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
Iraq.”

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.

Zarqawi.jpg
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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Many thanks in advance.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at January 8, 2008 9:33 PM
Comments

Michael,

This was a great article. If people lack the time to read the entire piece, then I wish that they would at least read this paragraph:

"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."

I wish that you would permanently post that at the top of your website. I'd like to rent a billboard and plaster that quote across it. I'd like to have it printed on bumper stickers and then stick them to the foreheads of people like Ann Coulter and Robert Spencer and every radio host and caller who ignorantly declare that there are no moderate Muslims because they never speak out.

Posted by: Saint in Exile Author Profile Page at January 8, 2008 10:19 PM

Saint in Exile,

The irony about all this is that Ann Coulter, etc, could blame "the liberal media" for ignoring moderate Muslims and promoting the likes of CAIR in their place, and she would have a point. But she isn't smart enough to have figured that out.

I see from your blog that you have been to Iraq. So you know how it really is over there.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at January 8, 2008 11:49 PM

Michael,

Thank you very much.

Posted by: leo Author Profile Page at January 9, 2008 5:55 AM

"If it bleeds, it leads" goes very well when discussing why moderate Muslims do not get the attention they deserve. It gets boring hearing Imam after Imam denounce terrorism. Showing a video of a person being beheaded by extremists draws much more of an audience, and that is what modern media is all about.

It is the extremists like bin Laden and even Ann Colter that get all of the attention when they should really be marginalised.

Anyway, Michael, let me give you a piece of advice when around Muslims and Middle Easterners. Never show any sort of interest in a piece of property of theirs. When you showed interest in his cup, even to ask a question about it, it was more than likely that he was going to insist that you take it.

There is a belief in the MENA (Middle East/North Africa) in what is called "the evil eye". It is felt that envy or other such feelings can cause major issues in people's lives. So when you expressed interest, however limited, in a possesion of his, it is standard for a person from the area to either offer or even insist that you take it rather than worry about "the eye".

Some people wear medalions to ward off the eye, such as the "hand of fatima" common in North Africa and other places. Others will wear or display Qur'anic passages that are said to ward off the eye.

You might have already known this, but it is a good thing to remember. It isnt just the eye, being seen as being giving and generous is a large part of the culture and they will often give you what they cannot afford to be seen in such a light.

I think many people would be surprised how much America and the West is looked up to by Muslims and the people in the MENA. Even when they dislike our government it often seems it is from a sense of disappointment, that they expected better of our government, rather than any sort of hatred.

I know a "Tom" here, but his real name is Taysir. Several people I know went to Iraq to translate for the Americans. Many came back because even at $120,000 a year it wasnt worth it. Too many people were dying. They might be rethinking it now. But I guess when you live in the US you dont have to worry about you or your family being hunted down and killed.

Good work, as usual.

Posted by: Marc Author Profile Page at January 9, 2008 6:15 AM

Great piece Michael.

I saw the comment they made that al Qaeda was there but operating in secret before something.

Can you clarify if this meant before the U.S. invasion? Before the assault on Fallujah or something else Michael?

Posted by: ikez78 Author Profile Page at January 9, 2008 6:43 AM

Hi Michael,

I’ve been reading your site for the last few months and I think you do an excellent job in writing the truth, whether good or bad, about the situation in Iraq.

Your recent dispatches in al-Falluja compelled me to post a comment, especially after the vitriol that has been waged against you by extremists on the Left.

I studied Arabic in college, and while I am not a journalist nor have I visited Iraq, I have had the opportunity to chat with thousands of Iraqis on the internet over the last couple of years. In particular, I have recently met men around my age (24) who reside in al-Falluja and I have discussed in detail many of the same points you cover throughout your postings.

The city, at least for the time being, is calm. While nearly all Iraqis I have ever spoken with have a deep mistrust for the U.S. Army including those in Falluja, the ones I spoke with at least have an understanding that with the terrorists gone, the city can now focus on rebuilding. They describe the city as safer and have expressed to me their trust in the Fallujan police.

Interestingly enough, every Fallujan I have talked with agreed to the fact that their city, as well as neighboring ar-Ramadi, at first welcomed al-Qa’ida to fight the Americans. Like you mentioned in a previous dispatch, corruption and greed are partly responsible for the conditions that many Iraqis face. Unfortunately, providing moral and physical support to terrorists in Falluja in the early years of the war also made residents in those cities culpable to the atrocities they endured. I can only hope that with the city pacified and Americans providing their security, their paradigms about US forces will begin to change.

Posted by: Astro_Lander Author Profile Page at January 9, 2008 7:02 AM

Good stuff. I think the subject of al Qaeda in Iraq deserves a serious re-examination. Our evidence shows Saddam was working with the global Islamic jihad movement for many years. Thanks so much for your fine work.

Ray Robison is the author of Both In One Trench: Saddam's Secret Terror Documents'

http://www.bothinonetrench.com

Posted by: Ray robison Author Profile Page at January 9, 2008 7:59 AM

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the - Web Reconnaissance for 01/09/2008 A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the day...so check back often.

Posted by: David M Author Profile Page at January 9, 2008 8:11 AM

Nice piece. You are doing important work.

Doug Santo
Pasadena, CA

Posted by: Doug Santo Author Profile Page at January 9, 2008 8:17 AM

I, personally, didn't understand the reference
to "Ann Coulter...", and it doesn't matter. I understand what you and the Iraqis are saying. As usual, things get done without the proper information necessary to clearly understand, not only the job but the results of having done it a certain way. The Western mind finds it difficult to understand other cultures; dictators; Al Qaeda and other terrorists. Add to that mix, ideology, partisanship and the hatred spewing out of the body politic since the current Bush term began and you get the situation you have today. Here, in Iraq and all over the world, brutality seems to be the one common denominator with more blood the better. America's concept of freedom is truly unknown in the world and may never come to fruition. But, as childlike as we are, we are interested in helping others...but we and the recipient doesn't know what it is we need to actually do for the other. I truly hope that the Iraqis can find a modicum of what they perceive as freedom. I truly fear that the American experiment is over and pray that it is not.

Posted by: sharinlite Author Profile Page at January 9, 2008 8:32 AM

Dear Michael, I think this has been one of your best post for a while - and I hope you'll do more posts based on interviews with Iraqis and focusing on their experiences, rather than the military embeds. I could do without hearing about Coalition troops for a while. More local colour, please! I this enjoyed this piece because of the nuances in Iraqi opinion you collected: the occasional longing for Saddam's rule (“We appreciated the leadership of Mr. President Saddam Hussein") and the disdain for the Coalition (“Americans aren't here to help Iraqi civilians, actually,”). Great writing.

Posted by: NickW Author Profile Page at January 9, 2008 8:39 AM

Michael, excellent article. The one thing that bothered me though was the remark that they, Iraqi police/army, needed more money and arms. Now, was that remark made in reference to the current economic situation, what with the oil revenue issue apparently not solved, or are they expecting the US to continuously provide aid even if the oil money is equitably distributed?

OT
On another issue. I feel I need to defend Mr. Spencer. At no time have I seen in his writing or speeches, Mr. Spencer stating that there are no moderate muslims. In fact he does believe there are moderate muslims, just that they live in fear of their more violent fellow muslims if they speak out and try to restart discussions involving islam and what it means. For the whole issue about jihad is moot unless those within islam are willing and able to freely challenge those who advocate the more violent aspects of islam.
That is all I plan to say on this particular matter as I have no intent detract discussion from this article.
And if my statement should cause trouble, my apologies in advance to Michael and the readers/commentators. Thanks.

Posted by: Kevin Author Profile Page at January 9, 2008 9:49 AM

ikez78: Can you clarify if this meant before the U.S. invasion?

He meant before the US invasion of Iraq.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at January 9, 2008 10:31 AM

NickW: the disdain for the Coalition (“Americans aren't here to help Iraqi civilians, actually,”)

I think what he meant (and he was not being very articulate) is that even though the US is helping Iraqi citizens, that is not their real purpose in Iraq. The real purpose is to fight the insurgents.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at January 9, 2008 10:37 AM

I have known many moderate Muslims, they are the majority and they speak out all over the place. I do not believe Mr. Spencer speaks Arabic so I doubt he really has a good grasp on what Muslims or Arabs think.

I see what can be called moderate Muslims speaking out all of the time, all over Arabic speaking TV channels that I get here in the USA. Al Jazeera, call in shows on various networks like ART, discussion programs on the dozen or so major Arabic channels I can get here. Unlike Mr Spencer, I speak Arabic.

If you are not really looking for moderate Muslims you'll be hard pressed to find them. Add in the fact that Spencer does not speak ANY language that is spoken in the Muslim world and it is very clear why he thinks the way he does about moderate Muslim.

From reading him you'd think the entire Muslim world are mosque going religious zealots. You want to find Muslim moderates? They are all over the place.

Spencer has his own personal agenda, partially based on his own religion, that drives his ideas.

For me it is crazy that we have a whole load of self proclaimed "experts" on Islam and the Middle East since 9/11. Odd that 99% of them have spent little or no time in Muslim countries and 99.99% of them do not speak even one language from a Muslim majority country.

Imagine if during the Cold War all of the "experts" on Russia spoke no Russian, Korean, Vietnamese, German, you name it, and had never visited or lived in any of the countries involved? They'd have been laughed off the studio set, nothing they wrote would have been worth more than toilet paper.

Now we have people with zero skill sets that matter to the area they are supposed to be experts on, and what is sadder, is that so many people pay attention to them!

Anyway, enough, it is just one of my pet peeve issues.

Posted by: Marc Author Profile Page at January 9, 2008 10:46 AM

Michael,
They said something about al Qaeda operating in secret before the invasion. I am trying to figure out what exactly they meant by that.

Was it a secret to Saddam's government? A secret to the U.S.? To the Iraqi people? To everyone but al Qaeda? Who knew about the secret.

I know it's kind of a minor detail in the overall interview (which is an excellent one) but it's something that piqued my interest.

Posted by: ikez78 Author Profile Page at January 9, 2008 11:10 AM

ikez78k,

The way I interpreted that comment is that the members of Al Qaeda in Iraq (most of whom are Iraqi nationals even though most leaders are foreigners) were present in Iraq under Saddam but couldn't act. Whether they were organized in any way, I don't know. I don't think he meant they were secretly organized, but it didn't occur to me until now that he might have.

I could ask better questions if live interviews had a "pause" button and I could review transcripts, but of course real world conversations don't work that way.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at January 9, 2008 11:15 AM

Marc: I have known many moderate Muslims, they are the majority and they speak out all over the place. I do not believe Mr. Spencer speaks Arabic so I doubt he really has a good grasp on what Muslims or Arabs think.

I speak very little Arabic myself, but I spend a huge amount of my time around Arabs and Muslims. Many of them speak English, as you know, and I often have a translator handy when they don't.

Spencer might change his attitude somewhat if he got out into the field a bit more. He has some of the same problems that ivory tower left-wing academics have. He has read more books on this subject than I have, but his real-world contact with his subject is limited.

The ideal "expert" would read piles of books, speak the language, and do regular field work. Very few people do all of those things.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at January 9, 2008 11:21 AM

Michael,

Many of them speak English, as you know, and I often have a translator handy when they don't.

Marc has a point about the value of speaking the language. The translation lag can mask the nuances of a situation, sometimes intentionally because there is no perfectly neutral translator. I'm certainly going to put some more effort into learning the language on the next trip.

For a lot of what we are looking for, observation of attitudes as well as other non-verbal cues are valuable to gaining insight. I would like to do more video work, even if it is just talking head stuff, because it helps get some perspective to watch the reactions.

Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell Author Profile Page at January 9, 2008 12:06 PM

michael great post. one thing i'm missing from this story is a sense of how dangerous it is for you to do this reporting. I think everyone has heard of reporters kidnapped and killed, is there danger for you doing this sort of reporting, or is the danger that other reporters face exaggerated?

Posted by: bonerici Author Profile Page at January 9, 2008 12:41 PM

You are spot on Michael, you as well Patrick. There is NO substitute for experience. I am not a fan of the lefty "experts" on this issue anymore than I am of the hard right "experts" like Spencer.

Honestly, I speak several languages, German and Arabic, and to a lesser extent French, there are some words, phrases and ideas that just do not neatly translate. Some words, especially in Arabic, will take a few sentences or even paragraphs to explain.

Arabic is harder than most languages because it is so different in it's structure from Western languages, not to mention in it's usage it is so regional. There are entire dictionaries devoted to Iraqi Arabic, as opposed to Khaliji Arabic, Levant Arabic, or even worse, Maghrebi (North African) Arabic. Imagine the difference between High German and conversational/dialect German, but on steriods.

Arabs, unlike the French (lol) will actually be very appreciative and warm up to you if you learn nothing more than a few phases of Arabic. It actually goes a long way and it is well worth it to learn as much as you can even if it is very hard.

The drawback is just how hard it is to learn. Civilians and members of the US military who attend the school in California go full time for 18 months. 40 hours a week to learn the language, culture and the like. Many, if not most of the people who had attended only this 18 months of training were useless when they hit the ground in Iraq.

18 months of full time Arabic was just not enough to be able to handle translation duties on the ground and in the Iraqi dialect. I believe they do teach some dialect at the school, but most of it is in MSA (Modern Standard Arabic) or in Arabic "Fus7a".

MSA is about as helpful in speaking Arabic on the street as learning English from Beowulf would be in speaking to people in LA. People just dont speak in MSA/Fus7a except on TV news/books and religious circles.

This is exactly why the DoD hired so many native Arabic speakers, through contractors, and paid them $120,000 a year to do what the military translators should have been able to do.

I have to give the military translators a break however, they dont get enough training, and before the Iraqi invasion never got enough time on the ground learning dialect.

The translators I worked with were mainly meant to translate written and or recorded transmissions that they could listen to over and over again and grab the dictionary next to them and look up words when needed. Never mind the fact that they were REQUIRED to have a second/backup language, as if Arabic on it's own wasnt hard enough. Most of the people I worked with had Hebrew as their second language as it is rather closed to Arabic.

It is encouraging to know that the Arabic programs around the USA have ramped up big time. They even offer in at least one high school in the Northern Virginia area.

As to Spencer, he is one of those that made up his mind and has decided to search out the information that conforms to his ideas. The Scientific Method, only backwards. Anything that goes against his ideas will be rejected.

My favourite one is when Spencer and his lik call for moderate Muslims to speak up. When they do they are called liars and accused of using "taqqiya". Taqiyaa is a term in Arabic that almost no Muslims have a clue about, never mind the fact that it is historically a Shi'a/minority Muslim concept.

So this is how it works, ask for moderates, when you get them tell everyone you cannot believe them because Islam allows people to lie. Damned if you do, damned if you dont.

The concept is that Islam is a religion of liars, so you cannot believe anything they say. If so, why ask for "moderates" in the first place, as by definition, there is no such thing as a moderate Muslim or a truthful one.

They arent interested in finding moderate Muslims, only those former Muslims who have rejected Islam, ie Hirsi Ali or Ibn Wariq.

Posted by: Marc Author Profile Page at January 9, 2008 12:57 PM

Patrick: Marc has a point about the value of speaking the language. The translation lag can mask the nuances of a situation, sometimes intentionally because there is no perfectly neutral translator. I'm certainly going to put some more effort into learning the language on the next trip.

I agree, but it takes years of hard study to learn the nuances of the language. And, of course, there is no such thing as "the language" in the Middle East. "Arabic" doesn't really exist as one language. Half the vocabulary I picked up in Lebanon is useless in Iraq. There are many Arabic languages spoken in the Middle East, along with a few different Kurdish languages, Hebrew, Turkish, and Farsi.

I would love to be able to sit down and study this stuff if someone would pay my bills while I checked out of the world and worked on that for a while. But no one will do that. I don't have the time, and I certainly don't have the money required to do this in the near term.

If I have to choose between learning non-nuanced Iraqi Arabic and writing a book, I will write a book. If I were independently wealthy, maybe I could slowly work on both at the same time, but I'm not, so I can't. That's just the way it is. Academics have time for this, but I don't because I do field work in my "spare" time.

By all means study the language, Pat, but don't expect to be able to pick up any conversational nuances before the next trip.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at January 9, 2008 1:06 PM

Bonerici: one thing i'm missing from this story is a sense of how dangerous it is for you to do this reporting

Some places in Iraq are very dangerous. Other places, only a little. Fallujah is slightly dangerous, but not enough for me to worry about it too much. Baghdad and Diyala Province are still pretty bad, although less bad than they were.

The odds of anything bad happening to one indidivual are pretty small unless you spend a lot of time in the worst places. Then the odds start to look ugly. If you were to spend years embedded with combat troops and getting in fire fights on a regular basis, you should by no means expect to come out unscathed.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at January 9, 2008 1:12 PM

Marc: Civilians and members of the US military who attend the school in California go full time for 18 months. 40 hours a week to learn the language, culture and the like. Many, if not most of the people who had attended only this 18 months of training were useless when they hit the ground in Iraq.

Exactly. That is one reason why I haven't done it. I couldn't pay for that even if I wanted to. It is just not an option for me. By no means is that the best way for me to spend my time right now.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at January 9, 2008 1:15 PM

Marc: My favourite one is when Spencer and his lik call for moderate Muslims to speak up. When they do they are called liars and accused of using “taqqiya”. Taqiyaa is a term in Arabic that almost no Muslims have a clue about, never mind the fact that it is historically a Shi'a/minority Muslim concept.

This is one of my absolutely biggest pet peeves. Whenever I try to explain this to big mouths who think they know everything, I am accused of being a naif who doesn't know anything. (Eyeroll.)

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at January 9, 2008 1:19 PM

For a lot of what we are looking for, observation of attitudes as well as other non-verbal cues are valuable to gaining insight. I would like to do more video work, even if it is just talking head stuff, because it helps get some perspective to watch the reactions.

Patrick actually makes a very interesting point. When I was stationed over there, we were fortunate enough to have a fluent soldier in our unit who would translate for us when talking with folks. The biggest benefit, it turns out, was not the translation itself, but his ability to pick up on certain nuances (especially if someone was "lying") only a native (he was Jordanian as well) would know.

I shouldn't say "lying", per se, only because I learned that not only are the Iraqis generous to almost a fault, but their culture also possesses them to tell you what you want to hear, whether it is true or not. It's hard for other Americans to understand, but in their minds they are not "lying" in the slightest. It is an attempt to be kind and to please their guests.

Did you experience anything like this, Michael, during your travels or interviews of the local populace?

Posted by: Rob Author Profile Page at January 9, 2008 1:19 PM

Pertaining to Saint in Exile and Marc....Robert Spencer does speak arabic and he has over 20 years studying islam and history. The truth of the matter is their is moderate muslims but there is no such thing as moderate islam...Islam in its true form is the most hateful and intolerant ideology on the planet at this time (just look at the life of mohammed and how many people he murdered and raped, remember that he is the picture of the perfect man) and it is a huge part of the terrorist problem. It is as simple as that. If you can refute anything that Robert spencer says you should do so, but so far no one has been able too.

Posted by: socalinfidel Author Profile Page at January 9, 2008 1:20 PM

Rob: Did you experience anything like this, Michael, during your travels or interviews of the local populace?

Yes.

Sometimes it is obvious when someone is not being sincere. Sometimes it is obvious when someone is being sincere. At least half the time it is not at all obvious one way or the other.

Body language and tone of voice convey a lot of information that gets lost when I quote people. Occasionally, therefore, I will indicate obvious sincerity or obvious lack of sincerity in my writing.

For example, a lot of times I'll meet someone who generically says "America good" as part of their greeting to me. I never take that as anything more than mere politeness.

When someone says something like "I will kill myself if the Americans leave Iraq," I take that very seriously. (Someone did actually say that to me.)

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at January 9, 2008 1:28 PM

Socalinfidel: If you can refute anything that Robert spencer says you should do so, but so far no one has been able too.

Did you read the article, or just the comments thread? Do I need to quote myself again here?

Islam is more than just the Koran and the life of Mohammed. It is a varied and complex civilization as well as a book. Spencer is basically right when he talks about theology. He has little experience with how Middle Eastern people actually live and think.

Most Muslims have never read the Koran and have no idea what it says.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at January 9, 2008 1:32 PM

Michael,

I want to apologize. This was not my intent. I just should have let "sleeping dogs lie."

Posted by: Kevin Author Profile Page at January 9, 2008 1:42 PM

Hi Michael,
I understand what you are saying and I did read your article. I read all of your articles and think you are doing an amazing job there. If I had more money I would contribute to your cause, haha. I understand that Islam is a complex civilization, most are. but when an ideology is born out of hate it breeds hate. You know better than me but I believe that Iraqis want peace. They want to work and make a good living and take care of their families just like everyone else in the world. But all of the islamic schools of learning condone violence. the Sunna, Hadith, quran...all of it does. in Islam there is no golden rule. So violence is of course going to happen. Again, the large majority of muslims will be moderate because they just want to live and take care of their families and be peaceful. Even though they may not read or understand the quran it still is taught in the mosques. I can understand what you say about him knowing the basics of the theology but not understand how middle eastern people actually live and think. I should email him and see what his thoughts are about that. You can too, his email is director@jihadwatch.org . I just want what is best for the Iraqis. They have been through so much, from before the war, through the war, till now. And I think I speak for all of us when I say that a functioning, peaceful iraq will be good for the people of iraq, the middle east, America, and the world. Thank you again Michael.

Matt

Posted by: socalinfidel Author Profile Page at January 9, 2008 1:45 PM

Not sure what you're apologizing for Kevin. You have nothing to worry about here.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at January 9, 2008 1:50 PM

Socalinfidel,

I think we're on the same page here.

I am not going to email Robert Spencer because I have no desire to get into an argument with him about this. I know from past experience that it would suck up a lot of my time that I need to spend writing.

I don't think Specer is an idiot or anything like that. We just have a very different way of approaching this subject. He is interested in the religion as it exists on paper, and I am interested in how the people of the Middle East live and in think in the 21st Century. The Koran is pretty harsh, as Spencer rightly documents, but Muslims are complicated people, like all people are. Their personalities and views on the world are shaped by many things. That book is only one of them, and it's a very small one for most.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at January 9, 2008 1:55 PM

My family is currently sponsoring a young woman Iraqi that worked as a translator for the Army at the Baghdad police college for three years and then for a year at a reconstructions office, where my husband met her and arranged for us to sponsor her. She has been living with us for almost 3 months. One of the things Michael does not report about and I believe it would be in many ways impossible for him to do so is how the women are doing. And while I and my husband(going on 3 out of the last four years in Iraq) have always held out hope for the future of Iraq, since our guest has arrived I have sunk into pessimism. While she is outgoing, well educated (masters in english linguistics) extremely tolerant of religious differences(She is a Shia) I have begun to find the general pervasive distrust and negativity she displays to be disheartening. She has said that much of the society began to break down at first in the 80's during the war and especially during sanctions. Her descriptions of tribal society even within urban educated areas do not engender much hope. She has told me stories of how cadets at the police college trashed, soiled and physically ripped apart the brand new building just because it wasn't theirs. She is astounded by our open houses and yet unable to grasp that I don't find it neccessary to know exactly what my neighbor is doing which is why it works. I am beginning to understand what they mean by the shame culture and the fact that women are always in the wrong, blamed for things beyond their control and unable to defend themselves. When I hear stories of how her brother beat her and broke her sisters nose in a public setting and how it was really her sister's fault it makes me think the entire country suffers from battered wife syndrome.
She will not trust any Arabs that she has met here so far, and to her credit is suprised by the lack of assimilation by Muslims living her for 20 years or more. My Egyptian coptic Christian neighbor is an exception to her distrust, but that is because he is Christian. Her visit to a Mosque in Ohio left her somewhat stunned as the Iman preached fervent support for the Jihadi's.
She does believe everyone lies, in our discussions she cannot begin to grasp the concept of an ethical(at least marginally) society that operates under a system of laws.At this point my husband assures me that some of it is just her personality, and there is no way to minimize the trauma she has been through. But whether it is the Arabic culture or the influence of Islam in many ways what I have learned from her so far is not encouraging.

Posted by: southside Author Profile Page at January 9, 2008 1:56 PM

:) I feel better now, i definitely did not want to offend you, haha. You are very right that so many things shape a persons way of thinking. Keep doing what your doing because we need to hear unbiased reviews of what is going on over there, and I feel you are the best source for it. Back to work I go trying to help people get out of debt over the phone. I hope Iraq doesnt start giving their people high interest credit cards when their economy pics up :) Thanks again Michael.

Matt

Posted by: socalinfidel Author Profile Page at January 9, 2008 2:02 PM

Southside: When I hear stories of how her brother beat her and broke her sisters nose in a public setting and how it was really her sister's fault it makes me think the entire country suffers from battered wife syndrome.

Absolutely.

Iraq is getting better, but sometimes I despair of that place. I have seen progress with my own eyes, but I have also seen a lot of what you heard from the Iraqi woman you're sponsoring.

Whatever happens in Iraq, it will be a messed up country in many many ways for the rest of my life. I hope I'm wrong, but honestly I doubt it.

The level that Lebanon has advanced to is, in my view, unattainable for Iraq in the short or medium term. Lebanon is so far and away more advanced than Iraq, and yet we all know what kinds of troubles still hang over that country and will continue to do so for a long time.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at January 9, 2008 2:03 PM

Thank you Michael. I still feel like I initiate a hijacking of the thread away from the issues of your article. But that is my problem.

I am wondering if they are wanting financial aid, for equipment and training, short term, until the revenue sharing is decided, or if they are thinking of having financial aid long term? Mainly because long term financial aid can be detrimental to the formation of an independent nation. Iraq would be far better off and the chances of democracy surviving if Iraq achieves financial independence. Short term is fine, as a helping hand while the situation improves.

Posted by: Kevin Author Profile Page at January 9, 2008 2:05 PM

Michael Totten

Thank you for your hard work. I found the references to the role of al Qaeda interesting and I appreciate them as they confirm my biases.

Regarding your statement: "Most Muslims have never read the Koran and have no idea what it says."

How would you know unless you've conducted a survey? Would it be fair to say that Muslims who have "no idea of what the Koran says" are not really Muslims? I can't speak for Mr. Spencer but I wonder whether he wouldn't agree with that statement.

I suggest that you can't really tell much about whether a person is a religious extremist unless you know what they believe. To know that you need to be able to discuss the tenets of their religion.

For example do they believe Islam forbids and punishes apostasy. If it does, how can they claim it is a moderate religion? And if it is a tenet of Islam and they reject it are they practicing Muslims? (This could lead to a discusson of Catholics and birth control but it seems to me one tenet is a little more complelling than the other as it involves not just how you live but how you demand that others live).

I know few Muslims but if I were to have a close realtionship with any I would want to be able to speak freely to them, just as I would want them to be able to speak freely to me about my religious beliefs.

Regardless of what position one took on the invasion of Iraq can we not agree that it would be morally wrong for America to leave before Iraq is well and truly pacified and capable of maintaining peace?

Posted by: Terry Gain Author Profile Page at January 9, 2008 2:49 PM

Terry Gain: I know few Muslims but if I were to have a close realtionship with any I would want to be able to speak freely to them

Of course. I always speak freely to the Muslims I meet. The only exception, ever, is when I was face to face with Hezbollah.

Regarding your statement: “Most Muslims have never read the Koran and have no idea what it says.” How would you know unless you've conducted a survey?

It's pretty widely understood that the average practicing Muslims learns of the Koran through his or her imam. Some religious schools require young boys to actually memorize the Koran, but this kind of instruction is rare in most places.

Most Muslims take their religion more seriously than Christians do, but nowhere near as seriously as the Koran says they should. Only very rarely do I see a Muslim stop and pray when they are "supposed to." Almost all of them ignore the call to prayer, even in the most conservative places. The most fanatically religious place I have ever been is Egypt, but it's true there as well.

Egypt is so fanatical about Islam that it almost conforms to the stereotype. I found it very unsettling.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at January 9, 2008 3:30 PM

Michael,
I think the key will lie in what happens to the women. If it continues to become increasingly Islamic and the women more oppressed I see a bad end. There is something particularl noxious about the combination of Islam, tribal culture and power. My friend is very observant, prays five times a day although will sometimes juggle the times a bit and will forgo for travel. We have spent a few humorous monents trying to determine Mecca.
I lived in Southern Italy for a couple of years and in many ways much of the culture was similar. Corrupt, tribal(family), conspiratorial and while women had a great deal more respect in practicality they were pretty restricted, it was a very male dominated society.
Thanks for all your great reporting.

Posted by: southside Author Profile Page at January 9, 2008 3:44 PM

Michael,

By all means study the language, Pat, but don't expect to be able to pick up any conversational nuances before the next trip.

Everything I know about nuances of conversational Kurdish I learned at British Embassy school in Spain as a child. You've seen me dropped into the unexpected cultural situations and deal with it. Some of these things are not educated, but instinctive. You can do it, Jon, Sean, and I can do it. We know people who can't do it, but relatively few of them are invited to your parties.

southside,

I'm really going to get creative next trip about accomplishing some interviews with Iraqi women. There are interviews to be done, but so far our travels mark us as unsuitable to talk to.

Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell Author Profile Page at January 9, 2008 4:29 PM

Michael (and everyone else)

A lot of my talk with Arabs has, naturally, been political in nature. However, what surprised me most was this fact:

Overwhelmingly, the Arabs I have met are conspiratorial to the point of absurdity. Some claim that Mossad or the US government are behind suicide bombings, that the US is slowly plotting to take over the world, even that Bin Laden is a CIA spy (yes, several have told me this). Granted, within any society there will always be thefringe, however based on my own experience, that fringe happens to be the large majority.

Michael or anyone, the next time you talk with an Arab, ask him if he believes Arabs committed the terrorist attacks on 9/11. I'd be curious to hear your experiences about it or from what you've already encountered. I know those that feel the USA government didn't have any part in killing our own citizens are few and far between.

Posted by: Astro_Lander Author Profile Page at January 9, 2008 4:37 PM

Astrolander,

Yes, the conspiracy theories in the Arab world are shockingly mainstream and horrifying. Some of the smarter Kurds I've spoken to (their culture is not very open to this kind of crap) chalk it up to helplessness in an oppressive system and the idea that therefore nothing is really their fault. I don't know about that. It's an observation from outside the culture, but from inside a different part of Iraq. Maybe there's something to it, I don't know. I can't explain it, but I have certainly seen it.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at January 9, 2008 4:44 PM

The Iraqi insurgency -- in a big way -- was spawned by conspiracy theories. The Arabs of Anbar won't admit that, but what they say certainly does suggest it.

Persians are somewhat prone to this kind of thinking as well. The conspiracy theories I encountered while reading Mark Bowden's Guests of the Ayatollah -- his book about the Iran hostage crisis -- led me to believe that a huge part of the US-Iran "cold war" is based on conspiracy theories alone. The people who took those hostages were absolutely batshit insane. They lived in an alternate reality that was not based on Islam, but on a gigantic modern hysterical paranoid "theory."

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at January 9, 2008 4:50 PM

"Some of the smarter Kurds I've spoken to (their culture is not very open to this kind of crap) chalk it up to helplessness in an oppressive system and the idea that therefore nothing is really their fault."

That is exactly right! I have also met many Kurds, and their mentality is remarkably different. They seem to reject terrorism outright and look to progression rather than the blame that is constantly sounded from the Middle East. Undoubtedly a key factor for the success of the Kurdish north. I don't want to come off as anti-Arab as I studied the language simply because I love their culture, but the Arab mindset is truly different in a very frightening way. When vast majorities continue to believe that the US government - and not terrorists - killed 3,000 of our citizens, then we have a fundamental divide right from the beginning as to why the US is so heavily invested in the region. Even American Muslims believe this to a dangerous degree, which is astounding.

Oh and by the way, you're right: I've yet to meet a Kurd who wasn't pro-American and pro-Israeli. Devout Muslims, yet supportive of Israel. Amazing really.

Posted by: Astro_Lander Author Profile Page at January 9, 2008 5:50 PM

AstroLander: I've yet to meet a Kurd who wasn't pro-American and pro-Israeli. Devout Muslims, yet supportive of Israel. Amazing really.

This no longer even amazes me. It did at first, but now I'm over it.

What amazes me, actually, is the sheer number of people who think I don't know what I'm talking about when I mention this in my writing.

There is a lot of naivete in the West about the poisonous ideologies in the Middle East, but at the very same time the extremism is exagerrated. It is very strange that both of these things can be true, and yet it is so.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at January 9, 2008 6:12 PM

I guess this is part of the reason I think of myself as a centrist rather than a liberal or a conservative.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at January 9, 2008 6:13 PM

Off topic question: Does anyone know where I can find a list of primary election dates for all 50 states? Someone must have compiled one. I don't even know when the next one is.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at January 9, 2008 7:21 PM

Wikipedia has good tables on the primary dates.

Dems:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_presidential_election,_2008

Reps:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Republican_Party_%28United_States%29_presidential_primaries%2C_2008

Posted by: Michael B. Author Profile Page at January 9, 2008 8:16 PM

Michael

I hope this link works.

http://politics.nytimes.com/election-guide/2008/primaries/democraticprimaries/index.html

Thank you for taking the time to communicate with us. Stay safe.

Posted by: Terry Gain Author Profile Page at January 9, 2008 8:19 PM

I wouldn't understate the influence of the Koran, and a very positive influence it is.

There may be passages of fire and brimstone, but you can also find in it many passages which would make you believe Islam is a most enlightened and humanistic religion, as for the most part it is.

I say this as a Christian who long ago tired of petty minds taking isolated passages of the Bible to 'prove' their ridiculous ideas about my religion, and who knows a number of Mulsims who are very enlightened and humanistic.

Posted by: Kip Watson Author Profile Page at January 9, 2008 9:21 PM

Excellent article, I really like hearing what the people of Fallujah have to say right now.

First off, right on to Kip above. Pretty much says it all in a nutshell.

It is true that most Muslims do not read the Quran. Its kind of a literacy issue. The dialects that Arabs speak are not written, only spoken, and so if someone is not familiar with classical Arabic as only a very educated person would be (or, increasingly, those with satellite television), they can't read it to begin with. In many mosques, the Imam tells you what is in the Quran, and that is all you have to go on. Which is a problem only when the Imam is distorting the truth.

And as far as the dialect-speaking problem, its huge. In late 2001, the government was lamenting the lack of Arabic speakers who were American citizens. They still are. Most universities teach MSA, which no one actually speaks, and maybe a little Egyptian. So well intentioned graduates go to try and do field work for the government to no avail, because after four years of majoring in Arabic, they can't communicate with most Arabs. Huge. Pet. Peeve. Of mine.

As anecdotal evidence of much of what is being said in this thread, I would like to provide a humorous story from my own travels in Fallujah.

FIrst one is, travelling in the farmland on the outskirts of Fallujah, I had a guy with me who was a document translator for a certain agency in another life, and so he was fluent in MSA. When he would talk to farmers, they would look at him like he was crazy, and say, laughing "Mister, no Arabic! I'm a farmer, are you kidding, I don't speak Arabic! Iraqi, Iraqi!" As this was one of my first experiences there, I thought it was hilarious to hear Arabs saying they didn't speak Arabic.

And as far as religious moderates go, we were staying with this guy in his house for a few days, and got to talking about religion, which is usually a bad idea but he brought it up and was jovial about it. Talked about Christianity, he just loved Christians. Talked about Judaism, he just loved Jews. Then a Chinese guy with us told the man he was Buddhist, and he FLIPPED OUT! "Oh, my God!," he kept repeating in English and throwing his hands up in the air. "No good! You eat DOGS and have no God!" Then my Buddhist friend made the major faux pas of telling the man he had read and studied the Holy Quran.

You can't read the Quran in any language but Arabic. All you can do is study a "translation" (read, perversion) of the Quran. God chose to recite it in Arabic for a reason, is the idea, and you miss all the poetics and subtleties. Which our benevolent host explained to my Buddhist friend in a very, shall we say, direct manner.

So, to sum up my travel advisory for Iraq, don't ever say you read the Quran unless you did it in Arabic, and don't be Buddhist.

Posted by: PDK Author Profile Page at January 9, 2008 11:04 PM

Some good news for a hurting world.

WB-7 First Plasma

The world has just changed. Cheap fusion is on the way. About 5 years.

Posted by: M. Simon Author Profile Page at January 10, 2008 12:51 AM

A few things here. Michael, you mention that The Qur'an can be pretty harsh. Dont you think the same could be said of the Old Testament? I remember growing up in bible school and all of the lessons about God telling the Israelites to slaughter entire races of people, down to the animals and children in these people's towns. It is clear that the Old Testament is rather harsh, even genocidal in some areas, but I dont think anyone would use that as an excuse to think or treat Jews different, outside of full blown anti-Semites. The same should go for Muslims.

As for Kurds and terrorism, it is not that easy to say that Kurds have rejected terrorism. Most of the leaders of the Kurds today have open links and history as members of various "resistance" groups, many of which commited acts which we would today consider to be terrorism.

Maybe some will consider these to be different from the average Middle Eastern terrorist because they are mostly secular in nature, but remember the PLO, PFLP, and DFLP all were secular in nature, with at least one of those groups being founded by a Christian.

The PKK is able to operate in Turkey and Iraq because it has the support of a decent segment of the Kurdish population and some of the people in power. The PKK is responsible for terrorist attacks that have killed hundreds of Turkish civilian and military and are known for female suicide bombers.

So it is not true to say that the Kurds are where they are today because of their attitude towards terrorism. A segment of the Kurdish population has NO issue with terrorism as long as it happens outside of Kurdistan. I liken it to a certain extent to the views of Saudis about terrorism until it started to hit them at home. Support it abroad, hate it at home.

Besides, the Kurds had their own extremist Islamic terrorism group in "Asar al Islam". It was a group made up of mostly Kurds, operating in Kurdish areas of Northern Iraq, with clear connections to AQ.

I say this, but I am a big supporter of Kurds and their right to a free and independent state. I support the idea of a Kurdish state, but not the methods that some groups are willing to use to get it.

Back to the Arabic thing. I knew a fiar amount of Arabic just because of my travels and interactions with Middle Easterners. I decided to go back to school a few years ago and took 4 years of it. It was kind of funny because I thought I'd have a leg up with these classes because I was already sem-conversational.

Turns out that the conversational Arabic I knew was actually a liability. I had to forget a lot of what I had learned in order to pass the classes. This goes back to the different type of Arabic taught in classes and the type spoken on the street.

Dialect is everything in Arabic. If you want to speak a dialect that will be most readily understood I suggest Egyptian. I say Egyptian not because I like the dialect, I dont, but because Arabic media is dominated by Egypt and the dialect is well known because of that. Get Dish Network here in the US and spend some time watching Nile TV and the old Egyptian soaps, sometimes they even have them subtitled in English.

The other dialect, in my experience, that can be most widely understood is Hijazi, which comes from the area of Saudi Arabia around Mecca, Medina and Jeddah. This one is the one I am most familiar with, but is also much harder to get a grasp of because TV shows and music is not done in it. Spending time in that area of Saudi Arabia or around Saudis from there is the only way to pick that up. It is the dialect that probably comes closest to The Qur'an, but in street usage.

As to Muslims knowing The Qur'an, Muslims are just like Christians in many cases and will tell you they are Muslim, but dont spend too much time practicing the religion. Some Muslims, like those in Albania and Bosnia, are known for drinking, so they could hardly be called extremists.

However, almost every Muslim will know at least some of The Qur'an because one must recite verses from it when they pray. Prayer for Muslims is much more strict and follows certain guildlines that most Christian prayers do not. Each section of a Muslim prayer, the amounts of prayer they must say vary on which of the five daily prayers it is, must include at least one verse from The Qur'an.

So technically, if a person says all five prayers a day they will recite at least 20 verses of The Qur'an a day. Also, keep in mind that keeping prayers for a Muslim doesnt always mean they are too religious. I have known Muslims who strictly keep their prayers and fast Ramadan, but then will go out for a beer.

Posted by: Marc Author Profile Page at January 10, 2008 6:11 AM

M. Simon,

The world has just changed. Cheap fusion is on the way. About 5 years.

Transmission loss. Predicate a terawatt fusion generator in hand today: perfectly functional, pour in water, out comes power; no muss, no fuss. It would take five years to plan the site and run the cables. Even then you would be losing gigawatts (about the amount of power provided by all alternative power sources currently available) to transmission loss.

Now, I very much doubt that there will be a gigawatt generator coming out from fusion in my lifetime: 1/1000th of the power shortage we face. We are a long way off from accomplishing the kinds of revolutionary "magic bullet" solutions you are asserting. We have a terawatt problem and are offered megawatt solutions, and notoriously unreliable ones at that.

Even then, there is so much money involved that buying hordes of people of flawless reputation to condemn the latest water engine will be as nothing.

Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell Author Profile Page at January 10, 2008 9:32 AM

You are right Patrick. Intellectual Property is my area of work, I am an electrical engineer and I can tell you people have been saying these sorts of things for years.

People have even filed patent applications for fusion devices with claims like this, the problem with that is that you have to be able to prove that you were able to make it work. That is a problem these types havent been able to get around.

Posted by: Marc Author Profile Page at January 10, 2008 10:01 AM

It looks like it's working, by golly, nearly as I envisioned almost four years ago. Iraqis are becoming "normal" people through helping liberate themselves, unlike the wilted lettuces of France and Germany.

We are now in a position to start considering exporting the "Awakening" process to surrounding hostile states, weakening the central tyranny and strenghtening local and representative power.

Posted by: Solomon2 Author Profile Page at January 10, 2008 5:43 PM

Marc,

This is just one of those things that gets on my nerves because a lot of people refuse to do the math. I have hopes for nuclear, preferably pebble bed modular reactors. That technology is expandable almost indefinitely. Wind and solar only go so far, and their return is much lower.

Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell Author Profile Page at January 10, 2008 6:35 PM

"but I dont think anyone would use that as an excuse to think or treat Jews different, outside of full blown anti-Semites."

You mean like the Saudis, who tell their people that Jews use the blood of children in religious rituals?

Posted by: Gary Rosen Author Profile Page at January 11, 2008 1:30 AM

Gary,

The accusations you take about concerning the Saudis are interesting. I know more than a few Saudis myself so I tell you it would be a mistake to think that the majority buy this rubbish. I am sure there are some that do. Either way, this doesnt mean they have a love for the Jewish people.

Besides, I find it interesting that the Middle East has now become a dumping ground for old discredited European anti-Semitic ideas that are historically not part of the picture in the Middle East.

The "blood libel" belongs to Europe and European history. The Arabs import a lot of stuff from Europe, this is one thing they should have left there.

Patrick,

I am interested in the whole modular reactor idea as well. I think the future is nuclear as well.

Power generation is not my thing, I am more of a telecomm type of guy, but the science is very interesting.

Posted by: Marc Author Profile Page at January 11, 2008 6:04 AM

It's interesting that that Mr. Lasswell has realized the transmission line issue. Yes, it is pretty bad, though not quite as bad as a few years ago when Enron used to burn out lines on purpose in order to drive up rates for their own profit. The short story is that by the early 80s it was clear that the national power grid was overbuilt (save for the NY area, and perhaps California) and expansion wouldn't be needed for at least a decade. Now we have to expand the grid once more.

The other issue with nuclear power is how to dispose of the radioactive waste. It has been calculated that fusion reactors will create MORE radwaste per gigawatt than PWRs - more components will be exposed to radioactivity. That issue has to be addressed.

Posted by: Solomon2 Author Profile Page at January 11, 2008 6:24 AM

Solomon2,

The other issue with nuclear power is how to dispose of the radioactive waste. It has been calculated that fusion reactors will create MORE radwaste per gigawatt than PWRs - more components will be exposed to radioactivity. That issue has to be addressed.

While there is wealth to do research and reward more efficient technologies, new solutions will come about. Building nuclear waste plants that will survive 50,000 years of catastrophies using current technology is very nice, and a great welfare project for civil engineer. It also empowers the fantasies of the most demented people on the planet. Subsidizing horror fiction writ upon reinforced concrete is not an investment in new success.

One of the reasons pebble bed technology is so attractive is that it generates so much less waste. The pebbles are containment devices themselves, and the process contaminates much less reactor material. Because the reactors are much smaller, transporting that waste is not a monumental effort. Unlike using water as a thermal medium, the gas used in PBMR's does not become massively contaminated and have to be disposed of expensively.

Fusion might be useful someday, but it is orders of magnitude more difficult to create and maintain than fission. I am less certain that our materials technology is up to the task of making this process profitable. I am confident that PBMRs are practical, profitable, and safe.

Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell Author Profile Page at January 11, 2008 11:44 AM

So, I have what may be a stupid question. But this morning I was listening to NPR & heard that Pervez Musharref said should the U.S. begin hunting al Qaeda in Pakistan we would be considered invaders and treated as such. At least in the contextless context that I heard this, his remark sounded like a threat to the U.S.

My question (for whoever cares to weigh in and perhaps Patrick would like to) is (A) for all the money we’ve given him (I don’t know how much) we’d be greeted as invaders? I mean, I shouldn’t expect hospitality. We would be invaders. And I don’t endorse invading but it seemed threatening, which struck me as odd coming from someone who has been our beneficiary for some time. (B) Or was this a swipe at the likes of Senator Obama who said in what I found to be glib terms that he would invade Pakistan if President Musharref couldn’t properly rein in al Qaeda there? © Why wouldn’t President Musharref want our help in Waziristan (ok, Pakistan’s extremists would go wild) if he can’t get it to heel? Isn’t that where most of the civilized world believes Osama bin Laden is?

Finally, and this is my real question, I know Pakistan’s nukes + extremists make it potentially perilous, but in 2001 Richard Myers (I think it was) told him, join us or be bombed back into the Stone Age. It just struck me this morning that we’re now inclined to handle President Musharref with kid gloves than Richard Myers’ sentiment indicated seven years ago. Is it just because we’re tied up with Iraq & Afghanistan?

Posted by: scottmoshen Author Profile Page at January 11, 2008 12:10 PM

scottmoshen,

I'm not an expert on Pakistan. My SWAG is that in order to keep internal control and international prestige, he is keeping some distance from the US. Additionally, his country is bordered by Iran and India, two countries that would cheerfully cut Pakistan into strips and eat them for lunch because they've been doing that for millennia.

It is critical to keep in mind that Pakistan means "land of the pure" as well as is composed of: Punjab, Afghania (North-West Frontier Province), Kashmir, Sindh, and BaluchisTAN. There is virtually no consensus in the country and showing weakness is an invitation to attack. By rattling sabers at the US, Musharref keeps faith with the diverse elements of the nation. Even though there is value in selling out a portion of country in the short term, the long term reality is that this will cause the diverse elements to gather together to overthrow Musharref.

This is a bare skimming of why Pakistan won't admit that they have a problem and won't allow the US to provide armed intervention.

The simplest explanation I can give you is that in 2001 we were facing something that showed every evidence of being an existential threat to the US and we aren't now. There is room for diplomacy now. The US has shown the willingness to sustain the level of casualties we've been taking in Afghanistan.

Let me put this differently: Two weeks of rioting will kill more Pakistani's than all the war deaths in Iraq since 2003. Musharref isn't going to allow that level of bloodletting if he can possibly avoid it. http://www.defenselink.mil/news/casualty.pdf

Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell Author Profile Page at January 11, 2008 1:45 PM

"The accusations you take about concerning the Saudis are interesting."

They are not "accusations". It is a known fact they have done this.

"I know more than a few Saudis myself so I tell you it would be a mistake to think that the majority buy this rubbish."

Even if we assume that you actually have a great insight into what the "majority" of Saudis think, does it matter? Saudi Arabia is not a democracy. This antisemitic garbage was published in their state-controlled newspaper the same week they floated their "peace plan", in reality an Arab League press release for the benefit of the Western media.

It's obviously no biggie to you, but the barbaric savages who run Saudi Arabia are inciting their people to murder me, my family, and most of the people I knew and loved when I was growing up. And for some reason, I don't like it. BTW, if you object to the description "barbaric savages", that is my view of people who get their kicks from torturing rape victims and sawing heads off.

Posted by: Gary Rosen Author Profile Page at January 12, 2008 1:12 AM

Gary,

No Saudi Arabia is not a democracy, but the American government sure thinks they are our best ally in the area next to Israel, so they must know something we dont eh?

The Saudis are not "inciting their people to murder" you or anyone else. Some elements of the clergy, yes, but even the government is now throwing such people in prison.

You seem to have a short grasp on modern Middle Eastern history. The Saudis first floated the idea of a complete and comphrensive peace with Israel, on all fronts, in the late 1970s, one they just put forward again recently.

Saudi Arabia is hardly the huge monolithic dictatorship that you put it out to be. That is a very simplistic and just a plain ignorant view of the situation. Saudi Arabia is NOT an absolute monarchy, so it is very clear it cannot be as monolithic and easy as an idea as you think it is.

If you knew anything about Saudi it would be clear that demographics and regionalism prevent the very thing you claim is actually fact.

Gary, it is rather clear that you are unable to discuss this subject in a rational, fact filled manner. When you start to describe entire nations as barbaric savages then you have lost any reason to expect people to listen to you as a rational player.

Posted by: Marc Author Profile Page at January 14, 2008 6:23 AM
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