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The Mask & The Gun

The U.N is pushing for fair trials for Iraqi prisoners.

They speak to us through the sacks the American soldiers have placed over their heads. They say they don’t know anything. An American who speaks Arabic translates for them. They sit or stand, turning their heads this way and that, talking about what they don’t know. Now and again, they twist their hands to ease the pain of the plastic binds. They ask that the sacks be removed from their heads. But they aren’t. The journalists ride in the back of the truck with them, looking at them, taking pictures of them, imagining them under their hoods. They have become like tree birds, I think, not entirely sure why, or what that means.

The target was a housing compound in the desert off Route 7, an hour or so south of Al Kut. The Marines had been manning a checkpoint along the road, searching vehicles for weapons or Saddam Fedayeen, recognizable by a heart-shaped tattoo somewhere on their body. One day last week, an Iraqi showed up at the checkpoint and said he had some information. A Baath party member had raided his cousins house and taken it over with four of his cronies, he said. The Iraqi provided the soldiers with detailed information about the compound, the whereabouts of the party members as well as their guard positions. He also gave them digital images off a camera the soldiers provided and a map of the compound. The team moved a few days later, just before dawn.

Sometimes the prisoners kneel, hands behind them, facing away, and few, I think, know it then but this is a scene that will replay thousands of times in the coming years, all across the country. I have never seen it before, this slow capturing, and rote questioning, and general misunderstanding. Once the sacks are placed over their heads there is very little to be done. Now and again, in response to some question or other, some accusation, it’s very apparent that what is going on beneath the sack is incredibly emotional, a wagging of the head, a desperate kind of swaying. I heard tears a few times, sobbing. But the grimaces of fear and pain are no longer visible.

They moved into town in seven cars, armed with lightweight M-4 rifles and night vision goggles. The compound had three triple-storied houses surrounded by a wall. Dogs began to bark as the soldiers moved down the road. “As soon as we started walking down the road and we heard the dogs, we were sure that we were going to take some fire,” said one of them, Jim, “We just had to stay calm so we wouldn’t shoot everybody, the adrenaline was pumping so hard.” They quietly broke through the outer wall and made their way to the doors. They threw flashbangs and moved into the house. Several people were sleeping on the floor. As they entered, alarm clocks began to ring. The soldiers swarmed the house. The roof had been sandbagged and machine guns had been pre-positioned. There were RPG’s, 60-mm mortars and several AK-47’s. “They definitely expected resistance,” says Jim.

The soldiers, in turn, have been given authority to take these prisoners and place sacks on their heads and transport them elsewhere. They have obtained the sacks for this very purpose. Some of them move away from this scene, preferring instead to undertake some other component of the mission. Some of them, just like some of us, observe, because this is the first visual or moral experience of this kind they’ve ever had. Some smoke or joke. The questioning of the prisoners is intense and, in a very American fashion, polite and almost concerned. Perhaps that is for our, the journalists, benefit. Perhaps it would be different if we weren’t here. But perhaps it wouldn’t.

Two of the Marines moved towards a bathroom that hadn’t been cleared. When they entered, they noticed that the door wouldn’t open all the way. They looked behind it. The Baath party leader was there, hiding with his son. “They both started to fake strokes,” said Christian, another soldier, “But we told them to shut the hell up and they stopped.” In another room, they found the leader’s nephew.

Meanwhile, the weapons were still piling up. “There were guns under every nook and cranny,” says Jim, “They had hidden RPG’s under piles of carpets.” They discovered French made gas masks and Russian Draganov sniper rifles. AK-47’s had been rolled under bed mattresses. A pair of first generation night-vision goggles tumbled out of a corner. All in all, the soldiers filled an entire 7-ton truck with the weapons cache – one of the largest found so far in the war, at least in the countryside. “There was enough stuff there that if the operation had been done differently, a whole lot of Americans could have been killed.”

There is a lot of milling about with the prisoners. A lot of watching them. Talking about them, what they know, or don’t know, what to do with them. Meanwhile, the prisoners sit there with the sacks on their heads. Sometimes they speak to each other through their sacks. The soldiers don’t like this, and they make it known. No talking, they say, no talking.

These soldiers say that the real battle for Iraq lies in these small villages and hamlets – too small for bombs, but big enough to cause problems. “The operation until now didn’t clean out all the enemy,” says one soldier, Jason, “The towns want us here, but we have some sources who tell us, ‘We see you Americans here, but the Baath party is still operating at full capacity. Now we have to go back through here and see about that.”

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