Since the dawn of gunpowder combat, every battle in every war has begun with an opening shot. Few, however, were as dramatic as the opening shots fired by America’s Rangers that tore through the early morning darkness of Christmas 2007. The shots were fired as part of a raid that rapidly expanded into a battle that, once over, signaled an end to al Qaeda’s control of their last stronghold in northern Iraq.
In the months prior to the raid, commanders in Baghdad realized that they were playing a game of “whack-a-mole” with al Qaeda cells. Coalition forces would push them out of Baghdad and they would move to Baqubah; clear Baqubah and they would slip to Samarra; reinforce Samarra and they would fall back on their support cells in the safety of Mosul. In order to manage a single effort, Multi-National Corps-Iraq (MNC-I) developed a corps-level operation designed to apply nationwide pressure on all al Qaeda cells. As 2007 drew to an end, MNC-I developed Operation Phantom Phoenix, a major nationwide offensive, in an attempt to build on the success of the two previous corps-level operations, Operation Phantom Thunder and Operation Phantom Strike. The offensive consisted of a number of coalition and Iraqi Army operations throughout northern Iraq as well as in the area surrounding Baghdad.
To Charles’ surprise, the shower basin came up and revealed a passageway, secured by a large concrete block on rails, that led to a hidden bunker. As Charles rolled the block out of the way, gunfire ripped through the tiny opening.
In northern Iraq, Operation Phantom Phoenix required that U.S. Army Rangers conduct reconnaissance operations, gather intelligence, and launch direct-action missions in order to prepare the battlespace for follow-on conventional operations. In northern Iraq, this mission was critical. Throughout 2007 there were roughly 210 attacks on coalition troops each week in and around Mosul. There were fewer Americans operating in the city of 1.8 million than in Baghdad, and al Qaeda was ready to reassert their control over the area after being ousted from Tal Afar by H.R. McMaster and his 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. In short, the Rangers needed to root out the cells that continued to destabilize the area, and they knew that Mosul was key to their success. Indeed, Rear Adm. Greg Smith, MNC-I’s command spokesman, identified Mosul as “a key strategic crossroads for the al Qaeda both from a financing point of view and foreign-fighter facilitation networks. It is,” Smith noted, “the one area in the north that al Qaeda wants to hang onto.”
On Christmas Eve, the Rangers were operating in Mosul in search of intelligence when they were notified of a tip by a local man who reported seeing terrorists execute a man in public. The witness even identified which house the group was using as their base of operations. Acting on this intelligence, Maj. Brian Pickett, company commander, organized 60 of his men for a raid on the compound. Their objective was simple and was based on the mission statement outlined by Operation Phantom Phoenix:
“To kill/capture known terrorist cells affiliated with kidnapping and murder, to collect intelligence, disrupt terrorist information operations, and develop operations for the capture of senior terrorist group leadership.”
With this in mind, the major’s men spent their Christmas Eve poring over existing intelligence and preparing their gear for the raid.
The Rangers slipped out of their compound in the early hours of Christmas morning, working their way through the quiet streets of Mosul. Pickett developed a plan where 50 of his men, divided into two groups, would provide front, side, and back-side security, thereby isolating the objective. The assault team was organized into two teams of nine Rangers each. As the Rangers prepared for their mission, they continued to follow intelligence updates, and quickly discovered that at least two armed insurgents were in the house.
Aerial photos gave the Rangers a pretty good idea of the layout of the house, compound, and immediate area. Once the blocking forces were in place Pickett ordered his men in. The first team in had the difficult job of scaling a nearby building so that they could enter through an opening in the roof. They would slip down the stairs and assault the room that held the two armed insurgents. At the same time, the second team would breach the front of the compound and sweep through the house to clear it of any unidentified terrorists.