January 30, 2008

Libya's Son

Iraqi Police Colonel Jubair Rashid Naief claims Libyan dictator Moammar Qaddafi’s son Seif al-Islam (whose name means Sword of Islam) is sponsoring a terrorist group in Northern Iraq called the Seifaddin Regiment. This group is allegedly responsible for recent attacks in Mosul that killed and wounded hundreds. The U.S. military so far has no comment on the accusation one way or another. I’ve never heard of this group and am not even convinced it exists. But U.S. military officials believe 19 percent of foreign terrorists in Iraq come from Libya.

Robert H. Reid wrote in an Associated Press article that Seif al-Islam “seems an unlikely figure as a sponsor of terrorism. Touted as a reformer, the younger Gadhafi has been reaching out to the West to soften Libya’s image and return it to the international mainstream.”

Yes, Seif al-Islam is touted as a reformer – by journalists. Perhaps naïve government officials also believe Seif al-Islam is a reformer. His father has certainly been given a pass in the last couple of years even though he barely deserves it – if he deserves it at all.

I visited Libya as soon as the U.S. government lifted the travel ban, after Qaddafi supposedly gave up his weapons of mass destruction program. (Click here to see my photo gallery.) It is by far the most oppressive country I have ever been to. Freedom House ranks it the most oppressive of all Arab countries, lower than even Saudi Arabia and Syria.

Qaddafi’s government structure is modeled after Nicolae Ceauşescu’s totalitarian regime in Romania. His state ideology, the unexportable “Third Universal Theory,” is a merger of The Communist Manifesto and the Koran. His own infamous manifesto, The Green Book, is a daft and sinister pseudo-intellectual excuse for his own absolute power. Don’t be fooled by Qaddafi’s court jester antics and buffoonish charisma. He is only funny and entertaining to watch from abroad. Libya is an Orwellian God-state with only Turkmenistan and North Korea as peers.

Of course none of this means Qaddafi’s son Seif al-Islam sponsors a terrorist group in Iraq. I really have no idea if that’s true or not. What I do know is that he is ideologically committed to preserving his father’s prison state system, and that he wants to export that system to as many countries as possible. Gullible diplomats and journalists may sincerely believe he’s a reformer, but a close look at his own statements proves that he’s lying when he passes himself off as moderate. And he is not even a good liar.

Read the rest at Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:55 AM | Comments (7)

January 27, 2008

The Final Mission, Part I

Iraqi Police Covered Face Fallujah.jpg

FALLUJAH – At the end of 2006 there were 3,000 Marines in Fallujah. Despite what you might expect during a surge of troops to Iraq, that number has been reduced by 90 percent. All Iraqi Army soldiers have likewise redeployed from the city. A skeleton crew of a mere 250 Marines is all that remains as the United States wraps up its final mission in what was once Iraq's most violent city.

“The Iraqi Police could almost take over now,” Second Lieutenant Gary Laughlin told me. “Most logistics problems are slowly being resolved. My platoon will probably be the last one out here in the Jolan neighborhood.”

“The Iraqi Police in Jolan are very good,” Second Lieutenant Mike Barefoot added. “Elsewhere in Fallujah they're not as far along yet. Theoretically we could leave the area now and they would be okay, except they would run out of money.”

Lieutenant Eric Laughlin in Gear.jpg
Lieutenant Gary Laughlin

There's more to the final mission than keeping the Iraqi Police solvent, however. The effort is focused on the Police Transition Teams. Their job is to train the Iraqi Police and bring them up to international standards so the locals can hold the city together after the last Americans leave.

A senior Marine officer whose name I didn't catch grilled some of his men during a talk in the Camp Fallujah chow hall after dinner.

“Do you trust the Iraqi Police?” he said to a Marine who works on one of the teams.

“No, sir,” the Marine said without hesitation. That was the only acceptable answer. This was a test, not an inquiry.

“Why not?” the officer said.

“Because they're not honest,” the Marine said.

“What do the Iraqi Police watch?” the officer said. “What are they looking at on a daily basis?”

“Us,” said several Marines in unison.

“They will emulate you, gents,” the officer said. “They. Will. Emulate you. Why? Because we came over here twice and kicked their ass. I do not trust the Iraqi Police today. Our job is to get them up to speed. They don't need to be up to the standard of Americans. But they do need to be better than they are right now.”

IP with Beret Fallujah.jpg
An Iraqi Police officer

The Marine Corps runs the American mission in Fallujah, but some of the Police Transition Team members are Military Police officers culled from the Texas National Guard. “We're like the red-headed stepchild of units,” one MP told me. “We're from different units from all over Texas, as well as from the Marine Corps.”

One Texas MP used to be a Marine. “I decided I would rather defend my state than my country,” he said jokingly. “But here I am, back in Iraq.”

After I adjusted my embed to focus specifically on Police Transition Teams, I was nearly surrounded by young men from Texas. Many seemed to instinctively understand Fallujah's infamous provincial “nationalism.”

“Fallujah pride is like Texas pride,” I heard from several MPs who, unlike Iraqis from Baghdad, didn't think that was a bad thing.

JSS Exterior Fallujah 1.jpg
A large rented house has been turned into a Joint Security Station where Marines and Iraqi Police live side by side

Training Iraqis to replace Marines is a lot less dangerous than fighting a war, but it's harder. Every single American who has an opinion one way or the other told me it's harder. Iraqis are not lumps of clay or blank slates that can be hand-molded or written on. They are human beings with their own complex history and culture. Most recently they were the brutally micromanaged subjects and enforcers of the regime of Saddam Hussein. If the Americans fail to field an effective local police force, Fallujah may go the way of Somalia and Gaza all over again – and next time there may be no one to save them.

Maybe it will work, and maybe it won't. The Iraqis lag more than a hundred years behind their teachers. “They're where the American police were in the late 18th and 19th centuries,” said Lieutenant Brandon Pearson, a resident military expert in American Criminal Justice. You can see the broad outlines of what he means in old American movies that take place on the Western frontier in places with names like Dodge City. Corrupt lawmen sometimes sided with bad guys while decent, yet weak, lawmen cowered while gunslinging thugs terrorized entire communities.

Officially, on paper, the Americans don't trust the Iraqis. The real world, though, is more complex and...human.

“I trust them little by little,” one MP said as he summed up the majority's actual view. “I trust some of them, the ones we're directly involved with and have a real relationship with. Otherwise, no, not really. I don't. They act like a bunch of third graders, and there's no telling what they do behind closed doors. But when we're out there with them they're doing their job, what they're supposed to do.”

The Americans in Fallujah trust the Iraqi Police a lot more than the Iraqi Police trust the civilians. Many Iraqi Police officers still cover their faces when they go outside the station. They don't want to be recognized, and therefore possibly targeted, by any remnants of the insurgency. Some Iraqi Police won't let me take or publish their photographs.

IP Camo Face Covering Fallujah.jpg

The Iraqi Police are more trustworthy and competent than they used to be. Even the most jaded and pessimistic Marines admit that much, at least. But I do not trust them with my life. It's not because I worry they might hurt me. In Fallujah that's pretty unlikely. But I wouldn't want them as bodyguards in a bad situation.

Sergeant Clarence Foster told me about one of those bad situations as we drank our morning coffee.

“Some bad guys kidnapped the daughter of a prominent city leader last night,” he said.

I sat upright. Whenever I started to think Fallujah might be a kinda sorta “safe” place to visit without armed protection, along came another reality check.

“They took her in the middle of the night,” he said.

“Are you going after them?” I said. “If so, I want to go with you.”

“We're staying out of it,” he said. “The Iraqi Police are handling it. Last night they chased them into a cemetery. They let the girl go, but they're still holed up out there.”

“This is still going on?” I said. “Right now?”

“Yeah,” he said.

For the briefest instant I considered going to the cemetery with the Iraqis, but it was a terrible idea.

“I guess I'm not going then,” I said. “I don't trust them.”

“Well,” he said and laughed. “They aren't as bad as they used to be. And besides, the kind of stuff that goes on here is like what happens in American cities now. It's not like the old Fallujah.”

School Girls Fallujah.jpg
School girls walk home by themselves in Fallujah today. Not long ago, no children were out on the streets and schools were not even open.

Fallujah may not be like the old Fallujah. But it's still Fallujah, and it always will be.


I sat down with Captain Stewart Glenn and his executive officer Lieutenant Chuck Miller at India Company's train station FOB.

“The Marines were the catalyst for providing security,” Captain Glenn said. “But without guys like Colonel Faisal, Captain Jamal, and some of the leaders of the Iraqi Police, this never would have happened. The Marines had the idea of hiring a neighborhood watch, professionalizing the Iraqi Police, providing barriers so they have actual precincts which they can police. Instead of having a centralized station that goes out, they have small precincts now, which is also pretty common in the States. The idea came from the Marines, but the Iraqi Police took it, ran with it, and made it work.”

Blocked Road Fallujah.jpg
Precinct barriers force all vehicles through checkpoints that prevent weapons smuggling and car bombs

Walls Around Fallujah.jpg
Barriers around Fallujah's city limits prevent weapons smuggling and car bombs from outside the city

Fallujah's current policing model did come from the Marines, and it's based loosely on the American idea of community policing. Mayor Tom Potter -- of my hometown Portland, Oregon -- is credited by many for coming up with this method when he was our chief of police. When police officers live and work in their own neighborhoods, have relationships with key neighbors, and patrol small beats on foot as well as anonymously in police cars, trust and community cooperation with law enforcement increases. Crime drops precipitously. Mayor Rudy Giuliani more famously implemented some of the same ideas in New York City.

Captain Glenn and his men are with the 3rd Battalion 5th Regiment which rotated into Fallujah at the end of the summer in 2007. They inherited the current strategy from the Marines who came before them, and who finished off the insurgency just as they were getting ready to leave.

“Some units will come in and scrap the old unit's plan,” he said. “We actually built on it. We kept it because it works. We're not getting shot at. We're not getting blown up.”

“That's good,” I said. “I don't want to get blown up either.”

“Yeah,” Captain Glenn said. “It's pretty awesome. But complacency, you've got to fight it. There's nothing like getting shot at to make you more alert.”

Complacency Kills Flour Mill.jpg

“Have you been shot at at all?”

“We had one pot shot over at ECP 3,” he said. ECP is short for Entry Control Point. “The Marine that was sitting in the post heard a round snap over his head, saw a muzzle flash, then went and investigated. He found a 7.62 casing. And there was another report at another outpost where there was a similar incident. A pot shot at the post. Couldn't see where it was coming from.”

“They found a hole in a sand bag to indicate that somebody did take a shot,” Lieutenant Miller said.

“But they never saw anybody or anything,” Captain Glenn said. “Those are the only two incidents of any kind of activity against coalition forces in our sector. It could be a wide variety of things. It could be somebody shooting a dog and the round...that does happen.”

“That's something we have to be very aware of with the Iraqi Police sometimes,” Lieutenant Miller said. “You've been to Baghdad, I'm sure there's a dog problem everywhere. Some people will just spray them with the AK-47 and Inshallah where the round goes.”

IP truck with mounted machine gun Fallujah.jpg

There is a dog problem in Baghdad, and it's sad. Both Iraqis and Americans have been known to shoot dogs. They don't do it because they're sadistic killers, but because the dogs are wild. And the dogs are trouble. Lieutenant Miller is right, though, about the Iraqi Police. Their near-complete lack of muzzle discipline and careless aiming gets a lot of people hurt and even killed.

“We follow the safety rule of knowing our target and what lies beyond it,” Captain Glenn said. “They know their target, and that's about it. Like when people shoot up in the air. It's not a real popular thing to do in America. Gravity works. A bullet that goes up must come down.”

By all accounts the Iraqi Police in Fallujah are in much better shape than they were, even though they still have serious problems. Whether they're ready for prime time or not, they're being shoved into the role. Some Marines think they're ready. Others do not. Captain Glenn and Lieutenant Miller are more optimistic than some.

“The Iraqi Police are really taking the lead at this point,” Captain Glenn said. “They have the capability and the initiative right now.”

“I think if we pulled back pretty substantially in a couple different places in the city,” Lieutenant Miller said, “you wouldn't even know we were gone.”

“As a matter of fact,” Captain Glenn said, “the Iraqi Police used to want the Marines to lead. Now they say we've got it, we'll call you if we need to.

“So what, exactly, is your purpose here then?” I said.

“Transition,” he said. “Getting the Iraqi Police to totally take the lead. They still have deficiencies when it comes to their logistics, when it comes to their administration, their communications. So we help facilitate that. We're helping build the city government...well, not build it, but facilitate it. Because we do appear to be the power brokers, if you will, we push the government to do what it needs to do.”

Are you the power brokers in the city?” I said.

The Marines were the closest thing Fallujah had to a government for a while, but the mayor's office, the city council, and the neighborhood leaders known as muktars are back in business again. No American is “mayor” of Fallujah anymore.

“I wouldn't say we're the power brokers,” Captain Glenn said. “But the Iraqis perceive that we are. I think the average Iraqi sees that we're America and that we control everything here.”

Blue Bus Fallujah.jpg

“The average American probably sees it that way, as well,” I said.

“Sure,” he said. “Well, they're not dumb. They see that our country's GDP is trillions of dollars. They know we have what they perceive to be the best medical care in the world. Most Americans don't believe that, but the Iraqis do. So there's a perception there.”

“It's definitely a team effort,” Lieutenant Miller said. “We work hand in hand with them. It really feels like the Iraqi Police have the lead. They're telling us we don't have to go on as many patrols.”

“There are a lot of different agencies out there,” Captain Glenn said, “that help the Iraqi Police and help them to become a stronger force, different agencies within the Marines Corps like the Police Transition Teams. Their sole focus is the Iraqi Police. That's what they do. They train the Iraqi Police. How to conduct a proper investigation, CSI type stuff. How to be a detective. Stuff that I'm not very well trained in. I can provide them with guidance and oversight, but these guys are the ones who are the experts in that. They get the training on how to do it. They're MPs, they're military policemen, so they understand the investigative process, they understand how to be a detective, they understand how to do CSI.

“We can train the Iraqis on how to handle their weapons properly,” he continued, “how to load and shoot their weapon straight. How to move out in the city. How to enter a house. Some of the Rule of Law things. For example, when you go into someone's house it is not okay to go to the refrigerator and take a drink. You know what I mean? It's a small thing, but they're supposed to be the good guys and this is how good guys act. That's how we affect the police. They see us doing it right, and they really want to be like us. I'm not saying that to be egotistical. You'll see them on patrol and they'll start looking like Marines on a patrol. They're not just walking on the street to walk on the street. They see the Marines, and the Marines are attentive, they're looking down alleyways and making sure everything is clear, then pushing past it. That's what we call a danger area.”

Marine Bullet Holes Fallujah.jpg

“They've also come a long way with the dispatching,” Lieutenant Miller said. “Within each precinct we have an operations center with an Iraqi Police side and a Marine side. They coordinate with each other when they go out so that when the Iraqi Police go out we know where they're going and what they're doing. And it's just as important that we tell them what we're doing because you don't want an incident where somebody accidentally gets hurt.”

“Just like a patrol route,” Captain Glenn said. “You know, the Marines put up a patrol route and say this is where we're going to go. It's small stuff, and I know it isn't real sexy. But this is how you make a country.”


One of the people who help the Marines train the Iraqis is, oddly enough, another Iraqi.

His semi-official name is Staff Sergeant Crash. He is not a Marine, so he is not really a staff sergeant. And his name, obviously, is not really Crash. He's an Iraqi interpreter who goes by a pseudonym. And he is authorized to go by the rank of staff sergeant because he saved the life of a real American staff sergeant in battle.

Crash Fallujah.jpg

“I've been fighting with the Marines in Fallujah for three years,” he told me.

“Fighting?” I said. “You mean they let you carry a weapon?”

“Yeah,” he said and laughed as if my question was silly. But it was not a silly question. I had not yet met an Iraqi interpreter who is allowed to carry and fire a weapon in combat. None of the interpreters I met with Army were allowed to do that. The Marines, though, kept trying to put a gun in my hand, so it's perhaps not surprising that they're willing to let their most trusted Iraqi comrades shoot, too.

“Crash here just earned himself a Green Card,” one of his Marine buddies told me. “He's moving to San Diego, and you know what he's gonna do there? He's going to boot camp. He's going to become a Marine.”

“Congratulations,” I said to Crash. “You've been fighting with Americans for three years, and now you're one of us.”

He grinned. “I won't be able to wear the rank of staff sergeant anymore, though.”

“It's going to be tough for him,” his buddy said, “when he goes to boot camp. Some drill sergeant who has never seen combat is going to call Crash here a stupid piece of shit after he fought with us for three years.”

Crash did not seem to mind, not really. He knows all about boot camp, and expects to rise in the ranks fairly quickly once he gets out.

For every unreliable Iraqi Police officer, there is someone like Crash around to balance him out. Or someone like Superkid.

“Superkid is just great,” Lieutenant Eric Laughlin said. “He's the best. He's been with us since 2006. He always wants to go on patrol with me. Some Iraqi Police officers are lazy and are only with us now because it's safe to be with us now. Those who have been with us since 2004 are very brave, serious, and they really care about their city.”

Some Marines told me that Subzero is their favorite Iraqi. And he hasn't been with the Marines since 2004 because he is only 18 years old.

Subzero was friendly to me...until I tried to take his picture.

“No, no, no, no, no!” he said and covered his face and turned away from me. After I put down my camera he made a slashing motion across his throat.

“Okay, okay,” I said. “I won't take your picture.” But he doesn't understand English and may not have understood.

I did have one blurry photograph that showed the back of Subzero's head as he shadowboxed with Specialist Tomas Morales. He said it was okay if I published that one.

Morales and Subzero Fake Fist Fight.jpg

He avoided me after that, and I did not take it personally. My camera made him nervous. Iraqi Police and Iraqi interpreters go by names like Crash, Superkid, and Subzero because Al Qaeda hunts them and their families. Appearing in newspapers and, especially, on the Internet is risky and brings no reward. Some don't worry about it, but many do.

I tried to take a photo of another Iraqi Police officer and he, like Subzero, yelled no and made a slashing motion across his throat with his finger. Then he pointed at a poster on the wall that showed the handsome face of another Iraqi Police officer. He made that slashing motion again after pointing at this picture. “Muj,” he said, which is short for mujahideen. “Muj finished him. No photo.”

If I understood him correctly, he meant that Al Qaeda killed this man because they recognized his face from the photograph that appeared around town.

Poster of Killed IP Fallujah.jpg

The Iraqi – who wished to remain anonymous – explained further in his limited English. “My father, brother, sister...” he said, then made that slashing motion again.

“His family was killed by Al Qaeda,” a Marine added helpfully. “They were killed because he's a police officer.”

The Iraqi Police officer nodded.

“He went out all by himself and killed the people who did it,” the Marine said.

The officer nodded again.

Sometimes it's hard to know who and what to believe in Iraq. The Marines seem to believe him, so maybe it's true. But Iraqis exaggerate, and they do it a lot. Most exaggerate the crimes of their enemies, and many exaggerate their own heroism.

“If we hear that a woman was raped, maybe she was,” Captain Glenn said. “And maybe somebody just leered at her. We have to filter what they say through that understanding and investigate a bit further to find out what, in fact, actually happened. You are an American. I know how to listen to you and what you mean when you say something. If you tell me your wife was raped, we'll go out right away and find the people who did it.”

Four Iraqi Police officers carried one of their injured comrades into the station. A bloody broken bone jutted out the top of his bare left foot. He winced severely and was obviously in a great deal of pain.

“Man, that's gotta hurt,” I heard a Marine say. “I first thought it was another negligent discharge. The Iraqi Police shoot each other all the time.”

Almost every time I heard a random gun shot in Fallujah, some Marine or other told me not to worry about it. “It's just the Iraqi Police,” was the typical answer. Either somebody fired off a round on accident, or somebody fired a shot in the air. It happened almost every day. It struck me that embedding with the Iraqi Police might be the most dangerous thing I could do in Fallujah. I was more likely to be shot by a police offier on accident than by an insurgent on purpose.


“Do you think what you're doing now is still counterinsurgency?” I said to Lieutenant Andrew Macak. “Or have you moved on to something else?”

“I think today is a perfect example of what counterinsurgency actually is,” he said. “There is not a whole lot of kinetic activity day-to-day, even though that's what people join the Marines Corps to do, for the sense of adventure and everything. That's what we spend most of our time training for. A lot of that is gone now. But in order to be thorough and complete our mission, it's very important for us to do what we're doing right now.”

Counterinsurgency does involves kinetic warfare, of course. That's what the Marines spent most of their time doing in Fallujah and the surrounding area. But the tail end of a successful counterinsurgency mission has to involve what is essentially peacekeeping and nation-building in order to first stabilize and then rebuild the devastated society.

“As far as enemy activity goes now,” Lieutenant Macak said, “it's mostly handled by the Iraqi Security Forces. All we really do is cordon-and-knock raids. Actually, I shouldn't even call them raids. Raids is more of a kinetic term. We'll just cordon off an area and go in to see what's going on. If there is an insurgent living in there, he probably won't be sitting with his AK-47 ready. He'll probably just play stupid like he doesn't know what's going on, that he doesn't know what we're talking about. They capitalize on the Marines lesser knowledge of who's in the area, which is why we take Iraqi Police with us when we go out on patrol. The Iraqi Police officers know who is being deceptive.”

“Do you still do some of the cordon and knock raids?” I said. I was itching to see some kind of drama. Of course I'm relieved that I wasn't in very much danger and that the war in that part of Iraq is effectively over, but it felt perversely unsatisfying at times, like I had arrived just a few months too late.

“We have a couple of target packages that we haven't had a chance to get to yet,” he said.

I went on a another foot patrol from the Khaderi police station. Normally the Americans let the Iraqi Police lead the way to make it appear that they are in charge, even though they are not. But this patrol was at night.

“We go on joint patrols with the Iraqis during the day,” Second Lieutenant A.J. DeSantis said. “We go out alone after dark, though, because the Iraqis get lost.”

Night Shot Nondescript Fallujah.jpg

The Iraqis get lost at night. In their own city. Even though the Americans don't.

I've been driven around by taxi drivers in Beirut who have the same problem. Beirut is small; it only takes an hour to walk from one end to the other. I can't explain how a native Lebanese who works as a driver can get lost in such a small city and rely on me for directions. All I can say is that it happens once in a while, and I know several other Americans who say the same thing happens sometimes to them. Additionally, hardly anyone in the Middle East knows how to give directions. It's just one of those things, and it probably isn't fixable.

So we walked the streets at night by ourselves and left the Iraqis behind so they wouldn't get lost. Don't get the wrong idea, though. Supposedly the Iraqi Police at the Khaderi are good, and better than most in Fallujah. The station is clean and well-organized. Every American I spoke to said the Iraqis there were otherwise competent. “Are they Marines?” Lieutenant A.J. DeSantis asked me rhetorically. “No. But they don't need to be. They just need to keep their neighborhood safe.” And besides, if a sense of direction and navigation is a cultural weakness for even otherwise competent police officers, the insurgents likely have the same problem for the same reasons.

The lieutenant walked alongside me. I snapped a few pictures in the dark.

Three Marines Night Fallujah.jpg

Somewhere off in the distance a dog barked.

“There's some weird dogs in this country,” he said. “Not many Iraqis have dogs, you know. They think they're unclean. Most of these dogs are wild. But there was this one dog that I'll never forget. We heard it barking and growling at us from behind somebody's wall. It was a pet or a guard dog or something, and it sounded enormous, vicious, and threatening. So we went to check it out. It was a guard dog, alright. But it was a Pomeranian. A goddamn Pomeranian guard dog. Strangest thing I've ever seen.”

I laughed and wasn't sure what to make of that.

“So, what's the purpose of this patrol, exactly?” I said. Not a lot happens on patrols in Fallujah anymore. I found them boring after a while. But the Marines and the Iraqi Police still patrol every part of the city on foot every day.

“To show a presence,” Lieutenant DeSantis said. “And to gather some intel. To see if some insurgents are around trying to plant IEDs. There's one guy we've been looking for who drives a [redacted] vehicle, and we'll detain him on sight if we can find him.”

We stopped and talked to several groups of Iraqis who were out at night minding their stores. The lieutenant asked if they had seen anything suspicious and if they had any complaints. The first group we spoke to was a family who ran a corner grocery. None said they had seen anything suspicious. All complained about the ongoing shortage of electricity. Two men also said they had seen nothing suspicious. They were primarily concerned with schools.

“We're refurbishing the schools with our own money,” said one of the Iraqis.

The Marines listened respectfully and said they were trying to get more money from Baghdad.

“It costs 100 dollars for the vehicle sticker,” said another young Iraqi.

That is a scandal. Only residents of Fallujah are allowed to drive in the city, and only if they have a sticker issued by the Iraqi Police on their windshield. Charging 100 dollars for that sticker in a city where the average salary is only 300 dollars per month, and where unemployment is greater than 50 percent, is hardly a strategy for earning the support and respect of the locals.

“I will take care of it,” Lieutenant DeSantis said. “Most of the Iraqi Police are new. There's a lot of room for improvement, but they are improving.”

Marine and Two Civilians Night Fallujah.jpg

“And the fuel,” said the first Iraqi. “It is too expensive. We need fuel to heat our houses. It gets cold here in winter. You will see.”

I felt like I was out with cops who moonlight as politicians, not the fiercest of all American warriors. I can see why there are only 250 Marines in the city. Fallujah really isn't a war zone anymore. It seems like the Marines really should be able to leave once the local government and the Iraqi Police get their act together. Many say that would rather go to Afghanistan where they can still “get some.”

A minority of Marines, however, think this is naive wishful thinking.

“None of the bad guys dares to take a shot at us because they know it's a death sentence if they do,” one of them said. “But they'll go after the Iraqi Police once we pull out.”

“As soon as we leave, it's going to pop off again,” said another.

There is no way they can know that is true. It is just a gut feeling based on what they've seen and what they've heard, and it's the minority viewpoint. But a gloomy Army soldier I met last summer in Baghdad said something so simple, depressing, and obviously correct that I doubt I will ever forget it.

“Iraq will always be Iraq,” he said as he shook his head and stared at his feet.

To be continued.

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:58 PM | Comments (38)

A Solution for Gaza

My next piece from Fallujah will be published later today. I just need to do one final edit and upload the photos.

In the meantime, David Bernstein at the Volokh Conspiracy has a great solution to the troubles in Gaza that will never be implemented:
Sixty years ago, when Egypt occupied Gaza, it refused to grant the local Arab residents, native Gazans and refugees from the Arab-Israeli war of 1947-48, citizenship. Instead, the Egyptian government intentionally cut them off from Egypt and kept them impoverished, so they could be used as a propaganda and military weapon against Israel. When Israel took over Gaza in 1967, it opened the border with Israel, providing tens of thousands of jobs for Gazans, and increasing the standard of living there dramatically, albeit from very low levels. After a wave of suicide attacks from Gaza, Israel gradually closed off the border with Israel, and finally closed it off entirely when Hamas took over last year. Meanwhile, Israel no longer occupies Gaza, and the population has sunken back into abject poverty.

With the Gazan's breach of the border with Egypt, and Egypt's refusal to use force to seal the border, things have come full circle. It's time to ask why Egypt, with 80 million people, can't grant Gaza's one million full Egyptian citizenship, and allow them to live in Sinai or even Cairo instead of being stuck in Gaza.

No matter what happens in the near future between the Palestinians and Israel, I doubt Israel will ever allow the reasonably free movement between Gaza and Israel that existed through the early 1990s. Giving the Gazans Egyptian citizenship, and making Egypt responsible for security in the area, would benefit Israel, the Gazans, and even Egypt itself, by destroying Hamas's base (Hamas being affiliated with Egypt's anti-government Muslim Brotherhood). It would also benefit the Palestinians in the West Bank, by allowing the more moderate residents there to reach an accommodation with Israel, perhaps in concert with Jordan.
It will never be implemented because it would require a more humane and intelligent world, and because it would threaten "the cause." The well-being of the Palestinian people never really had much to do with that cause.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:49 AM | Comments (30)

January 26, 2008

Lebanon's Terror War


Captain Wissam Eid was murdered by car bomb in East Beirut by someone who wasn't happy with his investigation of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. He had compiled evidence linking the Syrian state to that killing.

Abu Kais writes at From Beirut to the Beltway:
You know the situation is desperate when the man investigating unsolvable crimes is mysteriously assassinated in broad daylight. Desperate situations call for desperate measures, yet those measures are no where in sight. The killing machine continues unabated, amid useless condemnations and grandiose and meaningless announcements about the future of the country.

Very few of us knew Wissam Eid. He worked in the police’s intelligence unit, reportedly in counterterrorism. Terrorism in Lebanon is the nickname for acts sponsored by Syrian intelligence, and their contractors in the fundamentalist world. Wissam was probably involved in Lebanon’s “war on terror”, which, mind you, was never officially declared.

Lebanon has been under direct attack since 2004. Local and regional players have been redrawing its political map through assassinations and intimidation campaigns. At present, the country has no functioning government, no president, and the cabinet has been made to look like an enemy entity. Even the ISF, whose badge Eid carried, was called a “militia” by the likes of Aoun and his friends in the Iranian-guided fundamentalist militia.

It’s ironic that this assassination comes after a Hizbullah media campaign accusing March 14 of trying to assassinate Hassan Nasrallah. Eid’s assassination validates the opposite: Nasrallah’s opponents are being liquidated.


Murder has been profitable in our country, and in the region. No one is going after the killers—their harshest punishment to date took the form of “initiatives” and “dialogue”. Lebanon, once again, is where anything goes, a free killing zone sanctioned by its enemies, and by friends who talk too much and do nothing.
Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:10 PM | Comments (8)

Journalistic Malpractice

Khaled Abu Toameh busts reporters for collaborating with Hamas and staging photographs in Gaza. This is really getting ridiculous, but it’s also a lot harder to get away with than it used to be.


See if you can figure out why this staged photo of the Palestinian parliament in Gaza is fake before clicking the link. Reuters couldn't figure it out, and they published it on January 22, 2008.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:11 AM | Comments (19)

January 23, 2008

While You’re Waiting

I’ve had too many things to do all at once, but I’m almost caught up. The publishing schedule around here will be back to normal shortly.

In the meantime, here are some worthwhile links to keep you busy.

Noah Pollak posts a counterintuitive argument at Commentary and says Gazans crashing through the Egyptian border is good news.

The Times of London says Hamas has been planning to break into Egypt for months.

Bill Roggio published a map at the Long War Journal that shows the shrinking areas of operation for Al Qaeda in Iraq.

The Washington Post reports that the U.S. military now believes that 90 percent of foreign fighters in Iraq entered from Syria.

An Afghan journalist was sentenced to death for downloading “blasphemous” material about women from the Internet and distributing it.

Raymond Ibrahim translated and edited an important new book called The Al Qaeda Reader. Victor Davis Hanson wrote the introduction. A portion of the profits will be donated to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 7:32 PM | Comments (69)

January 21, 2008

New Comments System

I have a new comments system on this site that, so far anyway, has shut down the comment spammers completely. Old posts were filling up with around 200 “comments” per day advertising hotels in China and “World of Warcraft gold.” Two individual spam robots broke my old system all by themselves. It was impossible to manually delete all that crap, especially when I was off the grid in Fallujah. Now you have to sign in with a Typekey account in order to post comments. Spammers don’t go to the trouble because they will be instantly banned and won’t be allowed back in even if they change their IP address and set up a new username and password. My banning capabilities are now fool-proof.

I’m happy with the new system. Not only does it prevent spam from even appearing, it’s also a lot easier to get rid of rude commenters for the same reason it’s easy to get rid of spammers. It’s so effective against trolls that I haven’t even had to deal with rude commenters at all. Apparently they are aware that this system makes it impossible for them to continue posting if I throw them out, so they don’t even try.

The only hitch is that many of my regular commenters are gone now. Apparently many of you don’t want to go to the trouble of setting up a Typekey account. I understand. It’s a minor hassle.

But look. It takes less than two minutes to set it up. Once you create your account, the same username and password will work at every blog in the world that uses this system. And you can stay signed in for two weeks at a time. It’s actually less of a hassle for you to post comments on my site now than it used to be. You no longer have to enter a six digit numerical code every time you want to post something. I got rid of that feature. Once you’re signed in, you’re done with the hassle for two weeks. The new system is easier for you, easier for me, and much harder for spambots and trolls. So those of you who disappeared because you’re afraid of new things, please come on back. We’ve missed you.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:06 PM | Comments (36)

January 20, 2008

City Journal

The editors at City Journal asked me to write a Fallujah story for them, and I’m wrapping that up as fast as I can so I can get back to blogging. I apologize for the delay here, but I don’t make enough money from the blog to pay for travel expenses and a mortgage, etc. It’s still a good deal for you, though, even with the delay, because you can read the City Journal essay for free when it becomes available online.

I’ve been reading the Internet version of that magazine for years, and I finally decided to subscribe to the print version. My first issue arrived in the mail recently. I have to say (but they aren’t paying me or even asking me to say this) that it’s the finest-looking magazine I have ever subscribed to. I can hardly wait to see my own story in its lovely pages. The production values are absolutely first rate. That alone makes it worth paying for. Those of you who like hard copies of my stories (hi Mom) might want to sign up.

Incidentally, did you know Christopher Hitchens has a new book out? I didn't until I read the review in that magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:05 PM | Comments (16)

January 19, 2008

Media Lies

I swear on my family that I will never be a part of something like this and will immediately blow the whistle if I witness it in person.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:21 AM | Comments (13)

January 16, 2008

Tons of Material On the Way

I apologize for being a bit slow. I've spent the last five days doing nothing but transcribing my notebooks and recorded interviews and organizing the massive amount of material I have from the Fallujah area. I realized I was not going to be able to proceed with my writing until I finished that, and it's a good thing I did. What I thought was going to be a single dispatch called The Last Mission, for example, will actually turn into a gigantic essay in three parts that might be too long for even a magazine like The Atlantic or The New Yorker.

Now that I have organized all my material, finally, I can tell you how many more essay-length dispatches I'll publish as soon as I have time to write them: eleven. I thought I had eight more, but I have eleven.

I wish I could chug through all this a bit faster, but I can't do justice to the material if I do. I have so much to work with in front of me that I feel like I'm writing a book. So please bear with me, and thank you for being patient.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:36 PM | Comments (10)

A Photo Gallery from Kuwait

Here are some pictures from Kuwait to hold you over while I'm writing my next dispatch from Fallujah.

Kuwait Skyline and Cannon.jpg

Kuwait Skyline from Holiday Inn 1.jpg

Kuwait Skyline from Holiday Inn 2.jpg

Kuwait Skyline at Night.jpg

Kuwait Boat.jpg

Kuwait Al Hashemi Info.jpg

Kuwait Al Hashemi Back.jpg

Kuwait Al Hashemi Side.jpg

Kuwait Beach.jpg

Kuwait Beach 2.jpg

Kuwait Beach 3.jpg

Kuwait Persian Gulf.jpg

Kuwait Mosque.jpg

Kuwait War Remembrance.jpg

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:19 AM | Comments (4)

January 14, 2008

Hold Music

While I’m working on long dispatches from the Middle East, and before they are ready to publish, what kind of "hold music" do you prefer in the meantime?

What kind of "hold music" do you want?
Excerpts from and links to articles written by me in other publications (such as Commentary Magazine)
Excerpts from and links to interesting articles on the same topic written by other people
Excerpts from and links to interesting articles on non-related international topics written by other people
Excerpts from and links to interesting articles about domestic (American) topics written by other people
"B-side" photographs I've taken in Iraq (and other places) that won't be published in dispatches
Random personal crap
All of the above
Other (Please specify in the comments)
Free polls from Pollhost.com
Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:00 AM | Comments (19)

January 11, 2008

The Bravery of Iraqis

Iraqi Army soldiers have a terrible reputation for cowardice and corruption – especially in Baghdad – but it’s unfair to write them all off after reading the news out of Iraq’s capital Sunday. Three Iraqi Army soldiers tackled a suicide bomber at an Army Day parade and were killed when he exploded his vest.

While embedded with the United States Army and Marines I heard over and over again that the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police have improved a lot in the past year. This is encouraging, on the one hand, but at the same time it is worrisome. If they are as bad now in some places as I’ve seen myself, they must have really been something in 2005.

At the War Eagle outpost in Baghdad’s Graya’at neighborhood, I was told by a military intelligence officer that the most likely reason we weren’t under mortar attack is because huge numbers of Moqtada al Sadr’s radical Mahdi Army militiamen had infiltrated the ranks of Iraqi Army soldiers who shared the base with us.

A colonel at Camp Taji north of the city told me the U.S. Army doesn’t dare inform their Iraqi Army counterparts about sensitive operations until the very last minute because they don’t want infiltrators to alert the insurgents.

The Iraqi Police in Mushadah, near Taji, were more of a military force than a police force when I visited last July. As many as half were thought to be Al Qaeda operatives, and the other half were so scared they refused to go on patrols until a female American captain showed them up by going outside the station herself.

And this is the new and improved Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police of 2007 during General Petraeus’s surge. Progress in Iraq is relative. It’s hard to say if the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police could hold the country together by themselves in 2008. Personally, I doubt it. So do most American soldiers and Marines I’ve spoken to. The Iraqis certainly could not have held it together in 2005 or 2006.

The Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police deserve kudos for progress, even so. And they deserve more credit for bravery than they’ve been getting.

Read the rest at Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:47 AM | Comments (10)

January 8, 2008

The Rings on Zarqawi's Finger

“I am a ring on your finger.” -- Al Qaeda in Iraq member Abu Anas to Abu Musab Al Zarqawi

Iraqi Police Masked Face Fallujah 2.jpg

Since Abu Musab Al Zarqawi formed the Al Qaeda in Iraq franchise, the terrorist group that destroyed the World Trade Center has fought American soldiers and what they call the near enemy, fellow Muslims, instead of civilians in the homeland of the far enemy, the United States. This may be good for Americans, but it has been a catastrophe for Iraqis – especially in Baghdad, Ramadi, and Fallujah.

I had lunch with several Iraqi Police officers and spoke to them afterward about this searing conflict that raged for years in their city and that only quieted down a few months ago. Trauma and war are still fresh, enough so that they don't want me to publish their names or their pictures. Nor do they want me to identify their police station. So I’ll just say they work somewhere in the vicinity of Fallujah. And I’ll call them Omar, Mohammed, Ahmed, and Mahmoud – generic Arabic names which are pseudonyms.

“What did you think of the Americans a few years ago when they first got here?” I said.

“The United States made a big mistake when they invaded Iraq,” Omar said. “They destroyed the Iraqi Army. They destroyed the whole army when they invaded. They lost their right hand against the insurgents. They lost a good partner that could have really helped in the future. In the beginning if they had just kept the Iraqi Army and the Iraqi Police, somebody would have been backing them.”

Iraqi Police Nice Chair Fallujah.jpg
Iraqi Police officers other than those featured in this article

“Do you think invading Iraq was the right decision, or was it a mistake?” I said.

“It was a surprise invasion for both the Americans and the Iraqis,” he said. “They had no ability to analyze the actions they were taking. Neither the Iraqis nor the Americans could understand what was going on. All the casualties during the invasion were Americans and Iraqis. None were the third party. We were both losers. If we had just started with political methods to accomplish the mission, it would have been far better than the military action. As a result, the Iraqi people and the American people were losers.”

I snapped some pictures of the Iraqis.

“He’s a journalist?” Omar said to Tom, our interpreter.

“Yes,” Tom said.

“We are not authorized to talk to journalists about politics,” Ahmed said and glared at Omar, who had just given me some opinions about politics.

I knew what Ahmed meant. They have to stay in their lane, as American soldiers and Marines would say. The Americans in Iraq aren’t supposed to talk to journalists about politics either, unless they are talking about local politics they’re involved with as part of their job. Talking above their pay grade on the record isn’t allowed – although sometimes they do so off the record. Privates can talk about their basic job as a private – which is why I rarely quote privates. Most are reluctant to say anything to me whatsoever. Sergeants can speak about platoon-level issues. Lieutenants and captains can get into the nuts and bolts of local politics because they deal with it constantly. “But I can’t talk about why President Bush invaded Iraq,” one high-ranking officer said.

They have to be careful when they talk about politics even indirectly. One mid-level officer, whom I shouldn’t name so I won’t get him in trouble, strongly recommended that I read Fiasco by Thomas Ricks. “Especially make sure you read the chapter called How to Create an Insurgency,” he said. “Ricks gets it exactly right in that chapter. But you can’t quote me by name saying that because it’s another way of saying the insurgency is Paul Bremer’s fault. And Bremer outranks me.”

Talking above their pay grade isn’t the only thing the Iraqi Police officer I call Ahmed was concerned with. “The Iraqi Police in this area are considered enemies by some people because we work with the Americans against the insurgents,” he said. “So we don't want our pictures to be shown in any newspapers.”

“Does everyone here at this table want me to refrain from publishing their picture?” I said. Lots of Iraqi Police officers want me to publish their picture. But some ask me not to, and a smaller number are so worried about it that they won’t let me take their picture at all.

IP Covered Face Fallujah.jpg

Everyone at the table nodded. None wanted their photographs published.

“They are a little bit scared, you know,” Tom said. “Their pictures might be seen in this country.”

“Tell them if they don’t want me to publish their pictures, I won’t publish their pictures,” I said to Tom. “It isn’t a problem.”

Tom is a 60 year old Palestinian who lives in Jordan, and his real name isn’t Tom. He, like all the other interpreters I’ve met in Iraq, goes by an American name to conceal his identity. There is a chance he could be hunted down by terrorists and murdered in Jordan if he could be traced.

He invited me to have coffee with him in his room back at the station. Of course I accepted. We discussed Middle Eastern politics and his job with Americans.

“I love the Marines,” he said. “They are like my second family.”

I got a kick out of his coffee cup.

Been There Done That Cup 1.jpg

“Where did you get that cup?” I said.

“Do you want it?” he said.

“That’s not what I said, Tom,” I said.

But he would not let me leave his room until I accepted his gift. I would not have expected a Palestinian to purchase anything with such gung-ho American military imagery, but Iraq is full of surprises.

Been There Done That Cup 2.jpg

I almost thought better of it, but I had to ask: “Have you ever been to Israel, Tom?”

“Yes!” he said, beaming. “It is my country. It is beautiful. I have family there. The first time I went to Israel, after the 1967 war, I was afraid the Jews might eat my flesh. But they were so nice to me in Haifa. They welcomed me into their homes even though I am Palestinian. We hated them, you know, after all that had happened. But I was welcome as a Palestinian. The Jews are good people. Like you.”

For all the hatred in the Middle East, there is also forgiveness, and moderation. Where are the moderate Muslims? ask many Americans. I find the question bizarre. I meet them every day in Iraq, and everywhere else in the Middle East, too. The problem is they have a hard time getting attention in newspapers and magazines that wallow in sensationalism.

“What happened before, happened,” said Omar, returning to the discussion of the American invasion with the Iraqi Police. “One mistake was committed, but it's gone. Let's just close it and not keep analyzing the same problem again. According to our analysis, American troops are now here to help

Sheik Abdul Sattar Abu Risha made similar points, a bit more eloquently, to Johns Hopkins University Professor Fouad Ajami: “Our American friends had not understood us when they came. 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.”

“We have promised to work with the Americans against Al Qaeda,” Ahmed continued. “And that's it. That is all we are allowed to say about politics. But I can say that I feel the sincerity in the American support for the Iraqi civilians here. I am not going to say any bad words about Americans. I can feel that they really are eager to accomplish that mission.”

“How did you learn this about Americans?” I said.

Iraqi Police with Back Turned Fallujah.jpg

“Americans aren't here to help Iraqi civilians, actually,” he said. “They are here to fight the Al Qaeda organization. Iraqis are very kind people, you know? They are in love with everybody in the whole world. So if you offer them help, they will appreciate it. Some Iraqis spread the word that Americans are trying to kill them, so the Al Qaeda organization gets some people to help them. They get some manpower on their side. Some Iraqis started working with the Al Qaeda organization because of this. I appreciate any kind of help and assistance given to Sunni and Islamic people here from the United States so we can fight for our rights in the political sphere and Iraqi social life. Sunnis are now considered second class citizens in this society, not first class citizens. We need someone to back us up. For example, right now I cannot go to Baghdad. They are Shias. So this is a matter of politics.”


“Can you describe what Al Qaeda did here?” I said.

“The Al Qaeda organization is the enemy of Iraqis and of Americans,” Mahmoud said. “We are Muslims. Sunnis. Al Qaeda came through Islam and used it to enter Iraqi lands. They are killers, insurgents, they don't respect humanity. They don't belong to Islam or have religious beliefs. They have no kind of religious beliefs.”

Don’t assume Mahmoud is dissembling when he says this. It may appear that some Muslims are being overly defensive by saying Osama bin Laden is not a real Muslim, but there is a solid case to be made that radical Islamism is, in fact, a totalitarian cult unhinged from the religion as it is actually practiced by the majority. It is they, after all, who blow up mosques in Iraq. I know of at least one mosque in Ramadi that is considered “blackened” because insurgents used it as a base. No one will set foot in it now.

Shia mosques are not the only Islamic houses of worship desecrated by the likes of Al Qaeda. Zarqawi had ruthlessly seized control of the Sunni town of Biara in Iraqi Kurdistan before the group he was then attached to – Ansar Al Islam – was pushed into Iran by American Special Forces and Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga. He and his men squatted in the town’s mosque and used the shrine there as a toilet.

I asked the caretaker of that mosque how he felt about the fact that Americans bombed it to get Ansar Al Islam out. “I don’t know,” he said, as if he had never even pondered the question. “It’s okay, I suppose. I am grateful. If they had not done it this place would still be a toilet.”

Every mosque in the Fallujah area – and there are more than 200 of them – broadcast pro-American messages from minaret loudspeakers. The messages inside the walls are as pro-American as the ones outside. The Marines have fluent Arabic-speakers listening in so they can keep their ears close to the ground of public opinion. If the mosques turn against Americans again, the Marines need to know.

When Mahmoud says Al Qaeda does not belong to Islam, he is not speaking theologically. I’m afraid Al Qaeda does belong to Islam if you look at it that way. But he is right that Al Qaeda does not belong to Islam as it is currently lived by the people in his community.

“In Western Iraq we have been a part of this big game,” Mahmoud said. “The Sunnis here are very simple people, very innocent people. It is easy to win their hearts. Al Qaeda tried to go through the religion to earn their affection. People can get enrolled in those types of Islamic organizations for that reason.”

“The Al Qaeda organization is like a mafia or any other secret organization in the world,” Ahmed said. “If you enroll in that organization, that's it. You're gone. Nobody can get you out of that business. You're lost. It's a matter of trapping the man after letting him in. Then he's trapped, he's lost forever. He cannot go back because the Al Qaeda organization will get him.”

They are not just like a mafia. They are also like a murderous cult.

“The Al Qaeda organization has a core philosophy,” Ahmed continued. “When you join the Al Qaeda organization the first thing you have to do is get your parents far away from your mind. Your father and mother have to be away from your thinking. There can be nothing else. Only the Al Qaeda organization. Your kids, your wife, your family, your parents, your beliefs, all have to be out. Only then can you enroll in the Al Qaeda organization.”

An Al Qaeda member in Fallujah named Abu Anas was punished by Abu Musab Al Zarqawi when he accidentally revealed to a journalist that foreigners came to Fallujah from somewhere else to fight the Americans. Zarqawi placed Anas under house arrest and only released him when he pledged his fealty not to Islam or God, but to Zarqawi himself. “I am a ring on your finger,” he said.

Al Qaeda in Iraq founder Abu Musab al Zarqawi

“If an Al Qaeda officer gives you an order to kill your father,” Ahmed continued, “you have to do it. Your father, your mother, your neighbor, no matter who it might be. It's a simple way to get anybody killed – American, Iraqi, any civilian, any local, anyone. It's a matter of ideological indoctrination from the organization itself.”

According to the conventional narrative, Al Qaeda was rejected by Iraqis because they murdered Iraqis. They were far more vicious and hateful than the Americans they vowed to expel. The narrative is correct, as far as it goes, but Al Qaeda is detested for more than mere thuggery. Other armed groups have been able to maintain at least some popularity even though they also murder Iraqis. None of the others, though, violent though they may be, are so thoroughly totalitarian, so alien to the traditions of Iraqi culture, and so hostile to its centuries-old social fabric. Al Qaeda in Iraq tears at Iraq’s traditional culture as viciously as Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge did in Cambodia.

If you want to understand Al Qaeda in Iraq – its methods, its rise, and its fall – you’ll find their story has more in common with the Shining Path’s guerrilla and terrorist war in Peru than with the Islamic religion as practiced in the mosques of Fallujah.


“Nowadays we can analyze what is going on,” Ahmed said. “In the Sunni area, in the Western area, we have people being killed by Al Qaeda. The tribes and locals civilians here are standing up to fight the Al Qaeda organization because of that. We have been moving one step forward and two steps backward. We are now only semi-literate people. We need some more education.”

“Were all the insurgents here Al Qaeda, or were there other organizations also?” I said.

“The Al Qaeda organization is the major one,” said Omar. “They made some smaller sub-organizations for themselves to assist them by another name. But, in fact, they are all Al Qaeda.”

According to the conventional wisdom, Al Qaeda makes up only a very small part of Iraq’s insurgency. Maybe that’s true, overall. But I have not been able to find a single person on the ground in Western Iraq – not American, and not Iraqi – who says anyone other than Al Qaeda has played a significant role in the insurgency.

“Al Qaeda's main task was to kill Iraqis,” Mohammed said. “That's all. No matter how or when or why. They just want to kill people in Iraqi lands.”

Fallujah Tips Sign.jpg
The Iraqi Police are asking Fallujah civilians to phone in or email tips on insurgent activity. The program is a smashing success.

“Well, what was their real objective here?” I said. “Surely they had an objective other than just killing people. They wanted to accomplish something.”

“Of course,” Omar said. “This organization belongs to somebody, somebody outside the country. I blame Syria and Iran. There are small cells running around in this country in favor of those two countries.”

The Syrian and Iranian regimes may or may not use Al Qaeda cells for their own reasons, but the fighters who make up Al Qaeda are not fighting for Alawite Baathism or Shia Theocracy.

“Don't you also have problems here with Islamist extremists from Saudi Arabia?” I said.

“Actually, yes,” Omar said. “They have been here in this area. But they aren't right now for the time being. If you look at Al Anbar Province, it's becoming a stable and safe area. This image is being projected to the other provinces. Kirkuk and Mosul appreciate this and are trying to achieve the same thing.”

“How long do you think the Americans should stay here?” I said. “And I mean here in the Fallujah area, not in the whole country.”

“I anticipate that the American forces will be withdrawn to major bases in Iraq,” said Ahmed. “They will finish their mission here in, let's say, one or two years. Maybe one and a half years.”

“A lot of people say that the Americans are here to benefit from the oil and the Iraqi economy,” Omar said. “They want to do business in this country. But the Americans could have just asked Saddam Hussein for that.”

“What do you guys think of Saddam Hussein?” I said.

“We appreciated the leadership of Mr. President Saddam Hussein,” Ahmed said. “Because now we are sacrificing a lot. Because of the Al Qaeda organization. Saddam was painful. I admit that. But it wasn't as bad then as it is now.”

“During the leadership of Saddam Hussein,” Omar said, “you could say he was a one-man commander, or a dictator. He was only representing himself. But at least during that particular time, we felt safe.”

Three Men Fallujah.jpg
Three Fallujah civilians

I should point out that the overwhelming majority who live in the Fallujah area are Sunni Arabs. The Kurds – who also mostly are Sunnis – and the Shia Arabs did not enjoy the relative sense of security felt in this area.

“We were secure in our homes and our properties,” Omar continued. “We can't compare that to the situation we have now with all these different types of organizations running around all over the country. Before there was nothing like an Al Qaeda organization here. I mean, they were here, but they were secretive, they were not in the field, they were not recognized yet. But now we feel that they are serious, that something big is going on.”

Did the American invasion of Iraq inadvertently unleash this terror on the country? It would seem so. Would it eventually have happened anyway, albeit later? Who knows? At this point, it may not even matter.

“The presence of American forces here proves that there is an Al Qaeda presence in this country,” Omar said. “This is why the American forces are here. Their purpose here is to fight the Al Qaeda organization. If the Americans want to accomplish any future missions, they need to support the Iraqi Army and the Iraqi Police with weapons and money and other things. Just get us so we can stand and fight side by side and accomplish our missions for the Iraqi lands. The more equipment you give us, and the more people you can get enlisted in the Iraqi Army, the more support you will have from our side.”

“We will need some kind of protection after the American forces leave the area,” Ahmed said. “If you don't support the Neighborhood Watch and the Iraqi Police, we'll achieve nothing. We need more support, more equipment, more weapons for the locals here. Anbar Province should be an example for all the other Iraqi provinces. That's the main thing we can do for you.”

Iraqi Police with Machine Gun Fallujah.jpg

“Iraqi soldiers and the locals here are very brave,” Omar said. “Americans know it, because they have given them the authority to take action against Al Qaeda. It's dangerous, but they are very good soldiers. You can count on them. But they cannot control Iran. Iran is the most important resource for the terrorists in this region.”

“Is it true that the local people here welcomed the insurgents at first?” I said. It’s hard to gauge how many locals were, as Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Malay put it a few years ago, friendlies, fence-sitters, and fuckos.

“Yes,” Mahmoud said. “And there was a reason for that. First, they were afraid of the insurgents. They were really scared. They didn't want to support them, but they didn't have any choice.”

“Why did they have no alternative?” I said. “The Marines were here, too.”

Weren’t they? I didn’t quite believe the probably face-saving argument that no one supported the insurgents except out of fear, or that the “awakening” alliance between Iraqis and Americans could not, at least in theory, have started earlier than it did.

“Actually,” Mohammed said, “the Marines came, achieved their mission, and left. The insurgents lived in the city with the civilians, at home, in every part of the town. The American forces did not get involved.”

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 prefer to use Pay Pal, that is still an option.

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 9:33 PM | Comments (66)

The Real Racist Candidate

Do you want some "hold music" while I'm finishing up my next article from Fallujah? It should be ready later today, and I'll give you something else on another topic to consider in the meantime.

In the comments section yesterday I asked readers to please stop throwing the "racist" label at presidential candidates they don't like. That's a serious and potentially libelous charge that needs to be backed up with real solid evidence. (Rudy Giuliani and Barack Obama were both unconvincingly called racists by someone or other.)

This is what a real racist presidential candidate looks like. I didn't quite buy that particular accusation against Ron Paul, but now I sure do.

UPDATE: Ron Paul disowns the monstrously racist articles that appeared in his newsletter. That's something, but geez, man. Those kinds of articles certainly would never appear in a newsletter with my name on the top of it. He says he didn't edit his newsletter. Fine. Did he ever read it?

UPDATE: Roger L. Simon says what I mean a little more bluntly: "The only name on those newsletters is Ron Paul, no matter who wrote the actual articles. We all know that most politicians do not write their own speeches, but we certainly hold them to the contents. Why not Paul? And this creepy stuff went on for over ten years. It's not like one week slipped by."

UPDATE: John Podhoretz at Commentary puts it even more bluntly: "Ah, so the Ron Paul Political Report featured articles expressing views a man named Ron Paul found abhorrent, did it? This is reminiscent of the hilarious denunciation by Charles Barkley of his own ghostwritten autobiography. The only difference is that Charles Barkley was a basketball player at the time, while Ron Paul is a sitting member of Congress and a candidate for president of the United States. If he did know about what was published under his name and he’s lying about it now, he’s a blackguard as well as a disgusting public figure. If he didn’t know, he’s a pathetic buffoon who sold his own name to racists and intellectual thugs. Not sure which is better."

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:17 PM | Comments (18)

January 7, 2008

PJ Interviews with McCain and Giuliani

I should have my next article from Fallujah published within the next day or so. This time you will hear from Iraqis, not Americans, as they discuss with me the invasion of their country, counterinsurgency, and Al Qaeda in Iraq among other things.

In the meantime, Roger L. Simon and Claudia Rosett interviewed Rudy Giuliani and John McCain about their foreign policies.

I said in the comments yesterday that I will not turn this blog into a campaign vehicle for any candidate at any time, and it’s true. I will not. Some in the comments are annoyed at my support for Rudy Giuliani while others are annoyed at my support for Barack Obama. I don’t want to annoy readers with that sort of thing. That is not what this Web site is for. I’m pointing out these interviews to you for two (other) reasons.

That link will take you to HD video versions of the interviews (fast connection required). They are far and away the highest quality videos I have ever seen streamed over the Internet. You Tube (bless its digital soul) is put sorely to shame by Pajamas Media here.

The production values are as solidly professional as you’ll see on any television station. But the questions asked by Roger and Claudia are at a higher level than what you’ll usually see on TV. Hannity and Colmes this is not.

(Transcipts here and here if you don’t want to watch.)

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:13 AM | Comments (7)

January 5, 2008

Quick Poll

While I’m finishing up my next piece from Fallujah, how about a quick poll?

If America goes the way of Iowa, who would you vote for?
Barack Obama
Mike Huckabee
Free polls from Pollhost.com

For the record: Rudy Giuliani is my first choice, but between the two Iowa winners I would have to go with Barack Obama.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:40 PM | Comments (77)

January 4, 2008

Andrew Olmsted Killed In Iraq

Andrew Olmsted -- active duty soldier, blogger, and writer for the Rocky Mountain News – was killed in Diyala Province, Iraq.

I didn’t know Andrew personally, but I was familiar with his writing, and I feel like a hole has been punched into the world.

His friend and blogosphere colleague Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings has published his final dispatch from beyond. Leave some kind comments for his friends and family.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:20 PM | Comments (4)

January 2, 2008

A Plan to Kill Everyone

"War, children, it's just a shot away, it's just a shot away" – The Rolling Stones, from “Gimme Shelter”

Girl in Doorway Fallujah.jpg

FALLUJAH -- A sign on the door leading out of India Company’s Combat Operations Center says “Have a Plan to Kill Everyone You Meet.” For a fraction of second I thought it might be some kind of joke. But I was with the Marine Corps in Fallujah, and it wasn’t a joke.

I asked Captain Stewart Glenn if he could explain and perhaps elaborate a bit on what, exactly, that sign is about. “It’s pretty straightforward,” he said rather bluntly. “It means exactly what it says.”

A Plan to Kill Everyone You Meet.jpg

Welcome to counterinsurgency.

A sign outside Lieutenant Nathan Bibler’s Joint Security Station in the slums of Fallujah makes the point a little more clearly, and delicately. “Look at everyone as though they are trying to kill you, but you cannot treat them that way.”

“The threat's always there,” Sergeant Chuck Balley told me as he looked blankly at nothing in particular. “Everybody is sketchy.”

Maybe they are. But very few people in Fallujah try to kill Americans – or other Iraqis – anymore. It has been months since a single Marine in Fallujah has been even wounded, let alone killed. But at least a handful of disorganized insurgents still lurk in the city. Once a week or so somebody takes a shot at the Americans.

Lima Company Sign.jpg

“Do you have plates in that Kevlar?” one Marine sergeant said to me as I donned my body armor on our way into the city. He was referring to steel SAPI plates that fit inside Kevlar vests that can stop even a sniper round.

“No,” I said, and I didn't care. The odds that I, personally, would be the first person shot in Fallujah for months were microscopic.

“Look,” he said. “You are not gonna get shot. But you should still carry some plates.”

One lieutenant forced me to wear Marine-issue body armor – which weighs almost 80 pounds – before he would let me go out on patrol with him. I felt like Godzilla lumbering around with all the extra bulk and weight, and I didn’t really feel safer. Running while carrying those extra pounds all of a sudden wasn’t much of an option. Sacrificing most of my speed and agility to make myself a little more bullet-proof might not be worth it. But perhaps that’s just what I told myself so I could justify wearing lighter and more comfortable armor. It’s hard to say. What I do know for certain is that Fallujah at the end of 2007 was neither scary nor stressful. No one can go there right now without feeling what is perhaps a dangerous sense of complacency.

But complacency kills. The Marines are reminded of this fact every day, as was I when I traveled and worked with them.

The day I arrived at India Company's Forward Operating Base, which had been converted from an old train station, all the Marines had to attend readiness training classes designed to offset complacency.

“Too many Marines are getting complacent and lax,” Captain Glenn said. “Complacency is as potentially deadly as an IED at this point.”

Complacency Kills.jpg

The Marines couldn't help it, and neither could I. Combat operations in Fallujah are over. It wasn't possible to work myself up into feeling nervous in that city. I just knew I wouldn't be shot. Of course, I could have been wrong, and I knew that, too.


“Are you a strict non-combatant?” Second Lieutenant Mike Barefoot said to me as we stepped out of the joint security station in Jolan, Northern Fallujah, and began a patrol.

“What do you mean?” I said. Of course I am a non-combatant. Was he asking if I’m a pacifist?

“Do you fight?” he said.

I narrowed my eyes at him slightly, still not quite sure what he was getting at.

“If we get in a fire fight,” he said, “and I give you my pistol, will you take it?”

Mike Barefoot.jpg
Second Lieutenant Mike Barefoot

He put his hand on his sidearm and fingered the thumb break. He wasn't kidding. All I had to do was say so and he would hand me that pistol.

“I'm not allowed to carry a weapon,” I said.

He rolled his eyes, not at me but at the policy.

“No embedded journalists are allowed to pick up a weapon,” I continued. “They’ll throw me out of Iraq if I do. It’s a good policy. Most of us aren’t trained to fight in a war. If reporters were armed, eventually one of us would shoot a kid or an old woman.”

It is a sound policy. He nodded and seemed to understand that. Still, he repeated the question. “If I give you my pistol, will you take it?”

“If it gets bad enough out here that either I shoot it or die, then yes,” I said. “I’d rather be thrown of Iraq then be killed. But that is not going to happen, so I can't take your pistol.”

We walked a few steps.

Mike Barefoot on Patrol.jpg
Second Lieutenant Mike Barefoot on patrol

“Thanks, though,” I said, and I meant it.

Several Marines were shocked that I was willing to walk around the streets of Fallujah without a gun, but I didn’t feel the slightest bit nervous. Complacency kills, and I get that. But I had Marines as bodyguards and I wasn’t allowed to defend myself anyway. So I figured I might as well relax.

“Anyway,” I always said to Marines who thought I should carry a weapon, “if it gets bad enough out here that you’re relying on me in a fight, you’re really screwed.”

Having a plan to kill everyone I met wasn’t an option. I tried it out for a few minutes, though, to get a tiny idea of what it might be like inside the mind of a non-complacent counterinsurgent. I imagined carrying an M-16 on a sling and holding it at the deck with both hands, index finger off but near the trigger. How quickly could I raise a rifle and shoot a man who takes the initiative and fires an AK-47 at me or at somebody else? What if the friendly young man who just smiled at me pulls a knife? Was I supposed to look at women and children as potential combatants? Once in a while insurgents are able to pressure children into throwing hand grenades at Americans.

We walked past houses and buildings riddled with bullet holes. Raw sewage slowly ran in rivulets through the streets. Only the smallest of businesses were open -- it will be a long time before any international corporate chains arrive in Fallujah. A young bearded man wearing baggy white pants and a filthy blue shirt sold black market fuel in jerry cans to motorists.

Black Market Fuel Fallujah.jpg

Contrary to popular belief, there are motorists in Fallujah. There is a so-called vehicle ban, but it has been misreported and misunderstood. It is true that Fallujah neighborhoods are segmented by barriers, but residents can walk and drive their vehicles from one neighborhood to the other after passing through Iraqi Police checkpoints. They can also leave and enter the city whenever they like as long as they have a Fallujah resident sticker on the windshield of their car. Fallujah's vehicle ban only applies to cars from outside the city. Non-residents are welcome in Fallujah, but they have to leave their vehicle at the outskirts. The city is very small. It is easily walkable, and taxi service is cheap and available. The non-resident vehicle ban is enforced by the Iraqi Police, not the Marines. Iraqi Police Colonel Faisal will decide when the non-resident vehicle ban will be lifted.

Kid with Backpack Fallujah.jpg

I did not realized that I had dropped my pen after jotting down a few observations in my notebook while I walked. A young Iraqi boy ran up behind me, picked up my pen, and handed it over. Every day at least one Iraqi kid will ask me to give him my pen, but this one wanted to make sure I didn't lose it. Another young boy came up and gave me a high-five. They often do this to the Marines. Whatever the adults in Fallujah might think of Americans, the kids really do seem to like us. Eight year olds do not have politics.

Almost every house in the city is ringed with a high wall for privacy. The residents didn't have siege warfare in mind when they designed their homes, but the walls are strong, made of concrete, and they can serve that function. Any number of insurgents could, in theory, be crouching behind them and we wouldn't know it until they opened fire on us.

Street Tilted Angle Fallujah.jpg

One of the Marines found a cassette tape stashed in the bushes and eyed it suspiciously as he pulled it out. Abu Musab al Zarqawi's Al Qaeda in Iraq sometimes distributes propaganda on audio tapes just as Ayatollah Khomeini did in Iran before the Islamic Revolution.

“Can I see it?” our interpreter said. The Marine handed over the tape. “It's just music,” he said as he read the label. “Nothing to worry about.”

It has been months since the jihadists have been able to murder anyone in Fallujah. Only a few weeks before, however, a handful showed up on a street corner and handed out anti-American snuff films on DVD. Apparently they thought the local civilians would be impressed. They were not. They called the Iraqi Police, and the propagandists were taken away to the jail.

The main Jolan market was up ahead, but first we passed through a neighborhood that, unlike almost anywhere else in Iraq, received 24 hours a day of electricity.

Lieutenant Barefoot pointed up toward the sky. “See the electricity poles?” he said. I did, and I was amazed.

Proper Electrical Poles in Alley Fallujah.jpg

The neighborhood was wired properly as though it were part of a modern First World country. Gone all of a sudden were the hideously tangled rat's nest of wires and cables that make up most of Iraq's electrical grid.

Typical Electrical Poles Fallujah.jpg

“Why is the wiring so much better here?” I said. “And is that really enough by itself to give people 24 hours a day of electricity? Is this a politically favored neighborhood or what?”

“No,” said the lieutenant. “They just have better local leadership in this neighborhood.”

Political corruption is unspeakably bad in Iraq, in Kurdistan as well as in the Arabic parts of the country. If Lieutenant Barefoot is right about this section of Jolan, the insurgency is by no means solely to blame for Iraq's shattered infrastructure.

We arrived at Jolan's market district. It was not what I expected. Jolan is the oldest part of Fallujah. It was built on the banks of the Euphrates River where it swings in closest to Baghdad. I thought perhaps we would walk through one of the covered souks that are so ubiquitous in the Middle East. But few buildings in even this part of the city looked more than fifty years old, and many of the shops were in outdoor booths.

Jolan Market Area Fallujah.jpg

The Marines found the market impressive because it had only reopened recently. Objectively, though, it is not very impressive. Everything is relative in a place like Fallujah. The market is an ugly ramshackle mess where only the most basic goods and necessities are for sale. It smelled of piss. Trash burned in oil barrels. There were hardly any women out and about, even though the market areas of conservative Muslim cities are where you are most likely to see them. All women older than teenagers wore black abayas that enveloped them from head to toe. Only their faces were visible. A man carrying a stick led goats through the area who managed to find nourishment from piles of garbage.

Goat Eating Garbage Fallujah.jpg

Amid this drabness, though, was a surprising little oasis. A local man was selling flowers and plants at a pleasant little store. He contentedly watered his flora with a hose and smiled at us as we walked past.

Watering Plants Fallujah.jpg

I had a hard time imagining that the Marines I walked with had a quiet and secretive plan to kill this guy if all of a sudden he raised up an AK-47 from behind the bushes. He was not going to do that. I just knew it. It is very nearly impossible to tell what most Iraqis are thinking when you briefly pass them on the street. Theoretically any one of them could be an insurgent. But there are some I felt safe writing off as potential threats. You can just tell with some people. At least I have the luxury of thinking so when it isn't my job to return hostile fire.

On our way back to the station we stopped by a volleyball game.

Volleyball Fallujah.jpg

An Iraqi Police captain recently started a Fallujah-wide volleyball tournament. He purchased uniforms for the players and trophies that will go to the winners when the tournament ends. Most of the Marines I spoke to were stunned by this development, especially those who had previously served in Fallujah when it was still the catastrophically violent city most Americans think it still is.

I wasn't personally all that impressed with the fact that Iraqis play volleyball now. That is not because I don't “get it,” but because it's hard to imagine just how bad a place Fallujah recently was. It's not a nice place today, but it is almost normal for a rough-around-the-edges city in the Third World. And it's a paradise compared with, say, a shantytown-packed Mexican border town like Juarez or Tijuana.

Our patrol came upon a wedding party being put together in the street. A shiny black Mercedes decorated with purple, red, and white flowers pulled up beside us.

Car with Flowers Fallujah.jpg

Sharply dressed Iraqi men and children got out and walked up to meet us. They were so friendly. An older man in a keffiyeh greeted us so warmly and sincerely it was obvious his affection was real. “Thank you, thank you,” he said. We all knew what he meant. Thank you for being here. Thank you for the security.

Men at Wedding Fallujah.jpg

Some Iraqis only pretend to be friendly, but it's obvious when you meet someone who isn't pretending. Human emotion and its expression is the same across cultures. This man could not have been a combatant. I was certain the odds of him trying to kill us were zero. I couldn’t help wondering: was it really necessary to have a plan to kill everyone? But complacency kills. You never know who might attack you in Iraq. I imagined bashing his head into the sidewalk.


I shared a room that night at the Joint Security Station with Lieutenant Barefoot and his roommate and station commanding officer Second Lieutenant Gary Laughlin. Joint Security Stations are shared by American Marines and Iraqi Police. Our room was on the Arab side of the house. The wall opposite my bed was riddled with shrapnel holes, as if a mortar round had exploded right in our bedroom.

“It used to be a lot less friendly here,” Lieutenant Laughlin said and laughed.

He led me out to the back porch where we could sit and enjoy the moderately warm afternoon sunshine.

All the Marines I spoke to were amazed at the progress made in Fallujah. It was safer than even they had expected. I asked Lieutenant Laughlin what, specifically, surprised him most about the current state of the city.

LT Laughlin Fallujah.jpg
Second Lieutenant Gary Laughlin

“The most surprising thing,” he said, “is how friendly people are. I expected people here to just hate us after Al-Fajr. You kind of have to take it with a grain of salt, though. Some of them really just want the Iraqi Police to take over, and they only smile at us to be polite.”

That has to be right. Some unknown percentage of Fallujahns are still disgruntled with the American presence. But there is almost no surface-level evidence that this is true. Very nearly 100 percent of the people who live there are friendly.

“Have you run into any civilians who are hostile toward you?” I said.

“Not really,” he said. “Some of them are scared of us, though. We can look pretty intimidating.”

Lieutenant Laughlin had only been in Fallujah for a couple of months. First Lieutenant Barry Edwards has been around longer, so he could compare and contrast the present and past.

“Have you seen a shift in the way Iraqis treat you in the year you've been here?” I said.

Schoolboys Fallujah.jpg

“Oh yeah,” he said. “This summer I ate dinner just about every week out there. I couldn't have done that back in January. They would have lit my tail up. You couldn't go 100 feet down the road that runs along the river without getting hit by an IED. Now we can sit there with our flak jackets and helmets off like we're sitting right here. We can do that outside in the open. We go out there and eat chow with the guys who were shooting at us a year ago.”

While Lieutenant Laughlin and I basked in Iraq’s winter sunlight, we heard a weather report that might be slightly disturbing under different circumstances: there was absolutely no wind. That meant it was an ideal time, from the point of view of insurgents, to launch a chemical weapons attack. Because the air was perfectly still, poison gas wouldn’t float away on the wind. Marines, therefore, were required to carry gas masks on their person at all times, even though the odds of a chemical weapons attack were very near zero. Not quite zero, though. Chlorine gas has been used by Fallujah insurgents before. The Marines seems hyper-prepared almost to the point of paranoia. But they were not paranoid. They were just ready for anything. “Make Yourself Hard to Kill” is one of their catchphrases.

Checking a Hole Fallujah.jpg Checking a Taxi Fallujah.jpg

“Marines are more focused than soldiers,” Sergeant Balley told me. “If we get in a fire fight, you will see.”

But I could see it, a little, even though we weren’t being shot at. They do seem to make themselves a little bit harder to injure or kill than Army soldiers. The differences aren’t huge, but they are there. One of the reasons I felt relaxed in Fallujah was that they seemed so over-prepared for everything.

Man Behind Marine Fallujah.jpg

One of the peculiar things about Fallujah now is that, for some people at least, it’s less dangerous than some other places in the Middle East, even some that are full of tourists.

“Our interpreter is from Jordan,” said Lieutenant Laughlin. “He’s been with us for four years. He doesn’t go home. There have been threats against his life from former Iraqi insurgents who live there. He is actually safer here in Iraq because we protect him.”


I walked the streets of Fallujah at night with a platoon of Marines looking for intelligence tips from local civilians. They weren’t fishing for information about anything in particular. They just wanted to ask around the neighborhood in case anyone was up to something suspicious.

We passed through a reeking garbage dump on a empty lot as wild dogs barked. I ducked beneath dangling wires and almost ran straight into a group of young Neighborhood Watch men carrying AK-47s and lurking like dark wraiths in the night. Plastic bags snarled in razor wire billowed in the soft breeze sighing in from the desert beyond the city’s walls.

Local civilians grumbled about the price of gasoline and the lack of electricity, as they often do, but no one said they had seen anything suspicious. The one thing they were actually happy about was the dramatic and apparently stable restoration of calm.

Later, though, we came across something suspicious ourselves.

I rode along in the first truck in a convoy of Humvees on the way back to India Company’s Forward Operating Base. Our driver slammed on his brakes and said something to the sergeant in the passenger seat. The sergeant stepped out of the vehicle and walked in front of the headlights.

“What’s going on?” I said to the driver.

“There’s a mound of dirt in the road that was not there this morning,” the driver said.

I found it amazing that such a small detail was noticed.

“Why is that a problem exactly?” I said.

“It’s in the shape of a speed bump,” he said.

I stood up as much as I could in the back seat. Sure enough, dirt had been carefully piled up on the road in the exact shape of a speed bump. Someone had done this on purpose.

“It could be a pressure-plate IED,” he said, but he did not need to say so. Those IEDs are notorious, and they do look exactly like speed bumps. The explosives are triggered by the weight of a Humvee or Bradley.

The sergeant gingerly pushed dirt aside with his boot. He had better hope there wasn’t an insurgent lurking somewhere who could manually set it off. I was safe in the back of an up-armored vehicle, but there’s no way he could survive an explosion from right underneath him.

But there was nothing under the dirt, and no one triggered anything manually.

“It’s fine,” the sergeant said as he climbed back in.

“Why on earth would someone push dirt into the street like that?” I said, unconvinced that everything was actually fine. It was obviously formed by hand for a specific purpose. What on earth for?

“I don’t know, sir,” the sergeant said. “Iraqis are weird.”

Perhaps someone wants Marines to become complacent about piles of dirt in the shape of a speed bump so they’ll slowly learn to just drive over the top of them. But it’s also true that some Iraqis really are weird.

“We’ve had kids out here build fake IEDs on the side of the road,” Lieutenant Laughlin said. “Last time it happened was right out in from of the station. We saw what looked like an IED so we got out of our Humvees all concerned. Then some kids jumped out and yelled Mister! Mister! Chocolate! Chocolate! They know they can get us to stop with fake IED, but we won’t give them candy when they do. Our psy-ops guys put out fliers telling kids not to do this. It’s dangerous. But they don’t understand, or they don’t care.”


The next day we heard gunfire, and we heard a lot of it.

I walked the perimeter of Fallujah with a platoon from the Khaderi station. Corporal Hayes was in charge of my security. The desert was on our left, houses on our right.

Northern Edge of Fallujah.jpg

“Route Kathy was hit with a Katyusha rocket in early October,” he said. Route Kathy was one of the main streets through the neighborhood which we would shortly be walking along. “It was fired from six miles away.”

There is nothing you can do if a Katyusha rocket explodes next to you. You’re just dead.

Iraqi Police officers joined us on the patrol. They walked in front so it would appear to the locals that they were leading. But they were not really leading.

“They’re too bunched up!” one of the Marines said. “Tell them to spread out.”

Our interpreter told the Iraqi Police to spread out. Too many people too close together are more likely to be shot at.

The Marines carried their regular rifles, and a few brought grenade launchers, too. One Marine fingered a smoke grenade – they’re useful if you come under fire from snipers. Some carried signal flares to be fired in the air if we made contact with the enemy. Overwatch at the station will see the flares and send reinforcements. I carried a high-tech signal device that Lieutenant Mike Barefoot had given me in case I got separated from the platoon.

Several unemployed Iraqi men loitered and waved hello as we passed.

“There’s movement on the roof of that house,” one Marine said and pointed to a house just outside the city on our left. I could barely make out the figure of a person on top.

House Outside Fallujah.jpg

“There’s two people up there now,” said another.

They were too far away to accurately shoot at us with anything but a sniper rifle. But they could give away our position to somebody closer if that’s what they wanted to do. It didn’t seem like a big deal to me. But complacency kills, so I stopped walking in a straight line and started to zig zag at random to make myself harder to shoot at. It was not because I was paranoid. I never felt nervous in Fallujah, not even after what happened next. I’ve just learned to do a few things that soldiers and Marines do to make myself a harder target. I do it casually now, often times without even thinking about it.

We walked a few moments in silence and kept our eyes on the roof of that house. Suddenly we heard automatic gunfire behind us.

“Shit,” I said. “That sounds close.”

“It sounds bad,” I heard a Marine say.

More gun shots.

“It sounds like it’s coming from that checkpoint we just passed,” Corporal Hayes said.

Then there were more shots, also automatic, and they sounded different. More than one kind of weapon was being fired.

“That’s intense,” I said. And it was. It sounded like a full-blown fire fight had just broken out.

“That’s worse than anything we’ve seen since we got here,” said another Marine.

Two Bullet Holes Fallujah.jpg

We crossed the street and leaned up against the outer walls of the houses.

“We have to get you back,” Corporal Hayes said to me.

“Back to Khaderi?” I said.

He nodded.

“I don’t want to go back,” I said.

I was slightly surprised to hear myself say this. I probably should have been scared. A fire fight in Fallujah is nothing to shrug at. But I wanted to see what would happen. And of course I would stay in the rear where I wouldn’t be personally shot at.

Several Marines sized me up in ways they hadn’t before. They were obviously trying to determine if I would be a liability for them in a fight, if I would need to be babysat while they were being shot at. No one objected when I said I didn’t want to go back, but I have no idea what they were thinking.

Crouching Marine and Small Boy Falllujah.jpg

“Is that coming from the train station?” someone said.

Oh, I thought. Yeah. The Forward Operating Base that had been converted from a train station was only a few hundred meters away.

“Maybe they’re test firing at the station?”

As soon as somebody said it, I was sure that’s what it was. The shots were probably on the practice range. Fallujah is no longer a war zone.

But we didn’t know. The Marines are supposed to be warned in advance when the range goes live so they don’t overreact and think there’s a war on. Every single one of them first thought what we were hearing was combat.

“Khaderi isn’t answering.”

“That has to be the range, right?”

“The shots are too consistent. It isn’t a fight.”

“Somebody should have told us.”

We still weren’t sure, though. No one at Khaderi answered the call. But everyone was slowly convinced that the gun shots were practice rounds on the range.

The platoon’s radio squawked. It was Khaderi. Twenty minutes from now, we were told, they will be gun shots at the train station.

“Nice of them to tell us,” Corporal Hayes said.

Clouds and City Fallujah.jpg

It was only then that I noticed that none of the Iraqis on the street reacted in any noticeable way to what had just happened. They didn’t take cover when we did. We were all briefly certain that war had returned to Fallujah. But the Iraqi kids still played in the street. They did not run and hide. Their parents did not yank them inside. Try to imagine that in an American city.

One of the Marines later told me that military dogs, while they’re being trained, are put into rooms with loud speakers. The first half hour of Stephen Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan -- that terrifying scene where hundreds of soldiers are shot and blown to pieces while storming the beach at Normandy – are played over and over again until the dogs no longer fear the sounds of war.

Iraqis who live in Fallujah have heard more shots fired in anger than I ever will. Machine gun fire has been the sound track in that city for a long time. War is just a shot away, but even the children of Fallujah won’t flinch if it breaks out again.

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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Many thanks in advance.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:04 AM | Comments (56)