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the evening briefing
From: Martin Smith · Re: Mosul · Date: Nov. 15, 2003

 
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Iraq's Peoples and Politics
See an interactive map and overview of Iraq's ethnic and political landscape.

Introduction: A Long Road

The briefing becomes seductive. There's a sense of enormous coordination, energy, and accomplishment.

At 6:00 p.m. we are back at the palace and invited to sit in on the evening briefing at what's called the Battalion Command Center. In a room the size of a movie theatre officers sit busily before laptops at several banks of tables on successive risers. Imagine an impromptu NASA control room guiding a lunar mission.

I am ushered to a seat in front, just behind General Petraeus, who holds a microphone in one hand and a laser pointer in the other. Calmly, he looks up at the first slide. The show begins. I take out my notepad and try to keep up. There's a report on medication shortages due to "poor forecasting." A daily weather forecast shows chilly days ahead. "Never thought I'd miss Kuwait," says Petraeus. Here's a report on the status of northern oil pipelines. Petraeus says "next" before I can take it in. Then "Border Crossing Statistics," which lists cars, trucks, people coming in and out of Iraq from Turkey and Syria. Now a series of slides on finances. The 101st is running low. They've spent $34 million of confiscated Baath Party monies taken from the safe house where Uday and Qusay Hussein were killed. Now they are waiting for their accounts to reload from some portion of the $20 billion in reconstruction funds recently passed by Congress.

"Next." A report on oil refineries. The slides fly by. "Community Issues." A report on pothole refilling teams' progress. The "Tom Sawyer Project." A highway paint striping program here, highway repair program there. Rodent and mosquito prevention programs. Renovation of the mayor's office. With a funding assessment for each. A report on private contractors and what they are up to. "Print that one, I want to look at it more closely." A slide on water well digging in rural communities.

There are many slides breaking down the security situation. Reports on encounters with "the enemy." An improvised explosive device found on such and such road. "Got it. Next." Ammunition turned in by a collaborator. "We've promised to build him a new house if he continues to bring in some more, " says an officer. Apparently he's delivered huge truck loads for three straight days: more than a hundred grenades, dozens of rocket launchers, and hundreds of pounds of explosives. Petraeus reads closely.

"Don't give him the house just yet," the general says. "Let's keep him coming."

Another slide summarizes how in the past week the public has turned in 670 rocket-propelled grenades, 23 surface-to-air missiles, 1185 grenades, 100 mortar rounds, 2 mortar tubes, 6 anti-tank missiles, and 105 rockets.

The briefing becomes seductive. There's a sense of enormous coordination, energy, and accomplishment. As General Petraeus speeds through slide after slide, I am truly impressed. A report on the status of the military intranet communications network. Air and ground movements of troops and their machines. How many people called "The Hotline" in the last 24 hours providing tips and leads. What's the press up to? There's a slide on our crew's movements throughout the day, and relevant reports from the international press on 101st activities.

A few times Petraeus will stop to read more closely and with his pointer circle a sentence, paragraph, pie chart, or graph, and exhort better performance or suggest changes. "Who's going out to photograph this project?" he asks. The officer names someone. Petraeus pauses. "You're breaking my heart." A long pause. Then the officer: "I will see what I can do." The general had someone else in mind.

Petraeus: "Why aren't we digging more wells?"

Officer: "Because we're out of money."

Pause.

"Are you not willing to take a risk?"

"Not if we're out of funds."

Another pause.

The message is clear. The general doesn't tolerate this. Dig anyway, he is saying. The money will come.

"Dig."

The final slide says: "We are in a race to win over the people. What have you and your element done today?"

The whole briefing takes a breathtaking 30 minutes. But in the waning minutes I am too aware of being seduced. Petraeus clearly is on top and by all accounts commands enormous respect from his people. No doubt he is a success story.

But I think back to the soldier at the front gate shouting at the locals and the mounting numbers of attacks on U.S. troops here in Mosul. The reality is messy -- and uncertain.

Then, as we prepare to leave, bad news arrives.

Petraeus is on the daily conference call with General Sanchez in Baghdad, joined by his counterparts from the other major units deployed around Iraq -- the 82nd Airborne, the Fourth Infantry Division, the British Battalion in Basra, and others -- when soldiers begin running from the palace. There's a look on their faces. Two Black Hawk helicopters have collided over Mosul.

Seventeen American soldiers were dead. A visit by U.S. congressmen scheduled for the next day is cancelled.

 

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posted february 12, 2004

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