Skip to comments.A different set of rules
Posted on 03/20/2005 8:05:03 AM PST by SmithL
By BRYAN MITCHELL, firstname.lastname@example.org
March 20, 2005
Cpl. Chad Rector learned a lot during his seven-month tour in Iraq.
But it was a lesson a group of Iraqi children taught him on a Fallujah soccer field the Halls Marine recalls best.
Rector quickly noticed a unique trend.
"The guy who scores the most points gets to keep the ball at the end of the day," Rector said. "It was crazy how they have completely different rules over there."
Two years after President Bush launched the United States into a pre-emptive war with Iraq, it appears the insurgency is playing by rules similar to those governing youth Iraqi soccer.
Only the insurgents measure goals in fatalities, and they don't care to take the ball home.
Bush's clear declaration, however, to remain in Iraq until democracy takes hold means the roughly 150,000 American troops in Iraq - including more than 3,000 East Tennessee reservists - must adapt to Iraqi rules while the Iraqi people slowly learn to play by the rules of Western democracy.
Combat ends; work begins The conflict opened with a bang.
American firepower rained across the country of roughly 24 million in mid-March 2003. An excess of 100,000 soldiers and Marines simultaneously raced toward Baghdad.
Saddam Hussein's regime fell within a month, and Bush declared an end to "major combat operations" from the deck of an aircraft carrier May 1, 2003.
Soon after major combat operations concluded, Knoxville lawyer Lt. Col. James Chase set off for a yearlong mission between Kuwait and Iraq.
He was among the first of thousands of local reservists from across all four branches who have been called to serve in the region since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The commercial litigation specialist with the downtown Knoxville firm Hunton & Williams took up position as a legal affairs officer with the West Virginia National Guard.
During the summer of 2003, while the insurgency was in its infancy, Chase was dispatched to Baghdad to serve on an ad hoc military grand jury to determine the fate of suspects taken into custody by the coalition.
He heard cases ranging from "gangland-style murders" to "petty criminals" as part of his role on the "decisional review authority."
The holding facility he was stationed at also housed suspects from the so-called "deck of cards" or the Pentagon's most wanted in Iraq.
For all the suspects before Chase, however, the questions remained the same.
"My job was to determine their legal status," he said. "The big question is if they are considered a POW (prisoner of war). That determines what legal rights they are afforded."
He said suspected foreign insurgents offered "all type of excuses" for being in Iraq.
One pleaded that he came for cheap real estate. Another submitted that he came to sell his liver but was unable to produce scars to validate the surgery.
"One guy went from Damascus to Baghdad and told us that he thought it would be cheaper to party in Baghdad," Chase said.
Chase said they all shared a common grievance.
"Everybody in custody already had a million dollars that was stolen by the coalition," he said.
In the end, though, Chase was rigid in his interpretation of the law when judging the suspected insurgents.
"It was their fault for getting on that bus and coming to fight," he said. "And a lot of them paid a very heavy price."
Unwavering service The slaying of Hussein's sons and the capture of the disheveled despot brought cheers from Washington and sighs of relief from across the homes of troops nationwide as 2003 wound to a close.
But as Hussein's Baath Party faded into Iraqi history, American troops have been left to reconstruct the remains of a society torn between what area reservists describe as a silent majority willing to negotiate the intricacies of a foreign occupation for the chance of a new beginning and a guerilla-style insurgency determined to drive the coalition from Iraq.
The result has been a mix of news from Iraq that ranges from the horrific to the inspiring.
American troops and Iraqi civilians have been slain by the thousands by indiscriminate car bombers and sophisticated land mines.
Yet local troops returning from Iraq enthusiastically share stories about refurbished schools, repaved roads and an overall steady rise in the standard of living for the average Iraqi.
"The style of life is really improved by what little we have already done so far," said Tech Sgt. Charlie Higgins, who served two monthlong tours in Iraq as a member of the Tennessee Air National Guard 134th Air Refueling Wing.
Staff Sgt. Chris Rourke witnessed both sides of the Iraqi experience during his nearly yearlong tour in Iraq. He served as a liaison noncommissioned officer at a south Baghdad fire station.
"When the firefighters would go out on calls, people would shoot at them," said Rourke, who is a member of the Army Reserve 489th Civil Affairs Battalion.
Despite the insurgency's unpredictable methods, Rourke said the majority of firefighters were unwavering in their dedication to serve.
"They were typical Iraqis in that they were hard workers," Rourke said. "But they were always asking for something, always wanting the newest fire equipment."
Rector witnessed similar occupational resolve from the Iraqis that worked alongside the Marines in the perilous Al Anbar province.
"I never thought you could get 30 guys in the bed of a Dodge Dakota, but you can," he said. "And they're always more than willing to work as long as we'd stop for lunch."
Job not getting easier Rourke said the transition periods between the Hussein regime, the Coalition Provisional Authority and the newly elected Iraqi legislature left gaps vulnerable to insurgent infiltration.
"The bad police officers became firefighters," he said. "It was hard for us to crack the nut because they were so independent."
The military countered the insurgent's "independence" with increased roundups of suspected terrorists throughout 2004.
Iraqi jails filled with thousands but the violence continued unabated throughout last year. American fatalities peaked the same month news of the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison broke.
The job for Americans serving in Iraq would not get easier.
"The Iraqi people were more understanding than you would think, seeing what they had to endure under Saddam," Rourke said. "But it did hurt. We say we're trying to fix the country, but here we are screwing it up."
Unnoticed good deeds Marine after soldier after airman returning from Iraq voices a similar complaint: Media coverage slanted toward the bombings
What's left vastly unreported, they said, are the countless acts of benevolence between the Iraqis and the Americans, from small gestures of everyday kindness to American soldier working alongside the fledging Iraqi armed forces to stave off the deadly insurgency.
"We always hear all about the roadside bombings and suicide bombers," said 134th Senior Master Sgt. Brad Walker. "But there really are people over there who get along fine with us and who want to work with us."
Higgins said the spirit of rebirth among the indigenous population was often inspiring.
"You couldn't help but get along with them," he said. "They were just so happy to be alive and to have the chance for a new life."
Shouldering the load As America pauses to reflect on the first two years of its largest military engagement in the last 30, it's difficult to decipher what the future holds not only for Iraq but also for American servicemen and women.
Italy, a stalwart ally throughout the campaign, announced earlier this month it would withdraw its 3,000 troops from Iraq.
The Italian announcement follows similar moves by Spain and the Ukraine.
NATO promised support during Bush's recent visit to Europe, but nothing in the way of additional troops on the ground.
The diminishing coalition means the United States will continue to shoulder much of the burden.
The training of an independent Iraqi Army, which Bush hopes will supplant the diminishing coalition, is under way.
However, the recruits are rushed through a basic training much shorter than American soldiers complete and have performed with mixed results.
"They heard we were going to go do a raid on a house and none of them showed up the next day," Rector recalled of an experience with his Iraqi counterparts.
Less complex than the Pentagon's deployment rotations but clearly a significant factor in the war is the price tag.
Since April 2003, Congress has appropriated $153 billion in three installments to subsidize the war, according to globalsecurity.org, a Virginia-based military research organization.
Over two years, that equates to almost $1.5 billion dollars a week.
Impossible to quantify are the more than 1,500 American fatalities and the 10,000-plus injuries.
The price tags in dollars and in human terms are factors that will continue to affect the country for years to come.
For now, though, East Tennessee will focus on the present while its reservists keep their desert camouflage on hand.
"I need about two weeks and then I'll be ready to go back," Rector said.
Bryan Mitchell may be reached at 865-342-6306.
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