By Michael J. Totten
BAGHDAD — “We want to use you as bait,” Sergeant Eduardo Ojeda from Los Angeles, California, told me before I embedded with his unit on what was shaping up to be a night raid.
“Excellent,” I said. “That’s why I’m here.”
This is what passes for black Army humor in Baghdad.
“Our TST [time-sensitive target] blew up a vehicle and killed four soldiers and an interpreter in the next AO [area of operations],” he said. “He’s somewhere in our AO now.”
He could tell by the frozen and dubious look on my face that I wasn’t sure I wanted to go on the mission.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “These guys hardly ever fight back when we nail them. And they always lose when they do. Come on. Let’s go f*ck ‘em up.”
I donned my body armor and helmet, strapped my Nikon around my neck, and jumped in the back of one of the Humvees.
“I need your full name and blood type,” said First Sergeant Ray Fisher, from Keokuk, Iowa. “In case something happens.”
Everywhere in Baghdad is dangerous — even the Green Zone — but danger is relative. Not every place in the Red Zone is the same shade of crimson. The 82nd Airborne company I embedded with hasn’t suffered a single casualty since they arrived in Iraq in January even though they patrol their part of the city — the neighborhood of Graya’at, just north of the Adhamiyah wall — 24 hours a day. I comforted myself with the idea that if I’m the first to be shot here, God apparently hates me.
“Stay close to me,” said Sergeant Ojeda as he plugged his mouth with tobacco. “In the dark just look for the short guy. And call me Eddie.”
The military intelligence officers at Coalition Outpost War Eagle knew the target was somewhere in their area, but they didn’t know precisely where or for how long. My unit’s job was to go out and patrol the neighborhood known as Tunis until they could pinpoint his exact location.
We drove in the dark. The soldiers used night vision goggles. I had to rely on my eyes.
“How long are you in Iraq, sir?” Sergeant Fisher asked me.
“As long as I feel like it,” I said. “A month and a half maybe.”
“You’re lucky, sir” he said. “We’re here for 18. I just got back from leave and missed the birth of my baby boy by two days. At least I got to see him.”
“You don’t have to call me sir,” I said.
“Ok, sir,” he said and laughed.
“What’s the situation in Tunis?” I said.
“It’s not too bad anymore,” said Lieutenant Evan Wolf from Omaha, Nebraska. “It’s a rich neighborhood. Lots of educated and cultured people live there, doctors and lawyers, people like that. It was infested with Al Qaeda a while ago, so the neighborhood formed a protectionist militia. They set up road blocks, gates around the mosque, and they drove Al Qaeda out. But now the militia harasses and extorts the residents. They follow us from house to house and intimidate whoever we talk to.”
Our convoy of Humvees crossed an overpass above the Iraqi equivalent of an Interstate freeway and stopped on a dark road among trees just outside the neighborhood. Half the soldiers dismounted the vehicles and set out to patrol the streets on foot. The other half stayed with the Humvees.
“How long will we be out?” I said to Eddy.
“Could be a while,” he said and plugged his mouth with more smokeless tobacco. “Last time we had a raid night we were we out for more than twelve hours.” He spit on the sidewalk. “We chased a guy from house to house to house. Didn’t catch him that night, but he was caught somewhere else three days later.”
I could barely see anything, but the soldiers could see everything. It was next to impossible to tell who was who in the dark.
Eddy was obvious, though. He was the short guy. He told me to stay next to him, so I did.
“This country would be beautiful if it were not for the invention of the plastic bag,” somebody said. “That bag is everywhere — in the trees, stuck in barbed wire, on the sidewalks, crammed in every corner. Man, when this war is over I’m coming back to open a recycling factory. I’ll be raking it in.”
The area did appear to be nice, billowing plastic bags notwithstanding. Every house was considerably larger than the average American home and seemed to be well-maintained. I wouldn’t mind living in a neighborhood like it myself if it weren’t in Iraq.
“I suppose I shouldn’t smoke,” I said to Eddy.
“You got that right,” Eddy said. “Snipers wearing night vision can see the tip of your cigarette from a mile away. They’ll watch as you lift the cigarette to your mouth and figure out where your head is. Then BLAMMO. They’re really good shots.”
I kept the cigarettes in my pocket.
“We’re being followed,” said Sergeant Fisher.
Eddy, the rest of the soldiers, and I turned around.
“Four of ‘em,” Eddy said.
I couldn’t see anyone but the soldiers standing right next to me without night vision goggles.
“Where are they?” I said.
“In the shadows two blocks behind us,” Eddy said. “There weren’t there a minute ago.”
Curfew enforcement in Tunis was total. In some areas of Baghdad only military aged males driving cars are stopped by Army patrols after 10:00 p.m. But Tunis is infested with a militia. No one is allowed on the streets after dark except licensed generator repairmen.
We kept walking. Half the soldiers walked backwards so they could keep an eye on the men following us.
Some of the soldiers stood in the light from a storefront lit by generator power.
I tried to stick to the shadows. Presumably the men following us were militia. If they didn’t have night vision goggles — and they probably didn’t — they wouldn’t be able to see me any better than I could see them. And I couldn’t see them.
“Five of ‘em now,” somebody said. “They’re still following.”
The soldiers took up positions, crouched on one knee, and pointed their rifles down the street in the direction of our stalkers. I ducked behind a wall separating two driveways and checked the windows and the roofs of the houses to make sure nobody saw me.
“Why don’t you send the Humvees after them?” I said to the nearest soldier.
“We’re sending them now,” he said.
“More are out now,” said another. “Seven or eight of them.”
No one knew how many were coming out of their houses on side streets. No one knew who they were, either. They could have been local militia thugs, or they could have been the point men of the Al Qaeda leader the Army was trying to home in on. They knew he was somewhere in the area. Maybe he found us before we found him. “We want to use you as bait” no longer sounded so funny.
An old man speaking on a cell phone walked toward us from the direction of our stalkers.
“Turn that phone off right now!” yelled one of the soldiers. “Right now!” He ran toward the man. “You turn it off now!” The man kept talking in Arabic.
Our interpreter told him to shut it off. He shut it off. Perhaps he was giving information to the militia. Perhaps he was talking to his wife. Nobody knew. Either way he was violating the curfew.
“Go home,” somebody told him.
Suddenly the soldiers started walking back in the direction we came from — toward the men who were following us and who hid in the shadows.
“We’re walking toward them?” I said to the soldier next to me. I still couldn’t tell who was who. “Are they still there?” I still couldn’t see them.
“They’re still there,” he said. “We’re pushing back to see what they do.”
For the first time since I arrive in Iraq, I wished I had a weapon myself. When I couldn’t stay in the shadows, I zigzagged at random to make myself a much more difficult target.
Eddie sidled up beside me.
“Stay right next to me,” he said. “If there’s shooting I’ll get you in the safest possible place.” The safest possible place, I thought, was outside Iraq. “If it escalates…” He trailed off.
“If it escalates…what?” I said.
“If it escalates we’ll deal with it,” he said.
“Four more to west,” said a soldier. “They’re running.”
This time I could see them — four men rounding a corner and running away down a street. They were more afraid of us than we were of them.
“Does this kind of thing happen around here a lot?” I said to Eddy.
“It happens,” he said.
The Humvees finally pulled up to the area where the Iraqi men lurked in the shadows. When our foot patrol caught up with them I saw that two of our stalkers had been caught.
The rule for properly building suspense in horror movies is based on how fear works in real life. Faceless and invisible enemies are scary. Real human beings with faces and fears of their own aren’t so much.
Our two busted stalkers looked a lot less intimidating in person. They seemed rather pathetic, actually, and they were not armed.
“My air conditioner is broken,” said the first through our interpreter. “I was just going to a friend’s house to get another one. I can show you the broken one now.”
I’ve been on patrol with soldiers after curfew many times. Most Iraqis out after dark don’t appear to be threatening or up to no good. This guy stood out, though. I didn’t believe he was only trying to borrow an air conditioner. He was twitchy and much more nervous than anyone I had seen captured before.
And anyway, aside from the twitchiness, why was he stalking Army soldiers in the dark with other military aged men?
Our Iraqi interpreter — who wore a mask over his face to avoid being recognized by the locals — checked the suspect’s identification.
He did live in the area. ID cards, though, don’t say “militia man” on them.
Two soldiers guarded the second suspect while the rest of us walked to the first suspect’s house and knocked hard on the door.
No one came to the door. A soldier kept knocking. “Open up!” he yelled.
The residents of the house finally stirred.
“There are lots of people in there,” someone said.
I stepped back, having no idea what to expect.
A large man wearing shorts and no shirt opened the door. An old man in a dishdasha stood behind him. They weren’t armed and didn’t seem threatening.
“Salam aleikum,” said the shirtless man.
“Can we come in?” said the soldier who knocked.
Shirtless beckoned us in, and so we went in.
Soldiers dispersed throughout the house and rounded everyone — four men, three women, and two children — into one room. Everyone, soldiers and Iraqis alike, were mellow and cool. No one seemed to be angry at anyone. Shirtless seemed to be the head of the household, so the soldiers spoke mainly to him instead of to the young man they had captured outside.
“You’re right, he was bad,” Shirtless said.
“The curfew is for your safety,” said a soldier through the interpreter. “We’re hot, too, okay? Finding an air conditioner isn’t a good enough reason to go outside after dark.”
“Sorry,” Shirtless aid. “Please forgive us. Anything you want, we are with you.”
“There are bad guys out after dark.”
“I understand, very sorry.”
We said goodnight and left the house. There was no interrogation. All the soldiers did was drop the guy off at home to get him off the street. Whether he really was trying to borrow an air conditioner, or whether he belonged to the neighborhood militia, I’ll never know.
The second captured man was still being detained.
“I work at the mosque,” he said through our masked interpreter. “I work there at night. I was just out getting some dinner.”
We had walked past the neighborhood mosque earlier and there were no lights on inside. It didn’t seem that anyone worked there at night, at least not in any normal capacity.
All of us started walking toward the mosque.
“What are you going to do with him?” I said to Eddy.
“We’re going to take him to the mosque and see if he really works there,” he said.
When we arrived outside the mosque, some of the soldiers squatted in driveways across the street and scanned the roof. I joined them as Eddy and the others took the suspect to the gate.
I crouched near the ground.
“There are four men on the roof,” a soldier said. “You can’t see them anymore. They just ducked away as we got here.”
“They have a little bunker up there,” he continued. “You can’t see it from here, but it has sand bags and sniper netting around it.”
“What are you going to do?” I said.
“Nothing,” he said. “It’s a mosque.”
“They’re violating curfew,” I said, “and stalking us in the dark from a militarized mosque. And you aren’t going to do anything?”
“Our rules of engagement say we can’t interfere in any way with a mosque unless they are shooting at us,” he said.
We left our stalker with his “co-workers” and walked away.
While waiting for the call from Military Intelligence at the outpost, we walked the streets of Baghdad at midnight. If they could determine which exact house the Al Qaeda target was in, the soldiers I patrolled with would be the first on the scene. Our local infamous insurgent commander would be quietly surrounded by two dozen elite infantry soldiers, and myself with my notepad and camera, before he had any idea he what was happening.
In the meantime we chased shadows and silhouettes and dark vehicles on blacked out streets without any headlights.
We chased a car so far from our starting point I wondered if the soldiers still knew where we were. Eventually the driver pulled his car over and parked on his own. I got out of my Humvee and followed Eddy to the stopped car. Vicious dogs snarled at us from behind a gate.
Three men were inside. All were told to get out of the vehicle and were questioned and patted down.
It’s possible the three young men in the car didn’t even know we were trying to catch them. Humvees are driven in Iraq in the dark without headlights, and they don’t go very fast.
None of the young men were armed. The vehicle was searched and nothing was found. They were sent home and told to stay indoors after curfew.
This is what it is like most nights during counter-insurgency warfare. “It’s like we’re Baghdad PD,” one soldier put it. It isn’t always open war and explosions and bang-bang. Much of it entails patient police work and the chasing of ghosts.
We never did get the call from Military Intelligence. The insurgent commander, whose name I know but cannot reveal, was almost, but not quite, captured that night. His capture would have saved lives, and it would have been something to see.
This isn’t the movies, however. The Iraqi counter-insurgency would be a hard war to film accurately. Most of the time it’s so quiet. But it’s the quiet of an Alfred Hitchcock movie, not of rural Middle America. Explosions, mortars, bullets, rockets…these things can come flying at you at any time.
I watched the dark city of Baghdad through bullet-proof glass. Most homes were blacked out — the electrical grid supplies only one hour of power each day. A few families stayed up late and ran their generators past midnight. Most Iraqis, I knew without seeing, slept on the roofs of their houses where it’s cooler at night.
The palm trees somehow looked both menacing and benign at the same time. They looked slightly more ominous we drove into a dense grove bathed in an eerie glow from starlight shining through dust.
What may have been waiting for us on the road up ahead? Who may have been watching, perhaps even with the same night vision goggles the soldiers themselves wore?
Suddenly the trees were gone and the sky opened up. I couldn’t see anything.
“We’re in the slum now,” Lieutenant Evan Wolf said. “It’s a nasty one, too. Some houses are literally made out of cardboard. I would kill myself before I lived here.”
I have no idea how these people survive without air conditioning and clean water. The environment here in the summer is unrelentingly hostile.
“How did you get into this job?” Eddy said.
“I was in the high tech industry a few years ago,” I told him. “I got bored of the cubicle farm and needed to get out of the office.”
“You’re way out now,” Eddy said and laughed.
“I can’t wait to get in the office,” Lieutenant Wolf said.
“Do you like your job?” Eddy said.
“I love my job,” I said. “It’s the best I’ve ever had. Do you like yours?”
“I wouldn’t say it’s the worst decision I ever made,” he said. “It’s hard for soldiers. We all want to go home, of course. But we also want to stay and make sure our buddies did not die for nothing.”
There were no street lights. All I could see was absolute darkness and the faint outlines of hovels against a backdrop of stars.
“It’s always interesting, though,” Eddy said. “No one gets to see places like this. Only Iraqis. And you. And us.”
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