At Large

All Quiet on the Referendum Front

Give or take some apparently "happy fire." And all those U.S. Air Force jets flying high overhead toward Syria. Live weekend reports from our man in Baghdad.

By 10.17.05

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Live weekend reports from our Man in Baghdad -- scroll down for Saturday and Sunday morning and Sunday afternoon entries.

Thursday
BAGHDAD -- Today is Thursday. The Referendum on the Constitution is two days away. There is a growing conviction that the Constitution will win. There have been some rather remarkable last minute agreements with the Sunnis that make the document somewhat more palatable to them. If it is acceptable to even half the Sunnis, then this thing is a "slam dunk," as George Tenet said about something else on an earlier occasion. Only this time it will be a "slam dunk."

Today has been very quiet. Unusually quiet. One has to wonder if this is the lull before the storm -- a 2005 version of the Tet Offensive. Rumors abound of organized groups of "thousands of terrorists" getting ready to pour into the city. "Pouring in " would require the kind of military strength and tactical skill that the terrorists don't have. The U.S. Army would love to see them try. If they do, we will know what the guy who originally coined the word "bloodbath" really had in mind.

The media also seem off their game. I think the boredom is getting to them. About half an hour ago, the AP wire had a semi-hysterical story about a single "Human Rights Activist" who was wandering the Western Desert in Anbar Province and couldn't find any polling places. Anbar is the one province everyone concedes the Sunnis will win. The AP report seemed to want to suggest that if the Sunnis in Anbar can't vote then this election that Bush wants so badly must really be rigged. Anbar, is of course, one of the most sparsely populated places on the planet; one that would obviously not be awash in polling places regardless of what is going on. About 25 minutes after that hot bit of news hit the wire it simply disappeared. One is left to conclude that the poor, disenfranchised voters of Anbar have once again been victimized by George Bush.

Had the media bothered to dig a bit, they would have learned that polling places in the really dangerous areas, such as Haditha in Anbar, have been kept secret to prevent their destruction by terrorists before election day. Therefore, it's a good idea to hide them from view even from the AP's reporter. On election day, Humvees equipped with loud speakers will drive through the city with a non-stop broadcast telling the citizenry where to go to vote.

SINCE THINGS ARE VERY quiet, and since the AP reporter had made a point of not being with the "Human Rights Activist" out in far-away Anbar, I concluded that I might as well make believe I am a good reporter myself. I could do so, I decided, by getting out of Baghdad to get a sense of how things look as the election nears. Appropriately armed to the teeth with my M-5 and pistol, I got a ride from someone going out to Baghdad International Airport (BIAP). This used to be known as the most dangerous 10 miles of highway in the world. Recently, however, it has become safer. The Iraqi Army has flooded that road (officially known as Route Irish) with so many soldiers that the only real danger comes from the roadside bombs that mysteriously get planted there in the dark of night regardless of how many Iraqi soldiers are in the vicinity.

For that reason, the ride to BIAP can still be a white-knuckle affair. I'll grant that there are lots of Iraqi troops out there, but the roadside bombs that have done so much damage are detonated from a distance by remote control. Therefore one is dead before even having a fair chance to see or hear what killed you. And all the Iraqi troops in the world can't do much more than help pick up all your pieces. Kind of a modern-day humpty-dumpty operation.

About three quarters of the way to BIAP is the one major checkpoint of the trip: BIAP Checkpoint One, as it is imaginatively called. One of the delicious ironies of the war is that the only thing the guards search for is car bombs and bomb vests, the garment of choice of the suicide bomber. Mirrors on the ends of poles check the undersides of the SUV for car bombs; vigorous frisking and sniffing by dogs will catch the people-borne bombs. As each of us is cleared to go on our way, we are guaranteed to be free of bombs -- regardless of how armed to the teeth we may be with machine guns and pistols. So, if one day two or three loads of us in SUVs get the wacky idea to march into the airport terminal and wipe out every waiting passenger, we will have arrived with the right stuff to do the job. Can you imagine the local Department of Homeland Security trying to explain that kind of a security inspection policy to the editors at the New York Times?

Saturday
TODAY IS ELECTION DAY. The silence is still deafening. I have gone to the roof several times with my binoculars and I see nothing. No tell tale signals of smoke from exploding car-bombs. No sounds of machine gun or AK-47 fire. No sounds of the wailing sirens of Iraqi police racing all over town as one usually hears every day.

Last night I read early reports on CNN of sabotage having collapsed electric power in Baghdad and large parts of the country. I ran up to the roof and saw nothing different from any other night. The large, nearby mosque that often provides the background shot for Baghdad-based news programs was ablaze with lights. But it probably has its own generator.

I am beginning to wonder if the Iraqi security forces and the U.S. Army have things under such tight control that terrorists won't attempt even a token attack. I read that so far, turnout is moderate. Turnout is one of the major points of concern inside the Coalition. Unless turnout is high, no matter what the outcome or what the margin of victory, the results will be tarnished and made to seem illegitimate.

Today's silence has really been quite pervasive. Everything is closed; even the little store down our dusty street that never closes. I went for a short walk past the store and on my way back passed by a guy going in the other direction. I waved my index finger at him and he waved his back. The end of it was stained a deep wine color. Once you have voted you have to dip your right index finger in a little cup filled with a stain. Before voting, you must display your finger to the election worker and, if it's clean, you get to vote. This prevents the quaint old "vote early and vote often" practice that is (or was) so prevalent in some Democratic precincts in Chicago.

As the day went by and my boredom grew, I decided to visit a polling station to do some political research. I disposed of all my guns and armor since today, no one, except soldiers, can carry weapons. I also left my DoD card and passport behind since I figured that if I am kidnapped I don't want to show up on the evening news squatting in front of a camera with my passport displayed and an AK-47 pointed at my head. If they want to know who I am, I will let them guess.

As I set sail to the polling station, I did feel a bit naked since I have never been outside, even within our enclave, without my flak jacket on. I gingerly stepped over the gate as the Kurdish Guards gave me a bit of a curious look. They have never seen any of us walk out the gate. We always drive in our small SUV. I figured that if I started talking I would interrupt their train of thought, so I just gave them the standard Iraqi greeting: "Sallam alechum," and patted my chest. From one came the standard reply: "Alechum Sallam." I kept walking. Just as the polling station came into view about 150 yards away, I heard a pair of very piercing whistles coming from behind. I turned around to see if someone was whistling at me. The sun in my eyes was so bright I couldn't tell who had whistled, or at whom, so I kept walking. Very shortly after that I heard the first firing of the day. It was one of the guards I had greeted who was firing in the air and waving very clearly at me to stop. By the time I was able to give him a questioning look he was running toward me. When he reached me he grabbed my arm and just said: "No, no no no no, no!!" Over and over again.

When he got me back inside the gate, all he said, one more time very emphatically, as if talking to a disobedient dog, was: "NO, NO,NO." I replied, "OK."

THE POLLS CLOSED LITERALLY a minute ago. The people in charge of security today must be letting out an immense and very long sigh of great relief!

Just as I finished typing that sentence all hell broke loose! Heavy machine gun fire, nonstop AK fire, all of it from less than 200 yards north of us. I raced up to the roof with my M-5 along with one of my colleagues who has been here twice as long as I have. All I could hear him say was: "This is much worse than right after the last election."

I stood on the roof trying to figure out what was going on. I was immediately able to see the back of the well-known news anchor at the media company next door, doing her live on-camera report. Since she had such great sound effects going on outside, I'm sure she will be justified in asking her employer for combat pay.

"Happy fire" is a frequent symptom of a celebration in the Middle East. We have all seen it on TV every night. Men shooting wildly in the air. From the roof all we could do was to hear the fire. We couldn't see any of the guys firing to judge where it was being aimed. I finally did spy one of our Kurdish guards close to the noise looking in the direction of the sound, but he had his weapon dangling by his side. I concluded this was "happy fire." I still don't know if I was right, but after 20 minutes the firing stopped and has not resumed.

So the day that so many dreaded, and so many thought would be full of carnage, came and went. Moments ago it was described in a news broadcast as "one of the most peaceful days in Iraq in many months...perhaps in the past year."

Sunday
IT IS EARLY SUNDAY morning in Baghdad. The Referendum took place yesterday and all the Iraqis I know are immensely proud of both the turnout, and the peaceful way it was conducted. My friend Ferras said to me this morning: "I hope George Bush is as proud of us as I am -- and I hope he TELLS us that!"

It is still very peaceful here this Sunday morning. However, jets have been roaring overhead non-stop all morning. They are always so high that I can't see them and, for some reason, they rarely leave contrails here. The direction of the sound makes it clear the planes are headed west. That is not surprising since that is the location of Anbar province and the Syrian border, the scene of almost all the trouble with the terrorists and foreign invaders.

Yesterday, I saw a short report on the AP wire that mentioned "border tension" involving U.S. and Syrian troops near Al-Qaim on the Syrian border. I have heard no more about that, but I wonder to myself if all this air activity is somehow connected to that report.

Unfortunately, today's media lack an Ernie Pyle or a Margueritte Higgins. They were reporters who would find some way to get the story of what is going on in the west back to their readers. I suspect today's reporters have become so accustomed to creature comforts that they are not too willing to move around without a full complement of make-up men and hairstylists, both in short supply out in Anbar. The "embed policy" is still in effect in Iraq, but the number of reporters with the courage to embed and go out has really dwindled to a very few since the heady days right after the war started. One of them is a young woman reporter for CNN named Jennifer Eccleston. She is one very gutsy lady who, a few days ago, did a series of reports about night-time operations with U.S. Marines near Haditha in the west. I find her reports insightful and well written. She also includes material and observations I don't hear from any of the other reporters.

I recall first seeing her on Fox News some years ago reporting from Liberia when the barbarous Charles Taylor was in charge there. I wondered at the time what father would let his young daughter be in such a dangerous place. I finally decided I shouldn't worry about her anymore simply because she was obviously at the front of the line the day that God was passing out the trait called "guts." My only advice to Eccleston is she should demand CNN provide her with a helmet that fits!!

I keep looking for her reports today because she might still be out in the west. The media, however, are still buried in the Referendum Story even though hard news and accurate reports about election results are still very scarce. In the meantime, the jets are overhead in much larger numbers than on any occasion since I have been here. Since everything else here has been so peaceful the past two days, I am dying of curiosity as to why the jets are up there, and what they are doing. In fact, I am beginning to feel that I am entitled to an answer.

Sunday Afternoon
I HAVE BEEN WAITING ALL DAY to learn what is going on in the west that has attracted so much attention all day from the U.S. Air Force. I have neither heard nor read anything. As I have said repeatedly, the media coverage of this war has been an embarrassment. Masses of jet fighters and bombers don't criss-cross Iraq all day just for the thrills it gives the pilots.

A moment ago I received my daily email of the New York Times. The NYT's headline reads: "Turnout is Mixed as Iraqis Vote on New Constitution." If one reads the story it is quite obvious the headline writer did not read the article. Perhaps he was watching the baseball playoffs, or the USC-Notre Dame football game. The headline is clearly in conflict with the article. Presumably that doesn't matter as long as long as a segment of casual readership glances at the headline and says: "Turnout is mixed because the Times said so...Just as I thought, another putdown for Bush!"

The article, which by itself is an accurate account of yesterday, was written by Dexter Filkins and John Burns. These are two well-known Times reporters who are, no doubt, being paid more than two yen and a bowl of rice a day to let the world know everything that is fit to print about Iraq and the Referendum. One also wonders if anyone at the Times has the wit or the insight to realize that under the life and death conditions that exist here, having even a 30% turnout would have been remarkable. What would turnout be in the States if all the voters risked being shot at or kidnapped? Look what just two snipers were able to do to life in and around Washington, D.C. a couple of years ago!

Strangely enough, in spite of the very negative Times headline, Iraqi election workers have reported that minimum turnout has been 61%, and it could run as high as 66%.

The second lead story in the Times is about "Two Sides of the Sunni Vote: Deserted Polls and Long Lines." The article goes on at some length about the "scenes in Anbar province that reflect the fractious nature of Sunni Arab sentiments." Nicely phrased...nice use of the word "fractious." Nowhere does this article say that the total population of Anbar province is 36 people and 17 camels. No one cares a whit what happens in Anbar province! It is an absolute given that the Sunnis will win Anbar in a landslide. If the Shiites win Anbar it is they who will demand a recount!

Fifteen minutes ago I decided I had had enough of the silence and waiting around, so I went up to the roof to take a look around again. Yesterday when I went up there, I decided in honor of the referendum to climb up the vertical steel ladder that can get you an extra 20 feet higher into the sky. While I spent my military career nearly 50 years ago in the Army, the Navy would have been a better place to learn how to deal with those ladders. I was able to get up okay, but getting down was a different matter and as a result, my legs are incredibly sore just from that minimal effort. Today I made the trip to the roof alone, which was a very stupid thing to do at my age. And, when I got to the very top I learned absolutely nothing new because nothing is happening out there. The whole trip was an unwarranted and dangerous risk since I had no one to help me make the turn to come back down the ladder.

During our lockdown we have had no meal service because the people in the kitchen have been on their "4 day holiday." As a result, I have eaten nothing but pistachio nuts and four Kit Kat bars. The nuts here are the best in the world, I am told, so I eat them by the fistful. Tonight, my colleague CJ has decided we are going to drive to the Blue Star Cafe for a bite. I have never been there but I notice every day in the Intelligence Summary that the Blue Star is off limits to all the military for "security reasons." Perhaps we will have some excitement yet. I also hope to meet some people there from whom I might learn some more about the Referendum I have just witnessed.

I am home from the Blue Star and have learned nothing new except that they make a very nice chicken filet. There was a very relaxed crowd there and they all seemed to enjoy the evening out under a full moon in weather that is starting to become pleasantly balmy. The silence all over Baghdad, however, is still deafening. It is as if all the terrorists had suddenly been whisked away on a flying saucer by spacemen. Everyone seems genuinely puzzled by the quiet and, without fail, everyone spoke of waiting for another shoe to drop. Apparently a couple of clowns fired two mortar shells into the Green Zone sometime today and only knocked a small limb off a tree. That stuff doesn't count, however.

I spoke to a several strangers at the Blue Star. I asked if they had voted and most said they had. I asked them to guess the outcome. Without exception they all said the Constitution will pass. I even asked them if they thought I would win the 25 cent bet I made three days ago. More than half think I will win. On the way back we were stopped at a checkpoint by U.S. troops and were put through the most rigorous inspection I have undergone in Iraq, even though we all had DoD badges.

For the past couple of weeks I have been bothered by a thought that has now taken the form of a question. Will the U.S., in a year or two, look back on this referendum and perhaps wish the Sunnis had won? The Shiites are by preference much closer to the Iranians in their brand of Islam. The current president of Iraq spent his years in exile in Iran. He has very tight bonds there. I think this is a question that may start to get some attention in the coming months both in Washington and in Baghdad. Iran is the real danger in this part of the world, and it would be depressing indeed to contemplate an eventual alliance of some sort between the Iranian Shiites and Iraqi Shiites.

The day is winding down. It's after 10 p.m., and I still have no idea what the Air Force has been doing all day with dozens of their planes up there.

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