Friday, March 28, 2008

More Money, More Problems

March 28, 2008

A Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), made up of soldiers and State Department representatives, would appear to have one of the more fun and gratifying jobs in Iraq. They initiate or lend support to projects throughout a particular province, the goal being to make essential and lasting improvements to that province. I spent a day with the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) based at COB Speicher , their territory: the Salah ad Din province, and was reminded that no good deed goes unpunished, especially in Iraq.
The PRT was scheduled to meet with the mayor of Tikrit, and some of the local business people interested in being involved in the projects under discussion for the area. Many PRT projects are developed to help local workers, or provide jobs to those out of work, to strengthen the local economy. Good honest work. Who wouldn’t want to get involved?
As the meeting got underway, the mayor asked Joseph Pinon, of the State Department, what he had been up to, his tone suggesting he thought maybe Joe had been floating up and down the Tigris on a raft, working on his tan instead of on rebuilding Tikrit. Joe produced a stack of folders, each representing a project in some stage of development. It seemed strange that he should have to appease the mayor. All of these projects would benefit his city. And one could just as easily ask him what he had been up to. Would he have been able to produce as thick a stack of folders?
After this awkward start, the focus shifted to one of the projects that was, as of now, just pages in a folder. A farmers’ market.
A farmers’ market would obviously be an asset to local farmers and people shopping for fresh produce, but its construction was an opportunity for local contractors to make money. It would cost money to construct the market, but how much? The discussion went back and forth across the table. American dollars would be funding the project, but what would the city of Tikrit contribute? The mayor said the land will be donated, as if his generosity knew no bounds. But did the land in question really belong to the city, and who would take care of the maintenance of the property? How much would construction actually cost, and were we being quoted a fair price or were we being taken advantage of?
As enthusiasm for the discussion faded--not enough concrete figures for the Americans, too many for the Iraqis--three more businessmen joined the meeting. One sat beside Joe Pinon. He was the chairman of an investment committee. It benefitted him to attend a meeting with the PRT because then he would know which projects the Americans were initiating and funding, and he could send the investors he collaborated with in other directions. He was being given access to very useful information, but rather than appearing grateful, he, like the mayor, seemed annoyed. He too turned to Joe and asked what the PRT had to show for itself. It was almost as if he and the mayor had talked to each other before the meeting, and decided to have a little fun with the Americans.
An awkward silence filled the room and I waited for the soldiers to fill the man with bullets. They were too disciplined for that and instead shifted in their seats and watched to see where this is going. Joe mentioned a figure, a very large figure, which represented the amount of money the United States has poured into Iraq to help with the rebuilding process. The man laughed, and asked again to see some evidence, some proof that the money arrived and went where it was supposed to go. I had to give it to this guy; he knew how to make a meeting interesting.
A lot of money has gone missing in Iraq. Give piles of cash, yes cash, to anyone, anywhere, let alone Iraq in the middle of a war, and tell them to make sure the money makes it into honest hands, to legitimate projects. How much of that money will actually make it to its intended destination? There is proof that at least some of the money was used in the way it was intended. There are water treatment plants, clinics, schools, and numerous other developments across the country, but there should be more. We are to blame and the Iraqis are to blame. It is difficult for either side to trust the other at this stage because patterns have been established.
The State Department workers and the soldiers of the Provincial Reconstruction Team did their best to stick to the agenda of the meeting. They really did want more of the folders to represent actual finished projects. They wanted to be part of the solution and not part of the problem, but they needed some help from the Iraqis at the table. More assistance and less attitude.
It was hard to listen while hard-working, honest people were being belittled by the very people they were trying to help. At the same time, the Iraqis raised a question that deserved an answer. Where did all the money go? The meeting took place on the grounds of one of Saddam’s old palaces. The Birthday Palace. Apparently, he only spent one day out of the year here, his birthday. Iraqis are used to greed and corruption from the top down. Maybe they miss the old days, when all of that misdirected money at least resulted in a palace. A palace is a lot more impressive than a pile of folders.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

The 56 MPs, the CLC, and an MP3

March 21, 2008

The 56 MPs, a Reserve Unit based in Arizona, have become very familiar with the area around Tikrit. They have worked closely with the Iraqi Police (IPs), helping them establish themselves at several stations around the city, and now they are doing the same with the CLC (Concerned Local Citizens, also known as the Sons of Iraq).
CLC groups are being formed by sheiks throughout Iraq as a way of increasing security in their communities. The American soldiers do their best to support these groups because they want the Iraqi citizens to play a part in policing each other. This should be what the Iraqis want also, but it will be some time before the citizens of Iraq fully trust the Sons of Iraq.
Because the development of the CLC groups is a work in progress, there is a sometimes a looseness about these groups. There is no agreed upon uniform used nationally, so some CLC members are more difficult to pick out of a police line-up than others, and some of these guys have done things that would land them in a police line-up. The lack of a standard uniform means it is possible for imposters to pose as CLC members and take advantage of innocent citizens.
When it comes to CLCs, there are two fairly safe assumptions that can be made: 1. Each chapter has some bad guys among its members, guys who may or may not have shed their criminal ways, and 2. At least one member in each chapter has some hip hop, probably Usher, downloaded on his cell phone.
The MPs had an appointment at a CLC headquarters where some weapons and explosives had been collected. This meant that theoretically the CLC had been on the job and found some bad stuff. Good for them! Or maybe it meant one of the CLC members had grown tired of having a pile of rockets and explosives in his living room, so he had pretended to discover the stuff in an abandoned house. No telling. Either way, the materials needed to be disposed of.
The sheik of the chapter arrived shortly after we did. He looked very young, but apparently had more money than anyone else chasing after the sheik title, so he won, sort of like Mayor Bloomberg. We enjoyed some chai in his office and everyone had a chance to say inshallah at least once.
The sheik wore an Iraqi Army uniform, as did many of the men in his group, which gave them perhaps a more legitimate air than they deserved because as soon as they noticed the female reporter traveling with the American soldiers, they fired up the Usher and there was some dancing. How pleased Usher would be to know he is helping the Sons of Iraq stay limber. And one American soldier. And the female reporter.
While we were cooling down, some of the more mature local citizens laid the accumulated weapons and explosives out on the ground, and Sergeants Shawn Peterson and Danny Schrader cataloged them. Among the materials was a length of clear, narrow tubing attached to a switch. These devices, called pressure switches, are filled with water, and when a vehicle drives over the tubing, the water gets pushed to a switch, tripping it and causing an explosion. American soldiers are very familiar with pressure switches.
The EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) team had been called, which meant we would be witnessing a large explosion. These controlled blasts can be a boost to morale because they are visible and audible evidence that another potentially deadly attack has been avoided.
The CLC members mobilized when the Americans explained it was time to get rid of the dangerous materials. They carefully loaded the weapons they had collected into the back of a Chevy truck, and followed our convoy and the EOD team to an area where an explosion of the size we were about to witness would not damage any homes or property.
After a tension-filled countdown of the final seconds, a loud boom followed by a cloud of smoke filled the air. Very satisfying. The CLC truck returned to its headquarters, and our convoy made its way back to COB (Contingency Operating Base) Speicher, weaving through the busy streets of Tikrit, and then onto the open road leading to the base, the soldiers always watching the roads, the cars, the people, for signs of danger.
If the CLC chapters throughout the country start to clean up their own backyard, the American soldiers will be their biggest fans. The 56 MPs want to take the CLC seriously and believe if they set a good example, the CLC will learn to follow it. Maybe the explosion we witnessed was a sign that this chapter is ready to take out the trash, ready to step in and do the job these MPs have been doing for months. That would be cause for celebration, with some dancing of course.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Out All Night With Delta Company

March 12, 2008

It is a sad fact that some of the hardest working people in Iraq are the insurgents. But the American soldiers wrote the book on hard work. During a deployment there are no days off. And when a convoy rolls out at 8:00 pm, it isn’t to go clubbing.
Led by Lieutenant Eric King, the soldiers of the 2nd Battalion’s Delta Company left JSS (Joint Support Station) Love to see what the farmland south of Samarra might produce at night. We would be visiting four houses--one, the home of a good guy, and three that had been identified as locations where bad guys were staying.
In some cases it is easier to sneak up on a target at night, but when you are talking about moving three huge diesel-powered MRAPs through country that might see only the occasional pickup truck or car in the course of a day, the element of surprise is probably lost as soon as the rumble of the engines grows louder than the sound of sheep breathing.
There is always an awkwardness that accompanies a surprise visit to a house. This is compounded after dark, when everyone has settled in for the night. While Lieutenant King talked to one member of the first household privately, the rest of the family was gathered in the living room and watched over by the soldiers, and no one knew what to say or do.
In the dim light provided by a lantern, the stark living conditions were impossible to ignore. There was no furniture in the living room. Blankets and padded mats were all that separated the residents of the house from the cold ground.
To ease the tension in the room, a baby was produced from the shadows and presented as some kind of proof that life was not so bad here. A cell phone rang, out of harmony with the simplicity of the setting. The phone belonged to an older man who ignored the ringing and showed the phone to the sleepy baby in an attempt to extract a smile.
Two other houses produced no obvious bad guys. The inhabitants were questioned while dogs barked outside, angry at having to work harder at guarding the sheep due to the arrival of the late night guests.
The fourth home appeared to be empty. The soldiers gathered at the metal door, but no one responded to the loud knocking and then kicking. The door was jammed shut so a second door was tried. This one opened, revealing a woman and several children gathered together under several blankets, huddled together for warmth, and probably out of fear. A kitten poked through some dishes at the edge of the room, then snuck past the soldiers and out the door.
The soldiers reassured the woman she would not be hurt. They explained that they only wanted to ask her some questions. Where was her husband? She said he was in jail. How did she support her family? She gestured to the land around her, but how much food could be produced in packed dust? And her children did not look capable of helping, both because they were too young and clearly not thriving.
The soldiers were saddened by the situation. They had not wanted to scare innocent people or add to their suffering. One soldier, Sergeant Joey Schuett, dug into his wallet and gave the woman what he could. The interpreter followed his example. Who knew what she thought of this strange turn of events. She seemed to believe the soldiers were only trying to help. It was impossible to tell how the children felt about the late night disturbance; their expressions ranged from vacant to listless.
The night out had been revealing, not because it exposed any insurgents but because it exposed the vulnerability of the people who lived out in the farmland. Anyone passing through could take advantage of their isolation. How easy it would be for someone to force his way into the last house, where the woman was alone with her children, and take cover until he was ready to move on. And the cell phone in the first house. Why was it ringing at that late hour?
The MRAPs made deep tracks in the soil as the convoy slowly distanced itself from the huts that were claimed again by the darkness. The heavy trucks fought against the uneven terrain. After what seemed like hours, I glanced out the rear window and saw a flash of light which was followed by a deep and convincing boom. The second truck in the convoy had run over an IED (Improvised Explosive Device).
The soldiers quickly assessed the damage to the vehicle and themselves. The MRAP had done its job; no one was hurt. A wave of relief swept through the trucks. It appeared the IED had been triggered by the weight of the MRAP when it rolled over the device. A tire was destroyed, and there was some internal damage, but overall the truck had done well. The explosion had created a crater that was about 4’ x 7’ wide, and, had the soldiers been in a humvee, the results would have been devastating.
The IED had halted the convoy just after midnight. When the dust settled there was nothing to do but wait for another convoy to arrive with a wrecker that would tow the disabled MRAP back to the base. How long could that take?
At 2:00 am the thrill of witnessing an explosion that had not hurt anyone was gone. And though the MRAP gets high marks for withstanding such attacks, it fails miserably in the passenger comfort department. The rear seats were not designed to accommodate adults wearing body armor. At best, they might comfortably hold young soccer players wearing shin guards. A soldier named Brian Castro, who had told me all about his little boy at home, gave up trying to get comfortable in his seat and slid to the floor.
Hours passed and still we waited. The road was not easily accessible, running between two canals. But still. At some point the waiting turned into something more cruel. Minutes were being stolen from future days.
Finally, as the sun came up, the second convoy arrived, and after much maneuvering the journey home resumed. By 8:00 am we were safely home. Somehow spending the night in an MRAP had been more exhausting than a night of clubbing.
The people of the farmland had their night interrupted thanks to our late visit. Our night had been interrupted thanks to an IED. Interruptions are hardly ever welcomed but sometimes they are a useful reminder of what came before, and how things can change for the better.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Starring Colonel Faisal

March 8, 2008
Maybe all wars breed impatience. After all, who wouldn’t want to get to the part where peace breaks out? The war in Iraq is not unlike a big budget movie, a movie gone straight to DVD because it went a little long and dragged in the middle. If this were a movie, it would be hard to resist the temptation to hit the fast forward button to see how it turns out.
And like a major motion picture, the war in Iraq has a cast of characters, some of whom are so compelling, they steal the show.
Colonel Faisal, commanding officer of an Iraqi Army (IA) battalion located next door to the 2nd Battalion’s Delta Company at JSS (Joint Support Station) Love, is center stage in the drama taking place in the area south of Samarra. Colonel Faisal is the sort of character actors would be fighting for the chance to play.
Any Iraqi who works with the Coalition Forces is putting his life in danger. The people who know this and continue to work with us are exhibiting a rare kind of courage. Colonel Faisal is working with American soldiers to build the Iraqi Army into a formidable force. His relationship with the soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade extends back to their last deployment, in Kirkuk, where he worked with Major Chris Kidd, then of the MiTT (Military Transition Team) Team.
Colonel Faisal spends a lot of time these days with Captain Nathan Hicks, commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion’s Delta Company. They share many goals and responsibilities. Recently, both men attended a memorial service for a member of the CLC (Concerned Local Citizens) who was killed in the line of duty. Local sheiks organize and supervise CLC groups, which provide security to their communities. The loss of one of their members brought many sheiks from the area together. By taking the time to pay their condolences, Colonel Faisal and Captain Hicks were doing their part to promote a sense of solidarity between forces, and to further legitimize the CLC as a vital component in Iraq’s security system.
It might seem as though the days in Iraq are filled with nothing but violence and sorrow. The country does have more than its share of both, but there is also a lot of laughter, especially when Colonel Faisal is in the room. The smart person knows the importance of balance, and Colonel Faisal is very smart. He knows when to put aside his burdens and have some fun.
During my stay at JSS Love, Captain Hicks and I were invited to dine with Colonel Faisal three times. Our first meal included kabobs, a popular meat dish, several vegetable dishes, and bread. Colonel Faisal noticed I wasn’t eating the kabobs. I explained through Jerry, our interpreter, that I was a vegetarian. Colonel Faisal was devastated by the information. He didn’t want me to go hungry, which wasn’t really a possibility, there was plenty of food, so he sent one of his soldiers out for falafel. The meal was as good as the company, and I was happy to hear we were invited back the following night.
Our second dinner was more impressive than the first, and this time Major Chris Kidd, Colonel Faisal’s old friend, joined us. The table was filled with vegetarian dishes. I was touched by Colonel Faisal’s thoughtfulness. During the meal, the men talked about soldier stuff, but they also talked about cooking. In Iraq, it is considered shameful for a man to help his wife in the kitchen. Colonel Faisal teased Captain Hicks when he admitted to occasionally helping his wife, but it was hard to take the Colonel seriously when he gone to so much trouble to make sure I, the only woman in the group, had enough to eat.
It is a privilege to break bread with our Iraqi friends. They are generous and warm, and want nothing more than to make their guests feel welcomed and cared for. Colonel Faisal embraced his role as host in the same way he embraces his role as a commanding officer.
A veteran of the Iraqi Army under Saddam Hussein’s rule, Colonel Faisal has endured some challenging times, but he has clearly not let those years get the best of him. At forty-five, he is the father of three young children and is obviously invested in the future of Iraq. During our third meal together, Colonel Faisal asked some hard questions, questions that revealed the depth of his concern for his country and its people.
What would it take to make the children of Iraq happy? Colonel Faisal waited patiently for a reply. I had often wondered about the children. How do they cope in a time of war? How much of the violence touches them? Is happiness even a possibility? There are children all over Iraq—often all it takes is an American convoy to draw them out. They might be barefoot in the cold. They might ask for a football. Would shoes and footballs make them happy? They might smile for a picture. When they smile, are they happy?
Captain Hicks pointed out an advantage Iraqi children have over American children—strong family ties that extend far beyond one household. It must be reassuring to have a place at more than one table. In spite of harsh realities that find them at far too young an age, the children of Iraq seem at least to experience moments of happiness. The challenge is to help them maintain a sense of hope for the future, their future.
Colonel Faisal also wanted to know why the Democrats were not interested in pursuing the terrorists in Iraq, alluding to discussions on the campaign trail in the United States regarding the reduction of troop levels in his country. People like Colonel Faisal, who want to clean up Iraq, and who understand how useful a partner the American forces can be, also understand how hard it will be to continue the fight alone. From his point of view, if the United States significantly cuts the number of troops in Iraq, the terrorists will be free to go about their evil business. And he will be forced to attend more memorial services.
Iraq is a country full of people who deserve a safe and fulfilling life. Just as we don’t always think of the lives our soldiers are putting on hold while they are deployed in Iraq, we don’t try to consider the lives the Iraqis have put on hold until their country becomes more stable.
Laughing over falafel with Colonel Faisal was more fun than winning a date with a movie star. He makes it very difficult to imagine how we can walk away from all of this. If only this were a movie. Then Colonel Faisal and all of the good people of Iraq would find a way to triumph over the bad guys, because in movies the good guys always win.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Down on the Farm

March 1, 2008
In a war like the one our soldiers are fighting in Iraq, looks can be deceiving. An American soldier with the 101st Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade is generally pretty easy to identify. He wears a digital camouflage uniform and he travels in a dust-colored humvee or MRAP (Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected). The enemy, on the other hand, could be anyone.
The bad guys have plenty of uniforms to choose from. Every organized security force in Iraq harbors some insurgents. And just as many wear no uniform, blending in with the civilian population, both the guilty and the innocent. Try studying a face, any face in Iraq, and determining whether the person you are looking at is a friend or an enemy. It isn’t easy.
The farmland outside the city of Samarra looks peaceful and calm. Our convoy doesn’t make sense here. Cows shift an eye toward the MRAPs. Chickens scatter nervously. It would appear our arrival, with Scouts dismounting from each vehicle and fanning out to secure the area, has shattered the calm. What could the soldiers of the 2nd Battalion’s Charlie Company possibly want with the people living in these modest houses and huts? Life must be hard enough without having to put up with armed, uninvited guests.
Uninvited the soldiers may be, but unexpected they are not. An Iraqi male on a motorcycle has been following the convoy during the week, and has no doubt been informing others of the soldiers’ whereabouts. A source has told the soldiers there is a cell dedicated to tracking their movements, and not so a party could be thrown in their honor. Hidden beneath the calm is an enemy presence that has used remote areas like this farmland to hide people and weapons. Recent discoveries have caused Coalition Forces to focus more of their efforts on seeing what else they can dig up in the country.
The soldiers approach a girl who appears to be alone at a small farmhouse. This in itself is unusual. More often than not there are more people than one would expect tucked away in these houses. And usually the soldiers are presented with a pretty good poker face. But this girl is visibly shaken, scared and crying. The interpreter tries to reassure her that the soldiers will do her no harm, but she acts as though their arrival is the sound of the other shoe dropping.
The women and children are the wildcards here. Usually any bad business would be conducted by the men, but in confined quarters like most of these people live in it is difficult to imagine everyone doesn’t know everything.
Some females seem to hide behind their role, embrace their status as second class citizens. They know we know they aren’t supposed to know anything, but their smiles suggest they are full of secrets. They must enjoy the power this knowledge gives them.
In these rural communities the residents are usually related, or members of the same tribe. They might share a vehicle. Certainly they share information. If bad people show up, if they hide or bury weapons or explosives in the area, can the locals possibly be oblivious to this activity? And if one knows, wouldn’t they all know? But something keeps them from sharing what they know. Fear? Probably. And maybe the soldiers in their MRAPs are just too foreign. How can they be made to understand the vulnerability that comes from living in a place where the bad guys can hide from the good guys, but the residents cannot hide from anyone.
During the patrol, the motorcycle is abandoned. At a house nearby, two males are questioned. One is asked if he is the owner of the motorcycle; it seems he must be, but he denies it, and doesn’t pretend to want to be helpful.
After several stops, none particularly fruitful, the soldiers are frustrated. There is something lurking beneath the surface here, something that is causing the residents to behave strangely, sometimes revealing more of themselves than is expected, sometimes less.
And the abandoned motorcycle? With no one willing to step forward and claim it, no one willing to explain why he had been following the convoy, there seems to be no choice but to destroy it. One of the gunners shoots it up with his 50 Cal., and the soldiers enjoy watching it burn.
The people of the area had no doubt been warned or enticed into cooperating with the bad guys. By destroying the motorcycle, the soldiers are not only making life a little more difficult for the bad guys, but sending a message to anyone who assists them.
It will take a steady and increased presence in these rural areas to persuade the local population they are not alone if they choose to stand up and fight the enemy. Maybe it seems easier to turn a blind eye to the insurgent activity around them, but the insurgents will only stick around until they have destroyed whatever or whomever it is they wanted to destroy. Our soldiers, on the other hand, will keep coming back until everyone feels safe.
The Scouts of Charlie Company are patient. They have talked to a lot of people in Iraq, and some have begun to respond. The soldiers are receiving more tips and useful information from locals than they have in the past, enabling them to stop insurgents in their tracks. They will continue to talk to people and these conversations will begin to bear more and more fruit. The soldiers may look intimidating, with their body armor and their weapons, but it only takes spending a little time with them to know they want the best for the people of Iraq.