Remember back in 2003 when there was such debate over whether embeds were worthwhile for journalism, or whether they compromised the reporter's objectivity? I was thinking about that the other day, and recalled an embed I took in Sadr City in Baghdad in the summer of 2006. My objectivity was certainly compromised in some ways (I was told by the captain that I would be on "IED watch" – because I was taking the seat of one of his men in the humvee, I would have to monitor the roadside in his stead) but there's no doubt the embed offered me some insight into the military's day-to-day concerns over this volatile neighborhood in Baghdad.
Here's a story I wrote about it for Soldier of Fortune magazine...
As his armored humvee cruises down the Baghdad road known as Route Grizzly, Captain Troy Wayman of the 3rd Battalion, 67th Armor Regiment looks out the window at Sadr City on his right. “The slum of all slums,” he mutters. The humvee turns into the decrepit Shiite neighborhood, and Wayman — in charge of the Military Training Team working with the Iraqi Army stationed in Sadr City — instructs his driver to step on the gas.
The U.S. military convoy hurtles through the slum’s streets at about 50 mph, passing row upon row of dilapidated buildings adorned with posters of Moqtada Al Sadr, dusty lots filled with burned out cars, a handful of moving vehicles and the occasional pedestrian. Suddenly, Wayman spots a group of young men standing on a street corner. “Was that Mahdi militia there?” he asks. His interpreter nods, and Wayman sighs, knowing that his convoy is now officially on the radar. “This is Sadr City. Nobody shits here without the Mahdi Army knowing about it,” he says.
The streets are lined with sewage water—“It ain’t rained here in months,” notes Wayman. “If we get pissed [at the locals], we splash them,” he says. Looking at his digital map of the area, Wayman instructs his driver to take a hard right, straight into the heart of Sadr City’s maze of dirt alleys. As his driver slows down to about 10 mph, Wayman realizes they’ve taken a wrong turn into what appears to be a cul-de-sac—and there’s no room for the humvees to turn around. “You see that little kid duck into the alley?” the captain anxiously asks his interpreter, who nods again.
Wayman hops out of his vehicle and proceeds ahead on foot, while his gunner retains a watchful eye from atop his vehicle. The captain passes a green metal gate covered in rugs hanging out to dry. A man holding his baby in his arms watches the intruders with concern, while two young boys stand behind their gate gazing out with curiosity. Returning to his vehicle, Wayman announces that there’s an alley to the left through which they should be able to squeeze—if the residents move the car blocking the path. They do, and as the convoy passes through, the two boys flash smiles to the troops. There are “a lot of good people in Sadr City,” says Wayman. “[But] as long as they have that fear of the Americans, it’s not helpful.”
Indeed, it is that fear—not to mention the hatred — of the Americans that makes patrolling Sadr City so difficult. The four square miles of shantytown on the eastern side of Baghdad is home to an estimated 2 million Shiites, all under the sway of the radical firebrand Al Sadr. The slum—a cluster of brick homes separated by dusty alleys and a handful of main thoroughfares—is deemed so lawless that U.S. soldiers dare not spend more than an hour or so in its boundaries. The standard patrol is conducted in a convoy of four armored humvees, and the U.S. soldiers rarely set foot on the dusty soil for fear of snipers. It’s in-and-out, says Wayman during a meeting at a Coalition base prior to his Saturday morning round of the Shiite slum. “Loose lips sink ships,” he says, explaining that within minutes of entering Sadr City, the Mahdi Army will know they’re inside. “They’re watching.”
At the meeting, the difficulties of keeping watch over Sadr City are evident. A group of Iraqi Army captains sit around the conference table discussing their respective Baghdad neighborhoods as they do at the end of every week. The mood is relaxed as these military men with nicknames like “Bokha” (“Rotten on the Inside”), “Olive Oil” (the smooth and lanky one) and “Piggy” talk about their latest efforts to crack down on the insurgency and crack jaded jokes about their successes and failures. But when the conversation turns to Sadr City, the banter grounds to a halt. Fifteen shootings, a mortar attack on Iraqi Army HQ, a fuel station blown up by an improvised explosive device, a firefight between militiamen and Sunni rivals at a traffic circle—and this is just a run-of-the-mill week, by Sadr City standards. A stern-looking American sergeant abandons his casual perch on the windowsill and addresses the room. “The reports we’re getting aren’t specific enough,” he says. “An explosion in Sadr City, that’s what I hear. That’s fine. But when a patrol’s been on site for 15 minutes, he should be able to call back ‘who, what, when, where, why.’ That’s taking a couple of hours. That’s where there’s an issue.”
Indeed, once on the streets of Sadr City, the lack of communication between Iraqi Army soldiers and the Americans is evident. As Wayman’s unit approaches a checkpoint manned solely by Iraqis, an angry look spreads across his face as he mouths the words, “Put your helmets on.” With more than a hint of dismay, he mutters, “These are my guys.”
Wayman admits the Iraqi soldiers who watch over Sadr City are doing their best. After checking in with Riadh Ahmed, a 25-year-old Sunni soldier stationed near the edge of the slum, the American turns to me and explains that they live in “hard conditions” in a dilapidated building with no air conditioning and “barely adequate food”—not to mention the constant threat of being killed by militiamen. “Do they need help?” asks Wayman rhetorically. “Yeah. But we’re working on that.” As for Ahmed, he’s forthright. “Honestly, I’m not comfortable,” he says in broken English.
But just because they’re doing their best doesn’t mean the Iraqi Army are necessarily doing enough. At a checkpoint which had been hit by an IED earlier in the day, Wayman has to repeat his basic mantra. After enduring the American’s reprimand for not shutting off the road after the explosion, the Iraqi soldier in charge smiles politely. “This time we’ll take it seriously,” he says. “Absolutely,” replies Wayman. “But you gotta put your helmets on.”
As the tense 45-minute patrol comes to an end, relief spreads throughout Wayman’s humvee. Cruising out of what appears on the surface to be a ghost-town, the captain explains that although Sadr City empties when U.S. patrols come through, it can turn on a dime. “The garbage is pre-positioned to block the roads—the Mahdi put that shit out there,” he says. “They don’t take long to organize. They communicate. A U.S. patrol took a wrong turn last night, and half an hour later they’d blocked off the street.” A few minutes later, Wayman’s convoy takes another wrong turn, and hits what appears to be another dead end. As the tension mounts, the forward vehicle scouts out ahead, passing a fruit-stand adorned with a poster of Diego Maradona.
The signal is given: it’s not a dead end after all, and Wayman’s team proceeds back to the Ministry of Defense in silent relief.