Iraqi “liberation” keeps many US secrets

Interesting piece on the New York Times At War blog:

Several weeks ago, we heard that a local businessman had purchased some trailers from a closing American base.

We were told the trailers were parked at a nearby junkyard, so one afternoon I headed out with our security team to find them.

I didn’t believe we were on to the greatest story. But I thought that the scene of some broken-down trailers that had been used by the Americans would be a new way to tell the story of the military withdrawal.

On our way to the junkyard, we got lost. Really lost. Our drivers thought they knew where they were going, but we kept on finding ourselves at dead ends.

The drivers tried to call for directions, but that didn’t seem to be any help. The fact that Iraq doesn’t have many street signs didn’t help, either.

For what seemed like hours — but was really about 30 minutes — we just drove around this dreary residential neighborhood, which didn’t even have paved streets.

After a while, I grew frustrated and concerned. I’m the most cautious in the bureau when it comes to taking jaunts into the city, and I didn’t think anything good could come of the situation. We were clearly outsiders, circling the neighborhood, and residents were staring at us.

I thought, what was the big deal if I didn’t get the scene of some broken-down trailers?

As soon as I raised the idea of turning back, the guards and drivers said that they had just figured out where the junkyard was, and one of our Iraqi reporters with us told me to relax.

A few turns later, we came to the entrance of the junkyard. An attendant with just a few teeth opened a chain-link fence and let us in.

The junkyard looked like what one would expect here: There were old pieces of motors, scraps of metal, feral cats and rotting food.

Like a real estate agent, the attendant walked us through the six trailers that his boss was trying to sell.

“These are from U.S. companies who worked with the military, and they sold these to us,” he said while smoking a cigarette. “I don’t know where they are from. They brought them from all over. I heard some came from the airport, some from the north.”

The inside of the trailers were filled with broken office furniture, empty lockers, bed frames and old magazines. Other items included a hat that said “God is Good,” computer guides, American candy wrappers and a tattered American flag banner. One of the trailers was marked “transit room.”

It was a mildly revealing snapshot of life living and working in a trailer during a war, but little more. I said that I had seen enough and headed back toward the car with my guards.

On the way to the car, I walked past a fire pit and saw a piece of paper on the ground. I picked it up and saw the word “interview” and the name of what appeared to be a Marine. I glanced upward towards the fire pit and saw that there were a few other pieces of paper strewn on the ground, so I went over and picked them up.

Like the other piece of paper, these had the word “interview” at the top. I dug through the trash on the ground, and right next to a well-wishing card to the troops from an American child I found a thick red binder filled with more interview documents. I continued to wade through the trash, picking up every piece of paper I could find. Eventually, I uncovered two maps that were marked classified.

I headed to a small shack to ask the attendant how the documents got there and if there were others.

“We had lots of containers that came with maps, binders and files,” the attendant said inside the shack, where he had a small bed. “What can we do with them? These things are worthless to us, but we understand they are important and it is better to burn them to protect the Americans. If they are leaving, it must mean their work here is done.”

The attendant said he had spent the past few weeks burning dozens and dozens of binders to smoke his masgouf, a carp that Iraqis treat as a delicacy. I had found the last ones, he said.

“I’m a guard — it is my job to protect these secrets,” he said. “The military didn’t tell us to destroy them.”

He added: “These are secrets for the Americans and it’s not appropriate to let people see their secrets. We were doing them a favor.”

Still, he let me leave with all the binders and the maps.

We loaded the trove into the back of the car and headed back to the bureau. I hadn’t had a chance to read the documents, so I wondered about what could be in them. The military creates lots of bureaucratic paperwork — maybe it was just that. Or maybe it was an untold tale of the war.

Back at the bureau, I spread the documents and maps out on a table and asked my colleagues to help me go through them. We started reading and googling, and quickly it became clear what the documents were from: an investigation into the 2005 massacre of 24 civilians, including women and children, in the town of Haditha. The maps showed routes that helicopters take in Iraq, including how high certain aircraft fly, and how far radar extends from bases in Baghdad.

A week later, the documents were scanned, and I began trolling through them and… eventually wrote this article. But I still can’t help but wonder what else the attendant burned and what other stories may never been told from the war.