Task Force Iron Horse, the army's main base in Tikrit, is a sprawling facility located in Saddam's grandiose palace complex, which perches on dirt cliffs overlooking the Tigris. It feels like Grand Central Station at the moment, with the 4th Infantry Division preparing to leave and the 1st ID just arriving. In the indistinguishable sea of khaki that is the U.S. army, you look for the distinctive little patches on the left shoulder that identify affiliation: four oak leaves for the 4th, a big red one for the 1st, as well as numerous National Guard symbols from different states.
I spent a week with 4th ID's 1-22 Infantry as it prepared to leave. They're integrating the new units into their patrols, as well as going out with the ICDC (Iraqi Civil Defense Corps), Iraq's fledgling army, trying to mentor it and instill some sense of initiative.
There's a permanent press corps from AP and the Agence France Press billeted in a cavernous space in one of the numerous palaces here. The room adjoins a still vaster entrance hall, every surface decorated with half columns, intricate plaster carvings, false balconies and the like. It's pure Saddam-Disney.
The reporters' area is dubbed Camp Britney, after the pop star whose seminude figure from an Esquire photo spread graces the walls. Someone's reversed 4th ID's motto on the wall -- "Words not Deeds" -- customizing it for the press. The evenings are loud, between the improvised basketball court in the hall and the hourly mortar fire right outside, which is aimed at empty fields but serves to let the enemy know that 4th ID is ready.
Two American reporters for AP are going back to Baghdad the next day, leaving a Russian, a Frenchman, a Romanian and an Australian. Surprisingly to me, they're generally impressed with the friendliness and professionalism of the soldiers.
Sasha, who films for AP, had his lost satellite phone returned by some soldiers. The only call on it, to London, was to the number on the phone, to find out who it belonged to. "If Russian soldier picks up sat phone, it's goodbye phone. Some Americans pick up sat phone, give to PAO!" he says wonderingly.
"Good mentality, good people." says Jean-Claude.
An IED exploded this morning in a residential part of town, injuring a cop and a passerby. Lt. Colonel Steve Russel, 1-22's commanding officer, is out with a patrol to investigate. Not all officers of his rank like to go out on patrols, but he never misses a chance. Russel is of average height, and wiry, and doesn't seem imposing. Yet he impresses me as a natural leader. He's got the earnestness and intensity of a missionary, and he doesn't look like he'll suffer fools gladly.
He's talking with the police chief, who seems bewildered about the attack this morning.
"You know what is happening in Faluga. It will happen to you here if you don't take action. The bombing needs to be investigated. After every incident I bring my soldiers in, I ask them questions. It is no different for you."
The Iraqi looks hurt, even a bit alarmed.
"We don't know why you are accusing us. Are we under arrest?"
Russel's taken by surprise. "No, no, we are not. . . . Who's saying that you're accused of anything? We want to know what you saw.
"Look, what we do is, we block the road and try to figure out what happened. Give me your hand -- you are not under arrest! We must work together. You know the people on River Street. You know who's out of place. It just shows you what cowards the terrorists are. They don't wear uniforms. They hide among the population. They damage your shops, hurt innocent people. And what do they give you? For a few months now we've lived in peace. We'll stand together."
The police chief looks relieved, and murmurs, "Insh'allah."
Russel continues, "These cowards will feel very proud about this and they will start talking. We will all have ears, we will listen. You're tired of this, it's time to move on."
Though Russel's words may sound like typical military-speak, to me they're heartfelt, and they obviously carry weight for the Iraqi. The security forces place a lot of importance on the simple American equations of good and bad guys, of courage and loyalty and duty. They also know how vulnerable they'd be without the Americans' support.
Later Russel approaches a shopkeeper whose windows were blown out by the blast. The man looks resigned and one of his boys, perhaps 10 years old, looks frightened.
Russel exhorts the man to stand up against the attackers.
"You must have courage, step forward and work with the police. 'Otherwise innocent people will die. You're a family man, working, trying to make a living. The cowards want to drag everyone down with them"
He presses a wad of U.S. currency into the man's hand, but the shopkeeper looks neither grateful nor angry, just tired.
A few nights later I'm out patrolling with the ICDC and their U.S. mentors. They've been recently renamed the Iraqi National Defense, but everyone continues to call them ICDC. Even the Iraqis like the way the English letters sound, like the rock band ACDC.
Capt. Jason Deel is leading the patrol of three Humvees and a doorless, beat-up Toyota pickup labeled ICDC on the hood in rather ornate art nouveau letters. Among the approximately 15 Iraqis there are five Americans along, keeping a close eye on their charges.
For the most part the Iraqis are familiar with the routine. At each stop they dismount and fan out to guard the street corners. Still, they look young and vulnerable, clutching their AKs, wearing Iraqi-style army fatigues and helmets. The only flack jackets are a few of Vietnam vintage, lacking ceramic plates.
One of their nightly duties is painting over anti-U.S. graffiti. Tonight we find: "Bosh chken," next to a rather clever drawing of a chicken with a revolver shooting a bullet through its head. The Americans paint it over, then write "ICDC America Always," which the Iraqis repeat in Arabic.
I ask one of the soldiers why they write it in English. "That's so our guys know we've been here when they see a wall of graffiti." He tells me that when they've caught kids spray painting the slogans they've said they were paid to do it. I ask him how he rates the new Iraqi force, to which he grins and says: "The last time I talked to a reporter about that I got in trouble!"
Then he adds: "Actually I'd say they've taken a 360 degree turn in the last month, after their pay got docked for laziness. They learned fast that we're serious about them doing their job. You know, they're actually a great a bunch of guys. I'm really gonna miss a few of them."
Among the new troops arriving are psychological operations units, their mission in part to instill warm feelings towards the Americans in the hearts of the people of Tikrit.
"Oh, so you guys are in charge of propaganda?" I ask a young sergeant over dinner who, for the sake of security, goes by the pseudonym "James."
He smiles, but corrects me. "Well actually, we prefer to call it 'product'. The main point is to get the word out, let the Iraqis know what we're doing. We have to figure out how to connect with them."
James is a big, blonde-headed kid who's spent a lot of time in Wyoming. Though there's a youthful innocence about him, he's a fast learner, and likes spending time with the reporters, trading stories and picking their brains.
The following day I'm out with a Civil Affairs Officer who's documenting building repairs in town which have been funded by the Americans. James is along, with his team, Nico and Luna, to get familiar with the politicians and neighborhoods he'll have to deal with.
Towards the end of the morning we're with the mayor of a nearby town discussing the specifics of renovations done at a school. The 4th ID CA officer is a grizzled guy with a mustache, by now comfortable with the back and forth dealings with the Iraqis. Suddenly James asks a question of the mayor.
"Sir, are you familiar with an individual named Zaqawi?" He's referring to the infamous Al Quaeda terrorist whose message to his supporters was recently intercepted. Most people in Iraq know who he is.
The CA officer looks alarmed. "Where you going with this, Sergeant?"
"Sir, just a question."
The mayor, a canny old fellow, looks at him slyly. "I believe he's some student in Baghdad, right?"
"Well, no, he's a pretty big terrorist, and we're offering a lot of money for his capture."
The mayor raises his eyebrows theatrically.
"So if you can help us find him, it'll mean a lot of money for your town."
"I shall try to help, if Allah wills it."
I spend a couple of days following Brad and Matt, a two-man sniper team around town. It's physically challenging, but it gives me a charge: jumping off a moving truck, climbing walls and leaping into peoples' gardens as we snake our way towards a preselected house where we'll keep watch for a few hours. We cross through a dozen homes like this, avoiding the street so that people won't be able to figure out where we're going.
The sight of three men in flack jackets and helmets, with rifles, a radio, camera and art supplies, seems to elicit little surprise. The Iraqis have become used to these teams racing through their back yards. Some smile at us through their windows.
We finally enter a house, run past the housewife and head upstairs to a room with a good view of the street corner. I'm shocked at how accepting everyone has been to our intrusions. Matt goes back downstairs and emerges with a platter of bread, jam and tea. "She likes us. Whenever we come here she makes this for us. She won't take money, but we like to leave it for her anyway."
After a while her brother-in-law shows up to chit-chat. He lives in Detroit, but he's come home to find a bride. He likes to talk cars ("You know what a 750 is off the lot? Double that.") and strip clubs with the snipers when they use this house.
The snipers are an elite unit within the task force. Though things have quieted down considerably in Tikrit, throughout the summer and early fall they saw a lot of firefights. Brad was shot in the leg, but the wound healed up and he returned to his job.
A sniper tells me, "I've been doing this shit for 11 years. It's getting old; but for that 30 seconds before you pull the trigger you're fucking God. I've seen a lot of guys, after they pull the trigger, who cannot deal with the psychological aftermath. Shit happens. You're associated with a target, it's your fucking bad. It's nothing personal.
"There was this Serbian sniper we were tracking for months in Sarajevo. This guy wasn't just a brigade problem, he was a task force problem. The guy made some truly amazing shots. Shitty-ass cross wind, and he could drop someone at 700 yards. In fact one time he got four, a Muslim guy, his wife and two kids. We could never pin him down, he was too good. You don't want to go rifle to rifle with a guy like that, it's his turf. If you can, you mortar him.
"He was good, but everyone's got a pattern. We finally pinned him down on the floor of a building. We fucking leveled it. The sniping stopped. Did I care about what he did? No. You can't look at it like that. I'm doing a job. I work for the U.S. government. They've got their cause. I don't look at it that way. I shoot you or you shoot me. I pick a guy, it's got nothing to do with what he did."
Chaplain Capt. Xuan Tran is giving the Reunion and Suicide Awareness Briefing for the 3rd time today to a group of perhaps 70 soldiers. It's mandatory to listen to, and some of the soldiers look bored, but Tran's enthusiasm is undimmed. Like an Asian version of a black Southern Baptist preacher, he's roaring from the pulpit, "Communication! Communication! Communication!"
"When you get back and your wife asks you how you are, don't just say 'I'm doing fine'! She expects you to give her more detail! Yes, detail! Who did you meet, and where? What did you eat? Give her details! Women want to know these things!
"When you need a pair of pants, what do you do? You go to Sears and buy them! End of story! But women, no, no! They try on a pair and they say: 'Honey!' 'Honey, how do they look? How do they make me look? Do I look good to you in these?' Communication!
"Perhaps there were some problems between you when you went away. Well, guess what? Those problems are still there! Perhaps they've become bigger, bigger! You've been away all this time and guess who was taking care of everything at home, paying the bills, making sure little Johnny did his homework? You expect to just walk right in and be king of the castle again? And guess what, you can't just pick up your rifle to solve the problem! You must what? Yes, right, you must talk about these things with her! Listen to her concerns, ask her how she feels about it!
"Now lets talk about sex!"
The room stirs and from the back someone shouts, "Yeah! Let's talk about sex!"
"For a year now maybe you've been looking at those magazines! You know the ones I'm talking about -- Playboy! All those things! Our imaginations run wild with new things, new ideas! You run through the wilderness and catch a monkey and spank a monkey!
"Well sex is not like that! Sex is about mutual pleasure, your pleasure and her pleasure! Do not pressure your wife to do things that she is uncomfortable with! You must, what? Yes, that's right, you must talk with her and listen to what she wants! Communication!"