Between Iraq and a hard place

For the soldiers on the ground in newly liberated Iraq, helping to build a democracy has proved a maddening and, at times, deadly mission

Photo By Andrew Scutro

Four days after nearly being slaughtered in an ambush outside Fallujah on Christmas Eve, Maj. Woody Nunis’ shorthanded civil-affairs team takes another hit. Driving back from Baghdad on the afternoon of December 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 the team members get closer to their dusty little home, a small fort called Mercury, nimble scout helicopters circle above while two officers talk about something ominous over the radio. Their mechanical conversation contains code about casualties and the need for an explosives-disposal team.

Minutes after pulling into Mercury, after 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.

A well-liked and respected captain named Ernesto Blanco has just been killed in an ambush. Three of his men were wounded—how badly is not yet clear. Garza and Adkins have been joking around, but that ends quickly.

Later that night, Nunis sits on his bunk and talks about Blanco. The dead captain was not out looking for war that day. 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 guerrilla war being fought in Iraq now, a war fought simultaneously with a multibillion-dollar reconstruction and democratization campaign as complex and frustrating as the war itself.

Nunis knew Blanco well, and he bears the pain hard. “He was a good guy, too,” the tall soldier says, head down, deeply saddened and bitter. “It fucking sucks.”

When they were attacked on Christmas Eve, Nunis and his men were on a mission similar to Blanco’s, a mission that now dominates the work of an army whose training 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 raw sewage out of the streets and establishing local governments falls to teams like Nunis’, which are called civil-affairs units.

Like many teams, Nunis’ is made up of reservists. Nunis himself, 42, is a commercial real-estate broker with a master’s of business administration. Adkins, 30, is a computer programmer. Garza, 21, is a horse trainer, chuck-wagon cook and poet.

When they got attacked (it was not 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 runoff.

Their route to the school and water-treatment 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 125-mm artillery rounds, which had been buried in the roadside next to a knocked-out Iraqi tank, were detonated by unseen guerrillas. The shrapnel blew into the passing vehicles. One Humvee windshield was shattered, the soldiers were deafened for a few minutes, and a civilian Toyota pickup passing the other way was flipped and thrown off the road. But no one, Iraqi or American, was wounded seriously.

With this attack fresh in their memories, and now Blanco’s death haunting them, the civil-affairs team sets out the next day, December 29, for a village called Nasir Wa Al Salaam.

The mission is to make a visit to the local council president, a gregarious political aspirant named Abbas Hussein Kenani. Abbas wears Western clothes, speaks some English and drives a new black Volkswagen Golf. He was voted into his position as the de facto mayor of Nasir Wa Al Salaam during the summer, but he wants a higher place in the burgeoning Iraqi government, and he’s soon to move 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 U.S. cash. (Although the reconstruction portion of the $87 billion allotted by Congress has begun to arrive in Iraq, much of the reconstruction thus far has been paid for with money confiscated from Saddam Hussein’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 it leaves Mercury that morning, Nunis’ civil-affairs team takes three Humvees. The short-handed team borrows three infantrymen and one medic—the only woman at Mercury—from other units. The soldiers are armed with an M240B machine gun; two M249 squad automatic weapons; an M-16, a pistol or both for each man and woman; thousands of bullets; and an assortment of hand grenades. They also have along an Iraqi translator named Kamil Kadim, who showed up for work in a suit and tie. In Nunis’ pocket, there are crisp $100 bills for the headmaster of the 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 office hallway. Inside, Nunis speaks with Abbas in a back room with a ring of local men sitting 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],” Abbas 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, where many people vanished under Saddam’s rule. But besides that, the regime did 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 say could 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. 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 naive, 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. He does it 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 Nunis walks into the school, a little boy with a red backpack gives Nunis the finger.

During a round of visits in Nasir Wa Al Salaam, Maj. Woody Nunis’ team stops to check on repairs at the Sheik Dhary school.

Photo By Andrew Scutro

The major points at the boy and tells the translator to bring him over. Nunis knows the boy probably learned the gesture from U.S. soldiers, but Nunis 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 Baghdad. On the way, Nunis stops at a water-pump house in the middle of town. The soldiers pass 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, there is a series of loud bangs. “What the fuck was that?” someone asks, and everyone moves their 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 pump house, 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, there’s a huge, loud explosion in the near distance. From inside the pump house, it’s impossible to tell where it came from. Nunis runs outside, looking for his men, and Garza runs down the alley looking for him.

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 Blanco the day before fresh in his mind, Nunis runs back to the Humvee, very pissed. “It’s an IED [improvised explosive device].”

An access road off the highway is nearby, and there’s a good chance that the bombers will be making their getaway within seconds. Garza steers the Humvee off-road 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, the Americans get pelted with tomatoes; on country roads, they have bombs set off; and every now and then, the kids stone them. One soldier had his jaw broken by 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 any of his soldiers to take a rock in the eye or for one of them to shoot back. He’s had enough. He storms out of the Humvee and fires one shot from his M-16 into the mud. The loud crack intimidates the children enough that they drop their rocks and scatter like mice, running across the barren playground to hide behind a mound.

Nunis is now 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 these children are not theirs and that 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 not to let his charges throw rocks. “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 says.

Mouton, who is standing there, too, 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 guards again on the way out, Nunis will drive back to Baghdad so he 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 slingshot. “It’s the best one I ever got,” Garza says.

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.

“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.”

Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III bears much of the responsibility for whether that chance is ever fully realized. Bremer represents the diplomatic arm of the U.S. government, not the military.

Pulled from a private-sector job in crisis management by President George W. Bush to handle occupation and reconstruction, he once was the State Department ambassador for counterterrorism for former President Ronald Reagan. Bremer speaks French, Dutch and Norwegian and holds a master’s of business administration from Harvard.

The paradox of his work in Iraq can be seen in his dress. As the civilian administrator of Iraq’s interim government—the so-called CPA—he always appears in public wearing a suit, a crisp shirt and a 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 Washington insiders, Bremer is young-looking for a man in his early 60s. 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 famously has worked 20 hours a day, and now it shows.

Besides constant meetings, he makes regular addresses to the Iraqi people but travels nowhere without a heavy phalanx of intimidating armed guards. The CPA, which is headquartered in a former palace of Saddam’s in Baghdad, has been attacked several times. On December 6, Bremer’s convoy was ambushed, but he was unharmed.

Nunis pays $2,200 in cash to the superintendent of the Al Anwal school in Nasir Wa Al Salaam. Civil-affairs teams like Nunis’ set up repair projects for pump stations, schools, sewers and other facilities suffering from neglect or looting.

Photo By Andrew Scutro

To get to Bremer’s office at the CPA, one must get into the tightly defended “green zone” of Baghdad first and 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 office sits in a vaulted stone lobby cleared of everything but a metal detector and two unsmiling Marines in combat gear.

On the desk in Bremer’s small office sits a plaque that reads, “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 Nunis, being done without the help of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or foreign-service officers, does not go unnoticed by Bremer.

“The civil-affairs guys are doing a terrific job,” Bremer says. “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 evidenced both on the ground and in regular press reports is the contradiction of Iraqi attitudes about the U.S. presence. Asked to comment about incidents such as the rock-throwing students at Al Anwal primary school, Bremer offers a stiff response, referring to regular polls of the Iraqi public: “The polls are very clear. They don’t like being occupied, and they don’t want us to leave.”

A long report in The Washington Post noted that many goals set out by the United States for Iraq, such as the privatization of its economy, will have to be abandoned in light of the unstable security situation. According to an agreement between Bremer and the Iraqi Governing Council made on November 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 have been compromised, and he remains confident that Iraq can have its way after years of someone having his 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, Bremer shares Nunis’ optimism.

While Iraqis wait hours in line for gasoline, while electric power remains unreliable, while American soldiers face an ugly insurgency, Bremer focuses on the fact that Saddam no longer rules the land and 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,” Bremer says.

Bremer’s optimism is all but contradicted by what the Army calls “ground truth.” Though he is highly respected, the CPA below him gets low marks from many soldiers who see their own credibility harmed by CPA bureaucrats.

Military officers will sneer about how the CPA is full of D.C. paper-pushers they call “90-day wonders,” who, the officers say, take temporary gigs at the CPA to buff out their résumés 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 reworking of the acronym CPA: “Can’t Produce Anything.” Yet 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 armored-brigade leader are to take over territory with overwhelming force and violently destroy what gets in the way. When the invasion wound down and his unit settled into its region of Baghdad in late April, it was being watched by 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 were impressed by the way the American troops were treating their people. At the meeting on Christmas morning, a spirit of good will prevailed. The chief, Mohammed Ahd Ali, arrived at the Al Kadhimiya meeting hall dressed in gold-brocaded robes and white kaffiyeh, holding plastic roses and electronic Christmas cards that played “Jingle Bells.” He presented these to Gold and other officers. Mohammed was accompanied by a dozen representatives. Gold had his assistants and two contract translators.

Under the old regime, agriculture was subsidized at 80 percent to 90 percent. The war that toppled Saddam put an end to those subsidies and also interrupted the planting season.

“What you have is a transition to a market economy and a government with no subsidies anymore,” says Maj. Clark Taylor, an artillery officer pressed into service as Gold’s civil-affairs aide. “They missed the winter crop because they didn’t have any money to buy the seed.”

Because 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 seeds, fertilizers, fuel and pesticides. But despite the good feelings, something is wrong at the CPA palace.

“We’ve run into stonewall after stonewall after stonewall,” Taylor tells them.

Gold arrives for the meeting in a helmet and a flak jacket. The meeting begins with his pledge to help the farmers, delivered through his translator, an Iraqi-American from Michigan.

“My main mission right now is to have the organization recognized and legitimized and to have a voice in the new Iraqi government,” Gold says. “That’s my focus now. The rest of the time, I am taking bad guys off the streets.”

A guest at the meeting, an Iraqi named Zaid A. Abdul Hameed El-Noeimy, a representative of an NGO in Iraq trying to set up business organizations, was there to help the farmers achieve legitimacy with the CPA.

When they speak, Mohammed, of the council of sheiks, has other priorities. “If we don’t plant our land for two years, it will be ruined. We are not asking for new cars or new equipment. All we are asking for are the seed and fertilizer.”

Zaid replies in Arabic, “All we are worried about is the needs of the farmers and taking those needs to the governing council.”

As the two talk, the translators relay what they are saying to the Americans in the room. “We are working against the terrorists, and we are thankful for freedom from dictatorship,” says Mohammed, the chief. “We are asking for something very small. All we want is a piece of paper that shows we exist.”

Zaid A. Abdul Hameed El-Noeimy works for the Center for International Private Enterprise in Iraq, advising groups such as a federation of farmers about how to gain a foothold in Iraq’s new government.

Photo By Andrew Scutro

But when Zaid gives the farmers a piece of advice that, in translation, seems to run counter to the work they’ve been doing, Gold explodes.

The colonel convened a convention of the farmer sheiks during the summer 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.

Gold tells Zaid that high-level people in the CPA tell him middle management is putting up walls. They exchange some heated words, with some candid comments about CPA. Zaid says the CPA sometimes acts like the old regime, that it doesn’t venture from behind the palace walls and shows little regard for the people.

“They stay in the green zone, and they don’t know what is the hell happening,” Zaid says.

Eventually, Gold and Zaid simmer down, with Gold saying, “I get emotional about this because I’ve been fighting for it.”

For Gold, the situation is extremely frustrating. He knows Bremer, and he personally took 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 Bush’s speeches.

After the meeting, outside in the warm sun of Christmas morning, Gold prepares to leave in his Humvee, his 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 the tortoise is dying in the middle of the creek, it looks up at the scorpion and says, “Why did you do that?” and the scorpion, which is about to die, too, tells the tortoise, “Welcome to the Middle East.”

After telling the little 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.”

With that, Gold turns to leave for what’s left of Christmas, “I’m going to go smoke a cigar.”

It’s just before midnight the night after Christmas, and it’s raining in Baghdad. Lt. Col. Frank Sherman, commander of the 1st Battalion, 13th Armor Regiment, sits in his Humvee just inside the gate of a former Iraqi secret-police prison. His unit and a battalion from the 82nd Airborne use the prison cells now to hold Iraqis found with weapons or otherwise threatening the unstable peace.

The base sits on the edge of a Baghdad neighborhood called Al Hurriyah. Across the river, Saddam was seen walking through the streets during the invasion, just before he disappeared for nine months.

Idling ahead of Sherman is a truck packed full of paratroopers from the 82nd, about to embark on a late-night raid. Each one is armed to the teeth; some have machine guns, and one has a shotgun strapped across his back. The soldiers like the rain because it will keep the curious indoors, but it also means they won’t have any protective helicopters circling above.

More elements of the raiding party are spread out through the area unseen, like the special-forces team that moves to the launch point in a few sport-utility vehicles. Among the American raiders are Iraqi translators wearing ski masks, to shield their identities from hostile countrymen. They carry bullhorns, so they can yell orders into buildings.

Sherman has been on the radio with the other raid commanders making final preparations. He turns to his driver, a young sergeant. He describes the three types of cars that his scouts spotted earlier, cars full of armed men circling the raid area.

“If they come anywhere near you, stop them,” he tells the sergeant. “They’re going to be armed, so keep your weapon up. If you see anything that looks like a fucking weapon, start dealing.”

With that, the convoy rolls, with all lights off, ready to do violence while Baghdad sleeps.

Like Gold, many of the soldiers in Iraq today do the hearts-and-minds work of civil affairs by day and then do the rough work of raids and searches when the sun goes down. Sherman is one of Gold’s battalion commanders. In the area, there’s a cleric named Ahmed Hussein Al Dabash they want to capture for questioning. Sherman says Dabash has been using his prayer calls at a mosque to incite violence between Shi’a and Sunni and to prod his followers to attack Americans.

On December 9, there was an explosion at an area mosque. Dabash, a Sunni, blamed the Shi’a, saying the mosque was attacked with rocket-propelled grenades. Sherman says an investigation revealed that his mosque was being used to make IEDs, and the explosion was a bomb that went awry.

The Americans know Dabash. Sherman and other officers have met with him repeatedly, in meetings in which Dabash was friendly and accommodating. But the Army has heard the prayer calls, which are not friendly or accommodating. He’s also suspected of having Al Qaeda ties, and some “national-level” U.S. intelligence people want to talk to him.

Dabash has followers, and it’s expected they won’t give him up easily. Besides the three armed cars spotted by the scouts and the men on Dabash’s roof with automatic rifles and grenades, Sherman expects that when word gets out in the morning that the cleric is under American detention, the locals will “go nuts.”

The neighborhood happens to contain the warehouse for the World Food Program, which feeds the city, and another warehouse that provides medical supplies. Sherman is concerned that local anger will fall on the two facilities, so he has some of his tank units and psychological-operations teams ready to “flood the zone” if Dabash is grabbed tonight.

Earlier in the evening, before raid preparations went into full swing, Sherman and his officers ate a dinner of Christmas leftovers and watched the Cleveland-Orlando basketball game. He is going to go into the raid alongside his men, with two broken fingers in a cast—fingers he broke pulling a pistol off a local standing by the side of the road. He talked about the raid a bit over dinner. They expected the worst.

“This could get violent,” Sherman said then. “We think they might fight for him.”

Dabash is believed to be at one of four locations, each one given a code name for the raid: objectives Moe, Larry, Curly and Shemp. First, they’ll hit the house where the guards on the roof were seen, on the assumption that he’ll be there.

Unlike weapons searches, in which the soldiers pick through a home from top to bottom, the team will get in and out fast; Dabash is there, or he’s not. During a pre-raid briefing with the team leaders and special forces, Sherman tells them to move fast and be as silent as possible.

“If you gotta make noise to get in, make noise,” he says. “But you are most vulnerable in the street waiting to get in. You know this.”

This past Christmas, Col. Russ Gold spent the morning in a meeting with the leaders of Iraq’s farmers’ federation. During the summer, the farmers came to him for help getting seeds and fertilizer as well as political recognition in their changed nation.

Photo By Andrew Scutro

The streets of Baghdad on a rainy night at 1 a.m. are quiet and empty. Maybe one or two cars pass as the raiders move toward Dabash’s homes. Scouts are already up on the nearby roofs watching for movement when troops from the 82nd pull up to Dabash’s street. Sherman leaves his Humvee with the team medic, John Walker, and runs in quietly with the raiders.

The first house they get into without too much trouble, but Dabash is not there. One soldier comes out with an AK-47 across his back. While they’re inside, a scout spots a man running across the roofs to a neighboring house. The troops break down that gate only to find, parked in the driveway, one of the cars seen patrolling earlier. They break in and search it for weapons but find none.

They try again with the next house and pull out two men who say they’re just visiting for the night. And they pull out Dabash’s brother. All three are cuffed and put into the back of the open truck, where they sit in the rain when the party moves to another part of the neighborhood.

It’s hard to see much of it at 2 a.m., but the neighborhood seems to have some nicer streets, with short, gated driveways and orange trees in the front yards. Around the corner, sewage flows down the street.

For all the noise the raiders make breaking doors down, no one comes outside. Women in some of the target houses scream and wail when the soldiers crash in, but neighbors are not roused.

It turns out the raid missed Dabash by a half an hour. Sherman calls a huddle of the raid leaders, including the special-forces team which had been out doing its own work. “He went into a mosque,” Sherman tells them. “There’s not much we can do if he goes into the mosque.” Sherman turns to the special-forces leader. “Can you get us in the mosque?” Sherman asks. “Not really,” replies the special-forces guy.

Based on a tip from the special-forces team, they try one more house. It’s only a few blocks away, and they head right over. It’s close to 3 a.m. and still drizzling when they approach the place. The Iraqi translator yells through the bullhorn to open up. A man calls back, asking in Arabic what it’s all about. The raid leader, Capt. Gabe Barton, tells the translator to tell the man that it’s Americans and that if he doesn’t open up, they’re going to break the door down. When he hesitates, they begin a countdown starting at 10. No one comes to the door, and a sergeant starts kicking it in. It’s metal, and it doesn’t break, but the rattle is enough to bring the man and his wife and daughter to the door.

The woman and girl stand off to the side in front of the house crying and muttering while the man is questioned. When the soldiers figure out he’s not the right guy, Barton apologizes to the woman and girl and tries to calm them down. The Americans get ready to go. The family goes back inside, and the soldiers leave.

Driving back to the base, Sherman takes what good from it he can, even though the big fish got away. He says the other raiding parties did take in a former Iraqi general who’s suspected in the insurgency, as well as two of Dabash’s lieutenants.

“Well, three out of five is not so bad,” he says.

The two men who claimed to be just visiting are taken back to one of the first houses, un-cuffed and taken inside. All the addresses are recorded, so claims officers can go back and reimburse the homeowners for broken locks and smashed windows, of which there are one or two.

The brother, however, will spend some time in the old prison, which has not changed much since the Iraqis ran it, except that its inmates aren’t tortured and executed. The night of the raid, there are about 15 in there, either sleeping or huddled under wool blankets.

Sherman says Dabash will get word that his brother is now in detention at the old secret-police prison. “We’ll tell him, ‘We have your brother. You need to come in and meet with us.’ So, we’ll try it that way. If he takes off, he takes off. Then, we’ll release his brother, but he doesn’t know that now.”

After almost four hours running through the streets of an otherwise silent city, the Americans are back behind the wire. Later, driving down side roads on one of the dark patrols and observation missions they do every night, Sgt. 1st Class Mark Davey of St. Louis speaks highly of Sherman from the front seat of his well-armed Humvee.

“He’s fearless,” Davey says. “He’s a warrior.”

Davey and his men like what they do, prowling around the streets looking for trouble before trouble finds them and their friends. It’s during the wee hours that insurgents plant the IEDs to blow up in the morning.

Like the officers above them, Davey and his men are well aware of the pressure to succeed in Iraq. The fact that it’s a presidential-election year is not lost on Davey. Sliding through the rainy night, thinking about what an extra dose of politics might mean to his mission, Davey says simply, “It’s gonna suck ass.”

On December 29, Nunis’ crew dropped him off in Baghdad at a compound inside the airport turned base camp so he could catch the first of his supposed flights home. I was set to leave two days later, also on an Air Force cargo plane.

A harrowing couple of weeks over the holidays, especially a near-death experience on Christmas Eve, must have taken a toll on Nunis. When I went to the flight-operations shack to check on my own ride, an entire day after he got there, he was in the waiting room, sprawled out in a chair, dead to the world, with a copy of a military-history magazine across his chest.

His trip home will be short. He’ll be right back in Iraq about two weeks later, back to the area around Fallujah, which, since he’s been gone, has seen two helicopters shot down, with 10 killed. There’s also been an accidental shooting of civilians that enraged the locals, and a mortar attack on another compound that killed one soldier and wounded 33. Those are the ones we know about. Countless others—like the Christmas Eve attack—go unreported.

The Iraqis are of mixed emotions about the Americans. They can see all the money the United States is putting into the country, and that’s only good. As Bremer said, they don’t want the occupation, but they don’t want the Americans to leave, either. The ones who aren’t insurgents are grappling with freedoms they never had before.

The Iraqis with whom I spoke—teachers, former teachers turned translators, handymen, entrepreneurs and both men and women—were thankful and optimistic. And afraid.

The American soldiers with whom I spoke said the same two things. The first was that it’s their job to be there and that they’ll do it as well as they can. The other thing the Americans said is that they are there for the kids. They look to the Iraqi children with hope, knowing that they won’t forget the Americans who came in and fixed their school or took some bad guy out of the neighborhood. When the kids pelt them with rocks, the soldiers understand it’s as much of a game in a violent country as when they see kids punching each other hard and laughing about it.

As miserable as it is there, and it is miserable, the Americans make the most of it when they can, even if that means surfing the Internet while off duty or playing volleyball until the sun goes down. Some become close friends, like Garza and Adkins from Nunis’ team. Garza will drive up from Texas to be Adkins’s best man when Adkins gets married in Santa Cruz this summer.

That said, many have been there since the invasion and really want to go home to their families. The thrill is gone. “I’d rather read about this from my house or watch it all on TV if you don’t mind,” said one soldier who’d been there long enough. “Our fun meters are pretty much pegged out, man.”

The last night I was in Baghdad, I packed my bags, and when I was finished, I went outside to smoke a cigarette. As I opened the door, there was a huge whoosh and thump and boom not far off. I turned back, not knowing if it was just some freak air pressure rushing out of the building or something else.

“That was a 120-mm mortar round. It landed about 150 meters away,” said one of the civil-affairs soldiers who came outside to see.

As he lit up a smoke, sirens started going off near the impact. Usually when that happens, shells are lobbed back—unless, using very fast radar, the soldiers can figure out that it was fired from a populated area, as the insurgents like to do. Nothing went back out.

A female soldier who’d been in the building using a computer came out, too. Her bunk was in another building, and she had a bit of a hike to get there. Despite the shell that had just landed nearby, she didn’t care—maybe because it was the holidays, and she was thinking of home more than usual; maybe because she figured no more shells would come in, and even if they did, she’d take her chances; or maybe she was just tired. She set out alone.

“I’m walking home,” she said, and then she disappeared into the darkness.