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Picking up the pieces
In the heart of a broken country, American soldier-diplomats are trying to create democracy amid chaos

BAGHDAD, IRAQ — Four days after they’d nearly been slaughtered in an ambush outside Fallujah on the morning of Christmas Eve, Major Woody Nunis’s short-handed civil-affairs team takes another hit. Driving back the half-hour from Baghdad late on the afternoon of December 28, speeding past farms and mud huts in the lush rural area west of the city, bad news begins to trickle in.

As they get closer to their dusty little home, a postage-stamp fort called Mercury, nimble scout helicopters circle above while two officers talk about something ominous over the radio in the humvee. Their mechanical conversation includes code integers about casualties and the need for an explosives-disposal team.

Minutes after pulling into Mercury, after the guns and a broken radio have been lifted out of the trucks, word comes down. Keith Adkins and Ash Garza, both young enlisted men from Texas, stand out near the vehicles having a smoke as their captain, a short, strong guy named Larry Mouton, walks up grim-faced.

A well-liked and respected captain named Blanco has just been killed in an ambush. Three of his men are wounded, how badly is not yet clear. Garza and Adkins have been joking around, but that ends quickly.

Later that night, Major Nunis sits on his bunk in the cramped room he shares with Adkins and Garza and talks about Blanco. The dead captain was not out looking for war that afternoon; he was headed to a local village. But such distinctions don’t matter in the brutal, complex, and utterly frustrating guerrilla war being fought in Iraq right now, a war continuing alongside a multi-billion-dollar reconstruction and democratization campaign as complex and frustrating as the war itself.

Nunis knew Blanco well, and he bears the pain hard. "It fucking sucks," the tall former paratrooper says, head down, deeply saddened and bitter.

When they were attacked on Christmas Eve, Nunis and his men had been on a peaceful mission, a mission that now dominates the work of an army trained to violently take and hold ground. In this ill-defined reconstruction phase of post-invasion Iraq, the burden of turning on the lights, getting ponds of raw sewage out of the street, and establishing local governments falls to teams like Nunis’s, which are called civil-affairs units.

Like most, Nunis’s team is made up of reservists. Nunis himself, 42, is a commercial-real-estate broker with an MBA. Adkins, 30, is a computer programmer. Garza, 21, is a horse trainer, chuck-wagon cook, and poet.

When they got attacked on Christmas Eve (it was the fourth time they’d been hit), they were driving back from a school they’d spent a lot of time and effort rebuilding — working with local contractors and paying out thousands of dollars. They were on their way to check a water-treatment plant. "That will be the first potable water they’ve had since 1991," Nunis says. "Now they just dip into the river," which is contaminated with sewage and industrial runoff.

Their route to the school and water-treatment plant had become predictable. "We were going over to the water-treatment plant [that morning]. We went the same way into the school, and went out the same way, and they were waiting for us," Nunis says.

"Everybody thinks of us as the guys who pay the money, so they’re nice to us. But that proved to go only so far on Christmas Eve."

Before they could get to the plant, two 125mm artillery rounds, which had been buried in the roadside next to a knocked-out Iraqi tank, were detonated by invisible guerrillas. The shrapnel blew into the passing vehicles. One humvee windshield was shattered, the soldiers were deafened, and a Toyota pick-up passing the other way was flipped and thrown off the road. But no one, Iraqi or American, was seriously wounded.

With this attack fresh in their memories, and now Captain Blanco’s death haunting them, the civil-affairs team sets out the next day, December 29, for a village called Nasir Wa Al Salaam.

The mission is to make a visit to the local council president, a gregarious political aspirant named Abbas Hussein Kenani. Abbas wears Western clothes, speaks some English, and drives a new black VW Golf. He was voted into his position as the de facto mayor of Nasir Wa Al Salaam over the summer, but he wants a higher place in the burgeoning Iraqi government, and he’s soon moving up to the equivalent of a county supervisor.

Nunis has to meet with Abbas and his successor, a quiet, turbaned man named Hadi Jasim Ali, to discuss Abbas’s transition, and the need for some buses to transport Iraqi militia trainees. They’ll also be checking on three school-repair projects in the town, mostly damaged from years of neglect, not the war.

The mission’s last stop will be Al Anwal primary school, where Nunis has to make a final payment for the repairs, $2200 in cash. (Although the reconstruction portion of the $87 billion allotted by Congress has begun to arrive in Iraq, much of the reconstruction thus far has been paid for with money confiscated from Saddam’s regime.) Then, in the early afternoon, the team must return to Baghdad so Nunis can catch a plane for Texas, for a two-week visit with his wife and young son.

WHEN THEY leave Mercury that morning, Nunis’s civil-affairs team takes three humvees. To supplement the short-handed team, they borrow three infantrymen and one medic — the only woman at Mercury — from other units. They’ve got an M240B machine gun, two M249 squad automatic weapons, an M-16 and/or a pistol for each person, thousands of bullets, an assortment of hand grenades, and an Iraqi translator named Kamil Kadim, who shows up for work in a suit and tie. In Nunis’s pocket there’s a stack of crisp $100 bills for the headmaster of Al Anwal school.

To get to the town-council office, Nunis, Mouton, and Kamil must pass through barbed-wire-and-concrete anti-truck-bomb barricades, a bevy of local police, and an inner screen of armed guardsmen in the hallway. Inside, Nunis speaks with Abbas in a back room behind translucent amber curtains, with a ring of local men sitting on couches, puffing cigarettes and sipping sweet tea. When Nunis is done with his business, Abbas shares some of his. He wants to build a kindergarten.

"We want money for the project from CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority]," he says. "So far we haven’t gotten approval for a project so large. One kindergarten is not enough because in Nasir Wa Al Salaam, we have almost 200,000 people. So we want to build here, and that will take time, but we will be patient. I have a clear picture for the future of Nasir Wa Al Salaam, but it is stopped now because of the terrorist attacks against coalition forces. That stops our plans for the future."

Abbas’s town sits beside the infamous Abu Gharaib prison. Like others in Iraq, it was a place where many people vanished under Saddam’s rule. But besides that, the regime had little business in Nasir Wa Al Salaam.

"The Saddam regime, they did not pay attention to the schools," Abbas says. "They took all the money for weapons. We have 65 schools here. Most of them are in very, very bad condition."

Nasir Wa Al Salaam is rundown and full of unemployed citizens. But the town has had some enviable successes. The divisions between Sunni and Shi’a sects that threaten to break whatever success has been made post-Saddam — and could even fuel a civil war — have been erased in Abbas’s town. When the first American units began setting up the local government, members of both factions came together and ran for positions on the town council.

"After the war, Sunni and Shi’a, we are one hand working together," Abbas says. "We are a brotherhood. Sunni, Shi’a, we don’t like this word. After the war we are all Iraqi and Muslim."

Nunis, who sits on a couch between Kamil and Mouton, offers his support. "I think it’s the face this council has put forward and how confidently they conduct business. Maybe that’s naive, but everybody looks to this group for leadership. It’s a statement of purpose, regardless of which sect they come from. And the quicker we turn everything over to the Iraqis, the faster these clowns who are trying to blow us up have nothing to do."

Abbas hands Nunis a contract proposal for a road project, which he does hesitantly, because it means Nunis has to take it up the chain of command for funding. But Nunis is all for it.

"Let’s make CPA build something," he says. "They need to come off the dime and start building some stuff."

They leave the council hall to inspect a looted building outside town slated for reconstruction. Soon they part, and Nunis and his team head over to the Sheik Dhary primary school, which has run up $50,000 in repair bills.

As soon as Nunis walks into the school, a little boy with a red backpack gives him the finger.

Standing above the crowd of kids on recess in the courtyard, the major points at the boy and tells the translator to bring him over. Nunis knows that he probably learned the gesture from US soldiers, but he wants to ask him if he knows what it means and tell him it’s not a nice thing to do. The boy scurries away, and Kamil can’t catch him.

Nunis turns to the headmaster and drills him. "We’re paying a lot of money for this school," he says. "It shouldn’t be this way."

The convoy then heads to the Al Anwal school, the last stop before leaving for Baghdad. On the way, Nunis stops at a water pumphouse in the middle of town. They pass through a market where they often get pelted with tomatoes. Garza yells from behind the wheel, "You’re free! I freed all y’all! I am here for your freedom!"

Down an alley there are series of loud bangs. "What the fuck was that?" they ask, and everyone moves his or her weapon a little higher. They don’t know if it was an attack or fireworks or gunfire at a wedding. Tense, they just keep driving.

With the three-humvee convoy waiting in the street, Nunis and Kamil head into the pumphouse, shown off by its proud caretaker. Before the Americans built it, there had never been running water in this part of Nasir Wa Al Salaam.

Not a minute into the conversation there’s a massively loud explosion in the near distance. Standing inside the pumphouse it’s impossible to tell where it came from. Nunis runs outside looking for his men, and Garza runs down the alley looking for him.

Off in the direction of the main highway, a giant, billowing plume of smoke rises into the sky. Having just been attacked, and with the killing of Captain Blanco the day before fresh in his mind, Nunis runs back to the humvee, very pissed. "It’s an IED [improvised explosive device]."

An access road off the highway cuts right before the team, and there’s a good chance that the bombers would be making their getaway within seconds. Garza steers the humvee off-road and across the hardened sand, bouncing the vehicle hard. Nunis gets on the radio to call it in.

"We were just in Nasir Wa Al Salaam on the outskirts and we’ve just had a huge explosion. Break. We’re headed over to check it out now. We’ll have a grid. Over."

As Garza pulls over to ask some shepherds what they saw, it comes over the radio that the explosion was a controlled detonation of a cache of SA-7 surface-to-air missiles found a few nights prior. Relieved that it wasn’t an IED, but still rattled, the team heads over to the Al Anwal school.

"Okay. Okay. We’re good. Good deal," says Nunis. "Man, that was loud."

The Americans arrive at the school. Waiting for them in the playground are about 50 kids, many of them gripping rocks and slingshots.

In the market they get pelted with tomatoes, on the country road they get bombs set off at them, and every now and then the kids stone them. One soldier got his jaw broken from a rock hurled by a kid.

Nunis has a pocketful of greenbacks to give to the school’s headmaster, and he’s in no mood for any of his soldiers to take a rock in the eye, or for one of them to take a rock in the eye and shoot back. He’s had enough.

He storms out of the humvee, and fires a round from his M-16 into the mud. The loud crack intimidates the children enough that they drop their rocks and scatter like mice, running across the barren playground to hide behind a mound. At the same moment, a gunship flies overhead.

Nunis is enraged. He strides up to the facility-protection police who guard the entrance to the school.

"You better take care of this shit, or I’m going to fire every last one of you!" he yells. "I’m tired of this shit!" The police protest that these children are not theirs and they have no right to discipline them. But Nunis won’t have it.

He goes inside to pay the principal the last of the money for the work on the school, but first he tells him not to let his charges throw rocks.

"You’re not setting a good precedent for us to come back here and help you out," Nunis says.

Kamil translates. The headmaster says, "They do this with private cars also, not just the Americans."

"This is not acceptable," Nunis says.

Mouton, who is standing there too, turns and says, "The people think the Americans are stupid. We keep giving them money, and they keep killing us. It’s sad, man."

After upbraiding the guards again on the way out, Nunis, Mouton, and Kamil return to the trucks to drive back to Baghdad so Nunis can fly home. Garza shows off a weapon he pulled off a 12-year-old boy while his boss was inside. It’s an expertly made and very accurate slingshot.

"It’s the best one I ever got," Garza says. The slingshot goes on the middle deck of the humvee.

Back in Baghdad, and away from the relative danger of Nasir Wa Al Salaam, Nunis talks about his work in Iraq before decompressing for the flight home.

"A lot of people are underestimating the importance of the freedom we’ve given these guys," he says. "They can grab signs and protest the hell out of us. If they did that before, no one would ever see them again. They can walk up to me and tell me to fuck off and I’m going to ask them why.

"It’s give and take, but it’s hard to blame them because it’s been an all-or-nothing society for so long. This country’s got a chance. It’s got too many resources and too much going for it not to make it. Whether it’s an Islamic republic or a democracy, it’s up to them. The next two to three years will be very interesting, and we’ll still be around to help them along. They’ve really opened my eyes. This country does have a chance."

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Issue Date: January 23 - 29, 2004
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