â€œHaving the Arabic press note that AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq] is rejected by Sunni Arab Iraqis is better than any message we could ever put out,â€ Major Lee Peters said.
â€œIt was nothing we did,â€ said Marine Lieutenant Colonel Drew Crane who was visiting for the day from Fallujah. â€œThe people here just couldnâ€™t take it anymore.â€
What he said next surprised me even more than what I was seeing.
â€œYou know what I like most about this place?â€ he said.
â€œWhatâ€™s that?â€ I said.
â€œWe donâ€™t need to wear body armor or helmets,â€ he said.
I was poleaxed. Without even realizing it, I had taken off my body armor and helmet. I took my gear off as casually as I do when I take it off after returning to the safety of the base after patrolling. We were not in the safety of the base and the wire. We were safe because we were in Ramadi.
Only then did I notice that Lieutenant Colonel Crane was no longer wearing his helmet. Neither were most of the others.
The Iraqis of Anbar Province turned against Al Qaeda and sided with the Americans in large part because Al Qaeda proved to be far more vicious than advertised. But itâ€™s also because sustained contact with the American military â€“ even in an explosively violent combat zone â€“convinced these Iraqis that Americans are very different people from what they had been led to believe. They finally figured out that the Americans truly want to help and are not there to oppress them or steal from them. And the Americans slowly learned how Iraqi culture works and how to blend in rather than barge in.
â€œWe hand out care packages from the U.S. to Iraqis now that the area has been cleared of terrorists,â€ one Marine told me. â€œWhen we tell them that some of these packages arenâ€™t from the military or the government, that they were donated by average American citizens in places like Kansas, people choke up and sometimes even cry. They just canâ€™t comprehend it. It is so different from the lies they were told about us and how weâ€™re supposed to be evil.â€
…Half the world seems to believe Americans invaded Iraq for the oil. But I hadnâ€™t heard about Americans supposedly invading Iraq to steal women, but it makes sense now that Iâ€™ve heard it. Many Iraqis compare the American invasion of Iraq, fairly or not, to the far nastier Mongol invasion of Iraq in the 13th Century. That was the chief point of reference for many of the nationâ€™s Arabs (but not Kurds) when the Americans first showed up.
Other strange conspiracy theories abound. I never saw an American wearing a red beret, but apparently some Iraqis believe red berets are dyed in human blood. Perhaps the most amusing theory, which I know many Iraqis believe to this day, is that American Soldiers and Marines have what they call â€œcold pillsâ€ so they canâ€™t feel the blistering heat of the summer.
â€œI demand cold pills!â€ an Iraqi officer said when he barged into the office of Colonel John Steele at Camp Taji.
â€œListen,â€ the colonel said to the Iraqi and pointed at his own forehead. â€œYou see these beads of sweat on my forehead that are running down toward my nose? Thatâ€™s because I feel just as hot as you do.â€
One American soldier told me about a time he was having tea in a friendly Iraqi civilianâ€™s house.
â€œItâ€™s hot today,â€ said the Iraqi, â€œbut at least you have your air conditioner on.â€
â€œWhat do you mean?â€ said the Soldier.
â€œYour air conditioner,â€ the Iraqi said and pointed at the Soldierâ€™s bulky body armor.
The Soldier laughed out loud.
â€œThatâ€™s body armor,â€ he said. â€œNot an air conditioner!â€
â€œCome on,â€ the Iraqi said. â€œWe all know those are air conditioners.â€
The Soldier took off his body armor and handed it to the Iraqi. â€œHere,â€ he said. â€œPut it on and see for yourself.â€
The Iraqi donned the armor and suddenly felt even hotter.
â€œHmm,â€ he said. â€œIt is pretty hot. But Iâ€™m sure it will get cold after a while.â€
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