Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Iraqi and the chair

Our correspondent phoned from Iraq this week to let us know things are going well for him, despite recent heart-breaking news. We had been concerned because of the terrible loss of soldiers and Iraqis in the homicidal bombing last week. The victims were in the same large battalion as our correspondent, but not personally known by him.

Generally he’s finding Iraq to be a much more peaceful place than when he left it a little more than a year ago. He said the primary troublemakers are not Iraqis, but foreigners whose goal is to destabilize Iraq and thwart progressive democratic initiatives by Iraqis. These insurgents come from other Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran—even though they are not “officially” recognized by those governments. They are well-organized and well-funded, with high-tech military gear and lots of money to bribe the poorest and most gullible Iraqis into committing desperate acts like suicide truck bombings. These funders are the real terrorists, and the root of the problem.

According to our correspondent, Iraqis see these people as a plague unleashed by the American invasion of Iraq—just as many wise Americans warned back in 2003 when George W. Bush was pushed by ill-informed neo-cons like Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, Richard Perl, and Paul Wolfowitz to dismantle the Iraqi government and created a fertile field for criminal and totalitarian elements to take root and grow with little resistance—and sometimes inadvertent assistance, as in Guantanamo and Abu Gharib.

Our correspondent works closely with the Iraqi Police and Army providing training and back-up assistance as the Iraqis track down and dismantle the insurgent leadership and infrastructure developed since the invasion. The Iraqis have become a competent force, handling intelligence, planning, and execution of raids against suspected bomb factories, weapons caches, and insurgent foreigners.

In such a role, most Iraqis are happy the U.S. forces remain, for now, but they want full control of their country returned as soon as possible. The forces agreement signed late last year between the U.S. and Iraq stipulates that the U.S. military not work independently of the Iraqis. Therefore, much of our correspondent’s work is done from Iraqi police stations. If no missions are planned on a particular day, the soldiers remain at the station until the Iraqis ask for specific support. Our correspondent is impressed by their bravery in facing violent situations alone.

The missions are usually planned jointly, but the Iraqis carry them out. The U.S. forces hang back, with air support and other options on alert, in case immediate assistance is requested by the Iraqis. His sector is a fairly upscale neighborhood of professionals, teachers, and students living in large, well-taken care of homes with clean streets and parks, so it is generally safer. The insurgents infiltrate the poorest, densely populated neighborhoods, where they can easily hide, threaten, cajole and bribe distressed, angry, and even mentally ill people into planting roadside bombs or performing suicide attacks.

A surprising amount of time is spent drinking tea and munching from trays of sweets provided by the Iraqi hosts, while they discuss situations and strategies at the police station. Our correspondent asks that we think of this cooperative situation, when the news is full of dire events.

When asked if he was getting soft from the tea and sweets, our correspondent reminded me there was still plenty of walking with 80 lb backpacks, both day and night. In downtime at the barracks, he’s been going to the exercise room, where a body-builder buddy gives him free professional-level personal training, and is turning him into an Arnold Schwarzenegger look-alike (painfully, he added).

Much time is spent walking through the community, establishing a presence. Streets are busy, shops are open, and people crowd the sidewalks. The soldiers stop in cafes and restaurants for snacks and drinks. They have a budget to buy stuff in shops, which keeps the shopkeepers happy. They’ll always and chat (through interpreters) with people on the street.

We sent a tiny helmet-mounted video camera to our correspondent who reports he has taken several hours of video during these patrols, and will send a few DVDs soon. He says we’ll enjoy the lively street scenes in this newly relaxing Iraqi culture.

Our correspondent relayed the following example of the improving cultural interaction when he was on foot patrol in a residential neighborhood.

During regular breaks, squad members bend down on one knee, a good, alert resting position (and practically a smaller target). One soldier stationed himself next to an iron gate, and soon an old man opened the gate to peer out at the commotion of a dozen soldiers on his doorstep. His surprised eyes met the kneeling soldier’s at his feet, and he said “Salaam.” The soldier dutifully replied with the proper “Asalaam allaykum.” The old man perused the soldier a moment then went back into the house. He returned with an old plastic chair which he placed on the street and offered to the soldier with a brief comment. The translator yelled out, “He said-- 'As long as you’re relaxing, you should be comfortable.'” The soldier, again mindful of his cultural sensitivity training, didn’t dare refuse, so nodded with thanks, smiled, and sheepishly took the seat. The rest of the squad, still on their knees, stared wide-eyed, barely controlling their laughter. Regrettably, our correspondent's camera was not on at the time.

It’s a relief to hear of the improving conditions in Iraq. Stories like this, which rarely get into the big media, give us hope and a measure of comfort.

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