Saturday, June 23, 2007

I could go home.

So my busman's holiday has come to an end. Curfew ended and airplanes whisked me back to the Missouri River Valley.

Although I'd been to Iraq briefly four years ago, in the intervening time it had moved from being a place, to an abstraction. I'll admit to becoming numb to the reports of yet another bombing, of yet another shrine destroyed, of so many more families forced from one place to the next.

Like most people, it had little impact on my life. There's been no draft. Gas got pricier, but let's face it, do any of us drive less than before? Taxes haven't even gone up to pay for the darned thing.

But sitting in Humvees wondering if this was the day I'd be in a vehicle that trips a roadside bomb, sweating into my body armor for hours on end, I was reminded of just how tough troops have it.

At night in my Baghdad hotel, I could hear the mortars most days. I could hear the gunfire. Talking with the brave Iraqi journalists working in the bureau about the chaos of their neighborhoods, about the tough prospects of their lives, I came to understood just what a mess Iraq has become.

At home, people inevitably ask "what was it like?" Great. Awful. Tragic. For U.S. troops? For a high school girl whose final exams got delayed, and delayed and delayed because it wasn't safe to go to school? For an Iraqi politician under pressure to do so much with so little?

In the end, they are stuck with the tough reality of a country in collapse.

In the end, I had the choice to leave. They don't.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Theme song

As I was sitting down this morning for a hard-boiled egg while my Iraqi colleagues drank their tea, I noticed them looking wistfully at the TV while a music video played. It was a song old, dear and bittersweet to them.

Jenan sang along with the TV softly through the chorus ... "Shadi, Shadi."

"The singer is Lebanese," volunteered Hamad. "She's singing about civil war. It's a girl singing about a boy she knew when she was a child."

The singer is one of the most popular in the Arab world, known simply as Fairuz. Hamad said her voice makes him think of angels. He began to translate.

His name was Shadi, Shadi, and I used to play in the snow ...
The world was smothered with fire some people began fighting against other people and the fighting spread to our hills. Shadi ran to watch ... I never saw him again. Shadi was lost forever. Snow fell and melted away for twenty times I grew up and Shadi remained the boy I knew, playing in the snow.

"It's a sad song," said Hussein.

"Now," said Jenan, "there are too many Shadis here."

Friday, June 15, 2007

Just a reminder

For a really incisive blog about Iraq, read what some Iraqis have to say.

Must see TV

OK, let's confess something up front. The curfew that locked down the country after the bombing of the shrine in Samarra has me stuck in the hotel (and in Iraq, for that matter). So it's gotten much harder to find something to share with you.
So let's turn on the TV.
I caught a commercial on Iraqi TV worth mentioning. Keep in mind, my Arabic pretty much begins and ends with "thank you," but even I could follow this one.
I'm told it was produced in New York, and it has the sort of Hollywood production values you don't usually see here. It's all artsy hand-held camera stuff with the sort of black-and-white meets saturated colors look used in the movie "Traffic."
Hooded gunmen corner a middle aged man and ask him, "Sunni or Shiite?" No answer. They keep asking the question, tossing him in a trunk and hauling him off to scary looking concrete room. Finally, he's on the floor, the gunmen are increasingly agitated. Gun at his head. "Sunni or Shiite?" He spits back: "Iraqi." Fade to black.
It's a powerful message of rejection to the sectarian violence ripping this country apart.
Yet in watching you can't help wonder if it's just a shout into the wind. The bombing at the Shiite shrine in Samarra has been answered, despite the curfew, with attacks on Sunni mosques across the country. That's likely to beget reprisals against Shiites. And so on.
It'll take more than commercials to fix this place.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

CARE packages

People have been asking what to send the troops.

It's a tough question. I see letters and pictures from schoolkids posted in quite a few places. Cute stuff. But I didn't notice troops reading them much. That could be because they've been up so long or that after a while the novelty wears off.

I'd recommend against baked goods and such. By the time they get here, they can't be in very good shape. Plus, except for the most remote bases where guys are still chomping on MREs, the food seems plentiful and pretty good.

They do watch lots of DVDs. So any old ones -- think action and horror, hold off on the romantic comedies --might be appreciated. (Why doesn't Netflix or Blockbuster set up some free subscription over here? Great publicity. Establish brand loyalty with young, media-hungry audience. Send the P.R. consulting fee to: Scott Canon c/0 The Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, MO, 64108.)

Batteries, although heavy to mail, would be welcome. Some guys hook up portable CD players and iPods to portable speakers to listen to in the Humvees and they get beat up pretty quick. Might send along that kind of stuff.

Most of all, some replacement troops would be nice. See what you can do.

As for Iraqis, well, you've already sent billions of dollars here. Any way to transform that into water, electricity and peace would, I'm certain, be much appreciated.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Something to go with your cornflakes and coffee

It's just a typical day in the Iraqi newspapers.

Among the headlines:

--The speaker of parliament might lose his job amid accusations he had his body guards pummel a fellow lawmaker for threatening to leave a voting bloc.

--Followers of Muqtada al Sadr are making threatening noise to Turkey.

Car bombs kill scores. Again.

Life insurance being offered to university professors as a way to encourage them to stay in the country. Seems they're frequent targets of assassination.
And the people of Baghdad are having trouble sleeping. It's too hot to stay inside (spotty electricity means no air-conditioning). Sleeping on the roof means enduring the roar of helicopters, the clattering of tanks, the bang of gunfire and the thunder of mortar fire.
One woman tells a reporter: "I want to sleep through the night peacefully. But there is always somebody who wants to kill us."

Keep on Truckin'

I piled into the back of Humvees with at least a half dozen different crews. Each attacked the road with a different attitude.

The best guys go slow. It was the quickest indicator of the discipline of a group. The slower you go -- and it's hard to go slow because it's hot and uncomfortable in those things, and the air conditioning tends to conk out about mid-day -- the better chance of spotting bombs.

Rural roads are pock-marked with potholes left from earlier explosions ( fromIEDs, or improvised explosive devices, in the parlance of the military). If those holes are filled with white concrete, then chances are that everything is safe. Unrepaired bomb craters are favorite places for stashing new bombs.

Plus the troops look for wires, cables, animal carcasses, pipes or anything that looks out of place. The problem is, everything is out of place. Trash is everywhere. Virtually the entire landscape is blasted into disarray.

In the picture above, two empty cooking oil cans brought things to a standstill until a close look with a camera zoom gave the crew confidence to move ahead.

Not everyone is so careful. Some move quickly (and in my brief experience tended to listen to angrier music as they traveled).

Some just aren't as sharp. A civil affairs crew I rode into Kirkuk with had trouble working their radios.

Some are jumpier. One gunner I rode with felt obligated to firing warning shots over the top of any vehicle that didn't come to a complete stop. His staff sergeant finally tore into him when he whizzed shots by a farmer on a tractor.

"He's just a tractor man, dude. A tractor man."

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Say that again

Going from house to hovel in Hawijah, the masked man was in the middle of everything.

J.D., as the troops called their Iraqi translator, was the guy who had to convey the sometimes angry pleadings of soldiers to the men they were questioning, and the flustered pleadings of the men whose homes were suddenly filled with guys toting rifles.

The outfit liked J.D. Thought he was great, in fact. But having used enough translators myself, he was driving me crazy. So often the answers he gave from Iraqis made clear he'd never understood the original question.

Ask them, the lieutenant told J.D., who the guys were fighting here the other night.

They have no problem with anybody, J.D. would report back.

Sometimes the Iraqis would talk on for a full minute or more and the interpreter would sum it up with "they don't know."

In the home of a Taxi driver who wasn't seeing much business lately, they wanted to pass on word of a work project in town paid for by Uncle Sam.

No, said J.D., I told you already that he drives the taxi.

No, tell him there are these new jobs.

What jobs?

J.D, you're killing me tonight.

Forgive J.D. and his brethren. In Kirkuk province, they need to speak English, Arabic and Kurdish. Many cover their faces because being identified as working for Americans could a death sentence.

One translator I talked to urged me to recognize their efforts. He'd been working with troops almost since the invasion. Just a month earlier, the bullet-proof window of a Humvee had saved him from a sniper.

"I stopped counting the (roadside bombs)," he said, "a long, long time ago."

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Drug of choice

It seems almost cruel. The troops aren’t supposed to have booze here. Instead, next to the Gatorade and Cokes in most of the dining facilities, there’s free non-alcoholic Coors – a watery hint of the watery real thing.

So what do they go for? Energy drinks. Red Bull. Rip It and, for the hard cores, something called Boom Boom.

Seems like I’ve read there’s not much in such drinks that really works except a stiff bit of caffeine. Think of a strong coffee buzz delivered in a sugary citrus can of carbonated water.

Get some Boom Boom here, guys in one platoon were telling me, and you get more kick. They're convinced the folks in the Middle East put in something different, or something more, that you just don't get in the States.

I’m older and my bones creek, so I’m sticking with Coke and ibuprofen.

Tagging along

My first Army patrol of this trip was blissfully uneventful. It was a full day riding a few slow miles from a base on the edge of Kirkuk to the village of Khifa. A few days before someone had set off a bomb that knocked down a guard tower near Khifa and the small convoy of Humvees was heading out to see if the town’s muqtar, or neighborhood boss, might shed light on things.

It’s a strange thing to ride in a Humvee here. With helmet and body armor on, you squeeze your knees under your chin talk yourself into believing that it doesn’t really hurt to sit like this. And you work the odds in your head to convince yourself that a bomb won’t go off on this particular trip, and that if it does it will be too far from you to do any harm.

The gunner splits time between standing and sitting in sling that’s something like those flexible rubber swing set seats at a grammar school playground. It’s his job to wave a red flag, to curse, to point his machine gun until all the civilian cars give it wide berth. Some take more convincing than others, and in some areas you can tell the fear of getting shot up by the Humvees is stronger than in other places.

Y put along at 10 to 30 mph, everybody looking for a suspicious pothole or pile of trash.

After a few wrong turns, we found the village. And a few wrong turns later, we found the muqtar’s pad. He was gone, but his son was there.

What did he know about the explosion?

Nothing. I was asleep, he said.

Sleeping, huh? Well, said the hulking sergeant in his spacesuit of body armor, we’d better find something out.

If they know anybody who did the bombing, he said, they’d better step up or the U.S. Army is coming back and it won’t be pretty. Somebody’s going to get jacked up. Somebody’s gonna end up in jail.