View Full Version : Candy protocol in Iraqi towns

08-22-06, 09:10 AM
AP Blog: Candy protocol in Iraqi towns

AP Correspondent Robert H. Reid covers Iraq events from Baghdad. AP Correspondent Rebecca Santana is embedded with the First Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division. Antonio Castaneda is embedded with the U.S. Marines, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Regiment.


Saturday, Aug. 19, 10:41 p.m. local


Driving through the town of Al Batha in a Humvee is a little like driving through American suburbia with an ice cream truck: Kids come running from every direction. The main reason is that some soldier, some time ago threw those kids candy or toys from the turret of a Humvee, and now every time an American military vehicle rolls by, the kids think there's a treat in it for them. They run alongside the Humvees — often precariously close to the vehicle — asking for everything from candy to my prescription glasses.

Their aggressiveness can make them a little less endearing than your average 5-year-old. The American troops have rules about when and where they can give out gifts, and throwing them from a moving vehicle is strictly forbidden. The soldiers seem to follow this rule pretty closely; no one wants to be the person to run over a grade-schooler. If they do hand out treats or toys during a visit to a town, it's always done at the end of the visit. If you hand out candy at the beginning of the visit, none of the kids is going to believe you don't have anything left, and they'll be so insistent it's almost impossible to conduct business.

One of the final rules is that if you're handing out candy or toys, make sure there's enough for everyone. These kids aren't sharing. It's easy to see why the children are so desperate for handouts. Most of them appear to be exceedingly poor, running through the sewage-filled streets with no shoes on and wearing old, tattered clothes. Employment in this area is about 40 percent, so their parents obviously can't buy them many special gifts.

• Rebecca Santana


Thursday, Aug. 17, 2:30 a.m. local


Everyone else saw the flash. I just heard the boom.

We were traveling in a convoy carrying supplies north to Baghdad when a convoy behind us tried to overtake us on the other side of the road. One of their vehicles hit some type of bomb, what the military calls an improvised explosive device, the insurgents' weapon of choice. They are often laid by the side of the road in hopes of hitting a passing convoy or American military vehicle.

No one was hurt during this explosion, but pieces of the IED hit one of the trucks carrying supplies — just missing the driver's foot and head — and gave the vehicle a flat tire.

We circled around back to check on the situation and make sure the driver was okay. Then the drivers — mostly foreign nationals from countries such as Saudi Arabia or India with a few American drivers dispersed through the length of the convoy — fixed the flat tire. There's no AAA out here, and we're a long way from a Jiffy Lube. As we waited on the road, a number of convoys rolled past us, moving north and south delivering supplies around the country. They don't stop for bathroom breaks or to get food or to fix much more than a flat tire. If a truck has a serious breakdown or is completely disabled by an IED, the driver jumps in another vehicle, and the truck is left there.

Once the flat was fixed, we headed out once again. I must admit the IED scared the living daylights out of me, but it's the least of what the guys I was traveling with have seen. After we left the scene of the IED strike, the guys in my Humvee and I bet on when and if we would hit another one. My bet was that we'd make it to Baghdad International Airport without any more explosions, and I won.

My prize is a free trip back down south on the same route, and a cup of coffee.

• Rebecca Santana


Friday, Aug. 11, 7:55 p.m. local


Everyone hates doing laundry. Especially when someone's firing a heavy machine gun at you.

This afternoon I decided to wash some clothes. The Marines had somehow acquired four primitive washing machines that, despite being a far cry from the Maytag beast in your home, still managed to get the job done. It was a quiet, good afternoon to get a required chore out of the way.

As I rinsed off my clothes with a hose, I could hear speakers at a nearby mosque broadcast an impassioned sermon during Friday prayers. Though dryers weren't available, I could count on the 110 degree heat to dry off my clothes in just over an hour. It should have been a quick, simple process.

But later, as I took down t-shirts and socks from a clothes line, I was startled when a flurry of bullets hit the complex. The sharp metallic sound of bullets impacting against the building rang in my ears. For a moment, I thought the bullets were striking a lookout post just above me.

I immediately knelt down, clean undershorts in hand. Marines saw four insurgents down the street shooting at the base, including one firing a PKC, a powerful Russian machine gun. Another insurgent tried but failed to fire a rocket-propelled grenade at the base.

I had a problem. The path back inside the base was exposed to the street. To get back behind safe walls I was going to have to get through a clearing where the gunmen could possibly see me. Bullets continued hitting the base.

Seconds later I heard a closer rumble of gunfire — a Marine shooting back — so I ran through the clearing. For some reason I was still carrying my clean clothes. Ahead of me I saw a Marine running indoors from the washing machines.

Inside, excited Marines were rapidly organizing a response. One Marine quickly drew down an attack plan with a marker. After several months in the city, the Marines from Company I, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Regiment were quite familiar with city streets. Safely inside, I ate an English muffin and watched the Marines react.

These things happen in Iraq. I doubt many of the Marines in the building — most of whom had served a tour in Afghanistan — hadn't been shot at one time or another. Journalists weren't exempt either: About 10 minutes after I first visited Haditha last May I was greeted with hail of bullets and mortars.

The vast majority of the time U.S. troops only catch fleeting glimpses of insurgents. But this time was different. The Marines bounded out the door with an idea of where the gunmen fled. About a half hour later I saw the company's executive officer, 1st Lt. Justin Bellman of Newark, Delaware, with a broad grin.

"We got three of them," proudly announced Bellman, an energetic Marine and Citadel graduate. The men had been found and captured in a nearby palm grove with their weapons. The detainees were just arriving into the base for questioning. The Marines who chased after the gunmen were covered in sweat.

About an hour later, I retrieved some leftover socks and a towel I still had hanging on the clothes line. This time I walked back into the base a little faster.

• Antonio Castaneda


Wednesday, Aug. 9, 11:41 p.m. local


My hand probed until I found something close to what I was looking for: the M&M brownies in a care package sent from America. I was particularly hungry, and the sweets were a welcome sight — until I noticed a slip of paper inside the same box. The paper read, "You won't be home for Christmas ... but you'll be in our hearts." It was August — at least 8 months after the holidays.

The vast majority of U.S. troops eat quite well while in Iraq. Though the food can get repetitivek, and sometimes fresh fruits are missing, most troops do not complain about well-stocked dining halls. Earlier this week one Marine even admitted to me that he eats better in Iraq than he does back in California.

Sometimes the options are surprising for their quality and variety. In the last month I've had eggplant parmigiana, fried shrimp, and I even saw eggnog being served in the middle of the Iraqi desert. Indian contract workers who work on many U.S. bases are also known to make a decent plate of curry on occasion.

But there are dire exceptions. In remote outposts in western Iraq, U.S. Marines usually eat endless rounds of prepackaged food known as MREs, Meals Ready to Eat, or T-RATS, tray rations. Troops can manage on these for a while, but after 3-4 months such heavily processed food loses the little appeal it originally had. I've met Marines that have lost 25 pounds on a 7-month deployment.

There are sources of relief, though. Many troops receive care packages sent by family and friends back home; military support groups also send out loads of packaged food. Sometimes the packages can spark jealous exchanges. Today I heard a Marine complain about someone who had somehow acquired blueberry pancake mix. Last month in Ramadi, I heard Marines gripe about a Navy medic who had roast beef stored in a private refrigerator.

In some outposts, I've noticed troops get by on large silver pouches of tuna fish. Everyone in the military loves tuna — especially when they're confronted with the option of diving into an MRE that's designed to last 10 years. I happily ate tuna fish sandwiches for a week straight in a Marine base in Ramadi. It was delicious, as you can imagine, but few will catch me eating tuna back in the U.S.

This afternoon, on the way back to this commandeered elementary school that serves as home to dozens of Marines, grunts discussed the evening's dining options. Most hoped they wouldn't be served pork ribs, a common entree that had become too common. The meal ended up being "country chicken" and stuffing. The stuffing ran out when I was in line, giving me the chance to watch a young Marine display his culinary method. He cursed until he found a silver package of bread crumbs that he poured into a green tray. Then he poured steaming cups of water on top and stirred. It wasn't as bad as it sounds, especially with hot sauce.

As for the brownies, I decided that expiration dates were overrated. I dared to eat half of one.

• Antonio Castaneda


Tuesday, Aug. 8, 4 p.m. local


The only store open last weekend at a shopping district in Baghdad's Mansour neighborhood was the one selling suitcases. And business was brisk.

It seems like every Iraqi in what passes for the middle class either knows someone who has left or is planning to leave. Better-off Iraqis head for Jordan, Syria or the United Arab Emirates — or send their families there.

Those without enough money head for areas within Iraq where their religious sect is in the majority. With sectarian death squads lurking, there's safety in numbers. Those who stay put in places where they are in the minority are not necessarily the bravest: they just don't have enough money to leave.

Moving isn't that simple. Rents have skyrocketed in Baghdad neighborhoods that are deemed safe, a relative term here in Iraq. Many of those who flee the capital altogether end up living with relatives since chances of finding another job in provincial cities are not good.

Getting out of town can be expensive. Gasoline prices have soared. Black market prices can run as much as $4 a gallon depending on availability. Rustling up enough fuel to drive to the Shiite heartland in the south or up to the Kurdish areas in the north can set you back $80. That's a lot in a country where $400 a month is considered a very good salary. Government-subsidized fuel is far cheaper but not readily available.

Still, that's not enough to discourage Iraqis who fear for their lives. Hence, demand for suitcases is way up.

Shops along the Mansour street were closed because opening just wasn't worth the risk. Lots of merchants had received written extortion demands — pay $1,000 for "protection" or else. Nobody seemed sure who was making the demand, and maybe it was just a bluff. But in a city where men can get themselves killed for wearing shorts in public, the risk just wasn't worth it. So many shops simply closed, at least for a while.

Business hasn't been so great anyway lately. The rise in sectarian violence over the last six months has dealt a severe blow to commerce in Baghdad — as it has to nearly every other aspect of life in the capital. Once bustling commercial hubs are now nearly deserted.

Merchants are finding it hard to keep their shelves stocked because bombings, hijackings and checkpoints delay deliveries. Many Sunni Muslim customers are afraid to venture out to the jewelry stores in Shiite Kazimiyah. And Shiites aren't too keen to stroll the boutiques in the Sunni neighborhood Azamiyah. Merchants are afraid to go to wholesale markets that are located in parts of town where the "other" sect is in the majority. And with unemployment estimated as high as 40 percent among working aged men, families are strapped for cash. Whatever they have goes for the essentials such as food and basic clothing. Life's luxuries will have to wait for better times.

This is just one of the reasons the Americans are so keen to curb sectarian violence in Baghdad. Everything here depends on security. If Iraqis don't feel safe, they won't go to work, they won't spend their money and those who can leave won't even stay here.

The government can't even begin to rebuild the country's economy and social services if civil servants are fleeing the country or staying in their homes because they fear running into a sectarian militia checkpoint.

And in the meantime, the suitcase trade is booming.

• Robert H. Reid


Tuesday, Aug. 8, 9:30 a.m. local


Have it your way at Burger King ... in Iraq? As a visitor to one of the larger bases in Iraq such as Anaconda, one of the things that strikes you is the odd comforts from home that have been imported. One of them is Burger King.

If a soldier doesn't want to eat at one of the dining halls on the base, he or she can buy something at Burger King or grab a latte at Green Beans Coffee, where they even have muffins and a drink called MOAC, which stands for the Mother of All Coffees. The base has a movie theater that shows relatively recent movies — the most recent Superman movie opened here. Unfortunately, the movie theater concession stand also has American movie theater prices. And the patrons are often carrying M-16 rifles.

The restaurants and cafes are all staffed by foreigners from places such as India or Sri Lanka who come to Iraq to do a lot of the non-military jobs around the bases. As I was waiting to get something to eat at Burger King yesterday morning, I noticed a sign that advertised a special deal that they had going. Customers who buy the package deal of a soft drink, fries and a burger are then eligible to buy a certain item such as a travel coffee mug thats labeled "Iraq" on the outside. Obviously a deal that isnt available anywhere else.

• Rebecca Santana


Saturday, Aug. 5, 12:10 p.m. local


Political correctness has come to Iraq. And it's helped solve a public relations problem: whom to blame for all the violence and sectarian slaughter.

That's a serious matter as the Iraqi government tries to stop the slaughter while at the same time reach out to disaffected communities — which is a polite way of saying the very people responsible for the killing.

Nobody really knows who's responsible every time a body turns up in a vacant lot in west Baghdad, or a family gets massacred at home, or some prominent figure leaves for work and disappears.

It's unclear how many victims have run afoul of organized crime, jealous neighbors, family members or anyone else who uses the cover of chaos to mask a murder.

Still, there's a sectarian motive behind much — if not most — of the slaughter. If the victim is from one Muslim sect, the working assumption is the perpetrators are from the other.

And that's where it gets tricky. In a "government of national unity," all communities are represented, even those behind the killings.

It's all well and good to blame this or that sectarian or political group by name for slaughtering civilians — until it's time to cut a deal with them to prevent even more slaughter.

Nobody likes to offer amnesty to the very groups blamed for killing thousands of innocent people. Sometimes, however, that's a necessary step, especially in a war where even the generals openly say there is no military solution.

Hence the terms "death squads" and "thugs and criminals." Those are neutral — politically correct — terms. They could be Shiite Muslims. They could be Sunnis. Their motives are murky.

On July 22, for example, American and Iraqi troops in Musayyib killed 15 "thugs and criminals" trying to "take over the city," according to a U.S. military statement. Followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr offered another version: the soldiers attacked the local office of al-Sadr's Mahdi Army.

The Mahdi Army is the most feared Shiite militia. Many Sunnis blame the Mahdi Army for killing and kidnapping Sunni civilians. But al-Sadr is a player. His movement holds 30 of the 275 seats in parliament. Five of his followers are in the Iraqi Cabinet. And he is a key supporter of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has promised to disband the militias.

Even the word "militia" is tricky. It came into common journalistic use in Iraq in 2004 to describe armed groups nominally loyal to the government — as opposed to Sunni Arab "insurgents" who were fighting against it.

The Kurds managed to get their militia, the peshmerga, legally recognized as a legitimate defense force of the three provinces the Kurds run. Everywhere else peshmerga fighters were incorporated into the Iraqi army. So the word "militia" really refers specifically to Shiites.

That presents a problem for al-Maliki as he works to disband "militias." They are his fellow Shiites. Hence, terms like "armed groups" are preferred to describe them — or "death squads" when they commit atrocities.

• Robert H. Reid