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10-10-07, 07:13 AM
The Trib in Iraq

Tribune reporter Michael Gisick is embedding with New Mexico soldiers in Iraq. These are his articles and first-person accounts of their experience. To view more stories about the Iraq War from the Associated Press and other wire outlets, visit abqtrib.com/iraqwar.

The trib in Iraq: Outpost
Tribune reporter Michael Gisick is embedded with New Mexico soldiers stationed in Iraq. This is a personal account of his experience.

By Michael Gisick
Monday, October 8, 2007

RAMADI, Iraq — Arrived Sunday night at the joint security station run by a company of Marines and shared by members of the Iraqi army and police. This would be the basic unit of the American counter-insurgency.

The station is housed in a four-story building that Pete Dinelli and his boys would have a field day with if it were in Albuquerque. But clearly, urban beautification is not the primary concern here. Sandbags are stuffed into the windows, and the building is surrounded by blast walls.

The basic infrastructure ranges widely. There's electricity and air conditioning. Satellites beam in a television signal and Internet and phone service. A large, flat panel HDTV -- one of the surprisingly ubiquitous features of the American presence in Iraq- sits in the TV lounge, which is divided from the hallway with a large green tarp.

But satellites can't run sewer service. Toilets consist of something called a WAG Bag (which stands for waste alleviation and gelling, if you must know.) The WAG Bag fits into a small plastic PETT Toilet. I'm not sure what the PETT Toilet stands for, but it seems like an unfortunate acronym. I haven't had the opportunity to use a WAG Bag yet, and perhaps that ought to be the last I speak of it.

The idea behind the joint aspect of operations here is pretty obvious. It puts an Iraqi face on the security effort and, more importantly, trains Iraqis to do the job. Perhaps it also fosters a sense of camaraderie. Col. John Charlton, the brigade commander, said it had led to a sense of real brotherhood between many of the American troops and their Iraqi counterparts.

I'm not ready to pass judgment on that. There is certainly some interaction, but because of the language barrier it's very basic, centered around the universal language of physical humor (like fart jokes.)

The furthest I've been so far is the front gate, where the first sergeant set up a claims office that allows resident of the city to seek compensation if they believe Americans have damaged their property. There were a half-dozen or so men out there this morning.

I'm heading out with a patrol this afternoon. It's still Ramadan until the end of the week, so the streets should be pretty quiet.


10-10-07, 07:14 AM
The Trib in Iraq: The long slog
Tribune reporter Michael Gisick is embedded with New Mexico soldiers in Iraq. This is a personal account of his experience.

By Michael Gisick
Monday, October 8, 2007

RAMADI, Iraq — Finally made it in to Ramadi on a helicopter at about 3 a.m. Sunday. I'm glad to be out of the weird Green Zone. For the next few days I'll be embedded with a Marine battalion here in the capital of Al Anbar Province, 100 or so miles west of Baghdad.

Right now I'm on a base toward the edge of the city, on the grounds of a Saddam-era ministry building the marines call "the castle." Apparently there's also a palace around here that belonged to Saddam's older son, Uday, who built a water treatment plant nearby because he figured people wanted to poison him.

The Marines here are part of a brigade combat team that falls under the umbrella of the Third Infantry Division. It includes four Army combat battalions, two support battalions, two Marine Battalions and some civil affairs and air support units. That's a long way of saying there are about 6,000 U.S. troops here, most of them soldiers or Marines.

The U.S. experience in Ramadi has swung on a pendulum. From 2004 until late 2006 the city was a stronghold of insurgents claiming allegiance to al-Qaida in Iraq and a virtual no-go zone for the Americans. Now, the military holds Ramadi up as the jewel of its counter-insurgency campaign. That story has been told, but it bears at least a brief recounting here.

The military is hopelessly addicted to power-point presentations, and one of the slides they gave me this morning offered their simplified explanation of counter-insurgency theory: clear, hold and build. In other words, push the enemy out, hold the area you've taken, and build infrastructure and services with an eye toward winning over the populace.

That last part is really the core of a counter-insurgency. Winning battles and taking territory are precursors, but they're of limited value if the population supports the insurgents, who can just blend in and keep on fighting.

The basic tactics of a counter-insurgency follow on that strategy. They call for troops to live among and work with the population, enlist local allies to the greatest extent possible, and use force in as limited and pinpointed a way as possible.

As Army Col. John Charlton, the overall brigade commander here, put it to me in an interview this morning, the use of violence by a counter-insurgency force always has costs.

"Even if you hit your target and there's no collateral damage, you're still using force in a foreign country, and people are going to react to that," he said.

As has been well-documented, the U.S. did not come into Iraq prepared to fight this kind of war. The result were tactics that, at the very least, made little progress against the insurgency. Most troops lived in massive, heavily fortified compounds and ventured forth only in bristling force. That may have helped hold down U.S. casualties, but it offered little opportunity for constructive engagement with the local population. Force was employed too often and too generally. Add to that, in Al Anbar, a Sunni population highly suspicious of U.S. intentions from the get-go and wary of the Shiite majority they saw coming inexorably to power, plus an international Islamist network capable of funneling large numbers of fighters and much money into the area, and you had the makings of a formidable enemy.

"What happened is that you had al-Qaida starting to insert itself more and more and create violence" beginning in 2004, Charlton said. "In some cases, U.S. forces over-reacted to that violence, and so you started to get that split that occurred."

While U.S. forces fought two bloody battles in nearby Fallujah, they largely stayed on the outskirts of Ramadi until 2006. Al=Qaida in Iraq, meanwhile, declared the city its capital.

But commanders here now say it was the insurgents themselves who wound up playing an important role in turning the tide. As Maj. Lee Peters, a spokesman for the brigade, put it, "They overplayed their hand."

Again, Col. Charlton: "People here began to realize that al-Qaida wasn't exactly the kind of partner they wanted. Al-Qaida was using pure murder and intimidation to control the population. I mean absolute brutality. If you talk to these tribal leaders, every one of them will tell you they've lost family members."

In late 2006, a group of sheiks, the traditional tribal leaders in this area, broke away from al-Qaida in Iraq and allied themselves with U.S. forces. Al-Qaida attempted to reassert its control with a wave of assassinations, but U.S. commanders say that only further alienated the population. Many see the assassination of one sheik, whose body was hidden for days in what amounted to a deep affront to Islamic custom, as a particular turning point.

The support from the sheiks produced several tangible windfalls. U.S. forces saw a spike in solid intelligence tips leading them to weapons caches and bomb factories, and the city's largely unemployed male population began signing up for the Iraqi police and army in droves. But when Charlton's brigade arrived in January, there was still plenty of hard work to do, he said.

"There's this misconception that al-Qaida just declared peace and left Anbar," he said. "They didn't. They were killed, captured or forced to flee."

During his unit's first month here, Charlton said, they were weathering 30 to 35 attacks a day, and 10 soldiers and Marines were killed.

"We spent the first two or three months engaged in some pretty heavy combat with al-Qaida," he said. "Al-Qaida had strongholds throughout the city and the surrounding area. It was pretty much continuous combat operations."

As I noted, similarly tough fighting had been seen in Fallujah a year earlier, but two things were different in Ramadi in early 2007. One was that the U.S. came in determined to stay and with a clear counter-insurgency strategy in place. The second, probably more important factor, was that the local population was apparently no longer willing to shelter the insurgents. As U.S. forces moved through the city, they left a network of local police stations and joint security outposts where U.S. and Iraqi forces worked to hold and consolidate the gains.

Those two came together in a critical way. The support from the sheiks gave U.S. troops both a political cover among the population for the use of force and the intelligence they needed to use that force effectively/

"We faced a very capable enemy here," Charlton said. "Their goal was to drive a wedge between the population and the coalition forces, but they were so brutal that it backfired. We were able to exploit that, gain the trust of the population and isolate al-Qaida. Once we were able to isolate them, we could go in and defeat them."

The result is a city where attacks are now virtually nonexistent. Massive challenges remain, however.

By far the biggest is infrastructure. Charlton said his brigade has poured $60 million into rebuilding -- $13 million alone into the considerable task of rubble removal ("which is fair," Charlton said, noting that most of the rubble was the result of fighting involving American forces.)

The troops here -- in some cases the same soldiers and Marines who fought their way through the city at the beginning of the year, now spend most of their time funding projects, training local forces and cultivating relationships with the sheiks and religious leaders, or imams.

"These new commanders, I'm telling them, 95 percent of your missions are going to be non-lethal, and that's what's going to win it for you," Charlton said. "The relationship you build with your neighborhood imam is going to be more important than anything you do with a weapon."

Later tonight I'm headed out to one of the joint security stations in the middle of the city. Apparently, there are two or three Marines there from New Mexico, and I'm interested to see how they and the other Marines relate to this mission. I don't think most of them signed up (or shipped out) imagining this is what they'd wind up doing. At the same time, they are now in a sense the last, best hope for the U.S. effort in Iraq.


10-10-07, 07:15 AM
The Trib in Iraq: From a windowless room
Tribune reporter Michael Gisick is embedding with New Mexico soldiers stationed in Iraq. This is a personal account of his experience.

By Michael Gisick
Saturday, October 6, 2007

BAGHDAD — From a windowless room in the barricaded capital, all appears quiet.

I'm starting to go a little stir crazy here in the media lounge in the Green Zone, where I'm waiting for a flight to Ramadi. I've been here about 36 hours.

Don't get me wrong, it's a nice place. It's got three bunk beds, two computers and cables for the rest of us to hook up our laptops. Y'all taxpayers were even nice enough to spring for a big plasma TV, which some reporter apparently punched in the side and broke.

Part of the embed agreement is that we're not allowed to engage in "newsgathering activities" while we're here. I don't know how much they'd enforce that, but I figure I'm better off ignoring the rules at the end of my month rather than the beginning, if nothing else.

So basically I've just been sitting around. I finished Cormac McCarthy's most recent book, the only one I brought, but I was lucky enough to find Bruce Catton's magisterial history of the Civil War among an otherwise forgettable collection of paperbacks.

A handful of western reporters came through here today and yesterday, and a bunch of Iraqi reporters were here today (yesterday, Friday, is the Muslim sabbath.) A few come through to get some work done or wait for transportation to an embed, but most are here to get the credentials you need to get through checkpoints and, like, get dinner.

The food's great. Last night we had steak, chicken wings, macaroni and cheese with tomatoes and corn on the cob. For lunch today: chili mac, salmon with dill sauce, a lettuce salad, a cucumber salad, a peach and a banana.

There actually is a little window in this room, incidentally, but all you can see are blast walls and the tops of some trees. Apparently it rained last night and, far away, the Red Sox beat the Angels, but I was fast asleep.


10-10-07, 07:16 AM
The Trib in Iraq: A chance meeting
Tribune reporter Michael Gisick is embedding with New Mexico soldiers stationed in Iraq. This is a personal account of his experience.

By Michael Gisick
Saturday, October 6, 2007

BAGHDAD — On the past martial exploits of your correspondent

I was riding one of the buses from the Baghdad airport toward the Green Zone yesterday when a solider in the seat behind me said, "You don't recognize me, do you?"

I turned, saw a big face and didn't place it.

"It's Geese-ler, or something, right?" he said. "I was your battle buddy."

Then, of course, I did recognize him, and repaid his good memory with a botched pronunciation of his own name.

Good old Lindley, or something.

The main thing I remember about my battle buddy from basic training eight years ago is his home town. Possum's Kingdom, South Carolina. I mentioned this to him as the bus bumped along and he corrected me, smiling slightly, probably feeling I had only remembered the name Possum's Kingdom in a spirit of mockery.

It was just someplace we used to go sometimes, he said.

A battle buddy is a fairly glorified term when you aren't actually in battle. What it meant for us at Ft. Knox in the spring of 1999 was that we bunked next to each other and had to stick together for any exercise that required two people.

Although we got off to a somewhat rough start, we won accolades for our performance in the move-and-shoot drill. But then things turned sour. Mainly because, in my boredom with the interminable 16 week training, I took to baiting him mercilessly about the Civil War.

"South Carolina was conceived in infamy, behaved with ignominy and deserved to be wiped from the map for eternity," I liked to declare, or something to that effect.

"Thank God for brave Massachusetts, else the western continent might still..."

Et cetera.

Although ridiculous, such expressions, pushed with enough fervor, still carry the power to inflame, because the sons of the south are ever-proud. God bless them.

At any rate, my former battle buddy, after four year in the National Guard, had spent the last four on active duty. This was his second tour in Iraq.

"A lovely country," I said as we drove past a ubiquitous row of blast walls and some spindly trees seeming unnaturally autumnal in the still considerable swelter of October.

"It really is, in parts," he said.

Now a staff sergeant, battle buddy spoke with affection about the town near Baghdad where his cavalry unit was stationed.

"If you give them a dollar, they will give you a big bag of bread. They really stuff it full, and it's good bread," he said. He had never been one to miss a meal. Neither had I, for that matter.

My own military career, I used to like to say, was Lincolnesque. In other words, more or less totally lacking in distinction.

I come from a family without an extensive military tradition. Most of my forbears were farmers and thus exempt from service. The only martial story I ever heard was from a great uncle who said he was personally yelled at by Patton during the Italian campaign for wandering around without helmet or rifle.

I joined the Army in 1999 for no good reason, enlisting as a cavalry scout -- the eyes and ears of the army, the recruiting video reassured me. I was not terribly well suited for this task, being very absent minded and having an absolutely terrible sense of direction, but I soldiered on through the endless weeks in Kentucky and finally arrived at Fort Polk, La., a simmering hell-hole widely considered the worst posting in the military.

A few months later, I suffered a moderate head injury while serving in a fake war against a fake breakaway Russian republic in California (and, imagine, we weren't ready to fight an insurgency in Iraq,) but returned triumphantly to my regiment to serve out the remainder of my two-year enlistment.

In the end, I did all right. I compensated for my inability to draw maps in my head by learning to memorize complex acronyms that would lead me along the dirt paths through the Louisiana scrub jungle, driving an outdated Humvee. At any rate, Louisiana did not fall, and I left the service with a pair of medals and a nice plaque.

"I hope the world is everything you think it is," one sergeant wrote on the back of the plaque, "the world" being the term for civilian life.

I also served a year in the Massachusetts National Guard, of which little can be said other than that I attended, and then only usually. (Actually, I can say this. One weekend our zealous sergeant brought in a box of overripe eggplants and several dozen hard-boiled eggs. One soldier was instructed to hold an eggplant and an egg at the throat and eye level of another soldier, while a third attacked, "ripping out the throat and gouging out the eye" of the hapless victim. Needless to say, we left that drill in glory, the parking lot scattered with foodstuffs.)

But I digress.

That was a very different army, firm in its traditions and rigorous in its way but enlivened by no particular sense of purpose that I could see. After all, the greatest enemy we could then conjure to fill in the blanks of our marching cadences was the soon-to-be shackled dictator of some piddling country most of us had never heard of.

"Milosevic, Milosevic, raging mad ... never understood the power we had.

It all seemed like quite the dog and pony show, to use one of my favorite military expressions, carried out with absurd seriousness in a horrendous climate and with far too little sleep.

One of my clearest memories is of running in formation at the crack of dawn down the post's main drag, past the bowling alley, which had one of those digital clocks that shows the temperature.

It read: 5800 degrees.

Life in the army was about to change, but I was gone by then.

My old battle buddy, incidentally, has married and has two kids. He's bought some land in Wyoming and doesn't get back to South Carolina very much anymore.


10-11-07, 06:00 AM
U.S. Marines and soldiers in key Iraqi city battle grit, trash and sewage

By Michael Gisick
Wednesday, October 10, 2007

RAMADI, Iraq — Marine Lt. Sayce Falk is barely out the front gate of his patrol base before he comes across two black-shrouded women pointing toward a damaged mosque nearby.

"We're working on it," he tells them, first in the smattering of Arabic he has learned during his six months in Iraq and then through an interpreter. "We know."

He listens, nodding, as the women's voices rise and quicken. Finally he tells them he has to go; they can wait for him to come back and talk then. They seem to agree.

"It was in total disrepair," Falk explains as he leads his patrol through the city Monday. "The minaret was falling over. It was shot up. Full of holes."

The same could be said about much of this city of about 800,000, the capital of Anbar Province, former stronghold of al-Qaida in Iraq and now a jewel of the American counterinsurgency.

Military commanders see Ramadi as an incubator for the strategies they hope to extend to other cities in Iraq. The plan, in shorthand: Clear, hold and build.

In other words, push the enemy out, hold the area you've taken and build infrastructure and services with an eye toward winning over the populace.

Ramadi is where the rubber meets the road, they like to say, although commanders know the roads here are still lined with trash, rubble and pools of standing water and sewage.

But that's a big improvement, the Marines say - all of Ramadi looked that way when they arrived.

"It looked totally dead," says Lance Cpl. Omar Sepulveda, a 21-year-old Artesia native who has been stationed in Ramadi since March.

"There were big ... trash piles everywhere. Big puddles of (sewage). You couldn't even walk through some of the streets. Everything was closed."

Lance Cpl. Kevin Clark, a 19-year-old Roswell native, adds: "It was a war zone for a long time, and it looked like it."

The brigade combat team of Army and Marine Corps units stationed in Ramadi and parts of the surrounding province has spent $60 million on reconstruction this year, says the brigade's commander, Army Col. John Charlton. One measure of the task the units faced: $13 million has been spent just on removing rubble.

"That's fair," Charlton says. "Let's face it. You go around town and see these building that are collapsed and destroyed - that happened as a result of fighting that involved American firepower."

Cleaning up the rubble is relatively easy because it's not hard to find. The more delicate task for the Marines stationed across Ramadi is trying to understand the life that has come back to this city.

"It's like putting together a puzzle," Falk says. "We're trying to help, but we have to know what we're looking at."

So Falk, flanked by one of the city's district council members and a squad of Marines and blue-shirted Iraqi police officers, sets off into Ramadi's traditional market, or souk. His mission for the day is to find the doctors whose small practices are set back among the shoe stalls and the fruit stands.

"Why do people throw their trash in the sewers when they could throw it in this open lot here?" he says to no one in particular as he rounds a corner.

The souk is bustling, and Falk, a tall, 24-year-old Philadelphia native with a reddish mustache, turns into ambassador in battle gear.

He smiles at the children and exchanges salaam aleikums with the men. He takes off his helmet and gives an interview to one man standing on the sidewalk with a digital camcorder atop a tripod.

Through his interpreter, Falk says he's very pleased at the way the month-long religious observance of Ramadan has gone so far, at how busy the souk is. It's a sign that people are feeling safe, he says.

The pendulum of the American experience in Ramadi began to swing in late 2006. Commanders attribute much of the change to the tactics of the insurgents who had operated here through 2004 and 2005 and had declared Ramadi their capital, claiming allegiance to al-Qaida.

But then "people here began to realize that al-Qaida wasn't exactly the kind of partner they wanted," Charlton says. "Al-Qaida was using pure murder and intimidation to control the population. I mean absolute brutality. If you talk to these tribal leaders, every one of them will tell you they've lost family members."

Backed by a growing coalition of disaffected local sheiks, American forces swept into Ramadi in January. During the first month, Charlton's brigade weathered an average of 30 to 35 attacks a day. Ten soldiers and Marines were killed.

"There's this misconception that al-Qaida just declared peace and left Anbar," Charlton says. "That's not the case."

As the brigade fought its way into the city, it came with a new strategy grounded in the mistakes many commanders saw in American tactics during the early years of the war.

"What happened is that you had al-Qaida starting to insert itself more and more and create violence," Charlton says, looking back on the birth of the insurgency in 2004. "In some cases, U.S. forces overreacted to that violence, and so you started to get that split that occurred."

Now that the citizenry of Ramadi, alienated first by the United States and then by al-Qaida, seems to have come back into the arms of the Americans, commanders say they are determined not to lose it again.

So this time, while some of the Marines still live in large, fortified compounds with flush toilets, showers and food service workers in bow ties, many others are fanned out across the city in ramshackle stations, living alongside Iraqi police and soldiers.

Instead of sallying forth silent and menacing, the Americans wander the streets asking questions, finding a city of many needs.

"We have a lot of deficits," an ophthalmologist tells Falk in careful English, his small, hot office off the souk lined with patients. The lights flicker off and then throb uncertainly back to life.

Falk says his men have brought some supplies and asks if the doctor needs any.

"What we need is an argon laser," the eye specialist says. "There is not one in the whole city."

One of the Marines pulls a few small packages from his pack. They have brought some gauze and forceps.

This is not, Falk says back at his patrol base, exactly what most Marines signed up for. It's a balancing act for his men, trying to be open while remaining careful and alert.

Although he doesn't think insurgents could re-establish themselves in the city with any permanence, he worries that a single operative with a suicide bomb vest could have a devastating effect amid the crowds again gathering in the market.

Meanwhile, an Iraqi police officer has just backed a Humvee into a 10-ton truck. A running argument has broken out between some of Falk's Marines and the Iraqi police officers, who the Marines say aren't cleaning up their own trash.

A police commander points angrily at a few sunflower seed shells and part of a plastic package under one Marine's desk.

"What is this?" the commander yells.

"It's a lot more responsibility than if you were just in a rifle company," Falk says. "It's a lot more than just, `Go guard that window.' "

Shortly afterward, Falk and the rest of the Marines on patrol gather for a debriefing. They enter the names of the three doctors they met into a computer database, part of an ongoing census of important people in the community. They talk about what they noticed, what seemed different. A few new shops open in the souk. A new water leak adding to the fetid, greenish pool along Edge Street.

"I had two women come up to me in the souk and say hello," one Marine says.

Falk says he sees steady progress in the Iraqi forces.

"When we got here, they would just sort of go out in a mob," he says. "They were like; `We've got guns. I guess we should go out in the street.' Now they're a lot more organized."

Later that night, a group of senior Marines and Iraqi dignitaries heads out for the championship match of the Ramadi soccer league at what was once another "big ... pile of trash."

"It was bigger than you and me," says Lt. Kelby Breivogel, 25, who oversees the area around the soccer field. A district council member suggested the field as a way to give young people something to do.

Wearing yellow Pirelli jerseys, the team representing the Katana area scores early and dominates the action throughout but can't add to its lead. Katana, Breivogel notes, is Arabic for cotton, the crop grown here long ago.

Breivogel is so impressed with the Iraqi police officers in his sector that he believes they are ready to take over. They set up security for the game on their own, he says.

"If we pulled out tomorrow, I think they'd be fine," he says.

The Americans are served water and soft drinks, sticky baklava and cigarettes. A 6-year old boy wanders up and sits between Breivogel and 1st Sgt. Scott Schmitt, a 17-year Marine Corps veteran with a 6-year-old of his own back home.

"That was kind of nice," Schmitt says later, "the way that kid was playing."

In the final minutes of the match, a player from the Ashrin, or 20th Street, team steals the ball at midfield and rushes on goal. At the last moment he passes to a teammate, who stuffs the ball in past the goalie. The game goes to penalty kicks, and the Ashrin underdogs win.

The Marines in Ramadi might not go home with war stories, exactly, and many say they're not sure how they'll relate their experiences to friends and family. It's not the war on TV.

"We didn't blow anything up or shoot anything," says Sepulveda, the Artesia native. "We just tried to help."