RUBS #2

Paradoxically, while reporting from Iraq becomes more difficult as the swamp gets deeper, more amenities are piling up on bases while more garbage piles up downtown. Swimming pools pocket larger bases such as Camp Victory, no doubt named on a morning when the sound of birds singing crowded out the crackle of bullets flying. Today when the bullets seem to outnumber the birds,  Generals with billions of dollars at their disposal gild their own MOCs (Media Operations Centers) with space-tech broadcasting gear, allowing them to bounce down live to America and the world, while journalists are not permitted to hook their computers into the unsecure “NIPR” internet lines.  Public Affairs officers stagger like sway-backed mules with shifting excuses for why media have no secure places to live and work at the major bases, and why every solution for communications is ad hoc.

Journalists are welcome to come here and report. Sort of. On Camp Victory, celebrity media passing through might get star treatment at the Joint Visitors Bureau on the lake by the palace, but others get a cot in the KBR tents where itinerant men – not soldiers usually – often stay for a day or two before shipping off to parts unknown around Iraq, or the world.   The tent-mates are Americans, Iraqis, Indians and others.  In a tent where I recently stayed, MPs handcuffed one giant of a man, an American, before he could make good his threat to “stomp the liver out” of one of the tent-mates. In this jailhouse atmosphere, some men’s eyes dart crow-like to shiny objects, and a journalist with expensive gear is reluctant to even take a shower or to eat without a way to secure the crow bait. If a five minute shower or twenty minute trip to a mess hall is unwise, the idea of going on a five or ten day combat mission, leaving non-essential gear behind, is out of the question. As is lugging it along.

Senior officers know this. I made sure.  But when I told one senior ranking man about my concern for the expensive gear, his response was “I don’t care.” I care. I care because readers at home bought this gear so that they can get first hand reports from the war. They bought this gear so I could come here and report on all the progress he is making in this war where so much depends on public perception. Here it is: on his base, they have swimming pools.  Pizza Hut.  Burger King.  Subway.  Popeyes.  Coffee shops where guys bring guitars and sing like on Market Street. 

Having found what amounts to hiding places for my gear, I boarded a Blackhawk helicopter on 25 March enroute to Forward Operating Base Falcon, in Baghdad. Within ten hours of strapping in, I was again back “downtown” with real soldiers and neck deep in the real war.

The Blackhawks landed at FOB Falcon, where the 1-4 Cav from Fort Riley has just begun a long tour in Iraq.The battalion commander, LTC Crider, along with his staff, kindly gave a detailed briefing of their Area of Operations (AO). In summary: 1-4 started with one officer and a flag to rally around, and now finds itself in one of the most dangerous areas of Iraq. They’d just gotten here, and in the last week or so there have been hit by 4 IEDs in the small AO. The 1-4 has been lucky; no KIAs so far. All of LTC Crider’s subordinate commanders are combat veterans, although many of the younger soldiers are just out of initial training.

Here at the 1-4, LTC Crider and his majors and captains have been refreshingly blunt and open, something I’ve come to expect from sergeants and officers who are in the battle.  Within three days, Command Sergeant Major Jones already treats me like one of his soldiers.  (One young fighter told me not an hour ago that he reenlisted specifically to be with CSM Jones.)  Their tone is optimistic but realistic. This is going to be tough, but they think they can do it.

One key aspect of General Petraeus’ new operations in Iraq is to put out a large number of “Combat Outposts,” or COPs. The idea of the COPs is not new, but it is proven, and is similar to local law enforcement in the United States opening precinct stations in high crime districts. Though the idea of precinct stations is steady-state (the cops plan to keep precincts open), here in Iraq, part of the idea is to first bring stability – by dampening the vibrant civil war for instance – but ultimately turning Iraq back over to the Iraqis.

If I might insert a personal opinion, I think Petraeus’ plan has a serious chance of working despite heavy odds. In fact, within my first three days with 1-4, talking with Iraqi families and police, there were strong indicators that for this little neighborhood, local people and Iraqi police are definitely encouraged. This doesn’t extend to the terrorists, however, and 1-4 Cav has been under fire.  Our soldiers showed amazing fire discipline, not even knowing I was just feet behind them with a video camera. (I’ve seen it many times, but finally have got video proof that our guys will go far not to shoot the wrong people.) I saw the 1-4 in a situation where I was certain that they were cleared to fire under the ROE (Rules of Engagement: in this case they were taking fire), yet soldiers with fingers on the triggers held off pending PID (positive identification) of the targets, something I hope to describe later in a non-RUBS format, time permitting.

While soldiers’ ROE is tightening, I’m going to step-down my own “rules of engagement” on fact checking with RUBS reports. Writing out here, a man can misstate facts, and there are various reasons, all bordering on excuse. In order to convey more truth faster, in the “RUBS” series, the writing rules of engagement will include the ideas of “true enough,” and “I believe there was enough truth to tell the story.” (In non-RUBS dispatches, I’ll continue to adhere to a much more rigorous fidelity) But I bear full responsibility for any misstatements and will clarify them as they arise. In the spirit of RUBS, I want to tell as much truth about 1-4 and their area as possible in the small time available, so here goes:

The 1-4 area of operations butts up against the west side of the Tigris in Baghdad. The neighborhoods are mostly Sunni and Shia, predominantly Shia, with a couple of Catholic enclaves. The market in one of the larger Shia neighborhoods is open and vibrant, while that in the Sunni areas are choked. For instance, many of the Sunni were unable to get propane gas for cooking (Shia were said to be taking it), so the 1-4 began propane distribution.

The Shia areas, according to LTC Crider, are mostly quiet, and there is a large “JAM” presence. (JAM is a catch-all term describing various Shia militias claiming some allegiance to Moqtada al Sadr–a nutcase– who apparently has run away and is hiding again in Iran.)

Iraqi on Iraqi crime is high. 1-4 has found 14 bodies in the last week. Some were executed with hands bound. One was a man apparently in his 70s. In addition to the bodies our soldiers find, the Iraqi authorities also find bodies. For instance, a family last week that included the father and mother had been shot in a car. The baby was left alive only to be ripped apart by dogs. That’s an example of a horrible story that’s “true enough.” The verifiable facts may vary from the renditions I heard, but there is little doubt the essence of the horror was true enough. In another case, 1-4 soldiers got a tip about a human head in a school, but when they searched the school they found only some blood and dogs.

While traveling to different AOs (Areas of Operations) around Iraq, a pattern of violent polarization is evident. In some places, Shia are displacing Sunni, but the opposite occurs in other areas, such as parts of Diyala province. Up in Kirkuk, for instance, Kurds are replacing many Arabs. Depsite that these differing strains of civil war seem to vary the grain of the substrate of overall violence, Iraq does not seem prone to total anarchy. Rather, it has the feel of a place that is settling along “natural” “magnetic lines” of culture and various influence, and its strong desire to naturally self-organize seems contra to the idea of Iraq as one, just as we have seen in Yugoslavia, the USSR, India as envisioned in the 40s, and other places. The forces splitting Iraq generally do not seem anarchistic per se (except for the criminal elements), but are merely re-organizing differently than many people would hope. And so…which will be stronger? The forces trying to reduce Iraq to the less than sum of its divided parts, or the forces trying to meld its parts into a greater whole?

Reducing this mess to the street level of the 1-4 Cav battalion from Fort Riley, Kansas, their job is something like playing “zone” basketball. Their job is not to look at the whole court but to — as in playing zone – win their little space. The job of 1-4 is to work with Iraqis to bring their sector under control, and if the battalions around them do the same, and the people way up top play the zones right, maybe we can make something less than genocide follow.

After the briefing with LTC Crider, we had dinner in the dining facility that was recently hit by a rocket. The soldiers ascribed the hit to pure luck, but I was thinking some good shooting might have been involved.  The enemy might be savage, but it’s not dumb.  Even as we finished dinner, CNN was playing on the flatscreen and there was Mick Ware, the main CNN voice for Iraq, split-screen with a video of Maliki and the new UN President, when a rocket rocked the building.The scene was a coup for the enemy, except that Maliki snatched victory from the enemy by not cowering.  He stood resolute while others ducked fearfully. Again, some people said luck, and it might have been, but the target and timing could hardly have been better for the enemy, except that Maliki stood his ground. The forces that oppose a unified Iraq are strong, smart and determined, but so are the forces that want to bring Iraq into brighter days.

Approaching midnight of the 25th, the 1-4 Cav was going to push out that night and open COP “Amanche.” (Apache + Comanche.)

And so, one very long day had begun with the flight to FOB Falcon, and now it was after midnight and into the 26th of March, and we were outside COP Amanche while EOD (bomb experts) and a bomb dog checked the vacant building for ambush or explosives. The enemy has been rigging entire buildings at times. The soldiers I was with secured a wide perimeter, and occasionally lights from some of our other soldiers flickered through the windows of the large, square two storied building.

The building is as something surreal. In fact “surreal” was the word I kept hearing officers and sergeants use when they described it. The building is a Catholic seminary, and could be something straight from Atchison, Kansas. The owners had completely vacated the place, and the last page turned on one calendar was from July 2006. There were pristine offices with brand new computers, printers, fax machines, and a giant copier. There was a well-kept library with books in various languages including Arabic, English, German and French. There were classrooms, and an auditorium with a stage. This place was truly “anywhere America” or Europe. Yet the clocks were stopped and the dust was thick as paper. Why, surrounded by near complete chaos, explosions and gunfire, had the seminary been spared even from looting? There were no guards. Most of the homes and buildings in the surrounding area were abandoned, but just outside that was the sound of gunfire, and a radio call that came from Iraqi police that they needed reinforcements. There was the giant explosion in the distance that might explain the report I saw later in the day about U.S. soldiers being killed elsewhere in Baghdad. There were the jets overhead, and the helicopters that traverse the airspace, yet this place was pristine save for the dust. It was like something from a “Left Behind” novel.  Maybe that was the message. 

The commander, LTC Crider, took special care to make sure that all the fine books are well cared for, that the computers and other valuables are inventoried and sealed into the library, and I would later see him asking Iraqis to help him find a priest or other church official to inspect the building and property.  Interestingly, some of the closest neighbors are Sunni and Shia Muslims.

Intelligence had come in, and the 1-4 headed off for a raid to get a couple guys who were said to be murdering people. I was scheduled to do a radio interview with WRKO in Boston on my cell phone at 4:30 a.m., and I greatly wanted to tell the people at home about the 1-4 Cav and the seminary, but my ride was going to a raid. And soon we were running through the early morning streets of a densely packed neighborhood, when a voice started crying over a loudspeaker — ALLLLAAAAHHHHHH…..—- that was spooky, and I was actually making video while running.  After 15 minutes or so of running and fast movement, we made it to the target house.  I was sweating in full under the bodyarmor and helmet.  Birds can be heard on the video before the morning twilight.  Our soldiers moved to the entrance.  The gate was pried open, and our guys were in, led by a soldier wearing PVS-15s and black shoes. My deepest apologies to listeners of WRKO, but I could not turn the phone on during combat operations. Time to go.

RUBS does not allow for edits or tidy endings.

Good night, and Good Luck.

Michael

FOB Falcon,
Baghdad

 

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