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Walking the Line 2007 Part 3 of 3

Different mess halls, different rules. To enter some mess halls, soldiers must wear eye protection. In one Baghdad mess hall, a sergeant said that I am not permitted to wear my fire retardant jumpsuit. (Some people here seem to have too much time on their hands.) But at this one, soldiers have to fill a sandbag to eat.

[Ramadi, Anbar Province, Iraq]

The evening of 30 December, CSM Jeffrey Mellinger talked over dinner with troops about progress and setbacks in Iraq. This was about twelve hours before Saddam was to hang, but that was still a big secret to nearly everyone. American Brigadier General Francis Wiercinksi would later tell me that neither he nor the current governor of Salah al Dinh Province, where Saddam was born, were aware of the impending execution.

On the eve of the hanging, Mellinger delivered a no-room-for-BS-talk, the only kind combat soldiers will tolerate without shutting someone out or walking away. One soldier was against the death penalty, but the fact is, that was irrelevant; Saddam had been tried by Iraqis, found guilty and sentenced to hang. No matter what protests may be lodged regarding the outcome of the trial, or the graceless manner in which the Iraqis handled the coup de grâce, history leaves no doubt that Saddam Hussein was a sadistic mass murderer, whose every public utterance only caused more carnage.

There was a time when Saddam apparently truly believed that the desert heat would prove too much for pampered American soldiers. There was a time when his subordinates were afraid to speak openly with him, especially to disagree with him. The bully-class ruled through murder and fear. Iraq had been at civil war, or at war with its neighbors, long before most of us could find it on a map.

Saddam Hussein Abd al-Majid al-Tikriti never denied being a mass murderer. He never apologized for it. He never showed any inclination to mend his ways. Judging from the violent and suspiciously timed deaths of lawyers and judges assigned to his trial, his hands were never washed clean. He may have been frail from a rumored terminal illness, but Iraqi justice is not yet tempered by patience and Saddam was breathing his final hours.

As Saddam was led up the steps, someone apparently was using a cell phone to record the affair. The noose was slipped around his neck. When the trapdoor swung open, his body fell to the end of the rope, his weight against the rope wrenched a giant gash in his neck, his body jerked to a swinging halt, yet his soul kept going.

There was a time when he used chemical weapons on humans, when he forced dissenters into acid baths and their families to watch them dissolve into screaming death. There was a time when he set Kuwait’s oil wells ablaze in a tantrum, poisoning the earth, the air, and the sea because if he couldn’t have them, he’d make sure no one else could either. When Saddam was driven into hiding by the same soldiers he’d once called weak, he crawled into a hole in the ground to avoid capture just outside of his hometown Tikrit and not far from where he is buried now, cold and moldering under Iraqi dirt.

The World Keeps Going

News of the impending execution, and its conclusion, did not stir much reaction. Despite hyper-ventilators trying to stir up a mess with predictions of a Sunni uprising and expansion of the war if Saddam were killed, his memory and influence seemed to dissipate nearly as quickly as his residual body heat.

Saddam is past tense. There was more consternation among these soldiers when the CSM announced that Coalition-provided fuel was being cut off to Iraqi security forces on 31 December 2006. Along the route, most of the soldiers he informed were surprised at this news. Many soldiers who heard this edict protested in some way or another, but the CSM was firm: No more free gas starting 1 January 2007.

The CSM made it clear that the fuel-edict did not come from Washington, but was an order from the Multi National Force in Iraq. Later during a private meeting between the CSM and an American lieutenant colonel where I was present, the LTC said this blanket fuel-policy could cause his mission to fall flat, and he wanted General Casey to hear that message.

The previous sentence might seem trivial, but to military professionals, the sentence is worth a book. It speaks volumes about the integrity of the lieutenant colonel and to the command culture under General Casey, where honest-and-informed opinions are valued. CSM Mellinger stressed with every soldier he talked with that under no circumstances would the fuel cutoff be allowed to interfere with mission success. At times when the outcome depends on either the ISF getting fuel or the mission flopping, they will get fuel. But Americans and other Coalition partners want the Iraqis on their feet, by showing them we intend to help but that the nipple is drying up and it’s time for the new Iraqi government to eat hard food.

Iraqi Police.

Rooftop of the Al Jazeera Police Station.

As we traveled around Ramadi and Fallujah, morale of the Iraqi Police (IPs) seemed high. Among others, we visited the al Jazeera IP station. The station shares building space with an active water department facility. An American sergeant explained the Iraqis had cleaned up the place, repainted it and put up a sign and an Iraqi flag. When we arrived a man was sweeping the sidewalk to the front door.

The al Jazeera IP station sits alongside the highway between Ramadi and Fallujah. When a car stopped some hundreds of yards away, in view of the IPs, everyone seemed to think “sniper.” A policeman ran out and started waving his pistol for the car to leave, as if the people in the car could even see his pistol from that distance. Some of the Americans laughed, as did some of the IPs, but we all knew what would come next if that car remained where it was: tracers sailing toward the car and sparks and glass flying and dead people. But they drove off and left the police.

The Al Jazeera Police Station.

CSM Frank Graham asked if they had any prisoners, and the IPs led us down to a basement-like floor where there were pipes and pumps, and where they had constructed a crude jail. The police held two prisoners in an improvised cell, and an American soldier was uncertain why the Iraqis were holding the two men, but posited that it was possible the men were merely witnesses to a crime: in Iraq, he said, even witnesses are sometimes incarcerated until the trial.

The two prisoners were standing there in the dim basement. They were no obvious indications of abuse. But like other prisoners and detainees I’ve encountered, they started whispering once they noticed my camera, though I made no photos. In Tikrit back in 2004, some officers were giving me a tour of a facility with Iraqi war-detainees. I had a camera but was not permitted to photograph, but the prisoners surely noticed, and started complaining loudly to me, constantly glancing at the camera, that they were cold at night and hungry. There were some rotund prisoners, and none appeared to have missed any meals or desserts, but the complaining went on and on.

Whatever they thought they were saying, their actions communicated they were not afraid to talk with a journalist in front of US soldiers who had the power to hang them by the ankles and bludgeon them to death the moment I left. They felt safe enough to openly lodge complaints, rather than try to secretly pass a note or send an SOS by blinking their eyes. And that was in Tikrit, practically in the shadow of several of Saddam’s palaces. Perhaps the most twisted part of the whole affair is that many people in the region confuse our restraint in the manner with which we treat suspects and prisoners with weakness or naivety.

Training by Mentoring and Living Alongside of Iraqi Police

To get the measure of the moment, CSM Mellinger reached far into the corners of a vanquished tyrant, talking with Iraqi police and the Coalition troops who live with them.

IPs love to get their photos taken with walkie-talkies, and made no attempt to hide their faces from the camera. (The man to the right had covered because of the cold but made no attempt to hide his face.) In places where the terrorists have great authority, police avoid cameras, or at least wear masks. Still, they often ask to have their photos taken while wearing a mask, yet even here in Anbar Province they were not hiding. After the photo is snapped, they often smile and say, “Thandku thandku thandku” and walk away as if someone handed them ten bucks and a three-day pass.

We toured a number of IP locations. Moments after this photograph was taken, other Iraqi Police whisked through the door with a prisoner whose arms were bound behind his back. They were beating him down the hallway when a couple of American soldiers noticed and yelled, “Hey!!! Hey!!!” in unison. The IPs stopped the beating. Without skipping a syllable, the Americans kept talking as the IPs pushed the man down the hall toward a cell. The three CSMs also toured the arms room, and the IPs’ weapons seemed clean and in good repair.

IPs having tea.

Our people, living with the IPs

The sink.

The mud.

Telling the Stories of this War

Many people believe, as I did once, that the Stars & Stripes (S & S) is the military propaganda arm to the troops. S & S is in fact a Department of Defense paper, but the relationship between S & S and the Pentagon is truly dysfunctional. It’s as if the S & S is Sunni, and the Pentagon is Shia. After talking with S & S journalists and military public affairs officers, I’ve come to think that many in public affairs would just as soon have al Jazeera inside the wire. And so it was a surprise to walk into a headquarters in Ramadi and see six framed S & S stories by Monte Morin hanging on the wall. I emailed the photo to Monte in Ethiopia where he is covering God-knows-what, and he was thrilled.

OP next to the highway: some soldiers are interested in my camera, and many throughout Iraq have talked about the money they saved, and so they bought a new camera but had it sent home. This sergeant talked about his new Canon EOS 30D, but it’s at home because of the harsh environment. I said, “Are you kidding? These cameras are rugged! I drag this one all over the world and in worse places than Iraq.” I tell them to bring those nice cameras to Iraq and snap away; if they don’t photograph this war, practically nobody else will.

The Minnesota National Guard

Members of the Minnesota National Guard meeting with CSM Mellinger.

We met up with members of the Minnesota National Guard during one of the stops on the patrol. I don’t know what the Minnesota soldiers were eating for breakfast, but the first thing that Marine Sergeant Major O’Connell said about the Minnesota National Guard was something to the effect that this was the best bunch he’d ever seen. I had to clear my ears and ask him to repeat that. I seemed to have had an auditory hallucination, because high praise coming from a Marine Sergeant Major in Anbar province, who knows what competent troops are, just didn’t seem right when it was heaped on the Army. When I asked for clarification, Sergeant Major O’Connell not only stood by it, but he started listing the reasons why this particular Minnesota National Guard unit deserves special recognition.

Any notion that a Marine Sergeant Major was giving the unit high praise as a gesture of respect for an Army colleague was quickly disabused by Mellinger when he added that Sergeant Major Howard, the top enlisted Marine in Iraq, had also extended congratulations. Mellinger said he was going to contact the CSM of the National Guard to make sure it was known how highly regarded these soldiers are by the people who have come to rely upon their effectiveness in one of the most dangerous outposts in the world. The Minnesota soldiers stood there so quietly that CSM Mellinger must have thought they didn’t believe him. With characteristic bluntness, Mellinger assured them of the veracity of the praise he was relaying, by saying something like, “I’m too old to blow smoke.” Mellinger affirmed that this was honestly the highest congratulations he could confer. In my experience of having seen CSM Mellinger interface with, say, fifty different units during the month total I’ve spent with him, be they Marines, soldiers, sailors, Special Forces or Air Force, I have never seen him give an endorsement like the one he extended to the Minnesota National Guard. If the citizens of Minnesota should be faced with some calamity, I’d say the Governor can rest assured that the state has an able posse.

Mail is more important than hot showers or hot food when it comes to morale, and this mail center in Fallujah receives about eight 20’ shipping containers every two days, and three of those containers are letters.

The people who make the magic of Mail Call happen.

During the brief three days in Ramadi and Fallujah, we lost at least four service members KIA during combat. Others were wounded. One soldier in Ramadi got shot through the shoulder and it came out his back but he was fine after some patching up. Another was shot in the head and killed.

Sergeant Major O’Connell meets with Marine Lance Corporal Jeremy Kemp.

Marine Lance Corporal Jeremy Kemp was wounded in the shoulder the day before. I thought Kemp was the troop we had heard about in Ramadi when a call came into my earphones in a dark Humvee that type A-negative blood was needed. All the soldiers were outside the Humvee clearing their weapons, so only I heard the call, and I hollered the request out into the dark to the CSM, who quickly checked his roster and found a match on his team. Turned out the blood was for an IP who took 25 units after multiple American volunteers stuck out their arms. In fact, Jeremy Kemp was another case entirely, and at least two of our people had been hit in the shoulder, and Kemp had been shot at nearly the same time as the nearly desanguinated Iraqi Policeman. With so much action—and this was only a fraction—the events of a single day in even a small area are very difficult to follow. Bottom line for Jeremy Kemp: Sergeant Major O’Connell said that Kemp would recover in Iraq and return to his unit.

The walls are lined with cards and letters from people back home. I asked a woman at the hospital which was her favorite letter. She might have been a doctor or a nurse; she had no nametag or rank insignia.

But she knew exactly which one was her favorite, and we walked a few steps down the hall where she stopped and pointed to this one.

The medical crew stepped outside and I took their photo.

Our final stop was a memorial. Sergeant Major O’Connell said that during another memorial held the day before, a mortar exploded just outside the chapel while Taps was playing, peppering the place with shrapnel. I had been with CSM Mellinger to a memorial for six people at that same chapel in 2005. There may have been memorials for hundreds of our people under this roof. Today’s was for Marine Lance Corporal Nicklas Palmer, born in Great Falls, Montana, graduated high school in Leadville, Colorado. Lance Corporal Palmer had been a Marine for just over one year, and he was 19 when he died in al Anbar Province.

After the memorial, the patrol headed out the gate down a particularly deadly road to Baghdad, where the crew would refit, and prepare for another journey to another dangerous place. Another day Walking the Line.

Walking the Line 2007 Part 1 of 3 | Walking the Line 2007 Part 2 of 3


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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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