War Crimes Chapter 18
Just before midnight on a late October evening in 2005, a Puma helicopter took off from Basra Air Station and headed north. The aircraft showed no lights, a contrast to the city passing on its starboard side and the gas and oil separation plants in the desert that were lit up like Christmas trees. Once clear of the city, the helicopter swung right and picked up the River Tigris that wound its convoluted path through the desert, southeast towards the Persian Gulf. The Puma was heading in the opposite direction, north-northwest towards Maysan Province.
In the rear of the helicopter, the loadmaster sat behind the right hand door’s 7.62mm GPMG, his lower legs dangling in the warm slipstream. Four other men were sitting in the dull-red canvass seats. They were all armed and wearing clothing that was festooned with strips of hessian and dirty rags. They only had fighting order webbing with extra water bottles. None carried bergens, but all had personal role radios and three were armed with L119A1/A2 individual weapons. The fourth man had a long rifle across his knees and cradled in his arms to protect it from the vibration of the aircraft. Parts of the rifle and its telescopic sights were also draped with strips of hessian.
This four-man team had spent the last few days in the relative luxury of Basra Air Station, studying their mission notes and poring over hundreds of photographs that included aerial shots of the outskirts of a city and its buildings, in high definition taken from a Tornado GR4’s RAPTOR pod. There were also about thirty photographs of a man wearing a variety of clothing, both Western and Arabic with him in various situations: talking with other men, leaving buildings and getting out of various vehicles. Those photos hadn’t been taken by a RAPTOR pod, but incredibly brave, undercover men and women of “The Det.” The man was in his forties, dark hair with a luxuriant moustache very much of the Saddam Hussain fan club variety. He was handsome with a hooked, aquiline nose. A proud father with two sons, three daughters, two wives. Prosperous and successful. He was also a high-ranking official in the Jaish al-Mahdi. The four passengers in the back of the helicopter were going to kill him, but only one was going to pull the trigger.
From the photographs the team had identified their drop-off point, the route in, the secondary rendezvous point, the observation and firing position and most importantly, the safe route out. The helicopter aircrew also studied the photographs and agreed that the approach and way out of the drop-off point was clear of obstructions. The rules of engagement were agreed, rations and ammunition issued and the team had relaxed in an air conditioned corimec and waited for nightfall.
The RAF Loadmaster didn’t know the names of his passengers. He didn’t know their cap badges and he wouldn’t dream of asking. They were just pax, cargo. Cooper and Jarvis were the back-stop. The force protection. A jovial tag-team, a double act that would be expected to die if necessary to protect the shooter. Morrison was the spotter. He would help the shooter set up the shot, call windage and do everything except pull the trigger. He didn’t much care for the shooter, but few did. Edge was the trigger man. A glacial, introverted, swept-up killer with a lot of pent-up aggression. Sometimes they could see it in his eyes. Cooper had once remarked to Jarvis that if ever a mission went totally tits-up, he would take great pleasure in slotting Edge before going down. He was only half joking.
The city of Amarah was ahead of the helicopter, its lights sparkling off the muddy River Tigris. The river was more of a dribble this time of year at the end of the dry season. The rains of March were months away. The Puma’s cockpit was backlit by the eerie glow of the pilots’ night vision goggles (NVGs) and they avoided looking at the brightest-lit parts of the approaching city. The British base at the old airfield of Al Amarah was southwest of the city. The helicopter headed for a southern suburb with low quality housing and ruined blocks of what would have been flats for the oil workers. Its grid pattern showed up harshly in the NVGs and there were few lights in this district.
The RAF loadmaster turned round and tapped one of the passengers on the leg, extending two digits from his fist. Two minutes. The team became alert and started to check their equipment. They didn’t have NVGs, just their night vision. While essential for pilots, NVG’s tend to give the wearer a sense of tunnel vision that overrides all the other, equally vital senses. They would need all of them once they were on the ground. The pilot headed for a pool of darkness on the outskirts of the district and flared to lose speed. By now the loadmaster was flat on his belly, hanging out of the door and calling out the height.
“Twenty metres, fifteen, ten,”
The four men were crouched behind him in the door.
“Five, four, three, two, one…” he thrust his arm out, pointing.
The four man team disappeared into the dust thrown up by the rotor blades. The loadmaster broke a cylume stick and shook it, sweeping the floor of the helicopter to make sure no kit had been left behind.
The Puma’s pilot applied collective and cyclic control and the helicopter pitched forward, accelerated and gained height, before turning left and heading towards the base at Al Amarah. The wheels hadn’t even touched the ground. The team waited immobile for the noise to disappear and the dust to settle, their senses stretched taught. A dog barked in the distance and a child wailed. It was cool out in their element and they waited until they were sure. Then slowly they stood up and made their unhurried, cautious way north towards the distant buildings. Well-spaced and moving in total silence, they were like creatures of the night.
* * *
It was their second day in that dangerous, decaying block of flats. The oil workers had left in 1990 and the local inhabitants had at first looted the building, partially burned it down then used it as an open sewer. The building was now in fact such a disgusting mess, that nobody in their right mind would go anywhere near it, even the local kids on their motor scooters.
Edge stared over the top of the rifle’s telescopic sites at the road that ran left to right, left of arc to right. Three-quarter left was a petrol station and small market, range 650 metres. Half-right was another, smaller petrol station, range 950 metres. Traffic on the road was light, the odd lorry, motorbikes and a few ubiquitous, Toyota pick-ups. Edge massaged his tired eyes, his face invisible under the netting head scarf draped over his head. He was partially lying on an old kitchen unit they had dragged into the main sitting room with its large, glassless window and balcony. The table was as far into the room as they could get it and maintain site of the two fuel stations. Morrison sat behind and to the left of Edge, his telescope close to the rifle, but he used a pair of binoculars to scan their arc of fire on the fifth floor. The telescope was to help Edge set-up and take the shot, when the time came.
On the floor below, Jarvis and Cooper kept watch on the back and flanks of the flats, making sure that their escape route was un-interdicted. They were both tired and thoroughly bored. The highlight of their previous day had been watching a bunch of little savages drag a dog behind a motorbike and then stone the exhausted animal to death.
“Practicing for when they’re married,” Cooper had observed to Jarvis, wishing that he had the rifle.
Edge was feeling uncomfortable and knew that he had to take a piss, even though he had been trying to remain hydrated. He was concerned as he was down to his last water bottle.
“Sorry, mate, need a piss,” Edge slid off the table with glacial slowness and once out of sight of the window crawled on his hands and knees to what had been the bathroom. The lavatory had gone and there was just a rank hole in the floor. This room had no windows, so Edge stood up and fumbled with the front of his ghillie suit. He pissed in the sink and was horrified at how brown his urine was, how much it stank and how much it burned coming out.
“Bollocks,” he exclaimed quietly. A urinary tract infection was the last thing he needed. Anxiously he went back to his post with a stinging bladder.
Back at the table, Morrison was gently chewing a few nuts and dried fruit he had packed into one of his smock pockets. Chocolate bars would have been a useless mess in this heat. Trouble was, nuts made him feel thirsty.
“No, I’m in fucking agony.”
“You should drink more, keep hydrated.”
They had a false alarm at 1400 when a couple of pick-ups approached the garage left-of-arc and stopped in the parking area away from the pumps. Morrison stirred and nudged Edge, who had been catnapping. Two men got out of the first pick-up and one man from the second. They came together and seemed to be chatting and sharing cigarettes. Edge looked through his telescopic sight and Morrison was peering through the telescope.
“I don’t recognise him.”
“What about Mr Headdress?” Morrison asked, “Guy on the right. He has a Saddam moustache.”
“His nose is wrong. Not our man.”
They watched the three Iraqis finish their cigarettes, then one of them wandered into the petrol station and came out with three cans of coke.
“It’s the real thing,” Edge observed, “But unfortunately, they aren’t”
* * *
The light was going and the air was cooling, when Edge spotted a Toyota Land Cruiser pull into the further petrol station. It stopped short of the pumps but no one got out. A minute or so later, a second pick-up drew level with the first. One man got out and appeared to be talking with someone inside the first. Two more men got out of the first vehicle and looked all around the area. One of them spoke into a mobile phone.
“You getting this?”
“Yep,” Morrison confirmed. He keyed his personal radio and spoke to the two on the floor below,
“Something’s going down. Wake up.”
“Cheeky bastard,” Jarvis muttered as they scanned their arcs.
A Mercedes saloon came from the south and pulled into the station, parking close to the two pick-ups. Edge formed himself into the human component of his rifle, the Mercedes’ door rested on the dagger of his telescopic site. The reticules of the scope framed the car.
The driver’s door opened and a man got out. He was wearing a lightweight linen suit and sunglasses. As he turned sideways, Edge scrutinised his profile.
“That’s our man.” Edge muttered, his mouth barely moving.
“Confirm positive ID.”
Edge chambered a round. He had kept the bolt open to avoid condensation building up in the chamber and barrel. By now he was framing the target within the environment. A flag on the petrol station’s canopy fluttered. In the distance, a pile of tyres burned, sending a long plume that Edge used to estimate wind direction and speed. He did the calculation in his head.
“Four-eight mils, five knots,” Morrison estimated.
The bomb maker walked unhurriedly across to the pick-ups and shook the three men’s’ hands.
The rifle was an L115A3 and the round was a .338 Lapua Magnum. The scope was a Schmidt & Bender 5-25×56 PM II LP telescopic sight and Edge concentrated on the man’s head and shoulders.
The target looked into the back of the pick-up and one of the men dragged aside a tarpaulin. He looked in and grinned then laughed, obviously pleased with what he saw.
Edge let his breath out slowly and the rifle rose imperceptivity. The man had a large mole on his forehead that his doctor should really have had a look at. He took up first pressure on the trigger.
At the end of the rifle barrel was a long, tubular addition that looked like a silencer. It was a recoil suppressor and flash eliminator. Edge went into second pressure, knowing when the sweet spot would come. The rifle bucked hard against his shoulder. Morrison inhaled the rank nitrocellulose and watched the shimmering of the round disturbing the air as it went down range. Edge had already chambered a second round.
One of the men turned round. He couldn’t have heard anything because the round was travelling faster than sound and after 600 metres, the distinctive crack of a high velocity round disappears. The bomb maker’s head from his mandible upwards disappeared in a pink cloud. The lifeless corpse remained on its feet for several seconds before folding up behind the pick-up. The three men scattered to cover.
They went down the stairwell and out into the evening air. Cooper and Jarvis were already out, covering the flanks. Edge and Morrison moved quickly, their bodies running with sweat inside the ghillie suits. Five-hundred metres out from the flats they heard the first rattle of automatic fire, very fast, a C8 carbine. Cooper and Jarvis were busy.
After one-and-a-half kilometres of a fast jog, they arrived at the main rendezvous point, one of Al Amarah’s crash gates, which was open, the Land Rover waiting with its engine running. Their force protection in the forms of Cooper and Jarvis arrived ten minutes later.
“One of the pick-ups decided to get a bit lairy and have a look at the flats. I had to dissuade them,” Jarvis explained.
Edge chugged down bottle after bottle of water. While they were waiting for the helicopter and nature took its natural course, he was doubled up with agony as he tried to get rid of it before the flight back to Basra.
© Blown Periphery 2020
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file