Return To Iraq

“In brief and in clear words, don’t come to Iraq at this specific time.
The way to Baghdad from the north is too dangerous.
They can easily chase you and hurt you.
Roads are extremely danger even for Iraqi people.”

(Excerpt from an E-mail from an Iraqi friend in Baghdad, just before my trip – Daniel)

girl_at_wallI crossed the Turkish border into Iraq earlier in the day, and am now in the city of Dohuk, in an Internet café. I’m following up on some research on which cities might be possible to travel to. It’s clear that I can’t take a taxi from north Iraq into Baghdad, as I did in the summer. People thought I was crazy to do it then, but the situation has worsened to the extent that trying to pass on roads near the capital in a mere taxi is absolutely out of the question.

One place I intend to nervously pass through is the northern city of Mosul, where 22 people on an American base were recently killed in a single explosion, and Iraqi policemen are often found murdered by the dozens. The leveling of Falluja has sent its once high concentration of insurgents sprinkled across central and northern Iraq, and many of them have reportedly found a new home in Mosul. It’s located just below Dohuk, and is a likely next stop, but even I have sense enough to do a little checking before I blunder in. Someone at a military base in Mosul is kind enough to pass on some information.
“Now there are no police at all. Whole sections of the city are essentially the province of the insurgents, and Iraqis are terrified. If you want to meet insurgents, Mosul is the place. The trouble, as you know, is that they want to meet you, too.”
I wouldn’t mind meeting certain insurgents, as I did this summer in Najaf, but these are an entirely different group. These are the beheading guys. I speak to a few people who’ve fled Mosul, and they tell of cars driving into the city being sprayed with machine-gun fire, just because they are from another region. The extent of lawlessness is to the point where, on the main bazaar street, there are televisions set up outside, where films of insurgent military operations and executions are shown right after they happen, and there are big banners which read in Arabic, “If you’re going to vote in the election, vote for who you don’t like, because the winners will be killed.” It seems that Mosul, too, is out.

Some things seem to be progressing in Iraq, but there’s a growing stranglehold on the whole country. Power, fuel, trade, medical supplies; all the things that make a society run, are difficult to get from point-A to point-B. Even if both points aren’t particularly dangerous, there’s no telling what may be on the road between. Drivers are kidnapped or killed and goods lost routinely. Logistics are so difficult, shipping prices and danger levels have risen so high that companies and aid organizations simply stop trying. The monumental task of holding elections may well prove to be more difficult still.

Dwindling Good Will
My taxi makes a big half-circle, keeping as far from Mosul as possible, to take me to Arbil, on the other side. Arbil (or Howler, as the local Kurds call it) has been very quiet, for an Iraqi city. On my first day there, I see huge crowds of families around the main mosque. It is the time of the Hajj, when Muslim pilgrims from around the world descend upon Mecca, and the planes are flying there directly from Arbil, for the first time since the occupation. It’s a little good news that doesn’t get much newspaper ink, with all the bombings and assassinations around the country.

Arbil is overwhelmingly Kurdish, and has the kind of stability that the rest of Iraq yearns for. The Kurds of north Iraq were treated horribly by Saddam Hussein, and have remained the group most steadfastly supportive of the coalition forces. Though most Kurds I speak to don’t trust the American government’s motives for coming to Iraq, they see America and the Kurds as allies and friends, as long as it’s in America’s interest. They hope this interest is long term, and that they are not abandoned once again, like after the first Gulf War, when Kurds and Shia Arabs were slaughtered by the tens of thousands after heeding America’s call to rise up in 1991. Up here, you meet a good number of American supporters, although they’re always a bit guarded in their praise, if you take the time to talk to them for a few minutes.

The only person I meet on this trip that is a 100% unabashed Bush supporter, and has complete trust in the upcoming elections, is a Kurd from Arbil named Ali. I ask him whether he sees himself as more of a Kurd, or more of an Iraqi. He says that he is not an Iraqi, but strictly a Kurd from Kurdistan, and wants the Kurdish north to be completely separate from the Arabs (who he doesn’t trust) in the rest of the country. I don’t think that this is the unified Iraq that the Bush administration is going for.

melted_computer_arbilI have never spent the night in Arbil before, so I don’t know that the helicopters, gunfire, and explosions I hear from my hotel room are unusual. The next day, I visit a student residence building of Sullahadeen University, where many of the rooms are scorched and covered with broken glass. A computer sits on a table partially melted, and hung behind it on the wall, are the charred remnants of clothes. Students sift through piles of burnt papers, books, and other personal belongings. In the hallway, someone has written “USA = Zarqawi” in the black ash which covers everything.
“The American helicopters were like crazy!” says Azad, a student whose friends were among the nine wounded. “Nobody was fighting with them, but they kept firing. The Americans can’t tell the difference between Iraqis. We all look like enemies to them.”
Another student tells me, “Before this happened, I liked American soldiers. Now I hate them.”

Outside, I see a hole in the asphalt made by a missile, which fired through it and hit a car in a lower level parking lot below. A local business owner says that he answered a telephone call at 2:30 in the morning, to find out that his shop was on fire. Everyone in the city is shocked, but an American general makes an apology for targeting the wrong building by mistake, and the outrage begins to blow over in a day or two. Still, it’s another chip in the Iraqi public’s trust in American forces, and there’s none too much to spare these days.

A few nights later, thirty miles south of Mosul, in a town called Aitha, a 500 pound bomb drops on the house of a man named Ali Yusuf, who talks of the fourteen members of his family that were killed, and of the four hours after, when coalition forces blocked ambulances from entering the area. Another apology from a US general is offered for attacking the wrong house, by mistake. A man from Baghdad I have dinner with a few times tells me, “The time of Saddam was very bad, but at least you knew what to do. If you said something bad, you would get taken. Now, you don’t know how to act. The Americans can kill you or put you in jail for walking down the street or driving in your car. Even if you stay home, they can do this.”
As a person who finds himself on the liberal side of most issues, and who’s been to Iraq four times since the occupation, I’d like to try to dispel a few misconceptions that I believe are held by many American liberals:

Misconception 1: The Bush administration was dead wrong when they expected that most of Iraq would treat American soldiers as liberators when they deposed Saddam Hussein.
The sad thing is that, after the war, there actually was good will toward American forces from large sections of the Iraqi population. It has been the post-war occupation that has alienated so many.
Foreign soldiers from a vastly different culture, patrolling and running your city, is difficult to take for any amount of time, even if it goes fairly smoothly, and if economic, medical, and other needs of the population are seen to somewhat effectively. This is not an accurate description of how Iraq was handled. “Winning the peace,” means making the society function.

Here is part of another recent e-mail from an Iraqi friend of mine that lives in Baghdad:
“The situation here is becoming worse day by day.
Nothing changed.
I have feeling the civil war will arise after a while from the end of elections.
Baghdad is suffering from lack of electricity (it is really severe shortage)
…8 hours are given and darkness extends much longer than the past.
Shortage of fuel and terrible traffic jams.
People close their shops early.
More important is that Iraqis are pissed off.
They can’t stand anymore.”

Misconception 2: American soldiers are all immoral barbarians.
I have spoken to a good number of American soldiers stationed in Iraq, and have seen very little of the sort of “Let the mother-fucker burn” attitude portrayed in ‘Fahrenheit 9-11’. The vast majority I’ve met are either just trying to get home alive, or honestly trying to help the Iraqi people (even if there can be a wide gap between trying to help, and really helping). Unfortunately, it’s not a simple choice of either our guys being bad guys or their guys being bad guys. A young man from Virginia who joins the Marines after 9-11 and a young man from Samara, who joins insurgent fighters after his brother was killed by coalition forces, can murder each other, and both deaths are a horrible waste.
In the time of war, misunderstanding, violence, and bad will, can compound exponentially, leading to a situation where good intentions on either side simply don’t matter.

On the Road, On the Town
It is the first time that I’ve traveled between cities at night in Iraq.
I hadn’t meant to, but by the time I got my errands done and squeezed into the shared taxi, the sun was already turning red and approaching the horizon. After dark, we pass a pickup truck that has apparently just flipped over on the side of the road. The man to my right, who has been smoking and coughing the whole trip, wants to pull over and see if everyone is all right, but the driver won’t stop because there’s an American on board. It’s risky to stand by the side of the road with an American at night in Iraq. The coughing man is kind of angry, and the other people look concerned; either about the accident, or about driving with a target.

We pull into town, and I see the familiar huge flames from the oilfields and refineries that shoot up into the air, and are as part of Kirkuk’s skyline as its buildings. I go to Qasr Kirkuk, a hotel I’ve stayed at before. I find it’s been closed down for some reason, so I go across the street and check into a small, unguarded one. That night, there is much machine gun fire outside, and there are a lot of people walking around after curfew.

In the morning, I walk around the bustling city, taking photographs and speaking to people. Everyone tells me that I should be careful to not be shot in the head or kidnapped and decapitated. A year ago, they’d warn me that I’d be robbed if I walked around alone, but the atmosphere has changed.
Over one hundred and eighty foreigners have been kidnapped in the past year in Iraq (plus countless locals that don’t make the international news) and at this time, seventeen are still being held.
I’m not exactly sure how much I’m worth to kidnappers. The number that’s bandied about is one hundred thousand dollars for an American, but this seems high to me. Turkish drivers and businessman are popular choices, but Americans are the real prize, with Europeans a close second. The previous day, a French journalist was kidnapped in Baghdad; they took her interpreter, too.

Interpreters, policemen, and now election workers (anyone perceived as helping the coalition) are constant targets of violence, but unlike the foreigners, their life is very cheap. People in these chosen professions often have to hide their identity, to try to protect themselves and their families.
After some policemen find me walking in a crowded market, and aren’t sure what to make of me, I am taken to a police station to talk to someone who knows some English. At the station, there is a large mural of several policemen who were killed when a car bomb blew up in front of the building.
Inside, more than one of them tells me that they are afraid for the safety of their families, and that they change their clothes before going home, so their neighbors will not know what they really do for a living.

I go to the main hospital (no longer called ‘Saddam Hospital’), to check on Abdula Ghalib Ali, who I met there this summer. He was working as a driver for KBR (a subsidiary of Halliburton) when his convoy came under attack, and he was shot twice. When I spoke to him, he had never received any compensation for his injuries, sustained while working for KBR, nor did he think there was any possibility of this happening. The company has made a killing from the war (sometimes using a system of billing in which they actually get a commission for charging the US government a higher price), and it was clear that they don’t afford the Iraqi workers the same benefits afforded a foreign worker. Hospital officials checked for a long time, and could find no record of his status, or how to get in touch with him.

I see a sign on the street that says, “The Center for Women’s Affairs”, and I manage to find the office. I sit down over tea with Najebe Omer, and she tells me of the struggle to improve the lives of women locally, and in the Middle East in general. They have offices in three other cities in Iraq, and they are trying to implement some political changes, but it is educational work with women that they are focusing on. Programs to teach writing, foreign languages, and computer skills are being implemented, and they are working on plans for a women’s shelter, but she says it’s an uphill battle. To get funding from American or European countries, an organization usually has to be involved with local political officials, and she says that would lead to interference by many who would be opposed to their cause.
She says that the main problem for women is not a material one, but rather a problem within the mind of women.
“We try to widen their mind and that widens their possibilities. As a woman, your role in society is not just in the house. You have to interact with the world around you.”

She has spoken to journalists before, but she says that nothing ever comes of it. She is obviously a very driven person, and becomes animated when she talks about her work, but she is discouraged and is not sure how the project will continue to be funded. (If there are any interested donors out there, I am able to contact her)
I decide to pay a visit to some American Army soldiers I spoke to on my last trip, and I tell a taxi driver to take me there. He brings me instead to the Kirkuk Air-Base, where I know that there are incoming mortar-attacks almost every day, though usually badly aimed. Since I am in a place I’ve never been to before, I decide to try to talk to them too, if possible.
After showing my American passport to the Iraqi guards on the street, I walk past protective ten-foot hills of dirt and get to a gate with American soldiers. I speak to a few people, and am told to go back and wait near a small green tent canopy between the two guard posts, alongside the dirt. From time to time, a soldier or two comes out to talk a little bit, or a small-unmanned reconnaissance plane buzzes overhead. After a while, an Iraqi interpreter, scheduled to go out on an upcoming patrol, sits down near me. He is in his late thirties, and his nickname is Mike. He speaks very quietly and deliberately and has a sad air about him. I ask him what he thinks about the current situation.
“I am very worried about Kirkuk. Things are getting worse, and I don’t want my city to be like Mosul. The elections may be good, but maybe all they will do is get many people killed.”
Most people I speak to are guarded about the election process, but they also tell me that they will be watching the results carefully. Whoever wins will be drafting the new constitution, and that’s what makes it extremely important. The elections are looked at, in essence, as a means to a constitution.

Mike leaves, and after a while, loud gunshots come from the front gate, where the Iraqi guards are. I am on the other side of the dirt, so I can’t see what happened, and neither can the US guards at the inner gate, about fifty feet away on the other side of me.
“What the fuck was that?”, yells someone who appears to be in charge, while they all take cover and assume a fighting stance. I have not been admitted to the base, so I just stay where I am, not able to go in or out. There’s nothing but the dirt to shield me, so I just crouch down a little bit and awkwardly look around as the minutes pass. US soldiers, guns poised, try to figure out what’s going on behind the dirt, but nobody can see, or seem to get any information from their communication radios. I hear one of them with binoculars, peering over me, say, “I don’t know. They’re still scrambling.”
After a while, the alert level drops, and all returns to normal. A woman, whose job it is to deal with the press, comes out to take my information. I am told that a sergeant may send me an e-mail, so I walk back past the dirt and go to the outer gate. I stand with the Iraqi guards for about ten minutes, until a taxi drives by that can take me back to town. One of the guards who warned me to not get into a taxi unless I know the driver (a little difficult in a city where you don’t live) tells me, “This is good man. He is safe for you.”

soldiersOn the way back to town, we pass a sprawling refugee camp, the offices of several different political parties, a destroyed amusement park, and a big stand where a man sells posters and stickers of Muqtada Al-Sadr. I had been disappointed that I could not get to Baghdad, but I am getting more and more intrigued by the possibility of getting to know this city better. Baghdad has more explosions, but there is little chance for a Westerner to do much else but hang out with other Westerners in the hotel.

Many Iraqis have described Kirkuk to me as a “little Iraq”. All the big issues are present here, and unlike many parts of the country, it has a diverse mix of people. Arabs (both Shia and Sunni), Kurds, Turkomen, and Christians all live together. They’re often separated into different parts of town, but it is a place where they always intermingle. It’s also a place that they all see as their own, and could be a prime venue for civil war, if things continue to go badly.
Here, though everyone says it’s a bad idea, I am able to walk around where I like and freely interact with several different kinds of people. I decide I would do well to spend the majority of my trip right here.

With the Americans
I show up at noon, for the appointment I made the day before, to talk to 1st Sergeant Jennings at the Army base I visited in the summer. As I walk in, I recognize a few soldiers I met before, and a few of them recognize me. None of them were supposed to still be here, but their tours were extended since I saw them last. Jennings greets me with a smile, and we sit down to talk. He’s a friendly, semi-gruff, tell-it-like-it-is kind of guy, and seems to have a very good relationship with his men. He speaks of the constant evolution of both insurgents’ and the Army’s tactics, and the evolution of a new nomenclature. Many people have been affected by roadside bombs, known as IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devises), but now the latest, commonly used tactics are car bombs, known as VBIEDs (Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devises) or the car bomb in the parked car with no passengers, known as a VCIED (Vehicle Concealed Improvised Explosive Devise)
There also seems to be an evolution in how Iraqis of all sorts are dealt with by the soldiers. In my estimation, they are learning more about the culture they have jumped into the middle of, and are trying to adapt to be able to deal with it more effectively.
The coalition forces in general do not have the best reputation for winning the hearts and minds of Iraqis, and much of the post-occupation strife has been blamed on this. I’ve heard many stories from Iraqis and people working with the coalition that add up to this; telling Iraqis how to run things has been the rule, finding out what will work for both sides, the exception.

Months ago in Baghdad, an American civilian contractor (businessman) told me that the main problem he had to deal with in Iraq, was that all the important decisions for a civil society were made by people who weren’t part of the society, and didn’t understand it. He said that workers in international business know that, to be successful in other cultures, the management style developed for your particular culture may not be the best. Those who don’t learn how to deal with other people effectively, go out of business. If something doesn’t work in Iraq, he told me, the locals are always blamed, and the foreign boss (civilian or military) continues to be the boss.
Sergeant Jennings acknowledges this problem. From what I’ve seen, he is not the kind who would readily alter his methods (least of all, to resemble a system he sees as inferior), but it is becoming clear, all over the country, what is not working. I imagine that he would go where the results are.
His main job, as he sees it, is to get the local police forces up and running, as they will be the most effective law enforcement anyway. He says that they’ve come a long way since my last visit to the base.

Six months ago, I accompanied some of the US soldiers on a patrol, and what they mostly did was yell at Iraqi police we encountered, and correct things done wrong by them. The critiques seemed reasonable, (guns not on ‘safe’, sleeping on duty, etc.), but the relationship between the two forces was a far cry from the characterization that Jennings’ superior had given me. It was directly after the June power handover, and the coalition spin that power had actually been handed over was in full swing. I was told that US forces were there to back up the local police if needed, but didn’t make the decisions for them. At the time, Jennings didn’t directly contradict that, but he didn’t lay it on as thick, either.

Trying to ascertain how the local forces are progressing is of prime interest to me. I heard glowing success stories from both the US forces and the Iraqi police themselves, but that patrol six months ago gave me some idea of how much authority was actually being handed over. I see this as a pivotal issue, because successful elections and a constitution mean very little if the laws are unenforceable when the coalition inevitably pulls out of Iraq.
Jennings tells me that on the first joint patrols between US and Iraqi forces, the Iraqis were in the back, then later they walked with the Americans, and now they often walk in front. Since locals are often afraid to report crimes or pass on information to law enforcement, they’ve recently initiated a 911-style telephone emergency line, which is anonymous. Also, they’ve recently taken control of a new Arabic village with some anti-American sentiment, so their first step was to direct money from an aid organization and oversee repair to schools in the village. This all sounds positive. The ideas of actual rebuilding and higher local responsibility are likely the only way to a self-sufficient Iraq. One problem, though, is that it’s still the foreigner’s agenda. Such is an inherent difficulty of occupation, even with the best intentions of the invading force (which are difficult to prove in Iraq).
I’m introduced to a soldier named Tim Bullock, who will be the leader of a patrol I am to accompany that evening. Tim is a quiet and personable fellow, and seems very attentive. When I return that night to the base, and am waiting around for the pre-patrol briefing to start, he notices me, and asks if I want to come in out of the cold. He leads me inside and we talk for a little while.

After the briefing, we set out on Humvees. Tim is manning the gun, mounted on the back of the Hummer we and two other soldiers are in. I have never driven around with soldiers like this and it feels kind of strange. Many times I’ve seen this from the Iraqi’s point-of-view, that of a convoy cutting in front of traffic and pointing weapons at surrounding cars and people in, what feels like, a very aggressive way.
We get to a village, dismount, meet up with some Iraqi police, and start to walk. It is outside the city and the roads are full of mud. We walk down main streets and through fields, all with little or no lighting. The Iraqi police are taking a very active part but the shots are all still called by the Americans.
I realize that if you’re going to have a foreign person in charge of patrolling a street in a village where the foreigners aren’t too popular, Tim is a very good choice. He stops at the local shops that are still open and speaks to the people inside, making eye-contact and asking if there’s anything that they think the town needs. It is the approach of the beat-cop who is familiar with all the neighborhood residents, versus the one that speeds by in a cruiser.
He does as good a job as I could imagine anyone doing at trying to be friendly and personal, yet it can only go so far. He is wearing a helmet with a night-vision attachment and large chinstrap. He has goggles on, is buried beneath armored clothing and is carrying a large gun. He’s surrounded by soldiers and police, taking strategic positions around the area. The interpreter he’s using is wearing a black ski mask to shield his identity. He’s asking the guy to turn in criminals that are in the area, and there’s a guy taking pictures with a flash camera. No matter how personable he is, to get this sort of surprise visit at your home or workplace is very threatening. People cooperate and smile (sometimes), but it doesn’t really feel like a carefree social call by the neighborhood policeman. I’m not sure how much the soldiers realize this.

Tim and I talk some more the next day. I tell him that, though I wasn’t dressed differently or acting much differently, I get a completely different reaction from Iraqis on the patrols, than when I’m not. When I am alone, there are all kinds of subtle interactions, but when I’m with soldiers, the locals become very tense and guarded, and therefore can seem somewhat simplistic to an observer. The result is that both sides likely get a deceptive view of one another. He seems intrigued by this, and expresses interest in being able to have more direct contact with people, but sees no way to accomplish this.
In the past, English soldiers have had luck in south Iraq with removing their helmets, to make the people they dealt with more at-ease. It may have been possible a year and a half ago to try to appear less threatening in other parts of the nation, but its difficult to remove armor, once the battle has begun.

I go on another patrol the next day, to the Arabic village where the Army is managing the rebuilding of the school. It is very far out of town, and doesn’t feel entirely welcoming. People are mostly nice, but there’s an undercurrent. It seems like an important and sensitive patrol, and both Jennings and the new captain have come along. Jennings is brash, compared to Tim, but I think he plays “bad-cop” on purpose. He walks around with a stogie in his mouth, and tells me that the locals learn “not to mess with the guy with the cigar”.
He and Captain Bird check up on the progress of the school rebuilding. It’s not fully to their liking and they make it known in no uncertain terms. We continue to walk around for a few hours, and have a variety of small interactions with those we pass.

soldier_and_dogMost of the kids seem to have a great time talking with us, but some of the teenagers and adults are standoffish, and look a little hostile. At one point, a sheep is giving berth just as we walk by, and things are very friendly and light between the soldiers and the people who own the sheep. Later, we pass an aggressively barking dog. Everyone passes by but the soldier in the rear, who walks closer in an effort to provoke it further while the young man who owns it looks on. It barks louder and he points his gun at it in a “just give me an excuse to pull the trigger” way. (I don’t know what was in his head, but this was the clear communication.) The young man nervously pulls the dog away, and the soldier walks on.
He didn’t shoot the dog, and he really didn’t do anything that horrible, but what he did was unnecessary, and certainly made no friend of the dog’s owner.

We hang around some kids for a while and then load up into the Humvees. We start to drive off but there is some yelling, and I look back to see Jennings jump from his vehicle and run toward a house. The driver immediately turns back and we take a position nearby; we wait for about ten minutes. We find out that one of the kids threw a rock and hit a soldier in the head.

Lunch at the Embassy
On the way back, they decide to stop by the American Embassy for a better lunch than they would get at the base. I get a visitor’s pass and join them. After going to the buffet, I sit down next to 1st Sergeant Jennings. I thank him for lunch, and he replies with a laugh, “You’re payin’ for it.” That’s true: There’s a sign that proudly announces that the food is provided by KBR, so my cheeseburger and burrito will add to the 10.8 billion dollars already billed to the US government by Halliburton.
We talk about the thrown rock incident, and he gets serious.
“You know, that’s the kind of thing that pisses me off. Here, we just pumped one hundred and forty thousand dollars into that town, to fix up the schools… And this is the kind of treatment we get.”
From his perspective, I understand the reaction completely. Fixing up the school is a good thing on all accounts, and it’s great that they’re doing it, but unfortunately the village doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it’s surrounded by a country that’s torn apart, and I‘m reminded of US soldiers in Vietnam saying, “Why are they fighting us? We’re here to help them!”
In the horror of national upheaval, bad can exist anywhere, and everyone’s perspective can be blinded by loss and anger.

Jennings is hopeful about elections. The violence has started, and he expects it to get much worse for a while, but the police are making progress, and there are over two hundred thousand registered voters in the city. The most interesting comment about the election that I got from an Iraqi was from Mike, the interpreter I met at the airfield, who was worried about his city.
He said, “If security is good for elections, and if they are accepted by the people, and if the politicians can work together to make a constitution, and if the Americans allow us to have a constitution that is good for Iraqis, and if there is no civil war… it will be very good.” I guess that’s what passes for hopefulness in Iraq these days.

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