KARBALA, Iraq -- In a city known for peace and harmony between the locals and the coalition, a misunderstanding led to a series of edgy situations and narrowly averted disaster July 26.
On a night that began with a patrol for weapons, 14 Army military police officers found themselves surrounded by a crowd of angry Iraqis numbering in the hundreds, after coming too close to the holy Islamic Shrine of Abu al-Fadl Abbas.
The soldiers were there in response to reports of rocket propelled grenades and machine guns entering into the shrine, said Sgt. 1st Class Gary Cooper, 35, a Eureka, Calif. resident with the 870th Military Police Company of Pittsburgh, Calif.
"Apparently the day prior to that we had went to one of the other mosques, and we had arrested five individuals with weapons," said Sgt. Ramone Palmquist, 36, a Livermore, Calif. resident with the 870th.
"We made those arrests, and found weapons and several grenades," he said. "Under that impression, we figured, 'OK, that's where they're holding weapons.'"
With personnel both in armored Hummvees and on foot, the MPs found themselves surrounded by a crowd of Iraqis yelling at them to leave the area, Cooper said.
"We tried to explain we couldn't leave because the road was blocked with people," Cooper said.
As the MPs tried to find a way out of the area, the situation escalated. The MPs had a translator with them, and were trying to explain to the crowd that they were trying to leave, but even the translator came under assault as glasses, bricks, and other projectiles were hurled at the retreating MPs.
Finally, the MPs were able to break free of the crowd, and moved back to the Iraqi police station a quarter mile away, where Iraqi police and Marines from 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines were located.
Marine Capt. James Farrell Coffman, 34, is the business and industry sector officer for the battalion's governate support team.
"We called Blade (the battalion), and told them we were five minutes away from the location, and we could respond if need be," said Coffman, a resident of Rome, Ga.
With authorization from the battalion, Coffman, in his Hummvee, and two gun-truck Humvees headed toward the location of the MPs with snipers they had picked up in the north, he said.
When the MPs weren't at the coordinates they had been given over the radio, the Marines moved on to city hall, where they found the MPs preparing for the mob to descend.
"Upon arrival, we found the MPs had already set up a linear defense with their vehicles and personnel," Coffman said. "I exited my vehicle, and found the senior man and I asked if they were still in need of our assistance.
Deploying the snipers to provide cover, Coffman and the other Marines joined the MPs' defensive line, while having some personnel watch the rear and rooftops.
"As the crowd came around the corner, they were extremely hostile," Coffman said. "You could hear them yelling screaming; some men had ripped their shirts off."
The mob filled the five-lane road for several hundred meters, Coffman said.
"They were running," said Army Cpl. Jessie Garcia, 33, of Sunnyvale, Calif. "It was an avalanche."
"It's hard for me to estimate the crowd, but the initial estimates I heard were around 2,000," he added. "There were a lot of people. The street was completely packed."
"The Marines, sailors and soldiers all conducted themselves very professionally," Coffman said. "Anything could have happened, it was an extremely delicate situation, especially for about an hour."
Picking out an older man dressed as a tribal sheik by the clothing he wore, Coffman headed toward the middle ground between the American forces and the crowd, signaling to the man to meet him.
"He and I, along with an interpreter, were standing in the center, trying to reach a peaceful resolution and quell the riot," Coffman said.
"After what seemed like hours of deliberation, I instructed all US servicemen to point their rifles away from the crowd," he said. "The sheik, in turn, was able to quiet the crowd down."
After quite a bit more talk, the crowd began to disperse, and by the time more forces from the battalion had arrived, was down to about on quarter of its original size, Coffman said.
"What could have easily been a potential international incident that could have destroyed everything coalition forces have worked for here in Karbala, could have ended badly, ended peacefully," Coffman said.
Cooper praised the restraint of the American personnel in the face of such a huge mob of potentially threatening people.
"The men did an outstanding job," he said. "Everyone remembered the rules of engagement, and no one fired. They did an outstanding job, all 14 of them."