Night raid in Baghdad

"Twenty-three hours of boredom and a minute of hell": Our reporter joins U.S. troops on a mission to find guerrillas.

Published December 4, 2003 8:14PM (EST)

A few nights before Thanksgiving, I stood in a light but very cold rain on a dark residential street in Baghdad, loosely surrounded by two tanks, five Humvees, a prisoner transportation truck, 52 soldiers, three Iraqi translators, two armed canine handlers, and one bomb-sniffing dog named Elsa. The soldiers -- representing both infantry and armor from the 1-36 Charlie Company of the 1st Armored Division -- were preparing to raid a house where a member of the resistance supposedly lived. A dozen of the soldiers crouched, guns ready, on either side of the house's front gate. Other soldiers cordoned off the block and pointed their weapons at nearby windows and roofs.

I had chosen to spend a day with these soldiers. Just moments before, I had been sitting in a convoy's lead humvee as the whole operation sped from the soldiers' base to the target house. Iraqi cars and pedestrians scrambled to move aside as we rumbled through the nighttime city, often going the wrong way on one-way streets. Now I watched as they banged on the gate and demanded (through one of the interpreters) that the house's occupants come outside.

After a few minutes, the gate opened. Some of the soldiers marched an older man and a number of young women to the curb and sat them down on the wet cement. One of the girls spoke very good English. She said, "Why are you doing this? We've done nothing. We always defend the Americans. We love the Americans. Now we hate you." I hovered nearby feeling sad and a little ridiculous in a flak jacket that said "press" and a borrowed helmet that misidentified me as a Sgt. Maj. Hudgins. After about 15 minutes, the search ended, the family went back inside, and the soldiers redeployed down the block to another house -- the correct house as it turned out. The first time, they had the wrong address.

Though I've been in Baghdad for a total of over three months since the end of the war, I've spent very little time with soldiers. I've mostly tried to understand what's going on here from an Iraqi perspective. And, because of that, I've tended to think about America's occupying force in fairly simplistic terms. Dumb guys with guns who have little interest in understanding Iraqis or seeing them as anything but the enemy. Of course, I should know by now that nothing in Iraq holds up to oversimplification. Out on the mission that night, I found myself feeling (not surprisingly) terrible for the Iraqi family mistakenly rousted from their home. But that feeling was tempered, even nudged aside (very surprisingly), by how sorry I felt for the soldiers themselves. I had hung out with them for several hours by then, talking, joshing. I liked these guys -- respected them, even. It wasn't their fault that we went to the wrong house first. Intelligence here is notoriously bad. They go to the wrong house all the time, some soldiers later told me. And they hate it. It's a waste of time and adrenaline. It makes them feel lousy for the Iraqis, and dispirited about their missions.

I arrived at the soldiers' base early that afternoon. The base used to be a tourist spot called "Baghdad Island," though the soldiers have renamed it "Bandit Island," after the nickname of their regiment. At the front gate Iraqi guards, acting as the first line of defense, searched me and checked my I.D. While I waited for a nearby soldier to radio my presence to the base's headquarters and confirm that they were expecting me, I took a moment to scuff up my very white sneakers with mud. I bought those sneakers right before coming to Baghdad and hadn't worn them once. Given how dirty everything gets in the city from the dust, pollution and now (in the rainy season) mud, those sneakers made me look like I had just gotten off the plane from Jordan. The Iraqi guards watched me with wide-eyed disbelief. In Iraq, people are always trying to make old stuff seem new. And here I was instantly adding years to a perfectly pristine pair of sneakers. Crazy.

I got my clearance and followed a soldier to a nearby jeep for a ride to the Tactical Operations Center, or TOC. We walked past a line of tanks with their guns aimed at the gate. Soldiers poked halfway out the tanks' top hatches. They looked cold and bored. They also looked as though they were trying hard not to stare at me. With only about six women stationed on a base containing hundreds of men, I definitely stood out.

My escort drove me past temporarily sidelined Army vehicles, rows of large olive-drab tents, clutches of sickly looking palm trees, and a handful of guys in Army-issue sweat suits jogging. It took me a moment to figure out why that particular sight was so shocking -- you just never see anyone jogging in Iraq.

We pulled in front of the prefab TOC building just as Sgt. Maj. Mark Schindler was gearing up to go in a four-jeep convoy to inspect a checkpoint in the Al Shaab neighborhood. He invited me to go along, so I did.

That was the first time I've ever worn body armor -- bulletproof vests, flak jackets, helmets (Kevlars, the soldiers call them). My uniform in Baghdad tends to be a long skirt and sweater, and I travel around sitting in the back of a beat-up car with a broken windshield. When I mentioned this to some of the soldiers, they were incredulous. How could I possibly feel safe in this city without body armor? I told them that, in all honesty, I felt safer not wearing it. That it made me feel like a target. Or, at the least, a potential object of derision among Iraqis. In short, it made me feel like one of them.

I sat in the back of Sgt. Maj. Schindler's jeep, next to the big, booted feet of the jeep's gunner who rode standing, his finger on the trigger of his very large gun. We left the base and went down a nearby highway where many IEDs (improvised explosive devices) have been killing soldiers. Resistance fighters disguise the IEDs in garbage bags or soda bottles or plaster made to look like rocks or even, occasionally, dead animals. They wait in the distance and use cobbled-together electronic triggers to detonate the explosives as the soldiers drive past. Sgt. Maj. Schindler had recently survived two such attacks. The first, on Nov. 8, missed all the vehicles in his convoy. The second, on Nov. 15, ripped through his jeep, piercing him with shrapnel and killing Sgt. Timothy Hazlit. "A day in this country," says the sergeant major, "is 23 hours, 59 minutes of boredom and one minute of hell."

We reached the crowded, poor Al Shaab neighborhood and drove through streets bordered by swells of garbage. Houses puzzled together from unmortared brick and scraps of wood and metal sat canted and sagging behind the garbage. Beat-up cars and donkey carts choked up the traffic, forcing us to slow down significantly. It was Eid -- the end-of-Ramadan celebration -- and tons of kids filled the streets in their finest shabbery. As we drove past, every single kid I saw waved or saluted or gave a thumbs-up to the soldiers. I found this utterly surprising. It seemed to me that, given all that's happened since the war's end, at least some of the kids would be staring the soldiers down or throwing rocks. But no, these kids acted downright ecstatic. Many of the boys ran alongside the jeeps waving and yelling "Hello, mister!" The soldiers waved back.

"It does them good to see the kids like that," said the sergeant major. The way he sees it, 90 percent of Iraqis like the Americans and 10 percent hate them. Of those 10 percent, 5 percent actually do something about it. I didn't say anything, but those statistics seemed very wrong to me. Most Iraqis I meet, even moderate Iraqis, feel pretty pissed off at the U.S. these days.

At the checkpoint, tanks and Humvees lined the road. Soldiers waved over cars, directed drivers to pull into a dirt lot. They shooed the passengers out of the cars so that a bomb-sniffing dog could hop into the vehicle and snuffle around. In some cases, impossible numbers of people unfolded themselves from the cars. I watched as a family of 14 got out of a pickup truck. They stood in a line, with their backs to the truck (at the soldiers' instructions). The men looked furtively over their shoulders, angry and dismayed at the sight of the dog inside the truck's cab. Iraqis think of dogs as inherently unclean. A dog in your home or car makes those spaces unclean as well. It's very disrespectful. One man started to argue with the soldiers about the dog. They shouted him down, finished the inspection, and sent him on his way.

It's disturbing to watch a scene like that. Undoubtedly, the use of dogs alienates Iraqis, fertilizes their resentment. On the other hand, Iraqis want security more than anything right now. These checkpoints do make a difference, and the dogs significantly speed the process, alleviating long traffic snarls. It's one of the million or so conundrums here.

Sgt. Maj. Schindler favors using the dogs. We stood on the roadside, watching the checkpoint at work. The sergeant major towered over me. A tall, lean guy who looked disconcertingly like Sam Shepard. He spoke with the slight pseudo-Texan drawl that most soldiers seem to have, regardless of their place of origin. But I found him smart and thoughtful, and from what I could see, his men liked him very much. He told me that working in Iraq demanded constant adjustment, that at the beginning the military didn't understand how to deal with Iraqis, and they were still playing catch-up. They try harder to recognize the Iraqis' enormous sense of pride now, he said. Because to insult one Iraqi means you hurt the pride of their whole family. I asked how the use of the dogs fit in with that. He said that the Iraqis respect a strong show of authority. "It's not just what the dogs can do," he said, "but the message they send."

Later, back at the base, I asked him his opinions about the situation in Fallujah, the town west of Baghdad that is considered the center of the anti-American resistance. The 82nd Airborne controls that town. I've heard from a number of journalists that they act with unnecessarily extreme force, and treat every Iraqi like the enemy. Sgt. Maj. Schindler thought for a moment before replying. "The 82nd tends to go at it up there like they're picking a fight," he said. "In addition, you've got a lot of new people up there who have the mistaken impression it's a war zone. You're asking these young soldiers to do some very hard things. Make fast, complicated assessments. Maybe they're a little trigger-happy."

I wandered around the checkpoint and talked to soldiers. None of the guys I spoke to demonstrated the blind dismissal of Iraqis that I had expected. Sure, Iraqis confused the hell out of them. Frustrated them. But they were just people. Rules of engagement have been changing, the soldiers said. No one's supposed to fire his weapon unless an Iraqi is pointing a gun right at him. (A few months ago, soldiers were told to shoot any car approaching a checkpoint too fast. A lot of innocent Iraqis-- sometimes whole families -- got killed that way.) Another change: The soldiers go on fewer dismounted patrols now. This isn't good, they told me. It means losing personal relationships with the Iraqi people. Mostly the soldiers do drive-around patrolling or traffic stops. "It's all gonna get worse if we have no working relationship with the people -- talking with them," one soldier said.

I made notes, leaning against a jeep. Fifty feet away, a small mob of children capered around and chanted, "Good good MISTER!" A soldier asked me who I wrote for. "Salon magazine," I replied. He paused for a second. "Boy," he said, "I can't believe they would send you to a place like this." It took me a moment to realize that he thought I must be employed by a hairdressing journal.

Later that evening, I ate in the base mess hall with some other men (they call the mess hall "the KBR" after the name of Kellogg, Brown and Root, the private subcontracted company that runs it and all other military mess halls in Iraq) where I had the chance to reiterate, a few times, that, no, I didn't work for a hairdressing magazine. I explained that Salon covered news, politics and culture, but not hair.

"You're not one of those reporters that said that they named Iron Hammer [the name given to the new U.S. policy of using massive military force against attackers] after the Nazis, are you?" asked one guy.

I said, "Well, it wasn't named after the Nazis, but it had the same name that the Nazis used." I didn't mention that I had, indeed, written about the topic in my last piece.

I sat with soldiers at a long table punctuated by clusters of condiments. They had steak that night. "You have to understand," said one soldier. "We, like, never get steak." The soldiers sawed away with flimsy plastic knives and forks; they broke so easily that each man went through from two to five of them in the course of dinner. We talked about what they perceived to be too many negative stories in the media. The news just wants the stories about death, they said. Not the good stories. I tried to explain that journalists do want to cover good stories. There just aren't that many of them these days.

For many of the soldiers, President Bush's surprise Thanksgiving trip probably seemed like a positive story. I happened to be in the TOC when word came that seven soldiers from Bandit Island would be going to a special Thanksgiving event with a surprise guest, unknown even to the base commanders. The officers inside the TOC groaned and told me how much the soldiers hate that meet-and-greet shit. They'd rather stay on base. One of the officers said, "This isn't about handing out more soccer balls, is it?" They reluctantly picked out seven of the best and brightest for this mission. "The magnificent 7," they joked.

A photographer who lives in my house happened to be covering the event for Time magazine. Like all the soldiers there, she had no idea that Bush would show up. The soldiers, gathered from bases all over Baghdad, were grumpy, bored and very hungry. They had been around for hours. And then, enter Mr. Bush. The soldiers went nuts. If the guys I spoke to are any indication, it's probable that many soldiers there that day don't even like President Bush. But he is their commander in chief. It must have been quite a morale booster to see him in the flesh.

From what I gather, it made much less of an impression on Iraqis. The brevity of the trip left many Iraqis I've spoken to feeling that Bush acted a bit cowardly.

That night, on the mission, I followed the soldiers down the block to raid a second house. The intelligence they had told them that a young man living in the house might be working with al-Qaida. None of the soldiers felt particularly optimistic about this mission, though. On 90 percent of the house raids, the soldiers find nothing more than confused families and a couple of guns used for home protection. (They used to confiscate all guns; now a family gets to keep one.) The soldiers followed the same procedures as before -- taking positions, banging on the gate, and demanding the family come out. An elderly couple and six young men emerged from the house and, following orders, squatted, mid-street, in the glare of one tank's headlights. The man in question was not among them.

A dozen soldiers entered the house and began searching. After a moment, I asked whether I could go inside. A soldier barked, "Friendly on the way!" and I followed him into a dark courtyard, through a front door, and into the family's home. By the door, piles of sandals indicated where the family de-shoed so as not to track up their carpets. For a brief moment, I considered pulling off my artificially filthy sneakers, just as I would if I was visiting Iraqi friends. Soldiers in muddy boots entered the house behind me and walked across the rug without a thought. And I knew that removing my sneakers would, most likely, bug them. This was no visit. It was a raid.

I went upstairs where soldiers were rifling through drawers, cabinets, boxes. They piled dinars and a few discovered guns on a flowery quilt covering the bed. Word came up from below that they had found something, and I descended to see. In a mostly empty room sat an unearthed box containing an assortment of electronics -- switches, circuit boards, antennae, batteries, soldered bits and pieces. Nearby, a bag containing half a dozen electric garage door opener kits. The kind used to make detonation devices for IEDs. The colonel in charge stood by while I knelt by the box. "Take a good look," he said. "We got some bad guys tonight."

By Jen Banbury

Jen Banbury spent eight months in Iraq reporting for Salon. In early March 2004,she filed a story about Abu Ghraib, "Guantanamo on Steroids," which addressed early Iraqi allegations of detainee abuse.

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Iraq War