TIKRIT, Iraq — The humvees first sent to Iraq didn’t have side armor. Instead two gunners sat at the open side doors. That proved devastating when the insurgents resorted to roadside bombs.
Now the humvees have heavily armored side doors that clang shut like a bank vault when you climb inside. In fact, that’s exactly the way it feels — like riding in an armored car as we head downtown for a day of patrolling the streets of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s home town.
The city of 30,000, eighty miles north of Baghdad, is considered relatively quiet these days. Spectator contributor Michael Fumento, a veteran of the Airborne, actually refused an embedment here recently because there wasn’t enough action. For me, however, it is just fine.
As Captain Dan Cederman briefs us for our day’s patrol, there is lots of talk of amputation and tourniquets. “Don’t use your seatbelt,” says the platoon medic. “If you lose an arm and a leg and are bleeding to death, I don’t want to have to undo your seatbelt to get you out of there.”
Because Tikrit is purely Sunni, it has not been plagued with the interethnic violence that has turned Baghdad into a slaughterhouse. But the insurgency is still alive and well. Three soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb in neighboring Samarra last week. Then Tikrit had its own casualty. Many IEDs (“improvised explosive devices”) are detonated by wires that run to neighboring houses. During a patrol last week Sgt. Daniel Woodcock, an Alaskan, trailed the wire to a nearby house. When he opened the door, it was booby-trapped and exploded, killing him. “It’s an endless game of trying to outsmart the enemy,” says Capt. Cederman.
Yesterday afternoon 200 soldiers assembled in front of the camp headquarters for a memorial service. In the heat of the sun, the company commander began his roll call, with soldiers responding “Here, sir.” The fifth name he called was “Daniel Woodcock.” It echoed three times in the afternoon air, met only by silence. Then a rifle company fired three volleys and the bugler played taps.
NOW WE ARE HEADED downtown for another patrol. The humvee fits five, the driver, a turreted gunner, and three passengers. In front is Major Christina Nagy, a mother of three from Erie, Pennsylvania, who is in civic affairs. Beside me in the back is Nick Davenport, a high-school dropout from Boston who is straightening himself out in the Army. Nagy, on her second tour, is headed downtown to close a grant with two Iraqi women who are starting a sewing factory. Davenport, also on his second tour, is in a different platoon but has volunteered to break the routine of FOB Speicher, where 15,000 soldiers now occupy one of Saddam’s former air force bases.
As we reach the perimeter, the humvee pulls alongside a sand pit where the gunner empties a few rounds to make sure his machinegun is operating properly. The bullet casings tumble down from his turret, still too hot to touch. This is the real thing. The morning is a little tenser because about an hour ago a vehicle pulled too close to another convoy on the north side of town. After several warnings, the machine gunner opened fire, killing one occupant and wounding two others. No one yet knows whether it was an attempted attack or just a confused motorist. “With all the casualties we’ve taken recently, the gunner was a little more reluctant to take any chances,” says Capt. Cederman.
If there is one thing that defines the outskirts of Tikrit it is garbage. The scrubby fields look like one vast vacant lot. Plastic bags cling to clumps of grass stubble as if they were the national crop. “The Iraqis will keep their houses clean but everything else they just throw over the wall,” says Davenport. Occasionally a herd of sheep appear. One is attended by a boy on a donkey.
“People here live the way they did in Biblical times,” says Nagy. “And a lot of them don’t want to change, either.”
DOWNTOWN TIKRIT LOOKS A LOT like The Bronx without the double parking. Small crowds of people mill around the streets with no clear indication as to whether they are working, shopping or just hanging out. On the curbs small children sell plastic jugs of gasoline. “The unemployment rate in Tikrit is about 60 percent,” says Sgt. Davenport.
“You can always tell when something is about to happen,” adds Major Nagy. “The crowd just seems to melt away. Somehow they know.”
At several intersections there are small congregations of “IPs” — the Iraqi Police, who are now beginning to take charge. Many wear black masks under the headscarves so that with their machine guns they look like terrorists from central casting. “They don’t want to show their faces,” says Davenport. “They’re afraid their families will be killed.”
At the provincial government center we weave through concrete barriers designed to stop car bombers, then speed past the guards into a small parking area where we are greeted by a friendly white dog. “Hey look, they got a new Habibi,” says Davenport. “The Iraqis hate dogs and the dogs hate them,” he explains. “They had this dog Habibi who used to love us. Every time we pulled in he’d come over and greet us and then start snarling at the Iraqis. I think they finally killed him.”
Inside, Nagy negotiates the final contract with the two women who are starting the sewing factory right across the street. They will receive $150,000 in American aid and will employ 130 women to make flags and uniforms for the army. The women wear headscarves. They are shy but have a nervous excitement about them. When it comes time to initial the agreement, one hesitates but Nagy eventually persuades her to sign.
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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