Steve Mumford originally went to Baghdad in 2003 to work as a war artist, embedded with the U.S. military, both writing a journal and making drawings and watercolors of what he saw there. He has been back several times; the text that follows is a report from his current visit. The archive for Mumford’s original "Baghdad Journal" can be found here.
"I know, I know: ‘everyone good here’," Lt. Michael Baxter says with some irony. "But the terrorists are firing mortars. They sometimes land in the street where your children are playing."
The wiry old Arab, standing in his home here in Mosul, tries to look sincere, although it’s a well-rehearsed dialogue.
"Sir, don’t believe bad people here -- they want to do something bad? -- Never!"
"Look, 45 minutes ago a bomb went off down the street! Did you hear it?"
"Bad guy don’t have religion."
"That’s right. But we need to get information to stop these bad guys. Will you protect your neighborhood? I see kids playing now in the street."
"This area, terrorists don’t come."
"Bombs have been planted right outside, a street away!"
"He’s a bad guy, someday they catch him. . . ."
"Yes, but help us!" Baxter can’t suppress a laugh at the skillful way that he’s being parried by the man’s fatalistic pleasantries. "We need all of the help you can give us to catch these guys -- it’s the only way we can catch them, with your help."
Baxter asks if the Iraqi has a weapon at home. Iraqi homeowners are allowed one AK 47 to protect themselves. The U.S. army hopes that an armed populace will deter insurgent activities near their homes. Surprisingly, many Iraqis claim that they have no weapon.
"No sir, I have nothing, no Kalashnikov."
"No? But how will you protect your family?"
"My God will protect me."
"Rod-ger!" Baxter draws out the syllables, savoring the ironies of this conversational dead end.
Baxter, a tall, skinny guy from Texas with a sharp nose and dark eyebrows, knows the drill well, and likes to banter with the Iraqis while challenging them to step up with intelligence on the insurgents. Understanding their predicament -- the danger the Iraqis expose themselves to by helping the Americans -- appears to give him some patience with their slippery answers.
At another house we’re met by an old man in a traditional dish-daashe, and his two grown sons. The man rattles off variations of the sentiments we’ve heard before, but suddenly his son erupts in a tirade. Mike, our Iraqi interpreter, says, "The son, he start to say something but his dad told him to shut up." Baxter orders his men to leave, but stays himself to question them more. However, the veil of silence has fallen back and we soon move on.
In spite of the apparent lack of cooperation, the battalion does get a small but steady flow of tips, alerting them to IEDs especially. Follow up and cultivation of sources is done by battalion-level "humint" collection teams specifically trained for this, as peoples’ lives are at stake. "When you work with people who give you information you have to be very, very good," says 1st Lt. Jason Dickerson. "I remember one call from a source who said, ‘Hey, they’re kidnapping people on my street because they’re looking for me.’"
In a way, the larger point of these missions is good will, and to show that the Americans and the Iraqi army are working together and stationed at a local outpost, ready to respond to insurgent activity. Typical Iraqi responses go as follows:
"No, in this neighborhood everything good, safe, good people. Sometimes bad people come from over there (gesturing vaguely to the north, south, east or west) but I don’t see them."
Would he use this number to call the coalition forces if he sees anything suspicious? All he has to do is call, no one will visit his house.
"Insh’allah (Godwilling), insh’allah."
I’m staying at combat outpost Rock, which houses a platoon from Alpha Co., 1/8, commanded by Capt. David Sandoval. Alpha’s battalion is from the 4th Infantry Division, but they’ve been assigned to augment 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment’s force in Mosul. Alpha Co. patrols the southeast sector of Mosul, a mixed Sunni Arab-Kurdish area, that’s had a history of attacks against the Americans, especially in and around "Broadway," one of the main thoroughfares.
COP Rock is a bleak, graveled area surrounded by blast walls. In one corner is a tight maze of these walls, which constitutes Alpha’s barracks. Each long tent is enclosed within the walls, connected by one or two gaps to the other enclosures; in the middle is an area about the size of a tennis court with some tables and a raised platform with a bench press. Food consists of a few boxes of MREs and Gatorade packets. The shitters are outside the protected area. I’m advised to wear my helmet and flack vest if I have to use these between the hours of 6 am to 2 pm, when mortar strikes have been most common.
Unlike the cavalry troopers at COP Hotel, these infantry soldiers go out on patrol every day, accompanied by soldiers from Iraqi Battalion 352, on "knock and talk" missions in which they target a neighborhood and bang on the gates to be let into houses so they can talk with the owner. If there are no men at home they leave. It strikes me that the morale among these soldiers is pretty good, even though most are on their 2nd and 3rd tours in Iraq.
It helps to have an alert officer with a good translator, but this doesn’t always happen; some of these "knock and talks" take place late at night when the soldiers are exhausted from missions earlier in the day, not to mention that they may have arrived at the combat outpost in the predawn hours. Sometimes these factors play out comically, as on one evening with a young sergeant who has no interpreter available. The Iraqi major with us speaks no English. Like his soldiers, he’s a Kurd, and his Arabic isn’t fluent.
As the young NCO can’t communicate with the Iraqis, he lets the Kurdish major do the talking, but we can’t understand what they’re saying. The power on the block has gone out and we’re sitting in a flickering sphere of candlelight. Major Kareem looks a bit like Inspector Clouseau, and is very grave in his questioning. Long, charged pauses punctuate his questions, in which he gazes at the floor pensively as if mulling over matters of deep import. Is he considering the fine points of the Iraqi’s story, or trying to remember how to say "identification card" in Arabic?
However, when the homeowner indicates that he speaks a little English the young sergeant steps in:
"Uh. . . last terr’ist attack?" he blurts out, his words slurring together.
"Terrorist, Sir? Me, terrorist? No!"
"No. Last attack, here -- When?!"
"Please, sir, I don’t understand -- you speak very fast!"
"OK, OK" -- trying a new tack -- "What mosque you go to?"
" Uh. . . uh. . . mask? You want to see a mask?"
The young NCO doesn’t seem to grasp why the man can’t understand him. I can hardly understand him. He tries a phrase in Arabic, spoken in the same fast, slurred drawl as his English. The Iraqi is more perplexed than ever.
"The airport? But the airport is over there. . . ."
At this impasse we all settle into a strangely relaxed silence, sitting on the Iraqi’s couch, watching the shadows cast by the flickering candle in the Iraqi’s dark living room. The U.S. soldiers are too tired to try further, the Kurdish major glares pensively at the floor, and everyone waits for some signal that the interview is over.
Sometimes just dumb luck does the trick. On the afternoon of April 23rd, 2008, helicopters from 4/6 Cav spot a car below them that suddenly stops. Three men jump out, probably thinking that they’re being targeted from the air, and leaving the doors open, dash for cover. The helos track them from above.
This information is relayed to a Military Transition Team at a nearby combat outpost. Iraqi soldiers are dispatched to the scene. They discover the car, which indeed contains RPGs, mortars and AK 47s. They take the car and its contents back to the COP but are promptly sent back to find the insurgents; however, without an interpreter to communicate with the helos, they have no idea which houses to search.
Back at Rock, 1st Sgt. Shawn Carns sends out a platoon. Two houses are raided and five men are rounded up, one a boy who looks about 16. The squad I’m with raids a house and apprehends two suspects. There’s a lot of wailing from the daughters of one man who’s lead away from his home blindfolded, hands zip-tied behind his back. While the other is being searched the soldier asks him if he speaks English.
"No -- you speak Arabic?" he replies, rather smartly.
The street is deserted in the hot midday sun and the two Kiowa helicopters zoom up and down, providing air cover. The suspects are hurried to the waiting Bradleys. We grind off for COP Mountain, where they’re photographed with the cache of weapons, and finally brought to COP Rock for initial questioning. Two men are released, and three detained.
At dawn I’m awakened by gunfire; throughout the morning this continues, sometimes from close by. In the command post reports are coming in of small arms attacks on route clearance units and mortar attacks against COP Mountain, where an Iraqi battalion is located. Much to Capt. Sandoval’s frustration, the Iraqis won’t push out a platoon to engage their attackers.
I can hear helicopters roaring overhead, and occasional explosions, mortars or PRG rounds. Reports are coming in of roving insurgents in cars, driving around and firing off a few rounds. We also hear reports of a suicide bomber. As the day wears on the action tapers off however, and we prepare for a patrol.
Waiting to leave inside the Bradley, the soldiers are kidding around with the interpreter Bruce, razzing him for trying to take too many vacations. The interpreters are mostly young Kurds, many Christian, who hope to come to the U.S. one day. I’m told the insurgency has a price tag of $50,000 on their heads, higher than for an American soldier. Bruce is a live wire who tolerates no insult and always takes the bait. His voice rapidly rising, he laces his reply with oaths and American slang.
"I’m going on vacation, man, I don’t care! I’m gonna be getting fucking pussy, man, drinking fucking whiskey, fucking different females, the whole nine yards, I don’t give a shit, yeah, tell me about it, that’s what I’m talking about -- Damn!"
This verbal barrage is met with laughter and cheers of wonder and approval from the soldiers.
Our patrol stops when one of the Bradleys gets a piece of rebar stuck in its track. The other Bradleys block off the street as soldiers fan out to provide cover while the crew works on the vehicle.
I join several men who enter a house to use as an observation point. It’s a pleasant home, as are many that I’ve seen in Mosul, very clean, the kitchen smelling vaguely of something recently prepared. I like the fact that rooms are relatively sparsely furnished in most of the Arab homes I’ve seen, walls largely bare, knickknacks confined to one or two cabinets, leaving an open, breathable feel to the place. Even very poor houses are often tidy, sandals lined against the wall, a rug carefully rolled out in front of a long bench.
Several kids ranging in age from children to teenagers are on hand, as is a mother in a headscarf. She’s an attractive older woman who speaks fluent English. She’s indignant when Bruce requests all their cell phones (confiscated for the duration that the soldiers are there), saying, "We are innocent here, my kids are good, they have done nothing." After a while she’s assured of the temporary nature of this intrusion and she and her kids wait in the kitchen while a few soldiers take up positions on her roof. I ask her permission to draw, and draw two of her boys waiting, leaning against the wall.
The woman tells me that she and her husband lived in America for a time when her husband was getting a degree in Louisiana. She says they brought all of their furniture from the U.S. Then she tells me that her husband died last year, and I can’t bring myself to ask how he died.
Soon it’s time to leave. The quiet dignity of this attractive family with its carefully preserved American furniture and missing father seems terribly sad. I thank them for their hospitality towards this uninvited guest and with the soldiers, run out into the street toward the waiting Bradleys.
After five days at COP Rock, I’m mysteriously pulled back to FOB Marez, on orders from higher up. The public affairs officer can’t get permission for me to return to any COP with 1/8. Much to his annoyance, I make my way to 1/8’s headquarters at the base to plead my case directly, but get a cold reception. I’ll probably never know why I was blacklisted, but I have the impression that I came up against the army’s growing paranoia about how the media represents it. Commanders seem to feel that mostly bad news gets reported, while from their perspective, things are improving and the insurgents are on the run. Ironically, I was impressed with 1/8’s aggressive counter-insurgency tactics.
STEVE MUMFORD is a New York artist and author of Baghdad Journal: An Artist in Occupied Iraq (2005). His artwork is represented by Postmasters in New York.