U.S. troops find electricity and work remain biggest concerns of most Iraqis
BAGHDAD — The first thing Hussein Ali asked Maj. Craig Lester was why the 6-foot-4-inch Tennessean was standing in his neighborhood market.
“Is there a problem here?” Ali asked.
Lester said no. His two-Humvee convoy, from the 489th Civil Affairs Battalion, was there to view the market, he said, take measurements for a new project nearby, and hand out some T-shirts.
In that case, Ali, 44, decided to speak his mind.
“Look at us,” Ali said, gesturing to the men beside him. “Look.”
“This man?” Ali said of a man to his left, “Two wars. No home, no clothes, no money, no work. People here are very, very tired. Where is the help? Where?”
In a garbage-strewn, south Baghdad neighborhood called Abu Deshir, after two weeks of news reports about terrible prisoner abuse and humiliation at Abu Ghraib prison by U.S. forces, it seemed that what remained foremost on the minds of some of the neediest Iraqis had not changed.
“Where is the work?” Ali asked.
“Very soon,” Lester said.
“Where is the electricity?” Ali asked.
“We’re working on that,” Lester said.
Lester, 38, along with other soldiers from the 489th Civil Affairs Battalion attached to the 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division in Baghdad, has been working in the neighborhood since his arrival from Knoxville, Tenn., in February. The soldiers have put in street lights and soccer fields, built protective walls around gas stations, improved roadways and renovated schools — 27 projects in all and a tiny drop in the bucket addressing Baghdad’s need.
They’ve also tried to persuade the people there that the United States is in their country to help them, no matter what they’ve heard.
“If there’s a firefight, we kind of put it out that these were bad guys and we were just defending ourselves,” Lester said.
But they couldn’t dispel the rumors about Abu Ghraib.
The disclosures of abuse, it was predicted, would make their jobs and those of other U.S. troops in Iraq more dangerous. So far, most soldiers say, they don’t feel any more at risk.
“When we go out, regardless of what’s going on, we go out the same as always,” said Sgt. 1st Class Brian Lindsey of the 1/8th Cav. “We just go out and stay focused.”
Some commanders encouraged their soldiers, when on patrol among Iraqis, to address the Abu Ghraib issue and reiterate the Army’s message: Those photos do not represent the actions of most U.S. soldiers; America is ashamed and sorry that such abuses occurred; and the soldiers who committed the abuses will be punished.
“I’ve talked to several different squads about it,” said 1/8th Cav Command Sgt. Maj. James Lee. “Any time we’re on the ground, we’re discussing Abu Ghraib, that that’s not what America is about.”
The scandal and ensuing congressional hearings uncovered Pentagon-approved, coercive interrogation techniques, such as depriving prisoners of food, sleep and clothing and using dogs to intimidate them. Those methods were banned last week.
But many soldiers interviewed said they had not brought up the Abu Ghraib scandal in any discussions, and Iraqis had not broached the subject, either.
A translator who works with the 489th Battalion, who gives his name only as Salam and wears a disguise for fear of being murdered for working with the U.S. military, said it’s hard sometimes to know what Iraqis really think.
After years of living in fear of Saddam Hussein, he said, they don’t necessarily say what they mean, especially to those in authority.
“They are going to tell you a good thing,” he said.
Salam said he thought Abu Ghraib was just the latest in a list of problems that had long ago caused Iraqis to lose confidence in the U.S. mission. Without much progress restoring electricity and security, people had already come to view many American promises as empty, he said. Searches and raids ending in the detainment of thousands of Iraqi men had earned the United States real enmity long before the Abu Ghraib photographs of sexual humiliation came to light, Salam said.
He gave an example: “They’re [the Americans] looking for the father, they arrest the son. That’s what Saddam did,” he said.
“When I leave here and go home and I see Americans,” Salam said, “I feel scared, too.”
A school headmaster did bring up Abu Ghraib during a visit by civil affairs Spc. Aaron Spalding to discuss school renovations, Spalding said.
“He just wanted to know if we were over here to humiliate them and occupy them,” Spalding said.
Spalding replied that he was there to help, that he and the Army valued loyalty, respect, selfless service and integrity, and that the soldiers who committed the abuses were therefore not really soldiers.
“I guess he was kind of relieved,” Spalding said. “He just nodded his head, then said he wanted mosaic tiles on the floor.”
Among the most important measurement soldiers say they use to gauge the amount of good or ill will around them — in addition to roadside bombs and people firing weapons — is the behavior of Iraqi children. If they’re out on the street, it’s a good sign that no ambush is near. If their parents allow them to approach the soldiers, all the better.
“As long as the kids are out, I’ll feel safe in this country,” Spalding said.
During Lester’s market mission, scores of children gathered around, begging for T-shirts that read “Peace and Prosperity.”
The T-shirt giveaway had started earlier, then been hastily curtailed when it threatened to turn into a riot. A throng of Iraqi men pushed children out of the way and pressed Lester against his Humvee to grab for the shirts until he had to rifle-butt them with his M-16 and drive off.
Now the men were gone but the children, almost all boys about 10, had taken their place.
“Nipsee!” Lester said, attempting to say “Shoo!” in Arabic.
The children corrected him. “Emshee!” they said.
Lester laughed, and one boy asked him if he was from Texas.
“No,” Lester said. “Texas very bad.”
Many interactions among soldiers and Iraqi adults remain friendly. At the beginning of a recent project that employed some 600 Iraqi men to clean canals of silt, plants and garbage, Maj. Luther Webster was addressed by one man.
“ ‘Today is a good day,’ ” Webster said the man proclaimed. “ ‘Today is the first day in a long time the men have left the women at home and everyone is happy.’ ”