Day Three In Iraq

To: Center for American Progress

Lawrence J. Korb
Lawrence J. Korb

The mood among our group today was quite reserved. Many could not forget the sight of the body bag containing the remains of a young soldier placed in the center aisle of our aircraft on the flight from Baghdad to Kuwait City late last night. All of us were moved by the touching remarks of the clergyman, a member of our delegation, about the young soldier’s sacrifice.

This is our last day of the Department of Defense (DOD) sponsored trip to Iraq. We spent the first day in and around Baghdad. Yesterday we traveled to the Shiite area south of Baghdad. Today we flew to Kirkuk, a major city in the Kurdish-controlled area about 170 miles north of Baghdad.

DOD’s purpose in forming this delegation was to “enhance” our knowledge of the coalition’s progress toward reconstruction and self-governance in Iraq. That progress is sporadic at best and is a mile wide but only an inch deep. Some of the places we visited in Baghdad were shelled the day we left, wounding at least four people. Even in the “secure” area south of Baghdad there was violence in the Shi’ite holy city of al Najaf where a top Iraqi judge was kidnapped and killed. Today, a Polish officer was killed the same area, and yesterday guerillas in the Northern city of Mosul, another so-called “secure” area, wounded five American soldiers.

Yesterday our convoy made a wrong turn traveling from the headquarters of the multinational division in Al Hillan to the university in the city’s center. Our bus had to be escorted by at least 20 soldiers in military vehicles wielding M-16 or M-4 rifles. When our escorts realized their mistake, they totally disrupted city traffic by making illegal U-turns and going the wrong way on a one-way major highway. The soldiers in lead vehicle cleared a path for us by waving their loaded weapons at the ongoing traffic= As you can imagine, this did not go over too well with the local populace.

One has to wonder why so much protection was needed in the “safe area.” The soldiers have an almost impossible task. When they leave their heavily fortified walled-in compounds, they are told to wave at the local citizens. But they can only do it with one hand, because they have their loaded weapons in the other. Last evening, as we flew in a Blackhawk helicopter from al Hillan to Baghdad, the young soldiers manning machine guns protruding from each side of the helicopter were our designated wavers. It’s hard not to wonder what the people on the ground are thinking as they look up at soldiers sending mixed messages.

Due to the ongoing violence in Iraq, our schedule for today was drastically altered. Instead of flying north from Kirkuk to Mosul to be briefed by the commander of the 101st Airborne Division, our Blackhawk took us southwest from Kirkuk to Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown. We could not go to Mosul, which the Bush administration touts as a model of progress, because the commander of the 101st was too busy dealing with the aftermath of guerrilla attacks that killed three Iraqis and wounded 12, including five Americans.

Tikrit is the headquarters of the most technologically advanced division in the Army, the 4th Infantry Division (ID) from Fort Hood, Texas. The division was supposed to attack Iraq from Turkey, but did not because of the failure of the Bush Administration to convince the Turkish Parliament to allow the use of their bases. As a result, they were diverted to Kuwait. The Pentagon chose not to postpone the invasion long enough for the 4th ID’s equipment to arrive and thus, they launched the invasion without the Army’s most powerful division. The 4th ID finally made it into Iraq just before the fall of Baghdad.

Their headquarters is in a palace that Saddam built in his hometown but never used (like the other palaces in Baghdad that house American units, the workmanship is not very good. They look much better on the outside.). As one might expect from the Army’s most high-tech division, the PowerPoint briefing was dazzling.

For over two hours, we were overwhelmed with charts that outlined how they were organized and analyzed six major operations conducted the past six months. The briefing also provided hundreds of numbers to demonstrate the progress they are making in their area of responsibility. It concluded with a five-minute video focusing on the human side of the division’s operations to wipe out the resistance and rebuild the infrastructure, winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people.

It is apparent this is the type of data that the Administration is relying on to tell us how much progress is being made. But neither the Administration nor the military seems to recognize that the insurgents do not have to win the war; they just have to avoid losing. Even the briefing acknowledges the insurgents are becoming more organized and lethal. Importantly, the video ends with the names of the more than 30 members of the division who have been killed in action slowly scrolling across the screen. This changed the tone of the briefing completely.

Our day concluded with a graduation ceremony for about 100 members of the Iraqi Civilian Defense Corps. These young men, who come from a dozen or so tribes in the Tikrit area, have been trained by U.S. forces to become the Iraqi equivalent of our Army National Guard. Eventually, they will guard the infrastructure and conduct raids on the remnants of suspected Saddam loyalists or other insurgents. They are part of the 80,000 Iraqis that Secretary Rumsfeld is saying will augment and replace U.S. forces. If these young men are any indication of the capacity of the Iraqis to carry out those tasks, that day is a long way off. They reminded me more of Boy Scouts than soldiers.

One cannot visit Iraq without being very impressed by the quality and devotion of the men and women serving there. For the most part, they are in an impossible situation. They are being asked to do a job for which they had little or no training by a government that failed to adequately plan ahead. I asked one soldier how long he thought the Army would be in Iraq. He replied, “As long as 10 years.”

Hopefully we can maintain the quality of our military force and the most professional Army ever developed. As I boarded the C-130 for the flight back from Tikrit, I could not help thinking about General Maxwell Taylor. Taylor, who was Army Chief of Staff and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as ambassador to South Vietnam, said that we sent the Army to Vietnam to save the country but had to withdraw from Vietnam to save the Army.

Lawrence J. Korb is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.