THE NEXT WEEK PASSED in a blur of planning, patrolling, debriefing, and more planning. Our mission statements grew broader: “Patrol in zone to disarm the populace, locate unexploded ordnance, stabilize disorder, stop looting, locate key facilities like hospitals and schools, distribute food and water, provide medical care, and show American presence.” We did each of these things every day, and frequently all of them at once.
We left the power plant on Thursday morning, April 17, for a patrol north of Sadr City. In addition to all the standard tasks, our mission for the day was to locate a place to distribute four thousand gallons of fresh water the next morning. Mish was patrolling with another platoon, so Hammed Hussein joined us. Hammed was a local resident hired by the battalion as a translator. He arrived at the power plant shortly after sunrise, dressed with great dignity in a rumpled suit, probably the finest outfit in his wardrobe. Upon learning that I was the patrol leader, Hammed walked up as I studied my map and launched into a harangue against American culture and the war in Iraq.
“You should not have done this. Saddam was a bad man, but America should have waited for the Iraqi people to overthrow him themselves. In time, we would have crushed him.”
“Hammed, I’m just a lieutenant,” I said. “I lead patrols. I don’t make policy. Either come help us or go home, but don’t pick a fight with me this morning. I’m too busy.”
We traveled east along a dike overlooking Sadr City. Fetid trash and pools of stinking sewage waited below for any Humvee unfortunate enough to slide off the dirt berm. We eased under fallen power lines while packs of yapping dogs ran alongside. Children playing soccer stopped to wave as we passed, and women dug for water in the foul dirt fields between apartment buildings. Men rocked on their haunches in the shade, smoking bad cigarettes and staring us down. I got the feeling that only our overwhelming force kept them from stringing us up as infidel invaders. From my admittedly narrow perspective, the climate on patrol had worsened in only a few days. Violence and looting continued to plague a city lacking even basics such as electricity and clean water. I felt as if we were under constant scrutiny by people who were less and less impressed with what they saw.
I stopped the platoon outside a collection of brick buildings three kilometers beyond Sadr City. A heavyset man with thinning hair led a crowd toward us. He introduced himself as Mr. Kadem and requested, with a ceremonial flourish, that all aid to the village be coordinated through him. I asked what sort of aid he wanted.
“We need only two things: clean water and bronze statues of George Bush.”
I decided to play along. “We can help you with the water, but what will you do with statues of George Bush?”
“We will put them in our streets to show our loyalty. First, though, the Americans must help us pump the sewage which is flooding our town.”
I told Mr. Kadem we could give him a hundred gallons of water immediately and would stay for an hour to provide medical care to children. He nodded and barked commands into the crowd behind him. Men surged forward, pleading for aid while pointing at small bruises and cuts or their seemingly healthy eyes, legs, and heads. They shoved the children aside.
The platoon started throwing elbows and pushing with rifle butts. For a moment, I feared a riot. Mr. Kadem restored order, and we treated a long line of kids for cuts, burns, and dehydration. With the Marines’ help, a team appointed by Mr. Kadem emptied our spare water cans into the town’s common cistern. Depleted of water and medical supplies, we packed up and continued east along the berm, looking for the next place to put our drop on the Iraqi sponge.
The dike ended at a paved road leading north from Baghdad. People there, a week after Baghdad’s fall, had not yet seen Americans. Crowds filled the street. Open markets sold everything from fruit to stereos.
Storefronts lined the road, and above them clotheslines stretched between balconies. Every few blocks, a mosque punctuated the parade of buildings sliding past our windows. Most of the town was dusty brown, dilapidated, and forlorn, but not the mosques. Bright lights stretched to the ground in strands from the minarets, like the rigging on cruise ships. The buildings were washed a bright white, with garish murals of happy crowds and singing children. Even their yards were well tended, little islands of greenery in a sea of dust and stagnant sewage. Of everyone we saw, the men lounging near the mosques looked the toughest. According to the map, we were twenty kilometers from the power plant, and I felt every inch of it. Normally, we updated the battalion on our position every two hours, but I started sending updates every thirty minutes, just in case.
In the same spirit that had inspired us earlier in the week to roll into the neighborhood that had looked most like a Ba’athist hideout, we parked in front of the biggest and most ornate mosque. We were careful to stay outside the mosque’s marked perimeter but wanted to “show American presence” and speak to someone with real authority over the people living nearby. In post-Saddam Iraq, those authority figures were the mullahs.
As expected, it took less than thirty seconds for a crowd of men to surround us. Mostly middle-aged, they didn’t surge forward to touch us and practice their English as other Iraqis had done. Instead, they kept their distance and appraised us. Espera and I stood together near the front of the crowd.
“Mexican standoff,” I said. As was usually the case, I left my rifle in the Humvee, wearing only a pistol on my thigh in an attempt to close the distance between occupier and occupied. I was helmetless, but not quite committed enough to remove my body armor. The rifle slung diagonally across Espera’s chest loomed large in my peripheral vision.
“Sir, I’m deeply offended that you would slur my people that way,” he said jokingly.
An older man, dressed in white and crowned with a turban, stepped forward and introduced himself as Mullah Mohammed of Diyala. Next to me, Espera mumbled under his breath, “Yeah, well, I’m Sergeant Tony of Los Angeles. Who gives a fuck?”
Hammed lingered behind the Humvees, trying to hide his face from the mullah. He knew we would eventually leave, but he had to live there when we were gone. I called him forward and asked Mullah Mohammed what we could do to help the people of his community. He launched into a long monologue, distilled by Hammed as a list of facts and requests: one hundred thousand people lived in the area; there had been no reliable source of fresh water for five years; there had been no electricity since the start of the war; looting was not a problem, and he knew of no fedayeen activity; he would appreciate one American sweep through the town each day. I offered to return the next day with fresh water. The mullah accepted, but only on the condition that we would bring the water to him and allow him to distribute it to the people himself.
I didn’t want to play kingmaker. At that point, our priority was to get life-sustaining services to people in need, not to empower local strong-men and allow our aid to become a tool of political advantage. I didn’t know whom to trust. Our only Arabic speaker was Hammed, and I wasn’t sure I could even trust him. Most of the time, he cowered in the back seat of the Humvee, afraid to be seen helping the Americans. He would say whatever he had to in order to save his own skin. So I delayed the decision. I decided to consult with the colonel and Major Whitmer back at the power plant and simply told the mullah that we would return in the morning to distribute water to his people. He thanked us and uttered a few words that Hammed translated as a blessing reserved for unknown strangers.
I brewed coffee in the morning, taking comfort in the simple ritual. We had dragged a cast iron stove down from one of the offices. It sat in the warehouse doorway, surrounded all day and all night by Marines on ammo cans and MRE boxes. My tin canteen cup was too hot to touch. I held it in gloved hands, blowing steam from the coffee and watching the sun rise over the fields beyond the fence.
We were ready to go, waiting only for Hammed to arrive. He insisted on walking to the power plant in the predawn darkness rather than allowing us to pick him up at his home. I watched Hammed come through the gate, a small figure in a jacket and tie stumbling along the rough dirt road. He waved jauntily to me but made straight for a group of Marines sitting around a coffeepot. They welcomed him warmly and pulled up another ammo can. A few minutes later, when I walked over to give them a ten-minute warning, Hammed held a canteen cup and was engrossed in a debate over the name of the youngest-ever Play-boy Playmate. His criticism of American culture was already starting to waver.
The night before, during our patrol debrief, I had asked higher-ranking officers in the battalion how I should deal with Mullah Mohammed. After the initial “fuck him” response, Major Whitmer agreed that our assistance shouldn’t be made a weapon in local power struggles. We were to drive into town and offer water to all comers. If the mullah didn’t like it, he and whatever suicidal followers he could muster were free to try to stop us. Follow-on peacekeepers, civil affairs experts, and civilian consultants could debate who was allowed to play in the rebuilding of Iraq. That wasn’t for us to decide. Our only goal was to prevent a humanitarian disaster from tearing the country apart. That meant food, water, shelter, and medical care for every single Iraqi, regardless of religion, social status, or former party affiliation. His reasoning made sense to me and became our guidance for the day.
We first drove downtown, into central Baghdad, to meet up with a water tanker at the Marines’ main logistics base. From the base, we escorted the tanker north on the road we had traveled the day before. I watched the wide-eyed tanker drivers in my mirror; they hadn’t been out on their own before. We wove through the same crowds thronging the outdoor vendors. The mosque’s minaret was visible over the rooftops ahead of us.
“Weapon! Three o’clock.” Reyes’s warning came over the radio, and I looked to my right. A teenage boy cradled a rifle, leaning against a building and staring us down. When we stopped, he cocked his head a bit higher, as if in challenge. My first thought was that he was only bait. As the Marines studied the walls and rooftops around the boy, I climbed from the Humvee and walked up to him. He let me get close before setting the rifle on the ground and stepping back from it. I picked up the ancient Enfield and slid its bolt back, dropping three rounds into my palm. The gun was clean and well oiled. I turned and walked back to the Humvee, throwing the rifle in the bed. The expressionless boy watched us go. If that had been a test, we had won.
We passed the mullah’s mosque and pulled off into a dirt lot on the other side of the road. The platoon set up a perimeter around the tanker. Expecting a frenzy, we strung cloth tape between the vehicles, controlling access to the water through one narrow entrance and exit. I was suspicious when no crowd gathered while we worked. After ten minutes, we still sat alone on the street corner.
“Motherfucker trumped us,” Gunny Wynn said, shaking his head. “I guess we know who’s boss around here.”
We gathered our tape and led the tanker north a few miles to a town we had not yet visited. Alongside the road, women dug down through the trash heaps to the shallow water table. Even little girls helped to cart home buckets of muddy water. As always, the men sat in the shade, watching the women work over the tips of their cigarettes.
The road split on the north side of the town of Al Jabr, enclosing what in the United States would have been a village green or town square filled with flowers or a gazebo. In Iraq, it was a flat piece of dirt with the supreme virtue of being mostly free of trash and raw sewage. We set up our cordon with the tanker in the middle and within minutes were thronged. People streamed from every corner of the town, carrying, pushing, and dragging receptacles of all kinds: plastic buckets, antifreeze bottles, rubber bladders, even a child’s wading pool. Tractors and donkeys did some of the lifting, but mostly it was done by women and girls. I watched in awe as seven-year-olds hefted five-gallon cans of water weighing forty pounds onto their heads.
Espera’s team pulled security on the road, and he leaned against the quarter panel of his Humvee to watch the melee. “Goddamn, sir, if we’d had to fight the women around here instead of the men, we’d have gotten our asses kicked,” he said.
I had placed Sergeant Reyes’s team north of the square where the two sections of road rejoined and disappeared around a bend. We worked the northernmost American zone, and I didn’t want a truck full of fedayeen to come barreling down the highway and blunder into a fight with us in the middle of a crowd of women and children. The other teams kept order among the people waiting for water. Gunny Wynn and I were talking with two Iraqi men when we heard shouting up on the road.
“Gun! He has a gun!”
“Hold your fire! He’s turning around.”
We ran to the pavement and saw a white Toyota Land Cruiser being stopped at gunpoint by Rudy’s team. Four men inside held up their hands in surrender. Apparently, they had been traveling south when they saw the Humvee sitting in the road. They tried to do a quick U-turn and in the process threw an AK-47 out of the window of the truck. Raising that rifle had nearly cost them their lives. Jacks saw the weapon and was about to fire his Mark-19 when the AK was dropped instead of aimed. He sighted in on the truck, ready to stitch it.
Wynn and I approached the Land Cruiser. The men inside looked well dressed and neatly groomed, traits we had noticed among the fedayeen and foreign fighters. The driver began to speak.
“We Kurdistan. Kurdistan. America friend. Come boom-boom Ba’ath Party. Boom-boom fedayeen. George Bush very good. We Kurdistan. America friend.”
He thrust a folded piece of paper at me. The top bore an official-looking embossed seal, and some of the writing was in English. From what I could decipher, it was a permit issued by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan allowing the man to carry an assault rifle.
“These guys are peshmerga,” I said. I knew the Kurdish fighters were staunchly pro-American. They had been helping U.S. Special Forces fight Ansar al-Islam, a terror network based in northern Iraq. That afternoon, they were doing exactly what we’d been briefed they would — exacting revenge on the Sunni-dominated Ba’ath Party for atrocities committed against them under the Hussein regime. All the intelligence reports had a “wink-wink, nod-nod” quality. Like the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, the peshmerga were thugs, but our thugs.
We were under orders to disarm the populace but also to avoid getting tangled up in other people’s fights. In Sadr City, I had listened as senior officers had encouraged the revenge killings as a necessary part of Iraq’s eventual stabilization. Some American units were even reported to be distributing captured weapons to anti-Ba’athist militias. Once again, grand strategy and national policy came to a head in a single decision by a small platoon.
“Give him his rifle back, Rudy, and let them go.”
Rudy handed it over, saying, “My enemy’s enemy is my friend.”
“I never thought we’d say that,” I replied. “We’ve spent too much time in the Middle East.”
I felt dirty rearming the peshmerga and lending my tacit approval to their killing spree. But war makes for rational choices that are hard to understand in more reflective moments. I preferred to have as many proxies fighting for us as possible if that meant more killing and dying done by them and less by my Marines. With a conspiratorial wave, the men in the Land Cruiser resumed their hunt, streaking south toward Baghdad.
While escorting the water tanker back to its base, we learned that the battalion was leaving the power plant to move to a new location. I copied the grid coordinates in grease pencil on the windshield and looked at my map. It matched up with a soccer stadium near the presidential palaces in the city center.
I turned to Gunny Wynn. “Looks like we’re moving downtown.”
“Damn, and I was just starting to appreciate the quiet of that power plant out in the middle of nowhere. Just goes to show, things can always get worse.”
I propped the radio on the dashboard and tuned in a news broadcast from London. The announcer reported thousands of Baghdad residents marching to protest the American occupation.
Wynn smiled wryly and said, “Sure am glad we worked our asses off today.”