Wednesday, February 09, 2005

The Kids!

Iraqi Kids Brighten a Rainy Day

Baquba, Iraq
It was 0400 when local units limped from their tents and slogged through the mud to assemble for this morning’s mission: sweeping a restless area of Baquba called Mufrek. The operation would begin by securing a square section of eight roads, several blocks deep. Bradley fighting vehicles and dismounted Iraqi and Americans would establish the cordon, while additional dismounted troops swept up the streets to search every house for weapons, explosives, and other contraband.

Every Iraqi family is permitted one AK assault rifle, provided they obtain registration papers. When the family has the papers, our soldiers merely check the serial number. They do not confiscate registered weapons. In cases where the family has only one AK but no paperwork, the soldiers issue the family a receipt for the weapon, then turn the assault rifle over to the IPs. A family member must go to the IP station (in this case, the station where 15 people were killed yesterday with a car bomb), and register the weapon in order to get it back.

While we swept up the muddy streets, there was the roar of jets overheard. Tactical air support; just in case. But if we got hit this morning, the weapon or weapons most likely would be bombs, rendering air support useless in stopping it.

We moved predictably. Although we heard only the occasional stray shots, the prospect of someone hastily emplacing an IED was very real. As with other neighborhood sweeps I’ve seen, this one did not yield much--about 70 military weapons. Nearly all were AKs, but there was a sniper rifle and a few pistols.

Then, like squirrels in a park, the kids began to appear. They soon lined the muddy way. Iraqi kids are about the most polite I’ve seen anywhere in the world. But that doesn't mean they're shy--these kids are always very excited to see US soldiers. They just wave and wave and wave those little arms until they can barely hold them up. The moment a soldier casts a smile their way, the little faces erupt in smiles, some jump up and down as if on springs, until I think they will collapse in fatigue. But they never stop as long as the troops are in view.

This morning one little boy, he must have been six, followed us down the road, waving and smiling, waving and smiling, never saying a word. He kept a polite distance, never asked for chocolate, or a pencil, or anything. Just waving and smiling, hoping for that smile back from a US solider. When he finally got one, he became energized, jumped up and down, smiled more and waved harder. Then he saw my camera, and he stopped jumping. He kept smiling and began posing.

Iraqis can be serious posers when the cameras come out. The two strongest contenders are the Iraqi Police and Iraqi children. What the kids possess in natural charm and sheer energy, the police counterbalance with strained poses holding rifles and radios. Kids will stop anywhere and pose, usually with broad grins, waves and thumbs-up. But the police favor several poses: Cop with Gun, Cop with Radio, Cop with Police Car; Cop with Sunglasses, Cop Wearing Black Mask. The kids just have those smiles and little waves. But the cops seem to know who takes the best pictures in Iraq; the favorite Iraqi police pose is Officer with Child. Maybe it's the classic "if you can't beat 'em, pose with 'em" strategy," en vivo.

Occasionally an IP just plucks a kid from the crowd and asks me to photograph them together. On election day, an IP seemed to just randomly borrow kids from families for photo ops. An Iraqi man nudged me, saying knowingly, “Police with child. This is the wonderful photopicture.”

The Iraqi children who trail our convoys and make many of the patrols into parades are the best barometer we have about the future here. I've written about how carefully Iraqi parents watch their children, and how the military has come to read the total absence of children on a street as a bad omen. The portentous power of these kids works both ways. Their smiles are a measure of how the people here are mostly embracing a brighter future.

Adults can fake smiles and lie to our faces—-we will probably never know what they are thinking—-but four, five and six-year-old kids are jubilant when they see American soldiers. (Teenaged boys can be a lethally different story.) It's worth noting that these protective parents allow their kids to come wave at us, and that these kids seem to love meeting the Coalition. They are not just begging for Babe Ruth's, but sincerely saying hello. Children’s faces are windows to their parents' inner thoughts. Those honest smiles imply that behind closed doors, their parents do not hate or fear us, and that Iraqi kids are just being kids. That's a picture worth framing.