Babylon & Beyond

Observations from Iraq, Iran,
Israel, the Arab world and beyond

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IRAQ: You want me to wear what?!

February 20, 2008 | 10:53 am

When U.S. soldiers started handing out new uniforms to the Iraqi tribesmen helping them to secure Hawr Rajab, the men on the checkpoints were not impressed.

The bright orange jackets and jumpsuits bore an uncanny resemblance to the uniform at U.S. detention facilities.

“If you make me wear that, I quit,” the leader at one checkpoint told the Americans, only partly in jest.

U.S. soldiers have tried to get their Iraqi allies to wear yellow reflective vests, to distinguish them from the insurgent gunmen who until recently ontrolled the farming town about six miles southeast of Baghdad. But as soon as the Americans pull away in their Humvees, many take off the vests and stuff them into their pockets.

When the temperatures drop, even the fighters who do wear the vests sometimes cover them up with a coat.

The consequences can be lethal. More than once U.S. soldiers have inadvertently shot and killed their allies.

The danger is particularly acute at night. The Iraqis do not have night-vision equipment, so when they spot people approaching their checkpoints they have a tendency to do what the Americans refer to as “recon by fire.” If those people happen to be Americans, they will respond forcefully to any shots fired in their direction, and will sometimes call in an air strike.

The jackets and jumpsuits are a warmer option than the vests in the winter months, can easily be spotted by attack helicopters, and are more of a bother to remove when the Americans turn their backs, said Capt. Greg Curry, who commands the 6th Squadron, 8th Cavalry Regiment’s A Troop.

But when the Iraqis see them, they think of something else. “Is it a Bucca jumpsuit?” asked another fighter, a reference to the largest U.S. detention camp in Iraq.

— Alexandra Zavis in Hawr Rajab, Iraq