Baghdad Update: There Is No Normal

Another update from Official Middle East Correspondant Paul Schemm, working as a journalist in Baghdad. These arrive at irregular intervals, but I figure they're worth reposting when I get them, in case people want a view-from-the-ground perspective.

One officer described it to me as the "new face of violence in Baghdad is senseless indirect fire." It's cold indirect fire because you don't see where it goes. He said once it was bombs in market places or in front of mosques, these days it was just a bunch of guys with mortar launcher and some shells shooting off a few into the nearby neighborhood and then running away. Not particularly aiming at anything, just shooting.

There are so many mortar shells in Iraq, it's hard to grasp. Everyday the US army issues another press release about some massive 'terrorist' weapons cache they have discovered containing hundreds of 60mm or 80mm mortars.

These are the raw materials for roadside bombs, incidentally. Usually they are wired together, attached to a mobile phone, and then when a US or Iraqi army patrol drives by, the insurgent makes a phone call.

Now, however, they are more and more being used for their intended purpose of being shot at people.

It was just a little 60mm mortar, sitting in the middle of a vacant, trash-filled lot in this poor grubby neighborhood. So the soldiers settled down to wait for the bomb squad, all the while grumbling because EOD was known to take a long time and it was already getting near dusk and the patrol should have been near its end.

I was near my own end. It was my second patrol of the day, it was really hot, and I had a throbbing headache so that I really didn't care what happened to the little rocket over in the trash pile.

Then one of the soldiers comes over and said that one of the locals had told the interpreter that there were two more unexploded mortars nearby. "Who told you this?" asked the sergeant. "Guy with the dark hair and the yellow man-dress on."

That didn't narrow it down to much, but we eventually found the guy wearing the yellow dish-dash who directed us down through some buildings.

We come to another vacant trash filled lot, this time filled with sheep and an old shepherd (I mean what better place to pasture the flock than in an urban slum?). We asked him if he'd seen any mortar shells around and so he barked over at one of his teenage sons…

… who proceeded to come walking over to us carrying a pair of mortar shells in his bare hands! There was a collective gasp as everyone shouted for the interpreter to tell him to put them down, very gently. Which he did rather nonchalantly, clearly not sure why four huge soldiers with weapons and body armor were cringing away from him.

Turns out when the shepherd had come across them he'd neutralized them the best way he knew how and, as the soldiers put it, "tossed them into the shit creek" that passed for plumbing in this neighborhood.

Not long afterwards, the bomb squad showed up and was briefed on the situation. And the first thing the bomb guy did was go up to our two shit creek bombs and pick them up himself and carry them over to the other trash pile bomb.

We gave him a lot of room.

They then dug a hole, placed the mortar shells in there, put plastic explosives on top and then put a tire around the whole thing, took cover, and blew the whole mess up.

All in all it took a few hours and these happen all the time. We were minutes from the base when the patrol got a call about another UXO incident (lot of dud mortar shells out there it seems), and we were diverted in the pitch black night to go provide security for another team dealing with an errant mortar shell.

By this time my pounding headache had left me half blind and a little fed up with the whole situation so that as we stood around and provided pointless security, I vented bitterly to the sergeant, who was so amused (and shared my feelings) that he passed on my sentiments to the lieutenant. Who seemed to lack quite the same sense of humor.

We weren't far from the main US base around there and one of the interpreters, who went around masked like most of them do, described the nearby village as an "insurgent village". Apparently they would watch for the interpreters to leave the base on their breaks, follow them and then sell their identities to the insurgents.

I heard somewhere once that the insurgents will pay thousands of dollars for the name and address of an interpreter for the coalition forces.

Later I was eating with the soldiers. We'd spent enough time together inside a humvee that it only seemed normal that I sat with them in the chow hall. One sergeant was predicting that their tours were going to be extended this time around.

The 4th Infantry Division came into Baghdad in December so theoretically they should be leaving in November… but new troops were just moved into Baghdad to try to stop the brewing civil war. The new people had been stationed up in Mosul and had been set to go home themselves, now they've been moved to Baghdad and extended for three months.

This one sergeant felt pretty sure that they wouldn't be allowed to go home either, not in the middle of the battle to retake the city.

Part of the sergeant's skepticism stemmed from his first time in Iraq, he rolled in from Kuwait with the 2nd Armored Division in March 2003 and after one year, they were set to go home, sitting in the airport in Kuwait, six hours from ending the most exhausting year of their life when word came they had to go back.

Days later they were fighting the Mahdi Militia across southern Iraq and stayed another five months through the blazing summer in 2004.

Then they went home for a year and came back 2005. Matching his joking tone, I made some comment about it must be hard to stay normal with all that.

He stopped walking, turned and look at me, suddenly serious with a strange catch in his voice, "normal? I don't think any of us are normal any more. There is no normal."


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Iraq is Northern Ireland with poorer personal hygiene. The solution is the same in either case - kill all but one side or kill all of all sides. One can treat cancer with a bandaid but one will obtain contingent results.

Kill them all. Ablate the population, suck Iraq's oil dry, turn our backs and depart. If the UN has a problem with that, give them an APO Box address to send any threatened sanctions.

How much Liberal introspective bushwa accompanied Spanish conquistadors in the New World? What language is spoken south of Texas? (Brazil is a papist machination.)

Kill them all. Ablate the population, suck Iraq's oil dry, turn our backs and depart. If the UN has a problem with that, give them an APO Box address to send any threatened sanctions.

OK, this is getting awfully close to the line. I'm pretty laid-back when it comes to comments here, but future eliminationist rhetoric will face deletion or disemvowelling.

If you want to advocate mass murder, do it on your own blog.

An interesting article. I think a large part of the problem is two cultures that don't/won't understand each others thinking. To the US (and
coalition, there are still a couple of other countries that haven't yet pulled out), we are thinking "if only we situation would settle down enough that we could leave with a reasonable hope that Iraq could have a decent future, we'd be out-of-here in a minute", but the Iraqis (or
at least many of the insurgents are thinking) " the only way we can get rid of the Foreign Infidels, is to make the country such a horrible mess that they will leave". The resulting impasse of course has tragic results for all.

The stupidest thing about that first comment (and the competition was fierce) was that he started by saying Iraq is like Northern Ireland. Guess what, moron? Northern Ireland is peaceful now, has been for years, _without_ any mass murder.

One of the most poignant comments from ordinary Iraqis is how much they want a normal country. By normal they mean the simple things like being able to pursue family and work and participation in public life with the freedom and security that is found in many places in the rest of the world. There is a normal, and it is an ideal.

It will bode poorly for the future of all of us if those trying to make Iraq normal really do lose their own normality instead.