The demonstration has been organized by an Imam, to protest the detainment of a local intellectual by American forces some months ago. The marchers are going to head towards Ar Ramadi's police station and 1st Battalion's Alpha Co. commander, Capt. Ricardo Roig, is worried that it could end in an attempt to take over the station.
I'm with a squad from 3rd platoon, which arrives at the police station to find the Iraqi police milling around nervously, toting their AKs. They're expecting the marchers to show up momentarily. Roig confers with the police chief, a big, cruel-looking Iraqi dressed traditionally in a desh dashe and an elegant red and white khafia. They set up on the street, which has been blocked off with razor wire -- the police at the wire, Roig's company set back near the station.
At this point we see the crowd in the distance, banners held aloft. They're chanting angrily. We watch in suspense to see if they'll attempt to cross the wire. The crowd looks to be about 500 people. Roig gives the orders of engagement: fire above their heads if they cross the wire; fire at them if they start firing weapons. There are snipers posted on the rooftops. The marchers surge up to the wire, but don't cross. Instead they inform the police chief that they have a list of demands for him. He and Roig confer; they agree to let the Imam into the wire to talk directly to Roig.
The Imam is a handsome man who looks to be in his early 30s, with an elegant white turban, smoldering green eyes beneath a monobrow. He tells Roig through our translator that he's giving him two days to release the prisoner. Roig looks offended by the Iraqi's ultimatum.
"You come to me with these demands -- when I ask for your help, you ignore my requests. You're supposed to get a cooperation request before having a demonstration. You don't bother.
"When have I ever gone into your mosques? When have I ever bothered your women? We try to understand your culture and be sensitive to it, but there are some bad guys out there who want to kill us. I'm not going to let my men get hurt."
The Imam says they too were mistreated under Sadaam, and that the prisoner in question was arrested by Sadaam's security forces many times. Roig counters by saying that he's being treated much better now than under Sadaam's police, and he will personally make sure the Imam gets a response to his letter.
"This is one of the province's most important individuals. If you cooperate with this we can avoid trouble."
"Look," Roig says, "I've given one year of my life for the freedom of your people, so don't threaten me. I'll deliver to my superiors your request in writing, and I will personally make sure that you get a response back. But I can't promise anything and there's no way that anything is going to happen in two days. I don't have the authority to decide anything about this prisoner." There seems to be a stalemate, and Roig suggests they talk in the police chief's office over tea.
As we're heading over, Roig sighs heavily to 1st Sergeant John Bowman. "Shit, how many teas do you think this'll last?"
"Sir, I'd say four, but it's cutting into chow time."
"I think three teas if we're lucky." However I notice that Roig has a fondness for giving lengthier speeches than the Imam.
The office is packed, with soldiers lounging on a couch on one side, the Imam and his people on the other. They're writing up a list of demands; the police chief reads them aloud while the translator talks into Roig's ear. The list includes: all prisoners from Ramadi should be released; no detaining of women; the family members of a suspect should not be arrested; raids should be conducted by Iraqi police, not the American army; no more bags put over the heads of prisoners.
Roig points out that only one woman was ever arrested in Ramadi. It was five months ago and that commander learned his lesson not to repeat the mistake. "However, if you are an accessory to a crime you will be taken in. Don't ask me for the release of all prisoners. Yes, I will tell you that we may have arrested some innocent people, and we will look into their cases.
"Now I have some complaints for you. Answer me this: how many criminal cases have been heard in the new city justice department? Well, I'll tell you. A grand total of five. We've spent $250,000 renovating the court house and sent many suspects to be tried, but you drag your feet. How can we trust you to deal with criminals?"
The Imam says that the cops are inadequately armed now. Roig counters that they've all been issued AKs and they're working on getting them flack vests.
The level of invective suddenly rises when one of the Imam's advisors says that the Americans are no different than Saddam was, to which the Captain launches into a long and angry diatribe, cataloging his frustrations of the last few months. He seems ready to lunge at the man. I hear the 1st Sergeant say he'd like to punch the son of a bitch right now. The emotional outburst seems to ease the tension on both sides. The Iraqis seem happy to have delivered their insult, but also pleased at Roig's very human response. Roig offers a peace branch. "In five years we'll all be laughing at this." The Imam says he hopes the Americans will be gone long before then.
The Lost Platoon
It's 6 am on a cold and overcast day, and a squad from the Lost Platoon is slowly making its way on foot and humvee along River Road, a beautiful but deadly stretch of raised asphalt running alongside the Euphrates. To our right are small farm plots lining the river, vegetables sprouting from the rich soil, and dense stands of date palms. The other side of the road is the edge of a residential section of Ramadi, barren lots alternating with almost-stately yellow brick homes.
We're searching the edges of the road for anything suspicious, anything that could be an IED (improvised explosive device), the weapon which has emerged as the most effective against the American troops trying to keep order in the Sunni triangle. Along with us is a motley handful of Iraqi policemen, in various states of civilian dress. The three vehicles are keeping pace with those of us who are walking. One of the humvees has a jammer, a device that is supposed to prevent a transmission signal to a detonator.
I'm walking next to Sgt 1st Class Amos Sanchez. Everyone but the drivers and gunners are on foot, cautiously kicking at piles of rubble, and exhorting the Iraqi police to do the same. They seem recalcitrant. One Iraqi appears drunk, and confesses that he's high on pills. He's relieved of his AK 47 and sent home.
We're about halfway done with our three-mile stretch of road when Sanchez abruptly decides that everyone will ride the rest of the way. He looks tired and no one objects. We drive at the same pace of walking, the two humvees about 100 feet from one another, the police pickup in front. I'm tired from lack of sleep, and my eyelids are drooping, when an IED goes off right next to the lead humvee. For a second everyone is lulled in a state of shock as a cloud of dirt envelops the humvee and the shock wave rolls over us. Then dimly I become aware of gunfire. I'm alone in the humvee but for our gunner Michael Perez, who's already halfway through his box of explosive M-19 rounds. Everyone else is on the road, firing in bursts towards a stand of palms on our right. I see a flash from the palms and realize I'd better take cover behind the car.
After a minute someone shouts "cease fire!" and I follow Sanchez, and Spcs. Angel Lugo and Victor Ramirez as they race down the side of the plot of land where the firing came from. We jump a short chain link fence, cross a turnip field, and we're in a large grove of date palms. There's no one here, just lots of broken palm branches and a dead cat, hit with a round from someone's M16. We find a hastily constructed blind, a piece of sheet metal covered in freshly cut palm leaves, and reconstruct a possible getaway route to the river.
Amazingly, no one has been hurt in the lead humvee, even though terrible shards of metal from the 155 mortar round are lying about. The vehicle is the only reinforced "up-armor" humvee Bravo Co. has.
A box wrapped in plastic and tape is found in one of the fields near where the IED went off, and soon the explosives team arrives, and sends a robot with a video camera to take a look and then retrieve it. It's a phone handset. Our jammer didn't work.
While all this was going on, Capt. Joseph Lyon, Bravo Co.'s commander, has been talking with people across the road, looking for a spotter. There's a man there who claims to be a cop, but he dashes off when Lyon, sensing something suspicious, returns to question him. Lyon gives chase and is about to shoot him when he gets caught in a wire fence, and the man speeds off on a motorcycle.
Thirty minutes later someone turns up at Ramadi's hospital with a bullet wound in his leg. He's detained, along with the man who brought him in. They say that he was wounded in the crossfire that morning and his friend was parked near the field. Both profess ignorance of the bombers. Though it's virtually impossible that anyone in or near that field would have been unaware of what was being planned, the driver is released for lack of evidence. I talk with him. He's a farmer, very poor, who seems incredibly grateful that he's being released.
The following night a squad from the Lost Platoon is on patrol when they're ordered to investigate what looks like a weapons drop-off along the river, spotted from one of Bravo's look-out posts. When they approach the car, it roars off, and the squad opens fire. Two of the occupants are badly wounded. The third is a cop, who turns out to be the son of a local sheik. A bag filled with fragmentation grenades is found near the river.
The Lost Platoon is from the Puerto Rican National Guard and got its name because for months no one in the military acknowledged that they were even in Iraq, let alone doing some of the heaviest fighting in one of the country's most dangerous cities. These infantrymen were brought over to fill in the ranks of the Florida National Guard's 1st Battalion, 124th Infantry, now stationed in Ramadi. They're one of three platoons in Bravo Company, commanded by Capt. Joseph Lyon.
Lyon is a very focused guy who wants to do right by the citizens of Ramadi; he's less hot-tempered than Capt. Roig, and deeply believes that if he treats the Iraqis fairly and respects the sheiks by brokering reconstruction contracts through them, they'll reward him with loyalty.
He doesn't have a lot more time to prove his case. After a long year in Iraq the guard pulls out at the end of February. Lyon is anxious to pass on his hard-won contacts to his replacements from 1st ID, who in turn, will hand Ramadi over to the Marines a couple of months later.
Lt. Julio Tirado is the Lost Platoon's commanding officer, but Sgt. 1st Class Amos Sanchez, with his fatherly demeanor, energy and wit, seems to embody the platoon's spirit. Sanchez is a small, compactly built man in his late 40s. His large brown eyes give him a soulful expression, belied by his hyperactive nature. He talks in fast, heavily accented English that is sometimes hard to follow, but his body language is expressive and I enjoy talking to him.
"Esteve, you will find that Ramadi is a very interesting place for you to be, yes! The other reporter that went with us, Joel, he took a lot of nice pictures here. Everyday, something happens here, yes! -- especially when there is a reporter here with us!
"It is not easy here, we have seen a lot of things, believe me, some things that I wish I had never seen. We miss our island very much."
Michael Perez, the gunner in the humvee I'm traveling in tonight, has just turned 21, but he looks closer to 16.
"They call me the baby of this platoon because I'm so young. But I love what I do, man. They say 'Michael, you're the gunner today'. I was the gunner yesterday, man! But it's because I'm hardcore, I'm good at what I do."
Michael's a member of a Puerto Rican chat room for singles and is eagerly vetting attractive young women he wants to meet when he gets home. He's received a purple heart for shrapnel in his shoulder from an IED.
The Latin physicality and expressiveness that I sometimes see in these men is not so far from that of the Iraqis themselves. Qusay and Ahmed, two enterprising and energetic street kids who've become go-fers for Bravo Co., spend a lot of time with the Lost Platoon, whose older men take a tender, fatherly approach to them.
We're out for several hours. At first the city seems peaceful, even lively, but as the night progresses the streets empty out. It's eerily quiet, the streets dark, low houses with walled gardens dimly lit from the occasional naked light bulb or neon tube. No one says much; everyone's senses are attuned for danger.
Around 11:00 pm there's a series of enormous booms, two from very close by. It's mortar and artillery fire. At one point we can hear the rounds rushing overhead. Sanchez jumps to the top of the humvee to see where the fire came from. He's convinced the first rounds came from nearby, and organizes a hunt. Then we hear the sounds of a firefight in the distance, and the commander is on the radio ordering us to drive towards the firing.
Sanchez is frustrated because he thinks we could have located the source of the first mortars by finding the smell of cordite left from the explosions. In the end we find nothing, but drop by the hospital where, miraculously, only two Iraqis have checked in, lightly wounded from seven artillery rounds that landed in a residential neighborhood.
When we get back to base, Capt. Lyon is trying to piece together the sequence of events. He's fretting over whose rounds landed in the neighborhood. It's generally the policy of the Americans not to return fire into residential areas, but it's doubtful that the Iraqi fighters even have artillery. Lyon doesn't immediately say so but it's clear he thinks one of the nearby American bases was responsible.
Over the next week Lyon makes a series of visits to the neighborhood to meet with people whose homes and livestock were damaged, as well as to his superiors, from whom he manages to wrest $70,000 for compensation. Watching the compensation proceedings I can't avoid the sense that the sums are princely, but Lyon's in no mood for bargaining.
When he takes his leave one of the Iraqis tells him that he's glad the incident happened because it gave them a chance to meet. Earlier in the week the men of the neighborhood told Lyon that they'd turned away a reporter from Al-Jazeera because they knew the artillery shell story would be used as anti-American propaganda. It's this kind of goodwill that Lyon hopes will translate onto the street and help protect his men.
But some of the soldiers see it differently. They see the sheiks as heading mafias, profiting handsomely from the American contracts. "It's in their interest to keep the bombings going" one soldier told me. "That way we'll have to stay and keep handing out cash."
STEVE MUMFORD is a New York artist. This is the eighth installation of his "Baghdad Journal."