The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Rust and paint (17)

September 11, 2006

It was a graveyard. That was the only way to describe it. The place where old war machines came to die. Row upon row of massive sand-colored metal tanks, their huge guns each raised to a different height, sat there like a frozen image of a clumsy chorus line.

There weren't just tanks either, massive artillery pieces, trucks, strange amphibious vehicles that looked half boat – an automotive mating ritual gone horribly wrong, and all covered in the graffiti of their conquerors.

Beneath the layers of black spray paint could be seen the original unit designations of these shattered old Iraqi tanks left to rust in a field at the edge of Taji base, somewhere north of Baghdad.

"God, Nation, the Leader", read words arranged around a stenciled profile of Saddam Hussein in his once trademark military beret. Years later, even amidst the wreckage of his ambitions, the word "leader" still has chilling "führer" like echoes.

It was a interesting to compare to hillsides in Morocco where "God, Nation and King" would be picked out in white stones. Somehow it sounds better with a king.

On other tanks though, the font for the Arabic seemed wrong, different, till I realized it was Farsi, and could only puzzle out the words "Iran" and "Azad", free Iran, I think. So this is what the Americans did with the tanks belonging to the People's Mojahedin, an extremely creepy cult-like group of Iranians opposed to the Islamic Republic, once supported by Saddam.

I hear they are out there still (minus the tanks) on a camp near the Iranian border, guarded by American soldiers who don't really know what to make of them – they were friends with Saddam, but they don't like the Iranian mullahs, our enemy as well. What do we do with them?

The ground around the tanks at first was the typical hard packed sand of the rest of the base, baked dry by the merciless summer sun. As I moved deeper into the rows of wrecked vehicles, though, it became strange, with a crust, almost like old snow.

Then my foot broke through the crust into a greasy, muddy ooze that shouldn't exist in a such a hot dry place. God knows what's leaked out of these machines into the ground but I hurriedly squelched out of there before it dissolved by army-issue boots.

It was actually a pretty depressing place. All this metal, all this wasted money on military machinery, now rusting away useless in a poisoned field on the edge of some remote base, while outside the whole place is rending itself to pieces so badly that not even the occupying army can do anything about it.

In that sense, the graffiti scribbled across these tanks, some of it dating back to 2004, ("John's tank", "Size does matter", "I love you Sarah" or more worrisome "I love Sarah and Maggie") was oddly joyful. You could almost imagine the soldiers going out to this field with a can of spray paint and a digital camera to create something to send a far distant wife or girlfriend.

I never realized how many soldiers seem to be married, but as moved around with various US army units in Baghdad and talked to men, it seemed everyone had a wife, far away, that they missed terribly.

Near the tank grave yard, I was living with the 172nd Stryker brigade – a unit known, ironically enough, for its massive armored vehicles. I wondered if their sleek, state of the art machines flinched just a bit, every day, as they drove by those vandalized hulks.

After year of running around Mosul, doing their thing, this brigade had been extended four more months and sent down to Baghdad a week before they were to return to their home in Alaska(!) to help pacify the still turbulent capital city.

I tagged along on their missions through the city. Searching houses, confiscating weapons, talking to people – I could see why they had been kept here, instead of bringing in a brand new unit. They were relaxed with the Iraqis, took the odd thrown stone in their stride, no one was shouted at, put into flex cuffs or otherwise humiliated.

We were in a Shiite neighborhood, so people weren't quite as over-the-moon to see them as in the Sunni neighborhoods. A number people said they though the police and army were doing a fine job – why were you still here?

One guy asked the American company commander if the US was holding back the Iraqi police and army so that they wouldn't have to leave Iraq. Shiites especially these days are grumbling that the Americans will never go home.

The captain just looked at him, and then pulled a picture of a woman with an infant. "This is my 13th month here in Iraq, this is a picture of my wife and son, I haven't seen them in a year. I get little video clips of my son and I don't even recognize him anymore. Trust me when I say most of us just want to go."

Listening to soldiers, you hear some say how they hate Iraq or Iraqis, but not all. Some really do believe in their ability to make a difference here, somehow make it better – otherwise how can they justify the last year of their lives spent here?

Bit naïve, really.

The Americans are going through the capital block by block, searching them for weapons, promising protection, and the militias and the death squads just stay out of their way and wait for them to leave.

As I'm writing this back home in my room Baghdad, I'm turning up the volume of my music to drown out the gunfire coming from across the river in Fadel neighborhood, where last night at 3am explosions tore me from sleep.

Only weeks earlier, the Strykers had supposedly been through the neighborhood to make it safe. Yet people tell us that the mostly Sunni neighborhood is now subjected to nightly assaults from Shiite militia men in nearby Sadr City – a place the Strykers haven't been to.

We contacted the US military after listening to several days of fighting. "Our initial reports don't show anything out of the ordinary in the Fadel neighborhood," they said.

But then one neighborhood massacring another has become rather ordinary in Baghdad.

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