December 20, 2005
We settled into the cramped confines of the armored humvee, its interior looking for all the world like some teenagers messy pickup truck—Coke cans, food wrappers, magazines and then the less prosaic stuff, gas grenade, assault rifles, ammo.
The lieutenant in the front seat was a friendly guy from Nebraska, in fact the whole convoy consisted of boys from Nebraska attached to the local marine unit occupying Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s far western province of Anbar.
“Lot of soldiers like to come out here,” he said as we pulled out of the marine base on the outskirts and headed into town. “Here’s where all the action is, not like Camp Cupcake out west.”
Apparently not a lot goes on in Camp Cupcake and soldiers there just have it too easy.
But isn’t Ramadi under US control? After all, at the office we receive press releases every other day describing new joint US-Iraqi operations conducted around Ramadi flushing out “terrorists”, discovering weapons caches and generally making Ramadi secure for Iraqis so that they can participate in Iraq's new democracy. I knew the releases by heart.
The driver sniggers.“Well, yeah, officially, we control it,” said my helpful lieutenant from Omaha, "but I tell you, over the last week we lost four hum vees over the same stretch of road.”
Whoa. That wasn’t in the press release. It also made me wonder if perhaps they need to vary their route to work a bit.
“It’s pretty crazy out here. If we go out and make it back, that’s a good day.”
About this time, I started seeing Ramadi roll by outside the small armored slit that passed for a passenger side window in the hum vee. It was a grim overcast day in keeping with a grim overcast city.
A low lying city of 3-4 story buildings with supposedly 400,000 people, there were none on the streets. A few people glared balefully at our convoy as it went by. Cars stayed well out of our way as the heavy machine turrets on the hum vees rotated to cover them.
“Thank god we finally got armor on these things, it was really bad before,” said the lieutenant.
The downtown, in the middle of the day, was deserted, with heavy iron doors pulled over shop fronts, and each building bearing stitching of machine gun bullets across the front. Some whole buildings had just collapsed into pulverized rubble.
Our goal was the city hall, the governor’s offices, which was a “hard point” or a fortified area, festooned with machine gun nests, sand bags, marine sniper posts and covered in camo nets.
These hard points were scattered around the city, but the area in between, as one officer explained to me, seemed to be pretty open territory for the militants and a well observed few hundred meters of road between two hard points would inevitably contain another roadside bomb the next day.
We were met by the marine unit’s local public affairs officer, a young woman draped in an assault rifle, Kevlar helmet and flak jacket with that certain brand of American perkiness that just seemed incredibly out of place.
She told us to get inside the building as snipers and falling mortar rounds could turn the courtyard “into a movie real quick”… I think the guy from Fox television actually asked what kind of movie.
Half a dozen of journalists had come on one of the US embassy sponsored trips around Iraq ahead of elections to see… what? Iraq’s inexorable march towards freedom?
Instead I suddenly felt that I was in a movie, but one of those grim ones where everyone is huddled in a fort, nervously peering over the ramparts at the hordes of barbarians lurking on the outside, just waiting to come ravening over the walls.
The dusty, crumbling town hall with its sandbagged windows felt like a last stand.
We were given a tour of the roof, a few of us at a time. Lt. Jason Copeland laid down the ground rules, keep your head below the line of sandbags, stay under the camo netting, if mortar rounds start coming down, hide along the edge.
Someone asked the lieutenant where he was from—a staple of any US news report is always the home town of the soldier quoted, something that I, working for the French, didn't really care about.
“Rosswell, New Mexico,” he said, and there was an uncomfortable silence as we all stared at each other. “Please, no jokes,” he finally said.
And of course the guy from Fox news does exactly that, asking him about aliens. The lieutenant’s face remains impassive as he leads us up to the roof.
As we pass the second floor, I can see the cots of the two platoons of marines who live here and guard the city hall—young kids, wouldn’t have looked out of place in the 7/11. I hear a guy on the phone “10 guys in ski masks two blocks over, okay we’ll check it out.”
The roof was eerily peaceful. At each corner were little concrete watch towers where marines scanned the weirdly quiet town of Ramadi. Copeland told us how the sniper fire and mortars usually started around noon, and was a little heavier on days like today when there was a meeting with tribal leaders.
He knelt on the roof, gun ready, and explained to us his mission and noted how Ramadi used to be home to artillery school of Saddam’s old army, perhaps explaining why they were so good with their mortars. “It’s just short of total war out here,” he said.
That was definitely not in the press release.
My helmet was giving me a splitting headache and my knees ached from kneeling for so long—I don’t know how the lieutenant could do it—and I just wanted to get off that roof.
We went downstairs finally to attend the reason for the whole trip, a meeting between tribal and religious leaders, the governor and the marines.
This was the way out, this was the plan for the future. Apparently after months of this mutually destructive stalemate, one of the tribal leaders had approached the marines and asked them, hypothetically speaking, what we need to do to make you leave?
The result was these meetings, which were apparently bearing fruit, hence the decision to allow the press to attend. Except they also allowed the Iraqi defense minister to attend and he doesn’t seem to have been briefed.
So the tribal leaders said, here’s our idea, we recruit our own army unit from locals of the province and they can provide security. Now there is already a division of the Iraqi army in the area, but, as we found out earlier that day when we visited their camp, they are almost entirely Shiites from the south.
The Sunnis of the west are not too keen on the Shiites, so they had this great idea for their own brigade.
The defense minister, a Sunni academic with no military experience who was the only guy who’d accept the job, abruptly interrupts their speech and rejects their idea out of hand and then criticizes them all for harboring terrorists and not apologizing for the Amman bombing.
Well, that didn’t go over well and things started getting REALLY interesting when suddenly General Casey, ordered the press out of the building, resulting in a collection of extremely annoyed journalists clutching their helmets and flak jackets and wondering what we’d traveled all the way out to this hellhole for.
Our spritely public affairs officer briefly quailed before the combined wrath of the press corps before falling back on that age old ploy: “you guys hungry? How about some MREs?”
So soon we were ravenously tearing into plastic packages of pre-prepared food, still grumbling about our treatment. There were some other army types in the room joking with the Fox News guy, but I didn’t pay much attention to them.
Later I found out they were Fox News as well, though totally kitted out as US soldiers, complete with camouflage, and the lead reporter was none other than… Oliver North.
I was in the same room with Oliver North, that towering shameful figure of my high school years, and I didn’t even know it. Fox News had Oliver North, one of the most famous public liars in US history, as its embedded reporter in Ramadi.
So now America would be learning about Ramadi from Oliver North. I almost didn't notice the somber shattered city as our convoy drove back to the base.