Editor's note: Andrew Scutro is a reporter for the Coast Weekly, an alternative newspaper in Monterey, Calif. He managed to hitch a ride to Iraq, where he stayed for three weeks in December to report on the U.S. occupation and efforts to turn the violence-marred country over to its citizens. Scutro is believed to be the first alternative weekly reporter in Iraq. Here is his report:
Four days after they'd nearly been slaughtered in an ambush outside Fallujah on the morning of Christmas Eve, Major Woody Nunis' shorthanded civil-affairs team takes another hit. Driving back the half-hour from Baghdad late on the afternoon of Dec. 28, speeding past farms and mud huts in the lush rural area west of the city, what sounds like bad news begins to leak in.
As they get closer to their dusty little home, a fort called Mercury, nimble scout helicopters circle above while two officers talk about something ominous over the radio in the humvee. Their mechanical conversation contains code integers about casualties and the need for an explosives-disposal team.
Minutes after pulling into Mercury, after the guns and one broken radio have been lifted out of the trucks, word comes down. Keith Adkins and Ash Garza, both young enlisted men from Texas, stand out near the vehicles having a smoke as their captain, a short, strong guy named Larry Mouton, walks up grim-faced.
Mouton tells the two men that a well-liked and respected captain named Blanco had just been killed in an ambush. Three of his men were wounded, how badly was not yet clear. Garza and Adkins had been joking around, but that ends quickly.
Later that night Major Nunis sits on his bunk in the cramped room he shares with Adkins and Garza and talks about Blanco. The dead captain was not out looking for war that afternoon; he was headed to a city council meeting in a local village. But such distinctions don't matter in the brutal, complex and utterly frustrating guerilla war in Iraq, a war being fought simultaneously with a multi-billion-dollar reconstruction and democratization campaign as complex and frustrating as the armed conflict itself.
Nunis knew Blanco well, and he bore the pain hard. "He was a good guy, too," the tall former paratrooper says, head down, deeply saddened and bitter. "It fucking sucks."
When they were attacked on Christmas Eve, Nunis and his men had been on a mission similar to Blanco's, a mission that now dominates the work of an army whose training and objective is to violently take and hold ground. In the ill-defined reconstruction phase of post-invasion Iraq, the burden of turning on the lights, getting ponds of raw sewage out of the street and establishing local governments, falls to teams like Nunis'.
Like most, Nunis' team is made up of reservists. Nunis himself, 42, is a commercial real estate broker with an MBA. Adkins, 30, is a computer programmer. Garza, 21, is a horse trainer, chuckwagon cook and poet.
When they got attacked on Christmas Eve (it had not been the first time), they were driving back from a school they'd spent a lot of time and effort rebuilding-working with local contractors, and paying out thousands of dollars. They were on their way to check a water-treatment plant. "That will be the first potable water they've had since 1991," Nunis says. "Now they just dip into the river," which is contaminated with sewage and industrial runnoff.
Their route to the school and water plant became predictable. "We were going over to the water treatment plant [that morning]. We went the same way into the school, and went out the same way, and they were waiting for us," Nunis says.
"Everybody thinks of us as the guys who pay the money, so they're nice to us. But that proved to go only so far on Christmas Eve."
Before they could get to the plant, two 125mm artillery rounds, which had been buried in the roadside next to a knocked-out Iraqi tank, were detonated by unseen guerillas. The shrapnel blew between and into the passing vehicles. One humvee windshield was shattered, the soldiers were deafened for a few minutes, and a Toyota pickup passing the other way was flipped and thrown off the road. But no one, Iraqi or American, was seriously wounded.
With this attack fresh in their memories, and now Captain Blanco's death haunting them, the civil-affairs team set out the next day, Dec. 29, for a village called Nasir Wa Al Salaam.
The mission was to visit the local council president, a gregarious political aspirant named Abbas Hussein Kenani. Abbas wears western clothes, speaks some English, and drives a new black VW Golf. He was voted into his position as the de-facto mayor of Nasir Wa Al Salaam over the summer, but he wants a higher place in the burgeoning Iraqi government and he's soon moving up to the equivalent of a county supervisor.
Nunis has to meet with Abbas and his successor, a quiet, turbaned man named Hadi Jasim Ali, to discuss Abbas' transition, and the need for some buses to transport Iraqi militia trainees. They'll also be checking on three school-repair projects in the town, mostly damaged from years of neglect, not the war.
The mission's last stop will be Al Anwal primary school, where Nunis has to make a final payment for the repairs, $2,200 in cash. (Although the reconstruction portion of the $87 billion allotted by Congress has begun arriving in Iraq, much of the reconstruction thus far has been financed with money confiscated from Saddam's regime.) Then, in the early afternoon, the team must return to Baghdad so Nunis can catch a plane for Texas, for a two-week visit with his wife and young son.
When they leave Mercury that morning, Nunis' team takes three Humvees. To supplement the short-handed squad, they borrow three infantrymen and one medic-the only woman at Mercury-from other units. They have an M240B machine gun, two M249 squad automatic weapons, an M-16 and/or a pistol for each man and woman, thousands of bullets, an assortment of hand grenades and an Iraqi translator named Kamil Kadim, who showed up for work in a suit and tie. In Nunis' pocket there's a stack of crisp $100 bills for the headmaster of Al Anwal school.
To get to the town council office, Nunis, Mouton and Kamil must pass through barbed wire and concrete anti-truck-bomb barricades, a bevy of local police and an inner screen of armed guardsmen in the hallway. Inside, Nunis speaks with Abbas in a back room behind translucent amber curtains; a ring of local men sit on couches, puffing cigarettes and sipping sweet tea. When Nunis is done with his business, Abbas shares some of his. He wants to build a kindergarten.
"We want money for the project from CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority]," he says. "So far we haven't gotten approval for a project so large. One kindergarten is not enough because in Nasir Wa Al Salaam, we have almost 200,000 people. So we want to build here, and that will take time, but we will be patient. I have a clear picture for the future of Nasir Wa Al Salaam but it is stopped now because of the terrorist attacks against coalition forces. That stops our plans for the future."
Abbas' town sits beside the infamous Abu Gharaib prison. Like others in Iraq, it was a place where many people vanished under Saddam's rule. Beyond that, the old regime had little business in Nasir Wa Al Salaam.
"The Saddam regime, they did not pay attention to the schools," Abbas says. "They took all the money for weapons. We have 65 schools here. Most of them are in very, very bad condition."
Nasir Wa Al Salaam is run down and full of unemployed citizens. But the town has had some enviable successes. The divisions between Sunni and Shi'a sects of Islam that threaten to break whatever success has been made post-Saddam-and some could say fuel a civil war-have been erased in Abbas' town. When the first American units began setting up the local government, members of both factions came together and ran for positions on the town council.
"After the war, Sunni and Shi'a, we are one hand working together," Abbas says. "We are a brotherhood. Sunni, Shi'a, we don't like this word. After the war we are all Iraqi and Muslim."
Nunis, who sits on a couch between Kamil and Mouton, offers his support: "I think it's the face this council has put forward and how confidently they conduct business. Maybe that's naïve, but everybody looks to this group for leadership. It's a statement of purpose, regardless of which sect they come from. And the quicker we turn everything over to the Iraqis, the faster these clowns who are trying to blow us up have nothing to do."
Abbas hands Nunis a contract proposal for a road project, which he does hesitantly, because it means Nunis has to take it up the chain of command for funding. But Nunis is all for it. "Let's make CPA build something," he says. "They need to come off the dime and start building some stuff."
They leave the council hall to inspect a looted building outside town slated for reconstruction. Soon they part and Nunis and his team head over to the Sheik Dhary primary school, which has run up $50,000 in repair bills.
As soon as he walks into the school, a little boy with a red backpack gives Nunis the finger.
Standing above the crowd of kids on recess in the courtyard, the major points at the boy and tells the translator to bring him over. Nunis knows that he probably learned the gesture from U.S. soldiers, but he wants to ask him if he knows what it means and tell him it's not a nice thing to do. The boy scurries away and Kamil can't catch him.
Nunis turns to the headmaster and drills him. "We're paying a lot of money for this school," he says. "It shouldn't be this way."
The convoy then heads to the Al Anwal school, the last stop before leaving for Baghdad. On the way, Nunis stops at a water pumphouse in the middle of town. They pass the through a market where they often get pelted with tomatoes. Garza yells from behind the wheel, "You're free! I freed all y'all! I am here for your freedom!"
Down an alley is a series of loud bangs. "What the fuck was that?" they ask, and everyone moves his weapon a little higher. They don't know if it was an attack or fireworks or gunfire at a wedding. Tense, they just keep driving.
With the three-humvee convoy waiting in the street, Nunis and Kamil head into the pumphouse, shown off by its proud caretaker. Before the Americans built it, there had never been running water in this part of Nasir Wa Al Salaam.
Not a minute into the conversation a loud explosion sounds in the near distance. From inside the pumphouse it's impossible to tell where it originated. Nunis runs outside looking for his men, and Garza runs down the alley looking for Nunis.
Off in the direction of the main highway, a giant, billowing plume of smoke rises into the sky. Having just been attacked, and with the killing of Captain Blanco the day before fresh in his mind, Nunis runs back to the humvee, annoyed. "It's an IED [improvised explosive device]," he says-military lingo for a booby trap.
An access road off the highway cuts right before the team and there's a good chance that the bombers would be making their get-away within seconds. Garza steers the humvee offroad and across the hardened sand, bouncing the vehicle hard. Nunis gets on the radio to call it in.
"We were just in Nasir Wa Al Salaam on the outskirts and we've just had a huge explosion. Break. We're headed over to check it out now. We'll have a grid. Over."
As Garza pulls over to ask some shepherds what they saw, it comes over the radio that the explosion was a controlled detonation of a cache of SA-7 surface-to-air missiles found a few nights prior. Relieved that it wasn't an IED, but still rattled, the team heads over to the Al Anwal school.
"OK. OK. We're good. Good deal," says Nunis. "Man, that was loud."
The Americans arrive at the school, but waiting for them in the playground are about 50 kids, many of them gripping rocks and slingshots. In the market they get pelted with tomatoes, on the country road they get bombs lit off at them, and every now and then the kids stone them. One soldier suffered a broken jaw from a rock hurled by a kid.
Nunis has a pocketful of greenbacks to give to the school's headmaster, and he's in no mood for having any of his soldiers take a rock in the eye-or for one to take a rock in the eye and then shoot back. He storms out of the Humvee and fires off a round from his M-16 into the mud. The children drop their rocks and scatter like mice, running across the barren playground to hide behind a mound.
Nunis is enraged. He strides up to the facility-protection police who guard the entrance to the school. "You better take care of this shit or I'm going to fire every last one of you!" he yells. "I'm tired of this shit!"
They protest that the children are not theirs and they have no right to discipline them. But Nunis won't have it. He goes inside to pay the principal the last of the money for the work on the school, but first he tells him to control his rock-throwing charges. "You're not setting a good precedent for us to come back here and help you out," he says.
Kamil translates. The headmaster says, "They do this with private cars also, not just the Americans."
"This is not acceptable," Nunis responds.
Mouton, who is standing there, too, turns and says, "The people think the Americans are stupid. We keep giving them money and they keep killing us. It's sad, man."
After upbraiding the Iraqi guards again on the way out, Nunis, Mouton and Kamil return to the trucks to drive back to Baghdad so Nunis can fly home. Garza shows off a weapon he pulled off a 12-year-old boy while his boss was inside. It's an expertly made and a very accurate slingshot.
"It's the best one I ever got," Garza says before stashing it in the Humvee.
Back in Baghdad, and away from the relative danger of Nasir Wa Al Salaam, Nunis talks about his work in Iraq before decompressing for the flight home.
"A lot of people are underestimating the importance of the freedom we've given these guys," he says. "They can grab signs and protest the hell out of us. If they did that before, no one would ever see them again. They can walk up to me and tell me to fuck off and I'm going to ask them why.
"It's give and take, but it's hard to blame them because it's been an all-or-nothing society for so long. This country's got a chance. It's got too many resources and too much going for it not to make it. Whether it's an Islamic republic or a democracy-it's up to them. The next two to three years will be very interesting and we'll still be around to help them along. They've really opened my eyes. This country does have a chance."
Ambassador Lewis Paul Bremer III bears much of the responsibility for whether that chance is ever fully realized. Pulled from a private-sector job in crisis management by President Bush late in April to handle stabilization, occupation and reconstruction, Bremer represents the diplomatic arm of the U.S. government, not the military.
He was ambassador to the Netherlands in the 1980s and the State Department ambassador for counterterrorism under President Reagan. He speaks French, Dutch and Norwegian and holds a Harvard MBA.
The paradox of his work in Iraq can be seen in his clothing. As the civilian administrator of Iraq's interim government-the Coalition Provisional Authority-he always appears in public wearing a suit, a crisp shirt and tie. But on his feet he wears the same government-issue desert combat boots as 130,000 American soldiers who work in Iraq as both combatants and street-level diplomats.
Known as Jerry to his friends and among Washington insiders, Bremer is an avid marathoner and skier and appears younger than his 60 years. But since arriving in Iraq on May 12 to replace a foundering retired Army general put in charge of the no-plan post-invasion era, Bremer has famously worked 20 hours a day, and it shows.
Besides constant meetings, he makes regular addresses to the Iraqi people but travels nowhere without a heavy phalanx of armed guards. The CPA, which is headquartered in a former Saddam palace, in what's now a heavily fortified quarter of Baghdad known as the Green Zone, has been attacked several times. Around Christmastime it was disclosed that weeks before, on Dec. 6, Bremer's convoy had been ambushed.
To get to Bremer's office at the CPA, one must first get into the tightly defended Green Zone, then into the tightly defended CPA headquarters, which is still called the Palace. Once a grandiose abode of big empty hallways and strange murals, it's now a beehive, crammed with offices of every kind. The entrance to Bremer's sits somewhere at the middle of a warren of hallways in a vaulted stone lobby cleared of everything but a metal detector and two expressionless marines in combat gear.
On the desk in Bremer's small office sits a long plaque with large letters: "Success has a thousand fathers." (The corollary, "Every failure is an orphan," is not visible.)
The nation-building task taken up by the likes of Major Nunis, being done without the help of nongovernmental organizations or foreign-service officers, does not go unnoticed by Bremer, even if it does by the rest of the nation.
"The civil-affairs guys are doing a terrific job," Bremer says, just back from holiday vacation on the morning of Dec. 30, working in a fleece vest. "We've completed over 1,700 projects around the country. It's a fact that doesn't get reported to the American public very often."
One thing evident both on the ground and in regular press reports is the contradictory Iraqi attitudes about the U.S. presence. Asked to comment about incidents like the rock-throwing students at Al Anwal primary school, Bremer offers a stiff response, referring to regular polls of the public: "The polls are very clear. They don't like being occupied and they don't want us to leave."
Over the holidays, a long report in the Washington Post noted that many goals set by the U.S. for Iraq, such as the privatization of its economy, will have to be abandoned in light of the unstable security situation. Under an agreement between Bremer and the Iraqi Governing Council made on Nov. 15, the CPA dissolves on June 30, and the Iraqis are free to write a constitution and hold elections by the end of 2005.
Many soldiers are concerned about the quickened tempo for success in Iraq, some blaming it on election-year politics. Bremer dismisses claims that any schedules had been compromised, and he remains confident that the country can have its way after years of someone having its way with it.
"This is a rich country," he says. "There's no reason this country cannot set up a representative democratic system."
In fact, despite being attacked himself and despite a fragile ground situation, he shares Major Nunis' optimism.
While Iraqis wait hours in line for dirt-cheap gasoline, while electric power remains unreliable, while American soldiers face an ugly insurgency, Bremer focuses on the fact that Saddam Hussein no longer rules the land and now faces the mother of all war-crimes trials, with the blood of half a million people on his hands.
"Life is getting better every day here," he says.
Bremer's optimism is belied by what the Army calls "ground truth." While he is highly respected, the CPA below him gets low marks from many soldiers who see their credibility harmed by the CPA's bureaucratic static.
When it comes up in conversation, military officers sneer about how the Provisional Authority is full of D.C. paper-pushers they call "90-day wonders," who, they say, take temporary gigs at the CPA to puff up their resumes, but get to go home in three months and talk about their adventure at cocktail parties.
One Army officer called the CPA "worthless." Another officer has his own re-working of the CPA acronym: "Can't Produce Anything." Another army officer put a sympathetic spin on his frustrations: "Everybody has good intentions and there's a lot of money flying around, but it's a challenge to coordinate all those pots of money and all the projects."
An incident on Christmas morning illustrates the frustration with the CPA. It took place at a meeting between a council of sheiks who represent Iraqi farmers, and the American colonel who commands an armored brigade responsible for security in north central Baghdad.
The commander, Col. Russ Gold, came to Iraq with no training in nation-building or civil affairs. His job parameters as an armor leader are to take over territory with overwhelming force and destroy what gets in the way. When the invasion wound down and his unit settled into its patrol region of Baghdad in late April, it was being watched not only by wide-eyed Iraqis, but also by their leaders, a group of tribal sheiks who represent the farmers of Iraq and live in the area-the oldest part of the city, and an ancient farmers' market.
As Gold and the sheiks tell it, the tribal leaders are so far impressed by the way the American troops have been treating their people. At the meeting on Christmas morning, a spirit of goodwill prevailed. Tribal chief Mohammed Ahd Ali arrived at the Al Kadhimiya meeting hall dressed in gold brocaded robes and white kefeyya, holding plastic roses and electronic Christmas cards that played "Jingle Bells." He presented these to Gold, his civil-affairs aide, Maj. Clark Taylor, and the commander of the 1st Armored Division, Brig. General Martin Dempsey. Ali was accompanied by a dozen other representatives. Gold, wearing a flak jacket and helmet, had his assistants and two contract translators in tow.
Under the old regime, agriculture was subsidized at 80 to 90 percent. The war that toppled Saddam put an end to those subsidies and interrupted the planting season. "What you have is a transition to a market economy and a government with no subsidies anymore," says Maj. Taylor, an artillery officer pressed into service as Gold's aide. "They missed the winter crop because they didn't have any money to buy the seed."
Since Gold's troops are the closest thing to a government agency in the area, the sheiks went to him, and he's taken their concerns to the CPA. They need seed, fertilizer, fuel and pesticide. But despite the good feelings, something is wrong at the Palace. "We've run into stonewall after stonewall after stonewall," Taylor tells Ali and his representatives.
Over the summer, Gold organized a convention of the farmer sheiks and personally invited the CPA's ministers of agriculture and irrigation, who did not attend. Some 1,500 farmers did, and there was only room in the hall for 500.
At the meeting Christmas day, Gold tells a member of the tribal chief's party that high-level people in CPA tell him middle management is putting up walls. They exchange some heated words, with some choice comments about the CPA, including a comparison between the agency and the old regime: The CPA, says on Iraqi representative, doesn't venture from behind the palace walls, and shows little regard for the people.
For Gold the situation is extremely frustrating. "I get emotional about this because I've been fighting for it," he says.
He knows Bremer, and he personally took Chief Mohammed to meet him. Bremer was impressed enough that he took the farmers' issues back to Washington, where they made their way into one of President Bush's speeches.
Outside after the meeting, in the warm sun of Christmas morning, Gold prepares to leave in his humvee, helmet and flak jacket back on. A farmer from southern Iraq rushes up to him and says, "Thank you, thank you for working day and night." Gold replies: "Thank me when we win."
Before leaving, Gold offers a fable he's learned in Iraq: There's a tortoise and a scorpion and they both want to cross a creek. The scorpion can't swim so it asks the tortoise for a lift. The tortoise asks, "How do I know you won't sting me halfway across?" and the scorpion says, "Why would I do that? If I sting you, I will drown-we will both die." The tortoise sees the reasoning and tells the scorpion to hop on. Sure enough, halfway across the scorpion jabs its stinger into the tortoise. As it's dying in the middle of the creek, the tortoise looks up at the scorpion and says, "Why did you do that?" and the scorpion, also about to die, tells the tortoise, "Welcome to the Middle East."
After telling the story, Gold says, "Things don't make sense. I've had people here tell me, "Don't trust anyone. Don't even trust me.' Then they'll turn around and die for me."