Calling Iraq

(Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in “What We Now Know,” Mr. Casey’s free weekly e-letter, and is reprinted with permission.)

While this publication benefits from inputs and articles from a far-flung network of remarkable individuals, we don’t have the budget (nor the editorial interest) in maintaining foreign correspondents.

Yet, being naturally curious about the situation “on the ground” in Iraq, and equally suspicious about the various filters that are placed on the information coming out of that country by the government and mainstream media, we decided to let our fingers do the walking and call someone in Baghdad and have a chat.

After some casting about and numerous false starts, we were finally able to connect via hazy satellite-link with Mr. X – a former U.S. staff sergeant who recently mustered out of the military, having served the last year of his hitch as a non-commission officer (NCO) in the Military Police in Iraq. He currently works in Baghdad as one of a team of bodyguards who protect Western executives working on infrastructure reconstruction.

On the day of our interview, two soldiers were killed outside of the gates of the compound where our new correspondent is housed. In a wide-ranging interview, he shared with us a number of interesting insights. He asked to remain anonymous so that he could speak more freely.

Here are some random observations from Mr. X on life in the war zone.

The Americans have, he said, “complete control over the major highways”… but only during the hours of daylight. However, as soon as you leave the main highways you enter, as he called it, “the Wild West” and it is almost guaranteed that you will be attacked. As a result, the Americans rarely venture off the main roads, unless it is in force and even then only reluctantly.

(The truth of these words has been reinforced by numerous incidents, including the tragic story of two soldiers who took a wrong turn in Mosul and were subsequently shot in the head, dragged from their car and mutilated. And, more recently, by an attack on a police station in Fallujah where 23 Iraqi policemen and civilians were gunned down; despite the attack lasting more than thirty minutes, at no time did U.S. forces attempt to come to the aid of the police.)

As night falls, all American contractors and military personnel are required to return to their respective bases and the country is turned over to the Iraqis again. The only presence the occupation forces have at night are helicopters and, on occasion, large strike forces. Otherwise, personnel remain buttoned up tight.

Taking advantage of the nightly pullback by the U.S. military, the Iraqi resistance are free to prepare for their next assaults and to plant roadside IEDs (Improvised Explosive Device), placing them inside animal carcasses, boxes, and other debris.

Because of the IEDs, American and international contractors working on reconstruction do not leave their armed compounds until after ten o’clock in the morning. By that time, Mr. X casually informed us, most of the IEDs have detonated.

Due to the horrendous security situation, all of the civilian contractors working on reconstruction are at least six months behind schedule, which is not helping build support from the inconvenienced population.

As a bodyguard, Mr. X is issued an AK-47 and MP5, but noted that many on the team have supplemented their personal armament with any number of jazzed-up weapons bought in the thriving black market. The city is, Mr. X tells us, awash in weapons.

The U.S. has established two Green Zones in Baghdad, residential areas around which the military has dropped an iron-clad cordon – no one gets in or out without having to run a gauntlet of interrogation. If you are an Iraqi whose apartment or house is located within a Green Zone, you are effectively living under martial law, subject to constant interference in your daily lives.

Generally speaking, the Shiites Mr. X comes in contact with – and it is primarily the Shiites who are cooperating with the U.S. – were happy that the U.S. took out Saddam, but very much want us gone. It is their country, and they want it back. As he put it, “They don’t comprehend why the U.S. is talking about leaving in June. With the mission completed, why not just pack up and be gone in February?”

While he said most Shiites were unsympathetic to the Sunni-supported foreigners – Jordanians, Palestinians and the like – they believe are behind most of the attacks on Americans, he also felt that if the U.S. was still occupying the country six months from now, Shiites would begin joining in on the attacks against U.S. forces.

The Sunnis themselves are a different question. X tells us that, as the main beneficiaries of the past regime, they’re actively hostile now, and as the prospect of a Shiite-controlled government looms, are only likely to become more so. (Ed. Note: About 35% of the population is Sunni. For more, see Shiites vs. Sunnis, WWNK 1/19/04.)

Overall, Mr. X gives high marks to the U.S. military. He feels, considering the size of Iraq and the relatively small number of soldiers in the country, the commanding officers were handling the situation the best they could, witnessed by the policy of retreating to bases at night. When all is said and done, despite all the noise and expense, our occupation of the country is really only “occupation lite” – we are exerting military control, but only over the main highways, and only during day light.

To try and do more, according to Mr. X, would only result in far higher casualties among our overextended and overstressed troops.

Speaking of stress, Mr. X told us that a lot of what he termed “high rev” guys come over from the states to earn the big bucks – upwards of $25,000 a month, tax-free – available to a body guard working in this dangerous country, but that most wash out within 2 to 6 months. Mr. X, who is younger than most working in his dangerous profession in Iraq, was planning on completing his term, then returning stateside with his nest egg and entering business. Perhaps, he thought, importing Kurdish rugs, which are going for a song in Baghdad these days.

We wish him well, and will attempt to periodically make contact with Mr. X as major developments in Iraq occur.