Just north of Baghdad, nestled between a few small towns, is Thunder, the headquarters until recently of the 3rd Battalion, 16th Field Artillery of the 4th ID. The base is in a former Iraqi army hospital, several two-story buildings and a large perimeter which includes a motor pool and an area where the artillery guns are located. They still burn their shit here, in big metal tubs from the outhouses, so Thunder hasn't taken on the mall-like appearance of the bases built by KB&R, with their slick showers and bathroom units. Today the soldiers of 3-16 are gone, replaced by the 1st ID, their tour of duty finally done. I spent a couple of weeks with 3rd Battalion in early March as they got ready to leave.
This was before the current spate of violence started. None of the soldiers or officers I spoke with were anticipating trouble beyond the relatively low but steady risks of IEDs and the occasional mortar round. Indeed the general mood between the Americans and both the Shi'ites and Sunnis in central Iraq was one of cooperation and tolerance, at least when I was there last, which was from January to the end of March. Delicate and tentative as it was, I don't believe that this foundation of trust has been completely destroyed by the current uprising.
"Hey, ain't that Big Red One sexy?" shouts one 4th ID soldier as the 1st's tanks and Bradleys roll into the compound.
Among the last to leave will be Lt. Col. Michael T. Mahoney, the base's commanding officer. Mahoney is a towering man who loves to talk strategy, and loves to turn over and examine the forever shape-shifting beast which is local Arab politics. Mahoney talks in short, declarative sentences delivered in breathless and theatrical tones. He gestures with his hands and then drops into an abrupt silence to give time for his performance to sink in. At times in our conversations he fixes me with an unnerving blank stare, as if challenging me to disagree. Over the last year he's had ample time to ponder the intricate machinations of the sheiks, Imams, police chiefs and mayors of the towns in his area of operations, whose complex dealings and rivalries would be utterly familiar ground to Machiavelli.
"When it comes to political parties the sheiks will stick together. Badr Brigade, with support from Iran, is trying to intimidate everyone. Sheik Malik will fight them. With 4,000 of his tribesmen. The other sheiks will take his side. Even the Shi'ite sheiks will vouch for him. Why?
"They're afraid of what political parties represent; they're trying to stake out their territories. We have to respect the sheiks. But if there's a problem we'll go in. Organized crime in Husseiniya. We'll say: This has to stop. It needs to disappear. Or you'll end up dead. You know what? It stops. Mutual respect. We listen to what they're telling us.
"Someone plants an IED. There's a 99 percent chance someone else saw it. They come and tell us. It's in their interest. More money comes in for projects. But you have to be careful. We give a contract to a guy -- he's not related to Sheik B. We piss off Sheik B. I didn't get mine so I'm pissed off. We rely on our tactical humint teams, psy-ops guys, send them in. Get a picture. Do we have a serious problem? Maybe that guy doesn't get the contract."
I'm intrigued about the low number of attacks against this base and its soldiers. Some of the nearby towns have a Sunni majority. The Warhorse base, in Baquba just 45 minutes north of here, gets mortared regularly. In fact, the convoy that I rode down with suffered an IED attack on the way up to Warhorse. What are they doing differently?
Mahoney says: "I haven't had an IED explode in my area of operations in five months. With the sheiks it's all about respect and honor. You drag some guy out of his house, bring his women out on the street. All the neighbors are watching. You dishonor him in front of his family. He's gonna take revenge. We don't do a lot of raids anymore. These guys all give me intel on each other. I don't go out and arrest somebody immediately. We vet it and vet it and vet it. If there's someone I want I call up the sheik and tell him. He'll bring him in to the base the next day. Or he'll drive himself in after the sheik talks with him.
"There's a lot more we need to do. We need up-armor humvees. We've armored our humvees ourselves. We need more eyes from the air. Not just helicopters and drones. What about satellites? You could have people back home watching these roads. And we need more men."
"Rumsfeld keeps saying the commanders aren't asking for more men," I say.
"Look at what happened to the last general who said we needed more soldiers. No one wants to stick their neck out."
The battalion spent weeks clearing and cleaning its headquarters. The vast two-story structure, which was completely looted and burned after the war, had its first floor corridors and innumerable rooms turned into barracks, showers, weight rooms and offices. You can still walk through the long empty corridors between companies and feel like there's not a soul around. Except ghosts. One evening, Lt. Jack Nothstine takes me up to the second floor to poke around with flashlights. The miles of burned rooms and corridors are empty of anything other than broken glass, plaster and the hulks of old medical equipment. Wires are dangling from the ceilings.
"One night I was coming up the stairs to take over guard duty on the roof. Just when I was passing the second floor I clearly heard children's voices, speaking in Arabic, like they were playing. It was completely distinct. This base is in the middle of nowhere -- there are no kids around for miles. I just ran!
A lot of guys have seen ghosts here. The medics have seen some of their patients that died on them."
Of the three main towns near Thunder, Husseiniya is predominantly Shi'ite (like Sadr City in Baghdad, it's a huge Shi'ite slum without a sewage system. There are lakes of untreated sewage water in the streets). Rashidiya is mostly Sunni, and Bani Saad is a mix. All three seem calm in the days I'm at Thunder, accompanying the soldiers on patrol. However, there are problems: one night we stop in at the unfinished new police building in Husseiniya, only to find that no one's guarding it. The week before insurgents blew up an ICDC checkpoint nearby (Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, Iraq's young National Guard).
We go to the police station to find out why they've abandoned their post. As we drive over to the entrance the soldiers spot an Iraqi with an AK raised, no uniform on, no police badge. Furious, one of the Americans grabs the Iraqi's weapon and throws it on the ground.
"I almost shot you, motherfucker! How many times do we have to tell you, wear your goddamn badges!"
I've seen this again and again: the Iraqi cops love the machismo of toting AKs, but often resist wearing the uniforms and badges, which perhaps make them feel too cozy with the Americans. It's disturbing, in part because to most Iraqis, in the past police could be relied on only to extort bribes and collect paychecks.
The police chief assures the soldiers that he'll make sure his men wear their uniforms and badges, and then lamely claims that he thought it was the contractor's responsibility to guard the new station.
One day I'm accompanying a squad from Cyclone Co. on patrol, Lt. Jack Nothstine leading. We're in the rural outskirts of Bani Saad when a boy throws a rock at one of the humvees. Nothstine abruptly turns the patrol around, and the three vehicles pull up to the cluster of houses that the boy fled into. As some of the soldiers assume covering positions we enter a backyard of hard-packed earth, surrounded by a low adobe wall. A donkey is tethered to a tree. Chickens hop to avoid running feet, dogs bark and women gather at their doorways with children at their hips, while a crowd of men assemble to meet the soldiers.
Nothstine demands that the boy be brought forward. At first the men claim that no one matches the description. When the lieutenant presses, several men say that the boy is crazy and they don't know where he is. With more neighbors and children entering the yard, the atmosphere is a strange mix of tension and carnivalesque excitement.
Nothstine sighs and pulls thoughtfully at his cigar. He's young, in his 20s, but his confidence and directness give him authority.
"Look," he says through his translator. "Throwing rocks is not the solution. If you throw a rock and hit one of my soldiers -- what's he done? How does that help you?
"Do you have any gripes? What are your problems with the Americans?"
There's a pause, as the villagers look at one another, wary of the bait. A few break into grins.
"We don't feel safe at night when we carry water for our fields. It's the only chance to give water to our agriculture. We have to walk five kilometers and we're not allowed to carry weapons."
"Alright, you need to be able to protect yourselves," Nothstine asserts. "But there are people attacking us at night. If I see a person walking around at night with a weapon there's a possibility I might fire at him.
"We know about this problem. What's happening now is that we're working with the city council to try to find a solution. In the meantime, if you see coalition forces at night you need to put your weapons down and your hands in the air. Do not run away with the weapon!
"Who is the oldest man here?"
After some arguing, a man of about 60 steps forward. Nothstine assigns him responsibility for the boy who threw the stone. He tells him to make clear to the boy why he shouldn't throw stones at the patrols. Nothstine adds that if it happens again they'll arrest the man. He agrees and there's a murmur of assent through the crowd.
I get the sense that these rural families appreciate the chance to air their grievances and the fact that an elder is given responsibility for the boy. The atmosphere becomes friendly as we leave. Nothstine tells me:
"We've had this kind of problem before. If you don't nip it in the bud it can turn into a big problem."
STEVE MUMFORD is a New York artist. This is the tenth installation of his "Baghdad Journal."