MOSUL, Iraq — At times the shoots and leaves of the new (hopefully) democratic order in Iraq can partially obscure the deeply entrenched psychological effects of three decades of brutal totalitarian rule. A series of successful elections have gone off well and a sort of amnesia about the past, egged on by desire for a peaceful future, sets in. And then an Iraqi waste management businessman, completely open and willing to work with Americans, suggests litter bugs should be jailed or even shot. Suddenly you remember that this isn’t Peoria. It is Mosul.
En route to a joint patrol with Iraqi forces, Captain Ed Matthaidess of the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment, made a slight detour to ask the aforementioned waste management businessman why $800,000 appropriated to him has not had a more pronounced effect on the trash-filled streets. Per usual, before any Iraqi will talk business a glass of chai must be in front of every guest and a cigarette in every hand that will accept one. Only in early Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart films is cigarette puffing more ubiquitous.
“If I live on Shifa Street and my trash was picked up today, how long will it be until it’s picked up again?” Matthaidess asked through an interpreter. “We’re getting complaints that it takes two or three weeks in some parts of the city.”
The man demurs. “Some people lie to you. You cannot trust everyone.” When this does not sate Matthaidess the man pulls out a Wal-Mart-esque photo album festooned with pictures of flowers and the words Beautiful Memories across the front in sprawling faux-elegant script. Inside, however, are not images from a wedding or company barbeque, but of men in orange jumpsuits throwing garbage into dump trucks. The supervisor smiles as if the album erases the discrepancy.
Matthaidess — a warrior now to some degree forced into the part of steward of American taxpayer dollars — doesn’t relent: “Right, but there’s still trash on the street and people are still concerned.”
Then the excuses begin. He needs a front-loader. He needs three bulldozers. The curfew is holding things up. No one is buying the 100 tons of trash bags on hand. There are too few workers. “Did you know that Saddam sent 28,000 sanitation workers into Kuwait, while we have so few?” he asked, as if some part of the mess Iraq made out of Kuwait was worth emulating. Finally, he said, the police need to start imposing stricter anti-trash measures. “People must be afraid of what the government will do if they litter,” he offers. “Jail or worse…That is all it will take.”
The truth is that the default position with regards to governance in many Iraqis minds is still a top down, command and control. Instead of firing squads and jail, Matthaidess suggests buying ad time on Mosul’s local television station to encourage neighborhood clean-up. A previously silent Iraqi broke into hearty laughter.
“No one watches Channel Mosul,” he said, gasping for breath. “We all have satellite dishes now!”
WE ARRIVE MIDDAY AT AN IRAQI ARMY compound and the officers greet us warmly at the door. More chai and cigarettes abound. Captain Matthaidess asked how things are in the area.
“Any guy is a bad guy, we got him before he can do anything,” the officer answered.
“All right, but are you being good to the people?” Matthaidess returned. “Are you building relationships with them? Are they beginning to trust you? Are they providing you intelligence?”
“We are making more friends every day,” the Iraqi said, grandly gesturing with both arms, as the Iraqi soldiers in the room cracked up. As in the garbage collector’s office, it’s not clear if the laughter is a cultural tic or if most Iraqis think the quote/unquote “American way” is more comedy than philosophy. Still, it’s a friendly relationship and Matthaidess makes small talk, asking the commander about his cousin, also an Iraqi Army officer. “How many kids does he have, again? How many wives?”
“He has one wife and is engaged to another,” the commander said, before pausing and waving his cigarette. “Kids? Twelve? Thirteen? I don’t know. I have ten of my own. I lose count of the others.” Pat Buchanan’s worst nightmare made manifest.
“I’ve got my hands full with one wife and no kids,” Matthaidess laughed (Pat Buchanan’s second worst nightmare made manifest), before adding, “We’ve got pretty different lives, but if we get into a fight with some bad guys, I’m not afraid because we got each other and we’re united.”
THE PLAN FOR THE DAY’S joint-op is agreed upon: Patrol a market in beautiful, but dangerous, old town Mosul conducting random searches for car bombs and contraband. American and Iraqi soldiers gather in the courtyard of the compound, surrounded by sandbags and swirls of razor wire. The Americans load up into ultra-armored Stryker carriers that regularly take IED blasts without loss of life or damage, while Iraqis pile into pick-up trucks, some of which look as if they couldn’t take a hair turn, never mind an Rocket Propelled Grenade.
Matthaidess decides to eschew the fortified steel safety of the Stryker to ride with the Iraqis. To an outsider it may seem crazy, but he doesn’t want to turn down the Iraqis’ invitation. He knows the ride is a chance to show respect and signal Americans growing confidence in the abilities of Iraqi forces. After all, what sort of signal would it send if American military officers planning to soon turn chunks of Mosul over to Iraqi Army forces were afraid to ride along with those very forces?
“Captain’s hard,” one of the soldiers enthused as we pulled out. “You can’t help but admire the hell out of him.”
As soldiers pop trunks and ask questions, Captain Matthaidess strikes up conversations with people on the street and in the shops. Unlike in Samarra, where Sunnis look at any Westerner with eyes of fire, here in Mosul they talk easily with Americans, voicing concerns and conspiracy theories in equal parts.
The most popular theory this particular day is a doozey: America has allowed Iran to fix the Iraqi election and is conspiring to subvert the will of Sunnis who make up the majority of Iraqis. If you try to explain Sunnis are actually only approximately 35 percent or that there is no love lost between Iran and the United States, expect a friendly dismissal.
“What are you going to do if Shiites win the most parliament seats?” Matthaidess asks a Sunni vegetable stand owner sipping Pepsi out of an old school long bottle as women in full burkas peruse his wares. “Are you guys going to work together peacefully?”
“If Iraqis decide to be led by Shiites or Kurds that is fine,” the vendor answered. “But we do not approve of Iran running Iraq.”
“We do not want the religious government they want,” another Sunni man suddenly shouted. “We want to be free to do as we please. Tell Rumsfeld to build a new Iraq army with Sunnis.”
“Well, I haven’t seen him lately, but I’ll keep it in mind if I do,” Matthaidess said, adding, “The great thing about a democracy is that no one group will be able to impose things on any other. There will have to be a coalition to change things in Iraq. You have to trust in the process to make your country better.”
LATER, BACK AT THE AMERICAN BASE, Matthaidess expressed both optimism and frustration at the situation in Mosul.
“There are a lot of good people in Mosul doing good things for the community at great risk to themselves, but there’s still a ways to go,” he sighed. “If you could sell initiative in this county you’d be a millionaire. We’re trying to get people in this community to the point where they work together to solve their own problems, rather than running up to the nearest Stryker. Until now it’s been too easy to do that. It’s made them lazy about their own future in a lot of ways.”
Still, he believes a desire for change is beginning to win out.
“I judge sentiment by how much information the Iraqi people are giving us and right now my phone is ringing off the hook,” Matthaidess explained. “The mood in the city increasingly is one where they trust Iraqi and coalition forces more than they fear terrorists. We’re getting tips all the time that are leading to fruitful raids. A lot of people I talk to in Mosul say they are just tired of it. They’re tired of insurgents slaughtering them and their children in the name of freeing them.”
It was a comment that reminded me of something he had told the puffing Iraqi businessmen back at the waste management office when the whining and incessant excuses got to be a bit much for him.
“You and the folks over at the municipality are going to have to start figuring this stuff out together, so I can start sleeping more at night,” he had said. “Americans aren’t going to be here forever, so you’re going to have to start working things out together.”
Here’s hoping he’s right. But here’s also hoping they don’t start shooting litter bugs when American soldiers begin loading onto C-130s for the long trip home.
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