Military history

CHAPTER 19

The Boss

MAMOON SAMI RASHID, the governor of Anbar Province, spun the wheel of his armored Toyota and pointed toward the wreckage on the side of the road.

“You see, over there, that is where the suicide bomber tried to kill me,” Rashid said with a smile.

Across the road, where he was pointing, lay the charred shells of half a dozen automobiles.

“Over here,” he said after a time, pointing, “this is where they tried to shoot me.”

Car bomb, suicide bomb, mortar, gun; in his car, in his house, in a mosque: insurgents had tried to kill Rashid so many times and in so many different ways that a man less mad would have lost count. Twenty-nine times, he reckoned, on the morning I drove with him to work.

“They want to kill me,” Rashid said, spinning the wheel, “because I will not let them have power.”

With a confident scowl impressed on his face, Rashid drove through the rubble of downtown Ramadi: shattered buildings, shot-up storefronts, rutted, invisible streets. He swung into the parking lot of the government center, whereupon, like everyone else, he ran inside.

I followed him into his office. He was a curiosity, Governor Rashid: the man who was the government. The government himself. The only moving part. Was he mad? Was he a strange breed of war profiteer; an opportunist in a ruined city owned by foreigners? Or was he, against all odds, a courageous man?

It was hard to tell by looking at him. Rashid was a hulking figure, resembling a professional wrestler. His round head, thick neck and sloping mustache—and hands the size of catcher’s mitts—gave him an even more imposing aura. He wore a pale green tunic that wrapped around him like a tent.

The Americans followed close behind him. Major General Richard Zilmer, the commander of thirty thousand marines in Anbar, and Colonel Sean MacFarland, who oversaw Ramadi, hovered about Rashid as if he was their only friend in the world. Which, at the moment, he was.

“The governor is a powerful symbol of progress,” General Zilmer said, delicately. I felt bad for Zilmer: He was in charge of an annihilated city. His men were dying at a rate of thirty a month.

Rashid sat behind his desk, Zilmer and me on the couch, MacFarland across the room. The governor was already working, moving papers, signing things, ordering a row of subordinates who hung by the door.

“Go ahead,” Zilmer said. “Ask your question.”

I started with the obvious, which is to say I went right for the jugular. Governor Rashid, I said, your immediate predecessor, Raja Nawaf, was kidnapped and murdered. Your deputy, Talib al-Dulaimi, was shot to death. Three months ago, the chairman of the provincial council was killed. Just last month, your personal secretary was beheaded. What makes you think you’ll survive?

“I am the lawful authority here,” Rashid said, offering a non sequitur. “I am the governor.”

I was already starting to like him. Anyone who gave me a straightforward answer wouldn’t have taken the job.

“I am from Ramadi,” Rashid said. “I’ve been an engineer for twenty-eight years. The people know me and respect me—I am related to many of them. It is the criminals who don’t like me.”

They’ve tried to kill you twenty-nine times, I reminded him.

“I am a Dulaim,” Rashid said, referring to the dominant tribe in Anbar Province. “We don’t kill each other. They are all my relatives. I know them all the way to the border.”

Rashid was a restless man, squirming in his chair, answering but not looking at me. I won’t have him for very long, I thought.

Who is trying to kill you then?

“The terrorists, people like Zarqawi, I told you,” he said, glancing at his watch. “They are not mujahideen, they are Ali Baba.”

He laughed at his own joke. Ali Baba was a famous thief in Arabic literature.

My time was running short. General Zilmer, next to me, was starting to sigh.

Okay, Governor, I asked, Anbar Province is 98 percent Sunni Arab. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein put a new government in Baghdad that is dominated by Shiites. Isn’t Anbar doomed to the status of a rump state? Aren’t you doomed, too?

He was squirming again.

“Everyone thinks that Anbar Province was a pro-Saddam place,” he said. “But Saddam wanted to have the only say here, he wanted to have his personal rule. A lot of the tribes, they didn’t agree with him. He dealt with the tribes brutally. He did not respect laws, did not respect traditions—only himself.

“Since 2003, there has been no law here in Ramadi, no order—only chaos,” Rashid said. “The tribal leaders are looking for a way to protect themselves. The law cannot protect them. That is all. It is a confusing time, a time in flux.

“So that is the challenge,” Rashid said, pushing himself up from the desk. “People are trying to choose between the old and the new, between anarchy and the constitution.”

It was the summer of 2006, more than three years after the Americans arrived. I’d given up hope long ago that anyone in the American military knew any better than I did. Outside, Anbar seemed hopeless. Ramadi lay in ruins. But there seemed something authentic in Rashid, something lacking in the exiles who lived their cloistered lives in Baghdad.

I didn’t know Rashid from the next sheikh. Until I came to Ramadi I had never heard of him. In Anbar, everyone claimed to be a Dulaim; everyone was a Dulaim. But, sitting behind his desk—driving through the rubble to work—Rashid seemed as tough and as ruthless as any of the people who were trying to kill him. He didn’t live in the Green Zone; he lived in his own house, with his two wives and seven children, in a city that looked like Dresden. He drove to work in his own car. He carried his own gun. He didn’t care what I thought; he didn’t care what anyone thought. It wasn’t difficult to see why the Americans had latched on to him, whoever he was.

A pair of soldiers walked into the room. They were carrying a life-size cutout of John Wayne, the American movie icon. It was one of those giant cutouts you stand next to at theme parks and get your picture taken. No matter where you went in the Middle East, no matter what people thought of America, everyone loved American movies. In Iraq, they loved macho guys—Stallone and Schwarzenegger. The Duke was wearing a ten-gallon hat and a white kerchief round his neck and a gunbelt low round his waist. He was grinning like he’d just shot a bunch of cattle rustlers.

General Zilmer and Colonel MacFarland stood up. They were smiling at each other; it was their little surprise. The governor remained behind his desk, standing, looking bewildered, like a confused wrestler. The soldiers propped the John Wayne photo on the floor and stepped out of the way.

General Zilmer cleared his throat.

“Colonel MacFarland has told me that you, like me, are a fan of John Wayne,” he said to the governor. “He was, as you know, a tough guy like you are, a sheriff in a bad neighborhood, and he gave the bad guys nightmares.”

Someone translated for Rashid. It took a minute or so. The governor listened, thought for a second and finally got the joke. He walked around his desk. The three real warriors gathered round the fake one, smiled together and posed for a picture.

COLONEL FRANK CORTE looked around the room and took stock: six of thirty-nine ministers of the Anbar provincial government had showed up for the meeting. Marines outnumbered Iraqis. Corte took a deep breath and turned to Governor Rashid.

“I’m very glad to see your directors general here today,” said Colonel Corte, putting the best face on things. “They are very brave men.”

The first topic was a series of school renovation projects in the neighborhoods of Tamim and Qaldiyah. The work on several of the jobs had stopped.

“Our workers are being intimidated,” one of the Iraqi ministers said.

Rashid twisted his head. “I’m surprised,” he said.

The minister shrugged. Another marine broke in.

“We tracked down the contractor in Baghdad, and he says he’s going to do the work,” the marine said.

“Why is he not getting the job done?” Rashid asked.

The discussion moved to another series of school renovation projects in the towns of Hit, Ramadi and Haditha. The work on several of them had stopped.

“On the school in Haditha, we have had to put that on hold,” one of the marines said.

“Why aren’t these schools being rebuilt?” Rashid asked, looking at the Americans, at the Iraqis.

“Somebody is threatening the contractors,” the marine said.

Rashid glowered. The schools had to be ready when the school year started in two months, he said. “We need to put pressure on the contractors.”

The ministers looked at each other.

“There is a tremendous amount of fear and intimidation,” Corte told the governor. “We need to be able to say, Your family won’t be killed, your workers won’t be killed. We can’t really say that.”

“Isn’t it possible to protect these people?” Rashid asked.

“We’re working on that,” Corte said. “Sometimes it’s like plowing water in the sand.”

They moved to the next topic: the bank robbery. “Yesterday, about 10 billion Iraqi dinars disappeared from the Rafidain Bank in downtown Ramadi,” one of the marines said. “That’s about $ 7 million.”

“It’s most of the bank’s deposits,” Rashid said.

“How did they do that?” Colonel MacFarland asked. “There is an American overwatch post right next door. You’d need several trunks to carry out that much money. Did anyone see anything?”

“Apparently no one saw anything,” Governor Rashid said.

“There were more than 150 people in the bank that day,” Colonel Corte said. “That doesn’t sound right to me, Governor.”

The governor agreed.

“It is hard to believe that with this much military presence next door, they could do this,” Rashid said. “It must have been an inside job.”

MacFarland weighed in again. “People’s life savings were in there,” he said. “Were the deposits insured?”

The governor allowed himself a small smile.

“In Iraq, we don’t have that,” he said.

After an hour, the meeting ended. We stood up and gathered near the front door.

A marine gave the usual warning.

“Sniper area—run!” he shouted, and everyone leaving the meeting ran.

THE MARINES GATHERED at battalion headquarters to hear the plan. The reporters were sworn to secrecy. Inside the briefing room stood a large map of Saddam Hospital in Ramadi.

“Five hundred rooms and a whole shitload of people,” one of the officers said.

He turned to the map.

“We think there are terrorists in there,” he said. “Torture chambers in the basement.”

Before dawn, the Americans assembled, more than three hundred marines and soldiers. Under the night sky they climbed into their Bradleys and into the backs of the seven-ton trucks, smeared mud on their faces and checked their rifles a final time. Special Forces teams moved first to take out the snipers. A ripple passed through the company. This might be big, they were saying.

One of the officers mentioned that some Iraqi army soldiers would be coming along, twenty-seven of them, but I didn’t see them at the briefing. As we climbed into the trucks, there was still no sign of them.

“I think they’re totally worthless, but that’s just my personal opinion,” Major Thomas Hobbs, the Third Battalion’s executive officer, said.

At 3 a.m., the marines swarmed into the hospital. They surrounded the complex and rushed inside for maximum surprise. They broke the locks on all the doors, to the supply rooms, the operating rooms, the patient wards. The marines ran to the top of the building and fanned out across all nine of its floors. They set up machine-gun posts at each end of each floor to isolate the violence in case things got out of control.

They didn’t find much. A garbage bag full of bomb triggers and cell phones had been hidden behind a ceiling panel. The marines made a big deal out of that. There were no torture chambers in the basement. No terrorists. The marines corralled the hundred-odd Iraqi patients, mostly befuddled old people. They shuffled down to the first-floor lobby, where they sat on the floor and waited, none saying a word. A few of the patients couldn’t make the trip, like Ahmed Sala, a sixteen-year-old who’d been shot in the gut. He said he’d been hit by an American sniper, which made sense, but there was no way to know.

“I was going to my dad’s shop,” he said. “I was walking through the cemetery.” The cemetery was a big insurgent hangout. His stomach was bloated and his skin was hard and shiny. He was sweating.

“He’s septic,” one of the doctors said.

About an hour later, after they’d let the reporters in and the hospital was mostly secure, I saw the Iraqi soldiers. I was on the first floor when they came sauntering in. The Americans told me later the Iraqis had gone in with them. They looked good: nice uniforms, well trained. The Iraqi soldiers fanned out and began searching the rooms the Americans had left for them. I tagged along with them for a while. With the Americans looking on, the Iraqi soldiers kicked open each ward door with great precision and swung their rifles inside and stormed in, to find only emptiness.

After about an hour of this I wandered over to one of the empty wards on the seventh floor. Some of the Iraqi soldiers were already sleeping there. It was after 4 a.m. I leaned up against the wall and slid down. I stretched out my legs and closed my eyes. Before long, I noticed that a couple more Iraqi soldiers had joined me, about a half dozen in all. We had a good nap. The marines didn’t say a word.

That morning, the Americans sent out a press release. I didn’t see it until much later, after I got back to Baghdad.

“Early this morning Iraqi Security Forces, with support from Coalition forces, began searching a hospital in northern Ramadi, which was being used as a center for insurgent activity,” the release said. “This Iraqi Army–led operation will deny the insurgents use of the Saddam Hospital.”

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