Gunfight Countdown

In Ramadi, gunbattles on schedule

Listen to the first volley of bullets crack over Capt. Joseph "Crazy Joe" Claburn's head.

April 25, 2006


RAMADI, Iraq (AP) _ As U.S. and Iraqi troops marched through alleyways and families retreated indoors, Army Capt. Joe Claburn glanced at his watch and predicted exactly how long it would take for insurgents to attack.

"Within 15 minutes the spotters usually come out and they'll identify your position," Claburn said at the start of a patrol in this troubled Iraqi city, explaining that guerrillas were probably maneuvering unseen in the surrounding villas.

"Within 30 minutes the weapons get brought in," he said. "And usually about 45 minutes after being on the ground, you can pretty much guarantee that you're going to get shot at."

War is often said to be unpredictable. But in Ramadi, Iraq's most dangerous city for American forces, Sunni Arab insurgents are so active that U.S. troops are learning gunbattles often come right on schedule.

Claburn, it turned out, was three minutes off.

Watch US soldiers firing from a rooftop in Ramadi, leaving "one KIA behind the trashcan."
"Did I call it or what?" the 29-year-old asked with a grin as automatic weapons-fire snapped overhead. "Forty-two minutes on the ground. It's a science."

Lt. Col. Ronald Clark, commander of the 101st Airborne Division's 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, said his units average "five or six" firefights with insurgents per day in eastern Ramadi.

And that's not counting roadside bombs, mortar attacks _ or the Marine-patrolled western part of town, much less the suburbs of the city, 70 miles west of Baghdad.

"It's surreal," said Clark, 39, of Leesville, La., using a green laser pointer to tick off recent engagements on a large satellite map of Ramadi on the wall of his office.

"Here we have an enemy that does not mind coming out and fighting with us," he said. "We always have the advantage when that happens. They take heavy losses, but the bottom line is, it doesn't change things."

Listen to Capt. Joseph "Crazy Joe" Claburn's talk about how long it takes to get shot at in Ramadi (xx seconds).

Estimates differ on how long it typically takes for insurgents to start shooting. Claburn's Charlie company figures 45 minutes is the norm. Delta company reckons they'll be fired at within 37 minutes, Clark said. Some Marines in western Ramadi say attacks can come in eight minutes.

That doesn't mean there's a gunbattle every time troops go out.

One Marine tasked to help train the Iraqi army, Lt. Ryan Brannon, said he's been on 30 to 40 patrols in central Ramadi in the last three months. Asked how many times there had been exchanges of fire, the 26-year-old native of Gulf Breeze, Fla., shrugged and said: "Oh, about half."

Guard towers at the U.S. Army's Camp Corregidor base are shot at daily _ on Tuesday, one was hit by rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire. Across the city, Army and Marine observation posts _ entire buildings taken over by U.S. forces _ are regularly attacked.

Ramadi is "a lot more kinetic than what we see or read about other areas. It's just very violent," Clark said, adding that even trips to check on U.S.-funded projects to refurbish schools attracted violence.

"We'll go on school visits ... and be involved in direct fire almost every time," he said. "A lot of it is based on the fact that there's a lot of lawless behavior, no Iraqi police on this side of town."

Until a few weeks ago, east Ramadi had no Iraqi army units.

Clark and his commanders
welcomed the arrival of a combat-experienced Iraqi brigade, hoping their numbers and familiarity with Iraqi culture could help turn the tide. U.S. forces also are helping set up new police stations _ insurgents destroyed the old ones _ for a new city police force.

As U.S. and Iraqi forces moved in Friday for a sweep of a troubled district, residents ran inside.

"Hmmm," noted Claburn, who grew up as an orphan and calls Alabama home. "You see all those people clearing out? That's usually a a bad sign."

U.S. Navy SEALs and Iraqi soldiers carrying rockets and boxes of ammunition walked slowly, eyes alert for insurgents, clearing house after house.

Forty-two minutes into the operation, a man in a white sedan at the end of one alley fired off a round from his rifle, retreating immediately under a return volley from Iraqi soldiers on a nearby rooftop.

One street over, another insurgent sprayed machine-gun fire that cracked over Claburn's head as he stepped into a courtyard with other troops. A U.S. Humvee shot back with a heavy .50-caliber gun.

Minutes later, Claburn and a dozen SEALs scrambled to the roof, laid their guns on a chest-high wall and began firing toward another insurgent team _ four gunmen in a blue truck. Two Iraqi soldiers on another rooftop also opened fire.

The SEALs' fire riddled the truck, and 40 mm grenades destroyed its engine as the gunmen fled. Job done, rooftop littered with spent shell casings, the Americans withdrew.

Asked why U.S. or coalition forces didn't pursue the attackers, Claburn _ whose radio call sign is "Gunfighter 6" _ said it wouldn't be prudent.

Insurgents often try to lure troops into danger, he said, exposing themselves in hopes they would be chased down a street where explosives had been laid.

"You have to out-insurgent the insurgent. You have to think about what he's trying to make you do ... and do the complete opposite," the Army captain said, riding in a Humvee along a road lined with palm trees as two helicopters clattered overhead.

"Unfortunately nothing in Army doctrine teaches you to fight an enemy like this."

Copyright 2006 By The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.