On March 23, 2003, a convoy of the United States Army’s 507th Maintenance Company and the 3rd Combat Support BN elements, led by a Humvee driven by Lori Piestewa, made a wrong turn into enemy territory and were ambushed near Nasiriyah, a major crossing point over the Euphrates River northwest of Basra, The convoy was supposed to detour around the town and instead turned directly into it, eventually running into an ambush. The ambush was unlikely to have been set up in advance, because the Iraqis did not know which course the convoy would take. The navigational error has never been properly explained, because the soldiers had GPS receivers and maps. However, the convoy was a long one, and if the soldiers who knew the route and their location were not near the front of the convoy, it could easily have taken a wrong turn before it was possible to rectify the error. Apparently, the convoy took more than one wrong turn.
Jessica Lynch, then a supply clerk with the 507th Maintenance Company (based in Fort Bliss, Texas), was wounded and captured by Iraqi forces. She was initially listed as missing in action. Eleven other soldiers in the company were killed in the ambush and five other soldiers, later rescued, were captured. Her best friend, Lori Piestewa, was seriously wounded in the head and died in an Iraqi civilian hospital, possibly because it was not possible to perform delicate neurosurgery in that hospital under wartime conditions (such as intermittent electrical power).
A video of some of the American prisoners of war, including Piestewa, was later shown around the world on Al Jazeera television. After the war, footage was discovered of both Lynch and Piestewa (in the footage, the latter was still alive) at an Iraqi hospital.
Prisoner of War
After some time in the custody of the Iraqi army regiment that had captured her, Lynch was taken to a hospital in Nasiriya. Iraqi hospital staff, including Doctors Harith Al-Houssona and Anmar Uday, claim to have shielded Lynch from Iraqi military and government agents who were using the hospital as a base of military operations. U.S. forces were tipped off as to Lynch’s whereabouts by an Iraqi, who told them she had been tortured and injured but was still alive. The Iraqi was described as a 32-year-old lawyer, initially described only as “Mohammed” and later identified as Mohammed Odeh al Rehaief. In light of Mohammed’s role in Lynch’s rescue, he and his family were granted refugee status by the United States.
Initial reports indicated that al Rehaief’s wife was a nurse by the name of Iman in the hospital where Lynch was being held captive, and that while visiting his wife at the hospital, al Rehaief noticed that security was heightened and inquired as to why. However, hospital personnel later confirmed only part of al Rehaief’s story, indicating that while al Rehaief had indeed visited the hospital, his wife
was not a nurse there, nor was there any nurse by the name of Iman working there. While visiting the hospital from which Lynch was eventually extracted, al Rehaief claimed that he had observed an Iraqi colonel slapping Lynch. “My heart stopped”, said al Rehaief, “I knew then I must help her be saved. I decided I must go to tell the Americans.”
Al Rehaief’s story has been disputed by doctors working at the hospital, who claim that Lynch was shielded and protected from Iraqi military personnel by hospital staff and was treated well throughout her stay at the hospital. Lynch’s own story concurs with these accounts, claiming that she was treated humanely, with a nurse even singing to her.
Moreover, according to reports, on March 30, Al-Houssona reportedly attempted to have Lynch delivered to the U.S. forces, an attempt which had to be abandoned when the Americans fired on the Iraqi ambulance carrying her.
According to al Rehaief’s version of the events leading up to Lynch’s rescue, he walked six miles to a U.S. Marine checkpoint to inform American forces that he knew where Lynch was being held. After talking with the Marines, al Rehaief was then sent back to the hospital to gather more information, which was used to plan Lynch’s rescue. Allegedly, al Rehaief returned to the checkpoint with five different maps of the hospital and the details of the security layout, reaction plan, and shift changes.
The U.S. military reportedly learned of Lynch’s location from several informants, one of whom was al Rehaief. After al Rehaief came forward and confirmed Lynch’s location, officials with the Defense Intelligence Agency equipped and trained an unnamed person, possibly al Rehaief, alternatively listed as an Iraqi informant and as a Central Intelligence Agency agent, with a concealed video camera. On the day of the raid, the informant walked around the hospital, secretly videotaping entrances and a route to Lynch’s room. al Rehaief was reportedly paid for his services.
On April 1, 2003, U.S. Marines staged a diversionary attack, besieging nearby Iraqi irregulars to draw them away from Saddam Hospital in Nasiriyah. Meanwhile, an element from the Joint Special Operations Task Force Task Force 121, Air Force Pararescue Jumpers (PJs), and Army Rangers launched a nighttime raid on the hospital and successfully rescued Lynch and retrieved the bodies of 8 other American soldiers.
According to certain accounts of doctors present during the raid, they were gathered into groups at gunpoint and treated as possible hostiles until they could be identified as being hospital staff. Many military and Special Operations Forces experts have defended the tactics of the operators who led the raid, saying that Special Operations Forces teams are trained to expect the worst and move quickly, initially treating each person they encounter as a possible threat. Additionally, the doctors stated that the Iraqi military had left the hospital the day before and that no-one in the hospital had offered any resistance to the American forces during the raid. Contrary to this claim, forces still loyal to Saddam Hussein were reported to have fled the building where the Americans were being held.