I think I knew things were different this time at about 10 am. That’s not quite true. I’d had a sinking suspicion for a while that these anti-terror raids I’ve been going have been nothing more than a PR stunt.
This time, however, it was too much. The light bulb moment came while I was standing outside a hut in a village somewhere between Kirkuk and Baghdad, trying to get a good shot of four 60mm shells in a plastic bag. I couldn’t get a good angle, not because the lighting was difficult—which it was—and not because the Iraqi Police were being a pain in the ass—which they weren’t. It was because four different Kurdish camera crews were jostling for position so violently that one of the cameramen almost fell onto the explosives.
What am I doing here? I thought. What is this?
From that moment on, I realized what a farce these raids had become. Suddenly the situation was horribly clear and I saw things for how they really were. A ridiculous PR stunt. In front of me stood dozens of pickups crammed full of Kalashnikov wielding Iraqi policemen in mismatched uniforms, some of them wearing cast-off or imitation American uniforms, others wearing US military badges on their clothes. One guy was even wearing a night vision set on his helmet, even though it was broad daylight.
We had four operations that day and every time we stopped at a village the police jumped out, not to arrest terrorists, but to get their picture taken with the American troops. By 10 am we’d arrested 3 suspects, found 4 Iranian shells, and a poster of Saddam Hussein. In comparison, the police had taken at least 250 camera phone pictures.
The American helicopters circled overheard looking for “squirters.” Squirters, I was informed by the American colonel, were suspects who ran out of villages as the police or military pulled in.
There were no squirters on this raid, so the helicopters buzzed the Iraqi policemen milling about on the road. Every time the “birds” swept low the policemen giggled like school girls and gave the thumbs up to the pilots.
When I thought we had actually finished with the charade we took off at 120 mph up road, turned right onto a dirt path, and pulled up to a hill covered in broken buildings and exploded cars.
This was an old terrorist training camp, I was informed. Bullet riddled paraphernalia littered the ground. It was weird to say the least and I walked around for a while staring at bits and pieces of shot up metal, taking the whole situation in.
Then the Americans showed up in their much bigger, but much slower machines only to find an absolutely ridiculous situation unfolding in front of them.
Sarhad Qadar, the leader of the Kirkuk police had got hold of an RPG (rocket propelled grenade) which he shouldered and aimed 45 degrees into the air. Then he let rip.
BANG! The grenade went flying just over the heads of some of his policemen walking around the hills. Everyone burst out laughing. Except of course the two policemen on the hill.
He loaded a second one, but it misfired. He tried again, but the same. Third time, the same. So, of course, a third grenade was loaded and this time Sarhad aimed it at chest level out into the hills. BANG!
“These guys are fucking crazy!” the American colonel shouted at me over the noise.
He had no idea how crazy because he couldn’t see one of the policeman running out into the fields with the dud grenade. Nor could he see the man planting the grenade into the ground. Nor could he hear Sarhad cocking his Kalashnikov and taking aim.
The lacky had just enough time to run back to the group, when Sarhad opened up. But he missed. Laughing he handed the gun over to someone else. They fired, but they missed too.
At this point the Americans had taken out their digital cameras and were snapping pics, mumbling to each other, “these mutherfuckers are crazy!” But they wanted to play too and a sergeant dropped to one knee and fired a tracer round at the grenade. He missed.
This was everyone else’s cue to put their guns to use. Ratatat!
Everyone opened up on the grenade which I might have forgotten to mention was attached to a pipe of gun powder, precariously wedged into the ground.
It took the gunner with the tripod mounted, belt feeding machine gun to actually hit the target. And then everyone started yelling.
The bullet ignited the gun powder at the base of the grenade. Fire poured out of the pipe and the grenade looked as if it was going to fire into the air.
“These guys are fucking crazy!” yelled the American colonel again taking off running. We also chased after him, glancing over our shoulders at the ignited grenade.
Luckily the gun powder fizzled out and the grenade didn’t launch over our heads.
We all then jumped back into our trucks and took off and as we sped away I took a moment to reflect. It was in that moment that I realized the Iraqi police were much more life threatening than anyone else in the region.
This was confirmed when we got back to Kirkuk a few hours later and I found that the four 60mm shells had been rattling around in the back of the pick-up I’d been riding in.
N.B. You’ll notice that I haven’t posted any photos from this raid on photoshelter. This is because it wasn’t until I got back that I realized what the actual story was. I spent most of the raid trying to make everything look really dramatic and interesting. I should have focused more on telling the truth. Next time, I promise.