Fourteen months into this deployment and things are taking a turn for the surreal.
Throughout Mosul and Baghdad, we were fighting what could best described as an insurgent cocktail: parts of Islamic State of Iraq, Al Sadr’s Mahdi Army, 1920 Revolution Brigade and simple, pissed off farmers. Shia and Sunni. Organized militias and rag tags. All they had in common was a shared goal: a total withdraw of occupational forces.
Then it got a little complicated when we moved to Diyala Province, where the 1920 Revolution Brigade was already fighting Al Qaeda for the Diyala capital of Baqubah. To us, to 1920, and to Al Qaeda, Baqubah became the most important city in year four of the Long War. It housed the Al Qaeda network headquarters and was picked for a free-for-all Sunni insurgent cage match, a fight to the death to determine who would emerge victorious to battle the Americans and Iraqi Army in the future.
The 1920 Revolution Brigade (translated from "Brigades of the Revolution of the Twenty") takes its name from the 1920 crusade against British colonial rule. History, it seems, does have a way of repeating itself. The group picked the name to invoke nationalism in local Iraqis fed up with the Americans occupying. A good portion of them were members of Saddam’s regime at one point. Since they’re all Iraqi, they haven’t taken kindly to Al Qaeda, made up of mainly foreign fighters that terrorize neighborhoods and kill indiscriminately. They were natural enemies of 1920, who just wanted those pesky Americans to leave. Fighting with Al Qaeda took its toll. Before CNN broke the story, we had been cooperating for quite some time with members of the 1920 Brigade to flush out Al Qaeda members operating in Baqubah.
They came to us with a truce!
At the beginning of the year they claimed a series of downed helicopters, including the Blackwater Security chopper we responded to. They killed all four of the contractors point blank, one of them execution style and attempted to smuggle the bodies out before we got there. They responded by shooting at us with anti-aircraft guns from a high rise building. After talking with them, we found out they were present during the attack that killed my friend Chevy on March 14.
What must have been an awkward meeting turned into an agreement between coalition forces and 1920: they would stop attacking us if we helped them root out Al Qaeda. They would send one dude on patrol with us, and he’d point out Al Qaeda members and safe houses. They were restricted from carrying weapons during the day and would patrol at night. Things got off to a rough start. Now and again a helicopter would see a car full of gunmen and destroy it. They turned out to be 1920 members on more than one occasion. After we killed a dude with an AK, we always wondered if he was an unlucky Al Qaeda member or a really unlucky 1920 member. Most of us simply considered them a lesser enemy and didn’t care much when we killed our dubious friends by mistake. A common suggestion when we got a source was to “dispose” of him after he outlived his usefulness.
When word got out to the press that we were in cahoots with insurgents, it was spun out of control. General Mixon said something along the lines of “we can’t be sure they all have killed Americans.” Like there is an acceptable percentage of those who have blown an American soldier to pieces. I’m not sure of the opinion of the public at large for reasons that are obvious, but it seems to border on unacceptable. It says a lot about the progress of this war when we’re siding with one insurgent group to battle another. If Jack Bauer doesn’t negotiate with terrorists, why does the American army?
Lately, after leading us to an endless amount of empty Al Qaeda safe houses and supposed cache sites, the 1920 Brigade has gotten more perks since we started this nefarious relationship. They have started to patrol neighborhoods during the day, armed, contrary to the rules established. They take over a building and hold it as a base of operations, setting up concertina wire and giving us their location for our GPS systems so we don’t send a missile into the living room. And of course, we supply them with food and water. We have given them uniforms (yellow reflective belts) and a new name: Baqubah Guardians (or The Bee Gees). At least someone up there has a sense of humor.
After a few months of working with them, I’m still on the fence about the morality of the situation. On one hand, they have fought and killed us and hope to in the future when Al Qaeda is gone. On the other, they are more reliable then the squabbling, sloppy, lazy, sectarian and thieving Iraqi police and army. Our last hope of getting out of this country by the end of the decade is an efficient and professional military and police force. Renewed efforts of military transition teams to prop up credible army and police units have largely failed. We have to watch with suspicious eyes to prevent civilian abuse, looting and vaguely homosexual assault on detainees. We don’t even try to obstruct their cocaine use, which was apparent in Mosul when I saw piles of white powder on the desks at the police department. I declined an offer to sniff a line.
The only thing more impressive than the Shiite IA’s ability to beat the hell out of Sunni civilians is their inability to do anything on their own accord. They simply cannot conduct patrols without us, but 1920 reigns freely in the neighborhoods they operate in. In a few months they are confident in their ability to combat Al Qaeda with minimal help from us, and the IA refuses to do a thirty minute patrol alone. And we still refuse to take off the training wheels.
For now, our relationship with 1920 is one of mutual distrust and hatred, a sign of the times. A conversation between a member of my platoon and a 1920 source was rife with foreboding on the future of this partnership, and of the war to come.
“Do you want to kill me?” asked the soldier.
“Yes,” replied the source, coldly and without emotion. “But not today.”