Before now poetry has taken notice
Of wars, and what are wars but politics
Transformed from chronic to acute and bloody?
from "Build Soil"
Saturday, July 28, 2007
Side note: the Persian Sassinid empire (circa 600AD) was the origin of the word "Anbar", meaning storehouse.
Not that I am bitter.
Viva la monopoly!
Tuesday, July 24, 2007
Saturday, July 21, 2007
I have witnessed the appearance of local fighters in an area several times- an advent that is normally followed quickly by relative peace.
The first area in which I saw local fighters appear was along the Euphrates river near Falluja. The newly-formed Neighborhood Watch was controlled by the sheik I mentioned in "ISF Primer"- the one that was wounded fighting American troops in the 2004 battle for Falluja. It is mainly because of him that so many units began calling the neighborhood watch the "Good Bad Guys". There are many Iraqis like this sheik and his men, former insurgents who have grown to see Americans as allies and al-Qaeda and foreign fighters as the real threat to their future. The region controlled by the sheik is marked by fighters manning checkpoints- originally hasty affairs built from rusted engine parts and cinder brick, and upgraded to sand-filled plastic Jersey barriers as the local forces transitioned to PSF.
Now, the sheik commands a company of PSF fighters, as well as unincorporated Neighborhood Watch along his eastern border. He receives funds fom the Iraqi government to provide a stipend for his men and to help pay for equipment. As far as I am aware, there has been only one attack in his territory since the local citizens stood up- a double IED strike one night that was followed by the PSF going house to house looking for the bomber. The problems and friction that many feared have not developed, even during the transition from the Marine unit that initially held the area to their successors.
A soldier gives 1st aid to an adult wounded in the mortar attack
Standing up to the insurgents is not without risk. There have been several times that our patrol has passed dusty little cemeteries nestled among the trees, clustered with mourners burying fallen brothers. The non-uniformed forces in Iraq such as PSF or NW are in danger from multiple sides- from insurgents who wish to kill them, and from trigger-happy Americans who may shoot them thinking they are the enemy. Both have happened on occasion, but the tribesmen continue to serve.
Mourners gather at the funeral for 7 fighters killed by insurgents
Insurgents still hold out in Zaidon , sandwiched between Falluja and the Euphrates. The bombs there have gotten bigger and more numerous, as well as appearing in previously calm areas and including VBIEDs. Recently, a stretch of several bad days saw multiple trucks from each route clearance patrol in the area strike IEDs. There is a possible light in the tunnel, though- several new classes of PSF have just graduated, and some of those men are serving now in Zaidon. IED activity has already been markedly reduced. If the past is any indication, the Iraqi effort will spread wider and encompass the entire area, helping American troops to bring calm to one of the last major centers of violence in al-Anbar province.
Monday, July 16, 2007
There are three general divisions of Iraqi Security Forces:
The highest level in the Iraqi Army- the soldiers of an IA brigade are drawn from a broad region, and they generally have the best training of Iraqi troops. Some IA divisions are considered to be quite competent- for example, I have heard good things about the 1st and 5th IA, both from American observers, and from Iraqi troops who have served in those units.
Below the level of the IA is the Iraqi Police- policemen are generally drawn from a city and the surrounding rural area. The quality of IPs varies widely by location: in al-Anbar province, most IPs are good men, trustworthy, and decently trained. In other areas, IPs have sometimes proven to be corrupt- or worse, more loyal to their tribal connections than to the government. IPs also have to deal with the dangers inherent in serving the Iraqi government near their hometowns- if they are recognized, their families could be in danger. One can watch the security situation in an area improve in the faces of the IPs-in Ramadi last year, most IPs (when they were present) wore face masks out of fear for their families. Now, they are usually uncovered.
The lowest level of ISF is the Provincial Security Forces. They come from an even smaller slice of countryside than do the IPs, and they attend a short academy that teaches basic skills before putting them into the field. PSF often serve directly alongside IPs, manning vehicle checkpoints and patrolling villages. They lend a direct knowledge of small communities that the IPs for the broader area may lack. Many PSF will prove themselves on the beat with the IPs, and will go on to the IP academies to become policemen themselves.
Below the scope of government security operations is the "Neighborhood Watch". These are volunteers from the local population, often managed by the local sheik and unpaid by the Iraqi government. The appearance of NW is often the portent of change in a historically violent area, because the formation of a local security force (as compared to outside intervention by Coalition Forces or ISF) represents a shift in the attitude of the local population. NW members are normally encouraged to join one branch or another of the ISF- after vetting, many of them eventually do become soldiers or policemen. American troops call them the "Good Bad Guys" or GBG- a title which reflects the checkered past of many fighters. One sheik, one of the first to stand up a militia in the Falluja area, now commands a company of PSF troops. His men began as a militia, became recognized as NW by the local Marine command, and many eventually went to the academy to become PSF. The sheik himself was wounded fighting Americans in the battle for Falluja- he has been working with us now for close to a year. His community near the river is beautiful, acts of violence are extremely rare, and we have never had problems with him or any of his men.
This sort of turnaround is the future of al-Anbar province- convincing former insurgents that America is here to give them help, not to take their land, their oil, their culture, or their religion. Many have come to realize that we will leave once our job is done, and have turned their attention to helping root out the stubborn and the terrorists- the ones who will never stop fighting.
Look down fair moon and bathe this scene,
Pour softly down night's nimbus floods on faces ghastly,
On the dead on their backs with arms toss'd wide,
Pour down your untainted nimbus sacred moon.
Michael Yon provides pictures, video, grid coordinates and interviews to verify a mass grave, and the most definite news byte that the Associated Press will print is that mass graves "reportably" exist in Baqouba? That isn't even up to the level of the common complaint that the media fails to report good news. That's failing to report the bad news correctly. In response to an email wondering why the AP did not pick up Yon's excellently sourced story, the AP replied that no military press release had been issued, so they would not print the story. Excuse me? Your job is to seek out and find news- not wait for it to be handed to you by the military PAOs you claim to distrust. If the APs only source of news items is another news service, what reason is there for it to exist? It took days of intense and growing criticism by sources all over the internet for the AP to finally publish any of Michael Yon's journalism.
How about how talking heads still debate whether it was really al-Qaeda we fought in Baqouba, despite the public proclamation of al-Qaeda in Iraq that Baqouba would be their capital? Yon hits another nail on the head, by the way- AQI militants don't issue ID cards. We call an enemy fighter al-Qaeda not because we wish him to be so, but because he belongs to a group that has identified itself with al-Qaeda and that embraces al-Qaeda's cruel and barbaric tactics.
Whomever we fought before- feyahadeen, Sunni nationalists, Shia zealots- this war in Iraq is now against al-Qaeda and similar terrorists. Al-Qaeda capitalized on the opportunity to grow radical cancer within a disorganized and lawless state, and they have become our most dangerous enemy in skill, tactics and threat, if not actual numbers. Bill Roggio does an excellent roundup of the claims, myths, and facts about the strength and presence of al-Qaeda in Iraq. I suggest you check it out.
Blog the war, folks. It's the only way you'll learn anything.
Saturday, July 14, 2007
It is an individual decision to support or oppose the war- and once made, that decision is worthless unless backed up with action. It is impossible to make a worthwhile decision without becoming properly informed, and that is the source of another rant in and of itself:
Some news outlets report the facts- sometimes grudgingly, and sometimes with a negative opinion following, but they still manage to report facts. Some "news" sources neglect facts altogether, and attempt to sway opinion through some sort of delusional haunted-house fairy tale, filtering current events through the ugly memories of past failures.
Take the following as an example:
On June 17th, the Village Voice published a warning of the deteriorating situation in Falluja, decrying the mistreatment of aid workers by US forces, as well as the punishing curfew imposed on the city, and implying that we were bombing hospitals in Falluja. The article also predicted a repeat of the Nov. 2004 assault on the city.
Almost one month later, the assault has still failed to materialize. This seeming lapse in the warmaking decision process cannot be due to the lack of resistance in Falluja. After all, violence is up, hospitals are being bombed, and legitimate residents of the city are fleeing the city in fear. IEDs are being found in record numbers, and the torture houses are open for business again.
The preceding paragraph is of course sarcasm, albeit sarcasm that the Village Voice would likely prefer to believe. When I was a child, my father used to sarcastically tell me that "If the facts aren't on your side, speak louder and pound the table".
The Village Voice fails to mention the reason for the vehicle curfew in the city of Falluja- it was a decision made by the mayor of Falluja. Iraqi Security Forces maintain responsibility for the city of Falluja, and they have done a good enough job that the main threat in the city became strikes by VBIEDs brought in from outside the city. VBIEDs strike soft targets like tribal gatherings, traffic checkpoints packed with civilians- anywhere thorough vehicle checks are hard to perform. From Febuary through late May, when the vehicle ban began, Falluja was rocked multiple times by VBIEDs that killed civilians and police, and shredded the downtown area that Iraqis have worked hard to rebuild. The logical response was to ban intra-city vehicle traffic until a solution could be found.
Vehicle traffic inside the city persists at a much lower level- most civilian vehicles do not cross the city boundary, buses roam the city to serve the population, and heavy goods are moved by bongo truck (the unmistakable middle eastern version of the pick-up truck) or young boys selling handcart services. The city officials have taken the opportunity afforded by decreased traffic, and formed work crews to clean the streets- a job that badly needed done.
I do not sense the nasty undercurrent to the city that the Village Voice alleges is there. Lest anyone say that the people would restrain their opinion in the presence of men with guns, I would encourage you to ask an OIF or OEF veteran whether he or she could tell when the people didn't want you there. The people will glare, shoo their children inside, and move away as you pass. They won't wave, they won't answer to a simple "as salaam alaikum". What I see in Falluja is quite different. Today, for instance, I saw a thing I had never seen before in Iraq- a woman on a cell phone. The terrorists have taken to blowing up cell towers, because they fear the people having an instant connection to security forces more than they value the utility of a cell-phone detonated IED. Women hold their babies up to see us wave to them. Children play soccer in the streets and wave as we drive by. The markets have people, and relative to others I have seen, they are well stocked. I can't speak with authority on the subject of electricity because I have never spent a complete 24 hours in the city and watched the blackouts roll, but I'm sure that the new power plant under construction will help.
I could keep ranting, and I may, at a later time. I'll stop now, with a final message that all of you should already know: don't believe everything you hear.
Wednesday, July 11, 2007
The three-day mission I mentioned in the last post was to clear a route into the area of interest, nestled within a loop of the Euphrates river near Amiriyah. Following us was a combined force of Army, Marine, and Iraqi Army troops, who would then seal off the area and fan out gathering intel, "making face" with the villagers, and searching for caches.
We staged out of a small Combat Outpost (COP) near Amiriyah. This COP was one of several constructed just a few months ago in a largely successful effort to secure the main route from Falluja to Amiriyah. Amiriyah had been the scene of much fighting between the local al-Qaeda and Iraqi Police; American patrols happened rarely, as the nearest major patrol bases were separated from the community by long stretches of dangerous roads. Now, the situation in Amiriyah and the nearby neighborhood of Feris is largely under control in the hands of the Iraqi security forces, and Coalition efforts have begun to focus on the surrounding villages.
Our mission for the first day was mainly spent clearing alternate routes out in the desert that the unit were were working for had used in the past and would use again in the future.
Investigating an IED
We finished our mission for the first day by midafternoon, and pulled into the COP for the night. The weather was hottest I had felt yet- when we got back to Camp Falluja, someone told me that the thermometer had hit 131 degrees in the shade.
Even collapsing on the roof provided little relief.
Evening shade on the roof of a COP
We had some small visitors drop by, wishing to share our shade and perhaps a few nuggets from the MRE crackers that some of the soldiers were snacking on.
After a restless night spent in the heat, we were up at 0400 to prep and lead out on the next mission- the actual operation on the river. Soldiers racked weapons into their places atop the trucks; others stocked water and MREs in anticipation of a long day. No one really knew what kind of environment we were moving into: the villages and farmland could be quiet and peaceful, or they could be alive with fighters and minefields of IEDs. Both scenarios have played themselves out in other nearby villages, and no one had spent enough time in this particular area to predict the outcome. Our only resource was to be prepared for the worst case.
A gunner preps his battle bag
The first half of the second day was largely uneventful. The troops following us in had little to report- some men who tried to dodge to cordon, an extra AK-47 in a house. We found nothing in the roads.
A infantryman of 3/6 Marines patrols alongside a "Gator"
Later on, one of our vehicles ran over a sharp piece of metal, flattening a tire. Towards the end of the tire change, two more vehicles starting taking single rifle rounds from a building off in a grove of palms in the distance. Some of our Marine security contingent tried to chase the shooter down in their Gator, but they were ultimately unsuccessful.
A "Gator" chases down a sniper
We moved on out of the area, after notifying the force commander of the small arms fire, and proceeded down the route. Just down the road, an alert Gator crewmember noticed some things that seemed out of place at a small shop by the roadside- possibly connecting the men there to the recent gunfire. We stopped to talk to the owner to ask him a few questions and look through his car. He seemed happy to allow the search, and tried to tell us, in a mixture of broken English and Arabic, where we should look for the shooter. We thanked him for his time and help, passed the information up, and moved on.
With Day 2 over, we went back to the COP for another long night in the stifling air. I went to sleep listening to feral dogs growling around the camp's burning trash pit and watching their moving shadows dance with the flames. Day 3 began early, again, and beautifully. We were treated to a postcard-perfect sunrise as we moved through Amiriyah towards our area of operation.The sun rises over a peaceful Euphrates, near Amiriyah
One last bit of excitement remained- one that underlines the difficulties we face in Iraq. The picture below is of a bridge construction site, spanning the Euphrates between the Zaidon region and Amiriyah/Feris. Look carefully at the photo.
A bridge in progress from Zaidon to the Amiriyah region
The three trucks closest to the river are VBIEDs that are under construction. Southern Zaidon receives little attention from American patrols- as with Amiriyah just a few months ago, the roads leading in are long and dangerous. A local villager on the Amiriyah side of the river pointed these trucks out to a Marine patrol. If it weren't for the relations we have built on this side of the river in recent months, the first sign we would have likely had of these VBIEDs would have been their detonation, probably in the midst of a crowd of innocent civilians.
It will be Zaidon's turn soon enough, though- and for now, Amiriyah is looking good.
Thursday, July 05, 2007
Alpha Company, 3rd platoon, this is SPC W.
Yeah, he's here.
Ok, I'll tell him.
I dimly reckoned that I was late for my appointment with supply, and started to roll out of bed, stopping to look at my watch on the way. It read 0936. Uh-oh. My buddy came in: "You need to go down now and turn in your gear." I said "I thought I was doing that at noon?" "Oh yeah, and you're going to Falluja today. They destroyed a truck".
My tasks for the day now included going over to another company's Tactical Operation Center (TOC), drawing the RG-31 that they were lending us while ours was in the shop for repairs, and then driving it to Falluja with the team sent to transport the damaged truck back to Ramadi. I got the paperwork for the new truck from the TOC and headed down to the motor pool to sign for the vehicle. The maintenance teams for the different companies normally reserve vehicles just for such occasions as this- in the states, we'd call them lemons. Here, we have a less kind name for them, one that reflects our heightened chance of injury while operating them. My hope that the truck I was signing for would not prove to be one of those proved false. Before I could sign for the truck, I had to help get it running. The batteries were completely dead and needed replaced, and the navigational system was also toast. The air conditioning functioned poorly, and the radio mount was built out of wood- a solution liable to become a hail of screws, splinters, and flying radios in the event of an explosion.
I swapped out the batteries, signed for it, and drove it away. Later on, in Falluja, we swapped out bad electronic parts with working ones from the blown-up truck. We had a few problems with the loaner before we handed it back in, but nothing so major it couldn't be fixed by someone punching a window and screaming a little. I turned it back in with new batteries, some fresh oil, two new bullet holes, shrapnel damage to three windows and the left side, and all other issues unchanged. Fair trade in my book.
I spent the next hour and a half running around trying to track down a working gun mount. The RG-31 is of foreign construction, and the ring mount on the turret requires a different style of pintle than the US standard. As trucks get blown up and mounts are destroyed, we're left with few options besides finding adapters to use with other mounts, or performing redneck hack&slash welding that maintenance really doesn't appreciate. I never did find a mount- fortunately, the convoy to Falluja already had enough gun trucks that we weren't required to mount a gun for the trip. Once we got to Falluja, we found a working mount in the platoon gear stockpile. All the time I had that morning was taken up by the lemon.
We left the gate at 1400, and returned at 1410. The backup tractor for the tractor-trailer recovery team broke down before we made it completely out of the gate. We had to stand by the trucks for another two hours while the tractor was recovered into the FOB and replaced. At 1730 we finally pulled into Camp Falluja, where I learned that the lineup time for our next mission was at 0130. It would be a three-day operation.
Great. So now I have 6 hours to eat my first meal of the day, finish fixing a truck, supplement my previous night's 4 hours of sleep, and pack for three days. This is why they call Iraq "The Suck".
Next up: mission pictures (as soon as the Blogger.com web photo transfer starts working)
Wednesday, July 04, 2007
An Air Force EOD tech vainly tries to sleep beneath the morning sun
As I've mentioned previously, the process of going on leave is long, torturous, and seems mainly designed so intentionally, in order to increase the appreciation of troops for good ol' America. The picture above was taken just after leaving Shannon, Ireland. The sunrise was streaming straight into the windows- somehow, it seems a bit brighter at 35000 feet, with no clouds to scatter the rays.
My family picked me up from the airport, and we drove to my parent's house in Oregon. Once there, I indulged myself in the favorite pastimes of many a soldier: first food, then beer, then sleep.
After a few days back home with the family (and a dinner I made for Mel, my sister, and my friend Ariel- a meeting that I cannot get a picture of onto Blogger), I headed up to Alaska for the wedding of one of my college roommates and another friend.
The wedding was probably the best one I've ever been to, and it was done in true Alaskan style. We drove south towards Seward for two hours, turned off, hiked for four miles, had a twenty-minute ceremony, and headed out. I think the reception that we had that night took longer than the entire shindig, including the hike. Another interesting thing about the wedding was the sheer number of guns present. There were some sixty people in attendance, ranging from toddlers to grandparents- a solid third to a half of those there had guns. One of my friends remarked that he wasn't quite used to seeing that many guns around. However, I am.
The last day before I left Boise was the annual Boise Beer Festival. I couldn't pass that opportunity up, so I dragged my dad and two friends kicking and screaming downtown. We made it through around half of the 20+ stands before nine months of Iraq started to catch up to me, and after a break in the Boise Basque district for roast lamb, we went back to finish the job.
motivations for blogging. In my defense, I mentioned nothing about a blog to either of these lovely USO ladies (a fact for which I find myself in a bit of hot water now). Lindsay and Kati introduced Ben and me to an excellent BBQ stand in D/FW- if you happen to be there, stop by Cousin's BBQ and tell them a soldier told you to go there.