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Bread and a Circus, Part II of II


Bread and a Circus, Part II of II

The atmosphere in Baqubah was choked with fear and local authorities were mired in inertia. But the people were relieved and looking for signs that the changes made in the past two weeks were going to last. Restarting food deliveries, after they had been stopped by Baghdad for almost a year, would be a strong indicator that stability was at hand.

Read Part I here.

After fueling the trucks in the convoy, we headed to Baghdad to get the food. The trucks took an exit down a route that we did not follow, because it had not been cleared of bombs. Sometimes bombs are so large they are buried under roads using earthmoving machines and sit for months waiting for someone just like us, taking a shortcut only to get launched to God. The shortcut caused an hour difference in arrival times, and the break in contact led to frustrating hours of additional delay, tooling around Baghdad trying to find the warehouse, and re-establishing contact with all the trucks. But if there were any huge bombs waiting for us, we avoided them, and this dispatch got written.

While trying to re-establish contact with the convoy and find the Ministry and warehouse, we stopped several times so the mayor could make calls on his mobile, and each time we dismounted into the scorching brightness.

Snipers are a serious threat; some can get a headshot from impressive distances. The biggest threat against snipers is other snipers. (“Sniper” is a loaded word that evokes gag reflexes among true snipers, especially because British and American media misuse the word maybe 90% of the time, which itself is impressive.) Sometimes a “sniper” is just some guy with a rifle taking a potshot, but the bullet flies at the same velocity no matter whose finger squeezes the trigger. SSG Matt Hudgeons, above, shot a man in the stomach with that rifle less than a week before. The man fell off the two-story roof and crashed onto the street along with a rocket launcher he had been firing. Each time we dismounted on our way to the warehouse, Matt’s job was counter sniper. All this for food.

Please give me a sign. The closer we come to Sadr City, the more signs point to the potential for an Iraqi theocracy.

With a slew of delays behind us, by the time we made it, the Ministry and the food warehouse near Sadr City were closed. Civil servants leave at 2 P.M. This was a problem. The drivers were afraid to overnight in Baghdad, and yet if they aborted home to Baqubah, the food mission would likely crash. The Iraqi media was watching. In fact, at least one Iraqi journalist had come on the convoy. The goal was to get the food flowing, but the uber-goal was to show people the food was flowing. A sense of normalcy leads to more normalcy.

The American press that flooded in for the kinetic fighting in Baqubah left when the shooting stopped. Their interest waned for covering these aspects of counterinsurgency. They were gone and missing the real story. Nobody was even watching, but this play was not for the American journalists; it was for the Iraqi people. So with the drivers frightened and ready to abort, the mission could do worse than merely fail; it could backfire. (Like the entire war.)

The story in the Iraqi press might be that after 10 months of no food shipments to Baqubah, Arrowhead Ripper is launched, and . . . food shipments do not resume, and Baqubah and Diyala Province are abandoned by the Iraqi government in Baghdad. This would be a terrific media victory for al Qaeda and its push to deepen the civil war here.

Some drivers wanted desperately to go home. The Mayor of Baqubah, caught between his job and his fear, was having second thoughts. Clearly he was scared; everyone could see it. He was leaning on the abort button and his angst reinforced the fear in the drivers.

LTC Johnson bristled when he spoke to the collapsing convoy, telling them that that the future of Iraq would depend on the outcome of moments like this all over the country, where men either stand their ground or run away and give the day to the terrorists. Johnson’s words carried particular weight because of an encounter earlier that morning.

That morning, still in Baqubah and trying to get the convoy organized, a truck driver had approached us with intention in his eyes. LTC Johnson closed on the man whom he suspected was a suicide bomber. My video was running as Johnson drew his pistol. If a bomb had detonated, Johnson and a few others would have definitely been killed. I might have survived—although in no condition to write these words—but had I, it would have been solely due to Johnson and the others having closed space with the man. But they actually risked their lives not to save mine, but his: they could have shot him from a distance of perhaps even 10m farther, but it happened so suddenly they just moved straight in. That was courage.

As it happened, the man who had closed space with us was simply an Iraqi coming forward to help start the convoy rolling. The Iraqi man—I’ll call him “Tonto” because he’s still in the thick of the war—owned some trucks and wanted to get his business going. Guts and capitalism make an impressive combination.

In the weeks ahead, Tonto would become a key figure in rallying courage and can-do among some of the more tentative leaders in Baqubah. Whenever LTC Johnson was having problems raising enough of either, I would hear him say, “Where is Tonto!” (Only, Johnson would use Tonto’s real name, and might spice-in a colorful turn, as in: “Where the xxxx is Tonto?! I need him! Call his mobile!”) Tonto looked like he might weigh 120lbs if he had just eaten and his pockets were full of sand. But he was a talisman for summoning courage among his fellow Iraqis.

And later that afternoon in Baghdad, as the Iraqi truck drivers and mayor were ready to turn tail, was the first time Tonto seized the moment. He approached Johnson saying he had about ten drivers who agreed to stay. Johnson amplified that moment and began to focus efforts on Tonto, a man he had nearly shot hours earlier. (Through the coming weeks, LTC Johnson would count his blessings while saying to me, probably ten times, “Can you believe I nearly shot him?”)

Johnson told the mayor to load up with the other cowards and go home to Baqubah. He actually called them cowards. For this mission to work, the people of Baqubah needed men with guts to carry it off, so Johnson would work through the logistics with Tonto. There was some arguing and shouting among the truckers, but then the mayor got slightly infected with courage, and within minutes the other Iraqis bucked up and decided to stay. The talisman worked.

Sometimes leadership means you might die in the line of duty and these truckers were afraid for a reason. In fact, LTC Johnson wanted to stay and guard the Iraqis, but the owners of the garage did not want Americans staying overnight there (thankfully), and so we headed to Camp Liberty in Baghdad. LTC Johnson asked the mayor if he wanted to stay on base, and after some thought, he came with us.

This was tricky stuff Johnson was trying to pull off and I was getting lots of education as he would often clue me in to what he was trying to do. He was keeping the prestige of the mayor intact by taking him with us, and if the mayor’s courage lasted until the morning, Johnson needed to make certain the mayor demonstrated it in front of people.

Iraqi soldiers from 5th IA were also with us, but they wanted to head back to Baqubah for the night, saying they would be back on time at 0600 next morning. Which of course we all doubted at the time. But the 5th IA would prove time and again over the next weeks to capably outperform my initially low expectations.

Next morning, we loaded into the Strykers at about 0430, long before sunrise, and drove off base into the dangerous streets of Baghdad. Before 0600, we were back at the parking lot, where we met up with all the drivers. The mayor had stayed with us safely on base. Tonto had stayed with his men and machines. I expected we might find them decapitated and maybe with explosives stuffed in their bellies.
Sunrise over Baghdad: needless to say, plenty of enemy folks would know when we were coming and where we would be going.
The 5th IA actually arrived on time, with all the right gear, and were ready for work. I thought whoever trained these soldiers should be commended.
Escorting the trucks to the Ministry of Trade was dangerous. Snipers, EFPs, the suicide car bombs: the whole party is out there and waiting.
We made it to the Ministry just at Sadr City, and the bureaucrats were all Shia, and our mayor protagonist, who got to sleep on base in Baghdad last night, was Sunni.

Sunni and Shia actually get along well in many places. Many neighborhoods are mixed, families are mixed. They do not react hypergolically. They are not anti-matter and matter meeting for the first time. Military units are often mixed and work well together. But of course there would not be so much talk about the sectarian divide and there would not be all the mosques blowing up and so forth if there were not great truth in those words. An Iraqi official gave his take on this during an interview I videotaped later in the day.

Watch an excerpt of it here:

[The video player may not function with all browsers. This video can also be viewed here.]

The manager began throwing down a long series of bureaucratic tripwires, booby traps and obstacles.
He cited that he had no authority to issue the truckloads of food. Authority would have to come from higher. LT David Wallach, whose Arabic is fluent, sometimes took the conversation himself, while LTC Johnson would sit back and scan over the people, sizing up the room. Other times LTC Johnson took the lead, but initially the mayor of Baqubah still seemed intimidated (the mayor told me earlier that if he went to the Ministry without Americans, he feared he would be murdered), and would not interject much. The Shia bureaucrats were dug in, and effective arguing solo and in tag teams.
More bureaucrats joined the fray. We spent much of the day there, and later we learned this man was an Iraqi Army veteran from the Saddam era.
The gesticulations got more pronounced. Exciting even. It was like a play. The flying hands reminded me of Rome.
It went on and on, reason after reason that Baqubah could have no food. At one point, LTC Johnson interjected that there were children in Baqubah who needed to be fed, but that carried less weight than an African swallow, and Johnson abandoned that locked door after about a minute jiggling the handle, then searched for other open doors.

But they were not going to give us food, and tomorrow was Friday, so the warehouse would be closed.

Al Qaeda’s efforts to propagate the civil war run far deeper than merely bombing mosques and murdering busloads of people. By seizing the warehouse in Baqubah, they had used the food as both a political and economic tool.
The bureaucrats seemed unreasonable and unhelpful, as if they had declared their own war on Baqubah. But what even we did not know was that warehouses and silos in and around Baqubah were in fact loaded with grain, flour and uncounted tons of sugar. Al Qaeda had stolen it, apparently to dump it or sell it or feed their minions, but Operation Arrowhead Ripper interrupted the plans.
This was a perfect argument. The bureaucrats were right: Al Qaeda had practically owned Baqubah, and was murdering Shia (and Sunni) directly or indirectly, literally by the thousands around Iraq. Why ship food out to Diyala Province to the hands of the enemy? So this was perfect for al Qaeda; they were trying to start a civil war, and because the Ministry will not help with the shipment, it looked like it was the Shia who will not deliver to Sunni.

Please listen to an interview with one of the Ministry of Trade officials, explaining why food shipments had been halted:

[The video player may not function with all browsers. This video can also be viewed here.]

But knowing that didn’t change the facts. Arrowhead Ripper had ripped out the heart of al Qaeda in Baqubah, but not before they had successfully deepened a rift between Shia and Sunni.

These Shia are just saying “no” to food for Baqubah.

The Thursday morning was ticking past when a bureaucrat said we will have to come back on Sunday. The mayor kicked in.
LT David Wallach was running off in Arabic, and though he was sitting down, he held his own. Meanwhile, all were cognizant of LTC Fred Johnson, who was getting tired of jiggling door handles when American combat power and Iraqi soldiers were outside, but he never threatened to blast the doors off. He kept to diplomacy despite that it often looked close to a brewing fistfight. Johnson said Maliki and Petraeus are watching to see what the Ministry will do.
The more courage the mayor mustered, the more he was able to muster.
Hands were flying dangerously everywhere. If they flew much harder, hands might start flying off arms. I had to contain a smile because as a photographer, I could not show emotion. It would add to the conflagration, and likely make me unwelcome by Iraqis and Americans alike in the future.
That’s when LTC Johnson said he was not leaving Baghdad without that food. Doors will open one way or another.
Iraqi women are not always docile creatures. This woman interjected numerous times. People say you should not photograph Iraqi women, but that is hogwash and situational. At times like this, nobody cares.
And the paperwork. Paperwork to hold up the war and the peace.

What would it look like in Arab press outside of Iraq? Perhaps, “Shia-Dominated Government Declines Food Request for Sunnis in Iraq.” Al Qaeda would win another media victory partly because they play the media like a Stradivarius. Then, driving that wedge just that extra smidgen forward, they might say Moqtada al Sadr himself controlled the food (and he probably does to some extent).

Breaking that wedge. LTC Johnson—who is hardly in these photos—finally makes an overt threat with the weapon he was going to open those doors with. His threat was shameless. Johnson pointed to me saying that he brought the press along so that the world would see them for what they were: either heroes or villains. Perhaps other writers might have been offended, or felt used, but Johnson was simply telling the truth, and nothing disarms basically honest people more than shameless truth-telling. In any case, the camera was working. The bureaucrats were not simpletons. They never told me to turn off the camera. To their credit, they were duking it out in front of God and everyone.

Finally they agreed. They had stated their arguments, and not just rolled over, but they agreed to release the food shipments.

There were still hours of paperwork to do. They asked LTC Johnson if he wanted to come back, but we all sensed that maybe they really had not agreed, and doubted whether they were every bit as wily as they at first seemed.

Please watch footage of the decision process for staying until the trucks were filled:

[The video player may not function with all browsers. This video can also be viewed here.]

So we waited for hours. The soldiers kept guard. I call SSG Matt Hudgeons “Elvis with a Sniper Rifle,” but I am careful because, after all, he does have a sniper rifle and shot someone with it last week.

Hours passed by. We were on the edge of Sadr City where we could get flattened. As the paperwork oozed forward, we ended up sitting with the bureaucrats, listening to war stories from when they had been in the Iraqi Army. One showed us scars from a mortar, the other said he spent years as an Iranian prisoner. The topic of al Qaeda came up and sparked a discussion that I captured on videotape.

Watch the videotape here.

[The video player may not function with all browsers. This video can also be viewed here.]
When they related the story—just as I had heard it first in Anbar Province—everyone laughed. Some of the soldiers didn’t believe it, just as the Marines in Anbar had not believed it either. But extensive travels to all corners of the earth have not made me more skeptical when it comes to how crazy people can get. Rather, I’ll believe anything, because I’ve seen too much in real life, including cannibals doing cannibalism. Al Qaeda has nothing on those guys. Sheep wearing underwear? How about a woman marrying a tree in India? People are apt to do anything. Especially if they are in the sway of a cult. Moonies, Heaven’s Gate, Kamikazes, Jonestown, Nazis, and al Qaeda: cults are cults.

Two officials were engaged in a conversation about how al Qaeda was able to infiltrate trouble spots in Iraq so effectively. The illuminating exchange revealed how much of the strife in Iraq is rooted not in religious fervor, but in greed. Greed for power, greed for money. The video camera was running.

Watch this excerpt on videotape here.

[The video player may not function with all browsers. This video can also be viewed here.]

While we talked, one of our Strykers outside was attacked with a grenade. Apparently someone tried to throw it in the hatch (sometimes they get lucky), but missed. It was loud, but everyone was okay. The paperwork had just been completed, so this signaled a good time to leave, but LTC Johnson insisted on having his group of Baqubah officials and soldiers leave under the protection of the Iraqi Army.

We headed over to one of the combat outposts to wait for the trucks. I had come to this same COP some months ago with CSM Jeff Mellinger just after all those rockets impacted the walls, and two soldiers had lost legs while they were sleeping. The first time I had come here, an Iraqi got shot trying to bypass the security. He seemed drunk. His bullet holes were ugly and the medics went to work, then toted him away on a stretcher.

We waited inside at the COP for several hours, and there I talked with LTC Fred Johnson about the war, and he asked how I thought it was going, and I said that some parts obviously were improving. The new plan actually seems to be working despite the hysterical reporting back home. We need more Tontos in Hollywood, in the media and in the Congress. We’ve got plenty in the military.

LTC Johnson asked what I thought about Petraeus, and when I said “He’s tops,” that’s when LTC Johnson told me about the shooting incident described in detail in the dispatch “Second Chances.”

The loading process was actually faster and smoother than expected, and we returned with dozens of trucks to Baqubah. The bureaucrats had even given extra truckloads as a “gift.” Beware of the creditor. Of course they had launched some plan. I have no idea what it was, but clearly they were up to something. I got word later that even some weapons might have been smuggled into Baqubah in one or more trucks.

When the convoy finally arrived in Baqubah, the local media was there, along with Provincial leadership, and LTC Johnson gave full credit to the mayor and other leaders right there in front of the Iraqi media. It was straight out of a Bruce Willis movie where Johnson saves the day, then watches from out of the spotlight as the mayor and governor get all the credit. Nobody mentioned Tonto.

Other “Information Operations” were underway to not only show the people that food distribution had restarted but also that the Shia in fact had released the food for Baqubah. The distribution may have begun in fits and starts, but the information battle seemed to be a decisive win.

And so we started with 16 trucks, but before it was all over, they had sent 94 trucks of food to Baqubah. There was enough food, according to our Army, to feed 200,000 people for 30 days.

I recalled one of the bureaucrat’s comments, upon hearing that al Qaeda had scattered like rabbits out of Baqubah. He seemed at first not to believe that news, but once he got confirmation, he made a point to tell us what that news actually meant: if al Qaeda was done in Baqubah, al Qaeda was done in Iraq.

Watch the video here.

[The video player may not function with all browsers. This video can also be viewed here.]

After the food came the fuel, water and electricity, and each was its own mess, each calling for more “Where is Tonto? Call him!” More “Tontos” emerged and were brought in to the process, each a catalyst to change. I’ve seen the Mayor out walking on the streets, people coming out to talk with him. He’s a bonafide media hero.

And more video, this one showing how even days later, the saga of the food convoy served as leverage to move people to resolve bigger problems.

Watch the videotape here:

[The video player may not function with all browsers. This video can also be viewed here.]

Someday this war is going to end.


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