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Desires of the Human Heart, Part II

April 30, 2007    

A short journey with an American army unit, at war
Part 2 of 2

With each new day, the 1-4 tightened up security in and around the Babel College.

That’s Major Baer in the big college kitchen. He works hard, and likes to talk about his wife back home. Major Baer is proud to be married to her, that’s for sure. He just keeps on talking about her, and then goes back to work.

Living conditions improved quickly: first, sleeping on mats in the hallways.

Then cots.

An office transforms readily into a TOC.

The courtyard condition matched the interior—not even overgrown weeds.

The progress is notable but there is still a tremendous amount to be done.

Up on the roof: the building actually is amazingly unscratched, but of course I found the one apparently random bullet hole to photograph.

There Must Also Be Those Who See Tragedy

For those who have seen tragedy, will this idea of COPs work?

[Book from the college library: highlighted electronically.]
Our new plan in Iraq involves our soldiers getting out more with the Iraqi people. A first test of its viability comes as a group of soldiers set out to meet their neighbors.

Our soldiers hand out these tip-line cards to local Iraqis.

Glints of the future: I look at the kids for clues to what their parents think about us. A few minutes from the Babel College—now COP Amanche—Iraqi families were waiting outside their homes for a chance to talk with soldiers from the 1-4 Cavalry.

Iraqis love to show off their kids. Grandparents, mothers and fathers kiss their babies.

No translation is needed.

Kiss from Grandma: Iraqi women can be very funny about the showing off of their kids. The grandmother wanted to hold the baby, but mom came out and asserted her place.

I asked the woman above if she was the mom, but the camera had already captured the answer.

There were many family members around, and though the men were happy to see us, they seemed skeptical that we are going to stay, voicing concerns that our soldiers have come there before, but not stuck around. As soon as the Americans leave, the terrorists move back in, which leaves the locals in the middle of what amounts to a gang war, and we are one of the gangs.

LTC Crider, the battalion commander of 1-4, assured the people that the Americans are there to stay until the Iraqis can take over, but I sense that Iraqis are more worldly than we might imagine. Many Iraqis seem to understand that the real decision-makers are Americans at home. Maybe with the 1-4 moving in, some would know they can move back.

Despite so much bad news, much of which I deliver, it’s heartening that most of the Iraqis are not fearful of Americans. What many Iraqis REALLY want—and they say it clearly—is to communicate directly with Americans at home.

The map indicated that the neighborhood was mostly Christian, but this family was one of the closest neighbors to COP Amanche, and the man said he was Sunni. He was happy to see the American move-in (I videotaped his account). His next-door neighbors, a Shia family that had moved out because of the violence, had moved back in the day after COP Amanche opened. And so we walked next door.

Sure enough, there was another Iraqi kissing a baby, and this Shia family said they moved back in because the Americans had come to stay. We continued to walk around the neighborhood, and talked with other families, including a couple of Christian families. One man, he looked about 60, said he closed his shop after two close friends had been murdered there recently. They say there is no electricity.

Yet another pair of women wrestling over who gets to hold the baby.

If You Want Peace, Work for Justice

 [Book from the college library: highlighted electronically.]

There is nothing glamorous about garbage collection, but it’s one of those broken windows that communicate powerfully, whether left broken, or fixed.

Cleaning up the area around the COP is one way to communicate intention to stay.

But more than just talk about a new Baghdad, our people contracted locals to pick up the garbage.

Our people also built a small garbage collection point, and when the people started to see that the garbage truly was getting hauled away in trucks, they started using the collection point.

A wall is only as strong as the man who guards it. They left it behind. Back at COP Amanche, this model of an unfinished building out back of the Babel College sits in one of the offices. Tons of rebar and other materials were stacked up out there, but the work has halted for now.

Meanwhile, all over Baghdad, the big concrete barriers are being hauled out to make new COPs like Amanche.

Soldiers working at COP Amanche. That Minaret in the background is the same seen in the photo near the beginning of the dispatch.

Engineers are working hard all over the city, 24 hours a day, putting up new COPs.

Emplacing a wall shield.

Building a wall around Babel College.

Back of the college, now COP Amanche.

Courtyard at COP Amanche.

During the first days, as sandbags unloaded on the roof, a shootout started.

The 1-4 Cavalry exercised excellent fire discipline and did not allow themselves to be baited into shooting up the neighborhood they plan to secure. I made video and shot a few still photos at the same time. The video shows our guys holding their fire while trying to nail down and shoot one of the enemy, but unfortunately one of our guys ran up to the roof with no helmet, and if I show the video, no doubt someone at the Pentagon will come down on his head for forgetting his helmet briefly.

Catching a nap on the roof when things quiet down.

Lonely Sorrow

Each day, the 1-4 usually finds a couple of people who are murdered, though the Iraqi Police say the numbers are greatly decreasing.

[Book from the college library: highlighted electronically.]

We were driving down the road when we saw a “dead man.” 1-4 stopped to check him out—looking for bombs and snipers, too—and I heard one of the commanders come on the radio and say something like, “This one’s not dead yet.” Like something straight from Monty Python, humorous in the dark way that war can warp the sense of humor. Our medic was beside me in the humvee, and he got out and checked the man who was laying flat when we first came across him.

The man was shaky on his feet but trying to rise.

He got up, drank some water.

Gradually he seemed to come around.

The interpreter got the answers.

He was having a seizure and had run out of medicine.

War Incurs for U.S. A Profound Outside Odium

[Book from the college library: highlighted electronically.]

Some people at home complain that we will lose more soldiers by putting more out with Iraqis. They probably are right. Heavily armed Iraqi police and soldiers have had hundreds of chances to kill me personally, and haven’t done so yet. They are not all our enemies.

Though we will almost certainly lose more soldiers by weaving them more tightly with Iraqi forces and people, this is a price we must be willing to face. I might feel guilty writing that we have to take these chances if I were not planning to stay out with them.

The new troops who are flooding into Iraq are coming with an entirely new plan in mind. They will move out into the neighborhoods. In each of nearly 80 neighborhoods, our people will make “Combat Outposts” and staff those with American and Iraqi forces or police.

In an Iraqi Police Commander’s office: Building the COPs, cleaning up trash and so forth, is only a small part of this. In order for us to get out of here without the civil war turning into full-on genocide, the Iraqi government must get back on its feet.

Iraqi commanders tend to be press savvy. Our people are better fighters, but from what I have seen, Iraqi commanders seem to be a little better with the press. (Although all the American commanders in this room were very open to any questions I had.)

The Iraqi commanders tend to want to tell Americans what they think. Video from this meeting was instructive. The Iraqi Police Colonel conveyed his ideas on how to handle terrorists. Idea number #1: Don’t run.

One police station nearby had just been flattened days before, and he said the station had become a graveyard, and he had walked amid the carnage. As this meeting progressed, a sharp firefight could be heard going on nearby.

The Iraqi Police commander, Colonel Rod, was concerned that the outgoing American commander, LTC Jeff Peterson (sitting closest to Iraqi commander on left side of photo) would forget about him and his Iraqi Police battalion when Peterson goes back to

There is a side to this war that cannot be captured in any kind of statistics. The importance of personal relationships among the soldiers and their Iraqi counterparts cannot be captured in quick stories or numbers. A huge part of this war comes down to personal relationships and respect. It’s not about killing. That’s only a small part of it. It’s about building: building bonds that build societies. Giving Iraqi civilians a real alternative to those who create and then flee from civil havoc. Terrorists don’t pick up the trash on the way back from blowing up the electrical stations.

Dining at Iraqi Police Station: Iraqi and American fighters at the police station just near COP Amanche.

Iraqi food is better, for me, than the food on our bases. Yet not everything is peachy here between Americans and Iraqis. Maybe an hour after this, an Iraqi police threw a rock at an American soldier, and another American soldier stepped up quick-like and there was some shouting, but Iraqi and American leaders let them work it out and the soldiers and cops settled things down by themselves.

Iraqi Police in Baghdad: police from this station fight regularly in the surrounding neighborhoods.

Iraqi Police and soldiers are second only to Iraqi children in the competition for camera hog.

They have a keen awareness for the camera and a practiced sense of the pose.

Many Iraqis harbor deep mistrust toward Iraqi Police, yet respect the Iraqi Army, though attitudes vary throughout Iraq.

In some areas, people trust the police but not the army. In the north, Kurds tend to respect both their police and their soldiers.

Iraqi Police preparing to leave the station to head to a gunfight that could be heard as it erupted nearby. While many Iraqi Police units now have armored vehicles, this group drives into battle essentially naked.

This gate is no match for determined Iraqi kids, who really love to meet and hang out with American soldiers.

That is, until one of them notices my camera.

Then it’s time for everyone to get a picture taken.

Squinting in the sun.

These kids have an amazing ability to level a steady pair of eyes right at the camera lens.

For all the kids in the neighborhood of COP Amanche, an important part of their futures will unfold in the next 6 to 12 months.

They don’t seem to know that American patience is running out.

And so we find it here, in the Garden of Eden, in God’s hands through the 1-4 Cavalry from Kansas: the last hope against genocide in the land between two rivers. If the first three days are any indicator, there is reason for the hope and relief that it rests on shoulders like these.

Good night. And good luck.


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Michael Yon

Michael Yon is America's most experienced combat correspondent. He has traveled or worked in 82 countries, including various wars and conflicts.

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