August 14, 2007

Balance of Terror

By Michael J. Totten

Moqtada al Sadr Billboard Iraq.jpg

BAGHDAD – The American soldier sitting next to me flipped open his Zippo lighter and gloomily lit a cigarette. “Do you know why this base isn’t attacked by insurgents?” he said.

I assumed it was because his area of operations, in the Graya’at neighborhood of northern Baghdad out of Coalition Outpost War Eagle, had been cleared of insurgents. Many American military bases and outposts in Iraq are attacked by Al Qaeda terrorists and Mahdi Army militiamen with mortars and rockets. War Eagle was quiet and had not been bombarded for months.

“We aren’t being attacked because the Mahdi Army is in the next building,” he said. “They don’t want to hit their own people.”

American soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division shared the small outpost with Iraqi Army soldiers who lived, worked, and slept in the building next door.

“You mean the Iraqi Army unit here has been infiltrated?” I said.

He nodded grimly and took a pull from his cigarette.

"That's a bad reason for us not to be mortared," I said.

"Yeah," he said and laughed. It was obvious, though, that he did not think it was funny.

“How do you know this?” I said.

“Heard it from intel,” he said. “Getting information out of them is like pulling teeth, but sometimes they say stuff.”

I went inside the Tactical Operations Center and spoke to the Public Affairs Officer. “What can I help you with, Mike?” he said.

“I want an on-the-record interview with Military Intelligence,” I said.

“Why?” he said.

I told him what I had heard. “I can print rumor or fact,” I said.

He got me the interview.

Master Sergeant Jeffrey K. Tyler met with me privately.

“It’s true,” he said. “Many of the Iraqi Army soldiers here are supporters of JAM.JAM is military shorthand for Jaysh al Mahdi, or Moqtada al Sadr’s radical Shia Mahdi Army militia. “They aren’t in JAM cells necessarily, but they are sympathizers. They may let JAM guys through checkpoints, for example. They aren’t out kidnapping Sunnis or anything like that. They are sympathizers, not direct actors. Almost all the Iraqi Army soldiers here are Shias.”

“Is their presence here the reason we aren’t getting mortared?” I said. “Because the Mahdi Army doesn’t want to blow up their own people?”

“We think that’s probably so,” he said and nodded with confidence.

I didn’t hear that in the briefing when I first got there.

The outpost isn’t the only safe place in that part of Baghdad. The entire area of operations is quiet. The American soldiers based there haven’t suffered a single casualty since they arrived in country at the beginning of the surge in early 2007. The Graya’at neighborhood has been cleared of active insurgents. It’s safer than the Green Zone, in fact, which is still attacked with incoming rockets and mortars.

“If someone sets up a mortar,” said Lieutenant Colonel Wilson A. Shoffner, “we get phone calls from the locals before it is fired. We reached a tipping point here where we have more friends than the insurgents.”

Major Michael Jazdyk concurred. “We were a target at first,” he said. “Insurgents shot at us with rockets and mortars. But most of the time they killed local civilians. The locals want us here now because we pushed the insurgents out and are keeping them out.”

“How do the local civilians help?” I asked.

“We go on foot patrols and joint patrols with the Iraqi Army,” he said. “We give people tip cards with a phone number on it that they can call and give us intel. An Arabic speaker answers the phone.”

The peace, though, isn’t stable. Many areas of Baghdad have been cleared – even the notoriously violent Haifa Street neighborhood – but insurgents and terrorists need only drive a few minutes to get from one of their strongholds to another part of the city. Gunmen and car bombers from other sectors of Baghdad can and do pass through War Eagle’s area.

Until recently the biggest threat was from the adjacent neighborhood just on the other side of the Tigris. It hasn’t been cleared of insurgents. When the War Eagle outpost was still struck by mortars, they were fired from there over the water. It is the insurgents in that sector who apparently have decided to stop attacking the outpost so they won’t hurt their comrades who infiltrated the base.

Those infiltrators in the Iraqi Army are trained every day by the Americans.

“They act like our friends,” said Master Sergeant Tyler. “It is a façade to an extent, yes. They get benefits from having a good relationship with us and will do and say anything to keep us on their side.”

I heard rumors that the Iraqi Army colonel in charge of his side of War Eagle is himself a supporter of Moqtada al Sadr. I could not, however, confirm that with Military Intelligence. Maybe it’s true and maybe it isn’t. American soldiers there believe it is.

Nothing makes me more pessimistic about Iraq’s future prospects than this. The Mahdi Army is Iran’s major proxy in Iraq. It is, in effect, the Iraqi branch of Hezbollah.

The Iranians know what they’re doing. Lebanon was their proving ground. The Revolutionary Guards built Hezbollah from scratch along the border with Israel and in the suburbs south of Beirut during the chaos of civil war and Israeli occupation. In Iraq they’re simply repeating the formula, only this time more violently.

Most of Lebanon’s Shias were moderately pro-Israel before Iran barged onto the scene. 25 years later, and more than 15 years after Lebanon’s civil war ended, Hezbollah is still a menace to Israel and the elected government in Beirut. Hezbollah still has its own foreign policy. Hezbollah can unilaterally ignite hot wars with foreign countries whether Lebanese as a whole want war or not. The level of “stability” in Lebanon may be the best Iraqis can hope for in this generation if the Mahdi Army and its supporters are not somehow purged from the government, the military, and the police.

If some of the Iraqi Army soldiers at War Eagle only pretend to be friends with Americans, what about the civilians in the area? Are they faking it, too?

Who knows?

I went on mounted and dismounted foot patrols with American soldiers every day in that part of Baghdad. Except for one slightly creepy experience where shadowy figures stalked us in the dark, all the local Iraqis I met and interacted with were exceptionally friendly.

On a typical patrol at dawn the soldiers I embedded with did only two things: they kept up a visible presence in the area and tossed boxes of Girl Scout cookies to children.

As the morning progressed and more people woke up, entire families came out of their houses to greet us and wave. Private Goings, the gunner in the Humvee I rode in, threw one box of cookies after another. Kids and their parents received them ecstatically. We did this all morning, for four hours. Aside from a 20 minute dismounted patrol near a palm grove, all we did was drive around and throw cookies.

Girl Scout Cookies Iraq.jpg

“This is definitely not a war,” said Sergeant Daniel E. Lizanne. He was referring, of course, to his specific area, not to more violent places like Baqubah and Sadr City. “It’s a peacekeeping mission. We’re really just like police officers here. Right now all we’re doing is waiting for somebody stupid to shoot at us.”

It really didn’t look or feel like a war. No one in the area gets shot or blown up. For hours I watched American soldiers act as though they were employed by Santa Claus rather than the United States Army.

Kids Running Up to Humvee.jpg

I felt like I could rent a house, move in, and be perfectly safe. Several journalists I know have stayed for long periods in various parts of the Red Zone in Baghdad and they haven’t been shot or kidnapped yet. It really is possible, if you’re careful.

Still, I did not trust that feeling. I would be crazy to trust that feeling too much in Baghdad where a false sense of security must be fought against constantly. If I end up trusting the locals as a whole, at least before the war’s over, it will be time for me to get a new job.

“A lot of the people around here are Sadr supporters,” said Sergeant Lizanne. “But they’re also pro-coalition. I don’t really understand how that works.”

Don’t ask me to explain it. Moqtada al Sadr is an enemy of the United States. His militiamen kill or at least try to kill Americans every day elsewhere in Baghdad. How anyone in Iraq could support both him and the Americans is beyond me.

Iraq is a bewildering country. I can tell you what I see and what I hear, but I can’t unravel and explain with confidence the contradictions in the hearts and minds of its people. The Kurds are fairly straightforward and easy to read. The recently turned pro-American Arabs of Anbar Province likewise aren’t too complicated these days. Baghdad, though, is all but impenetrable. I don’t suggest you trust any Westerner who hasn’t spent years there who says he or she understands the alleyways and secrets of that city.

In my mind I keep returning to what an Iraqi interpreter named Hammer said to me a few days before. “You can’t understand Iraq because you can’t get inside their mind. When you get inside their mind…it is a crazy mind.”

“Do you think the civilians here are genuinely friendly or just faking it?” I asked Sergeant Lizanne. Private Goings tossed more boxes of cookies.

“Hmm,” he said. “Well, I wouldn’t want to be out here by myself at night, I’ll tell you that much. The children really do love us, though. At least we’re making friends with the next generation.”

The children aren’t the only ones uninterested in fighting Americans.

“The sheiks in our area say they won’t tolerate a single round fired at us,” Colonel Shoffner told me.

This is not propaganda from the Army. It really is true. No one shoots at American soldiers in Graya’at. If the friendliness of the locals was a complete and total sham, somebody would shoot. Instead they rat out insurgents. Every unit I went on patrol with was made up only of American soldiers. Local Iraqi Army Sadr supporters did not follow us around the city like portable human shields.

Iraqi Man Thumbs Up.jpg

On the other hand, some of the locals support Moqtada al Sadr, whose militiamen kill American soldiers.

On the third hand, fighting in Iraq between American soldiers and the Mahdi Army militia rises and falls like the tide. There are times when Sadr’s men don’t act like enemies at all, and not only in localized areas like Graya’at.

“Sometimes Sadr puts out notices saying no attacks on coalition forces,” Master Sergeant Tyler told me. “He explicitly says that violators will be executed. They he’ll turn around and tell them to launch as many attacks in the next five days as possible.”

Sadr’s Army, it seems, deploys violence against Americans as a way to earn points in negotiations. This would make him and his militia less extreme than Al Qaeda. If diplomacy between the two sides is going well, attacks are called off. If the Americans hold out on something Sadr wants or needs, attacks are resumed or ramped up.

I asked several people what might happen if Moqtada al Sadr was pulled out of the Iranian orbit and flipped to the American side, as the tribal leaders of Anbar Province have been brought around to the American side. Sadr would still live in fear of Saddam Hussein if the Americans never arrived and destroyed the old government. A peaceful coexistence of some sort is at least theoretically possible if he can be peeled away from Iran with money and promises.

“I think the reason the U.S. hasn’t killed Sadr yet is because they are trying to flip him to their side,” said Hammer. “All it takes is money. It’s all about money money money for these guys. He has only 16 percent support among the Shia. I am a Shia. I know lots of Shia in Sadr City who hate and fear him, but he has lots of power and influence.”

“If we flip Sadr Iraq might very well reach a tipping point,” Master Sergeant Tyler told me. “The war might be all but technically over. But there would be some blowback from the Sunni side at first.”

Sounds great, but it begs the question: is a tactical alliance with Moqtada al Sadr even desirable?


“I have a story for you,” said an Army interpreter named Feris who moved from Damascus, Syria, to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 1967. “There’s someone you need to meet around the back of the building.”

I grabbed my camera and notepad. Feris took me behind the Tactical Operations Center to the far edge of the outpost.

“Come on,” he said and led me into an area concealed in camouflage netting and roped off with razor wire.

“Are we allowed to be back here?” I said.

“Doesn’t matter,” he said. “Come on, so the others can’t see.”

An Iraqi civilian waited for us where others could not see. He panicked when he saw my camera and hurriedly covered his face and turned his back.

“No pictures, no pictures,” Feris said.

“Okay,” I said. “No problem. Tell him I won’t take his picture.”

Feris put his hand over the lens. I pointed the camera at the ground and said “No picture, no picture.”

The Iraqi who waited turned and looked me in the eye.

Jaysh al Mahdi took me,” he said. “They kidnapped me and dragged me off to the mosque where they beat me.”

“Where?” I said. He didn’t speak any English. Feris translated.

“To the Ahl al Bayt mosque in Sadr City,” he said. “It is next to Muzaffer Square and the Fire Department in Area 55. It is loaded with weapons. Every mosque in Sadr City is full of weapons. At every mosque in Sadr City they beat people. I can take you right to the spot where they beat me.”

Mahdi Army in Basra copyright Nabil al-Jurani.jpg

Mahdi Army militiamen march in Basra. Photo copyright Nabil al-Jurani.

I won’t be going to Sadr City any time soon, but anyone who needs to know where the Ahl al Bayt mosque is shouldn’t have much trouble finding it.

He took off his shirt and turned around. More than a dozen horizontal red and blue bruises crisscrossed his back like blunt lash marks.

“They beat me with iron sticks,” he said, “and fired a gun in the air next to my head.”

Then they shaved his head. The Mahdi Army does this to people they kidnap, to mark them, perhaps, or to humiliate them.

“Why?” I said. “Why did they do this to you?”

“Because I work here,” I said.

He works at the outpost as a civilian, not for the Americans but for the Iraqis.

“They say I work with Americans,” he said. “It’s not true. I told them I don’t even speak English. How can I work with Americans? I want to work with Americans, but I’m afraid. If I could I would kill them and stay on this base forever.”

“Where did they kidnap you?” I said. “From here?”

“They took me from the street in Sadr City,” he said. “They know where I live.”

“How do they know you work here?” I said.

He gestured toward the building where Iraqi Army soldiers live and sleep. Of course.

“The Iraqi Army told them,” he said.

“How do you know?” I said. “How do you know it was them?”

No one else knows I work here,” he said. “Only them.”

If the young man is right, the Mahdi Army sympathizers who infiltrated the Iraqi Army barracks may be a little bit more than the mere passive sympathizers Master Sergeant Tyler suggested.

He lit another cigarette from what remained of his first.

“I smoke so much because I’m upset,” he said.

He took out his cell phone and pointed at the screen.

“They found a video of girls dancing on my phone,” he said. “They deleted it and put a picture of Moqtada al Sadr on it instead. If you have a Sadr picture on your phone, that’s okay, that’s good. If you have a picture of anything else on your phone they will beat you. I don’t like the sonofabitch. Why would I want his picture on my phone?

I kept looking behind me to make sure no one in the Iraqi Army saw us talking. It probably wouldn’t make any difference, but it seemed like something I should do.

Feris shifted his weight from one foot to the other and kept sighing deeply. He was clearly upset. He grew up in Syria under the brutal regime of Hafez al Assad, but has lived in Iowa longer than I’ve been alive. He is hardly more accustomed to hearing these kinds of stories than I am.

“Is there anything you can do to protect yourself?” I asked the young Iraqi.

“What can I do?” he said. “No one can stop Jaysh al Mahdi. They live in the 16th Century. Everyone I know in Sadr City hates Moqtada al Sadr, but they can do nothing. Many people want the Americans to invade.”

I did not need to ask questions. He just kept on talking.

Jaysh al Mahdi has a special car they use to pack people in, take them away, and shoot them,” he said. “They have people on street corners watching out for American soldiers. They watch the city at night with night vision goggles. If anyone is out after midnight they think you’re a spy.”

He was on a roll now, telling me everything, unprompted, because I was a safe person to talk to and because I stood there and listened.

“Sadr is getting rich from Iranian money. They offered me money to join them. 3 million dinars [slightly less than 2,500 dollars.]. They wanted me as a fighter. But I said no. I won’t do that. I hate Jaysh al Mahdi.”

I heard the low sharp boom of outgoing artillery somewhere off in the distance, perhaps from Camp Taji north of the city. It is not a common sound in Iraq. I only heard it once every three days or so, and even then I only heard two or three outgoing shells being fired. Kinetic fire fights do erupt in Iraq, but I haven’t seen or heard any yet.

“They tied my hands behind my back,” he continued. “They kicked my knees backwards.” His lifted up the legs of his pants. Feris looked away. “They made me lay on my stomach and put heavy iron on my back. I had to sleep like that for five nights. My back is all screwed up now.”

“But you still have this job,” I said, “even though they beat you for having it.”

“I have to support my family. My Mom and Dad don’t work. Everyone in Sadr City is very poor. My whole family lives there, except my brother. He went to Lebanon. So many terrorists and criminals live there. If we had money we would all move tomorrow, but I only make 300 dollars a month. We have no TV, nothing, at my house. No one else from my family works. My Dad is too old and has a bad back. My Mom is too old. I want to get married. I’m engaged, but I have no money to get married.”

Neighborhoods all over Baghdad are being cleared of terrorists and insurgents as part of the surge. American soldiers are pushing them out of the city and moving into small houses and stations themselves in the neighborhoods where they can maintain security 24 hours a day. But Sadr City is still a no-go zone for American troops. I asked several high-ranking officers why, but they either don’t know or they don’t want to tell me.

“What if the US assaults Sadr City?” I said.

Sadr City.jpg

Sadr City

“We would all love that,” he said. “Everyone except the Mahdi Army would love that. Every single person I know hates Moqtada al Sadr.”

But some people do like Moqtada al Sadr. Someone in Graya’at put up a billboard with his face on it.

Lieutenant William H. Lord told me earlier that when American soldiers have gone into Sadr City in the past, children flipped them off and threw rocks. Children in our area of Baghdad, by contrast, treat the American soldiers like heroes. General Petraeus has his work cut out for him if and when he decides to surge into Sadr’s domain.

“Even Saddam was better than Jaysh al Mahdi,” he said. “They treat everyone bad. Americans treat us good. Sadr does not. They say Americans rape our women. They lie. It is just propaganda. Americans have plenty of women. Jaysh al Mahdi rapes our women for real. They are animals. But soon enough their day is coming.”

He got antsy and seemed to feel he spent too much time talking to me. He had to get back to work before someone noticed him missing.

“I cry all the time,” he said just before he set off. “I wish I was outside Iraq where I would not have to be afraid.”

I shook his hand. He returned to his post. And I felt useless. What could I do for this man? There are so many with stories like his in Iraq.

“What kind of country is this,” Feris said to me in a trembling voice, “where people do this sort of thing to their own people?”

Meanwhile, or at least so it appeared, I was safer at that outpost because the Mahdi Army was there. They did not want to hurt their own people with rockets and mortars. Moqtada al Sadr’s infiltrators and sympathizers enveloped me in a force field.

Iraq is a strange country. Where else can American civilians like me be protected by terrorist human shields?

Postscript: Please support independent journalism. Traveling to and working in Iraq is expensive. I can’t publish dispatches on this Web site for free without substantial reader donations, so I'll appreciate it if you pitch in what you can. Blog Patron allows you to make recurring monthly payments, and even small donations will be extraordinarily helpful so I can continue this project.

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at August 14, 2007 9:58 PM
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