By Julio Montes
For almost a year between 2003 and 2004, soldiers of Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Spain served and fought shoulder to shoulder with US forces in Iraq. They were all part of Spain’s military brigade, and part of a 9,000 strong Polish-led Multinational Division. Spain contributed 1,300 soldiers as the core of the force, to be deployed along Najaf and Al Qasidiyah. España Camp established its headquarters at university buildings and in a former hospital, some 110 miles (180 km) south of Baghdad.
The Spanish government was an immediate supporter of the United States in its war against terrorism. Spain sent several military elements to Afghanistan. When the call came to support the United States in Iraq, the Plus Ultra Brigade was established as a task force with units from Spain, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua; Ukrainian troops joined later. The first elements of the Brigade were deployed on July 13, 2003. By August 13, the Brigade was in the theater, and was fully operational by September 1. The hand-over ceremony from the US Marines to the Multi-National Division took place on September 3, 2003 and elements of the brigade started patrolling Ghammas, Afkar and Al Budayr. Within the first week of September, the Spaniards had established 128 road check points, and inspected 1,327 vehicles.
The Dominican Republic contributed 300 elements to the Spanish force, forming the Quisqueya Task Force. They established their HQ at Camp Santo Domingo, with Honduran and Nicaraguan troops nearby. Early during their arrival to Iraq, the Honduran battalion commander, Colonel Gonzalo Regalado, stated that its troops were not occupation forces, and were in Iraq to help in the reconstruction. Upon arrival, the Honduran and Nicaraguan troops immediately got busy clearing mines and providing medical care in central Iraq. Honduras sent its contingent of 369 soldiers to Iraq in August 2003, which was replaced with a second group of the same size in early 2004. The force was denominated Batallón Expedicionario Xatrúch (the name is in honor to the Honduran general who captured William Walker in Trujillo in the late 1800s) and had its HQ at Camp Tegucigalpa. Nicaragua sent about 115 soldiers, mostly sappers and medical personnel. They constituted the Chavalo Task Force. Following the return to Nicaragua of these troops in early 2004, the government announced that it could not afford to send a second contingent.
El Salvador sent its Batallón Cuscatlán, with 360 soldiers, as part of the Plus Ultra Brigade in August 2003. A replacement group of 380 soldiers arrived in April 2004, and were scheduled to stay until August of 2004. Their base was at Camp El Salvador.
The US and International press were so indifferent to these units that this is probably the first time that their actual denominations are used in a publication outside their respective countries.
Spain’s military elite units played an important role in forming the task force and were available for pooling to the military. There are two brigades in charge of conventional airborne operations, the Parachute Brigade (BRIPAC) and a light Air Assault Brigade (BRILAT). The Spanish Legion, also part of Spain’s Fuerza de Reacción Rápida (FAR), comprises four Light Infantry Regiments (Tercios de Extranjeros), and a Special Operations Battalion (Bandera de Operaciones Especiales - BOEL). For tasks against strategic and operational targets, special reconnaissance and direct action, the Army counts with the Mando de Operaciones Especiales (MOE), with HQ at Alicante, controlling and commanding three Special Operations Units (Unidades de Operaciones Specials - UOE). The Spanish Navy deploys the EUBC (Unidad Especial de Buceadores de Combate), while the elite Naval Infantry Brigade (BRIMAR) counts with its own special naval warfare unit (UOE).
The initial Spanish compliment of the brigade was established with elements of the BRILAT, including a headquarters and headquarters company (HHC) (Galicia VII), a Logistical Group, a Combat Engineer Company, and a Communications Company; the brigade also listed the 3rd Battalion (or “Bandera”) of the 3rd Legionnaire Regiment (Almeria), a Tactical Group from the 8th Lusitania Cavalry Regiment, a Company from the NBC Battalion of the Maneuvering Force, the Intelligence Unit of the FAR, a Special Operations Unit, and other smaller detachments of specialized troops. The brigade received support from two Super Puma, and two Cougar helicopters. The main armored support for the Plus Ultra Brigade was entrusted to 15 Spanish designed and built BMR and VEC armored vehicles. There were also 96 light utility vehicles and trucks, and 50 recovery vehicles.
Under Operation Alhucemas, the government dispatched naval Task Force 482, and contracted C-17 and L-1011 transport planes to deploy the brigade to Iraq. General Alfredo Cardona, chief of the Special Operations Command, was named commander of the unit, and the contingent was deployed to Base España (Diwaniyah), and Base Al Andalus (Najaf).
The Spanish soldiers came to Iraq equipped with the Marte 04-ST-98 Kevlar helmet, and the 6-color “chocolate chip” US desert battle dress uniform (BDU).
For small arms, officers and a few others carried the double-action Model M82 pistol, built by Llama & Gabilondo Company from Vitoria. This pistol uses a mechanism similar to that of the Walther P-38, consisting of a breech locking system and a locking wedge beneath the barrel. The pistol takes 15-round magazines of 9mm Parabellum ammunition.
The Army used the 7.62mm CETME Model 58 until 1985. The Model 58 is actually a close cousin of the German G-3; having the same origins in the Mauser designed Sturmgewehr 45. The M58 was replaced with the FUSA CETME L rifle and the LC Carbine. These CETMEs are made with a pressed-steel receiver and a 400mm barrel of 6 grooves, right hand twist, chambered for 5.56mm ammunition. The mechanism is the traditional roller-locked delayed blowback. Although similar to the German HK-33, the Model L was never as reliable. The Model LC uses a 320mm barrel and a retractable stock, and is similar to the HK-53.
In February 1999, the government ordered the first 15,000 HK G36E and HK G36EK to replace the Model L and LC after the military gave up trying to solve the problems with the Spanish rifles. Troops deploying to the Gulf came with the G36E. The general purpose machine gun was the 7.62mm MG-3 while the squad support machine gun was the 5.56mm Ameli. The MG3 is basically the WWII MG42 chambered to 7.62mm ammunition using either the DM1 fixed-links or DM6 and M13 disintegrating-link belts. The Ameli externally appears to be a scaled-down MG42/MG3, but uses the CETME roller-locked delayed blowback mechanism. It has a weight of 7.24 kg with its bipod, and is fed by either a 100 or 200 metal link belt of 5.56mm ammunition.
Spec Ops elements make use of G36 rifles, M870 shotguns and USP pistols. Some operators also carried 5.56mm M4 carbines. For communications, the Spec Ops depend on Thompson PR4G, BCC-349, AN/PRC-74B and UK/PRC-320 radios, and MEROD PSV-1642-M digital terminal. They also use the ENOSA VNP-201 and GVN-401 night goggles manufactured by Indra EW from Aranjuez, Madrid.
The Army lists in its arsenal 107 Accuracy International AW 7.62mm precision rifles, and 26 Barrett 12.7mm M95 models; some of these were observed in the hands of special operators in the Gulf. The AW 7.62mm uses a bolt action with a three forward lug pattern. Until recently, special operators carried the Model Z-70/B Star SMG, but this has been replaced with the HK MP-5 submachine guns. In addition to the G36E, naval boarding parties carry M870 shotguns and some M4 Carbines.
Motorized equipment included BMR, VECs, Nissan Patrol, and Iveco-Pegaso trucks. The BMR-600 consists of a 6x6 chassis with an armored shell weighting some 14 tons. The BMR can move at 103 km/h, and has a 1,000 km range. The usual armament for the standard transport consists of a remote controlled 12.7mm machine gun turret. In 1979, Spain adopted the Pegaso BMR-600 as its wheeled armored vehicle, and on May 29, 1994, the Army started a modernization program by installing the Pegaso 9157 V8 diesel engine developing 310hp, coupled to the ZF 6HP 500 6F/1R automatic transmissions. Unfortunately, only 646 units were modified at the Santa Barbara and the System Maintenance Center Park No. 1, leaving hundreds of unmodified models in storage.
The reconnaissance operational variant of the BMR is known as VEC (Vehículo de Exploración de Combate), and comes in two variants: one equipped with a M242 Bushmaster 25mm gun turret, and another one with a Hispano-Suiza H90 gun turret (with a D921A 90mm gun). The secondary armament consists of a single 7.62mm MG3 machine gun. There is a third version of the VEC equipped with a 20mm gun turret, but this is used for training purposes only.
The main patrol vehicle utilized by the Spaniards was the CLTT 1 Tm Nissan (denominated Patrol ML-6) built by Nissan Motor Iberica of Barcelona with a 95hp Nissan SD-33 diesel engine and a 5F/1R manual transmission. These are similar to those purchased and used by the Nicaraguan Army. The main tactical truck deployed to Iraq was the 4TM Iveco-Pegaso 7217-6, equipped with a V6 diesel engine developing 170hp.
CENTRAL AMERICAN AND CARIBBEAN EQUIPMENT
The agreement for the deployment of forces from the poor countries of Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua called for their respective outfits to remain under the command of Spain’s Plus Ultra Brigade, but the US was responsible for supplying the hardware to each unit. Problems started at earnest, with General Alfredo Cardona indicating that there were delays in transferring control due to the lack of equipment for his Central American allies.
Those Central American and Caribbean troops deployed to Iraq came with their infantry weapons only. The US supplied M85 PASG Kevlar helmets and additional small arms. Most deployed with woodland BDUs, although later the US supplied 3-color desert BDUs. Their standard equipment included elderly M16A1 and worn out M4 Carbines and in some cases regular models of M60 machine guns. No heavy equipment was available to them, and there was a pathetic lack of armored support. Unfortunately, Spain did not make available additional BMRs or VECs for the Central Americans. Even some of the less capable, un-modernized, BMRs would had been appreciated over soft-skinned vehicles. The US supplied some 10 to 15 Humvees and some tactical trucks; however, only worn out un-protected Humvee weapons carrier variants were received without doors. The troops, however, liked the vehicles without the doors. Salvadorian and Nicaraguan soldiers have considerable experience in counter-insurgency tactics; they know that an important survival tool against ambushes is reaction time bailing out of an attacked or damaged vehicle. Doors not only hampered exit, and restricted return fire but also restricted vision and maximized casualties, and they do not provide for any protection whatsoever. US forces are now experiencing the same situation, but they have opted for placing protective plates to their Humvees. This was not an available option to the Central Americans. However, most Central American patrols preferred to move by foot.
The troops also hoped for a few M113 armored tracked vehicles providing some sorely needed protection. It was also hoped that as a sign of appreciation, the US would have allowed them to take some of them back home.
The perception that these troops were not going to see combat was soon shattered. On August 20, 2003, and before the Spanish Brigade was fully operational, Base España was attacked with mortar fire. Some 19 rounds were launched, but only two landed at the base, causing no damage and no casualties.
On December 12, 2003, Dominican papers reported that their base in Iraq had come under attack, wounding a sentry and two Iraqi children. Insurgents had fired five mortar grenades against Camp Santo Domingo in Diwaniya. Two rounds landed on the General Hospital, wounding the sentry. One more round landed at the base parking lot, damaging several vehicles and one more landed north of the camp with no casualties reported or damage. The fifth round landed on a civilian house, wounding both children. The attack came one day after a similar attack had been launched against Camp Tegucigalpa.
On March 5, 2004 some 20 insurgents ambushed a three-vehicle convoy on the road from Baghdad to Najaf. The convoy carried Phil Kosnett, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in the region, and five other US diplomats. The Salvadoran escort troops repelled the attack, killing several of the attackers and giving chase to other insurgents. In a similar incident, Salvadoran escorts wedged themselves between insurgents and a vehicle carrying American contractors and absorbed the incoming bullets.
On 11 March 2004 several terrorist detonations in a Madrid railroad system killed over 200, and injured thousands. On April 18, the government ordered Spain’s troops out of Iraq; at the time of the announcement, the troops in the field were feeling the pinch of the Iraqi insurgency, and the brunt of the attacks.
On April 4, 2004, a shoot-out took place outside Spain’s Al Andalus Camp, resulting in 20 KIAs from the rebels. On the 5th, both Spanish bases came under heavy mortar and grenade fire. On the 6th, the Spaniards repelled an attack to España Camp. By 19:30 of that same day the Spaniards dispatched a patrol of VECs and BMRs from the Extremadura (“Hardened”) Tactical Group to find and engage an incoming insurgent force. The unit clashed with the enemy, and air support was summoned to repel the rebels. España and Santo Domingo Camps came under sporadic fire during the rest of the night. During the fight, a Ukrainian contingent abandoned its positions, contributing to the confusion and urgency affecting the troops. On April 8, a local patrol was ambushed, resulting in three wounded Spanish soldiers. Sporadic contact continued throughout the following days, and 200 Spaniards were dispatched to help US troops in the encirclement of Najaf. On April 18, the new Brigade Commander, General Fulgencio Coll, received new rules forbidding the troops from engaging the Iraqis and was ordered to withdraw its troops out of the country. The insurgents declared a unilateral cease-fire to allow the Spanish to leave.
In the meantime, the Central American allies were in a serious dilemma. Denis Gray, of Associated Press, reported that on April 4, the Salvadorians had dispatched a 17-man patrol to the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps compound in Najaf. The Salvadorians found that the 350 Iraqi occupants had melted away. Sheik al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army then surrounded the Salvadorians, and a firefight ensued. The fighting lasted several hours, by which time the trapped unit had ran out of ammunition. Corporal Samuel Toloza then engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the insurgents, managing to stab several of the attackers. Stunned by his actions, the attackers backed down just at the moment when a relief column with Honduran soldiers arrived to assist. Salvadorian Army Pvt. Natividad Mendez Ramos was KIA during the contact.
Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr’s insurgents then staged attacks on Baker, Golf, and El Salvador Camps located on the fringes of Najaf. These compounds were occupied and defended by a small group of Salvadorians, US soldiers, and civilian security personnel. Assistance was requested from the main Spaniard base, but they refused to shoot and kill Iraqi fighters because, as explained previously, their new rules of engagement forbade it. Only after a long delay did the Spanish Command agree to send armored vehicles to help evacuate the wounded. The Salvadorian units trapped and under siege were Spain’s responsibility. Therefore, the Salvadorian perception is that their higher command (Spain) abandoned them to die in the trenches. The Spanish soldiers demonstrated their combat abilities in several opportunities, and they did not hesitate to fight and assist its own units in combat. Why, then, leave the Salvadorians without support?
Spain’s troops continued to fight elsewhere. On April 26, two VECs were ambushed east of Diwaniyah while on patrol. The Spaniards called for reinforcements, and several BMRs from the Legionnaires came to assist. The contact resulted in five KIA, two WIA and five detainees on the enemy’s side. Operation “Jenofonte” meant the withdrawn of all 1,300 Spanish soldiers, along with 91 armored cars, 17 engineer vehicles, 274 jeeps and trucks and 34 cargo containers. Some feel that Spain should had left at least half of the VECs and BMRs and some motorized equipment as compensation for those allies that it had failed to support a few days earlier.
On May 7, 2004, the US had decided to award the Bronze Star for bravery to six of the Salvadorian soldiers who had saved Phil Kosnett in Iraq. Other Salvadorian soldiers were cited for bravery for repelling an attack by al-Sadr’s militiamen on Camps Baker and Golf. A plaque was also unveiled, naming the camp’s small parade ground in memory of Pvt. Natividad Mendez Ramos. The basic pay for these soldiers was, and is, $125 a month; with little or no life-insurance. The mother of Pvt. Mendez Ramos has been compensated by the Salvadorian Army and government with humble and limited resources. The other WIAs receive medical treatment but little or no compensation due to the lack of funds. Even their personal weapons are abysmally deficient and obsolete when compared to the other armies in the region (Iraq or even within Central America).
It is sad that with the solidarity shown by these poor countries in sending troops to Iraq, something that even closer and wealthier allies to the US have not done, the United States does not appear at times to appreciate their efforts. There is still considerable lack of respect and diplomatic resistance to increase training, and to supply adequate material to them.
The Salvadorian’s battalion arsenal in Iraq in fact has been improved somewhat, receiving a few MK-19 grenade launchers and other modern weapons. They share their home-away-from-home at Camp Baker with US troops. A third battalion rotation (Cuscatlan Battalion III) was being readied in July 2004 for deployment.
On May 27 2004, Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero announced that the Spanish military mission in Iraq had come to an end. With the withdrawal of the Spaniards came the Central Americans, with the exception of the Salvadorian Battalion, which happily came under US command & control.
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