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A letter from Iraq

11/10/2003

I've just received, after a period of involuntary silence, an email from a friend in the US Army who is currently serving in Baghdad. He sent it to a large number of people and I don't think he'll mind that it's fetched up here. Here are some excerpts. He mentions a Congressional delegation, apparently the one led in mid-September by Rep. Ike Skelton (D-MO), the ranking minority member (i.e., the top Democrat) on the House Armed Services Committee.

My friend sometimes uses use elipses (three dots like this: ...). So only when you see them in brackets, like this [...], does that mean I've left something out.

27 Oct 03

Last week, there was an ambush on an MP company in Karbala, and three soldiers were killed. For some reason, our battalion (in Baghdad) got mobilized to go down there and respond[...] so we rolled in a hurry down there. It's a three-hour drive. We stayed for four days, and participated in two raids. I saw the news said we arrested 32 people in the second raid. The news implied we caught 32 "bad guys," but, in actuality, that means there were 32 people around when we did the raid on this mosque in the middle of the night. We just detain everyone. Well, almost everyone. Iraqi people often sleep on the ground in front of their little stores. One guy was sleeping when we rolled up in our noisy Bradleys and Humvees and secured the corner at 1 a.m. He looked up at us, blinked, and rolled over and went back to sleep. We left him alone. I never did hear how many of the 32 detainees were the guys we were looking for.

[...]Many of the recent bombings are really near where we live and work, in central Baghdad. When you hear the news talk about the "sprawling CPA complex" in central Baghdad, my home is inside this. The Al Rasheed hotel and the other hotel they blew up a few weeks ago are just around the corner from us. They keep firing rockets at that. The other day, you might have seen on the news that someone had this blue trailer they set up at about 6 in the morning, and launched several rockets at the hotel, killing an Army colonel[...]

They towed the trailer to our facility, and it's just sitting here for some reason. I poked my head into it, and saw the tubes with the wires behind it. It made my blood boil. It was surreal looking at the tool of murderers. Then I noticed a sign on it that says "FBI evidence. Do not touch."

They have been firing rockets and mortars at our facilities from across the river. We don't really worry, even though everyone scampers around when it happens. Iraqis have bad aim, and the opposite river bank is just out of range for their rockets. And these buildings are pretty sturdy. They did hit the back wall of the palace complex where I live last night. But, as I said, whenever they fire mortars or rockets at us, they run away as fast as they've been launched, so usually the threat is over by the time the first rockets land. I'm counting on my commanders to figure out some way to be able to respond with deadly force, without having to use counter-battery tactics and blow up an entire block of possibly innocent civilians, without even hitting the bad guys.

This morning, as you might have heard, some people drove an ambulance, with the Red Crescent markings on it, into the Red Crescent facility and tried to blow it up. Several Iraqi policemen stopped it from getting closer to the building, and gave their lives to protect others[...]

I can't think of the words to describe my anger at these people [i.e., those responsible for the Red Crescent bombing]. And I'm mad at Iraqis who, even as they complain they cannot get water because the Red Crescent has halted deliveries due to the attack, will not do more to help us defeat the terrorists here, because they fear we are not here for the good of Iraq, and so would rather hedge their bets while the violence continues[...]

I've come to really like Iraqis, really. I want so badly to see these people live in a normal country for the first time ever. It would be such a great accomplishment for their country, and for the world. Every time something bad happens, I feel awful. I'm so glad when I see the accomplishments we've done, such as rebuilding schools, getting the new money printed, fixing the electricity and sewage, etc. I don't know why I care so much, but I just do[...]

9 Nov 2003

[...]I love how I, as low-ranking as I am, get to have meetings with officers that other Joes never would get to talk to, because[...]. I get great insight, and I get to give some input. And I get disturbed sometimes.

You know, the Army is a land-fighting unit, and that's it. [...]overall we just suck at handling what we're trying to make a large-scale friendly occupation, and rebuilding of a government. Honestly, some of the officers who are in charge of figuring out what's going on out there know surprisingly little about the culture and Islam.[...] No Army is ever going to invade a completely foreign country, and know exactly what's going on culturally. But I do think we can put someone in charge who's better than these infantry officers who are so simple-minded and ignorant ("Wahabi bad. Attack Wahabi."). Or can we? Who would we use? Do we have an army of trained diplomats?

Our area is run by an infantry battalion, and the only way they know how to handle problems is attack things. Here we are, [...]three people, trying to build relationships with key leaders and key communicators, and all our supported unit [the infantry battalion] wants to do is figure out what to attack. Did you know some areas are controlled by field artillery units? They're even worse. Fortunately, at least they try to raid places on foot, instead of firing shells.

I'm sure Bush and his people understood all this, but thought of this as just part of the price of doing the war, because he had nothing else to use. Hopefully, lessons were learned.

Also, the money issue is horrible. Lots of our legitimacy, and the Iraqis' trust in us, depends on our delivering on our promises. It was hard enough earlier, when things were more chaotic. Now, the CPA governing system doesn't seem to be well-ordered, but for some reason there's no money. All these projects, about rebuilding schools, hospitals, streets, sewers, etc., have come to a halt. I know the U.S. approved the 87.5 billion dollar package, but we need to start seeing the cash now. It's screwing up all our progress. Iraqis don't understand when you try to explain why the super-rich U.S. can't fix their school.[...]

The local governments set up just after the war ended have turned out to be full of corruption, and Iraqis hate it. They see it as an imposed government (sometimes it is... we didn't bother to hold elections in every area, and people think some of the elections we held were unfair). These leaders show favoritism, take bribes, etc. It's so hard to change this, because pretty much everyone who lives here doesn't know any other way of living.

It's sad, when we roll through some remote neighborhoods, and they look at us all scared. I know why right away... the only other times they've seen U.S. vehicles, we were there to arrest someone. Often, when we try to ask who's in charge in a neighborhood, they try to evade the question. If we meet the Imam or tribal leader himself, he'll deny it sometimes! They think we're like the old way... if the government comes asking about leaders, the next thing that happens is they disappear. What does suck is, in cases where someone has been "detained" for questioning, we usually raid their house in the middle of the night, and, as we've found doing our interviews out there, the Army doesn't give enough information to the family and neighbors about why the guy was arrested, where he's being held, and what his disposition is. We've passed that up in our reports, because we do not want the Iraqis to think we're like the old government, and because we shouldn't be like this.

People are still mad about our failure to stop the looting after the war ended. The Army counted on [small groups of soldiers passing out leaflets] asking people not to loot, because we didn't have the manpower to [...]stop it. What a joke that was.

And, of course, what about the WMD? No one even talks about that any more. It's such a dead issue. If there were any real active programs, we would have found them by now.[...]

In a word, we've made mistakes, and we're still in a position to screw all this up, although I think we're still moving forward in a positive direction. To me, the whole Iraqi mess is like an action movie hero jumping over a death-defying hole to escape his pursuers. You know it's dangerous and could end in disaster, but standing still or running in any other direction means certain demise. We're right now still flying over that hole.

The bombings and mortar and rocket attacks continue here. Often, we have to walk around inside our base camp in our full gear with our ammo, which we haven't ever had to until recently. I felt very sad when I heard about the two helicopters that were shot down last week.

On a lighter note, a few weeks ago I was picked to attend a meeting with this entourage of Congressman who came to have lunch with us. They had tables set up for each state that was represented. Luckily, I sat directly across our brigade commander, who sat between the two California Congressman. The commander babbled almost the whole time, and didn't let any of the other five soldiers at the table talk much, until the Congressmen tried talking to us. The commander complained about not having money, and, unbelievably, the Congressmen said "I had no idea! I'll get on that right away!"

I don't remember either of their names. One was apparently the chairman of some important committee. The other one was really, really, really old.

When the commander talked about how our morale really is good despite the newsmedia claims to the contrary, it was kind of funny. I stared at him real hard, because he was stammering a bit, and he cast faintly nervous glances at us Joes. I know he was hoping the rest of us at the table wouldn't start "coughing" to his comments! We were polite, though.

[...]The atmosphere around the palace (when I'm here) is really different. They have lots of Iraqis working here during the day, fixing things up. I'm not sure when they'll start fixing the tremendous structural damage to the palace itself, but everything else is really nicely detailed. They polished up the fountain in the back, although water is not flowing. Another thing that doesn't make sense is why they're spending so much money on these guys to sweep the roads and collect our trash and clean our bathrooms, when there's no money to pay for sewage collection in the outside neighborhood, or for more Iraqi Police or Facility Protection Service personnel or Neighborhood Watch programs (which the Iraqis tell us would work real well, because of the small-town and tribal nature of each little neighborhood). Personally, I think the brigade commander has a big ego, and these funds are being misappropriated. Or, it's just another example of bureaucracy keeping money away from where it's really needed. If they turn on the fountain in the back when many Iraqis still don't have clean water, I'll really be pissed.

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Original text copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence, RA. Posted at MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000105.htm where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Distributed by MEW Newslist. Subscribe by e-mail to mew-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.

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