Commentary Magazine


Topic: Iraqi police

RE: U.S. Chooses International Consensus over Israel

As Jen mentioned, the United Nations passed a resolution on Friday demanding a nuclear-free Middle East and singling out Israel as the intransigent party instead of Iran. The Obama administration supports the decision, which makes about as much sense as disarming the Iraqi police right now in the name of a violence-free Baghdad. College sophomores might think these are brilliant ideas, but mature adults shouldn’t, especially not mature adults who make policy for a living and must account for the consequences.

The Israelis have had nuclear weapons longer than I’ve been alive. Never once have they even admitted to having them, let alone used them. While several Arab states say they’ll build or buy nuclear weapons to counter a Persian bomb, no Arab state has ever scrambled for nuclear weapons of its own to counter the Zionist bomb. Even they, as hysterical as they sometimes can be, know perfectly well that Israel does not threaten to nuke anybody and never intends to nuke anybody.

Marty Peretz at the New Republic is contemptuous. “Ostensibly,” he wrote, “this would de-nuclearize the Middle East. A pig’s ass, it would. Tehran wants a bomb, no matter what. And, then, the big Arab states will join the race. To be sure, Saudi Arabia will not make it. It will buy it. There’s more money in the country than brains. There will be a big bomb race in the region… and not because of Israel.”

I am just old enough to remember the Cold War during the years before perestroika and glasnost, when the possibility of nuclear war was real, and it kept me up at night during my childhood. I was worried sick about the potential imminent end of the world. It made an impression that still hasn’t left me and might not ever.

Like President Obama — and unlike Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ali Khamenei — I wish nuclear weapons didn’t exist and that nobody had them. I also wish humans weren’t violent, that war could be dispensed with as some day cancer may be, that police officers did not need to carry guns and sometimes shoot people to keep my neighborhood safe, and that even grown-up countries like the U.S. and Israel did not need an arsenal of the world’s worst weapons to keep the world’s worst people in check, but these wishes are no more realistic than terraforming the sun.

The president acts sometimes like he’s running the country from his dorm room, and it looks increasingly likely that he will not stop until something explodes.

As Jen mentioned, the United Nations passed a resolution on Friday demanding a nuclear-free Middle East and singling out Israel as the intransigent party instead of Iran. The Obama administration supports the decision, which makes about as much sense as disarming the Iraqi police right now in the name of a violence-free Baghdad. College sophomores might think these are brilliant ideas, but mature adults shouldn’t, especially not mature adults who make policy for a living and must account for the consequences.

The Israelis have had nuclear weapons longer than I’ve been alive. Never once have they even admitted to having them, let alone used them. While several Arab states say they’ll build or buy nuclear weapons to counter a Persian bomb, no Arab state has ever scrambled for nuclear weapons of its own to counter the Zionist bomb. Even they, as hysterical as they sometimes can be, know perfectly well that Israel does not threaten to nuke anybody and never intends to nuke anybody.

Marty Peretz at the New Republic is contemptuous. “Ostensibly,” he wrote, “this would de-nuclearize the Middle East. A pig’s ass, it would. Tehran wants a bomb, no matter what. And, then, the big Arab states will join the race. To be sure, Saudi Arabia will not make it. It will buy it. There’s more money in the country than brains. There will be a big bomb race in the region… and not because of Israel.”

I am just old enough to remember the Cold War during the years before perestroika and glasnost, when the possibility of nuclear war was real, and it kept me up at night during my childhood. I was worried sick about the potential imminent end of the world. It made an impression that still hasn’t left me and might not ever.

Like President Obama — and unlike Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ali Khamenei — I wish nuclear weapons didn’t exist and that nobody had them. I also wish humans weren’t violent, that war could be dispensed with as some day cancer may be, that police officers did not need to carry guns and sometimes shoot people to keep my neighborhood safe, and that even grown-up countries like the U.S. and Israel did not need an arsenal of the world’s worst weapons to keep the world’s worst people in check, but these wishes are no more realistic than terraforming the sun.

The president acts sometimes like he’s running the country from his dorm room, and it looks increasingly likely that he will not stop until something explodes.

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Dionne’s Willful Refusal to Listen to Petraeus and Crocker

In his latest column, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post writes about the testimonies of General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker and Iraq more broadly. It’s worth examining what Dionne said.

According to Dionne,

The bottom line of the testimony this week from Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker is that even after the surge, what gains have been made in Iraq are, as Petraeus put it, “fragile and reversible.”

In fact this is not the bottom line, nor is it anything like a complete picture of what Petraeus and Crocker said. General Petraeus, in rightly saying that the gains we’ve made in Iraq are “fragile and reversible,” immediately went on to say this:

Still, security in Iraq is better than it was when Ambassador Crocker and I reported to you last September, and it is significantly better than it was 15 months ago when Iraq was on the brink of civil war and the decision was made to deploy additional forces to Iraq.

Here are the words of Ambassador Crocker:

Last September, I said that the cumulative trajectory of political, economic and diplomatic developments in Iraq was upwards, although the slope of that line was not steep. Developments over the last seven months have strengthened my sense of a positive trend. Immense challenges remain and progress is uneven and often frustrating slow, but there is progress. Sustaining that progress will require continuing U.S. resolve and commitment. What has been achieved is substantial, but it is also reversible.

Ambassador Crocker, after discussing the political progress that’s been made in recent months (pension and amnesty laws, de-Baathification, et cetera), also said this:

All of this has been done since September. These laws are not perfect and much depends on their implementation, but they are important steps.

Crocker has also spoken about the positive change in attitude among Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish leaders in Iraq. Read More

In his latest column, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post writes about the testimonies of General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker and Iraq more broadly. It’s worth examining what Dionne said.

According to Dionne,

The bottom line of the testimony this week from Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker is that even after the surge, what gains have been made in Iraq are, as Petraeus put it, “fragile and reversible.”

In fact this is not the bottom line, nor is it anything like a complete picture of what Petraeus and Crocker said. General Petraeus, in rightly saying that the gains we’ve made in Iraq are “fragile and reversible,” immediately went on to say this:

Still, security in Iraq is better than it was when Ambassador Crocker and I reported to you last September, and it is significantly better than it was 15 months ago when Iraq was on the brink of civil war and the decision was made to deploy additional forces to Iraq.

Here are the words of Ambassador Crocker:

Last September, I said that the cumulative trajectory of political, economic and diplomatic developments in Iraq was upwards, although the slope of that line was not steep. Developments over the last seven months have strengthened my sense of a positive trend. Immense challenges remain and progress is uneven and often frustrating slow, but there is progress. Sustaining that progress will require continuing U.S. resolve and commitment. What has been achieved is substantial, but it is also reversible.

Ambassador Crocker, after discussing the political progress that’s been made in recent months (pension and amnesty laws, de-Baathification, et cetera), also said this:

All of this has been done since September. These laws are not perfect and much depends on their implementation, but they are important steps.

Crocker has also spoken about the positive change in attitude among Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish leaders in Iraq.

Iraq in 2006 was in a death spiral. That has not only been arrested; it has been reversed. Under the extraordinary leadership of Petraeus and Crocker, we have made more gains than even those of us who were advocates of the surge could have hoped for. And the gains have been on almost every front: security, political, diplomatic, and economic. Those gains, while “fragile and reversible,” are also indisputable.

In their testimonies Petraeus and Crocker painted a nuanced, sophisticated, and accurate picture of the situation in Iraq. It would be nice if the war critics did the same.

Dionne also writes:

The administration and its supporters talk incessantly about winning but offer no strategy for victory, no definition of what it would look like, no concrete steps to get us there, and no real sense of where “there” is.

This sentence is riddled with errors.

The United States in fact does have a strategy for victory, one that is fundamentally different than what came before it. The new strategy, being executed and implemented by Petraeus and Crocker, involved sending around 30,000 more troops to Iraq beginning in early 2007; giving them a different mission (one that aims at securing, living with, and winning over the local population); building on the attitudinal shift among the Iraqi population, including Sunnis, against the brutal and extremist ideology of al Qaeda in Iraq; working closely with the Iraqi government to transition the Sons of Iraq (now numbering more than 90,000) into the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) or other forms of employment; working with ISF to target “special groups” (Shia militia) that are being funded, trained, armed, and directed by Iran’s Quds Force with help from Lebanese Hezbollah; reforming the Iraqi police (which had been taken over by militias); encouraging provincial elections to be held later this year, which will give a greater voice to Sunnis who boycotted earlier elections; negotiating a status of forces agreement; helping design new procurement procedures for Iraq’s oil ministry; increasing the scope of the UN’s engagement in Iraq; and much else.

Earlier this week, then, Petraeus and Crocker laid out, in mind-numbing detail, the concrete steps we’ve taken and still need to take in order to achieve a decent outcome in Iraq. As for Dionne’s charge that there is “no real sense of where ‘there’ is”: that statement is also false. Our goal is a stable, self-governing, and peaceful Iraq, one that operates under the rule of law and is an ally of America in the war against jihadism.

None of this is a mystery; it’s been said, in one version or another, dozens of times. What we don’t know – and what we could not possibly know, given the nature of warfare — is precisely when we’ll be able to withdraw most of our combat troops. That depends, as all wars depend, on the facts on the ground, on unfolding events, on contingencies and variables that are impossible to know with certainty. But to pretend that we have “no strategy for victory, no definition of what it would look like, no concrete steps to get us there, and no real sense of where “there” is” is simply and demonstrably wrong.

Dionne argues this as well:

Supporters of the war say its opponents are locked in the past, stuck on whether or not the war was a good idea in the first place. Whether the war was right or wrong, they say, it’s time to move on and focus on the future. This has it backward. It’s the war’s backers and architects, including the president, who are trapped in the past. They are so invested in the original decision to invade Iraq that they won’t even consider whether the United States would be better off winding down this commitment, relieving our military of the war’s enormous burdens, and redirecting our foreign policy. Instead, they want to push on, hoping that something turns up. They resemble their own parody of liberal do-gooders insisting on continuing flawed and foolish programs no matter how obvious it becomes that their efforts are doing more harm than good.

This “flawed and foolish” program has produced results like these: ethno-sectarian violence decreased by nearly 90 percent and total civilian deaths and coalition deaths decreased by more than 70 percent between June 2007 and March 2008. This is only one metric of progress; there are many others that are matters of public record. But to quote Dionne’s friend Senator Joseph Lieberman, the approach of anti-war critics is to “hear no progress in Iraq, see no progress in Iraq, and most of all, speak of no progress in Iraq.” They are hermetically sealed off from accepting, let alone taking encouragement from, authentic progress. It is a stunning thing to witness.

Dionne’s column gets to a deeper issue. Ambassador Crocker said during his testimony that “almost everything about Iraq is hard.” That is certainly true – and serious mistakes by the Bush Administration in the Phase IV planning has made things far more difficult than they should have been. But the President made necessary adjustments. And no person can seriously dispute that progress has been made, and that if we continue along this path, we have a good chance of achieving a decent outcome in Iraq.

But the critics of the war seemingly don’t care; they have turned hard against it and want to wash our hands of it. On some level they must know that if we followed their counsel the odds are very good that mass death and perhaps genocide would follow; that al Qaeda in Iraq would be revivified; that jihadists would gain a historic victory against America and the West; that Iran would benefit enormously; that the Middle East would become significantly more destabilized; that America’s word would be devalued; and much else. But they are tired and weary of the war and the costs of the war. And so this war now comes down to what many others eventually do: a matter of will. Having put in place the right strategy, will we see it through to success? Jihadists will not lose their will; they are hoping and betting that we will lose ours.

The voices of weariness are understandable; the human and financial costs of this war have been enormous. But those voices are also wrong and Ambassador Crocker is right:

As monumental as the events of the last five years have been in Iraq, Iraqis, Americans, and the world ultimately will judge us far more on the basis of what will happen than what has happened. In the end, how we leave and what we leave behind will be more important than how we came.

President Bush, David Petraeus, Ryan Crocker and others, who have seen good and patriotic people succumb to the weariness, have thankfully refused their counsels of surrender. If one message came through above the others during this past week, it is that Petraeus and Crocker agree with the words of St. Paul: We ought not to become weary in doing good.

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From Middle East Journal: Builders of Nations

“This is my hardest deployment,” Marine Sergeant Cooley said as he unfastened his helmet and tossed it onto his bed. “We weren’t trained for this kind of thing.” He’s been shot at with bullets and mortars, and he’s endured IED attacks on his Humvee, but post-war Fallujah is more difficult and more stressful than combat. He isn’t unusual for saying so. Many Marines I spoke to in and around the Fallujah area said something similar.

“We’re trained as infantrymen,” Captain Stewart Glenn said. “But here we are doing civil administration and trying to get the milk factory up and running.”

“We make up all this stuff as we go,” Lieutenant Mike Barefoot added.

While most Americans go to school, work traditional day jobs, and raise their families, young American men and women like these are deployed to Iraq, Kosovo, and Afghanistan where they work seven days a week rebuilding societies torn to pieces by fascism, terrorism, ethnic cleansing, and war. It is not what they signed up to do. Some may have geeked out on nation-building video games like Civilization, but none of the enlisted men picked up any of these skills in boot camp.

Officers pick up some basic relevant skills, though, as well as a more complete education. Lieutenant Nathan Bibler runs a Joint Security Station in the slums of Fallujah and works with local authorities every day.

He has a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science. “In a lot of ways it helps me analyze and interpret,” he said. What helps more than anything, though, is a training program Marine officers go through in 29 Palms, California, before they’re deployed.

“We were living in a town they built out in the desert with Iraqis.”

“Really,” I said. “Iraqi-Americans?”

“Yeah,” he said. “I don’t know if they were all U.S. citizens, but Iraqis who were already in the U.S. We were living in this town that they built. We lived in the town with the Iraqi Police right next door. Actually they lived with us part of the time.”

Enlisted men don’t go through role playing training in 29 Palms, but every officer who mentioned it to me said those exercises were eerily effective, that actors from Iraq hired to play Iraqis in Iraq during counter-terrorist warfare turned out to be surprisingly like real Iraqis in a real counter-terrorist war.

Read the rest of this entry at MichaelTotten.com »

“This is my hardest deployment,” Marine Sergeant Cooley said as he unfastened his helmet and tossed it onto his bed. “We weren’t trained for this kind of thing.” He’s been shot at with bullets and mortars, and he’s endured IED attacks on his Humvee, but post-war Fallujah is more difficult and more stressful than combat. He isn’t unusual for saying so. Many Marines I spoke to in and around the Fallujah area said something similar.

“We’re trained as infantrymen,” Captain Stewart Glenn said. “But here we are doing civil administration and trying to get the milk factory up and running.”

“We make up all this stuff as we go,” Lieutenant Mike Barefoot added.

While most Americans go to school, work traditional day jobs, and raise their families, young American men and women like these are deployed to Iraq, Kosovo, and Afghanistan where they work seven days a week rebuilding societies torn to pieces by fascism, terrorism, ethnic cleansing, and war. It is not what they signed up to do. Some may have geeked out on nation-building video games like Civilization, but none of the enlisted men picked up any of these skills in boot camp.

Officers pick up some basic relevant skills, though, as well as a more complete education. Lieutenant Nathan Bibler runs a Joint Security Station in the slums of Fallujah and works with local authorities every day.

He has a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science. “In a lot of ways it helps me analyze and interpret,” he said. What helps more than anything, though, is a training program Marine officers go through in 29 Palms, California, before they’re deployed.

“We were living in a town they built out in the desert with Iraqis.”

“Really,” I said. “Iraqi-Americans?”

“Yeah,” he said. “I don’t know if they were all U.S. citizens, but Iraqis who were already in the U.S. We were living in this town that they built. We lived in the town with the Iraqi Police right next door. Actually they lived with us part of the time.”

Enlisted men don’t go through role playing training in 29 Palms, but every officer who mentioned it to me said those exercises were eerily effective, that actors from Iraq hired to play Iraqis in Iraq during counter-terrorist warfare turned out to be surprisingly like real Iraqis in a real counter-terrorist war.

Read the rest of this entry at MichaelTotten.com »

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From Middle East Journal: The Liberation of Karmah, Part I

KARMAH, IRAQ – Just beyond the outskirts of Fallujah lies the terror-wracked city of Karmah. While you may not have heard of this small city of 35,000 people, American soldiers and Marines who served in Anbar Province know it as a terrifying place of oppression, death, and destruction. “It was much worse than Fallujah” said more than a dozen Marines who were themselves based in Fallujah.

“Karmah was so important to the insurgency because we’ve got Baghdad right there,” Lieutenant Andrew Macak told me. “This is part of the periphery of Baghdad. At the same time, it is part of the periphery of Fallujah.”

Lieutenant Macak is not a veteran of Karmah, but Sergeant Jason Howell is. He was deployed in the city from March through October in 2006. “People weren’t out in the streets,” he said. “They were very reserved. They were afraid to talk to us. They had the feeling that, especially in the smaller towns, they were constantly being watched. They were in real jeopardy if they interacted with coalition forces and, especially, the Iraqi Police.”

Lieutenant Macak arrived in Karmah in the middle of July 2007 when the city was still a war zone. “It was moving in the right direction, but it was still active,” he said. “2/5 [Second Battalion, Fifth Regiment], who we relieved, was part of the surge effort. Karmah was still a very dangerous place. The lollipop over here was a big deal.”

“You mean the traffic circle?” I said. The Marines refer to a large traffic circle down the street from the police station at the entrance to the market as the “lollipop.”

“Yeah,” he said. “It was basically IED Alley. The whole road out here in front of the station was just covered in IEDs. No one even went down the roads leading to the north of here. It was an insurgent stronghold. Before 2/5 came in there weren’t many patrols. They didn’t do a whole lot. The Iraqi Police didn’t have any confidence. Their numbers weren’t big and there wasn’t a whole lot of organization. 2/5 came in and started patrolling, started doing what Marines do. They identified local leaders and started engaging them. Sheikh Mishan came back at about the same time from Syria.”

Sheikh Mishan Abbas, like many other sheikhs in Anbar Province, fled to Syria shortly after the U.S. invaded.

Read the rest of this entry at MichaelTotten.com »

KARMAH, IRAQ – Just beyond the outskirts of Fallujah lies the terror-wracked city of Karmah. While you may not have heard of this small city of 35,000 people, American soldiers and Marines who served in Anbar Province know it as a terrifying place of oppression, death, and destruction. “It was much worse than Fallujah” said more than a dozen Marines who were themselves based in Fallujah.

“Karmah was so important to the insurgency because we’ve got Baghdad right there,” Lieutenant Andrew Macak told me. “This is part of the periphery of Baghdad. At the same time, it is part of the periphery of Fallujah.”

Lieutenant Macak is not a veteran of Karmah, but Sergeant Jason Howell is. He was deployed in the city from March through October in 2006. “People weren’t out in the streets,” he said. “They were very reserved. They were afraid to talk to us. They had the feeling that, especially in the smaller towns, they were constantly being watched. They were in real jeopardy if they interacted with coalition forces and, especially, the Iraqi Police.”

Lieutenant Macak arrived in Karmah in the middle of July 2007 when the city was still a war zone. “It was moving in the right direction, but it was still active,” he said. “2/5 [Second Battalion, Fifth Regiment], who we relieved, was part of the surge effort. Karmah was still a very dangerous place. The lollipop over here was a big deal.”

“You mean the traffic circle?” I said. The Marines refer to a large traffic circle down the street from the police station at the entrance to the market as the “lollipop.”

“Yeah,” he said. “It was basically IED Alley. The whole road out here in front of the station was just covered in IEDs. No one even went down the roads leading to the north of here. It was an insurgent stronghold. Before 2/5 came in there weren’t many patrols. They didn’t do a whole lot. The Iraqi Police didn’t have any confidence. Their numbers weren’t big and there wasn’t a whole lot of organization. 2/5 came in and started patrolling, started doing what Marines do. They identified local leaders and started engaging them. Sheikh Mishan came back at about the same time from Syria.”

Sheikh Mishan Abbas, like many other sheikhs in Anbar Province, fled to Syria shortly after the U.S. invaded.

Read the rest of this entry at MichaelTotten.com »

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From Middle East Journal: In the Villages of Al Anbar

ANBAR PROVINCE, IRAQ – The Iraqi town of Al Farris looks like a model Soviet city up close and a rounded square from the sky. Saddam Hussein built it to house workers in the now-defunct weapons factory to the east, and they live in neighborhoods called City 1, City 2, City 3, City 4, and City 5. “Socialist living at its finest,” Sergeant Edward Guerrero said as we rolled through the gates in a Humvee. The place made me think of Libya, where I have been, and North Korea, where I have not.

Al Farris was part of Saddam’s attempt to launch Iraq into the sci-fi future before he ruined his country with four wars, two genocides, and an international sanctions regime. It was a failure. Like all utopian cities, Al Farris is dreary. Every apartment building is nearly identical. There are few stores, restaurants, or other businesses at street level. There certainly is no traditional Arabic souk. If it weren’t for the vaguely Arabesque windows, little would distinguish it from any other drab worker’s paradise.

“It’s like a gulag city,” one Military Police officer said. The grace note, if I could call it that, is the encircling coil or razor wire at the city limits which keeps insurgents from coming in and blowing up buildings and people. Billowing plastic bags have been snagged along the length of the wire.

Sergeant Guerrero had a private meeting scheduled with the local Iraqi Police chief, so I climbed a ladder to the roof where I could get a better view.

An Iraqi Police officer pointed out an American military outpost on top of the water tower. His job entailed sitting in silence in a rooftop bunker with a machine gun in case the station is attacked. I assumed the Americans on the water tower overwatched the city with sniper rifles. I didn’t ask, but if they are it would not be a secret.

Read the rest of this entry at MichaelTotten.com »

ANBAR PROVINCE, IRAQ – The Iraqi town of Al Farris looks like a model Soviet city up close and a rounded square from the sky. Saddam Hussein built it to house workers in the now-defunct weapons factory to the east, and they live in neighborhoods called City 1, City 2, City 3, City 4, and City 5. “Socialist living at its finest,” Sergeant Edward Guerrero said as we rolled through the gates in a Humvee. The place made me think of Libya, where I have been, and North Korea, where I have not.

Al Farris was part of Saddam’s attempt to launch Iraq into the sci-fi future before he ruined his country with four wars, two genocides, and an international sanctions regime. It was a failure. Like all utopian cities, Al Farris is dreary. Every apartment building is nearly identical. There are few stores, restaurants, or other businesses at street level. There certainly is no traditional Arabic souk. If it weren’t for the vaguely Arabesque windows, little would distinguish it from any other drab worker’s paradise.

“It’s like a gulag city,” one Military Police officer said. The grace note, if I could call it that, is the encircling coil or razor wire at the city limits which keeps insurgents from coming in and blowing up buildings and people. Billowing plastic bags have been snagged along the length of the wire.

Sergeant Guerrero had a private meeting scheduled with the local Iraqi Police chief, so I climbed a ladder to the roof where I could get a better view.

An Iraqi Police officer pointed out an American military outpost on top of the water tower. His job entailed sitting in silence in a rooftop bunker with a machine gun in case the station is attacked. I assumed the Americans on the water tower overwatched the city with sniper rifles. I didn’t ask, but if they are it would not be a secret.

Read the rest of this entry at MichaelTotten.com »

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From Middle East Journal: In the Slums of Fallujah

FALLUJAH, IRAQ – Captain Steve Eastin threw open the door to the Iraqi Police captain’s office and cancelled a joint American-Iraqi officer’s meeting before it could even begin. “Someone just shot at my Marines,” he said. “We can’t do this right now.”

I following him into the hall.

“What happened?” I said.

“Someone just shot at my guys at the flour mill,” he said. “A bullet struck a wall four feet over a Marine’s head. We have to go in there and extract them.”

“They don’t extract themselves?” I said.

“They’re on foot,” he said, “and we’re going in vehicles. They don’t extract themselves on foot.”

And I was getting comfortable and even bored in post-insurgent Fallujah. Complacency kills, and Fallujah isn’t completely free of insurgents just yet.

“Can I go with the extraction team?” I said.

“They’ve already left in Humvees,” he said.

But he did send a patrol to the flour mill less an hour later, and I went with them.

Read the rest of this entry at MichaelTotten.com »

FALLUJAH, IRAQ – Captain Steve Eastin threw open the door to the Iraqi Police captain’s office and cancelled a joint American-Iraqi officer’s meeting before it could even begin. “Someone just shot at my Marines,” he said. “We can’t do this right now.”

I following him into the hall.

“What happened?” I said.

“Someone just shot at my guys at the flour mill,” he said. “A bullet struck a wall four feet over a Marine’s head. We have to go in there and extract them.”

“They don’t extract themselves?” I said.

“They’re on foot,” he said, “and we’re going in vehicles. They don’t extract themselves on foot.”

And I was getting comfortable and even bored in post-insurgent Fallujah. Complacency kills, and Fallujah isn’t completely free of insurgents just yet.

“Can I go with the extraction team?” I said.

“They’ve already left in Humvees,” he said.

But he did send a patrol to the flour mill less an hour later, and I went with them.

Read the rest of this entry at MichaelTotten.com »

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Guns in the Desert

ANBAR PROVINCE, IRAQ – The Humvee slammed to a halt on the desert road between Fallujah and the town of Al Farris. I peered around the driver’s head from the back seat and tried to figure out what was happening.

“Why are we stopping?” I said.

“IED,” Sergeant Guerrero said.

I swallowed and took the lens cap off my camera.

“Where?” I said.

All five Humvees in our convoy had stopped and pulled to the side of the road. None had been hit.

“We think there’s one buried off the road around here.”

Two soldiers, including Sergeant Guerrero, stepped out of the vehicle. “Can I get out, too?” I said. I had no idea how long we would stop or if they would even let me out of the truck.

“Sure,” Sergeant Guerrero said. “You can get out.”

All IED’s are dangerous no matter how much body armor you’re wearing if you’re standing anywhere nearby when they explode. Some create small explosions that are merely intended to harass convoys. Others are formidable anti-tank mines. A smaller number create explosions as big as air strikes and will absolutely destroy you if you’re not inside a heavily armored vehicle. The term IED, short for improvised explosive device, is used to describe just about any explosive that isn’t discharged from a weapon.

I slowly pushed open the vault-thick up-armored door and stepped out into the desolate countryside of Al Anbar. An Iraqi Police truck was parked in the desert a few hundred feet to our right. I hoped there wasn’t an IED trigger man lurking somewhere who was waiting for all of us to expose ourselves.

Read the rest of this entry at MichaelTotten.com

ANBAR PROVINCE, IRAQ – The Humvee slammed to a halt on the desert road between Fallujah and the town of Al Farris. I peered around the driver’s head from the back seat and tried to figure out what was happening.

“Why are we stopping?” I said.

“IED,” Sergeant Guerrero said.

I swallowed and took the lens cap off my camera.

“Where?” I said.

All five Humvees in our convoy had stopped and pulled to the side of the road. None had been hit.

“We think there’s one buried off the road around here.”

Two soldiers, including Sergeant Guerrero, stepped out of the vehicle. “Can I get out, too?” I said. I had no idea how long we would stop or if they would even let me out of the truck.

“Sure,” Sergeant Guerrero said. “You can get out.”

All IED’s are dangerous no matter how much body armor you’re wearing if you’re standing anywhere nearby when they explode. Some create small explosions that are merely intended to harass convoys. Others are formidable anti-tank mines. A smaller number create explosions as big as air strikes and will absolutely destroy you if you’re not inside a heavily armored vehicle. The term IED, short for improvised explosive device, is used to describe just about any explosive that isn’t discharged from a weapon.

I slowly pushed open the vault-thick up-armored door and stepped out into the desolate countryside of Al Anbar. An Iraqi Police truck was parked in the desert a few hundred feet to our right. I hoped there wasn’t an IED trigger man lurking somewhere who was waiting for all of us to expose ourselves.

Read the rest of this entry at MichaelTotten.com

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The Dungeon of Fallujah

“This is not Norway here, and it is not Denmark.” – Lebanese Forces militia leader Bashir Gemayel.

FALLUJAH – Next to the Joint Communications Center in downtown Fallujah is a squalid and war-shattered warehouse for human beings. Most detainees are common criminals. Others are captured insurgents – terrorists, car-bombers, IED makers, and throat-slashers. A few are even innocent family members of Al Qaeda leaders at large. The Iraqi Police call it a jail, but it’s nothing like a jail you’ve ever seen, at least not in any civilized country. It was built to house 120 prisoners. Recently it held 900.

“Have you seen that place yet?” one Marine said. “It is absolutely disgraceful.”

“The smell,” said another and nearly gagged on remembering. “God, you will never forget it.”

I hadn’t seen or smelled it yet, but I was about to.

“Come on,” American Marine Sergeant Dehaan said to me. “Let’s go take a look.”

I picked up my notebook and camera.

“Leave the camera,” he said. “The Iraqis won’t let you take pictures.”

“Don’t you have any say in it?” I said. This was the first and only time during my trip to Fallujah that somebody told me not to take pictures.

“Nope,” he said. “The jail is completely run by Iraqis. They’ll freak out if you show up with that camera. If it were up to me, yeah, you could take ‘em. But it’s not.”

If the Marines wouldn’t mind if I took pictures, I think it’s safe to say the No Photograph policy is not a security measure. The Iraqis, it seems, don’t want you to see what I saw.

Read the rest of this entry at MichaelTotten.com

“This is not Norway here, and it is not Denmark.” – Lebanese Forces militia leader Bashir Gemayel.

FALLUJAH – Next to the Joint Communications Center in downtown Fallujah is a squalid and war-shattered warehouse for human beings. Most detainees are common criminals. Others are captured insurgents – terrorists, car-bombers, IED makers, and throat-slashers. A few are even innocent family members of Al Qaeda leaders at large. The Iraqi Police call it a jail, but it’s nothing like a jail you’ve ever seen, at least not in any civilized country. It was built to house 120 prisoners. Recently it held 900.

“Have you seen that place yet?” one Marine said. “It is absolutely disgraceful.”

“The smell,” said another and nearly gagged on remembering. “God, you will never forget it.”

I hadn’t seen or smelled it yet, but I was about to.

“Come on,” American Marine Sergeant Dehaan said to me. “Let’s go take a look.”

I picked up my notebook and camera.

“Leave the camera,” he said. “The Iraqis won’t let you take pictures.”

“Don’t you have any say in it?” I said. This was the first and only time during my trip to Fallujah that somebody told me not to take pictures.

“Nope,” he said. “The jail is completely run by Iraqis. They’ll freak out if you show up with that camera. If it were up to me, yeah, you could take ‘em. But it’s not.”

If the Marines wouldn’t mind if I took pictures, I think it’s safe to say the No Photograph policy is not a security measure. The Iraqis, it seems, don’t want you to see what I saw.

Read the rest of this entry at MichaelTotten.com

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The Final Mission, Part III

ANBAR PROVINCE, IRAQ – The United States plans to hand Anbar Province over to the Iraqis next month if nothing catastrophic erupts between now and then. The Marines will stick around a while longer, though, and complete their crucial last mission – training the Iraqi Police to replace them.

The local police force would collapse in short order without American financial and logistics support. “The biggest problem they have is supply,” Corporal Hayes said to me in Fallujah. “They’re always running out of gas and running out of bullets. How are they supposed to police this city with no gas and no bullets?”

What they need more than anything else, though, in the long run anyway, is an infusion of moderate politics. Fallujah is in the heartland of the Sunni Triangle. The city was ferociously Baathist during the rule of Saddam Hussein. It is surly and reactionary even today. Even by Iraqi standards. Even after vanquishing the insurgency. Fallujans may never be transformed into Jeffersonian liberal democrats, but young men from New York, California, and Texas are taking the Iraqis by the hand and gently repairing their political culture.

I accompanied Lieutenant Andrew Macak and Lieutenant Eric Montgomery to an ethics class they taught to members of the Anbar Provincial Security Forces (PSF). PSF members are police officers who operate at the provincial level rather than the city level, much like state police in the U.S. The class was held at a station in Karmah, a small city wedged between Fallujah and Baghdad. Coursework included the ethical responsibilities of police officers, the importance of human rights, and the permissible rules of engagement in counterinsurgency operations. The material was the same as that taught by Marines everywhere in Al Anbar – in Fallujah, Ramadi, Hit, and Haditha.

“We’re teaching them about the Law of Armed Conflict,” Lieutenant Montgomery said. “If they become a police state, people are not going to support them.”

Post-Saddam Iraq is not a police state. Even so, while it’s orders of magnitude more moderate and humane than the genocidal and fascistic regime it replaced, many individuals in the government and police departments have rough authoritarian habits that are rooted in Arab culture itself as much as they are legacies from the previous era.

Read the rest of this entry at MichaelTotten.com

ANBAR PROVINCE, IRAQ – The United States plans to hand Anbar Province over to the Iraqis next month if nothing catastrophic erupts between now and then. The Marines will stick around a while longer, though, and complete their crucial last mission – training the Iraqi Police to replace them.

The local police force would collapse in short order without American financial and logistics support. “The biggest problem they have is supply,” Corporal Hayes said to me in Fallujah. “They’re always running out of gas and running out of bullets. How are they supposed to police this city with no gas and no bullets?”

What they need more than anything else, though, in the long run anyway, is an infusion of moderate politics. Fallujah is in the heartland of the Sunni Triangle. The city was ferociously Baathist during the rule of Saddam Hussein. It is surly and reactionary even today. Even by Iraqi standards. Even after vanquishing the insurgency. Fallujans may never be transformed into Jeffersonian liberal democrats, but young men from New York, California, and Texas are taking the Iraqis by the hand and gently repairing their political culture.

I accompanied Lieutenant Andrew Macak and Lieutenant Eric Montgomery to an ethics class they taught to members of the Anbar Provincial Security Forces (PSF). PSF members are police officers who operate at the provincial level rather than the city level, much like state police in the U.S. The class was held at a station in Karmah, a small city wedged between Fallujah and Baghdad. Coursework included the ethical responsibilities of police officers, the importance of human rights, and the permissible rules of engagement in counterinsurgency operations. The material was the same as that taught by Marines everywhere in Al Anbar – in Fallujah, Ramadi, Hit, and Haditha.

“We’re teaching them about the Law of Armed Conflict,” Lieutenant Montgomery said. “If they become a police state, people are not going to support them.”

Post-Saddam Iraq is not a police state. Even so, while it’s orders of magnitude more moderate and humane than the genocidal and fascistic regime it replaced, many individuals in the government and police departments have rough authoritarian habits that are rooted in Arab culture itself as much as they are legacies from the previous era.

Read the rest of this entry at MichaelTotten.com

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The Final Mission, Part II

FALLUJAH – The United States military plans to formally hand over Anbar Province to the Iraqis this spring because the insurgency truly is finished in that part of the country. Most Americans have heard about the success in this province by now, but few seem to be aware that the cities of Anbar were the scenes of the most ferocious fighting: Ramadi, Haditha, and – worst of all – Fallujah.The Americans in Fallujah are focused now on what they expect to be their last mission: the training of the Iraqi Police to replace the Marines.

Optimism and cynicism exist side by side. All the Americans I spoke to said the Iraqi Police are improving. Most are cautiously optimistic about their ability to stand on their own – later. Hope comes naturally in Fallujah right now because even this place, of all places, is peaceful and quiet. But a substantial minority has serious reservations after spending some quality time with Iraqis.

“We should have just left Saddam in power,” said an MP from the Texas National Guard who did not want to be named. “That’s all these people understand.”

Fallujah is the heartland of Baath country. It’s the most aggressively Sunni Arab city in all of Iraq. Residents deny the insurgency once had a popular base of support, possibly to save face, but it did. Some Fallujans are Islamists, some were and still are disgruntled Baathists, and others just needed the money. Even some police officers were insurgents.“Some of them will tell you straight up that the only reason they’re Iraqi Police officers is because it pays better than the insurgency,” Sergeant White said. “I hear that and I want to say Hold this guy while I go get my pistol.”

Read the rest at MichaelTotten.com

FALLUJAH – The United States military plans to formally hand over Anbar Province to the Iraqis this spring because the insurgency truly is finished in that part of the country. Most Americans have heard about the success in this province by now, but few seem to be aware that the cities of Anbar were the scenes of the most ferocious fighting: Ramadi, Haditha, and – worst of all – Fallujah.The Americans in Fallujah are focused now on what they expect to be their last mission: the training of the Iraqi Police to replace the Marines.

Optimism and cynicism exist side by side. All the Americans I spoke to said the Iraqi Police are improving. Most are cautiously optimistic about their ability to stand on their own – later. Hope comes naturally in Fallujah right now because even this place, of all places, is peaceful and quiet. But a substantial minority has serious reservations after spending some quality time with Iraqis.

“We should have just left Saddam in power,” said an MP from the Texas National Guard who did not want to be named. “That’s all these people understand.”

Fallujah is the heartland of Baath country. It’s the most aggressively Sunni Arab city in all of Iraq. Residents deny the insurgency once had a popular base of support, possibly to save face, but it did. Some Fallujans are Islamists, some were and still are disgruntled Baathists, and others just needed the money. Even some police officers were insurgents.“Some of them will tell you straight up that the only reason they’re Iraqi Police officers is because it pays better than the insurgency,” Sergeant White said. “I hear that and I want to say Hold this guy while I go get my pistol.”

Read the rest at MichaelTotten.com

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Libya’s Son

Iraqi Police Colonel Jubair Rashid Naief claims Libyan dictator Moammar Qaddafi’s son Seif al-Islam (whose name means Sword of Islam) is sponsoring a terrorist group in Northern Iraq called the Seifaddin Regiment. This group is allegedly responsible for recent attacks in Mosul that killed and wounded hundreds. The U.S. military so far has no comment on the accusation one way or another. I’ve never heard of this group and am not even convinced it exists. But U.S. military officials believe 19 percent of foreign terrorists in Iraq come from Libya.

Robert H. Reid wrote in an Associated Press article that Seif al-Islam “seems an unlikely figure as a sponsor of terrorism. Touted as a reformer, the younger Gadhafi has been reaching out to the West to soften Libya’s image and return it to the international mainstream.”

Yes, Seif al-Islam is touted as a reformer – by journalists. Perhaps naïve government officials also believe Seif al-Islam is a reformer. His father has certainly been given a pass in the last couple of years even though he barely deserves it – if he deserves it at all.

I visited Libya as soon as the U.S. government lifted the travel ban, after Qaddafi supposedly gave up his weapons of mass destruction program. (Click here to see my photo gallery.) It is by far the most oppressive country I have ever been to. Freedom House ranks it the most oppressive of all Arab countries, lower than even Saudi Arabia and Syria.

Qaddafi’s government structure is modeled after Nicolae Ceauşescu’s totalitarian regime in Romania. His state ideology, the unexportable “Third Universal Theory,” is a merger of The Communist Manifesto and the Koran. His own infamous manifesto, The Green Book, is a daft and sinister pseudo-intellectual excuse for his own absolute power. Don’t be fooled by Qaddafi’s court jester antics and buffoonish charisma. He is only funny and entertaining to watch from abroad. Libya is an Orwellian God-state with only Turkmenistan and North Korea as peers.

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Iraqi Police Colonel Jubair Rashid Naief claims Libyan dictator Moammar Qaddafi’s son Seif al-Islam (whose name means Sword of Islam) is sponsoring a terrorist group in Northern Iraq called the Seifaddin Regiment. This group is allegedly responsible for recent attacks in Mosul that killed and wounded hundreds. The U.S. military so far has no comment on the accusation one way or another. I’ve never heard of this group and am not even convinced it exists. But U.S. military officials believe 19 percent of foreign terrorists in Iraq come from Libya.

Robert H. Reid wrote in an Associated Press article that Seif al-Islam “seems an unlikely figure as a sponsor of terrorism. Touted as a reformer, the younger Gadhafi has been reaching out to the West to soften Libya’s image and return it to the international mainstream.”

Yes, Seif al-Islam is touted as a reformer – by journalists. Perhaps naïve government officials also believe Seif al-Islam is a reformer. His father has certainly been given a pass in the last couple of years even though he barely deserves it – if he deserves it at all.

I visited Libya as soon as the U.S. government lifted the travel ban, after Qaddafi supposedly gave up his weapons of mass destruction program. (Click here to see my photo gallery.) It is by far the most oppressive country I have ever been to. Freedom House ranks it the most oppressive of all Arab countries, lower than even Saudi Arabia and Syria.

Qaddafi’s government structure is modeled after Nicolae Ceauşescu’s totalitarian regime in Romania. His state ideology, the unexportable “Third Universal Theory,” is a merger of The Communist Manifesto and the Koran. His own infamous manifesto, The Green Book, is a daft and sinister pseudo-intellectual excuse for his own absolute power. Don’t be fooled by Qaddafi’s court jester antics and buffoonish charisma. He is only funny and entertaining to watch from abroad. Libya is an Orwellian God-state with only Turkmenistan and North Korea as peers.

Of course none of this means Qaddafi’s son Seif al-Islam sponsors a terrorist group in Iraq. I really have no idea if that’s true or not. What I do know is that he is ideologically committed to preserving his father’s prison state system, and that he wants to export that system to as many countries as possible. Gullible diplomats and journalists may sincerely believe he’s a reformer, but a close look at his own statements proves that he’s lying when he passes himself off as moderate. And he is not even a good liar.

“My father has been promoting the idea of direct democracy in Libya for almost 26 years now,” he said to New York Times reporter Craig S. Smith in December, 2004. “It’s quite rational and logical that we have to continue in that direction.”

So much for him reforming his father’s system. He is quite up front about that part of his agenda, at least. What he’s lying about is the nature of his father’s system. Libya is no more a direct democracy than the Democratic People’s Republic of (North) Korea is a democratic republic.

In the same New York Times interview he said “We don’t have an opposition — there is no opposition.” Only “five people,” he claimed, oppose his father’s regime, and all five live in the United States.

It’s breathtaking, really, that even a totalitarian tool like Seif al-Islam doesn’t understand real democracy well enough to know that more than five people in any country will oppose the government regardless of its system or what it does. It takes real insularity from the modern world and its ways to say something like that to a reporter with a straight face. What’s even more striking is that reporters who actually live in a democratic country could take a serious look at this kid and think he’s a straight shooter. You might as well believe Saddam Hussein won 100 percent of the vote in Iraq. At least Syria’s dictator Hafez Assad only claimed to win 99.

I suppose it’s the “direct democracy” part of Seif al-Islam’s shtick that throws people off.

Here is what his father says about democracy in The Green Book: “Political struggle that results in the victory of a candidate with, for example, 51 percent of the vote leads to a dictatorial governing body in the guise of false democracy, since 49 percent of the electorate is ruled by an instrument of government they did not vote for, but which has been imposed upon them. Such is dictatorship.” His solution to the problem of “false democracy” is his version of “direct democracy” that enshrines himself as leader of 100 percent of the people rather than a mere 51. Political parties and political opposition are banned in Libya because they would divide that 100 percent. Libyan-style direct democracy is actually fascism or something very much like it. This is what Seif al-Islam is talking about when he says “we have to continue in that direction.”

The jury is out on whether he’s sponsoring a terrorist group in Iraq. I don’t have access to Iraqi Police Colonel Naief’s intelligence reports and cannot evaluate them. But the idea isn’t that much of a stretch. The Arab world has its reformers, but Seif al-Islam isn’t one of them.

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McCain’s Busy Day

John McCain snagged the biggest endorsement in Florida (and aside from Nancy Reagan, arguably the biggest in the race as a whole) tonight as Charlie Crist have him the nod, and a hug too boot. Crist has a 65 percent approval rating and this will help, if nothing else, by monopolizing local media coverage for the last day or so of the race. Why did Crist wait so long? He might have preferred another candidate, but waited to see if he might play a decisive role. Not to be overlooked: McCain endorsed Crist in his primary and certainly had a favor to call in. (In the category of gathering in the GOP establishment, Howard Baker who had backed Fred Thompson, also endorsed McCain today. No word yet on the popular, moderate Tennessee Senator Bob Corker.)

Until the Crist news broke, most of the day was spent in a heated argument between McCain and Mitt Romney. McCain pointed to an interview Romney gave earlier in the year on Good Morning America in which he suggested that “the president and Prime Minister al-Maliki have to have a series of timetables and milestones that they speak about. But those shouldn’t be for public pronouncement. You don’t want the enemy to understand how long they have to wait in the weeds until you’re going to be gone. You want to have a series of things you want to see accomplished in terms of the strength of the Iraqi military and the Iraqi police, and the leadership of the Iraqi government.”

McCain contends this shows that Romney supported a secret deadline for withdrawal. Romney vehemently denied this and pointed to a number of his statements supportive of the surge and Bush’s policy. McCain shot back and later added statements from Lawrence Eagleburger and James Woolsey attacking Romney’s resoluteness.

Who’s right and does it matter? I think the best that can be said for McCain is that Romney played his cards very close to his vest until late last fall on the surge. You may recall the New Hampshire debate in which Romney would only say that the surge “apparently” was working. McCain pounced at the time and this left some conservatives speculating that Romney was prepared to distance himself from Bush. But the point of McCain’s attack today, I suspect, was to highlight in flashier terms the argument McCain has been trying to make for some time: Romney lacks national security experience, never spoke up about the Rumsfeld policy’s failings and didn’t advocate for the surge before it became obvious it was succeeding. If that is the discussion for the next couple of days, and not the two candidates’ relative economic expertise, that benefits McCain. On the merits of this particular fight, the usually supportive media are a skeptical of McCain’s charge.

John McCain snagged the biggest endorsement in Florida (and aside from Nancy Reagan, arguably the biggest in the race as a whole) tonight as Charlie Crist have him the nod, and a hug too boot. Crist has a 65 percent approval rating and this will help, if nothing else, by monopolizing local media coverage for the last day or so of the race. Why did Crist wait so long? He might have preferred another candidate, but waited to see if he might play a decisive role. Not to be overlooked: McCain endorsed Crist in his primary and certainly had a favor to call in. (In the category of gathering in the GOP establishment, Howard Baker who had backed Fred Thompson, also endorsed McCain today. No word yet on the popular, moderate Tennessee Senator Bob Corker.)

Until the Crist news broke, most of the day was spent in a heated argument between McCain and Mitt Romney. McCain pointed to an interview Romney gave earlier in the year on Good Morning America in which he suggested that “the president and Prime Minister al-Maliki have to have a series of timetables and milestones that they speak about. But those shouldn’t be for public pronouncement. You don’t want the enemy to understand how long they have to wait in the weeds until you’re going to be gone. You want to have a series of things you want to see accomplished in terms of the strength of the Iraqi military and the Iraqi police, and the leadership of the Iraqi government.”

McCain contends this shows that Romney supported a secret deadline for withdrawal. Romney vehemently denied this and pointed to a number of his statements supportive of the surge and Bush’s policy. McCain shot back and later added statements from Lawrence Eagleburger and James Woolsey attacking Romney’s resoluteness.

Who’s right and does it matter? I think the best that can be said for McCain is that Romney played his cards very close to his vest until late last fall on the surge. You may recall the New Hampshire debate in which Romney would only say that the surge “apparently” was working. McCain pounced at the time and this left some conservatives speculating that Romney was prepared to distance himself from Bush. But the point of McCain’s attack today, I suspect, was to highlight in flashier terms the argument McCain has been trying to make for some time: Romney lacks national security experience, never spoke up about the Rumsfeld policy’s failings and didn’t advocate for the surge before it became obvious it was succeeding. If that is the discussion for the next couple of days, and not the two candidates’ relative economic expertise, that benefits McCain. On the merits of this particular fight, the usually supportive media are a skeptical of McCain’s charge.

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The Bravery of Iraqis

Iraqi Army soldiers have a terrible reputation for cowardice and corruption – especially in Baghdad – but it’s unfair to write them all off after reading the news out of Iraq’s capital Sunday. Three Iraqi Army soldiers tackled a suicide bomber at an Army Day parade and were killed when he exploded his vest.

While embedded with the United States Army and Marines I heard over and over again that the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police have improved a lot in the past year. This is encouraging, on the one hand, but at the same time it is worrisome. If they are as bad now in some places as I’ve seen myself, they must have really been something in 2005.

At the War Eagle outpost in Baghdad’s Graya’at neighborhood, I was told by a military intelligence officer that the most likely reason we weren’t under mortar attack is because huge numbers of Moqtada al Sadr’s radical Mahdi Army militiamen had infiltrated the ranks of Iraqi Army soldiers who shared the base with us.

A colonel at Camp Taji north of the city told me the U.S. Army doesn’t dare inform their Iraqi Army counterparts about sensitive operations until the very last minute because they don’t want infiltrators to alert the insurgents.

The Iraqi Police in Mushadah, near Taji, were more of a military force than a police force when I visited last July. As many as half were thought to be Al Qaeda operatives, and the other half were so scared they refused to go on patrols until a female American captain showed them up by going outside the station herself.

And this is the new and improved Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police of 2007 during General Petraeus’s surge. Progress in Iraq is relative. It’s hard to say if the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police could hold the country together by themselves in 2008. Personally, I doubt it. So do most American soldiers and Marines I’ve spoken to. The Iraqis certainly could not have held it together in 2005 or 2006.

The Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police deserve kudos for progress, even so. And they deserve more credit for bravery than they’ve been getting. Iraqis are far more likely to be killed in combat than Americans due to their inferior equipment and lack of experience. And if the insurgents win the war, American soldiers and Marines get to go home. Iraqis who sided with the Americans in the army and police will have to face retribution alone, with little chance of escape, from the new regime.

And what of those three who threw themselves on a suicide bomber? They are hardly less brave than American soldiers. They are arguably as brave as the Americans who sacked the Al Qaeda hijackers on United Airlines Flight 93 over Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001, and sacrificed themselves so that others could live.

These Iraqis deserve recognition, and they deserved to be recognized by their names. Yet I could not find their names cited in any media articles. All three of their names generate zero hits using Google at the time of this writing. I had to contact Baghdad myself to find out who they were. Lieutenant Colonel James Hutton was kind enough to pass their names on.

Iraq between the time of the initial invasion and 2007 was easily as nasty a place as Lebanon was during the 1980s, and the conflict is eerily similar. Thomas Friedman made a haunting observation about anonymous death during the civil war in his book From Beirut to Jerusalem: “Death had no echo in Beirut. No one’s life seemed to leave any mark on the city or reverberate in its ear.” Then he quoted a young woman. “In the United States if you die in a car accident, at least your name gets mentioned on television,” she said. “Here they don’t even mention your name anymore. They just say ‘thirty people died.’ Well, what thirty people? They don’t even bother to give their names. At least say their names. I want to feel that I was something more than a body when I die.”

Here are the names of the three brave Iraqis who hurled themselves on an exploding suicide bomber.

Malik Abdul Ghanem
Asa’ad Hussein Ali
Abdul-Hamza Abdul-Hassan Rissan

They were friends the Americans and Iraqis did not know we had until they were gone.

Iraqi Army soldiers have a terrible reputation for cowardice and corruption – especially in Baghdad – but it’s unfair to write them all off after reading the news out of Iraq’s capital Sunday. Three Iraqi Army soldiers tackled a suicide bomber at an Army Day parade and were killed when he exploded his vest.

While embedded with the United States Army and Marines I heard over and over again that the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police have improved a lot in the past year. This is encouraging, on the one hand, but at the same time it is worrisome. If they are as bad now in some places as I’ve seen myself, they must have really been something in 2005.

At the War Eagle outpost in Baghdad’s Graya’at neighborhood, I was told by a military intelligence officer that the most likely reason we weren’t under mortar attack is because huge numbers of Moqtada al Sadr’s radical Mahdi Army militiamen had infiltrated the ranks of Iraqi Army soldiers who shared the base with us.

A colonel at Camp Taji north of the city told me the U.S. Army doesn’t dare inform their Iraqi Army counterparts about sensitive operations until the very last minute because they don’t want infiltrators to alert the insurgents.

The Iraqi Police in Mushadah, near Taji, were more of a military force than a police force when I visited last July. As many as half were thought to be Al Qaeda operatives, and the other half were so scared they refused to go on patrols until a female American captain showed them up by going outside the station herself.

And this is the new and improved Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police of 2007 during General Petraeus’s surge. Progress in Iraq is relative. It’s hard to say if the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police could hold the country together by themselves in 2008. Personally, I doubt it. So do most American soldiers and Marines I’ve spoken to. The Iraqis certainly could not have held it together in 2005 or 2006.

The Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police deserve kudos for progress, even so. And they deserve more credit for bravery than they’ve been getting. Iraqis are far more likely to be killed in combat than Americans due to their inferior equipment and lack of experience. And if the insurgents win the war, American soldiers and Marines get to go home. Iraqis who sided with the Americans in the army and police will have to face retribution alone, with little chance of escape, from the new regime.

And what of those three who threw themselves on a suicide bomber? They are hardly less brave than American soldiers. They are arguably as brave as the Americans who sacked the Al Qaeda hijackers on United Airlines Flight 93 over Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001, and sacrificed themselves so that others could live.

These Iraqis deserve recognition, and they deserved to be recognized by their names. Yet I could not find their names cited in any media articles. All three of their names generate zero hits using Google at the time of this writing. I had to contact Baghdad myself to find out who they were. Lieutenant Colonel James Hutton was kind enough to pass their names on.

Iraq between the time of the initial invasion and 2007 was easily as nasty a place as Lebanon was during the 1980s, and the conflict is eerily similar. Thomas Friedman made a haunting observation about anonymous death during the civil war in his book From Beirut to Jerusalem: “Death had no echo in Beirut. No one’s life seemed to leave any mark on the city or reverberate in its ear.” Then he quoted a young woman. “In the United States if you die in a car accident, at least your name gets mentioned on television,” she said. “Here they don’t even mention your name anymore. They just say ‘thirty people died.’ Well, what thirty people? They don’t even bother to give their names. At least say their names. I want to feel that I was something more than a body when I die.”

Here are the names of the three brave Iraqis who hurled themselves on an exploding suicide bomber.

Malik Abdul Ghanem
Asa’ad Hussein Ali
Abdul-Hamza Abdul-Hassan Rissan

They were friends the Americans and Iraqis did not know we had until they were gone.

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The Other Fallujah Reporter

“The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.” — Thomas Jefferson

I just returned home from a trip to Fallujah, where I was the only reporter embedded with the United States military. There was, however, an unembedded reporter in the city at the same time. Normally it would be useful to compare what I saw and heard while traveling and working with the Marines with what a colleague saw and heard while working solo. Unfortunately, the other Fallujah reporter was Ali al-Fadhily from Inter Press Services.

Mr. al-Fadhily is unhappy with the way things are going in the city right now. It means little to him that the only shots fired by the Marines anymore are practice rounds on the range, and that there hasn’t been a single fire fight or combat casualty for months. That’s fair enough, as far as it goes, and perhaps to be expected from a reporter who isn’t embedded with the military and who focuses his attention on Iraqi civilians. The trouble is that Mr. Al-Fadhily’s hysterical exaggerations, refusal to provide crucial context, and outright fabrications amount to a serious case of journalistic malpractice.

Some of what al-Fadhily writes is correct. The economy and infrastructure really are shattered. Unemployment is greater than 50 percent, as he says. It’s true that most Iraqis – in Fallujah as well as everywhere else – don’t have access to safe drinking water. But he proves himself unreliable, to put it mildly, after only one sentence: “The city that was routed in November 2004 is still suffering the worst humanitarian conditions under a siege that continues.”

There is no “siege” in Fallujah. He is referring here to the hard perimeter around the city manned by Iraqi Police who prevent non-residents from bringing their cars in. It’s an extreme measure, no doubt about it. But it keeps the car bombers and weapon smugglers out. Iraqis who live in Fallujah are free to come and go as they please. The non-resident vehicle ban is a defensive measure, like a national border or castle moat. Its purpose is to prevent a siege from the outside.

My colleague (of sorts) at least acknowledges that “military actions are down to the minimum inside the city.” He adds, however, that “local and U.S. authorities do not seem to be thinking of ending the agonies of the over 400,000 residents of Fallujah.”

This is nonsense on stilts. Marines distribute food aid to impoverished local civilians. The electrical grid is being repaired now that insurgents no longer sabotage it. Solar-powered street lights have been installed on some of the main thoroughfares and will cover the entire city in two years if the war doesn’t come back. Locals are hired to pick up trash that went uncollected for months. A new sewage and water treatment plant is under construction in the poorest part of the city. Low-interest microloans are being distributed to small business owners to kick start the economy. American civilians donate school supplies to Iraqi children that are distributed by the Marines. Mr. al-Fadhily would know all this if he embedded with the U.S. military. Whether or not he would take the trouble to report these facts if he knew of them is another question.

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“The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.” — Thomas Jefferson

I just returned home from a trip to Fallujah, where I was the only reporter embedded with the United States military. There was, however, an unembedded reporter in the city at the same time. Normally it would be useful to compare what I saw and heard while traveling and working with the Marines with what a colleague saw and heard while working solo. Unfortunately, the other Fallujah reporter was Ali al-Fadhily from Inter Press Services.

Mr. al-Fadhily is unhappy with the way things are going in the city right now. It means little to him that the only shots fired by the Marines anymore are practice rounds on the range, and that there hasn’t been a single fire fight or combat casualty for months. That’s fair enough, as far as it goes, and perhaps to be expected from a reporter who isn’t embedded with the military and who focuses his attention on Iraqi civilians. The trouble is that Mr. Al-Fadhily’s hysterical exaggerations, refusal to provide crucial context, and outright fabrications amount to a serious case of journalistic malpractice.

Some of what al-Fadhily writes is correct. The economy and infrastructure really are shattered. Unemployment is greater than 50 percent, as he says. It’s true that most Iraqis – in Fallujah as well as everywhere else – don’t have access to safe drinking water. But he proves himself unreliable, to put it mildly, after only one sentence: “The city that was routed in November 2004 is still suffering the worst humanitarian conditions under a siege that continues.”

There is no “siege” in Fallujah. He is referring here to the hard perimeter around the city manned by Iraqi Police who prevent non-residents from bringing their cars in. It’s an extreme measure, no doubt about it. But it keeps the car bombers and weapon smugglers out. Iraqis who live in Fallujah are free to come and go as they please. The non-resident vehicle ban is a defensive measure, like a national border or castle moat. Its purpose is to prevent a siege from the outside.

My colleague (of sorts) at least acknowledges that “military actions are down to the minimum inside the city.” He adds, however, that “local and U.S. authorities do not seem to be thinking of ending the agonies of the over 400,000 residents of Fallujah.”

This is nonsense on stilts. Marines distribute food aid to impoverished local civilians. The electrical grid is being repaired now that insurgents no longer sabotage it. Solar-powered street lights have been installed on some of the main thoroughfares and will cover the entire city in two years if the war doesn’t come back. Locals are hired to pick up trash that went uncollected for months. A new sewage and water treatment plant is under construction in the poorest part of the city. Low-interest microloans are being distributed to small business owners to kick start the economy. American civilians donate school supplies to Iraqi children that are distributed by the Marines. Mr. al-Fadhily would know all this if he embedded with the U.S. military. Whether or not he would take the trouble to report these facts if he knew of them is another question.

He claims seventy percent of the city was destroyed during Operation Phantom Fury, also known as Al-Fajr, in November 2004. This is a lie. If he really went to Fallujah himself, he knows it’s a lie. It’s possible that as much as seventy percent of the city was damaged, if a single bullet hole in the side of a house counts as damage. I really don’t know. It’s hard to say. But I saw much more destruction in nearby Ramadi than I saw in Fallujah. Even there the percentage of the city that was actually destroyed is in the low single digits – nowhere near seventy percent. And I spent triple the amount of time in Fallujah as in Ramadi. I didn’t personally see every street or house, but I followed the Marines on foot patrols every day and never once retraced my steps.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Look at Google’s interactive satellite image of Fallujah from space. You can clearly see which parts of the city were destroyed and which weren’t. Most of the damage is in the north. Some of the blanks spots you’ll see are empty lots, some are cemeteries, others are destruction from war. Even if all the blank spots in the city were sites of destruction, the percentage of the total area destroyed is far closer to zero percent than to seventy. Mr. al-Fadhily’s exaggeration is on par with the libelous claim that the Israel Defense Forces killed thousands of people in the Jenin refugee camp in April of 2002 when the actual number was a mere 52.

“All of the residents interviewed by IPS were extremely angry with the media for recent reports that the situation in the city is good,” he wrote. “Many refused to be quoted for different reasons.”

This is about as believable as his seventy-percent destruction claim. What media reports from Fallujah are the residents talking about? Fallujah is very nearly a journalist-free zone. Mr. al-Fadhily and I are practically the only ones who have been there for some time. Google News finds hardly any articles filed from the city aside from mine and his. Noah Shachtman published a Fallujah piece in Wired recently, but it’s unlikely that anyone there came across it. It’s also not very likely that the Arabic-language satellite channels Fallujah residents have access to are bursting with reports of good news from the former insurgent stronghold.

Anyway, the situation in the city isn’t good. Not at all. What it is is non-violent. It’s not a war zone anymore. The infrastructure and economy are only just now beginning to slowly recover because the war, until recently, made rebuilding impossible.

“Many residents told IPS that US-backed Iraqi police and army personnel have detained people who have spoken to the media,” al-Fadhily wrote.

Some Iraqis may well have said this. The idea that Americans were setting off car bombs was another theory that made the rounds in Fallujah not long ago. Only the most paranoid or irresponsible of reporters would bother to publish such claims without a dash of skepticism or evidence.

I have been to the Iraqi Police jail in Fallujah. It’s a terrible place that probably ought to be investigated by Human Rights Watch or the like. (The Marines I spoke to insist it is an abomination.) The Iraqi Police force gets, and deserves, a lot of legitimate criticism. But the idea that its officers arrest citizens for talking to journalists is about as plausible as the silly claim made by Iraqis in Nassiriya recently that the Americans dumped a shark in a Euphrates River canal to frighten people.

Mr. al-Fadhily quotes many disgruntled Iraqis. That’s all fine and good. I, too, heard lots of complaints. There’s plenty to gripe about. Fallujah is a broken-down, ramshackle, impoverished wreck of a city. It was ruined by more than three years of war. What else can you expect of a place that only stopped exploding this summer? But if the best possible scenario ever unfolds, if peace arrives even in Baghdad, if the government becomes truly moderate and representative, if rainbows break out in the skies and the fields fill with smiling children and bunny rabbits, somebody, somewhere, will complain that Iraq has been taken over by the imperial powers of Kentucky Fried Chicken and Starbucks.

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What the Army Wants You to See

Some colleagues, readers, and friends have suggested the dispatches I published from Iraq as an embedded reporter might not be reliable, even if true, because I only saw what the United States Army wanted me to see. CBS news anchor Katie Couric said as much about her own coverage when she first arrived in Baghdad in September.

I’ve had the same thoughts myself, and I quietly wondered if I should disclose them. I chose not to, though, because my experience, as it turned out, didn’t actually warrant it.

The Army hooked me up with the 82nd Airborne Division in the Graya’at district of Baghdad in July. There hadn’t been any violence there since early in 2007. The soldiers hadn’t suffered a single casualty—not even one soldier wounded. How convenient, I thought, that the Army sent me to such a place. I appreciated not being thrown into a meat grinder and shot or blown up, but Graya’at did strike me as a dog-and-pony-show sort of location. Maybe it was. It could certainly function as one, if that’s what the Army intended.

I had to check myself, though. Embed coordinators asked me what kind of stories I wanted to cover. I explicitly said I wasn’t there to chase car bombs. The world doesn’t need yet another reporter on that beat. Also, I told them, access to Iraqi civilians is important. Reporting strictly from inside a military bubble is hardly better than filing reports from the Al Rasheed Hotel in the Green Zone. Graya’at, then, was the right place to embed me.

You could just as easily say the coordinators did exactly what I asked them to do instead of accusing them of sending me on a happy tour to skew coverage in the Army’s favor. The worst you could fairly say is that their interests and mine were in alignment.

Baghdad isn’t the only place I went in Iraq with the Army. I also went to Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province and the scene of the some of the most vicious fighting of the entire war.

Captain Phil Messer asked me what I wanted to see when I arrived at his outpost.

“Destruction,” I said, because I hadn’t seen much of it yet and needed some photos. So far my only pictures of war damage were taken from inside a Humvee while driving past on the way somewhere else.

“Whatever you need,” he said. “It’s my job to help you do your job and take you where you need to go.”

Some of the destruction he showed me was total. All of it was horrific. Two American colonels in the area compared the battle of Ramadi to Stalingrad. What Captain Messer showed me made that sound credible. You can see some of the photographs here.

He didn’t know who I was or what I would do with those pictures. I told him nothing about my “agenda” or why I wanted a tour of the damage. I could have used those photos as evidence of wanton American destruction of civilian neighborhoods had I so chosen. Many of those buildings were destroyed by American firepower, but others were destroyed by insurgents. BCIED’s—Building Contained IED’s, or building bombs—exploded all over that city. IED’s buried deep under the roads tore the streets and the sewer system to pieces. Car bombs blew windows out everywhere. It wouldn’t be right to blame it all on the Americans, so I didn’t. Captain Messer, though, didn’t know what I was up to. If it was his job to show me only what the Army wanted me to see, he is not very good at his job.

He did, however, show me what I needed and wanted to see. That was his job, or at least part of it. Plenty of officers in the Army understand that. Lieutenant Colonel Mike Silverman at the Blue Diamond base in Northern Ramadi defended the media’s often negative coverage point blank when I asked him what he thought of it. “It’s true that the media doesn’t have the same agenda in Iraq that we do,” he said, “but I’m not sure it’s the media’s job to have the same agenda in Iraq that we do.”

What ultimately convinced me that the Army didn’t send me off on a Potemkin tour of Iraq was Major Mike Garcia’s suggestion that I visit the small town of Mushadah just north of Baghdad. The Army can’t order me to go anywhere, but he said he could arrange it for me if I was interested. I had not heard of the place until he mentioned it to me, and would never have ended up there on my own.

What I found there was dispiriting, to say the least. He warned me that it was bad news up there, and he was right.

Humvee convoys from Camp Taji to Mushadah were hit with IED’s every day. It was too dangerous for dismounted foot patrols. Captain Maryanne Naro warned me not to step outside my up-armored Humvee for any reason unless something catastrophic happened to it. Half the Iraqi Police officers at the station were too afraid to go out on patrols, and the other half, or so I was told, worked with al Qaeda. I didn’t meet a single American soldier in the area who thought things were going well there, and I wrote a gloomy essay about the experience which you can read here.

The Army never would have put me in a Humvee to Mushadah if their goal was to control what I saw so they could gin up positive stories.

I don’t know why Major Garcia thought I should go to Mushadah, and I didn’t ask. I am grateful, though, for the suggestion and the experience. It provided some necessary balance for the good news I found and reported elsewhere in the country.

Some colleagues, readers, and friends have suggested the dispatches I published from Iraq as an embedded reporter might not be reliable, even if true, because I only saw what the United States Army wanted me to see. CBS news anchor Katie Couric said as much about her own coverage when she first arrived in Baghdad in September.

I’ve had the same thoughts myself, and I quietly wondered if I should disclose them. I chose not to, though, because my experience, as it turned out, didn’t actually warrant it.

The Army hooked me up with the 82nd Airborne Division in the Graya’at district of Baghdad in July. There hadn’t been any violence there since early in 2007. The soldiers hadn’t suffered a single casualty—not even one soldier wounded. How convenient, I thought, that the Army sent me to such a place. I appreciated not being thrown into a meat grinder and shot or blown up, but Graya’at did strike me as a dog-and-pony-show sort of location. Maybe it was. It could certainly function as one, if that’s what the Army intended.

I had to check myself, though. Embed coordinators asked me what kind of stories I wanted to cover. I explicitly said I wasn’t there to chase car bombs. The world doesn’t need yet another reporter on that beat. Also, I told them, access to Iraqi civilians is important. Reporting strictly from inside a military bubble is hardly better than filing reports from the Al Rasheed Hotel in the Green Zone. Graya’at, then, was the right place to embed me.

You could just as easily say the coordinators did exactly what I asked them to do instead of accusing them of sending me on a happy tour to skew coverage in the Army’s favor. The worst you could fairly say is that their interests and mine were in alignment.

Baghdad isn’t the only place I went in Iraq with the Army. I also went to Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province and the scene of the some of the most vicious fighting of the entire war.

Captain Phil Messer asked me what I wanted to see when I arrived at his outpost.

“Destruction,” I said, because I hadn’t seen much of it yet and needed some photos. So far my only pictures of war damage were taken from inside a Humvee while driving past on the way somewhere else.

“Whatever you need,” he said. “It’s my job to help you do your job and take you where you need to go.”

Some of the destruction he showed me was total. All of it was horrific. Two American colonels in the area compared the battle of Ramadi to Stalingrad. What Captain Messer showed me made that sound credible. You can see some of the photographs here.

He didn’t know who I was or what I would do with those pictures. I told him nothing about my “agenda” or why I wanted a tour of the damage. I could have used those photos as evidence of wanton American destruction of civilian neighborhoods had I so chosen. Many of those buildings were destroyed by American firepower, but others were destroyed by insurgents. BCIED’s—Building Contained IED’s, or building bombs—exploded all over that city. IED’s buried deep under the roads tore the streets and the sewer system to pieces. Car bombs blew windows out everywhere. It wouldn’t be right to blame it all on the Americans, so I didn’t. Captain Messer, though, didn’t know what I was up to. If it was his job to show me only what the Army wanted me to see, he is not very good at his job.

He did, however, show me what I needed and wanted to see. That was his job, or at least part of it. Plenty of officers in the Army understand that. Lieutenant Colonel Mike Silverman at the Blue Diamond base in Northern Ramadi defended the media’s often negative coverage point blank when I asked him what he thought of it. “It’s true that the media doesn’t have the same agenda in Iraq that we do,” he said, “but I’m not sure it’s the media’s job to have the same agenda in Iraq that we do.”

What ultimately convinced me that the Army didn’t send me off on a Potemkin tour of Iraq was Major Mike Garcia’s suggestion that I visit the small town of Mushadah just north of Baghdad. The Army can’t order me to go anywhere, but he said he could arrange it for me if I was interested. I had not heard of the place until he mentioned it to me, and would never have ended up there on my own.

What I found there was dispiriting, to say the least. He warned me that it was bad news up there, and he was right.

Humvee convoys from Camp Taji to Mushadah were hit with IED’s every day. It was too dangerous for dismounted foot patrols. Captain Maryanne Naro warned me not to step outside my up-armored Humvee for any reason unless something catastrophic happened to it. Half the Iraqi Police officers at the station were too afraid to go out on patrols, and the other half, or so I was told, worked with al Qaeda. I didn’t meet a single American soldier in the area who thought things were going well there, and I wrote a gloomy essay about the experience which you can read here.

The Army never would have put me in a Humvee to Mushadah if their goal was to control what I saw so they could gin up positive stories.

I don’t know why Major Garcia thought I should go to Mushadah, and I didn’t ask. I am grateful, though, for the suggestion and the experience. It provided some necessary balance for the good news I found and reported elsewhere in the country.

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An Act of Kindness from Iraq

Iraqi Army officers in Besmaya raised a thousand dollars in donations for fire victims in San Diego, California, and the only place that seems to have reported the story is the military blog OPFOR. Author Richard S. Lowry learned about it in a press release from the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq Public Affairs, so it’s unlikely he’s the only one in the media who knows something about it.

Sending a thousand dollars to California will be about as helpful as throwing a glass of water into the firestorm. It’s the thought that counts here. And what surprising thought it is. How many Americans expect charity from Iraq?

As Lowry points out, “most Americans do not consider Iraqis as people.” He’s right. Most of us only know them from sensational media reports about masked insurgents, wailing widows, and death squads. Most of us may instinctively understand that the majority of Iraqis are just regular people, but it’s hard to keep that in mind when the only thing we get Stateside is war coverage. I’ve met hundreds of Iraqis myself during trips to their country as a reporter, so it’s a bit easier for me to see them as just people. I’m still surprised that anyone in that broken impoverished land would even consider donating hard-earned money to Californians.

A thousand dollars is a lot in Iraq. The average salary is only a few hundred dollars a month. I can’t for the life of me figure out how entire families can survive on so little, considering most have so many children. Basic necessities are cheaper in Iraq than in the West, but not that much cheaper.

Some Iraqis have been learning a similar lesson about American generosity lately.

Two months ago I went on a humanitarian aid drop mission outside Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s Anbar Province, with American soldiers and Iraqi Police officers at four o’clock in the morning. The goods we delivered were paid for by the United States government. Sometimes, though, soldiers and Marines deliver items donated through American charities. “When we tell them that some of these packages aren’t from the military or the government,” a Marine told me, “that they were donated by average American citizens in places like Kansas, people choke up and sometimes even cry. They just can’t comprehend it. It is so different from the lies they were told about us and how we’re supposed to be evil.”

Sustained contact with the “other” isn’t a magic bullet against bigoted attitudes (see, for example, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), but it usually helps. Iraqis learn about Americans through daily interactions, but most Americans have no contact, sustained or otherwise, with Iraqis.

Shopkeeper Was Nice to Embedded Reporter isn’t a headline, but donations from Besmaya to San Diego is a real story. Now would be a good time for major newspapers, as well as blogs and magazines like this one, to show Iraqis, for once, as generous and regular people.

UPDATE: CNN now has the story on their Web site. Good for them.

Iraqi Army officers in Besmaya raised a thousand dollars in donations for fire victims in San Diego, California, and the only place that seems to have reported the story is the military blog OPFOR. Author Richard S. Lowry learned about it in a press release from the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq Public Affairs, so it’s unlikely he’s the only one in the media who knows something about it.

Sending a thousand dollars to California will be about as helpful as throwing a glass of water into the firestorm. It’s the thought that counts here. And what surprising thought it is. How many Americans expect charity from Iraq?

As Lowry points out, “most Americans do not consider Iraqis as people.” He’s right. Most of us only know them from sensational media reports about masked insurgents, wailing widows, and death squads. Most of us may instinctively understand that the majority of Iraqis are just regular people, but it’s hard to keep that in mind when the only thing we get Stateside is war coverage. I’ve met hundreds of Iraqis myself during trips to their country as a reporter, so it’s a bit easier for me to see them as just people. I’m still surprised that anyone in that broken impoverished land would even consider donating hard-earned money to Californians.

A thousand dollars is a lot in Iraq. The average salary is only a few hundred dollars a month. I can’t for the life of me figure out how entire families can survive on so little, considering most have so many children. Basic necessities are cheaper in Iraq than in the West, but not that much cheaper.

Some Iraqis have been learning a similar lesson about American generosity lately.

Two months ago I went on a humanitarian aid drop mission outside Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s Anbar Province, with American soldiers and Iraqi Police officers at four o’clock in the morning. The goods we delivered were paid for by the United States government. Sometimes, though, soldiers and Marines deliver items donated through American charities. “When we tell them that some of these packages aren’t from the military or the government,” a Marine told me, “that they were donated by average American citizens in places like Kansas, people choke up and sometimes even cry. They just can’t comprehend it. It is so different from the lies they were told about us and how we’re supposed to be evil.”

Sustained contact with the “other” isn’t a magic bullet against bigoted attitudes (see, for example, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), but it usually helps. Iraqis learn about Americans through daily interactions, but most Americans have no contact, sustained or otherwise, with Iraqis.

Shopkeeper Was Nice to Embedded Reporter isn’t a headline, but donations from Besmaya to San Diego is a real story. Now would be a good time for major newspapers, as well as blogs and magazines like this one, to show Iraqis, for once, as generous and regular people.

UPDATE: CNN now has the story on their Web site. Good for them.

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Our Man in Mosul

Yochi Dreazen has an interesting article in today’s Wall Street Journal reporting on the heroic efforts of Colonel Saleem Qader, an Iraqi army intelligence officer, to clean up Ninewah Province (whose capital is the large city of Mosul). Dreazen writes:

U.S. commanders give Col. Qader much of the credit for a striking improvement in the city’s security situation. There hasn’t been a car bomb or large-scale attack here since early May, and U.S. commanders say the number of attacks has dropped to seven or nine a day from fifteen to eighteen earlier this year. Fewer than a dozen Americans have died in Mosul this year, a sharp reduction from 2006.

What the article doesn’t mention is that the U.S. troop presence in Mosul is down to a battalion—about a thousand men. In other words, Col. Qader and other members of the Iraqi security forces are managing to maintain order in this populous and volatile region pretty much on their own. That’s a cause for long-term optimism: It is not inevitable that Iraq will dissolve into all-out civil war once the U.S. starts to draw down its troop presence.

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Yochi Dreazen has an interesting article in today’s Wall Street Journal reporting on the heroic efforts of Colonel Saleem Qader, an Iraqi army intelligence officer, to clean up Ninewah Province (whose capital is the large city of Mosul). Dreazen writes:

U.S. commanders give Col. Qader much of the credit for a striking improvement in the city’s security situation. There hasn’t been a car bomb or large-scale attack here since early May, and U.S. commanders say the number of attacks has dropped to seven or nine a day from fifteen to eighteen earlier this year. Fewer than a dozen Americans have died in Mosul this year, a sharp reduction from 2006.

What the article doesn’t mention is that the U.S. troop presence in Mosul is down to a battalion—about a thousand men. In other words, Col. Qader and other members of the Iraqi security forces are managing to maintain order in this populous and volatile region pretty much on their own. That’s a cause for long-term optimism: It is not inevitable that Iraq will dissolve into all-out civil war once the U.S. starts to draw down its troop presence.

But premature and excessive troop withdrawals could indeed create disaster, as happened in Mosul in 2004 after the 101st Airborne Division (commanded by Major General David Petraeus) was pulled out and replaced by a much smaller unit. It is imperative to avoid such drawdowns until there are competent Iraqi police officers and soldiers—men like Colonel Qader—to take up the burden of maintaining law and order.

The major question—and the real unknown—is whether the Iraqi political system will reward and support those, like Qader, who are trying to enforce the law in a non-sectarian fashion. There is cause for real concern on this score. Dreazen writes:

Because Col. Qader, a 46-year-old Kurd, toiled loyally in the army of Saddam Hussein at the time of the former Iraqi strongman’s brutal anti-Kurdish campaign known as the “Anfal,” his job is threatened by his superiors. Gen. Babakir al Zibari, chief of staff for the entire Iraqi military and also a Kurd, has ordered Col. Qader’s commanders to replace him, said U.S. officials. The commanders have so far refused. Gen. Zibari responded by cutting off Col. Qader’s salary and delaying the promotions of his commanders, these people said.

The good news is that, for all the lobbying against him, Qader remains on the job and alive, having survived assassination attempts. There are many Iraqis like him, struggling against terrorists to serve their country as best we can. Let us hope that they will not be betrayed by corrupt Iraqi politicians or by misguided American politicians.

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More News from Ramadi

You don’t hear much about Anbar Province anymore. That’s because this area, once the scene of the heaviest fighting in Iraq, has turned remarkably quiet of late. Attacks are down 80 percent since last year. If there is any cause for optimism in Iraq this is it: If an area as troubled as Anbar could be turned around so quickly, then no part of Iraq can truly be said to be hopeless. Yet much hard work remains to be done to consolidate the gains that have recently been made. I asked Colonel John Charlton, commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 3rd Infantry Division, whom I visited in April, to provide an update for contentions readers on what is happening in the provincial capital, Ramadi. His emailed response follows:

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You don’t hear much about Anbar Province anymore. That’s because this area, once the scene of the heaviest fighting in Iraq, has turned remarkably quiet of late. Attacks are down 80 percent since last year. If there is any cause for optimism in Iraq this is it: If an area as troubled as Anbar could be turned around so quickly, then no part of Iraq can truly be said to be hopeless. Yet much hard work remains to be done to consolidate the gains that have recently been made. I asked Colonel John Charlton, commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 3rd Infantry Division, whom I visited in April, to provide an update for contentions readers on what is happening in the provincial capital, Ramadi. His emailed response follows:

Max,

As requested, progress report from Ramadi:

Security here in Ramadi continues to improve as the Iraqi police and army forces work daily to keep the population safe. When we arrived in February, we were averaging 30 – 35 attacks per day in our area of responsibility. Now our average is one attack per day or less. We had an entire week with no attacks in our area and have a total of over 65 days with no attacks. I attribute this success to our close relationship with the Iraqi security forces and the support those forces receive from the civilian population. The Iraqi police and army forces have uncovered hundreds of munitions caches and get intelligence tips from the local population every day.

Our biggest challenge with the Iraqi police is getting them fully equipped, paid, and consolidated in police stations. The support system that begins with the MOI [Ministry of the Interior], and extends through the provincial police chief, is still a work in progress. As a result, the Iraqi police still rely heavily on coalition logistics and support. We expect the equipment issue to improve soon, and we are working hard to get their logistics and command and control systems in place. One thing that is not lacking is the courage and the dedication of the Iraqi police in al Anbar. For them, this fight is personal. They know that al Qaeda is targeting them, their families and their tribes.

Some of our most recent successes have been in the areas of reconstruction and governance. The city government didn’t exist before April of this year, but has grown steadily over the past few months, and is now providing essential services to the population. In areas that were battlefields only a few months ago, city electrical employees are now repairing transformers and power lines. Sanitation workers are fixing sewer leaks caused by hundreds of buried IED’s [improvised explosive devices]. The Iraqis now have repaired the electrical grid in about 80 percent of the city and about 50 percent of the rubble has been removed. We expect to have all rubble removed in the next 90 – 120 days, which will allow for many parts of the city to start rebuilding.

We now have our Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team (EPRT) and they are working hard to help build the municipal government in Ramadi. The EPRT is composed of personnel from the U.S. State Department, USAID, and other experts in various areas of government. We have partnered the EPRT with officials from the municipal government in much the same way that we partner Soldiers and Marines with Iraqi police. The EPRT works every day with the city government helping them with budgeting, planning, and delivering services to the public. The EPRT is a critical capability that we never had before, and I’m confident that it is going to make a big difference in building stability here in Ramadi.

We have been working closely with the chief judge of the province to rebuild the judicial system in Ramadi and throughout al Anbar province. Four months ago, there were no attorneys, judges, or investigators because of the threat from al Qaeda. Now that we have greatly increased security, these legal professionals are coming forward, and we are helping them reestablish the rule of law. Investigative judges are reviewing case files for prisoners in Iraqi jails. They have released many of these prisoners because of lack of evidence, but have also prepared over 100 files for prosecution. We established a detectives course in our police training center to help the Iraqi police do better investigations and evidence collection. We expect to have criminal courts beginning here in Ramadi in August—pretty good progress considering there was no rule of law here four months ago.

We are also making good progress on economic development by focusing on low-level economic stimulation. Once we had completed our large-scale offensive operations in February and March, we realized we needed to provide a massive and quick economic stimulus in order to stabilize the communities within the city. Because of the fighting in the city, the economy was in ruins, and it was clear that it would take some time to get businesses back in operation. We started day labor programs throughout the city to help clear trash and rubble, as well as provide an economic shot-in-the-arm to these devastated communities. These day-labor programs were all planned and executed by company commanders, and their effect was dramatic. We have funneled over $5 million in aid to these programs and have employed over 15,000 Iraqis. All this happened in about three months. This decentralized economic development program only used about 10 percent of my reconstruction funds, but has accounted for over 70 percent of new employment in Ramadi. These programs have cleaned neighborhoods, uncovered caches of munitions, and have restored hope and pride to the citizens of Ramadi.

We have joined efforts with organizations like the Iraqi/American Chamber of Commerce (IACC) to help revitalize small business in Ramadi. Company commanders went through every neighborhood and conducted assessments on all small businesses so we could help jump-start the small business grant program. We collected over 500 assessments, which helped the IACC begin its grant operations. This is the same technique we use with all non-military organizations—we use our presence in the city and access to the population to facilitate their operations. Revitalizing small businesses in Ramadi will lead to more stable communities, which helps us maintain overall security in the area.

We have a great relationship with another non-governmental organization called International Relief and Development (IRD). IRD focuses on programs for community stabilization just like we do, and it provides help in ways the military can’t. For example, IRD helped us fund a city-wide soccer league, providing equipment and uniforms to hundreds of young Iraqis. The organization has also helped us form women’s outreach groups that focus on adult literacy, health, and education issues. Forming relationships with NGOs like IRD is essential in a counterinsurgency campaign, and complements our efforts to improve security.

I’ve mentioned several times our focus on stabilizing communities, and I believe this is a fundamental aspect of a successful counterinsurgency campaign. Counterinsurgencies are fought neighborhood by neighborhood with the focus on protecting the population and improving conditions in the community. After clearing an area of terrorists (we do this by conducting large-scale offensive operations), our focus shifts to establishing a permanent security presence with coalition forces and ISF. That is the purpose of the Joint Security Station (JSS). The JSS helps secure and stabilize a community by proving an overt security presence, which establishes a perception of security in the minds of the population. Once they feel safe, they begin to provide intelligence to the police, and security improves steadily. This also helps insulate the community from terrorist attempts to move back into the neighborhood. We then shift our focus on non-lethal efforts to stabilize the community. This is done through day-labor programs, small business development, engagement with local sheikhs and Imams and information operations focused on the community.

Despite all the progress we have made with the Iraqis here in Ramadi, the area remains very dangerous. We recently received intelligence reports that terrorists were attempting to stage attacks from an area south of the city. We increased our offensive operations in that area and made contact with a large group of al Qaeda terrorists that were attempting to infiltrate into Ramadi. There were about 50 well-equipped and well-trained terrorists who were moving toward the city in two large trucks. They all had new equipment, weapons, and explosive belts. Their targets were the tribal leaders in Ramadi (we know this from propaganda videos taken off the terrorists). We attacked these terrorists using ground forces and attack helicopters, resulting in 40 enemy killed and three captured. If this force had made it into the city, it would have been a tremendous victory for al Qaeda. We successfully defeated their attack, but we know they will try again in the future. We continue to receive truck bomb attacks, but have been successful in keeping them out of the city and other populated areas. Al Qaeda has not given up on their desire to retake Ramadi and al Anbar, so we can’t let up in our efforts to stop them. The good news is that the people of al Anbar and Ramadi are united in their stand against al Qaeda.

Rock of the Marne!
John W. Charlton
COL, Infantry Commanding Camp
Ar Ramadi, Iraq

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News from Ramadi

It is always tempting fate to write about a success story in Iraq: by the time your article sees print, some terrible atrocity may well have been perpetrated. Case in point: Ramadi.

Last week, I wrote in both the Weekly Standard and the Los Angeles Times about the remarkable success that U.S. forces have had recently in pacifying this one-time al-Qaeda stronghold. Sure enough, on Monday, April 23, and Tuesday, April 24, just as these articles were appearing, several car bombs went off near Ramadi.

Do these bombings call into question how much success U.S. forces have been having? I asked Colonel John Charlton, commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 3rd Infantry Division, with responsibility for Ramadi and the surrounding area. Below is the response he emailed back to me yesterday, which he agreed to let me share with contentions readers. (Note that the estimated toll he gives for the bombings—thirteen killed—is much lower than the death toll cited in most news accounts, such as this BBC story, which reported at least 45 dead).

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It is always tempting fate to write about a success story in Iraq: by the time your article sees print, some terrible atrocity may well have been perpetrated. Case in point: Ramadi.

Last week, I wrote in both the Weekly Standard and the Los Angeles Times about the remarkable success that U.S. forces have had recently in pacifying this one-time al-Qaeda stronghold. Sure enough, on Monday, April 23, and Tuesday, April 24, just as these articles were appearing, several car bombs went off near Ramadi.

Do these bombings call into question how much success U.S. forces have been having? I asked Colonel John Charlton, commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 3rd Infantry Division, with responsibility for Ramadi and the surrounding area. Below is the response he emailed back to me yesterday, which he agreed to let me share with contentions readers. (Note that the estimated toll he gives for the bombings—thirteen killed—is much lower than the death toll cited in most news accounts, such as this BBC story, which reported at least 45 dead).

Max,

Sorry about the delayed response, but email went down and then I had a couple real busy days. Bottom line on last week’s VBIED [vehicle-borne improvised explosive device] attacks—

The first one targeted an IP [Iraqi Police] station. It was intercepted and destroyed prior to reaching the station but caused 5 IP WIA’s [wounded in action] and over 20 civilian WIA’s. Another VBIED attacked an IP checkpoint on the highway resulting in 13 IP KIA [killed in action] and 8 IP WIA. This VBIED was also attempting to destroy an IP station but was intercepted before it could reach its target. The casualty count was so high because the IP’s were in the process of shift change at that location.

Last week the IP’s successfully intercepted a VBIED on the highway with no civilian or IP casualties. The IP’s did the same thing yesterday with no casualties. I gave awards to last week’s heroes and will do the same for those who stopped yesterday’s VBIED attack.

The IP’s in Ramadi are constantly on guard against VBIED’s. Unfortunately, even if the VBIED fails to reach its target, they still are deadly to anyone nearby. Al Qaeda will continue to try to attack the Ramadi IP’s and civilians with these VBIED’s in order to gain headlines. They know they were defeated in Ramadi so this is their attempt to save face and strike back at the force that drove them out of town. These murderers don’t care how many civilians are killed as long as they get a headline. Unfortunately, U.S. media seems to reinforce this behavior. One thing is certain, the people of Anbar will never accept al Qaeda and the police here will continue to fight back regardless of the danger they face. These attacks only strengthen their resolve.

We are currently conducting a large operation to clear terrorists out of the Abu Bali tribal region east of Ramadi. This area developed into a terrorist safe haven after we cleared Ramadi. Using coalition forces and ISF [Iraqi Security Forces], we are doing the same, deliberate clearing methods that we used in our previous operations. We have encountered many IED’s (reminds me of [Operation] Murfreesboro [in February-March]) but have cleared the area and are building another new JSS [Joint Security Station]. Almost immediately, the local population asked to start a neighborhood watch, and now these citizens are pointing out caches and IED’s.

We also successfully cleared an area to our south called al Tash. This was another area al Qaeda moved to when we cleared the city. We started getting increased IED attacks from this area so we went and cleared this town and established a JSS. Locals there now want to join the police force, and we haven’t had a single incident down there in about 2 weeks. I think al Qaeda is beginning to get the idea that we don’t like them in the neighborhood.

We are also working very hard with local religious leaders to improve popular support and conditions here in Ramadi. I have been meeting with prominent Sunni clerics from Anbar, and we think we will be able to reopen the main mosque here in Ramadi next week (I’m sure you saw it while you were here—it’s the really big one just north of the Malaab). This will be a huge event since this mosque is the centerpiece of Islamic worship here in Ramadi and has not been in operation for years due to the fighting. We are working religious-leader engagement at every level, and it is really paying off. A couple months ago, about half the mosques in Ramadi were broadcasting anti-coalition messages. Last Friday, there wasn’t a single anti-coalition sermon, and there were even a couple mosques that broadcast a pro-coalition message—I’ve never seen that before in my three tours over here.

Have to get back to work now . . . will give you an update on our efforts to help the Iraqis rebuild in my next email. This is an important aspect of counterinsurgency that will take a little time to explain.

Take care, John.

Rock of the Marne!
John W. Charlton
COL, Infantry
Commanding
Camp Ar Ramadi, Iraq

As Colonel Charlton keeps me posted, I will pass along his updates. They are not all likely to be positive. There is a war on, after all, and the enemy remains tenacious and brutal. We mustn’t set unrealistic goals in Ramadi (or anywhere else in Iraq) and then engage in self-flagellation if we don’t achieve them. Anbar, and the rest of Iraq, will remain violent for years, probably decades, to come. The question is whether we can get that violence down to a sustainable level, a level that doesn’t threaten the functioning of Iraq’s emerging government and civil society. So far that’s just what Colonel Charlton and his men have managed to pull off in Ramadi. Even the New York Times is taking notice. But all such accomplishments are fragile.

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Anbar Against al Qaeda

I’ve argued in the past, and still believe, that you can’t blame the news media for the fact that we’re losing the war in Iraq. But it’s hard to defend some press actions, such as the decision by the New York Times to bury the most important Iraq story of the weekend. Readers of the Saturday New York Times had to turn to the bottom of page A8 to read this dispatch from Edward Wong in Baghdad: “In Lawless Sunni Heartland of Iraq, a Tribal Chief Opposes the Jihadists, and Prays.”

Wong describes a trend I’ve been hearing about on the military grapevine but which hasn’t been much reported in the MSM: the growing willingness of tribal leaders in Anbar province to turn against al Qaeda and offer to fight for the government. The anti-al Qaeda sheiks have formed a group called the Anbar Salvation Council, and they’ve begun encouraging their young men to join the police and various militia forces to battle the jihadists. Thanks to the council’s efforts, the number of Iraqi police recruits in Anbar has shot up from 30 to 300 a month.

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I’ve argued in the past, and still believe, that you can’t blame the news media for the fact that we’re losing the war in Iraq. But it’s hard to defend some press actions, such as the decision by the New York Times to bury the most important Iraq story of the weekend. Readers of the Saturday New York Times had to turn to the bottom of page A8 to read this dispatch from Edward Wong in Baghdad: “In Lawless Sunni Heartland of Iraq, a Tribal Chief Opposes the Jihadists, and Prays.”

Wong describes a trend I’ve been hearing about on the military grapevine but which hasn’t been much reported in the MSM: the growing willingness of tribal leaders in Anbar province to turn against al Qaeda and offer to fight for the government. The anti-al Qaeda sheiks have formed a group called the Anbar Salvation Council, and they’ve begun encouraging their young men to join the police and various militia forces to battle the jihadists. Thanks to the council’s efforts, the number of Iraqi police recruits in Anbar has shot up from 30 to 300 a month.

Wong’s story focuses on the council’s leader, Sheik Abdul Sattar Buzaigh al-Rishawa, the 35-year-old chief of the Rishawai tribe, which accounts for about 40,000 of the 400,000 residents of Ramadi, the provincial capital. The sheik’s father and three brothers were killed, most likely by al Qaeda, but this hasn’t cowed him; it has only fueled his thirst for vengeance. Wong quotes a U.S. army civil-affairs officer, who emailed him before his own death in combat in December, that Sheik Abdul Sattar “is the most effective local leader in Ramadi I believe the coalition has worked with since they arrived in Anbar in 2003.”

A measure of caution is warranted here. We have heard before about tribal elders rising up against al Qaeda, and there have been previous reports about local militias, such as the Fallujah Brigade, which did not live up to their hype. But if the trends portrayed in Wong’s story continue, it will be a hugely significant break in the battle to reestablish control of Anbar province, the most lawless region of Iraq since the downfall of the Baathist regime.

You might think that this would deserve front-page play. But no. The Times editors have more important stories to place there, such as this article from Montpelier, Vermont: “Warm Winters Upset Rhythms of Maple Sugar.”

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