Thursday, February 10, 2005

Are we there yet?

The Face of Security: An Iraqi Policeman
Baquba, Iraq

Tonight I rode downtown with Ghost Platoon under skies so clear that each star seemed to be individually lit. The air was still and chilly, like sometimes just before it snows in New England. Snow in the desert? I shook off that thought with a little of the chill and settled in for the ride downtown. We were heading out on patrol, with a captain from the incoming 3rd Infantry Division along to get the lay of the land. The plan was to interview Baquba residents, and to introduce the captain to one of his new counterparts, the chief of the Mufrek Police station.

Stopping at some shops, we talked with Iraqis, who were, as they often are, polite and engaging. But that didn’t stop them from launching into the list of problems and gripes. One shop owner gave me a ginger ale as more than a dozen people crowded around the Americans to talk. The dialogue was cooperative from both sides. Change, although it seems slow, is making itself known here, and progress can be seen every day, whether or not the media is covering that back home. Perhaps because they’ve seen how effective it is to state a problem, over and over, until it gets fixed, Iraqis are always willing to list the problems.

Some of the Iraqi men speculated about who won the elections. Government officials had just announced that there would be a delay in reporting final results. I wondered if that would be greeted with cynicism, but I did not detect any. Iraqis seem to have grown accustomed to delays in promised results. Sometimes, after a delay, things are delivered as pledged and everyone is pleased. Sometimes, after a delay, there is another delay, so a skeptical grace period seems to follow most “official edicts,” inshalla.

An Iraqi man who spoke superb English politely complained about American soldiers on certain city rooftops who sometimes point weapons at people, expressing concern that this provokes anxiety among Iraqis. Captain Derrick Burden apologized, but assured the man that the soldiers would not fire if they did not see a weapon. Captain Burden took a moment to explain that when shooting or explosions start, people should go inside and not look out windows. When people look out windows during firefights, he explained, they get shot at. No one had to explain why; after all, this community has been the staging ground for many insurgent attacks. The important thing is that here, on these streets, hours into the night, where earlier this week fifteen people were murdered outside a police station, these men felt secure enough to come out and talk with American soldiers.

The Americans here want to make Iraq work, then go home. As many of the soldiers with whom I’ve been riding prepare to leave Iraq, we’ve begun to talk about what they hope the future holds for this place. Some, students of history perhaps, draw analogies to other eras and countries where similar efforts prevailed. I’ll hear references to places like Germany, Italy and Japan in these conversations, which normally are optimistic in prognosis.

The more seasoned travelers have seen enough to know the danger in predicting the future in places where the past is hidden under hardened layers of scar tissue. They’ve seen places where many people thought democracy would never work, where the local people were considered too primitive in some way or too culturally distant from the concept to see its value. These conversations might drift over to India, where democracy has taken roots against the heaviest odds. India. It’s now the largest democracy in the world. Having spent a good deal of time there myself, I know that if the Indians can make democracy work, well, anybody can.

And Iraq, with its smaller population of more highly-educated citizens, and its incredible wealth of natural resources, is ripe for self-government. Everybody who’s really paying attention to what is going on here expresses confidence that Iraq can eventually stand alone and strong. With the “if” alternative universally dismissed, that leaves the only real debate centering on the question of “when.”

On patrol tonight, I saw two things that lead me to think that, although I believe Iraq will develop into a strong democracy, this will take much time.

When the soldiers finished chatting with civilians, we drove away and stopped a few cars randomly. While driving down a dark road, with night-vision goggles on and all the lights turned out, we came across two men next to a small car that was parked in the darkness. The men were outside the car when they saw us and scrambled into the vehicle, leaving the trunk ajar. For the men of Ghost Platoon, who have been hit with more than two dozen IEDs, this scenario looked menacing. The soldiers thought they had caught the men laying a bomb.

For a moment, it seemed that the men might try to run for it. But if they tried to speed away, within ten seconds they would be dead and the car would be strewn across the road in a smoldering smear of metal and burning rubber.

“Light ‘em up, Gunner!” said SSG Sturm. In this Humvee, “light ‘em up” means hit them with the spotlight. The next command might be, “Gunner! Shoot them!” And then seconds later, as the scene described above exploded onto the street, the next command would be, “Cease fire gunner! Gunner cease fire!” (It seems like they always have to yell “cease fire” at least twice.)

Luckily the men stopped, and when they did, their trunk popped open. Hmmm... The translator came forward and the men explained that they had seen a box on the side of the road and stopped to see if it was a bomb. Hmmm... On a dark section of road just in front of our advancing platoon. Hmmm... They nearly ran for it when SSG Sturm told the gunner to light them up. I was thinking, Arrest these guys! SSG Sturm told a soldier to search the area for an IED, but they found nothing.

“Maybe they were trying to mark a spot for someone else to place an IED,” said Sturm. Made sense. Someone could loiter and pick the best spot, then mark it and drive away. If he got caught loitering, so what? He didn’t have anything incriminating. But when the guy came behind him with the bomb, he could just spot the mark, get out and place the bomb and keep going. Whatever the case, the soldiers let the two men go, and drove off into the night.

This was the first sign. It’s hard to make forward progress on unsteady ground.

Then we drove over to Mufrek Police Station where—about a week ago—the IPs had opened fire on us with machine guns and AKs as we stopped another suspicious car. It turned out that the driver of that car got away because the police were shooting at us.

We walked into the station with a half-dozen heavily armed American soldiers, and I accompanied three American Army captains into the office of the Mufrek police chief. He was portly and unkempt, smoking and joking, and there was a suspect standing before him, hands bound behind his back. Behind the suspect, on a chair that soon would be offered to me, there was a rubber hose and another device made of electrical cord, tape and cloth that was obviously for beating people.

American soldiers had told me that they had actually heard beatings taking place here, screaming and crying, and one young soldier mentioned, “They just don’t know any better.” Absolute power....

I had to move the hose and the electrical-beating-device out of my way to sit. As I picked it up, I wondered how many people had been beaten with it. It showed some wear.

The conversation with the chief meandered for more than half an hour. At one bend he casually mentioned that his men had just caught an insurgent trying to use a bomb, but that the man had told them everything without the police even having to kick or beat him. The chief ordered tea and ginger ale for his guests which was served while he and the soldiers discussed ways to improve security. One of the captains asked: “Do you have enough ammunition?”

I winced at that question because they keep shooting at us, but it was intended to underscore our partnership with the police as they attempt to rebuild the ranks and establish order and maintain peace. Lofty goals that don't fit comfortably with the devices on that chair.

The American officers and the smoking policeman finished their chat, and we headed back to FOB Gabe. A couple minutes into the ride, a radio call said that IPs were shooting at one of our patrols. "It's going to take some time...."

When we got back around midnight, I was standing outside for a few minutes before it dawned on me that it was snowing. Snow. In Iraq. Some people think this would never happen.

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