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Matt Sanchez

Editor’s note: U.S. media coverage of the Iraq War focuses almost exclusively on the latest terror incidents and politics, but very little on the amazing on-the-ground reality of what the U.S. military is accomplishing there.

Reporter Matt Sanchez, currently embedded in Iraq with the 1st Squadron 4th Cavalry out of Fort Riley, Kan. – the 1-4 Cav – has been providing 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 second dispatch from the front lines, Sanchez takes readers into the Dora neighborhood of Southern Baghdad. Despite its being one of the bloodiest and most dangerous neighborhoods in Iraq’s capital city, Sanchez discovers genuine hope for the future in the midst of war.

BAGHDAD, Iraq – It was a very nice street. The residents of Dora came out as the 1-4 Cav walked down the mostly paved road.

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Sheep in downtown Baghdad (Matt Sanchez photo)

Paving a road is a good sign of safety in Baghdad, where deep-buried IEDs are deadliest. An Army staff sergeant explained how the terrorists liked to burn tires over a pressure-plate IED and set it off under an unsuspecting Humvee. This street had no pressure plates, but plenty of residents who had felt the pressure of day-to-day life.

An English-speaking man in his mid-40s was one of the first to greet Lt. Col. James Crider and his men. He was animated but welcoming, even when he complained that he had waited in line and got no propane. Propane was the main means of cooking in Baghdad and throughout Iraq. During the Saddam era, propane, gasoline and electricity were given out in a type of spoils system. With United Nations sanctions imposed over several years, the era following the first Persian Gulf War was a difficult one for the people of Iraq, but several older Iraqis pointed to the Iran-Iraq war of ’79-’88 as the beginning of the downward trend in living standards. Ration cards and long waits were the only means for securing the essentials. No ration – no gas, propane or other amenities. Thereafter, the black market was your only option, and that put you in the vulnerable illegal sphere that more and more Iraqis entered as the arrival of American forces became inevitable.

Baghdadis still have their ration cards for when benzene (gas) and propane are legally available. It is difficult to explain shortages in oil products for a country that has some of the largest known oil reserves in the world, but then, neither can one readily explain the scarce usage of solar panels in an area renowned for soaring heat. After security, distribution of goods – especially oil, propane and benzene – is the second greatest problem. There’s an oil refinery not far from the neighborhood. Only after interviewing Iraqi government officials, Coalition forces and everyday Iraqis does it become understandable how essential goods make it to the general populace.

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Iraqis are eligible for funds to refurbish sewage, water treatment and even mosques (Matt Sanchez photo)

“Someone” at the MOI – Ministry of the Interior – is supposed to supply “someone” with a truck and make contact with “someone” in the neighborhood so necessities like propane can make it to “someone” in Dora. There is this constant criticism that Baghdad functioned just fine before the invasion, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Lt. Col. Crider cut through the red tape and sent trucks to the refinery to escort a delivery of propane back to the neighborhood. It was the first legal supply of propane these residents had seen in months. When the trucks arrived, the lines were filled with men, women and children. Each had a banged-up and well-used container and a ration card, to guarantee they got only one serving for personal use. The idea was to prevent people from buying too much for the purpose of reselling it at a higher price. The price was set, so the 1-4 Cav asked both the vendors and the buyers how much they had paid.

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Dora is the traditional home to a rapidly decreasing Iraqi Christian population. I entered a Christian home and was very surprised to see an image of Madonna and Child. Half-joking, I asked the owner of the house, “where did you all come from?” She said, “We’ve been here for over a thousand years. Welcome.” (Matt Sanchez photo)

Despite high unemployment, Iraqis seem to possess plenty of cash. In fact, Iraqis are known for purchasing their homes in cash, a habit that has not changed even after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

The man who approached the 1-4 Cav got no propane. He said the trucks had run out of it before he reached the head of the line. In perfect English, he jokingly said he was the “Iraqi Omar Sharif” and invited me to take a picture of him. His story was like that of many who had stayed after Saddam’s fall. He had been an international basketball referee during a time when Iraq had a love for the sport. Old, neglected basketball courts still stand in a country that is now prone to playing soccer. The “ref” was a Sunni man; he called Dora home since the mid-’70s. Wanting to prove he was a real Dora resident, he proudly introduced me to his son, a man in his late 20s who had grown up in the area.

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Head Bump: Military age males are the prime perpetrators of attacks on Coalition forces. This young man is one of the few Iraqis to refuse medical aid. The Army medic, a former Navy corpsman to Marines, was certain he had attacked soldiers days before (Matt Sanchez photo)

Nature’s gifts can skip a generation. Where the referee was suave and relaxed, the son was fidgety, awkward. They both spoke English and the son insisted on telling me about what he considered to be the main threat in Iraq. To my right, another Iraqi who said he was a professional photographer joined the gathering group of neighbors.

“Iran, it is Iran – these guys will kill all Iraqis and they run this government. It is Iran that is the biggest threat.”

I asked him if he was afraid because of the violence in the area, but he said no, that he was willing to fight for his country.

“Do you blame Americans for this situation?”

He paused and said: “I blame America for not letting us, some of the people like me, defend ourselves against the real threat and some of the bad people who are running the government.”

Throughout Iraq, there is frustration with the central government. The Sunnis of Anbar complain they are ignored, the Sunnis of Baghdad fear they may be getting too much attention. Shias will say the central government has done nothing, that Saddam is gone and was supposed to be the sole stumbling block between an isolated nation and an emancipated Iraq.

The referee’s son looked around, unsure as to whether he would come to regret his words. He calmed down. He had a degree from the University of Baghdad and was looking for work. As he wondered aloud what he could do for the military, the children began to gather around us and someone gave him information on becoming an interpreter.

Iraqi kids are plentiful, and unabashed by the presence of American military. Back home, only 1 percent of the population serves in the armed forces. In some places, like Manhattan, New York, where I live, it’s possible to never meet someone who has served in the military. The typical Iraqi has had far greater contact with the U.S. military than the everyday American citizen. The military, for better or worse, will leave an impression on the Iraqi people, especially the young ones who eagerly want to talk to Americans. Some kids want footballs, others will insist on chocolate, but what is striking is how unafraid the children are of towering soldiers in complete body armor, dark glasses and imposing weaponry.

Despite it being a time of war, paradoxically the Fertile Crescent is still vibrant, and the proof of rejuvenation is in the abundant presence of young kids at all levels of society. Children in Iraq laugh a lot and entertain themselves with the simplest of toys – but all activity stops when the Americans come to town.

The kids especially like to pose for cameras, so I’ve had no shortage of young children asking me to take their picture. They pose with their friends and ask questions that I mostly don’t understand, but that doesn’t seem to bother them. One sign of how the Iraqis see their future: Older children will hold up their sibling toddlers for a photo – picture perfect.

On one block, the 1-4 Cav is such a frequent guest that the children follow them around. Despite the heat, heavy body armor and the constant threat of enemy attack, I have never seen a member of the military lose his or her temper – even when the kids on occasion can be annoying, they’ll just walk away.

In a country where the culture will naturally spin toward exaggeration, children are one of the few barometers of an honest, direct answer. I talked to one young boy who insisted on a picture (the girls are far more shy):

“Are you in school?” He nodded.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” “I want to be a doctor.”

The boy was 13 years old and living in a country that had many problems, but beyond imagination children know no boundaries. Tomorrow, this child will inherit an Iraq that is built – or destroyed – today.

Iraq is filled with doctors, engineers, teachers. As with many totalitarian governments, particularly in developing nations, the push was to create a workforce that could maintain a nation wishing to modernize. In the ’60s and ’70s, as the cost per barrel of oil rocketed, Iraq was poised to become a new, modern state. Universities quickly turned out engineers and teachers, the way a baker places loaves of bread on a shelf. Even before the beginning of hostilities in Iraq, many of Iraq’s educated class left the country for a better life in Jordan or Syria for higher pay and a better life.

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Christmas trees in downtown Bagdad (Matt Sanchez photo)

“Where do you want to live? Do you want to leave Iraq?” “No, I want to live here in my neighborhood.”

“Who are you afraid of?”

The child spoke of bullets flying down the streets.

“Are you afraid of Americans?”

“I love them!”

“Why?”

“Because they don’t shoot at us.”

Before the 1-4 Cav placed the giant Texas Barriers at the end of streets like Airplane Road, bullets from the neighborhood across the freeway could hit someone, anyone, on the other side. Afraid, parents kept their kids indoors, and the fact that so many children were now outside was a vote of confidence that the situation was changing – for the better.

Recently, bullets were not the only problem. Someone had thrown a hand grenade at one of the Humvees. With a violent whack that sounds nothing like the slow-motion Hollywood explosions, the deadly grenade ricocheted underneath the truck and detonated. No one was harmed.

On the streets, we saw a young man with a bandage on his head. He looked uncomfortable when Crider asked him if he wanted his medic to look at the wound. Like many young men in the neighborhood, this resident wore a soccer shirt and seemed a lot like anyone else, except for the bandage on his head. It takes two witnesses who are willing to fill out a report to arrest someone for suspicion of terrorism. The lieutenant colonel did not intend to arrest the man whose eyes never left the sidewalk, but he was very clear in his message to the man.

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Smiles: The happy faces count the number of missions with no “significant event” (Matt Sanchez photo)

“You don’t want to get involved with the bad guys in this neighborhood.” Most believe the “hardcore” irreconcilables are few, and that some young men like to attack American forces out of boredom, quick cash or a test of male bravado.

The scouts of the 1-4 Cav had nothing to prove, they had taken enemy fire in the past and enjoyed the current peace. After each successful mission, one of the smokers smeared a smiley face on to a wall with the butt of his cigarette. What looked like a swath of fuzzy marks from afar was actually the running total of missions without incident. But like many things seen from a distance, the real details only became clear from close up.


Previous story:

War secret: Iraqis actually like the U.S. military


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.

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