Columbia Journalism Review reporter Paul McLeary files his latest Iraq dispatch:
A slim, slightly weathered-looking man with flecks of gray in his hair, Colonel Ehssan — leader of the local Sons of Iraq group — sat behind his desk, looking unhappy. We had driven from COP Courage this morning to his “office”—a first floor room in an old building set far back from the main road on a narrow dirt strip, only a few miles from the American base. The room, and the building, is typically Iraqi, meaning typically shabby, with sand-caked windows, peeling yellow paint on the walls, and a few long couches turned toward the colonel’s desk. A space heater sits in the middle of the room, providing whatever heat it can muster.
With Charlie company’s Stryker vehicles idling out in the courtyard, where I had accidentally kicked a rusted AK-47 clip laying in the dirt on the way in, Captain Helberg and his interpreter settle in for their meeting with the colonel. On the surface, things really aren’t all that bad for Ehssan: his 250 SOIs are all under contract, meaning the American military pays them each $300 a month to man checkpoints in their area and his men have all been entered into the HYDE system, which American forces use to take their biometric information and enter them into a central database. If any prospective SOI member is already in the system, that means that they’d been fingerprinted and photographed doing something that made the Americans unhappy at some point in the past, making them ineligible. On top of this, he has the backing of the local sheiks, and up to this point has had little interference from the Iraqi Police or Army.
Still, there’s the local bogeyman, the Iraqi Army’s Muthana brigade, to contend with. The colonel assures Helberg that he has no problem with the Iraqi army as an institution, just with the Muthana brigade, which he calls “sectarian.”