By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 10, 2006
BAGHDAD -- On the day U.S. troops entered Baghdad three years ago, Laith Abbas, a neighborhood fire chief, pulled up a chair outside his station house in the center of the city and sat down. The streets were deserted. No one knew what the Americans would do, and a cloud of fear hung over the city. But Abbas figured that whatever happened, firefighters would be needed. So he waited.
That afternoon, U.S. tanks rumbled up the street and jerked to a stop. Dirty, battle-clad soldiers scanned the area from their hatches. A U.S. commander, surrounded by heavily armed Marines, walked toward him.
"I was afraid. I thought maybe they are going to kill me," Abbas recounted in a recent interview. "I was thinking, I'm crazy, but if there's a fire, who will put it out? We're still needed, and God will help me."
"Hello. Are you the chief?" asked the commander, a Marine major, Abbas recalled.
Yes, the local chief, Abbas responded.
"We love firefighters in the U.S. We think of them as heroes," the commander said. "And we love firefighters in Iraq, too."
They made a pact. Abbas would keep working, and the Americans would protect his station house and help him.
Today, despite the killings of 25 firefighters by Sunni Arab and Shiite Muslim extremists, the murders of his driver and bodyguard, and the fact that his children must be escorted to school by armed security personnel, Abbas, 40, is honoring his word -- now as fire chief for the entire city.
It is a challenge, he said, because the nature of the business has changed so dramatically. An average of 10 bombings and one car bombing occur each day in the capital, a city of 7 million. And every time his firefighters put out the flames in a mosque or dismantle a roadside bomb, they make a new enemy.
"When we go to fight a fire at a Sunni mosque, the Shiites shoot at us," he said. "And when we fight a fire at a Shiite mosque, the Sunnis shoot at us."
About six weeks ago, after dousing an oil tanker set ablaze by a roadside bomb, five firefighters sharing a taxi home were ambushed by insurgents and killed. More recently, four firefighters and a chief were executed after dismantling a roadside bomb, Abbas said.
Militia leaders have visited his office, he said, threatening him and his men and demanding that they stop interfering with their bombs. "The terrorist said, 'We are planting bombs to kill coalition forces,' " Abbas said, "and I explained, 'We have to remove them to protect our people, because there are civilians in the street.' "
He discourages firefighters from actively participating in politics, which have become increasingly sectarian. "I say, this is a fire station, and we must forget everything except helping the community and the coalition forces," he said. "The people understand this, and they protect my stations and my guys, because we have no weapons to protect ourselves."
The Americans, too, continue to honor the pact, said Abbas, a 20-year veteran of Baghdad's fire department. The United States has provided Iraq with $160 million in fire and emergency rescue equipment -- including trucks, uniforms and new stations -- that has revolutionized firefighting in Baghdad, according to Sgt. Michael Didonato, who helps train Iraqi firefighters. South Korea has donated ambulances, and Japan has given Iraq 70 state-of-the-art Nissan and Mitsubishi pumper trucks worth about $21 million, according to the Japanese Embassy in Baghdad.
When Saddam Hussein was president, some firehouses had fewer than 20 firefighters, and many firefighters were on duty several days straight because of understaffing. Trucks were not maintained and often out of service.
"When I sent someone to an accident in one place, I didn't have anyone left to put out a fire in another place," said Lt. Abbas Jasim Hussein, 31, an eight-year veteran of the force. Pay was about $3 a month, including a 20-cent hazardous duty supplement, compared with about $400 a month now, he said. "I couldn't buy a kilo of red meat because it was $3."
"Often, we couldn't reach a fire for half an hour" because of flat tires and dead batteries, Abbas said.
Today, each of the 25 fire stations in Baghdad has about 120 firefighters and new equipment that includes rescue and utility trucks, command vehicles, miles of hose, radios, breathing apparatus and other high-tech gadgets for rescuing people from fires and explosions, now the department's most serious runs.
"We gave them all this new equipment they never had before," said Didonato, 48, a reservist in the civil affairs unit of the Army's 4th Infantry Division who teaches firefighting in Middletown, N.J. "They were not going from old to new. They were starting at zero. They used to show up to fight fires in T-shirts and jeans."
Didonato is affectionately called Sgt. D by the firefighters, who considered him the godfather of the new department. He has trained about 1,000 firefighters since arriving in September 2004. He often can be found in an open field inside the international Green Zone, setting junk cars afire and instructing firefighters how to don their breathing apparatus and wade into thick black smoke to cut up cars and rescue victims inside.
"They knew how to put a fire out before, but I am teaching them how to use all the new equipment, and I'm showing them how to do things a little quicker and a little safer," Didonato said. "They've never used masks and air bottles before. I can tell them that they work, but until they actually do something like this, they don't know it for themselves."
Abbas -- an elected fire chief who garnered 98 percent of the vote against a former top fire official under Hussein -- said he really needs 100 firehouses in Baghdad, not 25. He noted, for instance, that there is only one firehouse in Sadr City, a teeming Shiite Muslim slum in northeastern Baghdad that has more than 2 million residents. And his men are responsible for responding to fires as far as 20 miles outside the capital, he said.
But he will continue to honor his pledge, Abbas said.
"My family lives in fear -- they're afraid someone will come to our home and kill them," he said. "Last year, I did not allow my children to go to school. But for freedom, if we want to build our country, we have to pay."