Saturday, April 03, 2004

Something is Rotten in Baghdad, Tension in the Air as Sgt. Miller Predicts an Uprising, Another Car Bombing I Contemplate from a Rooftop

See free video at the award-winning site.

3 April, 2004 2200

I’ve got a bad feeling about the future of Iraq. “I don’t know about you, but I think Baghdad got worse since we got here,” Sergeant Miller said to me as I sat parked in front of the Bravo Company HQ at Camp War Eagle in Sadr City. A 1st CAV soldier (the sergeant major’s driver for the unit replacing us) sat in the back and listened to our conversation with a worried look on his face.
‘Don’t worry, it will go by quick,’ I told him…even though I knew this to be a little too optimistic a remark. But hey, this is Iraq, why not be positive about this bullshit, Washington is, almost to the point of blindness. I explained to the 1st CAV guy who was riding with me, ‘You stay alert and you won’t get killed. Half of what you do on the road is drive, but the other half is knowing who’s around you at all times, making sure they notice that you see them. Watch cars as they pass, if you see a car full of kids or women, you can be pretty sure they are low threat. If you see two men in a sports car trailing you, make sure they see that you are watching them in the side view mirror. If they have long beards, pay extra attention to them. A lot of the foreign fighters have Wahabee beards.’ He nodded and I could tell he took what I was saying seriously. ‘Trust your instincts,’ I continued going over a bunch of pointers I genuinely thought invaluable, ‘If you see something suspicious, don’t hesitate to speak up. Watch the roadside always for debris, wire, anything that could hide a bomb. You need to examine every foot of ground along the side of the road. Don’t daydream. If you let your guard down, you’ll get whacked. All these guys getting killed probably weren’t paying attention,’ I said, even though this wasn’t true. I just wanted to stress he could prevent an attack. Of course, the truth is, a lot of the guys never knew what hit them. How are you going to tell a new guy that though? It’s bad enough not knowing what to expect out of Iraq over the next year. I kept saying, ‘You’ll be OK’ to make him feel better. ‘Choose your battles carefully, you could actually make a problem worse by responding to insults or pestering. Think ahead. If someone gets in your face or tests your resolve, put the muzzle of your rifle in his face. Don’t be afraid. I am the last person who would want to point a gun at someone, but I’ve had to do it here. Sometimes it’s for their own good. Try to prevent situations too. Give them a chance to let you though…use your horn constantly to let them know you’re there. Don’t just hit them.’ I thought about all the times we just hit people or rammed cars or caused wrecks because, “We own the road!” SGM Walker likes to say. Most everyone is completely innocent, yet we ram them because they are stuck in traffic? It’s immoral. I remember Sergeant Cole ramming bumpers off of cars, damaging family vans, men getting out crying and saying with their hands, “I CAN’T MOVE, CAN’T YOU SEE?!” Many times I would come back to camp feeling ashamed to be in the Army. I remember a scout telling me about a mission he was on, and he told me,
“It was the only fucking time I ever felt a sense of accomplishment this whole deployment. I’ve been here a year, that’s pretty fucking sad.”
Sometimes I’ll stand with soldiers by my truck waiting for SGM Walker. A lot of times, soldiers will be standing there dragging on cigarettes and someone will snap and yell, “FUCK! What the fuck are we doing here!”
‘You’ll learn about human mortality. You’ll hate Arabs, and the next day love them. You’ll ask why you’re here, and the next day you’ll feel great because the kids are happy to see you. One day they’ll wave to you, the next day they’ll give you the finger and throw rocks. You’ve got to be a diplomat, and a soldier. It will stress you out. One day you’ll think there’s no hope for the Middle East, and the next day you’ll see a glimmer of hope. It’s a rollercoaster ride, and it’s a messed up situation, but just try to learn while you are here. Read, and call your wife everyday – and all will be OK,’ I said, and some more.
“Corporal, you said you can spot IEDs and prevent attacks, but what about the rocket attack?” he asked, referring to the attack last week on our camp. I thought about this question and though,
‘Well, I’m trying to be positive, but I guess you are smarter that I thought.’ It’s true, you can’t prevent that. ‘Well, if you get hit, you’ll be dead and won’t know what happened. If an attack starts, go to the ground floor and get in a corner and stay low. Find cover, stay low,’ I told him. I left it at that, even though rockets and mortars bother me and I don’t even like being out in the open during the evening. I can’t believe I’ve gotten used to mortar explosions. Mortar fire or explosions are funny sometimes, just because it’s so unreal. On some nights, you lay in bed, and you feel like it’s too quiet. You sometimes hear one explosion in the city and you lay and wait for another explosion. All you know is someone probably just died. Or, you go downstairs to the TOC and check the TV. Then you see FOX news reporting that a hotel got blown up. In the States, you see news like that in some far off land. Here, you see it on FOX or CNN and you can go on the roof and see the site of an attack glowing on the Baghdad night horizon. You lay in bed though, and you know more rockets and mortars are going to come. You imagine what it would be like to have a round crash through your wall in an instant. It happened to that captain.
One night I was exploring the endless amounts of amazing info at my fingertips one night before going out on the “Iron Promise” mission.
“BOOM!” an explosion rattled our windows. It was too late in the evening to be an EOD blast. Usually after an explosion, guard towers will call up on the 312 field phone with the signature “NACK, NACK, NACK, NACK, NACK!!!” sound of the ringer. Before the guards even had a chance to call our headquarters, our television showed a startled FOX News reporter on top of the Palestine Hotel with a glowing fire behind him. This sounds crazy, but it’s true.
“A huge explosion has just gone off right behind me!” the reporter dramatically explained. Then the first “CLACK, CLACK, CLACK, CLACK, CLACK, CLACK, CLACK!!!” was heard in the TOC. It was the guards reporting the explosion. FOX was actually faster reporting the explosion on national TV than our guards were reporting the blast to us in the TOC.
‘Hmmm, that’s no good,’ I thought as I watched the TV images for a few seconds. I listened to our radios come to life as our units in the city reported an explosion. All the blast locations they reported were wrong, “BSA possibly attacked! Camp Muleskinner attacked! Came from CPA!” bla, bla, bla. I saw on the TV it was in the TF 3-9 zone by the Palestine Hotel. Our units were seeing the rising mushroom cloud over Baghdad and estimating best they could where the explosion was, but the cloud was drifting and the night sky caused some units to miscalculate the distance of the attack site. We told them we could confirm that it was a hotel in 3-9 zone. I went up on the roof and was surprised to see the dark mushroom cloud still very well defined and suspended like a blimp over Baghdad’s skyline. You feel like you are looking at one of those figures made from people trapped in the ash of Pompeii’s volcanic disaster – the disaster is preserved. The cloud hung around for a while, and with it, the dust of over a dozen vaporized people. 5 minutes before, there was no mushroom cloud, there was a hotel still standing, the people who are now dead were alive, and a car full of explosives was parked waiting to go off. Whoever died died instantly and never knew what happened. Their ticket got punched like lots of other people in this city. It’s sad, but you get used to it, and it’s not sad anymore – it’s just the way things are here. Life is your chance on stage, but sometimes your time is cut short. There has to be an afterlife. You do think though, as you look out across that city, ‘Where are the people who set that bomb off now? They’re somewhere out there, but where? And why do they think they have the right to just take lives? Who supports them? Is it Iran, is it Syria, is it more sinister than it appears?
It just so happened that John Kerry was about to go on live to address the nation about his campaign and ideas about national security when the explosion occurred. Kerry just got on stage and I was looking forward to hearing what he had to say about Iraq. Right when he began to speak, the explosion rattled our window. FOX broke coverage of Kerry’s speech, only about 3 seconds after I heard the explosion. A few minutes later, people in the TOC were joking that Bush had the bomb set off to distract from Kerry’s speech. No Americans or westerners were killed in that blast, only Arabs.
I remember when the Polish embassy got bombed. Some of us guys went to the sports field to play rugby. It was a cool, early morning and the sun was just rising. Exactly when SSG Newsome’s foot made contact with the ball to kick it downfield, there was a very loud “BOOM.” I thought it was EOD, because it looked so close as the dark grey mushroom cloud rapidly climbed into the air in front of my eyes. It turned out to be about 6 kilometers or less away. Later I found out it was the Polish embassy that got bombed. We all just thought the explosive rugby kick was funny. You think about it later, and it was such a peaceful morning, a cloudless horizon, and then a sharp boom and mushroom cloud that reminded me of the tornado scene in “The Wizard of Oz”. It moved like a living thing, so fast and rolling skyward. Of course, it was a bomb, maybe someone died, I don’t remember, but it was as routine as hearing a delivery truck briefly disturb the morning peace by blowing its horn. We kept playing rugby for the next hour, thinking nothing of the blast.
Going back to the hotel bombing, we already planned “Operation Iron Promise” before the bombing, so it would go on as planned. More on that later. I love you Nora! I got a letter from you today too. You’re the best!

Iron Promise turned out to be a disappointment, as expected. It was one of many large scale show of force operations that bordered on mass punishment at times. The script read the same every time: move in, block all the roads, do a house to house search of a chunk of Baghdad. This time, we moved in under cover of darkness, shutdown the roads, and sat in the median of highway 5 – in the open – while soldiers guarded General Townsend. What was supposed to be an operation to capture weapons and “send a message” turned into an opportunity for Townsend to walk the Baghdad streets one last time before going home to boring Germany. He went along with the soldiers, conducting the searches of houses, to greet the Iraqi natives himself. They were certainly graced by his presence. Sometimes we would conduct similar operations, like Operation Iron Hammer, that would entail shooting mortar and artillery rounds into empty fields. Then, you would see some 1st AD general telling the press that we are “hitting back” and so on. Relatives in the states would see all this press and think we were launching an all out offensive. It was a show of force though, although there were some small successes. The main problem remained Fallujah. Fallujah was the seat of terrorist power, Sunni controlled areas were sending their emissaries of death into Baghdad. These terrorists weren’t stupid, especially the former Al-Amn al-Khas (special security) agents. They weren’t going to get caught in a Baghdad apartment with their pants down.
At one point during the night, a young Iraqi man approached our trucks as we waited for the general to finish his tour. He winced a little bit as he showed us several bullet wounds in his skin. He had been shot several times a few hours earlier. You wouldn’t guess that by his behavior though. He was docile, casually asking for some medical assistance. He was treated.
I sat down in my room and listened to the BBC. They reported a horrible train bombing in Madrid. The government immediately blamed ETA for the attack, but I knew from the beginning it was Al-Qaeda. ETA had nothing to gain from executing such a implacable attack. It was a simply brutal and senseless, something we’ve come to expect from Islamic extremists. I was surprised to hear the Spanish government claim that is was probably ETA. I was even more surprised to learn that the Spanish people would let that terrorist attack influence their decisions on voting day. The terrorists won in Spain, and for that the Spanish should be ashamed.
It was around this time that we as a battalion were preparing to return to Kuwait. The redeployment wasn’t in full swing yet, but some of our tanks and other assets had been moved to Kuwait in advance to make our eventual move easier. That meant that some companies had a few less tanks on hand than they normally would. 1st Cavalry was trickling in and we were familiarizing their leadership with the routine we had established with the Iraqis on the base over the last year. Some of these Iraqis had become very close to the soldiers, especially the convenience store workers and internet cafe workers. The Everyday Market was one such convenience store that occupied a room in our barracks. There, two Iraqi brothers sold cheap cola and snacks, and anything you needed from the market in the city. They were always friendly and helpful, never out to pull a large profit. As we began recommending Iraqis to the new 1st CAV leadership, The Everyday Market was not high on the list of recommended vendors, even though they were the most sincere. The HHC first sergeant would later explain, “I don’t give a shit about them. They never did shit for me.” What he meant was kick backs and favors – free sodas or internet access. What they did do well was serve the soldiers with good prices. I watched helplessly as the two brothers, faithful partners with us soldiers for almost a year, were turned away and told to pack up because they didn’t offer enough “tribute.” They wouldn’t have the chance to serve 1st CAV soldiers, and would lose a major source of income – despite taking care of the 1AD soldiers through thick and thin.
There was competition on the base though. Ali Laundry was running a lucrative business washing and pressing American uniforms. Some of the more thuggish NCOs would have their uniforms pressed for free. Ali would offer gifts periodically to remain in favor them. Among the Iraqis, he slithered his way to the top of the respect ladder – and that allowed him to extort money from other vendors on the base. Ali had not always been on Rustimiya base, but rather at the Ministry of Oil. When elements from the Headquarters company vacated the MOO, they brought their pet merchant with them to our base. At the MOO, it was suspected that someone on the inside of the compound had measured certain distances between buildings, because of the earlier mentioned mortar attack that scored direct hits on some of the buildings on the MOO compound. Now that HHC (Headquarters Company) was at Rustimiya, we were getting hit with mortar fire as well. Coincidence? Probably, but I made the connection nonetheless. I was concerned that Ali was leaking information to insurgents, most probably for money. I believed he would do anything for money.
I was perhaps naive, but I was hoping that 1st CAV would continue to employ the Iraqis who had authentically helped us over the past year. It was a year that saw the rebuilding of large parts of Rustimiya and an increase in prosperity for many of the squatters. 1st CAV was focused reducing dependency on Iraqi labor. It was always possible to reduce Iraqi labor and use more soldiers for manual labor, but the point was to get cash flowing into the neighboring communities. Many of the Iraqis worried for their shops and jobs. I tried to assure them that their livelihoods would be safe, but that was not for me to say. Assad the welder was particularly worried. I felt responsible for him. I felt that his interests needed to be represented to the leadership, because he had provided a valuable service to us. Several propositions were made to the new CAV guys, but they said they already had a welder. He was a soldier. Assad’s pay stopped, but he continued working for free, believing this would increase his chances of being accepted by 1st CAV. It never happened. He, among others, had to pack up and leave the base. They weren’t wanted anymore. I was simply ashamed. There was no allegiance to these people, and little sympathy from the new unit. It seemed the trust was dismantled, and that seemed too sad an ending for such a unique friendship.
In late march, Taji airfield (the site of a large Iraqi airbase and former Republican Guard depot) was renamed Camp Francis, memorializing Sergeant Major Francis – killed on December 24th. Sergeant Major Walker and several other NCOs went to the airbase for the dedication lunch and ceremony. I was driving Walker to the convoy. On our way back to Baghdad, due to traffic, we exited the highway and drove through some of the most Sunni populated areas of northwest Baghdad – the bad part of town. We were trying to work our way back towards the city center. In the process, we became disoriented. The scouts in our convoy developed a route plan based on GPS info, and soon we were cruising into Baghdad, and into more bumper to bumper traffic. That was a hairy situation. There was no worse part of Baghdad to be stuck in. You are surrounded by hundreds of anonymous Iraqis who are glaring at you. We crept along through the traffic, this time not ramming and bumping our way through as was common. The scouts dismounted and walked alongside the trucks, Sergeant Major Walker dismounted and provided security for our right flank. We just had to face it, we would have to crawl through miles of traffic in the 4-6 Field Artillery sector – the badlands.
Luckily, nothing happened. I wouldn’t have been surprised if a grenade went off. I almost expected it. When we started to enter the more friendly part of town, I looked over to see a woman with a male companion. She smiled and waved to us. The man with whom she was with immediately began to brutally beat her. He continued to hit her several times in plain sight of all around, including the affluent Iraqi citizens that inhabited that area. Many of the Iraqis responded with shocked facial expressions and verbal admonishments. The man ignored all of this and threw a few more blows into the woman. She wept until he grabbed her face and, I assume, told her not to weep in public. She tightened her lips and dipped her head towards the ground. As this was happening, one of the scouts asked on the intercom if he could subdue the Iraqi man. I could tell the scout was itching to stop the assault, and he was right to want to stop it. As soon as the man threw the first blow into the woman, the scout was starting to exit his gunner’s turret to get the man. He was told to hold tight, that there was nothing they could do about it. We did not have the tactical advantage at the moment, and our greatest concern was to get out of that traffic where we could maneuver freely.

See free video at the award-winning site.


Post a Comment

<< Home