Losing Hearts and Minds in Iraq

"I'm not into the detainee business," said Lt. Col. Nate Sassaman of the 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment, and commanding officer of the U.S. military base in the Yithrib District of Iraq in what has become known as the Sunni Triangle. "We're really into rebuilding Iraq. I don't like entering houses."

I was surprised to have been granted an interview with Col Sassaman. Ten of us, members of the Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) located in Baghdad, had accompanied three Iraqi lawyers to the base from nearby Balad, a city in which 60,000 Shiite Muslims living in its central districts are surrounded by 60,000 Sunni Muslims. Without advance notice, accompanied by three unknown Iraqi men, it seemed unlikely to me that we would get access to the base, much less end up in a ninety-minute interview with the commanding officer. When we heard that a captain had been killed the previous week inside the base by an insurgent mortar shell, I was even more surprised Col. Sassaman's decision.

Our team had traveled that morning to Balad, about an hour north of Baghdad, to talk to the local branch of the Human Rights Organization in Iraq (HROI). Since arriving in Iraq before the war, CPT's permanent team has gradually come to focus on human rights issues among civilian detainees. Hence, my colleagues had worked extensively with lawyers from the HROI branch in Baghdad. On their recommendation, we had begun working with lawyers from the Balad branch after Col Sassaman's soldiers had detained two of their members in a nighttime raid. Neither their families, nor other lawyers had been able to get any official information about them, and the Balad HROI requested a visit from us to facilitate communication with the local base.

Welcome to the Occupation

No one is sure how many Iraqi civilians are being held in detention by coalition forces. Estimates range from 10,000 to 20,000 and higher. Most of these detainees are held in centralized prisons like the notorious Abu Grhraib near Baghdad, where Saddam's torturers once did their worst work, but many others are spread out in smaller centers around the country.

Given the chaos of the occupation, just finding out where your family member is being held can be an impossible job. Even if detainees are located, uncertain appointments for brief visits must be scheduled, and waiting times stretch up to six months. Families frequently travel for days at great expense only to be turned back at the gate of a detention center. To be detained by coalition forces in Iraq largely means disappearing from your world.

Arriving at the HROI offices in Balad, we promptly found ourselves in a several hour-long meetings with a large group of Iraqi lawyers. In a room in a plain brick building in the middle of the small, dusty city, fifteen or so lawyers sat facing us in folding chairs. An old man appeared several times to serve the small, obligatory glasses of heavily sweetened hot tea that greet all visitors.

To my American sensibilities, it seemed like a raucous meeting with loud voices and people moving constantly in and out of the room. Although the room often quieted down when one of the lawyers gave his testimony, more commonly, several men would respond at once to our questions, often with raised, sometimes angry, voices. Our hapless interpreter Sattar Hatim Hasan did his best, but I'm sure we missed half of what was said.

Rashad, a local lawyer, told us that, despite promises, there had been no response from anyone at the military base on the subject of the two detained men. HROI lawyers had been treated with disrespect when trying to represent their clients. Other returning detainees, however, said that the two had already been transferred to Abu Ghraib.

Anger and emotional energy filled the room. Each of the lawyers wanted to tell his story of abuse, and so we went around the circle in a disordered sort of way. Mizha Rahanan Khalil, for example, lived 100 meters from the military base. Just after Ramadan, he claimed, U.S. forces had bombed a friend's house, killing five and injuring eleven. Another friend had been shot and killed while trying to pass a military convoy on the open highway. This was just one of several such stories we heard about trigger-happy soldiers on the roads of Iraq. (Just that morning our driver startled us when he and many others crossed the wide median of the divided superhighway on our trip to Balad, tearing the wrong way at over 60 miles an hour down in order to avoid passing an American military convoy. It was safer than risking the ire of some young soldier manning a machine gun atop a Humvee who may mistake a vehicle that passed a little too close for comfort for a suicide bomber!)

Although American planes have not been bombing nor artillery shelling within the central part of Balad (where the 60,000 Shias live), civilian houses in the surrounding areas (where those 60,000 Sunnis live) have been targeted on occasion. According to the lawyers, the problem is especially severe after any insurgent attack on the base or a passing convoy. After such an attack, the military will indiscriminately bomb the place from which they believe the attack originated, even long after the attackers have fled. But other bombings in the area seemed entirely random and so inexplicable.

The most vociferous complaints, however, concerned nighttime raids and detentions. Military people had previously acknowledged to us of implementing a policy of "45 seconds of rage and fury" on entering a house. They consider this necessary to obtain immediate submission and keep their troops safe. Soldiers break down doors, yell commands to lie on the floor, run through the house, and generally try to frighten the occupants into submissive behavior. "Why do the soldiers break down our doors and smash our cupboards. We would give them the key if they just asked?" was a typical question from the outraged lawyers.

"When Saddam raided," said one, "he took only the person he was after. Now the whole family is taken, even when the soldiers know they have the wrong house." The treatment of women infuriated some of these men. With embarrassment, one lawyer claimed that when the U.S. troops had raided a house and found a couple naked in their bed, they arrested them and took them away unclothed. "This is not acceptable in our culture," he said.

Meeting the Colonel

Accompanied by Mohaned, Sami, and a third lawyer, we then drove out to the Yithrib military base. Our Iraqi interpreter elected not to go because he did not want to risk detention, a fear I -- mistakenly, it turns out -- interpreted as slightly paranoid. The military base -- in reality, a commandeered school building -- is located at the end of a flat, dusty road. Iraqi guards stopped us only briefly at the first checkpoint. At a second checkpoint, an American soldier manned a gun emplacement atop a small, heavily camouflaged brick house appropriated by the military. Another U.S. solider in battle gear -- helmet, Kevlar flack-jacket, communication equipment, and large rifle -- questioned us briefly, and made us wait while he radioed his superior. A while later, Col. Sassaman walked out and welcomed us warmly.

Although he probably had little idea who we were, Sassaman was quite friendly, saying that we were the first Americans (other than journalists) to visit the base since his arrival. We ended up at an old school house, which now serves as the colonel's headquarters. Col. Sassaman ushered us in to a large room and introduced us to his two subordinates: Capt. Blake, a non- lawyer who attended to some legal matters on his own and assisted a military lawyer in others; Capt. Williams, an intelligence officer. Thaana, an Iraqi-American from Detroit, served as the interpreter for the three Iraqi lawyers accompanying us. She later told us that she had volunteered for this work because of her gratitude to the United States for saving her from Saddam ten years ago and had simply wanted to give something back.

Col. Sassaman talked expansively to us about his work. His unit, he began, engages in military action when necessary, but he is primarily interested in starting a dialogue with the local people. He acknowledged that when he first came in April, he felt "incredible sadness and incredible rage" at the plight of the Iraqis, especially since his unit had not been trained in reconstruction and there was "no help from the State Department." I was struck by the phrasing, since I assumed he knew that the State Department had been largely locked out of Iraq by the Pentagon.

Although they sometimes have to conduct military patrols at night, he went on, during the day they are working to rebuild the country's infrastructure. In fact, he said, there hadn't been any raids in several weeks. He himself tries to interact with Iraqis in the area as much as possible, Sassaman added. He even described how he baked bread with an Iraqi family.

Capt. Blake mentioned weekly meetings in Balad to hear complaints and problems. while Sassaman proudly described the election they had organized for a 60-member council, which had in turn chosen a new mayor. He expressed the hope that, given the high voter turnout, Balad would become a model for all Iraq. Captain Blake had even written a computer program that allowed for the counting of ballots.

"I'm working to transcend family, tribal, and religious boundaries," said Col. Sassaman. "The only way we're going to get this thing really fixed is for Iraqis to work with Iraqis." The military have set up a radio station and newspapers (subject to the criterion that nothing be written against the occupying military forces), reinforced the local Iraqi police, and developed an Iraqi Civilian Defense Corps of about 200 people that provides rural security, "sort of like a county sheriff."

We asked Sassaman about human rights abuses among detainees. He acknowledged that when his unit arrived in Balad, they had certainly been too harsh. "During the first few months we were here, we broke down doors and smashed things, and that was really a mistake. There's been a learning curve, and we know now we can ask for the key," he said.

Sassaman now personally accompanies younger soldiers on raids and trains them in proper procedure. "Coming here," he said, "we've been trained to do only one thing [to kill], so I have to be constantly retraining my soldiers." He acknowledged, however, that on first entering a house, they had to get "submission," presumably through the 45 seconds of rage and fury. He added, however, that they could detain people only if the person fit into certain limited categories: presence on the list of "high value targets," possession of unauthorized arms, especially explosives (every house is allowed one AK-47), or possession of information about the insurgency (that is, connections to known terrorists). This last category, he later acknowledged, could be stretched to include "a male over the age of eighteen who is 'suspect.'"

Sassaman flatly denied that either men or women had been taken in without being allowed to clothe themselves fully, and he emphasized that he is not authorized to detain people just because they are family members of suspects. He assured us that his troops didn't usually handcuff the detainees. He preferred to leave them uncuffed so that "if they run we can use any level of force necessary to control them. Once we cuff 'em, we can't touch 'em."

That phrase, "any level of force" left no doubt in my mind that he was referring to lethal force. But why would he deliberately leave people uncuffed, opening up the possibility of flight? His comment was so incongruous, given everything else he'd said, that I wasn't sure I'd heard correctly. But since our group was large, none of us asked a follow-up question.

He then claimed that over half of the people he detains are released on his authority instead of being referred to the larger detention centers. They are supposed to be kept for less than 24 hours before being transferred. "I'm not into the detainee business," was the way he put it.

One of us asked about repeatedly firing into an area from which they'd received fire. "Yes," he replied, "we'll fire back ... heavy ... anytime." Again, I felt a chill. Did that mean that no one living in or passing through that area was ever safe? It sounded very much like collective punishment.

Col. Sassaman's frankness, however, impressed me, even if I was bothered by several of his responses. He answered questions fully and openly. He seemed intelligent, knowledgeable, and ethical: a good man who spoke warmly and compassionately about the Iraqis even as he recognized that his troops had to do things that were harsh. He expressed a desire to reduce the necessary harshness to a minimum and assured us that he had largely succeeded. The Detroit translator Thaana even claimed that Col. Sassaman was so well liked that the base wasn't shelled when he was there!

We then suggested that we wanted to open a dialogue between the military and the Iraqi lawyers so that they and the family members of detainees could get as much information about those detainees as possible. We asked if the three lawyers -- who had been listening to the interpreter but had thus far been silent -- could speak.

As soon as Mohaned began speaking, however, the mood in the room shifted dramatically, becoming cold and tension-filled. I ascribed the chill initially to the cultural differences between the easy way we Americans had been talking among ourselves and the way the Iraqis now proceeded to present their material.

Like me, the Iraqi lawyers had probably not expected to see any officers, and they clearly didn't come with prepared questions to ask. From the moment they began, the lawyers appeared to be complaining about things over which Sassaman undoubtedly had no control. They brought up incidents that occurred before he arrived, and made general complaints rather than asking for specific remedies that Sassaman could reasonably offer them. I assumed that their indirect way of getting to the point was so different from the American (military) idea of an efficient conversation that they were simply putting the colonel on edge.

The lawyers then began to describe an incident in October when a car was shot up by American troops, killing the children inside. Sassaman almost immediately interrupted them: "Yeah, I know about that. That wasn't our unit; that was somebody else, but we had to go in and clean up the mess anyway. Do you think I like it that children were killed?" He was already angry, and I must admit that I felt some sympathy for him.

It was quickly clear from his body language and his curt responses, however, that he was in no way disposed to listen to these lawyers. But I was shocked when some minutes later, he became particularly irritated and, turning to us, blurted out without preface or explanation: "You need to understand that these people are Muslim, and their values are just different from Judeo-Christian values. They aren't for doing things for other people like we are; they're only out for themselves."

Sassaman and Blake claimed to have met with every lawyer in town, yet they didn't recognize Mohaned, Sami, or the other lawyer, nor had they heard of the Human Rights Organization in Iraq. The men were imposters, they insisted, and were just bringing up these charges as a charade to sway us, American civilians. "You're being used," the colonel exclaimed.

When, some time later we suggested arranging a meeting between the lawyers of the HROI and Sassaman, he responded with some vehemence, "There'll be a meeting, all right, and all the lawyers will be there. And it'll be a humdinger of a meeting." While hardly pleasant at the time, this statement took on far more ominous overtones in the light of subsequent events.

At one point, Mohaned told Sassaman that he had taken the wrong person in one of his raids -- detaining the father when the son was the one he wanted. The implication was that if Sassaman agreed to release the father, they could arrange for the son to turn himself in. Sassaman, visibly angered, responded, "We'll just see who gets to the right guy first."

The communication between Sassaman and the lawyers degenerated so quickly -- in a matter of minutes, it seemed -- that some in our delegation feared he would detain the lawyers on the spot. Col. Sassaman was clearly frustrated. "You're just being used is all," he said again. Although he made it clear that the interview was over, he tried to remain cordial, and we concluded the interview reasonably amiably under the circumstances.

We then chatted with the three men as they escorted us to our car. On our way, one of our groups suddenly pointed out a group of detainees in a pen behind the compound. Their presence was not exactly a vote of confidence in the colonel's claim that there hadn't been any raids in the past few days; that detainees were processed and released or moved on within 24 hours. Yet here they were, real as life.

Losing Hearts and Minds

Back in town, the three Iraqi lawyers took us to a simple outdoor restaurant and bought us lunch. I sat with Mohaned and tried to converse, which was difficult since I spoke no Arabic and he had only the most limited of English. One thing he said clearly, however: "Sassaman was lying. I don't trust him."

I was troubled by Sassaman's attitude, too, but he was visibly a man in an untenable situation, commissioned to engage simultaneously in "nation- building" (winning hearts and minds) and in military operations (losing hearts and minds), all the while protecting his men to the best of his ability. He has lost two of those men, including the captain killed the previous week on the base, and so was predisposed to see anyone who gave him trouble as one of the "bad guys" (as everyone here seems to call the insurgents). And the lawyers weren't making it any easier on him with their complaints about things Sassaman couldn't control.

Most of my empathy for Col. Sassaman dissolved the next day, however, when Sami and Mohaned's father paid us an unexpected visit. Since phones still don't work in Iraq, they had to drive the hour down to Baghdad themselves to give us the bad news.

At 4 a.m. that morning, Sassaman's men had staged a raid in Abu Hishma, a town over ten miles from the base. (It was the same town that Sassaman had previously ordered encircled with razor wire to pressure inhabitants into giving information about the insurgents.) Perhaps a hundred soldiers in fifteen to twenty vehicles entered the town, surrounded Mohaned's father's house, broke down the door, and smashed some of the family's belongings. They took Mohaned and his five brothers at gunpoint out to the yard, handcuffed them, put hoods on their heads, had them sit in the rain while the house was searched, and then carted them off to the base.

Later in the morning, Sami and Mohaned's father went (courageously, I thought) out to the base to ask about their sons. Sassaman, according to the two of them, was still in muddy boots and fatigues, seemingly from personally participating in the raid. He told Sami that he wanted to meet with the HROI soon and that he trusted members of CPT to be present. Exactly what kind of trust did he now expect? Mohaned, like other detainees, is likely to disappear from his world for months.

What do Sassaman's actions say about the U.S. military occupation of Iraq? Iraqi lawyers from the local community went to a military base to open lines of communication with the U.S. military on the question of detention. The commanding officer responded by ordering a night raid and detained one of those lawyers, making it abundantly clear that he is not interested in opening any such dialogue.

Was Sassaman lying to us about other things as well? Is he, in fact, interacting with Iraqis, meeting people on the street, baking bread in their homes, as he claimed? What about the elections they organized? The Iraqi lawyers insist that the local people do not recognize the new mayor. Was the election, then, just a sham? Did Sassaman really "ask for the key" when he raided houses? Was he actually retraining his soldiers to be kinder and gentler occupiers?

Perhaps Sassaman was lying, but I suspect the answer is more complicated. He was telling us the truth as he saw it. Occupying armies have to tell themselves (and also others) certain kinds of truth; they have to see their actions through a flattering lens if they are to maintain a sense of themselves as good people helping others. If our delegation of Americans had interviewed Sassaman without the lawyers present, we would have heard only his truth and come home with his story. It would have seemed then that the occupation -- the American military itself -- was well on its way toward rebuilding Iraq's institutions and creating democracy in the heartland of the insurgency.

Only by holding the stories of the Iraqi lawyers next to the colonel's stories, only by placing the Iraqi lawyers physically next to the colonel did a fuller truth emerge -- the truth about the violence of occupation. The lawyers not only told us a different truth; they, unfortunately, also pushed Col. Sassaman into enacting it for us.

"Under Saddam," one of the lawyers had said, "there were certainly many human rights abuses. So, at the beginning, we were pleased to receive the coalition forces and even welcomed the use of force to remove Saddam. But now they treat us badly. Now, things are no different from under Saddam. The coalition forces have become the dictators."

Virtually everyone I talked to in Iraq claims to have favored the U.S. intervention to overthrow Saddam. Even now, most people I spoke to in my two weeks in the country didn't want the U.S. just to pick up tomorrow and leave. "The Americans have destroyed Iraq's institutions," said the Papal Nuncio in an interview, "so you Americans must make sure they are rebuilt." But this military occupation has brought with it a level of violence that makes reconstruction -- of institutions or lives -- impossible.

There is an absolute difference between military occupation and peacekeeping. There is simply too much violence in an occupation for genuine peacekeeping to occur. As long as the U.S. military occupies Iraq as the harsh representative of a foreign power, resistance to it will only increase.

Postscript: Only on returning to the United States and Googling the name Nate Sassaman did I discover that the colonel already had achieved a level of notoriety here thanks to media quotes such as these: "With a heavy dose of fear and violence, and a lot of money for projects, I think we can convince these people that we are here to help them."

David Hilfiker, M.D., is the author of three books, including "Urban Injustice: How Ghettos Happen." He is co-founder of Christ House, a medical recovery shelter for homeless men, and founder of Joseph's House, a home and community for homeless men with AIDS.

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