August 20, 2007

How to Spy in Iraq

By Michael J. Totten

BAGHDAD – American soldiers arrived in Iraq in 2003 with not much of a plan and little idea what to expect. The Iraqi government, military, and police were overthrown and disbanded under de-Baathification. Most Iraqis who knew how to run the country were either sent home or imprisoned. Americans were in charge of just about everything even though they had no experience running even their own country let alone a traumatized and suspicious Arab society. They were confounded by its exotic and dysfunctional ways. When Sunni and Shia militias launched wars against each other and against the Americans, confusion turned to bewilderment.

General David Petraeus fared better than other American commanders in cracking the code of Iraqi society and reducing the insurgency in Mosul from an explosion to a simmer. I saw some of the results of his strategy’s expansion to Baghdad with troops in the 82nd Airborne Division. Instead of staying on base and training Iraqis while security disintegrated outside the wire, they moved into a neighborhood in Baghdad where they now live and work among the civilian population 24 hours a day.

Clear, hold, and build is the strategy now. The Graya’at neighborhood has been cleared of active insurgents, although there still are dormant cells in the area. The Army is working on several modest community and urban renewal projects and is planning larger ones in the near future. Constant patrols and intelligence gathering are the two crucial pieces of the hold part of the strategy.

I went out one night with Lieutenant Larry Pitts and his men one of their intel gathering missions.

“We’ll collect info on Shias in Sunni areas and Sunnis in Shia areas,” he told me. “We make the best of it by going out and meeting the local people. It works because we have a decent reputation around here that we’ve been cultivating for a long time. Reporters would get it more if they were with us from the beginning.”

We saddled up in Humvees, drove down quiet residential streets, and dismounted on a street near a palm grove.

Children came out of their houses to meet us.

Kids Baghdad with Lt Pitts.jpg

We walked, and kept walking, so the parked Humvees would give no indication whose house we were going to visit. When we eventually reached our destination, some of the soldiers dispersed and set up checkpoints several blocks away in each direction.

“We’re trying to make it slightly less obvious that we’re having a meeting here,” Lieutenant Pitts said.

Two families of men, women, and children met us on the lawn inside the gate. Hugs and formal greetings in Arabic were exchanged. Everyone seemed happy to see everyone else. The soldiers had been to this house before. No one but me was a stranger. I was instantly made to feel welcome, however. No people in the world are more hospitable than Arabs, and that includes Iraqis in war time.

A handful of soldiers went inside and made their way to the roof. There they could watch the entire street with their night vision goggles and take out anyone stupid enough to mount an attack on the house. Soldiers are killed in Iraq every day, but it’s still hard to feel nervous even in Baghdad when you’re surrounded by these guys.

The night was reasonably cool for Baghdad in the summer. The temperature rarely drops below 100 degrees Fahrenheit before midnight, but this night it felt like a cool 90 by ten p.m.

Plastic lawn chairs were arranged in a circle on the grass. I expected a relaxing evening of important conversation in comfort. The lawn chairs, though, were not for us. The owner of the house said we should have our meeting inside.

“He owns a store,” Lieutenant Pitts said to me on the way in. “He sells us phone cards and stuff at the right price, not at a jacked up rate. We call his store Wal-Mart.”

Inside the house was brutally hot. The lights were on, but the air conditioner was off. The fierce heat of the day couldn’t escape into the atmosphere like it could in the yard. If we were in the U.S. I would have suggested we sit outside, but I was the stranger and a mere observer in a foreign land and was not about to complain.

The home owner turned on the air conditioner, but it would take a long time for the room to cool down.

“Can I take pictures?” I asked him.

“Of course, of course,” he said. “Just please don’t publish pictures of our faces in Iraq.”

Publishing pictures on the Internet is the same as publishing pictures in Iraq. So I have to be careful about what I let you see. I can't show you the faces of any Iraqis.

The living room, or salon, was bigger than the entire downstairs of my house in the United States. Most Iraqis live in large houses, but this one was also lavishly decorated with plush couches, nice oak cabinets, and tasteful decorations. The occupants had a much better sense of aesthetics than Saddam Hussein’s family, who decorated their tacky palaces as though they were the Beverly Hillbillies of the Arabs.

We all took our seats on the large billowing sofas. An eleven year old boy placed a small wooden table in front of each of us and served soft drinks and tea.

Tea Baghdad with Lt Pitts.jpg

The soldiers and the Iraqis discussed the rather mundane minutiae of joint community projects. I wrote down much of the dialogue, but it is not terribly interesting and, besides, I wouldn’t want to reveal too much about who these Iraqis are and what they do. Everyone in the community knows they work with Americans. What they don’t know is that they also pass on reliable and actionable intelligence to the military about the identities and whereabouts of terrorists and insurgents.

Lieutenant Pitts passed around a bag of salted American peanuts. Each Iraqi took a handful and wasn’t sure what to do with them.

“They’re peanuts,” he said. “Just like the peanuts you eat, only they’re still in the shell.”

The owner of the house broke open a peanut with his hands.

“No,” Lieutenant Pitts said. “You need to put it in your mouth and suck the salt off it first.”

The children in the room smiled at me and asked me over and over again to please take their picture. I can’t show you their faces, though, because I do not want to put them in danger.

“We brought toys for the kids,” Lieutenant Pitts said. Sergeant Roma and another soldier whose name I didn’t catch handed out Beanie Babies, toy trucks, and coloring books as though they were Christmas presents. One of the boys sprawled on the floor and “drove” his toy truck across the carpet while making loud “vroom” noises.

“Everyone working on the [omitted] project should be paid by the end of the week,” Lieutenant Pitts said.

“Thank you, Captain,” said the man who owned the house. It was the second time he referred to Pitts as a captain.

“I’m a lieutenant, not a captain,” Lieutenant Pitts said. “So please don’t call me captain. If one of my superior officers were sitting here and heard you call me a captain he might get mad at me and think I’m misrepresenting myself.”

Lt Pitts Baghdad.jpg

Lieutenant Larry Pitts

I leaned over and whispered to the lieutenant. “You didn’t come here to talk about community projects, did you?”

“Of course not,” he said. “We’re fishing for something else. It’s a process. Some new lieutenants don’t get the culture, and the locals won’t give them the time of day. How many times have you let total strangers in your house and given them everything they wanted right away?”

The air conditioning was on, I had taken off my body armor and helmet, but I was still roasting. The couch seat and cushions radiated an extraordinary amount of heat that had built up all day. Almost every damn thing in Iraq is hot to the touch, even cushions. I felt as though I was standing too close to a campfire, but I could not step away.

Lieutenant Pitts’ radio squawked. He answered and grinned as the soldier on the other end of the conversation gave him the humorous news.

“They just caught a DUI at the checkpoint outside,” he said.

The soldiers all laughed. Our interpreter Nathan translated, and the Iraqis laughed too.

“What do you do with a DUI?” I said.

Lieutenant Pitts shrugged and shook his head. American soldiers in areas cleared of insurgents act like police officers in many ways – Baghdad P.D. as one soldier put it – but they can’t be bothered with trivial matters like these. That’s for the Iraqi Police who probably don’t care much about drunk drivers either. There are so many more critical problems in Baghdad.

For hours we lounged on the sofas and discussed minor community matters and touched on subjects that were utterly trivial.

Nathan asked our host for a cigarette. He was given a long brown “More” brand menthol.

“Nathan is smoking!” said Sergeant Roma.

“Since when do you smoke?” said the soldier at the far end of the room whose name and rank I didn’t catch.

“It’s my first cigarette ever,” Nathan said.

It was hard to believe Nathan had never once smoked a cigarette. He grew up in Sadr City. Almost everyone in Iraq seems to smoke.

I took a picture of the occasion. Nathan didn’t mind.

Nathan First Cigarette.jpg

Interpreter Nathan smokes his first cigarette

Lieutenant Pitts wiped the sweat off his forehead.

“You Iraqis have the right idea wearing dishdashas,” he said. The dishdasha is the loose-fitting white “robe” worn by many Arab men in hot regions. “They’re a lot more comfortable in this heat than our uniforms. I asked the colonel if I started wearing a dishdasha around the base in my off time if he would think I was crazy. He said he would send me away.”

Everyone laughed. If the Iraqis were offended – and Pitts did not mean his comment that way – they didn’t show it.

“The soccer field you’re building,” said our host to the lieutenant, “is great for the kids, but it also helps with security. Insurgents were using that area as a base. Thank you, thank you.” He put his hand on his heart.

“Listen,” said another Iraqi, who wore a long black beard as well as a dishdasha. “I have something to tell you, but it has to be away from the children.”

He said this in English so the children would not understand. A young man led them outside and suggested they play with their new toys on the lawn.

“When you came and liberated this country,” he continued, “Iraq had 25 million Saddams. America is turning us back into human beings. That soccer field is not for a specific person. It is for everybody. We appreciate that. We believe that if Americans have something that is ours, they will return it to us. If the Iraqi government has something that is ours, we forget it.”

Our host for the evening nodded in agreement.

“We support you,” the man continued. “You support our back, we support your back. But you must understand: If you pull back, we will pull back. I will have no choice but to pull back if I can’t depend on you. It will be much harder for us to stand together. But as long as you stand firmly behind us we will support you against Moqtada al Sadr and the other bastards in the area.”

“Are they Sunnis?” I said to Lieutenant Pitts. Moqtada al Sadr leads the radical Shia Mahdi Army militia.

“No,” he said. “They are Shias. But they don’t like any of the idiot groups, regardless of sect. They want peace.”

It was late at night, but the Iraqis said we needed to eat. I had no idea, but in hindsight I should have known. It seems no Arab is happy if I’m in his house and he isn’t feeding me.

“Come to the table,” said our host. “Let’s have some chicken.”

The soldiers and I walked to the table in the next room and found an enormous spread of barbecued chicken, lamb kebabs, vegetables, and tearable flat bread. The Iraqis deferred to the soldiers, and the soldiers deferred to me. I was the lone foreign civilian, so I was expected to go first. There were no chairs at the table.

“Just stand and eat at the table,” Lieutenant Pitts whispered to me.

There was also no silverware. Iraqis eat with their hands.

I tore off a hunk of barbecued chicken and rolled it into some bread. The spices tasted vaguely of lime.

“This is delicious,” I said. And it was. This was the soldiers’ cue that they could now eat.

“This is some really good chicken,” said Sergeant Roma. He wasn’t just being polite. “It’s much better than the chicken we have at the D-FAC [military dining facility].”

This is how soldiers spend most of their time when they gather intelligence on terrorists and insurgents in Iraq. Not until the very end of the meeting, which is almost strictly social and takes many hours, does anyone get down to business. Jumping right in with a list of intelligence questions is considered the height or rudeness except in extreme or unusual circumstances.

“Would you like a glass of arak?” our host graciously asked me.

Arak is the Arabic version of ouzo, the milky white liquor that tastes of licorice.

“I would love some,” I said. “But I am not allowed to drink alcohol while embedded with the military.”

“Go ahead, it’s okay,” Lieutenant Pitts said.

“I should probably follow the rules,” I said. I hadn’t been embedded long enough to feel like flouting rules yet, but in hindsight I hope I didn’t offend him by turning him down.

After eating we returned, stuffed, to the couches. Nathan, our interpreter, was needed outside. To my surprise, Lieutenant Pitts continued his conversation with our Iraqi hosts, unaided, in Arabic.

“How long did you study Arabic?” I said to him during a lull in the conversation.

“I haven’t studied it,” he told me.

He hadn’t? Most non-native speakers can’t hold down a conversation until they have studied Arabic formally for several years.

“I just listen very carefully before our interpreters translate,” he continued, “and I’ve been picking it up. I still need Nathan to help with the nuances and specifics, but I understand basically what they are saying. And they understand me even though I am not speaking correctly.”

The Army has come a long way since they first arrived in Iraq, and Lieutenant Pitts was shaping up to be a real American Arabist.

We still hadn’t done anything, though, except hang out and socialize with Iraqis. I knew the drill, however. I often work the same way in the Middle East as a reporter when I’m not embedded.

Much of what I do in the Middle East is have dinner and tea, and sometimes alcohol, with Middle Easterners and learn how their culture works and what they think. Most Arabs will tell you far more and answer more honestly over food and drinks than they will if you rattle off a list of pre-packaged questions like you’re pumping them for information. Government officials usually skip the formalities and the socializing, but few others do.

Sergeant Roma, who sat to my left, also speaks Arabic.

Roma Baghdad.jpg

Sergeant Roma

“They think that makes me a spy,” he said, “and that I must be from Jerusalem. They don’t mind, though.”

This was typical of the Arab world, but also a bit odd. They think he’s a spy? What did they think we were doing there in their house? This was an intelligence gathering operation. It was, more or less, spying. The only difference is that the soldiers were up front about it, even though (and this is not contradictory) no one said anything about intelligence gathering yet. Nobody had to. Everyone knew what was up. The United States military has better things to do in Iraq than socialize just for the sake of socializing.

That doesn’t mean the food and gifts and chit chat were a sham. The friendship and affection between these Americans and Iraqis is real. Several soldiers and officers told me that what surprises them most about their time in Iraq is how emotionally attached they’ve become to Iraqis in general and to specific individuals in particular. They didn’t expect it, but that’s what happened. And it’s considered a waste of that friendship to talk strictly business. The business wouldn’t be possible anyway if the friendship and trust weren’t there first.

“Some people around here think anyone who talks to Americans is a spy,” said the Iraqi man with the beard.

I have been suspected and accused of being a spy in every Arab country I’ve been to. The accusation is usually not serious, rarely feels threatening, and is usually humorous or annoying, depending on the context and who said it. But the truth is that huge numbers of Iraqis who talk to Americans really do supply actionable intelligence on terrorists and insurgents. They risk retaliation, but if they don’t take that risk they risk getting ethnically cleansed or car bombed at the market instead. Iraq is an extreme country in a state of emergency. Spies – and I’m using the term loosely here, not referring to James Bond type characters – are literally everywhere.

The only areas of Iraq where the locals won’t provide much intelligence is where the American presence is thin on the ground. It’s not worth risking reprisals if no one is around to provide security. This is one of the major reasons Iraq spiraled out of control for several years. American troops did not provide security for civilians. Today, though, they are.

“We’ve been getting to know these people for months,” Lieutenant Pitts told me before we arrived at the house. “We thought if we got to know them as people and promised to protect them from violence that they would help us win the war against the insurgents. And it works.”

“Some people complain about Iraqis working with Americans,” said the man with the beard. “But then many of them work for Americans as soon as they are offered a job. When they complain they are just jealous. Give people jobs. That is the key.”

“In the four years you have been here,” our host said, “only lately have you finally come around and talked to us about what we want and need.”

“Hopefully in the last six months we’ve been able to improve your area,” Lieutenant Pitts said.

“Yes,” said the host. “Yes! And what about big projects like hospitals?”

“Soon, in the future,” said the lieutenant. “We do have some big projects coming up.”

One of those big projects is the installation of 1,500 solar-powered street lights in the neighborhood. Most sectors of Baghdad only get one hour of electricity every day. And the Iraqi sun is so fierce, solar powered lights are almost a no-brainer. Insurgents sabotage the electrical grid and make it all but irreparable, but there’s no grid for decentralized solar lights to attack.

“Right now you’re light,” our host said. “If you do big projects people will really love you. People see we’re working with you. Support all of us more and it will be okay. They will love you. They will even give you their shoes.”

“What about the big fight at the mayor’s house?” Lieutenant Pitts said. He was referring to the mayor of the neighborhood of Graya’at, not the mayor of the entire city of Baghdad.

“The mayor works for himself,” said the host. “His son, though, was listening to music in his parked car. Mahdi Army men came up and threw sandals at him and beat him up. They fired warning shots in the air. The shots were a way of saying We have weapons.

“A big problem is that lots of displaced people are coming back into this area,” said the man with the beard.

“And what about the illegal checkpoint that we busted up?” said the lieutenant. “I need to know the fallout.”

We weren’t quite getting down to brass tacks yet, but were close.

“What you need to do,” said the host, “is bust up two or three of the other checkpoints so people don’t think you’re taking sides. They are checking ID cards to find out if people are Sunni or Shia.”

The lieutenant and our interpreter Nathan whispered conspiratorially. Pitts nodded. They clearly worked well together.

“Tell them they are only allowed two checkpoints,” the host said, “one at each end of the market. None in the middle. They are taking 5,000 dinars from each vehicle. They use that money to buy weapons for the Mahdi Army.”

“Have you heard about anyone storing weapons?” said Lieutenant Pitts. “Not in these houses but in [omitted]?”

“No,” said the man with the beard.

“We got a report that there are caches there,” said the lieutenant.

“We’ll keep our eyes open,” said our host. “We will [omitted] and get back to you.”

I’m leaving out certain details by choice to protect these Iraqis, but I still want to give you an idea about what was said.

They have clever ways of keeping their eyes on the neighborhood. Their methods have always been used in the alleyways of Arab societies. Insurgents can possibly guess what those methods are, but they will not learn it from me.

Lieutenant Pitts pulled a color print picture out of his pocket. “Do you recognize this man?” he said.

He passed the picture around.

“This guy is bad guy,” he said. “He’s done some bad things to Shias. I was hoping to catch him these evening.”

It was news to me that I might be along for the ride during a night raid. But no one seemed to recognize him, so it looked like that wasn’t happening.

“We have some Sunni friends in [omitted],” Lieutenant Pitts said. “But they’re afraid to tell us about bad Sunnis. We know [omitted] lives in this area. There are no Sunnis here. I just want to sit down and talk to [omitted]. I think he’s the final piece to this puzzle. Then we’ll be able to roll these guys up. We’ve tried to get this guy before, but some other Sunnis in the area warned him in advance that we were after him.”

“I am sorry, my friend,” said the man with the beard and shook his head.

“If you can provide even a small piece of information,” said the lieutenant. “The fuel station we’re building will be open soon. The swing gates and security checkpoints at the market are already in place. The solar lights will be installed shortly.”

The Iraqis shook their heads. I doubt Pitts needed to remind them of what the Army had done for them lately. They seemed plenty motivated already, as Shias, to get Shia-murdering Sunni thugs off the streets.

It was time to move on to the next house. We said our goodbyes and I sincerely thanked the generous Iraqis for their hospitality. When the soldiers rose from the couch the kids ran up and gave them high-fives.

“One last thing,” Lieutenant Pitts said. “If you come back from your vacation in [omitted] and you don’t bring us pictures, we are taking over your store.”

Everyone laughed at the obvious joke.

“We will bring you a gift from outside,” said the man with the beard.

“A real live woman?” said the lieutenant. “Will you bring me a second wife?”

More big laughs all around.

I strapped on my body armor.

“Do you want to stay a while longer and take a nap?” said our host.

“Thank you,” Lieutenant Pitts said. “But we have work to do tonight.”

They’ll have work to do for years.


Those men were Shias who lived among Sunnis. Next we would meet with a Sunni who lived among Shias.

We drove for five minutes, parked the Humvees, and quietly, casually, walked to a different part of the neighborhood.

Grayaat Baghdad at Night.jpg

I had no idea where we were going, and we seemed to take random turns to disguise our intent and direction in case anyone watched.

Then, out of the blue, Lieutenant Pitts tried not to look obvious as he rang somebody’s doorbell.

The city was dark, quiet, and still, and not in an ominous way. It may not have been tranquil, but it felt like it was. As was often the case, I was surprised how relaxed I felt in Baghdad. Suddenly two feral cats screeched and fought tooth and claw in the street.

A man came out the front door and opened the gate leading into the courtyard. He saw me and several soldiers and quietly beckoned us in. We did not go in the house, though. We crouched next to the wall just inside the courtyard where no one could see us. Someone could have heard our conversation if they were standing just on the other side of the wall, but several soldiers spread out on the streets and made sure nobody did.

“Hello,” the man said in English. “I was wondering when you would show up.”

The man had briefly approached Lieutenant Pitts in public a few weeks before and said he had some information to give him. Not wanting to appear obvious, Pitts asked the man where he lived and said he would pay him a visit at some unknown time in the future.

This was that time.

“Do you mind if I take your picture?” I said. I was almost certain he would say no, but thought I would ask.

He laughed. “No, no please don’t,” he said.

“It’s amazing that you asked,” said Sergeant Roma, who crouched next to me. “Most reporters just take the picture.”

“Of course I asked,” I said. “I am not going to risk getting him killed for a picture.”

Sergeant Roma nodded and rolled his eyes at the behavior of some reporters who had embedded with him in the past.

The Iraqi man works for the Baghdad government at a ministry I will not identify in the Green Zone. He showed us his card. “I would never show this card outside the gate in this neighborhood,” he told me.

The cats continued fighting in the street, loud enough to wake people up. Still, we did not go inside. Everyone just lowered their voices.

Jaysh al Mahdi [Moqtada al Sadr’s radical Shia Mahdi Army militia] may want to attack this area,” the man said. “Mostly Sunnis live here. We don’t cause problems for anyone. This area is totally quiet.”

I can vouch for that. No violence erupted anywhere near me at any time during my stay. I wasn’t just lucky. The U.S. Army soldiers based in the area haven’t suffered a single casualty since they arrived in early 2007.

I had thought, though, that we were going to meet with a Sunni who lived among Shias. I asked the lieutenant what happened to the plan. He said he changed it at the last minute when he remembered he needed to meet with this man.

“The American military needs to make sure no one has weapons but you,” the man said. “We are suffering from bandits and thieves. I am Sunni, but I don’t pray any more.”

“Why not?” I said, expecting him to say he was disgruntled with his religion for some reason.

“So Jaysh al Mahdi doesn’t know I am Sunni,” he said. “So many Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police belong to the Mahdi Army.”

It was the middle of the night and we had awoken the man from his bed. The usual Arab formalities and socialization ritual therefore was skipped. Sometimes it’s okay to get right down to business in Baghdad.

Jaysh al Mahdi kidnapped eleven people from this area, killed them, and left their bodies in the dump,” the man said. “I can provide you with the names of the people who did this.”

Considering where the man worked, I believed his information was credible. So did Lieutenant Pitts.

“Colonel [omitted] in the Iraqi Army works with intel files,” the man said. “He pulls files on individual Sunnis and has them assassinated one by one. I know someone who killed 25 people. I reported him to the Iraqi Army and they reported him to the U.S. Army. He was detained for two days and let go. What the hell is going on?”

Lieutenant Pitts shook his head. “I will take care of it,” he said.

“I told this to a different Iraqi Army Colonel,” the informant said, “a man who I thought could be trusted. He said he would help, but he didn’t do anything. You know, Iran is providing weapons to these people. The same guy who killed all these people wants to operate in the [omitted] area. I would give you chai [tea], but it’s the middle of the night.”

“Of course,” Lieutenant Pitts said. “It’s not a problem, and I am sorry for waking you. Listen, would you rather we meet in person or speak on the phone? I don’t want to put you in danger.”

“It is better if we speak on the phone,” the man said.

“Okay,” Lieutenant Pitts said. “We’ll get out of here and let you get back to sleep.”

The man gave the lieutenant his phone number.

“I will not share this number with anyone,” Lieutenant Pitts said. “You gave this number to me, and it will stay only with me. You do not need to worry about who else might get it.”

“Thank you, lieutenant,” the man said.

“And from now on we will only speak on the phone. For your protection. If I see you on the street I will just casually say Salam Aleikum and walk right on past.”

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 20, 2007 10:19 PM
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Winner, The 2008 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

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