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I am supposed to talk to the deputy governor, a smart former Saddam official who speaks good English. Unexpectedly, however, the governor himself arrives so I interview him instead, even though he speaks no English. The army handbook on Arab culture tells you to converse directly with the person, not the translator, even though you do not understand a word he is saying. I find it works. I ask him when the police will stop wearing masks.
“I issued an order last week,” he says. “It has already stopped.” Apparently no one was paying much attention.
“Were things better under Saddam?” I ask.
“The people were safer. They had more gas. There was more electricity.” I wait for the kicker but there is none. (Saddam is still very popular in his home town. “After he died all the taxi drivers had his picture in their windows for about a week,” says Davenport.)
“What can the national government and the Americans do to help?” I ask the governor.
“They can send us more money.”
As we file out through the hallways again, almost everyone is carrying a machine gun. Our soldiers carry machine guns, the Iraqi Police carry machine guns, private contractors carry machine guns, even men in business suits are carrying machine guns. If one of them ever went off, there would be a bloodbath.
AT THE END OF THE DAY, our assignment is to “dismount” from our humvees and mingle among the population. We stop on a quiet residential street. The soldiers automatically fan to the perimeter, facing outward. Davenport warns me to stay out of the middle of the street. “You’re more of a target.” Oddly, although we are now completely exposed, I feel safer than in the cramped vehicle.
Two women soldiers begin canvassing the neighborhood. One is “psy-ops” — psychological operations — and the other is a translator. Say what you will, it is infinitely easier to have women conducting these interviews. A mother surrounded by a gaggle of children talks through a half-open gate. Then a small knot of robed men gathers around them in the street. They talk about the police, their education and electricity. Meanwhile the remainder of the patrol scans the rooftops for snipers.
Finally we mount up again and head back to the base. As we wind through the narrow streets, Nagy reflects on the changes she has seen over the past three years. “I used to be able to drive downtown in an SUV and walk around the streets just talking to people. Now we need all this armor. I’ve had a few home-to-Jesus moments,” she says. “But there’s no way to other way to do it.”
Like every other soldier I have met in Iraq, she is more than reluctant to give up the effort. “I could be home with my husband taking care of the kids,” she says. “I didn’t have to be here. I volunteered for my second tour.”
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