By Michael J. Totten
BAGHDAD — 82nd Airborne’s Lieutenant William H. Lord from Foxborough, Massachusetts, prepared his company for a dismounted foot patrol in the Graya’at neighborhood of Northern Baghdad’s predominantly Sunni Arab district of Adhamiyah.
“While we’re out here saying hi to the locals and everyone seems to be getting along great,” he said, “remember to keep up your military bearing. Someone could try to kill you at any moment.”
I donned my helmet and vest, hopped into the backseat of a Humvee, and headed into the streets of the city with two dozen of the first infantry soldiers deployed to Iraq for the surge. The 82nd Airborne Division is famous for being ready to roll within 24 hours of call up, so they were sent first.
The surge started with these guys. Its progress here is therefore more measurable than it is anywhere else.
Darkness fell almost immediately after sunset. Microscopic dust particles hung in the air like a fog and trapped the day’s savage heat in the atmosphere.
Our convoy of Humvees passed through a dense jungular grove of palm and deciduous trees between Forward Operating Base War Eagle and the market district of Graya’at. The drivers switched off their headlights so insurgents and terrorists could not see us coming. They drove using night vision goggles as eyes.
Just to the right of my knees were the feet of the gunner. He stood in the middle of the Humvee and manned a machine gun in a turret sticking out of the top. I could hear him swiveling his cannon from side to side and pointing it into the trees as we approached the urban sector in their area of operations.
This was all purely defensive. The battalion I’m embedded with here in Baghdad hasn’t suffered a single casualty — not even one soldier wounded — since they arrived in the Red Zone in January. The surge in this part of the city could not possibly be going better than it already is. Most of Graya’at’s insurgents and terrorists who haven’t yet fled are either captured, dormant, or dead.
A car approached our Humvee with its lights on.
“I can’t see, I can’t see,” said the driver. Bright lights are blinding with night vision goggles. “Flash him with the laser,” he said to the gunner. “Flash him with the laser!”
A green laser beam shot out from the gunner’s turret toward the windshield of the oncoming car. The headlights went out.
“What was that about?” I said.
“It’s part of our rules of engagement,” the driver said. “They all know that. The green laser is a warning, and it’s a little bit scary because it looks like a weapon is being pointed at them.”
We slowly rolled into the market area. Smiling children ran up to and alongside the convoy and excitedly waved hello. It felt like I was riding with a liberating army.
Graya’at’s streets are quiet and safe. It doesn’t look or feel like war zone at all. American soldiers just a few miles away are still engaged in almost daily firefights with insurgents and terrorists, but this part of the city has been cleared by the surge.
Before the surge started the neighborhood was much more dangerous than it is now.
“We were on base at Camp Taji [north of the city] and commuting to work,” Major Jazdyk told me earlier. “The problem with that was that the only space we dominated was inside our Humvees. So we moved into the neighborhoods and live there now with the locals. We know them and they know us.”
Lieutenant Lawrence Pitts from Fayetteville, North Carolina, elaborated. “We patrol the streets of this neighborhood 24/7,” he said. “We knock on doors, ask people what they need help with. We really do what we can to help them out. We let them know that we’re here to work with them to make their city safe in the hopes that they’ll give us the intel we need on the bad guys. And it worked.”
The area of Baghdad just to the south of us, which the locals think of as downtown Adhamiyah, is surrounded by a wall recently built by the Army. It is not like the wall that divides Israel from the West Bank. Pedestrians can cross it at will. Only the roads are blocked off. Vehicles are routed through two very strict checkpoints. Weapons transporters and car bombers can’t get in or out.
The area inside the wall is mostly Sunni. The areas outside the wall are mostly Shia. Violence has been drastically reduced on both sides because Sunni militias — including Al Qaeda — are kept in, and Shia militias — including Moqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army, are kept out.
Graya’at is a mixed Sunni-Shia neighborhood immediately to the north of the wall.
We dismounted our Humvees and set up a vehicle checkpoint on the far side of the market area. Curfew was going into effect. Anyone trying to drive into the area would be searched.
Dozens of Iraqi civilians milled about on the streets.
“Salam Aleikum,” said the soldiers and I as we walked past.
“Aleikum as Salam,” said each in return.
They really did seem happy to see us.
Children ran up to me.
“Mister, mister, mister!” they said and pantomimed the snapping of photos. I lifted my camera to my face and they nodded excitedly.
A large group of men gathered around a juice vendor and greeted us warmly as we approached. A large man in a flowing dishdasha spoke English and, judging by the deference showed to him by the others, seemed to be a community leader of some sort.
Kids pulled on my shirt as Lieutenant Lord spoke to the group about a gas station the Army is helping set up in the neighborhood. Gasoline is more important to Iraqis than it is to even Americans. Baghdad is as much an automobile-based city as Los Angeles. They also need fuel for electric generators. Baghdad’s electrical grid only supplies one hour of electricity every day. It is ancient, overloaded, in severe disrepair, and is sabotaged by the insurgents. The outside temperature rarely drops below 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, even at night. Air conditioners aren’t luxuries here. They are requirements. No gasoline? No air conditioner.
“The gas station on the corner should be opening soon,” the lieutenant said to the group of men. “Do you think the prices are fair?”
The fat man understood the question. Our young interpreter from Beirut, Lebanon, who calls herself “Shine,” translated for everyone else.
Most gasoline in Iraq has to be purchased on the black market for four times the commercial and government rate partly because there is an acute lack of proper places to sell it. A new gas station in this country is actually a big deal.
The men thought the price of gasoline at the station was reasonable. The conversation continued mundanely and I quickly grew bored.
Everyone was friendly. No one shot at us or even looked at us funny. Infrastructure problems, not security, were the biggest concerns at the moment. I felt like I was in Iraqi Kurdistan — where the war is already over — not in Baghdad.
It was an edgy “Kurdistan,” though. Every now and then someone drove down the street in a vehicle. If any military-aged males (MAMs as the Army guys call them) were in the car, the soldiers stopped it and made everybody get out. The vehicle and the men were then searched.
Everyone who was searched took it in stride. Some of the Iraqi men smirked slightly, as if the whole thing were a minor joke and a non-threatening routine annoyance that they had been through before. The procedure looked and felt more like airport security in the United States than, say, the more severe Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank and Gaza.
“What are you guys doing out after curfew?” said Sergeant Lizanne.
“I’m sorry, sorry,” said a young Iraqi man in a striped blue and tan t-shirt.
“There is no sorry,” said Sergeant Lizanne. “I don’t give a shit. The curfew is at the same time every night. I don’t want to have to start arresting you.”
“Why are you stopping these guys,” I said to Lieutenant Lord, “when there are so many other people milling around on the streets?”
“Because they’re MAMs who are driving,” he said. “We’re going easy on everyone else. We’ve already oppressed these people enough. They have a night culture in the summer, so if they aren’t military aged males driving cars we leave them alone. We were very heavy-handed in 2003. Now we’re trying to move forward together. At least 90 percent of them are normal fun-loving people.”
“Do they ever get pissed off when you search them?” I said.
“Not very often,” he said. “They understand we’re trying to protect them.”
“This is not what I expected in Baghdad,” I said.
“Most of what we’re doing doesn’t get reported in the media,” he said. “We’re not fighting a war here anymore, not in this area. We’ve moved way beyond that stage. We built a soccer field for the kids, bought all kinds of equipment, bought them school books and even chalk. Soon we’re installing 1,500 solar street lamps so they have light at night and can take some of the load off the power grid. The media only covers the gruesome stuff. We go to the sheiks and say hey man, what kind of projects do you want in this area? They give us a list and we submit the paperwork. When the projects get approved, we give them the money and help them buy stuff.”
Not everything they do is humanitarian work, unless you consider counter-terrorism humanitarian work. In my view, you should. Few Westerners think of personal security as a human right, but if you show up in Baghdad I’ll bet you will. Personal security may, in fact, be the most important human right. Without it the others mean little. People aren’t free if they have to hide in their homes from death squads and car bombs.
In another part of Graya’at is an area called the Fish Market. Gates were installed at each entrance so terrorists can’t drive car bombs inside. The people here are extraordinarily grateful for this. Businesses, not cars, are booming now at the market. Residents feel free and safe enough to go out.
“The kids here do seem to like you,” I said to Lieutenant Lord.
“They do,” he said. “In Sadr City, though, they throw rocks and flip us off.”
The American military is staying out of Sadr City for now. The surge hasn’t even begun there, and I don’t know if it will.
I wandered over to the man selling juice at a stand. An American soldier bought a glass from him.
“Have you tried this juice?” the soldier said to me. “It’s really good stuff. Here have a sip.”
He handed me the glass. It was an excellent mixture of freshly squeezed orange juice and something else. Pineapple, I think.
The kids kept pulling my shirt.
“Mister, mister!” they said, wanting me to take their picture.
The same kids kept pestering the soldiers, as well. They seemed to get a big kick out of it.
A small group of soldiers continued talking to the locals about community projects they’re helping out with.
I tried to listen in but the kids wouldn’t leave me alone. Finally one of the adults took mercy on me and shooed the children away so I could listen and talk to the grownups. The conversation, though, was mundane. The soldiers were talking and acting like aid workers, not warriors from the elite 82nd Airborne Division.
“Man, this is boring,” one of them said to me later. “I’m an adrenaline junky. There’s no fight here. It won’t surprise me if we start handing out speeding tickets.” So it goes in at least this part of Baghdad that has been cleared by the surge.
“When we first got here,” said another and laughed, “shit hit the fan.”
It was all a bit boring, but blessedly so. I knew already that not everyone in Baghdad was hostile. But it was slightly surprising to see that entire areas in the Red Zone are not hostile.
Anything can happen in Baghdad, even so. The convulsive, violent, and overtly hostile Sadr City is only a few minutes drive to the southeast.
“Want to walk past your favorite house?” Lieutenant Lord said to Sergeant Lizanne.
“Let’s do it,” said Sergeant Lizanne.
“What’s your favorite house?” I said.
“It’s a house we walked past one night,” said Sergeant Lizanne. “Some guys on the roof locked and loaded on us.”
Gun shots rang out in the far distance. None of the Iraqis paid much attention but the soldiers perked up and stiffened their posture like hunting dogs.
“Gun shots,” Lieutenant Lord said.
“I heard,” I said. “You going to do anything about it?”
“Nah,” he said and shrugged. “They were far away and could be anything, even shots fired in the air at a wedding. A lot of these guys are stereotypical Arabs.”
The gun shots were a part of the general ambience.
We walked along a narrow path along the banks of the Tigris River in darkness. “The house,” as they called it, where someone locked and loaded a rifle, was a quarter mile or so up ahead.
“What will you do when you get to the house?” I asked Lieutenant Lord.
“We’ll do a soft-knock,” he said. “We’re not going to be dicks about it.”
I couldn’t see well, but I could see. Even my camera could see if I held it steady enough.
The soldiers had night vision goggles. They could see perfectly, if “green” counts as perfect. One of them let me borrow his for a few minutes.
Putting on the goggles was like stepping into another world. The soldiers’ rifles come with a laser that shoots a light visible only to those wearing the goggles. It helps soldiers zero in on their target. It also lets them “point” at things in the terrain when they talk to each other. Some used the green rifle laser to point out locations in the area the way a professor points at a chalk board with a stick.
We walked in silence and darkness toward “the house.” I could just barely make out the silhouettes of the soldiers’ helmets and rifles and body armor in front of me.
“Where should I be when this goes down?” I quietly said to the lieutenant.
“Just stay next to me,” he whispered back.
We stopped in front of the house. It was shrouded in total darkness on the bank of the river.
Lieutenant Lord quietly signaled for half his platoon to go around to the other side of the house. I scanned the roof looking for snipers or gunmen, but didn’t see anyone. Still, I still decided to step up to the outer wall of the house so no one could shoot me from the roof.
We waited in silence for ten minutes. The area was absolutely quiet and still. The curfew was in effect and we were away from the main market area where pedestrians were allowed out after dark.
Feeling more relaxed, I stepped away from the house and toward the river. Once again I checked the roof for snipers or gun men. This time I saw the black outlines of two soldiers standing up there and motioning to us below.
It was time to walk around to the other side, to the front door, and go in. I stayed close to the lieutenant.
The other side of the house, the front side of the house, was lit by street lights. Children laughed and kicked around a soccer ball.
Gun shots rang out in the night, closer this time.
“Take a knee,” Lieutenant Lord said to one of his men.
The soldier got down on one knee and pointed his weapon down the street in the direction of the gunfire. The children kept playing soccer as though nothing had happened. I casually leaned against the wall of the house in case something nasty came down the street.
We heard no more shots. It could have been anything.
A soldier pushed open the gate and moved up the stairs toward the front door. I followed cautiously behind the lieutenant to make sure I wouldn’t get hit if something happened.
Up the stairs was an open area in the house that hadn’t yet been finished by the construction workers.
Lieutenant Lord had gotten far ahead of me. I found him speaking to an old man and his family. He, his military age son, his wife, and some children were herded into a single small room where everyone could be watched at the same time.
“We’re not going to be dicks about it,” he had said, and he lived up to his promise. The family was treated with utmost respect. The old woman blew kisses at us. The children smiled. This was not a raid.
I stepped into the room and noticed a picture of the moderate Shia cleric Ayatollah Sistani on the wall. It suddenly seemed unlikely that this family was hostile. Still, someone in the house had locked and loaded on patrolling American soldiers.
“We have tight relationships with some of the people whose sons are detainees,” Lieutenant Colonel Wilson A. Shoffner had told me earlier. “They don’t approve of their children joining Al Qaeda or the Mahdi Army. The support for these groups really isn’t that high.”
Perhaps the man’s son was the one who had locked and loaded.
The old man handed Lieutenant Lord an AK-47. The lieutenant pulled out the clip.
“Do you have any more guns,” he said. Our Lebanese interpreter translated.
“I have only one gun,” he said. “I am an old man.”
“I have a pistol,” said the man’s son.
“If you go down into Adhamiyah do you take your pistol with you?” said the lieutenant. Adhamiyah is a Sunni-majority area, and this family was Shia.
“No,” he said. “Of course not.”
“Someone here locked and loaded on me when we did a foot patrol along the river a while ago,” Lieutenant Lord said. “Who was it?”
The old man laughed. “It was me!” he said and laughed again. He couldn’t stop laughing. He even seemed slightly relieved. “I thought it might have been insurgents! It was dark. I couldn’t see who it was. All Americans are my sons.”
Lieutenant Lord looked at him dubiously.
“What did you see?” he said. “Tell me the story of what you saw.”
“I heard people walking,” said the old man. “I did not see Americans. I looked over the roof and heard who I guess was your interpreter speaking Arabic.”
“Sergeant Miller,” Lieutenant Lord said.
“Sir,” Sergeant Miller said.
“Does that sound right to you?”
“Sounds right to me, LT,” he said.
“If this is a nice neighborhood,” Lieutenant Lord said, “why did you lock and load?”
“I thought maybe there were insurgents down there,” the old man said.
“Are there insurgents here?”
“Maybe. I don’t know. I don’t think here, no.”
“Then why lock and load?”
The old man mumbled something.
“Sergeant Miller, I want to separate the old man from his family,” Lieutenant Lord said. “Keep an eye on them.”
The lieutenant walked the old man to the roof. I followed.
“I’m very concerned about what you’re telling me,” he said. “Who is making you live in fear?”
“I’m a good guy,” said the old man.
“I’m not saying you aren’t,” said the lieutenant. “I’m just very concerned that you are afraid of somebody here.”
“It was the first time. It was dark. I couldn’t see. I’m very sorry.”
“It’s okay,” said the lieutenant. “You don’t need to be sorry. You have the right to defend yourself and your home. Just be sure if you have to shoot someone that you know who you’re shooting at. Thank you for your help, and I am sorry for waking you up.”
The old man hugged the lieutenant and kissed him on his both cheeks.
The family waved us goodbye.
“Ma Salema,” I said and felt slightly guilty for being there.
We walked back to the Humvees.
“Do you believe him?” I said to the lieutenant. I have no idea how to tell when an Iraqi is lying.
“I do,” he said. “I think he’s a good guy. His story matched what happened.”
“He didn’t want to answer your question, though,” I said, “about who he is afraid of.”
There are terrible stories around here about the masked men of the death squads. Sometimes they break into people’s houses and asking the children who they’re afraid of. If they name the enemies of the death squad, they are spared. If they name the death squad itself, they and their families are killed. It’s a wicked interrogation because it cannot be beaten — the children don’t know which death squad has broken into the house.
“He didn’t want to say who he’s afraid of because he’s afraid,” Lieutenant Lord said. “If the insurgents find out he gave information to us, or that he helped us, he’s dead.”
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