It’s nighttime and I am lying on a cot in a room over stuffed with members of the platoon that I am embedded with, some of whom are sleeping, others are watching porn on a laptop and commenting on what they would do if they found themselves in the depicted situation. A blast shakes the building and instantly we are on our feet, scrambling for our body armor, helmets and eye protection.
This is Baghdad during the summer of 2007. We are located in the Ghazaliya Neighborhood in the “Triangle of Death,” an area known for its extreme violence and still suffering from daily attacks and plagued by death squads, IED’s, sniper and rocket attacks and militias. We are in compound consisting of two Iraqi houses which the US army requisitioned, using one purely as housing for infantry troops while the other houses the higher ranks as well as nerve center for planning and communications.
I quickly make my way outside and run to the adjacent building. Inside there is a flurry of activity: Three men stand in front of a large satellite grid map pointing and placing red tacks while several others huddle around a table full of olive green radio communication units that appear as though they were left over from a World War II film set. “A shell landed just outside on the street” a young Captain named Brooks tells me. “There are reports that it hit a family of five, the woman is dead, we’re not sure about the rest…get the rest of your gear, we’re heading out.”
Inside of the Humvee, an armored fighting vehicle with a gunners turret, a soldier speaks on a radio to other members of the platoon, illuminated only by the glow the computer screen used for navigation. Everyone is ready and we speed off, taking a series of zig zags around blast barriers intended to keep suicide bombers and rocket attacks from reaching our compound.
About a half a block away the gunner starts yelling “we’ve got a kite, we’ve got a kite directly above us.” The vehicle comes to an abrupt stop and we quickly jump out. It is about as black as night can get, the one hour a day of electricity in Baghdad means no street lights and only wealthy families can afford to light their homes with candles or generators.
The rest of the group has parked, some soldiers take up crouching positions shielded by the armor of the vehicles while the gunners nervously scan the surroundings. Two tanks take up positions at the end of the block. A group of soldiers break down the gate of a home and then kick in the front door while others push their guns through the windows and swarm around back. I am about the fifth one in the house when I hear soldiers screaming “get on the fucking floor mother fuckers, get on the floor you fucking Haji motherfucker I swear to god I’ll blow your fucking head off…do we have anyone upstairs, get someone upstairs NOW!” The soldiers are obviously scared and so is the family, I hear a woman crying and a man talking calmly and slowly in Arabic.
While commotion is going on all around me, I stay in the living room as an Iraqi working as a translator for the US Army begins to question the man of the house. The woman continues to cry and rock back and forth. Three young boys sit quietly together in a corner while another tries to light an oil lamp to get some light in the room.
The soldiers who had been directed upstairs return from their search empty handed. Two other soldiers come in from outside. “The kite is just an old one, it is stuck in some power lines, lets get the fuck out of here.” Another soldier leans over and says to me “they use the kites to signal each other and coordinate attacks on our convoys…this was probably just some kids kite though.”
This was my first night in Iraq. As it turns out, it could have been any other day or night. The US Military, often along with the Iraqi Army in training, conduct hundreds of raids and searches of homes in Iraq every day. Some turn up illegal weapons and militants, the vast majority do not. On the over one hundred raids I photographed, nothing out of the ordinary was found. There were three “accidental discharges” in homes (accidental shootings,) all by Iraqi soldiers who were not using their weapons safeties. We took a few detainees, held them for a few hours or days and in the end, they were all released.
Raids come in many forms and are carried out for different purposes. Some are called “Soft Knock Campaigns,” and are intended to be a civil way to gather information from residents, but later turn into, or just resemble actual raids. Some are done to get Biometric information (name, age, fingerprinting, retinal photograph etc.) Most of the time an ordinary patrol will turn into a series of raids when someone sees a red flag, such as a kite or a motorbike (in the past motorbikes have been used by suicide bombers.)
Sometimes the soldiers are calm and polite, gently searching the home for weapons then giving out teddy bears to children and claim tags so that the family can get paid for the door, window or gate that was destroyed to gain entry into the home. Other times soldiers destroy property, make profane gestures at the women and children and put cigarettes out on furniture. The soldiers are afraid for their safety and admit that trained for war, they are not the appropriate group to carry out the operations of a police force. The raids are terrifying for the families and do little in the way of making friends and allies with the people that the United States could really use on their side.
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