Tuesday, August 14, 2007

You have to talk to people

From billroggio.com, a recent post by Wesley Morgan on protecting a pilgrimage route through Haifa Street (thanks Anand).
'From my hatch at the rear of the Stryker, I could see, for the first time, the people of Baghdad at close range: clusters of bored-looking young men, gaggles of grinning children, small groups of women in full, flowing black burqas. The drive to the bottom of Haifa Street, at the southern end of 1-14's area, was a short one, and before long we came to a halt and the order to dismount came over the intercom. The ramp slammed down, the soldiers rushed out and took up positions on both sides of the street, their carbines pointed outward, and after pausing for a split second to think how utterly unfamiliar a situation I was in, I jumped down after them. I was in Baghdad – real Baghdad.
While my mind raced to orient itself to a vaguely remembered map of Haifa Street, the squad of riflemen fanned out from the three Strykers into a patrolling formation, with Lt. Col. Peterson toward the front-center. As the ramps went up and the formation began to move forward, slowly, I took up a position to the colonel's rear, next to his terp, a Baghdad native who went by the pseudonym "Mark." For a minute or two it was sensory overload: the dusty main road, pools of thick brown water by the sidewalks, an overwhelming smell of sewage, rickety awnings hanging over the doors to innumerable grimy shops, and of course the heat – not too bad, 115 degrees maybe, but with a slight and unwelcome breeze, which made it feel like I was standing inside of a hair dryer.

The first coherent thought to run through my head was that I was in a neighborhood not too different from an old Muslim quarter I wandered into in Delhi in 2006: mud-brick houses, dust, stands selling meat either raw or grilled, and twisting, ancient-looking alleys branching off the main road after every block. The main difference, it occurred to me after a moment (besides the heat and the presence of a squad of formidably armed and armored US soldiers) was that the people seemed more welcoming: as Peterson walked down the sidewalk, greeting shop owners and residents with a well pronounced Salaam aleikum, I was struck by the people's demeanor.

Scrawny, white-haired, jagged-toothed men smiled up at the colonel from their seats, responding with a pleased-sounding Aleikum as-salaam, and middle-aged men did the same. The women, mostly wearing black robes that covered everything but their face, either greeted us as we walked by or simply smiled back at our greetings. Among younger men there was more of a split: some were enthusiastic, recognizing the colonel or his soldiers and greeting them in English, while others kept their expressions stonily cold, offering us no recognition whatsoever. Children of every age, both boys and girls, clustered around each of us, calling out "Hello mister!" or "Chocolata mister!" and grinning hopefully; many stuck out their hands for high-fives, fist-pounds, or handshakes.

When they clustered too close around me, Mark shooed them away with a firm Imshi, habibi, and they moved on to the next soldier in the formation. Two ragged-looking Iraqi soldiers – "jundis" – manned a minimalist checkpoint (a string of concertina wire and nothing else). Peterson approached them and asked, through Mark, whether they were going to keep the area safe for the pilgrimage tomorrow; they eagerly assured him that yes, they would do their best. Their slouched posture and mismatched uniforms didn't lend them credibility, but their confidence was a little reassuring, as was the cleanliness of their AKs. Another encouraging sign, and a surprising one, that the colonel remarked on and asked the jundis about was the scarcity of posters of Muqtada al-Sadr – Badr-type posters of ageing, moderate Shiite clerics were everywhere, but we saw Sadr's puffy form only here and there. Even more strikingly, there was very little trash.

It was clear that this was one of the streets that 1-14, and the colonel himself, patrolled regularly. "You have to dismount, get out there on the ground, and talk to people," the colonel had told me earlier in the day – "There is no other way." On these few blocks, it could not have been more obvious that the squadron's soldiers were following this guidance, straight of classical counterinsurgency doctrine, and to good effect.'

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