This month marks the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. For many of the journalists who have covered it, it has been the story of their lifetime, but we’ve nevertheless seen coverage of the war slip off the front pages over the last few months. While there are still plenty of reporters risking their lives doing great work in Iraq, much of the political, social, and economic complexity of today’s war seems to be getting lost in the election-year crush, even as the war continues to be a major issue in the campaign. This series is CJR’s attempt to add a little bit of context to the whole, while digging into stories that don’t always make it into our morning newspapers. This is Part Four in an ongoing series.
“Looks like most of this stuff has been placed here pretty recently,” Captain Jeffrey Higgins observed as we walked along a reed line along a canal with Sergeant Jamie Giles, inspecting a weapons cache 1st platoon found there earlier that morning. The two noted that the jugs of homemade explosives, 155mm and 120mm projectiles, blasting caps, and command wire (commonly used for IEDs) looked relatively clean, meaning they hadn’t been sitting outside for very long. They also found a Soviet DSHK (“Dishka”) rifle, a mounted heavy machine gun that can burn through several hundred rounds a minute, which is a pretty heavy-duty piece of weaponry to have lying around.
The cache was spread over a couple hundred meters, and to walk the dirt road next to the canal was to find an insurgent arms bazaar. The canal ran smack up against a tan brick farmhouse, unremarkable in this part of the country, but close enough to the canal to deduce that even if the people who lived there didn’t place the stuff there, they certainly knew who did.
The house wasn’t set too far back from the main road, but the tall reeds mostly hid it from view of passing traffic. It was a small, two-story structure with a wire-mesh chicken coop and a donkey tied to a pole out back, and an empty black plastic water tank next to it. The place was occupied by a young man, two women and a little girl, about five years old. When the platoon first rolled up on the house earlier that morning, Lt. Max Pappas asked the young man if he had seen anything suspicious in the area. He said he hadn’t, but he “looked nervous. Even if the guy hadn’t placed the stuff in the canal himself, he told me, “there’s so much of it, and it’s so close to the house, he had to have at least known about it.”
Sgt. Giles told Captain Higgins that “the guy started off pretty cool, but right now he’s about to have a heart attack.” I asked Sgt. Giles why the guy would be so stupid as to hide weapons so close to his own house. The locals, he said, “hide things in the reeds in the canals because they consider it public property, and they think we can’t tie it to them when we find it.”
Like many houses in the region, the farmhouse had a large concrete front porch, and the soldiers not checking the reed line had brought the women out on the porch while they checked the house. Three women sat against a wall, staring hard at the ground. The little girl looked confused and frightened, but the women remained motionless.
After 1st platoon radioed back to the base that they were pulling a significant amount of munitions out of the canal, and I went with Cpt. Higgins to investigate. The drive to the site bore testament to the recent violence in the area—the roads were scarred with a number of old, deep-buried IED craters. And the danger hadn’t passed. The convoy passed over one known live IED that wasn’t charged to go off. The team saw the wires, but it was a command-detonated IED and there was no one there to blow it. It had been marked, and would be taken care of later.
Leaving the reed line, I joined the soldiers searching the house. It was empty of furniture, save for a bed in one room, and a few mats and a small stove with some cooking utensils in the other two rooms. On the narrow back porch the young man, skinny, wispy-bearded and probably in his mid-twenties, had been flexi-cuffed and was standing in front of a pile of ammunition and some blasting caps that had been placed before him. Dressed in dirty pants and a jacket, wearing only sandals in the winter cold, he seemed somehow detached from what was going on around him.