Mosul I wish Dr. West, my history professor at St. Joseph's Prep, was still around for me to talk to. Mosul is the location of the ancient city of Nineveh, once the most populated city in the world. This is the place Jonah was on his way to when he was sidetracked by the whale. The land of Mesopotamia. It's all so strange — racing past the ancient gates of Nineveh, still there, driving as fast as possible to dodge any IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices).
Driving here is like a Mad Max movie. Our base is on the outskirts, in an old palace grounds of Saddam. Mosul has 1.8 million people, or so they say. Kind of reminds me of the Philly census problem. No one really knows how many people live in either Philly or Mosul. It seems like any big city in the States — poor sections, well-off sections, sections that it is ill-advised for the cops, or shall I say soldiers, to go in.
My first time “down range,” outside the compound gate on a mission to visit City Hall and the courthouse, I designated myself as driver, as I know that here in Mosul, it's a critical job. Weapon slung over my shoulder, hanging out of the vehicle in such a way that all could see it. One must present a “hard” target. Show them — them is so many different groups of people — that you are ready for their attack and will respond with deadly force. “Them” prefer a soft target, one that appears to be un-alert or in a soft-skinned vehicle. I was not happy with the vehicle — it was a regular Humvee with no extra armor, and it didn't have sandbags. That night, we sandbagged that vehicle.
Some of our Battalion Humvees and SUVs have been hit by IEDs, but luckily we have sustained only minor casualties. Speed is our friend — to outrace that sniper, that gentleman standing on the corner trying to time the detonation of the IED as you pass, or that gunner sitting on a roof waiting for a target of opportunity. But Mosul is a congested city with too many broken-down cars — and traffic. We try not to stop, but you can't avoid it.
So there you are sitting in traffic, in a military vehicle, with two other vehicles, stuck in gridlock, weapons pointed out, staring and scanning at the same time with your unit-
issued Wiley X sunglasses, focusing on your sector of the 360-degree security. People look at you. They wave, they smile, they sneer, they give you the finger, they avert eye contact, they return your smile, they hold their kids tight to them as their kids smile and wave.
You sense how they want to connect — some of them, anyway, but that's the problem here, how can they figure us out? It doesn't take long to understand their dilemma. They're afraid of the radicals that lurk in the shadows. And they're afraid that we don't mean it, that we're not going to stay the course. There is a naïve, ignorant local population (through no fault of its own) that believes everything it sees on Al-Jazeera TV, much like the uneducated, naïve readers of the supermarket tabloids who believe that Cher had an alien baby and O.J. is still looking for Nicole's killers.
At the same time, we cannot let our guard down — this is where soldiers have met their end fate, the soldier who was killed as he purchased a CD in a local shop, shot point-blank range in the back of his head. Or the other two who were pulled from their vehicle in a neighborhood just up the street and were … let's just say they are dead now.
But you try to point your weapon away from the family that is literally two feet from you, in a car, an old rust-infested falling-apart Opel. Somehow, surely out of necessity, it's running, and it's carrying a family. I motion with my hand on top of my barrel to signal that I mean them no harm. I reach into my pocket as I continue to scan my 12 o'clock to two o'clock, and dig through the pile of handballs that I have stuffed in my cargo pocket. I show one, exaggerating what it is to make sure they know it's not a grenade, and toss it to the little boy sitting on his mother's lap in the front seat. His cute shy smile becomes a huge full-teeth smile.
The light changes, traffic is moving, and we go down to City Hall to our first stop, a Provincial Council meeting.
MEETING WITH A COUNCIL MEMBER
I think some Iraqis are living an existence close to that of the ancient tribes that once roamed the area. Or at least they talk about and identify with their tribal heritage in almost all their conversations. One I just had:
“Assalamu Alaikum,” a greeting we both say — he naturally, me with a Philly accent.
Right hand up like you're giving the stereotypical greeting of the TV American Indian. (“How!”) Then right hand to heart.
“Shlonick?” I ask. (How are you?)
“Zzen, zzen,” he replies. (Okay, okay.)
“It's a pleasure to see you again,” I say, “and I am honored to work with you.”
“Marhaba” (hello) (I get that — don't need translation), then he continues in an extremely long run-on sentence (as I await translation). Finally I give the “look” to the translator. (Come on, what's he saying?)
“Oh, he is just rambling on and on about his family and heritage again, like so many times before.” My translator and I have become friends, and at times he forgets what his role is.
“Well, tell me again.”
“‘We have been rulers of our tribe for over 600 years, my family is the most respected in the area, 20-30 generations have lived here that we know — we are the most educated, we are the leaders, we have the most … '” Sometimes I really wonder what gets lost in translation — the man seems so egotistical to me yet is speaking so naturally, boasting and proud of his heritage and position.
This is typical. So many times a conversation or speech will begin with a long-winded dissertation about my father's father and his father's father being tribal leaders. And the sheik or whoever will continue — and I am wondering when the guy is going to tell me what I had asked him, namely, when can the contractor begin?
“Yes, I respect and admire you and your family,” I say now.
The translator repeats that.
And he again goes into a very long run-on paragraph — I give the translator the look — but now the Iraqi has gone on for a while and I get only, “He says that his family never respected the former regime.”
We go through this for another 10 minutes or so, rehashing how the man was sentenced to death, but his family is so respected and feared throughout the Middle East that he was pardoned. Back and forth — Arabic, English translation, English, Arabic translation.
Finally, I am able to tell him: “I need your list of equipment and furniture in order to put in a proposal to an NGO to receive funding.”
Translation — then Arabic — translation:
“Tomorrow I will send you — Inshallah” (if God wills it).
Sometimes I wonder just how in the hell I wound up here. I am sitting up late, typing away because I can't sleep. Because I was shaken out of a sound sleep by some damn mortars again. In this day and age, the greatest army in the world gets shelled on a regular basis — and do you know why? It's because we are so freaking nice. We do not want to hurt innocent civilians. We go out of our way to avoid hurting Iraqis who are just trying to survive. We obviously could crush these culprits if we were indiscriminate and did not value innocent human life. We could then move on as “victors.” But we are not like that as a military or as a society. Look at the casualties from Falluja — 19-year-old kids are dying in door-to-door combat, kids as brave and heroic as “the Greatest Generation Ever,” as American as those who jumped into Normandy. They are kicking ass — at a better rate than any military can expect in close urban combat — but they are dying. Why? Because we have a heart as a nation.
And if you have any question on the WMDs, I invite you to come to Halabja, Iraq, north of the Green Line. I visited Halabja while I was briefly stationed in Dahuk, a city in the Kurdistan Mountains. I walked around a large room full of photographs — not paintings, not drawings, but photographs, actual proof of victims — on the anniversary of the Halabja Massacre, which occurred March 16, 1988. Photos of children dead, poisoned in their mothers' arms, families in their entirety dead at their places on the floor where they were having a meal. These are scenes like the victims of Pompeii uncovered by archeologists after thousands of years, but here we don't have to wait so long to feel the agony of a people.
On this anniversary — it was the first year since Saddam attempted genocide that he was not in power — a theater was full of college students; they lit candles in the darkened hall as bells tolled throughout Northern Iraq in the Kurdish area, at the exact time that the chemical attacks had begun: 11 a.m. A quiet hush, only the vibration of the bells as tears silently rolled down the cheeks of oh so many, mostly young, people, who were now such a different audience once the “program” had started. No longer giggling or staring at the dozen Americans or trying out their usually pretty decent English: “Hallow meester, do yoou lick Dahuk?”
These Kurds love us, they believe we're liberators. The media would rather tell a different story. It's much easier and safer for the U.S. media to sit at home, watch Al-Jazeera or Al-Arabia, copy and paste and use their propaganda and then lambaste the U.S. troops. They focus on a bunch of ill perverts who had piss-poor leadership and supervision at Abu Ghraib. There is so much you'll never hear, all the work of American soldiers building hospitals and power plants and government. And stuff like this:
Our Civil Affairs Unit, the 416th from Norristown, has a blood brother, an Iraqi friend, Zyiot. We befriended him and other Northern Iraqis, mostly Peshmerga guards of ours, while I was in Dahuk. It snowed this past March — and snowed as if it was a January night in the Poconos, snow up to your knees. (Now we understood why we had so much cold-weather gear issued to us as we prepared to come to the desert in Iraq.) Dahuk has high-tech stores with a full stock of modern equipment, including digital cameras, computers, laptops, mobile phones and satellite dishes. Then there is a market — part of it probably looks the same as hundreds of years ago. You feel like a time traveler as you walk down the narrow alleys crowded with vendors, the sun nonexistent as the buildings and drapes and tarps and overhangs block it out. And you notice that no one is intrusive — they are all staring, but polite stares.
Anyway, a few days before I had come back to Mosul, Zyiot stepped on a mine — his foot was blown off. My buddy Sergeant Jeff Gliem, a cop out of Wilmington, Delaware, went into the minefield, put a tourniquet on Zyiot, and carried him back through the minefield down a steep incline on a mountain — that's right, an American went into a minefield to save an Iraqi, an Iraqi who had become our brother, an Iraqi who helped the U.S. Special Forces, during the invasion, control the northern area of Iraq, down past the Green Line.
Last week I spent most of my time assisting my boss, working with the Provincial Council of Nineveh Province as it elected a new governor. A dangerous job, yet we had to find a leader, a non-corrupt leader — someone who would be accepted by so many sects who literally hate each other. To see the power of voting and its true meaning to man is quite humbling. We take it for granted — in Philly a good turnout is 20 percent, but if you look at history, and here I'm living in history, a very small percentage of humans have ever had the opportunity to pick their leaders.
The meetings were held in a banquet-hall complex in a large carpeted room, with couches and chairs against the walls all around the room. Couches that most people would put in their basement or maybe set on the sidewalk, mostly check-patterned, soft, deep, used, obviously sat in many a time and for long periods of time. It was musty, a room that thousands of cigarettes have been smoked in. The carpet should have been replaced before the Iran-Iraq war.
One by one, the nominees came in. The council members had only put up 10 or 11 of their own nominees. The position was open to any person from Nineveh who wished to be nominated, and the rest — there were 39 candidates in all — were from word of mouth. The TV had announced that the process was ongoing, and they came in all shapes, sizes, demeanors, speaking abilities. For two days, the process wore on — candidate after candidate. A few were nice candidates, but one stuck out above the rest. There was a buzz after he spoke; you could feel his confidence ooze out to the council members. He came from a respected family/tribe, was a university professor who had become educated without bowing to the Baath Party. He was well-spoken and seemed to be tough, yet thoughtful, and he needed zero time to respond to a question.
Q: “What are the issues facing Nineveh?”
A: “Jobs and security — they are tied together; we need to find security and provide decent jobs for the regular, everyday people.”
Damn, we couldn't have scripted it any better. This guy was a godsend, except for one problem. It was his first name. It was … Osama.
It didn't matter. After the second day, the council voted for its top three: 1. Osama; 2. Farooq, a member of the council who had given us a hard time — he spoke out against the Coalition Forces and Coalition Provisional Authority many times; 3. a general who was not what we Americans wanted or needed (but it was out of our hands). The next day there was a Q&A in front of the council with all three candidates as well as the media — live TV to Mosul.
After the Q&A debate, the three left the room. The police chief brought in an empty cardboard box and showed the room and the cameras that the box was without any votes, and then the members voted. One by one they put their paper ballots in the box — 30 votes cast — and the winner by a large margin: Osama Youseff Kashmoula. Dr. Osama had 23 votes, Farooq had seven, and the gruff general was shut out. It was an emotional moment, to see democracy at its early stage, the runner-up and the new governor raising each other's arm in victory. An election had occurred. By a vote of 23-7-0, Osama Youseff Kashmoula was elected the new governor of Nineveh.
A CLASS IN GOVERNMENT
I am in City Hall, and the local council has been summoned to attend one of Dugan's Nutshell Democracy sessions. Strictly voluntarily, an informal session, three hours of me talking and them listening. (My kids know how I like to preach.) The agenda includes: procedures of meetings, constituent service, voting, formation of committees, committee hearings, representing the people, turning off cell phones, and so on.
So the first topic is the procedures and how the chair should control the meeting, that all discussion and such runs through the chair — so I pull out a gavel and say that this is my gift (which I have given to many councils in Nineveh). They can use it to help control. Now remember, I am going through a translator — English, Arabic translation — and I had asked that questions please be held until the end of each topic. But this member in the front was frantic, and he was doing the Horshack-Mr. Kotter raising of the hand, so I acknowledge him and he goes on a long spree.
My translator clues me in: It's how the gavel is a symbol of tyranny and there was a judge up here who was a regime henchman and he was brutal and this gavel is a horrible idea and I cannot believe that you would bring this here. …
Well, I am flabbergasted — here I thought what a great idea the gavel was, and nobody had told me otherwise. The chair has been pounding a glass or his fist on the table to gain order, and I thought I was helping, not insulting — so I apologize for being “a naïve Westerner, an ignorant American. I had no idea that this was so negative in your culture — this is a lesson for me. Please forgive me.” (I ask my translator, whispering to him, “Why didn't you tell me this about gavels?!” He says he never heard of this — now, my translator is a native Iraqi, so what gives?)
I decide to let them decide — because after all, the gavel is a suggestion, an idea, not an order. I say, “You are a council — you should vote on all decisions. All those in favor of using the gavel at your meetings, raise your hand.”
Hands go up. I look around the room, and they are all up — yeah, all up, including the member who spoke out.
“Put your hand down,” I tell him. “You're voting against yourself.”
“I'm not,” he protests. (No translation necessary.)
I try to explain that it is okay to vote against something and that's what democracy is all about. My translator is telling me that the man doesn't want to insult me — I am telling him to put his hand down and vote against it, but he will not put it down. The motion carries, and it is unanimous that the council will use the gavel.
So the gavel is used, in many meetings, throughout Nineveh, and I get a little bit of joy every time I see it used. The governor actually has broken the base of his gavel set during a Provincial Council session.
I am walking outside headquarters when there's sudden chaos, people running in all directions — across the parking lot, this direction, that direction, into the building, out of the building, into a vehicle, out of a vehicle. A few seconds prior, I heard long bursts of gunfire — not an unusual sound, but this was close and immediate. Young is in full pack running, always ready with his aid bag, Beck jumps into a vehicle, I holler to wait as I run inside to get my vest, BOOM! BOOM! More mortars. I come back out, Beck is gone. “At the Patriot Gate!” someone yells. “Global's been hit!” More mortars. “Global's been hit bad!” A car speeding toward the aid station, which is 100 meters on the other side of the street, doors open, with men hanging out — I reach for my pistol. There aren't many privately owned vehicles speeding by here on post, but I realize it's not an attack car when I see soldiers carrying a bloody Fijian from it (Fijians are employed as contractor's guards) to the aid station. It's mayhem, everyone running all over.
“Mohinder's been hit!” I go to the aid station.
Mohinder is outside the aid station lying on his back, with Haight holding his foot up. I say, “Hey Mo, you are gonna be fine.”
He is kind of smiling, smiling like I have never seen this 70-some-year-old civilian smile before. (Mo is a contractor who works for CPA, an American citizen, a retired soldier from India, a Gurkha, here as an information tech.) A weird smile — later I find out he was given morphine. I hold his bloody hand while Sammy (our interpreter from Dahuk) makes a cell phone call to Mo's son in the States — answering machine. Mo leaves a message that he has been hit but he is okay. (Imagine getting that message.)
Then I see all the blood around me — there are casualties everywhere, lying on the ground, sitting against the wall, leaning against each other. Soldiers are everywhere. Medics triaging. Chaos — yet control. Inside are the more serious — soldiers and PSD (private security detail) fighting for their lives, on the table being worked on.
I help carry two or three patients into the waiting ambulance. The most serious are litter-bound, to be taken to the helo pad to be medevaced out. I drive over to the helo pad — somehow it's not like the rehearsals. We actually have practiced loading wounded into a helicopter many times — at Fort Bragg on a Drop Zone, in Kuwait in the middle of the desert. It takes a few minutes to load each one: intense chopper noise with dust and pebbles blowing around, blood, IV bags with hose getting hung up, hearing the gurgling of a wounded, dying man over the noise and mayhem. It's M.A.S.H., or I wish it were M.A.S.H. — the distance of war from the couch. Not here.
Ten or so are walking wounded, crammed into the back of an ambulance — it seems so odd seeing so many faces looking out in a dazed bewilderment, with maybe their immortality in question now, bandaged and bloodied. I'll never forget those stares from inside.
PROVINCIAL COUNCIL MEETING
Sometimes it strikes me how the profane meets the ordinary. Most of the business of government is boring, figuring out contracts and utilities and the like. Except it's a little surreal when you're trying to figure out something like taxes, the real stuff to put Iraqi society together, while a few Iraqis are doing their best to blow it up.
Thinking back to a recent Provincial Council session, right in the middle of it — BOOM! Building shakes simultaneously — and this is a big building, basically City Hall and the state capitol, a city block long, three stories. There's a brief pause by all, maybe two or three seconds — no words spoken. The speaker continues talking, I look over at PSD, standing against the wall: earpiece, always facial hair (usually a goatee), sunglasses, AK-47 locked and loaded, slung diagonally across chest, hands at the ready, sidearm, ample magazines, armored vest. He's secret service with an attitude and casual safari-type clothes.
Council continues to debate what to do about the wheat situation in Nineveh.
PSD whispers to boss, then to me, that a rocket or mortar hit a hospital a click north of here — casualties. I eye-contact military who just received information. At the same time, a governor's assistant walks up to governor and relays to him, eye contact and nods.
The meeting continues. Electricity, taxes, salaries, import-export — mundane government talk … Ah, democracy Iraqi-style, so imperfect and so unpredictable, yet so sweet to see in its birth. b