In Mosul, a Battle 'Beyond Ruthless'
Onetime Gang Member Applies Rules of Street
By Steve Fainaru
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 13, 2005; Page A01
MOSUL, Iraq -- From inside a vacant building, Sgt. 1st Class Domingo Ruiz watched through a rifle scope as three cars stopped on the other side of the road. A man carrying a machine gun got out and began to transfer weapons into the trunk of one of the cars.
"Take him down," Ruiz told a sniper.
The sniper fired his powerful M-14 rifle and the man's head exploded, several American soldiers recalled. As he fell, more soldiers opened fire, killing at least one other insurgent. After the ambush, the Americans scooped up a piece of skull and took it back to their base as evidence of the successful mission.
The March 12 attack -- swift and brutally violent -- bore the hallmarks of operations that have made Ruiz, 39, a former Brooklyn gang member, renowned among U.S. troops in Mosul and, in many ways, a symbol of the optimism that has pervaded the military since Iraq's Jan. 30 elections.
Insurgent attacks in this northern Iraqi city, which numbered more than 100 a week in mid-November, have declined by almost half, according to the military. Indirect attacks -- generally involving mortars or rockets -- on U.S. bases fell from more than 200 a month in December to fewer than 10 in March. Although figures vary from region to region, attacks also have declined precipitously in other parts of Iraq, creating a growing belief among U.S. commanders that the insurgency is losing potency.
"We are seeing a more stable environment," said Lt. Col. Michael Gibler, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, which operates in eastern Mosul. "Have we made a turn yet? No, but we're really close to it."
The military attributes the decline to several factors, including Iraqis' increased willingness to provide information about insurgents and the growing presence of the new Iraqi security forces throughout the country.
But the main reason, military officials said, is a grinding counterinsurgency operation -- now in its 20th month -- executed by soldiers like Ruiz, a platoon sergeant in the 3rd Battalion's C Company. It is a campaign of endless repetition: platoons of American troops patrolling Iraqi streets on foot or in armored vehicles. Its inherent monotony is punctuated by moments of extreme violence.
"Our battles have been beyond ruthless," said Ruiz, adding that he believes most Americans have little understanding of how the conflict is being fought.
"An urban counterinsurgency is probably the ugliest form of warfare there is," said Capt. Rob Born, 30, the C Company commander.
Hardened to Horror
U.S. soldiers said they have been hardened to the violence by months of fighting insurgents who often kill or maim civilians or target people marginally associated with the Americans. In Mosul recently, U.S. forces have come upon dozens of decapitated bodies with notes attached. One accused a victim of "sin and corruption" and quoted the Koran: "We have not done injustice unto them, but they to themselves."
Born, a West Point graduate from Burke, Va., said he was struck by his own indifference to the violence when it involved the insurgents.
Last week, for example, a suicide car bomber tried to blow himself up next to one of C Company's platoons. As the car approached, U.S. soldiers opened fire from Stryker attack vehicles. The bomb went off about 20 yards from the nearest Stryker, causing only minor injuries to the Americans.
Born arrived to find parts of the bomber's body scattered in all directions. His initial reaction, he said, was "euphoric" -- relief that none of his men had been killed or badly injured. Of the bomber, he said, "I felt absolutely nothing."
The violence "kind of becomes your reality," he said. "If a year ago you would have told me that seeing that kind of carnage would have little to no impact on me, it would have surprised me. I don't think I'm any less sensitive or less compassionate . . . but I have really developed my thoughts on the [insurgents]: I have no sympathy for them. It's funny how you can detach yourself from normal human feeling for a group of people but you're able to retain it for everybody else."
Pvt. Adam McCamant, 19, of New Philadelphia, Ohio, arrived at the scene with Born. "It kind of made my day better," he said. "It was like, yeah. He killed himself without accomplishing what he wanted."
Infantrymen with C Company said no soldier is more ruthlessly proficient at fighting the insurgents than Ruiz, a son of Puerto Rican parents who grew up in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn. Ruiz's unit, the 4th Platoon, has killed at least 15 suspected insurgents in the past two months, according to soldiers. Commanders said the unit encounters more enemy contact than any other platoon in the battalion.
The platoon calls itself the "Violators." Its patch depicts a leering skull clad in a green beret, blood dripping from its mouth. Its motto is "Carpe Noctum," or "Seize the Night," a reference in Latin to the platoon's propensity to operate after dark.
A self-described "greaser," Ruiz wears a pencil-thin mustache and slicks back the dark hair on the top of his head with Rebound Activator Gel. The lower half of his scalp is shaved.
Around the platoon's barracks, he has a friendly, energetic, exuberant presence and can be almost fatherly with his men, eight of whom are Hispanic and sometimes speak with him in Spanish. His living space is immaculate, with two ornate rugs and a stylish clock/lamp shaped like a saxophone -- items he purchased in Mosul shops while on patrol. On a recent afternoon, he was watching a DVD of "The Motorcycle Diaries" -- the chronicle of Ernesto "Che" Guevara's journey through South America -- for what he said was the third time. Ruiz said he dreams of riding horseback through Latin America when he gets out of the Army.
Overhearing a staff sergeant describe him as "ghetto," Ruiz joked: "I'm urban."
Although Ruiz is not the highest-ranking soldier in the unit, his command over the 4th Platoon is absolute. Last fall, commanders transferred a platoon leader just 48 hours after he tangled with Ruiz.
When another young platoon leader, Lt. Colin Keating, 23, of Clinton, Md., arrived Feb. 6, Ruiz greeted him warmly and introduced him to every soldier in the platoon, but told him: "Just let me fight my war."
It is a war that Ruiz said reminds him of his youth as a member of the Coney Island Cobras, a Brooklyn street gang. He said he applies many of the principles he learned in the rough neighborhoods where he grew up: Bay Ridge and, later, the projects in Caguas, Puerto Rico, where he moved with his mother as a teenager.
"What I see here, I saw a long time ago," he said. "It's the same patterns."
Staff Sgt. John Garrison, 36, of Manhattan, who referred to Ruiz as "ghetto," said: "People hear the word 'ghetto' and they think of that as a bad thing. But it's not a thing, it's a place. And it gives you certain advantages over other people that don't come up from there."
Ruiz recalled fighting turf battles in New York with "whatever you had in your pocket." In Mosul, he presides over an infantry unit that Born built from scratch for maximum lethality.
The platoon is built around four 21-ton Strykers -- two mounted with TOW missiles, two designed to carry infantrymen.
Keating said Ruiz "pretty much wrote the book on this particular style of unit. This is the first time it had ever been done, and he basically figured out how that system works."
Among soldiers in Mosul, Ruiz's aggressiveness is legendary -- both in attacking the insurgents and gathering intelligence. Keating said Ruiz "plays by the rules of Iraq, not by the rules that are written by some staff guy who's never been on the ground. He's never crossed the line, but he'll go right up to it time and time again."
After recently hearing that a security guard was allowing insurgents to meet at night at a school, Ruiz said, he confronted the principal by "taking over his personal space" and threatening to shut down the school down if the meetings continued. At a store whose owner he believed was aiding insurgents, Ruiz threatened to park a Stryker out front and post a sign saying that the man was abetting terrorism.
Ruiz said he "never crosses the line." But he said one reason for the platoon's success was his willingness to act decisively and ruthlessly. "It's important for my soldiers to know that we're not going to hesitate to annihilate the enemy," he said. "A bullet coming toward you means that they want to kill you. What are you supposed to do, come back with flowers? But believe it or not, you have people here that want to give them, you know, a little bag of candy."
Acting swiftly, he said, "sends a message to the enemy that we're not playing games. If you engage us, you are going to die."
Born said Ruiz, like the comic book hero Spider-Man, seems to possess "a spidey-sense that starts tingling when bad stuff is going on."
Laying the Ambush
Before the March 12 ambush, Ruiz set up an observation post in a remote house, telling his skeptical platoon, "This is where they'll come." The insurgents in the three cars had attacked a convoy of Iraqi soldiers, then gathered in front of the house to consolidate their weapons -- all the time unaware they were being watched by Ruiz and his men.
In the fury of the ambush, the three cars managed to drive off. In addition to the man who was killed instantly, the Americans concluded that at least one other insurgent was killed and carried off because an abandoned vehicle discovered nearby contained "a lot of blood and brain and skull matter," Born said.
Born said he thought the ambush likely had "a huge impact on [the insurgents'] morale. Getting ambushed like that -- they're usually the guys doing the ambushing."
Ruiz said the decision to pick up the skull fragment and take it back to the base was a "sarcastic" gesture to confirm the kill to the battalion. Born, who was not present during the attack, said the soldiers picked up the fragment not as a trophy, which is prohibited under military regulations, but to confirm "that we had the remains of a terrorist."
As March continued, the 4th Platoon's reputation only grew. Four days after the ambush, on March 16, Ruiz ordered a "flash" checkpoint to search vehicles on a road in southeastern Mosul.
Soldiers who described the incident afterward said the platoon blocked traffic with three Strykers and approached the vehicles on foot. As they did, three men in an Opel sedan opened fire with automatic weapons. One soldier, Spec. Jarrod Romine, 25, of Branson, Mo., was struck several times and absorbed a bullet fragment in one of his eyes.
Romine was still advancing when the car accelerated and ran over him. His armored vest caught on the Opel's bumper, preventing his head from going under a tire, but the car began to drag him.
Just then, two soldiers from the 4th Platoon closed in from both sides and shot the three men with automatic weapons at point-blank range.
Romine, who is recovering in the United States, lost parts of two fingers, but so far his eye has been saved, said Staff Sgt. Jose Cortez, 32, of El Monte, Calif., one of the two men who killed the vehicle's occupants. Two other soldiers were also wounded but are recovering.
Ruiz said he once went to a palm reader in Colombia, and "she told me I got a three-meter angel hanging around me all the time. I believe that crap, too, man. Everybody shares my angel."
© 2005 The Washington Post Company