Chapter 15: Fallujah

    Sunday, February 8, 2004

    From Fallujah, Iraq

    Fallujah is a city about 35 miles west of Baghdad which forms one of the corners of the "Sunni Triangle" the other two corners being Ar Ramadi and either Tikrit or Samarra depending upon where you've been last.

    To tell you what it's like in Fallujah, this from Sunday's Washington Post piece by Dan Williams:

    "On any given day in Fallujah, it is hard to know who really is in charge. US forces are seen less often in the muddy streets. The US-sanctioned local government operates behind barricades, and police hunker down in fortress-like compounds. Iraqi resistance groups move in and out of the city with ease, and foreign infiltrators opposed to the US presence have taken up residence, people here say."

    And that's just ONE paragraph.

    Fallujah (pronounced fal (as in pal) - OO - zsha (as in genre) is like a place out of a Harry Potter book.

    Hagrid looked angrily at Harry and said, "Harry, you oughtn't be takin' Hermione and Ron to a place like Fallujah. There's some bad wizards what have taken up living there."
    Fallujah is the site of numerous attacks - some successful - on US helicopters, more-or-less regular mortar rounds lobbed in at the US base there, and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) are pretty much a daily nuisance.

    Williams wrote later in his article, "Fallujah has been one of the most dangerous cities for US troops in Iraq."

    Naturally, that's where I went on Friday.

    Dear Mr. Mullings:
    What in the world is wrong with you? Why can't you just stay in the Palace in the Green Zone in Baghdad like everyone else?
    Your Insurance Agent.

    I don't go riding my bicycle to these places. I go dressed up in my Ranger Rick outfit surrounded by real soldiers who don't want to be injured any more than I do. I also don't ask them to take me to these places; I only ask if I can tag along with them if they are going anyway,

    Last week I was escorting some visiting Washington, DC types down to Hillah which is where Babylon is located. It is also one the best examples of grass-roots democracy in the country that activity is largely led by local women.

    About two weeks ago I taught a class in democracy to about 80 women and maybe 30 men in Hillah at the Zainab Al-Hawra'a Center for Women's rights for the International Republican Institute.

    Long-time Mullsters will remember that I have done this kind of work for the IRI all over the world and I was thrilled to have the chance to do it here. I will again and will write about it in detail.

    Anyway these three guys and I were waiting for a helicopter to pick us up in the Baghdad area and ferry us down to Hillah. It's about a 90 minute drive but only about a 30 minute helicopter trip.

    We waited and waited which is not unusual. Helicopter transport in Iraq is not quite as dependable as, say, a local train in Bosnia. Usually the delays are weather-related but I have enough trouble starting, much less actually driving, the Mullmobile so I let the helicopter pilots decide where and when to fly.

    By the way, I have this dandy Land Rover coffee thing on my desk and people have asked me how much it costs. I only tell you this story because I delight in telling them: "It costs $46,000. But they throw in a Land Rover Discovery for free."

    Ok, it's not very funny, but it does tend to cut down traffic around my desk.

    The guests were getting a tad cranky about the delay and I explained, at a fairly high level, the physics involved in having a big rotor mounted horizontally on the top and a small rotor mounted vertically on the back and how I was constantly amazed that they didn't hit each other.

    Mr. Mullings? The point, please?
    Your seventh grade English teacher

    Yes. Right. So, we called the guys who know the guys who fly these things and we were told they were coming out of someplace else and would be upon us in a half hour.

    Forty-five minutes later, I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that something was very wrong.

    We called again and were told the helicopters would not be coming but they couldn't discuss it on a cell phone.

    I was terrified that four young men may have been injured or killed while flying to get me and my charges for an absolutely non-essential trip to Hillah. I can't even begin to describe the cold, wet dread I felt.

    When we got back to the Palace that we were told that one of the crews thought they had, indeed, been fired upon by a surface-to-air missile but after landing normally and checking things out, they were safe. They were ordered, nonetheless, to return to their base for further investigation.

    So, as I find myself doing now and again when one of the many very real demons which confront us here have decided to take the day off, I went out back, hid among the trailers, sobbed for a few minutes in relief, then went back to work.

    Welcome to my world.


    Ok, so Fallujah.

    We went in two open Humvees. Open to the extent they had doors but no windows. Fallujah is colder than it is in Baghdad and its been chilly in Baghdad.

    I have learned, when I travel to pack extra sweatshirts (hence the MARIETTA sweatshirt you have seen in these essays) extra sweaters, a watch cap, a scarf-like device which you can pull over your ears and not disturb the fit of your helmet, extra gloves and even an extra tee shirt. I'm not sure why I have the tee shirt in my backpack, but I've had it with me on every trip and I haven't gotten into trouble yet.

    You will note here I don't look particularly Ranger Rick-esque in this photo because I have enough layers on to qualify for a Charlie Brown comic strip.

    If you had an x-ray computer screen you would see that I am, in fact, wearing my Marietta College Sweatshirt.

    You should also look to the lower right hand corner of the screen and note that I was cradling an M-16 rifle which belonged to the turret gunner.

    Welcome to my world.

    About a half hour out we came upon stopped traffic along the highway. Scrambling out with the commanding officer ordering "Set up a 360 defense," he and I walked up the highway to see what was what.

    What it was, was - sure enough - an IED. It hadn't gone off but we were told it would be about an hour before the Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) guys could get to it, disarm it, and reopen the highway.

    This is what real soldiers look like when they are being real soldiers, not just playing at it as I do:

    In the end we hooked up with an MP convoy and went another way so we got to Fallujah safely.

    Remember that trip to Babylon when I had a photo of that sweet young boy giving us the "thumbs-up" sign with a big smile?

    He doesn't live in Fallujah. Nor do any of his relatives.

    The closest we got were some kids heaving rocks at us from a long way away. Throwing rocks is not a capital offense, so we just drove through town and got to the base.

    We were there to visit with a small detachment which runs a low-power radio station, attempting to win the hearts and minds.

    They don't live in splendor in Fallujah. This, for instance, is their shower:

    The young First Lieutenant who commands the detachment proudly announced that they now had a hot water heater so it wasn't so bad. How long have they been there? "Since October, sir."

    The phrase of art for this is: "They're living like soldiers."

    After touring the facility and having the Battalion CO (with whom I was traveling) giving the 1LT some guidance on improving his defenses, promising to buy beds and mattresses (they've been sleeping on cots since they got there), and chatting with each member of the team we went off to lunch.

    We ate at a sandwich shop named "Phil's" which I jokingly said was probably spelled "Fil's" because a "fil" is like a penny - one-one-hundredth of dinar.

    I was right.

    Here is a photo of Fil carving some sort of meat for a sandwich. I had something which was billed as a chicken patty but, um, I'm not so sure, if-you-know-what-I-mean-and-I-think-you-do.
    Nevertheless it was quite tasty and we ate in high luxury on the hood of our Humvee:

    The detachment commander is that 12-year-old to the right.

    We just keep growing these kids, asking them to do unbelievably important things in the harshest possible circumstances at an age when we should be worried if they aren't home by midnight much less home by next September and, oh, by the way, please be responsible for the lives of a dozen-or-so other soldiers most of whom are older than you are.

    Welcome to their world.

    By early afternoon the Battalion CO had accomplished everything he had wanted to do, as had I, so we loaded up and got ready for the return trip.

    This photo was taken just before the Battalion Sergeant Major conducted the convoy briefing. I may have told you about these before, but just in case you missed it, no one takes these lightly. I won't go into the details because I don't understand most of it, but suffice it to say words like "kill-zone" and "recover casualities" and "pursue aggressively" tend to creep into the conversation.

    On the way out of the base we were greeted by more Fallujahans:

    I don't want to speculate, but these particular demonstrators spell better in English than I do. In the words of that famous Aria when the father finds his daughter in cowering behind the curtains in her room with her boyfriend calmly drinking wine at the table,
    "I'm-a Suspeesh."

    About mid-afternoon we rolled back into the Green Zone none the worse for wear and my field trip to Fallujah was at an end.

    I had to, you know, use the facilities and I remembered to bring my camera to give you a sense of the beyond-ironies we deal with all day here. Here is a sign, first pointed out by Mullfriend Anne Trenolone, which is on every stall of the dual-gender WC:

    Welcome to our world.

    Be safe.

    -- END --

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