First person: Embedded with Iraqi army, where saluting is optional

Colonel Galib Shaaea and Brigadier General Mahde Jowed at Saad Camp.
Colonel Galib Shaaea and Brigadier General Mahde Jowed at Saad Camp. Nick Spangler / Miami Herald / MCT

BAQOUBA, Iraq — I flew into Diyala province, hoping to meet some Iraqi soldiers taking part in the offensive against Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias there.

Instead, I got embedded with the guard company of an Iraqi general, and the closest I got to any fighting was the night when somebody fired his Kalashnikov rifle by mistake during a feast at the provincial governor's house. Some fingers darted to triggers — everybody else had Kalashnikovs, too — and people ran to investigate. But dinner was being served, 60 or 70 heaping platters of lamb and chicken and rice and fruit. So instead of joining the investigation, I ran to the food.

My only previous experience of military life was on the American forward operating bases, where soldiers carry their weapons with them everywhere, some even while on PT, physical training. On the American FOBs, the merest speck of litter is regulated out of existence, and everybody salutes everybody else constantly. There were no feasts, at least on the days I visited.

So some aspects of life at Saad Camp, where the general's guards were based, were surprising to me. Saluting seemed to be optional, and most Iraqi soldiers opted out. Men drifted into officers' rooms as they might friends' dorm rooms at college, just to shoot the breeze. There was trash everywhere, and not a single receptacle of any sort in which to place it. There seemed to be no rule one way or the other about carrying one's weapon. And there was no physical training, of any sort, at any time.

I bunked with an Iraqi air force colonel, Galib Shaaea, a helicopter pilot who vanished for some hours early every morning, took long afternoon naps and vanished some more every night. He was "consulting," he explained.

When I met Shaaea, he was watching "Noor," a soap opera made in Turkey but dubbed into Arabic and universally, bizarrely popular here. (It has something to do with ill-starred lovers, and everybody is consumed by remorse over something or other, but that's as much as I've deciphered and care to know.)

Shaaea enjoyed it, he said, because, "It's about true love, without the silly things." This didn't comport with my notion of an air force colonel's taste.

Another colonel suffered bouts of melancholy because he missed his wife.

The chief medical officer was fascinated by American wealth, and he asked how much money I made. When I told him, he wasn't so fascinated anymore.

Shaaea had 2,443 flying hours and three crashes under his belt, but his war stories — he had plenty of them — seemed as peculiar as his taste in soap operas. They were all about the subterfuges he'd employed to avoid fighting.

He was, nevertheless, complicit in the death of one Kurdish dog, he confessed.

In the early 1990s, when the resistance against Saddam Hussein's regime had grown bold, he'd been sent to punish the village of Hashezeni by destroying it. "These villagers, they welcomed the leaders of the resistance," he said. "I was sent with 192 missiles in the chopper and one watcher from Tikrit. But I knew he was not experienced, and when we neared the village I gave the stick to him. He couldn't control it! Everything was high, low. We hit a dog with one missile, and the rest missed."

In late mornings, before the general began his round of public appearances, I went out to hitch a ride in the dirt lot where the men and their vehicles assembled.

A few days in a row, I hitched with Hamad Salman, 43, a vice officer — something like a sergeant — whose family was living in Baqouba again. They'd fled to Baghdad a few years ago, when the violence was at its worst here and somebody drilled a hole in his uncle's head. They couldn't afford Baghdad, so they'd come back.

Salman was a bear-big man with a shaved head that made him look fierce, but he didn't strut or brandish his weapon the way some of the younger men did. Nor did he seem especially proud to be a soldier. It was just the thing he knew how to do.

"I was forced, in the past," he said. "The government was chasing people for the popular army and for the fedayeen," a state-sponsored paramilitary group. "I had no university certificate, and they chased me. Finally I joined so they wouldn't chase me anymore."

What he most wanted now, after almost 20 years in the army, was to get out of it. He wanted a peaceful job, something in civil service. "I'm fed up," he said. "We've had fighting since the 1980s. It's hard to see an Iraqi kill an Iraqi."

On my second to last day, waiting for a convoy to Baghdad that never materialized, I met the man who'd fired his rifle at the governor's feast.

He'd done it intentionally because there was a bullet chambered and he was worried that the rifle might go off. That seemed sensible to me, but not to his superiors. They fined him a week's pay, about $100.

More from McClatchy:

In Iraq, waiting for a lift to Baqouba with Tila Tequila

U.S. agrees to set withdrawal date with Iraq