MOSUL, Iraq — It isn’t as if American soldiers are expecting sissy embedded journalists to be warrior souls, but one still imagines most fearless (okay, scared witless) correspondents must strive to acquit themselves with a bit more aplomb than I was able to muster on my first night raid of a suspected terrorist hideout last week in the heart of Sunni Mosul.
As we closed in on the target the call to disembark from the Stryker armored personnel carrier came a bit too suddenly for me. In my haste I first got caught on the vehicle’s fire extinguisher, tearing a mile wide hole in the back of my pants. I immediately followed this up by cracking my helmet festooned head into the steel lip of the Stryker’s door, like some giant stumbling around a McDonald’s play area.
In my defense, there is something surreal — tragicomic, even — about being the only one in the posse without enhanced night vision technology in the dead of night. More than once I found myself on a darkened street or cutting through a velvet sky in a helicopter with only the little green dots over soldiers’ eyes and firing gins visible to me. Nevertheless, try to imagine being a soldier responsible for such a journalistic ward. It sheds new light on the remarkable sacrifices made in order to keep the embed program thriving.
So with the ripped back door of my khakis flapping in the wind like a flag and stray dogs barking wildly just outside my field of vision, we jogged along trash strewn alleys gurgling with a liquid that smelled somewhat akin to raw sewage, taking up positions to back up the Iraqi Army elements taking the lead on this joint operation. After a few tense minutes waiting, wide open on the street, the Captain turns to us and whispers, “Breach in three…two…one,” a cue followed by two enormously loud flashes, bangs and, seconds later, a crash as the steel door caves in. Iraqi soldiers swarm into the residential home, securing it before the Americans enter.
The Iraqi soldiers are hyped up. The man of the house is livid as his AK-47 is disassembled. Women and children are wailing, tears streaming down fear-frozen faces, hoarded into a separate room while the house is searched. The Americans are variously attempting to calm the few overzealous Iraqi soldiers, question the home’s occupants and reassure everyone that if no contraband or terrorist suspects are found the visit will be short. Many Sunnis are quite fearful of the Iraqi Army and its well-known, if reportedly rapidly declining, interrogation excesses.
Watching American soldiers juggle all this with not only a straightforward professionalism and attentiveness to the safety of themselves, but also a keen interest in the fair treatment and well-being of the home’s occupants, is a sight to behold.
Yet, it is not chaotic. Everyone seems to understand their roles, perhaps too well, even. I stand in the middle of this scene sticking out like a sore thumb. I lean into one soldier’s ear and apologize for following so closely.
“Don’t worry, I’d be doing the same thing to you if I was in Boston,” he offered generously before adding, “But why don’t you move out of the doorway? It’s a perfect place to get shot.”
And so the fledgling warrior soul takes another hit.
A FEW HOURS EARLIER, we had rendezvoused with the Iraqi Army raid team at a fortified outpost in western Mosul. The air around the compound was thick and moist with the condensational blessings of a steadily humming Tigris flanking its rear quarter mightily and providing a welcome respite from the typical odors of a country that still burns the vast majority of its garbage in open pits. We were gathered here because an informant had provided evidence that was determined after some debate to be credible enough to merit late night raids on several houses a terrorist cell leader might be lying low in.
While American and Iraqi commanders hashed out tactics over several large maps, I was more than a bit apprehensive when I saw a young Iraqi soldier dragging an interpreter towards me. Sans uniform and frequently mistaken as a local at night, Iraqi soldiers would frequently approach me anytime I wandered too far from American soldiers and shout belligerent questions in Arabic. It’s funny: Even when you know it will do no good, you resort to answering questions you don’t understand in full English sentences. The language was enough to fend them off, but it was still a disorienting enough situation to merit avoidance.
“He wants to know if you are with the press,” the interpreter said to my relief. “I told him you were. He said press is good. He is press as well.”
Turns out this young Iraqi soldier writes for a fledgling weekly newspaper in Mosul covering the sort of material anyone who started out at a daily newspaper knows all too well: Chasing car accidents, sitting in on city meetings, patiently listening to local politicians too big for their britches. Basically recording the minutiae of life in Iraq’s second largest city that the rest of the world oftentimes forgets exists here, overshadowed as it is by war and the insurgency. Whatever else you see on television, Iraq is also a place where people go to work, raise children, have car accidents, watch television, worry about the little things. It is a real place full of real lives.
Despite the lag time of speaking through a translator, we had a great little conversation about the tedium and joy of newspaper grunt work, an honest relation of shared experiences. Then his commander ordered him into one of the unarmored Toyota pickup truck spray-painted camouflage. Talk about a moment of clarity. When I was a cub reporter chasing car accidents and trying to stay awake during town meetings I went home at night to unwind via the various distractions of modern life in an affluent society. I certainly didn’t moonlight as a terrorist hunter risking my life on bullet-riddled streets. Such a realization can be profoundly moving — and unendingly embarrassing. How often did I complain about a job that was manna from heaven in this young man’s eyes?
THE CONVOY TAKES TO THE ROAD, the Strykers alternating with Iraqi Army trucks. The buffering effect of the Tigris melts away as we climb mountainous roads to the desolate lot where the Iraqi informant is waiting. The back door of the Stryker lowers. We’re fairly high up, high enough to look down on the city, twinkling in some places, pitch black in others. The informant climbs aboard with two Americans flanking him. Their exact role is never explained, but summoning a guess from a cross-section of my general logic capabilities and my cultural inner lexicon, I’d say they were probably spooks from some U.S. intelligence service. Judging by the relatively casual dress, CIA. The informant sits directly across from me. All I can see are his eyes. A thick black ski mask obscures the rest of his head. Thick gloves are on his hands. His clothes seem otherwise deliberately non-descript. The skin around his eyes is stretched tight with anticipation or fear.
The convoy winds its way back to Mosul proper. For obvious reasons the Stryker has no windows, but there are screens with a video feed revealing our path in black and white pixilated relief. The wide-open nature of the mountains slowly cedes to more densely populated buildings and shops. Mosul is congested with traffic during the day. After 10 p.m., however, there is a curfew in effect and so the Strykers hum along the eerily empty streets unmolested, unchallenged, and with a greatly reduced fear of the suicide car bombers who still make occasionally grisly appearances.
Then, of course, I tear my pants, we jog and enter the breach.
ULTIMATELY, NOTHING IS FOUND. Later that night, the informant points out another, similar home where two of the target’s associates are holed up. The next night the target is captured at another residence.
At this first stop of the night, however, suspicion may remain, but there is no proof of any wrongdoing or contraband. The Americans pay restitution for the door. Twenty dollars goes a long way in Iraq and the man of the house seems much less agitated after he receives the cash. Which isn’t to say that he doesn’t still seem livid and wouldn’t you be? What with the explosions, soldiers swarming your house, your children crying?
Considering the current security situation in Iraq, it’s tough not to concede there’s little choice but to follow up on most informants’ leads, even if their motivation is not that clear or pure in some cases. Too many lives depend on it. Still, we cannot lose sight of the fact that if Iraq is to become a functioning democratic society one day soon then the apparatus of the police state must fade away with the insurgency. This, American soldiers will no doubt gladly welcome, but it is something our friends in the Iraqi Security Forces must be reminded of as the coalition hands them authority over civilians lives — be they Kurd, Sunni or Shiite. Brutality, primitivistic tribal conflict and the allure of state power are all far too ingrained in Iraqi culture to leave that question hanging in the air as we draw down forces.
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