Soldiers of the 101st Airborne stationed in Iraq’s 'triangle of death'.
These are the soldiers of the 3rd platoon, "A"; battery, 3rd battalion, 320th field artillery, 3rd Brigade, 101st Airborne, stationed in Mahmoudiya, Iraq.
Mahmoudiya, 26 kilometers south of Baghdad, is in the heart of the area once known as 'the triangle of death' for the unchecked sectarian and tribal violence that raged there. After the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, the powerful Sunni elite of these tribal lands was usurped by Shiite political parties and militias. In response to their disempowerment, Sunni nationalists took up arms and were joined by groups of Islamic extremists wanting to wage war against Shiites and the occupying Americans.
"When we arrived, we faced straight-up foreign fighters and al-Qaeda," said Lieutenant Colonel William Zemp, the commander of 3rd battalion. "The Islamic Army was in the south, the Mahdi army was a relevant force in the city. We were doing counterinsurgency, irregular warfare, and major combat operations. I had free movement in less than 15 per cent of the area."
The triangle of death earned its gruesome reputation, and the American military played its part. On 12 March 2006 US soldiers gang-raped and then killed 14-year-old Abeer Qassim in her home in Mahmoudiya, before setting her body on fire to hide the evidence. They also murdered her five year-old sister and her parents, who were in the house at the time.
Three months later two American soldiers were kidnapped near Yusifiya after an ambush on their patrol. Their bodies were discovered after four days, a few miles away. They had been dismembered, burned, and beheaded. One of the corpses was booby-trapped, a bomb rigged between its legs. The attack was claimed by the Mujahadeen Shura Council, a renowned insurgent group, as revenge for the rape and death of the teenage girl.
By the time Lt Col Zemp's battalion arrived in Mahmoudiya in October 2007, another two US soldiers from the previous unit had gone missing after a bomb attack. Their remains were not found until July 2008, halfway into the 101st's extended deployment, buried in the nearby town of Jurf al Sakhr.
But between October 2007 and November 2008, Zemp's troops saw stability emerge from the slaughter. Efforts to rebuild the local economy and the establishment of Sahwa Councils paid off -- the triangle of death calmed. In their thirteen months in Mahmoudiya, 3rd Battalion didn't lose a single soldier.
Lt Col Zemp painstakingly imparted to his troops his philosophy of respect and caution. Some of his soldiers studied Arabic in their free time and attempted to converse with Iraqis. During house raids they were polite and did not swear - unusual among US troops. And the commanders carefully followed the details of tribal politics and customs. They kissed sheikhs' cheeks and would leave their guns aside when meeting local leaders.
Lieutenant David Bhatta, the leader of "A" Battery's 3rd platoon, said the soldiers realized how fragile the situation was. "We don't have to go around being assholes about this. We don't need to be annoying people more than the minimum. We run over someone, we kill some kid, and all of this is over. This place would go up against us, we know that. We've got to be careful." His troops shared his attitude. "Lots of my guys were here [in Iraq] before and they've seen some bad stuff, and they just don't want to do that again."
The following photos show the men of the 3rd Platoon in October 2008, only a month before they were preparing to leave Mahmoudiya and return home. The photos are accompanied by Lt Bhatta's descriptions of each of his soldiers.
By Emma LeBlanc, June 2009