Unseen Iraq

Around the Campfire, Mosul-Style

(Andrea Bruce - Twp)
By Andrea Bruce
Washington Post Staff Photographer
Monday, May 12, 2008

Mud sucks at their boots in this brief cold they call spring in Mosul.

U.S. soldiers from the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment are on their three-day rotation at Combat Outpost Rabi. The outpost, called COP Killer by some, is one of Mosul's roughest: no tents, no latrines, MREs and car-bomb-ravaged buildings.

The soldiers are bored, and cold, and in need of a campfire, which quickly becomes a competition. Biggest piece of firewood. Best-built throne. They scavenge the ankle-twisting ruins of local homes for cinder blocks and eucalyptus trees.

As the fire starts and the night is defined, war stories dominate their conversation. Soldiers gather around the winning centerpiece remembering their insurgent legends: a 13-year-old kid throwing a grenade. Iraqi army soldiers riding the hoods of Humvees. Bad shots. And the RPG Commando. He pops up from around a corner holding his grenade launcher like Rambo, then turns and runs away. Every time.

The fire is strong and snaps like static on the outpost walls, becoming a magnet for the rest of the platoon -- a jewel in a broken, foreign life, decorated with pale Jersey barriers and laced with razor wire.

Conversation drifts from wartime comedy to romance and family. Girlfriends, wives, missed births.

Amplified, wavering, the call to prayer from a local mosque reaches them like an announcement from a distant high school football game.

Rain drops, unexpectedly, with deep thunder. The soldiers don't jump.

"Thunder rolls," explains one, a milk-box drink in his hand. "Booms though, you know, booms you can feel from the ground up."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company