Running The Gauntlet – Baghdad 2004

Lead gunner on the Mamba Team prepares for another run down Route Irish in 2004

It’s a typical crisp winter day in Baghdad’s Green Zone.  Between runs to the airport  the Blackwater team kills time in between runs by shooting the shit.  Shooting is what Blackwater is all about. Whether its their 7500 acre training facility in North Carolina or out here doing what was at the time the most dangerous ten minute run in the world. Lounging on the fenders of the armored Mamba vehicles, we do the thumbs up suspender thing, lift up our heavy armor and the 16 mags of 5.56 ammo for our M4’s.     Some of the guys carry grenades, extra clips for their Glocks, Motorolas and even knives. Mobile military supply outlets, guns with legs with the look perfected by CIA paramilitaries.  Except we are all civilians. Even worse I am a journo who has been told to carry an M4 and a full load in of ammo so that when we get attacked they can tear the ammo and extra weapon off my dead body. I am the “bullet bitch” of the Mamba Quick Reaction Force Team. They team goes by their radio handles; Miyagi, Griz, T-Boy, Critter, Bagdaddy and the rest do this for this $550 day they clock every 24 hours. Even though my call sign is “Daily Planet” to the insurgents and just along for a month worths of misery,  I am still considered a combatant.

The heavy armored diesel Mambas and pintle mounted machine guns of Mamba team are an action movie wet dream. (The 12 men in three Mambas pack over 12,000 rounds of ammo between us, even the  four machine gunners carry an assault rifle, pistol and grenades) They are designed to be the quick reaction force for other Blackwater teams working for the U.S. State Department even though we spend most of our time running Route Irish to the airport and back. A mundane taxi drive anywhere else in the world but over here a ten minute, $13,000 dollar a run thrill ride with car bombs, snipers, IEDs and ambushes. The latest stats from the intel briefing this morning are 64 violent attacks in the last 48 hours. The Mamba team exists because seven months earlier four Blackwater contractors were shot, burned, mutilated, dragged through Fallujah and Four months ago another BW team was ambushed gunned down and battled for their lives on Route Irish killing four out of the seven team members.

Bu for now we are just soaking up the sun listening carefully to the crackling radio for calls for help. To the  an outsider the group of sturdy men, stacks of weapons, bowlegged stance, and regular stream of brown spit might remind someone of bored gunfighters waiting for a showdown. Which in effect exactly what they are.  Less impressed would mock the group as manly  men, with manly toys discussing manly things: whether it’s better to shave your head or wax it, which tattoos get the most pussy, and of course how much military gear one human can wear without falling over or looking like a GI Joe doll.   The Blackwater Mamba team is the ugly working side of the equation, they are here to back up the Pretty Boy Teams. One of whom has just rolled in from Hillah, AC-DC blasting from the Hate Truck, sunglasses perched on metrosexual hair do’s.   They brush the dust from their clothes and greet us with the tribal sniff. “One bowlegged ex marine, spits and complains in a mocking falsetto “O fuck we gotta roll with the Mamba team, now we are all gonna die. “

We wear sweat soaked tan Cabellas T-shirts, they wear UnderArmor and tan adventure shirts. The mostly SEAL State Teams are dressed to kill.  Think Rambo meets Brad Pitt. They drive shiny armored SUV’s and sport that “Hey I’m a fucking SEAL”  look: long hair, thin sideburns, slouching gunfighter lean, sunburned squint  behind wraparound shades. Their unspoken ethos is to work hard, party hard, fight hard. They even swap confirmed kills in closed conversations. The only guys that hang with the Mamba team are the DSS Hate Trucks  unlike the sleek new “limo’s for the State Dept clients, the Hate Truck is pure  Mad Max: messy, dust covered, trash-armored held together with gaffers tape and welds all topped off by a grinning skull on the dash. Their job is to hang behind the main convoy and when the shooting starts its their job to barrel in and lay down as much lead to let the other teams get their “principal off the X”. The blonde haired “trunk monkey shows me his “office”. The back of the SUV is essentially a steel box that holds an old car seat, an M4 , a shotgun for “real close” and a SAW for “serious stuff”, In his tiny steel little world, There are boxes of ammo, water bottles (for throwing at people who get too close), pin flares and more ammo.  One hour later after blasting off from our compound they will be attacked on the road to Hillah and kill two insurgents.  The blonde ex Seal will tell me later he wishes he could have stayed to finish the job, the insurgents returned and booby trapped the bodies, killing two marines who investigated later. The Mamba  I get to know and work with will be blown up two months after I leave killing one and seriously wounding two.  This, as they say in this business, is serious shit.

On September 16th, the Blackwater mission was supposed to be an easy move   : run a “client” a couple of clicks north for a meeting at the Izdahar financial compound and then back to the relative security of the Green Zone. But during the meeting, a car bomb went off  in the median of the road, 30 meters away, prompting the AIC or Agent in Charge of to call for an evacuation. Like every disaster, its usually a string of bad luck. He could have kep his principal inside the building but he didn’t. The heightened threat prompted the AIC to call in Blackwater’s  Quick Reaction Force to clear traffic while another  counter assault team came in to provide cover so the essential convoy carrying the VIP could move out in safety . Once the convoy of armored SUV’s pulled up outside the building, SOP is for the Agent in Charge of the escort team to direct a well rehearsed ballet called walking the diamond, a formation of a four or more men form around the principal, and walk the client briskly out of the building into a waiting, armored-up SUV in a seamless move. Once the client is inside the “limo” the order is given to move out with every head on a swivel. Operators know that most explosions herald the onset of an ambush.

Blackwater’s lead and back up teams moved quickly off the X while a third support team moved in to cover their retreat. Doors cracked, tricked out M4’s poked out of the armored doors to bring direct fire on any threat.  This team, the contractors say, began taking fire: The unmistakable, dull tunk, tunk, tunk of AK bullets sounding off the level-6 armor on their vehicle. Team members say they quickly scoped onto  muzzle flashes and counted 8 targets.  Insurgents, police, civilians, it doesn’t matter. If they shoot, shoot back using controlled aimed shots. Some thought the targets looked like police, but it wouldn’t be the first time police have tried to attack or insurgents dressed in uniforms or perhaps the police were firing at insurgents firing at the convoy. Blackwater’s job is to suppress the attack to let the client escape. Then the ungainly and heavy Bearcat  broke down.  An eight-ton armored Ford F550 now needed to be towed away from the point of contact.  As practiced a thousand times, the team slid out from the quiet cool protection of their armored vehicles into the hot frenzy of Baghdad’s civilian traffic. Dropping to one knee they formed a defensive ring and used their M4 mounted scopes to sweep for threats. Normally a moving convoy has the heavy presence and inertia to push and intimidate traffic out of the way; today it was stuck, immobile, while the men tried to hook up a tow strap. That also meant that instead of dominating traffic by careening through it, cars unaware of the convoy were coming in fast.  Things began to get chaotic.

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