Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Wednesday in Baquba: Four Days to Elections

Baquba, Iraq

It's midnight in Baquba; the end of the deadliest day for American troops since the war began. At least 37 Americans died in Iraq today.

Morning began cool and dry, the sky stayed bright all day. I expected attacks, but in fact it was mostly quiet. I saw only a few tracers during daylight, and heard only one large explosion in the distance. As the sun retreated, I walked over to the Tactical Operations Center (TOC) to get the latest from the intelligence officer, Captain Williams.

According to Captain Williams, only four Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) had been reported so far today. One of the bombs was placed at a school. One was near a school. A third bomb hit a Humvee. The fourth bomb hit the news when the media reported that an election site was attacked. But it was a small bomb and no one was hurt. In fact, none of the attacks caused injuries today so far.

As the sun set, a call over my radio alerted me that if I wanted to go downtown tonight, I should meet up with "Ghost" (1-6 FA Platoon). I grabbed my gear, body armor and helmet and met up with Ghost at the gate.

The mission for tonight was to emplace concrete barriers at polling places to defend against car bombs during the elections. While the platoon set up security and began unloading the barriers with a crane, I ventured into the building. It was a school, or had been at one time; but the only people in the halls tonight were the ten Iraqi policemen guarding it. They were dressed in civilian clothes.

There was still twilight when one of the policemen approached me. "Salaam a lakem," I said. The men smiled. AK-47s were leaning against a nearby wall. The officer who had stepped forward politely asked: "Where is the Army?"

"I came with the Army."
"Iraqi Army?"
"They say Iraqi Army coming."
"Not with us."
"Very danger here. We only ten men. We need Army. Television say Iraqi Army and American Army come help us."
"I am not in the Army. You must talk with Captain Burden. The Captain is outside with his men."
"You not Army?"
"No." I pointed to my camera.
"Is very danger here. Tonight they will come. Attack us."
"You have only AK rifles?"
"No RPG rockets?"
"No RPG. Only AK."
"You have PKM machine guns?"
"Only AK. We must have Army. Very danger tonight."

He wasn't exaggerating. Policemen are killed in Baquba so frequently that it hardly makes news. One was killed earlier today.

Captain Burden walked into the courtyard, and the policeman began to explain his plight. Tensions were rising faster than the sun was setting. Captain Burden explained that the American soldiers would check on the policemen every hour, and if there was any problem, they could radio for help and the American Army would come.

The policeman was insistent. He wanted an army, Iraqi or American, to stay with his men that night. As if on cue, tracers shot overhead. Their conversation continued until one of Captain Burden's younger soldiers said, "Tell him to man-up."

Captain Burden shot a glance and told the soldier to get out, but the young soldier, realizing his words were neither funny nor helpful, tried to apologize, only making things worse. The Iraqi policeman turned on the soldier, looked at him intensely, and said: "I understand what you say. We are 'man-up.' Very danger here!" To his credit, the Iraqi man, who looked to be about forty, seemed to realize the words came from a young soldier who had not learned to control his tongue. The Iraqi man turned his attention back to Captain Burden, but those words had ratcheted up the tension among the police.

Other police had already abandoned their posts, yet with some combination of skill and presence, Captain Burden persuaded the policemen to stay.

When the Captain left the courtyard, I spoke to the policeman. He said he'd been an engineer in Saddam's army. He wanted the elections to go forward, but also wanted to live to see Sunday. Both of us knew the odds were not with him on that. As I write this, I wonder if he is already dead.

A couple of hours and a lot of explosions later, I was still with Captain Burden and the Ghost Platoon, setting up barriers at another school. It was dark. His men were walking down the muddy street, banging on metal driveway doors, asking people to move their cars so the Army could put out the barriers.

As things got busy with cars moving and the soldiers unloading the barriers, I hung back and struck up a conversation with an Iraqi man who'd been watching from the darkness. Like the policeman earlier, this man told me he'd been an engineer. We'd just started talking when two loud explosions thundered from the distance, and he said:

"Why they do this? Bombs...Why they do this? What they want?"
"You mean the American bombs?"
"No. You okay. Good. The others. What they want?"

Then he said something that many Iraqis have been telling me: "Please tell the Americans don't leave Iraq. Will much trouble if you are leaving. Most people want you stay in Iraq now."

We talked for about ten minutes, when I saw a rocket fly overhead. I pointed to it.

"Look," I said. "A rocket." And then there were five more. 155 mm RAP rounds. Coming from the base where I have been staying.
"They shooting every day..." he said.
"Yes," I coughed with a dry throat. Suddenly I could barely speak, "Every day," I coughed again.
"You want water?" he asked. It was the polite thing to do. Iraqis are polite people.
"No, thank you," I said, "I'm okay." But I coughed again.
"Are you sure? It is filtered."

I survive off instincts. And my instincts were that this guy was not going to kill me. I coughed again. "Yes," I said, "please, I do need water."

He disappeared into his house. If I couldn't trust him with water, this whole thing was worthless. He came back out with a pitcher of cold water. It did the trick and we continued talking, and soon after, he invited me to meet his family, and I did. A US fighter jet was circling the darkness overhead when I said goodbye to the family and we wished each other good luck.

Soon, Ghost loaded up the Humvees and we started to make our way back to base. The radio crackled with news of explosions as two polling stations were under attack. I thought of that first school and those ten policemen. I wondered if they were the targets. Then, another report came over the radio, saying that the Iraqi police had accidentally attacked some US soldiers nearby, but somehow managed not to hurt anyone.

Midnight passes leaving us one day closer to the elections.