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The Iraqi Army Diaries—entry 3

By s d liddick

In the spring of 2009 I embedded with the U.S. Army’s 1-63 Combined Arms Battalion, in the small town of Mahmudiyah, 20 miles south of Baghdad. The town is a cardinal point on what American soldiers have termed the Triangle of Death. Within a month I was offered a de facto embed spot with the Iraqi Army (IA), by General Mohammed, commander of the 17th Division. I quickly/wp-content/uploads/2009_November/murdoch_rupert.jpeg accepted and we determined that I would stay with one of his sub-commanders, Colonel Wisam Wisam, the Lieutenant in charge of the 2nd Battalion of the 25th Brigade.

What was supposed to be a several-day venture turned into almost two months (by the end I wasn’t sure that I hadn’t been passively kidnapped) and I came to know many of the men on Wisam’s base—soldiers and officers alike. They were a group of committed and bright (though not highly educated) officers who were in charge of a group of men—the contingent of soldiers I came to know at headquarters was hundreds strong—that was uneducated and often illiterate but very caring and determined to make its country a better place. Those soldiers (and some officers) were also suspected by American counterparts of being affiliated with both Al-Qaeda and the JAM (Jaish Al Mahdi army)—and I’ve no doubt that some of them were.

Those young Iraqi officers carried me on dozens of missions, kicking in doors and unearthing stashed 500-pound bombs. They carried themselves more or less professionally despite lack of training and a tremendous paucity in equipment and funding (the officers I followed into dark houses during those raids didn’t have rifles as the Battalion couldn’t afford them, and would normally breach doorways with nothing more than a sidearm resting on their hip). They also lacked a fundamental understanding of the media-military relationship and showed me an uncomfortable level of candor, especially in their treatment of prisoners. The following is a series of journal entries from that assignment.

First Lieutenant Hamid is the S2 (intelligence officer) at Second Battalion Headquarters. He’s in his late twenties and he carries himself with the self-assured swagger of Patton. He knows two phrases in English and he says them with an impeccable American accent: “Hooooly s—,” and “What the f——?” It took us a while to break through barriers—mainly because Hamid came off as haughty—but when they came down I found him to be a loyal and amicable friend.

Language barriers are fickle things and because of them Hamid and I had a couple of awkward situations. From the start, I was a novelty at Batallion Headquarters. Most of the young soldiers and officers I lived with had never had one-on-one interaction with Americans. U.S. soldiers, officers and contractors were like aliens to them, mystical and unimaginably wealthy beings they’d come to know through television and rumor. Most of the Iraqis flocked to me with the eager curiosity of children. Hamid, on the other hand, was reserved from the beginning.

hamid_1.jpg Batallion Headquarters is a renovated Baath Party Headquarters building near the heart of Mahmudiyah (a cardinal point on the Triangle of Death, now the Triangle of Yawns). Sand bags line the first floor windows, a number of walls show large cracks and the building’s new paint job looks rushed and amateur. The place reminded me of a dilapidated U.S. fraternity house. And that analogy ran deeper than the looks of the building. While the enlisted men were eager and curious, some of the officers (Hamid chief among them) came across as aloof and suspicious of me—just as the majority of American soldiers did at first.

I knew why the Americans reacted the way they did—they were being cautious and they were distrustful (our military-media arrangement, after all, had historically been abused by both sides). The Iraqi soldiers clearly had little idea that speaking with the media could be dangerous. The majority of the Iraqi officers were the same way—save for Hamid and a small group of others—and by the end of my assignment they’d let me see things (particularly the torture of detainees) that made me uncomfortable. They continually flirted with putting me in a position where I might have to report on illegal activities I didn’t want to.

Hamid’s job was both dangerous and important. Almost all of the battalion’s offensive efforts came out of the intelligence that he generated and turned into actionable strategy. He lead the majority of the raids that came out of headquarters and he was certainly on the radar of the local net of Al Qaeda operatives; he was a high value target. That importance, I think, combined with a universal arrogance given to military officers (these are men who commit to their jobs with their lives and who are generally the best and brightest of their generation) lent Hamid an air of entitlement and privilege.

It wasn’t so much that Hamid was suspicious of my intentions or my ability to put him in hot water with the reports I filed. Rather, after thirty years of tyrannical rule, the Iraqis seemed to have little notion of the power of the press or the fact it could jeopardize their careers. I think Hamid was simply a product of his time and place: in a rampantly masculine society, he held a highly regarded position and he carried himself accordingly. After several weeks and many late night sessions in the planning room, watching Turkish soap operas and listening to the officers chatter and laugh in Arabic (as they ate copious amounts of lamb shish kabobs and rice), the barriers began to crumble.

Despite my almost complete lack of ability with Arabic, I found that dance is an international language. The Iraqis are zealots for television and Arabic music video stations play incessantly (after 30 years of tyranny—with just two stations to choose from—every household, café and building in contemporary Iraq is sure to have a TV and a satellite dish). There was always vibrant and lively music piling out of the TVs at headquarters and the Iraqi soldiers and officers were engrossed when I’d start dancing to it. I was heavily bearded at that time and dressed in an Arabic dishdasha and I think they were mildly astounded that an alien American could look so much like a Muslim.

Like all of the Iraqis, Hamid was beguiled with my dancing and it wasn’t too long before I was doing it at his request. He began taking me for rides with his convoy as they reviewed manned checkpoints throughout the town (we drove in a small Japanese pick-up, Hamid and his driver in the front and me and a young soldier with a Kalashnikov in the back). Apart from those checkpoints we would often stop at the market, or we would visit one of the company headquarters complexes in town, or stop by the residence of one of Hamid’s friend. Within a month I’d become Hamid’s own dancing monkey—compelled to act (which often included swinging my prayer beads above my head and gyrating my shoulders Iraqi style) on his command.

Hamid’s personal attendant and bodyguard was a large Iraqi man with a healthy paunch who was probably in his mid to late-30s. He was an enlisted man with a family tucked away somewhere in Iraq, and he seemed unequivocally committed to Hamid. That man would laugh till tears came out of his eyes when Hamid would turn up the radio, turn around and tell me in broken English to dance. By that point I’d learned the words (or some of them) to several of the Arabic songs I liked and I’d belt them out from the back seat, with a turban wrapped around my head and a dress-like dishdasha flowing all over the back seat. I’d launch into animated swinging (moves I’d learned from Arabic journalists in Baghdad) and Hamid and his cadre would start clapping, singing and laughing.

“Hoooly s—,” Hamid would yell, as I’d belt out the words to a song. “Whaaaat the f——–?”

The situation wore on my nerves till the point I wanted to tell Hamid to find another monkey. But that wasn’t in the cards. Hamid was an incredibly rich source—he was the epicenter of the action coming out of headquarters—and what’s more I respected him. Despite that haughty, better-than-you attitude, I accompanied him on dozens of missions and I was highly impressed with his aplomb. Standing outside a gate in the dark, as soldiers silently swarmed over a suspected Al Qaeda or JAM (Jaish Al Mahdi army, the militia of anti-American cleric Muqutada Al Sadr) safe house, Hamid would look over at me and smile. He’d whisper the one other English mantra he’d come to know—“Good mission?, Good mission?”—and then give the order for his platoon to breach the door.

Hamid was always the fourth or fifth man in the house (a classic example of leading from the front) and he never carried more than a nine-millimeter sidearm on his hip. The thickest body armor he wore was his standard issue cammies. I loved being with the Iraqis because I could see and do anything I wanted. While the Americans were skeptical and worried about taking me on offensive missions (what might happen to me, what might I see?) the Iraqis had no media-born compunction. I think I could have showed up for one of those raids in nothing more than boxer shorts and my body armor and the commanding officer would have let me join the action.

If I was impressed with Hamid’s phlegm, I was doubly impressed by the young kids (17, 18, and 19 years old, with glaring lack of education and perpetual smiles) who were on the point of those breaching teams. When the Americans went into one of those suspected terrorist safe houses, they went in armed to the teeth and with powerful night vision. Because the electricity was normally out (rolling blackouts were the reality in Iraq and most places only got eight hours of power a day) the Americans had a definite advantage on the inside of those soupy black rooms. The Iraqi Army (IA) was sorely lacking in equipment and many of its soldiers carried dilapidated AK-47s that had been confiscated in raids. They had nothing like night vision.

Those young men (boys really) would take the breach order from Hamid and kick in what amounted to the doors of oblivion. And waiting for them on the other side was the Wild Card of fate. Usually the flip of that card turned up only a dark house full of sleeping people. Every mission I went on, within minutes of the breaching of those doors there would be a small group of young men lined up on the patio, shirtless, scared and disheveled, with sleep still heavy in the eyes.

The young men would inevitably deny their identities and until proper IDs were turned up in the house, Hamid would yell and berate them. The clock was always ticking and tension escalated by the minute. The longer the Iraqi soldiers remained on the property, the greater the chances of an armed response from terrorists. Colonel Wisam Wisam, the Second Battalion’s Commanding Officer, may have ruled daytime Mahmudiyah, but Al Qaeda and the JAM owned the night.

Women would begin milling around the property, whispering and talking to themselves nervously in the dark (they knew if those young men were carried away, they might never be seen again … the Iraqi justice system showed little leniency for terrorists). They would pitifully beg clemency from the soldiers. Then the inevitable abject and distraught wailing would ensue as soon as one of the young suspects was grabbed and cuffed and hauled off. At that point, we’d get the hell off the property ASAP.

But those benign endings were never guaranteed. Enough young Iraqi soldiers had been motivated (Marine Corps terminology for killed) on those breaching exercises—either through Improvised Explosive Devices, booby-traps or waiting gunmen—that the danger of a quick end to a soldiers life was like an awkward companion that wouldn’t go away. Unlike the Americans, when those young Iraqis kicked in doors and swarmed in with AKs leveled and index fingers teasing triggers, they went in blind. They swarmed without sight into dark and foreboding dwellings with the likelihood that unknown numbers of antagonists were waiting for them there, adjusted to the dark and mentally prepared for their face-to-face meetings with Allah.

I always went in on Hamid’s hip and found a firm wall or some kind of cover as soon as I could. And every time I was impressed by the fearless determination and supple maneuvering of those four-man teams of kids that breached those strange thresholds without question. It wasn’t till the end of my time with the Second Battalion that I discovered Hamid had been kidnapped and roughed up by JAM-friendly Iraqi soldiers on his own base. That’s the reality of the fragile state of reconstruction security in Iraq.

Everybody knows that JAM and Al Qaeda have both infiltrated the Iraqi Army—the Americans I was stationed with before the IA assignment warned me explicitly that I would be living and breathing with operatives from both organizations while embedded with the Iraqis. It was my friend Lt. Ahmed who explained that Hamid had been sequestered in one of the dilapidated barracks rooms that surround headquarters and beaten by a group of JAM sympathizing soldiers. He was beaten badly but not killed (an Iraqi interpreter once explained to me that when Al Qaeada and the JAM torture you, they start with the feet and work their way up, to ensure you live longer and endure more pain).

The story of Hamid’s scare (not his only one) gave new insight into his personality. The danger in his world is ever-present—even in the safest of places. He is a young man who is good at what he does (respected by both the Iraqi upper brass and American commanders) and he knows the bad guys are actively gunning for him. Once a month he leaves the sanctity of the base for his home in southern Iraq; every other waking moment he’s basically on duty. The reality is, there’s little to do for the soldiers in their “off” hours as kidnapping is a ubiquitous threat. Hamid is not only married to his job … if the job isn’t carried out successfully (by the entire Iraqi Army) there will be no place for him or his people in the country’s future.

Sometimes after long hours of sitting in Colonel Wisam’s plush office (more of a diwan than a military barracks) and talking, in broken English, about Iraq, its history, its people and its wars, I’d cut through the diminutive kitchen at the rear of the building and let myself out the back door. Moving in flip-flops (the closest thing I had to the sandals common Iraqis wear) and lifting my dishdasha so as not to trip going up the steps, I’d head to the second floor that held the officer’s rooms. The Command Operation Center was there (a room with a couple of maps and dilapidated radio equipment) and a TV that was always on.

I’d duck my head in to see if any of the officers were catching a show and then mosey down the hall. Just like a fraternity house, most rooms were knotted with clusters of young officers, eating or drinking chai tea—always smoking—and laughing and smiling. They’d look at me with eager smiles and invite me into their rooms, but just as often I’d amble the thirty yards to the other end of the hall to see who was present and accounted for. Almost inevitably, from the far end of that wide corridor, I’d hear a deep laugh and the resounding bellow of Hamid, taking another Iraqi officer to task with his impeccably American English.

“What the f——-,” I’d hear, which was usually followed by a rapid-fire string of Arabic recriminations before he finished with a drawn out “Hooooooly s—.”


S. D. Liddick is one of the national writers of the year with the City and Regional Magazine Association. He’s been on international assignment for Rolling Stone and San Diego Magazine (where he was website editor before leaving for Iraq). His investigative articles have garnered dozens of awards with the Society of Professional Journalists, including half a dozen Best of Show nods. In 2006, he won the Sol Price Prize for Responsible Journalism after being jailed in pursuit of a story. In 2008 and 2009 he spent eight months in Iraq (five months with American forces, two months with the Iraqi Army and a month living with sheiks in Anbar Province). More at www.sdliddick.com.

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