About the Author: Aaron Snipe is a Foreign Service Officer with the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Muthanna, Iraq.
I’ve had my share of sleepless nights since I came to Iraq, but my insomnia these days has more to do with the big-picture questions facing this land, than the heat, IEDs, or rocket attacks. Late one night not long ago, I finished reading a fascinating new book about Iraq. At the end of the book, the author published a copy of an unclassified U.S. Army memo dated June 21, 2008. The document, entitled “Multi-National Force-Iraq Commander’s Counterinsurgency Guidance,” included a bullet point that got me thinking. The directive was aimed at U.S. soldiers serving in Iraq. It was simple in its logic and direct in its wording. Though I was not the intended audience, it spoke loudly to me as an American diplomat. The missive read as follows:
"Walk: Move mounted, work dismounted. Stop by, don’t drive by. Patrol on foot and engage the population. Situational awareness can only be gained by interacting with the people face-to-face, not separated by ballistic glass."
The memo made me think about how diplomats travel in Iraq. I’ve been all over my province and shaken hands with thousands of Iraqis, but due to security concerns I haven't actually spent a great deal of time just sitting still in the real Iraq. Most days, the lens through which I view Iraq is the glass of an armored vehicle traveling at high speeds. Ballistic glass may protect me, but it is thick, tinted and invariably distorts my view of the outside world. Not exactly the best way to get a clear picture of things, literally or figuratively.
Recently, something I had long hoped for came to fruition. I got out from behind that ballistic glass and saw a side of the real Iraq, up close. A local mayor invited my boss and me on a walk-about through his fair city. With the appropriate level of security, we set out to visit the Land Records Office, the local bank, and many street vendors along the way.
How wonderful it was to be in Iraq that day. The sites and sounds of street life in Iraq were the sounds of any city, anywhere in the world: cars honking, motorbikes weaving through traffic, taxi drivers yelling. But it was the smells that let me know I was really in Iraq. As we walked down the street, I inhaled deeply: sharwma roasting on a spit, tea boiling in a street-side cauldron, fruits and vegetables ripening in the afternoon sun. Even the smell of sewage from the drain, though unpleasant, was remotely comforting. I was really here. Finally.
When we reached the restaurant, I immediately felt the heat from the brick oven. Skewers of kebabs roasted above the fire. A school-aged boy sliced tomatoes and onions. Religious iconography adorned the walls. With the bustling city life just beyond the restaurant's open windows, we were in Iraq. The real Iraq. I don't know if the food was the best meal I'd ever had, but it certainly ranked among the best overall dining experiences I've had in quite awhile. The kebabs were delicious, the grilled tomatoes delectable, and the bread was fresh out of the oven.
Many of the cultural differences that divide people from different backgrounds can be undone when they break bread together. There are those in Iraq who don’t want to bridge that divide. During my eight months here, I have encountered a few who have refused to “unclench their fist” as I extended an “open hand.” But, that is to be expected. The majority of Iraqis I’ve met do want a better relationship with America and Americans, and all of the respect I’ve given Iraqis has been reciprocated ten-fold.
My walk through the market and my lunch at a street-side restaurant, similar to most of my experiences here, are not stories that will make headlines or news of any kind back home. But they should. In this seldom talked about part of Iraq, front lines are turning into main streets. I’m proud to be serving on the main streets of Iraq.
Read more about Aaron Snipe's work with the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Muthanna, Iraq.