It’s been a few weeks since we last heard from Lt. Col. Matt Green, the former Fort Lewis officer who for several months now has been leading a team of advisers to an Iraqi National Police commander in Baghdad. This piece was written June 21 but was held up due to a communications blackout.
"Six, this is five, Bahaa is on the ground."
We were not in one of our neighborhoods, so a decision that had become almost automatic took several seconds to process. The night before, the general had asked if I would come on a patrol with him the next morning to visit one of his subordinate battalions. His first battalion had not been under his command in the last six months. They have been up north, and we had had very little interaction with them. The previous day the unit had road-marched down to Baghdad where they were going to take control of a new area, allowing a unit of Pesh from northern Iraq to return home. The first battalion would not be working in our sector, nor would they be under our control, but Bahaa felt it was his responsibility to go visit, see how the unit was doing, and give the battalion some advice on how to regain control of an area that had not made anywhere near the progress as ours had. The fact that this neighborhood was where the general had lived as a boy and for the few years between the invasion and him joining the National Police was an obvious second motive.
As I expected, the news of our trip went over like a fart in church, but to their credit the team didn’t say anything. This was not our area, we had never been there before, and it really wasn’t strictly our task. But the transition team that was assigned to the first battalion had lost a truck to an IED a few days previously and they would not be there. I agreed with Bahaa that we should help the unit out on their first day in sector, so I decided to go. Bahaa had been unable to give me the exact grid that night and the map I had was not an appropriate scale to plan the route. We would work out the final details in the morning, but I was pretty certain I knew where we were headed. It would put us into an area that was significantly more contested than what we were used to.
Everyone went about the morning pre-combat ritual with a bit more urgency, the unknown being a remarkable cure for the corrosive effects of complacency. A few extra glances at the map … double-checking radio nets … calling adjacent units to check route status. The shurta in the trucks in front of us looked a little more serious as well. I was reminded of a passage I had read a few weeks ago: "Fear reaches only to the point where the unavoidable begins; from there on, it loses its meaning. And all that we have left is the hope that we are making the right decision." And we were off.
Within minutes we plunged into the new neighborhood. The jitters were gone and the team quickly stepped up the cross talk, picking out unusual things and comparing them mentally with what we knew to be normal in our area. The urban geography was much different here. The streets were much wider, the houses almost all middle-class and two stories. The streets were all laid out in a neat grid, much different than the ramshackle city planning and mix of urban high rise and century old slums that dominate much of our area. A few things were immediately obvious. We didn’t see any regular Iraqi police, we ran into no other Americans, and the people were … cautious.
We made link up with the first battalion in their new compound. They were just settling in, and had yet to get generators established. So we sat in the commander’s hot dark office while the two commanders talked. Outside the shurta from our brigade and the first battalion mingled in a family reunion of sorts. Many had fought together in Falluja several years ago when the unit was first formed. Bypassing both chai and the traditional small talk, Bahaa went straight into business mode, giving advice on how he thought Col. Z could best establish himself in the opening days. Shortly thereafter we were back in the trucks. Active patrolling by the commander is high on Bahaa’s list of priorities, and we were all going for a ride.
I had very little feel for what the history of the neighborhood or the ethnic makeup was, but it quickly became obvious as we weaved our way through the city grid. Most of the outskirts of the neighborhood were relatively normal, shops were open, there appeared to be a fair amount of electrical power and by and large the streets were clean, but the closer you got to the area’s main center boulevard, the more things changed. At the north and south end of the mile-long stretch stood barricaded checkpoints with corner buildings sandbagged and fortified. The National Police now occupied positions that apparently the Pesh of the Iraq Army had been in just days prior. The center street was completely empty, not a soul. Trash was piled up in a complete juxtaposition of the two roads that paralleled it just one block away. All the shops were closed. There was no life. I had seen streets like this before, in two places: In zombie movies, and in our own district when we had first occupied it back in February. This was an ethnic border battleground, and from the looks of it, the guards had been turning a blind eye to whatever was going on, biding their time until their deployment to Baghdad ended.
As we left no man’s land and back into populated territory, the commanders began to dismount and press flesh at local markets. I stayed in the truck. Americans have a way of pulling the populace to them, and this was not my area. I would not be able to talk intelligently about anything that was happening here, and since they always assume you are lying if you say you don’t know, it was best not to give them the opportunity to ask. Besides, what was important here was getting Iraqis to trust Iraqis … so we stayed mounted and watched.
And then the shooting started. It’s hard to know how veterans can tell which shooting is dangerous and which is not – but they can. Both Iraqis and Americans are pretty inoculated to the sounds of far off gunfire, accidental discharges, or the occasional warning shot. But for some arcane reason, when a shot is aimed at you, you know. The first round alerted everyone’s senses. And much like a prairie dog farm, turrets and heads all swiveled left scanning for danger. A bombed-out high-rise, affectionately dubbed the "sniper motel," was the dominant piece of terrain some 800 meters away, but the shot was almost certainly from the much closer palm groves and associated farm houses much closer in. Three more shots in rapid succession, and shurta sunk lower in their far from adequately armored trucks. To their credit, none returned fire. Many Iraqi units unleash a "death blossom" when they make contact, indiscriminately shooting in every direction. We could not identify the source of fire so did not return any.
Brig. Gen. B and Col. Z finished their conversation with the market owner. Personal bravery is a large component of Arab leadership. While leading from the front is certainly the norm in the U.S. Army, much of the power of American commanders comes from the ability to reach out by a network of communications systems and call upon a dizzying array of assets, quickly gather a picture of what is going on, and bring all the right pieces to bear. The Iraqi really has much more in common with our ancestors from the civil war. In many cases, standing upright in the middle of things, barking orders, and acting unafraid is about the most useful thing they can do. I often think that if Bahaa had a horse he would mount up in a fire fight just so his guys could see him better.
The fire stops and he mounts his truck rather than a steed and we continue our way south. There are very few people in the main streets now, but many in the alley ways. As we head south we hear more shots. None of the fire appears to be aimed, but it is following us, challenging our presence. As we get to the end of the block a group of civilians have emerged from the shops and wave us down, pointing back up the side streets. They clearly have an idea of where the fire has been coming from … and that has enticed the general back out of his truck.
"Five, this is six, I am on the ground."
Maj. B and Capt. L join me as we form up with the shurta. About 50 of them have dismounted and begin to fan out, a small group off to each flank, while the main body begins moving up the next side street. Maj. K maneuvers the trucks to overwatch as we patrol up the road. The road is deserted, we can see up it for almost 500 meters, and we begin our advance. I can hear people inside their courtyards, moving indoors or locking gates. Each noise attracts the muzzle of a weapon. One man braver than the rest stands in his open courtyard gate and peeks out after the main group of shurta pass. My team is in the middle, with a few of the heavy weapons being brought up in support.
I smile, "Asam Alaykum – peace be with you."
In English he replies, "You are welcome here."
Interesting. We advance further up the street.
Several hundred meters ahead, a large house dominates the intersection. It has been fortified, and almost certainly lived in by the Iraqi Army at some point, but they are all gone now, and the once proud house stands pockmarked with bullet holes and neglected. The shurta smash in the front door and begin to clear it. Within minutes the general and his men are up top, pushing off the sand bag positions, leaving it looking significantly less threatening. I move inside the bottom floor. While the IA has been gone for days, a lone mattress lay in the entry foyer with a small stove, kettle, and the remains of breakfast. Someone had clearly moved in already … potentially our friend the gunman. Giving some credence to what the locals had told us minutes before.
We continued up the street. All the way to the palm groves where we had first taken fire. As we had advanced north, our vehicles had trailed in overwatch. The shurta led with a pickup mounting the largest gun in their arsenal. The DISHKA is a huge Russian-made anti-aircraft gun that dwarfs the American made .50-cal machine gun. It is a beast of a weapon, and was not meant to be mounted in the ass end of a Silverado pickup truck. But what is not meant to be rarely survives contact in Iraq, and somehow they had mounted the gun into the truck.
Having reached the limit of our advance, the commanders decided to halt the pursuit. As the patrol began moving back south, and the gun truck negotiated a three point turn, our friend the gunman decided to take a final stab at us as we withdrew. A short burst of fire bounced off the pavement just behind the pickup. The startled crew spotted the gunman as he ducked into a house, and immediately threw the truck in reverse. A quickly shouted exchange from Bahaa to the gunner determined that he had positive ID on the house. Dismounted shurta took up the prone or ducked behind corners and the order to fire was drowned out in an impressive gout of flame and noise as the DISHKA opened up, drowning out the accompanying PKC and AK fire.
Much to my surprise, when the cloud of dust settled, the DISHKA was still mounted and the truck had not flipped over. Sadly I was not in a position to see the condition of the target farmhouse. But two solid bursts later, the General was satisfied and ordered the withdrawal. An American unit would almost certainly have swept the objective, but I wasn’t going to call him on it in front of his men, so we made our way back to the trucks.
Back at the end of the street, the shurta were greeted to a warm reception, with previously cowering residents now emerging from courtyards with pitchers of water. One elderly man emerged with a dish of candy and began tossing them up into the trucks. We slowed down long enough to take a handful ourselves. A surreal turn of events considering how much candy we have passed out in previous months. As we continued off that street and into the next few blocks, our reception continued to improve. The Iraqi commanders dismounted again and moved into a crowded marketplace and talked with locals. This was Bahaa’s old stomping grounds, and he introduced Col. Z to the locals and explained that things were going to change. Many recognized him from a string of TV interviews he had done the previous week. His new-found fame and a series of positive spots on the progress in Haifa Street lending credibility to both commanders.
My team found ourselves surrounded by the inevitable mob of children. I tried to keep out of the General’s way while he worked the crowd. Some days our role is much like a trophy wife. It is simply enough to stand to the side and be American. We lend an instant air of credibility. We added nothing measurable to the firefight. But it is the immeasurable aspects of what we do that may be decisive, and unfortunately there is no way to prove it. Would they have been as confidant going down the alley if we had not been there? They know that if push comes to shove we can bring in assets and medical care that they can’t. More importantly, if we had not been there would the same locals that asked for the shurta’s help and later praised them, have assumed that the National Police were militia and accused them of being part of the problem? It happens all the time. So if my team had the same effect as the diploma on a doctor’s wall, then so be it. We returned home, glad to be back in our relatively quiet neck of the woods.
Two days later an American Apache helicopter, watching a gunfight in the same neighborhood, accidentally engaged and destroyed a pick up truck from the first battalion and killed four shurta. Two steps forward one step back.
About two weeks ago I had an interesting conversation with a few Iraqi men down in one of our market places. A few middle-aged men had approached me and were skeptical about the work we were doing and said he wished that he could trust the Americans, but he just couldn’t bring himself to do so. I asked if things had gotten better since February when we had arrived. He admitted that they had, but reminded me that that was only four months out of four years. I agreed, and talked about some of the positive civic improvements that were going on around him. He said he would try and be hopeful, and maybe he could meet me there in a few more months and tell me if his mind had changed.
His friend, who had remained silent broke in and asked, "why is it that when you invaded Kuwait, the country was fixed in just a few months, and is now once again very rich and prosperous?"
I choked up on my bat, ready to knock this one right out of the park.
"Well sir, that is pretty easy. None of the Kuwaitis ever shot at us when we tried to help them. More importantly they didn’t waste time attacking each other. Four years later, you all can’t seem to put your weapons down long enough to build anything!"
He was stunned, and silent. A third man, a bit older, had said nothing during the exchange. He put his arm on the second and said something in a low voice. Bahaa was mounting back up so I had to make my apologies and leave before hearing what he said.
Later that afternoon, I was sitting with a few of our terps and talking about the second bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, which had just happened that morning. We were all taking our best guesses on what the Iraqi people’s reaction might be. Frank stopped all of a sudden and looked at me.
"Sir, do you remember the conversation we had in the market earlier today, about rebuilding Kuwait?"
"Yes," I replied.
"Do you know what the third man said to his friend as we were leaving? He told his friend that you should not ask American officers questions, when you know the truth of the answer will break your heart."
As always, I hope this finds you and yours well.