Frustrated reservists see a mission impossible
By Anthony Shadid, Washington Post Foreign Service, Tuesday, July 1, 2003

BAGHDAD, June 30 -- To Staff Sgt. Charles Pollard, the working-class suburb of Mashtal is a "very, very, very, very bad neighborhood." And he sees just one solution.

"U.S. officials need to get our [expletive] out of here," said the 43-year-old reservist from Pittsburgh, who arrived in Iraq with the 307th Military Police Company on May 24. "I say that seriously. We have no business being here. We will not change the culture they have in Iraq, in Baghdad. Baghdad is so corrupted. All we are here is potential people to be killed and sitting ducks."

To Sgt. Sami Jalil, a 14-year veteran of the local police force, the Americans are to blame. He and his colleagues have no badges, no uniforms. The soldiers don't trust them with weapons. In his eyes, his U.S. counterparts have already lost the people's trust.

"We're facing the danger. We're in the front lines. We're taking all the risks, only us," said the 33-year-old officer. "They're arrogant. They treat all the people as if they're criminals."

These are the dog days of summer in Mashtal, and tempers are flaring along a divide as wide as the temperatures are high.

Throughout the neighborhood, as in much of Baghdad, residents are almost frantic in their complaints about basic needs that have gone unmet -- enough electricity to keep food from spoiling, enough water to drink, enough security on the streets. At Mashtal's Rashad police station, where Pollard's unit is working to protect the police and get the Baath Party-era force back on its feet, the frustrations are personal and professional.

Many of the Iraqi officers despise the U.S. soldiers for what they see as unreasonable demands and a lack of respect. Many of the soldiers in Pollard's unit -- homesick, frustrated and miserable in heat that soars well into the 100s -- deem their mission to reconstitute the force impossible.

The Rashad station, where a new coat of paint has done little to conceal unmet expectations, is an example of the darker side of the mundane details of the U.S. occupation. While perhaps not representative, it offers a grim, small window on the daunting task of rebuilding a capital and how the course of that reconstruction, so far, has defied the expectations of virtually everyone involved.

"I pray every day on the roof. I pray that we make it safe, that we make it safe home," Pollard said. "The president needs to know it's in his hands, and we all need to recognize this isn't our home, America is, and we just pray that he does something about it."

Pollard is a 22-year veteran, and he had thought about retiring before his Iraq tour. Now, he says, he doesn't know when he will return to his job at the maintenance department at a community college in Pittsburgh, and that uncertainty nags at him.

Asked when he wanted to leave, he was blunt: "As soon as we can get the hell out of here."

This morning, in a dusty second-floor room with sandbags piled against the windows, helmets hung on nails over flak jackets and a sprawling map of Baghdad on the wall, Pollard's unit debated that question. Gossip swirled.

"There's a rumor going around that we'll be here for two years," Spec. Ron Beach said.

Others rolled their eyes and shook their heads. "You can put me up in a five-star hotel, and I'm not going to be here for two years," said Sgt. Jennifer Appelbaum, 26, a legal secretary from Philadelphia.

They started talking about what they lacked: hot meals, air conditioners, bathrooms a notch above plywood outhouses and something to do on their 12 hours off other than sweat. Electricity is on one hour, off five. Staff Sgt. Kenneth Kaczmarek called his flak jacket an "Iraqi weight loss system" and said he had shed at least 15 pounds. Pollard said he had lost 18.

Pollard's second granddaughter was born this month, but he hasn't been able to call home to learn her name. Kaczmarek's daughter, Isabella Jolie, was born May 28 -- eight days after he arrived in Iraq as part of an advance team.

"It makes life miserable," Pollard said. "The morale, it's hard to stay high with these problems."

Once largely undefended, Rashad police station -- 12 tiles missing from its blue sign -- has taken on the look of a bunker. Two cream-colored, armored Humvees are parked outside; another Humvee with a .50-caliber machine gun is at the side. Pollard said he wants barbed wire strung atop the cinder-block wall behind, and an engineering team is preparing to heighten the brick-and-cement wall in front. In coming days, he said, he would put sand barricades along the street outside the entrance.

Shots are fired every day at U.S. troops in Baghdad, and on Friday night, an ambush on a military convoy down the road killed one soldier and left at least one other wounded. As Pollard recalled, the blast shook the entire block. He said he suspects everyone. Two Iraqi journalists, one with a camera, visited two weeks ago, and he was convinced the men were casing the station.

He once sat at a desk outside, then moved indoors. "Let the Iraqis guard the gate," he said, next to a sandbagged window.

The way Pollard sees it, the Iraqi police should be taking the risks, not his 13 reservists at the station.

"It's not fair to our troops to build a country that's not even ours and our lives are at risk," he said. "They've got to take control. They may have to kill some of their own people to make a statement that we're back in control. No doubt."

For the most part, the Iraqi police and Pollard's soldiers say little to each other -- and even then it's done through interpreters. The Iraqis dislike Pollard, and he has little regard for them. The neighborhood is dangerous, he said, and fighting crime here might require twice the 86 police officers they still have. But of the 86, he said, at least half should be dismissed for corruption or ineptitude.

"This is a crooked cop sitting here," he said, pointing to a major who didn't understand English.

He walked through the station, leaning into a room with two officers busy at a desk. "Here's a room where they're acting like they're doing real important paperwork," he said. He walked outside to a balcony where three officers were sitting on newspapers and a green burlap sack, one with his shoes off. "This is a couple more lazy cops, sitting down when they should be outside," he said. They all greeted Pollard with cold stares, forgoing the traditional greetings that are almost obligatory in their culture.

Near an iron gate, where residents gathered in hopes of filing a complaint, Shoja Shaltak, an Iraqi lieutenant, brought a brown folder with an order from a judge to release three men. Pollard suspected a bribe.

"Tell him he can go, go, go," Pollard said to an interpreter. "I don't jump at their requests."

The lieutenant protested, insisting that the order came from a judge. The interpreter, Ziad Tarek, answered on his own. "The judge has nothing to do with this anymore," Tarek told Shaltak. He pointed to Pollard, "He's the judge now."

Jalil, the veteran Iraqi policeman, watched with disgust.

"It's embarrassing. It's embarrassing for us and for the lieutenant," he said. "We are police and they don't respect us. How is it possible for them to respect the Iraqi people?"

His complaints were aired by virtually all the station's officers: They don't receive the flak jackets the Americans wear, they have to check out rifles from the soldiers, they have no uniforms, they have no badges and they don't like Pollard.

Asked if he was afraid to go on patrol, Jalil shot back angrily, "The opposite.

"They're the ones who are scared," he said. "I'm ready to go out alone, but they should give me the equipment."

Jalil said he was so frustrated that he planned to quit in days. He said he can't support his parents, wife and 8-month-old daughter on a salary of $60 a month. He spends half of that on daily lunches and the 30-cent fares for a shared taxi to and from work.

With water in short supply or of poor quality, he buys a bottle of mineral water every two days for his daughter -- a cheap variety but still another 50 cents. Sewage floods daily into his home, where four families totaling 30 people share six rooms. And, with electricity running no more than six hours a day, Jalil worries that his daughter will become ill from the heat.

"The truth has become apparent," he said.

"The Americans painted a picture that they would come, provide good things to the Iraqi people, spread security, but regrettably" -- his voice trailed off.

"Iraqi people hate the Americans," he said.

The one thing on which everyone agrees is that Mashtal is a tough neighborhood. Gunfire crackles at night. A chop shop is down the street. Parked outside the station are six stolen cars recovered by the police. Kaczmarek called it "Chicago in the '30s" and said he saw someone the other day toting a tommy gun. Jalil called murder the easiest crime to commit. Last week in his neighborhood, an Iraqi hit his 28-year-old ex-wife with a bicycle, then, as she lay on the ground on a hot afternoon, shot her in the face with an AK-47 rifle.

"People just watched," Jalil said. "If they interfered, they would be killed, too."

Outside the police station's gate, Qassim Kadhim, a 30-year-old day laborer, had been waiting for hours to report a stolen motorcycle. On Thursday, three thieves broke into his house, a two-room shack where he lives with his wife and four children. He said he knew who they were, and when he went the next day to confront them, one of them beat him with a rifle butt. He still had a black eye.

"There's no security, there's no stability in Iraq," he said. "I swear to God, things are going to get worse."

2003 The Washington Post Company

refusing to kill