In Iraq, an order misfires

ON THE JORDAN-IRAQ BORDER — ON THE JORDAN-IRAQ BORDER - Had the gun fired as the American soldier intended, perhaps no one would have heard the shot anyway, not with all the car horns blaring and the incessant yelling back and forth in English and Arabic.

Some of the yelling came from the U.S. soldiers stationed on the Jordan-Iraq border. They were given orders this week not to allow men ages 20 to 45 to enter Iraq, but nobody trying to cross into the country had heard about it until after traveling 4 1/2 hours from Amman, or farther. So the travelers were frustrated and angry, and they were yelling, too, and forming a group of about 300 that pressed toward the troops.


That is when the soldier grabbed his gun.

Iraqis could not get home, aid workers were forbidden from entering the country to minister to people needing help, and a 23-year-old veterinary student named Odai Sammer Flah could not get to Baghdad University to take his exams.


"Americans, go home!" he shouted in Arabic at the troops, young men, armed and standing guard in heavy body armor in 90-degree heat, looking like home was precisely where they wanted to be. "Even Saddam let me study! Americans, go home!"

Violence did not come to the border this day, but in a period of several hours - before the policy was altered and people were either let through or turned around - the scene offered a glimpse at what the Americans and people who live in the region are up against: unclear policies carried out by tired troops who do not speak the language of the people they are imposing them on, which creates a tension that has contributed to resentment of Americans here and the deaths of many soldiers and many civilians.

Similar scenes are taking place all over Iraq. This week in Dhuluaya, workers and students were unable to get in and out of the district because security concerns led the military to cordon it off. Even the director of the traffic police, in uniform and driving a police car, was turned away.

In Jihad, a district in southern Baghdad, two main roads were blocked last week without explanation, causing backups and a dearth of customers for merchants trying to recover from months of lost business.

The U.S. soldiers at the Jordanian border this week, members of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment out of Fort Carson, Colo., had no translator to help explain to the people what was happening. They relied on Jordanian drivers who did not entirely understand English - the same people they were forbidding to pass - to tell the others what was going on, or at least as much as the soldiers themselves knew, which was not much. They were only doing their job, following orders.

"Get back and turn around or we'll blow your ... heads off!" yelled one soldier, a specialist, who declined to give his name. He and two other soldiers held their rifles overhead and cocked them but did not try to fire at the crowd or into the air. "Do not think we will not use these weapons! Get back!"

Iraq has about 2,200 miles of border, including 113 miles with Jordan, and there is good reason to monitor it as much as possible. The Bush administration has said that much of the violence in Iraq can be attributed to foreign fighters crossing into the country.

It is probably unlikely that many of the fighters are driving with charity workers or veterinary students to Iraq through the U.S. military checkpoint at the Jordanian border. If there is another reason for the restrictions, the Coalition Provisional Authority and the U.S. military officers whose job it is to explain such things had no explanation.


"It's news to me," said Naheed Mehta, a spokeswoman for the authority, who, after two days of checking, said she could not find anybody to explain the new policy or why it was instituted. A U.S. military spokesman also came up empty and referred questions to Mehta.

And there were no explanations to the people on the border. From 5 o'clock in the morning until 3 o'clock in the afternoon, they were simply told that no men ages 20 to 45 were allowed to cross the border, period. In theory, women and girls could go, and so could boys and older men. In reality, almost nobody was passing, because if one man in a vehicle fell into the banned age range, everybody traveling together was turned around.

At 3 p.m. the policy was changed, and only Arab men 20 to 45 were forbidden from entering. American men, European men, any man, as long as he was not Arab, could pass.

"I am trapped and nobody can tell me why," said Sohair Hussein Abdul Amir, 30, who said she was a secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "I am so angry, but there is nothing to do. They hold the guns."

She was stuck because her driver, like most of the drivers at the border, was an Arab, 42 years old, from Jordan. He could not get in, so she could not get in.

"I don't like doing this, but I'm not going to be prosecuted in military court for disobeying an order," said Sgt. Charles Duesling. "If I only followed the orders that made sense to me, I wouldn't have much to do."


Duesling is the soldier who raised his gun to fire a warning shot. He had been patiently speaking extremely slowly to the people to try to get them to turn around.

"Car ... back ... to ... Amman," he said once, but that did not work and neither did his hand signals, pointing to the road and then back toward the Jordanian capital.

Finally, his patience gave way, and he yelled at the crowd.

"I am not having a good morning, and your morning is about to get a whole lot worse if you don't back up."

Perhaps with good reason, he was concerned that the crowd would turn violent, and he squeezed the trigger with his gun barrel pointed skyward. People at the front of the pack, who saw him raise his arm, grimaced and lifted their shoulders toward their ears. When the gun jammed, they had a good, brief laugh - even the sergeant smiled sheepishly - then everybody started yelling again.

About 5 p.m., 12 hours after the border was closed, it was reopened, this time even to Arab men 20 to 45, as long as they were Jordanian and could prove with an identity card that they were professional drivers working for transportation companies.


Those who had endured the delays crossed into Iraq.

Sammer Flah, the veterinary student trying to get to Baghdad University for exams, had already given up hope and given up the taxi driver who was taking him into Iraq.

The driver was determined to wait it out. The student was last seen thumbing his way back to Jordan.