Reprinted with permission.


Iraq behind the cameras: a different reality
Scripps Howard News Service
December 05, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq - It's a little-known footnote in postwar Iraq that an unassuming Army Civil Affairs captain named Kent Lindner has a bevy of blushing female fans.

Every time Lindner checks in on the group of young, deaf Iraqi seamstresses at their factory here, the women swarm him with admiration. "I love you!" one of them writes in the dust on Lindner's SUV.

Such small-time adoration is not the stuff of headlines against the backdrop of a country painfully and often violently evolving from war. So on this day, when Lindner and his fellow soldiers are cheered as they fire the deaf workers' boss, a woman who has been locking the seamstresses in closets, holding their pay and beating them, the lack of TV cameras on hand is no surprise.

But later that night, mortars hit nearby. Cameras are rolling, and 15 minutes later folks back home instead see another news clip of Baghdad's latest violence. It's a soda-straw view that frustrates soldiers, like those in Lindner's Civil Affairs unit, who are slowly trying to stitch together the peace while the final stages of the war play out on television.

"We've got a lot of good things going on, but when I went home (on leave), people were just like 'We never hear that stuff,' " said Civil Affairs Pvt. Amy Schroeder. "That's what makes the families worry."

What Iraq looks like on TV, and what Iraq is like for the 130,000 troops living here, sometimes feels like two different realities.

That's especially true for the Army's Civil Affairs soldiers, reservists who often serve as civil engineers in their "real life" jobs, and who are here working in Iraq's schools, hospitals and factories. There are thousands of Civil Affairs soldiers in Iraq, and their daily missions take them into all regions of the country, from the water plants in Basra to the south, to canning factories up north in Irbil.

"Our stories aren't the sexiest," says the 432nd Civil Affairs Brigade commander, Gary Beard. "But what we do will build the success of this country."

For the soldiers, the morning typically starts inside their compounds with a breakfast of coffee and thick, rubbery bacon substitute from one of the contractor dining halls, or sometimes just a cigarette and a Coke. It's cold now, but the sun is still white-bright, so most still wear hats or sunglasses.

Outside the compounds, Iraqis who have become full-time employees wait to get their IDs checked. The regulars know the MPs by name, and the soldiers and Iraqis exchange the same kind of morning greetings heard at job sites everywhere.

"Amin! What's up, man?" the 352nd Civil Affairs commander, Maj. Michael Maguire, says to contractor Amin Ahmed. The Iraqi businessman works with vendors in the city to get equipment for Maguire's men. Over the months, a bond has formed. When Ahmed was worried about car bombs hurting his daughter at school, Maguire helped get heavy barbed wire to wrap around the school's perimeter.

With their translator ready to go, Lindner and 352nd Lt. Col. Jim Otwell don bulletproof vests and Kevlar helmets and drive out of the compound to visit the state-run sewing factory for deaf Iraqis.

"We want to find out what your working conditions are, anything that we can do to help you," Otwell tells the young women at the factory. He speaks in English slowly, for the benefit of an Arabic translator, who then turns to an Arabic-speaking sign-language translator to sign Otwell's questions to the seamstresses.

The girls' hands start flying as they tell Otwell about their hated boss.

"She would beat us, and pull our hair!" signs Nadia Jabar.

"What about working conditions ... do you have hearing aids? Books you can read?" Otwell asks.

"Nothing!" they sign back.

Otwell and Lindner tour the building, which is cold and dusty. But inside several of the rooms are old products they can sell - hundreds of Iraqi flags they've sewn, dresses and pillowcases. Already the team has arranged for the factory to produce all the uniforms for Iraq's civil defense forces, and piles of cut brown pant legs line the floor.

Now the workers are getting $60 a month, part of which is spent on housing them at the factory. Otwell and Lindner promise to come back soon, and ask the workers to make a list of things that they really need, so maybe next year the factory can get some upgrades. On the way out, the workers jump and clap, as Lindner and Otwell escort the old boss - who had come back to the factory despite a previous arrest by Iraqi police for beating the workers - away from the building.

Across town, another mission is under way.

"Welcome, welcome to our school," chants a line of 7-year-old girls in Arabic at the Abu Ghuraib Primary School, which the 490th Civil Affairs Battalion took under its wing to restore after it was badly looted postwar.

The now-bright-blue school has new equipment and new electrical wiring that feeds bright bulbs by the teachers' blackboards.

As each soldier walks through the entrance to the official ribbon-cutting, the girls chant louder in Arabic, "Thank you, thank you, thank you."

Inside, headmistress Ibistam Mahdi cuts a yellow ribbon, and thanks the men through a translator.

"For the 350 girls here, it is a lot better," Mahdi says.

Despite the violent news images seen most often at home, these soldiers say it's more common to see boys selling water jugs of gasoline to passing cars than it is to see a roadside bomb.

In the cities, the convoys pass through marketplaces where women walk, arm in arm, to shop for trendy beaded skirts that sparkle in the sun. They pass blocks of electronics stores where men carry home boxes of MP3 players and satellite TV dishes. On busier streets, hundreds of roadside "money exchanges," where Iraqis trade dollars for dinars, pop up like lemonade stands.

"Oh, I'm an Ali Baba now," says Staff Sgt. Justin Lockhart to a squirming 11-year-old Iraqi boy named Aaday. Aaday has the sergeant's handcuffs and is busy playfully locking Lockhart up.

"It sounds bad, but I try and play with the kids as much as possible," says Lockhart, of the 422nd Civil Affairs Battalion. "It's safer with them around. The only times I'm scared are when there are kids around us, and they leave. Or when adults come get them - it's right after that that we leave a place," because it may signal a coming attack, he said.

Even in Fallujah, a city 30 miles west of Baghdad that in the last month has become characterized as one of the more hostile cities in Iraq because of recent attacks, Civil Affairs teams still make daily trips out of their compound to help get the city's day-to-day needs functioning. And the men and women stationed there say it's just not as violent as it looks.

"I go out every day," says 432nd Civil Affairs Battalion Sgt. Bill Belongea. "I have not had to raise my weapon yet. It's not as bad as the media portrays it."

On another mission in Baghdad, soldiers from the 352nd Civil Affairs command pull up to the Ministry of Labor and Social Services to follow up on victims of a recent police-station bombing. By the gate, hundreds of needy Iraqis line up for welfare payments.

The soldiers of the 352nd have stopped in to pick up food and clothing for a family of 26. The family members survived the attack on the Adamiyah Police Station, but the explosion destroyed their apartments.

"All they have left is what they pulled out of the rubble," says Capt. Chuck Timney. "These people could have a long wait for a new home, so we're going to try and make it as comfortable as possible."

As the soldiers wait, news of a nearby roadside bomb comes in through the static on the Humvee's radio. A command post dispatches rescue helicopters, and a few minutes later two Black Hawks buzz past.

Maj. Jeff McKone is listening in the Humvee's front seat, and his reaction is one of relief - that this particular bombing is not one he has to worry about. He continues to snack on an MRE through the dispatches, and then hops down from the Humvee to help load boxes for the family.

As the soldiers arrive at the displaced family's temporary quarters, the parents and children rush out to open the gate and help carry the packages.

Both Timney and Capt. Mike Self, who has brought colored paper and pens sent by his church back home for the kids, check specifically on the youngest child. The toddler stopped speaking or moving after the car bomb. Although still mostly listless in her mother's arms, the girl wails during this visit. It's the first noise they've heard from her, and it's a sign of relief for the soldiers, who have clearly bonded with the family.

As they say their goodbyes, the soldiers look happy, accomplished.

"If you can't feel good about today," McKone says, "then you shouldn't be here."

(Reach Tara Copp at coppt(at)