A Message from Baghdad

Eagle was one of the interpreters working for the U.S. Marines in the small Anbar Province town of Haditha, where I lived from October 2008 until January 2009. I was writing about him recently for an article that’s in front of New York editors (a piece from that article is attached below). I got in touch with Eagle and here’s what he had to say, by way of Iraq update:

hey man
how are you? i feel happy always when i hear from you. i am OK. i am trying now to have job with iraqi government as a terp. things good in iraq. don’t worry about the news. iraq never been 100% safe in last 50 years, so it is so stupid to think 70% safe it is not good. no, it is very good. two days ago we had international match for soccer in baghdad. first time since 2002. fifty thousand attend the match. it was big celebration, and it was big response against any one who have suspicion about the future of iraq. every body watch the match and every body went home in safe. it was the biggest gathering since 2002. so we win against the terror.


The following is from a forthcoming article about a sprawling Marine endeavor in Anbar called Operation Damocles:

Eagle is a 32-year-old Baghdad native with a psychology degree; he’s worked as an interpreter for U.S. forces for six years. In 2008, he was stationed at COP Haditha. He says that when Saddam Hussein was deposed, Iraq lost its father figure (a vital component in paternalistic Arab culture) and looked to the U.S. to replace it. But the Americans rejected the role and as a result Iraqis have been left confused and apprehensive. He also has an incisive point of view on the relationship between Iraqi and American leadership in western Anbar Province.

“Colonel Malay [head of U.S. Forces in western Anbar in 2008] treats Colonel Shaffir [mythical Iraqi leader of the Provisional Security Force] as a military leader,” Eagle says. “Not a militiaman, not a fake Colonel, not a sheik—as a real military leader. And that is the weak point in Colonel Shaffir. He was always chased by the old regime as a criminal; he was nothing. Yes, in his tribe they thought he was a hero, and after 2003 he became something. But the only one who treated him as a real Colonel was Colonel Malay.

“Sometimes Colonel Malay uses Arabic terms with him. Sadiki, my friend. And he called him by Mohammed, Sadiki Mohammed. See, when you use his Iraqi name, and you say it clear, that means you respect him and you care about him. So that’s why Shaffir loves Colonel Malay—because he treats him as Colonel, like him.”

Popular perception among the Marines in Haditha was that the mythical Shaffir was cold and calculating, while his cousin, Faruq, was more likely to fly off the handle and give into whims of passion. Not so, says Eagle.

“Colonel Shaffir is the one who follows his heart,” the interpreter observes, “but he is aggressive. He shows big mercy if you show him you walk straight. But if you don’t walk straight, and start to zigzag, he will be your worst enemy. He was the biggest officer I worked with, and that’s why I always paid attention to him. It was important for the American officers I worked with, and they asked me to analyze his character, as a psychologist.

“I listened to his voice. Three or four good things you tell him about himself, and a short message from Colonel Malay … Colonel Malay says hello, and he sends you a message. And he sends you a letter, and in the letter are words from Shakespeare … and he reads it and says, ‘I understand it. Colonel Malay, he loves me.’ Then you hear his voice is different—he wants to cry. It’s an emotional voice. He’s so emotional, but he can’t show it. Because people, they’ve heard about Shaffir. He’s the one who will straighten up anyone, the one who killed the bad people. But really, he’s Colonel Shaffir with a big heart.”

Eagle goes on to explain that the inclusion of Iraq’s sheik system (in 2006 and 2007) was vital to the U.S. effort. That establishment is the veridical power in the country, he says, and it trumps the authority of the courts, the city council and the IP in the lives of everyday Iraqis. When an Iraqi man or woman has a dispute, he says—for problems ranging from traffic accidents to murder—that person goes first to his or her sheik. The sheik, in turn, confers with a sheik on the other end of the altercation and a deal is reached. The standard penalty for a traffic accident, Eagle says, (depending on the severity) is $3,500. For murder, it’s generally $10,000.

Colonel Malay may have been adept at working with Iraqi security counterparts, but the learning curve vis-à-vis Arabic culture was steep. And though the security arrangement in Haditha seemed to be solid enough to build on, things two hours away—in the town of Hit—were up in the air. A young sheik named Hatim had taken over power in the area, before RCT-5 arrived, and managed to install his tribesman in both the mayor’s office and at the helm of the police department. From the American side, it didn’t makes sense that the Al-Nimr tribe would even put young Hatim (26 years old) into its top leadership role. He was the next in line for blood succession, that much was clear. But his clan, the ?, controlled only about 30-percent of the tribe.

What was clear is that Hatim’s father, then sheik of the Al-Nimr tribe, was killed in 2006 during an oil smuggling operation (U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Colonel Tom Welborn explains that the sheik tried to run an American checkpoint with smuggled oil and that the Marines adhered to escalation of force rules and shot him to death). Oil smuggling, in fact, was to become a leitmotif for RCT-5. In the winter of 2008 (not long after arriving in country) Malay’s command stumbled onto a nasty snag of information. A huge smuggling operation—involving up to 500 trucks—accidentally sparked a pipeline fire and through the ensuing investigation, a number of central figures in Hit’s civic leadership were implicated. Sheik Hatim was involved, as well as his cousin (and the mayor of Hit), Hikmat, as was Salah, Hit’s chief of police.

One Response to “A Message from Baghdad”

  1. Jared Nuzzolillo Says:

    Thanks for the great article. I love hearing from the interpreters, such brave patriotic men and women.

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