"I love George Bush!" the sheik cried. Nooooo!
"But he bombed your cities, destroyed your infrastructure, tortured your people, stole your jobs and left you at the mercy of terrorists...." I said.
"But he got rid of Saddam."
It was Friday night in Ambar province and I was having a VERY interesting time hanging out with Lt. Colonel Dill and the Marines at FOB Hit (pronounced Heet). Lt. Col. Dill is kind of a cross between Albert Einstein, Chuck Norris and the Energizer Bunny and I loved the crew of American Marines he commanded -- plus he had some really interesting Iraqi friends.
"Suit up, Jane," said the colonel. "We've got a lot of things to do today." What sort of things? Will I get shot at? Does my hair look okay?
We jumped into a Humvee, joined a convoy, drove for an hour through the white powder that passes for soil in western Iraq, ran into the Euphrates River and then walked across to the other side on a foot bridge, escorted by Marines in full battle gear -- and boy do I mean Full Battle Gear. Locked and loaded. With little old lady me bringing up the rear. "Hey, guys! Wait for me!"
On the other side of the bridge we were met by more Marines driving a bunch of Seven-Tons that looked like they had escaped from the set of Star Wars. They then drove us through a village, up a steep slope and out into the desert hill country to Combat Outpost (COP) Timberwolf where we ate MREs for lunch and I used my first Wag Bag -- don't ask what that is. You don't want to know. Suffice it to say that when we got back to FOB Hit, I was actually glad to see our latrine. But the roast beef MRE was actually kind of tasty.
At COP Timberwolf, everyone lived in tents and the nearest paved road was two hours away. "We're on top of this hill," said the sergeant, "because insurgents used to mortar the village from here."
Going back down through said village, we stopped to examine the site of a suicide bombing. "An Iraqi policeman's family lived there. Lt. Waheed. A suicide bomber drove into his house three days ago. He was able to shield two of his children with his body and save their lives but he himself, an older child and his wife were all killed." The bomb had made a tangled mess of both his home and the house next door to it.
An older woman dressed in black came out into the yard and cried, mourning in the traditional Iraqi way. Lt. Waheed had been a good man.
"Please come into my house," beckoned a woman next door. The Marine with the M-16 next to me shook his head no. But the woman shook her head yes. I compromised. I stood in the doorway and hugged women, girls and babies. They'd never seen an American woman before and certainly not one as old as dirt, hanging out with Marines.
The men of the house then invited me in for chai -- really really strong sweetened tea. Chai? I'm there! And so was the village sheik. We all sat on divans and nodded and smiled. Then we got back in the Seven-Ton and walked back across the bridge.
"Next we will be going to dinner with the sheik of one of the larger cities in the region," said Col. Dill. I hope I do better with him than I did with one of the main sheiks of Hit. I just sat there on the couch and he looked at me and I looked at him for what seemed like forever. I had been given this fabulous opportunity to ask important questions of an important sheik and what happened? I went brain-dead!
"Well," i said lamely, "a month from now when I'm safely back in California I'll probably just kick myself for not asking you this or that, but right now? Can't think of ANYTHING. Sorry." The sheik said something about having to get back to his office and that was that. Maybe this time I'll do better.
In any case, here was another chance to interview a very important sheik. And to eat dinner too. It was an amazing evening. I wish that you had been there. I learned more about Iraq in three hours than I had learned watching American TV for the past three years. What did I learn? That Iraqis aren't all scary terrorists. That they are the best hosts in the world. That America's image of what it is like over here is often misinformed -- if not downright wrong -- and that the people at that dinner really wanted me to go back to America and tell their side of the story, which I promised to do -- as long as I didn't have to freaking start to actually LIKE George W. Bush. Sorry but I don't think all the Kool-Aid in the world could make me do that.
So. You want stories? Stories about real Iraqis? Here they are.
THE MOTHER: I've been told that in Baghdad things are more relaxed regarding what women can and can't do but in the more rural areas of Iraq, women's roles are more traditionally defined -- they are neither seen nor heard. But being a lady myself, I am able to go into the women's section of Iraqi homes and the women I meet there seem to be as fascinated by me as I am with them.
Tonight we went to dinner at the sheik's house. Lamb kebabs! My favorite! And fresh tomatoes and cucumber and baklava and...but I digress. And after dinner I got to meet the sheik's sisters, female cousins, wife and mother. The mother was a middle-aged lady, all dressed in black. And she said, "I have two sons. Just here, within my family, one son has been killed by the insurgents, two sons have had assassination attempts made on their lives and my youngest son has had both legs blown off by an IED. Please pray for my sons." I promised her that I would. She smiled through her tears and gave me several motherly hugs.
"It's been hard for me," she said. Being a mother myself, I can imagine what the pain would be like to see one's children killed, injured or maimed. I never, ever want anything like that to EVER happen to my children. War is not something one should take lightly when arbitrarily deciding to invade a country. War breaks mothers' hearts. This mother's dead son's body was found badly damaged, caked with blood and stuffed in a trunk.
THE INJURED YOUNG MAN: Qusi Shaba'an also broke my heart. He looked like a teenager, one you might see getting ready to graduate from high school or go off to the University of California -- intelligent, good-looking, hopeful and young. Except that he had no legs. "It was an IED," whispered someone next to me. "We are trying to get him artificial legs but it's a slow process. The Marines are doing everything they can to get him medical help." But still and all. This young man should be out dancing and running track.
"If he lived in Berkeley," I said, "the Center for Independent Living would help him. Maybe he could go to Cal? Become a doctor and help others like him?" Is there anyone reading this who can do anything for Qusi? Can we get him to the States? Set up an educational fund? I just hated to see him sitting there in a wheelchair, gritting his teeth and trying to smile.
THE YOUNG BOY: He must have been maybe 11 years old? Hard to tell. He looked younger, but he also looked gray-faced and old. He was the son of the man who had been found dead in the trunk. A polite kid. I worry about him.
THE IRAQI ARMY OFFICER: "There have been 20 attempts made on my life. I've lived through 13 IED blasts." And he showed me photos of the caches of weapons he'd found. "100 caches. We are cleaning this area up. With or without help from Baghdad." I asked him what he thought of the new idea of federalization, dividing Iraq into three states.
"That is a very bad idea," he replied. No matter who I've asked in Iraq, I always get that same answer. Underneath all the religious and tribal divisions, people here still think of themselves as Iraqis first.
THE SHEIK: This man was a Young Man on the Go. Taking charge. On the city council. Working with the police. He presented me with a traditional Iraqi dress. I looked hot! "Now is the time for reconstruction," he told me. "We need a good Marshall Plan. We need to educate our children, send them to universities both here and in the United States. Americans need to understand that Iraqis are real people just like them and we also have hopes for a better life for our children. And the government here needs to give our youth direction and things to do. Otherwise they get swayed by the terrorists who get lots of money from surrounding countries who hire the insurgents, using religion as a cover. This is threatening all our recent attempts to practice democracy here in Iraq. And also tell the American people that they must support George W. Bush."
THE INTERPRETER: I also got into a discussion with one of the Marine interpreters regarding the problems facing interpreters in Iraq. "In general, an interpreter's life is just not safe here. We knew that it wasn't safe when we joined but after a few years, this constant threat wears us down. We do a good job but sometimes oor work is not appreciated. And the Iraqis scorn us as collaborators or spies for working with the invaders and it's hard to change their minds. We avoid going on leave. It's just not safe -- even though everyone says that interpreters have guardian angels protecting them because there's been several cases where vehicles have blown up and only the interpreter has survived." Apparently this interpreter was also speaking for his fellow "terps" and most of them felt this same way -- proud of what they were doing but definitely worried about how long they could keep it up.
"There was a light of hope that some interpreters would be allowed to go to the United States and be given green cards after our contract is up but we all now realize that this is a Big Lie. And the militias threaten our families if we don't quit. From just this area, seven interpreters have been forced to resign because of threats to their families."
The interpreters also sometimes feel treated like second-class citizens. "I've been here for two years and I still have the same old flak jacket. And we want better treatment at the big bases. They don't trust us and treat us like dirt. And some of us want to immigrate to the States but as for me, I gave up. And they need to stop treating the interpreters who come from Jordan better than the Iraqi terps."
ANOTHER IRAQI ARMY OFFICER: His arm was in a sling. IED. I liked him. He was spunky and not afraid to speak his mind. "One of the problems we are having here is with the pensions to our soldiers' widows. Theoretically, they are supposed to receive full pay for six months and then half-pay after that. But we have learned the hard way not to count on the government in Baghdad. They are a bunch of thieves. We got rid of one Saddam and now we have 2,000 Saddams trying to take his place. Parliamentarians get huge sums of money each month while army officers in dangerous areas only get $800 a month. I've had to move my family three different times, to three different cities, to keep them from getting killed. They've shot up my house. Three of my nephews are dead."
"What would you do to solve the problems in Iraq?" I asked.
"First I would clean up the militias. Then I'd throw everyone out of Iraq who wasn't Iraqi. Then I'd strengthen the reconciliation program. Insurgents are recruited from the former Baathists and the unemployed. And all the governments outside of Iraq want to see Iraq fail. Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran also want us to fight here in a proxy battle instead of in their own countries."
THE LION OF AL AMBAR: I've saved the best for last. My talk with the head of the police department in the city of Baghdadi (not the same as the city of Baghdad BTW) was intense. The man is a legend around here and his eyes are filled with fire. He's intense. And interesting too.
"For the last few years, Al Ambar province has been, basically, under siege from insurgents. Hit hospital had no doctors. 40 children died as a result. The rule of law here had reverted to medieval times. 97 people from my tribe alone had been killed, including my brother. This area used to be worse than Baghdad."
Then the Lion told me an unusual story. "I was living in Baghdad myself at the time and I had three very unusual dreams. A man instructed me to come home to Baghdadi and establish security here. He handed me two flags -- one for Shia and one for Sunni. 'I cannot do that,' I replied. 'I am alone.' But still, I started my mission to renovate the Iraqi police here. I had ten brothers and seven cousins in the beginning and that was it. I paid our expenses out of my own pocket. We started cleaning up the insurgents just in the area around my home. Then once we got a safe base, we moved out from there, securing one area at a time. And then the Marines started giving us support and now our city is over 90% free of insurgents." Sort of like what happened in the Pacific during World War II. Island hopping? "Yes."
"And what would you do to solve the situation in Iraq?"
"First I would find faithful, honest and brave leaders. No corruption. No alliances to one religion or tribe. And I would select government officials from all sections -- Kurds, Muslims, Christians; from all the sections of Iraqis. It is the militias and parties that fight, not the people. I love all Iraqis without discrimination. We have to love everybody to earn their trust. I pray toward the unity of all Iraqis. We are all Iraqis first. Give us help with weapons, supplies and experience and we'll do the rest."
"What else would you do?"
"Reconciliation. We need to stop killing each other." And, especially, they need to stop trying to kill HIM. He showed me a photograph of himself in the hospital after one of the many assassination attempts against him. And he showed me several of his scars. "One bullet went into my chest right below my shoulder and went out the back. And the Marines stood in line to give me blood transfusions. I will never forget that."
Finally the evening ended with a photo op in front of someone's pet camel and a spooky ride down a deserted highway at 2 am in a Humvee. It was an interesting day. And it's been very interesting hanging out with the Marines. Very interesting.
No, it's been priceless.