Update 3-9-07

Brother Strong; Update 3-09-07

There are certain political realities in Kirkuk. Right, wrong or indifferent, law, elections and momentum have stacked the deck in such a way, that a certain political future for Kirkuk almost inevitable. I believe fear of the inevitable drives the insurgency in this region.

To this end, a critical facet of undermining the insurgency in this region is to gently convince some minorities to accept the realities and drop their opposition in exchange for certain political concessions. In other words, this is a diplomatic way of telling the emperor – or in this case, the former emperor – he’s not wearing any clothes. Its human nature to be resistant to change – and initially the minority parties rejected this proposal indignantly.

While I was away on leave, one minority leader met with the most senior commander in our area. Given my close interaction, my name invariably comes up and the naked one saw an opportunity to drop a dime. He tells the commander that I’m in bed with the majority, that I favor the ethnic Kurds and ignore his party’s views. Although this is a gross misconception, he is convinced he has proof and tells the boss that around the government building, the Kurds have a name for me: Kak Strong.

Kak is Kurdish for “brother” and is generally a term of endearment. Unfortunately, the word Kak, when pronounced by an American, sounds an awful lot like “rooster”…only spelled with a “c.” Think about that for a moment. This is especially true for people from Massachusetts.

As a consequence, I’ve been renamed by much of the brigade staff, who gleefully, and often collectively, take any opportunity to work my new name into a salutation. Hey, Kak Strong, how you doing? Goooood mooorning Kak Strong! Have you heard the new Army slogan...“Not just Strong...Army Strong?” That too has been twisted by my tormentors. Not just Strong, Kak Strong. Pronounced the Massachusetts way.

What’s the game teenagers play? You’re first pet’s name and your middle name equals your, ah, stage name? Let’s just say I am no longer Fluffy Maguire. I did start this story out with an analogy to naked people. And yes, I once had a rabbit named Fluffy.

Unfortunately the mockery intensified after I gave the PC Chairman, who is Kurdish, a gift I bought for him on leave – a tie from Nordstrom’s. Perhaps feeling indebted, he pledged to outfit me in traditional Kurdish dress – just like what he used to wear in the mountains as a Peshmerga fighter. When I explained this to my comrades, they responded in all-too-enthusiastic unison with my new code name. Peshfighter 9, this is Kak Strong 5, I read you Lima-Charlie, over.


Contrast

In little less than 10 days, I spent time in two worlds but a few hours apart. Two hours north of Kirkuk lies the City of Irbil, currently the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government. Once our convoy crossed the Little Zaab River, the change was evident and litter free.

Road signs in three languages, electric lines, convenience stores, toilets with seats…pictures of President Barzani were all indicators of Iraq’s peaceful potential. We halt our convoy for red lights. A cloud of smog literally hovered over the city – a sign that the shortage of fuel elsewhere in Iraq is non-existent in the KRG. A kid selling random items at an intersection spots the bag of Smarties resting on top of the radio thought the windshield. I swing open my door and to his delight, give him a handful.

By contrast, a few days later I found myself on a “cordon & knock” mission in Hawijah. A Sunni Arab hub, Hawijah is widely considered the heart of the insurgency in the province of Kirkuk. At twenty-three hundred, on an-anything-but-idle-Tuesday, the streets were littered with trash, the water was out and not a single resident I spoke with could name an Arab provincial council member. Amazingly enough, the residents generally welcomed our presence and thanked the American soldiers for searching their homes: if our searches will help bring security, they are obliging.


Reefer madness

The Armed Forces Network, or AFN, is a non-commercial network beamed into Iraq from Europe to provide troops with a handful of entertainment channels. Usually they include a combination of news, like CNN, a movie channel and something mindless, such as professional wrestling. AFN beamed the playoff game between the Patriots and the Jets beginning about midnight. Though I’m not much for TV, I’m all for the Pats and stayed up to watch.

Unlike the Superbowl, I learned that soldiers don’t watch AFN for the commercials. Since AFN is free of advertising, public affairs uses the breaks to run a litany of well-intended, but ridiculous and paranoia-filled public service messages that are laughable the first time, but wear quickly after seeing the same sad production over and over and over.

Here’s a no BS list of the major themes of some commercials: tanning beds kill, Robinhood is probably already in your house, there’s a sexual predator around every corner, credit cards lead to compulsive spending, if you drink you are probably a drunk, if you don’t wear a seat belt you will die, you’ve already lost your identity to thieves, warm up properly before exercising or be paralyzed, want something on the rocks…drink and boat.

The last one really gets me…I guess I’ll have to give up the yacht I have stashed in the desert. Like, hello, this is Iraq! The world is apparently so bad out there it’s liable to be more dangerous on-post than it is out in the red zone. Should I really unload my weapons when I make it safely back on post at the end of mission? The producers of these commercials speak my language and share my culture...if they can’t craft a message that resonates with me, what on earth are we telling the Arabs?


Random strangers

Out of the corner of my eye I could see she was watching me, studying my face and looking for an opportunity. She was perhaps 60 and the lines of her face were creased with thought. The doors of the train that ferries passages between terminals at the Atlanta airport opened; she had to step off. Before she did she walked up to me deliberately, put one hand on my shoulder the other extended for handshake and said, “Thank you for serving our country.”

This scenario repeated several times over, both coming and going from leave. One kid, perhaps 5 or 6 was staring so hard he bumped into the leg of his parent when mom stopped for a coffee. I responded by doing what I do to Iraqi kids: stopped, smiled, bent over and made a dramatic showing of producing a Jolley Rancher lollypop from my ankle pocket. “Tieyiib,” I said out of force of habit and immediately feeling stupid. Wait a minute. He’s American and American kids know a lollypop when they see one. And they also know it “taste good.”


Snipits

Dancing Boots: You’ve heard of Dancing with the Stars? Over here we do dancing with the Kurds. A special invite over the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr brought us to a feast in a place north of Kirkuk called Altun Kapri. Soon I will add some photos to the Web. In the meantime, you can read about our dance lessons in this Los Angeles Times article: http://tinyurl.com/yu79kl

Where the British stay: A few months Her Majesty’s’ diplomats vacated the co-located Kirkuk regional embassy in exchange for Irbil. They’ve somehow managed to con British taxpayers into funding the top floor of a castle in the clouds with a truly breathtaking view. In reality, they’ve secured several floors of a multi-story hotel that sits atop a sizable hill and holds a commanding, if not impressive, view of the mountains. I also noticed they have a wet bar…

Rising sun: The sun lingers just a little longer on the horizon with each successive evening. Though the spring rains have painted the landscape green, the desert dust is still plentiful and bends the fading light of the setting sun. If there’s anything pretty about this country, it’s the surely the sunsets. And the longer twilight merely foreshadows the fact that in a few weeks the weather will be predictable for the next six months: clear, sunny and hot.

House: I can’t remember who sent it in one of the numerous care packages…but Season II of House, MD rocks. Really, what a great show! I’m not much of a TV buff, but a while back I kind of got sick of reading books on Iraq and looked for something mindless. House was perfect. I kept sacrificing sleep just to get one more episode in…and since, I’ve gone back and ordered Season I from Amazon.com. Things are much clearer for me now, I understand the origins of House’s limp and the mysterious date with Dr. Cameron that they kept referring to the entire second season. Seriously, man, whoever sent that has corrupted me for life.

R&R: A big shot out to my friends and family, who all made my leave, while so short, very enjoyable. I truly had a blast and look forward to doing it again real soon.

Redeployment: The “e” word is forbidden in our circles. “Extension” tops the list of the most undesirable of words. To date, we are moving forward with our transition plans and trying not to look over our shoulders. Still the key is to stay focused, were not out of the woods yet and statistics show that the first and last months of a unit’s deployment can be among the most dangerous. We’re holding our breath.

Ciao. Kak Strong 5 out.