PART ONE: NAJAF “We’re all going to die.”
EACH MORNING IN MID-AUGUST, AN AMERICAN TANK, ITS TURBINE ENGINES SHRIEKING like a fighter jet, makes its way through the city of Najaf and parks outside the medina, the ancient quarter whose twisted lanes surround the shrine of the Imam Ali. Then it waits. On the next street, and the next street after that, more of these sixty-ton behemoths rest like giant praying mantises. All along the perimeter of the median, tanks, Humvees, Bradley fighting vehicles-the military might of the United States ground force-stand on alert, with 2,000 Marines baking in the sun, their trigger fingers ready to open up on the ancient gold-domed shrine, which is now a bunker, and a sanctuary.
In and around the shrine wait several hundred fighters of the Mahdi Army, or Jesh al-Mahdi: the militia of the thirty-one-year-old Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. The city around them is a no man’s land of crumbled hotels, shrapnel and broken glass. The grand courtyard of the shrine is carpeted with Oriental rugs and festooned with festive red and white lights, like a carnival. At any given time, there are a few hundred to a thousand gathered here, most of them ordinary Iraqis whose lives have been broken by the American occupation: wild-eyed teenagers; hopeless young men with nothing else to do; middle-aged fathers who’ve brought their sons to, as one man says, “teach him how to fight the Americans.” The shrine, which contains the tomb of Ali, son-in-law of the prophet Mohammed, is one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam, a tourist destination that attracts pilgrims from all over the world. Next door is a sprawling 1,000-year-old cemetery known as the Valley of Peace, the burial ground of some 2 million Shiites. Now, these sacred grounds are under siege by a foreign army.
The Americans roll over the oldest part of the cemetery with their armored vehicles to provide a clear sightline to the Mahdi, who have been stashing their weapons in the catacombs. Tanks unearth the graves and level the tombs and shell the cement walls of the yard, while Marines on foot, armed with night-vision goggles, infrared scopes and high-powered sniper rifles, and covered from above by attack helicopters, go grave to grave, doing hand-to-hand combat with young Iraqi insurgents in street clothes, armed with AK-47S and rocket-propelled grenades.
There are days when the missiles fall on the old city in such rapid succession, it seems inconceivable that the Imam Ali shrine is still standing. But when the smoke clears and the bombing stops, the shrine, its ornate facade decorated with posters of Moqtada al-Sadr – the thirty-one-year-old radical Shiite cleric – stands untouched save for a few bullet holes on a minaret. As the days become weeks, and a series of cease-fires fail, the battle lines are drawn and redrawn until the standoff becomes a fugue: no movement, no success, no conclusion, just an endless series of attacks and counterattacks that kill a lot of people and accomplish nothing.
One day, during a morning lull in the medina, a Mahdi fighter approaches me from an alley where he and his friends are making tea. He is about thirty and is wearing smart-looking khaki trousers and a pair of bowling shoes. Sixty-one of his comrades died in the past few days, he tells me, as sniper fire echoes from the roofs of some looted shops.
“How have you survived?” I ask.
“Faith,” he tells me.
All of the jihadis in Najaf talk about faith – it’s a shorthand way of saying they’re fighting for Islam. But this fighter also puts his beliefs in more sectarian terms, voicing an opinion that many believe is now shared by as much as eighty-five percent of the Iraqi population: “We fight with our friends and brothers, and every day we lose, but we continue to fight because this is our country,” he says. “We cannot accept that foreigners will occupy our land – that is our belief. “And, he adds, “We believe that we are right.”
THIS IS A VERY BLEAK STORY ABOUT a very bleak place at a very bleak time. The world media have focused on the ever-present violence, but it is the quiet outrages that define life here today. Iraq is a place where people drive in the middle lanes. They also avoid running over Pepsi cans. This is because roadside bombs line the highways and major roads, and insurgents often stuff explosives into soda cans and detonate them. In Baghdad, children play soccer behind blast walls, those fifteen-foot-tall cement barriers that one normally associates with large government installations. Now they ring even middle-class streets. Doctors have begun to disappear. It’s one of the less-reported stories in Iraq: In recent months, there has been a series of assassinations and kidnappings by insurgent groups who seem bent on targeting intellectuals. Doctors are often given the option of being killed or leaving the country. And so Iraq, where car bombs explode every day and wound hundreds, has fewer and fewer professionals able to take care of them.
In the Iraqis’ minds, there is but one cause of all these problems: the Americans. When I first came here, last spring, Iraqis were cautiously friendly. Now, many refuse to meet with me – it’s too dangerous. The Iraqi resistance, which now includes ordinary Iraqi citizens as well as trained fighters, is so widespread and ruthless that to be seen with an American is to risk being branded a collaborator. My press card may identify me as a journalist, but in the long food chain that connects one Iraqi to another, I am nothing but a potential hostage. Seizing me could mean a huge ransom, or world wide publicity for some radical cause. Or both. So I shroud my face with a black scarf and pay my fixer, Salam, a king’s ransom – $7,000 per month, or five times the average middle-class Iraqi salary – for him to drive me around. I never discuss my day’s plans with other Iraqis, even my soft-spoken hotel clerk, Walid. That’s because I don’t know who Walid really is, as no one knows who anyone is, nor where their sympathies truly lie.
In mid-August, I leave Baghdad for Najaf cloaked in full Arab dress. As we drive through the volatile Sunni towns of Mahmudiyah and Latafiya, where Westerners often disappear, Salam whispers a tiny prayer. From there, the road opens up and the beige, dusty landscape grows lush with date palms, and we enter southern Iraq, where the black and green flags of the Shiites flutter from mosques and highway markers. U.S. and Polish troops man the checkpoints through Hilla. At Kufa, outside Najaf, they are replaced by Mahdi gunmen.
A handful of Western, mostly British, journalists are already in Najaf covering the crisis. Almost all of us are staying at the Sea of Najaf Hotel, a dust-worn place about a kilometer north of the old city. The Sea of Najaf has fake-marble stairs leading up to rooms with sad creaky ceiling fans that make a horrific whirring noise.
The hotel usually caters to Shiite pilgrims. Now, its sole clientele are journalists. Pilgrims are charged fifteen dollars per night. We are charged fifty-five dollars. Meals, which are served whenever the staff feels like cooking, are fifteen dollars extra. The hotel manager, a fat, jovial Iraqi, keeps an MP-5 rifle behind the front desk. There’s a bullet lodged in the lobby’s air-conditioning unit. Every evening, usually at dusk, we hear a high-pitched whoosh, followed by a crash from a mortar or a rocket landing somewhere nearby. When that happens, we drop whatever we’re doing and run up to the roof to watch the war. Apache helicopters fly past the hotel and hover in clear view over the medina, firing laser like rockets into old hotels and other abandoned buildings, which then erupt into towers of smoke.
Most of the citizens have fled the old city. Those who remain hide in their houses. There are U.S. and Mahdi snipers on the rooftops, and when one shoots, it begins a volley. When it stops, Iraqis caught in the crossfire try to negotiate a way to fetch water or food rations. On any given day, you can see old men in white caftans scurrying across the narrow, rubblestrewn streets with their hands in the air, like moving white flags, looking this way and that, unable to tell who; exactly, is shooting at them.
Elsewhere in the city, things aren’t much better. It’s hard to know where to go. A street that was safe on Wednesday is not safe Thursday. You learn to never leave the hotel without a flak jacket.
One day, at a shop near my hotel, I start a conversation with an Iraqi named Ahmed Shaibani, a dapper little man with a walking stick who is buying powdered milk. “We’re sick of talking from the government,” he says. “They promised to finish this a long time ago. They keep promising they’ll finish it.” There is a large hole in one wall, caused by an RPG attack the previous week. “It’s because he doesn’t support the Mahdi Army,” he whispers, pointing to the Iraqi shop owner. “It’s just like we felt under Saddam.”
We stand in the shop a moment, with its cans of corn and bottles of orange drink and the RPG hole in the wall. A police truck rolls by. Shaibani tells me he owns a clothing shop in Najaf’s main market. It’s closed now “because of the situation.” People have been dying in their gardens, in neighborhoods draped with bougainvillea he says. They’ve been burying people in their gardens, too.
Death is really the only certainty in Najaf. Locals – most of them civilians – have been killed in American bombing raids, in Mahdi mortar attacks, by snipers, by the police. “We are in a mess,” says a young doctor I meet at the city’s Al Hakim General Hospital. “We have so many bullets in our bodies, but we don’t know whose they are.”
The doctor points out a woman who lost two of her sons in one day to a mortar attack. She’s in a rage, clutching her black abaya and shrieking as she runs down a corridor packed with stretchers of wounded children. “Who is responsible for this?” she sobs, approaching us. “The government? Sadr? The police? Allawi? The Americans? Who do I talk to?” Then she collapses in tears. “Fuck them all,” she says.
THE NAJAF POLICE LOOK LIKE guerrilla fighters. Every day, we watch them roll by in their pickup trucks, brandishing AK-47s. They almost always hide their identities with some kind of face cover – a balaclava, a bandanna, a ski mask. The police are an endangered species. Scores have been beaten and threatened, and more than forty police officers have been killed by insurgents in the past four months; several were beheaded, their eyes gouged out and boiled in water.
The police headquarters, about a quarter of a mile north of the hotel, is a bright-blue building situated within a large, well-fortified courtyard. It is the Mahdi’s number-one target. On August 18th, seven policemen were killed when Sadr’s men fired three mortars into the building. About a week later, I pay a visit to Ghaleb al-Jazarey, Najaf’s recently appointed chief of police. Since arriving in Najaf, in April, Jazarey, a former general in Saddam’s army, has been a particular target for the Mahdi. They’ve decapitated his nephew, kidnapped his eighty-year-old father, and beaten and arrested two brothers and an uncle. The militia insisted that Jazarey resign. When he refused, they deposited the nephew’s headless torso on the chief’s doorstep.
It’s a bad day for Jazarey, a fiftyish, balding man with a steel-gray mustache. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the reclusive seventy-five-year-old leader of the Iraqi Shiites, has just returned to Iraq from three weeks of medical treatment in London. All day, the Arab satellite channel Al-Arabiya has been reporting that Sistani is going to be returning to his home in Najaf, tailed by a grand procession of clerics and other supporters. The news broadcasts also report that Sistani has called for a nationwide Shiite march to end the crisis at the shrine. Thousands are now said to be streaming toward Najaf.
Overwhelmed by the prospect of a horde of demonstrators descending upon his city, Jazarey paces his expansive office, simultaneously working the radio and the phone. “Stop them!” he pleads with the chief of police of Diwaniya, a town east of Najaf. “Do what you have to do – shoot them if you must.” Then, recognizing my presence, the chief attempts a smile. “As you can see, we’re very busy right now,” he says.
Jazarey was appointed by the now defunct Coalition Provisional Authority, the American body that ruled Iraq until sovereignty was transferred in June, and his odyssey is similar to that of many officials in the new Iraq. Allegedly a former member of the Baath party, he fell out with the regime in 1991 and went to prison – in Jazarey’s case, he was banished, he says, for refusing to attack the Kurds. After his release, Jazarey fled Iraq, ultimately finding refuge in St. Paul, Minnesota, working for an agency that assisted foreign refugees. “I loved Minnesota,” the chief says, wistfully stroking a white MINNESOTA mug on his coffee table. “The people, the weather – it was beautiful.” He sighs. “And then I came back to Iraq.”
After Baghdad fell last year, Jazarey worked for the occupation, helping train elements of the new Iraqi military. Then Sadr started his first war with the Americans, in April 2004, and the city’s then chief of police was “reassigned” – he ran away, Jazarey confides. When I ask him what qualified him for the job, Jazarey tells me, “They knew I wasn’t afraid of Moqtada or his militia.”
He sounds unconvinced Right now, Jazarey can barely string five sentences together without getting distracted. There are people coming from Iran, he says, lighting a cigarette. There’s Al Qaeda in Najaf-he’s certain of it. Now he fears an army of so-called demonstrators is actually coming to help replenish the Mahdi ranks. He has no idea when the crisis will be over. It’s out of his control, he says. Sistani will certainly not want the police to break down the doors of the mosque to get the fighters out, but if they don’t, Jazarey worries that Sadr and his militia will walk away with their guns. “They cannot let these criminals just walk freely into the community,” he says. “
Who’s they?” I ask. The chief doesn’t answer. “Who’s in charge of this city?”
“Why, the government,” Jazarey says weakly. “And me, of course.”
The chief then invites me to stay for dinner. Because it’s dark, and the streets are dangerous, I demur, and Salam and I drive back to the hotel on an empty, unpoliced road. When we get there, I go up to my room. About an hour later, the police arrive.
“Yalla!” A cop wearing a balaclava pushes an AK-47 in my face. “Go!” The police are kicking down our doors like storm troopers. Grabbing my arm, the cop pushes me toward the lobby, where about fifty of us, both Western and Arab media, are then forced outside, toward two flatbed trucks. For a minute or so, it’s total chaos. A cop shoots over our heads, narrowly missing. Another cop shoots at an Arab journalist’s feet. Suddenly, it seems like all of the police are shooting, a few aiming right into the crowd.
We are all loaded into the back of a truck, crammed shoulder to shoulder, surrounded by Iraqi cops. Several British reporters quietly turn on their satellite phones and attempt to make surreptitious SOS calls. The truck rolls off. Then a cop in a ski mask begins to shout.
“Don’t pay attention to him,” whispers one photographer.
“He’s just launching into a political polemic.” “He’s saying we’re all going to die,” says an Iranian journalist who understands Arabic.
After a brief, terrifying trip down the exact same road I’d just traveled, we arrive at police headquarters. The chief would like to talk to us. We are herded into Jazare’s office at gunpoint; some of the officers pass out pieces of paper so we can take notes.
In the past two hours, Jazarey’s demeanor has changed – from controlled panic to open fury. “You will stand here and listen to us, to see what disasters you have caused,” he says. Then, in one of the most bizarre displays of damage control any of us have ever seen, the chief spends the next half hour delivering a long, rambling monologue blaming the press for the actions of the Iraqi cops.
Jazarey is infuriated at Al-Arabiya and other Arab media for broadcasting “untrue rumors,” such as Sistani’s call for the peace march. Except it isn’t a rumor, but that doesn’t matter. As a result of this reporting, there have been “clashes” between police and demonstrators in the Mahdi stronghold of Kufa, just outside town, he says, and “many people died.” This, the chief says, is the media’s fault. The police just want to restore peace and security, he says. He holds up photographs of officers who’ve been mutilated by the Mahdi. He shows us a picture of his nephew.
“You kidnapped us,” says an irate reporter for the London Daily Telegraph.
“My staff misunderstood my instructions,” Jazarey says with a shrug.
Jazarey rants for a few more minutes, and then he tells us we’re free to go. “We are under huge stress, brothers fighting brothers,” the chief says apologetically as we file out.
TWO DAYS AFTER I MEET WITH the chief, Sadr and the Iraqi government sign a peace agreement. The deal banishes the American troops from Najaf, puts the city under the control of the Iraqi police and national guard, and exacts a promise from the interim government to pay compensation to all who suffered physical or financial damage during the siege. Sadr, the interim Iraqi defense minister declares, is free “to do whatever he would like in Iraq,” and he receives full amnesty, as do all of the Mahdi fighters – provided they relinquish their weapons to Iraqi authorities. There is no timeline placed on that, however.
On the morning that peace is officially declared, August 27th, I enter the medina behind a line of pilgrims – the previous day’s “peace demonstrators” – intent on seeing the shrine. It looks like Sarajevo. The streets are a maze of raw electrical wire that dangles from the bombed-out shells of onetime curio and sandwich shops. Every minaret is pockmarked with bullet holes. Every hotel seems to drip with catastrophe. Shoes, hundreds of them, lie scattered across the streets, which are minefields of unexploded ordnance, tank shells, mortar bombs and who knows what else. A dog lies in the gutter, its guts spilling out; a dead body lies on the sidewalk, wrapped in a carpet. In a side alley just around the corner from the shrine, the police discover twenty-five bodies. The stench is so horrific that men exit vomiting.
And yet, amid all the twisted metal and abandoned vegetable carts and broken glass, there are, here and there, remnants of normalcy. A child’s sandal. A cell phone. A poster of David Beckham. In the middle of all this, I see a little boy in his father’s arms. He’s holding a plastic AK-47.
All morning, the American tanks have been rolling out of the city toward their base north of town. Iraqi troops, victoriously waving their guns, roll in, reclaiming the city. Mahdi fighters put down their weapons and retreat from the mosque. Tidily, they stash their rifles and rockets under blankets and load them onto donkey carts. Then they wander out, stuffing their green warrior bandannas in pockets and vanishing into the crowd of pilgrims and merchants and frustrated locals who’ve come to see what has happened to the city.
This is what passes for success in the new Iraq. The peace deal, brokered just before the start of the Republican National Convention, is lauded in Washington as a victory for both the United States and the fledgling Iraqi government. Wondering what the Mahdi think of that assessment, when I return to Baghdad I pay a visit to Sheik Raid al-Kadamey, one of Sadr’s deputies in Khadamiya, a wealthy Shiite neighborhood known for its cloth and gold merchants. In a small reception room, a group of clerics in white turbans sit on shabby wooden couches. The walls are decorated with posters and banners emblazoned with Sadr’s face. Salam translates the Arabic on one large banner: “Congratulations on your victory, Moqtada.”
Sheik Kadamey sweeps into the room, a hearty-looking man of about fifty, wearing a black robe and a white turban and carrying a blue cell phone. The clerics rise in unison, and after greeting them the sheik escorts me to a sparsely furnished room off the courtyard. He apologizes for making me wait – he’s been fielding calls all day from journalists eager to get his views on the peace.
“So who won?”
“Of course the Mahdi Army won!” he says with a laugh. “We fought for a month against the Americans. You saw the helicopters, the tanks, the big weapons – all this power, but they couldn’t go inside the mosque.” He chuckles some more. “This was the war to send out U.S. forces from Najaf. In the future, insha’allah, the Americans will be sent out of not just Najaf but all of Iraq. With that the sheik picks up his cell phone, indicating that the interview is over.
PART TWO: BAQUBA “We just want to help these people and friggin’ leave.”
PFC. CLINTON MAYO SPENDS THE FIRST HOURS OF HIS TWENTY-FIRST birthday, September 7th, 2004, on the roof of the Diyala province governor’s office, chain-smoking cheap Iraqi cigarettes and eating Cinnamon Toast Crunch. It’s a cool night in Baquba, thirty-five miles north of Baghdad. Underneath his forty-pound flak jacket, Mayo has on a new black hoodie with a dirt-bike insignia – a birthday present from his mom. A lemon-wedge moon hides behind a palm tree, casting a wan glow on the city streets.
It’s a cruel fate, having just become legal in a country where U.S. troops can’t drink, gamble, have sex, look at porn or do anything else that might be considered vaguely fun – a Department of Defense directive called General Order Number One. “I don’t believe in this war,” Mayo says. He looks out at the flat, black horizon, upon which he’s looked a hundred zillion time. Nothing. Iraq is boring. His birthday is boring. He trains the barrel of his rifle on a thicket of palm trees. “Boom,” he says.
A skinny kid from rural Montana, Mayo hates Iraq. He hates the broiling, relentless desert heat. He hates the stinking waste ditches that seem to fester in every corner of every village he has visited within his unit’s area of operation. After six months in Iraq, he’s decided that the war is probably a lost cause. “No matter what we do here, it doesn’t seem to make a difference,” he says, stamping his cigarette out with his boot. “It all feels pointless.”
Mayo joined the Army in 2003, he tells me, because his recruiter, who’d been dogging him since high school, promised he’d “get a lot of pussy” and “get to blow shit up.” Instead, he got sent to the Sunni Triangle, to what many soldiers consider one of the worst bases in Iraq, as part of a unit that sweeps the town in armored vehicles waiting to hit an “improvised explosive device”-to get blown up themselves, in other words. IEDs can be anything: mortar rounds hidden under the asphalt, artillery rounds stuffed in dead sheep, exploding donkey carts. “The more you go out and do shit like that, the more you realize you’re disposable,” Mayo says. “And that fucking sucks.”
In six months, Mayo’s company, Charlie or “Cobra” Battery of the Third Battalion’s Task Force 1-6, says they have fought more combat missions than any other unit of the First ID since Vietnam. They’ve also simply watched as armed men pass them on the street.
The U.S. military calls the current phase of the war Operation Iraqi Freedom Two. The troops of OIF-2 began their deployment in March 2004 as occupiers. But since the hand-over of sovereignty this summer, they are technically guests” of the Iraqi government, remaining in Iraq because the Iraqi interim government asked them to stay. No one takes seriously the Bush administration’s claims that American troops are in Iraq because of Ayad Allawi’s whims, just as no one doubts that the hand-over has thrust the U.S. military into an impossible position. They are impotent, bound by culturally sensitive rules of engagement that prevent them from ending conflicts they are clearly capable of ending in a single day, and hamstrung by the political constraints of trying to appear as background players.
Since the hand-over, the lines of battle have become very hazy. In Baquba, police wear civilian clothes and carry RPGs, just like the insurgents. Because of this, troops check with a superior officer before engaging, if they engage at all. Mostly what they do, which is what U.S. troops all over Iraq do, is patrol. Then they sit around on their base, Forward Operating Base Gabe, or at Iraqi government installations such as the Blue Dome. Then they wait. In general, they’re waiting for someone to shoot at them, which, in Mayo’s view, is “awesome,” because then they can shoot back.
Following the hand-over, a primary goal of the U.S. Army has been to minimize its “visibility” so as not to seem like occupiers. Raids, which used to be standard American operations, are now done primarily by Iraqi troops. Though Americans still patrol, they do it less. The standard patrol, which used to take three hours, now takes an average of ninety minutes. As a result, say several of the Third Brigade’s top brass, attacks on Americans are down – though attacks on Iraqi troops are up. One officer, who prefers to remain anonymous for fear of “de-motivating” his men, finds it all outrageous. “I don’t quantify success as us being able to drive through an area and not get attacked,” he says. “If our goal is peace in Iraq, then I’d quantify success if it was actually safe here.”
I SPEND SIX DAYS AT FOB GABE, WHICH, like many bases in Iraq, is named for a dead soldier. In this case, it was 1st Sgt. Dan Gabrielson, a reservist, who died in July 2003. Gabrielson was killed when his convoy was attacked by insurgents wielding RPGs. Driving in Iraq is dangerous: Many of the 1,100-some U.S. deaths in Iraq have been RPG- or IED-related. These are gruesome deaths that rip bodies apart and leave lingering images in the minds of those who witness them. Lt. Chris Lacour, who commands Charlie Battery’s second platoon, tries not to think about it. “There are a thousand little ways to distance yourself from all the pain and suffering caused here,” he says.
You can call Iraqis “hajji,” for instance-the Iraq War version of the Vietnam-era “gook.” You can take photographs of body parts. The Cobras have pictures or video footage of legs, ribs, fingers. A soldier in Lacour’s platoon took a photo he calls “Suicide Bomber’s Dick.” (“That one made my day,” he says.)
Sgt. Nick Dighans, a buff twenty-four-year-old from Billings, Montana, blows off steam by working out at the base gym, which is also dedicated to a dead soldier, Pfc. Jason Lynch. Then he obsessively surfs Hot or Not, an Internet site where people post their pictures for others to rank. Lacour rates a 9.1. Dighans, who figures he’s one of the hottest guys in Charlie Battery, ranks 9.4. When he isn’t checking his stats, Dighans is chatting late into the night with women he meets on Yahoo!
The world of the American soldier in Iraq depends on where you’re based. Baghdad’s Camp Victory has a Burger King, a movie theater and a PX the size of a WalMart. Camp Warhorse, the logistics base on the other side of Baquba, has a smorgasbord of a mess hall, a cavernous rec room, weekly salsa nights – and women. Gabe, a treeless dust bowl smelling of the sweat of more than 700 men, has a long stretch of dirt that’s been turned into a driving range, an asphalt basketball court, a gym, a tiny PX and the Internet cafe – twenty laptops wired into an Internet service provider out of Florida, where every screen saver I saw was a naked chick.
Yearlong deployments suck, particularly if, as in some cases, you were supposed to be discharged a few months ago and the Army won’t let you go. The military’s stop-loss policy, which prevents anyone in the military from leaving, even if their contracts are up, is the single worst idea anyone at Gabe can think of. “It’s too hard on your families,” one sergeant tells me. “I’d say about sixty-five percent of the enlisted are going to get out as soon as we can.”
Right now, since no one’s getting out, everyone’s getting promoted, which means there are a glut of sergeants at Gabe. One of the most respected is Sgt. Jon Houle, 25. He is also the son of one of the highest-ranking sergeant majors in the Marine Corps. He is a tall, well-built paratrooper who graduated ninth in his high school class of 693 and scored a 1440 on the SATs. He didn’t even think about college, he tells me one night, showing me how to look through the infrared scope on his tricked-out M-16. “I wanted to do something ‘hoo-ah,'” he says with a grin.
Houle loves the Army. He’s also a die-hard John Kerry fan. It’s a somewhat minority view among the Cobras, who are either rabid for Bush, completely apolitical or afraid to appear as if they’re criticizing the commander in chief. Houle likes to down-play his politics in front of the other soldiers. “We’re both from Massachusetts,” he says when someone asks why he’s voting for Kerry. But privately he believes that Kerr will do a better job of ending the war. “Iraq is a mistake,” he says – another minority view among the Cobras, whose opinions, at least those they admit to, tend to run in the “we’re here to change the world/fight the terrorists/make America safer” mode. But Houle disagrees: “They really didn’t have a plan for postwar operations, and I think they really judged wrong on how the Iraqis would accept us. The Iraqis don’t want us to be nice to them. The Iraqis don’t want us here.”
One night, Houle’s platoon commander, Lt. Terry “TJ” Grider, a twenty-four-year-old West Point graduate, gathers his sergeants for a meeting in front of the barracks. He has just returned from a meeting with the unit’s top brass, he informs the men sweating in the 100-degree heat. The enemy – once know as “anti-coalition forces” during the occupation, and now referred to as “anti-Iraqi forces” – has a new acronym, he says. After successive attacks on Iraqi police and military units during patrols with American troops, someone in power has decided that in addition to anti-Iraqi forces, there are “anti-American forces.” There will always be anti-American forces in Iraq, Grider explains: “We have to accept that – they hate us.” He spits a gob of tobacco juice in a water bottle. “But we don’t want there to be AIF when we leave.” When U.S. troops patrol with Iraqis, “we attract the guys who want to kill us as well as the guys who want to kill them”-which only makes the Iraqis’ job harder and the Americans’ job more dangerous. The segeants look dubious. “Look, you guys wanted an explanation of why we’re doing less shit – here it is,” Grider says.
After the meeting, Grider admits that he’s as frustrated by the ever-changing mission plans and rules of engagement as any of his men. But he is a dedicated soldier. “I’m a willing participant in this war in Iraq and on terrorism,” he says.
Fighting terrorism, actually, is why most of the Cobras say they’re in Iraq. The rationale: American troops attract terrorists to Iraq, leaving fewer of them to attack the United States. This message has filtered down the chain of command so effectively that even Lacour, who sees himself as his unit’s “closet liberal,” believes that if nothing else, the war in Iraq is worth it if it’s luring the “bad guys” to him, thus making his friends and family in Louisiana more secure. “I’m protecting my family,” he says, although he admits he’s also terrorist fodder. Not that he really knows who the terorists are – no one does.
“The only ones I like are the little girls,” says Dighans. “Everyone else: terrorists.”
“I don’t want to look at every Iraqi as a terrorist, but after you’ve been attacked so much, you do,” admits Lacour.
“We came here to get rid of Saddam, we’re attempting to keep peace, but the Iraqis won’t let us,” says Houle. “They’re killing us – for what reason, I don’t know. So are we going to go forward, or are we going to leave? We just need a goal. Right now, there’s no goal.” He’s frustrated. “We just want to help these people and friggin’ leave,” he says.
PART THREE: BAGHDAD “Don’t you see? We have no future!”
CONTRARY TO EXPECTATIONS, THE IRAQI INSURGENCY, WHICH includes terrorists, religious extremists, criminals, former Saddam loyalists and agents from Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Iran, as well as farmers, teachers, doctors, administrative assistants, students and the legion of the poor and unemployed, has grown since the hand-over of sovereignty, not decreased. I’ve tried to find someone who can explain why that is. Wamid Nahdmi, a professor of political science at Baghdad University, claims to know, Nahdmi is an outspoken foe of the occupation. The night after I return from Baquba. Salam and I go to meet him at his home.
Nahdmi lives in Adamiya, a Sunni neighborhood of Baghdad where anti-Western feeling runs particularly strong. Because his villa is situated on a main street, Salam parks the car inside Nahdmi’s courtyard, shielding us from view. A middle-aged Iraqi Nahdmi, dressed in a toffee-colored robe and sandals, sits in an elegant sitting room decorated with Oriental rugs and black-and-white family photographs.
Originally, Nahdmi says, about forty percent of Iraq supported the occupation -“not because they supported the occupation but because they thought it was a way to get rid of the previous regime,” he adds. “And forty percent opposed the occupation not because they supported the previous regime but because they were opposed to a foreign force.” Now, most Iraqis oppose the occupation. Nahdmi estimates that only about fifteen percent “have put all their eggs in the American basket.” The rest are sympathetic to, or directly involved with, the resistance.
“It is difficult for a country with a history of patriotism to applaud a foreign army,” he says. But the Americans aren’t helping matters either. Take the little town of Tal Afar, he suggests. Tal Afar, sixty miles from the Syrian border, is suspected by the U.S. of being a haven for militants. In the previous few days, the Americans have attempted to “free” the town from insurgents. Some news reports have estimated only a small number of insurgents hold Tal Afar: a combination of ex-Saddam loyalists, religious extremists and foreign fighters. Nevertheless, the U.S. has laid siege with attack helicopters and heavy weapons. “Why such a big operation?” Nahdmi asks, mystified. The town is so small, does the U.S. really need such force? Dozens of Iraqi civilians have died in Tal Afar in recent days, and many more have been wounded. “Now, it I had my child killed in that way, I’d join the resistance,” Nahdmi says, shaking his head. “So next month, instead of ten people, there will be 200.”
And this is how it all works: the upsurge in violence, the ever-increasing number of attacks against American and Western targets, the mortars that rain down on Baghdad, the IEDs. In all the discussions about America’s lack of postwar planning, there has never been much mention of the acute suffering the invasion caused the Iraqi people. There is an overwhelming sense of loss and pain in Iraq. Grief has taken over the people’s lives. Throughout the summer, I’ve met countless Iraqis who long for the days of Saddam. It’s not that they miss the repressive dictatorship, they say, but at least, provided they never crossed the regime, their lives were tolerable, the streets were safe, their families stayed intact, they could turn on the lights. Now, Iraqis carry photographs – some are of missing relatives, killed in any number of ways; others are of then devastated homes or offices. In Najaf one day, a man whose store was attacked with an RPG shoves a photo of a rocket in my face. “Don’t you see?” he says. “We have no future!”
As I talk with Nahdmi, he looks at his watch – it’s 8 P.M., and his wife, a doctor at a leading hospital in Baghdad, has yet to come home. And this worries Nahdmi, because, who knows? Fear is the subtext of life – as much now as it was during Saddam. But rather than the quiet fear of tyranny, theirs is an unbridled fear that comes from chaos. And with that fear comes profound anger, and with anger comes explosive violence, and with explosive violence comes death, often random, usually meaningless, but tragic. “And we somehow blame America for this,” Nahdmi says.
DROP AT 7 A.M. ON SEPTEMBER 11TH, 2004, a massive explosion hits the Green Zone – the first attack in a week of violence in which several of my colleagues will be injured, and more than 100 Iraqis will die. I hear the explosion as I head to my car, about to drive on the most dangerous road in Iraq, which is, appropriately, the road to Baghdad International Airport. I am leaving Iraq, shrouded in black. With my dark hair and eyes, I could almost be Iraqi.
But I’m not. At the airport, I flash my press ID to gain access to a special VIP road into the parking lot, thus avoiding an hours-long wait on the highway, where an attack could come at any time. From the lot, a security contractor gamely offers me a ride to the terminal, as private cars aren’t allowed near the airport itself, for security reasons. Inside, there is confusion at the ticket counter, as there is always confusion, for there are always far too many people trying to get out of Iraq on any given morning than there is room on the tiny planes that fly us out.
As I board the plane, I notice a few other journalists and a State Department official. We smile at one another. We’ve made it, We are leaving Iraq. And yet we go nowhere. The plane takes off and climbs, then circles over Baghdad. We circle for half an hour. And then Baghdad disappears, as do all of the little cities and villages that make up the new Iraq, to be replaced by the old Iraq: a complex maze of marsh and rock and the ruins of ancient Mesopotamia, cut by the Tigris and the Euphrates, falling away into empty desert, unharmed.
It takes an hour to reach Amman, Jordan, where I learn the reason we had to circle at 22,000 feet. Three planes left Baghdad when we did. Mine was a commercial charter; there was also a plane chartered by the Halliburton subsidiary KBR, and another, smaller plane, chartered by the CIA. All three were white. All three carried American passengers almost exclusively. I will never know which one of us was the primary target of the anonymous gunmen from an anonymous insurgent group who, from an unknown, war-ravaged spot not far from Baghdad, tried for half an hour to shoot us all down.