Another installment in the adventures of Fort Lewis’ favorite Iraqi police adviser.
Voices echoed off the ridiculously tall ceilings of the palace. Unfortunate really, the intricate Moroccan designs carved into the ceiling are almost too far off to appreciate. I leaned up against the frame of huge handcrafted wooden doors with several other members of my team. We had been cooling our heals in a back room for over an hour and then hastily rushed to the lobby of the main conference room. The Iraqis were all ushered inside and the Americans stripped off the tail of the procession as the large doors closed with some urgency.
Col. B had been summoned to the Baghdad Area Command headquarters. All he had been told was he was going to get some kind of recognition and he should bring Col. D and Lt. Col. A, his two subordinate battalion commanders with him. Apparently, the command had decided that his district was doing the best out of the 10 and they wanted to recognize them. You never quite know what that means in Iraq. In the past it has usually meant a little bit of extra cash in the paycheck, like an Xmas bonus, only they don’t do Xmas here. Given the years of Soviet influence, you would expect them to all have chests overflowing with medals, but surprisingly they don’t go for medals. At any rate, we had all figured it was going to be Lt. Gen. A, the corps level commander, giving the award. We had all met him plenty of times so we were all a bit surprised when we showed up and security was much tighter and everyone seemed on their toes.
Several minutes after Col. B and crew disappeared inside, the door opened up again abruptly. A very serious looking western female complete with headset, burst forth, looked around, read name tapes, pointed at me and motioned me inside. I slid into line beside my counterparts, joined them at attention and let the eyes wander while the ears got to work. At the head of the main table was the Iraqi commander of Baghdad. I have met him several times. Chairing the meeting was the Iraqi national security adviser, along with the minister of defense, and the minister of the interior. OK, this was a bit more than we had thought, no wonder everyone seemed so uptight today. Eyes continued around the table to the American side. Deputy division commander, check. Division commander, check. Corps commander, check. Gen. Petraeus, grinning ear-to-ear. Yikes! Looked like King David had brought the whole galaxy with him today. They all wore little ear pieces. I would have been totally in the dark, but Miss Business took up a position behind my left ear, and began translating loud enough that I could hear it as she spoke into the microphone connecting her to the other Americans.
The national security adviser lounged in his chair, and swung to face Petraeus. He then proceeded to tell a quick story about the first time he had met each of the three Iraqi officers, and a bit about the work they had been doing in our sector. Then he expressed his thanks to all the adviser teams that were helping his countrymen. The meeting ended. Patreus vanished, a victim of what must be a punishing schedule, handshakes all around, and a few minutes later, my group of dumbfounded colonels broke into laughter, all wondering what had just happened. An Iraqi aide bustled up, informed us that the actual "awards" would be in the mail, and trotted off.
Needless to say Col. B was pretty pleased, and I couldn’t have been prouder of them. They really have made a big difference in our area, even as things seem to blow up all around us. We headed back to Col. B’s office. In the garden by the front door, a wild female dog had been sheltering a litter of puppies. They weaned last week, and now the pack of seven gray and white pups engage in a never-ending rough and tumble. Iraqis normally don’t much like dogs, but they have been feeding this group. I think it’s because they know that my team loves them. They call Maj. K the "adviser to the dogs." Up the stairs and past the bloody hand print. It is starting to fade and I normally don’t notice. I do today because Lt. M is back on duty. He was the young bodyguard wounded in the car bomb attack. Mercifully he has full use of his leg again.
We lounge around in the office for awhile, watching the news and sipping chai. Several of Col. B’s buddies are lounging around. He gets all kinds of visitors during the afternoon lunch hour: old army buddies, family, community leaders. I expect something sweet to nibble on to come out any minute. I am hoping for a new treat called "windows" which has taken pole position from my old favorite "from the sky." Windows are a pretzel-like pastry filled and covered with honey, making the obvious window like frame with gooey panes. Instead I get a much more bitter pill. Maj. K comes in and whispers in my ear. "Doc just called. He needs you and Col. B to come down to the detainee cage when you get a chance. We have some abuse." Crap. Have to wait for the guests to leave.
We check the detainees as often as we can, and for good reason. Years and years of the Rodney King school of law enforcement has left most young Iraqis with a significantly different idea of what normal is, than you or I would expect. We eventually make it to the cell, and inspect the twenty-some year old male. Doc slips me the statement the detainee wrote. I am not happy. The detainee’s feet are swollen to twice normal size. It would be several days before an X-ray could even be taken. I have little doubt what it will find. Col. B and I have some words in private. I am particularly concerned about a young captain on his staff that proudly displayed a Muqtada al Sadr picture on his wall until we made him take it down. "Accidents" always seem to happen on his watch and for some reason Shia’s balance is genetically far superior to Sunni’s, or so I am told.
The mood is now significantly more somber than during the triumph of the morning. We start walking back to the office. The front gate of the compound swings open, and a convoy of National Police trucks from one of our subordinate battalions rolls in, Shurta dismount in droves. We affectionately call the blue and white police trucks, clown cars. You can really pack the shurta in. One distraught-looking civilian in business cloths and five bound hoodlums are unceremoniously dumped onto the ground and herded into the Intel section. An excited young captain approaches Col. B, stops the requisite 10 paces away, drags the trail foot, brings it up in a British-style heal-clinking stomp, while rendering a crisp open handed salute. He then proceeds to fill us in on the latest action.
About an hour before, the distraught civilian had left his job at the ministry of justice, and caught the bus home like he always does. An SUV pulled up in front of the bus, stopped it, two men climbed on board, grabbed him at gun point, herded him off the bus, bound him, put a bag over his head and tossed him in the back of the truck. Fortunately, an astute Iraqi lieutenant at one of our checkpoints thought something was up (the windows were tinted which is against the rules). He searched the trunk and busted the attempted kidnapping. It takes about an hour to get all the details and put the story together, but it ends up being a very important catch. Back on an emotional high.
Several days later, I am in yet another palace with my friend. Equally fine craftsmanship marks the walls and ceiling, and the sofas are the nicest I have seen yet. Col. B is under investigation for letting some detainees go from our first big operation. We never should have taken them in the first place, and letting them go was in order (I am willing to bet that old Egyptian would agree with me on that particular point). But they happened to be of a certain sect, and so is Col. B, and that group isn’t in power, so people with friends call people, and I got to spend the afternoon in the equivalent of the head of the CIAs office helping my friend keep his job. He is as nervous as I have ever seen him, but we still joke. I lean over part way into the interrogation and whisper, "It’s a shame that award hasn’t come in the mail yet! We may need it to bribe our way out of here." Four hours later we make our escape. The file has been bottom-drawered – probably to be miraculously rediscovered if leverage is ever needed. A shity way to live, but probably the best we could have hoped for.
We drive back toward Col. B’s HQ, not much paying attention as we transit the "safe" international zone. KRUMP! A wave of concussion rips trough my belly. I am not sure why I always seem to feel concussion in my stomach. That was close, damn close. Every other time I have been hit by artillery, I was out of the hatch. Stuck inside the HMMWV, with muffled radio headsets on, I felt the round far more than I heard it. I glanced at the driver, and he at me. I was just about to call the other truck to find out if they had seen anything when – KRUMP! – a second round lands 20 meters behind my turned head. My driver and I are still debating whose eyes got bigger: mine when I very definitely heard the explosion this time, or his, when he saw the debris block out the window behind my head.
A quick assessment and both trucks are fine, no civilians are hit, and the traffic on the busy traffic circle all continues to move. I call two rounds of 81mm fire into the TOC. Col. B and the other Iraqi riding in my truck jabber away in Arabic. Both are glad they were in the HMMWV and not a clown car. Nothing like a near miss to put you back on top of life’s roller coaster. I drop Col. B off. We agree we have had enough for one day.
The mess hall was out of strawberry ice cream that night. Damn.
Hope this finds you with unrestricted access to all 31 flavors.