Iraqi Army Journal; day 11

We went on another successful mission last night (which played foil to the dud of a mission the night before). That mission came on the heels of the weapons cache discovery in which Johnny Cash attempted to go down on Mr. Cool. We left Headquarters with two full platoons of Iraqi soldiers, and rolled into a dark and quiet neighborhood somewhere in Mahmudiya. The soldiers piled out and walked down a dark alleyway, and then ponderously crossed through a small gate, into a schoolyard. There they began searching the lawn with flashlights and digging holes.

I was later told the intelligence for this fizzling dud of a raid came from Brigade, and intelligence from higher in the military (I’ve come to learn on both sides of the Iraqi-American divide) is apocryphal. We ended up standing there for more than an hour (probably closer to two)—I being weighed down in burdensome body armor—and waiting as different groups took blank shots in the night by digging gopher holes all over that courtyard, looking to turn up a cache of weapons. I was happy to get back to Battalion, and to bed, at about three in the morning.

Last night was different. The Americans were along (a good sign because when the Americans come along, it means the mission—at least theoretically—requires backup). And as was the case with the first raid I went on, the Iraqis returned to headquarters with three captured targets (suspected insurgents). The detainees were young (the same as last time)—they appeared to be in their teens or early 20s—which would seem to indicate one of two things. If this is what the insurgents have resorted to—recruiting bright-eyed babes for foot soldier positions—it means that they’re increasingly desperate and probably that their popular support is withering. It could also be an indication that Coalition forces are only able to hunt for bad guys at the lowest of levels on the insurgent food chain (another compounding factor is that the higher you move up the food chain, the less subjects there are and the more thoroughly they’re insulted).

I went with Lt. Hamid, as has become a habit. As usual, his squad alighted their Humvees running. The fuckers seemed to know exactly which gate to go to and it was kicked open and breached in a matter of seconds. Simultaneously, another soldier was working on the gate next door, though that one didn’t open so easily. A group of about four soldiers poured in through the first gate and in short order I heard muffled yells from inside the house. I moved into the courtyard and followed another officer—Captain Mazen from Brigade—inside.

The house was typical for Iraqi. A small kitchen (a block room with a sink and a couple of cheap hutches) was connected to the main living room or diwan, which was another block-construed affair without any furniture. A number of sleeping mats and blankets were laid out and two small children sat in the middle of the room, looking shy and a bit dazed. Next to them stood two young men, both of them taciturn and looking like they’d just been pulled from sleep. A woman (who I’d say was in her 20s or 30s) was in the corner of the room, covering her mouth with apprehension, as if she wanted to cry. She showed enough control that I figured she’d either been through this drill before or had at least (on some level) expected it.

Another man, a little bit older than the two being watched by the soldiers and questioned by Hamid—and whom I took for the head of the household—was bleating about something, and questioning Hamid (who actually seemed to be paying him some kind of attention). The guy wasn’t fanatical or screaming, and I think his composure helped elicit Hamid’s cooperation. Regardless, after about five minutes of (at points heavy) discussion, Hamid pointed out one of the young men and two soldiers grabbed him. We made our way out the front door, collecting soldiers as we went, and moved back to the Humvees.

We walked down the street, to another residence—this one larger and under construction—where a soldier hopped the sliding gate and let the rest of the troops in. The front door was glass, and we could see there was no one in the large kitchen. The soldiers knocked and a young man came and opened the door. Five or six soldiers piled in and by the time I got to the main hallway, which had steps leading up to the second level, Hamid was in dialogue with the people upstairs, asking for a certain young man. They seemed to be obfuscating, futilely delaying, but identities were narrowed down and eventually a young man who appeared to be in his 20s came walking down the stairs. Two soldiers grabbed him and another man, and we left.

The three were blindfolded and their hands were cuffed with plastic straps. They were put into the back of a pickup truck. They kept their heads down, between their legs, with their hands cuffed behind their backs. When we drove into the parking lot at headquarters, dozens of troops were swirling around, parking Humvees and cleaning up from the mission. I wondered what was going through the heads of those three young detainees, blind and cold, with bare feet and a cacophony of strange voices that must have seemed pretty damned threatening. Those young men—boys really—knew a lot better than I what was awaiting them that night.

Iraqi Army protocols is largely the same as the U.S. and beating and torture aren’t allowed—but everybody knows they still do it. Iraq may be an American conquest right now, but it’s still the Third World, and that’s a place where nobody is restrained by the notion of human rights. Weeks ago, a group of Iraqi widows told me the sad stories of the disappearances of their husbands. They all know their men are dead and at this point they all just want to recover bodies to put their ordeals to rest. Several of them knew the men who were the instruments of their husband’s kidnappings—men that are now being held in the Iraqi prison called Bucca. The problem, they said, is that the men aren’t talking and because the Americans are involved, Iraqi authorities aren’t allowed to beat the information out of them.

The Americans are nowhere to be found as those young detainees are unloaded from the pick-up at Second Battalion Headquarters. They are bathed in the dim orange light of an urban streetlamp, and they’re to be transported to Brigade Headquarters, down the street, where they’ll be interrogated. While I know what that is (legally) supposed to entail, I can’t imagine what it will look like in the sordid reality of this place called Mahmudiya, a place that was—for several years—a cardinal point on the Triangle of Death. An Iraqi Captain, who until that point wore an eerie black snow cap over his head and face, pulls a stun gun from his pocket and the inimical sound of arcing electricity crackles through the air. I look to the three young men and none of them flinches or makes a sound.

Fucking great, I think, what fresh horror am I going to be treated to here? I’ve been here for a week and a half and have waited with bated breathe for the Iraqis to cross the line—to go beyond the pale of human rights (a pale I think has greater breadth than peacetime societies)—but they haven’t yet. They’ve tread on the far edge of the envelope a couple of times, toeing the other side, but they haven’t stepped over. And it’s certainly not for shyness or fear of being uncovered. If anything, they seem naively enthusiastic about showing me everything—good, bad and questionable—they get involved with. I don’t think they fundamentally understand the concept of the media as a watchdog and the Fourth Estate.

Captain Stungun, if he does understand my mandate as a reporter, doesn’t give a fuck. He zaps the back of one of those kid’s neck and push the gun down hard enough that the kid’s head is forced down between his legs. The kid doesn’t make a whimper. It’s almost as if the charge isn’t that bad (somebody in my dorm got hold of one of those things my freshman year of college and we all suffered strikes … I remember it as a highly uncomfortable pinching sensation, but nothing that did irreparable damage). I suppose he knows that this little charade is a but a game compared to what he’s likely to face later in the night. At the same time, I’m surmising. I don’t know what the hell happens behind those closed doors at Brigade (or even the ad hoc interrogation rooms at Battalion, for that matter).

I get the sense the local police, the sherta, are legitimately afraid of beating prisoners for—presumably for the sanctions they’d face. I presume they’re more beholden to the system of judges and courts the Americans have endorsed and redoubled. It’s not like human rights have been abandoned here. In fact, I’d say this place isn’t even as bad as Mexico, vis-à-vis the treatment of detainees. My impressions are founded largely on talk—the talk of Americans, regarding their IA counterparts and of the very IA guys who are carrying out interrogations. When it comes to hard facts and what I’ve seen with my very eyes, the worst I’ve witnessed is a couple of roughing-ups—but those didn’t involved anything more nettlesome than slaps with open palms. I’ve not seen beating worse than any number of American kids get on any given night at boxing practice, or even a rough football practice, for that matter.

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