The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Shit's Creek (16)

August 6, 2006

We were nearing the end of our patrol when we got a call about a UXO incident – unexploded ordnance. Someone, somewhere had found some kind of exploded bomb and we were sent to deal with it.

Actually, our patrol was just there to secure the area and provide security while the EOD (explosives ordnance disposal or something, I swear, it's a new acronym every day) was called in to clean up the mess of the war.

It turned out to be an unexploded mortar shell in a particular poor area somewhere in southwest Baghdad, a Shiite neighborhood not far from a Sunni neighborhood, another one of these fault lines in the city.

The young men and kids that came gathered at the arrival of the Americans and their humvees (we even had a Bradley tank with us, very impressive) said, why yes, someone did mortar us just the other day. Apparently not all of them went off.

One officer described it to me as the "new face of violence in Baghdad is senseless indirect fire." It's called indirect fire because you don't see where it goes. He said once it was bombs in market places or in front of mosques, these days it was just a bunch of guys with mortar launcher and some shells shooting off a few into the nearby neighborhood and then running away. Not particularly aiming at anything, just shooting.

There are so many mortar shells in Iraq, it's hard to grasp. Everyday the US army issues another press release about some massive “terrorist” weapons cache they have discovered containing hundreds of 60mm or 80mm mortars.

These are the raw materials for roadside bombs, incidentally. Usually they are wired together, attached to a mobile phone, and then when a US or Iraqi army patrol drives by, the insurgent makes a phone call.

Now, however, they are more and more being used for their intended purpose of being shot at people.

It was just a little 60mm mortar, sitting in the middle of a vacant, trash-filled lot in this poor grubby neighborhood. So the soldiers settled down to wait for the bomb squad, all the while grumbling because EOD was known to take a long time and it was already getting near dusk and the patrol should have been near its end.

I was near my own end. It was my second patrol of the day, it was really hot, and I had a throbbing headache so that I really didn't care what happened to the little rocket over in the trash pile.

Then one of the soldiers comes over and said that one of the locals had told the interpreter that there were two more unexploded mortars nearby. "Who told you this?" asked the sergeant. "Guy with the dark hair and the yellow man-dress on."

That didn't narrow it down to much, but we eventually found the guy wearing the yellow dish-dash who directed us down through some buildings.

We come to another vacant trash filled lot, this time filled with sheep and an old shepherd (I mean what better place to pasture the flock than in an urban slum?). We asked him if he'd seen any mortar shells around and so he barked over at one of his teenage sons...

... who proceeded to come walking over to us carrying a pair of mortar shells in his bare hands! There was a collective gasp as everyone shouted for the interpreter to tell him to put them down, very gently. Which he did rather nonchalantly, clearly not sure why four huge soldiers with weapons and body armor were cringing away from him.

Turns out when the shepherd had come across them he'd neutralized them the best way he knew how and, as the soldiers put it, "tossed them into the shit creek" that passed for plumbing in this neighborhood.

Not long afterwards, the bomb squad showed up and was briefed on the situation. And the first thing the bomb guy did was go up to our two shit creek bombs and pick them up himself and carry them over to the other trash pile bomb.

We gave him a lot of room.

They then dug a hole, placed the mortar shells in there, put plastic explosives on top and then put a tire around the whole thing, took cover, and blew the whole mess up.

All in all it took a few hours and these happen all the time. We were minutes from the base when the patrol got a call about another UXO incident (lot of dud mortar shells out there it seems), and we were diverted in the pitch black night to go provide security for another team dealing with an errant mortar shell.

By this time my pounding headache had left me half blind and a little fed up with the whole situation so that as we stood around and provided pointless security, I vented bitterly to the sergeant, who was so amused (and shared my feelings) that he passed on my sentiments to the lieutenant. Who seemed to lack quite the same sense of humor.

We weren't far from the main US base around there and one of the interpreters, who went around masked like most of them do, described the nearby village as an "insurgent village". Apparently they would watch for the interpreters to leave the base on their breaks, follow them and then sell their identities to the insurgents.

I heard somewhere once that the insurgents will pay thousands of dollars for the name and address of an interpreter for the coalition forces.

Later I was eating with the soldiers. We'd spent enough time together inside a humvee that it only seemed normal that I sat with them in the chow hall. One sergeant was predicting that their tours were going to be extended this time around.

The 4th Infantry Division came into Baghdad in December so theoretically they should be leaving in November... but new troops were just moved into Baghdad to try to stop the brewing civil war. The new people had been stationed up in Mosul and had been set to go home themselves, now they've been moved to Baghdad and extended for three months.

This one sergeant felt pretty sure that they wouldn't be allowed to go home either, not in the middle of the battle to retake the city.

Part of the sergeant's skepticism stemmed from his first time in Iraq, he rolled in from Kuwait with the 2nd Armored Division in March 2003 and after one year, they were set to go home, sitting in the airport in Kuwait, six hours from ending the most exhausting year of their life when word came they had to go back.

Days later they were fighting the Mahdi Militia across southern Iraq and stayed another five months through the blazing summer in 2004.

Then they went home for a year and came back 2005. Matching his joking tone, I made some comment about it must be hard to stay normal with all that.

He stopped walking, turned and look at me, suddenly serious with a strange catch in his voice, "normal? I don't think any of us are normal any more. There is no normal."