Finding vehicle doors at a Baghdad metal dealer’s shop a bad sign to GIs
Stars and Stripes May 30, 2008
BAGHDAD — Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Gaskin isn’t exactly known for mincing words, and he’s got little patience for this Iraqi scrap metal dealer.
"I paid a lot of money for that stuff," the scrap dealer ventures quietly, gesturing at the plates of U.S. Humvee armor being confiscated from his yard, which he says he bought at a dump outside a nearby U.S. base.
"I don’t give a flying [expletive] how much you paid for it," Gaskin shoots back, stepping forward and jabbing a finger at the much shorter man. "Either you’re going to go to jail or you’re going to help us load it in our trailer."
The armor, the soldiers say, might be used by militiamen to practice attacks or assess the strength of the plating.
Another platoon had found four complete uparmored Humvee doors on a prior visit, but hadn’t brought along a trailer to carry them away. The doors are gone now, and Gaskin wants to know where.
"Who did you sell them to," he demands. "Did you sell them to the militia?"
The scrap dealer waves his hands, no. He says he already melted them down. He says he doesn’t want to go to jail.
It’s been a few weeks since the worst of the fighting receded from this part of eastern Baghdad, but a patrol from Gaskin’s platoon, part of Company B, 2nd Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment, was hit with rocket-propelled grenades and machine gun fire just a few days before its visit to the scrap dealer this week.
Most of the soldiers expect more fighting as they continue to push through the ramshackle neighborhoods between Sadr City and Baghdad’s far eastern edges. Tension remains high, and the Humvee parts at the scrap dealer strike the soldiers as bad, or at least weird.
As they drive through the area’s trash-strewn, foul-smelling streets, the soldiers look warily out at the Iraqis, who generally seem to be doing nothing.
"I was cool with them until that day when nobody said anything about [a roadside bomb]," one soldier says. "They just ran."
The Iraqis stare back with what seems like an equal amount of wariness. Pictures of Muqtada al-Sadr are not an uncommon sight in houses here. Many feature al-Sadr alongside the leader of Hezbollah. But the residents always say they know nothing about the militia’s activities.
On Wednesday, the American platoon sets out with a trunk full of backpacks filled with school supplies. They stop at a girls school but find no one there, then have to scour the streets looking for a suitable group of children. They find a half-dozen teenage boys milling around a corner, but by the time all the trucks pull up only two of the boys remain, and they soon leave.
The soldiers dismount at another corner and, while some push out to form a security perimeter, Gaskin starts pulling out backpacks. Soon a small flock of children has come running.
After the bags are gone, Gaskin turns to his interpreter and offers a short inspirational talk.
"Now, make sure you guys go to school and learn ... learn whatever you guys learn here," he says, telling the interpreter to "say something crafty."
A little girl begins listing the months of the year. She is learning.
"That’s good," Gaskin says. "Now let’s have a song. Is there an Iraqi song we can sing. They got a song, right?"
A song is sung, and the patrol moves off around the corner where a man starts complaining about the lack of water and electricity.
"Do you know why?" Gaskin tells him. "Because you let the militias run through the streets. Right now I have to focus on my guys not getting blown up on these very streets. When it’s safe for us to travel without getting blown up, we will focus on services."
The man has nothing else to say. The patrol walks off.
Later they will visit a pair of Iraqi National Police checkpoints where the policemen say they have no clean water and are beset by plagues of flies and mosquitoes. They are drinking from the sewage canal, officers at one of the checkpoints say. The water delivered by the Iraqi government has made many sick with diarrhea and typhoid, say those at the other one.
Gaskin says he’ll see what he can do. But the water is really their government’s responsibility, he tells the officers.
"And it’s not just the water," he adds. "It’s the flies. The flies land in [feces] and then they have [feces] on their feet. Then they land on your hand and you wipe your nose and you have [feces] in your nose. You have to get rid of the trash."
Trash lies against the walls, but there is a dump next door, an Iraqi officer notes. The wind blows, the trash comes back.
"So you have to keep picking it up," Gaskin says. "You just have to keep picking it up."