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.
One of the Rangers, Staff Sgt. Paul Hegleth, later told USA Today, “You don’t go into anything thinking the best-case scenario. Anytime you go through a door you are expecting someone there with a gun waiting on you. Or, someone with a suicide vest, grenade, or whatever their weapon of choice is at that particular time. You’re always thinking for the worst.” The worst is what the Rangers found. Slipping into the first room, thought to contain an armed force of at least two men, the assault team immediately identified their enemy and saw they were shielding themselves with an 11-year-old boy. Hegleth realized he had an opportunity and took it, firing twice and killing both insurgents, but leaving the boy unharmed. These were the opening shots of what developed into a 17-hour battle in a very small place.
Rifle fire and grenade shrapnel tore through the air and the civilians had nowhere to run. Charles quickly gathered up the women and children, including one he carried over his shoulder, and made a dash for the courtyard wall.
With the two gunmen dead, the assault teams continued their search of the house and compound and found several local nationals, women and children, cowering in the corner. The terrified Iraqis tried to tell the Rangers how many terrorists were in the house, but their reports were confusing and conflicting. One of the assault team leaders, Sgt. 1st Class Laraun Charles, decided to conduct a more intense search, and put his men on alert as they moved through the house. While searching a bathroom, Charles saw something out of place – a heavy nylon strap protruding from beneath a shower basin.
Charles called in Hegleth and told him to cover him as he pulled on the strap. 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. Hegleth poured fire into the opening as Charles scrambled out of the small room. The opening was a mere 2 feet by 2 feet, far too narrow for two Rangers strapped with the equipment of modern war to assault through, so Hegleth tossed a grenade through the opening. After the blast, Charles and Hegleth were moving back into the room to clear the bunker when they saw two grenades bounce out of the tunnel. Their retreat was met with the concussion of the grenades and a hail of enemy fire ripping from the tunnel.
Hegleth found himself cut off from Charles but in a good position to suppress the enemy. Another Ranger, Dan Asworth, was pinned down by insurgent fire. Although the terrorists couldn’t hit him, they could keep him pinned down against the thin wall that provided him some cover. By this point, the women and children had started to panic. Rifle fire and grenade shrapnel tore through the air and the civilians had nowhere to run. Charles quickly gathered up the women and children, including one he carried over his shoulder, and made a dash for the courtyard wall. There Charles, according to Pickett, risked his life, “taking enemy fire while he’s literally extending himself and pushing women and children over the wall.” While other Rangers maneuvered to provide covering fire for Asworth and Hegleth, Charles slipped over the wall and quickly linked up with two other Rangers. Charles led his small force back into the house and set up another position to fire on the enemy hideout.
Almost as soon as Charles had his men in position an insurgent stormed around the corner. Charles’ team killed him “right there on the spot.” As the Rangers pushed closer to the shower room, Hegleth used a lull in their fire to move to Asworth and cover him as he climbed a ladder to the roof. Hegleth followed and both slipped to safety over the back wall of the compound. By this time, Charles’ men had a direct view of the tunnel, and quickly realized more terrorists were in the bunker. One of the insurgents attacked out of the bunker and was killed, but both Charles and Pickett realized that they needed to get their Rangers out of such a tiny killing zone. Exactly one hour into the battle Pickett ordered his Rangers to withdraw and regroup, but he had more than one ace up his sleeve.
High over the Ranger fight an Air Force Special Operations Command AC-130U gunship orbited the compound. For the last hour, the crew had listened intently to their radios, monitoring the firefight raging below. The gunship was armed with a mix of rapid-fire Gatling guns and heavy artillery. Inside the AC-130, a complex array of sensors was capable of detecting laser target designators operated by ground forces and firing with pin-point accuracy. On this night, Pickett called for the airmen to fire 15 105 mm delayed fuse rounds into the terrorist bunker. Pickett asked for delayed fuse so the 19-pound, high explosive shells would penetrate the roof and explode near the bunker. As Pickett directed the fire, he observed that each round struck the designated target as precisely “as I’ve ever seen it.”
Once the AC-130U had finished its work, the Rangers settled in to watch the site for enemy activity. By 9:00 am little had happened, so Pickett decided to send in one of his officers to recon the damage. That task fell to 1st Lt. L.P. Mitchell, accompanied by Hegleth, who by now, had intimate knowledge of the compound. As the two Rangers searched the house, they came across two dead insurgents, both wearing unexploded suicide-bomb belts. As they approached the opening to the bunker, they spied another insurgent wearing an explosive-laden belt – this one alive and well. Mitchell and Hegleth opened fire on the man and backed away as the terrorist pulled the pin. “His vest detonated,” Mitchell recalled later, “clouding the whole area with dust.” As the dust settled, both Mitchell and Hegleth tossed grenades into the bunker, shattering the opening and filling it with smoke. Although they could hear nothing coming from the bunker, Mitchell tossed in one more grenade, and he and Hegleth left the house.
After a short wait, Mitchell and Hegleth, this time accompanied by another Ranger, moved back into the house and decided to enter and clear the bunker. As they wiggled into the small opening they found two dead insurgents and saw a third crawling away, tugging at a pin. Fearing another suicide attempt, the Rangers shot him dead. The three men slowly moved along the bunker’s walls until they heard voices and saw movement. Unsure how many men he faced, Mitchell ordered his team out of the bunker. Once clear he called Pickett.
The Christmas Day raid also led to ten follow-on raids that netted even more intelligence. This intelligence undoubtedly helped commanders plan Operation Iron Harvest that swept through Mosul and northern Iraq in January 2008
On receiving Mitchell’s call, Pickett assessed the situation and came to a decision. “At his point,” he reported, “we had eight enemy killed in action that we engaged. On four of those, we have confirmed the wear or use of a suicide belt.” The Rangers knew there were at least three insurgents still in the bunker and perhaps more farther back. At this point, Pickett recalled, he “needed a little bit more firepower.” Pickett ordered the area cleared and called for his next move – a pair of F-16 Falcons armed with 500-pound JDAM satellite-guided bombs. At 11:15 a.m., the Falcons roared over the enemy compound and released their ordnance. In a matter of moments, the compound was reduced to a pile of rubble.
Although the fighting was done, the effect of the raid was not. Pickett’s men led a sensitive site exploitation team to the area, where they scoured the shattered insurgent compound for intelligence. Estimates are the action killed 10 or 11 insurgents and crippled a critical al Qaeda assassination cell. The Rangers estimated they had destroyed more than $1.6 million of explosives, bomb-making material, and weapons. The Christmas Day raid also led to ten follow-on raids that netted even more intelligence. This intelligence undoubtedly helped commanders plan Operation Iron Harvest that swept through Mosul and northern Iraq in January 2008. So effective were the Rangers that a military analyst from the London Times, who called Mosul al Qaeda’s last redoubt, noted that the terrorists lacked “the strength to fight the army face-to-face and lost the sympathy of the most ordinary citizens who once admired its stand against the occupying forces and their allies in the Iraqi army.” Clearly, even on Christmas Day, Rangers Lead the Way!
This article was originally published on July 22, 2010
Editor’s Note: In accordance with USASOC policy the names of all military personnel have been changed. All information for this article was drawn from USSOCOM and USASOC PAO offices, and the 2008 AUSA presentation “Christmas Surprise: Ranger Raid in Mosul,” part of the “America’s Army: The Strength of the Nation” display. This article was first published in The Year in Special Operations: 2010-2011 Edition.