August 27, 2007

The Future of Iraq

by Michael J. Totten

Iraqi Flag Mushadah.JPG

MUSHADAH, IRAQ – “Al Qaeda terrifies locals,” said Major Mike Garcia from Canyon, Texas, before he put me in a convoy of Humvees with 18 American Military Police on their way to the small town of Mushadah just north of Baghdad. “The only people Iraqis may be more afraid of is their mothers. When we arrest or detain people and threaten to call up their mom, they completely freak out. Please, no, don’t tell my mother they say. Women are quiet outside the house, but they severely smack down their bad kids inside the house. When your Iraqi mother tells you to knock something off, you knock it off.”

The American military has slowly figured out how to leverage Iraq’s culture to its advantage, but it only works to an extent. Locating, killing, capturing, and interrogating terrorists and insurgents is the easy part. The hard part is training Iraqis to do it themselves.

Our destination in Mushadah was the local police station where American Military Police train and equip Iraqi Police, and where it’s still too dangerous for either Iraqis or Americans to walk the streets.

“I am not trying to scare you,” said Captain Maryanne Naro, from Fort Drum, New York. “But don’t get out of your vehicle unless something catastrophic has happened to it.”

I walked the streets of Baghdad every day with soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division, but that clearly wasn’t going to happen in Mushadah.

“It’s pretty bad up there,” she added. “AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq] is all over the area because they’ve been pushed out of Baghdad, Ramadi, and Fallujah.”

Just driving to Mushadah from the base at Camp Taji was dangerous in a weird sort of way.

“Our convoys are hit with IEDs every day on the road,” she said.

I swallowed hard. “Should I really be going up there?” I said.

“Oh, don’t worry,” she said. “It’s fine.”

I laughed. It’s fine? How is that fine? Nothing, except perhaps kidnappers, is scarier in Iraq than IEDs, especially now that Iranian-manufactured armor-piercing EFPs – Explosively Formed Penetrators – are deployed by Shia militias.

“None of us have been hurt,” she said. “They’re just small harassment attacks. Most of the IEDs are mortar rounds, and the Humvees are armored. They usually just pop tires and blow off our mirrors. They do it to piss us off.”

“The route clearance team is out there right now,” said mission leader Sergeant James Babcock, from Adams, New York, as he showed me which of the five Humvees I was to ride in.

Mine was in the middle of the convoy. The Humvee behind mine was recently hit with an IED.

Humvee Shrapnel Mushadah.JPG

“That shrapnel can’t go through the armor,” Sergeant Babcock said when he saw me taking a photograph of the damage. “The doors are armored and the windows are bulletproof. All that shrapnel did was tear holes in the trunk and rip through cases of Gatorade. It was kind of annoying.”

“No one fires off EFPs in the area?” I said, referring to the unstoppable molten copper penetrators.

“Nah,” he said. “It’s just Al Qaeda here.” Sunni insurgents and terrorists don't have access to the Iranian-made weapons.

“There’s a lot of harassment,” Captain Naro said, “and not a lot of competence.”

We saddled up and left Camp Taji to the north. Everyone locked and loaded their weapons on the way out the gate.

“Hopefully we won’t have any fireworks for you today,” my driver said.

Well, I thought, it certainly would be interesting if there are some fireworks for me today. Not every Humvee in Iraq is up-armored, and not every IED-laced road in Iraq is free of those terrifying EFPs. And so, I figured, if I’m ever going to be hit with an IED, let it be today.

It was a strange feeling, a bit like being in a shark cage – inches away from mortal peril, but kinda sorta okay…as long as an IED didn't explode under the vehicle.

“AQI always puts the IEDs in the same places on this road, in culverts and holes they already dug,” Captain Naro said. “We just swerve around them.”

“Are they stupid?” I said.

She gave me a look, as if the question was a little too cocky, that it was dangerous to dismiss Al Qaeda as stupid. I agree, of course, in general, but I can’t help but think putting IEDs in the same places over and over again isn’t too bright.

Getting into a Humvee with the Army in a war zone all by itself can be a little bit stressful. The ranking officer inside often reminds everyone else of the safety procedures – which are not at all like the safety procedures you’ll hear from a stewardess on United Airlines just before take off.

“Combat lock!” he might yell, which means everyone must lock their door so no one can open it from the outside and shoot people inside.

“Everybody remember what to do if someone throws a grenade in the truck?”

No, I did not remember. It is not something anyone ever taught me.

“Yell grenade grenade grenade and get the hell out as quickly as possible. If you don’t have time to get out, turn your back to the blast and hope for the best.”

The drive from Camp Taji to Mushadah only took 20 minutes, and our Humvee drivers swerved suddenly and dramatically 8 or 9 times to avoid possible IEDs. They also drove the Humvees about as fast as they could. The assumption was that the IEDs on this road were manually detonated by a trigger man. There are many places to hide.

Trees on Road to Mushadah.JPG

Fast moving targets are harder to hit. And because the IEDs don’t explode on their own, the odds of any Humvee in particular being hit were no greater or less than the odds of any other Humvee being hit. Riding in the front of the convoy was no more dangerous than riding anywhere else. And riding in the middle or in the rear wasn’t safer. Of course that didn’t stop me from trying to convince myself that I rode in the lucky Humvee that wouldn’t be hit for some reason. Everyone does it.

Convoy to Mushadah.JPG

There weren’t any fireworks that day, at least not against my convoy. But we still weren’t quite safe once we reached the police station.

“Get inside,” Sergeant Anthnoy Doucet, from Lake Charles, Louisiana, said to me when we stepped out of the Humvees. “This place is a mortar magnet.”


Every place in Iraq is hot during the summer, but the Mushadah police station was merciless. Only two rooms had air conditioning. The rest were miserable sweat boxes.

Captain Maryanne Naro was supposed to join us, but she had to remain at Camp Taji. That was too bad. I was hoping to see how the Iraqi Police interacted in person with an American woman who outranked almost all of them.

“The police won’t leave the station,” Major Garcia said, “unless Americans are there to protect them. They wouldn’t leave under any circumstances until Captain Naro showed up and was willing to go out on patrol. They were ashamed that a woman had more guts than they did.”

Iraqi Cop Mushadah.JPG

“They will go out alone now for something real basic,” she said. “Otherwise if Americans aren’t with them they’ll hide in the station. They’re hard to work with at times, like they’re kids.”

Incompetence, though, is the least of their problems.

“About half of them are corrupted,” she said, “and it’s hard to get the bad ones out. Some of the higher ups are corrupted too, but it’s hard to prove. They help AQI, they set up illegal checkpoints, and they raid civilian houses so they can steal stuff.”

Not surprisingly then, local civilians are just as afraid of the police as the uncorrupted police are afraid of the neighborhood.

“Locals come in here all the time and talk to Americans,” she told me. “They’re afraid to give intel to the Iraqi Police.”

Mushadah is a bad area with bad police and a bad police station. The building itself is filthy and ramshackle. The stairs to the second floor are murderously uneven, not because they’ve been damaged but because they were built by incompetents. I’ve seen dodgy construction in Iraq – even at Saddam’s palaces, believe it or not – but this station was the worst. I’ll spare you a description of the bathroom.

There was a protective wall in front of the station, but it had recently been destroyed by a mortar round.

Rubble Mushadah.JPG

Another wall on the south side of the building was blown over during a spring wind storm.

The whole place was almost destroyed not long ago. An Al Qaeda suicide bomber filled a dump truck with explosives and tried to ram it into the building, but he drove too fast around a corner and the whole thing tipped over. Everyone would have been killed had he succeeded.

Sergeant Doucet led me to the front door from the inside so I could photograph some of the Iraqi Police standing at attention.

Iraqi Police Mushadah.JPG

“How many of these guys do you suppose are Al Qaeda infiltrators?” I said. I just couldn’t look at them without wondering.

“I don’t know,” he said. “We speculate about it. We don’t investigate them or anything like that.”

“You don’t?” I said. “Why not?”

“We aren’t passive about it,” he said. “If we suspect someone has gone over the edge, he’ll raise a red flag and we’ll deal with it.”

“How much support do you get from local civilians?” I said.

“Locals bring in tips against bad guys all the time,” he said. “Several times a week. What they tell us is not very tangible though. Sometimes it’s useless. Someone will come in here and scream There’s bad guys out there! We’ll ask where. To the west! they’ll say. Well, no crap.”

Doucet Mushadah.jpg

Sergeant Doucet

“Residents are still afraid to give intel on bad guys,” he continued. “Insurgents will kill them if they do. The area is totally unsecured. Even if we question people who live right in front of an IED trigger point they won’t say anything. But, look, forget what you see on the news. People in this community are just like people in any other community. This guy is pissed off at that guy, and you have to deal with it.”

I’ve been in parts of Iraq where local civilians cooperate with the army and police and where they do not. Civilians cooperate as much as security on the streets will permit them. The dynamic here isn’t all that hard to understand, or even that foreign. If you want to see how this has played out in America, watch Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, the classic film from 1954 starring Marlon Brando about the mafia’s infiltration of a longshoreman’s union. No one in that story wanted to cooperate with the police in their murder investigations against the mob because they were terrified of being “next” if they did.

“We have a medical facility here,” Sergeant Doucet said. “Local civilians can come here and use it, and they do.”

They did while I was there. A three year old boy was badly burned at his house – how, I don’t know – and he was brought in to be treated by a medic.

Injured Boy Mushadah.jpg

I let the medic tend to the boy and stepped into the Tactical Operations Center, one of only two rooms in the station that had air conditioning.

“Hello again, sir,” Sergeant Babcock said and pulled up a chair for me. He then gave me more background and asked me not to take pictures of anything in that room.

“Lots of Iraqi Police here had orders to work in Baghdad,” he said, “but they refused. They are Sunnis. This is a Sunni area. Baghdad, as you know, is mostly Shia. Their names and license plates mark them for death. They work here but are counted as AWOL and are not being paid.”

Some of the Iraqi police are honorable men. (And they are all men.) I don’t want to leave you with the impression that all of them are terrorist infiltrators. They aren’t.

“Because of logistics problems we have to go to Baghdad for fuel,” Sergeant Babcock said, “and we have to go to a Shia area. It’s very dangerous for them and they ask us to go with them. They have problems getting ammo as well. There are always problems with ammo.”

And there are severe problems with other stations.

“The Taramiyah station was hit by insurgents earlier this spring,” he said. “It was completely destroyed. Only six officers from that station are brave enough to come to work here.”

Poster Mushadah.JPG

He introduced me to the man in charge of the station, Captain J. Dow Covey from New York City.

“Do you know the Weekly Standard magazine?” Captain Covey asked me.

“Of course,” I said.

“My buddy Tom Cotton was just written up there,” he said. “It was pretty cool seeing him in that magazine.”

“What did he do to get in the magazine?” I said.

“He’s like me,” he said. “He’s a Harvard Law grad who joined the Army after 9/11. I’m an attorney.”

“You’re an attorney?” I said. “What are you doing out here in Iraq?”

“I practiced law for three years,” he said, “then got into investment banking. When 9/11 happened I just had to sign up with the Army. Investment banking is a lot more stressful than this.”

“You’re kidding, right?” I said.

“No,” he said and laughed. “I am totally serious.”

If he was deployed in, say, Kurdistan I could see it. But Mushadah was stressful. Less stressful than investment banking? Investment banking in New York must really be something.


Not much happened the first half of my day at the station, so I lounged with the MPs in their broiling quarters.

Soldier and Sandbags Mushadah.jpg

Soldier Mushadah.jpg

None of them had anything positive to say about the Iraqi Police they were training.

“What can you really ask for in a lazy society? You go in their houses and the floors and covered in pillows.”

“You can tell who is corrupt because their convoys never get hit.”

“This place wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t so fucking hot. I can deal with being shot at and blown up, but 150 degrees is a bit much.”

“Some Iraqi Police recently left the station, we got hit with a bunch of mortars, then they came right back inside. This sort of thing happens a lot. It makes us suspicious.”

“We’re giving them 50,000 dollar Chevy trucks and it’s like a junkyard out back. It’s like Sanford and Son out there. They drive stuff better than we can afford, and they don’t even take care of it.”

“I miss Baghdad. One day we’d be walking out on the street buying sandwiches and playing soccer with kids. The next day we’d get in a firefight with burning tires and RPGs and shit. The next day we’d be hanging out and chilling like normal again. It’s a weird place, and really keeps you on your toes.”

“It’s not like Germany or Japan where people wanted a change. The Kurds up north wanted a change, so they got one. The Arabs don’t, so they aren’t. They hardly change even with us here.”

The Iraqi Army in the area isn’t faring much better.

“They are severely infiltrated by Al Qaeda and the Mahdi Army,” Colonel John Steele, from Dover, New Hampshire, told me back at Camp Taji.

The Iraqi Army soldiers who aren’t double agents are still nowhere near ready to defend their own country.

“We assess, train, and help provide logistical support to prevent catastrophic failure,” he said. “Their logistics are very immature. They are always short on ammo. And we have to hold their hands and make sure they don’t kill themselves and others. We still do some unilateral U.S. actions even though we want to become partnered with the Iraqi Army in all our operations. But we first want to make sure they have all the skills they need to survive in combat.”

Most American soldiers I spoke to about the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police, not just in Mushadah but also in Baghdad, have a dim view of their local counterparts. (The situation is strikingly different in Anbar Province, and I’ll get to that in future articles.) I wanted to know what the colonel thought.

“Do you trust them?” I said.

He paused for a long time and answered very carefully.

“We won’t tell them about sensitive operations until the last second,” he said. “I trust some individuals, though, because I know them. I’d share a foxhole with them as far as ideology goes, but I’m not sure how good their skills are when they are shot.”

Pride is much more important in Arab culture than it is in the West. Humiliation is therefore more painful. I wondered if this created problems when Americans train Iraqi soldiers and police officers. What must it feel like for local men to be yelled at by foreigners who showed up uninvited and knew their job better than they did?

Colonel Steele insists it isn’t a problem.

“They don’t want to be babied,” he said. “They want to be treated as equals and adults. Their shame culture actually helps. Our new recruits recently complained about having sore feet during a march. When they noticed our female soldiers are in better shape than they are, they never complained again. Also, when we first had them try on our body armor, it nearly broke their spines. They want to be physically capable of wearing it, too.”

It’s at least possible that some of the infiltrators may be turned over time. Some former insurgents elsewhere in Iraq are now openly siding with the Americans.

There also is this: “We give them rudimentary skills and a work ethic,” he told me. “They attend the same classes on character and honor and professional conduct becoming a soldier that our own people attend.”

Is he optimistic?

“I am optimistic,” he said. “But only for one single reason. Because I talk to the average Joe in Iraq. I meet the children and parents. Iraqi parents love their children as much as I love mine.”

I knew what he meant. Counterintuitive and contradictory as it may seem, I never felt more optimistic in Iraq than I did when I walked the streets and interacted with average Iraqis. Iraq looks more doomed from inside the base than it does outside on the street, and it looks more doomed from across the Atlantic than it does from inside the base.

Major Mike Garcia said this view of Iraq is typical. “Soldiers who don’t leave the FOB [Forward Operating Base] are more likely to be pessimistic than those who go out on patrol. They’re less aware of what’s actually happening and have fewer reality checks on their gloom.”


Sergeant Babcock invited me to a meeting with Iraqi Police Colonel Hameed, the man who was responsible for the station on the Iraqi side. Sergeant Babcock, Sergeant Doucet, an interpreter, the colonel, and I sat together in the only other room at the station that had air conditioning.

“You are most welcome,” the colonel said to me in a noticeably insincere tone of voice. Some of the MPs think he’s corrupt. I don’t know if that means they think he works with Al Qaeda.

“Thank you,” I said. “May I take your picture?”

“No,” he said, “please don’t.” It didn’t sound like he actually cared though, as if he was just going through the motions of needing protection from terrorists.

He and the American MPs discussed fuel logistics.

“The only reason the Iraqi Police got fuel on the last mission,” he said, “is because you were with us. Otherwise they wouldn’t have given us anything.”

Suddenly Captain Covey, the New York City attorney, nearly broke down the door as he barged into the room.

“Hey!” he screamed at the colonel. “I’m tired of you motherfuckers stealing our fuel cans. I’m going to kick all you motherfuckers out of here. I’m sorry for interrupting your little meeting, but at noon I want every single one of you people off this post.” He stared at the interpreter. “Translate that!” he said.

He slammed the door behind him. Everyone just looked at each other. A quietly horrified expression washed over the face of the colonel when he saw me taking notes.

The meeting was over, obviously. I stepped into the hallway and asked the nearest MP what was going on.

“61 fuel cans have been stolen over the last week by Iraqi police officers here,” he said. “Three more were stolen today. These are fuel cans that Iraqis and Americans risk their lives to go get.”

The tension in the hallway was palpable. None of the Iraqi Police could look me in the eye.

“Can the captain really kick the Iraqis out of here?” I asked Sergeant Babcock.

“Actually, he can,” he said. He sounded mortified at the idea.

Colonel Hameed walked up to Sergeant Babcock. He was furious.

“Your captain offended us by coming in here and yelling like that,” he said. “I need you to find a solution.”

“I’m a staff sergeant,” Sergeant Babcock said. “He’s a captain. I’m also an MP and he’s Infantry. I have to obey him whether I like it or not.”

“This station does not belong to his family,” the colonel said curtly. “This is unacceptable. The building is ours, and he is our guest. A guest cannot fire the owner of the house.”

“We’ll go talk to him and come back,” Sergeant Babcock said.

As it turned out, the whole thing was a screw up. Somebody forgot to update the board and account for three fuel cans that were taken legitimately.

Captain Covey was embarrassed.

“Would you really have kicked them all out of here?” I said.

“In the state of mind I was in then, yes,” he said. “I was ready to do it. But I calmed down and would have gotten in trouble anyway. So no, I wouldn’t have actually done it.”

61 fuel cans really had been stolen that week, however. The Iraqi Police were in serious trouble.

Another Iraqi Police colonel, whose name I did not catch and whom no one thinks is corrupt, arrived on the scene and screamed himself hoarse at his deputies.

“Coalition Forces are screaming at us!” he hollered. “Screaming at us because you keep stealing fuel!”

Angry Colonel Mushadah.jpg

He kicked an empty metal garbage can and clangingly knocked it over. The Iraqi Police glowered at him as if they wanted to scream back and were trying mightily to restrain themselves.

An American MP walked past me. “That’s the first time I’ve seen those guys yelled at,” he said and grinned with satisfaction.


Shortly after noon an International Police Advisor from Michigan named Paul taught an hour-long class to the Iraqi Police officers about taking weapons from potentially dangerous people who are under arrest. The officers seemed to learn as much sitting through that course as I did. Apparently they had never gone over the procedures before.

I couldn’t help wondering as I watched the Iraqis…which of you work for Al Qaeda?

Police Training Mushadah.JPG

Maybe no one in the photo works for Al Qaeda. I don’t have a sense of how many infiltrators there actually are, although Captain Naro thinks the number could be as high as 50 percent.

Is it really a good idea to train these men with that in mind?

“Please don’t publish my picture,” Paul said to me after the class. “And use only my first name. Only my wife knows I’m in Iraq.”

I wanted to know what he thought of the trainees. He has trained police officers all over the world, not just in Iraq and the United States. He could, perhaps, see them through more worldly eyes than the American MPs who had a narrower range of experience.

“They’ve made leaps and bounds in the past two months,” he said. “Every day they make progress. Today they made progress.”

“Are you optimistic about them?” I said.

“Oh, absolutely,” he said. “The Iraqi Police are like sponges. It’s all new to them.”

“Lots of American soldiers I’ve talked to about the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police don’t think very highly of them,” I said.

“Look,” he said. “The other contractors I know who train the police are also optimistic. Many file extensions to stay longer because they feel like they’re making a difference. I never hear anything negative from any of them. We watch the Iraqis progress over time because we work with them daily. Most American soldiers don’t see the progress because they observe the Iraqis from more of a distance. You yourself are only seeing a snapshot in time. If you think it looks bad now, you should have been here two months ago.”

It was time to head back to Camp Taji. The MPs and I saddled up in our Humvees while, in front of us, Iraqi Police piled into their trucks. We would escort them out of the station, then they would be on their own. They were going out alone, apparently for something “real basic,” as Captain Naro had told me.

The Iraqi Police truck in front of my Humvee had an office chair crazily bolted into the flatbed. A policeman strapped himself into that and manned a mounted machine gun. .

Police Truck Mushadah.jpg

“Is he really going out all exposed like that?” I said.

“He is,” Sergeant Babcock said. “I can’t quite decide if that’s pathetic or if it’s a testament to the human spirit. Maybe it’s a little of both.”

We drove back down IED Alley to Camp Taji. It was 4:00 in the afternoon, and so unbearably hot. The air conditioner in the Humvee hardly did anything. I desperately wanted a shower so I could wash Iraq off my skin.

Nothing exploded on our way back.

Major Garcia wanted to know what I thought. I didn’t know what to say.

“Whether we like it or not,” he said, “and whether we like them or not, they are the future of this country.”

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 27, 2007 9:13 PM
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Winner, The 2008 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

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