I WAS IN BAQUBA during Iraq's January elections, having hitched a ride with the U.S. Army to a polling site. There were bombs exploding, mortars falling, and hot machine guns. The fact that the voting was going great despite the violence was something few people expected. Until that day, I'd been skeptical about Iraq. Not fashionably cynical, merely skeptical. We could all hear what President Bush, Prime Minister Blair, and other elected leaders were saying, but they are politicians. We also could hear the end-of-the-Iraqi-world predictions by so many others. But nobody really knew what the Iraqi people had in mind, and the Iraqis were the people who counted most.
The millions who voted sent a message: Serpentine lines of ebullient Iraqis risked their lives--dozens died--to have a say in their futures. People who voted dipped their right index fingers into purple ink and cast their ballots. The image of Iraqis proudly holding their stained fingers aloft became a symbol for the success of the election. In Baquba, many voters asked me to photograph them as they left the polling places, all smiles and purple fingers.
The courage of the Iraqi people that January day planted a seed of confidence. These were not timid or cowering souls. There I was: an American alone in a dangerous Iraqi city, at the very polling site that soldiers were wagering would be bombed. One after another, Iraqis came and shook my hand, showing me their children, laughing, smiling, saying over and over, Thank you, thank you, thank you. I felt like an honored guest, and I felt a twinge of shame that I'd been less confident in the Iraqis than they were in themselves. The voice of the Iraqi people had risen above the clamor of insurgent violence.
But that was hardly the end of the story. Soon came reports that insurgents were targeting people with purple fingers. And in the months since, terrorists have murdered thousands more Iraqis, and hundreds of coalition soldiers. With Iraqis due to return to the polls for a referendum on their new constitution, I wondered which was stronger: the terror or the hope. Would the Iraqi people speak with softer and more tentative voices now after the slaughter of thousands?
For a variety of reasons, I decided the place to be on election day was alongside Command Sergeant Major Jeffrey Mellinger, the top enlisted man for coalition forces in Iraq and right-hand man to Gen. George W. Casey, himself the U.S. commander in Iraq. I'd spent three weeks with Mellinger earlier in the year, driving around Iraq, down to Kuwait, then flying over the Arabian Gulf to ships and oil platforms. Mellinger has been in the Army for 33 years, as best I can tell loving every bit of it, except maybe for the times he was laid up in the hospital. I knew that wherever he was, Mellinger would be where things were happening.
WE RECONNECTED AT CAMP VICTORY, Baghdad, on October 10, the Monday before the voting. Two Blackhawks deposited me on Griffin Field, nearly blowing me over with my heavy gear as they lifted away. I climbed the steps to the road, looked around, and heard someone yelling: "Mikey!" It was Staff Sergeant Anguiano, who drives for Mellinger and is finishing up his second year in Iraq. I'd gotten to know him during my three weeks with the crew earlier in the year. When I asked his first name, he answered, "Staff Sergeant."
After loading my gear into the Humvee hatch, we drove to link up with Mellinger and some MPs who were working with Iraqi police. Thousands of details needed attention before the voting. Junked and blown-up cars and other debris needed to be removed from roadsides to reduce the bomb threat. Weapons were being cleaned, and radios checked.
Mellinger and crew were going into Baghdad with the 393rd Infantry Regiment, 1st Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 75th Division, from Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. (I was in the Army for five years--studied hard--and still am lost on Army names.) They train the Iraqi police, the "IP." We walked around in the fine dust and talked with the IP, who would provide the innermost ring of security encircling all polling places.
Iraqi police have been taking an awful beating at the checkpoints from bomb and sniper attacks. The insurgents sometimes rig cars similar to the one used by the Washington, D.C., snipers, where the kid hid and fired his rifle through a hole in the trunk while the man drove. Sometimes they will make the hole in the door, and the shooter will lie on the rear floor and take aim. The car might pause a moment on an overpass, and then take a shot at Iraqi or American forces. Only takes a few moments and bap! Dead man. They do it all the time: Drive-bys are daily occurrences that, unlike the many checkpoints devastated by car bombs, rarely make the news.