BAGHDAD -- A little Iraqi girl -- no more than eight years old -- squatted beside the road with tears of humiliation streaming down her cheeks. Six meters away, three American soldiers had their rifles aimed at her as she was forced to relieve herself in full view of a long line of parked cars. From inside their vehicles, the Iraqi onlookers screamed their rage at the U.S. troops. Whenever one of the Iraqis ventured to step out of his vehicle, an American officer bellowed, "Get back in the car, a--hole!" and the .50-caliber machinegun mounted on the U.S. Hummer would swing menacingly towards the protester.
The terrified little girl was weeping uncontrollably by the time she dropped her skirt and ran back to her mother.
Our guys are not about to start taking any chances. We are planning to survive the tour, get home safe and get the hell out of the army.
And God help any Iraqis who get in the way of that plan.
Sgt. Kostens, a section commander with the 1st Armored (Old Ironsides) Division
This incident took place on Sunday, Sept. 14, after a detachment of the U.S. 101st Airborne Division set up a roadblock on the Samara-Kirkuk highway. The purpose was to conduct a thorough weapons search of all traffic along this route. Without enough personnel to man the roadblock, cars and trucks were soon backed up for at least two kilometers in each direction.
To ensure that no Iraqi ventured onto the roadway, First Lieut. Fisher and his detachment would race up and down the queue, pointing their weapons and hurling verbal abuse at any violator.
The little girl had been sitting in a small Mazda with six other family members for over three hours before she left the car. Her older brother -- no more than 10 -- had bravely taken her by the hand and attempted to reach a small depression in the sand which might have offered a modicum of privacy.
Lieut. Fisher's Hummer had roared down the unpaved shoulder and braked to a halt in a cloud of dust. The young boy abandoned his sister.
While Fisher and his men may have carried out their orders efficiently, their aggressive behavior and lack of empathy in this instance had done little to win over the "hearts and minds" of the Iraqi people.
Two days after the incident at the Samara-Kirkuk roadblock, I was given a personal taste of Iraqi animosity towards Americans.
I had felt the sharp jolt immediately, but only as the pain registered in my forearm did I realize that I had been struck by a rock. I turned in time to see a young boy throw a second stone, which narrowly missed my head. The boy then ran back to a crowded pickup truck where his family was cheering him on.
I had been filming the traffic backlog on the Baghdad-Mosul highway when the incident occurred, and all along the densely packed roadway, Iraqis began honking their horns and screaming anti-American phrases at me.
After the collapse of Saddam's regime on April 9, the remnants of the elite Republic Guard had blown the bridges across the Tigris River, in an attempt to slow the U.S. advance on Tikrit. Although the last of the Tikrit defenses were captured in late April, to date there are only a couple of temporary Bailey bridges in place to span the demolished gap.
As a result, the volume of traffic greatly exceeds the single lane of bridge capacity. Having waited several hours in the hot sun, the Iraqi drivers were only too pleased to vent their anger on someone who appeared to be an American.
The opportune arrival of a U.S. armored patrol thankfully prevented events from escalating out of control.
However, as I attempted to film my rescuers, a terrified young American soldier aimed his machinegun at me, screaming, "Put your hands in the air -- now!"
There is good reason for the U.S. troops to be jumpy. Over the past few weeks, ambushes by Saddam loyalists have been on the increase, and American casualties mount steadily.
What is even more alarming is that these attacks are no longer isolated to the volatile central Iraq region, known as the Sunni Triangle. As evidenced by the Sept. 9 bomb blast in Erbil -- which killed three and injured 55 -- and the string of deadly ambushes in Mosul, the terror attacks are spreading into northern Iraq.
"We believe that the large-scale U.S. military clampdown in the Sunni Triangle has simply forced the extremists out of that region in search of softer targets," explained Eddi 'Windtalker' Calis, the Palestinian-American responsible for intelligence and security at the U.S. airfield in Kirkuk.
"We now have to be prepared for an attack to happen anywhere, anytime."
Under such constant pressure, the American soldiers are showing signs of stress, and unit morale has plummeted.
"We've shipped home three guys in bodybags and at least another 30 wounded since (U.S. President George W.) Bush declared this thing over," said 23-year-old Lieut. Tanner, 173rd Airborne Brigade.
"Not all of those shipped home were suffering from physical wounds. Some simply cracked under the stress."
For the majority of U.S. military personnel presently deployed in Iraq, the earliest rotation date home will not be until next April, which means they will have served, on average, a 14-month tour abroad. To make matters worse, with the coalition forces unable to provide a secure environment anywhere in Iraq, the troops have been unable to enjoy any local R&R.
"This is completely unprecedented," said Staff Sgt. Allan Spry, a 17-year veteran with the 173rd Brigade.
"How long can they expect our guys to go without sex and alcohol?"
Although the U.S. soldiers in Iraq are under strict orders to remain "dry," one indicator of a breakdown in unit discipline is the presence of Iraqi alcohol vendors outside most of the American camps.
Sexual fraternization is also forbidden, but the staggering number of pregnancies among U.S. female personnel has only exacerbated the Americans' manpower shortage.
"The [women] know that getting knocked up is a ticket out of this s--thole," claimed Cpl. Slaughter.
"We started out with 10 women (at the U.S. compound in Taji) and already three of them have gone home pregnant. Everyone knows that the lieutenant is pregnant but she just hasn't told the commanding officer yet. So, that's 40% of our women knocked up in less than five months."
In an effort to reduce the demand on U.S. military resources, the Americans have relinquished control of the Central Iraq region to the Multi-National Division (MND). Comprised of troops from 21 countries, the 8,300 soldiers of the MND resemble a modern-day Tower of Babel.
Although Poland and Spain are the major contributors, many of the MND units are comprised of personnel from non-NATO countries such as Mongolia, Philippines, Bulgaria and Kazakhstan.
"While it was required that all officers must be able to speak English, I cannot say that we are not facing some difficulties," admitted Col. Javier Cabeza, the Spanish Chief of MND Operations.
Language is not the only operational obstacle facing the MND. There is a tremendous disparity in the equipment used by the various contingents, including the necessity to supply some troops with non-standardized ammunition calibers. Many contributing forces arrived in Iraq with virtually no equipment whatsoever.
"As a result of the Salvadoran, Nicaraguan, Honduran and Dominican Republic troops requiring vehicles, weapons, protective clothing and training upon arrival, their operational deployment had to be delayed," Cabeza explained.
The United States is covering all incremental costs and providing the requisite equipment to all nations contributing troops.
In addition to the deployment of foreign troops into Iraq, the U.S. interim authority has also contracted a number of corporate security firms to assist coalition troops in protecting strategic resources. To protect their own personnel, Kellog, Brown and Root -- the major U.S. corporate contractor for Iraq's reconstruction -- has hired its own local armed guards. Dressed in civilian clothing and carrying Kalashnikov assault rifles, the KBR security staff patrol the compounds around the Baghdad hotels which house U.S. executives.
The problem is that nobody is quite clear as to what jurisdiction or authority these "rent-a-gun" agencies are entitled.
"If my men see an Iraqi carrying a weapon, they'll not wait to find out whose side he's on," said an Australian captain, who requested anonymity.
"They'll shoot first, and identify the remains later."
On Sept. 12, U.S. forces did just that, when they mistakenly engaged a detachment of Iraqi police outside of Fallujah. When the one-sided firefight ended, eight of the Iraqi police were dead.
"When you've got Iraqis in civilian clothes and driving civilian cars ... you can't blame (the 82nd Airborne) for greasing those guys, even if they turned out to be policemen," said Sgt. Kostens, a section commander with the 1st Armored (Old Ironsides) Division.
Kostens was hit by two grenade fragments during an ambush in late May.
"Our guys are not about to start taking any chances. We are planning to survive the tour, get home safe and get the hell out of the army," Kostens concluded.
"And God help any Iraqis who get in the way of that plan."
Copyright © 2003, CANOE, a division of Netgraphe Inc.