View Full Version : Iraqis sound off on U.S. presence

08-13-06, 07:37 AM
Sunday, August 13, 2006
Iraqis sound off on U.S. presence

What are these people thinking?

That's what you wonder as you roll through the cinder-block and mud hut villages in a heavily armored Marine convoy, or walk through the rubble-strewn dirt streets of an Iraqi town on a foot patrol. From the far side of a chasm of language and religion and culture, you wonder, what do these people really think of the Americans in their midst?

It's hard to read their faces as you pass by. Sometimes they're impassive, their eyes cold. Sometimes they will smile and wave, occasionally with enthusiasm but other times guardedly, and only if you smile and wave first. And sometimes they won't even look at you at all.

Even the kids are tough to figure out. Ordinarily they're all big smiles and waves, and they swarm around you whenever you stop, boys mostly, begging for candy and asking you to take their pictures. You want to believe they actually like Americans – but then you remember the words of one Marine officer, who said, "Yeah, the kids out here all smile and wave, but for a lot of them, along about age 13 or 14 the waving stops and the IED-planting begins."

And you remember also the cautionary signs tacked up on walls at every Marine outpost throughout western Al Anbar province, the ones that remind the Marines: "The Iraqi people are not our enemy, but our enemy hides among them. … You have to look at these people as if they are trying to kill you, but you can't treat them that way."

That's the nature of insurgent warfare. When friends and enemies can often look and sound exactly the same, it's hard to know who hates you.

During my recent trip to Iraq I spoke with dozens of Iraqis in insurgent-ridden Al Anbar province – soldiers and civilians, Shiites and Sunnis, tribal sheiks and regular folks. I asked them what they think of Americans and our presence in their country and if they want us to leave. Some of them were seemingly candid, and some of them were undoubtedly reluctant to speak frankly to an American journalist – especially a journalist surrounded by American Marines.

So it's hard to draw any sweeping conclusions. All I can offer are some snapshots.

For example, there was the 74-year-old grandfather in the Euphrates River town of Barwanah who had come to a Marine outpost to ask permission to dig a hole near his house – hole-digging in IED country can be hazardous without prior permission – and who dismissed the American presence with a wave of his wrinkled brown hand.

"It was better before the Americans came," the grandfather told me through an interpreter. "There was no trouble until they came. But if the Americans stay I don't care. If they want to go, God be with them."

There was the 29-year-old fisherman named Ayad, a former suspected insurgent who had just been released from a two-month incarceration at Abu Ghraib prison after being nabbed by Marines near the site of an IED explosion – and who nevertheless insisted that there were no hard feelings. In fact, he made two months in "Abu G." almost sound like summer camp.

"I was innocent, I didn't do anything," Ayad said as he registered with his Marine "parole officer" in Barwanah. "But (the Americans) treated me very well. The food was good, there were no problems. … If the Americans leave, some people here will be happy, but others want them to stay to provide security. Maybe it would be better if they stay."

There was Mezhar, the 38-year-old Iraqi army captain from Baghdad who had also served as an officer in Saddam Hussein's army. Even though he's now on our side, he wishes the Americans had stayed in their country and out of his – and at the same time he prays that we will not leave too soon.

"I will tell you honestly, people gave them (the Americans) the wrong information to invade Iraq," the captain told me at an Iraqi army training base at Al Asad. "It was a mistake. But to leave now would be a disaster. The terrorists know all the officers in the army. If they take over they will kill me and my family."

There was Ahmed, a 23-year-old American-trained Iraqi soldier from Najaf who had just been awarded a Navy Commendation Medal by Marines at Camp Fallujah for shooting and killing some insurgent snipers.

"It would be a mistake for the Americans to leave," he told me. "The Marines have trained us well, but we are not yet ready to defend our country alone."

And then there was Col. Shabaam Barazam Al-Ubaidy, the chief of police in a small West Euphrates River Valley town called Baghdadi – not to be confused with the giant city of Baghdad about 100 miles to the east. The colonel is a flamboyant, hard-charging guy, the head of an American-trained, 200-man Iraqi police force that in recent months has "rolled up" hundreds of insurgents — in the process losing two dozen officers to insurgent attacks, including the chief's own brother.

"You are a journalist?" the chief asked me when I met him, and I said I was.

"Good!" the chief said through an interpreter. "I want you to write this:

"Say thank you to the American people for standing with us to protect our area. Say thank you to the American forces, the Marines, for staying here and helping us. They give us weapons, they give us uniforms, cars. They live with us, and daily they check to see if we need anything. The Iraqi government doesn't even show up out here, but the Americans are helping us 24 hours. Say thank you for..."

Well, the chief continued in that vein for a good 10 or 15 minutes: Thank the American people for this, thank them for that, and so on. Finally I put my notebook down and just listened, for the pure enjoyment of it.

The chief may not speak for all Iraqis, perhaps not even for a majority of Iraqis in Al Anbar.

But as an American, and after all the blood and treasure that my country has invested in his country, it was what I needed to hear.