USA: no end in sight in sixth year in Iraq
By Petteri Tuohinen
A searchlight sweeps along the dark road in the southwest side of Baghdad. The crew on board an American armoured personnel carrier are putting their lives on the line, looking for signs of roadside bombs set by rebels.
The convoy stops suddenly as someone fires a tracer bullet last our vehicle from the side of the road.
The observer has seen the glow of a cigarette in the midst of the darkness.
"Shoot where you saw that smoker!", said the commander. Soon the whole area is lit up by light flares shot up into the sky.
"I can't see a damn thing", the lookout says. The men peer for a "trigger man" whose task it is to wait on the side of the road for American convoys. When a vehicle gets close to a bomb, the trigger man will detonate the bomb using a mobile phone, for instance.
No trigger men or bombs are to be seen. The convoy gets safely to the camp at Agur Quf.
The roadside bombs are the worst possible enemy for American soldiers. Heavy protective vests will give protection against bullets, but a roadside bomb will open a lightly-armoured vehicle like a can of sardines.
The war in Iraq has continued for five years.
After the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein, Iraq was supposed to have become a beacon of democracy for the Middle East. Things have gone differently. Various sources estimate that in the war years at least 100,000 civilians have been killed in the violence, and no end is in sight.
Far away in Washington there is talk about reducing the forces, but the approximately 160,000 American soldiers cannot be sent back home very quickly. If they were, the likely result would be a full-scale civil war.
Trends in the five years of war have varied. In recent times the fighting has taken on a more violent character again. Facing each other have been groups such as the Iraqi government and the so-called Mahdi Army. Violence is also perpetrated by a varied array of militias.
The number of attacks against Iraqi security forces and civilians more than doubled in March compared with February. The United States calculated the number of attacks at more than 630.
The trend can be seen in the number of victims. According to the Iraqi government, 923 civilians died in the violence in March, one third more than in February.
More than 4,000 American soldiers have died in the war in Iraq.
To avoid dealing with the constant presence of death, the soldiers talk about lighter subjects on the radios of their vehicles.
Soldiers coming from Hawaii talk about surfing, coral, and sharks. There is also talk about women.
One of them feels that Jennifer Aniston is the sexiest actress in the TV series Friends. Another asks his buddies if they would marry a foreigner.
"Of course I could marry a foreigner", one of the soldiers responds.
"Think about some hot Swedish beauty."
The Americans have tried to cut the risk of roadside bombs through various means, including hiring Iraqis to man roadblocks. The "Iraqi boys" are paid 300 dollars a month, which is many times what a farmer might earn.
However, the Americans do not supply arms for the Iraqi boys. This can be seen at the roadblocks. The men carry their own Kalashnikovs, which are often unloaded. The roadblocks also look dingy, and the Americans do not really trust in the effectiveness of the Iraqi boys.
Captain Saad of the Iraqi police shows up at a roadblock. He is very concerned about the security situation, which has recently deteriorated.
"We only want security. I hope that the armed groups will not destroy what we have built so far", Saad says, and wishes the "blessings of God" on the Americans who are leaving.
The American soldiers are trying to trace down the members of armed groups with their daily patrols, and by talking to local people.
Have there been any unknown men or cars in the area? Have there been any vague meetings somewhere around here? Often the Americans get tipoffs to their telephone hotline about arms caches and roadside bombs or their manufacturers.
Lieutenant Chad Corbin is lucky.
Corbin has spoken to a local village leader, Sheikh Munder - first making small talk over a glass of tea - on the differences between Iraqi and American agriculture, and the US civil war - when the Sheikh takes a notebook and a pencil from Corbin and draws a map showing the movements of a group whom he suspects are rebels.
Hard-line Islamist armed groups have murdered numerous Iraqis who have helped the Americans, or have worked for the Americans. Sheikh Munder is not afraid, except that the threats mean that it is not safe for him to go to Baghdad from his own neighbourhood.
Munder wants to help in the search for rebels, because he is tired of the violence in Iraq. He notes that in the time of Saddam, large numbers of Iraqis died in numerous wars.
"When I came home from a long journey, I would always ask before greeting anyone if anybody in our family had been killed in Saddam's wars."
Although Munder is critical of the actions of the Americans, he feels that the departure of the soldiers would push the country into deep difficulties.
"Already now a lack of security is our greatest cause for concern. We do not need money, but rather more security. Iraq is a rick country."
"If the Americans were to leave, violence would spread to a wider area. Iraq already has a civil war, with the government and the Shi'ites (the Mahdi Army) would fight over money and oil."
When the Americans arrived in Baghdad five years ago, Munder was giving flowers to them. Now as the guests leave, the sheikh goes into the garden, cuts a few roses, and extends them to the soldiers.
It is revealed that in the American fight against terrorism, a golf club can also be used as a weapon.
In the village of Menizaid, Sergeant Jaime Oliveros grabs a golf club to use against excessively aggressive dogs.
"We don't want to shoot them. After all, they're someone's dogs", Oliveros says. The club also proves to be convenient when digging through a cow pat.
There was also a tipoff that the rebels had hidden weapons in the waste compartment of an outhouse.
A metal detector beeps now and then, but the bomb-sniffing dog doesn't smell anything.
"Yummy", Oliveros says, as he pulls his golf club out of the cow dung.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 11.4.2008
PETTERI TUOHINEN / Helsingin Sanomat