BAYJI, Iraq — Bayji, a Sunni town 40 miles north of Tikrit, is one of the places where the Bush Administration’s new “clear, hold and build” policy should be fairly easy to implement.
With a uniform population, there is little of the Sunni- Shi’ite violence that is scarring other portions of Iraq. Here the only conflict is between the old and the new — the deposed Baathist order, thrown out of work and its positions of power by de-Baathification, versus the people who are being groomed to take its place.
With a population of 120,000, Bayji is still small enough so that issues tend to be personal. A few months ago, insurgents surprised the chief of police at a dinner party and executed him along with several other people. Some people say he was beheaded, although others say that isn’t true.
As a result, members of the 82nd Airborne have established a “JSS” — Joint Security Station — the latest strategy to shore up the immature authority of the new government. Rotating platoons of about 25 GI’s share the downtown police station with the handful of Iraqi Police willing to remain. Conditions are not uncomfortable. There are rooms full of cots, running water, and hot meals trucked in from the base. On the second floor roof, carpenters hammer into the night, enclosing a new annex.
At midnight a convoy of six humvees plus an armored truck goes out to patrol the streets. Someone says we will do a “dismount” and walk the beat on foot. We did the same thing this afternoon in the smaller village of Al-Syria. The Iraqi Police were young and amateurish, some of them wrapped in headscarves to hide their faces, but there was little incidence besides children waving as we marched by.
As we prepare to leave, however, word comes down that informers have provided some new information. There are going to be several raids on the houses of terror suspects.
AS WE RIDE THROUGH the narrow streets, we are ever wary of IEDs and — worse — land mines, which are easy to bury in the unpaved roads. Sergeant Major Donovan Watts was killed last November just outside the base when his humvee hit a land mine on an unpaved access road. As we reach the end of a narrow side street the convoy suddenly stops. Everyone dismounts and and runs forward.
I am in the last vehicle and by the time I reach the target house soldiers have propped small ladders against the walls and entered the compound. “Stay outside until we secure the area,” my escort tells me. There is the sound of breaking glass and banging doors and soon soldiers’ heads appear on the rooftops.
As I enter the courtyard, one private is going through a large bin of what seems to be garden fertilizer. He pulls something out and carefully places it on the paving stone. “Pineapple grenade,” he says and continues rummaging but finds nothing else. Another soldier pulls out a digital camera and takes a few pictures.
“No one home,” a soldier announces. “Someone must have tipped them off.”
Almost immediately, everyone runs across the street and sets up ladders against the wall of the opposite villa. This time people are home — two young women and two young boys. Bizarrely, they are watching “Tigerland,” a movie about American GI’s, on the living room TV. Green fatigued soldiers scurry across their screen even as real soldiers are streaming through their house.
The women are brought outside for questioning. They are sisters — both strikingly beautiful with white headscarves framing their finely chiseled features. Sergeant Peter Green, a husky African-American with his head shaved clean, quizzes them through an interpreter. The night air is cold. While they are standing outside another soldier brings them a blanket.
The older sister says the people across the street have gone away for several days. Then she changes her story — they are only out for the evening. Her husband has also gone out, she doesn’t know where. One of the interpreters whispers that her husband owns the local cell-phone store and is a member of al Qaeda in Iraq.
Her answers do not make Sergeant Green happy. He mulls the matter for a moment, then announces, “Alright, let’s tear the place apart.”
The living room looks like any middle-class American home except the furniture is a little sparse. The soldiers tip over the couch. Sure enough, there is a rifle underneath. It is an old model, almost an antique, covered with some original wrapping. It looks like it has never been fired. A search of the bedrooms turns up two more pistol, one a nasty looking semi-automatic. There is also some material for making IEDs roadside bombs.
The women and now children squat in a corner of the patio, huddled in blankets. As they finish searching, the soldiers take up defensive positions on one knee, scanning adjoining rooftops. The older sister maintains an air of bemused contempt. As the soldiers begin loading the evidence on the truck, one emerges from the house carrying a computer.
As we leave, the woman asks when she can have her computer back. Sergeant Green politely fills out a voucher. “You can come down to the police station in a few days and claim it,” he says.
THE NEXT HOUSE IS IN THE MIDDLE of the block of a slightly less upscale neighborhood. Two cars are parked inside the gates. The GI’s immediately start to search them. A slightly paunchy man answers the door. There are two other men inside. The GI’s pull them out and line them up against the wall of the compound.
The three men are all wearing the traditional dressing gown of Middle Eastern men. The paunchy man is older, probably in his late 30s. The two others are five years younger. One has a toothbrush mustache. The other is smaller and slighter, with the hunched posture of a perpetual graduate student.
Sergeant Green takes a seat on the living-room couch and begins his interrogation. He has two translators. One is “Elvis,” a dashingly handsome Kurd with a lip-curl and smoothed-back hair reminiscent of the King himself. He brandishes a cigarette flamboyantly while rattling off the questions and answers. His arrogance gives you a hint of what life might have been like under Saddam. He has a ferocity toward the suspects — and indeed begins slapping one around when Green momentarily leaves the room.
Ali, the other interpreter, is the Hollywood’s stereotype of the Middle Eastern terrorist, wearing loose-fitting pajamas, his head wrapped in a black-and-white scarf, his face shrouded in a ski mask. Even up close his eyes are barely visible. He flits around the room like a ghost, adding occasionally to Elvis’s interpretation.
The middle aged suspect is first. He turns out to have $2,300 in brand new $100 bills in his pocket, plus a large sum of Iraqi dinars. His story is transparently fabricated. He says the three men met in a restaurant a few days ago and decided to move in together. After fifteen minutes of interrogation, it is still unclear who owns the house.
“Trunk of the white car tests positive for explosives,” says a specialist marching into the room. The second suspect adds little. He doesn’t seem to have any explanation for what is happening.
The wiry graduate student, however, is more forthcoming. He says he has a wife in another city and is the owner of the house. “Why would you leave your wife and move to another city to move in with two other men?” asks Sergeant Green, trying not to sound too sarcastic. The suspect has no explanation
The interrogation continues at an amiable pace. “Do you know your hands have tested positively for explosive materials?” asks the sergeant. The graduate student smiles weakly, offering his hands as if they might actually belong to someone else. When Sergeant Green orders him outside, the graduate student turns limp and seems to faint. “They always do that,” whispers Ali.
The three men are handcuffed, blindfolded, and told to climb a ladder into the back of the truck. As the older prisoner rises above the crowd, he sways for a moment as if he might topple. Another soldier aboard the truck reels him in. When the graduate student’s turn arrives, the soldiers simply lift him into the van.
It is already 3 a.m. And I am exhausted. “Looks like you’ve had a good night,” I say to my escort.
“Are you kidding?” he replies. “We’ve got five more houses to go.”
THE LEADS GO PROGRESSIVELY downhill. At the next house, we rouse two women, a house full of children, and an elderly grandmother in a burka. As they line up outside the house, the mother becomes distraught. Sergeant Green finally decides we have the wrong house and apologizes. “It’s really the right house,” he whispers as we leave. “The kid just got away.”
The next house is even poorer, with an uneven stone floor and almost no furniture. From the back room an elderly man drags himself on crutches. His body is so twisted he appears he must have leprosy. He mouths something inaudible. Once again there are no suspects.
At the next site we have break a window and kick in a door to enter. When the women and children emerge, however, Sergeant Green recognizes a player from a soccer team the base is sponsoring. “Hey, my soccer buddy,” he says, and once again there are no arrests.
Finally, at the last house, there are three men in their 20s who automatically become prime suspects. (Indeed, it sometimes seems the whole purpose may be to round up every 22-year-old male in the province.) Again one of the young men goes limp after a few questions — a sure sign, everyone says, that he has something to hide. We take him in.
AND SO OUR NIGHT’S WORK draws to a close. As we walk back to the humvees, the dawn is breaking. Across the quiet cityscape comes the haunting ululation of a muzzein calling the people to prayer — a 5:30 a.m. ritual that begins every Muslim morning. From a house next door a cock crows.
As we head back to the police station a thought strikes me. “You know, you better be careful,” I tell my escort. “One of these nights somebody’s going to set you up a false lead and plant a land mine in front of the house on one of these dirt roads.”
“You know, the same thing occurred to me last week,” he says. “I’m going to bring it up at the briefing.”
And so the battle to win the hearts and minds of the people of Iraq continues. Progress is painfully slow. Victory is far ahead. Many more will certainly die in the process.
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