On the morning of 14 November, soldiers from 2-4 Alpha of the 10th Mountain Division set off on a mission in south Baghdad, and I tagged along. About half the soldiers are combat veterans from Afghanistan and/or Iraq. For instance, SSG Zacchary Foust, the 1st Squad Leader of 3rd Platoon, said he had done two combat tours in Afghanistan, and this was his second go in Iraq, making this his fourth combat deployment. Working with multi-tour veterans makes my job much easier, especially when they have worked in more than one war. The words and expectations from the veterans are more measured and matured, even when the soldiers might be young. Combat veterans also tend to be much more relaxed with correspondents. Most of them seem to view correspondents as if we are zoo animals, since most soldiers, even if they have done multiple tours and seen lots of al Qaeda and Taliban up close, have never seen a correspondent up close. I almost expect them to ask, “What do you eat? Do you live in trees or on the ground?” The one constant with service members over here is politeness and professionalism. Combat soldiers are among the most courteous people I have ever met.
SSG Foust explained that after the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003, his group spent long periods patrolling in the Sinjar mountains in Nineveh where many Yezidis live. He said there was no fighting with Yezidis and that the Yezidis were so friendly that they continuously invited the soldiers to eat with them in the villages. Foust said that though the soldiers brought along Army food, they didn’t really need it because the Yezidis kept them stuffed, and the Yezidi food was much better than army food. Foust said the Yezidis offered the best tobacco he’s ever tasted, because they grow their own. It wasn’t until later that Foust learned the Yezidis are supposed to be “devil worshippers,” which seemed a bit perplexing because they seemed like normal people to him.
I said to SSG Foust what I tell our pilots who fly near Yezidis: If your aircraft goes down near Yezidis, you might be sipping tea with your laundry being folded before search and rescue can get to you. And they’ll cook lunch for the rescue team. This is why a lot of Americans who know Yezidis are angered when al Qaeda attacks Yezidi people. Many personal bonds have been formed during this tragic war. We are no longer enemies with the Iraqis, and there is no good reason why Iraq and America should ever fight again.
And so we rolled out of FOB Falcon in those giant MRAPs. It seems that most of the seriously experienced combat soldiers do not like MRAPs. Yes, MRAPs are great for the main roads and convoys, but they are too big and too cumbersome, and they get stuck in mud that you could peddle a bicycle through. MRAPs are not offensive vehicles. There is no doubt MRAPs can save lives – they’re like giant vaults on wheels, though I did see the wreckage of one in Afghanistan that had been nearly obliterated. When we’re on the main roads, I love MRAPs, but we will never win wars or major battles with those things, or by staying on main roads. MRAPs need good roads. Good roads are bomb magnets. In Afghanistan, many of the Taliban scoot around on motorcycles, and there is no doubt that mobility is a weapon. We should melt most of the MRAPs down and forge that metal into killing machines like Strykers. The combat vets from 10th Mountain that day were also not fans of MRAPs. And though it’s easy to find MRAP-lovers, the hardcore fighters seem to want more mobility than steel.
We rumbled into various neighborhoods in south Baghdad. Nothing was going on. No gun battles. No mushroom clouds from car bombs or IEDs. I wore the headset and the incessant radio alerts about units fighting here or there were completely absent. In the old days, while the Iraq war was hot, there was constant chatter about fighting, car bombs, snipers, name it. Today, there were no alerts at all. There was more chatter about the Kenyan sitting in front of me who had been in the Army for a couple years. The other soldiers said he should get automatic citizenship for volunteering to fight, and we all agreed. The soldier came straight from Kenya into our Army. Did not even pass GO, and suddenly was in Iraq.
On another day, I had lunch with a soldier from Ghana. He told me that Ghana has the same constitution as the United States, and that he was proud to join the American Army. He had become an American, to which I said, “Welcome aboard.” He had one of those Ghana accents and was black as coal. By the time he finished telling me about his homeland, I was sold on wanting to travel there someday.
“Are Americans welcome?” I asked.
“Sure!” He seemed to think the question was humorous for its simplicity about Ghana. He said that American soldiers in Ghana are treated like kings, and if anyone gives a hassle, a U.S. soldier has only to show his military ID, and the clouds all disappear. The soldier from Ghana told me that when he goes home on leave, the police actually salute him because he joined the American army. I was incredulous, and asked for reassurance, “Really?! They salute you?”
“Yes,” he said, with that funny Ghana accent. “They Salute American soldiers in Ghana! They love America and many Americans retire there.”
Sounded like Kurdish Iraq, where the kids ask soldiers for autographs, and even ask interpreters for autographs if they work for American soldiers.
The Baghdad mission with 10th Mountain Division soldiers was uneventful, other than the soldiers being proud to say they haven’t had to fire a single shot in combat this year. One soldier wanted to buy a roasted chicken, but the chicken stand no longer takes dollars, only Iraqi dinars. Several stores we stopped at now only take dinar, though I bought a sim chip for my cell phone with dollars. Later in the day, a soldier with a pocket full of dinar bought kebabs for the squad and we devoured the whole lot.
The SOI, or Sons of Iraq, which many people used to derisively call “America’s Militias,” were out there and their behavior was polite. The SOI were even getting along with the National Police (NP) who were with us; just a year ago the SOI and NP used to kill each other. In another encouraging sign, the Iraqi government has started paying the SOI, and their pay is nearly as much as that of Iraqi soldiers. For SOI who want jobs that do not include carrying a gun, there are job training programs that I wanted to cover, but there was no time.
I normally don’t ask British or American soldiers about politics, but I had been asking many American soldiers what they think of Obama vs. McCain, and I came away with no fixed answer. Many wanted McCain, while it seems just as many wanted Obama, though none of the soldiers seem so emotional about it like the folks at home, or in other countries. But across the board, as expected, whether soldiers like Obama or not, nobody wanted to see Iraq get neglected, and I was with them on that. The biggest endorsement for Obama came from al Qaeda’s Vice President, the bitter hate-man and racist Dr. Ayman Muhammad Rabaie al-Zawahiri, when he declared war on Obama. Al Qaeda obviously is afraid of Obama, just like they are afraid of Bush who has been chasing al Qaeda like rats since 9/11. I’ve never enjoyed a day in the Iraq war, or in Afghanistan, but there have been many days of quiet satisfaction when al Qaeda or Taliban were brought to final justice before my eyes. It would be something to see Zawahiri or Bin Laden, captured like rats, shaved of hair and beards, put before the world to face the families of the thousands of Americans, Iraqis, Afghans, and so many others in Pakistan, Africa, and Europe, that they have murdered. Nobody suffers more at the hands of al Qaeda than Muslims.
Al Qaeda was handed a vicious defeat in Iraq, and it can be said with great certainty that most Iraqis hate al Qaeda even more than Americans do. Al Qaeda can continue to murder Iraqis for now, but al Qaeda will be hard pressed to ever plant their flag in another Iraqi city. The Iraqi army and police have become far too strong and organized, and the Iraqis will eventually strangle al Qaeda to death.
I still find people in America, Nepal, Thailand, UAE and other countries who believe al Qaeda propaganda that they attack us because we support Israel or occupy Muslim holy land. This would not explain the decapitated Iraqi children I photographed when locals told me al Qaeda did it. This would not explain the Iraqi children al Qaeda has blown up, or the Afghans and Pakistanis killed by al Qaeda, or the Africans who are murdered by the same cult of serial killers. Did those decapitated children in the Iraqi village even know where America or Israel are? What about the Shia mosques they destroyed in Iraq? Were they occupying Saudi Arabia or supporting Israel?
The streets that I was this day patrolling with Iraqi National Police and soldiers from 10th Mountain Division, were once controlled by al Qaeda. Al Qaeda had intentionally stoked the fires of civil war in Iraq.
What’s next? If you are in this same neighborhood next week (now last week), please go to the art Iraqi Art show that people were talking about:
Rashid Leaders Plan, Prepare for Art and Culture Show
Friday, 21 November 2008
By Capt. Brett Walker
4th Infantry Division
FOB FALCON — For the first time in a generation, an art and culture show will be hosted in the Rashid district of southern Baghdad, Nov. 26.
Twenty renowned Iraqi artists, many of them professors at the Baghdad Art Institute, have agreed to participate in the Doura Art and Culture Show, “New Life, New Culture.”
The event’s organizer, Faruq Fu’ad Rafiq Hamdani of Baghdad’s Mansoor district, said he expects approximately 100 pieces of art including paintings, photographs, sculptures and conceptual art pieces to be displayed at the event.
“Southern Baghdad is not thought to be supportive of the arts,” explained Faruq, regarding the theme he personally selected. “Southern Baghdad has a reputation for violence, but this show will change that perception. This show will introduce a new way for the people of Iraq to live.”
The show will be hosted by Ali S. Al Khalid, the dean of the Doura Technical College, on the campus of his academic institution.
“This event will bring much prestige to the Rashid district, and it will provide an excellent educational opportunity for my students,” Ali said.
The Doura Technical College is located in the Rashid district of Baghdad, the dominant district of southern Baghdad consisting of 1.6 million residents.
Hashem Mahmood, the district’s elected deputy chairman, said he will preside over the opening ceremony of the show in recognition of his ardent support of the event.
“I have wanted to see something like this in Rashid for a long time,” Hashem said. “To my knowledge it has not been done in my lifetime.”
The Rashid District Council Chairman Yaqoub Yosif, said he also plans to support the event and plans to attend the opening day.
“I think this is a very good idea,” Yaqoub said. “Everyone I have spoken to about it likes it, too.”
Faruq, the event’s coordinator, as well as a contributing artist, said that the event began as a humble art show with eight contributing artists, but has since attracted the interest of many other members of the Baghdad cultural community, many of whom volunteered to participate for free.
The art show became an art and culture show with the addition of 12 more artists, a three-part orchestra, instructional lectures on art technique, local food purveyors and gifts for any adolescent attendants, he explained.
“This event constitutes an important contribution to redefining the way the world perceives Iraq,” said Lt. Col. Timothy Watson, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment, attached to the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, Multi-National Division – Baghdad.
The battalion provided funding for the inaugural event, added Watson, who hails from San Diego.
“It is about creating a new cultural identity beyond that of violence and war,” Watson said. “It is about instilling pride in the Iraqi people for their own rich, cultural heritage.”
The “Warriors” Battalion of the 4th Inf. Regt., deployed to the Rashid district in support of MND-B and Operation Iraqi Freedom, is part of the 4th BCT, 10th Mountain Division, stationed at Fort Polk, La.
A civil society is one that admires artists, and has time to admire and critique and argue about their creations. An advanced society is one that can generate and support an Army that promotes the art of a former enemy, to find peace. The Iraqi artists have the opportunity and social obligation to promote healing.
Yes, the war is over. And it will be a great day when the last American division leaves Iraq, and Americans and Iraqis never fire another shot at each other, and we can honestly call each other “friends.”