By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 9, 2009
BAGHDAD, Jan. 8 -- Of all the missives the top U.S. military commander in Iraq has signed, probably none generated more cheer than the one issued this week authorizing all U.S. troops to drink beer.
Two catches: only two per person and only on Super Bowl night.
The waiver, issued Wednesday by Gen. Ray Odierno, marks the first time all American service members in Iraq will be allowed to break the ban on liquor in combat zones without risking being court-martialed.
"Feels good to be trusted!" rejoiced Spec. Justin Roark, 23, of Little Rock, who is stationed in Baghdad. "Keeping in touch with an American tradition."
The gesture follows a steep decrease in violence in Iraq. Last month, seven U.S. troops were killed violently in Iraq, one of the lowest monthly death tolls since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. American troops are engaging less in combat and increasingly taking on training, advisory and support roles.
The Super Bowl, which will be held Feb. 1 in Tampa, occurs during a 40-day period of religious discipline observed by Iraq's majority Shiite Muslim community. Perhaps mindful of that, Odierno instructed commanders to "keep in mind all host nation laws and customs regarding alcohol use."
Troops in Iraq wishing to watch the game will have to stay up late. It will be 2 a.m. in Baghdad when the live broadcast starts. For that reason, the grace period will be in effect Feb. 1 and 2.
Odierno played tight end at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. The general , 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, is a huge football fan.
"No doubt about that," said his spokesman, Lt. Col. James Hutton. No doubt also about the team favored by the general, a northern New Jersey native. Added Hutton: "New York Giants, man!"
Odierno's memo didn't say what kind of beer the military will bring in; virtually all goods made available to U.S. troops are imported. Iraq is largely dry, but beer is available on the local market.
The soberly written memo didn't leave much wiggle room on a paramount issue for beer lovers: quantity. "Consumption of alcoholic beverages pursuant to this waiver is limited to two 12-ounce beers per individual," it said.
The ban on drinking alcohol in combat zones is covered by General Order No. 1, which also prohibits service members from proselytizing and having sex with Iraqis, among other proscribed activities.
Several service members said Thursday that the only other time the ban was lifted was in 2005, for troops operating under the Baghdad command.
The military in recent months has begun closing some small outposts and moving a larger percentage of its troops to large bases that have more and better amenities. Most military bases have recreation centers with large-screen TV sets and televise American shows. The Super Bowl always draws huge crowds, despite the inconvenient hour.
The only other reprieve from soberness U.S. troops in Iraq can get is a four-day excursion to the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, and not all are entitled to such trips. Service members there can have three drinks per night under close supervision.
Troops in combat zones caught drinking can face reduction in rank and pay and, in extreme cases, a court-martial.
Odierno asked commanders to "exercise discretion and good judgment in enforcing these guidelines and restrictions."
First Lt. James McGuire, 29, of Queens, who has been stationed in Mosul, in northern Iraq, for more than 11 months, said he has watched nearly every Super Bowl with his dad, throwing back beers.
"I'm Irish, sir," he said in a phone interview. "It'll be nice to have a beer and -- even if it's just for three hours -- feel like I'm back home."
Non-fans were just as delighted.
"I don't care about the Super Bowl," said 1st Lt. Scott Trout, 25, of Greenville, S.C. "I just want to kick back and relax and have a few beers."