Ali Baba: A Marine Squad’s Brush With Death

Eddie Diaz served in the United States Marine Corps from 1998-2005 as an infantryman. In 2004, his unit, Echo Company 2nd Battalion 24th Marines, was mobilized to deploy to Iraq. After completing his service in the Marines he married his girlfriend, Angelica, who supported him and his family while he was deployed. They are raising three children in Perry, Iowa. Eddie has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Iowa State University, a Master’s of Arts in Teaching and a Master’s in Educational Leadership from Drake University. He spent 10 years as an educator in PK-12 education, first as a high school teacher in history and economics, and then as a principal of a PK-8th grade school. Eddie currently serves as a director in higher education at a Des Moines, IA, community college.




Editors note: The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author’s own. This story is my recollection of an operation that nearly ended my life in an area of Iraq that came to be known as the Triangle of Death. Special thanks to my fellow Marines: Ryan Berg, Brandon Long, Mark Kistler, and Jim Schlehr who were present in my squad that day. Although they didn’t find any factual errors, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that this is my perspective of that day, and that the fog of war and time have surely impacted my recollection. The narrative and video below have foul language by civilian standards but perfectly normal language for Marines.

2nd Battalion 24th Marines’ Area of Operation extended as far north as Al Rasheed, but primarily focused on what became known as the Triangle of Death (in red). Our battalion lost 13 Marines, while our Iraqi partners lost dozens of soldiers, and several hundred civilians were killed during our tour.

Prior to deploying to Iraq in 2004, my infantry unit trained at Camp Pendleton, California, for three months honing skills that our leaders thought would help keep us alive us when we arrived in Mahmoudiya, Iraq. In addition to the rigorous physical and marksmanship training that could be expected in the Marine Corps, we practiced room clearing, detecting improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and Arabic customs and language. The phrases and customs we learned would eventually help us interact with the Iraqi people in our quest to win their “hearts and minds”. Unfortunately, much like those that have taken Spanish in high school only to discover that most of what is learned is obsolete in the real world, the Arabic that would truly help us we discovered once we arrived — most of it slang. The term, Ali Baba, for example, we would come to know soon after we made it to our new home. For Americans, the name Ali Baba may bring images from the Aladdin animated movies of the 1990’s, yet for those in the Middle East, the 18th century folk tale Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves is evoked when hearing the name. Still, for the Marines of 2nd Battalion 24th Marines, the name Ali Baba was slang the Iraqis used to refer to run of the mill criminals or even hardened terrorists that were prevalent in our area of operation (AO). Search and arrest missions had become fairly standard by the last quarter of our deployment. One particular day our intelligence folks provided a grid (latitude and longitude) and the name of an insurgent that needed to be arrested. We didn’t know his specific crimes, but many of the insurgents we hunted were accused of killing, sometimes decapitating, members of the Iraqi National Guard (ING) and Iraqi police who worked with us. Often times the target of our missions had moved on by the time we knocked down their doors, yet on at least three occasions I remember nabbing accused terrorists. Whenever we failed to find our target, we would transition to conduct security and presence patrols. These served to provide safety to the locals, and gave us an opportunity to confront any Ali Baba that we may come upon in the streets.

Our infantry squad routinely patrolled the city of Mahmoudiya. In this picture, our team traveled with our interpreter, Komi (2nd man on the right), but often times there were not enough interpreters to go out on each mission.

On this day, we arrived at the grid a couple hours into the mission but could not locate the target. It was too early to head back to the FOB (forward operating base), so I decided to take the squad to patrol the open-air market in the center of the city. My intention was to make another attempt to capture our target on the way back. After some time in the market, we took a water and chow break on the top of a roof, and then began to make our way to find the insurgent. Typically, I would be leading the point team and serving as the navigator, but on this occasion I was near the middle of the patrol as the squad leader. Lance Corporal (Lcpl) Long had moved from his typical duties as the point man to 1st fire team leader. He was one of my good buddies in the squad, and his wise cracks were made more fun by the southern cadence that came from his childhood in Arkansas. He made the most boring Marine Corps tasks bearable with his non-stop bullshitting. On our way back to the target grid, a chunky boy, not much older than my eleven-year-old son, Diego, approached him. In fact, chances are that if the boy lost a few pounds he would look a lot like Diego does today. The boy came up to our first team and yelled out “Ali Baba!” while pointing northward. Long radioed details back to me and I made the decision to take the team in that direction, the target would have to wait, since there was an Ali Baba that called for our attention. The young man walked forward with our point team while I stayed near the center of our patrol with Lcpl Schlehr, our radioman, to my side. Long remembers that as the team made its way north, more and more kids joined the parade, and eventually two adults did too. We didn’t have an interpreter in our patrol that day, but Long could tell that Iraqis were trying to tell us there was danger ahead. We made it to the “playground” – one of the busier intersections in Mahmoudiya, directly adjacent to a park. The intersection was on Alternate Supply Route (ASR) Jackson, which was heavily used by coalition forces to run supplies from bases in Baghdad to the southern part of Iraq. The typically busy road was empty, except for one sedan in the middle of the road. It was stopped at an odd angle in the middle of the street, like a bumper car at the local theme park that had run out of electricity. This car had no driver, this car had an open trunk, and this car had a young woman slumped over in the passenger seat with blood streaming down the side of her face. In my mind, she couldn’t have been more than thirty years old, but then again I never saw her close-up, and her bloody face made it hard to discern if she was even alive.

This rooftop was a great resting spot because it provided relative safety and good over-watch of the open air market in Mahmoudiya. The “park” is only a couple miles north near the trees in the background.

Our squad sprang into action like the well-trained team that we were. One team secured the south end of the street, another secured the north and east, and Corporal (Cpl) Berg took the third team and went to the nearest roof to provide over-watch security. I radioed Berg, asking him to let me know what was in the trunk of the car, since I was anxious to find out before we attempted to extract the girl. But no luck, the team couldn’t see what was inside. I then radioed the details I had to headquarters, and requested that an explosive ordinance disposal (EOD) team and their robot come to our location. As luck would have it, it was a busy bomb day in our AO, and the robot, or R2D2 as I called it, was occupied and we would have to wait. I asked myself, “was there even a bomb in the vehicle? Did we really have to wait for EOD and R2D2, or should we attempt to retrieve the woman?” I decided to find out once and for all what was in in the trunk. I started my walk towards the car as my fellow Marines and dozens of civilians looked on from a safe distance. I made it fifteen yards from the vehicle when my body froze: my mind told my legs to walk but my legs told my brain to fuck off. They wouldn’t comply. I was sweating profusely. The sweat on my brow came from many places; it came from the Iraqi heat, it came from all the gear that weighed me down, it came from the pressure of having dozens of people watch me freeze, and, of course, the intense fear of breathing my last breath. Then the good Lord intervened.

Our squad was often approached by kids looking to get some free candy or on occasion to provide valuable information to our team.

As if a mirage appeared in the middle of the Iraqi desert, a convoy of ING vehicles came barreling down the street from the north. They quickly deployed their teams and secured the perimeter, utilizing skills one of our platoons had trained them on for months. Much like us, they were curious to know what was in the trunk. Unlike us, they sent their youngest and most disposable soldier, an apparent teenager, to look inside. The Iraqi teenager walked to the vehicle, peeked in the trunk, turned around pale faced, and ran away as if his life depended on it. I ran like mine did as well. He eventually made it to me and began yelling for a few minutes in Arabic, unfortunately my Arabic customs and language classes could not help me in capturing all the details. I think he was angry because we had not informed him that there was a bomb in the car. My limited Arabic skills could not express how sorry I was that I couldn’t tell him, or how happy I was that it wasn’t me that had to find out.

Our Iraqi National Guard partners would on occasion shoot at us on accident, and often times lacked the professionalism of U.S. forces. When called upon, however, they performed.

It was time to hunker down, since there was not much else for us to do but wait for EOD team and their robot to come disarm the bomb, so we could go get the girl out. At this point, we were about four hours into our mission, and the chances of the woman surviving were slim — yet we held out hope. Another squad of Marines arrived and they quickly began to support us. I provided the squad leader a situation report with an update on what was happening, and a few minutes later my Navy medical corpsman (Doc) informed me that he was going to pull the woman out. I was surprised, and thought the heat made him delusional. There was no way in hell I was going to give him permission to do this, but he then said that the squad leader from the other team recruited him and their corpsman to go get her out. I told him that the other team could do as they pleased, but that he was going nowhere. He appeared relieved. Next thing I know, the squad leader and his “Doc” are walking towards the car. They dropped their weapons, approached the vehicle, did a half-loop around, and made a dash towards the Iraqi woman. I made my way towards the auto shop near the intersection, and found cover behind a three-foot wall near some junk cars and equipment. I watched them grab the woman from the car and carry her towards the opposite side of the street. Then I lost sight of them as the shock wave of large bomb knocked me on my ass. I stood up to see a surreal scene straight from Hollywood, as a dust storm engulfed the area. My stomach was in my throat as I ran towards the bodies of the Marine and corpsman. “How am I going to explain this to my superiors, to their families? How could I have allowed them to go through with it when I knew there was a bomb in the car?” I thought. I was angry with them for being so foolish, and upset with myself for being too weak to stop them. As I made it through the dust cloud, I found them both stripping themselves from their body armor and feeling themselves up and down to make sure they had no major wounds. The next 30 minutes or so were a blur. An ambulance picked up the Iraqi woman and took her to the hospital. The second squad that arrived gathered their men and headed back to the FOB. I radioed headquarters to let them know that the bomb had detonated. There was nothing left of the car except the engine block. Headquarters let me know that the EOD team was already on their way, so we stayed to provide security and provide an update. EOD arrived and gave us their professional analysis, and they let me know that the car had a big bomb in it. R2D2 didn’t even have to come out from the Humvee to investigate. We made it home about eight hours after we left the base on our original mission. We later found out that the young woman had died of her wounds. She was married to an Iraqi officer who had worked with the Americans. The insurgents had ambushed them on their way to Iraq, kidnapped the husband, shot the wife, and placed a bomb in the trunk — and hoped to take out a few Americans to top it off. I’m not sure what God’s plan for me is but I do know that I have been given the opportunity to live and I’m going to make the most of it. I’ve seen too much death and destruction to not feel blessed to spend my days with three beautiful children, a great wife and awesome family and friends.