Picking up the pieces

Four days after they'd nearly been slaughtered in an ambush outside Fallujah on Christmas Eve morning, Maj. Woody Nunis' short-handed civil affairs team takes another hit. Driving back the half-hour from Baghdad late on the afternoon of Dec. 28, speeding past farms and mud huts in the lush rural area west of the city, bad news begins to trickle in.

As they get closer to their dusty little home, a postage-stamp fort called Mercury, nimble scout helicopters circle above while two officers talk about something ominous over the radio in the Humvee. Their mechanical conversation includes code integers about casualties and the need for an explosives disposal team.

Minutes after pulling into Mercury, after the guns and a broken radio have been lifted out of the trucks, word comes down. Keith Adkins and Ash Garza, both young enlisted men from Texas, stand out near the vehicles having a smoke as their captain, a short, strong guy named Larry Mouton, walks up grim-faced.

A well-liked and respected captain named Blanco has just been killed in an ambush. Three of his men are wounded; how badly is not yet clear. Garza and Adkins have been joking around but that ends quickly.

Later that night, Maj. Nunis sits on his bunk in the cramped room he shares with Adkins and Garza and talks about Blanco. The dead captain was not out looking for war that afternoon; he was headed to a local village. But such distinctions don't matter in the brutal, complex and utterly frustrating guerrilla war being fought in Iraq right now, a war being fought simultaneously with a multibillion-dollar reconstruction and democratization campaign as complex and frustrating as the war itself.

Nunis knew Blanco well, and he bears the pain hard. "He was a good guy, too," the tall former paratrooper says, head down, deeply saddened and bitter. "It fucking sucks."

When they were attacked on Christmas Eve, Nunis and his men had been on a peaceful mission, a mission that now dominates the work of an army trained to violently take and hold ground. In this ill-defined reconstruction phase of post-invasion Iraq, the burden of turning on the lights, getting ponds of raw sewage out of the street, and establishing local governments, falls to teams like Nunis', which are called civil affairs units.

Like most, Nunis' team is made up of reservists. Nunis himself, 42, is a commercial real estate broker with an MBA. Adkins, 30, is a computer programmer. Garza, 21, is a horse trainer, chuck-wagon cook and poet.

When they got attacked on Christmas Eve (it was the fourth time they'd been hit), they were driving back from a school they'd spent a lot of time and effort rebuilding -- working with local contractors and paying out thousands of dollars. They were on their way to check a water treatment plant. "That will be the first potable water they've had since 1991," Nunis says. "Now they just dip into the river," which is contaminated with sewage and industrial runoff.

Their route to the school and water treatment plant had become predictable. "We were going over to the water treatment plant `that morning`. We went the same way into the school, and went out the same way, and they were waiting for us," Nunis says.

"Everybody thinks of us as the guys who pay the money, so they're nice to us. But that proved to go only so far on Christmas Eve."

Before they could get to the plant, two 125mm artillery rounds, which had been buried in the roadside next to a knocked-out Iraqi tank, were detonated by invisible guerrillas. The shrapnel blew into the passing vehicles. One Humvee windshield was shattered, the soldiers were deafened, and a Toyota pickup passing the other way was flipped and thrown off the road. But no one, Iraqi or American, was seriously wounded.

With this attack fresh in their memories, and now Capt. Blanco's death haunting them, the civil affairs team set out the next day, Dec. 29, for a village called Nasir Wa Al Salaam.

The mission was to make a visit to the local council president, a gregarious political aspirant named Abbas Hussein Kenani. Abbas wears Western clothes, speaks some English, and drives a new black VW Golf. He was voted into his position as the de facto mayor of Nasir Wa Al Salaam over the summer, but he wants a higher place in the burgeoning Iraqi government and he's soon moving up to the equivalent of a county supervisor.

Nunis has to meet with Abbas and his successor, a quiet, turbaned man named Hadi Jasim Ali, to discuss Abbas' transition and the need for some buses to transport Iraqi militia trainees. They'll also be checking on three school-repair projects in the town -- mostly damaged from years of neglect, not the war.

The mission's last stop will be Al Anwal primary school, where Nunis has to make a final payment for the repairs: $2,200 in cash. (Although the reconstruction portion of the $87 billion allotted by Congress has begun to arrive in Iraq, much of the reconstruction thus far has been paid for with money confiscated from Saddam's regime.) Then, in the early afternoon, the team must return to Baghdad so Nunis can catch a plane for Texas, for a two-week visit with his wife and young son.

When they leave Mercury that morning, Nunis' civil affairs team takes three Humvees. To supplement the short-handed team, they borrow three infantrymen and one medic -- the only woman at Mercury -- from other units. They've got an M240B machine gun, two M249 squad automatic weapons, an M-16 and/or a pistol for each man and woman, thousands of bullets, an assortment of hand grenades and an Iraqi translator named Kamil Kadim, who showed up for work in a suit and tie. In Nunis' pocket there's a stack of crisp $100 bills for the headmaster of Al Anwal school.

To get to the town council office, Nunis, Mouton and Kamil must pass through barbed-wire-and-concrete anti-truck-bomb barricades, a bevy of local police, and an inner screen of armed guardsmen in the hallway. Inside, Nunis speaks with Abbas in a back room behind translucent amber curtains, with a ring of local men sitting on couches, puffing cigarettes and sipping sweet tea. When Nunis is done with his business, Abbas shares some of his. He wants to build a kindergarten.

"We want money for the project from CPA `Coalition Provisional Authority`," he says. "So far we haven't gotten approval for a project so large. One kindergarten is not enough because in Nasir Wa Al Salaam, we have almost 200,000 people. So we want to build here, and that will take time but we will be patient. I have a clear picture for the future of Nasir Wa Al Salaam but it is stopped now because of the terrorist attacks against coalition forces. That stops our plans for the future."

Abbas' town sits beside the infamous Abu Gharaib prison. Like others in Iraq, it was a place where many people vanished under Saddam's rule. But besides that, the regime had little business in Nasir Wa Al Salaam.

"The Saddam regime, they did not pay attention to the schools," Abbas says. "They took all the money for weapons. We have 65 schools here. Most of them are in very, very bad condition."

Nasir Wa Al Salaam is run-down and full of unemployed citizens. But the town has had some enviable successes. The divisions between Sunni and Shi'a sects that threaten to break whatever success has been made post-Saddam -- and could even fuel a civil war -- have been erased in Abbas' town. When the first American units began setting up the local government, members of both factions came together and ran for positions on the town council.

"After the war, Sunni and Shi'a, we are one hand working together," Abbas says. "We are a brotherhood. Sunni, Shi'a, we don't like this word. After the war we are all Iraqi and Muslim."

Nunis, who sits on a couch between Kamil and Mouton, offers his support. "I think it's the face this council has put forward and how confidently they conduct business. Maybe that's naïve, but everybody looks to this group for leadership. It's a statement of purpose, regardless of which sect they come from. And the quicker we turn everything over to the Iraqis, the faster these clowns who are trying to blow us up have nothing to do."

Abbas hands Nunis a contract proposal for a road project, which he does hesitantly, because it means Nunis has to take it up the chain of command for funding. But Nunis is all for it.

"Let's make CPA build something," he says. "They need to come off the dime and start building some stuff."

They leave the council hall to inspect a looted building outside town slated for reconstruction. Soon they part and Nunis and his team head over to the Sheik Dhary primary school, which has run up $50,000 in repair bills.

As soon as Nunis walks into the school, a little boy with a red backpack gives him the finger.

Standing above the crowd of kids on recess in the courtyard, the major points at the boy and tells the translator to bring him over. Nunis knows that he probably learned the gesture from U.S. soldiers, but he wants to ask him if he knows what it means and tell him it's not a nice thing to do. The boy scurries away and Kamil can't catch him.

Nunis turns to the headmaster and drills him. "We're paying a lot of money for this school," he says. "It shouldn't be this way."

The convoy then heads to Al Anwal school, the last stop before leaving for Baghdad. On the way, Nunis stops at a water pump house in the middle of town. They pass through a market where they often get pelted with tomatoes. Garza yells from behind the wheel, "You're free! I freed all y'all! I am here for your freedom!"

Down an alley there's a series of loud bangs. "What the fuck was that?" they ask, and everyone moves their weapon a little higher. They don't know if it was an attack or fireworks or gunfire at a wedding. Tense, they just keep driving.

With the three-Humvee convoy waiting in the street, Nunis and Kamil head into the pump house, shown off by its proud caretaker. Before the Americans built it, there had never been running water in this part of Nasir Wa Al Salaam.

Not a minute into the conversation there's a massively loud explosion in the near distance. Standing inside the pump house it's impossible to tell where it came from. Nunis runs outside looking for his men, and Garza runs down the alley looking for him.

Off in the direction of the main highway, a giant, billowing plume of smoke rises into the sky. Having just been attacked, and with the killing of Capt. Blanco the day before fresh in his mind, Nunis runs back to the Humvee, very pissed. "It's an IED `improvised explosive device`."

An access road off the highway cuts right before the team; there's a good chance that the bombers will be making their getaway within seconds. Garza steers the Humvee off-road and across the hardened sand, bouncing the vehicle hard. Nunis gets on the radio to call it in.

"We were just in Nasir Wa Al Salaam on the outskirts and we've just had a huge explosion. Break. We're headed over to check it out now. We'll have a grid. Over."

As Garza pulls over to ask some shepherds what they saw, it comes over the radio that the explosion was a controlled detonation of a cache of SA-7 surface-to-air missiles found a few nights prior. Relieved that it wasn't an IED, but still rattled, the team heads over to Al Anwal school.

"OK. OK. We're good. Good deal," says Nunis. "Man, that was loud."

The Americans arrive at the school. Waiting for them in the playground are about 50 kids, many of them gripping rocks and slingshots.

In the market they get pelted with tomatoes, on the country road they get bombs lit off at them, and every now and then the kids stone them. One soldier's jaw was broken as a result of a rock hurled by a kid.

Nunis has a pocketful of greenbacks to give to the school's headmaster, and he's in no mood for any of his soldiers to take a rock in the eye, or for one of them to take a rock in the eye and shoot back. He's had enough.

He storms out of the Humvee and fires a round from his M-16 into the mud. The loud crack intimidates the children enough that they drop their rocks and scatter like mice, running across the barren playground to hide behind a mound. At the same moment, a gunship flies overhead.

Nunis is enraged. He strides up to the facility protection police who guard the entrance to the school.

"You better take care of this shit or I'm going to fire every last one of you!" he yells. "I'm tired of this shit!" The police protest that these children are not theirs and they have no right to discipline them. But Nunis won't have it.

He goes inside to pay the principal the last of the money for the work on the school, but first he tells him not to let his charges throw rocks.

"You're not setting a good precedent for us to come back here and help you out," Nunis says.

Kamil translates. The headmaster says, "They do this with private cars also, not just the Americans."

"This is not acceptable," Nunis says.

Mouton, who is standing there too, turns and says, "The people think the Americans are stupid. We keep giving them money and they keep killing us. It's sad, man."

After upbraiding the guards again on the way out, Nunis, Mouton and Kamil return to the trucks to drive back to Baghdad so Nunis can fly home. Garza shows off a weapon he pulled off a 12-year-old boy while his boss was inside. It's an expertly made and very accurate slingshot.

"It's the best one I ever got," Garza says. The slingshot goes on the middle deck of the Humvee.

Back in Baghdad, and away from the relative danger of Nasir Wa Al Salaam, Nunis talks about his work in Iraq before decompressing for the flight home.

"A lot of people are underestimating the importance of the freedom we've given these guys," he says. "They can grab signs and protest the hell out of us. If they did that before, no one would ever see them again. They can walk up to me and tell me to fuck off and I'm going to ask them why."

Midnight raid

It's just before midnight, the night after Christmas, and it's raining in Baghdad. Lt. Col. Frank Sherman, commander of the 1st Battalion, 13th Armor Regiment, sits in his Humvee just inside the gate of a former Iraqi base that hugs a bend in the Tigris River and used to contain a notorious secret police prison. His unit and a battalion from the 82nd Airborne use the base now. The prison cells are used by the Americans to hold Iraqis found with weapons or otherwise threatening the unstable peace.

The base sits on the edge of a Baghdad neighborhood called Al-Hurriyah. Across the river is a grand mosque where Saddam was seen walking through the streets during the invasion, just before he disappeared for nine months.

Idling ahead of Sherman is an open truck packed full of paratroopers from the 82nd, about to embark on a late-night raid. Each one is armed to the teeth; some have machine guns, one has a shotgun strapped across his back. The soldiers like the rain because it will keep the curious indoors, but it also means they won't have any protective helicopters circling above.

There are more elements of the raiding party spread out through the area unseen, like the Special Forces team that moves to their launch point in a few SUVs. Among the American raiders are Iraqi translators wearing ski masks, to shield their identities from hostile countrymen. They carry bullhorns so they can yell orders into buildings.

Sherman has been on the radio with the other raid commanders making final preparations. He turns to his driver, a young sergeant. He describes the three types of cars that his scouts spotted earlier, cars full of armed men and circling the raid area.

"If they come anywhere near you, stop them," he tells the sergeant. "They're going to be armed so keep your weapon up. If you see anything that looks like a fucking weapon, start dealing."

With that, the convoy rolls, with all lights off, ready to do violence while Baghdad sleeps.

Like Col. Gold, many of the soldiers in Iraq today do the hearts-and-minds work of civil affairs by day and then the rough work of raids and searches when the sun goes down. Sherman is one of Gold's battalion commanders. There's a cleric named Ahmed Hussein Al Dabash in their area they want to capture for questioning. Sherman says Dabash has been using his prayer calls at a mosque to incite violence between Shi'a and Sunni, and to prod his followers to attack Americans.

On Dec. 9, there was an explosion at an area mosque. Dabash, a Sunni, blamed the Shi'a, saying the mosque was attacked with rocket-propelled grenades. Sherman says an investigation revealed that Dabash's mosque was being used to make IEDs, and the explosion was a bomb that went awry.

The thing is, the Americans know him. Sherman and other officers have met with him repeatedly, in meetings where Dabash was friendly and accommodating. But the Army has heard what he says during prayer calls, which are not friendly or accommodating. He's also suspected to have Al Qaeda ties, and, Sherman says, some "national level" intelligence people want to talk to him.

One of the raid leaders, a captain from the 82nd named Gabe Barton, says if they find him, they won't be strangers. "He'll know me."

Dabash has followers and it's expected they won't give him up easily. Besides the three armed cars spotted by the scouts and the men on Dabash's roof with automatic rifles and grenades, Sherman expects that when word gets out in the morning that the cleric is under detention, the locals will "go nuts."

Dabash is believed to be at one of four locations, each one given a code name for the raid: Objectives Moe, Larry, Curly and Shemp. They'll hit the house first where the guards on the roof were seen, on the assumption that he'll be there.

Unlike weapons searches, in which they pick through a home top to bottom, they plan to get in and out fast -- Dabash is there or he's not. During a pre-raid briefing with the team leaders and Special Forces, Sherman tells them to move fast and be as silent as possible.

"If you gotta make noise to get in, make noise," he says. "But you are most vulnerable in the street waiting to get in. You know this."

The streets of Baghdad on a rainy night at 1 a.m. are quiet and empty. Maybe one or two cars pass as the raiders move toward Dabash's homes. Scouts are already up on the nearby roofs watching for movement when the 82nd troops pull up to Dabash's street. Sherman leaves his Humvee with the team medic, John Walker, and runs in quietly with the raiders.

The first house they get into without too much trouble, but Dabash is not there. One soldier comes out with an AK-47 across his back. While they're inside, a scout spots a man running across the roofs to a neighboring house. The troops break down that gate only to find, parked in the driveway, one of the cars seen patrolling earlier. They break in and search it for weapons, but find none.

They try again with the next house and pull out two men who say they're just visiting for the night. And they pull out Dabash's brother. All three are cuffed and put into the back of the open truck, where they sit in the rain when the party moves to another part of the neighborhood.

It's hard to see much of it at 2 a.m. but this area seems to have some nicer streets, with short, gated driveways and orange trees in the front yards. Around the corner, sewage flows down the street.

For all the noise the raiders make breaking doors down, no one comes outside. Women in some of the houses scream and wail when the soldiers crash in, but neighbors do not rouse.

It turns out the raid missed Dabash by half an hour. Sherman calls a huddle of the raid leaders, including a Special Forces team which had been out doing its own work.

"He went into a mosque," Sherman tells them. "There's not much we can do if he goes into the mosque." Sherman turns to the Special Forces leader. "Can you get us in the mosque?" Sherman asks. "Not really," replies the guy. "I didn't think so," Sherman says.

Based on a tip from the Special Forces team, they try one more house. It's only a few blocks away and they head right over. It's close to 3 a.m. and still drizzling when they approach the place. The Iraqi translator yells through the bullhorn to open up. A man calls back, asking in Arabic what it's all about. The raid leader, Capt. Barton, tells the translator to tell the man it's the Americans, and if he doesn't open up they'll break the door down. When the man hesitates, they begin a countdown starting at 10. No one comes to the door, and a sergeant starts kicking it in. It's metal and it doesn't break, but the rattle is enough to bring the man and his wife and daughter to the door.

The women stand off to the side in front of the house crying and muttering while the man is questioned. When they figure out he's not the right guy, Barton apologizes to the two women and tries to calm them down. The Americans get ready to go. The family goes back inside and the soldiers mount up and leave.

Driving back to the base, Sherman takes what good he can from the experience, even though the big fish got away. He says the other raiding parties did take in a former Iraqi general who's suspected in the insurgency, as well as two of Dabash's lieutenants.

"Well, three out of five is not so bad," he says.

The two men who claimed to be just visiting are taken back to one of the first houses, uncuffed and taken inside. All the addresses are recorded so claims officers can go back and reimburse the homeowners for broken locks and smashed windows.

The brother, however, will spend some time in the old prison, which has not changed much since the Iraqis ran it, except its present inmates aren't tortured and executed. There were about 15 in there the night of the raid, either sleeping or huddled under wool blankets.

Sherman says Dabash will get word that his brother is now in detention at the old secret police prison.

"We'll tell him, 'We have your brother. You need to come in and meet with us.' So, we'll try it that way. If he takes off, he takes off. Then we'll release his brother. But he doesn't know that now."

Davey and his men like what they do, prowling around the streets looking for trouble before trouble finds them and their friends. It's during the wee hours that insurgents plant the IEDs to blow up in the morning. Davey and his guys are out there looking for that stuff.

They're well aware of the pressure to succeed in Iraq. The fact that it's a presidential election year is not lost on Davey. Sliding through the rainy night, thinking about what an extra dose of politics might mean to his mission, Davey says simply, "It's gonna suck ass."

The thrill is gone

The Iraqis are of mixed emotions about the Americans. They can see all the money the United States is putting into the country, and that's only good. They don't want the occupation, yet they don't want the Americans to leave. The ones who aren't insurgents are grappling with new freedoms. The ones I spoke with -- teachers, handymen, entrepreneurs, both men and women -- were thankful and optimistic. And afraid.

Each of the American soldiers I spoke with said the same two things. The first was that it's their job to be there, and they'll do it as best they can. The other thing the Americans say is that they are there for the kids. They look to the Iraqi children with hope, knowing that they won't forget the Americans who fixed their school, or took some bad guy out of the neighborhood. When the kids pelt them with rocks the soldiers understand it's as much of a game in a violent country as the kids they see punching each other hard and laughing about it.

As miserable as it is, and it is miserable, the Americans make the most of it when they can, even if that means surfing the Internet while off-duty or playing volleyball until the sun goes down. Some become close friends, like Ash Garza and Keith Adkins from Nunis' team.

(Ash will drive up from Texas to be Keith's best man when Keith gets married in Santa Cruz this summer.)

That said, many have been there since the invasion, and really want to go home to their families. The thrill is gone. "I'd rather read about this from my house or watch it all on TV if you don't mind," says one soldier who'd been there long enough. "Our fun meters are pretty much pegged out, man."

The last night I was in Baghdad, I packed my bags, and when I was finished, I went outside to smoke a cigarette. As I opened the door, there was a huge whoosh and thump and boom not far off. I turned back, not knowing if it was just some freak air pressure rushing out of the building, or something else.

"That was a 120mm mortar round. It landed about 150 meters away," said one of the civil affairs soldiers who came outside to see.

As he lit up a smoke, sirens started going off near the impact. Usually when that happens, shells are lobbed back, unless, using very fast radar, the Americans can figure out that it was fired from a populated area, as the insurgents like to do. Nothing went back out this time.

A female soldier who'd been in the building using a computer came out, too. Her bunk was in another building and she had a bit of hike to get there. Despite the shell that had just landed nearby, she didn't care. Maybe because it was the holidays and she was thinking of home more than usual, or maybe because she figured no more shells would come in, and even if they did, she'd take her chances. Or maybe she was just tired. She set out alone.

"I'm walking home," she said, and disappeared into the darkness.