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Two Reporters, Two Armies, Too Much Trouble in Iraq
A remarkable Washington Post article finds Iraqi fighters singing hymns to Saddam Hussein, and these are the ones on our side. It gets worse from there.
By Greg Mitchell
(June 11, 2005) -- Just back, absurdly well-fed, from E&P's interactive media conference in New Orleans, I was about to write an entertaining little column on bloggers, journalists and their different notions of "accuracy," when I came across a Friday piece in the Washington Post by two brave and widely-honored foreign correspondents, Anthony Shadid and Steve Fainaru. The bloggers vs. journos column will have to wait.
The immensely significant Shadid/Fainaru piece is based on their recent (and separate) three-day journeys with
American and the Iraqi forces. The Iraqi unit was selected by the U.S. military, presumably viewed as one of the best. "The journey revealed fundamental, perhaps irreconcilable differences over everything from the reluctance of Muslim soldiers to search mosques and homes to basic questions of lifestyle," the two men write, and much, more more.
Consider its opening, set in Baiji, Iraq. Keep in mind, these are the Iraqis on our side: "An hour before dawn, the sky still clouded by a dust storm, the soldiers of the Iraqi army's Charlie Company began their mission with a ballad to ousted president Saddam Hussein. 'We have lived in humiliation since you left,' one sang in Arabic, out of earshot of his U.S. counterparts. 'We had hoped to spend our life with you.'
"But the Iraqi soldiers had no clue where they were going. They shrugged their shoulders when asked what they would do. The U.S. military had billed the mission as pivotal in the Iraqis' progress as a fighting force but had kept the destination and objectives secret out of fear the Iraqis would leak the information to insurgents."
This comes just after a Washington Post/ABC News Poll, for the first time, shows that most Americans do not believe the toppling of Saddam Hussein made the United States more secure. The survey also found that nearly three-quarters say the casualty rate in Iraq is unacceptable; two-thirds believe the U.S. military is bogged down; 60 percent say the war was not worth fighting.
Normally, I refrain from quoting articles at length, but in this case, I will just let the excerpts from the Shadid-Fainaru report roll, with an occasional connecting paragraphs. One can only wonder what the parents of soldiers now serving in Iraq, or who have died there, might think of this report if they encountered it:
"The reconstruction of Iraq's security forces is the prerequisite for an American withdrawal from Iraq. But as the Bush administration extols the continuing progress of the new Iraqi army, the project in Baiji, a desolate oil town at a strategic crossroads in northern Iraq, demonstrates the immense challenges of building an army from scratch in the middle of a bloody insurgency.
"Charlie Company disintegrated once after its commander was killed by a car bomb in December. And members of the unit were threatening to quit en masse this week over complaints that ranged from dismal living conditions to insurgent threats. Across a vast cultural divide, language is just one impediment. Young Iraqi soldiers, ill-equipped and drawn from a disenchanted Sunni Arab minority, say they are not even sure what they are fighting for. They complain bitterly that their American mentors don't respect them.
"In fact, the Americans don't: Frustrated U.S. soldiers question the Iraqis' courage, discipline and dedication and wonder whether they will ever be able to fight on their own, much less reach the U.S. military's goal of operating independently by the fall. 'I know the party line. You know, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Army, five-star generals, four-star generals, President Bush, Donald Rumsfeld: The Iraqis will be ready in whatever time period,' said 1st Lt. Kenrick Cato, 34, of Long Island, N.Y., the executive officer of McGovern's company. 'But from the ground, I can say with certainty they won't be ready before I leave. And I know I'll be back in Iraq, probably in three or four years. And I don't think they'll be ready then.'"
The Post reporter who joined the inexperienced and under-armored Iraqis received the well wishes of American soldiers who told him he would need a lot of luck to return unscathed.
"The Iraqi soldiers were a grim lot," according to the Post article, "patrolling streets where they lived and mosques where they worshiped. As they entered their neighborhoods, some of them donned black balaclavas and green scarves to mask their identities. They passed graffiti on walls that, like the town, were colored in shades of brown. 'Yes to the leader Saddam,' one slogan read. 'Long live the mujaheddin,' said another. Nearly all the men had received leaflets warning them to quit; the houses of several had been attacked by insurgents.
"The men spoke of the insurgents with a hint of awe, saying the fighters were willing to die and outgunned them with rocket-propelled grenades and, more fearsome, car bombs. Zwayid, a father of three, looked in disgust at his own AK-47 assault rifle, with a green shoelace for a strap....
Rick McGovern, a tough-talking 37-year-old platoon sergeant from Hershey, Pa., who heads the military training for Charlie Company, told one of the Post reporters: "Honestly, I don't think people in America understand how touchy the situation really is right now. We have the military power, the military might, but we're handling everything with kid gloves because we're hoping the Iraqis are going to step up and start taking things on themselves. But they don't have a clue how to do it."
Asked when he thought the Iraqi soldiers might be ready to operate independently, McGovern said: "Honestly, there's part of me that says never. There's some cultural issues that I don't think they'll ever get through."
The article continued: "Almost to a man, the [Iraqi] soldiers said they joined for the money -- a relatively munificent $300 to $400 a month. The military and police forces offered some of the few job opportunities in town. Even then, the soldiers were irate: They wanted more time off, air-conditioned quarters like their American counterparts and, most important, respect. Most frustrating, they said, was the two- or three-hour wait to be searched at the base's gate when they returned from leave.
"The soldiers said 17 colleagues had quit in the past few days. 'In 15 days, we're all going to leave,' Nawaf declared. The two-dozen soldiers gathered nodded their heads....
"Shortly after [an] ambush, a sniper shot a U.S. soldier standing on the roof of a police station, inflicting a severe head wound. The Americans suspected that the fire had come from the nearby Rahma mosque. American and Iraqi troops surrounded the building. Fearful of inflaming resentment, U.S. soldiers ordered their Iraqi counterparts to search the mosque. They initially refused, entering only after McGovern berated them.
"U.S. forces then ordered the Iraqis to arrest everyone inside the mosque, including the respected elderly prayer leader. The Iraqi platoon leader refused, U.S. soldiers recalled. The platoon leader and his men then sat down next to the mosque in protest....
"At 4:30 a.m. Monday, the men of Charlie Company and the entire U.S. battalion -- some 800 soldiers -- set out in a convoy for west Baiji. The Americans used night-vision goggles to see in the dark. The Iraqis had glow sticks. Before the troops had left the base, an Iraqi driver plowed into a concrete barrier, momentarily delaying the convoy.
"U.S. commanders said the involvement of the Iraqis on the mission -- a series of raids to crack a bomb-making cell -- was critical to its success. But the Americans clearly have lowered their expectations for the Iraqis' progress.
"Along dirt roads bisected by sewage canals, the men of Charlie Company crouched, their weapons ready. Before them was their home town, dilapidated and neglected. Cpl. Amir Omar, 19, gazed ahead. 'Look at the homes of the Iraqis,' he said, a handkerchief concealing his face. 'The people have been destroyed.'
"By whom? he was asked.
"'Them,' Omar said, pointing at the U.S. Humvees leading the patrol."
[Update: in the Monday, June 13, New York Times, a field report on Iraqi performance by John F. Burns and Sabrina Tavernise concludes: "Despite the Bush administration's insistent optimism, Americans working with the Iraqis in the field believe that it could be several years, at least, before the new Iraqi forces will be ready to stand alone against the insurgents....Earlier this year, the Pentagon suggested that an initial drawdown of the 140,000 American troops in Iraq might begin by the end of this year. Now, American generals are saying it could be two years, perhaps longer."]
Greg Mitchell ([email protected]) is editor of E&P