Eyewitness account by Jean Carrere – 20 May 2011
Piled in the back of a police truck we finally left the police station at one o’clock in the morning. The night was pitch dark and the only light in the streets came from our convoy. In the back of the truck, the soldiers laughed, smoked cigarettes and checked their AK47 rifles. It hardly seemed like we were going on a hunt for suspected militants in the Salahadin province of Iraq.
Despite common mistrust between them, the Kirkuk police and the Iraqi army regularly come together to carry out these raids. Kirkuk is a disputed region between the Kurds and the Arabs of Iraq, hence the tension between the Kurdish-run police and the Arab-dominated army.
Among the journalists taking part in the operation, the ambiance balanced between tension and excitement. When the convoy stopped in a field in the outskirts of the city, we all jumped out, camera at the ready. But in place of tension and excitement, the only thing we encountered in this field was severe boredom, as the different factions taking part in the raid gathered and discussed their plan of action for several hours.
Soon, the Iraqi Army joined the police, and further afield, thanks to the glowing light of the oil refineries, we saw the silhouette of soldiers around their combat vehicles. They were the US Army ready to join the operation.
The US soldiers had brought with them around twenty Strykers, large combat vehicles and troop carriers introduced by the US during the Iraq invasion in 2003. This the US soldiers called tactical support for the joint Iraqi Army and police force in their nighttime raid.
As I walked around taking pictures and trying to gather information about the operation, I encountered a young American soldier, sitting on a Stryker. Eating M&M’s, with an American flag on his back and his M4 carbine on his lap, he looked like a walking cliché. He told me to quote him as Mike, and from him I didn’t learn anything about the raid. Mike was the first American soldier I met, but not the only one to tell me that ‘he had no clue’ as to what he was doing there.
The hours passed, but the sky did not lighten up. The night was at its darkest when Captain Jeff Kane of the Charlie Company, 114 infantry of the US Army came to find us.
‘You guys are gonna be riding with us on the front line, I’ve got extra seats left in my vehicle’, he told us. I was delighted to hear this, as I heard from an Iraqi soldier speaking a few words of English that the American were to lead the operation on the field.
‘So, you guys are fucking journalists? How the hell did you end up in Iraq?’. His tone indicated that he was half joking, and half genuinely surprised of finding us here. Indeed, the highlight of embedded journalism had been over for long…
In one last shot at the old tough drill sergeant routine, I believed intended as much to intimidate us as to amuse us, he asked us whether ‘we wanted body armor, or rather go free-style on this one’. In an effort to play along, we instantly dismissed the body armor, trying to adopt a casual attitude. Apparently, we passed his test, as Kane tapped me on the shoulder: ‘Good for you. If it were up to me, I wouldn’t wear it either’.
At four in the morning, we climbed the rear ramp of the Captain’s Stryker and the large vehicle’s engine roared, and started his bumpy ride towards Dakamat, a small village only a few miles – or ‘kliks’, in US military slang – out of Tikrit. I heard Kane speaking over the radio: ‘be advised that we are bringing a new asset with us, extra-precaution required’. First time anyone referred to me as an ‘asset’, I decided to take it as a compliment.
The ride was as uneventful as it was uncomfortable, so I asked the soldier next to me if I could stick my head out of the rear turret to take pictures. ‘No can do, it’s too dangerous’. So much for excitement.
Having been up for nearly 20 hours at this point, I dozed off. My break was short-lived though, as soon the Stryker stopped, and almost instantly all its occupants were outside, forming a perimeter around the vehicle. I jumped off, and what I saw was mind blowing. We arrived in the village minutes before dawn, and in front of me, as far as the eye can see, desert. This had nothing to do with the landscapes of the Kirkuk region, only an hour north of where I stood. It was 5 am, the operation was starting.
Kane’s unit quickly made its way into the village, and entered a courtyard surrounded by several small houses. As the soldiers created a perimeter, Iraqi Army and Kirkuk police troops arrived with shovels and started searching the place. Searching for what, I didn’t know exactly, and none of the soldiers seemed to know -nor care.
Using the same routine, they made their way through several houses, always coming out empty handed. Every time they exited a site, they left a soldier behind to guard it. The village seemed to be empty of its occupants, apart from here and there a frightened mother and her children, or elderly women talking among themselves, with obvious anguish.
An intense buzzing started, and as I looked to the sky I saw two combat helicopters flying in circle around the site. With the excitement of the beginning gone, I started walking around the village. The combination of the three forces -police, US and Iraqi Army- added up to an almost ridiculous number of soldiers. Add to that the two war birds circling above our heads, and the 20 or so tank-looking vehicles parked in the desert outside the village, and I couldn’t help myself but laugh out loud. A small army invading a tiny village, waving guns to children and their grandmothers.
Of course, the inherent risk of such an operation requires an important force, but the contrast was still striking. As I made my way back to Kane’s unit, who moved a couple houses up the street, I could hear loud chatter: they finally found something. The US soldiers were gathered around an improvised table and stared as the chief of Police examined a notebook and a few papers.
At this point, a journalist explained the situation to me. The joint forces were looking for Mohammed Adnan, an insurgent suspected of involvement in a recent attack in Kirkuk. Adnan, however, was nowhere to be found. Neighbors informed the police that he left the day before. But eh, they got a notebook, and they seemed excited about it.
I followed the soldiers along the streets of the village, until we were back to its outskirts, where stood a mosque. The US army was gathering all the men in the village, and processing them inside the mosque, after having frisked them and in some cases, taken their fingerprints and scanned their eyes.
Journalists were not allowed inside the mosque, but looking over the fences, I could see the soldiers splitting them into two groups. One group – ‘these motherfuckers’, as one of the soldier referred to them – was to be interrogated. This would take several hours.
With nothing to do for a few hours, I went back to wondering around the village, striking conversations with US soldiers and the few Kurdish or Arab that talked to me in broken English – mostly to ask if they could take a photo with me, and by the end of the day I felt like a movie star on Hollywood boulevard.
Even if they were not hassling me to get a picture, the American were not any more helpful. None of them knew what the operation was about. When I talked about this to Mike, now out of M&M’s, stationed behind a wall, guarding the street to the mosque, he commented: ‘we never know what we’re up to. That’s not our job. Our job is to do what we’re told, and mostly sit on our ass in the sand with our kill-stick (understand rifle) up’.
But as disciplined soldiers, they do not question this. Even though the zone looked very secure, none of them failed to remain alert. They did not smoke or eat, as they were doing at the meeting point, but kept their hands on their ‘kill-sicks’ and their wits about. At the same time, some Iraqi soldiers were sitting on the ground, or making tea out of their Humvees, most of them chain-smoking.
Two suspects were finally arrested, and put face against a wall. This is the moment where the Kirkuk police decided to move out, to investigate another scene. A few minutes later, we were racing through the desert on the platform of a pick up truck, following the Strykers and escorted by the helicopters. That scene turned out to be a wild goose chase, and after a bit more of sitting around, because apparently they cannot get enough of that, they drove us back to Kirkuk.
Throughout the entire operation, I’ve been struck by the capital importance of the US army. Apart from their advanced weaponry and well-disciplined soldiers, they were basically leading the operation, only letting the locals on the site to dig and search, or translate during the interrogations. Even though every single high ranking official in the police or Iraqi Army will proudly declare that they do not need the American, and that they function in a perfectly autonomous fashion, the US drove the entire operation. With their withdrawal supposed to be effective by 2012, one cannot help but wonder how the fight against terrorists will be held afterwards.
A shorter version of this article was first published in the Kurdish weekly Rudaw on 14 May 2011.
Jean Carrere is a fourth year student in International Relations and Conflict Studies at Trinity College Dublin. He is a freelance journalist based in Iraq and Turkey. Jean also works for the Kurdish newspaper Rudaw, and will be spending the month of June reporting in Libya.