You pick a path through the detritus of chaos: burned out cars, up-ended slabs of pavement, shattered glass ground almost to powder, and the jetsam of fleeing refugees. A scrawl on the scarred door ahead marks it as protected by some local thug. You knock, wait, knock again. Muffled sounds inside resolve to careful footsteps. The knob begins to turn, tightening the knot in your stomach, your hands tensing on the Mossberg 12-gage.
Will it be a handshake… or a hand-grenade?
If a shoot-out erupts, will the Iraqis behind cover you … or shoot you in the back?
The day starts out about as you've come to expect. Half the Iraqi unit report for duty, half of those well enough equipped in a rag-tag way, and seemingly ready for the task of clearing another block, house by house. In the transport in route, their casual laughter could be a healthy nervousness, a lack of resolve -- or something more ominous. Their rapid dialog slips past too quickly for your limited Arabic to decode.
Once there, some of the Iraqis protest they haven't been trained for this, need the Americans to show them how. A few point at the scrawl on the door and shake their heads, chattering among themselves. Looking over the layout, you position your squad of four at angles to the door, hopefully giving them cover and a field of fire to both the doorway and the Iraqi troops clustered around and behind the vehicle.
You approach the door through a terrain littered with ambiguity. The people inside could be Al Qaeda. More likely a frightened Sunni family, or even that rarity here, Shia. They may welcome you or hate you, but either way they fear you. Even if innocent, they may greet you with a weapon, for they don't trust your intentions any more than you can afford to trust theirs. Too many rumors, too many lies, too many genuine, if regrettable, mistakes.
Neither of you, before that door opens, may want to shoot the other. But either of you might, if the slightest gesture or word is misunderstood. Stay within the rules of engagement, and you are immune to prosecution for your mistakes. But not from the nightmares -- or the ongoing daylight nightmare of Baghdad.
You glimpse a vestibule of shifting shadows through the crack of the door as it slowly opens…