- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 17, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq, April 17 (UPI) — I am sitting at the Tactical Operations Center of the 101st Airborne Division's famed "Rakasans" at the Baghdad Airport and it was an odyssey getting here.

Morning came early at the base camp of the 3rd Infantry Division where we had bunked the night before. It wasn't because of any mission requirement. I awoke, freezing, at 5 a.m. A pot of hot water at the supply tent fixed that, however, and the sun rose fast, warming the place. After a quick breakfast of cold meals ready to eat, or MREs, we waited for the promised ride over to our embed, the 101st Airborne.

Because of the tenuous nature of army ops, I arranged a backup ride to the airport with some army contractors that were around. They're a sort of nomadic, Harley bike bunch of guys who follow the Army keeping things running.

Mostly older, mostly prior service, they resemble an oil rig crew, rough around the edges. They're also pretty camera shy and toss you names like "Crank" and "Dogman," muttering subtle remarks about ex-wives in Texas. I understood their dilemma and listened to some of the adventures they had had coming north.

"Right off the bat," one said, "they drove us into a field of unexploded ordinance near Najaf. So much for MOV CON. The lieutenant driving us turned white and I got out and backed us out of there. That was real cute."

He was maybe 50 years old, with a handlebar mustache and sporting a gray ponytail from underneath his Harley Davidson ball cap. His hands looked weathered from years of working outside with tools in them. "Then," he continued, "they parked us out near Karbala the next night with no security and one of my trucks got looted. That had me steamed. Thirteen vehicles full of tools and parts for the taking. We got lucky with that.

"Right now, I've got 65 contractors scattered all over the place and I don't have the first idea where any of them are."

He was clearly not impressed with the planning that had been devoted to his component of Operation Free Iraq. "We went through this back in '90s and I would have figured they'd have it sorted out by now," he snorted with a note of finality.

But he had a truckload of radar parts going to the airport in the morning and we were welcome to hitch a ride in the back of his pick-up truck. Plan B was in place.

Fortunately, there was no need, for within the hour our ride showed up. Staff Sgt. John Reich, formerly of Special Forces, now riding herd on journalists for the 101st, was our escort to the heart of Baghdad. He didn't say much, except to hack on the pretty Spanish newspaper reporter we had with us, Teresa Bo from La Razon in Madrid.

Gear loaded, we crossed the Euphrates River a short distance down the road. We were on our way to the new division rear, passing one convoy after another as we sped to our destination. Along the way, fresh evidence of the battles of the previous week littered the roadside. Shattered tanks and burned out trucks tossed aside as if by the breath of a dragon.

In a short time we arrived at the dustiest place I have ever known. It was an old Iraqi airfield and the new influx of heavy vehicles had churned the place into a soup of powdered, dry muck that lifted up with every vehicle's passing, every blast of rotor wash.

Everything was instantly coated.

On the way in, however, we noticed some Iraqis approaching the main gate and after unloading our kit, Teresa and I headed down to investigate. She has been covering Palestine for several years and speaks fluent Arabic. It would be interesting to inquire what the locals thought of their new neighbor. So, through the clouds of powdered muck, we walked to the main gate, a little over a kilometer away.

When we got there, their car was still parked on the side of the road, but the LNs, or Local Nationals as they are known, were gone. "I think they walked them over to the division provost marshal," a young specialist informed us, and after another long walk through the dust soup, we arrived at a barbed wire enclosure at the edge of the camp.

Inside, squatting in the dirt, were the fellows from the car. A lady captain and some young MPs stood guard with shotguns. We introduced ourselves and volunteered our services to see what they had wanted.

With simple hand gestures, the eldest of them was called over. He was a handsome individual with a red checked wrap around his head and a flowing white robe, obviously the leader. For the next 10 minutes our Spanish lady and he conversed in rapid fire Arabic and a "This is not your day, dude" story began to emerge.

His name was Hallil and he was from the village just down the road, which was in sight of the main camp. He and his nephews had gotten curious about the Americans, towards whom they appeared to have no animosity, so they had come down to the gate to say hello and welcome them. Mistake number one. Their second mistake was that they had driven. American soldiers are very, very leery about local men in vehicles approaching them after the number of suicide bombings that have taken place. At the same time, U.S. standing orders state that all military age males who approach U.S. units are to be considered as surrendering combatants and detained as enemy prisoners of war.

Hallil's whole day, indeed his next couple of weeks, were about to be ruined. The next thing he knew, the MPs were getting ready to transport him further south for processing.

So much for inviting the Yankees to tea.

As his story unfolded, I relayed it to the lady captain in charge of the guard detail. She was regretful of the process that was taking place and I'll spare her the embarrassment of printing her name and hometown. Rural Iraqi people are fairly friendly to outsiders and practice hospitality to strangers in their midst, hence Hallil's mission to stop by and offer his greetings. "I thought that that was what he was up to," she said.

"Unfortunately anyone we encounter we have orders to process in this way. Yesterday I had a whole family in here. Same drill, we tag them and ship them back to be processed."

She was a nice lady and clearly not very happy with what she was tasked to do, but Arab speakers with U.S. units are few and far between and sorting out who is who at the main gate is an impossibility and with the nature of the attacks over the last few weeks, the Army is being justifiably cautious.

Either way, as we explained his predicament to him, Hallil became very nervous and asked fearfully about what was going to happen to his car, still parked out by the gate and sure to be stolen if something wasn't done. As the MPs slapped the cuffs on him, I had Teresa apologize for everything and explain the fear that U.S. troops live under from the actions of suiciders and their bombs. He seemed to understand and I had her tell him that I would try to do something about the car. So while Teresa walked back to the public affairs officer's tent, I went back to the main gate to see what I could do.

Fortunately, as I was explaining to the MP detail that had finally arrived and taken up station there, a couple of Army chaplains turned up to take snapshots of the Saddam statue out front. I explained the whole thing to them and they promised to alert civil affairs so that they could go down to the village and explain what had happened to Hallil and send someone for the car. The sergeant of the guard agreed to keep an eye on the vehicle until it was sorted out.

As I walked back to the PAO shack, I couldn't help but ponder this odd way of winning friends. I understand the concern, but from my time as a counter-insurgency guy, I hoped that as soon as things settle down, there will be better ways of dealing with the locals.

In her story to El Razon in the evening, Teresa wrote, "Because of the fanatics, if the soldiers let their guard down it could cost them their lives, but at the same time procedure is costing others their freedom."

She captured the quandary the United States faces here rather nicely. I fear it is the tip of the iceberg of issues that will have to be addressed as active military operations wind down and the burden of nation building begins.

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