A little after midnight my eyes crept open and filled with the cold, diamond light of a full moon. I squinted hard against the liquid glow, but the light seemed to seep through my eyelids until I gave up my futile attempts at falling back asleep. As I sat up I felt the dull cacophony of muscles shot through with lactic acid, and for a long moment I sat there on the edge of the cot waiting for the staccato aches to fade.
It seemed like every nerve was yearning for rest, but I walked out of our temporary CP and moved out to the soldiers manning the weapons positions. At each position I gripped the soldiers shoulder as I approached and then settled next to them to watch the area. In those long minutes the silence of the desert night was broken only by the soft rustle of palm leaves. No words were exchanged, because no words were needed. Somehow I knew that just being there with them would convey my pride in their hard work more clearly then with burdensome words.
Later that morning I headed over to one of the classrooms serving as a makeshift barracks, and was greeted by Black Sheep’s toothy grin. He whispered good morning, but after the long silence the words seemed to boom in the darkness. I answered with a wheezing croak, my vocal cords rusted shut by long silence. We laughed at each others clumsy vocalizations for a minute, and then we started talking about the elections that was now only a few hours away.
Black Sheep started to explain to me the different parties and platforms, and as usual his insight cut right to the heart of the matter. There are literally hundreds of parties competing for the electorate, and though I had dozens of documents on the elections my actual knowledge on the candidates was woefully inadequate. Black Sheep started to paint the picture of the leading parties and their platforms.
Each electoral party has a name along with a number, the number corresponding with their place on the ballot. The first party that Black Sheep mentioned was the one whose election posters were splattered all over the town. The party known as 618, was a Sunni Islamic Party who claimed their hands had not been sullied by corruption, hence their unofficial title of “the clean hands party”. Their campaign slogan was “Iraq for the Iraqis” and their campaign pledge was to clean the country of terrorists. The next party Black Sheep mentioned was the Unified Iraqi Coalition List, also known as 555. This party was composed of Shia fundamentalists including Hakim and Sadrists, and their campaign seemed to revolve around their interpretation of Islamic law. Allawi’s party was number 731, and though they were a Shia party they had a more secular focus. Their campaign pledge was to support the Army, Police, and security forces, and to encourage freedom of religion. The other big player in the elections was party 730, an alliance of Kurdish parties. Their focus seemed to be on splitting Iraq into three distinct states under one national government, thereby maximizing Kurdish independence.
By time Black Sheep had finished explaining the different parties I glanced at my watch and realized that it was time to start packing up. I moved to each of the key leaders and woke them up, and within a few minutes the night air was filled with the sound of methodical packing. The empty hallways started to pulse with movement, as if some silent heart was pushing Soldiers and material through the concrete halls, and in less then an hour the only remnant of our time here were the handful of Soldiers still providing guard. With our bags packed and our vehicles loaded we waited in small groups, clustered together for camaraderie more then for warmth. Ever so slowly light started to fill the Eastern sky, and as it did we finished the last of our coordinations with the Iraqi forces. To avoid any perceptions of American influence on the upcoming vote we would leave the election site completely. Our mission these last few days was to set the conditions for a successful election, the elections themselves would be in the hands of the Iraqis.
Once we finished our coordinations we wished our comrades the best of luck, and then we started the long movement back to the FOB. We stopped just outside the small town to link up with another of our platoons that would remain in overwatch on the off chance there were any attacks on the election site, and then we made our way along the empty streets. As soon as we returned our exhausted troops started to prep their gear for the next mission, and having finished that they started to catch up on much needed rest.
By late morning I had finished catching up on the mountain of paperwork and reports that had stacked up on my desk, and I was ready to get back out of the wire. While I was working my crew had managed to get a few hours of sleep, but their features were still whittled with the unmistakable edge of fatigue. I wondered just how deeply fatigue had settled on my own face, but as soon as the thought crossed my mind I laughed at my own petty vanity. I silently chided myself, then poured another cup of coffee and prepared to return to sector.
The drive out to the election site seemed utterly surreal. With the driving ban in place the highways had become enormous soccer fields. As far as the eye could see there were children and teenagers playing soccer in the empty streets, and as we made our way into sector we had to dodge dozens of hastily arranged goalposts. Eventually we linked up with the platoon in overwatch, and we spent the rest of the afternoon watching the slow pilgrimage of voters make their way into town to vote. They came alone and in groups, and they seemed to pass by like a long, knotted rope. There were doddering men in traditional robes, their stiff canes helping them along. There were whole families moving into the town, the parents and grandparents walking steadily forward while their children revolved around them like hyperkinetic satellites. There were young men dressed in acid wash jeans and leather jackets and women in burkhas walking side by side… all making their way to the election site. As the afternoon came to a close and the election site closed we cautiously made our way back to the election site. The town square was relatively empty, save for a few scattered groups talking outside the small shops. We linked up with the POB troops to ensure the election was over, and once they confirmed the elections had ended we pulled back into a security posture on the site. As we manned positions on the second floor the election workers were busy tallying the thousands of votes that had been cast. By late evening the votes had all been tallied and loaded into the POB vehicles. We gave a quick brief to the Iraqi drivers on how to react to enemy contact, and then surrounded them with our own armored vehicles for the drive to the district election center. We slipped through the darkened streets of Southern Baghdad, weaving back and forth through the traffic barriers like a needle slipping shuttling through thread. After a Byzantine series of loops and u-turns we finally arrived at the ballot collection site, and the Iraqi soldiers linked up with their headquarters element. We said our last goodbyes to the Iraqi troops and then slipped back into the night