A "Difficult Dance"

Memphis' Crime Commission head recalls the perils of training a police force in Iraq.

| February 10, 2006

"Forgive me my bluntness. We can't kill all the insurgents. We can't find all the insurgents to kill them, and insurgents are created every day."

So said Mike Heidingsfield, president of the Memphis-Shelby Crime Commission, to members of the downtown Kiwanis Club last week about his just-completed "roller-coaster ride," a 14-month stint in Iraq as head of coalition efforts to train 135,000 new indigenous police officers for that Middle Eastern nation.

That task was outsourced to DynCorp International, the State Department contractee for whom Heidingsfield technically worked.

In the course of his mission, Heidingsfield came close to being blown up at least three times -- and possibly more. Three just happens to be the number of times that the former Air Force colonel had time to relate during his half-hour before the Kiwanians.

As Heidingsfield told it, in January 2005 he had been in the country for less than a week when he was awakened at the former Hotel Baghdad at 5:30 a.m. by a "tremendous explosion." The blast left him and other occupants of the facility, then being operated by the State Department, "up to our necks in blood and gore."

That explosion was nothing, however, compared to the one that took place two months later, also around 5:30 in the morning. A garbage truck commandeered by insurgents crashed into another facility occupied by Heidingsfield and his Iraqi charges and detonated 3,000 pounds of explosives. The result: 48 casualties, 62 destroyed vehicles, and $1 million worth of damage. "It was the largest vehicle-borne explosion ever detonated in the country of Iraq," said Heidingsfield, who recalled being literally "blown out of bed" by it.

When, shortly thereafter, Heidingsfield experienced another early-morning blast, this one also before 6 a.m., he altered his personal habits. "I began to get up earlier," he said, mustering a wry smile.

There were redeeming moments during his 14 months -- like the increasing steadfastness of the Iraqi police trainees or the time an Iraqi woman insisted on posing with Heidingsfield for a picture in which they both flashed the "V" sign. "Show this photograph to the citizens of the United States of America and tell them the nation of Iraq thanks them," she said tearfully.

Meanwhile, most Iraqis -- grateful for their liberation but weary -- are plainly growing restless with the American presence. "They're going to tell us to go," said Heidingsfield, recapping thusly: "As sovereignty shifted from the coalition ... to the Iraqis, they were less and less likely to listen to us and more and more likely to just tolerate us. And we clearly had to move from imposing our will to cajoling and convincing and being persuasive."

A Kiwanian asked Heideingsfield the obvious question: Should we have been in Iraq at all? He answered slowly and carefully: "My personal answer is, I think there were greater threats elsewhere in the world. I think that today we see them manifested in North Korea and Iran and Syria." All in all, he said, Iraq was, and continues to be, "a very difficult dance."

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