YUSAFIYAH, IRAQ—One of the U.S. military’s new strategies in this war is to live among the Iraqi people.
Instead of commuting to work each day from a large base, many soldiers have taken up residence in abandoned houses in small Iraqi neighborhoods.
This has meant working and living side by side with the Iraqi Army. And for the soldiers – and embedded journalists—this has also meant eating with them under a variety of circumstances, and nearly always to excess.
“Please, you will come to my house for dinner and I will slaughter two sheep for you,” a tribal sheik said to me last month in Hawijah, a tiny farming town southwest of Kirkuk.
I was honored by the invitation, but I had to pass. (The disappointment on the man’s face was visible, but I had to catch a helicopter ride back to Kirkuk.)
I got my first traditional Iraqi meal a week later when I traveled to Tuz, just west of Tikrit – the birthplace of Saddam Hussein.
Here, the U.S. soldiers live on a base right next to the Iraqi soldiers. After their mission that morning – to try to persuade a local sheik to cooperate with the fight against al Qaeda operatives – we were to have lunch next door at the office of one Col. Mustafa, a gentle but imposing Kurdish man who had once fought with the Peshmerga Army.
The morning mission turned into an all day affair once the unit began taking fire from two men with AK-47s about two hours into the meeting with the sheik. The troops ran to their Humvees and gave chase, eventually catching one of the shooters. No one was injured.
When we go back to the base, Col. Mustafa had dinner waiting for us. We sat at a table in his office where he had laid out the now-cold food. It was a huge spread – more than enough for the four of us, which included me, Col. Mustafa, U.S. Army Maj. Dan Wilson and our interpreter.
There were several plates on the table containing traditional Iraqi fare: ground lamb kebabs, traditional khubz bread (which is similar to a tortilla), kuba (which is lamb, grapes, beans and spices rolled up into a rice patty) and the ever-present side dish in Iraq: sliced cucumbers and tomatoes.
We all dug in, placing everything into our khubz bread, which serves as a plate since the Iraqis do not set their tables with plates for each diner. There were no serving spoons – just hands.
When we were done, we sipped on chai tea and smoked cigarettes. It was delicious, but clearly Col. Mustafa wasn’t satisfied that he had pleased his guests. He offered to make it up to us by inviting us to lunch again the next day—this time at his house for a meal prepared by his wife. We didn’t refuse.
When we walked into the colonel’s house the day after, we took our shoes off and watched as several young men, presumably his relatives, laid out a long cloth on the floor. They brought out the dishes one by one, and at first I was impressed that I was being served by men for a change, until I remembered why: the women aren’t allowed into the room if there are guests there, so they remained huddled in the back of the house where they had just prepared this meal fit for a king.
There were many of the same dishes but we also had bowls of soup – both broth-based and tomato-based – with lamb shanks, thin spicy green peppers and dulma, which is eggplant stuffed with grape leaves, onions, tomato, rice and lamb.
There was more than enough food for the 10 of us – the Iraqi Police Chief came by with a friend – which struck me as no small thing at a time when non-basic foods are hard to come by.
I ate too much kuba. So did everyone else.
As Col. Mustafa sat looking on and beaming, his guests drank chai and smoked cigarettes.
The kuba-induced reverie ended a call came in about a gunfight up the street.
We all put on our shoes and left to head towards the fire.