The following excerpt from the new book ‘Fallujah Awakens: Marines, Sheikhs and the Battle Against al Qaeda‘ by Bill Ardolino reconstructs the detonation of a suicide truck bomb packed with chlorine gas that was deployed by al Qaeda in Iraq against the village of Albu Aifan on March 16, 2007.
The chemical attack was one of a dozen executed by insurgents in Baghdad, Anbar province, and Diyala province during 2007, and one of two such bombings in the Fallujah district that evening. The targeting of Albu Aifan reflected the radical insurgency’s desperation to sever the strengthening alliance between leaders of the Albu Issa tribe and US Marines that had formed at the beginning of that year. The tactic was designed to cow the sheikhs into surrender or send them back into exile, but the brutality of using chlorine against civilians, and the goodwill earned by the US military’s response, backfired against the insurgents. The attack was a turning point in the Third Battle of Fallujah.
If you enjoy the material, please purchase a copy of the book. All author proceeds from the first edition benefit the Semper Fi Fund for injured service members.
Cpl. Steven Levasseur had to relieve himself before he left the patrol base. His squad, led by Sgt. Kendrick Doezema and accompanied by 1st Lt. Jerome Greco, had pushed out to “FOB Dark” earlier that day to support Weapons Platoon in the area south of Albu Aifan village. After conducting an hours-long foot patrol, capturing a detainee, and encountering a fierce firefight between Iraqi combatants, the Marines had returned to the large abandoned house and staged their vehicles to leave for home; warm meals and beds awaited them at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Black.
Levasseur was sitting in the front passenger seat of his Humvee, which also held the lance corporals Jacob Dennert, Robert Bishop, and on the turret, Matt Hough. The squad had been waiting in and around their vehicles for about ten minutes while Greco conferred with their replacements. As soon as the lieutenant was finished, they would move out. If Levasseur was going to go to the bathroom, he had to do it now, so he opened the front passenger door and stepped into the dusty courtyard. It was about 6: 00 p.m. on March 16, 2007. A pre-dusk gloom had started to settle over the peninsula, and the dry air had cooled to a relatively comfortable temperature. The corporal walked about ten paces to the inside wall of the courtyard.
He soon heard the low rumble of an approaching vehicle. Levasseur glanced to his right and back. A dump truck with a blue cab and yellow trailer was moving slowly down the street that ran alongside the patrol base. It was a little unusual to see a civilian on these roads around sunset, and the truck was crawling at an oddly slow ten miles per hour. “Could that be a truck bomb?” he thought. Vehicle-borne bombs were a constant threat, an omnipresent specter in the mind of every Marine when a nonmilitary vehicle approached his position. Levasseur held on to his opened trousers with his left hand and raised his M-16/ 203 with his right. He “chickenwinged” the rifle for support, sandwiching the butt against the medical pack attached to the side of his flak vest, and then steadied his finger over the trigger and tracked the driver with the weapon’s muzzle.
The truck turned left at the corner of the base, moving north on the road that ran directly in front of him and the parked Humvees behind him. Its elevated cab drew within a few meters of Levasseur, and he got a clear look at the driver over the curved stone wall that separated them. An Arab with long black hair stiffly gripped an oversized steering wheel. The man’s eyes were wide and the color had drained from underneath his dark brown complexion. He looked “scared shitless,” recalled the young Marine, who suspected “something wasn’t right.” He knew that “if that guy has a bomb and turns into our compound … we’re fucked.”
As the driver passed the Marine, he furtively glanced left at the wary American before returning his gaze to the road. The vehicle moved beyond the entrance to the patrol base and continued north. Relieved, Levasseur lowered his weapon and fixed his trousers. The Iraqi had driven slowly and acted strangely, but oddness itself wasn’t necessarily odd around Fallujah. Harmless locals often acted nervously around Marines. Iraqis recycled well-worn tales of trigger-happy Americans, and some feared being shot for making any kind of potentially provocative move, especially while driving. And in this case, Levasseur had been pointing his weapon at the truck. The corporal climbed back into his team’s idling Humvee. The tired Marines waited for Greco. They were “pissed” that they had been forced to conduct an unexpected mission that day, so the men sat in silence. A few minutes later, the ground shook with the rumble of a huge explosion.
Through the windshield, Levasseur saw a flash of light and a massive cloud of smoke shoot straight and high into the air less than a mile away. The column of dirt morphed into a multi-story mushroom cloud, a light gray stem with a dark cap. In a neighborhood sometimes rocked by several detonations a day, this one stood out as massive. Waiting in an adjacent Humvee, Doezema, the squad leader, marveled at the size of the blast. “That was ridiculous,” he thought. The Iraqi detainee they had captured earlier that day was sitting in the vehicle with him. When the explosion shook the ground, the blindfolded, flex-cuffed prisoner began shaking in fear.
“Oh my God, did you see that shit?” yelled Lance Corporal Hough from his vantage in the turret of Levasseur’s Humvee.
“Yes,” replied Levasseur. “Get in the house, right now.” Fearing they might be the target of an attack, the Marines poured from the staged vehicles and ran for the superior cover afforded by the fortified patrol base.
The loud explosion resembled the thunderous boom of 155-mm Marine artillery rather than a garden-variety roadside bomb. Some of the Marines suspected it was a 120-mm mortar lobbed at the patrol base and that more might be headed their way. Someone had heard a gunshot right before the explosion.
“It’s an IED, someone hit an IED,” was one assessment.
“No, no. That was not an IED,” said Levasseur.
Tha’er Khalid Aifan al-Issawi commanded a team of militiamen at the southernmost checkpoint guarding an entrance to the village of Albu Aifan. The sun had begun to slip below the horizon, and the haunting, electric chant of the muezzins broadcast from speakers atop the area’s mosques had called the faithful to prayer. As Tha’er manned the checkpoint, most of the eight militiamen under his command knelt in worship inside the courtyard of a house next to their roadblock, which consisted of a series of large stones set in the center of the dusty street. Though the way was partially blocked, the largest boulder was not in place; the militiamen had planned only on light traffic in the hours prior to sunset, and each movement of the heavy stone required the strained effort of four men.
In the distance, Tha’er saw a twinkling set of headlights approaching his checkpoint. He squinted toward the road in the gathering gloom. At first he thought it was the Americans, but he quickly discarded that idea. There was only one vehicle, and the Americans traveled in groups. The headlights floated several feet above the road, so he realized it had to be a truck. Only minutes before, civilian traffic had almost ceased; the prayer was under way, and the peninsula’s widely enforced nighttime curfew was near. Tha’er gripped his rifle and jogged south, toward the oncoming headlights. Sa’ad Salah, his twenty-two-year-old nephew, scooped up his Kalashnikov and followed. Tha’er began to make out a large yellow dump truck. No one from his village or the villages of allied subtribes owned anything like it. He and his fellow militiamen usually prepared for an attack if they didn’t recognize a vehicle.
The truck moved slowly but steadily forward, seemingly weighted down by heavy cargo. The militiamen continued on to meet the vehicle until it drew within a few dozen meters. Tha’er motioned and yelled at the truck to stop. The driver paid no heed to the militiaman’s commands and signals. Instead of stopping, he hit the gas. As the truck strained to accelerate under its heavy load, Tha’er and Sa’ad barely had time to scramble off the road to avoid being hit. Tha’er glimpsed the driver’s face in the fading light. He recalls dark features and a “hateful expression.” Purpose replaced the militiaman’s scrutiny. He now knew that it was a bomb, and “if it reached the center of the village it [was] going to kill a lot of my friends and family.” He had to stop the attack.
Tha’er flipped the selector switch on his AK-47 downward to fully automatic, braced the rifle, and aimed at the back of the dump truck. The trailer was where the explosives would be, and it was the only clear shot he had. The militiaman pressed and held the trigger, ripping off a seven-to-ten-round burst at the vehicle, now only about ten meters from breaching the pervious roadblock. Sa’ad’s rifle barked to life beside him. “The truck is so close, I am going to die when this explodes,” he later recalled thinking. Suddenly, the clatter of the two Kalashnikovs was obliterated by a massive explosion. The truck disappeared in a soaring burst of flame, which itself was snuffed quickly and replaced by billowing clouds of dust. A wave of overpressure seemed to douse the fire as a column of smoke towered several stories into the darkening sky and began to mushroom.
Tha’er doesn’t recall being knocked down. He examined himself for injuries, but his probing fingertips couldn’t find any major wounds to his legs or torso. He then looked around for Sa’ad, who was lying several meters away. On unsteady legs, Tha’er slowly moved toward the young man. He saw a wash of blood covering his nephew’s youthful face; a piece of shrapnel had left a small gash on the top of his head. He was in a great deal of pain. Tha’er pulled him farther from the truck’s mangled ruins, until the strength drained from his limbs and he had to sit down to rest.
The light had faded, and a thick, chalky haze descended around him. The air smelled odd, vaguely like chemicals or building materials burning in a house fire. Tha’er couldn’t see more than three or four meters in any direction. He began to cough. His lungs burned. A row of lights danced up and down through the darkness and smoke. There were no distinguishable sounds, as if his ears were packed with cotton. He began to make out the dim outlines of his tribesmen holding flashlights. They had run to the site of the explosion and were picking through the ashy metal wreckage of the dump truck looking for bodies.
For some reason, Tha’er recalls methodically running his hand along the side of his rifle, still slung around his neck, and conscientiously flipping the selector switch up to “safe.” Someone spotted him, and about a half dozen men ran over with flashlights. He couldn’t hear them although they were yelling questions at him. It was irritating. Tha’er’s rescuers helped him back toward the village. The chemical odor became stronger and stranger. He had never smelled anything quite like it; he felt as if he might throw up. He looked back and saw that Sa’ad was in distress. An asthmatic, his bleeding nephew was panicking and choking as tribesmen helped him toward the village. The Iraqis’ lungs were on fire, but they didn’t know exactly why.
Fallujah Awakens, which has earned a “starred review” from Publisher’s Weekly, is available now. The author proceeds from the first edition benefit the Semper Fi Fund, which helps injured service members.