About a week after the U.N. declaration, my colleague Thomas E. Ricks, one of The Post’s best reporters, suggested we follow soldiers from Bravo Company in a battalion in the Army’s 1st Armored Division through one neighborhood, in one corner of Baghdad, on one day. Over a little more than two hours, Tom would walk with the patrol, while I would trail behind, speaking with residents as they came to grips with the prospect of a foreign army patrolling their streets. It was a rare opportunity for us as journalists. Since far more reporters were embedded than not embedded, Iraqis were all too often voiceless. Now we would truly see both sides, in real time.
The day began at ten A.M., with temperatures creeping across the nineties, as the patrol moved out through the concertina wire that protected the U.S. soldiers’ outpost and past two Bradley Fighting Vehicles parked out front.
“Everybody likes us,” Specialist Stephen Harris, a twenty-year-old from Lafayette, Louisiana, declared to Tom Ricks. Harris and the others in Bravo Company considered themselves a welcome presence in a friendly land. They were there to help the Iraqis they had liberated, then head home. Tom asked Harris whether the people in Baghdad wanted U.S. troops to stay. “Oh, yeah,” he said, taking a slug from his canteen. He then delivered his assessment of the neighborhood they were about to enter: “I’d say ninety-five percent friendly.”
I followed fifty meters behind. There were a few waves from the residents. Most just stared. I walked past a stand selling cheap plastic sandals, past a boy selling packets of Kleenex to cars caught in traffic, past a few stands built from cheap wood, with Pepsis and Miranda orange sodas atop. An armored personnel carrier thundered by, setting off a car alarm. Around the corner was a man named Mohammed Ibrahim, standing on the sidewalk as Tom and the ten-man patrol passed his gated house.
“Despicable” was the way he described the U.S. presence. In a white dishdasha, a long Arab robe, the thirty-four-year-old winced as the soldiers moved along his street, nine carrying automatic weapons slung across their chests, the tenth a medic. Ibrahim’s grimace was personal, the kind of contortion an insult brings. “We’re against the occupation, we refuse the occupation – not 100 percent, but 1,000 percent,” he told me. “They’re walking over my heart. I feel like they’re crushing my heart.”
Ibrahim’s sentiments were, obviously, not the only ones voiced that day. Some residents welcomed the troops, not least in hopes that they would provide a measure of security after the weeks of looting. There was still relief over Saddam’s demise – jubilation that persisted despite the hardships of everyday life. But a week after the U.N. resolution was passed in New York, with only token input from Iraqis, many expressed ambivalence or outright anger as the troops walked by. The hostility ran especially deep among Sunni Muslims, who made up the neighborhood’s majority and who had greeted the invasion with the greatest skepticism. Along the streets patrolled by the soldiers, they expressed suspicions over the fate of Iraq’s oil and described what they saw as violations of their privacy.
Iraqis called the area Yarmuk; it was a west Baghdad neighborhood of middle-class professionals, living in two-story adobe-style houses that would have fit nicely into a wealthier corner of Albuquerque or Santa Fe. Its sentiments were still colored by its origins in the 1960s as a development to house military officers – a legacy of a certain era across the Arab world, when whole neighborhoods were built to house like-minded professionals. To the Americans, the neighborhood was “Sector 37 North,” frequently marked as hostile on U.S. military maps of Baghdad. It was known as a stronghold of Baath Party loyalists, though the more painfully felt undercurrents – the Sunnis’ fear of retaliation and loss of status – were less well understood by the young Americans.
A week earlier, on the airport highway that marked the southern boundary of the sector, a U.S. soldier had been killed and three others wounded when their Humvee struck a mine. The attack was an early sign of what was to gather force over the summer – an insurgency that spiked and ebbed in intensity, waged by a disparate coalition of forces (loyalists of Saddam, nationalists, Islamists and foreigners looking for a fight) united almost solely by their opposition to the U.S. presence. It would be fought mainly in Baghdad and the swath of central Iraq dominated by Sunni Muslims that stretches north along the Tigris and west along the Euphrates – in shorthand, the Sunni Triangle. The mine that killed the soldier in Yarmuk would become its weapon of choice. In the beginning, the arsenal would also include hit-and-run raids on military convoys, drive-by shootings of coalition vehicles, and sabotage of power stations, oil pipelines, natural gas plants, and oil installations. In time, though, it would evolve, becoming better coordinated, better planned, and more lethal. Hit-and-run raids turned into elaborate ambushes; makeshift mines became remote-controlled explosives. Helicopters were targeted with rocket-propelled grenades and missiles, whose users benefited by the expertise of officers from the dissolved army, and car bombings were deployed to devastating effect. In cities and towns, militants began to assassinate Iraqi politicians, technocrats, professionals, and members of nascent security forces – anyone deemed cooperating with the occupation. As Tom and I walked through Yarmuk, that insurgency was just beginning. At the time, neither we nor the troops we were with had any idea of its potential.