Dexter Filkins / New York Times – 2008-03-26 01:52:57
(March 18, 2008) — It took us a while to figure out the insurgency: what it was, who it was, how big it was. In the spring and early summer of 2003, the Iraqi insurgency seemed a small thing, a nuisance, a cabal of Saddam Hussein look-alikes with rusty rifles. American officers insisted there were just 5,000 of them. Not so many, in other words, in a country of 27 million.
But we could tell the insurgency was growing. We could feel it, in the looks we got on the street, in the way the Iraqis looked at one another when they were talking to us. Each of us had his own moment of recognition, when we knew the insurgency was not just a scattering of street gangs, but a movement that was blossoming on the support it enjoyed among the country’s Sunni Arabs. My moment came in Mosul.
It was drizzling when I arrived. Broken glass was splayed across the pavement. The American truck had already been towed away. It had gone like this: Two soldiers with the 101st Airborne Division had climbed into a regular S.U.V., no armor, and driven off the base and into Mosul at rush hour. They were supposed to have known better than to go out alone.
One of the soldiers was Jerry Wilson, 45, of Thomson, Ga., the 101st’s command sergeant major, meaning he was the unit’s senior enlisted man. The other soldier was a specialist named Rel Ravago IV, 21, from Glendale, Calif.
Sergeant Wilson and Specialist Ravago were being followed the minute they drove out of the base. The insurgents were in a car just in front of the Americans, and in the heavy traffic they suddenly stopped. Another car trailing just behind the Americans pulled up to their rear bumper. The soldiers couldn’t move. The insurgents got out of their cars and, with their Kalashnikovs, shot them dead.
A crowd of Iraqis gathered around, dragged the bodies out of the car and stripped them of their watches, jackets and boots.
After checking out the scene, I walked up the street to the Ras al Jada fire station. It was one of the new ones built by the Americans. It was a big brick building, with three wide garage doors and three brand new bright red fire engines parked inside. It was very American-looking. I performed a quick mental calculation and figured the renovation and the new trucks cost about a million dollars.
Milling around the front of the fire station were the firemen themselves, dressed in brand new flame-retardant suits and boots. They looked very sharp and well-groomed, like firemen in the United States. I asked the Iraqis about their salaries, of which they were especially proud. They had risen tenfold since the Americans had toppled Mr. Hussein, they said. And they’d completed a monthlong course to learn how to operate the fire engines.
I asked the firemen what had happened down the street. They had seen the whole thing, they said. Oh yes, absolutely. All of them had walked down the street to watch with everyone else.
“I was happy, everyone was happy,” Waadallah Muhammad, one of the firefighters, told me. “The Americans, yes, they do good things, but only to enhance their reputation. They are occupiers. We want them to leave.”
The rest of the firefighters chimed in. There were six of them. Not the least bit hostile to me. Yes, yes, they said, we were cheering when we saw the dead Americans. Who did it, I asked them? The men shrugged. “The Americans are not popular in Mosul,” one of the firemen said.
Dexter Filkins was a correspondent for the Baghdad bureau of The New York Times from 2003 to 2006. His book, “The Forever War,” will be published in September by Alfred A. Knopf.
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