Cover Story: Picking Up the Pieces

In the heart of a broken Iraq, American soldier-diplomats are trying to create democracy amid chaos

Andrew Scutro

A 10-year-old girl sells candy bars to soldiers in the Green Zone in U.S.-occupied Baghdad.

FORT MERCURY, IRAQ — Four days after they'd nearly been slaughtered in an ambush outside Fallujah on the morning of Christmas Eve, Maj. Woody Nunis' shorthanded civil affairs team takes another hit. Driving back the half-hour from Baghdad late on the afternoon of Dec. 28, speeding past farms and mud huts in the lush rural area west of the city, bad news begins to trickle in.

As they get closer to their dusty little home, a postage stamp fort called Mercury, nimble scout helicopters circle above while two officers talk about something ominous over the radio in the humvee. Their mechanical conversation includes code integers about casualties and the need for an explosives disposal team.

Minutes after pulling into Mercury, after the guns and a broken radio have been lifted out of the trucks, word comes down. Keith Adkins and Ash Garza, both young enlisted men from Texas, stand out near the vehicles having a smoke as their captain, a short, strong guy named Larry Mouton, walks up grim-faced.

A well-liked and respected captain named Blanco has just been killed in an ambush. Three of his men are wounded, how badly is not yet clear. Garza and Adkins have been joking around, but that ends quickly.

Later that night, Nunis sits on his bunk in the cramped room he shares with Adkins and Garza and talks about Blanco.

The dead captain wasn't out looking for war that afternoon; he was headed to a local village. But such distinctions don't matter in the brutal, complex and utterly frustrating guerilla war being fought in Iraq right now, a war being fought simultaneously with a multi-billion-dollar reconstruction and democratization campaign as complex and frustrating as the war itself.

Nunis knew Blanco well, and he bears the pain hard.

"He was a good guy, too," the tall former paratrooper says, head down, deeply saddened and bitter. "It fucking sucks."

When they were attacked on Christmas Eve, Nunis and his men had been on a peaceful mission, a mission that now dominates the work of an army trained to violently take and hold ground. In this ill-defined reconstruction phase of post-invasion Iraq, the burden of turning on the lights, getting ponds of raw sewage out of the street and establishing local governments falls to teams like Nunis', which are called civil affairs units.

Like most, Nunis' team is made up of reservists. Nunis himself, 42, is a commercial real estate broker with an MBA. Adkins, 30, is a computer programmer. Garza, 21, is a horse trainer, chuckwagon cook and poet.

When they got attacked on Christmas Eve (it was the fourth time they'd been hit), they were driving back from a school they'd spent a lot of time and effort rebuilding — working with local contractors and paying out thousands of dollars. They were on their way to check a water treatment plant.

"That will be the first potable water they've had since 1991," Nunis says. "Now they just dip into the river," which is contaminated with sewage and industrial runnoff.

Their route to the school and water treatment plant had become predictable.

"We were going over to the water treatment plant (that morning)," he says. "We went the same way into the school and went out the same way, and they were waiting for us. Everybody thinks of us as the guys who pay the money, so they're nice to us. But that proved to go only so far on Christmas Eve."

Before they could get to the plant, two 125-mm artillery rounds that had been buried in the roadside next to a knocked-out Iraqi tank were detonated by invisible guerillas. The shrapnel blew into the passing vehicles. One humvee windshield was shattered, the soldiers were deafened and a Toyota pick-up passing the other way was flipped and thrown off the road. But no one, Iraqi or American, was seriously wounded.

With this attack fresh in their memories — and now Capt. Blanco's death haunting them — the civil affairs team set out the next day, Dec. 29, for a village called Nasir Wa Al Salaam.

The mission was to make a visit to the local council president, a gregarious political aspirant named Abbas Hussein Kenani. Abbas wears western clothes, speaks some English and drives a new black VW Golf. He was voted into his position as the de-facto mayor of Nasir Wa Al Salaam over the summer, but he wants a higher place in the burgeoning Iraqi government and will soon be moving up to the equivalent of a county supervisor.

Nunis has to meet with Abbas and his successor — a quiet, turbaned man named Hadi Jasim Ali — to discuss Abbas' transition and the need for some buses to transport Iraqi militia trainees. They'll also be checking on three school-repair projects in the town, mostly damaged from years of neglect, not the war.

The mission's last stop will be Al Anwal primary school, where Nunis has to make a final payment for the repairs, $2,200 in cash. (Although the reconstruction portion of the $87 billion allotted by Congress has begun to arrive in Iraq, much of the reconstruction thus far has been paid for with money confiscated from Saddam's regime.)

Then, in the early afternoon, the team must return to Baghdad so Nunis can catch a plane for Texas, for a two-week visit with his wife and young son.

'We're paying a lot of money for this school'
When they leave Mercury that morning, Nunis' civil affairs team takes three humvees. To supplement the short-handed team, they borrow three infantrymen and one medic — the only woman at Mercury — from other units. They've got an M240B machine gun, two M249 squad automatic weapons, an M-16 and/or a pistol for each man and woman, thousands of bullets, an assortment of hand grenades and an Iraqi translator named Kamil Kadim, who showed up for work in a suit and tie. In Nunis' pocket there's a stack of crisp $100 bills for the headmaster of Al Anwal school.

To get to the town council office, Nunis, Mouton and Kamil must pass through barbed-wire-and-concrete anti-truck-bomb barricades, a bevy of local police and an inner screen of armed guardsmen in the hallway. Inside, Nunis speaks with Abbas in a back room behind translucent amber curtains, with a ring of local men sitting on couches, puffing cigarettes and sipping sweet tea.

When Nunis is done with his business, Abbas shares some of his. He wants to build a kindergarten.

"We want money for the project from CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority)," he says. "So far we haven't gotten approval for a project so large. One kindergarten is not enough because in Nasir Wa Al Salaam we have almost 200,000 people. So we want to build here, and that will take time but we will be patient. I have a clear picture for the future of Nasir Wa Al Salaam, but it is stopped now because of the terrorist attacks against coalition forces. That stops our plans for the future."

Abbas' town sits beside the infamous Abu Gharaib prison. Like others in Iraq, it was a place where many people vanished under Saddam's rule. But besides that, the regime had little business in Nasir Wa Al Salaam.

"The Saddam regime, they did not pay attention to the schools," Abbas says. "They took all the money for weapons. We have 65 schools here. Most of them are in very, very bad condition."

Nasir Wa Al Salaam is run-down and full of unemployed citizens. But the town has had some enviable successes. The divisions between Sunni and Shi'a sects that threaten to break whatever success has been made post-Saddam — and could even fuel a civil war — have been erased in Abbas' town. When the first American units began setting up the local government, members of both factions came together and ran for positions on the town council.

"After the war, Sunni and Shi'a, we are one hand working together," Abbas says. "We are a brotherhood. Sunni, Shi'a, we don't like this word. After the war we are all Iraqi and Muslim."

Nunis, who sits on a couch between Kamil and Mouton, offers his support.

"I think it's the face this council has put forward and how confidently they conduct business," he says. "Maybe that's naíve, but everybody looks to this group for leadership. It's a statement of purpose, regardless of which sect they come from. And the quicker we turn everything over to the Iraqis, the faster these clowns who are trying to blow us up have nothing to do."

Abbas hands Nunis a contract proposal for a road project, which he does hesitantly, because it means Nunis has to take it up the chain of command for funding. But Nunis is all for it.

"Let's make CPA build something," he says. "They need to come off the dime and start building some stuff."

They leave the council hall to inspect a looted building outside town slated for reconstruction. Soon they part, and Nunis and his team head over to the Sheik Dhary primary school, which has run up $50,000 in repair bills.

As soon as Nunis walks into the school, a little boy with a red backpack gives him the finger.

Standing above the crowd of kids on recess in the courtyard, the major points at the boy and tells the translator to bring him over. Nunis knows that he probably learned the gesture from U.S. soldiers, but he wants to ask him if he knows what it means and tell him it's not a nice thing to do. The boy scurries away, and Kamil can't catch him.

Nunis turns to the headmaster and drills him.

"We're paying a lot of money for this school," he says. "It shouldn't be this way."

The convoy then heads to the Al Anwal school, the last stop before leaving for Baghdad. On the way, Nunis stops at a water pumphouse in the middle of town. They pass through a market where they often get pelted with tomatoes. Garza yells from behind the wheel, "You're free! I freed all y'all! I am here for your freedom!"

Down an alley there are series of loud bangs.

"What the fuck was that?" they ask, and everyone moves their weapon a little higher. They don't know if it was an attack or fireworks or gunfire at a wedding. Tense, they just keep driving.

'I'm tired of this shit'
With the three-humvee convoy waiting in the street, Nunis and Kamil head into the pumphouse, shown off by its proud caretaker. Before the Americans built it, there had never been running water in this part of Nasir Wa Al Salaam.

Not a minute into the conversation there's a massively loud explosion in the near distance. Standing inside the pumphouse it's impossible to tell where it came from. Nunis runs outside looking for his men, and Garza runs down the alley looking for him.

Off in the direction of the main highway, a giant, billowing plume of smoke rises into the sky. Having just been attacked, and with the killing of Capt. Blanco the day before fresh in his mind, Nunis runs back to the humvee, very pissed.

"It's an IED (improvised explosive device)," he says.

An access road off the highway cuts right before the team, and there's a good chance that the bombers would be making their getaway within seconds. Garza steers the humvee offroad and across the hardened sand, bouncing the vehicle hard. Nunis gets on the radio to call it in: "We were just in Nasir Wa Al Salaam on the outskirts and we've just had a huge explosion. Break. We're headed over to check it out now. We'll have a grid. Over."

As Garza pulls over to ask some shepherds what they saw, it comes over the radio that the explosion was a controlled detonation of a cache of SA-7 surface-to-air missiles found a few nights prior. Relieved that it wasn't an IED but still rattled, the team heads over to the Al Anwal school.

"OK. OK. We're good. Good deal," Nunis says. "Man, that was loud."

The Americans arrive at the school. Waiting for them in the playground are about 50 kids, many of them gripping rocks and slingshots.

In the market they get pelted with tomatoes, on the country road they get bombs lit off at them and every now and then the kids stone them. One soldier got his jaw broken from a rock hurled by a kid.

Nunis has a pocketful of greenbacks to give to the school's headmaster, and he's in no mood for any of his soldiers to take a rock in the eye or for one of them to to take a rock in the eye and shoot back. He's had enough.

He storms out of the humvee and fires a round from his M-16 into the mud. The loud crack intimidates the children enough that they drop their rocks and scatter like mice, running across the barren playground to hide behind a mound. At the same moment, a gunship flies overhead.

Nunis is enraged. He strides up to the facility protection police who guard the entrance to the school.

"You better take care of this shit or I'm going to fire every last one of you!" he yells. "I'm tired of this shit!"

The police protest that these children are not theirs and they have no right to discipline them. But Nunis won't have it.

He goes inside to pay the principal the last of the money for the work on the school but first he tells him not to let his charges throw rocks.

"You're not setting a good precedent for us to come back here and help you out," Nunis says.

Kamil translates. The headmaster says, "They do this with private cars also, not just the Americans."

"This is not acceptable," Nunis says.

Mouton, who is standing there too, turns and says, "The people think the Americans are stupid. We keep giving them money and they keep killing us. It's sad, man."

After upbraiding the guards again on the way out, Nunis, Mouton and Kamil return to the trucks to drive back to Baghdad so Nunis can fly home. Garza shows off a weapon he pulled off a 12-year-old boy while his boss was inside. It's an expertly made and very accurate slingshot.

"It's the best one I ever got," Garza says.

The slingshot goes on the middle deck of the humvee.

Back in Baghdad and away from the relative danger of Nasir Wa Al Salaam, Nunis talks about his work in Iraq before decompressing for the flight home.

"A lot of people are underestimating the importance of the freedom we've given these guys," he says. "They can grab signs and protest the hell out of us. If they did that before, no one would ever see them again. They can walk up to me and tell me to fuck off, and I'm going to ask them why.

"It's give and take, but it's hard to blame them because it's been an all-or-nothing society for so long. This country's got a chance. It's got too many resources and too much going for it not to make it. Whether it's an Islamic republic or a democracy, it's up to them. The next two to three years will be very interesting, and we'll still be around to help them along. They've really opened my eyes. This country does have a chance."

Bremer confident in Iraq's future
Ambassador Lewis Paul Bremer III bears much of the responsibility for whether that chance is ever fully realized. Pulled from a private-sector job in crisis management by President Bush late in April to handle stabilization, occupation and reconstruction, Bremer represents the diplomatic arm of the U.S. government, not the military.

He was ambassador to the Netherlands in the 1980s and President Reagan's State Department ambassador for counterterrorism. He speaks French, Dutch and Norwegian and holds a Harvard MBA.

The paradox of his work in Iraq can be seen in his mufti. As the civilian administrator of Iraq's interim government — the so-called Coalition Provisional Authority, or CPA — he always appears in public wearing a suit, crisp shirt and tie. But on his feet he wears the same government-issue desert combat boots as 130,000 American soldiers who work in Iraq as both combatants and street-level diplomats.

Known as Jerry to his friends and Washington insiders, Bremer is an avid marathoner and skier and is young-looking for a man in his early 60s. But since arriving in Iraq on May 12 to replace a foundering retired Army general put in charge of the no-plan post-invasion era, Bremer has famously worked 20 hours a day, and it shows.

Besides constant meetings, he makes regular addresses to the Iraqi people but travels nowhere without a heavy phalanx of intimidating armed guards. The CPA, headquartered in a former Saddam palace in what's now a heavily fortified quarter of Baghdad known as the Green Zone, has been attacked several times. Right around Christmas it was disclosed that weeks before, on Dec. 6, Bremer's convoy had been ambushed.

To get to Bremer's office at the CPA, one must first get into the tightly defended Green Zone, then into the tightly defended CPA headquarters, which is still called the Palace. Once a grandiose fortress of big empty hallways and strange murals, it's now a beehive crammed with offices of every kind. The entrance to Bremer's office sits somewhere in the middle of a warren of hallways in a vaulted stone lobby cleared of everything but a metal detector and two unsmiling Marines in combat gear.

On the desk in Bremer's small office sits a long plaque with large letters that reads, "Success has a thousand fathers." (The corollary, "Every failure is an orphan," isn't visible.)

The nation-building task taken up by the likes of Maj. Nunis, being done largely without the help of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or foreign service officers, doesn't go unnoticed by Bremer, even if it gets little attention from the rest of the nation.

"The civil affairs guys are doing a terrific job," Bremer says on Dec. 30, just back from holiday vacation. "We've completed over 1,700 projects around the country. It's a fact that doesn't get reported to the American public very often."

One thing evidenced both on the ground and in regular press reports is the contradiction of Iraqi attitudes about the U.S. presence. Asked to comment about incidents like the rock-throwing students at Al Anwal primary school, Bremer offers a stiff response, referring to regular polls of the public: "The polls are very clear. They don't like being occupied and they don't want us to leave."

Over the holidays there was a long report in The Washington Post noting that many goals set out by the U.S. for Iraq, such as the privatization of its economy, will have to be abandoned in light of the unstable security situation. According to an agreement between Bremer and the Iraqi Governing Council made on Nov. 15, the CPA dissolves on June 30, and the Iraqis are free to write a constitution and hold elections by the end of 2005.

Many soldiers are concerned about the quickened tempo for success in Iraq, some blaming it on election-year politics. Bremer dismisses claims that any schedules have been compromised, and he remains confident that Iraq will have its way after years of someone having its way with it.

"This is a rich country," he says. "There's no reason this country cannot set up a representative democratic system."

In fact, despite being attacked himself and despite a fragile ground situation, he shares Nunis' optimism.

While Iraqis wait hours in line for dirt-cheap gasoline, while electric power remains unreliable, while American soldiers face an ugly insurgency, Bremer focuses on the fact that Saddam Hussein no longer rules the land and instead faces the mother of all war crimes trials, with the blood of half a million people on his hands.

"Life is getting better every day here," he says.

'Stonewall after stonewall after stonewall'
Bremer's optimism is all but contradicted by what the Army calls "ground truth." While he's highly respected, the CPA below him gets low marks from many soldiers who see their credibility harmed by the agency's bureaucratic static.

When it comes up in conversation, military officers will sneer about how the Provisional Authority is full of Washington, D.C. paper-pushers they call "90-day wonders," who, they say, take temporary gigs at CPA to buff out their resumes but get to go home in three months and talk about their adventures at cocktail parties.

One Army officer called the CPA "worthless." Another officer has his own re-working of the CPA acronym: "Can't Produce Anything." Another put a sympathetic spin on his frustrations: "Everybody has good intentions and there's a lot of money flying around, but it's a challenge to coordinate all those pots of money and all the projects."

An incident on Christmas morning illustrates the frustration Iraqi leaders have with the CPA. It took place at a meeting between a council of sheiks who represent Iraqi farmers and the American colonel responsible for security in north-central Baghdad.

The commander, Col. Russ Gold, came to Iraq with no training in nation-building or civil affairs. His job parameters as an armor leader are to take over territory with overwhelming force and violently destroy what gets in the way.

When the invasion wound down and his unit settled into its region of Baghdad in late April, it was being watched not only by wide-eyed Iraqis but by their leaders, a group of tribal sheiks who represent the farmers of Iraq and live in the area — an old part of the city with an ancient farmers' market. As the sheiks tell it, the tribal leaders were impressed by the way the American troops were treating their people.

At the meeting on Christmas morning, a spirit of good will prevailed. The chief, Sheik Mohammed Ahd Ali, arrived at the Al Kadhimiya meeting hall dressed in gold brocade robes and white Keffiyeh, holding plastic roses and electronic Christmas cards that played "Jingle Bells" for Gold and his staff. Mohammed was accompanied by a dozen other representatives. Gold had his assistants and two contract translators with him.

The farmer sheiks are in a desperate situation. Under the old regime, agriculture was subsidized at 80-90 percent. The war that toppled Saddam put an end to those subsidies and also interrupted the planting season.

"What you have is a transition to a market economy and a government with no subsidies anymore," says Maj. Clark Taylor, an artillery officer pressed into service as Gold's civil affairs aide. "They missed the winter crop because they didn't have any money to buy the seed."

Since Gold's troops are the closest thing to a government agency in the area, the sheiks went to him, and he's taken their concerns to the Coalition Provisional Authority: They need seed, fertilizer, fuel and pesticide, as well as recognition from the CPA. But despite the good feelings, something is wrong at the palace.

"We've run into stonewall after stonewall after stonewall," Taylor tells me before the meeting.

Gold arrives in helmet and flak jacket. The meeting begins with his pledge to help the farmers, delivered through his translator, an Iraqi-American from Michigan.

"My main mission right now is to have the organization recognized and legitimized and to have a voice in the new Iraqi government," he says. "I am very focused to make this work. The rest of the time I am taking bad guys off the streets."

'Thank me when we win'
A guest at the meeting, an Iraqi named Zaid A. Abdul Hameed El-Noeimy, a representative of an NGO in Iraq trying to set up business organizations, was there to help the farmers achieve legitimacy with the CPA.

Sheik Mohammed has more immediate priorities: He wants basic necessities for Iraq's farmers.

"We don't need these little medals and rags that say we are in the law," he says in Arabic. "If we don't plant our land for two years, it will be ruined. We are not asking for new cars or new equipment. All we are asking for are the seed and fertilizer."

Zaid replies in Arabic. "All we are worried about is the needs of the farmers and taking those needs to the governing council."

As the two talk, the translators relay what they are saying to the Americans in the room. "We are working against the terrorists and we are thankful for freedom from dictatorship" says the sheik. "We are asking for something very small."

Zaid then gives the farmers a piece of advice about how he feels they can deal more effectively with the CPA.

Gold explodes. He has been lobbying hard on the farmers' behalf — to no avail. He blames the CPA.

The colonel had assembled a convention of the farmer sheiks over the summer. He personally invited the CPA's ministers of agriculture and irrigation. They didn't attend. Some 1,500 farmers did. Gold tells Zaid that middle management at CPA is putting up walls.

Zaid says the CPA sometimes acts like the old regime, that it doesn't venture from behind the palace walls and shows little regard for the people.

"They stay in the Green Zone and they don't know what is the hell happening," Zaid says.

Eventually Gold and Zaid simmer down, with Gold saying, "I get emotional about this because I've been fighting for it."

For Gold the situation is extremely frustrating. He knows Bremer, and he personally took Mohammed to meet him. Bremer was impressed enough that he took the farmers' issues back to Washington, where they made their way into one of President Bush's speeches.

Outside after the meeting, in the warm sun of Christmas morning, Gold prepares to leave in his humvee. A farmer from southern Iraq rushes up to him and says, "Thank you, thank you for working day and night." Gold replies: "Thank me when we win."

Before leaving, Gold offers a fable he's learned in Iraq: There's a tortoise and a scorpion and they both want to cross a creek. The scorpion can't swim so it asks the tortoise for a lift. The tortoise asks, "How do I know you won't sting me halfway across?" and the scorpion says, "Why would I do that? If I sting you, I will drown, we will both die."

The tortoise sees the reasoning and tells the scorpion to hop on. Sure enough, halfway across, the scorpion jabs its stinger into the tortoise. As it's dying in the middle of the creek, the tortoise looks up at the scorpion and says, "Why did you do that?" and the scorpion, which is about to die too, tells the tortoise, "Welcome to the Middle East."

After telling the little story, Gold says, "Things don't make sense. I've had people here tell me, 'Don't trust anyone. Don't even trust me.' Then they'll turn around and die for me."

With that, Gold turns to leave for what's left of Christmas.

"I'm going to go smoke a cigar," he says.

Election year politics and late night raids
It's just before midnight the night after Christmas, and it's raining in Baghdad. Lt. Col. Frank Sherman, commander of the 1st Battalion, 13th Armor Regiment, sits in his humvee just inside the gate of a former Iraqi base that hugs a bend in the Tigris River and used to contain a notorious secret police prison.

His unit and a battalion from the 82nd Airborne use the base now. The prison cells are used by the Americans to hold Iraqis found with weapons or otherwise threatening the unstable peace.

The base sits on the edge of a Baghdad neighborhood called Al-Hurriyah. Across the river is a grand mosque where Saddam was seen walking through the streets during the invasion, just before he disappeared for nine months.

Idling ahead of Sherman is an open truck packed full of paratroopers from the 82nd, about to embark on a late-night raid. Each one is armed to the teeth; some have machine guns, one has a shotgun strapped across his back. The soldiers like the rain because it will keep the curious indoors, but it also means they won't have any protective helicopters circling above.

There are more elements of the raiding party spread out through the area unseen, like the Special Forces team that moves to their launch point in a few SUVs. Among the American raiders are Iraqi translators wearing ski masks to shield their identities from hostile countrymen. They carry bullhorns so they can yell orders into buildings.

Sherman has been on the radio with the other raid commanders making final preparations. He turns to his driver, a young sergeant. He describes the three types of cars that his scouts spotted earlier, cars full of armed men and circling the raid area.

"If they come anywhere near you, stop them," he tells the sergeant. "They're going to be armed, so keep your weapon up. If you see anything that looks like a fucking weapon, start dealing."

With that, the convoy rolls, with all lights off, ready to do violence while Baghdad sleeps.

Like Col. Gold, many of the soldiers in Iraq today do the hearts-and-minds work of civil affairs by day and then the rough work of raids and searches when the sun goes down. Sherman is one of Gold's battalion commanders.

There's a cleric named Ahmed Hussein Al Dabash in their area they want to capture for questioning. Sherman says Dabash has been using his prayer calls at a mosque to incite violence between Shi'a and Sunni and to prod his followers to attack Americans.

On Dec. 9, there was an explosion at an area mosque. Dabash, a Sunni, blamed the Shi'a, saying the mosque was attacked with rocket-propelled grenades. Sherman says an investigation revealed that Dabash's mosque was being used to make IEDs and the explosion was a bomb that went awry.

The thing is, the Americans know him. Sherman and other officers have met with him repeatedly, in meetings where Dabash was friendly and accommodating. But the Army has heard what he says during prayer calls, which are not friendly or accommodating. He's also suspected to have Al Qaeda ties, and, Sherman says, some "national level" intelligence people want to talk to him.

One of the raid leaders, a captain from the 82nd named Gabe Barton, says if they find him they won't be strangers. "He'll know me," Barton says.

Dabash has followers, and it's expected they won't give him up easily. Besides the three armed cars spotted by the scouts and the men on Dabash's roof with automatic rifles and grenades, Sherman expects that, when word gets out in the morning that the cleric is under American detention, the locals will "go nuts."

The neighborhood happens to contain the warehouse for the World Food Program, which feeds the city, and another warehouse that provides medical supplies. Sherman is concerned that local anger will fall on the two facilities, so he has some of his tank units and psychological operations teams ready to "flood the zone" if Dabash gets grabbed tonight.

Earlier in the evening, before raid preparations go into full swing, Sherman and his officers eat a dinner of Christmas leftovers and watch the Cleveland-Orlando NBA game. Sherman is going to go into the raid alongside his men, with two broken fingers in a cast, fingers he broke pulling a pistol off a local standing by the side of the road. He talks about the raid a bit over dinner. They expect the worst.

"This could get violent," Sherman says. "We think they might fight for him."

Dabash is believed to be at one of four locations, each one given a code name for the raid: Objectives Moe, Larry, Curly and Shemp. They'll hit the house first where the guards on the roof were seen on the assumption that he'll be there.

Unlike weapons searches, in which they pick through a home top to bottom, they plan to get in and out fast — Dabash is there or he's not. During a pre-raid briefing with the team leaders and Special Forces, Sherman tells them to move fast and be as silent as possible.

"If you gotta make noise to get in, make noise," he says. "But you are most vulnerable in the street waiting to get in. You know this."

The streets of Baghdad on a rainy night at 1 a.m. are quiet and empty. Maybe one or two cars pass as the raiders move toward Dabash's homes. Scouts are already up on the nearby roofs watching for movement when the 82nd troops pull up to Dabash's street. Sherman leaves his humvee with the team medic, John Walker, and runs in quietly with the raiders.

The first house they get into without too much trouble, but Dabash isn't there. One soldier comes out with an AK-47 across his back.

While they're inside, a scout spots a man running across the roofs to a neighboring house. The troops break down that gate only to find, parked in the driveway, one of the cars seen patrolling earlier. They break in and search it for weapons but find none.

They try again with the next house and pull out two men who say they're just visiting for the night. And they pull out Dabash's brother. All three are cuffed and put into the back of the open truck, where they sit in the rain when the party moves to another part of the neighborhood.

It's hard to see much of it at 2 a.m., but this area seems to have some nicer streets, with short, gated driveways and orange trees in the front yards. Around the corner, sewage flows down the street.

For all the noise the raiders make breaking doors down, no one comes outside. Women in some of the target houses scream and wail when the soldiers crash in, but neighbors don't rouse.

It turns out the raid missed Dabash by half an hour. Sherman calls a huddle of the raid leaders, including a Special Forces team that had been out doing its own work.

"He went into a mosque," Sherman tells them. "There's not much we can do if he goes into the mosque."

Sherman turns to the Special Forces leader and asks, "Can you get us in the mosque?""Not really," the guy replies. "I didn't think so," Sherman says.

Based on a tip from the Special Forces team, they try one more house. It's only a few blocks away and they head right over.

It's close to 3 in the morning and still drizzling when they approach the place. The Iraqi translator yells through the bullhorn to open up. A man calls back, asking in Arabic what it's all about. The raid leader, Capt. Barton, tells the translator to tell the man it's the Americans and if he doesn't open up they'll break the door down.

When the man hesitates, they begin a countdown starting at 10. No one comes to the door, and a sergeant starts kicking it in. It's metal and doesn't break, but the rattle is enough to bring the man and his wife and daughter to the door.

The women stand off to the side in front of the house crying and muttering while the man is questioned. When they figure out he's not the right guy, Barton apologizes to the two women and tries to calm them down. The Americans get ready to go. The family goes back inside, and the soldiers mount up and leave.

Driving back to the base, Sherman takes what good he can from the experience, even though the big fish got away. He says the other raiding parties did take in a former Iraqi general who's suspected in the insurgency, as well as two of Dabash's lieutenants.

"Well, three out of five isn't so bad," he says.

The two men who claimed to be just visiting are taken back to one of the first houses, un-cuffed and taken inside. All the addresses are recorded so claims officers can go back and reimburse the homeowners for broken locks and smashed windows.

The brother, however, will spend some time in the old prison, which hasn't changed much since the Iraqis ran it, except its present inmates aren't tortured and executed. There were about 15 in there the night of the raid, either sleeping or huddled under wool blankets.

Sherman says Dabash will get word that his brother is now in detention at the old secret police prison. "We'll tell him, 'We have your brother. You need to come in and meet with us.' So we'll try it that way. If he takes off, he takes off. Then we'll release his brother. But he doesn't know that now."

After almost four hours running through the streets of an otherwise silent city, the Americans are back behind the wire. Later, driving down side roads on one of the dark patrols and observation missions they do every night, scout team leader Sgt. First Class Mark Davey of St. Louis speaks highly of Sherman from the front seat of his well-armed humvee.

"He's fearless," Davey says. "He's a warrior."

Davey and his men like what they do, prowling around the streets looking for trouble before trouble finds them and their friends. It's during the wee hours that insurgents plant the IEDs to blow up in the morning. Davey and his guys are out there looking for that stuff.

Like the officers above them, they're well aware of the pressure to succeed in Iraq. The fact that it's a presidential election year isn't lost on Davey.

Sliding through the rainy night, thinking about what an extra dose of politics might mean to his mission, Davey says simply, "It's gonna suck ass."

'Fun meters pretty much pegged out, man'
I got back to Baghdad from Nasir Wa Al Salaam on Dec. 29. Maj. Woody Nunis' crew dropped him off at a team compound inside the airport-turned-base-camp so he could catch the first of his flights home. I was set to leave two days later, also on an Air Force cargo plane.

A harrowing couple of weeks over the holidays, especially a near-death experience on Christmas Eve, must have taken a toll on Nunis. When I went to the flight operations shack to check on my own ride, an entire day after Nunis got there, he was in the waiting room, sprawled out in a chair, dead to the world, with a copy of a military history magazine across his chest.

His trip home will be short. He'll be back in Iraq about two weeks later, back to the area around Fallujah that, since he's been gone, has seen two helicopters shot down with 10 killed. There's also been an accidental shooting of civilians that enraged the locals and a mortar attack on another compound that killed one person and wounded 33.

Those are the ones we know about. Countless others — like the Christmas Eve attack — go unreported.

The Iraqis are of mixed emotions about the Americans. They can see all the money the U.S. is putting into the country, and that's only good. As Bremer said, they don't want the occupation, yet they don't want the Americans to leave.

The ones who aren't insurgents are grappling with new freedoms. The ones I spoke with — teachers, handymen, entrepreneurs, both men and women — were thankful and optimistic. And afraid.

Each of the American soldiers I spoke with said the same two things. The first was that it's their job to be there, and they'll do it as best they can.

The other thing the Americans say is that they're there for the kids. They look to the Iraqi children with hope, knowing that they won't forget the Americans who came in and fixed their school or took some bad guy out of the neighborhood. When the kids pelt them with rocks, the soldiers understand it's as much of a game in a violent country as the kids they see punching each other hard and laughing about it.

As miserable as it is — and it is miserable — the Americans make the most of it when they can, even if that means surfing the Internet while off-duty or playing volleyball until the sun goes down. Some become close friends, like Ash Garza and Keith Adkins from Nunis' team. (Ash will drive up from Texas to be Keith's best man when Adkins gets married this summer in Santa Cruz, Calif.)

That said, many have been there since the invasion and really want to go home to their families. The thrill is gone.

"I'd rather read about this from my house or watch it all on TV if you don't mind," said one soldier who'd been there long enough. "Our fun meters are pretty much pegged out, man."

The last night I was in Baghdad, I packed my bags, and when I was finished I went outside to smoke a cigarette. As I opened the door, there was a huge whoosh and thump and boom not far off. I turned back, not knowing if it was just some freak air pressure rushing out of the building or something else.

"That was a 120-mm mortar round," said one of the civil affairs soldiers who came outside to see. "It landed about 150 meters away."

As he lit up a smoke, sirens started going off near the impact. Usually when that happens, shells are lobbed back, unless, using very fast radar, the Americans can figure out that it was fired from a populated area, as the insurgents like to do. Nothing went back out this time.

A female soldier who'd been in the building using a computer came out, too. Her bunk was in another building, and she had a bit of hike to get there.

Despite the shell that had just landed nearby, she didn't care. Maybe it was the holidays and she was thinking of home more than usual. Maybe she figured no more shells would come in and, even if they did, she'd take her chances. Or maybe she was just tired. She set out alone.

"I'm walking home," she said and disappeared into the darkness. ©

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