September 27, 2007

MJT: The Jezebel Interview

Strangest interview I've ever done, over at the online women’s magazine Jezebel.


Welcome back to "That's So Jane's", a really bad pun we use both as an homage to Jane/Jane's Defence Weekly magazines and as an excuse to blog about something other than celebrities and drinking and fucking and all our stupid little affluent society problems. There's a whole Third World out there! And really, don't take a hot dictator's word for it: They're trying to blow us up. In this edition Anonymous Lobbyist talks to Michael Totten, an independent journalist and foreign-affairs expert whose idea of a great vacation spot is Libya. (Though the wife is nagging him to indulge her this year and go to North Korea.) In other words, he's crazy! This week the two take on A-jad's hotness versus Blackwater mercenaries' hotness, Afghanistan's drug scene, and just when the fuck we're going to be getting some OIL out of this grand Ponzi scheme to liberate Iraq.

Q: So, first things first: Is there drinking in Iran? Or do they just skip right over that part of the Winehouse catalog and go straight for the H?

A: Oh, they totally drink in Iran. Christopher Hitchens was there a few years ago and he wrote about in it Vanity Fair. He was like, everyone except some dorky mullah gave me a glass or a shot when I went to their house. Porn and heroin are the big new things, though, you're right. It's better than Seattle.

Q: Since lots of people in the Western world are calling abstinence the new promiscuity, does that make the hijab the new miniskirt? In all the pictures we see on the TV of Iran, it seems to be pretty popular with the women there.

A: The hijab is the new bikini, actually. Burkhas are the new miniskirts. But women who show too much ankle in Iran get arrested and have their feet plunged into buckets of cockroaches, like on Fear Factor or something. It's totally gross over there.

Q: Okay, so let's cut to the chase: Ahmadinejad: hot dictator? Or hottest dictator?

A: Dude needs a shave and a haircut. And a few more inches, if you know what I mean. (He's short.) And he's not really a dictator. Ayatollah Khamenei is the real dictator and he's, like, old. He's even older than Bob Dole. None of those guys are hot. All the hot ones get strung up and tortured, especially the women who don't like the new miniskirts. Actually, Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards don't have as much power and influence as they used to. There's this unspoken agreement between the people and the government: you pretend to arrest us, as we'll pretend to behave. Again, it's like Seattle, only with occasional public hangings.
Read the whole thing.

For entertainment purposes only.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:29 PM | Comments (54)

September 24, 2007

“Al Qaeda Lost”

RAMADI, IRAQ – I met and interviewed dozens of Army officers in Baghdad and Ramadi, but none who were as admired and respected by the men who serve under them as much as 3rd Infantry Division Lieutenant Colonel Mike Silverman from Midway, Georgia. Junior officers and enlisted men nicknamed him “the forty pound brainer,” and admire him for his guts as well as his head. “He went out and spent 12 hours a day in his hot tank,” during the battle of Ramadi one soldier said. “He risked getting blown up just like everyone else.” “I had served with him before,” said another. “When he told me he needed me in Ramadi, that was all I needed to hear. I mean, I didn’t have any choice because the Army gave me my orders, but that didn’t matter once I knew Colonel Silverman was out here.” “I’d do anything for that man,” said a third, “and I don’t like officers.”

Colonel Mike Silverman.jpg
Lieutenant Colonel Mike Silverman

I had dinner with him at the dining facility and interviewed him afterwards in his office at the Blue Diamond base in northern Ramadi.

“How long have you been in Ramadi?” I said.

“Since the last week of January, 2007,” he said. “When I first got here my area of operations was the southern half of downtown. It was ugly then, especially for the civilians. We found more than 50 dead in just one grave in the desert. 50,000 – 70,000 people have returned so far since the war ended in April.”

“Describe the progress you’ve seen so far,” I said.

“Sure,” he said, “let’s look at the Abu Bali area for example. 6,000 or so people live there. When I first arrived there were 10 attacks every day just in that small area alone. Since May 1, 2007, we’ve had only one attack total in that area. The people went from having two to three hours of electricity a day to having twelve hours a day. Insurgents kept blowing up the power lines, but now that they’ve been cleared out the government has put them back up. Commerce has really taken off.”

“What’s the most encouraging thing you’ve seen here?” I said.

“On the second or third day the PSF [Provincial Security Forces] took over a checkpoint on a highway.”

The Provincial Security Forces are a “national guard” of sorts controlled by the tribal authorities in addition to the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police in the area. They resemble a militia in some ways, but they’re a legal branch of the Iraqi security forces, authorized and paid by the Ministry of Interior in Baghdad.

“An ice truck dropped off its ice at a checkpoint,” he continued. “The truck behind it in line exploded. Everybody was killed. For a five or six hour period we weren’t sure the PSF would go back to work. But eight hours later they were back in business. They are 100 percent committed to anti-terrorism and anti-sectarianism.”

“What’s the worst thing you’ve seen here?” I said.

He wasn’t sure what to say and had to think about his answer for a few moments.

“The worst thing I’ve seen, I think, is the aftermath of a VBIED,” he said.

A VBIED is a vehicle-born improvised explosive device. In other words, a car bomb.

“I’ve seen that about ten times,” he continued. “Some people are turned, literally, into red blotches. Some are just vaporized. Their families will never see them again, not even their bodies. And the smell…there’s this awful car bomb smell, the acrid stench of homemade explosives and diesel fuel. Nothing else in the world has that smell. Most of the VBIEDs were intended for civilians, but the Iraqi Police usually stopped them first at the checkpoints. So they were the ones who usually got blown up. The driver of the VBIED would panic because he was caught and then kill everyone at the checkpoint. Nevertheless, the Iraqi Police kept bravely manning the checkpoints and replacing the police who were murdered. I’m telling you, they aren’t doing that for the 310 dollars a month.”

“What were the battles in the city like?” I said.

“It would only be a mild exaggeration,” he said, “if I compared it to the battle of Stalingrad. We engaged in kinetic firefights that lasted for hours. Every single day they attacked us with AK-47s, sniper rifles, RPGs, IEDs, and car bombs.”

“How many fighters were there?” I said.

“Around 150 hard core fighters,” he said.

What?” I said. “Only 150?”

How could 150 fighters possibly transform a city of 450,000 people into a second Stalingrad?

“I expected you to say there were thousands,” I added.

“It felt like thousands,” he said. “Anyway, I’m only talking about the number of hard core fighters. The 150 doesn’t include the larger number of people planting IEDs. The population couldn’t do anything about these people. They were terribly intimidated. If Americans even handed someone a bag of sugar, his entire family would be killed. There are graves all over Abu Bali. People were taken there, decapitated, and shot in the head.”

He doesn’t really know how many hard-core fighters there were in the city. No one does. I asked Colonel John Charlton the same question – how many were there? – and his answer was very different even as his description of the fighting was identical.

“It looked like Stalingrad a few months ago,” he said. “There were around 750 fighters in the city proper. It could be less. I don’t know, it’s really hard to say. You have to understand, they worked in five- to ten-man cells. And it only takes one guy to fire an RPG or a sniper rifle. They used mosques, schools, and safe houses. We found an auto shop that had been converted into a car bomb factory. Because they had such small cells it was very difficult to go in there and clear them out.”

“Do you think your friendship with the locals is genuine?” I asked Lieutenant Colonel Silverman. Ramadi is in the heart of Iraq’s Sunni Triangle, the most anti-American region in all of Iraq. I had seen what appeared to be genuine friendship and warmth from the Iraqis I’d met, but it was impossible to tell from anecdotal experience if that sentiment was typical in Anbar Province or even real.

“I do,” he said. “Don’t just assume Iraqis are faking their friendship. The first time I was here in 2003 I made friends with locals in Salah a Din Province. They still email and call me to talk even though they know there is nothing I can do for them now that I’m out here in Ramadi. Some of the people we work with just want to make money. For them it’s all business and has nothing to do with their private opinions of us. But most really do want to make Iraq better. You can tell when you interact with people one-on-one if they’re sincere. You can see right through people who are insincere. Many of these guys have been in fire fights with us, so I know they’re on our side.”

“Do you ever meet anyone you suspect was an insurgent?” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “I think some of the guys in the 2nd PSF battalion were insurgents, mostly nationalists who got tired of Al Qaeda. Some were Baathists or belonged to the 1920s Brigade. Al Qaeda started killing them off so they switched sides. One PSF guy in particular knows a little too much about taking IEDs apart. He knows exactly how to dismantle these things, as if he built them himself. I asked him how he knows so much and he said he used to be a TV repair man.” He laughed and shrugged. “But, hey, he’s on our side now. We call him the TV Repair Man and don’t worry too much about it.”

“Did the average Iraqi here switch sides or were most of them always against Al Qaeda?” I said.

“The average Iraqi post-Fallujah was not very happy with us being here,” he said. “If the insurgency only attacked Americans, the people of Ramadi would not have been very upset. But Al Qaeda infiltrated and took over the insurgency. They massively overplayed their hand. They cut off citizens’ heads with kitchen knives. The locals slowly learned that the propaganda about us were lies, and that Al Qaeda was their real enemy. They figured out by having dinner and tea with us that we really are, honest to God, here to help them.”

Anbar Province as a whole isn’t completely secured yet. But most areas have been cleared, and it’s increasingly difficult for terrorists and insurgents to even show up in the province let alone find refuge there.

“Anbar Province all along the Euphrates used to be one huge rat line for getting terrorists into Baghdad from Syria,” he said. A rat line, in military speak, is an enemy logistics route. “That’s over.”

“Do you think what happened here can happen in Baghdad?” I said.

He sat motionless for a time and considered carefully what I had asked him. It was obvious by the look on his face that he wasn’t particularly optimistic about it.

“I don’t know,” he finally said. “One advantage we had here was that the tribes are like small communities, like in rural America. The sheikhs are politically powerful. If we turn them, we turn the people. Urban areas erode tribal affiliation. It’s still there in Baghdad, but it’s weaker. So I don’t know. It did work in the urban parts of Ramadi, though. If we can get it to work in all the provinces in Iraq – and it is working in Diyala Province right now, I know it is – then maybe it can work in Baghdad. It’s hard to say.”

He’s right that the formula works in Diyala Province, and in Salah a Din Province as well. Both provinces, like Anbar, are made up mostly of Sunni Arabs and have had similar troubles with Al Qaeda in Iraq. Even some tribes in the Shia South are beginning to emulate the Anbar model and work with the Americans against Shia militias.

The South, though, is very different from the Sunni Triangle. The Shia insurgents are “moderate” compared with Al Qaeda, and not so likely to be rejected by the entire society. On the other hand, the Shias of Iraq have never been as staunchly anti-American as the Sunnis have been and still mostly are. Saddam Hussein oppressed them almost as severely as he oppressed the Kurds in the North. The trouble for the Americans with the Shias is that so many prefer Iranian assistance, which they deem more reliable after President George H. W. Bush abandoned them to Saddam Hussein after the 1991 Gulf War.

What may make the Anbar model most difficult to implement in Baghdad, even beyond the erosion of tribal authority as Lieutenant Colonel Silverman noted, is that the Sunni and Shia communities each fear the militias and the death squads from the other community much more than they fear those from their own. Ending the insurgency in Baghdad may not be possible without first resolving the ongoing slow-motion civil war.

“What will it take for Anbar Province to stand on its own,” I said, “so American troops can leave?”

“The people here need a more direct and trusting link with the central government,” he said. “It’s tough for Baghdad to get things out here. They need to send more equipment for the police, and it’s not happening. People out here see a conspiracy in all this, even though that might not be the case. Baghdad needs to go out of its way to build trust, as we did.”

I had heard from several American officers that the Sunnis of Anbar see a conspiracy against them in Baghdad. Some even blamed the government for assassinating Anbar Awakening movement leader Sheikh Sattar Abu Risha. Anbar Province is almost exclusively Sunni, and the government is Baghdad is predominantly Shia. It doesn’t help that most Sunnis in Anbar boycotted the last election and have little representation in the capital. (They vow a massive turnout in the next Iraqi election, however.)

“Are you optimistic or pessimistic about Iraq as a whole?” I said.

“I am guardedly optimistic about Anbar, Diyala, and Salah a Din,” he said. “This model works there. If we can control these areas, Al Qaeda has nowhere. The reason my optimism is guarded, though, is because the people out here feel like they are second class citizens. If Baghdad doesn’t do what needs to be done, they will have a very tense relationship.”

“What’s the most important thing you have learned in your time here?” I said.

He wasn’t sure how to answer and had to think for a while.

“Well,” he finally said thoughtfully. “I learned something here that I had heard but never believed. I expected a huge kinetic fight, and that’s what we got. I was told that you win that kind of fight not by focusing on the enemy, but by focusing on the civilians. But I didn’t believe it. It’s true, though. I know because I have seen it.”

Earlier I published the somewhat counterintuitive excerpt from the counterinsurgency manual he was referring to, but here it is again:
Sometimes, the More You Protect Your Force, the Less Secure You May Be

1-149. Ultimate success in COIN [Counter-insurgency] is gained by protecting the populace, not the COIN force. If military forces remain in their compounds, they lose touch with the people, appear to be running scared, and cede the initiative to the insurgents. Aggressive saturation patrolling, ambushes, and listening post operations must be conducted, risk shared with the populace, and contact maintained. . . . These practices ensure access to the intelligence needed to drive operations. Following them reinforces the connections with the populace that help establish real legitimacy.

From “Counterinsurgency/FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5
“What do you think about the media coverage of the Anbar Awakening?” I said.

“I think it’s pretty accurate, actually,” he said, in contrast to the complaints I usually heard about the media from the military. Most soldiers and Marines who grouse about the media, though, are thinking of the war coverage in general rather than reports from Anbar Province specifically. “I think the media accurately describes the reality on the ground here. The only real complaint I have is that every article I’ve read seems to ask when the other shoe is going to drop. I doubt that’s going to happen. Reporters might want to accept the changes in Anbar a little more at face value.”

For a few days it felt to me like the “other shoe” had dropped when Sheikh Sattar was assassinated, but his killers failed to transform the politics and culture of Anbar in their favor. No one can say whether or not another insurgency will erupt, but the odds are vanishingly close to zero that Al Qaeda – the most destructive “insurgents” by far in Iraq – will ever be able to operate again there with impunity.

“Oh, and another thing, too, I suppose,” he continued. “There’s a bit too much suspicion about the Provincial Security Forces. The PSF is actually the least tribal institution in the province. They can go anywhere in any neighborhood and not be rejected as out of bounds. The Iraqi Police have to stay in their areas or the locals will say what are you doing here? The media seems to think they’re some backwards and tribal force, but they’re actually the most progressive and patriotic force in the province.”

“What do you think about media coverage of the Iraq war in general?” I said.

“Most of what they report is accurate,” he said, “and I’m not going to take the same negative line on it like most officers. It’s true that the media doesn’t have the same agenda in Iraq that we do, but I’m not sure it’s the media’s job to have the same agenda in Iraq that we do.”

“What’s the most important thing Americans need to know about Iraq that they don’t currently know?” I said.

“That we’re fighting Al Qaeda,” he said without hesitation. “[Abu Musab al] Zarqawi invented Al Qaeda in Iraq. The top leadership outside Iraq squawked and thought it was a bad idea. Then he blew up the Samarra mosque, triggered a civil war, and got the whole world’s attention. Then the Al Qaeda leadership outside dumped huge amounts of money and people and arms into Anbar Province. They poured everything they had into this place. The battle against Americans in Anbar became their most important fight in the world. And they lost.”

Post-script: 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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If you would like to donate for travel and equipment expenses and you don't want to send money over the Internet, please consider sending a check or money order to:

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Many thanks in advance.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:32 AM | Comments (219)

September 19, 2007

The Next Iranian Revolution is Available Online

Reason Cover Next Iranian Revolution.jpg

My feature article in the current issue of Reason magazine is now available online.

In a green valley nestled between snow-capped peaks in the Kurdish autonomous region of northern Iraq is an armed camp of revolutionaries preparing to overthrow the Islamic Republic of Iran. Men with automatic weapons stand watch on the roofs of the houses. Party flags snap in the wind. Radio and satellite TV stations beam illegal news, commentary, and music into homes and government offices across the border.

The compound resembles a small town more than a base, with corner stores, a bakery, and a makeshift hospital stocked with counterfeit medicine. From there the rebels can see for miles around and get a straight-shot view toward Iran, the land they call home. They call themselves Komala, which means simply “Association.”

Abdulla Mohtadi, the Komala Party’s secretary general, and Abu Baker Modarresi, a member of the party’s political bureau, hosted me in their meeting house. Sofas and chairs lined the walls, as is typical in Middle Eastern salons. Fresh fruit was provided in large bowls. A houseboy served thick Turkish coffee in shot glasses.

Both men started their revolutionary careers decades ago, when the tyrannical Shah Reza Pahlavi still ruled Iran. “We were a leftist organization,” Mohtadi said, speaking softly with an almost flawless British accent. “It was the ’60s and ’70s. It was a struggle against the Shah, against oppression, dictatorship, for social justice, and against—the United States.” He seemed slightly embarrassed by this. “Sorry,” he said.

I told him not to worry, that I hadn’t expected anything else. The U.S. government had backed the dictatorship he fought to destroy. Pro-American politics had not been an option.
Read the whole thing at Reason magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 06:28 PM | Comments (83)

September 18, 2007

Anbar Awakens Part II: Hell is Over

This is the second in a two-part series. Read Part One, The Battle of Ramadi, here.

Hell is Over.jpg

RAMADI, IRAQ – In early 2007 Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s Anbar Province, was one of the most violent war-torn cities on Earth. By late spring it was the safest major city in Iraq outside Kurdistan.

Abu Musab Al Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda in Iraq had seized control with the tacit blessing of many local civilians and leaders because they promised to fight the Americans. But Al Qaeda’s rule of Ramadi was vicious and cruel. They turned out not to be liberators at all, but the Taliban of Mesopotamia.

Al Qaeda met resistance, after a time, from the Iraqis and responded with a horrific murder and intimidation campaign against even children. The Sunni Arabs of Ramadi then rejected Al Qaeda so utterly they forged an alliance with the previously detested United States Army and Marine Corps and purged the terrorists from their lands.

Free Iraq Poster Ramadi.jpg

Combat operations are finished in Ramadi. The American military now acts as a peacekeeping force to protect the city from those who recently lost it and wish to return.

It is not, however, completely secured yet.

“Al Qaeda lost their capital,” Major Lee Peters said, “and the one city that was called the worst in the world. It was their Stalingrad. And they want to come back.”

In July and again in August they did try to retake it and lost pitched battles on the shores of Lake Habbaniya and Donkey Island just on the outskirts. They destroyed a bridge over the Euphrates River leading into the city with a dump truck bomb. Four other bridges in Anbar Province were also destroyed in acts of revenge in the countryside by those who no longer have refuge in cities. And just last week Sheikh Sattar Abu Risha, the leader of the indigenous Anbar Salvation Council that declared Al Qaeda the enemy, was assassinated by a roadside bomb near his house.

That murder can’t undo the changes in the hearts and minds of the locals. If anything, assassinating a well-respected leader who is widely seen as a savior will only further harden Anbaris against the rough men who would rule them.

“All the tribes agreed to fight al Qaeda until the last child in Anbar,” the Sheikh’s brother Ahmed told a Reuters reporter.

Whether Anbar Province is freshly christened pro-American ground or whether the newly founded Iraqi-American alliance is merely temporary and tactical is hard to say. Whatever the case, the region is no longer a breeding ground for violent anti-American and anti-Iraqi forces.

“As of July 30,” Major Peters said in early August, “we’ve have 81 days in the city with zero attacks since March 31.”

“We’ve had only one attack in our area of operations in the past couple of months,” said Captain Jay McGee at the Blue Diamond base. He was referring to the Jazeera area immediately north of the city and including the suburbs. “And we haven’t had a single car bomb in our area since February.”

Violence has declined so sharply in Ramadi that few journalists bother to visit these days. It’s “boring,” most say, and it’s hard to get a story out there – especially for daily news reporters who need fresh scoops every day. Unlike most journalists, I am not a slave to the daily news grind and took the time to embed with the Army and Marines in late summer.

Convoy to Grove Anbar.jpg

When the Army Soldiers at Blue Diamond took me along on their missions I could see why so many reporters write off Ramadi as a place where nothing happens: I was sent along in a convoy of Humvees to the outskirts of the city in a palm grove to attend an adult literacy class for women.

The class was cancelled at the last minute, though, so our trip to the palm grove was actually pointless. But Iraqis descended on us from their countryside houses and kept us busy happily socializing for hours.

Grove and Kids Anbar.jpg

Experiences like this are now typical for the infantrymen of the United States military, but extraordinary for a civilian like me who isn’t accustomed to casually hanging out with Arabs in Iraq’s notorious Sunni Triangle.

Marine Man and Boy Ramadi.jpg

I was greeted by friendly Iraqis in the streets of Baghdad every day, but the atmosphere in Ramadi was different. I am not exaggerating in the least when I describe their attitude toward Americans as euphoric.

Grown Iraqi men hugged American Soldiers and Marines.

Iraqi Man Hugging Soldier Ramadi.JPG

Young men wanted me to take their pictures with their arms around American Soldiers and Marines. The Americans seemed slightly bored with the idea, but the Iraqis were enthusiastic.

Young Man and Soldier Ramadi Jazeera.JPG

Children hugged State Department civilian reconstruction team leader Donna Carter.

Donna Carter and Iraqi Girl 1.jpg

Ramadi has changed so drastically from the terrorist-infested pit that it was as recently as April 2007 that I could hardly believe what I saw was real. The sheer joy on the faces of these Iraqis was unmistakable. They weren’t sullen in the least, and it was pretty obvious that they were not just pretending to be friendly or going through the hospitality motions.

Donna Carter and Iraqi Girl 2.jpg

“It was nothing we did,” said Marine Lieutenant Colonel Drew Crane who was visiting for the day from Fallujah. “The people here just couldn’t take it anymore.”

What he said next surprised me even more than what I was seeing.

“You know what I like most about this place?” he said.

“What’s that?” I said.

“We don’t need to wear body armor or helmets,” he said.

I was poleaxed. Without even realizing it, I had taken off my body armor and helmet. I took my gear off as casually as I do when I take it off after returning to the safety of the base after patrolling. We were not in the safety of the base and the wire. We were safe because we were in Ramadi.

Saying Hi to the Kids Ramadi Jazeera.jpg

Only then did I notice that Lieutenant Colonel Crane was no longer wearing his helmet. Neither were most of the others.

Donna Carter Helps with Homework.jpg
Donna Carter helps an Iraqi boy with his English class homework

I saw no violence in Baghdad, but I would never have taken off my body armor and helmet outside the wire. I certainly wouldn’t have done it casually without noticing it. If I had I would have been sternly upbraided for reckless behavior by every Soldier anywhere near me.

But in Ramadi the Marines are seriously considering dropping the helmet and body armor requirements because the low level of danger makes the gear no longer worth it. Protective gear doesn’t look intimidating, exactly, but it is hard to socialize properly with Iraqis while wearing it. It creates a feeling of distrust and distance.

Man and Small Son Ramadi.jpg

When we got back in the Humvees I was required to don my helmet again in case we hit a bump in the road.

Bumps in the road are now officially seen as more hazardous than insurgents and terrorists in Ramadi. (There is a lot of hard metal inside a Humvee that you can bang your head up against.) I have my doubts about the relative dangers of each in the real world. Ramadi isn’t totally safe yet. But this kind of juxtaposition is absurdly unthinkable in Baghdad.

The Iraqis of Anbar Province turned against Al Qaeda and sided with the Americans in large part because Al Qaeda proved to be far more vicious than advertised. But it’s also because sustained contact with the American military – even in an explosively violent combat zone –convinced these Iraqis that Americans are very different people from what they had been led to believe. They finally figured out that the Americans truly want to help and are not there to oppress them or steal from them. And the Americans slowly learned how Iraqi culture works and how to blend in rather than barge in.

“We hand out care packages from the U.S. to Iraqis now that the area has been cleared of terrorists,” one Marine told me. “When we tell them that some of these packages aren’t from the military or the government, that they were donated by average American citizens in places like Kansas, people choke up and sometimes even cry. They just can’t comprehend it. It is so different from the lies they were told about us and how we’re supposed to be evil.”

The literacy class for women and girls may have been cancelled, but the local would-be students wanted me to take pictures of them at their desks. So the classroom was opened and they sat in their seats for staged photos. We had no language in common. It was just obvious, from their beckoning hand gestures, what they wanted me to do. They seemed to be proud that they were learning to read, and that women and girls were allowed to be schooled again now that Al Qaeda is gone.

Woman in Class Ramadi.jpg

Young Girl in Class Ramadi.jpg

Girls in Class Ramadi.JPG

Donna Carter and Baby Ramadi.jpg

Earlier this year these very same people would have treated me as an enemy to my face had I shown up. Al Qaeda is gravely mistaken if they believe they can flip Ramadi back into their column by assassinating Sheikh Sattar Abu Risha.

Shortly before Sheikh Sattar was killed near his home he explained the Anbari point of view to Fouad Ajami, the Johns Hopkins University professor from South Lebanon.

“Our American friends had not understood us when they came,” he said. “They were proud, stubborn people and so were we. They worked with the opportunists, now they have turned to the tribes, and this is as it should be. The tribes hate religious parties and religious fakers.”


“Old school methods defeat insurgencies,” Captain McGee said, “not brute force or technology. The key is to kill existing terrorists and prevent additional recruitment. Al Qaeda must have a safe haven or they will barely be able to operate.”

That doesn’t mean they can’t operate at all, but it does mean they can’t control territory, work out in the open, or oppress others from above. They are hunted now and must spend an enormous amount of energy avoiding detection instead of stirring up trouble. The former would-be “liberators” have become hated fiends who lurk in the shadows and lash out in rage at the society that has rejected them. Victory for them, in this place, is all but impossible now.

“Having the Arabic press note that AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq] is rejected by Sunni Arab Iraqis is better than any message we could ever put out,” Major Lee Peters said.

It is not reasonable to expect violence in Ramadi to wind down to absolute zero before the rest of Iraq is secured. But the city has been successfully transformed from a war zone to a place that, like Beirut and Jerusalem, suffers acts of terrorism of the kind the world is long used to. The hokey phrase “war on terrorism” just fails to describe what happened before, when a city of 450,000 people was chewed to pieces by an army of hundreds of sadists and killers, where every single day was September 11.

Surveying the destruction was distressing, especially after meeting some of the children who survived the experience.

Destruction and Rebar Ramadi.jpg

Cute Girl White Dress Ramadi.jpg

Kids Barbed Wire Ramadi.jpg

Two Young Boys Ramadi.jpg

Terrorism is emphatically not what it used to be. We all knew that, of course, when hijacked plans were used to destroy skyscrapers in New York. Previously, terrorism was what the Irish Republican Army did. Many innocents were murdered in Britain, but Northern Irish separatists never made a crater out of a city of nearly half a million people. Nor did they even want to. Hamas and Islamic Jihad have murdered hundreds of Israeli civilians in restaurants and coffee shops and probably would do to Tel Aviv what Al Qaeda did to Ramadi if they could. But they can’t and likely never will be able to do so.

Al Qaeda may be a relatively small part of the “insurgency” in Iraq, but their destructive power nearly reached that of a state for a while, at least in this area. I don’t know of any place in Iraq that has suffered this much violence since Saddam Hussein’s genocidal Anfal Campaign against Kurds. Baghdad is nowhere near as torn up as Ramadi.

The city is still in terrible shape, but its regeneration is unmistakable.

Dress Ramadi.jpg

“How safe is it here, really?” I asked Major Peters. “What if I rented a house here for a month and lived alone without any protection? What would happen to me?”

“You could rent a house here for a while,” he said, “and be okay without bodyguards, but I wouldn’t stay too long. Something might happen to you eventually. Remember AQI wants to retake the city. They might eventually find you.”

Chair and Rubble Ramadi.JPG

I asked Captain McGee the same question. I have no plans to do this. The question is purely theoretical.

“You would probably be okay downtown,” he said, “but you would definitely be fine just north of town. If you tried that in February you would not have lasted four hours.”

“You trust the locals that much?” I said.

“I do,” he said.

“The only people I trust with my life in this country are the Kurds,” I said.

“I trust these people almost as much,” he said. “Are they petty? Yes. Are they tribal? Yes. Are they Arabs?” He rolled his eyes. “Yes. Do they believe in conspiracy theories? Yes. But they have their act together now.”

I patrolled Market Street downtown with Sergeant Hicks and Lieutenant Markham. Kids loudly cheered as we drove past. Some children ran all the way up to the Humvees and knocked on the doors, beckoning us to get out.

Boy Peering Inside Humvee Ramadi.JPG

When we did dismount our Humvees every civilian on the street except vendors dropped what they were doing and came forward to greet us.

Market Street Ramadi.jpg

Cell Phone Store Ramadi.jpg

I photographed a freshly painted cell phone store that looked new.

“That’s when you know life is coming back to normal,” Sergeant Hicks said, “when they open a cell phone shop.”

Soldier and Street Vendors Ramadi.JPG

“It’s amazing for us to see people out on that street buying and selling things,” Captain Phil Messer said to me later. “That never happened for the first months we were out here. Literally zero businesses were open. People were scared shitless of Al Qaeda. If you pissed them off they would show up at your house in the middle of the night, rape your women in front of you, kill your sons, and say you will not help the Americans. Huge numbers of these people just fled to Syria.”

I saw young Iraqi men picking up trash that had been dumped all over the city when there was no garbage collection during the fighting.

“This cleanup operation is a big deal for counterinsurgency,” Sergeant Hicks said. “We’re helping them organize it, and it shows Al Qaeda that the people are with us now. They would have been killed if they tried this before.”

Garbage Ramadi.jpg

Iraqi children may know only a handful of words in English, but mister and picture are two of them. Every kid in Iraq demands to be photographed. I heard “Mister, Mister, Picture Picture!” literally hundreds of times whenever I stepped into the streets of Ramadi. Some kids would say “Mister, Mister, Picture, Picture,” dozens of times all by themselves.

Kid with Orange Shirt Ramadi.JPG

I saw so many pictures of crazed Iraqis wearing ski masks and carrying rocket launchers and Kalashnikovs before I went to Baghdad and Ramadi that I slowly started to think, against my better judgment, that such people are typical. I never once saw anyone like that. They are around, obviously, but they are not in any way typical.

These are the typical faces I saw in Iraq.

Girl with Bowl Cut Ramadi.jpg

Girl Biting Nails Ramadi.jpg

They are the ones I now think of when trying to figure out what the United States should do in Iraq. They are the ones who will have to suffer the consequences the longest.

Some of the Soldiers started handing out candy to children. Mass pandemonium broke out.

Candy Market Street Ramadi.jpg
American Soldiers hand out candy to Iraqi children

Iraqi kids will shove and even punch each other to get a piece of candy. The Soldiers should probably hand this stuff out a little more orderly.

The kids are cute, but their aggressiveness is a little distressing.

“One thing these people really understand,” a Soldier sadly told me by way of explanation, “is pain.”


Back at the Joint Security Station – a large rented house where Iraqi and American Soldiers live side by side and keep tabs on a small piece of the city – the Iraqis taught Arabic to the Americans. The Americans taught English to the Iraqis. The Iraqis gently helped the Americans with their Arabic accents and used basic books as learning tools where words were spelled out in both Arabic and Latin alphabets. The Soldiers and Marines were learning basic Arabic, what you would expect to learn in an Arabic 101 class at most. The Iraqis were a little bit farther along in their English, but not much.

The Iraqis made tea for Americans. The Americans made coffee for Iraqis.

I could see that these men (and they were all men) felt genuine affection for each other. The Soldiers and Marines clearly thought of me, a fellow American, as more of an outsider than the Iraqi Army Soldiers who also were there. They ate, slept, worked, fought, bled, and died next to each other in the heat of battle against those who had earlier taken over the city. My status as a fellow American seemed to count for less with the Soldiers and Marines than the trauma they shared with their Iraqi counterparts.

I did not hold it against them.

“We Americans and Iraqis have been through hell together here,” said Captain McGee.

When I visited the police station in Mushadah just north of Baghdad, where American Military Police are training the Iraqi Police, most Americans saw the Iraqis as lazy, corrupt, and contemptible. In Mushadah the Americans seemed to relish the opportunity to complain about the Iraqis to me, a fellow American, whom they clearly felt they had much more in common with. They were sure I would sympathize with their complaints, and they were right. It does not bode well for the future in Baghdad. Anbar Province really is different, and it’s not just because Al Qaeda has been driven out.

The Iraqi Army Soldiers in Ramadi were also much more friendly with me than were their counterparts in Baghdad, who politely said hello to me but never, not once, said anything else.

I started to prepare an MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) for myself – Chicken Tetrazzini, which somehow tastes the least processed of all the MRE options – and flipped through an old issue of Air and Space magazine that Lieutenant Hightower had fished out of his desk for me.

“No, no, no, no, no, no, no,” an Iraqi Soldier said to me when he saw what I was doing. “You eat Iraqi food,” he said. “MRE food no good.”

“It’s fine,” I said. “I don’t mind.”

“No!” he said. “We give you Iraqi food. Come with me.”

An Iraqi cook had prepared a delicious meal of barbecued chicken and rice with a spicy red sauce I had never eaten before. The Iraqi was right. It was much better than MRE food.

“We have one Iraqi lieutenant here who speaks pretty good English,” Marine Lieutenant Jonathan Welch told me. “You should talk to him. He has a sarcastic sense of humor and a really interesting point of view.”

“That would be terrific,” I said. “Can you introduce me to him?”

He went to find the lieutenant, but came back with bad news.

“He won’t talk to you,” he said. “Apparently some reporters recently spent a few days with him and his men. They wrote an agenda-driven story with a few quotes yanked out of context. He said the story was a total lie and that he refuses to have anything to do with the media.”

I heard complaints of that sort about the media every day from American Soldiers and Marines, but this was the first time I had heard it, albeit indirectly, from an Arab Iraqi.

Lieutenant Welch didn’t mind talking to me, though. None of the Americans refused to talk to me even if they were suspicious of journalists.

What did he think of the Iraqi Army and Police in Anbar Province? I hadn’t heard any complaints yet, not from one single person.

“The Iraqi Army here is very good,” he said. “One of the best battalions in Iraq.”

“Have they been infiltrated?” I said. “I went to a police station in the Baghdad area and was told that perhaps half of them work with Al Qaeda.”

“They’re not infiltrated here,” he said. “Most of the Iraqi Soldiers here are Shias.” Al Qaeda is exclusively Sunni and views Shias as infidels worthy only of slaughter. “They are Muslims, but very secular in their outlook. They are no more religious than Sunday Catholics. The Shias in the army work very well with the Sunnis in the army here. There isn’t any friction at all. It’s sort of like when the U.S. Army integrated black and white Americans. It breaks down bigotry. The Shia Soldiers helped rescue Sunni civilians from Sunni terrorists and reduced sectarian tensions on both sides.”

“Why is the Iraqi Army here in so much better shape than in Baghdad?” I said.

“One reason,” he said, “is because most of these people have been in the army longer. They were among the first to sign up. They have more experience, and the bad ones have been weeded out.”

“Are they competent?” I said.

“Do you mean are they tactically proficient?” he said.

I nodded.

“Fairly,” he said. “There are coordination issues at the battalion level, but otherwise they’re pretty good. The Iraqi Army and the Iraqi Police are actually one of the most encouraging things I have seen here. Some of these people were paid for the first time only yesterday.” He said this in August. “They are incredibly dedicated.”

Like everyone else I talked to, he was frankly stunned by the changes he has seen in Ramadi.

“This place has made an amazing turnaround,” he said. “Everyone knew about Ramadi. It was another Fallujah, but it was worse than Fallujah. I did not want to come here. I was supposed to have an easy deployment in Karbala. Most guys coming out here were looking forward to combat. Not me. I had already done it. If you told me a few months ago what it would be like now I wouldn’t believe it. A little while ago we went to a soccer game. Lieutenant Tierney put it together. They have sixteen soccer teams now. We bought them uniforms, balls, water for the field, everything. They had a huge opening ceremony. Hundreds of people were there. It was incredible. Just incredible. It was a real storybook turnaround. This is why we fight. This is why what we do is worth doing. This is what makes the sacrifices, like Lieutenant Hightower having metal enter his body, worthwhile.”

Lieutenant Hightower was standing right next to us when Lieutenant Welch said that. He was hit with an IED a few months ago. Pieces of shrapnel tore up his leg. He nodded at what Lieutenant Welch said, agreeing that getting “blown up,” as Welch put it, was worth it.

“That is the most encouraging thing,” he said, “seeing American Soldiers at soccer games at a stadium that recently was used as a graveyard.”


“We’re learning to use local conflict resolution strategies,” said Colonel John Charlton. “Living with Iraqis every day helps us understand local culture. We’ve actually become attached to these people on a personal level. We feel responsible for their safety. We’re concerned about what will happen to our Iraqi friends if we don’t succeed in this country.”

I heard quite a number of Soldiers and Marines express the same sentiment. Whether it’s true or it isn’t, and whether it’s supposed to be this way or not, sometimes I sensed they feel like they’re fighting for Iraqis more than they feel they are fighting for Americans.

Candy to Girls Ramadi 1.JPG

Candy to Girls Ramadi 2.jpg

“We play soccer with the Iraqis,” Captain McGee said. “They always win. We taught them American football, though, and we always beat them at that. They can’t even throw the ball right.”

Soldier Guarding Children Playing Soccer.jpg
Iraqi children play soccer under the protective umbrella of American Soldiers

“All the mosques now have pro-US messages now,” Major Peters said. “They used to be anti-American, in part because AQI barged in and told them to broadcast anti-Americanism or die.”

“We have excellent relationships with every imam and every mosque in the city,” Colonel Charlton said. “Terrific relations. There are no negative comments about the coalition in mosques whatsoever. Previously there was. Partly because they hated us for a while, and also because AQI said to broadcast anti-American messages or they would be killed.”

“We get positive atmospherics from the locals,” Captain McGee said. “They say We feel really safe with you out here. We want to make sure they never think of us as an oppressor.”

Soldiers and Kids Poster Ramadi.jpg

If that ever happens (again), the Americans in Ramadi will be in deep trouble. They should count themselves lucky so far.

“We still haven’t seen a re-emergence of nationalist cells even four months after defeating Al Qaeda,” he continued. “That’s because we’re helping with projects and humanitarian aid.”

Marine and Kids Ramadi.JPG

“Who exactly do you mean when you say nationalist cells?” I said.

“Baathists,” he said, “and a myriad of small Sunni rejectionist groups who wanted to eject coalition forces but did not harm Iraqis. They could have chosen to come back, but so far they haven’t. Partly, I think, it’s because personal contact with Iraqis over time has disproved the conspiracy theories about how we’re supposedly here to steal oil and women.”

Half the world seems to believe Americans invaded Iraq for the oil. I hadn’t heard about Americans supposedly invading Iraq to steal women, but it makes sense now that I’ve heard it. Many Iraqis compare the American invasion of Iraq, fairly or not, to the far nastier Mongol invasion of Iraq in the 13th Century. That was the chief point of reference for many of the nation’s Arabs (but not Kurds) when the Americans first showed up.

Other strange conspiracy theories abound. I never saw an American wearing a red beret, but apparently some Iraqis believe red berets are dyed in human blood. Perhaps the most amusing theory, which I know many Iraqis believe to this day, is that American Soldiers and Marines have what they call “cold pills” so they can’t feel the blistering heat of the summer.

“I demand cold pills!” an Iraqi officer said when he barged into the office of Colonel John Steele at Camp Taji.

“Listen,” the colonel said to the Iraqi and pointed at his own forehead. “You see these beads of sweat on my forehead that are running down toward my nose? That’s because I feel just as hot as you do.”

One American soldier told me about a time he was having tea in a friendly Iraqi civilian’s house.

“It’s hot today,” said the Iraqi, “but at least you have your air conditioner on.”

“What do you mean?” said the Soldier.

“Your air conditioner,” the Iraqi said and pointed at the Soldier’s bulky body armor.

The Soldier laughed out loud.

“That’s body armor,” he said. “Not an air conditioner!”

“Come on,” the Iraqi said. “We all know those are air conditioners.”

The Soldier took off his body armor and handed it to the Iraqi. “Here,” he said. “Put it on and see for yourself.”

The Iraqi donned the armor and suddenly felt even hotter.

“Hmm,” he said. “It is pretty hot. But I’m sure it will get cold after a while.”


Ramadi was eviscerated by war. It is still an emergency room case by the standards of the West, but it slowly recovering now that it’s safe to rebuild.

“Electricity and water are major priorities,” Colonel Charlton said. “Right now they have electricity for eight hours a day.” Recently they had zero. “It’s better now because the insurgents aren’t sabotaging the power grid. The electricity and sewer workers are working the hardest. They have a sewer system here, but it was broken by IEDs planted under the roads. Restoring basic services is a priority because it provides stability. The lack of services made people unhappy and exploitable.”

Open Sewer Ramadi.jpg
Sewage still runs in the streets

“AQI destroyed the cell phone tower and TV station,” Major Peters said, “but we put the tower back up.” I was able to make phone calls to the United States from Ramadi without even replacing my SIM card with an Iraqi card, but the system is still unreliable, and only around a third of my calls were ever connected.

“You see all these people working on the side of the road?” Captain Phil Messer said. “You would not have seen that even four months ago. It was absolutely unheard of.”

13 million dollars have been spent by the American military on rubble removal alone.

Removed Rubble Ramadi.JPG
One of the many vast swaths of cleared rubble

“Female Army Soldiers are working on women’s outreach programs,” said Major Peters.

“We’re like the Peace Corps with muscles here,” one Solider told me. That seems about right. And they’ve cleared a relatively safe space for civilian aid workers to move in and help, too.

“Each member of the municipal government has a partner with civilian reconstruction teams who specialize in various areas,” Colonel Charlton said. “At first judges and lawyers were afraid to even meet with us. They had to meet with us in secret. Military lawyers are being sent in to help now, and also civilian experts. They had no place for criminal trials, but we’re helping them build that now. There is also quite a bit of progress toward implementing the Rule of Law. The Iraqi Police were arresting people and no one really knew why or had documentation. People started just getting warehoused. We’re training them on proper police procedures and documentation, and showing them how to build case files. They all attend a detainee handling course to ensure against prisoner abuse.”

I don’t know what the population of Ramadi is now. It was around 450,000 people before the war, and it sharply declined during the fighting when so many fled. But the population is growing again, partly because many Sunnis are moving there from Baghdad, and also because many who left are returning.

“Every couple of days now people come home,” Captain Messer, referring to the small part of the city he’s responsible for. “They swing by the station and tell us they’re moving back and ask if it’s okay if they return to their houses. Of course it’s okay. They don’t have to ask that. But they don’t know. We tell them welcome home, welcome back to the neighborhood. And they always invite us over for dinner.”

Hanging Out Ramadi.JPG
These men asked us to sit down and have tea with them, but we had to keep walking

Ramadi, and Anbar Province in general, still have serious problems.

“We still have to worry about potential destabilizing factors in the future,” Colonel Charlton said. “Reconstruction delays, economic stagnation, the isolation of Anbar by the government. Any of these things could happen. The central government needs to come out here and create some good faith.”

“They are pretty strongly against the government here,” Captain McGee said. “But last I heard that wasn’t any kind of a crime. Half of America opposes our own government, so…so what?”

The biggest problem, of course, is that Al Qaeda isn’t dead yet. Last week’s assassination of Anbar Awakening movement leader Sheikh Sattar Abu Risha is only the most recent grim reminder that Ramadi is still a part of Iraq.

“AQ will try to re-take the city,” Colonel Charlton said. “I am certain of it. They’ve already tried. They came in from Samarra, swung around, and approached from the south through the desert.” They did the same thing again even more recently. “It was an attack planned at the AQ national level and it erupted in a day-long fire fight. The whole province is a major failure and defeat for Al Qaeda. They need to ‘fix’ this, so to speak.”

The city, and the rest of Anbar Province will continue to suffer the tragic consequences of its geography even if it manages to repair its politics and its culture. Will another insurgency erupt? Will the Sunnis of Anbar declare war on the Shias in Baghdad? Well I don’t know, this is Iraq. But whatever happens, and whether it’s good news or bad, never again will Al Qaeda find a warm home here.

Post-script: 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 01:31 AM | Comments (292)

September 16, 2007

Anbar the Model?

Blowback is not just for Americans anymore.

KUT, Iraq — American commanders in southern Iraq say Shiite sheiks are showing interest in joining forces with the U.S. military against extremists, in much the same way that Sunni clansmen in the western part of the country have worked with American forces against Al Qaeda.

Sheik Majid Tahir al-Magsousi, the leader of the Migasees tribe here in Wasit Province, acknowledged tribal leaders have discussed creating a brigade of young men trained by the Americans to bolster local security as well as help patrol the border with Iran.

He also said last week’s assassination of Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha, who spearheaded the Sunni uprising against Al Qaeda in Anbar province, only made the Shiite tribal leaders more resolute.

“The death of Sheik Abu Risha will not thwart us,” he said. “What matters to us is Iraq and its safety.”

The movement by Shiite clan leaders is still in the early stages but offers the potential to give U.S. and Iraqi forces another tactical advantage in curbing lawlessness in Shiite areas. It also would give the Americans another resource as they beef up their presence on the border with Iran, which the military accuses of arming and training Shiite extremists.
My next article from Ramadi is almost finished. Stay tuned.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 06:36 PM | Comments (158)

September 13, 2007

Al Qaeda Strikes Back

Sheikh Sattar, leader of the Anbar Awakening movement, was killed in Iraq today by a bomb near his house.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:17 AM | Comments (234)

September 10, 2007

Anbar Awakens Part I: The Battle of Ramadi

Battle of Ramadi.jpg

RAMADI, IRAQ – After spending some time in and around Baghdad with the United States military I visited the city of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s notoriously convulsive and violent Anbar Province, and breathed an unlikely sigh of relief. Only a few months ago Ramadi was one of the most dangerous cities in the world. It was another “Fallujah,” and certainly the most dangerous place in Iraq. Today, to the astonishment of everyone – especially the United States Army and Marines – it is perhaps the safest city in all of Iraq outside of Kurdistan.

In August 2006 the Marine Corps, arguably the least defeatist institution in all of America, wrote off Ramadi as irretrievably lost. They weren’t crazy for thinking it. Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda in Iraq had moved in to fight the Americans, and they were welcomed as liberators by a substantial portion of the local population.

I wrote recently that Baghdad, while dangerous and mind-bogglingly dysfunctional, isn’t as bad as it looks on TV. Almost everywhere I have been in the Middle East is more “normal” than it appears in the media. Nowhere is this more true than in Beirut, but it is true to a lesser extent in Baghdad as well. Baghdad isn’t a normal city, but it appears normal in most places most of the time. Ramadi, in my experience, is the great exception. Ramadi was worse than it appeared in the media.

Baghdad suffers from political paralysis, a low-grade counterinsurgency, and a very slow-motion civil war. It doesn’t look or feel like a war most of the time, although it does sometimes. What happened in Ramadi wasn’t like that. It wasn’t the surreal sort-of war that still simmers in Baghdad. Two American colonels in charge of the area compared the battle of Ramadi to Stalingrad.

“We were engaged in hours-long full-contact kinetic warfare with enemies in fixed positions,” said Army Major Lee Peters.

“There were areas where our odds of being attacked were 100 percent,” Army Captain Jay McGee told me. “Literally hundreds of IEDs created virtual minefields.”

“The whole area was enemy controlled,” said Marine Lieutenant Jonathan Welch. “If we went out for even a half-hour we were shot at, and we were shot at accurately. Sometimes we took casualties and were not able to inflict casualties. We didn’t know where they were shooting from.”

Water Tower Ramadi.jpg

Anbar Province is the heart of Iraq’s Sunni Triangle, and Ramadi is its capital. Iraq has 18 provinces, but until recently almost a third of all U.S. casualties were in Anbar alone.1.3 million people live there, mostly along the Euphrates River, and roughly a third live in Ramadi. Most of the rest live in the also notorious and now largely secured cities of Haditha, Hit, and Fallujah.

I haven’t visited the other cities yet because I wanted to begin in the province’s largest and most important city. Ramadi isn’t the most important solely because it’s the capital or because it’s the largest. It is also the most important because Al Qaeda declared it “The Capital of the Islamic State of Iraq.”

“You have to understand what every side’s end state is in Iraq to really understand what’s going on,” said Captain McGee in his Military Intelligence headquarters at the Blue Diamond base just north of the city. An enormous satellite photo of Ramadi and the surrounding area that functioned as a map took up a whole wall. Local streets were relabeled by the military and given very American names: White Sox Road, Eisenhower Road, and Pool Hall Street for example.

“The ideology of AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq] is to establish the Islamic Caliphate in Iraq,” he said. “In order for them to be successful they must control the Iraqi population through either support or coercion.”

Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, founder of Al Qaeda in Iraq

Some in the United States are unconvinced that Al Qaeda was really at the center of the conflict in Anbar. So I asked Colonel John Charlton how the Army knows Al Qaeda is really who they have been dealing with. He was supremely annoyed by the question.

“We know it’s Al Qaeda,” he said. There is no controversy whatsoever about this in Iraq. My question seemed to him as if it had come from another planet. “They self-identify as Al Qaeda. We didn’t give them that name. That’s what they call themselves. We have their propaganda CDs which have Al Qaeda written all over them.”

It’s not a dumb question, though, if a substantial number of Americans aren’t sure what’s going on in a bottomlessly complicated country eight or more times zones away. And not everyone who underestimated Al Qaeda’s presence is a fool.

I briefly met Army Reserve Lieutenant Colonel Eric Holmes from Dallas, Texas, while he was on his way home after volunteering to serve in Ramadi for six months. “I didn’t realize until I got here that the problem in Anbar Province was 100 percent Al Qaeda,” he said. “The old Baath Party insurgency here is completely finished. That war was won and Americans, including me, had no idea it even happened.”

Al Qaeda was initially welcomed by many Iraqis in Ramadi because they said they were there to fight the Americans. The spirit of resistance against foreign occupiers was strong. But the Iraqis got a lot more in the bargain than simply resistance.

“Al Qaeda came in and just seized people’s houses,” said Army Captain Phil Messer from Nashville, Tennessee. “They said we’re taking your house to use it against the Americans. Get out.

“Every mosque in the city was anti-American,” Captain McGee said. “They were against us, but Al Qaeda made it even worse by ordering them to broadcast anti-American propaganda at gunpoint.”

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A U.S. Army armored personnel carrier on Market Street

“Market Street [the main street downtown] was completely controlled by Al Qaeda,” Lieutenant Welch said. “They rolled down the streets, pointed guns at people, and said we are in charge. They had crazy requirements for the locals. They weren’t allowed to cut their hair. Girls were banned from going to school. They couldn’t shave or smoke. One guy defiantly lit a cigarette and they shot him four times.”


Sergeant Kenneth Hicks from Portland, Oregon, took me on my first foot patrol in the city. We dismounted our Humvees near Market Street in the center of one of Al Qaeda’s old strongholds.

“This is an infamous sniper corner,” he said before we had even walked twenty feet.

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An infamous sniper corner

“A few months ago we would be dead standing here,” he said. “But there were so many IEDs on this street, and so much piled up garbage, that we could only go out on foot.”

After Al Qaeda took over Ramadi, the local government was replaced with terrorists who only cared about fighting Americans and violently suppressing Iraqis. Al Qaeda was in charge, but it wouldn’t be accurate to say they were the new government. None of the basic city government services functioned. There was no electricity, no running water, no telephone service, and no garbage collection. Every single local business closed down. The city could not have been any more broken.

Junked Car Ramadi.jpg

“Ramadi didn’t even have a city government until April,” said Colonel Charlton. “They couldn’t come to work because of security. And the city was down to zero electricity just three months ago.”

“I’m sure it looks to you like there’s lots of trash all over the place,” Sergeant Hicks said. “But there is massive cleanup going on. There really is a lot less of it now than there was a few months ago.”

We walked a block or so and came to a series of concrete barriers blocking vehicle traffic.

Walls Ramadi.jpg

“We put up those walls to keep the rat line [enemy logistics route] out in the open desert from coming into the city,” he said.

Kids saw us and scattered. Nobody needed to tell me that was bad.

“Look out,” Sergeant Hicks said in case I didn’t know. “It’s not a good sign when kids run.”

Children who run at the sight of American soldiers often know something the soldiers do not. They may know an explosion or an insurgent attack of some other kind is imminent.

The same is true in Afghanistan. Soldiers know they can gauge the friendliness of an area by the response to their presence of its children. When kids run up and greet them, the area is friendly. When children just stand there and watch, the area is neutral or possibly hostile. When they flee it usually means the area is violently hostile and the kids need to get out of the way of the fighting that may be coming.

Sergeant Hicks raised his weapon and pointed it across the street.

Scattered Children Ramadi.jpg

I suspect he was more worried than I was. Ramadi is a friendly city that has been cleared and pacified. The children were most likely running out of sheer habit. They lived right in the heart of what was recently Al Qaeda’s main stronghold.

Nothing exploded and nobody shot at us. The first kids I ever saw in Ramadi ran from us, but it never once happened again. Only two or three minutes later, children excitedly greeted us as they did every other time I stepped out into the streets of the city and the surrounding countryside.

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“Three months ago people turned their backs to us,” Sergeant Hicks said. “They refused to even smile. They were like beaten dogs.”

We walked down Market Street.

Small shops had re-opened since the war ended, but there was still a substantial amount of visible damage.

End of Street Rubble Ramadi.jpg

“That pile of rubble at the end of the streets was an observation post,” he said.

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Anbar’s Most Wanted

“Those posters work,” Sergeant Hicks said when he saw me taking a photo of one of Anbar’s Most Wanted posters. “People are giving us information. And, you know, these people really open up to you, automatically, when you’re in their houses. They’ll just start telling you what it was like living under Saddam – the most unbelievable things.” And this is a part of Iraq that was favored by Saddam Hussein. It was much worse in the Shia and Kurdish parts of the country.


I also went on patrol with Captain Phil Messer. He was the most hospitable officer I met in Iraq. He and his men lived in a large rented house about the size of a university co-op in the Hay al Adel neighborhood. He gave me his private room next to the Tactical Operations Center and slept in a crowded room with some of the other soldiers so I would be as comfortable as possible. “I’ve been immersed in this culture a long time,” he said. “The Arab code of hospitality is starting to wear off on me.” I don’t think he was sucking up for good press. He is just a nice guy.

Captain Messer Ramadi.jpg
Captain Phil Messer

“What do you want to see in Ramadi?” he said.

“Destruction,” I said. “I need to photograph what the war did to this place.”

So he took me out to see the destruction. He did not ask me why or what I would do with the pictures.

We headed out to “Route Michigan” in Humvees.

IED Road Ramadi.JPG

“When we first started using this road,” he said, “we thought it was a dirt road. Then we cleaned it up and, sure enough, there was asphalt under it. Route Michigan was hit by IEDs and gunfire every single time a convoy went down it. There was a foot and a half of water on it because the IEDs shattered so many water mains. Our vehicles were not allowed to travel on it unless they were specifically on a combat mission.”

Most of the city’s buildings and houses are more or less intact, but some areas have been completely destroyed. I toured the destruction in South Lebanon at the end of last year, but I didn’t see anything there on the scale of what happened in Ramadi. Nor did I see anything even remotely like this in Baghdad.

Shattered Building Ramadi.JPG

“We took the gloves off,” said Captain Dennison from where he described as Middle of Nowhere, Kentucky. “We had to.”

Landslide of Rubble Ramadi.JPG

I saw dozens of buildings that look like those pictured above, and this was after the majority of the wreckage had been cleared.

At least it did not all go to waste. The twisted rebar was saved, and a young man amazingly was able to straighten it out with a tool made just for that purpose.

Rebar Ramadi.jpg

It looks bad, and it is bad. It’s worse than it looks, actually, because the destruction goes on and on and on in large swaths. Areas where rubble has been cleared look like parking lots, and there are literally miles of such areas in Ramadi along the main streets.

Cleared Rubble Ramadi.jpg
Cleared rubble, Ramadi

Destruction Near Market Ramadi.JPG
The large blank area in this picture was once dense with buildings

But just around the corner from the picture above is a bustling market that looks totally normal, as if nothing eventful ever happened there.

Market Near Destruction Ramadi.jpg
A bustling market right next to a scene of vast devastation


I spent the next day at a Joint Security Station (JSS), a tiny outpost in a rented house where American soldiers and Marines live with Iraqi soldiers in the heart of the city.

Army Lieutenant Markham from Shreveport, Louisiana, met me first thing in the morning at Camp Corregidor and drove me over there.

“What’s the plan today?” I said.

“There’s this thing – I don’t know if you’ve heard of it – called the GWOT,” he said jokingly. “The Global War on Terrorism. We have to win it.”

“And what about me?” I said.

“I’ll be taking you over to the JSS and leaving you with Lieutenant Hightower,” he said. “Think of it as me dropping you off at school.”

“Ok, Dad,” I said. “Which truck am I riding in?”

Lt Markam and Kids.jpg
Lieutenant Markham says hello to Ramadi’s children

When we arrived at the JSS I was horrified. The building had sustained battle damage from the war. Everything was hot and filthy. The stairs were broken. The bathroom was covered in spider webs and dried mud left over from the last time it had rained. Aside from a few select rooms, there was no air conditioning. It’s hard to describe how awful that is in Iraq in August. Somebody told me it was 138 degrees that day. It’s hotter in Ramadi than even in Baghdad, and it’s made worse by the fact that the JSS didn’t have showers. “I once went three months without a shower,” a soldier told me outside. Amazingly, the place didn’t smell bad.

The toilets didn’t work and there were no porta-johns, so everyone had to use plastic bags and wash up with bottled water. “If you let the water from the sink get on your skin,” a soldier told me, “there’s a ten percent chance you’ll get a horrible rash.”

American and Iraqi soldiers live in this place. “Most Americans have no idea how bad we have it here,” someone told me, and I’m certain he’s right. But most of them didn’t complain. Life is a lot better in Ramadi now that the war is over, regardless of the heat and living conditions.

“Can I take pictures of this place?” I said to Sergeant Hicks. Only in the rarest of circumstances does the military object to journalists taking pictures, and even then only when the photographs might help the other side plan attacks.

“Hmm,” Sergeant Hicks said.

“Uh,” Lieutenant Markham said.

“It’s not that important,” I said.

“Just make sure there aren’t any full-page spreads showing the layout of this place so suicide bombers would know how to hit us,” Sergeant Hicks said.

“Yeah, Mike,” Lieutenant Markham said. “What are you trying to pull here?” He didn’t sound like he was joking, but he probably was. He’s just a dead-pan kind of guy who could have rubbed me the wrong way, but didn’t.

He introduced me to Marine Lieutenant Andrew Hightower from Houston, Texas. Hightower had recently returned from three months on medical leave.

“What happened?” I said.

“I got blown up,” he said.

“You don’t look blown up,” I said.

“I got hit with a 120 mortar round IED,” he said. “Near Market Street. I got shrapnel all in my leg.”

“How did that feel?” I said. Sometimes people don’t feel pain even when they are shot, so I didn’t know.

“It felt like someone was pushing a hot iron onto my skin,” he said. “Then I felt the blood running down my leg.” The doctors gave him the pieces of shrapnel which he now keeps in a jar.

“Lieutenant Hightower is a terrific Marine officer,” Lieutenant Markham said. “He gives me hope for the future of the Marine Corps.”

He said that so seriously I thought he might not be joking this time.

“Did you actually worry about the future of the Marine Corps before you met him?” I said.

“Well, yes kind of,” he said. “The Marines are just…really different from the Army.” He said it with such gravity and disappointment and concern and shook his head.

I couldn’t possibly care less about the rivalry between the Army and the Marines, although I was occasionally asked by members of each which branch I preferred.

One Marine tried to get an Iraqi Army soldier to take sides.

“Which do you think is better?” he said to the Iraqi soldier. “Army or Marines?”

“The Navy is best,” said the Iraqi.

The Marine was taken aback. “The Navy?” he said.

“Yes, Navy,” said the Iraqi.

The Marine looked slightly annoyed when I laughed.

Lieutenant Markham handed me over to Lieutenant Hightower who was supposed to take me out on a patrol. But a dust storm blew in from the desert and we were grounded. Soldiers and Marines aren’t allowed to go on patrols when the air is “condition red” because medi-vac helicopters have a hard time evacuating anyone who gets wounded. So I was stranded and spent as much of the day as I could talking to those who fought and survived the battle of Ramadi.


“We have genuinely good relations with the Iraqi Army here,” Lieutenant Hightower said. “We live in the same rooms. They are almost like my own soldiers. We go to their funerals.”

Every soldier and Marine I met in Anbar Province spoke highly of and with great admiration for their Iraqi counterparts. It was a completely different world from the Baghdad area where so many Americans hold the Iraqis in contempt as corrupt incompetents who let themselves be infiltrated by terrorists and insurgents.

“Some of the Iraqi Police here were insurgents, though,” he said. “We sent them to Jordan for training and when they got there they had serious background checks. Some of them were yanked out of the IP and sent to prison.”

So there has been a weeding out process, unlike in many parts of Iraq. And some of the police were insurgents who switched sides when they realized Al Qaeda, and not the Americans, were the real enemy.

“The Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police here are amazing,” Lieutenant Hightower said. “For a long time they weren’t being paid, but they risked their lives every day and did their jobs anyway.”

They are being paid now, but not very much. Iraqi Police officers only earn 300 or so dollars per month.

“What are you doing here anyway?” he said. “Not much happens in Ramadi anymore. Nothing blows up anymore. There’s no blood and guts here.”

There certainly was blood and guts, though. Just a few blocks from the station is a soccer stadium that was used during the war as a mass grave site.

“We found bodies buried in the middle of the soccer field by insurgents,” Lieutenant Hightower said. “After the war ended the Iraqis had to unearth the bodies. They called it Operation Graveyard.”

Soccer Field Ramadi.jpg
The Ramadi soccer field, formerly a mass grave site, now a sports venue again

“That was its official name?” I said.

“That was its official name,” he said. “Now there’s a soccer game there every night at 5:00.” I had plans to attend the game that night myself, but it was cancelled.

Lt Hightower Ramadi.jpg
Lieutenant Hightower

“There was another soccer field north of the city in the ‘Sofia’ area,” he said, “a kids’ soccer field. It was also used as a dump site. AQI killed civilians by castrating them, stuffing their genitals in their mouths, and cutting off their heads. Al Qaeda killed a lot more civilians than they ever killed soldiers.”

Captain Jay McGee concurred. “Suicide car bombers rarely attacked the coalition,” he said, meaning Americans. “They almost always attacked Iraqi security forces and civilians. They know the U.S. will leave eventually, but AQI ultimately must fight Iraqis and destroy Iraqi institutions in order to prevail.”

Blown Up Bus Ramadi.jpg

They did kill Americans, though, certainly. And they recruited and paid willing local Iraqis to help them.

“To get paid by AQI for killing Americans,” Lieutenant Hightower said, “the attack must be videotaped. They often used tracer rounds so they could prove it was real. We found whole piles of these tapes when we cleaned the city out. We found and killed a sniper just northeast of the city. He had all kinds of video tapes of himself shooting and killing American soldiers.”

Snipers were everywhere in Ramadi. Some were committed Al Qaeda fighters, and others were just paid to help out.

“One of my soldiers was shot in the head through his helmet by a sniper,” he said. High powered bullets will pierce helmets if they hit at a head-on angle. “The sniper was shooting from behind a curtain in a van. He was a teacher at a women’s vocational school by day and a sniper for extra money at night. AQI just recruits people who need money and hires them as insurgents as if it were a regular job.”

Bullet Holes Ramadi.jpg

Conveniently for Al Qaeda, the economy in Ramadi utterly disintegrated during the war. Almost everybody needed money, and even those who did have money had a hard time buying anything since all the stores had closed down.

Mortars were a big problem, too, and they came from random directions.

“AQI would launch three mortars from a truck,” Lieutenant Hightower said, “then drive off. We usually couldn’t shoot back fast enough before they had scurried off somewhere else.”

The worst, though, were the IEDs. It’s the same everywhere in Iraq.

“They used acid to liquefy the asphalt and bury the IEDs under the road,” he said. “Then they would push the liquid asphalt back into the hole. Their work looked almost perfect. You could tell where they had buried the IEDs if you looked closely enough, but the roads are filthy and the evidence was barely detectable when we were driving. We found a lot of them with slow-moving road clearance vehicles that use metal detector arms.”

He had to take a phone call, so I walked around the station and noticed that the filthy place was suddenly cleaner than it was when I arrived just a few hours before. The Iraqis were hard at work fixing the place up since they couldn’t go on patrols while the dusty air was still at condition red. Cases of MREs and bottled water were more organized. The floors had been swept clear of dust. Soon the station might actually be suitable for people to live in.

“Al Qaeda hit a six month old baby with a mortar when they were trying to hit us,” Lieutenant Hightower said when he got off the phone. “They also hit a six year old girl. We went in and medi-vacced the victims, and we made lots of friends that day. It was a clarifying experience for the Iraqis.”

It was a clarifying experience for the Iraqis because they had been raised on virulent anti-American conspiracy theories and propaganda from Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party. They truly believed the Army and Marines were there to steal their oil and women. Americans saving the lives of children wounded by fellow Sunni Arabs who passed themselves off as liberators was not what many Iraqis ever expected to see.

“The six month baby had shrapnel in his head,” Lieutenant Hightower said. “The six year old girl had shrapnel in her leg. It was the most disturbing thing I’ve seen since I got here.” This from a man who saw one of his own men shot in the head by a sniper.

Ramadi is in terrible shape even now. If it were an American city it would be declared in a state of emergency. Months of accumulated garbage is still piled up everywhere. The electricity still isn’t on for even twelve hours a day – although the eight of hours the city does get – because, as Colonel Charlton says, Al Qaeda no longer blows up the electrical towers – certainly beats the one hour of electricity they get each day in Baghdad. Sewage flows in the street. The economy has a pulse, but four months ago it was at zero.

Shoe Ramadi.JPG

“The city completely bottomed out,” Colonel Holmes told me. “It hit absolute rock bottom.”

Ramadi was in worse shape even than Gaza. And Ramadi was once one of the loveliest cities in all of Iraq.


Nineteen Arab tribes led by sheikhs live in Anbar Province. In June of 2006, nine of those tribal sheikhs cooperated with the Americans, three were neutral, and seven were hostile.

In October of last year the tribal leaders in the province, including some who previously were against the Americans, formed a movement to reject the savagery Al Qaeda had brought to their region. Some of them were supremely unhappy with the American presence since fighting exploded in the province’s second largest city of Fallujah, but Al Qaeda proved to be even more sinister from their point of view. Al Qaeda did not come as advertised. They were militarily incapable of expelling the American Army and Marines. And they were worse oppressors than even Saddam Hussein. The leaders of Anbar Province saw little choice but to openly declare them enemies and do whatever it took to expunge them. They called their new movement Sahawa al Anbar, or the Anbar Awakening.

Sheikh Sattar is its leader. Al Qaeda murdered his father and three of his brothers and he was not going to put up with them any longer. None of the sheikhs were willing to put up with them any longer. By April of 2007, every single tribal leader in all of Anbar was cooperating with the Americans.

“AQI announced the Islamic State of Iraq in a parade downtown on October 15, 2006,” said Captain McGee. “This was their response to Sahawa al Anbar. They were threatened by the tribal movement so they accelerated their attacks against tribal leaders. They ramped up the murder and intimidation. It was basically a hostile fascist takeover of the city."

Sheikh Jassim’s experience was typical.

“Jassim was pissed off because American artillery fire was landing in his area,” Colonel Holmes said. “But he wasn’t pissed off at us. He was pissed off at Al Qaeda because he knew they always shot first and we were just shooting back.”

“He said he would prevent Al Qaeda from firing mortars from his area if we would help him,” Lieutenant Hightower said. “Al Qaeda said they would mess him up if he got in their way. He called their bluff and they seriously fucked him up. They launched a massive attack on his area. All hell broke loose. They set houses on fire. They dragged people through the streets behind pickup trucks. A kid from his area went into town and Al Qaeda kidnapped him, tortured him, and delivered his head to the outpost in a box. The dead kid was only sixteen years old. The Iraqis then sent out even nine year old kids to act as neighborhood watchmen. They painted their faces and everything.”

“Sheikh Jassim came to us after that,” Colonel Holmes told me, “and said I need your help.”

“One night,” Lieutenant Markham said, “after several young people were beheaded by Al Qaeda, the mosques in the city went crazy. The imams screamed jihad from the loudspeakers. We went to the roof of the outpost and braced for a major assault. Our interpreter joined us. Hold on, he said. They aren’t screaming jihad against us. They are screaming jihad against the insurgents."


“A massive anti-Al Qaeda convulsion ripped through the city,” said Captain McGee. “The locals rose up and began killing the terrorists on their own. They reached the tipping point where they just could not take any more. They told us where the weapon caches were. They pointed out IEDs under the road.”

“In mid-March,” Lieutenant Hightower said, “a sniper operating out of a house was shooting Americans and Iraqis. Civilians broke into his house, beat the hell out of him, and turned him over to us.”

“There were IEDs all over this area,” Lieutenant Welch said. “On every single street corner, buried under the road. They were so big they could take out tanks. When we came through we cleared the whole area on foot. The civilians told us where the IEDs were. I was with one group where a guy opened his gate just a crack and pointed out where one was. It was right in front of his house. Later we went back and had tea. He was so happy to see us.”

“One day,” Lieutenant Hightower said, “some Al Qaeda guys on a bike showed up and asked where they could plant an IED against Americans. They asked a random civilian because they just assumed the city was still friendly to them. They had no idea what was happening. The random civilian held him at gunpoint and called us to come get him.”

“People here tacitly supported Al Qaeda,” Captain McGee said, “because Al Qaeda was attacking us. But they took control of the city. They forced girls to stay home from school. They dragged people outside the city and shot them in the head. They broke people’s fingers if they were seen smoking a cigarette. They forced men to grow beards. Once they started acting like that they could only establish a safe haven by using terrorism against the local civilians.”

“Al Qaeda struck out three times,” said Major Peters. “Strike One: They killed a Sheikh and held his body for four days. Strike Two: They executed young people in public. Strike Three: They attacked the compound of another sheikh. The people here said enough. They aligned with us because they realized Al Qaeda was the real enemy. They didn’t like Al Qaeda’s version of Islam at all.”

Credit for purging Ramadi of Al Qaeda must go to Iraqis themselves at least as much as to the American military. The Americans wouldn’t have been able to do it without the cooperation of the people who live there, and the Iraqis wouldn’t have been able to do it, at least not so easily, without help from the American military.

Stabbing the Hydra Ramadi.jpg
This drawing by an Iraqi child depicts the American-Iraqi alliance against Al Qaeda. Notice the sword is Iraqi and the muscle is American.

Not only did Iraqi soldiers, police, and civilians join the fight, but also the lesser known local security force fielded by the Anbar tribal authorities.

“The previous battalion saw men on corners wearing cammies,” said Captain McGee. “They were legacy forces still around from the old days, the Provincial Security Forces (PSF). They had been operating as a critical reserve and a mobile strike force. They helped clear the area of AQI on their own. They are as well disciplined, if not more so, than the Iraqi Army. They’ve been working with us, too.”

I said it sounded to me like they were just another Iraqi militia, and he understood what I meant. That’s what they look like, and he had heard that criticism before.

“The PSF looks like a militia,” he said, “but it isn’t. It’s legal and more of a ‘national guard’ like the [Kurdish] Peshmerga. They are authorized and paid by the Ministry of the Interior in Baghdad. Even the Iraqi Army here doesn’t have as good equipment as they have.”

Another difference between the Provincial Security Forces and the militias, which he didn’t mention, is that all the militias to one extent or another are sectarian creatures. There are Sunni militias and Shia militias, and they often fight each other. The PSF is Sunni, but that’s because Anbar Province is Sunni. The PSF isn’t Sunni per se. Its Sunni character is incidental. There are hardly any Shias in Anbar Province who could join the PSF, and the PSF doesn’t fight Shias anywhere in Iraq. They fight Al Qaeda, which also is Sunni. And they cooperate with the Iraqi Army, which even in Anbar is mostly Shia. There is nothing remotely sectarian about them.

“Al Qaeda had dug in the northeastern and southern parts of the city,” Captain McGee told me. “The coalition walled off areas and fought block to block, house to house. Then the Provincial Security Forces went in and recleared it. There was an immediate decrease in attacks.”

Inside Burned House Ramadi.JPG
Inside a burned house

He was referring Operation Murphy’s Burrow, which brought about a dramatic change in offensive tactics.

“For a long time,” Colonel Holmes said, “they were driving away from the base in Humvees down a street that was infested with Al Qaeda forces. The gunners spun their turrets in circles and just shot at everything, thinking they could provide cover for themselves so they could drive without being shot at.”

“Didn’t that violate the rules of engagement?” I said.

He froze for a second and answered that question very carefully.

“That was the wrong way to do it,” he said. “And they knew it. So they slowly cleared one block at a time, house by house, and kept the supply lines open to the base in the area that was already cleared. Everything behind them got cleared and stayed cleared, so their safe area got gradually larger. We don’t want to hurt civilians. Our job here is to protect Iraqi civilians.”

Soldier and Houses Ramadi.JPG

He’s right. It is the job of the United States military to protect the people of Iraq even before protecting themselves. It is always the job of (American) soldiers to protect civilians before protecting themselves. In doing so they protect themselves better than if they did not. It may be counter-intuitive, but it’s straight-forward, by-the-book counterinsurgency.

Here is the relevant passage from the book. (Thanks to Michael Yon for publishing this for us.)

Sometimes, the More You Protect Your Force, the Less Secure You May Be

1-149. Ultimate success in COIN [Counter-insurgency] is gained by protecting the populace, not the COIN force. If military forces remain in their compounds, they lose touch with the people, appear to be running scared, and cede the initiative to the insurgents. Aggressive saturation patrolling, ambushes, and listening post operations must be conducted, risk shared with the populace, and contact maintained. . . . These practices ensure access to the intelligence needed to drive operations. Following them reinforces the connections with the populace that help establish real legitimacy.

From “Counterinsurgency/FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5”
“As soon as we were on Easy Street running through the Malaab area every day, 24/7, it got quiet,” said Private First Class Baringhouse from Indiana. “We sealed off the entire area with barricades and blocked all vehicle traffic. Then they couldn’t get weapons and IEDs in. It calmed the place down fast.”

Vehicle traffic is still banned in most of Ramadi. The streets are dead quiet. No one drives but the American military, the Iraqi Army and Police, and a few select taxis.

How well is that going over, I asked Lieutenant Welch.

Lt Welch Ramadi.jpg
Lieutenant Welch

“Civilians complain about lots of things,” he said. “But they never complain about this. They are so terrified of car bombs they don’t want any car traffic in this city at all. If we could shut down all vehicle traffic everywhere in Iraq, the war would be practically over.”

Moped Ramadi.jpg
Car traffic is banned, but mopeds are okay

Motorcycle Taxi Ramadi.jpg
A motorcycle taxi

There were more than just IEDs and car bombs. There also were house bombs.

“The house across the street was rigged to blow,” he said. “Four Syrians were living in it. Now it’s a pile of rubble. This building,” meaning the Joint Security Station, “was rigged to blow, too, but they hadn’t quite finished the rigging. They hadn’t put the detonator equipment in yet.”

Some of the blown up buildings in Ramadi can be partially blamed on American screw ups.

“Did you see that flattened parking lot looking area out front?” Lieutenant Welch said.

I did.

Destruction Outside JSS.jpg

“It was a bunch of shops in the last area we cleared,” he said. “We busted the locks and opened the doors. Everyone had to stay in their houses then. We found tons of weapons and IEDs. Just as we were finishing up some of the military dogs refused to sit on the flour bags. We opened up the bags and it felt like soap. We tested it. We didn’t think it was an explosive, but an accelerant. We took everything, put it into piles, and blew it up without warning anybody. It was a much bigger explosion than we expected. Urea-nitrate was in the bags. It’s an explosive made from fertilizer. That blast was so big that people at Camp Ramadi, all the way on the other side of the city and outside the city, thought it was a nearby car bomb. People at Camp Corregidor thought they were being mortared. Windows blew out for blocks and blocks in every direction. It destroyed the whole block. Civil affairs officers paid compensation to locals for injuries and property damage. Thank God no one was killed. The media reported it as a car bomb at the soccer stadium. Reporters in the Green Zone have no idea what goes on out here.”

Here is a graph that I asked Military Intelligence to reproduce for me that shows the dramatic decrease in violence in the Topeka Area of Operations in Northern Ramadi from January 1, 2007, to July 28, 2007.

Daily Attacks in AO Topeka.JPG
Source: U.S. Army Military Intelligence

The graph is for internal use by the Army. It is not intended for public consumption or as propaganda. If it were, what it reveals would be even more dramatic. Most of the tiny number of “attacks” that appear after the middle of May weren’t really even attacks.

“Most of those litle blips represent old IEDs we found that were ineffective,” Captain McGee said. “One was a car bomb by perps who came into Ramadi from outside the city. There was only one other attack against us in our area of operations in July, and it was ineffective. As soon as we came in here to stay the civilians felt free enough to inform on them. Al Qaeda can’t come back now because the locals will report them instantly. Ramadi is a conservative Muslim city, but it’s a completely hostile environment for Islamists.”

The area just north of Ramadi was cleared even before the city itself was.

“On April 7 the entire area of operations [just north of the city] was cleared except for sporadic attacks from twelve people,” Major Lee Peters said. “There was no head to cut off. It was like a hydra. We didn’t win by killing their leaders. We won by eroding their support base. These people hate Al Qaeda much more than they ever hated us.”

The tribes of Anbar are turning their Sahawa al Anbar movement into a formal political party that will run in elections. They also hope to spread it to the rest of Iraq under the name Sahawa al Iraq. It is already taking root in the provinces of Diyala and Salah a Din.

Some have misunderstood this movement and dismissed it as “the insurgency.” Captain McGee provided me with the eleven points of their political platform, for the record.
1. Election of new Provincial Congress.

2. Formation of Anbar Province Sheikhs Congress, with the condition that none was or will be a terrorist supporter or collaborator.

3. Begin an open dialogue with Baath Party members, except those involved in criminal/terrorist acts in order to quell all insurgent activities with all popular groups.

4. Review the formation of the Iraqi Security Forces and the Iraqi Army, with tribal sheikhs vouching for those recruited

5. Provide security for highway travelers in Anbar Province.

6. Stand against terrorism wherever and whenever it occurs, condemn attacks against coalition forces, and maintain presence of coalition forces as long as needed or until stability and security are established in Anbar Province.

7. No one shall bear arms except government-authorized Iraqi Security Forces and the Iraqi Army.

8. Condemn all actions taken by individuals, families, and tribes that give safe haven to terrorists and foreign fighters, and commend immediate legal and/or military remedies to rectify such acts.

9. Recommend measures to rebuild the economy, to entice industrial prosperity, and bolster the agricultural economy. Also find funds and resources to reopen existing manufacturing facilities. The main objective is to fight for welfare and deny the insurgents any grounds for recruitment.

10. Strengthen sheikhdom authorities, help tribal leaders adjust to democratic changes in social behavior, and maintain sheikhs financially and ideologically so they can continue this drive.

11. Respect the law and Constitution of the land, and support justice and its magistrates so no power will be above the law.
Ramadi isn’t completely safe yet. Al Qaeda wants to take back their “Capital of the Islamic State of Iraq," and they have tried unsuccessfully to attack it from outside on a couple of occasions since they lost it. (They also tried to move their “Capital of the Islamic State of Iraq” to Baqubah in Diyala Province, but they lost that too in Operation Arrowhead Ripper this summer.) Also, Colonel Charlton said, “there may still be one small cell remnant here.” But the war in Ramadi is effectively over. “It’s boring here now,” Private First Class Baringhouse said. “It’s like we’re babysitting the Iraqis. But it’s weird and amazing to be bored here.”

This now “boring” city, which is just barely beginning to recover from utter catastrophe, is a different cultural and political environment than it once was.

“The mosques in Ramadi all have pro-coalition messages now,” Captain McGee said.

“How do you know this?” I said. “Do you actually attend Friday services?”

“We have relationships with the imams,” he said. “We have very good relations with all of them.”

“The Abdullah Mosque next to our outpost was hit by insurgent fire,” Captain Messer said. “The Marines are giving them money to fix it.”

Another mosque, just north of the city in the area known as Jazeera, wasn’t hit by Al Qaeda. It was used as a terrorist base by Al Qaeda.

“It’s blackened,” Captain Dennison told me, “and abandoned. Insurgents used it, so the locals consider it desecrated. No one is willing to set foot in it now.”

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 12:18 AM | Comments (406)

September 05, 2007

Stories from Anbar On the Way

Blogging has been slow because I took some time off with my wife. She is leaving town for a few weeks starting this weekend, and because I've been in Iraq we have hardly seen each other. I'm writing again now, though, and will have new material published shortly about the Anbar Awakening and the Battle of Ramadi. So don't go anywhere.

Feel free to start an open thread in the comments box in the meantime. And be nice. Don't make me pull over the car.

UPDATE: Oh, and read this post from Bill Ardonlino in Fallujah. I must go to Fallujah. I will go to Fallujah, and probably soon. When you read that, you'll see why. Fallujah isn't "Fallujah" anymore. What most people think they know about that place is totally wrong. I am very surprised myself to read about what it's like there right now.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:51 PM | Comments (156)

September 04, 2007

The Next Iranian Revolution

Reason Cover Next Iranian Revolution.jpg

Reason Magazine just published an article I wrote this summer called The Next Iranian Revolution, about Kurdish Iranian exiles in Iraq plotting revolution against the regime of the Islamic Republic. There are two groups of armed revolutionaries just outside the city of Suleimaniya; one is liberal, and the other is communist. Both call themselves Komala. I wrote about these people on the blog in the spring but there’s quite a bit of material in the magazine that I didn’t cover here. The article only exists today in the dead tree version, but will appear online later this month. Below is an excerpt.

IN A GREEN VALLEY nestled between snow-capped peaks in the Kurdish autonomous region of northern Iraq is an armed camp of revolutionaries preparing to overthrow the Islamic Republic of Iran. Men with automatic weapons stand watch on the roofs of the houses. Party flags snap in the wind. Radio and satellite TV stations beam illegal news, commentary, and music into homes and government offices across the border.

The compound resembles a small town more than a base, with corner stores, a bakery, and a makeshift hospital stocked with counterfeit medicine. From there the rebels can see for miles around and get a straight-shot view toward Iran, the land they call home. They call themselves Komala, which means simply Association.

Abdulla Mohtadi, the Komala Party’s secretary general, and Abu Baker Modaressi, a member of the party’s political bureau, hosted me in their meeting house. Sofas and chairs lined the walls, as is typical in Middle Eastern salons. Fresh fruit was provided in large bowls. A houseboy served thick Turkish coffee in shot glasses.

Both men started their revolutionary careers decades ago, when the tyrannical Shah Reza Pahlavi still ruled Iran. “We were a leftist organization,” Mohtadi said, speaking softly with an almost flawless British accent. “It was the 60s and 70s. It was a struggle against the Shah, against oppression, dictatorship, for social justice, and against – the United States.” He seemed slightly embarrassed by this. “Sorry,” he said.

I told him not to worry, that I hadn’t expected anything else. The U.S. government had backed the dictatorship he fought to destroy. Pro-American politics had not been an option.

Read the rest in the October issue of Reason Magazine, which should be available now in book stores and news stands. (Or you can wait for the free online version.)

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:09 AM | Comments (212)