Editor’s note: With Democrat leaders openly proclaiming the U.S. has lost the Iraq war and calling for immediate troop withdrawal, and with Gen. David Petraeus’ eagerly awaited report coming next month, it’s a pivotal time for America in Iraq. At the same time, there’s a growing perception the news media are not reporting the reality of the war – always focusing on the latest car-bomb or IED story, but almost never on the big picture of what is actually taking place in post-Saddam Iraq, and what it means for the Mideast and the U.S.
Beginning today, reporter Matt Sanchez, currently embedded with the U.S. military in Iraq, will provide WND readers with a glimpse into the Iraq war most Americans have never heard from a press increasingly hostile to the war effort.
In this, his first dispatch, Sanchez takes readers into one of the most dangerous areas of Baghdad.
BAGHDAD, Iraq – Lt. Col. James Crider is a soft-spoken, direct man who has just become the “property owner” of muhalla 840 – “muhalla” meaning a section of land and the number 840 having been assigned to this particular square plot of Baghdad on a high-resolution satellite-image map.
Lt. Col. James ‘Jim’ Crider, commander of the 1st Squadron 4th Cavalry
I asked how numbers got assigned and imagined some military official coming up with an intelligent formula: 8 for the neighborhood and maybe 26 to represent the level of threat. Next to the square marked 840 was another marked 838. Was one area of operation worse than the other area of operation? The satellite image was black and white, but someone with a red-colored marker had traced a thick line down the borders. You knew exactly where muhalla 840 began and where it ended, but you couldn’t see the streets underneath, so much about the square marked 840 just couldn’t be seen from the map.
In the old-fashion wars and battles gone by, the enemies wore different uniforms and had a base or capital that was readily identifiable on the type of map Crider was holding. But in Baghdad, and specifically in the Dora neighborhood, if the lieutenant colonel could clearly define enemy territory as easily as his AO, there would be several bursts of grey on that map, blinking on and off like a defective light-bulb.
The 1st Squadron 4th Cavalry out of Fort Riley, Kan., was a long way from home. I personally knew about Dora, in the Rasheed district of Baghdad, just from reputation. Days before I arrived, five soldiers had been killed in a Bradley, a heavily armored vehicle that was far safer than the average Humvee, which is precisely what the soldiers of the 1-4 Cav used to commute between home, Forward Operating Base Falcon, and work, muhalla 840.
The Baghdad freeways, as I learned to call such roads growing up in California, looked like those typically seen in many parts of the United States, and I was even struck by the advertisements along the center divide and shoulder. There were billboards for Hitachi television sets, mobile phones and local products. A colonel at Baghdad airport told me the Iraqi capital was like any other city. On any given day you have markets open, children going to school, and traffic. That morning, there were few cars on Route Tampa.
All the routes in Baghdad had funny-sounding names you’d probably never hear in the United States: Budweiser, Van Halen, Yuengling. And then others had familiar names, but looked nothing like the “Main Streets” or “Broadways” back home. Names were assigned so soldiers could easily remember what road was planned for the day’s route. Routes were typically chosen the day before and not revealed until the pre-mission briefing. Some may think they have a brutal commute to work – but that’s only because they’ve never had to travel from FOB Falcon, down Tampa to Route Senator and then past the concrete barriers and into muhalla 840.
When the 1-4 Cav “rolled,” it owned the road, which meant all traffic had to get out of the way. A gunner standing on a platform in the middle of the Humvee shouted at cars that got too close and had strict rules of engagement, or ROE, for how to deal with those who did not obey. The modern military version of the mythological centaur, the gunner’s job was to be the eyes and voice of the Humvee, or “trucks” as the Army sometimes called them. The gunner was also an informal diplomat, as he was the only one visible from the street. Gunners could wave to Iraqis and make them feel acknowledged, even comfortable. The gunner could also be aggressive, even menacing, which changed the mood of traffic around the convoy.
We were on our way to the neighborhood that lieutenant colonel called “upscale, with beautiful homes.” To vary the route, the tactical commander directed the convoy to cross over the center divide, and onto the opposite lane – into oncoming traffic! That’s when the gunner waved his hands to slow the oncoming cars.
Dora was a majority Sunni neighborhood with a substantial Christian population. Crider called the occupants “eclectic,” and he was right. In Dora, I met more English-speaking Iraqis than in any other place in Baghdad. The eclectic part, however, derived from their professions: an entrepreneurial photographer, a retired colonel of the Iraqi army, a painter who had his work shown in Paris, and an international basketball referee – those were just on one street.
Typical home in Dora. Usually two to three stories with a front courtyard and a fence. Many homes have been left abandonded as Dora residents who are on the wrong side of the sectarian fence flee to neighborhoods where they will feel more safe.
An upscale neighborhood, in Baghdad, meant two- and three-story homes, high ceilings and a patio on the roof. A gate above eye-level kept the front courtyard out of view to any casual pedestrian. All the homes had some type of greenery peeking over the fence, a nut-laden palm tree, some bushes or plants. Muhalla 840 had cracked sidewalks and dying grass that was once a lawn and had potential, if only someone cared enough to pull out the weeds. Most of the homes had gas-fueled generators constantly buzzing like mowers, so without realizing it I was usually shouting to someone standing right next to me. The entire area was no bigger than a decent sized Wal-Mart, if you included the parking lot.
“We’ve got trash collection people out here working to keep the neighborhood clean, pick up some of the garbage and give these guys a chance to earn some money.” One of the enormous differences between Western and Middle Eastern culture was the Western man’s desire to control his surroundings, to project his will onto the environment around him. For Americans, trash has a specific place and there is a plan for its disposal. Along Iraqi streets, I’ve seen piles of garbage as high as an SUV, even in the more well-to-do neighborhoods. In Dora, garbage has no immediate use, so its removal is an afterthought, something done only when absolutely necessary.
I mentioned Lt. Col. Crider and the 1-4 Cav “owned” the neighborhood, which meant he was responsible for it, all of it – the on-again, off-again electricity, supporting the local medical clinic, the painting of an elementary/junior high school, and, yes, the trash.
Supervising all the activities that normally would fall under the jurisdiction of the city government is part of the war in Iraq that just isn’t told.
“We get out and talk to as many people as we can. That’s important. I want to know who is living in the neighborhood,” Crider told me. It’s called “Close Encounters” and Crider attributed the name to a smart lieutenant from an Ivy League school who decided to work on a Baghdad street instead of Wall Street. Part politician, part salesman, the lieutenant colonel introduced himself to his constituency.
“You notice any change in the neighborhood?” he asked a burly shop-owner, concerned taxi driver or even a college professor. Inevitably, they will say “yes,” and that’s when the politician in Crider had them.
“You see, we’re working to make things better here, more security.” The residents of Dora shook their heads and agreed. It’s easy to discuss highbrow civil rights – free speech, freedom of assembly and so on – but for the residents of Dora the only right they wanted protected was their right to personal security.
Everyone wanted the violence to stop, at least they did when Lt. Col. Crider spoke to them, and that’s when Crider, the salesman, made his pitch: “We’re working to make this area more secure, safer for your kids, but we need your help.”
He asks for help watching for danger:
The next few moments are very revealing. Dora’s occupants are afraid, hopeful, skeptical, engaged or even hostile. How a resident responds to the 1-4 Cav will set the stage for future relations and possibly the safety of the people in Dora – both the Iraqis and the Americans.
In the past few months, since the surge has allowed the 1st squadron 4th Battalion to concentrate its effort into a very small area and actually meet the people living in the homes, instead of just driving by on their streets, getting people to help has yielded the biggest benefits.
No. 1 inalienable right, personal security. The people of Dora want to feel safe. Things have improved, but residents acknowledge how dangerous their neighborhood is.
Iraqis call Crider and 1-4 cavalry to report potential IEDs, strange people in the neighborhood or suspicious activity. They also call to ask if they can get gasoline in their cars. Bombs can be detonated and bad guys captured when the 1-4 Cav know the specifics – who, what, where and when.
“I can’t tell who the bad guys are,” said Maj. Callahan, Crider’s second in command. But these guys, he said, motioning to the Iraqis – these guys can.
It’s difficult for Americans to understand the divisions between religious sects and I won’t insult your intelligence pretending to understand them myself, but in the little neighborhoods like Dora there’s a push to homogenize. Baghdad’s sectarian violence has the dynamic of a gated community, but in reverse: Those who don’t belong are forced to leave.
The 1-4 Cav walked the streets and met with all the people they could, which sometimes meant knocking on strangers’ doors. It’s a peculiar feeling entering someone’s home accompanied by armed men, but I soon realized the Iraqis were not at all afraid of the soldiers who came into their living rooms. Within minutes of introductions and the handshake that ends with the palm patting the middle of the chest near the heart, the Iraqis had a long list of things they needed or could use.
Most Iraqis not only wanted Americans to take an active role in their lives, they expected it. After years of a regime that dictated controlled speech, movement and welfare, Iraqis were accustomed to strong mentorship. One of the hurdles leaders like Crider have is getting Iraqis to develop a greater sense of personal responsibility.
Years after the successful invasion of Baghdad and ouster of Saddam Hussein, the battle for hearts and minds was over and the United States had won. But the dirty little secret was, and is, that the average Iraqi trusts the American military more than he trusts his fellow Iraqis. At neighborhood council meetings, I’ve seen audiences nod off during the flowery, long-winded speeches of local politicians and then quickly perk up when a member of the U.S. military speaks. It’s because, as many Iraqis told me, “We know you won’t take sides, and that you’re fair.”
“Close Encounters” has paid off. The residents of muhalla 840 have reported several veebeds (car bombs). Most of them were false alarms, but three of them contained explosives, set off by a deadly watcher. The enemy could be observing, calling in the 1-4 Cav and maybe even leading them to an ambush. Such tactics are not unheard of, which is why human intelligence is crucial. Human intelligence meant getting out and meeting the people.
“You see this area here, I know most of the people here,” Crider said, a slight hint of Southern accent making his words sound disarming, but still very important. “But I don’t know who lives here,” he ran a finger along a couple of homes on the map. “That’s where we’re going.”
Matt Sanchez, originally from California, is a New York City-based writer currently embedded with the U.S. military in Iraq. His work has appeared in the New York Post, National Review and the Weekly Standard.
A corporal in the United States Marine Corps Reserve and a student at Columbia University where he’s working on degree in American Studies, Sanchez says his mission in Iraq is “to report on the stories that matter the most, first-person accounts by the men and women on the ground.” His blog, Matt-Sanchez.com, chronicles his work.