A look at my upcoming novel, Hunting in the Shadows, due out at the end of May. The operators of Praetorian Security find themselves in Kirkuk, Iraq, performing some covert operations…
After enough time in hostile environments, you begin to develop a sixth sense for what the military calls the “atmospherics” of a place. Your mind starts to pick up on all the little cues that tell you that you’re in a relatively safe area, or somewhere that things are about to go very, very bad. You can look at the young men loitering on the street and figure out if they’re just being lazy, or getting ready to start a riot or trigger an ambush.
We hadn’t even been on the ground in Kirkuk for a day, and that sense was already going gangbusters.
Even before Jim and I got in our Bongo truck and rolled out of the Kurdish quarter at about 0200, there was a sense of impending violence in the air. The safehouse we had set up was as deep in Kurdish territory as you could get in this divided city, but there really weren’t any hard and fast barriers in Kirkuk. An IED had gone off in the Rahim Awa Square less than a mile away only a week before we got there. There had been several shootings just across from the Arrafa Estate over the last month. That said something about how far downhill things had gotten; Arrafa was pretty swank. Generally speaking, rich Arabs didn’t do their own shooting and bombing. They contracted that out to the poor suckers they could convince would go to Paradise for killing a few infidels. Or Kurds. Or Shi’ites. You get the idea.
We were both armed, though most of the firepower was under false panels in the floor of the truck, in case we got stopped by the Iraqi Police. Needless to say, they wouldn’t be terribly enthused by what we were carrying. Technically, all Iraqis, which still included Kurds by default, were allowed one AK-47 or equivalent, with two magazines, for self-defense. We weren’t Iraqis, for one thing. And a heavily modified M1A with a tac scope along with a Mk17, along with about two hundred fifty rounds for each, plus grenades and spare magazines for concealed pistols, was way beyond anything regular Iraqis were going to be carrying.
We planned on keeping the lights on most of the time, trying not to look too suspicious. There was supposed to be a curfew in place in Kirkuk, according to the IPs, but enforcement was spotty. There functionally was no curfew in several of the larger neighborhoods of the city. That meant we could act like perfectly legal motorists, as long as we stuck to the lesser-patrolled portions of the city.
After a few turns through still well-lit streets, we turned onto the Kirkuk Highway and drove south, alongside the Khasa river, which was starting to dry up already. City lights were reflected from time to time in its dwindling waters.
I couldn’t help but compare the streets of Kirkuk with what we had seen in East Africa the year before. Jim and I had both been on Alek’s team and gone into first Djibouti and then Somalia, trying to find and secure some two hundred American servicemen and women who had been taken hostage by a network of jihadi militias and terror groups in the wake of a successful attack on the only major US base in the region, Camp Lemonier. We had managed to get some of them out, and killed the mastermind of the whole operation in Yemen, but a lot of the hostages hadn’t made it. Some we believed were still imprisoned in the Mukhabarat prison south of Cairo.
Most of Somalia had been a basket case for the better part of thirty years, and it showed. Even established towns and cities were the next best thing to ruins, with power and sewer intermittent at best, nonexistent at worst. Kirkuk was in a lot better shape, at least the Kurdish section. For all everything was still run-down, with trash and sewage in the streets, there were actual sidewalks, commerce, and the power was actually on about seventy-five percent of the time. Given the state of the rest of the world, that was actually pretty good.
As we left the Kurdish quarter, though, things changed. There were more crumbling, if not bombed-out buildings. Fewer blocks had power. And the IP weren’t the only forces on the streets.
We spotted the little three-vehicle convoy just south of the ancient Turcoman Castle that has been the centerpiece of Kirkuk for millennia. Two Opal sedans and a Toyota HiLux turned onto the highway about a hundred yards ahead, and headed south. They were totally blacked out—no lights. Jim eased off the gas to let us fall behind; we didn’t want to get close to anybody else on the road that night if we could help it.
Now, I was already wary enough of these guys. They were obviously sticking together, and had no lights on. That made them sketchy to begin with. When they turned on our turn, I got downright paranoid.
“I think these guys might be headed the same place we are,” I said.
“Maybe,” Jim replied. “I’m not gonna panic until I see them pull up to the target house.”
But as we wove our way through the streets toward our destination, deep in the Nahijat Shurijah neighborhood, we kept seeing the same three vehicles just ahead of us. We didn’t know about any friendly elements that might be out on the streets that night. That made it pretty certain that whoever they were, they probably weren’t good guys. And if they were bad guys, they were probably out to kill the guy we were there to extract.
I shifted the panel beneath my feet, pulled out my rifle, and laid it on the floor at my feet before reaching in for the tac vest with my extra mags, first aid kit, and grenades. I pulled the suppressor out of its pouch and quickly affixed it to the rifle muzzle. “If they are after our guy, I hope they’ve got a good ruckus set up somewhere else,” I said. Neutralizing a hit squad and getting our contact out would be hard enough. Attracting official Iraqi attention with a gunfight without a substantial distraction to keep the IPs away would make it that much worse.
Jim grunted. “Let’s hope they’re not the ruckus,” he said.
I looked across the cab at him. He was pointedly watching the road. “And I thought I was supposed to be the depressing bastard here,” I said.
“Hey,” he replied, as we made another turn behind our mystery convoy, “you’re a team lead now. Voice of Doom is an assistant billet.”
I shook my head as I turned my attention back to our presumed hostiles. “Fuck. Promoted out of the job I pioneered. What’s the world coming to?”
“It’s going to shit,” Jim said, “which you have been pointing out for years now.” He let off the gas again. We were only a few blocks from our destination, and sure enough, the three vehicles we’d been inadvertently tailing for the last few miles were stopping across the street from our target house. “Can you get my rifle out?”
“Sure.” It took moments to pull out Jim’s well-used Mk17 and his chest rig. I handed them over and quickly pulled on my own vest. Game time.
“Fucking hajjis,” I muttered, “fucking up my operation.” I levered open the Bongo’s cheap fiberglass door and hit the street.
Both sides of the street were lined with close-packed, blocky, cinderblock houses; some were two story, some only one. A few had arched windows. Most of them were set back from the street, with walled courtyards out front. Trees grew in most of the courtyards, raising their branches over the walls. Most of the painted metal gates were closed, some of them chained shut.
I knelt next to the tire while Jim finished shrugging into his chest rig and slung his rifle. I had my PVS-14 night vision goggles hanging from a cord around my neck; we hadn’t wanted to take the space to pack our FAST bump helmets with their NVG mounts. I didn’t need them, anyway; there was enough light around to see what was going on well enough, which meant there was enough light to aim.
All three vehicles were stopped now, and the doors were open. The men who got out were all dressed similarly; they wore loose, dark colored trousers and t-shirts. A couple had their faces covered. All of them were carrying weapons; I could make out the silhouettes of several folding-stock AKs, but there were a couple of submachine guns. They milled around on the street for a minute before heading toward the very house I had been hoping they wouldn’t go for–our target house. I already had my phone out and had called the contact number. The recognition codes took seconds to exchange.
“Listen to me very carefully,” I said. “There are men here to kill you. We are on the street outside, and will deal with them. Do not move from your house until I call you to tell you it is clear. Do you understand me?”
There was a moment’s hesitation, but I had identified myself according to the protocols that had been set up, so he had no reason to disbelieve me. “Yes,” the man replied. I hung up.
I stepped out from the cover of the cab to where I could see Jim, and looked over at him. He was set, his rifle held in the low ready, watching our unwelcome interlopers. He looked over at me and nodded once.
As one, we raised our rifles and opened fire.
Our suppressors were very good. That being said, it is impossible to truly “silence” a high powered rifle round. They immediately knew they were being shot at, even before the first one collapsed on his face in the street. They were still caught flat-footed.
I don’t know if they just hadn’t been paying attention to what was around them, or if they’d just been keeping an eye out for the Iraqi Police. Either way, they weren’t prepared to get attacked from their flank as they moved in to make their hit. Five of the ten went down in the first few seconds, crumpling as Jim and I fired as fast as we could settle our sights on a target. The rest tried to run back to the vehicles.
One tried to open the door of the HiLux and climb into the cab. I shot him through the door; the window shattered in a shower of bloody glass and he fell in the gutter with a splash. Jim gunned down two more that were trying to get behind one of the Opals and got tangled. The last two threw down their weapons and ran. Unfortunately for them, they ran down a perfectly straight street, away from the shooters.
I dropped one with a single round between the shoulder blades. Jim hit the second in the head. His skull splashed and he collapsed like a bag of disconnected bones.
In another time, shooting fleeing combatants in the back would have been a crime. Anymore, it was self-preservation. Too many well-meaning soldiers had let insurgents go only to be killed by the very people they showed mercy to a few days later. Praetorian Security didn’t play that game. Especially not after East Africa.
I let my rifle hang from its sling, and pulled out my phone. It was a cheap, throwaway job that had been bought from a small telecom store just up the road from the safehouse. It would be discarded before the night was over.
“The men who came to kill you are gone,” I explained, after the same identification mantra. “Can you get out of your house by the back way?”
“Yes,” the man’s voice replied. He had very little in the way of an accent. “There is an empty lot behind the house.”
“We will meet you at the far corner of the square,” I told him, as Jim and I climbed back in the Bongo. Jim had left the engine running, and simply put the truck in gear. We’d leave the bodies for the IPs to worry about. “We will be able to see you the entire time.”
“I understand,” the guy on the other end of the line said. He didn’t seem as shaken up at the knowledge that men had just tried to kill him as I would have expected. He was wary, that was for sure, but he wasn’t panicking. Good. I didn’t know shit about the guy, but he seemed to have a level head. I just hoped that what was in his head was worth the trouble of picking him up.
Jim cruised slowly past the vehicles, managing to avoid running over the bodies, and turned the corner at the end of the street. I was keeping an eye out for the Iraqi authorities, but now that our little fight was over, I could see and hear signs of a major disturbance a few miles away to the south. Fire-lit smoke was billowing up from what had to have been an IED blast, and there was a crackle of small arms fire audible over the low hum of the Bongo’s engine. So, the hit squad had indeed had a ruckus set up to distract the Police from their little operation here.
We took a long circle around the block, coming to a stop facing northwest at the corner of the long, rectangular plaza between four dense blocks of houses. It looked like at one time there might have been a fountain or a statue in the center, but it was barren now. I scanned to the northeast, where our contact should have been coming.
I spotted him after a moment, as he stepped out of the shadows in the empty lot he had been describing over the phone. He looked around nervously before hurrying across the street and into the square.
I used my NVGs to scan the buildings surrounding the square. Given the growing sophistication of some of the jihadi groups we’d encountered, I wouldn’t have put it past our friends out front to have set a sniper in to watch the back way. Fortunately, there was no one in sight, and no shots were fired.
I realized I was assuming that the hit squad had been Al Qaeda or Jaysh al Mahdi, when that wasn’t necessarily the case. While those two were the primary irregular forces in Iraq these days, there were plenty of gangs and jihadi splinter groups running around, especially in places like Kirkuk. For all we knew, we’d just interrupted a robbery. I doubted it, though. The timing was too pat.
The man we were there to pick up was wearing a white dishdasha; not the most inconspicuous dress at nighttime, though it did make it easier to track him as he neared the Bongo. He was also hurrying; as calm as he’d managed to sound over the phone, the guy was obviously scared, and wanted out as quickly as possible.
I half watched him as I continued eyeballing the surrounding houses. So far there was no reaction to either the shooting a block over or the man obviously all but running across open ground to a lone Bongo sitting at the curb. My guess was, provided there weren’t any bad guys left around, that most people heard the trouble and hunkered down, hoping and praying to Allah that the men with guns would just get it over with and go away without any of them or their families getting hurt in the process.
He came to the Bongo and I swung the door open to let him in the back seat. I gave him a quick once-over, but wasn’t too intrusive about it. The instructions had been pretty specific that we were not to act like we didn’t trust this guy. I recognized his face from the photos we’d been given, so it was him. I didn’t like letting him in the truck without frisking him, but we weren’t making the rules here. I did have a small signal mirror placed on the dash so I could watch him; if he tried anything froggy, I hoped I could smoke him before he got either or both of us. Of course, if he was wired to blow we were fucked anyway.
I’d already shucked my vest and had it under my seat. The rifles were back under their panel beneath my boots. I had, however, shifted my 1911 to the seat where I could have a hand on it, if out of sight to all but the most eagle-eyed observer.
Jim hadn’t even taken the Bongo out of gear; he just let his foot off the brake and we hummed away from the square and back toward the north.
We took a different route back, pushing to the east before going north along the outskirts of the city. The road was rougher, and there weren’t any curbs, but the odds were better that nobody would be waiting for us, in case the gunmen we’d slaughtered in the street back there had friends. They wouldn’t know to look along that route.
The guy we’d picked up didn’t say anything the entire trip, and neither did we. He wasn’t our contact; he was the client’s, so we didn’t trust him with any information that might get inadvertently passed during a conversation. He obviously didn’t know for sure if he could trust us, either, or if we were just hired guns there to scoop him up. Technically, I suppose that is exactly what we were, though it was really a bit more complicated than that.
We did eventually have to turn onto a main road. Jim pulled right onto the four-lane highway that ran past the hospital just south of the Kurdish quarter. The hospital, at least, was still lit up; whether thanks to the power grid being more reliable there or because of backup generators, I didn’t know.
There were two blue and white Iraqi Police HiLuxes sitting at the entrance to the hospital. I watched them warily; if they tried to stop us for being out after curfew we’d have to evade them, and that could very well attract way more attention than we wanted or needed.
There was no movement as we passed. Peering through the window, I couldn’t even see anyone in the cabs, or standing nearby. That alone was a little weird; I had been told quite a few IP trucks had been stolen lately, either by gangs or insurgents. Still, I wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth; if the IPs couldn’t be bothered to be around to stop us, so much the better.
As soon as possible, Jim turned us off the highway, and we were back on a narrow, two-lane street without sidewalks or curbs. There was trash and rubble along the edges of the road, along with standing water in places. Since the rainy season hadn’t started yet, it was a pretty good bet that the water was sewage. Most of the buildings didn’t have courtyards, though there were a few trees planted in front of those that were set further back from the street. Rollup doors fronted some. All of them were dark and shut up, except for some front porch lights that were lit to try to discourage thieves.
We came out of the densely packed buildings and onto a low earth bridge back across the Khasa. We were almost home free, or as close as we could get in this country. We had technically passed into the Kurdish quarter a mile back.
So naturally, we turned a corner into an IP checkpoint.
I didn’t know what they were doing there; it was no secret that the IPs weren’t welcome in the Kurdish quarter. They usually didn’t even try to drive into it, much less set up a checkpoint. I wondered if this was official, or an officer trying to make some extra dinars shaking down Kurds. If it was the former, it was a bad sign, but one that we were in Kirkuk to find in the first place.
They had placed the checkpoint flawlessly. There was no getting away from it without backing up. There were already two IPs in their black body armor, with AKMs slung but ready walking toward our truck. One of them had his hand raised in a “stop” gesture. The gunner on the blue and white Toyota behind him had his PKM machinegun leveled at our windshield. The message was pretty clear—if we tried to leave without their say-so, we’d get lit up. A burst or two of 7.62x54mm would do a pretty good job of shredding the lightweight Bongo truck, along with anyone inside.
“Fuck,” I said, stuffing my pistol between the seats, trying not to move too much while I did so. “Any ideas?”
“Hopefully they just want money,” Jim said. “We might be able to pay them off and get out of here without a search.”
“And how likely is that, this deep in the Kurdish quarter?” I asked.
“Not very,” he admitted.
Behind me, our cargo was fidgeting, bad. I risked a look back and saw he was sweating heavily, his eyes wide and white. He probably figured we were going to get rolled up and he was going to disappear somewhere. I almost wanted to reassure him, but that would mean I was confident we were going to get out of this one without shooting, and I wasn’t.
The IP with his hand in the air was almost to the door when a set of headlights came around the corner behind us, and a horn honked.
I was almost as surprised as he was; I’d gotten focused on the checkpoint. But when I looked back, I almost laughed out loud.
Three Peshmerga Humvees, with Kurdish flags flying from their antenna masts in case anyone wasn’t sure, had come around the corner and spread out across the street behind us. They were all old US up-armored jobs, which made them rather more formidable than the IP Toyotas. Two of them had DShK 12.7mm machineguns in their turrets; I couldn’t see the third. Either of those guns could easily go through the IP trucks, and their occupants, and hardly slow down.
The IP next to my door was standing there, blinking into the headlights of the Hummer just in front of him, looking shocked and a little stupid. Jim was chuckling, but our passenger was still frozen, his hands dimpling the thin cushions on the back seat. A quick glance at the rest of the IPs at the checkpoint showed similar deer-in-the-headlights expressions.
The passenger door of one of the Humvees opened, and a familiar, burly figure dressed in camouflage utilities and an old-style military sweater got out, his AKM slung muzzle down. He swaggered up to the IP and just stared at him for a moment before launching into a torrent of abusive Arabic. I couldn’t pick out all of it, but it sounded like Rizgar Mohammed was telling the Iraqi Policeman that he was a long way from where he should be, that he was a misbegotten idiot, and that if Rizgar caught him or any of his cronies in the Kurdish quarter again, they’d be torn to pieces and fed to his goats. Or something like that.
For a moment, the Iraqi started to recover from his shock at being caught by a Peshmerga patrol in what was functionally Kurdish territory. He started to glower back at Rizgar, and looked like he was about to try to invoke his authority as an Iraqi government official in what was technically still an Iraqi city. But a glance at the heavy machineguns in the turrets behind us made him rethink whatever he was about to do. He stared at Rizgar for another handful of heartbeats with pure hate in his eyes, then abruptly turned and stalked back to his vehicle. The Kurds didn’t move, but kept watching the IPs over their gun muzzles until the trucks started and pulled away. Only then did their commander come over to tap on my door.
“Ah, Mister Jeff,” he said. “What are you doing out on the streets at this hour, my friend? It is not safe.”
I grinned at him. Rizgar Mohammed Rashid had been one of the first Peshmerga officers we’d met when we started this contract. He had actually helped us secure the safehouse in Kirkuk. He didn’t know everything we were doing in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan, but accepted that we were on the same side, and was happy to help whenever we needed it. He was a big, bluff, honest man, and I found I liked him.
“We don’t know the meaning of the word ‘safe,’ Rizgar,” I told him. “Especially when we are on business, and tonight we are on business.”
Rizgar glanced at the guy in the back seat, and his gaze lingered for a moment on our passenger, who was staring at the floor of the truck. I could see the wheels turning, and almost hear the questions that Rizgar was asking in his head, but he didn’t voice them. Instead, he just grinned at me under his huge walrus mustache and clapped me on the shoulder. “Okay, my friend, I let you go about your business. But be careful. I cannot always be here to rescue you from Arabs, hey?”
“We’ll be fine,” I assured him. He grinned at me again, and started to walk back to his Hummer. “Rizgar,” I called after him. “What were they doing this far north?”
He turned to look back at me. “Pushing,” he replied. “This was the third time we have found them in our territory this week.”
“I was afraid of that,” I said. “Thank you, my friend.”
He placed his hand over his heart, then turned back and got into his Humvee. A moment later, the three trucks pulled away, leaving us alone in the intersection. Jim put the truck back in gear, and we headed for the safehouse.
Peter Nealen is a former Recon Marine, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the author of the military thriller Task Force Desperate.