October 29, 2007

“A Sophisticated Deathtrap”

House to House: An Epic Memoir of War by Staff Sergeant David Bellavia is the most compulsively readable book yet published about the Battle of Fallujah.

I'm leaving for Fallujah myself in two weeks and will continue book-blogging this as a sort of prologue to my own dispatches to come. My work will need contrast. I don’t expect to be embroiled in fire fights every day, and it would be absurd to read my stories – whatever they turn out to be – as a complete picture of the American experience there.

This is the city where the anti-American Sunni insurgency was born. Its support ran the gamut from secular Baathists to radical Islamists and included disgruntled average Iraqis in between. The Marines mostly cleared Fallujah of insurgents in April, 2004, after a lynch mob strung up the mutilated bodies of Blackwater contracters from a bridge. But U.S. forces later withdrew, and Fallujah was taken over by the insurgents again. General Petraeus’s surge strategy of Clear, Hold, and Build wasn’t in place yet.

Fallujah degenerated into a totalitarian hole ruled by fanatics, and the Army and Marines had to go in and clear it again in November of the same year. The city had been emptied of civilians and was effectively a ghost town occupied by jihadists from all over the place.

Sometimes I worry that Iraq will turn into a California-sized Gaza, but the truth is that some parts have been in worse shape already.

House to House: An Epic Memoir of War
Click the image to order from Amazon.com

Here is Bellavia describing the city as he and his fellow "front-line bullet chewers," as he called them, are preparing to strike:
Fallujah is a city designed for siege warfare. From the studs to the minarets, every goddamned building is a fortress. The houses are minibunkers with ramparts and firing slits cut into every rooftop. The mosques are latter-day Persian castles with concrete walls three feet thick. Within those walls, the courtyards offer perfect ambush points from every window. Even the shops and the local markets are fortified. Block after block, Fallujah is a sophisticated deathtrap.

Architecture aside, the insurgents have had months to prepare for this battle. They've dug fighting positions, mined the streets, booby-trapped the houses, built bunkers, and cleared fields of fire. Every road into the city is strong-pointed, mined, and blocked with captured Texas barriers. Fallujah is shaping up to be the Verdun of the War on Terror. We face a battle of attrition fought within a maze of interlocking fortresses. Attrition is such a sterile word. We'll be trading our lives for theirs.

[Captain Sean] Sims makes it clear that our initial objectives will be heavily defended. The insurgents have deployed foreign fighters on the city's approaches. They form the outer crust of their defense-in-depth, so we will face them first. Intelligence reports tell us we'll face Syrians, Iranians, Saudis, Filipinos, even Italians and Chechnyans. They're well trained, ideologically motivated, and armed with ample ammunition and equipment. They've trained for years to kill us infidels. Some have cut their teeth in Chechnya, Afghanistan, and Somalia. They are veterans just like us – a regular Islamist all-star team.
Bellavia’s memoir reads like a zombie war novel at times:
The bad news continues as Captain Sims closes the laptop and turns to us. “We expect the insurgents have stockpiled drugs. We'll be facing fighters hopped up on dope again.”

I look over at [Staff Sergeant Colin] Fitts, and I know what he's thinking. If this is true, these guys are going to be hard to kill. In Muqdadiyah, my squad watched a drug-crazed Mahdi militiaman charge Cory Brown's Bradley. The gunner blasted him with coax machine-gun fire, shredding his legs. He tumbled off the Bradley and flopped face up onto the street. As we approached him, he started to laugh. The laughter grew into a hysteria-tinged cackle, then ended with a bone-chilling keen. That froze us cold. Watching us with wild eyes, he then pulled a bottle of pills out of a blood-soaked pocket and drained its contents into his mouth. Then he went for something under his jacket. Thinking he was about to detonate a bomb vest, three of us opened fire and riddled him with bullets. We shot and shot until he finally stopped moving.

Leaving my men behind, I went to investigate the corpse. His right arm was torn off. His legs were nothing but punctured meat. Most of his face was gone, and only a bloody lump remained of his nose. Both eyes had been shot out. I put a boot on his chest. The Mahdi militiaman didn't move. I kicked him. No movement. Given how many times he had been shot, I didn't expect anything else, but just to be sure, I shot him twice in the stomach. Then I marked him with a chem light so the body disposal teams could find him later that night.

A few minutes later, a Blackhawk landed and we started loading wounded insurgents into it. While we worked, two men carried the shattered husk of that Mahdi militiaman to the helicopter. To our astonishment, he was still alive. Blood bubbles burbled up through his mangled nose and mouth. Blind, in agony, he still managed to scream through broken teeth and punctured lungs. We loaded him on the helicopter and never saw him again.

We later discovered the Mahdi militia had gained access to American epinephrine -- pure adrenaline that will keep a heart pumping even after its owner has been exposed to nerve gas or chemical weapons. A dude with that in his system is almost superhuman. Short of being blown to pieces with our biggest guns, he'll keep fighting until his limbs are severed or he bleeds out.

Most of the military operations in Iraq are more like peace-keeping missions than war-fighting. Counter-insurgency doesn’t usually come with the bang-bang we’re used to from war movies.

Counter-insurgency, though, seems inadequate as a description of the Battle of Fallujah. This was full-throttled war:

Using our Brads as cover, we watch as our gunners prep our first objective area. Tracers streak from their barrels and disappear into the buildings ahead of us. I flip my night-vision goggles down over my left eye and study the buildings. Nothing looks familiar. In fact, the entire area bears no resemblance to the dismount point we've studied for the past several days. We've practically memorized our aerial recon photos, satellite imagery, and road maps. We know every building we need to assault, every corner we need to cover down on, and every street we must lay eyes on in our assigned area.

Yet none of this looks familiar. The pre-assault bombardment has turned this part of the city into a holocaust of twisted wreckage, mangled buildings, and broken vehicles. Houses have been cleaved in two, as if some sadistic giant has performed architectural vivisection on the entire neighborhood. Floors and rooms have been laid bare, exposed to the ravages of the night's shelling. Furniture is thrown haphazardly about. Smashed desks, burned-out sofas, faceless TVs lay in heaps within these demolished homes.

The insurgents may have been hopped up on epinephrine and hard to kill, but that didn’t make them good fighters. The Middle East produces extremists in abundance, but it won’t be known for the competence of its warriors any time soon.

Staff Sergeant Jim's voice comes over the radio, "I got a white van inbound!"

We're under orders to destroy every vehicle we encounter. Even if it is tucked away in a garage, we're supposed to treat it as a VBIED -- Vehicle Born IED. A van moving through the carnage and destruction to get at us is clearly a threat.

Jim's gunner, Sergeant Denny Taijeron, is [First Lieutenant Joaquin] Meno's cousin from Guam. They went to high school together and later attended Guam Community College, where they evidently both majored in wanton urban destruction. They joined the Army at the same time and came to Germany together. Taijeron doesn't hesitate a bit. The 120mm gun fires, bathing the street in a hellish light. The shell blows the van apart. Pieces spin off into the darkness. When the smoke clears, not even a tire remains.

A second later, an AK-47 barks and an insurgent heaves into view.

Over the radio, we hear Jim say, "Check this guy out."

The lone gunman stitches the tank with his bullets. He might as well have been an ant throwing grass seeds at a lawn mower.

"Are you fucking serious? Look at this fool."

Another tanker's voice replies, "Awww man, that guy is cute."

Jim's turret turns, the gun's elevation changes. Suddenly, the entire street lights up again. The insurgent is vaporized."

The insurgents are incompetent, to say the least, when they pick up a rifle. They almost always miss, as if they’re unrealistic Rambo movie villains whose only role is to be shot. Some of their tactics, though, are downright terrifying.

Sergeant Knapp is ordered to take a house because the platoon needs a better view of the municipal building.
Knapp now launches himself fully into the middle of the street. The man is all steel and guts. During a firefight in Muqdadiyah last August, he stoop atop a building and poured hot slugs into a group of about twenty insurgents. Bullets and RPGs flew all around, but he never even flinched. He stood and took it, and dealt out much worse.

He reaches the far side of the street. As he does, I urge the next group forward. Slapping helmets, I hiss, "Go! Go! Go!"

Fitt's squad follows us out of the courtyard. We dash across the street and into the compound of our target house. As I get close, I see Knapp frozen in the doorway.

What the fuck, Knapp? Get inside the fucking house!

The rest of the squad stacks up behind him, and though I try to stop, I careen into the men. We've got one big gaggle fuck right in the front courtyard, and we're vulnerable as hell.

"Get the fuck in!" I order.

Knapp immediately counters with, "No! Get the fuck out! Get out now!"

"Whaddaya got?" I demand, still trying to get untangled from the rest of the squad now backing off from the entrance.

He swings around and grabs my body armor. As the rest of the men back up indecisively, he drags me into the doorway.

"Knapp, what the fuck..."

"LOOK!" he roars.

The first thing I notice are the wires. Wires are common all over the ruins we've traversed so far, but they are always dirty, torn, and dull in color. The wires I see inside this house are crisp and clean and bundled neatly with zip ties.

That is not good.

"GO! GO! GO! Get the fuck outta here," I scream to my squad.

A cluster of wires funnel through one wall, then fan out all over the inside of one room just inside the door like green and orange ivy vines. I follow a few with my eyes and see they end in undersized bricks. This puzzles me for a split second, then I realize the bricks are chunks of C-4 plastic explosive.

Another group of wires runs to a pair of go-cart sized propane tanks stacked along the nearest wall. More explosives are scattered around them.

But the piece de resistance, the stroke of insurgent genius here, is the centerline aerial drop tank sitting in the middle of the room. Designed to give MiG fighter jets extended range, it's a fuel tank that looks like a misshapen teardrop. The insurgents have slipped garbage bags onto its tail fins. The nose has been removed. The wires disappear inside from there. Using jet fuel as a bomb is what caused the fireballs at the World Trade Center on 9/11. This tank makes one hell of a weapon.

We could lose the entire squad -- we could lose most of the platoon -- right here, right now.

I turn to Knapp, "Get back to the other house, now!"

He grabs the other men and everyone careens back across the street. I'm left alone in the driveway, staring at this enormous booby trap. I'm horrified by the thought of what almost happened to my platoon.

Fitts jogs to me, "What's going on?"

I'm so stunned, I can only point.

He peers inside the house and flips out. "What the fuck is this? Holy shit!"

"This is a BCIED, man." Building-contained IED. "Fucking...building bomb." I can't even talk in complete sentences.
You can buy the book from Amazon.com if you want to read the whole thing.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:52 PM | Comments (137)

An Act of Kindness from Iraq

I have a new post up at the Commentary magazine blog:

Iraqi Army officers in Besmaya raised a thousand dollars in donations for fire victims in San Diego, California, and the only place that seems to have reported the story is the military blog OPFOR. Author Richard S. Lowry learned about it in a press release from the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq Public Affairs, so it’s unlikely he’s the only one in the media who knows something about it.

Sending a thousand dollars to California will be about as helpful as throwing a glass of water into the firestorm. It’s the thought that counts here. And what surprising thought it is. How many Americans expect charity from Iraq?

As Lowry points out, “most Americans do not consider Iraqis as people.” He’s right. Most of us only know them from sensational media reports about masked insurgents, wailing widows, and death squads. Most of us may instinctively understand that the majority of Iraqis are just regular people, but it’s hard to keep that in mind when the only thing we get Stateside is war coverage. I’ve met hundreds of Iraqis myself during trips to their country as a reporter, so it’s a bit easier for me to see them as just people. I’m still surprised that anyone in that broken impoverished land would even consider donating hard-earned money to Californians.
Read the rest at Commentary.

UPDATE: CNN now has the story on their Web site. Good for them.

This link will take you to all the articles I have written for Commentary. You can bookmark that page if you want to as sort of a supplement to this one.

Remember Noah Pollak? I worked with him in Northern Israel and Southern Lebanon, and he was briefly my co-blogger here. He also has been picked up as a writer by Commentary, and you can read all of his articles here.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:38 AM | Comments (11)

October 27, 2007

Blog World Expo in Las Vegas -- UPDATED

I was invited to speak at the Blog World Expo in Las Vegas next month, but I expected to be in Afghanistan, so I declined. As it turns out, though, I will just barely have time to attend (not as a speaker) before I leave for Fallujah.

Who else is going to be there? Leave a comment or shoot me an email.

UPDATE: I'll be there as a speaker after all. I'm being added to one of the panels.

Thursday, November 8 (2:45 – 3:45)

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 05:17 PM | Comments (11)

October 25, 2007

House to House: An Epic Memoir of War

I'm leaving for Fallujah in early November, and part of my preparation involves reading every book I can get my hands on about what has happened in that city so far. The most compulsively readable of the lot is House to House: An Epic Memoir of War by Staff Sergeant David Bellavia.

House to House: An Epic Memoir of War
Click the image to order from Amazon.com

Bellavia spent the first part of his Iraq tour in Diyala Province, which is still a convulsive and dangerous place even now. The notorious city of Baqubah is its capital. It is the second city in Iraq, after Ramadi, that Al Qaeda tried to establish as the capital of its so-called “Islamic State in Iraq.”

The author opens his book with brief descriptions of the fighting in Diyala so we can appreciate, if that is the word, how bad the battle of Fallujah was by comparison when he and his fellow American soldiers and Marines took the city back from insurgents in November 2004.

We've all heard and read about how terrorists and insurgents hide behind civilians and use human shields, but it's hard to grasp what that really means without at least a little dramatization. Here is Bellavia describing one of these incidents in the town of Muqdadiyah, Diyala:
The angst-filled scenes on the street cannot compare to what we find inside these battle-scarred houses. Yesterday, my squad kicked in one door and stumbled right into a woman wearing a blood-soaked apron. She was sitting on the floor, howling with grief. She looked to be in her mid-forties and had Shia tattoos on her face. When she saw us, she stood and grasped Specialist Piotr Sucholas by the shoulders and gave him a kiss on the cheek. Then she turned and laid her head on Sergeant Hall's chest, as if to touch his heart.

I stepped forward and said in broken Arabic “La tah khaf madrua? Am ree kee tabeeb. Weina mujahadeen kelp?” Do not be afraid. Injured? American doctor. Where are the mujahadeen dogs?

She bent and kissed my wedding ring. “Baby madrua. Baby madrua.” The despair in her voice was washed away by the sound of a little girl's laughter. When the giggling child came in from the kitchen and clutched her mother's leg, we immediately realized she had Down's Syndrome. I was struck by the beauty of this child. Specialist Pedro Contreras, whose heart was always the biggest in our platoon, knelt by her side and gave her a butterscotch candy. Contreras loved Iraqi kids. He had a six-year old nephew back home, and seeing these little ones made him ache for the boy.

We didn't see the injured baby at first – we still had a job to do. I moved upstairs, searching for an insurgent who had been shooting at our Bradleys. Halfway up, I discovered a smear of blood on the steps. Then I found a tuft of human hair. Another step up, I saw a tiny leg.

Baby madrua.

Ah, fuck. Fuck.

The child was dead. She was torn apart at the top of the stairs. Specialist Michael Gross had followed me partway up the stairs. I turned to him and screamed, “Get back down! I said get the fuck back down!” Gross stopped suddenly, then eased off the stairs, a wounded look on his face. I was overly harsh, but I didn't want him to see what was left of this dead child...

I'll never forget that house. The woman kissed each of us good-bye. As she touched her lips to my cheek, I pointed to my wedding ring and asked her where her husband was.

“Weina zoah jik? Shoof nee, shoof nee.” Where is your husband? Show me, show me.

She spat on the floor and cried, “Kelp.” Dog. I guessed he was the corpse on the roof. I touched my heart and tried to convey my feelings, but the language barrier was too great.
A few minutes later, Bellavia's unit joins another that has made contact with the Mahdi Army.
Newell's two-rig convoy takes fire from both sides of the highway. The volume swells as more rockets streak across the road. Suddenly, a small boy of perhaps five or six steps out into the street. Standing next to Newell's Humvee, the kid holds up first two fingers, then five fingers.

Sergeant Grady swings his machine gun around. It is obvious that the boy is signaling to the Mahdi militiamen how many American vehicles are present.

As Grady racks the bolt on his machine gun, Newell realizes what his gunner had in mind. “Don't shoot the child,” he orders.

“Sir, the kid is giving our position away,” says Grady, his voice nearly drowned out by the swelling volume of incoming fire.

“Don't shoot the child,” Newell reiterates, his voice stern. Grady gets the message. Our colonel possess a black-and-white sense of morality. The kid, no matter what he's doing, will not be targeted. At times, our battalion commander's adherence to such niceties frustrates us, but I know in time we will thank him. Nobody wants a child on his conscience.
Diyala was a bad scene in 2004, as it is now. What Bellavia and his men experienced in Fallujah was more deadly and terrifying by at least an order of magnitude. But he warms us up with tales of violence and woe that are more typical of the restless parts of Iraq, and typical of urban warfare anywhere in the 21st century where moral Western armies fight asymmetric wars against less scrupulous and poorly trained armed combatants.

Perhaps I shouldn't say Diyala is typical. It was one of the worst parts of the country then, as it is now. Almost everywhere is less violent than Diyala, but Diyala was easy compared with Fallujah.

Iraq is a strange country. Everywhere I've been – including Baghdad – is less dangerous than it appears from far away. It isn't safe by any means. You do not want to go there on holiday. But I've seen far worse in Israel, which was packed with tourists even during last summer's war. I did hear one car bomb in Baghdad in July from three miles away. It was incredibly loud, especially considering how far away it was. But that's it for me, at least so far.

The flip side of all this is that some of the fighting in Iraq is worse than most people realize. Fallujah in November 2004 just might have been the most nightmarish place in the world. The city was emptied of civilians. American soldiers and Marines fought it out house-to-house and sometimes hand-to-hand with insurgents from Iraq and from all over the Middle East in the eerily emptied ghost town where a quarter million people once lived. Insurgents injected themselves with massive adrenaline shots that made them almost as hard to kill as zombies. The whole city was one giant booby trap. Entire buildings were packed with explosives. Several were often detonated at once.

But first, the easier fight in Diyala, for contrast:
In Diyala, on April 9, 2004, we're in full battle rattle. The high-intensity urban fighting we've practiced since basic training is now finally allowed to be unleashed upon our enemy. There is no weak-stomached four-star general to hold back on our reins. We are again the First Infantry Division of Vietnam and the beaches of Normandy. We pour through compound gates, rifles shouldered, targets falling as we trigger our weapons. Mahdi militiamen sprint from corner to corner, but we are quick and accurate with our aim. We knock them right out of their shoes. Our Brads are rolling, unleashing volley after volley from their Bushmasters into nearby buildings. Yet the militiamen refuse to give up the fight. Tracers from unseen enemy positions spiderweb overhead. They make us earn every house and every inch.

This is our war: we can't shoot at every target, we can't always tell who is a target; but we look out for one another and we don't mind doing the nation's dirty work. Air Force pilots and Army majors expert in Microsoft PowerPoint have a perfectly clean view of it. We don't get support if it makes a mess.

Bring it.

We're the infantry.

War's a bitch, wear a helmet.
Coming soon: Excerpts from House to House and the terrifying battle of Fallujah. You can buy the book from Amazon.com if you want to read the whole thing.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 06:36 PM | Comments (61)

October 24, 2007

Israeli Reporters Lap Up Syrian Propaganda

Now that I'm briefly out of fresh material from Iraq (until I go back) I have a bit of time to return to one of my old beats. I start with the strange story of Israeli journalists repeating Syrian lies as possible fact in such reputable newspapers as Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post. Read Syria's Useful Israeli Idiots over at the Commentary magazine Web site.

I'll publish more on this blog shortly.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:41 AM | Comments (65)

October 21, 2007

On to Fallujah with the Marines

I’m out of fresh material from Iraq, so I’ll be heading back in a few weeks to get more. This time I plan to visit in Fallujah. I’ll spend more time there than I did in either Baghdad or Ramadi, and I’ll embed with the Marines instead of the Army.

Fallujah all but demands more time and attention. On the surface it resembles Ramadi. But Fallujah is meaner and murkier. This is the notorious city from which the Sunni insurgency was launched in full force. Open kinetic warfare raged there longer than it did anywhere else in Iraq. If any city could be described as the heartland of the insurgency, this is it.

The relatively straightforward story of Al Qaeda and the Americans battling it out for the hearts and minds of Iraqis in Ramadi doesn’t really apply in Fallujah. The insurgents there were always more popular, and they fought under many flags. Abu Musab al Zarqawi and Osama bin Laden were hardly the only figures inspiring insurgents to violence. When Saddam Hussein was captured, Baghdad cheered. Fallujah rioted.

Author Bing West describes the city this way in No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah:
Cities acquire caricature, if not character: New York is frenetic and brash; San Francisco is liberal and laid-back; Los Angeles is imbued with glitter and celebrity. Ask Iraqis about Fallujah, and they roll their eyes: Fallujah is strange, sullen, wild-eyed, badass, and just plain mean. Fallujans don’t like strangers, which includes anyone not homebred. Wear lipstick or Western-style long hair, sip a beer or listen to an American CD, and you risk the whip or a beating.

For centuries the city had traded with – and stolen from – merchants who were headed east to Baghdad. The frontier town bordering an open desert attracted thousands of outcasts and criminals. In the early twentieth century European travelers learned not to tarry in Fallujah. After Iraq won its independence in 1959, Fallujah became a source of enforcers for the ruling Sunni-dominated Baath Party. The city’s tough reputation continued under Saddam…

With forty-seven mosques in its neighborhoods and fifty more in the neighboring villages, Fallujah was called “the city of a hundred mosques.” For decades the city had been the repository of the extreme Wahhabi, or Salafi, traditions flowing in from Saudi Arabia. Saddam, distrusting Fallujans’ fundamentalism, had restricted their movements and used them as his cat’s paw.
Fallujah looks as sinister as Mordor from far away, even from inside Iraq. But it isn’t that bad, at least not anymore. Somehow the city has been almost pacified.

How? What does that suggest about the future in the rest of the country? Can anything pro-American, or at least non-anti-American, grow in a place like Fallujah, or is the war there just in a lull? What do the Marines, steeped as they are in realism, think of this place? Is Fallujah ready to join the rest of Iraq, or has the rest of Iraq joined Fallujah?

These are the first questions I’d like to have answered. What questions would you like to have answered about this as-ever notorious city?

Please leave your own questions in the comments. And please consider a donation through Blog Patron or Pay Pal and help me buy war zone insurance and airfare.


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:

Michael Totten
P.O. Box 312
Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 09:12 PM | Comments (177)

October 17, 2007

The Shia Awakening

I have a short piece up at Commentary about Iraq's Shia Awakening.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:49 PM | Comments (158)

October 14, 2007

The Case for Kurdistan

Azure magazine just published a long essay I wrote in early summer where I make the case for an independent American-backed Kurdistan in Northern Iraq on moral and strategic grounds. At the time I was slightly more pessimistic about the prospects for Iraq as a whole than I am now, but I still think something like this may be a viable Plan B if the surge fails or if the American public tires of fighting in Iraq before the country is stable.

Here is a brief excerpt from the second half of the essay:
The United States will possibly withdraw from Iraq before the fighting is finished. American public opinion may well demand it. But if that should happen, the war will simply rage on without the Americans, and the Iraqi government might not survive the post-withdrawal scramble for power from insurgents, militias, terrorists, and their foreign patrons. And if the government falls, there probably won’t be another.

Iraq may end up resembling other regional weak-state anarchies, such as Somalia, which exist solely as geographic abstractions. Or it could go the way of Lebanon in the 1980s and divide into ethnic and sectarian cantons. Perhaps it will be invaded and picked apart by Turkey, Syria, and Iran, all of which have vital interests in who rules it and how. Iraq could even turn into a California-size Gaza, ruled by militants who wear black masks instead of neckties or keffiyehs.

But one certainty, at least, is that if Kurdistan declares independence and is not protected, one of two possible wars is likely to begin immediately. The first will involve Turkey; after all, few things are more undesirable to Ankara than Turkish Kurdistan violently attaching itself to Iraqi Kurdistan. The second will be about borders: Iraqi Kurdistan’s southern borders are not yet demarcated. If Turkey doesn’t invade, the Kurds will want to attach the Kurdish portions of Kirkuk Province, and possibly also Nineveh Province, to their new state.

Even if Kurdistan doesn’t declare independence, there may still be more war on the way. “We believe if the Americans withdraw from this country there will be many more problems,” Colonel Mudhafer said. “The Sunni and Shia want total control of Iraq. We are going to get involved in that. Iran is going to be involved in that. Turkey is going to be involved in that. Syria is going to be involved in that. The Sunni and Shia fighting in Baghdad will pull us in. We are going to be involved. Turkey and Iran will make problems for us. It is not going to be safe. All the American martyrs will have died for nothing, and there will be more problems in the future. Americans should build big bases here.” For obvious reasons, the idea of the American military garrisoning its forces in Kurdistan is wildly popular among the Kurds.
Read the whole thing in Azure magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 09:34 PM | Comments (184)

October 11, 2007

On Patrol in Ramadi

Join me and Army Captain Phil Messer on a walking tour of Ramadi, Iraq, in a 20 minute video shot during a dismounted foot patrol in early August, 2007.

If you enjoy this movie, please consider a donation through Blog Patron or Pay Pal. I will return to Iraq shortly, and if I can raise money from shooting and editing video, I’ll make a lot more of them.


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:

Michael Totten
P.O. Box 312
Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 02:41 AM | Comments (57)

October 08, 2007

The Best Police Force in Iraq

Roof Guard Majed 2.jpg

RAMADI, IRAQ – In late July when I visited a police station in the town of Mushadah just north of Baghdad I worried that Iraq was doomed to become the next Gaza. As many as half the police officers, according to most of the American Military Police who worked as their trainers, were Al Qaeda sympathizers or agents. The rest were corrupt lazy cowards, according to every American I talked to but one. No one tried to spin Mushadah into a success story. By itself this doesn't mean the country is doomed. How important is Mushadah, anyway? I hadn't even heard of it until the day before I went there myself. But Military Police Captain Maryanne Naro dismayingly told me the quality of the police and their station was “average.” That means one of two things. Either Mushadah is more or less typical, or roughly half the Iraqi Police force is worse.

I had a much better experience when I embedded, so to speak, with the Iraqi Police in Kirkuk. I trusted the Iraqi Police in that city enough that I was willing to travel with them without any protection from the American military, even though Kirkuk is still a part of the Red Zone. Kirkuk, though, is an outlying case. The Iraqi Police there are Kurds. The Kurds of Iraq are the most pro-American people I have ever met in the world. They are more pro-American than Americans. There is no Kurdish insurgency, and the only Kurdish terrorist group – Ansar Al Islam, which recently changed its name to Al Qaeda in Kurdistan – is based now outside a town called Mariwan in northeastern Iran. The Iraqi Police in Kirkuk may be corrupt, but they aren't terrorists or insurgents.

The Kurds have problems of their own, even so, and not every Arab region of Iraq is the same shade of dysfunctional. Every complaint I heard about the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police in and around Baghdad was balanced with genuine praise for the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police in and just outside Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, which until recently was the most violent war-torn place in all of Iraq. If these Iraqis were typical – and make no mistake, they are not – the American military might have little reason to stay.

Captain Dennison and his men took me to the Al Majed station just outside the city on the banks of the Euphrates River.

Majed Station.jpg

Euphrates Anbar Police Station.jpg

Iraqi Flag Majed Station.jpg

“They recently changed the name,” he said as we parked the Humvees outside. “The station used to have a tribal name, but they're trying to move away from that now.”

The Al Majed station is so much cleaner than the one in Mushadah I could hardly believe what I was looking at.

Order and tidiness aren't everything, but police officers who live and work in a sloppy dump of a station don't inspire much confidence. If they can't clean up their own space, how can they be expected to clean up a neighborhood infested with terrorists, insurgents, and criminals? They can't, at least not in Mushadah, especially since as many as half the police themselves are terrorists, insurgents, and criminals.

The Al Majed station wasn't as clean and orderly as a hotel, but it was at least as clean and orderly as a hostel. I would have been perfectly comfortable staying there for a week. The station in Mushadah was a nasty place I couldn't wait to get out of. Even some of the American outposts in Ramadi were disgusting.

Humvee Anbar.jpg
A Humvee outside the Al Majed station in a lagoon of “moon dust” that will be a lake of deep mud in the winter

Iraqi Lieutenant Colonel Jumaa Abdul Rahman, the man in charge of Al Majed, invited me, Captain Dennison, Sergeant First Class Kitts, and First Sergeant Rodriguez into his office for tea. He sat behind his desk, and the four of us sat on couches that circled the room. A young boy brought us dark brown tea with sugar in small plastic cups.

As usual in the Middle East, the greeting ritual was considerate and elaborate. Hello. Welcome. How are you? Fine, I hope. Did you sleep well last night?

“Our success in this region is because of you,” Captain Dennison said to Lieutenant Colonel Rahman. His statement was completely sincere. He was not being perfunctory or merely polite.

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Captain Dennison

“And also because of you,” Lieutenant Colonel Rahman said, also sincerely. “Please don’t leave us.”

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Iraqi Lieutenant Colonel Jumaa Abdul Rahman

Several minutes of idle chit chat followed, which is typical even when the real point of a meeting is business. But there didn’t appear to be any business to discuss. The lieutenant colonel led us outside after a while to admire the view of the river and the orchard of fruit trees behind the station.

Iraqi Police Trucks and Orchard.jpg

“We see Iraqis smile now,” Sergeant Kitts said to me on our way out. “And seeing Iraqis smile…that’s a big deal. These people haven’t had anything to smile about for a very long time. This is where we are finally earning our money.”

“I agree,” First Sergeant Rodriguez said. “It’s a lot less volatile now, so we can actually move this place forward.”

I walked among the tidy rows of grapes, figs, dates, and olives with Lieutenant Colonel Rahman and an Iraqi interpreter named Jack.

“Now that the fighting is over,” I said, “what kind of work do you focus on?”

“Mainly on gathering intelligence on sleeper cells and support networks,” the colonel said. “It is much easier now. People here are very appreciative and cooperative with what happened and with what is happening now. If Iraqi Police officers or coalition soldiers go to people's houses they are welcomed with open arms for food and for tea. Before the people here were not allowed to even look at coalition forces or they would be murdered by Al Qaeda.”

“What do you think about the possibility of Americans withdrawing their forces?” I said. He had already said please don't leave us to Captain Dennison, but I wanted at least a little elaboration.

Majed Station Colonel 2.jpg
Iraqi Lieutenant Colonel Jumaa Abdul Rahman

“That is not in the best interests of Iraq right now,” he said. “We need some more time. If they pull out there will be a real possibility of serious sectarian warfare. Anbar is secure. Only Baghdad and the surrounding area remains to be secured. As soon as that happens, the fight will be over.” He is right to suggest that most of the violence is in the Baghdad area and its surroundings. But it’s still game-on in Mosul and in parts of Diyala Province. Southern Iraq suffers a lot less violence than the center, but Shia militias still control parts of it.

Jack Picks Fig in Orchard.jpg
Jack, an Iraqi interpreter, picks fruit in the orchard

“Are you optimistic?” I said.

“Yes,” he said.

“Why?” I said.

“I’ll tell you why,” he said. “I could not even dream of seeing what has taken place here in Anbar. Couldn’t even dream of it. If in Anbar, why not in Baghdad?”

“Baghdad is hard,” I said. “It is so much more complicated than here.”

“Yes,” he said and nodded. “Here we are strictly anti-terrorist. In Baghdad the police still favor their sectarian militias.”

I asked Captain Dennison if American troops were still needed in Ramadi, which has not only been cleared of terrorists and insurgents but transformed into one of the most staunchly anti-terrorist communities in the world.

“We still take care of around 80 percent of the logistics for the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police here,” he said. “They're doing great work, but they still need some help getting organized.”

“What are we doing here today, anyway?” I said. “Do you have anything to do here at the station?” So far all the Americans had done is say hi to the Iraqis and show me around.

“We're just checking in,” he said. “The Police Transition Teams are out here are training them to do slower more normal police work, less kicking in doors and beating up bad guys. The Iraqi Police are still in a bit of shock from the hell of a few months ago. They are definitely gung-ho anti-terrorists. If anything, at this point, they need to dial it back.”

Iraqi Police Poster Ramadi.jpg
An Iraqi Police poster

Until recently the Iraqi Police in Ramadi were more like soldiers than police officers. They weren't issuing traffic tickets or doing slow procedural work. They were fighting terrorists in a war zone that was every bit as bad as the one in Fallujah just down the road.

“It's been four months since a single mortar round hit the station,” Captain Dennison said. “None of the Americans or the Iraqis out here have been in a fire fight for several months.” This was in early August.

There wasn't much dramatic to see or do. Counter-insurgency soldiers often go into hostile areas looking for fights that draw combatants into the open where they can be captured or killed. But the Americans and Iraqis couldn't find a fight in Ramadi now if they tried. So they do not try.

What can I say about Iraqis and Americans who cooperate with each other professionally and have their act together while ironing out minor problems? Peace is much harder to cover than war. Not much of note happens. Once again, I understood why war correspondents write off Ramadi as boring and why major networks don't broadcast from there.

The most compelling material I got in that city were war stories several months out of date. Anbar Province may be an ideal location for a historian or reporter who wants to research an oral history of the Iraq war or write human interest stories, but not so much for reporters who need to break news every day. It's no wonder, really, that so many journalists hole up in the Green Zone and rely on local stringers scattered all over the country to keep them apprised of the most recent car bombs and firefights. It is not, or at least not necessarily, because they are lazy or gutless.

The stories I heard about the battle of Ramadi from these soldiers were harrowing. It’s one thing to relate all this to a journalist. How do they explain what they experienced to their families? It isn’t easy, as Sergeant Kitts explained to me over lunch.

Kitts Anbar.jpg
Sergeant First Class Kitts

“I’m outnumbered at home with a wife and two daughters,” he said. “I love going home, but sometimes it’s hard. My littlest girl asks how long is Daddy going to visit. Visit! It’s my family and my house and I only visit. She doesn’t quite understand what I do. I tried to explain. I said Daddy goes after bad guys. She thought about that. Do the bad guys have guns? she said. Yeah, I said.” I could tell it hurt him to say this. “Don’t forget yours, she said.”


“We went from having 200 police officers last year to having 8,000 today,” Major Lee Peters said. “And that’s not counting those with the orange bands.” The men who wear orange bands instead of blue uniforms are semi-official community watchmen who were deputized by the tribal authorities. The people of Anbar want another layer of hyper-local security in a province Al Qaeda desperately wants to reconquer after their humiliating eviction.

I attended a brief ceremony where hundreds of newly minted Iraqi Police officers graduated.

Iraqi Police Graduation.jpg

Some finished the training and are still waiting to be formally hired. Each unit marched around the room a little bit awkwardly. They looked a bit like amateurs, but everyone who said anything about them insists they are dedicated and reliable.

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Established Iraqi Police officers. Not much uniform discipline.

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An Iraqi police officer just outside the graduation ceremony

“We worry about potential future infiltration by AQI,” or Al Qaeda in Iraq, Colonel John Charlton said. “But we’re very certain this is not a problem right now. The tribal influence on IPs [Iraqi Police] is strong. Every single one of the tribal leaders is against AQI. In Anbar Province it is very shameful and dishonorable to be a terrorist or an insurgent.”

Iraqi Police Officer with Weapon and Hat.jpg

Captain Dennison also took me to the Farraj police station just outside Ramadi in an area that was sort of a suburb and sort of the countryside.

Humvees Outside Faraj.jpg

Faraj Staion Door.jpg

Just inside the front door was a large portrait of the much-admired Iraqi Major Quather who was killed by a car bomb during the fighting in early 2007.

Martyred Police Faraj.jpg

The captain handed me over the First Lieutenant Bryan Schnitker who gave me the grand tour.

Iraq Police Officer Farraj Station Anbar.jpg
These Iraqi Police officers insisted I take their picture

No one seemed to think the Iraqi Police had been infiltrated, but I wondered if they were corrupt in other ways. Almost everyone with power in the Middle East is at least financially corrupt to an extent.

Iraqi Police Poster Ramadi 2.jpg
An Iraqi Police poster

“The Farraj station doesn’t skim the money we give them,” Lieutenant Schnitker said, “if that’s what you’re asking. We monitor it closely enough that we know they aren’t corrupt. I can say this with confidence. We use to cut them checks, but there’s no bank in Ramadi anymore. It got robbed twice, and that was it. It literally got robbed out of existence. There is no insurance in Iraq, let alone anything like FDIC. So we give them cash, and we watch how they spend it.”

Iraqi Police Colonel Saidi Saleh Mohammad al Farraji, who long ago was a captain in Saddam’s army, invited me and the American officers for lunch in his office. The usual Iraqi fare was served – chicken and lamb kebabs with bread, fried tomatoes, and salad.

Food Faraj Station.jpg

“What's your biggest challenge,” I said to the colonel, “now that Al Qaeda is gone?”

“It was counter-terrorism,” he said. “Now we just need to make sure the area stays secure so they don't come back. We have sources in the community who will tell us if they come back. Civilians cooperate with us now, but they didn't before we built this station. They didn't feel safe.”

Colonel Faraj Station.jpg
Colonel Saidi Saleh Mohammad al Farraji

“How much longer do you think the Americans need to stay?” I said. “Would it be okay if they left Anbar Province?”

“Within a year?” he said. “No. We don't get enough support from the Iraqi government. If we had the support we need from Baghdad it would be okay here. But the government is too infiltrated with militias. It is very dangerous for us to go there.”

Most of his answers to my questions were stock and uninteresting, but he did say something that surprised me a bit when I asked if he had anything he wanted to add.

“All your reporters are men,” he said. “Every reporter I have seen in Ramadi is a man. You should send American women so they can talk to our women. Someone needs to find out what they think about what's happening here.”

First Lieutenant Schnitker led me to the roof where I could take pictures. It’s hard to photograph the landscape in Iraq because most of it is flatter than Iowa.

Roof Top View Faraj.jpg

The roof was cooler than I expected thanks to the netting that blocked most of the sunlight. A barbecue and a weight set without weights were the extent of the furniture.

Roof Top Faraj w Barbecue 2.jpg

An Iraqi Police officer manned a machine gun and watched the surrounding countryside.

Guard Roof Top Faraj.jpg

We were three stories up. A man bellowing at us in Arabic from ground level.

“What’s he yelling about?” I asked Jack, our Iraqi interpreter.

He laughed.

“He is an IP who got in trouble today,” he said. “I’m not sure what he did, but he was put into detention for an hour. He is saying Let me out! It was supposed to be for one hour, but I’ve been in here for several. It is degrading to be in here with these people.

“Who is he in the cell with?” I said.

“They locked him up with Al Qaeda.”

I froze.

Al Qaeda was just down the steps? I was suddenly overwhelmed with morbid curiosity. Ever since September 11, 2001, I have wanted to look into the eyes of the kinds of people who would murder thousands of innocents and think their reward would be virgins.

A few years ago a friend of mine – an academic, not a journalist – met Qays Ibrahim up in Kurdistan. Qays is an Al Qaeda member or sympathizer who tried to murder Dr. Barham Salih, who was then the Prime Minister of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and who is now Deputy Prime Minister in Baghdad’s Maliki government.

Qays missed Barham but shot and killed a handful of bodyguards. He’s in prison now just outside the city of Suleimaniya. Barham refuses to sign Qays’s death warrant even though the caged Al Qaedist stridently insists he will again try to murder the Deputy Prime Minister if he ever gets free.

My friend who met the blunt-speaking and chillingly unrepentant Qays in his cell described the encounter as “very scary,” as though the terrorist were an Iraqi version of Hannibal Lector.

“Can I see the prisoners?” I asked Lieutenant Schnitker.

“I don’t see why not,” he said.

Captain Dennison concurred. It would not be a problem.

“Can I take pictures?” I said.

The answer was yes. Military lawyers later gave me clearance to publish them through the public affairs officer.

Now that I had the chance, though, I wasn’t sure I really wanted to meet them, especially since I had no idea what to expect, had no time to prepare myself, and didn’t know what to say if they would talk to me.

We descended the stairs and approached the freestanding cell.

“All they get is a hard floor, a few blankets, some food, and a fan,” said Jack, our Iraqi interpreter. I wondered from the tone in his voice if he thought they deserved even that much.

Sergeant Kitts joined us.

“Can I interview them?” I said as we approached the door.

“You can, but there is no point,” Sergeant Kitts said. “They won’t tell you shit. Hardly any Al Qaeda guys admit to being Al Qaeda. They’re doomed if they do. All they’ll do is deny it.”

“I at least want to see them,” I said.

“They look just like everyone else,” he said.

Of course they look like everyone else, but I still wanted to see. It’s hard to picture Al Qaeda terrorists looking like me or like some random Arab after all they have done. Even many Iraqis I know think of them as an alien race of monsters. Obviously they are not aliens or Orcs or any other kind of non-human monster. They are as human as I. I don’t have to look to know they don’t have horns or a tail. But they saw off the heads of Iraqi children with kitchen knives. I wanted to look. I still don’t understand why.

One of the soldiers unlocked the door. I let them go inside first. I had no idea what to expect.

We stepped through the door. Six young Arab men groggily stood up and faced us in silence. I almost said “Salam Aleikum,” but then I checked myself, unsure if it's even appropriate to say Peace Be Upon You to the ideological brethren of Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al Zarqawi.

I noticed, after a few awkward moments of silence, that they did not say Salam Aleikum to me.

“Why are you here?” I finally said as politely as possible. “Why have they arrested you?”

“We are accused of being Al Qaeda,” said one.

“We are innocent,” said another. “We ask that our case be heard in court soon so we can go home.”

Sergeant Kitts warned me they would deny being terrorists. Maybe they’re liars. Maybe they really aren’t terrorists. There is no way I can know. I wished I could meet someone who didn’t deny it and who was unrepentant like Qays Ibrahim. We could have an interesting, if disturbing, conversation.

They looked tired and bored, and somewhat like marginal people who had been picked on in school and who could not get a job. None looked remotely threatening. Only weapons in their hands could make them look threatening. I thought they looked more like gas station attendents than head-choppers.

Detainess Faraj Al Qaeda.jpg
Prisoners alleged to belong to Al Qaeda

Hannah Arendt’s The Banality of Evil came to mind. I was almost disappointed that I wasn’t face to face with a handful of Hannibal Lectors. It would have been a clarifying moment. But life is rarely so poetically simple and obvious.

“Are you treated well here?” I said lamely. None appeared to have been beaten or tortured.

“Yes,” one said and shrugged. He clearly wasn’t happy to be there.

Prisoner abuse is strictly prohibited by the American Uniform Code of Military Justice, but it still happens sometimes in war zones. Many American soldiers have told me that the Iraqi Police, especially, have a hard time restraining their officers.

I lifted my camera. None of the prisoners hid their faces, but one crossed the room to get away from the others.

“He isn’t Al Qaeda,” Jack said. “He is just a common criminal. Don’t think he is one of them.”

I decided, then, not to take that man’s picture.

“Those four are Al Qaeda,” Jack said.

I snapped their pictures.

Detainee Faraj 1.jpg
A prisoner alleged to belong to Al Qaeda

“That man was caught firing mortars,” he said.

“Say hello to the camera, Ass Munch!” Sergeant Kitts yelled in disgust.

The accused mortar launcher smirked slightly when I took his picture.

Detainee Faraj - Mortarer.jpg
A prisoner alleged to have been caught firing mortars

The American and Iraqi officers, fairly or not, are sure these men are guilty. But they have not been convicted. They only allegedly belong to Al Qaeda.

I need to be careful here, but I want to put the Americans’ and Iraqis’ words into context:

I have seen dozens of Iraqis arrested and brought blindfolded and hand-cuffed into various stations. Almost all are quickly released. American soldiers have told me the overwhelming majority of Iraqis who are arrested aren’t terrorists or insurgents. I never once detected any presumption of guilt just because someone was arrested.

“Let’s get out of here,” I said. An interview with alleged terrorists is useless if they deny it. I don’t want to offend innocent Iraqis and falsely accuse them of terrorism. Nor do I wish to publish lies by people who really are killers.

We briefly returned to the main station said our goodbyes to the Iraqi officers.

“Thank you, sir,” I said to Colonel Mohammad and put my hand on his shoulder.

“You are welcome,” he said and shook my hand firmly.

Then we drove back to the base.

Iraqi Police Anbar Through Humvee Window.jpg
An Iraqi Police checkpoint through the window of a Humvee. Al Qaeda exploded dozens of car bombs at checkpoints like this one during the fighting.

Sergeant Kitts slept in a trailer just around the corner from mine. “That’s where I’ll be,” he said as we walked back, “if you need anything in the middle of the night.”

I took a hot shower – the only kind available in that country in August – and cleansed Iraq from my skin.

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


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Many thanks in advance.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 01:51 AM | Comments (179)

October 01, 2007

The Peace Corps with Muscles


RAMADI, IRAQ – Now that major combat operations are finished almost everywhere in Iraq’s Anbar Province, the United States Army and Marine Corps are more like a United Nations peacekeeping force with rules of engagement that allow them to kill if they have to. “We’re like the Peace Corps with muscles,” is how one soldier put it when I left with his unit at 4:00 in the morning to deliver food stuffs and toys to needy families in the countryside on the edge of the desert.

Actually, we did not leave at 4:00. We were supposed to leave at 4:00, when the weather outside wasn’t a blast furnace, but we were late leaving the base. I waited in front of my trailer to be picked up from 3:55 in the morning until 5:00 before a small convoy of Humvees finally showed up to get me.


“Good morning, sir,” said Lieutenant Evan Davies from Rochester, New York, as climbed out of his truck to shake my hand. “Let’s go roust the CAG out of bed.”

The CAG, Civil Affairs Group, was still in bed? We were supposed to leave an hour ago. Our humanitarian aid drop was scheduled before dawn for good reason. We were suffering a heat wave in Iraq – in August no less – and hoped to finish the mission before the molten sun finished us off. I grudgingly dragged my sorry ass out of bed at 3:30 like I was supposed to, but there I was, an hour and a half later, being told to go wake up the CAG.

We drove a few minutes and stopped next to a cluster of spartan trailers.

“I think the CAG is over here somewhere,” Lieutenant Davies said.

He and I poked around in the dark trying to figure out where the rest of the men were.

“Hmm,” he said. “I’m not exactly sure where they are.”

He knocked on the door of a darkened trailer.

An Asian man with long black hair opened the door and squinted at us.

“We’re looking for the CAG,” Lieutenant Davies said. “Aren’t they supposed to be around here somewhere?”

“Nah, man,” said the young man we had just rousted from bed. “We’re State Department here. The CAG is…I don’t know, they moved somewhere else a while ago.” He shut the door.

We walked to another bunch of trailers. Lieutenant Davies rapped on one of the doors.

A grizzled and bald 60 year old Arab man came to the door.

“Good morning, sir,” Lieutenant Davies said. “We’re looking for the CAG.

“They aren’t here,” said the man kindly. “Come, come, I will show you.”

He was an Iraqi who worked as a cultural and political advisor for the United States military and didn’t seem to mind in the least being dragged out of bed before sunrise. The Civil Affairs Group was just around the corner and he showed us where to go.

“Sorry for waking you up,” I said.

“It is no problem,” he said and smiled as he put his hand on his heart.

The Civil Affairs guys woke up on command and were ready to leave almost instantly.

“We just need to load the food in the trucks and we’ll be ready to go,” said the lieutenant.

The shipping container that held the foodstuffs for needy Iraqis was locked. No one knew the combination needed to unlock it, so someone went to fetch bolt cutters and returned a few minutes later.

“Let's hope this is the right container,” he said and busted open the padlock.


The container was empty.

“Somebody's going to be pissed in the morning,” Lieutenant Davies said.

“Woo hoo!” one of the soldiers yelled in the dark. “Another fucked up adventure in the United States Army. I love it!”

The lieutenant introduced me to our Iraq interpreter.

“How do you like working with Americans?” I said.

“That's a hard question to answer,” he said.

“Ah, come on,” I said. “There's no wrong answer and I won't quote you by name.”

“Well,” he said. “Sometimes I get really irritated.”


“Yeeeeaaaahhhhhh!” bellowed a young soldier in his best imitation of a frat boy yell as another shipping container was busted open with bolt cutters. “We got it now!”

Apparently they found the food.

“But I just keep reminding myself,” our interpreter said, “that they're here to help our army and police.”

Iraqi police officers showed up in large pickup trucks given to them by the United States Army. They loaded up the trucks with food and toys as the first light of false dawn appeared in the east.


“The mission is a little bit FUBARed,” Lieutenant Davies said. “We were supposed to be back in time for breakfast, but it's too late for that now. I sent some soldiers over to the D-FAC [military dining facility] to get some chow for us now so we can eat before we move out.”

A dust storm was beginning to blow in from the west. It looked like thin fog, only I could ever so slightly taste it. I grabbed a plastic water bottle from the backseat of a Humvee and felt a fine graininess that had built up on the outside. Severe dust storms will block out the sun and make the air cooler, as cloud cover will, but this dust felt as though it would only make the air hotter by making it heavier, which is what usually happens.

Several soldiers returned from the dining facility with servings of the Big Fat Heart Attack Special in Styrofoam boxes. Inside each container were biscuits and gravy, breakfast pizza, fifteen pieces of bacon, and plastic silverware wrapped in a napkin. I didn't want to appear too hungry or greedy, so I waited until a few others had opened theirs first. The Americans stood around and ate while the Iraqis loaded the trucks. This was one of the (very) few times the Iraqis appeared more hard-working than the Americans.


Most of the Americans ate their breakfast off the hood of a Humvee while standing up. I sat down in the driver's seat of a golf cart. A soldier sat down in the passenger seat.

“What are you doing here in August anyway?” he said.

“A fine question,” I said as I seriously wondered why I hadn't waited for October or even November. The heat in Iraq during the summer is enough to make a religious man rail against God. I'm baffled, frankly, at how human civilization began in a place so inhospitable to human beings. Someone, I forget who, compared facing the afternoon breeze to sticking a hair dryer in your face while pouring sand on your head. That pretty much says it. It is much worse than in a place like Arizona, for instance, because you can hardly catch a break from it unless you stay on base in one of the buildings.

“It's ridiculous here in the summer,” he said. “At Camp Ramadi you take one step outside and dust explodes.”

“It must be nice in the winter,” I said.

“Actually, it's worse,” he said. “All this dust turns to mud.”

The dust was finely grained, almost like talcum powder. The soldiers call it moon dust, and it's more than six inches deep in some places, like a soft inland beach.

“It has the consistency of chocolate pudding when it's wet,” he continued. “Sometimes you think it's okay to walk on because the ground looks all cracked and dried up. So you go ahead and step on it, and then....GLORK!...your foot breaks through and you're more than boot-deep in the mud. You get that shit on you and it's not coming off. Winter is miserable.”


We ate in silence for a few minutes while he, apparently, wondered whether or not he should say what he was thinking.

“Are you going to bash us or what?” he finally said.

“I didn't come all the way out here in August just to bash you guys,” I said. I felt some sympathy for his complaint, but was at the same time tired of hearing it. “I write what I see and hear, good and bad. You won’t get bad press from me unless you act badly.”

Thank you,” he said. “You'll be the first.”

I'm hardly the first. I know several journalists, political liberals as well as conservatives, who write it straight and don't wallow in soldier-bashing. But the soldier-bashing that's also out there sure does make an impression. Every journalist who embeds in Iraq must hear these complaints as often as I did, and I heard it daily.

We finished breakfast and loaded our gear and ourselves into the Humvees. The gunner in my Humvee made fun of our driver.

“We got guys like him in the Army,” he said to me and jerked his thumb toward the front seat. “Short. Skinny. All they're good for is driving.”

“Hey!” our short and skinny driver said in mock outrage. “You need us. Without us, y'all can't move out!”

Lieutenant Davies rode in the front passenger seat.

“What exactly are we delivering this morning?” I said.

“Rice, flour, cooking oil, baby formula, and Beanie Babies,” he said.

“No Beanie Babies,” said the gunner.

“No Beanie Babies,” said the lieutenant.

“We got Beanie Babies!” said the driver.

“Ok, Beanie Babies,” said the lieutenant. “We're basically following the Iraqi Police at this point. They know who in the area needs help the most. Ever since the insurgency was beaten the economy has flourished. Shops have opened up everywhere. It’s definitely a good sign. But unemployment is still really high and lots of people are desperate.”

We drove through blowing dust as the white sun rose above the plains of Mesopotamia.


A few Iraqi women were already out in the fields.

“Women do all the agricultural work,” Lieutenant Davies said, “as well as run the household. Iraqi men are lazy. They don't do shit.”

I heard something along the same lines from quite a few soldiers. I doubt I've ever been in such a masculine environment as I was during my time with the American military, but these guys sounded downright feminist when they talked about gender roles in Iraq, especially in Anbar Province which is noticeably more conservative and retro than Baghdad.

On the side of the road leading out of Ramadi two men wearing keffiyahs sat in wooden chairs in front of a butcher shop. They sipped from plastic tea cups next to a cow's carcass, its detached head, and a bloody hand axe.

“Oh, that's nice,” Lieutenant Davies said, “cutting up a cow on the side of the road like that.”

I tried to snap a quick picture, but was too slow.

We followed the road along the snaking Euphrates River through the desert. A mile-wide ribbon of green flanked each side of the river where hand-dug canals fanned out water for irrigation. After blowing through a few Iraqi Police checkpoints the convoy stopped in a dilapidated agricultural area.


It was only 7:00 in the morning, but already at least 90 degrees outside and getting noticeably hotter by the minute. I left my body armor and helmet on the seat in the Humvee. Farmland outside Ramadi feels safer than Kansas these days (at least when I'm with the Army) and my protective gear was an uncomfortable nuisance that made me feel paranoid and ridiculous. No one would let me go outside the wire unprotected in Baghdad, and I wouldn’t do it even if it were allowed. But many soldiers and Marines take off their helmets in and around Ramadi because it is no longer a war zone. No one said anything to me when I also took off my Kevlar.

An Iraqi Police officer screamed into the voice-garbling loudspeaker on one of the trucks and let the community know we were there to give them some food.


The police trucks and Humvees rolled along at perhaps one mile an hour as women, children, and a few men emerged groggily from their homes and walked up to the convoy.

Iraqi police officers handed heavy bags of flour and rice to adults and gave out smaller packages to the children..


I walked along and took pictures. Two Iraqi women cornered me and spoke to me in rapid-fire Anbar-accented Iraqi Arabic as though they expected me to understand everything perfectly.

“La etkellem Arabie katir,” I said. I don't speak too much Arabic. I could only understand a few fragments. They were utterly bewildered by this, as though I must be stupid for not comprehending. So they repeated the same exact sentences, only more loudly.


I didn't mind. They were simple people and they needed my help. I gestured toward the Iraqi police and suggested they follow me to one of the trucks where they could have a proper conversation with someone who lived there and really could help. All I could do was take pictures and notes. It was an awkward moment. I felt dumb and also like an intruder for seeing humble people in moments of weakness at dawn in front of their houses.


Children swarmed the roads and fought their way to the sides of the trucks. The Iraqi police yelled at them as they handed out items. The Americans quietly provided security for everyone while this was happening.


A traditionally dressed Iraqi men emerged from one of the houses and hugged some of the American soldiers. They seemed to know each other, and they exchanged a few words in Arabic.

Bundles of newspapers were pitched over the side of one of the trucks. Young Iraqi boys opened the bundles and handed them out to others one at a time.


Other young boys tugged on my shirt. “Mister, mister! Picture, picture!”

I did want pictures of children, but they were annoyed whenever I took pictures of anything else. “Mister, mister!”






“When I went home on leave someone called me mister at a restaurant,” Sergeant Shumiloff said. “I almost wigged out on him. What's the matter? he said. Nothing, I said. I'm okay.”

Sergeant Shumiloff

The Humvees and police trucks drove more slowly than I walked. We covered a mile or so of road, depleting the stocks of goods in the trucks as we went. Some Iraqi kids followed me on foot the entire time and wouldn't stop asking for pictures.

Make me famous! some seemed to be saying. Others, less fortunate, had different ideas in mind. Don't forget me, their faces seemed to say. Don't forget us. We're hurting.


One of the Iraqi police officers was so young I could hardly believe he was even 18. He carried a bat with him wherever he went and sometimes looked like he was ready to crack heads if the needy got too unruly.

“How old is he anyway?” I said to Lieutenant Davies.

“He is really young,” he said. “But he’s one of the best they have on the force. We’re trying to get him promoted.”

The Iraqi Police busted open boxes of Beanie Babies. The kids went wild as though large stacks of money were handed out. They pushed, shoved, hit each other, and yelled as each scrambled to get the next toy.





The young Iraqi police officer, whom the lieutenant said was the best, kicked a young boy hard and sent him sprawling into the dust. The poor kid cried for his mother. Tears mixed with the dirt on his face and muddied his cheeks. Nobody said anything to the officer or offered to help the boy up. I wondered whether I should try to rein him in if he did it again.

Iraq is a painful country. It hurts those who live there, and it hurts those who go there. It isn't the saddest place I've ever visited – Libya earns that dubious distinction. But it is the most distressing, not only because of the violence and horror almost everyone who lives there has experienced, and in many places still experiences, but because it's hard to shake the dreadful feeling that terrible forces are gearing up to punish the place even more.

Anbar Province, while broken by war, is sort of okay.



But the long shadow of Baghdad – which is anything but okay, and which was my jump-off point for Ramadi – falls over the city from the east. Nowhere in Iraq can be truly stable and secure until every other place is also secured.

The Iraqi Police handed something in small bags to the locals.


“What’s in the green bags?” I said to Lieutenant Davies.

“Sand,” he said.

“No, not the sand bags,” I said and laughed. “I know what a sand bag is. I mean the green bags the police are handing out.”

“Ah,” he said and laughed. “Chai.” Tea. “What’s sad is that these people are so poor they probably would be happy with useless handouts of sand bags at this point.”


One of the kids ran up to him, pointed to the east, said something in Arabic, and laughed.

“He asked if we would go over to the next tribal area and kill everybody who lives there,” the lieutenant told me and rolled his eyes. “He’s only kidding, but you see how it is here.”

We walked together in silence for a few moments.

“They think we can do a lot more for them than we can,” he said. “Like we’re all-powerful.” I’ve heard that many Iraqis think the Americans are so powerful they can fix Iraq at will any time, which means there must be some sinister reason why they want Iraq to remain broken. Some Lebanese I’ve met think the same way.

“President Bush can fix Lebanon in ten minutes,” a Beirut taxi driver once told me. “So why doesn’t he?”

“Some of them call me Sheikh Daoud,” Lieutenant Davies said. Daoud is Arabic for David, which is not exactly his name, but it’s close. “They say hey, you’re a sheikh, you can make stuff happen. I say, well, that’s just a nickname you gave me. We’ll see.”

Lieutenant Evan Davies

Everything from the trucks was finally handed out. It was time to head back to the Blue Diamond base even though there wasn’t quite enough for everyone to get what they wanted.

As I climbed into my Humvee and prepared to close the door, several children ran up to me and said “Football!”

“La football,” I said. No football.

We did not have any footballs.

“Football! Football!” a boy said and pointed at my feet.

I looked down. Sure enough, there was an American football at my feet.

Our gunner had already climbed into his turret. I pulled on his pant leg.

“Can I give them this football?” I said.

“What football?” he said.

“There’s a football at my feet.”

“Football! Football!” the kids kept saying.

“Nah, man, that’s our football,” the gunner said.

“Mister, mister! Football, football!”

“Give me that football,” the gunner said. I handed him the football and half expected him to toss it to the kids. “It’s my football!”

“Football! Football!” the kids yelled.

“Laaaaaaaaaa!” the gunner yelled. Noooooooooo! “Sorry, kids. Wal-Mart’s closed.”

And we drove away.

This is what it’s like now in and just outside Ramadi. This mission is the kind of thing embedded journalists see, which is why most war correspondents embed somewhere else. Soldiers Hand Out Newspapers and Rice isn’t much of a headline, and it’s even less of a scoop. But this is the kind of work soldiers do now every day in what was recently the most violent place in Iraq.

That doesn’t mean reporters who go somewhere else aren’t doing their jobs, but it mostly explains why you rarely see coverage from Anbar.

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 12:13 AM | Comments (230)