Sgt. Roland G. Walters
Using a blanket to muffle echoes from the high ceilings, Emily Harris files an NPR report from one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces in Tikrit.
Sgt. Roland G. Walters
NPR's Emily Harris has been covering military operations in Iraq. In this Reporter's Notebook, Harris looks behind the scenes of the U.S. and Iraqi offensive against insurgents in Samarra, north of Baghdad.
Spending the night on the rooftop of a civilian home in Samarra commandeered by the military a night after U.S. and Iraqi forces stormed the city certainly has its challenges. For example: is it better to wear your flack vest while trying to sleep, or snuggle with it in a hopefully defensive position? So you'd think staying in one of Saddam's former palaces in Tikrit while at the headquarters of the division overseeing the Samarra operation would be a welcome change. But here's the problem for a radio reporter. Gunfire or rumbling tanks sound great in the background. But high ceilings and marble halls only give your voice a disconcerting echo. The best muffler around here is a scratchy, hot, Army-issue wool blanket. Melt under that even for a few minutes in an unairconditioned marble hallway baked in 100-degree heat and you might prefer the moonlit Samarra rooftop on a cool — and luckily quiet — October night.
Assessing War Damage
Our drive to Samarra the morning after troops stormed the town was delayed when a big IED (improvised explosive device, or roadside bomb) was discovered on a small bridge just north of the city. We waited more than three hours for the U.S. military's detonation team to show up and blow it up. The explosion let off a terrific flash of light, a big boom, and an impressive puff of smoke. So when we drove past the detonation site, I was expecting a big crater. But the controlled detonation only knocked a small piece of concrete off the edge of the bridge. Hard to tell what was bomb, what was routine dilapidation.
Where There's Smoke
The standard joke about Army engineers is that they are experts in deconstruction rather than reconstruction, because they mostly blow stuff up. Just after a friendly engineer leaning against a Humvee in a dusty staging area outside Samarra explained that, he turned around and tripped over a wire holding up an antenna for military radio communications. The antenna obediently toppled over.
The Slip of a Lip
The handover of power from the U.S. occupation government, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), to an interim Iraqi government at the end of June is promoted as the day Iraqis took charge. But it's not always easy to remember that concept when you're working on the ground. Here are two verbatim quotes from high-ranking U.S. military officials last week:
"This will be the keystone to our success when we do our elections, or — when the Iraqis hold their elections in January."
"Occasionally we do see vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices and I'm going to show you how many we've had since we occupied this area, these four provinces. Occupied may not, may not be the right word, but uh, I think you get what I'm saying."
There's a massive effort under way to make sure all members of the military have the opportunity to vote while overseas. Voting Assistance Officers have a thick book explaining how to fill out absentee ballots for each state. If the ballots don't arrive in time, they offer backup write-in ballots, an official government document good only for national races. In a nod to America's much vaunted "privacy of the voting booth," there is an envelope with no personal markings to hold the ballot. But on the outside of the mailing envelope, voters have to fill in their name, address, overseas address, birthday, social security number, and the number of a secondary piece of ID, such as a passport. It's probably unlikely a crook or terrorist would harvest that information. But it's no voting-booth curtain.