Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Our profound gratitude

To NYT reporters Damien Cave and James Glanz, and photographer Robert Nickelsberg, for risking their lives to bring us a little bit of the truth from Iraq. And of course, everyone else in this weird dream, from the American soldiers to the Iraqi child and even the Iraqi soldiers, at least when they feel like it, is walking through the valley of the shadow with them. The Battle of Haifa St. has been recurring every week or so for a while. Here are some shots from the latest incarnation:

In a miniature version of the troop increase that the United States hopes will secure the city, American soldiers and armored vehicles raced onto Haifa Street before dawn to dislodge Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias who have been battling for a stretch of ragged slums and mostly abandoned high rises. But as the sun rose, many of the Iraqi Army units who were supposed to do the actual searches of the buildings did not arrive on time, forcing the Americans to start the job on their own.

When the Iraqi units finally did show up, it was with the air of a class outing, cheering and laughing as the Americans blew locks off doors with shotguns. As the morning wore on and the troops came under fire from all directions, another apparent flaw in this strategy became clear as empty apartments became lairs for gunmen who flitted from window to window and killed at least one American soldier, with a shot to the head.

Whether the gunfire was coming from Sunni or Shiite insurgents or militia fighters or some of the Iraqi soldiers who had disappeared into the Gotham-like cityscape, no one could say.

“Who the hell is shooting at us?” shouted Sgt. First Class Marc Biletski, whose platoon was jammed into a small room off an alley that was being swept by a sniper’s bullets. “Who’s shooting at us? Do we know who they are?” . . . “This place is a failure,” Sergeant Biletski said. “Every time we come here, we have to come back.” He paused, then said, “Well, maybe not a total failure,” since American troops have smashed opposition on Haifa Street each time they have come in.

Well, okay, they've "smashed" the opposition, even though they don't know who it is or even why they're smashing it, but it seems the opposition is not Humpty Dumpty because somehow or other, it gets unsmashed, and here we are again. But at least the Iraqis are standing up:

The American units in the operation began moving up Haifa Street from the south by 2 a.m. on Wednesday. A platoon of B Company in the Stryker Brigade secured the roof of a high rise, where an Eminem poster was stuck on the wall of what appeared to be an Iraqi teenager’s room on the top floor. But in a pattern that would be repeated again and again in a series of buildings, there was no one in the apartment.

Many of the Iraqi units that showed up late never seemed to take the task seriously, searching haphazardly, breaking dishes and rifling through personal CD collections in the apartments. Eventually the Americans realized that the Iraqis were searching no more than half of the apartments; at one point the Iraqis completely disappeared, leaving the American unit working with them flabbergasted. . . .

In this surreal setting, about 20 American soldiers were forced at one point to pull themselves one by one up a canted tin roof by a dangling rubber hose and then shimmy along a ledge to another hut. The soldiers were stunned when a small child suddenly walked out of a darkened doorway and an old man started wheezing and crying somewhere inside.

Ultimately the group made it back to the high rises and escaped the sniper in the alley by throwing out the smoke bombs and sprinting to safety. Even though two Iraqis were struck by gunfire, many of the rest could not stop shouting and guffawing with amusement as they ran through the smoke.

One Iraqi soldier in the alley pointed his rifle at an American reporter and pulled the trigger. There was only a click: the weapon had no ammunition. The soldier laughed at his joke.

Okay then. We must prevail in this conflict, but we have no idea who we're fighting, or why, or even whether the soldiers of the government we're fighting for are trying to kill us. (Too easy for a hint. Consider the incident in Karbala last week, clearly carried out in collaboration with elements of the Iraqi security forces, if not in fact perpetrated by them.) I would call this insanity but that gives it too much credit. To be insane, you first must first have sentience and intelligence to warp. Even delusions are more coherent than this.

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