Volume 17 • Issue 37 | February 11 - 17, 2005

An embed photographer’s view of Iraq

Downtown Express photos by Ramin Talaie
Iraqi National Guard soldiers often wear masks when patrolling with U.S. troops, above. An Iraqi woman passes by American soldiers with Charlie Co. 1/56 of Army’s First Calvary on patrol of the Abu Ghraib neighborhood of Baghdad in a reconnaissance mission to secure a polling station for the Jan. 30 election.

By Ramin Talaie

CAMP LIBERTY BAGHDAD, Iraq — I started packing with the essentials first: Thuraya hand-held sat-phone, R-BGAN Satellite for sending data/images Level 3A with level 4 ceramic plates (front and back), bulletproof vest, Kevlar Army issued helmet,Army issued goggles, jungle boots, sleeping bag capable of sleeping outdoors, 2 Nikon D1x bodies, one 17-35 mm and one 80-200 mm lenses, 5 flash cards capable of capturing over 1000 images in total, 5 D1 batteries, 1 Holga with Polaroid back, 7 packs of 3000 b&w Polaroid film, Sony Vaio laptop, SMC wireless cards, Universal electricity converter, Power strip cord, USB, Firewire, you name it wire, CD-R and CD-RWs to burn images to back up iPod for the fun of it, bout $1,000 in cash plus American Express and Master Card.After packing the above then I got to start packing my clothing! I packed only 2 pairs of pants, 1 pair of trek shoes and the above jungle-boots and a whole bunch of tees. I flew into Kuwait Jan. 21 and met with a military public information officer to make my way to APOD. APOD is the section of Kuwait City Airport used by the United States for its operations in the Iraqi theater. Flight time was 1:15 p.m., which was kept secret from me until I called in around midnight.

It is unnatural for journalists to allow themselves to be limited to cover any situation, particularly a war, such as the one in Iraq. There are some advantages to embedding, but its disadvantages are greater.

The reality of providing real coverage as a photographer becomes such that it’s only possible if you have a small army of trusted armed guards. This is a very costly option. The only other option is to embed with a U.S. military unit. I have embedded in Baghdad with a Division of the Army’s First Cavalry, 256 out of Louisiana, which also has the New York Guards, the 69th, attached to it.

The day-to-day reality of Iraq is not as positive as the path the country is taking with the Jan. 30 national elections. The election was a great thing for the Iraqi people. The Shia majority for once appear to have taken the lead after decades of Sunni control of everything. The good guys wear ski masks — the Iraqi Police and the Iraqi National Guard — in order to hide their identity while providing security around here. And the bad guys carry out all acts of terrorism in broad daylight, yet no one ever volunteers to come forward with any information.

Sometimes Iraqis talk and identify some of these terrorists, but that’s mostly through intelligence gathering. Today the unit that I have been going out with, a Charlie Company with Louisiana National Guards’ First Battalion, took an Iraqi informant on a mission with them. They brought him in with an armored Humvee, gave him a ski mask and body armor and took him out to Abu Ghraib to identify some potential targets with a platoon of soldiers. Evidently he was so scared that they asked me not to come. He was supposed to point out some locations for future raids. All I know from that mission is what I wrote here. This is one of the problems of being embedded.

The two units I am with once fought on opposite sides in America’s Civil War. I do not see any animosity among these units, but they are both happy to have their quarters on different sections of the base. I know for a fact that the Louisiana boys don’t care much for the Yankees up north, and I am not talking baseball. Nevertheless that’s not on anyone’s mind around here.

The New York unit made headlines about a month ago when a Bradley carrying seven soldiers was hit with a massive I.E.D. (Improvised Explosive Device) killing all. There are about 300 soldiers in their unit and since their deployment mid last year, they have suffered over 16 casualties.

Ever since the Mosul mess hall bombing, the Security Force (like Military Police, which guards the base) has tightened all activities around here. As a civilian, I am not allowed to enter any buildings without a soldier’s escort. Technically I need a soldier to baby-sit me 24/7 and walk me to the latrine and showers. This is a huge camp with contractors and people from around the world doing all kinds of chores for the Army. I was told there are over 60,000 people here. All civilians carry their Department of Defense-issued identification card at all times. Groups of Filipino cleaning workers hired by KBR, a division of Halliburton, are escorted by armed soldiers even as they pick up trash. It looks simply ridiculous. Usually the soldiers are bored and don’t even keep an eye on the workers.

The worst part of this new policy is the treatment of Iraqis working in the camp. They are mainly translators who work and live here. I have met a few of them and have talked to them all. Hashim, a young man in his twenties goes out with the soldiers on missions as a translator. He wears the same uniform and protective gear as American soldiers except he doesn’t have any weapons. On one mission, the Humvee he was riding in was hit with an I.E.D. The armored Humvee was totaled, but luckily no one was killed. The gunner and Hashim both were hit with shards of flying metals. Hashim showed me the back of his body armor, where you can see where he was hit: right in the center of his back around the spine. The specially-made ceramic plates, which we all wear when we go outside the base, saved both his and the gunner’s lives. As he showed me a slight wound on his hand, he said: “I take a bullet for them, but I can’t sit and eat with them.”

Many of the soldiers respect him especially since the I.E.D. incident and feel the policy is ridiculous. They see him as one of their own. All of the Iraqis who work in the base risk their lives by helping the Americans. Sana, a young female translator, was shot in the head several times as she left for the base a few months ago. Now the base provides housing for them as long as they are here. But they do go out on their days off and once they step outside the wires, anything is possible.

I have not been able to do much of what I had intended to do here. So I talk to these Iraqis as much as can. Trying to figure out their lives and their feelings for the future of Iraq. Some still like Saddam Hussein. Of course there are plenty of Middle Eastern — style conspiracy theories. Hussein provided a sense of Arab nationalism in Iraq which did not exist in other Arab countries. The same Iraqis also simply hate Kuwaitis, Iranians and Kurdish Iraqis. People, like Hashim and a few other interpreters, do not all feel that way. They want to help the Americans fix the country and will be more than happy for the day that they can say goodbye to the troops. However, they do not want any sudden departure until the security issue is 100 peercent under control. They see what American soldiers have and can do in the camp and have tasted a small sense of democracy and freedom of expression which they all like.

Some Iraqis working for Americans at Camp Liberty proudly display pictures of Saddam Hussein in their mobile phones. While they think he was a good leader they also like working with the U.S. as it is sometimes the only source of income for an entire family and many would like the forces to stay for security.

Ramin Talaie, a freelance photographer who works regularly for Downtown Express, went to Iraq to cover the national elections and its aftermath.

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