By David Finkel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
BAGHDAD, April 24 -- The soldiers called him Bob, and for the past several weeks, until Tuesday morning, he was the biggest obstacle to the success of an important mission in a small but crucial corner of the Iraq war.
"We can't get anybody to get Bob out. No one wants to do it," Army Maj. Brent Cummings, executive officer of the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, said with worry one recent morning as Bob's story began unfolding. Cummings was looking at an aerial photograph of an area in east Baghdad called Kamaliya, where there was an abandoned spaghetti factory with a hole in the courtyard, a hole in which some of his soldiers had discovered Bob.
Bob: It's shorthand for "bobbin' in the float," Cummings explained.
Float: It's shorthand for "two to three feet of raw sewage," he further explained.
Bobbin' in the float is shorthand, then, for yet another lesson in the comedy, absurdity and tragedy that is any moment in this war.
Bob was found as a result of the new strategy of trying to secure Baghdad by temporarily increasing the number of troops and moving them into neighborhood outposts. After the soldiers identified the spaghetti factory as the best place from which to secure poor, rough, dirty, insurgent-ridden Kamaliya, they began clearing the factory in order to move in.
One day, in one area, they found 16 rocket-propelled grenades, three antitank grenades, 11 hand grenades and 21 mortar shells. Another day, they found 14 more mortar shells. Another day, they found the makings of three roadside bombs. Another day, they found a square metal cover in the courtyard that they thought might be booby-trapped. Ever so carefully, they lifted it and found themselves peering down into the factory's septic tank at Bob.
The body, floating, was in a billowing, once-white shirt. The toes were gone. The fingers were gone. The head, separated and floating next to the body, had a gunshot hole in the face.
The body, it was quickly decided, would have to be removed before the 120 soldiers could move in. "It's a morale issue. Who wants to live over a dead body?" Cummings said. "And part of it is a moral issue, too. I mean he was somebody's son, and maybe husband, and for dignity's sake, well, it cheapens us to leave him there. I mean even calling him Bob is disrespectful. I don't know. It's the world we live in."
"I'd like to put him in a final resting place," he said, "as opposed to a final floating place."
But how? That was the problem. No one wanted to touch Bob. Not the soldiers. Not the Iraqi police. No one.
Days passed. The need for the soldiers in Kamaliya increased. Bob floated on. One day the skull sank from view. Another day a local Iraqi speculated that there might be more bodies in the septic tank, that Bob might simply be the one on top.
Finally, with no easy solution in sight, Cummings decided to go see Bob for himself.
How easy is anything in Iraq, such as a short drive to a spaghetti factory? A combat plan was drawn up, just in case. A convoy of five Humvees was assembled. Body armor was strapped on. Earplugs were pushed in. Protective eyeglasses were lowered into place. Off the convoy went, slowly, never exceeding 15 mph, because slow and steady is the best way to find a roadside bomb before it explodes, unless it is a bomb with a particular kind of trigger that is best defeated by flying pedal to metal. Yard by yard, decision by decision, the convoy advanced, past trash bags that might be hiding bombs, along dirt roads under which might be buried bombs, and now past something unseen that, just after the last Humvee in the convoy passed by, exploded.
No damage. No injuries. Just some noise and smoke in the air. The convoy kept going, now past a dead water buffalo, on its back, grossly swollen, one more thing in this part of Baghdad on the verge of exploding, and now the Humvees stopped against a high wall, on the other side of which was a yellowish building topped by a torn tin roof banging around in the wind.
"The spaghetti factory," Cummings announced. Soon he and Capt. Jeff Jager, commander of the company that would be moving to the factory, were staring into the septic tank, and suddenly Cummings had an idea.
"Lye and bleach and sanitize and cover it up," he said. "We bring our chaplain here, and we'll say some words and mark it."
Jager shook his head. "I think you gotta clean it out," he said. "I mean we're gonna have some heartache moving into a building that's got a dead body in a sewage septic tank."
"Yeah," Cummings said, realizing Jager was right. "We want to do right."
"Arabic culture, you know?" Jager said. "They bury their dead in 24 hours."
"I mean someone has disgraced him as bad as you can possibly disgrace a human being," Cummings said. "And there's not a playbook that we can go to that says when you open it up: Here's how you remove a body from a septic tank."
"The one contractor I brought up here, he was willing to do everything here, but he wanted nothing to do with that," Jager said. "I asked him how much it would take for him to get that out of there, and he said, 'You couldn't pay me enough.' "
"The Army has systems for this -- if it were our body," Cummings said. "If it were a U.S. soldier, sure. We would be there in a heartbeat."
"We could drop down there and get it out ourselves," Jager said. "But--"
"But what soldier am I going to ask to go in there to do that?" Cummings said.
They continued to stare.
"Lye and bleach," Cummings said again, back to that, and then he and Jager went on a tour of the rest of the factory as Jager explained that the factory had been abandoned three years ago, that the owner -- a Sunni -- was apparently murdered, that the owner's brother told them by phone that he had tried to come to the factory four times from his home in west Baghdad and had been stopped and beaten each time, that "we know the militia has used this as a base of operations," that there are "reports that they used this for torture and murder," and that neighbors have told his soldiers about "the screams and the sounds of people being beaten."
This is where the dining facility would be, he now told Cummings. This is where the soldiers would sleep.
They stepped outside the front gate, onto the street. Surrounded by soldiers and engineers, they walked down the street to plot a route for concrete blast walls that would be brought in by truck to encircle the factory. They turned a corner to keep plotting the route, and that was when Cummings saw a mud-brick hovel practically attached to the factory wall like a barnacle, and a shirtless man outside the shack who struggled to cover himself as the soldiers came through his gate.
Through an interpreter, Cummings began to explain why they were there, that U.S. soldiers would soon be moving into the spaghetti factory, that a wall was going to be built.
I will leave, the man interrupted, shaking.
"No," Cummings said, asking the interpreter to explain again what he had said.
I will leave, the man said again, explaining that he and his family had come to this little bit of land because they had been uprooted, that they had been here two years, that they meant no harm, that they had nowhere else to go, and then, at last hearing the interpreter, he said, I don't have to leave?
"No," Cummings said.
I don't have to leave? the man said again, and then, as his shaking subsided, and his rush of words slowed, his family emerged from the shack. Child after child. An old woman. More children. And finally, a young woman, very pregnant, who stood in the doorway, trying to push her dirty hair off her dirty face with her dirty hands as she looked at the soldiers, at first breathing nervously, then easing into a slight smile as she heard the man saying thank you for saving them from the terrorists, for enclosing them in a wall, for allowing them to stay.
"You're welcome. And thank you for allowing us in," Cummings said, and soon after that, with the gratitude of a living Iraqi as fixed in his mind now as the horror of one who had been tortured and killed, his visit to see Bob ended.
There is such decency in the country, he said, back in his office. That was why, more than ever, he wanted Bob removed and given some kind of proper burial. "I would hope someone would do the same for my body. And for any human being," he said. "Otherwise, we're not human."
That was Monday.
And then came Tuesday, and a phone call in the morning from Jager, who had received a call from the factory owner's brother, who had received a call from someone who lived near the factory.
Cummings hung up.
"The spaghetti factory has been blown up," he said.
It was only a first report, he cautioned, but the report said that there were a dozen men, and they were armed, and they wore masks, and the explosion was huge.
Throughout the day, there were attempts to verify this, but even in Iraq some days are harder than others. The wind was up, so much so that most helicopters were grounded, as was most aerial surveillance, other than a fighter jet, circling high, whose pilot reported that some of the factory appeared to have been destroyed.
How extensive was the damage?
As of Tuesday night, no one was able to say for sure.
What about the nervous man in the flimsy house?
And his dozen children?
And the pregnant woman who was able to finally manage a smile?
And the plan to move into Kamaliya? Would the factory still become the outpost?
"I hope so," Cummings said.
Cummings shook his head. Bob, he said, was no longer the biggest obstacle.