My meeting with the general was interrupted by the sound of a not too distant explosion- IED, RPG, car bomb, indirect fire? No way to tell, even though every weapon system and explosive device has its own sound signature- at least the windows did not shatter.
The day’s mission, in theory, was simple: convoy from Camp Speicher south to the Sal Al Din province regional police headquarters located just off Main Supply Route Tampa in the North West section of Tikrit to visit Iraqi Police General Mazar. I visited General Mazar a few times before and proved to be very helpful to me.
In Iraq, doing favors and helping ‘friends’, especially important and influential ‘friends’, enhances ones prestige and honor amongst their peers. This was the game I had to play and win. I went the Police General asking for a favor for an Iraqi Police Major; enhancing my prestige with the Police Major. The Police General granted me that favor, enhancing his prestige with the Iraqi Police and American military.
Doing ‘the favors’ business is like the Don Corleone character in the classic Mafia movie ‘The Godfather’; favors and influence gain greater favors and influence and it is better to be owed a favor then to owe a favor. Somehow I think that my maternal grandfather of Italian decent would have approved this method, maybe he conducted business using that method as well, my family is split on that assessment.
After we were ambushed in Tikrit back in April, I never told Abu Ali where we were going, only when to be ready for pick up at his home in Al Shakour village. Not that I did not trust him, but why take a chance? This mission was one of the few times I told Abu Ali where we were going ahead of time. He needed to make arrangements with the Police General and be sure he would be present. I did not want to convoy all the way to Tikrit and not have General Mazar available. Each time you leave the relative safety ‘of the wire’ and travel by convoy ‘outside the wire’, you take a chance that it might be your last trip.
In April, when my team was ambushed, my local hire Iraqi Translator Abu Ali knew where the visit’s where and who. We were ambushed during the school assessment visit, surprised the enemy knew where we would be and they would attack near children. I did not want lightening to strike twice; if you know what I mean. Had lightening struck twice, it might be bad for my team, but for sure, it would be real bad for Abu Ali.
As usual I rode in the lead vehicle of our convoy and as we closed in on the Police headquarters, I noticed two things. First an RPG round was laying on the right hand side of the road in the gutter. Second and more importantly, a long line of young Iraqi civilian males lined up outside the police headquarters entrance. I asked Abu Ali “what was going on?” He said today was ‘Recruiting Day’.
Recruiting Day was the day the Iraqi Police accepted applications for police jobs thru out the Sal Al Din province. Hundreds, even thousands of men showed up for about 100 dangerous jobs. Iraqi police officer jobs paid poorly, but a job is a job when you are unemployed. Besides, Iraqi police made side money by ‘taxing’ businesses and truck drivers as their vehicles passed thru police check points. Consequently, there was hundreds of Iraqi males lined up for hours waiting to apply for a job.
Damn!! I was pissed off; this was a surprise and I do not like surprises. Yes, I am a bit of a control freak, especially when the lives of my soldiers could be at risk. I asked him why he did not tell us. Abu Ali just smiled sheepishly and did not have an answer. Maybe he knew I would changed the mission.
An emerging insurgent tactic was a suicide bomber mixed in the Iraqi Police recruit crowd then blow themselves up along with a few police officers and a dozen future recruits. Suicide bombers wore hidden vests containing an explosive- pick one: C-4, TNT, PETN, almost any would do and shrapnel, such as ball bearings, nail, bolts, nuts, you get the picture. This type of suicide attack happened several times in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities.
As my initial wave of anger passed; I had to figure out how to accomplish the mission and not get us killed.
As our convoy pulled up to the front gate the Iraqi Police were happy to see us. They smiled, waved, opened the gates and let us right in. The Iraqi Police and Iraqi people in general hide their fear.
Typically, all vehicles entering any Iraqi Police, Military or even governmental compound were searched for bombs, weapons or contraband but not US Army HUMMVs. After we pulled in, to beef up their front gate security I gave the Iraqi police 2 of my 4 HUMMV gun trucks [with crews].
Sometimes a show of force is enough to deter a timid suicide bomber, not ready for the one way trip to paradise.
My vehicle and the two gun remaining trucks parked near the Police headquarters building. I left five solders there to watch the vehicles while three other soldiers, Abu Ali and I went to visit the General.
General Mazur was not expecting us, despite Abu Ali’s mission to let him know we were coming. He made time to meet with my crew and I. Proper Police protocol would have been for me to contact his aide and schedule the meeting. Given the US military did not have compatible phone systems or radios with the Iraqi police and I did not trust anyone knowing when and where I was traveling, proper protocol was tossed out the window in favor of tight security.
General Mazur, a former senior level Baath Party member, survived and thrived under Saddam’s reign. No easy task since Saddam imprisoned, tortured or killed anyone he viewed as potential competition. He knew how to play the long game and win. In 2004, being friends with the Americans was in General Mazur’s interest and he would try to be our friend. On two separate occasions, he did favors for me: letting me keep my current police chief of Al Shakour- MAJ Hassan[today’s mission] and rehiring four Iraqi police officers, keeping the Al Shakour police station at full strength. We were both adept at playing this game.
Our meeting began with the usual small talk: Iraqi history, geography and religion. Iraqis are proud of their culture. After the drinks, cold ones first then the hot chai[tea] arrived and 40 minutes of conversation we got down to business. I asked if MAJ Hassan could stay in Al Shakour. BG Mazur simply and surprisingly said ‘yes’. There was no staff meeting or deliberation. Right then and there, BG Mazar made a decision and solved MAJ Hassan’s problem.
As the explosion echoed, the conversation momentarily stopped and we all looked up and eye balled each other, pretending not to be scared. After a few moments of silence we continued the conversation. I decided to stay with BG Mazur until our business was completed.
If I got scared and bolted from the meeting at the first sign of danger, BG Mazur and the Iraqi Police would lose respect for my team and I.
Respect goes a long way in Iraq. No way could I show fear in front of the Iraqi Police General or his staff.