Here's the latest of the intermittent updates (I actually skipped one, but I'll come back to it on a slow day one of these days) from my friend Paul, who's working as a journalist in Baghdad (and, thankfully, just about done with his tour there). This is one of the most opinionated of the occasional dispatches he's sent, and also probably the sharpest. It doesn't really have a moral, but true war stories never do.
The word of the air strike came around mid-morning. I was actually the one to take the call from our stringer in Samarra. He said 32 people had been killed in an American air strike somewhere to the south according to local government official Amr something-or-other and he was heading towards the site, then the line went dead.
We tried to call him back later, because you can't give a story based on the word of Amr something-or-other, certainly not an Americans-killed-dozens-of-people kind of story, but he'd either moved out of coverage area or the appalling Iraqi mobile networks were having another miserable day.
Then the press release came... [continued after the cut]
Then the press release came. “20 Al-Qaeda terrorists killed” in a midnight airstrike about 80 kilometers north of Baghdad. The wording in these things are key. As US ground forces approached a target site, they were suddenly fired upon, forcing them to return fire – killing two “terrorists”. “Coalition Forces continued to be threatened by enemy fire, causing forces to call in close air support.”
They really had no choice, it seems.
Eighteen more armed terrorists were killed, and a subsequent search revealed that two of them were women. “Al-Qaeda in Iraq has both men and women supporting and facilitating their operations, unfortunately,” said the statement.
So it was back to the telephones, talked to the official US military spokesman, “um, how did you know the women were terrorists?” Apparently in the post-air strike “battlefield assessment” done at 1 am in the rubble of the building revealed this fact.
“If there is a weapon with or near to the person or they are holding it, they are a terrorist,” he replied.
Of course in a normal place, in a normal situation, we would have jumped into a car right after the first phone call and been there an hour or two later and made our own determination about what occurred.
But that wasn't going to happen, and we weren't going to send our Baghdad-based mostly Shiite reporters north into the angry Sunni heartland to a bunch of furious tribesmen who’d just been air-struck.
So we rely on our stringers in the area, who probably can only function in that region because they are sympathetic to the insurgents. It's no fun being a stringer, either the insurgents are going to kill you or the US military will arrest you.
You have to take these allegiances in mind when evaluating their reports. Our stringer finally called, he'd arrived at the site and according to the mayor of the small town (Amr Alwan, as it turned out), who wasn't there at the time, US forces showed up, dragged dozens of peace loving citizens out of their houses, executed them, then put them back into the house and blew it up to cover up their crime so it looked like an air strike.
That version didn't quite pass the plausibility test, either, so we went, roughly, with the US version, putting a lot of things in quotes to convey the skepticism.
Then our photo stringer managed to send the pictures: the massive craters where the houses once were, the pancaked concrete and twisted rebar. And then among the bodies, the dead children.
One of the first picture could have been of a young adolescent, but a later picture clearly showed a pair of young boys under 13 years of age with large chunks of them missing, covered in white cement dust.
We also received a list of the dead (17 names) from the local police, and at least four of the names were female – and also everyone had the same last name.
We sent the pics to the US military spokesman, and asked him if the children were among the “armed terrorists” as well. Were there weapons found next to them too? He wrote back and said, while pictures of dead children were an awful thing, how did he know these pictures came from the actual site?
He said he checked back with the unit (which he wouldn't reveal anything about suggesting they were “special”) and they stuck by their story, 20 adults killed, of which, two were women terrorists.
So we wrote the next version of the article, which spent a little more time noting the evidence that seemed to indicate that a pair of houses containing two families may well have been on the receiving end of those 500 pound bombs.
Were there “terrorists” in that house? It's very possible, but there were also, quite clearly, a large number of women and children who, I am absolutely sure, were not bearing arms, and it is simply insulting and nasty to try to say so in the press release.
Did they expect people not to find the bodies the next day?
It was one of those, "I really hate the military" days.
But of course it's never totally simple. There are plenty of other US military people who, if you can find them, will give more of a straight story.
During one trip out to Ramadi, I met a civil affairs officer, Capt. Travis Patriquin, who just seemed to get it. He seemed to have a clue about Iraq, actually liked the place and, even weirder, spoke good Arabic. I was a little skeptical about the last one until I checked out the books stacked on his desk.
He spoke Pashto as well, apparently from his time in Afghanistan, where he had been in the special forces and worked closely with the Afghans. His leg had gotten pretty messed up in one of the big battles there, and he had nearly left the army, but instead, when he healed had volunteered to be the civil affairs person for the army unit stationed in Ramadi.
He'd put on a layer or two of fat since his special forces days, and admitted that now that his leg was better he was hoping to slim down a bit. We had lunch and he enthusiastically told me about the work he was doing with the tribes around Ramadi.
Apparently, a lot of them had become fed up with Al-Qaeda, the insurgency, the non stop violence and were willing to work with the central government and the Americans to drive the “terrorists” out (I heard a bribe of $5 million from the prime minister also helped, but that could just be a rumor).
A lot of tribes that had once shot at the Americans were now willing to put their people into the police force in the hope that stability would eventually mean the Americans would leave. And Travis was in the middle of this whole process.
I've never known someone to enjoy his work so much, he invited me to come back out to Ramadi when I had more time, to meet the tribal leaders, and see some of his work in action. I always meant to go out, but went to Kurdistan instead.
We kept in touch mostly by email, I would send him queries to try to get behind the mass of propaganda and mystery that surrounded any event in Ramadi. There are no phone lines out there, and though an hour's drive from Baghdad, it might as well be on another planet.
The US military just says everything is great as one more insurgent is arrested, another weapons cache is found, and more “terrorists” are engaged without “reported” loss of civilian life.
On the other hand, stringers out there, who tend to by controlled by the insurgents, send daily reports of insurgent victories and American atrocities that just don't sound plausible either.
In Ramadi, at least, Travis could sometimes help, sort a few things out, provide another perspective between the competing propagandas. He also had a sense of humor, which is not always common.
Anyway, as is probably clear by now from the excessive use of the past tense, he's dead, blown to pieces by a road side bomb a few days ago, driving through downtown Ramadi, probably on his way to another meeting with Iraqi tribesmen.
I saw his obit in a home town newspaper, he had a wife and three children. So many people die every day from every side (11 US soldiers and marines died that day, incidentally, two others in his vehicle, more than 100 Iraqis), but I knew this one.
He shouldn't have died, he was a good one. And the public affairs guy who told me about armed women terrorists is still sending out press statements.
A comment comes to mind, but what good does it do to say "shit", even if that seems to be the only appropriate response?
Washington will Vietnamize Iraqi defense forces (defense against whom, themselves?) directly after it vanishes the three-way Northern Irelandoid religious imbroglio. El Ultimo Presidente Bush the Lesser has faith. We waited 200 years to get Jimmy Carter but hardly any more to get the most loathsomely stupid President since Pontius Pilate.
Immolate Iraq, steal its oil, have done with it. It will be the usual black headlines for a week, then folks will be distracted by Valentine's Day. Uncle Al says, "If violence was not the answer then you didn't use nearly enough of it."
Except we don't even get the oil.