Leaving the Shire

Children next to a police truck in Ghazalia (photo by John Goodman)

It has been quite some time since rain has fallen on the dusty plain between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and the sky is hazy with the dry particles which seem always to be suspended in the air. Everything, indoors and out, is covered with a fine dust, kept in circulation by a periodic breeze. The sun is a pale and shimmering yellow against a light gray backdrop -- the perfect setting for the melancholy call of the muezzin. Despite the haze, the sun shines brightly, holding promise of much warmer days to come.

The masses of soldiers stationed at FOB Liberty and other bases around Iraq toil on, regardless of the changes in weather, and Iraqi life continues as it has for millennia. For my part, luck has favored photographer John Goodman and I with a plentiful slate of missions and no attacks as Civil Affairs teams working with Santa Barbara's 425th Civil Affairs Battalion venture out into different areas of Baghdad. I am happy to report that I am no longer a fobbit. Leaving the base has brought the opportunity for a broader perspective of life here. Leaving the sterile security of the International Zone and the organized bustle of the FOB, a strange world exists out there. It is influenced by Americans, but it is also influenced by years of culture and violence, and it is distinctly Iraqi.

The mission began as every mission does, with a briefing assigning specific responsibilities to each of the dozen or so team members, outlining a route and game plan, and identifying threats that had occurred or were likely to occur. While there is a realization that unexpected things could happen, the soldiers attempt to map out as many details as possible and remember what was done right and wrong on past missions in order to minimize the amount of chaos should plans go awry. Civil affairs work is supposed to be civil, but these soldiers operate in areas where attacks have been a reality, so caution is taken. A shout, show, shove, shoot, shoot, shoot doctrine is the rule of thumb for dealing with potential threats -- shout at the threat as a warning, show your weapon and your intent to use it, shove threatening people and bystanders out of the way to maintain a perimeter, and then, if necessary, shoot warning shots, vehicle disabling shots, and deliver kill shots as a last resort. I was hoping that none of this would have to be used. The basis for the plan was simple -- no matter what happened, everyone, regardless of rank was expected to stick to the guiding plan and follow the directions of whomever was selected to be the noncommissioned officer in charge for the mission.

The first mission I tagged along with was simple enough. The team -- a group of reservists from New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania commanded by the 425th's Lieutenant Colonel Quincy Handy -- was working on a micro-grant program sponsored by the Coalition Forces to help businesses in a Baghdad neighborhood named Ghazalia get on their feet. Each approved applicant is eligible for a loan of up to $2,500, with half of it tendered up front. The second half is paid when periodic inspections reveal progress in their business development. "Basically, the micro grant program increases the civil capacity of the coalition forces and makes it less likely that [Iraqis] will cooperate with the bad guys," said Captain Shawn Tobin, one of the civil affairs team leaders assigned to the 425th on the mission.

Exiting the gates of Liberty in a convoy of three MRAPs, we paused for a moment to load small arms and test fire the big turret-mounted machine guns mounted atop each truck. "Gunners are most important; they are the eyes of the vehicle," one of the NCOs had said at the briefing. From within the MRAP, you see the gunner's feet moving back and forth against the constant click of the turret's gears. To the uninitiated, the spinning turret looks freakish from the truck's exterior, dizzily spinning back and forth in unpredictable jerks, much like the movements of the bad guy robot in Robo Cop. These things must look terrifying to people in the run-of-the-mill cars they tower over -- lumbering down the road with an intense array of antennae and long, flexible pieces of PVC pipe looped over the front to keep low-hanging wires from getting caught in the communications equipment. On the plus side, though, a grenade probably wouldn't do much more to the occupants of an MRAP than cause a headache or a busted rib -- an especially important feature considering the fact that insurgents have been known to use RKG-3 anti-tank grenades against armored vehicles.

We cruised down one dilapidated highway stretch after another, leaving a section of developed freeway in one place to encounter the far more common sight of fields of refuse and busted up concrete. Glancing out the window, I saw every manner of old Toyota and Volkswagen sedan imaginable. Two men wearing red and white keffiyehs sped past in a battered sedan with orange fenders -- a retired taxi perhaps. As our convoy of behemoth trucks made a u-turn in the highway, a woman wearing a concerned expression waited in her BMW for us to pass. Three adorable little girls wearing brightly-colored clothing bounced around playfully in the back seat.

Though surrounded by trash fields and somewhat battered itself, Ghazalia was abuzz with activity. The many small shops looked busy. Women were shopping. Children were playing. A policeman stood in the bed of a newish, but very beat-up Nissan pickup truck with loaded AK-47s hung carelessly on the bed rails. He passed out Iraq-themed beanies and gloves to a group of rambunctious children. We had ventured beyond the wire into what was until a year ago a hotbed of sectarian violence -- according to one of our interpreters one of the most dangerous places in Baghdad -- to perform the micro loan checkups on business owners who had received the first half of their grant money, as well as tell other interested parties where to go to apply.

Fanning out on both sides of the street, the patrol kept an eye out for potential problems while two or three members of the team spoke with business owners. Everyone except interpreters and reporters carried 9mm pistols and M4 carbines. Just a few months ago, insurgents launched a grenade attack against a group of soldiers stationed at an outpost there -- Ghaz-1. One man lost his arm mere days before he was to return home.

Although only certain businesses were participating in the program, soldiers talked to almost everyone to avoid making it look like they were focusing their attention upon specific people. In some cases, people who have received assistance from Coalition forces have been targeted by insurgent groups. In other cases, people who are supposed to be working for the Iraqi government to protect these people end up extorting money from them for "protection."

For this mission, though, everyone appeared to be on the up and up. A butcher was doing tile work with his grant money in order to make his shop more sanitary, although he had yet to acquire any refrigeration for his meats, which were sitting out in the open air. A convenience store owner had painted his shop in a colorful motif and put up a tin awning. He smiled proudly as he gave us all cans of the sweetest orange soda I've ever tasted. Our group was approached by many people who wanted to apply for these small business loans. The participants were supposed to have kept quiet about the program to maintain security, but everyone seemed to know about it. Captain Tobin told them all when and where to meet us if they wanted to sign up.

Shortly after lunch, about 20 people showed up at Ghaz-1, which was where the loan approval station was set up. In the halting conversations that result when an interpreter has to be used, it took a few hours to get everyone done. Determinations of who is qualified are made later, but the Iraqi Army provides a lot of background information about each applicant. Most soldiers on the team were able to take off their gear, kick back, and relax while the applications were filled out.

The soldiers posted on guard duty said that it had been quiet since the last grenade attack. They said an armed neighborhood watch called Ghazalian Guards, or G/G for short, keeps an eye on the neighborhood as well. A young man wearing the tan uniform and beret of the G/G, along with a camouflage flak vest, leaned against the wall just outside the gate smoking a cigarette and joking with the soldiers. "Shut your cock holster!" the sixteen year old quipped at one of the younger soldiers as they hurled good natured insults back and forth at one another. Everyone laughed heartily at his command of the English language.

This young man, whom everyone referred to as Sergeant Mustafa, was outspoken in his distrust for the Iraqi National Police and Army, calling them murderers and torturers, adding that some of them used to belong to Al Queda Iraq. Not many people in Ghazalia share his view. "There are ten of us in all Ghazalia. My six family and four others," he said with a grin. When he turns 18, he wants to work as an interpreter or join the US Army. "I don't want to be in the Army that has no pride," he said of the Iraqi Army.

As the MRAPs lumbered back toward Liberty, we passed a man herding a flock of sheep through a trash-covered field. The sheep were eating the trash. "They eat the trash and then we eat them," one of the interpreters said with a sheepish smile. As it began to set, the sun shimmered like a mirage over the trash, concrete, people, and life of Baghdad. I felt silly for thinking so, but I reasoned that it was nice to be returning home in one piece.

event calendar sponsored by: