Two journalists based in Washington state got an up-close look at the risks faced by American troops in Iraq during a November embed that came amid escalating tensions with Iranian-backed militias.
They traveled to Qayyarah Airfield West, a battered base south of Mosul, where soldiers from an Alaska-based brigade share space with Iraqi forces. Less than a week before their arrival, the U.S. soldiers took incoming fire from militia rockets.
“It didn’t cause any casualties but it was a pretty sophisticated attack. Did they miss, or were they just showing what they could do,” said Kevin Knodell, a Tacoma freelance reporter who traveled to Iraq with Kimberly Westenhiser, a photographer from Vashon Island.
Their embed, which ended Nov. 23, gave them insights into the complex political terrain American soldiers must navigate on a mission that was supposed to focus on fighting the remnants of the Islamic State but has them hunkered down in bases vulnerable to rocket attacks from a different threat — the Iranian-backed militias.
During the past two months, these militias have launched at least a half-dozen rocket attacks at Iraq bases where U.S. forces are stationed, including one that killed an American contractor and prompted U.S. bombing raids against militias. Iran on Jan. 7 also fired ballistic missiles at a base with U.S. forces in the aftermath of a U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a deputy commander of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), which include Iranian-backed Shiite militias.
Fears of an outright war between the United States and Iran have receded. But the Iraqi prime minister has requested the withdrawal of U.S. forces, while some militia members call for revenge against the United States for the death of al-Muhandis from the U.S. drone attack.
All of this has prompted the Defense Department to put a pause on U.S. forces’ campaign against Islamic State forces. Instead, they will focus on protecting the Iraqi bases where they are lodged, according to a statement released by the U.S. Central Command.
These events changed the region, and the U.S. soldiers “will have to remain vigilant,” Knodell said.
Drawn to learn more
Knodell, 31, is a 2011 graduate of Pacific Lutheran University with a passion for journalism — as well as graphic art — that has kept him freelancing as he supplemented his income with jobs ranging from working in a comic-book shop to making paint deliveries to construction sites.
While at Pacific Lutheran, he spent two years in the Reserve Officer Training Corps before a medical problem forced him to leave the program. His writing career has focused on military coverage in articles for publications that include Foreign Policy, Playboy and Coffee or Die, an online magazine that is posting his writing from Iraq.
For Westenhiser, 24, the Iraq war that began with the 2003 U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein was part of the backdrop of her youth. She remembers sitting on her late father’s lap watching television reports about the latest fighting by American forces, and growing weary of war scenes that seemed to never end.
As a young woman, she was drawn to learn more about the country behind those news reports. She made a living as a mechanic, cook, fumigator and bike courier, but also studied Arabic and developed her skills as an illustrator and photographer and was eager to join Knodell in the embed.
“I needed (Iraq) to be a tangible, as it had always influenced my idea of what it meant to be an American,” Westenhiser said.
Their embed, which began Nov. 11, landed them with the 1st (Stryker) Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, an Alaska-based unit that has about 2,000 soldiers stationed at bases across Iraq, including the base struck by Iranian missiles on Jan. 7.
This brigade previously was based at Fort Lewis (now Joint Base Lewis McChord) in Western Washington. And in 2004, soldiers in that brigade made a yearlong deployment to northern Iraq that claimed the lives of more than 40 and wounded some 600 others.
In September, the brigade soldiers deployed to Iraq for nine months as part of Operation Inherent Resolve, which was formed to assist in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The unit arrived in Iraq at another volatile moment in the nation’s history as a growing backlash against Iranian influence in government — and the militias — spurred wave after wave of protests in Baghdad and elsewhere.
The brigade soldiers have been assigned to bases across Iraq that they share with Iraqi forces.
The Qayyarah Airfield West had once been occupied by the Islamic State, and it was a mess, according to Knodell. Some buildings were damaged, a water tower was knocked over and one area was off-limits due to mines buried by the retreating forces.
At the base, the Alaska-based soldiers faced more restrictions than units that deployed a decade ago when U.S. military forces controlled major bases and came and went as they pleased. Knodell found that American soldiers could not go on patrols outside the bases without the approval of Iraqi forces, and had to travel with either Iraqi Army personnel or police.
“The biggest adjustment is asking for permission,” Sgt. 1st Class Ruben Sepulveda, an infantryman who had previously deployed to Iraq, told Knodell, who published the soldier’s comments in a December story for Coffee or Die.
The Alaska-based soldiers also had to figure out how to deal with the Iraqi militias.
During the 2016-2017 battle to push Islamic State forces out of Mosul, the Iranian-backed militias had been uneasy allies with U.S. troops.
Now, these militias were consolidated into the PMF, which included some factions that were allies of the United States and others that launched rockets at Qayyarah Airfield West.
When Knodell and Westenhiser arrived at the northern Iraq base, they found soldiers questioning their unit leaders about how to deal with militia forces they might meet during their patrols. They were told to try to avoid any conflict even in the aftermath of the November rocket attack, according to Knodell.
Knodell wanted to write about this, and did so in his first story for Coffee or Die that published late last month.
But while at the base, he was discouraged from reporting about the militias’ role in the rocket attack.
“It kind of got a little bit contentious,” Knodell recalls.
One sergeant told soldiers the militias were not the enemy.
“He called them a noncompliant actor,” Knodell said. “I do love military speak.”
Correction: In an earlier version of this story, the name of Capt. Haileigh Combs, who took the photographs used with this story, was misspelled.