Tuesday, March 27, 2007

An Iraqi's firsthand view of a U.S. sweep

It's nerve-racking when troops roll in to search your neighborhood and want to have lunch -- at your house.

March 26, 2007

BAGHDAD — The writer is an Iraqi employee of The Times' Baghdad Bureau. His name is being withheld to protect his safety because the account mentions the area of the capital where he lives.


It was 7:30 a.m. and I was sound asleep when the troops arrived on my street.

My neighbor called me on the cellphone and said, "The Americans are blocking the street." Because I speak English, he thought I might go talk to them and find out whether we would be allowed to go to work that day.

I stayed in bed 15 more minutes Saturday morning, wondering what to do. It was nice that my neighbors counted on me to help in situations like this, but it was a delicate thing to approach U.S. soldiers. What if they thought I was a suicide bomber?

I live on the edge of Ghazaliya, a Sunni Arab neighborhood in the westernmost part of Baghdad where there are often bombings and assassinations.

Before the current "surge," the military crackdown in the capital, the mosques would always call residents to defend the area from attacks by Shiite Muslim militiamen. The men would grab their AK-47s and fan out on the rooftops. Sometimes the shooting went on for an hour.

It had been quieter lately because the Shiite militias were lying low. But we knew it was only a matter of time before U.S. and Iraqi forces would come to search for armed militants.

I finally decided to get out of bed and unlock the gate. At least that way, the soldiers wouldn't feel the need to break the lock. Once outside, I found the courage to go over and talk to the American troops. A Stryker armored vehicle was blocking the end of my street, and soldiers were putting up barbed wire.

Before I drew near them, the Americans waved their hands and shouted to me in Arabic to go back.

"I came to talk to you!" I shouted back in English. "Can't I talk to you?"

But I don't think they heard me over the roar of the Stryker's engine.

I tried again: "I speak English."

That's when one of the American soldiers took a closer look at me and said: "Aha. And how are you?"

"I'm just fine," I said, relieved.

He and a colleague explained that they were going to search the area and asked whether I had seen any weapons coming through. I said, "No, our street is cool."

Walking back to the house, I wondered what to do next. I didn't want to miss work because I have been employed by The Times for only two weeks. But I didn't want to leave my parents, who are in their late 70s, to face the troops alone.

Last time our house was searched, I annoyed one of the Iraqi soldiers by talking to the Americans in English. He stayed behind after they left and warned me, "If I arrest you now, the Americans won't be able to help you."

I decided to stay home. I told my parents to put all their money and cellphones in their pockets, as we had heard many stories about things being stolen during these searches.

About 11 a.m., I heard the gate open and my father talking to someone. I opened the kitchen door to an Iraqi soldier and welcomed him inside.

He was a pleasant person and we shook hands. Behind him was an American, who asked whether we had a room where the soldiers could have their lunch.

Surprised, I told him he could use the empty room upstairs.

Two Americans and several Iraqis first did a short search and asked whether we had any weapons in the house. I said no, which was the truth.

One of the Iraqi soldiers asked me to sign a paper stating that my house had not been damaged in the search. "Well, I should be signing that when you leave," I said, "but looking at your faces, I guess it is OK to do that now."

Then they went upstairs to have their meal.

I don't like armed forces much, either American or Iraqi. But I thought: They are in my home, and it is Arabic custom to offer something. I brought them two big bottles of soda.

Before they left, they offered some of their unused MREs. I accepted with a smile as I like the American Army food. But to my disappointment, I discovered later that one of the packets contained pork ribs, which Muslims are forbidden to eat.

My parents were relieved when they left. "Thank God they were nice and polite both times," my mother said. I never told her about my exchange of words with the Iraqi soldier the last time.

The Americans later reported that they discovered two car bombs, two weapons caches and detained 16 suspected terrorists during the search in my area.

One of them, I learned, was my friend's 22-year-old son, who had been staying over at his buddy's house to fool around on the computer. His father called me that afternoon and pleaded with me to have a word with the Americans.

The soldiers seemed surprised that anyone had been arrested and promised to look into it. But they told me there really wasn't much that they could do because he was detained by Iraqi forces.

I went back to my friend's house. His wife was sitting outside with a sad, worried look on her face. I told her the Americans would try but had made no promises. I just wanted to give her a little hope.

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