FORWARD OPERATING BASE WARHORSE, Iraq — The sign taped to the men's latrine is just five lines:
"US MILITARY CONTRACTORS CIVILIANS ONLY!!!!!"
Here at this searing, dusty U.S. military base about four miles west of Baqouba, Iraqis — including interpreters who walk the same foot patrols and sleep in the same tents as U.S. troops — must use segregated bathrooms.
Another sign, in a dining hall, warns Iraqis and "third-country nationals" that they have just one hour for breakfast, lunch or dinner. American troops get three hours. Iraqis say they sometimes wait as long as 45 minutes in hot lines to get inside the chow hall, leaving just 15 minutes to get their food and eat it.
It's been nearly 60 years since President Harry Truman ended racial segregation in the U.S. military. But at Forward Operating Base Warhorse it's alive and well, perhaps the only U.S. military facility with such rules, Iraqi interpreters here say.
It's unclear precisely who ordered the rules. "The rule separating local national latrines from soldiers was enacted about two to three rotations ago," Maj. Raul Marquez, a spokesman for the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Cavalry Division, from Fort Hood, Texas, wrote in an e-mail. That was before his brigade or the 3rd Stryker Combat Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division, from Fort Lewis, Wash., the other major combat force here, was based at Warhorse.
There's also disagreement on the reason.
Marquez cited security. "We are at war, and operational security (OPSEC) and force protection are critical in this environment," Marquez wrote. "We screen all our local nationals working and living in the FOB, however, you can never know what's in their mind."
Other soldiers traced the regulations to what they called cultural differences between the Iraqis and the Americans.
"We've had issues with locals," said Staff Sgt. Oscar Garcia, who mans Warhorse's administrative hub. "It's not because we're segregating."
Garcia said some Iraqis squatted on the rims of unfamiliar American-style toilets or had used showers as toilets, forcing private contractors who maintain the facilities to clean up after them.
Another soldier at the administrative hub who declined to give his name or rank cited conflicts over hygiene habits. "We can't accept people washing their feet where I brush my teeth," he said.
"It's to keep problems from happening," said Army Capt. Janet Herrick, a public affairs officer. "It's a preventive measure . . . so no one gets belittled."
But the Iraqis who're paid $80,000 to $120,000 a year for their interpreting services are offended.
"It sucks," Ahmed Mohammed, 30, said of the latrine policy. He called the signs — in English and Arabic — "racist."
He's worked as an interpreter for the U.S. military since 2004. He's college educated and well versed in the ways of Western plumbing. He said Warhorse was the only American base where he'd encountered U.S.-only signs on latrines and country-of-origin restrictions on dining hours.
"I live in the same tent with 80 Americans," he said.
Mohammed works for L-3 Titan Group, a unit of New York-based L-3 Communications. He declined to have his picture taken for publication. He fears for his life. He said his brother was killed last year in Baghdad for working for an American company.
Mohammed has sold his house and has squirreled away enough money to buy visas for his family of four. He said he intended to quit soon and emigrate to Germany. The latrine policy is part of the reason, he said.
L-3 officials didn't respond to a request for comment.
"On one hand we're asking Iraqis to help us," often at great risk, said Laila al Qatami, spokeswoman for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington. "But at the same time we're saying, 'We want to keep you at a distance.' It's a mixed message we're sending.
"I don't understand having separate bathrooms. It seems to go against everything that the United States stands for."
You'd think so, but it's as American as...Coca Cola.
During World War II, the Germans blamed outbreaks of typhus in the ghettoes and camps on the Jews, because "they were dirty people who didn't like to bathe." The truth was that the Germans controlled everything that went into the ghettoes and camps, including water and soap. And neither was "to be wasted on Juden vermin."
American personnel working abroad, be they contractors or soldiers, are our ambassadors. They are the first Americans that many Iraqis will ever meet.
U.S. troops need to leave Iraq, but as that's not going to happen for many years because of our Congress (spineless and gutless no longer explains it - they're now as criminally responsible as Bush and Cheney), the policies at Warhorse should not be allowed to continue. Every day that the occupation continues, our 'ambassadors' make new enemies for us.
The buck stops at our Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates. Given all the change that hasn't happened since Democrats won the midterm elections in 2006, Rumsfeld might as well have retained the job.