretty sure that Jaysh al Mahdi had everything the IRGC had had ten years ago.  Mainly because it had been given the IRGC’s castoffs.  But AQI was still scraping the bottom of the barrel for equipment.

            The dogs started barking up a storm off to the north, and the guy I was watching turned to look toward the noise.  Perfect.  I ordinarily don’t like relying on luck, but here it was, and so I moved.

            One hundred fifty meters isn’t far.  If you’re sprinting, it’s even shorter.  If you’re trying to cross it fast but quietly, without drawing the eye of somebody who will shoot at you if they see you, it’s a long fucking way.  But I made it, even as I watched the sentry as best I could the whole way.

            He had moved to the corner of the compound, and was yelling something to the guys at the Bongo truck.  Probably wondering what the dogs were making a racket about.  I didn’t care.  I slid into the narrow roadway between another cluster of walled compounds and a soccer field, and took a knee in the shadows by one of the walls.  Larry made it in behind me, having followed when I moved.  That was almost just reflex, by now.  I should have filled him in, but there hadn’t been time.  Training and many years of working together had smoothed such things out, to where if one guy saw an opening and took it, the others just kind of went with the flow, unless it was something monumentally stupid.  We generally did a pretty good job of avoiding monumentally stupid, but shit does happen.

            As I peered out and scanned the compound, I breathed a faint sigh of relieve that I had dodged monumentally stupid once again.  There was no sign that we’d been heard or spotted, and I had an excellent view of what I was now sure was the target compound.

            It was pretty good-sized.  There was a two-story outbuilding in the corner of the wall, and I could see the roof of a sizeable building within, including a two-story section on the south side.  It looked almost big enough for a school; for all I knew, it either was, or had been.  These fuckers had no qualms about using schools and hospitals for their operations.

            I figured directions and distances as I watched.  There were two more sentries on the rooftop; one of them was smoking, which meant he was fucked when it came to night vision.  Both appeared to be carrying AKs, nothing fancy.

            Even as I watched, white light started to show on the outer wall, and then a black Opal sedan came up the road from the southeast.  The sentry on the ground just waved to it as it drove past, headed for the Bongo truck; I had to assume this was whichever HVT wasn’t already on site.

            We didn’t have time to woolgather; I made a quick estimate of bodies on site, increased it by a third, and took as much of a mental picture of the compound as I could, focusing on obstacles and possible points of entry.  It was going to be a very quick and dirty intel dump, but it was better than nothing.  I looked back at Larry, and pointed toward the truck.  He nodded, and we got moving.

            We didn’t take the same route back; that’s always a bad idea in bad-guy country.  Instead, we ducked through the dusty side streets, and came out only about two hundred meters from the Bear, but over six hundred from the target.  We moved across the open ground to the truck fast; we were running out of time.  I could almost swear I heard the helos inbound already.

            “Albatross, this is Hillbilly.  Coming from your five-o’clock,” I sent over the radio.

            “This is Albatross.  I have eyes on you,” Bryan replied.  “Come on in.”

            I trotted up to the cab.  Bryan was already getting out and moving over to the hatch.  There really wasn’t room for three guys in the cab.  “Do we have contact with Mike’s team?” I asked.

            “Just established,” he replied, as he unlatched the hatch cover.  “They’re ten mikes out.”

            “Just enough time,” I said, as I pulled myself into the cab and grabbed the mic.  Larry was already coming around to the driver’s side.  “Nick, put me through.”

            “You’re on,” Nick said.  I heard the click of the circuit changing.

            “Speedy, this is Hillbilly,” I called.

            “Send your traffic, Hillbilly,” Mike replied, in his slow drawl.

            I proceeded to give him everything I had—estimated numbers, equipment, the location and surrounding reference points.  I gave him my best description of the target buildings, and advised him that it appeared that the second HVT had just arrived on site a few minutes before.

            “Copy all,” Mike replied once I’d finished.  “Hang around until we have visual, in case we need you to talk us on,” he said.  “Once we’re solid, take off.  I know you guys have places to be.”

            So we sat there for a few more minutes, until we could hear the low roar of the incoming Bell 407s.  I could just barely see their heat signatures with my PVS-14s; they were running blacked-out and low.  A moment later, my radio crackled.  “Hillbilly, Speedy.  Give us a glint so we can confirm your pos.”

            I pulled the IR strobe out of my pocket, turned it on, and held it out the window, over the roof the cab.  “Roger, good strobe.  I have visual on you and the target site.  You guys are good.  We’ve got this.”

            “Good hunting, Speedy,” I replied.  “We are gone.”

            Larry started the truck, and we rolled out of town as the two helos swooped down on the target site like stooping hawks.  The bad guys never even knew we had been there.  That was what I called a good night’s work.

Jund al Sham

On December 23rd, a new Salafi jihadist group announced its formation in the Syrian city of Homs. Calling itself Jund Al Sham, or “Soldiers of the Levant,” it announced its purpose to wage jihad in Syria.

From the SITE translation of their statement: “After the hoards of the al-Assad gangs, and their Rafidah [Shi’ite] allies, united and attacked Muslims in Syria, it became incumbent upon the monotheists from among the Sunnis who chose the path of jihad and fighting the disbelievers in all their forms and types, to unite on supporting the truth with harmony and love among each other, while rejecting disbelief, and demanding a goal without deviation or backing out ….”

In the initial reports, the identity of the emir of the group, who goes by the kunya Abu Suleiman Al Mujahir was unknown. (Kunyas are honorifics in Arabic, usually derived from the name of the man’s eldest child. They are also used as aliases by jihadists.) From Al Akhbar English, it has been learned that Al Mujahir (The Immigrant) is a man named Khaled Mahmoud, a former leader of Fatah Al Islam. Fatah Al Islam is a Salafi jihadist group that was started in November 2006, in the Nahr Al Bared Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon. It engaged in combat several times with the Lebanese Army and Hezbollah. Fatah Al Islam is still active, and in fact has been involved in the fighting in Syria in recent months.

Read the rest at SOFREP.

Reflecting on the Iraq War, Ten Years On…

I was in USMC recruit training the day Coalition Forces crossed the line of departure into Iraq. I was still there — almost ready to graduate the day that “major combat operations” came to an end.

A year-and-a-half later, as a newly minted Recon Marine  I deployed to Iraq for the first time. Within two weeks of our arrival in-country, the first shots had been exchanged between the insurgents and Marines of 1st Recon Bn. It didn’t slow down much for the rest of the deployment.

A lot of words have been written, spoken or shouted about the war, most of them coming from people who were never there — by individuals who never experienced the dust, the heat, the threat, or the frustration. Some of us have spoken up and voiced our stories, but the vast majority of what is said is from those with no experience; from those who presume to know all there is to know.

I am not here to tell my story; there is very little about it that is much different from the stories told by the thousands of other soldiers and Marines who saw combat in Mesopotamia. Instead, I am going to look at some of what has happened, and is still happening today, and why.

Read the rest at TheBlaze.

Alone and Unafraid, Snippet Two

Mr. Haas was waiting for our guest when we walked into the safehouse.  I couldn’t tell if the guy looked relieved or even more terrified when he saw Haas standing by the door.

I suppose Haas was kind of scary, at least if you don’t deal in scary for a living.  He was a thin, hatchet faced man with pale skin, pale eyes, and black hair that always seemed to be immaculately combed, even out here.  He usually wore a suit, and tonight he was wearing slacks and a white shirt with a black tie.  It seemed a little incongruous in this setting, but it was just kind of his way.  I’d never seen him wear the khakis, polo shirt, and ball cap ensemble that Nick had dubbed the “CIA starter kit.”

Of course, Haas wasn’t CIA, at least not anymore, if he ever had been.  We hadn’t ever heard which three-letter agency he’d worked for before he became a spook-for-hire.  Of course, Haas was a cypher to us because he wasn’t one of our spooks.  He was on our employer’s payroll, not ours.

The year before, in the ending phases and aftermath of the East Africa job, Praetorian Security’s resident retired officer and Machiavelli, Tom Heinrich, had started up a Spooks-R-Us section of the company.  His reasoning had been that we had been thrown into a highly volatile situation without enough information, and he’d determined not to let that happen again.  As a result, we now had about a dozen former spooks on the payroll, from at least three different agencies.

But Haas wasn’t one of them.  He worked directly for Liberty Petroleum, and had been in Iraqi Kurdistan since before we had come aboard.

Liberty Petroleum had risen in the wake of the collapse of several major energy companies after the dollar’s crash a few years before.  They had come to Iraqi Kurdistan because they were one of the only Western oil companies that was still on its feet, that was willing to risk working with the Kurds, while surrounded by increasingly hostile regimes.  The Kurds had a lot of oil wealth under their soil, and with a lot of the world unwilling to do business with them, in large part because of the reaction that would come from the Iraqi, Turkish, and Iranian governments, they were more than willing to work with Liberty.

Liberty’s reps hadn’t been on the ground for a month before they started looking for better security.  They came to us because, even though most people had no idea what really had gone down in Djibouti and Somalia, much less in Yemen, Praetorian Security had gotten a rep for being the hard-nosed bastards who would kill anyone and everyone who tried to fuck with your people.

Oh, the media, at least what was left of it, loved us.

Iraq had been in the throes of an on-again, off-again civil war since about 2012, when the last American troops left.  It had its flare ups, but was constantly smoldering in the background.  That chaos had occasionally spilled over into Kurdish territory of late, in spite of the often quite competent efforts of the Peshmerga.  With things in Iraq, and along the “Green Line,” which was the unofficial border between Iraq proper and Iraqi Kurdistan, getting increasingly tense, our security operations soon expanded well beyond just pulling overwatch on the oil fields.

In short, Liberty Petroleum had found themselves holding a vested interest in Kurdish security.  Given that those interests probably meant we’d have a chance to kill a lot of jihadi bad boys, we were fine with that.

Haas nodded to us without as he beckoned the guy we’d picked up into the other room.  That room actually had a door instead of the curtains that were strung across most of the other doors in the safehouse.  The guy went in and Haas followed, closing the door behind him.

Jim and I dropped our gear near the door, across from where Larry was sitting on watch with a KSG shotgun across his lap.  Larry was a mountain of a man, going bald, with a dark goatee.  He had been a teammate of mine when we were both with MARSOC, before we’d gotten out and gone private sector.

“How’d it go?” Larry asked.

“Bad guys were trying to get our friend there,” Jim replied as he grabbed a bottle of water from the corner.  “We ended that.”

“Not only that,” I put in, “but our friends the Iraqi Police had a checkpoint set up less than a mile from here.”

“That’s not good,” Larry said.  “They pushing the Kurds again?”

“That’s what Rizgar said, after he pulled our asses out of that particular sling,” I answered.

“Alek’s going to want to know,” he pointed out.

“I know,” I answered, as I caught the water bottle Jim tossed to me.  “I’ll call him as soon as we’ve got some results from Haas’ debrief of our boy in there.”  I cracked the cap off the bottle and took a swig as I swept aside the curtain into the back room we had set up as our comm center.

It was pretty spare as such things went; we were in a safe house, not a Forward Operating Base.  The necessity of being ready to break out and run, not to mention keeping a low profile, meant that our setup wasn’t much different from a small recon team’s in the field.  A laptop, a satcom setup, and a shorter range VHF radio were all we had set up.  Batteries and the backup radio were still packed in kitbags on the floor.

Little Bob was sitting against the white concrete wall, the VHF radio handset to his ear.  He looked up from the laptop when I walked in.

“Any word from Bob or Juan?” I asked.

Little Bob shook his head.  We called him Little Bob for two reasons.  One, he was fucking huge; he could give Larry a run for his money on sheer physical size.  Two, we already had a Bob on the team, and he had been with us a lot longer than Little Bob.  “Nothing besides their normal check-ins,” he said.  He had a surprisingly soft, high voice for such a big dude.  It wasn’t squeaky, or feminine, but it didn’t sound like he’d spent the better part of a decade living in shit and yelling at subordinates or superiors, depending on the circumstances.  He had; the guy had done five years with the 75th Ranger Regiment.  He just didn’t sound like it.

“From what I could hear out there, it sounded like you and Jim found some excitement tonight, though,” he went on, pointing toward the door with his chin.

“You could say that,” I replied.  “Some bad guys were on the target, and some pushy Iraqi Police tried to stop us about four blocks from here.”

He frowned.  He was one of the newbies on the team since I’d taken it over from Alek, but he was no dummy.  We wouldn’t have hired him if he had been.  “They’re getting bolder.  You think they’re getting ready to finally try for the push on Kurdistan they’ve been making noises about for the last couple of years?”

“Maybe,” I answered after finishing off the water bottle.  “There’s nothing concrete, though Haas’ little friend in there might say something different.  We’ll have to see.  Everybody else crashed out?”

“All but Malachi,” he said.  “He’s on rear security.”

I nodded.  “When did you go on radio watch?”

“About an hour ago.  I’m good.”

I waved at him and went back into the main room.  Jim was already sitting on the floor, his back against the wall, his rifle next to him, with his arms folded across his chest and his eyes closed.  I went to do the same; one of the first things you learn in this business is get what sleep you can, when you can.

No sooner had I settled myself against the concrete than the door to the back room opened, and Haas came out, lighting a cigarette.

I stayed where I was and watched him.  I’d dealt with Haas long enough to know to let him start talking in his own time.  He was thinking, lining up all the little data points in his head.  When he had a picture, however partial, he’d fill us in.

He walked over to the photomosaic/map of Kirkuk we had tacked to the wall and studied it for a moment before half-turning toward us.  “Well, he doesn’t know who was after him tonight,” he said.  “In the course of a half hour, it changed from AQI to plainclothes Iraqi Police, to Jaysh al Mahdi, to any one of about five criminal enterprises he owes money to.”  He snorted.  “Knowing him, I find the last possibility to be the most probable one.  Those debts are how I turned him in the first place.”

“So who is this guy?” Jim asked.

“He is a guy who is related to a guy who knows things,” Haas said.  “And that guy who knows things tends to talk about them around family to express how important he is.  This individual let slip the other day that there are fifteen hundred more Iraqi Police headed to Kirkuk, along with a division of the Iraqi Army; Assam doesn’t know which one, but it’s probably the 12th Motorized Division out of Tikrit.”

I frowned.  “Is this the first we’ve heard about it?”

“So far,” he said.  “Which raises a few questions; is he telling the truth, and if so, what are they hoping to achieve?”

“They wouldn’t send only a division if they were thinking of pushing on Erbil or Sulaymaniya,” Jim mused.  “Even they’ve got to know the Pesh are better prepared than that.”

“Could it be Hizb-al-Sunna trying to pull a fast one?” Larry asked.  “Tikrit is a pretty solidly Sunni town, and the Army has gotten as divided as any branch of the government.”

Haas shook his head.  “It doesn’t even have to be that complicated,” he said.  “A division might not be enough to move on Kurdistan itself, but remember, the Iraqis still don’t—and probably never will—consider Kirkuk part of Kurdistan.  I think the more likely scenario is that they’re getting ready to try to push the Kurds out.  It’s happened before.  And if there’s one thing Sunni and Shia alike can agree on in this country, it’s that they all hate Kurds.”

“Awesome,” I growled.  “Ethnic cleansing by mechanized infantry.  I need to call Alek.”  I stalked back to the comm room for the satphone.

Alek picked it up after only a couple of rings.  “Talk to me, Jeff,” he said.

Alek had been one of the founders of our little company, and team leader for the founding team.  I had been his assistant team leader for several years, through the unpleasantness in East Africa the year before.  Afterwards, we had had to rebuild the team; several of our friends and brothers in arms had fallen in Djibouti and Somalia.  With the company expanding, Alek had reluctantly let Tom pull him into more of an operations chief position.  He was now sitting in our primary operations center in Erbil, while we were down in Kirkuk trying to sniff out whether or not the Iraqi chaos was going to get pushed into Kurdistan, and Caleb’s team was doing the same thing in Mosul.

“We got the contact,” I reported, “but not without incident.”  I filled him in on the brief firefight in the street, and the IP presence in what was ostensibly an area policed by the Peshmerga.  Then I told him about what Haas had found from the contact.

He didn’t say anything for a minute, but just mulled it over.  Finally he asked, “What are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking we need to push down to Tikrit,” I answered without hesitation, “and see if we can get a gauge as to whether this is just an attempt to Arabize Kirkuk like Saddam did in the ‘90s, or if it’s a prelude to an actual offensive against Iraqi Kurdistan.  Or both.  We can’t really figure that out from up here.”

I could almost see Alek shaking his huge head.  “I need you guys on the ground in Kirkuk.  You guys are the tripwire if something does start heading this way.”

“So send Hal’s team,” I replied.  “Even if they aren’t planning on pushing past Kirkuk, we need to know if they’re going to try to push the Kurds out of the city.  The Kurds aren’t going to stand for that.  Half this province is already de facto part of Kurdistan, and the client has facilities here.  If this particular tinderbox goes up, we could find we’ve got a hell of a fight on our hands.  Especially if the Kurds decide to resist here, you know it’ll spread into Kurdistan proper.”

“We have Kurdish contacts and support in Kirkuk,” he argued.  “We’ve got nothing in Tikrit.  Hal’s team just stood up; I don’t want to throw them into that kind of a zero-support situation.”

“So send Hal’s team here, and we’ll go to Tikrit,” I said.  “As far as I can remember, even though I’m getting a little old and my memory’s a little hazy, we had jack and shit for support in Somalia last year, brother.”

“We also lost a lot of good guys in East Africa last year, if you remember,” he countered, his voice tight.

I clenched my jaw.  He was right.  Even a year later, the holes that those guys had left in the teams still hurt.  Most of them I’d known for years.  We’d all seen some action in the military before we’d gone contract, but I’d never seen the casualty rate we’d endured in East Africa.  A lot of that had been due to the either nonexistent or untrustworthy support we’d gotten from the CIA on that job.  We’d been in the wind, and paid the price for it in the lives of our brothers.  Alek didn’t want to see that happen again.  Neither did I, but playing things too cautious had never gotten a mission accomplished.  None of us had gone into this business expecting to die in bed, either.

“I remember,” I answered after a moment.  “I knew Hank a lot longer than you did.  I also know that if we weren’t willing to risk losing anybody else, we wouldn’t be in this country right now.  And Tikrit’s not even seventy-five miles away; that’s a lot better than anywhere we were in Somalia.”  I paused for a second.  “I know you better than that, Alek.  Didn’t we start this company precisely to get away from the risk-averse REMFs putting the choke collar on what had to be done?  Since when did you start worrying about playing it safe?  You know that isn’t how we work.”

I heard him sigh on the other end.  “You’re right.  Damn it.  All right, I’ll get Hal’s team moving down to you.  Keep up operations until they get there.  I’m sure you’ll give them a pretty thorough changeover.  Just don’t go looking for trouble just to break them in.”

“I’d never do such a thing,” I said, managing to keep my voice level.

“Yeah, bullshit,” Alek snorted.  “Keep me in the loop, brother.”

We hung up, and I headed back into the main room to try to catch some sleep.  It bothered me that Alek was getting so mother hen-ish.  I’d know the guy for a long time, and it wasn’t his style.  But then, he hadn’t been stuck in the TOC, while the guys he’d been fighting alongside a year before were out on the pointy end before.  I imagined it was just bugging him to let us go out and do the dangerous stuff while he was relatively safe.  Fortunately, I was confident enough that he’d listen to me when I called him on it, if he got too overprotective.  It was a dangerous business we’d chosen, and our decision the year before to take any opportunity to hurt the growing tide of Islamist tyranny whenever we could just made it more so.

It probably wouldn’t take Hal very long to get his team geared up and ready to go, and down to Kirkuk; it was less than sixty miles to Erbil.  But they still probably wouldn’t get there until the next morning, so I was going to take the time to get some rest, and let the team do the same, as best we could.  Things would get interesting soon enough, I was sure.


            Bob and Juan got back about two hours later.  I woke up as they pulled up; I don’t think any of us have a problem with waking up in such situations.  Getting to sleep—that could sometimes be interesting.  I got up, checked that my 1911 was still on my hip, and stretched.  It hadn’t been much sleep, but one thing I’d learned a long time ago, somewhat from watching team leaders who did the opposite, was that a TL doesn’t necessarily get a lot of sleep.  He’s responsible for everything his team does or doesn’t do, and that means being aware of everything that happens.  It doesn’t leave a lot of room for relaxation.

            They didn’t come straight in.  That would have been asking for a blast from Larry’s shotgun in the face.  Instead, the radio crackled.

            “Fort Apache, this is Shiny,” Bob called.

            “Shiny, this is Hillbilly,” I replied.  “Send it.”

            “Authentication Five November Six,” he said.  “We are out front, coming in.  Don’t shoot us.”

            “Your authentication’s good, Shiny,” I said.  “Why would we shoot you?”

            “Because Monster’s been on post since we left, and is probably looking for some way to break the monotony by now,” he answered wryly.

            Larry snorted.  I just shook my head, though Bob couldn’t see it.  “Just get in here.”

            “Coming in,” Bob said.  The radio went silent.  A minute later, there was a tap on the door, and Bob came in, with Juan in tow.  Both were carrying the gear they’d had secreted in the Opal sedan they’d driven out into the city.  “Hey, boss,” Bob said, as he set his gear down.  “Sounded like there was some excitement down your way.  Did you and Jim get a piece of that big blowup down south?”

            “Not the blowup itself,” I responded.  “But we did get to play a little.”  I filled him in.  “Now, what did you guys see out there?”

            “There’s a lot of movement out there for after dark,” Bob said, after downing half a water bottle.  It was getting on towards fall, but it was still hot as hell in Iraq.  “We sat just outside the Arrafa Canteen and watched something like a dozen militia patrols come and go.  There weren’t any bombings or shootings in the area; this felt like command and control.  Whether it was AQI or just a glorified neighborhood watch, well, I couldn’t really tell.”

            I looked over at Juan.  Just going by time in uniformed service, Juan should have been senior to Bob.  Bob separated after just eight years; Juan had retired at twenty-two.  But Bob had been with the team and the company longer, and he had been in East Africa.  That counted for a lot around Praetorian these days.

            Bob had come to Praetorian with the training, but little of the combat experience.  He’d been a pretty-boy newbie with a chip on his shoulder.  East Africa had changed that.  He’d seen good friends and good operators shot dead and blown apart, not because they’d done anything wrong, but just from the fortunes of war.  He’d fought like hell, just like the rest of us, and came out a wiser, more serious, and more mature operator.

            Even so, someone with Juan’s experience could easily have developed a chip of their own, having to be second to a guy like Bob.  That Juan showed no sign of any such reaction spoke volumes about his own professionalism.

            He shrugged.  “I couldn’t get much of a vibe off any of them myself,” he told me.  “I think Bob may be right, some of them were just the local equivalent of neighborhood watch.  But these days, that doesn’t necessarily rule out Al Qaeda or Mahdi Army.”

            “Either way,” Bob said, “There’s something going on in Arrafa.  I think it bears watching.”

            I nodded.  “We’ll definitely send the next set of eyes up that way.  Get some water, eat something, and hit the rack for a bit.  We’ve got maybe another day on site, then Hal’s boys are going to take over for us.  We’re headed for Tikrit.”

            Bob finished off the water bottle.  “What’s in Tikrit?”

            “About another fifteen hundred IPs and a mechanized infantry division, that is supposed to be headed here,” I replied.  He looked at me sharply.

            “The city’s been strict-IP jurisdiction for years,” he pointed out.  “If they’re bringing the Army in…”

            “Yeah, it doesn’t look good,” I replied.  “Right now its single-source, so we’re heading south to run recon and see if we can confirm it.”

            “We got contacts?” Larry asked from the door.

            “Nope,” I replied.  “This is strictly going to be recon and surveillance.”

            “Fuck,” Juan said.  “It ain’t exactly healthy for a Westerner to be walking around any Arab city these days.”  He was right.  It hadn’t been for a long time.  Westerners had become mob magnets a couple of years ago, in the latest Al Qaeda offensive, and it hadn’t changed much since then.

            “Well, that’s why we don’t go walking around in daylight letting ourselves be seen,” I replied.  “This is back to old-school Sneaky-Pete stuff.  No engagement, no compromise.  We’ll have to stay soft the entire time.”

            “So if it turns out they are getting ready to move out, we don’t do anything to stop them or slow them down?” Jim asked from behind me.  I hadn’t heard him get up.

            “Not at the moment,” I answered.  “Like I said, this is strictly reconnaissance.  Now, things might change, and we’re going to leave the usual flexibility in the plan to allow for whatever the situation dictates.  We are taking demo, just in case we need it, but concentrate on the R&S side for this one.”

            “Shit,” Bob said, as he headed for his little corner of the safehouse.  “I just fucking love urban R&S.  Nothing like setting up in a building that you think is deserted, and then at about eight in the morning the workers show up.”

            He had a point.  I’d been on plenty of urban reconnaissance missions that had gone south when somebody had blithely walked into the hide, not expecting anyone to be there.  I also knew of a couple of teams who hadn’t made it back after an incident like that.

            “That’s why we don’t have any officers saying we can’t think outside the box,” I pointed out.  “Get some rest.  We still have to keep eyes out until we turn over with Hal, and now we’ve got planning to do on top of that.  Hit the rack.”

            Bob waved assent and lay down on his pad.  Juan picked out a packet of food and settled himself against the wall.

            Me, I headed back to my own corner.  Tomorrow—I checked my watch and corrected myself.  Today was going to be a long day.  At least I could get a couple hours of sleep before we kicked things off again.


            I rolled out as the sun was coming up.  It was the time of day when people started getting out on the streets, going to work or going to the market before it got too hot.  The second call to prayer of the day was echoing over the city, along with the pall of smoke from the previous night’s bombing.  From the reports that Little Bob was picking up on his scanner, it sounded like several businesses had been torched in addition to the IED blast.  Things were definitely heating up in Kirkuk.

            I threw on a collared shirt over my soft armor, made sure my pistol was well concealed, and went for a walk.  As Juan had pointed out, in most places in the Middle East, a Westerner on the streets was a mob magnet, and likely a dead man.  Here, however, in the Kurdish quarter, things were different.

            In spite of the fact that the US had pretty well abandoned Iraq to its own devices, and by extension, the Kurds, the Kurds were doing their damnedest to create a modern, Western state.  Even while the Western states were falling like dominoes, crushed under the weight of debts they could never pay back and torn apart by lawlessness, the Kurds were still trying to get it right.  The Kurdish quarter of Kirkuk was about the safest place in Iraq proper for anyone to walk at the moment.  It didn’t mean I wasn’t still going to go armed, but I could manage to walk the streets without worrying about getting stomped to death and my corpse dragged through the streets.

            I can’t say I liked Kirkuk, even the Kurdish part.  Most of the city, be it Kurdish, Arab, or Turcoman sections, were made up of blocky brick buildings crammed together on either side of often crumbling streets, with filthy ditches on either side.  Everything was covered with a patina of dust, and there was the mingled smell of diesel oil, rot, and shit in the air.  The whole place just kind of sucked.  From what I’d seen, the whole country was about the same.  Erbil and As Sulaymaniyah were better off, but only by degree.

            As I walked, I was greeted by several Kurds, men and women both.  In the Arab sectors, women steered clear and didn’t talk to strange men.  Kurdish women even held billets in the Peshmerga.  It probably helped that they wouldn’t be beaten to death by their male relatives for being seen with a man not their husband or relative.  In fact, someone had done that within the Peshmerga sector of control just a month ago.  The Pesh had hanged him the next day.  There were still honor killings, but the KRG was really pushing hard to stamp them out.

            I didn’t go far.  I wanted to be close to the safehouse in case something went bad.  I was the team lead now, and couldn’t be out of contact for long.  But I’d wanted to get a feel for the city that morning.

            The people I saw and met were wary, furtive.  They went about their business, but they were looking over their shoulders.  The Pesh were patrolling more aggressively; I saw two patrols in the space of a four-block walk.  Loud noises tended to send people instinctively toward shelter.  The few I spoke to shied away when I tried to talk about what was going on.  People were spooked, and I couldn’t find out by way of casual conversation or observation whether or not it was just the violence the previous night, or if there was something else going on.  I turned back toward the safehouse.  There was still a lot of work to do.


            It was almost dark when the four SUVs pulled up to the curb across from the safehouse.  Bryan was on door watch, and peered through the curtains as they came to a stop.  “I think they’re here,” he announced.

            A moment later, the radio crackled.  “Hillbilly, this is Dave,” Hal called.  “We are in position, authentication Six Juliet Eight.”

            “We have eyes on you, Dave,” I replied.  “Come ahead.”  I wasn’t too worried about the footprint of either the four vehicles, or Hal’s entire team coming in.  The Pesh knew we were here, and in fact, while Liberty might be paying us, we were working for the KRG more than we were for the oilmen.  Just kind of the way it worked out.

            Hal was the first one in.  He was tall, skinny, and sandy-haired.  His callsign had come from the first few Hal 9000 jokes, to which he had responded with an eerie, “I’m afraid I can’t do that, Dave.”  We couldn’t turn Hal 9000 into a workable over-the-air callsign, so we just settled on Dave.

            We shook hands as the rest of his team shuffled into the now extremely cramped house.  “I hear you guys get to go be Secret Squirrels down south,” he said.

            “More like Ricky Recon, but yeah, something like that,” I answered.  “Alek bring you up to speed?”

            He nodded.  “More or less.  I’m hoping you guys are going to stick around for at least a day, help us set up, do left-seat, right-seat, that sort of thing.”
            “That’s the plan,” I told him.  “We can’t spare more than about a day, though.  If what Haas told us is true, we might be on a tight timeline on this one.”

            He grunted agreement.  “If the IA’s moving, yeah, I bet.  Let us get our shit squared away, and we’ll sit down and go over the turnover.  I take it you’ve got a folder for me?”

            I pointed at the ops room.  “Right in there.”

            He hitched his kitbag over his shoulder.  “Let’s get to it, then.”


            We went well into the night, going over the intel folder I’d worked up for Kirkuk.  Local leaders, organizations, factions, neighborhood polarizations, everything was gone over.  We had photos of Persons of Interest, and imagery of the city, sometimes block-by-block, that had been extensively written on.  There were notes on ethnic and tribal divisions, transcripts of announcements from the mosques and any public meetings, as well as Haas’ notes on any and all of his contacts.  It was a very thorough picture of what we’d managed to learn since we’d gotten to Kirkuk.  It was still only a tiny glimmer of the ground truth, but it was a start.

            Hal and Sammy soaked it up like sponges, asking pointed questions that sometimes Jim and I could answer, sometimes we couldn’t.  The truth was, we hadn’t been on the ground in Kirkuk for much more than a week.  They’d pass it all along to their boys, along with requiring them to go through the whole shebang at the next available opportunity.  That was the way we worked in Praetorian.  The more everybody on the team knew about the situation, the better.

            Jim and I took Hal and Sammy out onto the streets for a while, getting the feel for the city, pointing out the major “poles” of the power matrix as we’d been able to perceive it.  The sun was almost up by the time we got back.  Fortunately, it had been a quiet night; aside from a few bursts of small-arms fire, there hadn’t been any major incidents.  We got back to the safehouse and most of my team bedded down for the day.  We’d pack up and get moving after dark.