December 31, 2007

Happy New Year

The surge sure worked, didn't it?

Us Fatalities 2007.JPG

Something tells me 2008 will be even better than 2007.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:42 AM

December 30, 2007

Blog Software Upgrade

My blogging software is -- finally -- being upgraded this weekend. If you see any strange behavior around here, or if the site becomes temporarily unavailable, everything should be back to normal shortly.

The biggest advantage after the upgrade will be vastly improved anti-spam and anti-troll blocking measures in the comments section. The cretins who like to impersonate me in the comments and publish links to World of Warcraft Gold will soon be banished forever from this Web site.

Comments need to be closed until the upgrade is finished. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:01 PM

December 29, 2007

Iraq in Fragments

COMMENTARY’s online editor Sam Munson asked if I’d like to write a short piece about what I think are the top five movies of 2007 from and about the Middle East. Sure, I said. But once I got started I found I couldn’t write about five. I started with a two-paragraph blurb about James Longley’s masterful Iraq in Fragments, but I exceeded the word limit before I could even get to the second film on the list. Iraq in Fragments is too good for a blurb. So here, instead, is a piece about the top single film from the Middle East, or at least Iraq. One caveat: Iraq in Fragments actually dates from 2005, but it was released on DVD only a few months ago, and it’s such a powerful and important film that it should make the cut.

Most recent documentaries filmed in Iraq can be fairly categorized as liberal or conservative. All are about the war, and most are cinematic equivalents of op-eds. James Longley’s lush and intimate Iraq in Fragments is different. While the director appears to be some kind of liberal or leftist, his film is refreshingly none of the above. Iraq in Fragments is about the war only insomuch as it was shot in Iraq during the war. This film is a collection of portraits of Iraqis, not Americans or the American military. And unlike almost any other documentary out there, Longley’s includes the Kurds.

The director is invisible. We never see him or hear him, and he uses his camera as though he were shooting a fictional film. This is emphatically not the kind of documentary you’re accustomed to seeing. Longley’s camera and editing work are so stylish and deft that the end result is perhaps the most artful documentary ever made on any subject. (Watch the high-definition trailer here for a powerful preview.)

The title refers to Iraq as it is now—a geographic abstraction made up of fragments. But it also refers to the film’s structure. The first third is a story of Sunni Arabs in Baghdad, the middle chapter covers Moqtada al-Sadr’s radical Shia Mahdi Army militia, and the final third is about the Kurdish Spring in the northern autonomous region.

A Sunni Arab boy named Muhammad anchors the film’s opening segment. He works for his cruel and abusive uncle in a machine shop, and his ability to lie to himself and the camera is a painful revelation.

“He loves me, he loves me,” the boy says about his tyrannical guardian as we see him smacked in the head and called a dog. “He’s nice to me. He doesn’t swear at me or beat me.” What are we then to make of Muhammad’s uncle when he says he wishes Saddam Hussein were still in charge? “So what if he oppressed us and was hard on us,” he says.

Muhammad knows cruelty and loss, as do all Iraqis. His father was a police officer. “Then he started talking about Saddam,” he tells us. “They put him in prison.” We never find out what happened to his father, but he appears to have vanished forever. Contrary to what some naïve Westerners seem to believe, Iraqis, even children, know very well that they live in a hard and tragic country even if they have never known anything else.

“It’s not safe here,” Muhammad says. “It’s scary. There is no security. I want to go abroad. When you are abroad, nothing will happen to you. My teacher told me I could be a pilot. I want to fly the plane, to see a place that’s beautiful and nice. Not Iraq, but a beautiful place. I imagine . . . I imagine . . . I’m high in the sky. I can see the doves, the sky. I can see the birds. I am in the plane and seeing countries beautiful and nice. I fly down to those countries. I’ll go to that country. The beautiful one.”

Read the rest at Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 5:38 PM

December 28, 2007

Grandpa Simpson Speaks

I don’t usually link to off-topic stuff like this. But David Harsanyi did such a great job demolishing Andrew Keen’s dumb new book in Reason Magazine that I’m doing more than just posting an excerpt. I ordered Harsanyi’s book Nanny State: How Food Fascists, Teetotaling Do-Gooders, Priggish Moralists, and other Boneheaded Bureaucrats are Turning America into a Nation of Children.

Andrew Keen’s website claims, without a hint of humility, that he’s “the leading contemporary critic of the Internet.” No kidding? The entire Internet? A curious reader might wonder whether such an all-inclusive battle is similar to taking on, say, “music” or “radio waves.” It is.

More specifically, Keen’s depressing book, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture, laments techno-utopianism, free content, and the rise of citizen journalists, filmmakers, musicians, and critics as cultural arbiters. It is a book, in other words, of spectacular elitism.

Keen, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur turned full-time critic of user-generated Internet content, argues that our most “valued cultural institutions” are under attack from the hordes of lay hacks, undermining quality content with garbage. His central argument is—to pinch a word he loves to use—seductive. He’s right that the Internet is littered with inane, vulgar, dimwitted, unedited, and unreadable content, much of it fueling outrageous conspiracy theories, odious partisan debates, mindless celebrity worship, and worse. And then there’s the stuff that’s not even entertaining.

Keen refuses to confess that there’s even a smattering of intellectually and culturally worthy user-driven content online. If you do find something decent in the “digital forest of mediocrity,” he attributes it to the infinite monkey theorem: Even simians, if permitted to indiscriminately hit a keyboard for an infinite amount of time, will one day bang out Beowulf or Don Quixote. (Silly me, I was under the impression that monkeys had hatched the idea for VH1’s Scott Baio Is 45…and Single.) Apparently, these monkeys are discharging so much free content into the cyber-strata that they threaten to bury culturally significant work, dilute good craftsmanship, and cost me, a journalist and “cultural gatekeeper,” my job. So I guess I’d better take Keen’s thesis seriously.

You can read the rest at Reason Magazine. And you can order Harsanyi’s book (which just has to be better than Keen’s) at Amazon.com.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:46 PM

Ali Eteraz on Pakistan

I’m not sure I agree with my friend Ali Eteraz’s policy recommendations at Pajamas Media for the United States and Pakistan, but he knows a lot more about that country than I do (he’s from there, and lives now in Las Vegas) and his piece is informative and well worth reading regardless.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:34 PM

December 27, 2007

Bad News

Benazir Bhutto was killed in Pakistan by a suicide bomber.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:25 AM

December 26, 2007

A Fresh Look at Hezbollah

I haven’t written much about Lebanon lately, partly because I’ve been working in Iraq, but also because Lebanon has been in a holding pattern for the past year. There isn’t much new to say about the same-old same-old.

But Andrew Exum published a perceptive piece about Hezbollah and makes a point made very rarely, if ever, in the West:
There are several reasons making the fantasy that Hezbollah will ever give up its arms unlikely. The first—and the most understandable—is that the Shia who make up Hezbollah’s constituency think giving up their arms means giving up the hard-won seat at Beirut’s political table earned over the past three decades. The Shia of Lebanon are the country’s historical underclass, and the Shia fear a return to the days when their concerns were largely forgotten by the central government. Without the arms of Hezbollah, they argue, no one in Beirut will care about the concerns of the Shia living in the south, the Bekaa Valley, and the suburbs of Beirut.

The second reason why Hezbollah cannot give up its arms, though, is because so many of the young men who join the organization join to fight. These young men are lured by the promise of fighting Israel, and Hezbollah must worry that if they were to abandon their military campaign against Israel, these young men would simply split from the organization in the same way that so many of the Amal militia’s gunmen left for Hezbollah in the early 1980s. Thus, in order to keep these young men of arms under the same big tent as the rest of the organization, it is necessary to continue some form of armed conflict against Israel. In this way, Hezbollah’s cross-border raids and rocket attacks against Israel after the 2000 withdrawal—while necessary from an internal perspective—ultimately worked against Hezbollah’s overall strategy of deterrence.

Normally keen observers of Israeli politics, Hezbollah misread the dynamics in Jerusalem following the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit in 2006 and attempted their own kidnappings just over the border near Ayta ash-Shab on July 12th. The kidnappings—unlike an attempt a few months earlier in the disputed city of Ghajjar—were successful, but the Israeli response was brutal and unexpected. (The ways in which Israel’s decision-makers similarly misread the dynamics at work within Lebanon in 2006 will have to be the subject of a different post.) The very thing Hezbollah was trying to deter—a massive Israeli assault on Hezbollah and their Shia constituents—was provoked by an act of foolishness along the border. [Emphasis added.]
Westerners, including Israelis, rarely think of Hezbollah as a deterrent force. They think of Hezbollah as an aggressor. Hezbollah's supporters think of it as both. Some support Hezbollah because they want to fight. Others support Hezbollah because they don’t want to fight.

That last point is counter-intuitive, I know, and possibly hard to believe. But I’ve met dozens of Lebanese Shias who think exactly like a man who left the following comment on an old blog post of mine a few days ago:

Michael,

I enjoyed this piece. I've been reading your blogs as of late, and have quite enjoyed them. However, I think you need to get a sense of who or what Hezbollah is from a Lebanese Shi'a, such as myself. Maybe you've talked to many Shi'is about Hezbollah and you know everything there is to know, but I nonetheless would like to make a few comments.

I think it's very clear that if you and I were sitting in a room drafting the constitution of a country, we would both agree that military power should be in the hands of the state exclusively. However, we know that what “should” be the case is not always that simple in Lebanon. The problem is, Hezbollah is still deemed necessary to many people (the military arm of Hezbollah, that is). My mother comes from Bint Jbeil in the South and she gives me numerous accounts of the Resistance and how necessary it was for the people of South Lebanon.

I think the end goal of all Lebanese is to see Hezbollah disarmed. We all need that. But what we need even more is the opportunity for that to happen. What happens if Israel trots through the South again? Are you going to tell me they wouldn't do it? Of course they would. Israeli troops were in Lebanon in the late 70s, years before Lebanon was “officially” occupied. Usually when you hear about Lebanese occupation, you hear about 1982 when the Israelis took Beirut. No one gives a damn about the South. And before we bring up 1559, we should also know that selective morality of this kind has no place in Middle Eastern politics, when Israel itself has defied over 60 U.N. resolutions. Bring up 1559 would be ridiculous under such terms.

That's what Hezbollah is, essentially. They are people from the South who armed themselves against Israel. That's why they exist. Hezbollah is a product of Israeli occupation, and we all need to recognize that. Insinuating that Hezbollah should simply disarm is one thing, but it is only one thing. The Lebanese army cannot defend Lebanon against Israel. As has been seen with strategic wars of South Lebanon, weaponry is important, but so is knowing the territory and knowing how to fight. That's the only explanation for a handful of Hezbollahis effectively resisting Israel last summer.

But who knows, Michael? What happens if America and Iran settle their disputes? Of course, by “settle” I mean Iran bowing down to American pressure. You know as well as I do that America has been the enemy of Iran ever since it had a hand in overthrowing the parliamentary government in 1953 in favour of a dictator… then following that up with military and financial support for Saddam Hussein in his quest to make war with Persia. Since then the United States has been crippling Iran with sanctions.

You can call me crazy, but I'm more likely to believe that there won't be another major war in Lebanon. I don't think Hezbollah can risk it. I don't think we as Lebanese can handle any more. Muslim/Christian really isn't a problem in the streets. When we fled Lebanon for Canada our next door neighbours were Christians - the same Christians that our Muslims were fighting back home. We were best friends for years. In the street, we really have no problems. But for some reason, the schism becomes manifest at the political level. And we all know that the religions themselves have nothing to do with the disagreements; it's more or less people aligning themselves along sectarian lines because that is how they identify themselves.

Anyway, I have rambled. I only ask of you to please consider the Hezbollah question from a different angle, and see that they are part of Lebanon (hopefully their part will be more political and less military in the future). As a Lebanese Shi'a returning to Lebanon in the next year or so, I cannot say I hate Hezbollah. Do I want them disarmed? Yes, in principle. Am I frightened at the concept of Hezbollah being disarmed? Yes. I am frightened because I know what they have done for the South, and fear that losing them will give us nothing to defend ourselves with in the future. Am I pro-Syrian? No. Am I anti-Syrian? No. I think that anyone who makes one of these their political pillars is unhealthy. Those men you spoke to are very smart. We need neutral relations with Syria. We don't need anti-Syrian parties, or pro-Syrian parties.
I’m not publishing this comment because I agree with it. Among other things, he is wrong about the Israelis. Hezbollah is a magnet for the Israeli military because it’s violent and provacative. Perhaps he understands that at some level— he did say Hezbollah cannot risk another war. Israel is no more likely to invade a theoretically peaceful and quiet Lebanon than peaceful and quiet Jordan. But it would be a stretch, to say the least, to lump this man in ideologically with the hardliners.

Hezbollah will be defeated, marginalized, or integrated into the mainstream when reasonable people like him split from the jihad wing of the party.

POSTSCRIPT: Here is some old-fashioned American Jew-hatred uglier than anything I heard in Lebanon from a supporter of Hezbollah. (Yes, really.) Hatred, like decency, knows no nationality. (Via Callimachus.)

UPDATE: A Daily Kos diarist is appalled at what I just linked to, and is highly recommended reading.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:05 PM

December 24, 2007

A Nice Iraq Story for Christmas

I am not going to post a war story for Christmas, so here’s a genuinely touching story from Iraq for a change.

MAUSTON, Wis. - Capt. Scott Southworth knew he'd face violence, political strife and blistering heat when he was deployed to one of Baghdad's most dangerous areas. But he didn't expect Ala'a Eddeen.

Ala'a was 9 years old, strong of will but weak of body — he suffered from cerebral palsy and weighed just 55 pounds. He lived among about 20 kids with physical or mental disabilities at the Mother Teresa orphanage, under the care of nuns who preserved this small oasis in a dangerous place.

On Sept. 6, 2003, halfway through his 13-month deployment, Southworth and his military police unit paid a visit to the orphanage. They played and chatted with the children; Southworth was talking with one little girl when Ala'a dragged his body to the soldier's side.

Black haired and brown eyed, Ala'a spoke to the 31-year-old American in the limited English he had learned from the sisters. He recalled the bombs that struck government buildings across the Tigris River.

“Bomb-Bing! Bomb-Bing!” Ala'a said, raising and lowering his fist.

“I'm here now. You're fine,” the captain said.

Over the next 10 months, the unit returned to the orphanage again and again. The soldiers would race kids in their wheelchairs, sit them in Humvees and help the sisters feed them.

To Southworth, Ala'a was like a little brother. But Ala'a — who had longed for a soldier to rescue him — secretly began referring to Southworth as “Baba,” Arabic for “Daddy.”

Then, around Christmas, a sister told Southworth that Ala'a was getting too big. He would have to move to a government-run facility within a year.

“Best case scenario was that he would stare at a blank wall for the rest of his life,” Southworth said.

To this day, he recalls the moment when he resolved that that would not happen.

“I'll adopt him,” he said.
Read the whole thing. It is much longer, and worth it. It isn't legal for foreigners to adopt Iraqi children, but this man found a way.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:57 AM

December 21, 2007

Merry Almost-Christmas

It’s that time of year again. The holidays really seemed to come quickly for me this year because I spent most of the run-up time in Iraq.

I have a long dispatch more than half-finished, but Internet traffic is crashing now because of the upcoming holidays. It happens every year, and I had forgotten about it until just now. So I think I’ll hold off on publishing my 5,000-word essays on the blog until my audience comes back. It seems a waste to go all the way to Iraq and spend the better part of a week writing one of these things if half my readers won’t even see it.

So. Between now and New Years Day I will try to publish shorter and more frequent blog posts here and at Commentary, and I’ll save the big pieces until everybody returns to the Internet world. None of these articles are time-sensitive, so I don't see a downside.

I have around ten long essays to write about what’s going on in Fallujah. We’ll knock them out after the holidays. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 3:56 PM

December 19, 2007

Iraq is Not a Model

By Jordan W.

Editor’s note: Reader and regular correspondent Jordan W. asked for my opinion on an anti-war essay he wrote. I think it is much more valuable and worth taking seriously than most — though I should note that my overall view is agnostic at this point, despite my initial support and my current approval of General Petraeus’s surge strategy. Jordan gave me permission to publish this, so I’ll let him tide you over while I work on my next long piece about Fallujah. If you don’t agree with the author, please be polite in the comments. Let’s see if a civil and educational discussion about this topic is possible. –MJT

The debate about the Iraq War is not internally consistent: there is no agreement on the proper parameters of judgment. Overlapping debates rage about momentum (whether we're “winning”), the shape of our ultimate goals, “victory”, the importance of any current success or failure, and the accuracy and/or significance of various costs and benefits for Iraq's inhabitants. Beneath this superficial confusion lies a deeper confusion, stemming from Iraq's dual role as both its own war, and as a leading aspect of the Global War On Terror (GWOT). While a victory in the Iraq war can be judged by its final score, we can only judge the Iraq War as a GWOT victory by tallying its consequences from beginning to end. The GWOT's ultimate metric is the prevention of terrorism, so an end state of decreased terrorism may not be a victory if it is preceded by an avoidable ten decades of increased terrorism.

General inability to separate these two dynamics leads to the confusion of a possible victory in the Iraq war with the vindication of Iraq as a model for the GWOT, perhaps along the lines of the National Security Strategy of “pre-emption.” While something that at least feels like victory in Iraq - to Americans, anyway - may be possible, it will not turn the Iraq War as a whole into an effective GWOT strategy. (The 2007 counterinsurgency doctrine may be extracted as a useful set of tactics, however).

Leave the WMD debate aside - Iraq was not a successful pre-emption of terrorism. Depending on your assessment of Iraq prior to 2003, the war serves as either a failed pre-emption that magnified the problems it wanted to solve, or else as the ex nihilo creation of a terrorism outbreak. Either way, the danger of terrorism from Iraq will be greater than before we started for the foreseeable future. A good metaphor for Iraq's role in the GWOT is Hurricane Katrina's role in the urban renewal of New Orleans. Decades later, the cause may be advanced, but that doesn't make it a recommended way to get the job done. The metaphor has its limits - Iraq is worse. Hurricanes are not the human byproduct of bad decisions, and hurricanes do not self-replicate.

It doesn't take a long look at the evidence to judge the Iraq Invasion's effect on terrorism. Terrorism in Iraq began to rise as soon as we arrived. Iraq suffered zero suicide bombings in January 2003, four in April-June 2003, 20 in January-March 2004, 78 in January-March 2005. (“Suicide Terrorism in Iraq: A Preliminary Assessment of the Quantitative Data and Documentary Evidence”. Hafez, Mohammed. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, Vol. 29, Issue 6. Figure 2.)

Two years later, we have killed some of the terrorists our invasion activated, bribed others into acquiescence, and appear to be slowly driving the remainder into hiding. A less violent Iraq is a victory for our soldiers over the alternative of a more violent Iraq. Eleven suicide bombings in October 2007 is a victory over seventy-eight in Q1, 2005 - but not a victory over zero suicide bombings in January 2003. And even if the number returned to zero and stayed there, we would not then break even; we have paid opportunity costs of unnecessary exposure and unnecessary risk.

The best reason that Iraq is no way to run a GWOT is as simple as asymmetry itself. We can't effectively fight as many internal wars in Muslim countries as Al-Qaeda may start, and therefore every 'optional' internal war - like Iraq - is a bad risk. Some quick calculation suggests that Iraq represents 3% of the land surface of Muslim-majority nations, and less than 2% of their population. Yet the number of troops and duration of high-intensity combat required to suppress this one Al-Qaeda “base area” in Iraq has led the US Army to the edge of “breaking”, according to some experts. In combination with other overseas commitments, the percentage of total US ground forces deployed overseas in any year has edged towards 50%. The percentage of available deployed ground forces is much higher. And there's still the other 98% of the world left for Al-Qaeda to fight from within.

How could we replicate the Iraq model - even the successful 2007 one - if Al-Qaeda had seeded three or four full-blown anti-government insurgencies at the same time? Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia - clearly we can't. Instead we've done our best at containing conflicts that we have failed to control. No one from these conflicts has blown up an American shopping mall, so we don't feel our attention to them is inadequate. But there's no reason to assume Al-Qaeda elements in any of these “secondary” conflicts are less of a threat to directly attack the West then the ones we're so flustered about in Iraq. Each of these conflicts constitutes a threat to U.S. citizens for every minute it continues to burn - and probably well beyond any cease-fire or de-escalation.

Some hawks suggest that “we're fighting them in Iraq so we don't have to fight them over here.” This appealing phrase is contradicted by evidence. In 2006, Al Qaeda fought in the slow-burning insurgency in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier and simultaneously planned from the same place to blow up as many as ten US airplanes. Nor did Al-Qaeda's investment in growing Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) prevent major terrorist attacks in several countries between 2003 and 2005. On the contrary, Peter Nasser has documented the prominent role the invasion of Iraq played in motivating the Madrid bombers. (“Jihadism in Western Europe After the Invasion of Iraq: Tracing Motivational Influences from the Iraq War on Jihadist Terrorism in Western Europe”. Nesser, Peter. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism. Volume 29, Issue 4, July 2006. Page 323-342. )

AQI has not attacked in America or Europe. However, the Radisson Hotel bombing conducted by AQI in Amman, Jordan was the highest-profile terrorist attack plotted from Iraqi soil in two decades. Neither the presence nor the anti-terrorism operations of US soldiers in a country eliminates the possibility of international terrorism plots from within. Even if the presence of US soldiers can help intercept a greater percentage of attacks, it may also prompt a higher number of those attacks. It's far from clear that the overall result is enhanced safety.

The bottom line is that unfinished insurgencies in Muslim countries make terrorism incidents more likely, not less. Victory in a local conflagration may reduce the threat of terrorism from locals - but not below the risk level we would find, in some cases, if the war had never occurred. Terrorist groups are born of mass violence and revolutionary change. Nasser's violent police state of Egypt fathered Al-Jihad, which fathered Ayman Al-Zawahiri. The USSR's violent invasion of Afghanistan fathered Al-Qaeda. The violent split of India and Pakistan fathered Jaish-e-Mohammed. Israel's Operation Peace of Galilee fathered Hizballah. Even when these organizations lose, even when they disband, they are not erased. Skills, equipment, veterans, and followers often survive - and some of them go on to lead the next bombing in America. The moral of the story is that mass violence, as the 'gateway drug' of terrorism, needs to be avoided. In many cases, this is not an easy objective to reconcile with our genuine need to deny Al-Qaeda freedom of action - such as in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is also hard to reconcile with an aggressive strategy to break down other terrorism indicators, such as dictatorship. Nevertheless Iraq, circa 2003, is an easy case: avoid optional wars and save capacity for unavoidable ones.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 3:52 PM

December 18, 2007

Why I Moderate the Comments Section

The reason I moderate the comments section (when I can and don't have to outsource it to others while traveling) is so it doesn't turn into a sewer like the one here. (You have to click the comments link over there before you can read them. And if you leave a comment of your own, please be nice to those who live there even though they do not deserve it.)

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 5:53 PM

December 16, 2007

The Other Fallujah Reporter (UPDATED THREE TIMES)

“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.

Read the rest at Commentary Magazine.

UPDATE: Glenn Greenwald thinks that because I was embedded with the U.S. military and al-Fadhily wasn't that my work is less credible. Specifically he insists that al-Fadhily's claim that 70 percent of Fallujah is destroyed is more credible than my claim to the contrary.

If the city were 70 percent destroyed it would look much like Dresden did after the fire-bombing. I could not possibly spend a month there without noticing, especially since I moved to a new location inside the city every day. You can believe that I would publish pictures of vast destruction in Fallujah if it existed because that's exactly what I did when I recently went to Ramadi and Lebanon. I do have a track record of that sort of thing. I have no reason, good or bad, to treat Fallujah any differently.

It would be truly amazing — if not impossible — if I could spend so much time in Fallujah and not notice that 70 percent of it was destroyed.

I recently (sincerely and politely) offered to help Glenn Greenwald get to Iraq safely since he's a journalist who writes about it so much. So far he hasn't responded. By his own logic, both al-Fadhily and myself are more credible on the subject than he is. I wouldn't normally pull rank on a colleague like this, but since Glenn pulled rank over me on al-Fadhily's behalf, he gets the same in return.

I'll still help Glenn get to Iraq if he wants so we won't have to talk to each other like this.

UPDATE #2: Glenn Greenwald says I mischaracterized what he wrote in the following paragraph:
Writing at The Podhoretz Family's Commentary Magazine, right-wing blog favorite Michael Totten — who says he has been the only reporter other than al-Fadhily in Fallujah — takes issue with some of al-Fadhily's claims about the extent to which Fallujah was destroyed by our 2004 military assualt. In doing so, Totten revealingly points out that he, Totten, is always with the U.S. military, while the independent al-Falahdy “isn't embedded with the military and [] focuses his attention on Iraqi civilians,” as though that makes Totten's assertions more credible, rather than less credible, than al-Fadhily's.
He wrote in an email that he did not say my “reporting was less credible with regard to whether 70% of Fallujah had been destroyed.” It looked that way from my first reading of his paragraph, but I suppose it could be read both ways and the misunderstanding can be chalked up to sloppy writing on his part, sloppy reading on my part, or both.

In any case, I have no interest in mischaracterizing what he or anyone else writes. And I'm glad to hear he did not mean to say what I thought he said.

He says, in email, that he thinks al-Fadhily is more credible than me “SOLELY WITH RESPECT to the point about whether Falljuah residents had been harrassed or arrested after speaking with journalists.”

I think he's wrong about that, but feel free to click on over and read his argument.

One point he makes is fair enough, at least. I did not back up my assertion with evidence. He's right. I didn't. I exceeded my word limit and tried to keep it short, so here is some evidence now:

Arresting citizens for talking to journalists is a strict violation of the human rights rules being handed down from the Americans to the Iraqis. And the Iraqi Police are very closely supervised by the Marines. They live together in the same stations and go on joint patrols with each other.

I personally sat in on a class where two Marine officers instructed Iraqi Police officers in the human rights ethics expected of them. United Nations documents, rather than American documents, were the source material for the course, but the Iraqi Police are being trained to act like professional police officers in a liberal democracy, not a dictatorship.

Not everything sticks. It's possible that the Iraqi Police would round someone up for no reason other than talking to journalists, but the Marines would be furious and would instantly undo the problem as soon as they found out about it.

No one can disprove a negative, but this one does not pass the smell test. Iraq is a paranoid place. I can't prove that the Americans didn't put a shark in a Euphrates River canal to scare people, either, but I shouldn't have to.

UPDATE #3: Here is a worthwhile comment posted over at Commentary:
# Richard F. Says: December 17th, 2007 at 5:12 pm

Michael: I am writing as a 3-time embedded reporter including one stint with the 3/8 Marines in Fallujah just two months after the conclusion Al-Fajr. I was on Humvee patrols in and out of the city, and the claim of “70%” destruction is bogus. Moreover, it is a claim that has steadily grown since the conclusion of that battle. Particularly from war opponents, an assertion of 1/3 destruction was the first “percentage” I heard; next it was 50%; about one year ago, I read that 75% was the actual number. It’s good to know that there has been some “decline” however marginal—must be the result of the Surge!

Seriously, between these claims (which I found bogus and which may be investigated by a close viewing of satellite photos) and the (usually) allied assertion that the destruction was attributable to the indiscriminate use of WP, I had first-time experience with the famous comment (of uncertain parentage) that truth is the first casualty of war.

The claim that embed equals “in-bed” is usually raised in direct proportion to how well the subject reporting comports with the political views of those making the comment. For example, when Kevin Sites took his famous footage inside a Fallujah mosque, that purported to show a US Marine executing a wounded insurgent (the Marine was later cleared) no one claimed that Sites was “in bed” with his PAO. Unfortunately, for honest reporters, their work is evaluated by how useful it is to the media’s, politician’s or blogger’s agenda. Just remember, in a hyper-partisan world, there is always room for more agreement!
Posted by Michael J. Totten at 7:10 PM

December 10, 2007

After the Battle of Al-Fajr

FALLUJAH, IRAQ – Fallujah is known as the City of Mosques. It is also a city of walls, and of war.

It was a quieter city than most after the initial invasion in 2003. There was less looting than in Baghdad, and the mayor was pro-American. It was tranquil for the most part. But resentment first simmered, then exploded in an orgy of mob violence on March 31, 2004, when four security contractors from the Blackwater corporation were murdered, mutilated, and strung up from a bridge.

Blackwater Bridge.jpg
Photo Copyright Associated Press

The following month U.S. Army soldiers and Marines were sent in to clear the city, then were pulled back for political reasons before the mission was finished. The insurgents won the first round and gained total control of the city. Taliban-style rule had come to Iraq. In November of the same year the Americans went back in and fought the massive epic battle known as Al-Fajr, or Dawn.

I met two Marines who have returned to Fallujah after the fighting in that battle. They belong to the 3rd Battalion 5th Regiment's India Company and are based now at a train station on the northern edge of the city that has been turned into a Forward Operating Base that keeps its part of the city secure.

Train Station Fallujah.jpg
Train Station FOB, India Company

None of the 3/5 Marines – in India Company or any other – have been killed or even wounded since their current tour began in the summer this year.

“What was the fighting like then?” I asked Corporal Brandon Koch.

“In 2004 it was either intense or it was nothing at all,” he said. “We were going from door to door, going in houses. There was always that rush right before you go in the door, but most of the time when you go in there wouldn't be anything there. So you go from a high to a low real quick. Of course if there was somebody there you'd stay at the high. It was definitely different. There wasn't much that we had trained on. We were mostly trained for regular conventional warfare. It was totally different from anything else I've done since then, that's for sure.”

Corporal Koch Fallujah.jpg
Corporal Brandon Koch

Fallujah today is an impoverished ramshackle mess, but it's not a war zone anymore. In 2004 it was by far the worst place in the country. It was still a hotbed of insurgent activity as recently as the first half of 2007.

“The unit we relieved was monitoring the city, watching the city,” Corporal Koch said. “We took that over from them. Then we started our push. It was a couple of months before the regular civilians got back in the city.”

“Months after you came in?” I said.

“We came in in November, on November 6th,” he said. “It took about two or three weeks altogether. The civilians stayed out of the city for another month or month and a half after that. We were still doing operations then, but it wasn't an all out push. It was just cleaning up. It was loose ends. Weapons caches. Just basically getting this place ready for the civilians to come back in. We made sure people weren't going into their homes while they were rigged to blow.”

Civilians were evacuated from the city before Al-Fajr began.

“When the civilians left,” I said, “did you help them leave orderly, or was it a mad scramble to get out of here?”

“They left in an orderly fashion,” he said. “Camps were set up outside the city for people who didn't have family or relatives to go to and for people who couldn't make the journey.”

A few civilians, though, did not make it out.

“There are people everywhere who want to ride out a crisis,” said India Company's Captain Stewart Glenn. “Just like those people in New Orleans who stuck around for Hurricane Katrina. I'm going to ride it out, they said. So a few around here rode it out. There were, I think, six or so families that did that. We painted the word Family on the walls of their houses so they wouldn't be confused with combatants.”

Family Fallujah.jpg
Marines painted “Family” on the walls of houses of the few civilians who remained in the city during Al-Fajr so they would not be confused with combatants.

“Did you screen people for weapons as they left,” I asked Corporal Koch, “or did you let out anybody who wanted out?”

“As far as I know they were screening everybody,” he said. “We didn't have the ID system up and running like we do now. The old IDs were easily faked. But there were people screening them as they came out of the city, looking for high value targets and whatnot, making sure nobody was slipping through the cracks.”

“What was the most intense thing you experienced?” I said.

“Personally?” he said. “It would have to be the initial push. By training I am a mortar man. We have these 60mm mortars, and our section had to carry our gear. We had to carry our tubes. The system weighs about 117 pounds, and we split that out between three guys. And everyone carried rounds that weighed about eight pounds each, and we'd have to carry about eight of those. Plus our combat load. We would wake up at dawn, fire our guns, pack everything up, get on line with the elevens, and just keep pushing through everything. It sucked a lot of times. It seemed like every time you were ready to take a break, it's like they knew, and that's when all the fire fights started. It seemed like it never happened when you were fresh.”

Marine Collapsed Wall Fallujah.jpg

“Was there one fight in particular that was intense or memorable?” I said. “The kind of story you would tell your kids or your friends back home?”

“I don't talk to my friends back home about it,” he said. “We pretty much only talk amongst ourselves.”

“Is it because they don't want to hear about it,” I said, “or you don't want to talk about it?”

“It's because everybody glorifies it so much, I think,” he said softly and a little bit sadly. “Everybody thinks it's cool. You know?”

“You mean American civilians glorify it?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Guys our age. You go home and you always get those stupid questions. Did you shoot anybody? Did you kill anybody? How many people? I just don't personally deal with that. I had a great uncle who was in the Korean War. I talk to people like him about it. As far as regular people, I don't. If they ask I just tell them it was nothing. That's what I hear from everybody else, too. They feel the same way.”

“How do you feel about what happened here?” I said.

“I definitely think it was necessary,” he said. “I don't have any regrets. I'm glad I did it, and I would do it again. It's good to see the city the way it is and to go to the same neighborhoods. They're so much cleaner now. These people are doing things on their own, they're taking care of their own stuff. When I was here three years ago, I never would have imagined this place would ever be like it is now. It reminded me of Tijuana. When we got here it just seemed like everything you could think of that was bad, this city had it going on. Now they have regular families thriving in the city. There are people working neighborhood watch, working together. It has turned around a lot. I didn't even want to come on this deployment, but now seeing the city the way it is, I'm glad I did. It's like a closure on everything.”

Big House Fallujah.jpg
Many houses are damaged or riddled with bullet holes, but most are in okay condition today.

“How do you feel about the people who live here?” I said.

“My opinion of the people here has changed, too,” he said. “Originally, because of the shape the city was in, I didn't have a whole lot of respect for the people. But now, after seeing how much these people have changed, and understanding that they were under a dictatorship…I didn't really understand what a dictatorship was. These people are working hard. They have good family values. Their religious faith is incredible compared to how people are in the States. Even people who think they're religious in the States, they're nothing compared to the people here. They have city-wide prayers every day, you know? Honestly, I have a lot of respect for the people here.”

Man with Keffiyeh and Tire Fallujah.jpg

I hear criticism of Iraqis of some kind almost every day when I'm in Iraq. There is a lot to criticize. Iraq is a broken country. Its infrastructure and economy are shot, its political culture dysfunctional. In my experience, though, contempt for Iraqi culture specifically, and Arabs and Islam more generally, is far more prevalent in the American civilian population, even in liberal coastal cities, than it is among American soldiers and Marines who interact with Iraqis every day, forge sometimes intense personal bonds with Iraqis, eat Iraqi food, and speak at least a little Arabic. Stereotypes about racist and psychotic Marines, as well as fanatical and psychotic Iraqis, can't survive a lengthy trip to Fallujah, at least not to the Fallujah of late 2007.

“How competent were the insurgents?” I said.

“They were pretty competent,” Corporal Koch said. “They're smart…or I guess it would be more like crafty. They definitely have some experience. And they definitely have some street smarts to 'em. They adapt so quickly. They're always coming up with new ways to do stuff, and new ways to fight. When we fight we have traditions almost. We always do things the same way. Even the Marine Corps is like that. Actually I think they're helping us because they're making us change. I think they're a lot smarter than people give them credit for. They have to be, because they're still here. They're still fighting.”

“They're still fighting elsewhere in Iraq, anyway,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said. “I mean, not so much here. The extremists in general have been getting away. We're slowly catching up to them, but they've been putting up a fight for years now. They're pretty smart individuals. Their biggest problem, luckily for us, is a lack of resources.”

“Who were these guys in 2004, exactly?” I said. Most of the Sunni Triangle has been largely pacified lately, but it was a genuine rogues gallery not long ago, bristling with terrorists and guerrilla armies that flew many flags. “Were they Al Qaeda, the 1920s Revolution Brigade, Baathists?” I said.

Bullet Hole Bus Fallujah.jpg

“I think a lot of them, honestly, were looking for work,” he said. “[Lieutenant] Colonel [Patrick] Malay – he was our battalion commander – he used to talk about the Friendlies, the Fence-sitters, and the Fuckos. The fence-sitters would sometimes play off us. I think we had a lot of those, too. It's hard when you first get here if you're not used to being around Middle Eastern people and you're not used to the culture. They all stare at you, you know? Just because they're not used to you. There's was some confusion in general, people not used to each other's cultures. But like I said, I think it was a mixture. There were serious guys, then some less serious guys and people who were pressured into it. We could usually tell the difference when we fought them. Some were really there to fight. Others, halfway through, would sometimes think about it and then take off. They'd run or just give up.”

“Did you get many who surrendered to you?” I said.

“Not so much,” he said. “But there were houses where we would come in, they'd put their guns down, and be like, okay, we don't want to do this. So we would just detain them. There was a detention facility where they would have to be checked. It kind of sucks, it gives you kind of a weird feeling, because they were fighting, but they're not necessarily bad people. People do weird stuff to feed their family. It goes back to the fence-sitter thing. That makes it hard.”

Some of the insurgents reportedly came from places as far from Iraq as Chechnya. They weren't all Iraqis, and they weren't even all Sunni Arabs. In Ramadi around 90 percent of captured insurgents are Iraqis, but around 90 percent of suicide bombers and Al Qaeda in Iraq leaders are from another country. Fallujah, though, is not the same place as Ramadi. It has been meaner and murkier for the duration of the conflict.

“Do you think most of these guys were from here, or from somewhere else?” I said.

“I don't think they were from here,” he said. “I know how these people are and how their culture is. I honestly don't think they would fight anywhere close to their families or anything that they care about, just on the chance that somebody would get hurt. Just like back in the States. If you wanted to fight, you wouldn't start a war in your house. You would want to go somewhere else.”

I think he's right that Iraqis don't want to fight where they live. Fallujah has a hardened perimeter manned by the Iraqi Police. If you don't have a Fallujah resident sticker on the windshield of your car, you are not allowed in. Car bombers and gun runners from the rest of Iraq are effectively banned from Fallujah. The level of violence isn't quite zero, but it's close.

“Do you think the insurgents were from elsewhere in Iraq,” I said, “or elsewhere in the Middle East?”

“I think it was both,” he said. “I don't have a sense if there was more of one or the other. But there was definitely a mixture. You could tell the difference between people from difference places. There were little subtleties. They would dress differently. The way they look.”

One thing that really struck me while reading House to House: An Epic Memoir of War by Staff Sergeant David Bellavia was how the soldiers in his unit during Al-Fajr feared anything that moved that wasn't American. Because the civilians had left, the empty city of Fallujah was like a set-piece battleground at the end of the world.

“What were your rules of engagement when you took the city?” I said.

“Pretty much the same as they are now,” he said.

“There weren't many civilians around,” I said. “Didn't that loosen up the rules of engagement at all?”

“It didn't loosen up the rules of engagement,” he said. “But the guys that were in the city were there to fight. They weren't operating in crowds. Today when somebody goes out on patrol to the marketplace, obviously any insurgents will have to hide and stay low. There wasn't any of that before. There was an understanding: if they were there, they were there to fight. And if you're not there to fight, then don't stay. But the rules of engagement were the same. The difference is that they were more aggressive, so it was an easier decision for us.”

“What's the most important thing about Fallujah that Americans should know that they don't know?” I said.

“Most Americans think Fallujah is such a bad place,” he said. “They've been hearing about it from Day One. It's a holy city. I don't know how many people know that it's a holy city. The extremists, since it is a holy city, were hiding behind it, were using it for the cause. Ramadi is another one that just has a horrible reputation. I haven't been to Ramadi, but the last I heard it's doing better than this city is.”

“It is a bit better,” I said. “I was there a few months ago. Not a lot better, but a little bit.”

“So I think the most important thing for people to know is that it's a city full of normal people. It's not like…I think people get the impression that it's a city where people are walking down the street with AK-47s. Like a bad Rambo movie or something. That's the impression people get, but it's not like that at all.”

Girl in Overalls Fallujah.jpg

“I don't think people really know what to expect from any of this,” he continued. “It's like people say: you only get the bad news on TV. They don't get to hear about how Fallujah is doing good now. I'm sure they'd hear about it if something bad happened. But these people are doing better, the schools are open, businesses are open, people are cleaning up their own city. They're starting their own neighborhood watch. They have their own police force now, their own government. People don't get to hear about that. I think that's important for people to know. You shouldn't focus so much on people who mess up. I mean, people have messed up. Bad stuff has happened. But you should focus on the percentage of people who are doing good as opposed to the percentage who are doing bad. There's a lot of good going on over here. And there's a lot of good people in this city.”

*

Sergeant Charles Smith also fought in Fallujah during Al-Fajr and has returned to the city for another tour.

“So, what was the fighting like?” I said.

“It was crazy,” he said. “We went in on November 8. It was my twenty first birthday. We went in through the northwest part of the city. We pushed east. For the first two weeks it was crazy. You didn't know when you were going to get shot at. But you were going to get shot at. Every day it was something. You didn't know from where. I got in six fire fights. It wasn't that many, not like Kilo Company. They got in a lot more. And they took a lot more casualties than we did in India Company.”

“What was the most intense thing you experienced?” I said.

Sergeant Smith Fallujah.jpg
Sergeant Charles Smith

“December 11,” he said. “The day before, Third Platoon had gotten in a fire fight. Third Platoon had them pinned in. We pulled back, called in air and tanks on the building we thought they were in. The morning of December 11 we were going to continue clearing the northeast part of the city. My fire team was supposed to go first, but for whatever reason the second fire team went. They went to the front door, but they couldn't kick it in. Then they went to the back door, which was open. As soon as they made entry…all the lights were off, so they turned on the Surefire [rifle-mounted flashlight] and it was an ambush. The team leader at the time suppressed so his team could get out. Me and another guy were on the roof to help suppress from the first building. The whole fire team came out, except one guy. So we had to go back in to get him out of the fight. He saved his fire team, but he didn't make it out. It was a bad day.”

Crumpled House Fallujah.jpg

I asked Sergeant Smith some of the same questions I asked Corporal Koch.

“Who were the bad guys, exactly?” I said. No one in Fallujah ever mentioned the Baath Party or the 1920s Revolution Brigade when I asked that question. The answer was always either Al Qaeda, random unaffiliated disgruntled Iraqis, or both.

“Anybody who wanted to stay and fight,” he said. “We dropped leaflets on the city that said we're coming in. If you want to stay, stay. But you're going to be considered hostile. So they had their fair warning. We did see some civilians, but for the most part if they were in the city they were bad. We would raid houses, kick in a door, and there would be a family just sitting there. So we'd load them up and the company gunny would take them to where we took them, to wherever Battalion took them.”

“Who do you suppose these people were,” I said, “the ones who didn't want to leave? Did they have no way out? Were they just stubborn?”

“I'd say they were stubborn,” he said.

“Did you suspect they were up to no good?” I said.

“They had to be up to no good,” he said. “I mean, they had their fair warning to get out of the city. But, I mean, it's not like we just shot at everybody. We always had to have a positive ID. The extremists, the people who thought they could actually take on however many battalions of Marines that were here, it was just suicide for them. They had to know that we were going to kill them.

“Were they good fighters?” I said.

“They're not good fighters,” he said, “but they got a bunch of us. They knew we were clearing every building. And they'd learn from us. Whenever we went to a position we always filled sandbags and stuff like that.”

Sandbags Fallujah.jpg

“And they would do the same thing,” he continued. “They knew that if we couldn't come through the front door, we'd go through the back door. So they would barricade one door and leave one open. And they'd put a bunker and a machine gun down that main hallway. They would sit in the back corner of a room and soon as you kicked open the door they would just keep firing. So maybe they weren't very good fighters, but they were quick to adapt and were actually pretty smart.”

“I've read that some of these guys injected themselves with drugs,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said, “we found syringes, different types of drugs. The corpsman tried to explain to me what they were at the time, but I didn't really pay attention to him. They found a lot of medical stuff like that, but for the most part they were just smart. They basically knew what we were going to do every time. We would clear the house, so all they had to do was wait.”

“Do you talk about this stuff with your friends and family?” I said. I was curious if he, like Corporal Koch, kept the war all bottled up inside to himself.

“If they ask, I'll tell them,” he said. “It doesn't really bother me. The more people understand what's really going on over here, the more support they'll give us.”

“What do you think of the media coverage?” I said. “I don't mean generally, I mean specifically about Fallujah. Or did you even see any of it?”

“We had Fox News,” he said. “They were with India Company. We had Max Becherer from Time magazine. He went everywhere with us. He actually saved my life. He pulled me up over a building. I was starting to fall and he grabbed me and pulled me over. During that time the coverage was actually pretty accurate.”

Distressed Girl Fallujah.jpg
Fallujah is only beginning to recover from violent trauma. This girl became extremely distressed when she saw Marines walking toward her. I tried to smile and wave to put her at ease, but she refused to look at any of us.

“What's the most important thing Americans don't know about Fallujah that they should know?” I said.

“Now or then?” he said.

“Either,” I said. “Both.”

“I think for the most part, then, the city was bad,” he said. “We did what we had to do to give the city back to the people. And now the people of Fallujah just want their lives back. They're tired of fighting. They've been fighting for almost five years now. They want stability. They want to be secure and not worry about Al Qaeda, not worry about coming up on a military convoy too fast and getting shot at. They don't want to be stopped in the city. They want to be left alone and just live their lives like we do back in the United States.”

Boy With Broom Fallujah.jpg

“Did you get the sense that people didn't want that back then,” I said, “or that most of them did and that this place was just taken over?”

“It was just taken over,” he said. “It was that bad. There were insurgents everywhere.”

“Did the average person who lived here support you guys, the insurgents, or were they caught in the middle and didn't know which way to jump?” I said.

“They were fence-sitters, as Colonel Malay would say,” he said. “They may not have really trusted Americans, but they knew if they were with the insurgents we were going to come after them and kill them. So they basically just sat in the middle.”

“What changed here?” I said. “Why did it flip?”

“Fallujah is getting a good city government,” he said. “The police force is really good now. They do their own stakeouts, their own intel. They're really good. The Iraqi Police caught a high value target not too long ago, back in October I believe. They're always finding IEDs or weapons caches.”

“Old IEDs or new ones?” I said.

“Both,” he said. “They found a 200-pound Russian warhead the other day. On the north side of the city, in the northwest corner. It was half exposed. I'm not sure how it was exposed. There is some work being done up there, so I don't know if whoever is working there exposed it or what. I just know that they found it and came to us. So we called the EOD [Explosive Ordnance Disposal] team and they came out and disposed of it.”

“How does it feel to be back?” I said. “Are you surprised by what it's like now?”

“Oh, definitely,” he said. “From what I understand, after 3/5 left the first time it became very bad. There were snipers all the time, IEDs all the time. And then – I'm not sure which unit – they came in and the city pretty much changed overnight. The attacks stopped. People are happy to see us out here. From hearing that when we were here it was good, then hearing that it went bad again, and now hardly any attacks on us, it's just amazing.”

“Was it worth it, do you think?” I said.

“Yes,” he said without hesitation.

“Why?” I said.

“We got rid of an insurgency and fought the bad guys,” he said. “That's why people join the Marine Corps, to go and fight.”

Shot Up Marine Station Fallujah.jpg
Marines live and work in the back of this shot up house

I laughed. Marines like to say this sort of thing. They seem slightly more disappointed than Army soldiers when there's nobody to shoot at. Many I've spoken to want to redeploy to Afghanistan where they can still “get some.” At the same time, it seems they're happy to see that the war in Fallujah has been practically won.

“So yeah,” he continued. “It was worth it. We got rid of a tyrant. It sounds bad, but I'd rather fight insurgents over here than have more attacks in the U.S. A lot of people, I think, don't understand that if we weren't over here – maybe not in Iraq, but in the Middle East – I think more attacks would be going on in the United States. Why would they go and fly all the way to the United States when they can just fight us over here? That's just my personal view on it.”

“What do you think of the people who live here?” I said.

Marine and Little Girls Fallujah.jpg

“I think they're normal everyday people who are just trying to get their lives back,” he said. “They're tired of being threatened by Al Qaeda. They're tired of having war in their country. They just want to be left alone. They don't necessarily want to go back to the way things were when Saddam was here. They just want a normal life.”

“We're not here to fight for Iraqis,” Lieutenant Mike Barefoot said to me later. “But we start to feel like we are after a while. During training a lot of Marines said they hated Iraqis. I don't hear that anymore.”

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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Many thanks in advance.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 4:29 AM

December 9, 2007

Stay Tuned

My next dispatch will be ready shortly, and should be published either Sunday night or Monday morning at the latest.

I have hardly slept in the same place for two nights in a row for almost a month. Every day I've had to pack up my things and shove off to another location in or around Fallujah, often to places off the edge of the world with no Internet access. A few nights ago I slept on a cot in a shipping container. Writing while embedding with the military is possible, but difficult and slow. Thank you for understanding and being patient.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 7:13 AM

December 3, 2007

New York Daily News Column

I'll have another dispatch here shortly, but in the meantime here's a short piece of mine in the New York Daily News.

FALLUJAH, IRAQ - In August, I wrote in these pages that it was too soon to judge Gen. David Petraeus' surge of troops in Iraq a success or a failure. It's not too soon anymore.

Baghdad, the most dangerous city in all of Iraq, is only half as violent as it was when I was there during the summer. And the fact that the capital is now the deadliest city is itself evidence of a tectonic shift on the ground.

In the spring of 2007, Ramadi was the most violent place in Iraq. But the insurgency there has been finished. The Taji area north of Baghdad, which was a catastrophe when I paid a visit in July, is now going the way of Ramadi.

I am writing these words from Fallujah, site of the most horrific battle of the entire war in November 2004, and the city thought to be the meanest in Iraq since at least the time of the British in Mesopotamia.
Read the rest in the New York Daily News.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:27 AM