Hospital Staff: Forceful U.S. Rescue Operation for Lynch Wasn't Necessary

The U.S. commandos refused a key and instead broke down doors and went in with guns drawn. They carried away the prisoner in the dead of night with helicopter and armored vehicle backup -- even though there was no Iraqi military (search) presence and the hospital staff didn't resist.

In the tale of Pfc. Jessica Lynch (search)'s rescue, this is the Iraqi side.

New attention has been drawn to the April 1 rescue since a BBC (search) report earlier this month created controversy by charging the Pentagon exaggerated the danger of the raid.

An Associated Press reporter spoke to more than 20 doctors, nurses and other workers at the hospital. In interview after interview, the assessment was the same: The dramatics that surrounded Lynch's rescue were unnecessary. Some also said the raid itself was unneeded because they were trying to turn Lynch over, although they conceded they made no attempt to notify U.S. troops of that effort.

U.S. military officers answer that the rescuers didn't know Iraqi troops had left Nasiriyah General Hospital and that the Americans had to storm in ready to deal with any circumstance. They add that U.S. troops outside the hospital were fired on and that fighting was still going on elsewhere in the southern city, which saw some of the fiercest combat of the war.

"If they had come to the door and asked for Jessica, we would have gladly handed her over to them. There was no need for all that drama," said Dr. Hazem Rikabi, an internist.

"Why the show? They just wanted to prove they were heroes," he said. "There was no battle."

American military doctrine calls for using overwhelming force in such situations. "We don't want it to be a fair fight," Marine Lt. Col. David Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman, told AP this week. "The fact that we didn't encounter heavy resistance in the hospital was a good thing."

Pentagon officials bristle at any suggestion that Lynch's rescue was staged or that any details were exaggerated. They have never claimed there was fighting inside the hospital, but stress that Nasiriyah was not a peaceful place.

"We didn't need to create any drama. It was there already," Lapan said.

Nasiriyah was a combat zone and American troops were being attacked by Iraqis dressed in civilian clothes elsewhere in the area, he said. U.S. troops supporting the raid -- though not the rescue team itself -- were fired on from other parts of the hospital compound, Lapan said.

"You don't have perfect knowledge when you go in of what resistance you will face, so you prepare for the worst," Lapan said.

Spokesmen for the Navy SEAL, Army Ranger and Marine commando units involved in the rescue declined requests to allow participants to be interviewed.

Lynch, an Army supply clerk, was captured March 23 after her convoy was ambushed in Nasiriyah three days after the war began.

Even among the quickly famous U.S. POWs, Lynch stood out -- West Virginia girl, not even 20, held up within days as an American ideal. Her fate, and her family's vigil back in Palestine, W.Va., became fodder for the front pages.

In the hospital, staffers said, Lynch made friends from around the building with her kind ways and jokes, and employees went out of their way to keep her comfortable.

For a week, Dr. Wajdi al-Jabbar said, he and an ambulance driver rode the perilous streets to get her fruit juice. Suad Husseiniya, a nurse, said she grew so attached to Lynch that she repeatedly rubbed talcum powder into the soldier's sore back.

"She knew everyone by their first name," said the hospital's deputy director, Dr. Khodheir al-Hazbar.

Al-Jabbar said the staff never spoke to Lynch about the war. "We didn't want her to lose our trust."

U.S. officials have said Lynch, who is recovering in a Washington hospital, doesn't remember anything about her capture, and she has not yet commented publicly about her time in Iraq. Her family was traveling back to West Virginia on Wednesday for the first time since Lynch's rescue and planned to hold a news conference Thursday in Palestine to discuss her recovery from her injuries.

Randy Coleman, a family spokesman, said last week that the Lynches were unconcerned about claims the rescue may not have occurred as previously reported because "Jessi never asked to be made a hero."

U.S. officers have said Lynch's rescue was launched after an Iraqi lawyer, Mohammed Odeh al-Rehaief, mapped out her location for U.S. Marines over several days.

Al-Rehaief and his family were moved to the United States for safety, and he has accepted a job with the Livingston Group, a lobbying firm in Washington. Jim Pruitt, an associate of the firm, said Wednesday that al-Rehaief had no comment about the rescue. "When the time comes, Mohammed will tell his story in great detail," Pruitt said.

The hospital's staff contends the Americans could have retrieved Lynch without the show of force.

A day before Iraqi troops left the hospital, doctors said, the staff received instructions from Nasiriyah's governor, Younis Ahmed al-Thareb, to transfer Lynch to the Maternity and Children's Hospital on the other side of the Euphrates River, where American forces were in control.

The governor told them it was for her own safety because he feared the Americans might attack the hospital because Iraqi soldiers were there, al-Jabbar and others said.

But they also said they didn't try to notify U.S. troops of their intention. They said an ambulance carrying Lynch set out at 11:45 p.m., but as it approached the al-Zaytoun Bridge in the darkness it was fired on by American troops and the driver sped back to the hospital.

"The next day, we decided to put her on a donkey cart so she would be in open view of the U.S. soldiers," said Dr. Miqdad al-Khazaei.

But before they could do that, Iraqi forces -- including the regional commander of the Baath Party, Adel Abdallah al-Doori, and the governor -- began pulling out of the hospital and the city, al-Khazaei said. "By noon, they were all gone," he said.

Hours later, the Americans arrived.

Al-Hazbar, the deputy director, had moved his wife and their two sons into the hospital to ride out the battle for Nasiriyah. He had just put his sons to bed when heavy explosions sounded at 11:45 p.m.

Less than 30 minutes later, he heard helicopters flying over the hospital. Tanks and armored personnel carriers parked outside. Then he heard loud voices: "Go! Go! Go!"

The commandos burst in.

Al-Jabbar said the soldiers declined an offer of the hospital's master key so they wouldn't have to break down the doors.

"They pointed the gun at us for two hours," he said. "Their manner was very rude. They even handcuffed the director of the hospital. ... Not a single shot was fired at them. They shot at doors -- all doors. They broke them, kicked them open."

Al-Hazbar said he had expected a raid but was surprised by its intensity. Now that there was no Iraqi military around, why so much force? He said he and his family found themselves surrounded by about 20 American soldiers firing their guns.

"They were shooting indiscriminately, everywhere, at windows, between our legs, on the floor. We were terrified," al-Hazbar said.

He said it then occurred to him that no one was being hit by bullets. "They were shooting at me, but nothing happened to me," he said.

Al-Hazbar said he concluded the Americans were firing blanks. "They didn't shoot real bullets because they knew there was no military force in the hospital," he said.

Lapan said the idea that the rescue team would be carrying blanks in a combat zone was absurd.

"To ever send a force into a combat situation with blanks is just ludicrous," he said. "You don't use blanks in a war. You use blanks for training."

Weapons experts also have scoffed at the claim the rescuers fired blanks. They say the use of blanks in M-16 assault rifles and M-4 carbines requires a special attachment at the end of the barrels and no sign of those were seen in the video of the raid released by the Pentagon.

In addition, they say, it takes time to remove the attachment and change ammunition, which would leave a soldier dangerously exposed if fighting broke out.

For the hospital staff, Lynch is now a memory, there for a while, suddenly gone, a strange story in the midst of a strange war.

Despite the way she was taken, she is remembered fondly. "She always smiled when she saw me," said Zanouba Abdel-Zahra, a cleaner at the hospital.