The war in Iraq has changed for the U.S. military, and some of the most important work being done there is, frankly, kind of boring, at least in terms of the kinds of dramatic, violent encounters that tend to garner the most press coverage. So while we still read about the big suicide bombs, much of the mainstream press coverage of Iraq is big-picture stuff—the maneuverings of the Iraqi government, the return of refugees, etc. Meanwhile, the important, if mundane, counterinsurgency work is playing out largely beneath the media radar. The following is just a small example.
On one recent, bitterly cold night patrol run out of COP Courage, northwest of Baghdad, we made the usual stops at several checkpoints manned by the newly-dubbed “Sons of Iraq”—formerly “Concerned Local Citizens”—to see how things were going. Almost every trip outside the base involves stops at these checkpoints to gather intelligence and provide some visibility, in order to show the SOI, and those potentially watching them, that the Americans and their astonishingly mobile Stryker vehicles are on the beat, as it were.
The checkpoints run the gamut from well-constructed HESCO S-turns in the middle of the road to concrete barriers to little more than piles of dirt with shivering Iraqis huddled nearby. In the entire 233 square kilometers that falls under Stryker Task Force Gimlet’s control, there are 1,580 Sons of Iraq on the payroll, with seventy-five checkpoints breaking up the roadways, denying the use of the roads to anyone carrying explosives, heavy weapons, or bomb-making materials.
Much of what you learn from talking to the SOI must be taken with a grain of salt, several soldiers told me. Every Son will tell you that he hates Al Qaeda, and that he helped drive the group out of Anbar province; what he won’t tell you is that the area was a hotbed of Al Qaeda trafficking for years, an open, isolated expanse where foreign fighters could slip through the tall reed lines lining the canals into the Baghdad region from Anbar, and before that, from Syria.
But the selective history is to be expected. Less than a year ago, some of these same men were planting IEDs and shooting at American forces, and some no doubt helped Al Qaeda members move through the area. But that was then. For a variety of reasons—honor, economics, a war-weariness—they switched sides.
At one checkpoint, I asked a small group of SOI what the area was like a year ago. “You could not go out at night,” one said. “We found bodies in the streets. The volunteers are from this area, so we know who should be here, and who shouldn’t. Al Qaeda depends on the people, because they are from outside of the country.” This is a common theme among the SOI—that Al Qaeda is made up solely of foreign fighters, and Iraqis didn’t take part in their plans. I asked another group at another checkpoint if they would like to join the Iraqi police force or army, since they’re essentially doing the work a well-run police force or army would do. All said that they would. So why haven’t they joined? “In the past,” one said, “we were afraid to join because of Al Qaeda.” He meant that the likelihood of that he or his family would be killed for collaborating was an effective deterrent.
I also asked at several checkpoints what they need most to keep Al Qaeda out of the region, and the answer was the same every time: more powerful machine guns, more ammunition, and night vision equipment. The platoon leader, Lieutenant Corbin, was standing nearby during one of these exchanges, and broke in to tell me that, “We can’t arm or supply them with arms, so one lump sum is paid to the commander, and then he’s supposed to trickle it down, $300 a month, and they skim off the top to pay for ammunition, food, water, tents, stuff like that. But that skimming usually goes in their pockets.” This probably isn’t as insidious as it sounds—Iraqi society is based on the Big Man, whether that man is a sheik, an SOI leader, or whomever, and skimming is simply a part of life.
Another thing you’ll often hear out at the checkpoints is how a sniper or some Al Qaeda terrorists fired on the SOI just a few nights before, but they managed to drive them off. This isn’t to say that the checkpoints aren’t being fired on—they are—but the stories often have a self-serving quality, tied up in pleas for heavy machine guns or better equipment. Listening to one of these stories about a sniper that recently fired two shots at the checkpoint, Lieutenant Corbin asked if anyone was hurt, and how close the shots came. It turned out that they weren’t very close, and Corbin grinned, “So it was a shitty sniper.” The SOI said that it was the second time they had been shot at, the first time being about a month ago. The lieutenant kept pushing, and concluded that it was nothing more than a stray round or two that landed near the checkpoint; something not unthinkable in a country where random gunfire is a way of life. He asked if they had informed their chain of command about the shots, and they said yes, but Corbin was skeptical, explaining that, “I’m just trying to figure out why we never found out about it, because we like to come down and investigate when the checkpoints are fired on.” He gave them the tip line to call if they get shot at again, and was off to another checkpoint.