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Dispatch from Tikrit -- 11-18-03

It is nearly 2am and there are six men, bound and blindfolded on their knees forming a crescent around an armor-plated Humvee. It is their hands that fascinate me the most -- perhaps because I can still see them, little white anemones wriggling in the darkness. Their faces have already disappeared behind dirty strips cloth or snuffed like candles with nylon sandbags. It takes only moments from when they are captured and face down in the dirt, to the click, click, click of the white plastic cuffs noosed around their wrists, It is with stunning swiftness that these Iraqi men, these suspects in a guerilla war against occupation forces become newly crowned dunces in a world where American military, as it so often proclaims, owns the night.

One prisoner, who looks to be no more than 19 or 20 years old, the same age as many of the soldiers that now surround him, is getting more attention than the others. In the dark chill he is dressed in nothing more than a thin, cotton gray dish dash robe. As two OH-58's whirl above -- a soldier bends down beside the prisoner and talks to him.

"You hear those choppers," he says, "you like helicopters don't you? You like to shoot down helicopters? Go boom?"

The prisoner I am later told by the Brigade commander -- has been identified by four separate local sources as one of the men directly involved in the recent shoot down of a Blackhawk helicopter that killed six soldiers; perhaps even the trigger man who launched what the Army believes was a Bulgarian-made Strela-3 missile. I look at his index finger. It is uncalloused, slender, did it, I question in my mind, make the deadly pull?

The men that are captured are taken in front of the Humvee where an informant sits behind bulletproof glass. They are already blindfolded but a soldier shines a flashlight in their faces anyway to make sure they cannot identify their accuser. If the informant nods the man is taken to the right, if he shakes his head, they are taken to the left and later released.

It is strange to me that it is not so much pity that I feel while I am videotaping them, painting them green with the infrared light on my camera, but recognition. I know the position they are in, the dread they feel to be bound and awash in the indecipherable language of your captors, to feel your mouth turn as dry as the desert that surrounds you, to wonder if this will be the hour of your death -- or to wonder if the hours to come will make you wish it had been, to know that at this moment you are helpless and hopeless and that the question of whether you have any control over your own destiny has finally and irrefutably been answered.

Near the end of the war my CNN team and I had been in the very same position. But we were captives of the men American forces now hunt down -- Saddam's Fedayeen militia. We had pushed too hard to be the first journalists into Tikrit, the last major city not fallen to coalition forces. Thirty kilometers from our prize, at a checkpoint near a village called Amulbedi, we are forced from our vehicles at gunpoint and told to lie face down on the road. Their leader, a middle-aged man wearing a red head scarf called a kaffiyeh and a dirty trench coat, looks at me and says in Arabic, "This one is surely an American spy."

Then he lowers the barrel of his AK-47 and fires a shot on the asphalt between my legs. I am frozen in place. My colleagues are kicked and punched while my arms are bound tightly behind my back.

My translator, a Kurd from Sulamaniyah named Tofiq looks at me and says,

"Today is the day that surely we will die."

But it is Tofiq who will save us -- goading a tribal chieftain to intervene with the Fedayeen, telling him that if we are harmed coalition forces will turn Almubedi into rubble.

We are eventually released, but have lost one of our trucks, most of our gear and all of our money; thousands in U.S. dollars that were supposed to help buy us out of binds like this one. Instead it is words, Tofiq's words that have set us free.

Now as I look at these men, bound and blindfolded, I think of my time in their place; that they have no Tofiq to speak on their behalf, wonder if they are guilty of what they are accused. If they had killed soldiers that were friends of mine, indeed, it may be me leaning over and whispering discomforting things to them. If these had been my Fedayeen captors I would want to do worse.

Acronym Soup
The Army, which has turned acronyms into the opposite of their intended use of making things easier to remember, calls its battlefield information headquarters a TOC, short for Tactical Operations Center. There the commander sits flanked by his XO, executive officer, battle captains, S2 (intelligence officer) and S3 (operations officer) sucking in the information flow and knitting together daily missions that help them to accomplish their overall mission.

In the TOC in Tikrit, 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry commander Colonel James Hickey, tells me the mission here is to, "defeat the enemy and stabilize the region." The enemy as he defines it is FRL's (former regime loyalists) like Baathists and the Fedayeen. The overriding mission is the capture of HVT #1 (High Value Target), otherwise knows as Saddam Hussein.

"If we cut off the head the rest of the snake will wither and die," he says.

Unlike some soldiers, he is not confused about his mission. It is not for hearts and minds, but to defeat the enemy. Colonel Hickey carries himself with overriding air of formality. He was former cavalry officer and quietly revels in the history of that belonging. He wears an ascot at times and would seem at home with jodpurs and a whip.

He has a reputation for being one of the most aggressive commanders in the theatre -- and if things goes well here, he likely get his first general's star.

"I have a military problem here and I'm applying a military solution," he says with complete confidence. "Our adversaries are not militarily effective. They are mercenaries, terrorists and pirates and they will be defeated."

I understand the logic of his reasoning, can identify with his belief system, share a cultural and communications bond with his American soldiers that I live amongst -- even find myself nodding and talking weapons hardware like some beltway think tank geek.

So in some ways, embedded in this unit, I begin to feel I've betrayed the people that depend on me to be skeptical; to question the dominant powers and institutions of my nation and the actions it undertakes in the name of its citizens. I am not a military or American cheerleader, not a mouthpiece signed on to some institutional agenda whether I believe in it or not. I am here to ask the hard questions of the people who make the hardest decisions; ones that result in people dying or people being killed. I must remember as one journalist advised, "write in your notepad every day 'I am not one of them.'"

But in this room, where every piece of information is broken down quantitatively--number of patrols, number of raids, number of IEDs (improvised explosive devices), number of detainees, number of weapons -- and put back together in the form of a task completed or a mission to be accomplished, Operation Thunder Road, Operation Ivy Cyclone, the problems and solutions seem remarkably clear an seductively simple.

Watching the Power Point slides, it is easy to believe what the Colonel believes -- that a harder not softer approach is the key to victory here, that most people are indifferent rather than opposed to Coalition occupation, that these Saddam hangers-on are growing more desperate, dwindling in numbers and becoming less effective. And Tikrit, the ancestral homeland of Saddam Hussein, which does have the potential to become a Falluja or Ramadi, yet somehow, perhaps through Colonel Hickey's aggressive tactics, has not. But nor has it brought peace and tranquility. Something Colonel Hickey concedes, is not the next stop after this one.

"This," he says referring to his military operations, "won't bring democracy here -- only the civil authority can do that -- but this will get these guys out of the way so the process can move forward and the majority here can get on with their lives."

Living on base, behind walls guarded by American soldiers, I cannot say I have met the majority or even the minority in Tikrit. Without many exceptions my exposures this time in Iraq are limited to those Iraqis that have been vetted to clean the base or serve on the police force or work as interpreters -- or those that are captured during raids.

Land Rover
When I travel through town I am just as insulated. I am either in a military convoy or in an armored Land Rover that NBC has equipped me. It is the shape and weight of a Brinks truck, with blast plates on the undercarriage and reinforced steel around the entire frame. When I am driving through town I feel as I am behind the wheel of a vessel as sporty and responsive and the Civil War's Monitor. And as far as making a subtle entry into the community I may as well be driving the Oscar Mayer Weiner Mobile.

While the Land Rover gives me some needed distance from the Army to try and engage the locals, its very purpose and presentation creates its own problems. It offers real protection from the hostile intent of some Iraqis, but also sends a message others, just as wearing a flak jacket does, that you fear them, don't trust them, believe they want to kill you. It is not the most ingratiating handshake a journalist can give, but perhaps at this time, in this place it is the only one.

When I get a flat tire, I see an opportunity to engage people in the community more directly. I take the tire to repair shop on a side street just off the main drag in downtown Tikrit. My colleagues Pelin Sidki from CNN and Joe Raedle from Getty Images are with me. Joe and I get out and roll the flat tire into the shop. The three men there are very surprised to see us. We're not wearing uniforms or flak jackets so they are not sure what to make of us.

One unsmiling man takes the tire and begins the repair while the owner of the shop and the other man shake our hands. The owner points out yellowed photographs taped to the wall. In the pictures he is a younger, holding up fish that he's caught on a trip to somewhere in another time. We admire the catch and proceed to try and communicate -- both of us babbling in our own language, stopping to laugh or point or do something else inane. I say we are journalists. They are puzzled until Joe says "sahafa" the Arabic translation.

"Not CIA," the other man says in English with a small laugh.

"Not CIA," I say, "Sahafa, sahafa," -- parroting Joe.

Then I remember Pelin is still in the truck. I go to get her and bring her into the shop. It immediately changes the dynamic. The men are not used to having women in their workplace. They become more subdued. We need an icebreaker and I find one when the owner's ten-year-old son, Ala, comes into the shop.

I shoot a still image of him with my video camera and show him the result. Then I show him how to work the camera himself and he videotapes the man repairing our tire. Everyone lightens up a bit, encouraging Ala in the task. But now there is a buzz around the shop. People know we are here. Young men in their late teens and early twenties gather on the sidewalk in front and try to speak with me as I go out to lock the truck.

I give them a big smile and shake all of their hands, to be as disarming as possible. One young man, wearing a red kaffiyeh just glares at me, but then reluctantly takes my hand. Another named Mohamed speaks a little English. He asks me where we stay so I tell him in Baghdad since I don't want to say we live on the base. It's only a partial lie since our main bureau is in the capital. He asks me where I'm from and I say Ireland, another partial lie—since I carry an Irish as well U.S. passport.

Red Kaffiyeh
All of them warm to me a bit -- except for the one in the red kaffiyeh. He eyeballs me up and down, stares at my boots trying to decide if I'm a soldier, spook, civilian contractor or connected in some other way to the Americans. Sensing this, I ask them what they think of the soldiers being here. Mohamed translates. They all say "no, bad, bad." Why, I ask them?

"Because," Mohamed says, "Every night they break down door..." he struggles for the words, then pantomimes a soldier with a gun, pushing someone to the ground, then holding the gun over them.

I nod, again understanding fully. Knowing their fear and humiliation, but also the military's motivation behind the raids -- even their aggressiveness
in carrying them out -- their anger following the death or injury of a fellow soldier on a patrol that day.

It is for me, a strangely omniscient view of both the occupier and the occupied. In a way it is debilitating. I empathize with each, but sense no convictions for either, nodding with understanding at the explanation from both sides.

But this night while I sleep behind the concrete walls of one of Saddam's former palaces, now the Brigade HQ, I will dream that I have made a wrong turn in Tikrit -- driving my royol blue "Brinks" truck down an unfamiliar side street -- at the end of the road is an angry man wearing a red kaffiyeh, demanding to know who I am.




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