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“There was a guy wearing a vest with explosives. He got through security, where [the commander of the U.S. troops] was having a briefing with the mayor, and blew himself up,” says Maffei, who’s done three tours in Iraq, has seen this sort of thing before and is very businesslike about it all. He gives me a casualty report: one U.S. soldier wounded, two Iraqi army killed, one Iraqi civilian killed and four wounded.
The town is on lockdown and the soldiers on the ground — members of the 2nd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, out of Fort Riley, Kansas — are engaged in critical responses that require coordination, precision and clear thinking. The town has to be secured, the citizens calmed. There is an Iraqi doctor in town, but following local customs—a female doctor, in this case a U.S. servicewoman—must be brought in to attend to the women. Casualties are being flown out. It’s all happening at once. It’s intense, but the trick is to keep it from getting any tenser.
“This town was neutral when [the U.S. troops] first showed up,” Maffei tells me. “They have water problems, power problems, things like that. If the unit helps them, then they go to the positive side. If they treat them badly, or lie to them, they go to the negative side, and the bad guys start recruiting more people.”
These soldiers have been in the country for a month now, and engaged in full-spectrum operations for two weeks. They’re relatively raw and untested, but days like this one will teach them fast. Captain Andy Kaiser, another Observer Controller on hand who has two tours under his belt, tells me that scenarios like this one immediately raise the most fundamental question — whether to stay or go.
“I always stood my ground, versus leaving,” Kaiser says. “Because the whole insurgent thing is to get us to move and show that we’re scared. ... [The commanding officer] has decided he’s going to stay today and keep security and keep treating people. That’s the right decision. You don’t want to run from these guys. We’ve got up-armored vehicles, tanks, fighting vehicles — you leave, you know, it gives a bad impression.”
When the immediate threat dies down, I’m taken to meet Bassan Kalasho, the provincial governor of Ghazi. He is monitoring the action and acting as the surrogate for the 275 Iraqis in this town. He’s the guy sitting on the tinderbox. I ask him how it’s going so far.
“The brigade commander is doing a great job and the soldiers are doing an excellent job,” says Kalasho with the calm demeanor of someone who’s been to this rodeo a few times before. “Two days ago, they caught 27 from al Qaeda and 17 from Mahdi [Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s paramilitary force]. They have an engineer company here. They already rebuilt the middle of Medina Wasl. Security is the main issue here. If we don’t get security, we can’t rebuild Iraq.”
As the calamity, similar to so many others across Iraq since this war began, settles into the steady, methodical pace of a crime-scene investigation, we drive on to Medina Jabal. A canteen there serves up some good American-style eats. But on the way out of Medina Wasl, we run over something that causes our van to slightly lurch.
“Was that an IED?” asks the director of the Swedish documentary team, who is riding in our van.
“Could be,” says Wagstaffe, who presses on. “Or it could be someone fucking with us with an RPG.”
“I think it was a cardboard box,” I say.
Nobody in the van subscribes to this theory. They want to be part of the drama.
We move on across the desert to Medina Jabal. When we pull into town, a collection of drab stone buildings that could serve as the set for a Western, Wagstaffe points out the jail. We park near the cemetery and unload. The wind is picking up. The air is thick with sand. The first thing we come upon is a blown-down palm tree, about 40 feet long and 4 feet around.
“We were guaranteed these palm trees wouldn’t blow over,” Wagstaffe says.
Most of the townspeople are covered from head to toe in traditional robes, their mouths and noses protected from the sand. They are moving inside for cover. We duck into the cantina, which evokes that famous bar scene from Star Wars. Villagers, insurgents, soldiers, all are taking a break from the day to order tacos, burgers and hot dogs. At 12:30 p.m. — and damned if I know the military designation for that time — the local mosque’s bells chime.