Sunday, January 28, 2007

American Soldiers Abducted by Group Disguised as Americans

Story of soldiers' slayings revealed slowly
Correspondent's tenacity helped unearth the truth

Anchorage Daily News

Published: January 28, 2007
Last Modified: January 28, 2007 at 03:34 AM

BAGHDAD -- I was nearly done eating today when Hussam Ali, our stringer from Karbala, buzzed the gate to our floor and charged into the room.
Hussam is thin like a runner. His cheekbones look sculpted and his skin is darker than olive. He has a thin mustache. And he was excited like any reporter with a big, big story.
Hussam had been up well past 2 a.m., talking on the phone to bureau chief Leila Fadel about the events of a week ago Saturday in his town. That's when four American soldiers, most likely all from Fort Richardson, were abducted and executed, still handcuffed, following a brazen raid on a provincial government compound.
Army officials finally acknowledged the abductions last night in a press release e-mailed to media 11 p.m. Iraq time. Prior to that, the official story made it sound like the soldiers had died in battle, not murdered in, or just outside, the Chevy Suburbans abandoned by the attackers miles from the compound.
But Hussam began discovering the truth earlier this week, having heard from the police in the neighboring town of Hilla, where the Suburbans -- and the slain Americans -- were found. But the U.S. Army refused to confirm or deny the account until The Associated Press sent a report over its wire last night. . . .

At dusk on Saturday, Jan. 20, Hussam was in his house, a few hundred yards from the compound, when he heard a huge explosion. He raced out the door and headed toward the sound of gunfire. Early-arriving pilgrims in the streets were scattering. Hussam thought a mortar had landed in their midst. Then he saw smoke rising from the compound. Was it a car bomb, he wondered?
With snipers on the roofs, he didn't want to get too close to the walls. He took cover beside a police car abandoned in the middle of the street. He was on the opposite site of the compound from the gate. He could see military vehicles burning inside but not the Suburbans roaring off with their captives.
Women and children were racing out of a small door in the wall to his left. They had been visiting their men in jail. Hussam asked what they had seen, but they wouldn't talk to him.
It grew very dark. The power was cut. The gunfire had stopped. Hussam made his way to the gate. The guards were still jumpy and excited. He asked them who the attackers were.
"Americans! It was the Americans!" they shouted.
As surreal as Iraq can be, that still made no sense to Hussam. But the attackers came up in a half-dozen or more Suburbans, just like Americans travel. They had U.S. documents and wore U.S. uniforms. At least one was very light-skinned and spoke in English. {Get the whole Anchorage Daily News story clicking here.]

Think about what this means. Iraqi insurgents or maybe Al-Qaida, or Iranians got US vehicles, or US looking vehicles, dressed in US uniforms, with US papers, breeze past the checkpoint, attack, and kidnap four American soldiers. One of the reasons I thought our invasion of Iraq was a mistake from the beginning was that I knew we were sending young American troops into a culture they knew nothing about, where people speak a language they don't understand. As a former Peace Corps volunteer who lived as the only American in a small Northern Thai provincial capital for a year (a second volunteer showed up the second year) I understand a little bit about living in a foreign culture. And we had enough intensive Thai language training before we left that I could get by in Thai (emphasis on 'get by') when I arrived. That was good because my Thai was better than the English of most of the people I met. I know how totally ignorant I was - despite our language and cultural training - when I arrived. And the more language and culture I learned, the more I realized how much more there was that I would never comprehend.

So our troops were going to be dependent on Arabic speaking interpreters. But how do you know which interpreters are on 'our' side? So we are in a country, where, for the most part, we are dependent on bi-lingual Iraqis for communication. Yes, I know there are some American soldiers trained in Arabic, just like I was trained in Thai. I could get by, but I certainly didn't understand everything they were saying, or the nuances, or even the irony.

And the war is in their home territory. Where they know when things feel abnormal. Where they have relatives and friends. Where they know the shortcuts between the houses, between the towns. Where they had secret hiding places as kids. US soldiers know none of this.

And many of them speak English. Certainly far more Iraqis speak pretty good English than American troops speak even the most basic Arabic. I know about translators, because a person in my town took English lessons from me because she wanted to deal directly with the foreigners building the road in our area when she negotiated with them to lease the dump trucks she owned. The Thai translator the foreigners had was shaking down all the would-be contractors for kickbacks. In the end, she woke me up one morning at 6am insisting I had to come as her translator because her English wasn't good enough yet. And afterward the foreigners offered me the job as translator, because they knew theirs wasn't conveying everything honestly. (I didn't take the job, I had my classes to teach.) And I know about translators because of a research trip to Beijing with my Hong Kong college students. My students quietly told me what was actually being said as opposed to what the translator had conveyed. This wasn't about bribes, but about Chinese ideas of what is appropriate and inappropriate to say. So that my questions sometimes were rephrased, which explained why the answers made little sense sometimes. Also, because direct translations from one language to another are very difficult to make. The translations are literally accurate, but the words in English don't mean what they mean in the original language.

So already, just the problems of going into a different country, without knowing the culture, without having historical links and personal connections, put us in a real disadvantage. In this newsreport, it is the Iraqi reporter who lives in the neighborhood, was there when the kidnapping took place, and could go around and ask the soldiers and others what happened, who got the story. Not the American journalists trapped in the green zone. [after reading the blog I need to correct this, he isn't in the Green Zone, but he has been, so far, trapped in his hotel.] So even the journalists are relying on the word of Iraqis who may well be accurate reporters of what happened, or could even be plants for the opposition. It takes a while to develop the kind of relationship and cultural sensitivity to know the difference.

Aside from my own overseas experience, the film, Battle of Algiers, about the uprising in Algiers that eventually got the French out and gained Algeria's independence, taught me long ago how difficult it is to fight an urban war in a foreign land against a united people. I was glad to see the film was on the must-see list in Washington, DC a couple of years ago. Apparently the right people didn't see it, or if they did, thought like the French, that they knew better. Given our involvement in Iraq and Afganistan, I think all Americans ought to slip down to their video rental store and check it out. Even if they have to read the subtitles.

But all of those comments are just background for the real importance of this story. First, note that in the story "At least one was very light-skinned and spoke in English." There is an assumption that Americans are 'very light skinned." Or that Iraqis are not. Of course, we know that the US military is made up of soldiers of every shade of skin.

Second, whoever conducted this raid, understood the Americans far better than the Americans understand them. They were able to disguise themselves as Americans. These are people every bit as smart as the smartest Americans over there, but they have the advantage of knowing the home culture and language, as well as knowing enough of the American culture and language to pull pretending to be Americans.

This report suggests that up to now soldiers riding in US looking vehicles and wearing US uniforms and carrying US papers and speaking at least some English, have been assumed to be Americans and they pretty much get waved through the checkpoints. If that is true, and this news story is true, then American soldiers are no longer going to be able to trust American soldiers. Not only will they be fighting the 'enemy,' they now have to be very careful of their own troops, who may actually be the enemy.

And given that many of our troops are brown skinned and have accents, what is going to happen to the morale in our troops? Are American soldiers who look like they could be 'them' and don't speak accent-free American English going to be suspect? I would guess that might have been one of the objectives of the raid - to sow doubt among American soldiers about who is actually American.

After I wrote this, I went back to the Anchorage Daily News website and began reading Rich Mauer's blog. I know Rich and talked to him a couple weeks ago because he'd written such a good piece on the FBI investigation of Alaskan politicians. That's when I learned he was headed for Iraq. Reading his blog reinforces all the stuff I've said above about knowing the language and the culture. So far Rich is locked up in a dark hotel room getting news from Iraqi reporters and news wires. You can read his blog yourself. But reporting is different from running a military campaign. We need lots of eyes and ears. As someone who's just been plucked off the streets of Anchorage (he's got good reporting skills, but his experience in Iraq is not much different from most others in Anchorage) he will see and hear things that are different from what more experienced Iraq hands will see. All is new and different and his eye is more like the average Alaskan's, so perhaps his reporting will connect to them more. His blog reports are certainly interesting. In addition to checking out Rich's blog, you might also want to check out the website and blog of Dahr Jamail, another person from Anchorage who has been covering Iraq as an independent reporter for several years now. When wandering around the streets of Bagdad got too dangerous, he pulled out of Iraq, and is now reporting about the mideast more generally.


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