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Mike Tharp: Waiting to go into the field

Mike Tharp
Mike Tharp

BAGHDAD -- Random thoughts and feelings while in Iraq:

My Leadership Merced Class 24 "graduated" last night back home.

Wish I could have been with them.

When publisher Hank Vander Veen asked me last fall to join, I declined at first, saying the cost maybe could go for better use in our newsroom.

Man, am I glad he talked me into it.

Besides being the single best way to learn about Merced and Mercedians, from the one day each month we learned about ag, infrastructure, government, social services, law enforcement and dozens of other agencies and groups, the Forevermores, as we called ourselves, became my friends.

Usually in a group of 20 people, you find some you don't get on with. Not with the Forevermores. They're all good, fun, honorable folks from all walks of life. It's a program the Chamber of Commerce should be proud of.

Sorry to miss the ceremony, Forevermores, but I was there in spirit, even if my body was with the 1st Infantry Division on the outskirts of Baghdad.

Thanks for becoming my friends.

* * *

You never know about cops. My dad and next-younger brother were cops, but as a reporter and editor I've learned they're like most of us -- sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes in-between.

Last week, I encountered two Iraqi police officers. One aggressively stopped me from taking photographs of murals on blast walls outside the French embassy. Laith, our bureau reporter, and I had moved down the wall, me snapping away at the ancient Mesopotamian images painted there, designed to offer an aesthetic front to a grim reality.

After he issued his order, we stopped shooting and walked back to the car. As we were crossing the street, a young police officer held up Baghdad's notorious traffic for us.

I noticed his sunglasses--white and shaped like a jet pilot's. I stopped, pointed to them and said, "Cool! California!"

He may have understood the second word. In any case, he took them off and handed them to me.

"You!" he said. "You."

I shook my head. He still held them out to me. I took them.

So whenever I'm on a chopper or fixed wing in Iraq, which require serious eye protection, thanks to a young cop I'll have the most fashionable protective wear on the aircraft.

* * *

Went to a grocery store the other day -- another first during two tours of Iraq. Found Ritz crackers and searched high and low for peanut butter. No go. Didn't stock it. So I bought a jar of Nutella, which Laith assured me was similar. It is -- if you like chocolate fudge on your crackers. So that's been my supper a few nights, along with canned cheese.

Dr. Gallery, if you're reading this, I am losing weight.

* * *

The horrific bombing Wednesday night in Sadr City, a teeming Shiite slum in eastern Baghdad, killed at least 70 and wounded 135 or more.

The bomb was concealed under a pile of vegetables in a three-wheeled motorcycle, the only gasoline-propelled vehicles small enough to fit through the blast walls and safety barricades built in that former militia stronghold.

Their use as killing machines led two eyewitnesses interviewed by our reporter, Sahar, to conclude that it was an inside job.

These witnesses concluded that the Iraqi police know nearly everybody in their zones of operation and would've recognized a stranger.

If true, and a resident or residents were responsible for the lethal destruction, it means the perps did it for money. That's just what a crowd of young men who threw bricks at officers chanted as the bodies were being removed.

"How much did they pay you?" they shouted, throwing bricks.

Which points out to me the most important obstacle to peace and unity in this poor place -- a lack of decent jobs. When a young jobless man -- and the unemployment rates for that demographic starts at 50 percent and goes up -- is willing to decimate his fellow citizens for a few hundred dollars, it doesn't bode well for a stable society.

Ever since I watched economic development turn South Korea from a Third World military autocracy, when I first went there in 1976, to my last visit in 2007, when it had become the most wired nation on earth, the 12th-largest trading nation and a pluralistic democracy, I've believed that if you provide work for your people -- honest labor for living wages -- they don't have the time or inclination to practice mischief.

See street gangs, Merced and elsewhere.

* * *

The U.S. military and private security contractors are worried about a new weapon literally in the hands of Iraqi insurgents.

Actually, it looks like an old, old weapon -- the "potato masher" hand grenade used by the Germans in World War II, with a handle for throwing and a tin can-shaped explosive at the business end.

One brand is called the RKG-3 and delivers a shaped charge when thrown, making its impact even more forceful because the blast is concentrated in a line.

Some of the hand grenades, which can pierce armor if shaped, are believed to be imported, but some are homemade.

* * *

Don't watch much television over here (nor do I back home, except for sports, news and the History Channel), but it's hard not to when Laith and our drivers tune into the soccer matches.

Laith, a former goalie who once walked to the sacred shrine at Karbala from Baghdad, 16 hours or so, knows the game like the instep of his foot.

He calls out a play just before it happens in the game. Still, when I get back, I'll stick to college football and college basketball. Jack Dolan, the Miami Herald reporter who preceded me in this rotation, calls hockey, his favorite sport, "soccer for men."

* * *

For a story on how more Iraqi women are buying and using exercise equipment in their homes, our reporter Jenan drove me in her car to meet her friend Khalida, who uses a treadmill. Jenan drives a Camry, and I don't see how Wahab, one of our drivers, was able to keep up with her in his chase car. (We always travel in pairs.) We got there and back just fine, and the blend of Arabic and Spanish music Jenan played on her CD, was meant to be soothing. I kept looking for the brake on the floor in front of the passenger seat.

* * *

All the bureau folks here miss Corinne Reilly, the Sun-Star county reporter, who's now done two sterling Baghdad tours. As any of you know who've dealt with her, she looks like the bank teller she once was -- and is afraid of nothing or nobody. The staff here picked up on that and saw the steel behind the black horn-rimmed glasses. We're lucky to have her at the Sun-Star -- though some of the subjects of her stories would say otherwise.

* * *

Got to go pack for the embed. Traveling light, since I'll be with an infantry unit, the fabled Big Red One, and they are fast-movers. Hope to learn how morale is holding up among our soldiers, now that they're withdrawing from major cities to bases in the desert -- and Afghanistan is the war of the hour.

Depending on the commo available in the field, I'll file from there when we're on the move. Otherwise, look for more next week. Inshallah.

After he returns from Iraq, Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or His work from Iraq can also be viewed at