Monday, October 24, 2005

Purple Fingers


The Perch

I was in Baquba during the January elections. I’d hitched a ride with the US Army to a polling site. There were bombs exploding, mortars falling, and hot machine guns. The fact that the voting was going great despite the violence was something few people expected. When the soldiers dropped me off along with a CNN crew, they couldn’t believe we were willing to go alone. Neither could I.

Until that day, I’d been skeptical about Iraq. Not fashionably cynical, merely skeptical. We could all hear what the US President, the UK Prime Minister, and other elected leaders were saying, but they are politicians. We also could hear the end-of-the-Iraqi-world predictions by so many others who were counting the Iraqis out. But nobody really knew what the Iraqi people had in mind, and the Iraqis were the people who counted most.

The millions who voted sent a clear message: serpentine lines of ebullient Iraqis risked their lives—many died—to have a say in their futures. People voted by dipping their right index fingers into purple ink and casting their lot. The image of Iraqi voters proudly holding their stained fingers aloft became a symbol for the success of the election. In Baquba, many voters asked me to photograph them as they left the polling places, all smiles and purple fingers.

The courage of the Iraqi people that January day planted a seed of confidence in my mind. These were not timid or cowering souls. There I was: an American in a dangerous Iraqi city, at the very polling site that soldiers were wagering would be bombed. I was weaponless and alone. One after another, Iraqis came and shook my hand, showing me their children, laughing, smiling, saying over and over, Thank you, thank you, thank you. I felt like an honored guest, and I felt a twinge of shame that I’d held less confidence in the Iraqis than they’d mustered for themselves.

The American soldiers came back to get us after the polls closed, we got into a firefight at a police station, and that was it. The voice of the Iraqi people had risen above the clamor of insurgent violence.

Then came reports that insurgents were targeting people with purple fingers. Since then terrorists have murdered thousands more Iraqis, and hundreds of Coalition members. After all these months, I still wondered which was stronger: the terror, or the hope. Would the Iraqi people speak with softer and more tentative voices now after the slaughter of thousands?

I could have asked to be embedded in the JOC (Joint Operations Center)—a place that sees the big picture of Iraq. But sitting in the JOC would have been like watching the day on some secret television. This was the play-offs—I wanted to be on the fifty yard line. Closer still, I wanted to be on the field, in the huddle.

While it’s easy to criticize “parachute-journalists” who descend into the Green Zone (IZ) for important events, then fly away, the Green Zone would actually be a smart place to parachute into for the big day. Many important officials would be there, making easy access for quick interviews. The journalists were bound to hear gunfire and explosions, adding to the drama of their reportage.

To my thinking, the officials in the Green Zone would be just as available the day after the election, but the Iraqi people would only be out voting that one day. I wanted to see ordinary Iraqi people and look into their eyes to measure the moment. That meant the place to be was alongside CSM Jeffrey Mellinger, the Theatre Command Sergeant Major. His boss is 4-Star General George W. Casey, who is in charge of the war in Iraq. General Casey’s boss might be sitting in the President’s office right now for all I know.

I’d spent three weeks with Mellinger earlier in the year, driving around Iraq, down to Kuwait, then flying over the Arabian Gulf to ships and oil platforms. Mellinger has been in the Army for thirty-three years, as best as I can tell loving every bit of it, except maybe for the times he was recovering in hospitals.

Weeks before the election, I’d asked if I could ride with Mellinger on voting day. I had no idea where he would be that day—I never even asked because I knew he wouldn’t say—but I knew that Mellinger would be where things were happening: on the dusty streets of Iraq. I figured Mellinger would be driving around, stopping everywhere, boots on the ground, talking with Coalition and Iraqis, but he would also be connected to the big picture, and have complete access to Coalition forces, making his perch the best in Iraq.

Monday, 10 October 2005

Two helicopters lifted off from the “Green Zone” and stayed low over Baghdad. After some short landings at surrounding bases, flying over villages, fields, palm groves, and densely populated areas, we landed at Griffin Field, Camp Victory, Baghdad. I dragged out my bags, and as the two Blackhawks lifted away, I was nearly blown over with my heavy gear.

I climbed the steps to the road, looked around, and heard someone yelling: “Mikey!” It was SSG Anguiano who is finishing up his second year in Iraq. Staff Sergeant “A” drives for CSM Mellinger. I’d gotten to like SSG A during my three weeks with the crew earlier in the year. When I asked his first name, SSG A answered, “Staff Sergeant.”

After loading my gear into the Humvee hatch (trunk), we drove to link up with CSM Mellinger and some MPs who were training and working with Iraqi Police. Strength does not automatically equal victory, and the outcome was in question: security preparations were underway. Thousands of details needed attention. Junked and blown-up cars and other debris were removed from roadsides to reduce the bomb threat, weapons were cleaned, and radios checked.

On Monday, 10 October, CSM Mellinger and crew were going into Baghdad with the 393rd Infantry Regiment, 1st Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 75th Division, from Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. (I was in the Army for five years—studied hard—and still am lost on Army names.) They train Iraqi Police. We walked around in the fine dust and talked with the Iraqi Police, who will comprise the innermost ring of the security encircling all polling places.

Iraqi Police have been taking an awful beating at the checkpoints, from bomb and sniper attacks. The insurgents sometimes rig the cars similar to the “DC snipers,” where the kid hid and fired his rifle through a hole in the trunk. Only here, sometimes they will make the hole in a car door, and the shooter will lie on the rear floor and take aim. The car might pause a moment on an overpass, and then take a shot at Iraqi or American forces. Only takes a few moments and bap! Dead man. They do it all the time: drive-bys are daily occurrences that rarely make the news, yet the many checkpoints devastated by car bombs often do, especially if someone has video.

It’s Ramadan, and devout Muslims are marking the holiday month by fasting and going without fluids. The traditional practice causes devout cops to keel over, and devout soldiers to collapse, and devout drivers to fade behind the wheel. During our first stop at a checkpoint, an Iraqi civilian collapsed, sending an Iraqi policeman running to fetch water.

Heading out that morning, we drove down the four-lane highway called “Route Irish,” which many soldiers still think is one of the most dangerous in Iraq. Compared to many countries, the roads in Iraq are very good—with the exception of the bombs—and Route Irish has become relatively safe from IEDs. But there, sitting in the middle of our two lanes, was a box. It might be a bomb. It might be a ruse. Maybe it fell off a truck. As we slowed, a pickup full of Iraqi Police zoomed toward the box. My mind raced, saying nooooooo!, but there was nothing we could do: the police were going to be blown to bits. They zoomed right by, it didn’t explode, and their wake was enough to jostle the empty box, so we drove on.

At another checkpoint we visited that morning, a US Army major was handing out bug juice that he’d bought from the PX with his own money. I asked the major how things were going. He was polite but a little grumpy, saying the supply chain was lagging, that’s why he bought the bug juice. But Mellinger said bug juice is a “Class Eight” item. As such it is freely available, and free. Many “supply problems” occur because people do not know the arcana of the strings.

One Iraqi Police commander at the checkpoint talked about how the enemy likes to use Opels, but especially big Mercedes and BMWs, which are plentiful in Iraq. Opels make good car bombs because they are cheap, but Mercedes and BMWs are great for drive-by shootings or fast attacks. Nobody can catch them. Plus, he said, the terrorists like to look cool. They really like the 7-series BMWs.

After the first four checkpoints, we stopped at the old Kuwaiti Embassy, which apparently never re-opened after Saddam plundered Kuwait. The place was in awful disrepair. CSM Mellinger has a good way of going to interesting places, and just telling me when I need to get back. An American sergeant kindly gave me a tour, asking if I would like to meet a police commander. “Definitely,” I said, “Thank you.”

The sergeant apologized to the police commander for not announcing in advance, but the commander smiled in welcome and offered us seats. I wanted to get straight to the negatives, so I asked him what was wrong, and what would make his job go better. I expected the answer to be “Radios and armor,” like it is in Mosul. But this commander said he needed his building refurbished.

“Are you saying communications and armor are not a problem?” I could hardly believe it, thinking he might be one of those chiefs who looks out for himself more than his men. But the American sergeant affirmed that the IPs in this battalion have body armor and helmets. They are also getting new armored vehicles called ASVs, which the American sergeant explained are much better than the armored Humvees his men use. In fact, the Marines and others are using ASVs, which look like mini-Strykers. The police commander showed me a photo. They were getting dozens of ASVs, and he seemed satisfied. All he wanted was a better building. “I will tell the Americans,” I said.

ASV in Baghdad

After we departed the commander’s office, a young sergeant came over to me saying I’d ridden in the back of his ambulance in Baquba. The young sergeant also said he’d just gotten off leave and had flown to Amsterdam where he’d started gambling. He won about 4,500 Euros. “About six thousand bucks,” he said, and he proceeded with that loot to Switzerland.

“I bet you spent all 4,500 in Switzerland, didn’t you?” He had, but it was worth it, he said. A couple years back, I bought a salad and a glass of water in Switzerland for about $40. The salad was good, but it wasn’t worth forty bucks.

Since he was a medic, I told him the weird story of the IP who was shot in the leg, but smiled at me so I would take his picture. The young sergeant laughed, saying he had seen weird things too, like the time an Iraqi got part of his skull blown off and was holding his hand over his brain, but when he saw the young medic, the Iraqi man took his hand off his brain and grabbed the young sergeant’s hands and kissed them. He told other “hand kissing” stories that were just as strange.

As we headed out to more police checkpoints, I kept expecting to get shot by a sniper or blown up, but amazingly nothing happened. One of the American soldiers said I must be good luck. Other soldiers have said the opposite. At the last checkpoint, a policeman was cleaning his belt-fed machine gun ammunition, and CSM Mellinger was so happy he smiled for at least thirty seconds. “Can you believe we get paid for this [stuff]?” he said. Mellinger says that every day I’ve gone out with him. “I’d do this for free,” he said another time, “but they pay me anyway.”

The police morale seemed high at all eight checkpoints. The only IP who seriously grumbled was that chief who was getting millions of dollars’ worth of new ASVs, but who also wanted a new or refurbished building.

We headed back to Camp Victory where they put me in what amounts to a base hotel. It was the nicest place I had stayed in Iraq. I had a big room with a television that I couldn’t figure out, a shower and separate bathtub, hot water, toilet, and five bunk beds all to myself, on a lake across from one of Saddam’s palaces.

Pre-mission briefing on historic day: 15 October 2005

Wednesday, 13 October 2005

The soldiers do a pre-mission briefing before leaving the gates, and CSM Mellinger warned that the “Green Zone” is extremely dangerous, and not secure. “It’s just a place on the map,” he said. And then, apparently to make me feel more at home, he warned that journalists are specifically targeted. We started down Route Irish to the Combat Support Hospital (CSH) in the Green Zone.

Down at the CSH, Mellinger asked an Iraqi nurse what she thought of the referendum on Saturday. She seemed uncertain. Every time I’ve gone into a CSH, the people seem to be under stress, as if the carnage they see wears on them. Up in Mosul, one soldier told me that he once saw a nurse walk outside and just burst into tears.

Like soldiers who have seen a lot of combat, CSH soldiers don’t stir quickly. They don’t scramble when the Theatre Command Sergeant Major walks in. They usually just smile, say hello, and make small talk, like they are talking with their grandfather. Mellinger visits CSHs twice per week, walking from room to room, visiting patients, asking the conscious soldiers how they got sick or wounded, offering advice on how to stop smoking. He hates cigarettes, and wants all his troops to stop, admitting that he, too, used to smoke until he got smart.

We came into a room—the room I dislike the most because that’s where we usually see and smell patients with bad abdominal wounds—where a badly-wounded Iraqi lay unconscious, but not still. He was rolling back and forth, kicking his legs in a scissor-motion, as in severe torment or agony. Rolling back and forth, back and forth, kicking and kicking. A doctor said the man was an interpreter, and that he thought the interpreter’s dad worked for the Los Angeles Times. The interpreter had been hit in the body and left eye with shrapnel apparently from a bomb. Part of his left occipital lobe was missing, the eye was gone. The doctor said he heard the man had saved the lives of two US soldiers, but wasn’t sure of any details.

The man kept rolling back and forth, kicking his legs, and CSM Mellinger walked over like I had seen him do before, and gently put his right hand on the man’s right shoulder. Suddenly the man stopped rolling and kicking and just lay there still and breathing. CSM Mellinger stood beside the bed for several minutes, talking with the doctor, his hand lightly on the man’s shoulder. The man settled down, and a breathing rhythm came to his lungs. After some minutes, Mellinger took his hand off the man’s shoulder, and about thirty seconds later, the man’s agony seemed to return, and he started kicking and rolling, kicking and rolling.

We visited more rooms. There were few American or Coalition patients that day. We came into one familiar room where I’d once seen a badly-wounded Marine. On another day, an Iraqi man who had been set ablaze and left to die was in there. Nobody knew who he was. Today, there were two young Iraqi boys. I guessed their ages to be eleven and thirteen. The eleven-year-old had been shot in the forearm, but was sitting in a chair watching his unconscious brother who was in bed snaked with tubes. The thirteen-year-old had been shot somewhere in the body. Mellinger put his hand on the boy’s shoulder.

A doctor said he thought the boys had been caught in a crossfire, but he didn’t know. The doctor did not know where their parents were. The eleven-year-old watched his brother, and then watched the heart-rate monitor like it was a television. Quietly staring at his unconscious brother, and then at the heart-rate monitor. A soldier put her hand on the eleven-year-old boy’s head and asked if he wanted some candy, but he pointed to his jaw like it hurt. The boy was polite and responsive, but without smiles.

When we returned to base, I had a new roommate who said he worked for the International Red Cross. “Are you Swiss?” I asked. He answered he was German, and from Stuttgart. “Excellent city,” I said. “Was there a year or two ago.”

His name was Kris Mehl and he seemed tired, or even weary, like he had seen too much of something he didn’t want to see. After some conversation, Kris began to cheer up, and he laughed, saying, “Americans like to pretend they are Canadians, and Germans like to pretend they are Swiss.”

Kris said he had been to Guantanimo, Abu Ghraib and other prisons, interviewing prisoners for the Red Cross. The Red Cross has access to “detainees,” and I asked, “Are we still abusing prisoners?”

“I can’t say anything,” Kris answered.
“Why not?”
“Would you write about it if your government was abusing them?”
“Why can’t you tell me?”

Kris explained that the Red Cross can have access to and interview prisoners, but that their reports are confidential.

“Yes,” I said, “But wasn’t it a Red Cross document that exposed abuses at Abu Ghraib?”
“Yes,” answered Kris, “but that document was leaked.”

The Coalition cashed in a mountain of high-ground for intelligence. Troops on the battleground know how important information can be. These terrorists use ambulances to make bombs, and blow up hospitals, and shoot teachers in front of their students. All these things are true, but the Coalition still lost high ground at Abu G and other places. Keeping the high-ground costs many lives. Open societies are held to higher standards.

Days before the voting, a captured letter was released and American authorities wrote the following:

Today the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a letter between two senior al Qa'ida leaders, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi that was obtained during counterterrorism operations in Iraq. This lengthy document provides a comprehensive view of al Qa'ida's strategy in Iraq and globally.

… The United States Government has the highest confidence in the letter's authenticity.

Questions of authenticity have since risen, as would be expected. In the intelligently-written thirteen-page letter, the author argues to Zarqawi that he should stop “slaughtering” (cutting throats) the hostages:

Among the things which the feelings of the Muslim populace who love and support you will never find palatable – also – are the scenes of slaughtering the hostages. You shouldn't be deceived by the praise of some of the zealous young men and their description of you as the shaykh of the slaughterers, etc. They do not express the general view of the admirer and the supporter of the resistance in Iraq, and of you in particular by the favor and blessing of God.

The author implies that most Muslims have a heart even for those they might once have considered enemies, warning that great numbers of Muslims who may have been supporters will instead turn against the terrorists because they do not approve of slaughtering hostages. Cynical westerners hearing that Muslims are generally peaceful people roll their eyes in disbelief, casting them in the general direction of the most recent homicide bomb attack. But here a top terrorist apparently takes pains to point out that devout Muslims are averse to slaughtering people. When Muslims react in anger about what we did at Abu G and other prisons, they are not merely posturing; they are deadly serious. Just as the terrorists lose support when they slaughter our people, we lose support when we abuse anyone.

And then, the terrorist-sage counsels Zarqawi:

However, despite all of this, I say to you: that we are in a battle, and that more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media. And that we are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of our Umma.

Friday, 14 October 2005

On the day before the referendum, I accompanied CSM Mellinger and his security crew to Taji, to inspect “Phoenix Academy,” the training facilities for American soldiers coming to Iraq. On the drive out of Baghdad, the streets were spooky quiet. Baghdad seemed almost deserted. Traffic had been locked down for tomorrow’s voting. Iraqi police were manning checkpoints into Baghdad, searching every vehicle. The sound of car bombs that had been rumbling across Baghdad every day since I returned was now quiet.

On the eve of the election, I wanted to be fully prepared for combat in the morning. Once we started out, we’d have no idea how long we might be away, so I headed as quickly as possible to my room, showered, and managed to fall asleep. While I slept, terrorists knocked out electricity to most of Baghdad. Iraqis pulled out their lanterns.

I walked through the morning darkness to meet the soldiers, who were laughing at the terrorists: “Don’t those dumbasses know that the voting will happen during the daytime?” When it comes to winning hearts and minds, cutting off the electricity didn’t win any support. I have been saying it for many months: The terrorists are losing. But today was litmus-day.

A Military Police Command Sergeant Major: Don’t shoot old beggar ladies.

We met with four Humvees full of soldiers from the 42nd MP Brigade from Fort Lewis, Washington, most of whom seemed to expect combat, or at least an encounter with an IED or car bomb. During the pre-mission briefing, the CSM of the 42nd MPs warned about an “old lady beggar bomb.” The terrorists have delivered bombs in the strangest ways: there’s the dead-dog bomb, the dead-donkey bomb, the dead-horse bomb, the bomb in the water main, the bomb under the overpass, the one on the electric pole, and even the one in the soccer ball. But I have never, ever, heard of the old-lady-beggar-bomb. This was innovative. The soldiers laughed, as did their CSM who nonetheless said, “Now don’t go shooting little old ladies. If you see an old beggar lady, just don’t let her get close.”

Placard: 15 October 2005

Security demanded practically no cars on the road, although about 200 drivers had been issued special placards, allowing them to conduct official business in their vehicles. Anyone driving without the placard would be detained by the IP.

At 0625 there was a big explosion in the distance.

We loaded into the six Humvees—four from 42nd MPs, two from CSM Mellinger—and at 0642 we stopped just before the main gate, and the soldiers piled out from the Humvees and went RED: Loaded their weapons. Five Humvees were mounted with .50-caliber machine guns, and one had an M-249 (small machine gun). We could put up a fight, but machine guns are pretty useless against IEDs.

We rolled into Baghdad.

The voting started at 0700.

At 0716, our caravan of six Humvees came to a halt, when a man who appeared to be drunk or stoned stumbled into the road. But then the news came into my headset that the man is often drunk here. He staggered to the middle of the road and pulled down his pants. Some soldiers got out and the interpreter tackled him. He was flex-cuffed and handed over to the Iraqi Police.

Baghdad: interpreter tackles stripper

A few minutes later we stopped a car that had no placard displayed, but it turned out to be an Iraqi soldier, out of uniform, delivering food to other soldiers. He did have a placard, but not in the window.

At 0749 we stopped another car and the MP CSM said through the headset, “Remember, we’ve had a lot of people killed along here.” Turned out to be nothing.

At 0800 we checked an American MP post where the soldiers were sleeping on cots on dirt floors in a dilapidated cinder building, sharing two Port-o-lets. These MPs were situated in a neutral zone between an IP station and an Iraqi Army station. As is common, the IPs and IAs were not talking with each other. The fact that the IA pay more than the IP is causing great animosity not just here, but across Iraq.

On our way back through town, flocks of kids had claimed the open roads for soccer fields. At one point, there were four lanes of soccer matches, stretching for maybe half a mile, prompting one soldier to remark, “It’s like the world’s largest soccer game.”

Sadr City Kids

Men from the 64th MP Company, Fort Hood, were supporting two large police districts, including 184 polling sites. All told, thirty-four Military Police companies were sponsoring districts in Baghdad, but this American unit was the only one supporting two police districts. All was quiet. There were no reports of attacks. By 1030, we’d visited other places and still there was no enemy activity. Apart from that one explosion at 0625, I had not heard a shot fired, and no casualties were being reported.

At 1115, we visited Michigan National Guard serving as the 720th MPs. Their area of operations was all of Sadr City, which is a vast slum that comprises more than half the population of Baghdad’s six and half million people. Many Americans had died in Sadr City. SFC Robert Stewart showed CSM Mellinger the giant map of Sadr City, and there was only a single sticker, and it said, “Rock throwing.”

In the January election, I imagined that the stickers on that map might have looked like fish scales. SFC Stewart said that in regard to the polling material, “That part had run amazingly smooth. The ISF [Iraqi Security Forces] are running the entire show. Their ability to protect themselves since January has increased one thousand-fold.” There were so many voters that they were having problems managing the lines.

I spoke with Major Kadhum Shakir, the Sadr City Traffic Police assistant commander. He was confident, and said through the interpreter, “Iraqi people hope constitution pass.” He said that most will vote in Sadr City because the Shia religious leadership in Najaf told them to vote, but did not tell them how to vote. Major Kadhum said that he believes Iraq will get better leadership, and that the voting was going much better than in January.

I then spoke with Major Yayha Rasuruh from the Iraqi Army, who said that four million people live in Sadr City. He is charged with securing the 46th Sector, and said he took all fifty of his soldiers to vote, and he showed his purple finger proudly and said, “I think this is great time Iraq passes through. Thirty-five years we suffer. There is freedom now.” We talked for about ten minutes, and I asked what it was like to vote, and Major Yayha said that the voting worker made him fold his ballot before sticking it in the box. I laughed and said, “The worker was brave. He told an Army Major to fold his paper!”

Major Yayha laughed, “Yes, no longer afraid to talk with Police or Army. This is good change.” The moment was warm and fuzzy, but the true situation is not. There is little doubt that the people are getting more confident in their new world, but the under-theme is still Jungle Law. Major Yayha expressed gratitude to America for supporting Iraq, and I did not have the heart to say that many Americans are ready to abandon him powerless and adrift on windswept sands.

At 1210, we arrived at a voting station in Sadr City. There were many Iraqis and throngs of children about—all wanted their photos taken—and as I started to talk with an Iraqi man, I yelled at him and he blinked, and CSM Mellinger said, “You got your earplugs in.”

American Command Sergeant Majors at Al Muthana IP station on Referendum Day

One young Iraqi policeman was hungry and irritable; apparently nobody had brought them food. The American soldiers were dealing with that while I talked with Iraqis. American forces were not supposed to go into the polling stations, but I am not a soldier. CSM Mellinger said he would give me ten minutes, and one soldier volunteered to go with me just in case. I thanked the soldier for volunteering, and was not brave or crazy enough to turn it down.

Inside the polling place was empty except for the workers. I asked to photograph, but they did not permit, so I asked to see the boss, and he firmly but politely said, “No, is against rules.” He was pleasant and agreed to talk but did not want to give his name, saying that he was in charge of nine polling sites, and that 2,500 people were registered at each site. At this site, which was a girls’ high school—most polling sites were schools—about 1,500 people had voted. The supervisor said that the people had formed a large line at about 0600, an hour before the polls opened. He expected that Ramadan had decreased the number of voters, but 1,500 of 2,500 is an impressive number. The soldier, the interpreter, and I left the polling station and walked out front.

Soldiers from the American 3rd Infantry Division arrived and, of course, the kids surrounded the newcomers.

Iraqi boy insists on being photographed

I’ve said many times that Iraqi kids are among the best-behaved I’ve seen anywhere, but this does not apply to kids where soldiers have given them too much candy. They become Royal Brats. Luckily, these kids were friendly, but they all wanted their pictures taken.

First Democracy, then Dental Plan

We departed to another American post, but along one road there was a tire burning, and after that burning tire the streets were lined with boys, and most had their hands behind their backs. I must have seen two dozen boys trying to surreptitiously pick up rocks to throw at us, but by the looks on their faces, it was merely a sporting event. They looked excited, not angry. Like when my friends and I had pelted cars with rocks and oranges when we were kids. It was really great fun. But throwing rocks at soldiers injures people, and some soldiers wanted to carry paint-guns or BB guns, knowing that if they laid into a crowd of boys with one of those automatic paint guns, the boys might think again.

Sadr City boy arming himself for combat

They think nobody saw them...

The pelting continues down the blocks

We met with another group from the 720th MPs who were supporting the Iraqis in the Al Muthana district, where the majority are Christians, but there are also Sunni and Shia. There, MSG Clayton Sneed said, they were supporting 196 polling sites, and all was quiet. The only “strange incident” was a man riding a bike wearing three jackets, so the police took him until the voting is finished.

Board made by MPs at a Al Muthana IP station for tracking polling sites

As we drove further, I saw the strangest sight of the day: a large group of boys playing full-court basketball court with a soccer ball.

We stopped at another station, and met Minnesota National Guard (now the 720th MPs) soldiers. Captain Aaron Krenz said their responsibilities included the Karrada and Mada-an districts, and 119 polling sites. All was quiet, but unlike in Sadr City where the people had made long lines before the polls opened, in these polling sites, he said, many people waited until the afternoon.

Underemployed and overjoyed: Minnesota soldiers waiting for calls that never came

The Minnesota National Guardsmen, who might have been in pitched combat if this were January, were lounging about in lawn chairs, wearing full kit, ready to fight if the Iraqis needed help. But no calls were coming. Apparently the only help anyone needed was for lunch delivery. I later heard people saying the Iraqis didn’t want anyone except Iraqis coming near the polling sites; they wanted to show this was by Iraqis for Iraqis. It was their party.

We left, drove here and there, and landed at a different unit: the 170th MPs from Fort Lewis. This unit was responsible for supporting twenty polling stations. SFC Dilbert French mentioned some minor SIGACTS that were not worth jotting down. “Is it like this all over Iraq?” I asked. I could hardly believe it. Where are the mortars? The IEDs? The homicide bombers and car bombs? No snipers? Surely the ground must be shaking in Falluja or Ramadi, and what about Mosul, Baquba, and Basra? What about Tal Afar? SFC French checked the secure computer for all of Iraq. The whole country looked quiet. “The media is going to be very disappointed,” chuckled one soldier, and I laughed along with him.

Slowest day in years: This policeman was sleeping in front of his station

I woke him up

By 1830, we visited Arizona National Guard who had become the 860th MPs. All was quiet except for a couple of rockets that exploded harmlessly in a field.

We visited the 126th MPs from the New Mexico National Guard, and they said that two car bombs had exploded in the morning, but there were no known casualties, and if there had been casualties, they probably would have known. There was something special about the New Mexico National Guard. They seemed very proud, and they talked about one of their fallen, Sergeant Marshal Alan Westbrook, who had been killed by an IED just down the road about two weeks ago. They said that over 2,000 people had attended Sergeant Westbrook’s funeral. Some soldiers did not grasp the importance of this day in Iraq, but I had the feeling that the 126th certainly did.

MPs help secure IP station while IPs guard the polling sites

Stark evidence: democracy is taking root. (Photograph taken from the roof of an IP station on 15 October 2005)

Unit after unit that we stopped in was proud that nothing was happening in their sectors, and now that the polls were closed, it was a matter of securing the ballots.

We then visited the 504th from Fort Lewis, who had detailed instructions on one of the doors on how to “Turn a Hamster into a Fighting Machine.” Basically, just select a hamster and tape a knife to its back. It was recommended not to tape firearms to its back. Mellinger burst out laughing and walked away, and I stood there laughing uncontrollably while reading the whole set of instructions:

We walked into the TOC of the 504th, and the board was quiet. Nothing.

And that was it: 1903 hours, the four Humvees from the 42nd MPs drove away in the darkness, and we drove home. This was the finest, most complete mission I had ever gone on.

Next morning, the Army said there had been 19 attacks on polling sites throughout Iraq. In January there had been 108 attacks on polling sites. There had been about 300 total attacks during the January election day, and the Army said there had been 89 total attacks in Iraq during this voting day.

It had been quiet from my perch. The guns had been silenced long enough that we could hear the Iraqi voice speak for a second time. The voice was louder, stronger, and prouder than it had been in January.