Front Lines to Main Streets in Iraq

Posted by Aaron Snipe
May 6, 2009
FSO Aaron Snipe Walks on Street in Iraq

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.



Indiana, USA
May 7, 2009

Herman M. in Indiana writes:

Mr Snipe, I really enjoyed your article, and couldn't agree more with the Army memo you quoted.

I believe that the world would be so much better served, if our diplomatic efforts were focused more on people-to-people experiences like you've had on Main Street Iraq.

This is not to denigrate the importance of the difficult work that you folks in the State Department do every day, it is merely a personal opinion based on my experiences as a U.S. Sailor getting to know individuals in the Philippines, Japan, and Hong Kong during my four tours to Southeast Asia.

Folks in that area didn't generally agree with our Government's actions in Vietnam, but they often expressed their admiration and respect for the American People.

Thanks Again for your Service to our Nation, and for your article in Dipnote.

May 17, 2009

Tanya in Iraq writes:

This is truly what it's like for not only Aaron Snipe, but the other 15-20 public diplomacy staff working around the country of Iraq. He eloquently conveys all of our experiences here that we wish more Americans were aware of.

United States
May 18, 2009

Eloise in U.S.A. writes:

What a refreshing article. So much is written about the violence and killings that it blinds the mind to the real people there and all the other very normal, everyday things that can be appreciated


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