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“We’re nothing but human shields.”

This morning at Camp Bravo in Baghdad's Amariya quarter, headquarters of the Iraqi Army's 303rd battalion, all routine patrols have been suspended. A big raid is about to take place on Abu Ghraib. Famous for its prison, the city has long been one of the most dangerous spots in Iraq after Falluja and Ramadi. It was here that the coalition killed over 500 Sunni and Shi'ite insurgents who had united their forces last April. Today over 200 Iraqi soldiers of the "new army" and 80 American soldiers are supposed to participate in the operation.

Even if they're fighting in the same camp, Iraqi soldiers look on with envy at the American's metal plated bullet-proof vests. They complain about their equipment. About their salary. About their miserable lives. Their neighbors consider them traitors because they collaborate with the Americans and many of their colleagues have been murdered when they went home. Some don't even hide their nostalgia for the Saddam era. To hear them tell it, the only thing different for them since the dictator's fall is the right to wear sun glasses during operations. Everyone wears them: Imitation Ray-Ban or Calvin Klein stuck between the masks and the bandanas that hide their faces so no one can recognize them. The Americans stuff themselves into their armored vehicles. Only Captain Smith, the Iraqi soldiers' instructor, climbs into the simple pick-ups with open windows at the mercy of any grenade with us and "his men". On board the truck, we feel like live targets. A soldier kindly offers us a Kalashnikov: he's not sure he can protect us in case of an attack...

In one Abu Ghraib neighborhood, eight targets have been identified, "mortar launchers", an Iraqi soldier explains to us as he blasts the radio to drown out his fear. When we arrive in the alley, the Humvees and American tanks are already pointed at the houses. Helicopters fly over the neighborhood.

Captain Smith preaches to the Iraqi officers who are supposed to supervise the operation. One of them takes care of traffic instead of watching the men. One squad lingers in a house and loses the rest of the troop, but there's no major hang-up. A well-conducted raid. Men surprised in the shower, mothers who sob when their sons are arrested...

Whether they're conducted by Iraqis or Americans, all the raids are like each other. They all provoke the same feelings of malaise. We want to apologize for being there, to distance ourselves from the infraction, from the violence of these weapons that search the corners of houses taken by force in the softness of a Friday afternoon nap after prayer, the best moment to act, according to the Americans. Eight men are arrested. One of them is thrown into our truck. An Iraqi soldier motions to me to give him my scarf to blindfold [the prisoner].

Back at camp, Captain Smith makes a show of satisfaction: the operation took less than an hour. The American instructor, blond, with washed out blue eyes, angular features, and military diction, loves his job. He decided to join the army after an attempted suicide when he was fifteen years old. "I asked God to show me the way and he ordered me to join the infantry."

To train the men, some of whom are barely eighteen years old, Smith uses a close combat video game called Computer Gate. "I did that already in Korea. This way, their first combat takes place on a computer." Smith respects his 240 soldiers. They have "behaved well" every time they've been under fire; even if he makes no bones about their motivations: "They're here for the salary ($150/month for the senior ranks). Exactly like the Americans. Very few of us are here to defend our country..."

For him, the hardest part is separating the wheat from the chaff. "Some of them are informers in the guerilla's pay. You know, there aren't many innocents in this country." Moreover, he knows that the last group of soldiers to be taken in inform the local sheiks. Colonel Mohammed, the Iraqi who commands the 303rd battalion, did want to engage them for the same reason, "but the American General Staff decided otherwise to please certain tribal chieftains...", he explains. Captain Smith points out a big heavy-set guy, haggard and somewhat dubious looking, a new enlistee who answers to the name Abu Brahim. "The Iraqis have intelligent hoodlums. Unfortunately, those are the ones who are fighting against us," he jokes. According to him, if the American General Staff imposed this sergeant, it's because he's the protege of the Sheik of an influential tribe, but no one in the camp trusts him: he would inform the "terrorists." Abu Brahim is covered in scars. His men tell us that he's a former Saddam Special Forces soldier. "To toughen us up, they made us kill animals and then eat them raw," one of his former comrades broadcasts. Abu Brahim hates to talk about this period of his life, however. Because he is considered an American "collaborator", mortars have been launched against his house. The last time, his mother was wounded and his nephew died. Like his men, he complains about the conditions of his life. About his salary which doesn't justify the risks that he runs: "Under Saddam, we got a plot of land and a sum of money. Today, we're less well treated than the police." There's also the antiquity of the weapons and the presence of women in the unit that exasperate him: "We're heroes, what use are women to us, they do nothing but complicate the work!" Obviously, this enlisted officer who commands a squadron is nostalgic for the Saddam years: "In those days, when we had complaints to present to our general, he settled everything within five days..." Then, there is still and always the question of the transfer of powers. The humiliation of being commanded by the Americans is constant. Even here where the relations between the men are rather better than elsewhere.

Twenty five angry soldiers stand in front of Camp Bravo's gates. A whole squad is in revolt. All the soldiers are speaking at once. Humiliated men who demand reparations. Hassan describes the corruption that eats away at the unit. He asserts that one of the sergeants and seven other Iraqi soldiers are taking kick-backs on contracts and selling the weapons they confiscate on the black market. "When we've gone to denounce these practices, the Americans consigned us to quarters. They trained their weapons on us, insulted us. One of them spit on me, on me, who discovered three booby trapped cars last month! One of the American soldiers, Captain Mike, was furious; he asked his compatriots why they had humiliated us this way and threatened to leave. Then they went and arrested him in turn." The Amariya Camp Bravo grunts sympathize: "The Americans control everything. There's been no transfer of power for us, but there has been a transfer of risk. We're nothing but human shields. Two days ago, I was on patrol with them. They were in armored cars; we were in pick-ups. And, of course, it was our men who were killed when the bomb exploded."

With his majestic traditional coat and his blue eyes, Sheikh Hisham al-Dulaimi looks like a movie star when he arrives at Camp Bravo. As he does every week, the president of the National League of Iraqi Sheikhs comes to negotiate with the Americans for the release of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Ever since the torture photos scandal in the prison that had previously symbolized the Saddam regime's cruelty, detainees are released by the busload. Tribal chiefs guarantee their good conduct in writing and then that round is over. Sometimes, it's even arranged before those guilty of acts of resistance are arrested. Sheikh Al-Dulaimi is one of the principal artisans of this new American pragmatism. Since the power transfer, he helps some of Saddam's former intelligence agents to find new work. Every day hundreds of petitioners lobby in his offices to get his support for their reintegration into the administration or the army. "Reintegrating former Ba'ath Party members is the only way the Americans may hope to one day reestablish peace in Iraq," is the Sheikh's simple analysis.

Captain Smith, however, the American instructor of the Iraqi Army, still can't get over these ex-officers of Saddam's regime, who were considered the bad guys only a few months earlier, reintegration into the ranks of the new army: "To tell you the truth, I would never have imagined having to work with war criminals one day..."

Sara Daniel

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About Sara Daniel

Portrait of Sara Daniel
Sara Daniel, a French journalist, war correspondent, expert on the Middle East.
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