March 29, 2008

Reviewed in the NYT: Mirror of the Arab World

The New York Times asked me to review Sandra Mackey’s new book Mirror of the Arab World: Lebanon in Conflict for the Sunday Book Review.

Mirror of the Arab World Cover.JPG

It's too short to excerpt, so read the whole thing at the New York Times.

UPDATE: The buffoonish and aptly named Angry Arab calls me a "Zionist fanatic" and accuses me of lying in my NYT bio when I say I lived in Lebanon. For the record, I lived on the sixth floor of the Farah Building on Makhoul Street in Hamra, West Beirut.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:19 PM | Comments (20)

March 26, 2008

Freedom Fighter Called “Terrorist” by INS

Karen DeYoung published a story in the Washington Post that ought to embarrass anyone making decisions about who deserves permanent residence in the U.S.

Saman Kareem Ahmad is an Iraqi Kurd who worked as a translator with the Marines in Iraq’s Anbar Province. He was one of the few selected translators who was granted asylum in the U.S. because he and his family were singled out for destruction by insurgents for “collaboration.” He wants to return to Iraq as an American citizen and a Marine, and has already been awarded the Navy-Marine Corps Achievement Medal and the War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal. Secretary of the Navy Donald C. Winter and General David Petraeus wrote notes for his file and recommended he be given a Green Card, but the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) declined his application and called him a “terrorist.”

The INS says Ahmad “conducted full-scale armed attacks and helped incite rebellions against Hussein’s regime, most notably during the Iran-Iraq war, Operation Desert Storm, and Operation Iraqi Freedom” while a member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).

The KDP is one of two mainstream Kurdish political parties in Iraq. Kurdistan Regional Government Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani is a member of the KDP. The KDP fought alongside the United States military as an ally during Operation Iraqi Freedom. After Operation Desert Storm the KDP fought the Saddam regime after President George H. W. Bush called on Iraqis to do so. During the Iran-Iraq War, the KDP fought the Ba’athists because they were actively resisting genocide in the Kurdish region where Saddam used chemical weapons, artillery, air strikes, and napalm to exterminate them. And he’s a terrorist?

The Kurds in Iraq–unlike the Kurds in Turkey and the ever-popular Palestinians– did not use terrorism as a tactic in their struggle for liberation. They fought honorably against Saddam’s soldiers, not against Arab civilians in south and central Iraq.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:53 AM | Comments (42)

March 25, 2008

The Dungeon of Fallujah -- Upgraded

Last month I published a piece here called The Dungeon of Fallujah about my visit to the wretched jail in the city. As it turns out, the place was worse than I thought. Prisoners had to supply their own food or starve. I didn't report that detail because I didn't know it. But Marine Major General John Kelly (whom I don't think I met) read my report, investigated the jail, and fixed it. No one in the military talked to me about this. I learned about it from Mary Madigan in my comments section, she learned about it from Ace, and he learned about it from UPI.

WASHINGTON, March 24 (UPI) -- The U.S. military says it is taking steps to alleviate conditions at the Fallujah city jail in Iraq after recent visitors found a filthy, overcrowded facility.

"They are being fed now," Lt. Col. Michael Callanan said of the prisoners, who until recently had to provide their own food or starve. Callanan, the point man for the U.S. military on rule-of-law issues in Anbar province, spoke to United Press International in a phone interview Monday.

Establishing the rule of law and functioning judicial institutions is a priority for Multi-National Force-West, the coalition military command in the province, Callanan said.

He said shortly after a visit to the Iraqi-run jail by the new commander of MNF-W Marine Maj. Gen. John Kelly, cash from a special commander's contingency fund known as CERP was used to hire Iraqi contractors to feed "the majority of the prisoners in both Fallujah and Ramadi" city jails.

He said "similar measures" were being taken by local commanders with CERP funds at the other 27 smaller jails in the province. In Ramadi, he said, the military was transitioning from using contractors to "providing food ... and an empty kitchen" to a women's volunteer group that would feed the inmates.

He said two new facilities in Fallujah, a city jail for pre-trial detainees and a long-term facility for convicted prisoners, would be complete by spring 2009, and described the CERP contracts as a temporary measure implemented for humanitarian reasons "in order to bridge the gap" until long-term arrangements were put in place by the Iraqi Ministry of Justice.

Kelly's visit followed a report on conditions at the jail by independent journalist Michael Totten. Totten found a facility built to hold 120 prisoners housing 900 without even minimal provision for sanitation or hygiene.

I'm a little bit stunned. I didn't intend that piece to be "activist journalism," but I guess that's how it turned out.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:31 AM | Comments (46)

March 24, 2008

The Liberation of Karmah, Part I

Girl Waving Hands Karmah.jpg

KARMAH, IRAQ – Just beyond the outskirts of Fallujah lies the terror-wracked city of Karmah. While you may not have heard of this small city of 35,000 people, American soldiers and Marines who served in Anbar Province know it as a terrifying place of oppression, death, and destruction. “It was much worse than Fallujah” said more than a dozen Marines who were themselves based in Fallujah.

“Karmah was so important to the insurgency because we've got Baghdad right there,” Lieutenant Andrew Macak told me. “This is part of the periphery of Baghdad. At the same time, it is part of the periphery of Fallujah.”

Karmah Iraq.jpg
Karmah, Iraq

Lieutenant Macak is not a veteran of Karmah, but Sergeant Jason Howell is. He was deployed in the city from March through October in 2006. “People weren't out in the streets,” he said. “They were very reserved. They were afraid to talk to us. They had the feeling that, especially in the smaller towns, they were constantly being watched. They were in real jeopardy if they interacted with coalition forces and, especially, the Iraqi Police.”

Lieutenant Macak arrived in Karmah in the middle of July 2007 when the city was still a war zone. “It was moving in the right direction, but it was still active,” he said. “2/5 [Second Battalion, Fifth Regiment], who we relieved, was part of the surge effort. Karmah was still a very dangerous place. The lollipop over here was a big deal.”

“You mean the traffic circle?” I said. The Marines refer to a large traffic circle down the street from the police station at the entrance to the market as the “lollipop.”

“Yeah,” he said. “It was basically IED Alley. The whole road out here in front of the station was just covered in IEDs. No one even went down the roads leading to the north of here. It was an insurgent stronghold. Before 2/5 came in there weren't many patrols. They didn't do a whole lot. The Iraqi Police didn't have any confidence. Their numbers weren't big and there wasn't a whole lot of organization. 2/5 came in and started patrolling, started doing what Marines do. They identified local leaders and started engaging them. Sheikh Mishan came back at about the same time from Syria.”

Sheikh Mishan Abbas, like many other sheikhs in Anbar Province, fled to Syria shortly after the U.S. invaded. He heads up the Jamaeli tribe, the largest in the area.

“Did he switch sides?” I said.

“Nah,” Lieutenant Macak said. “He's never switched sides. You mean did he work for the enemy? No, he never did that. He took off to Syria because he didn't want to get killed and he didn't want to be pressured into supporting Al Qaeda. He's basically the 'sheikh of sheikhs.' He's been known as the sheikh of sheikhs since the British were here in the 1920s.”

Fallujah was a minefield of IEDs, but Karmah was even worse.

“They hit a lot of IEDs out there,” he said. “One of the route clearance teams was reacting to one and got hit by a secondary. It took their Cougar, spun it over, and threw it so high in the air it flipped over the power lines before coming back down. Fortunately the men weren't hurt. The vehicle remained intact. The armor protected the Marines inside like it was supposed to. This was in the first week of September.”

Extensive Rubble Karmah.jpg

Corporal Caleb Hayes wanted to know who I was. He wasn't expecting to see a journalist. Reporters hardly ever visit Karmah, which is the reason you probably have never heard of it.

“I personally was hit with seven IEDs in the traffic circle alone,” he said. “It didn’t start quieting down until September.”

“Why did it take longer in Karmah than in the rest of the province?” I said.

“It was easier in Fallujah because that city has a hard perimeter,” he said. “There is no definite edge to defend in Karmah. Insurgents just kept coming in. They were pushed into Karmah by surge forces in Baghdad. We always knew we would be shot at when we rolled out of the station in Karmah.”

Anbar Province – which also includes the cities of Fallujah, Ramadi, Hit, and Haditha – is the heartland of Sunni Iraq. These places were the backbone of the Baath Party during the regime of Saddam Hussein. I was surprised, then, to hear so little about Baathists. What happened? Are they just gone?

“Here?” Lieutenant Macak said. “The primary threat was Al Qaeda. After the initial invasion Karmah wasn't exactly an afterthought, but it isn't the primary population center. The Marines went in and occupied Fallujah, and progressively moved out from that core.”

He is describing the oil spot counterinsurgency strategy, though he did not use that phrase. Andrew Krepinevich advocated this very thing in Foreign Affairs in 2005. “U.S. and Iraqi forces should adopt an ‘oil-spot strategy’ in Iraq,” he wrote. “Rather than focusing on killing insurgents, they should concentrate on providing security and opportunity to the Iraqi people, thereby denying insurgents the popular support they need. Since the U.S. and Iraqi armies cannot guarantee security to all of Iraq simultaneously, they should start by focusing on certain key areas and then, over time, broadening the effort -- hence the image of an expanding oil spot. Such a strategy would have a good chance of success.”

“I call it the snowball effect,” Lieutenant Macak said. “Anyway, there was a gap here that wasn't well covered at first. So Al Qaeda came in and started their murder and intimidation campaign. I don't know how many people liked Al Qaeda or fully supported them. Some people probably did. But other people didn't have their own AK-47s, armor, or tanks or anything, so they had no choice but to submit to them. Otherwise they would end up like their family members with their heads chopped off. If you didn't support Al Qaeda they would blow up your house.”

Rubble Karmah 1.jpg

Al Qaeda in Iraq waged a vicious murder and intimidation campaign all across Anbar Province as though they were an army of arsonists and serial killers.

“In June when Sheikh Mishan came back,” the lieutenant said, “and this was after two years of Al Qaeda forcing their will on the population – within one week of Sheikh Mishan coming back, three of his family members' houses were blown up. And a fourth family member's house was blown up while Al Qaeda kept the family members inside.”

Today Karmah is no more violent than Fallujah – which is to say, hardly violent at all.

“A lot has changed since just before we arrived,” Lieutenant Macak said. “I arrived in July just when the checkpoints were starting up. We expanded what 2/5 started. We took that snowball and made it bigger. As soon as they put that checkpoint up near the lollipop, the IEDs on IED Alley disappeared.

“That's all it took?” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “But within a couple of weeks of them putting the checkpoint up, they had a suicide car bomb attack. They assumed that no one would want to be out manning that checkpoint if it was just going to get blown up again. So the Marines went out there and fortified it. They maintained a squad-sized Marine element out there for about a month and a half. The Iraqi Police and Provincial Security Forces were out there manning it, as well. We slowly phased the Marines out of it, and now it's exclusively run by Iraqis. No one would ever go past that point. They had kill lines set up. If they saw any vehicle coming down that road, it would be engaged. They knew anything past that line was Al Qaeda. No vehicles were allowed to move from the east to the west toward that checkpoint.”

Fortification Karmah.jpg
Heavy fortification in Karmah

Implementing basic security measures wouldn't work in a counterinsurgency if a significant number of local civilians supported the radicals. But the locals were terrified and savagely murdered and tortured by the radicals on a regular basis. Al Qaeda in Iraq is the self-declared enemy of every human being outside its own members and loyal supporters. Nothing could possibly discredit jihad more completely than the jihadists themselves.

“Insurgent activity was a lot worse,” Sergeant Howell said. “Attacks with small arms fire were constant. IEDs were daily. The difference between this place now and when I first got here is day and night. There was no way kids would be playing soccer in the streets. When we patrolled last time we had a much more aggressive posture. It was a combat patrol.”

Marines Taking Cover Karmah.jpg

I'm accustomed to being in Iraq during the new normal. Sergeant Howell reminded me that it is indeed new in this town, as did so many others.

“Some civilians supported the insurgents,” I said to Lieutenant Macak. “Could you tell them apart from those who were intimidated?”

“No,” he said. “They were all really reserved. They stayed in their houses. But now they're everywhere. They come up to us and greet us, talk to us. The women aren't so scared and so guarded. Last year you would never see a woman outside the house. Now everybody is in the streets. Kids are playing, people are walking around. People are starting to live like it's a somewhat normal environment. You can tell just by looking that the environment is a lot safer than it was last year.”

Sideways Thumbs Up Karmah.jpg

Very few insurgents remain in the city. The remnants are thought to be exclusively locals. The Marines believe the foreign leadership cadre has been driven out.

“I had a good conversation with Iraqi Police Lieutenant Colonel Sattar about this last night,” Lieutenant Macak said. “I said Why are your family members the ones kidnapping you, beating you up, and killing your people?”

“It was his family members?” I said.

“Lieutenant Colonel Sattar was captured and held by Al Qaeda for over a year,” he said. “He was beaten and thrashed before they eventually let him go. And the guy who captured him was his cousin. The culture here – they lie, they deceive, they steal, they don't trust each other. In order to survive. That's what Saddam Hussein's era bred in them. If they wanted to survive and do well, they had to go behind everyone's back. After 20 or 30 years of Saddam, they can't break away over night.”

Garbage Mud and Buildings Karmah.jpg

A crucial aspect of General Petraeus’ counterinsurgency strategy is an alliance with local authorities as well as civilians. The Army desperately needed to transform itself from a bureaucratic occupation force to a locally integrated security force, but it’s the kind of thing Marines do instinctively when they arrive from abroad in a war zone.

“A lot of the security efforts are locally driven,” Lieutenant Macak said. “The Iraqi Security Forces [which includes the Iraqi Police, Iraqi Army, Provincial Security Forces, and the Iraqi Civilian Watch] go out there and find weapons caches. They dig up IEDs from the road even though we tell them not to. They go capture bad guys and bring them right to our doorstep. They're not looking for any kind of reward, they just want to do a good job.”

Iraqi Gunner Karmah.jpg

The counterinsurgency doctrines of the Army and Marine Corps are more similar now than they were. Sergeant Joseph Perusich told me how the Marines acquire local intelligence, but I had already seen the Army use the same tactics in Baghdad.

“Last time I was out here,” Sergeant Perusich said, “everything was real kinetic. It has calmed down a lot. We don't go around kicking in doors and throwing in flashbangs anymore. We used to to that a lot, go and bust doors in and run everything over.”

“Now we're more like FBI agents,” Lieutenant Macak said.

“It helps if you ask the neighbors,” Sergeant Perusich said. “Everybody is really close. So if you ask somebody next door about someone and they say something different, it helps us in our tactical questioning.”

“How cooperative are locals when you ask about other people?” I said.

“Very cooperative,” Sergeant Perusich said.

“Well, define cooperative,” Lieutenant Macak said.

“You mean as far as them not letting us in the house?” Sergeant Perusich said.

“I mean,” I said, “how much information can you actually get out of the neighbors?”

“They aren't going to just throw all the information out there until they feel comfortable,” Sergeant Perusich said. “If you bust in the house and knock everything over, they're going to be afraid of you. It all depends on how you conduct yourself. If you talk to them normally, they'll eventually open up.”

“They have to feel safe,” Lieutenant Macak said. “They don't want to say something and get themselves hurt. Sometimes they'll say yeah, go arrest that guy over there, he's an insurgent and no one has said anything about it. But you have to develop a relationship.”

“What is it that you get out of building a relationship?” I said. “Is it that they trust that you won't hurt them, or that they trust you'll protect them from the insurgents?”

“Both,” Sergeant Perusich said. “We have to convince them that we're here to protect them and their family. But we also have to convince them that we're not just blowing smoke. They need to know we aren't here to take anything, steal anything. We're here to find out who the bad guys are so it's safe here for us and their families.”

“I think a lot of it is that if they're going to say something, they want you to do something about it,” Lieutenant Macak said. “If they don't have the confidence that you're going to act on something, they're not going to put themselves at risk. Counterinsurgency is a broad term. If you go out there, get intelligence, and you don't act on it, you are not going to earn the trust of the people. It works partly because of the efforts of the previous units here, but also because they lived under the murder and intimidation of Al Qaeda for so long.”

Sergeant Perusich had seen fighting in Karmah before, and also in southern Iraq. He fought Moqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia in Najaf and told me the exact same dynamic works there as well as it does in Anbar.


American troops are not only given medals and recognition for killing the enemy and saving each other’s lives. They are also given medals and recognition for saving Iraqi lives.

Just around the corner from IED Alley, at the main station in town, four Marines – including Sergeant Perusich – were given the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal for saving Iraqis who were wounded by an insurgent-laid IED on November 7, 2007.

The first man recognized was Hospitalman Joshua L. Flagg who works as a medic.

Hospitalman Flagg Karmah.jpg
Hospitalman Joshua L. Flagg and Captain Quintin Jones

“While conducting a security patrol in Al Anbar Province,” his senior officer said to all in attendance, “Hospitalman Flagg responded to an improvised explosive device strike that caused severe casualties. Upon arrival at the site, Hospitalman Flagg immediately set up a triage site and began prioritizing patients according to their injuries. He identified deteriorating conditions in two of the patients. Hospitalman Flagg was able to stabilize them both with intravenous fluids and pressure dressings in preparation for an air evacuation. Hospitalman Flagg's ability to perform under pressure, confidence, and knowledge of medical procedures were the key factors in the stabilization of casualties and the saving of two Iraqi nationals' lives.”

The lives of two others also were saved. Lance Corporal Joshua S. Varney, Sergeant Joseph M. Perusich, and Lance Corporal Jonathan L. Arden also were awarded and recognized.

Lance Corporal Varney Karmah.jpg
Lance Corporal Joshua S. Varney and Captain Quintin Jones

Sergeant Perusich Karmah.jpg
Sergeant Joseph M. Perusich and Captain Quintin Jones

Lance Corporal Arden Karmah.jpg
Lance Corporal Johnathan L. Arden and Captain Quintin Jones

“At ease,” Captain Quintin Jones said after each man was given his medal. “This is exactly the type of thing you need to be doing for our Iraqi brethren when they are in need. You couldn't save four of them, but you did save four others.”

On the same day just a few blocks away, local Iraqi leaders held a ceremony where they officially re-opened the market on the main street. Until very recently, almost every business in Karmah was closed. For years they had no security, no economy, and no city utilities. All now are recovering.

Every Iraqi leader in the city showed up, as did hundreds of civilians, Iraqi Police officers, and Iraqi Army soldiers. The Marines were there, too, providing security. Americans did not, however, have anything to do with organizing or sponsoring the event. “We’re just here in the background,” Captain Jones told me.

They wouldn’t remain in the background, however, if they were attacked. The Marines were ordered to place themselves as up-armored human shields around Sheikh Mishan.

“If shots are fired,” an officer said to his men, “collapse around the sheikh.”

Because the ceremony was so close to the station, we walked. I walked with Captain Jones and spoke to him on the way. Lieutenant Macak, the captain’s executive officer (XO), joined us.

“We're having a grand re-opening for Karmah,” Captain Jones said. “We're trying to start the governance process and the economic process. A lot of this stuff has been closed for a year or two due to the insurgency coming back in. They kept targeting the Iraqi Police station and blowing it up. Every time they brought in a car bomb, things shut down. They used a lot of these buildings to shoot at the Iraqi Police station.”

War Damage Karmah.jpg

Rough Corner Karmah.jpg

“We brought relative security to the region,” he continued. “We're trying to re-do these buildings here. A lot of these buildings were shot up. You can see some bullet holes in some of these doors. These buildings were all shot to hell.”

Just around the corner was the traffic circle.

“This is the entrance to the market?” I said.

“It is,” he said. “This is the gateway to Karmah.”

Lollipop Karmah 2.jpg

“As Captain Jones explained, we're in the background,” Lieutenant Macak said. “We've been supporting them, but they have an Iraqi face on everything. They set the conditions and do the legwork. We allow them to take the credit for it, basically, which is a lot of what counterinsurgency is. We provide them the legs to let them stand up and do it themselves.”

The ceremony was held at the so-called “lollipop.”

“This was IED Alley, right here,” Lieutenant Macak said as we arrived. “But not any more because of the efforts of coalition forces, the Iraqi Police, the Provincial Security Forces, the Iraqi Civilian Watch, and the sheikhs. For two or three years now we've been saying them, hey, if you're tired of Al Qaeda, stand up and get rid of them. And they're actually doing that now. The Iraqi Police now call IED Alley their Victory Circle. It's a physical representation of what they have accomplished.”

Hundreds of chairs were set up in front of a stage that had been erected on the circle itself. Local sheikhs, city officials, and business leaders sat beneath an awning in case of rain. They drank water poured into tall glasses from bottles. Regular citizens and mid-level leaders sat in plastic chairs exposed to the elements, but there was no rain.

Sheikhs Karmah 1.jpg

Crowd Lollipop Karmah.jpg

The community leaders dressed sharply, some in traditional Arab dress and others with Western coats and ties. Iraqi Police officers, Iraqi Army soldiers, and plainclothes Neighborhood Watch guys milled about. All carried AK-47s and pistols. Brand new Iraqi flags snapped in the wind.

Flag Minaret Karmah.jpg

A live band took the stage and belted out powerful Iraqi folk music indigenous to the province. A group of armed Iraqi men danced to the music in a circle. Some brandished rifles and knives. The passion and intensity of the music was startling.

Liberation of Karmah.jpg

Twenty or so minutes later, Sheikh Mishan stood at the podium and addressed the people of Karmah in poetic, perfectly pronounced, thunderous Arabic. His speech celebrating the end of the insurgency and the awakening of the city of Karmah would knock you back on your heels even if you could not understand one single word. The man was an obvious leader, and he packed a punch.

Sheikh Speech Karmah.jpg

Everyone listened intently. No one applauded. This was a serious affair, not a party. The Marines kept their heads on swivels. This would be the perfect time for any Al Qaeda remnants to execute a devastating act of mass casualty terrorism.

Sheikh Interview Zoomed Out.jpg
An Arabic-speaking journalist interviews Sheikh Mishan Abbas

Mayor Abu Abdullah took the podium as Sheikh Mishan stood down.

“Everything I do, I do with him,” Captain Jones whispered to me.

Captain Jones and Mayor Karmah.jpg
Captin Quintin Jones and Mayor Abu Abdullah

After the ceremony I joined Navy Rear Admiral Patrick Driscoll and Navy Lieutenant Commander Charles E. Summers on a tour of the market.

“Sorry about the dog and pony show,” Lieutenant Macak said to me quietly. “Later we'll get you out on the streets for real.”

The tour of the market did feel a bit like a dog and pony show, but the re-opened business district is real. Karmah isn't a fake potemkin city erected by the Marines to impress visitors. Iraqi shopkeepers and their customers aren't actors hired by the CIA.

Stores Karmah.jpg

I was a little bit bored. I've walked so many re-opened business districts in Iraq that I won't be impressed again until I see a Starbucks, night clubs, or bohemian hangouts. Beirut is full of such places, but Iraq isn't Lebanon. Admiral Driscoll and Commander Summers, though, were thunderstruck by the ordinariness of it all. They had never seen anything like it in this country. Admiral Driscoll works at Stratcom. Both he and Commander Summers are based in the Green Zone bubble in Baghdad, which is technically Iraq but so unlike everywhere else that seeing it hardly counts. Everyone who is marooned there knows that, or at least should.

Driscoll and Jones Karmah.jpg
Read Admiral Patrick Driscoll (left) and Captain Quintin Jones (right)

“Can you believe this place?” Admiral Driscoll said to me. He sounded like a bit like a kid on Christmas morning. I felt weirdly like a jaded old man who had seen it all even though he is older and more accomplished. I understood then what some American soldiers and Marines mean when they say the top brass lives and works at “echelons above reality.” I'm not blaming the admiral. His job requires him to be isolated from nuts, bolts, and the street most of the time.

The market looked ordinary enough to me, but the top officers weren't alone in their amazement. I had to remind myself of the ceremony I had just seen. The market was just now re-opening. The opening ceremony had concluded less than an hour before. Karmah recovered later than other cities in this part of Iraq, after all. When I covered the awakening in Ramadi last summer, Karmah was still a hell of insurgent warfare, though I did not know it.

The locals were ecstatic. Dozens of cars and minivans packed with young Iraqi men brandishing rifles and flags roared down the street. They honked horns, cheered as though they had just won a soccer game, and waved in thanks to the Marines and Iraqi Police. Others paraded on foot.

Truck Men Guns Karmah.jpg

Men Parading with Flag Karmah.jpg

The market area improved as we kept walking. The lower portion of the street was made up of simple places like generator repair workshops, butcher shops, and simple vegetable stands. The upper half of the neighborhood was a bit more upscale. A larger number of buildings had been refurbished. Clothing, cell phones, big screen TVs, and refrigerators all were for sale. This portion of the market was actually bustling for Iraq.

Crowded Market Karmah.jpg

Vegetable Stand Karmah.jpg

Pickles for Sale Karmah.jpg

Children ran up to me and the Marines, as they always do.

Two Boys Karmah.jpg

Kid Flag Angle Karmah.jpg

Shaking Hands w Marine Karmah.jpg

“This is a real education,” Commander Summers said. “There are no kids in the Green Zone.”

“We couldn’t have done this a few months ago,” one Marine said to Commander Summers.

Admiral and Kid Karmah.jpg
Lieutenant Commander Charles E. Summers poses with an Iraqi boy who borrowed his helmet

The Middle East beyond Israel strikingly lacks anything resembling political correctness. I hear much more severe denunciations of radical Islam there than I do in the U.S., and I don’t mean from Americans. I hear it from Arabs, and from Persians and Kurds. I hear it in Lebanon all the time, and in Iraq too.

Sabah Danou walked with Commander Summers and Admiral Driscoll. He’s an Iraqi who works for the multinational forces as a cultural and political advisor in Baghdad. “Look,” he said to me and gestured toward a local man with a long beard and a short dishdasha that left his ankles exposed. “He’s a Wahhabi,” Danou hissed. “He is linked to Al Qaeda. That’s their uniform, you know, that beard and that high-cut dishdasha. God, what pieces of shit those fuckers are.”

I never hear soldiers and Marines talk about Iraqis like that, but no one objected to what Sabah Danou said.

To be continued...

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:15 AM | Comments (30)

March 22, 2008

Who Else is Afraid of Kosovo?

China fears Kosovo because the rulers in Beijing fear Tibet may become the Kosovo of Central Asia. This isn't a bug, it's a feature.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:49 PM | Comments (22)

March 20, 2008

The Israel of the Balkans

“All we want is to reduce the Albanian population to a manageable level.” – Zoran Andjelkovic, former Serbian governor of Kosovo

Genocide is the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” – United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide

The State of Israel is divided on the Kosovo question: should the world’s newest country be recognized? Some, like former Minister for Strategic Affairs Avigdor Lieberman, worry that Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia might encourage Palestinians to make the same move. The small Balkan state, however, may have more in common with Israel than with the West Bank and Gaza.

Israelis, as Amir Mizroch notes in the Jerusalem Post, have excellent relations with the Kosovars. “Israel has an interest in helping to establish a moderate, secular Muslim state friendly to Jerusalem and Washington in the heart of southeast Europe,” he writes. Indeed, Kosovo is neither an enemy state nor a jihad state. Its brand of Islam is heavily Sufi, which is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the Wahhabism and Salafism that inspire Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

Kosovo doesn’t belong to the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah-Hamas axis. On the contrary, Kosovo has thrown in its lot with the West, and especially with the United States. Serbia’s breakaway province is perhaps the most pro-American country in all of Europe. Bill Clinton is lionized there as a liberator – a main boulevard through the capital Prishtina is named after him – just as George H. W. Bush and his son George W. Bush are hailed as saviors in Iraqi Kurdistan. It should be no surprise then that Mizroch quotes an Israeli official who says Israel most likely will recognize Kosovo if its “influential friends” in the U.S., the U.K., Germany, and France, decide to do so.

Concern that Kosovo’s independence might trigger a similar declaration from the West Bank to Spain’s Basque country to Chechnya and beyond is understandable but perhaps overwrought. Bosnia declared independence without unleashing a domino effect beyond Yugoslavia. So did Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, and Montenegro. Montenegro declared independence from Serbia less than two years ago. It’s doubtful the Palestinians even noticed. Hardly anyone else did. In any case, it had no effect on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The irrelevance of Kosovo to the Arab-Israeli conflict is underscored by the fact that not a single Arab country has recognized Kosovo. The only Muslim countries which so far have bothered are Turkey, Malaysia, Senegal, Albania, and Afghanistan. The governments of all these countries are, to one extent or another, either moderate, in the pro-Western camp, or both. All aside from Albania have sizeable ethnic minorities of their own. Turkey especially frets about its own separatists – the Kurds in the east – but still went ahead and recognized Kosovo almost instantly.

Many in Kosovo are well aware that they have more in common with Israel than with the West Bank and Gaza. "Kosovars used to identify with the Palestinians because we Albanians are Muslims and Christians and we saw Serbia and Israel both as usurpers of land," a prominent Kosovar recently told journalist Stephen Schwartz. "Then we looked at a map and woke up. Israelis have a population of six million, their backs to the sea, and 300 million Arab enemies. Albanians have a total population of eight million, our backs to the sea, and 200 million Slav enemies. So why should we identify with the Arabs?"

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:01 AM | Comments (31)

March 19, 2008

What Iraqis Want You to Hear

Two days ago ABC News released a new poll of Iraqi public opinion, and John Burns at the New York Times made a very perceptive observation that should be taken into account when looking it over.

Opinion polls, including those commissioned by the American command, have long suggested that a majority of Iraqis would like American troops withdrawn, but another lesson to be drawn from Saddam Hussein’s years is that any attempt to measure opinion in Iraq is fatally skewed by intimidation. More often than not, people tell pollsters and reporters what they think is safe, not necessarily what they believe. My own experience, invariably, was that Iraqis I met who felt secure enough to speak with candor had an overwhelming desire to see American troops remain long enough to restore stability.

This feels right to me, not only thanks to my experience in Iraq, but also in places like totalitarian Libya where no one dared criticize the regime in public, and where everyone I spoke to did so in private where they were safe. Saddam Hussein commanded a murder and intimidation regime in Iraq, and today’s insurgents wage a murder and intimidation campaign in the streets. In Fallujah and Ramadi, Iraqi civilians were murdered just for waving hello to Americans, and for accepting bags of rice as charity. Fear should not be ignored when gauging Iraqi public opinion, and that includes fear of American guns as well as fear of insurgents.

I’ve been to Iraq five times, and never once have I heard an Iraqi say anything hostile about Americans. Partly this is because I don’t spend time in insurgent circles. How could I? The Iraqis I’ve met don’t represent the full spectrum. Middle Easterners are also famous for their politeness and, unlike some people from other parts of the world, they will not get in your face if they don’t like where you come from. (Al Qaeda members are an obvious and extreme exception, but they’re hated everywhere in Iraq and are violently atypical.)

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:53 AM | Comments (6)

March 17, 2008

Iraq Opinion Lag Narrows

I'm working on a long two-part essay called The Liberation of Karmah for this site and a shorter piece for Commentary about Kosovo. I'm behind schedule, though, so I'll leave you with some data to chew on for now.

Last summer when I returned from Baghdad and Ramadi I was disturbed to see that Iraqi public opinion had barely changed in the wake of the surge. There seemed to be a serious disconnect between the hard data and what I had seen with my eyes. I didn't quite know what to make of it.

In hindsight it makes sense. American public opinion hadn't budged on Iraq either last summer. Only now is it starting to shift. Iraqis are closer to Iraq than Americans (obviously), but it seems that opinions are slow to change with the facts even there.

A new poll released today shows that Iraqi public opinion – while not yet where we want it to be – now trends in the same direction as the surge. You can read the whole thing (warning: PDF), but here are some samples.

Iraq Poll 2008 1.JPG Iraq Poll 2008 2.JPG Iraq Poll 2008 3.JPG
Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:22 PM | Comments (41)

March 13, 2008

Handshakes with the Enemy

Abe [Greenwald] already blogged about this, but I wanted to follow up on Diana West’s fretting in the Washington Times about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent trip to Iraq, where he was supposedly given a warm reception by the Baghdad government. “[O]ur Iraqi allies have welcomed our Iranian enemies right into it.” Not so fast. Iraq and Iran are two Shia-majority countries. They share a long border and a terrible history, as Abe pointed out. They should be expected to have relations of some kind, and the more civil the better considering the depth of hatred Iranian Persians and Iraqi Arabs have for each other. Another full-blown war between Iraq and Iran is in the interests of no one.

In any case, a meeting, a few agreements, and a photo op don’t make these two countries an axis. Iran supports insurgents that for years have been trying to destroy the Baghdad government using terrorism, guerilla warfare, assassination, and sabotage. Who can seriously believe after all this–not to mention the centuries of conflict that preceded it–that the two governments actually like each other? Baghdad may formally welcome Ahmadinejad, but certainly not his proxy armies.

But let’s put that aside for the sake or argument and assume Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki may be a quiet Iranian sympathizer. What about Iraq’s president?

“Mr. Ahmadinejad was greeted with multiple kisses from Iraqi President Jalal Talabani,” West notes before saying “Blech.” Talabani is not only Iraq’s president. He is also the political leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the staunchly secular leftist political party with its home base in the Kurdish city of Suleimaniya. The PUK provides funds and materials to at least two exiled Kurdish Iranian political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan whose explicit goal is the destruction of the Islamic Republic regime in Tehran. Each of these parties has their own private army. One crossed into Iran recently and fought the regime in the streets during an uprising in the city of Mahabad. The idea that the secular, leftist, and Kurdish Jalal Talabani supports the theocratic, rightist, and Persian Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, while at the same time funding and supplying revolutionaries who cross the border, doesn’t make sense.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 3:28 PM | Comments (10)

March 10, 2008

In the Villages of Al Anbar

Two Kids Amariyah.jpg

ANBAR PROVINCE, IRAQ – The Iraqi town of Al Farris looks like a model Soviet city up close and a rounded square from the sky. Saddam Hussein built it to house workers in the now-defunct weapons factory to the east, and they live in neighborhoods called City 1, City 2, City 3, City 4, and City 5. “Socialist living at its finest,” Sergeant Edward Guerrero said as we rolled through the gates in a Humvee. The place made me think of Libya, where I have been, and North Korea, where I have not.

Farris Iraq Google Earth.jpg
Al Farris, Iraq, Google Earth

Al Farris was part of Saddam’s attempt to launch Iraq into the sci-fi future before he ruined his country with four wars, two genocides, and an international sanctions regime. It was a failure. Like all utopian cities, Al Farris is dreary. Every apartment building is nearly identical. There are few stores, restaurants, or other businesses at street level. There certainly is no traditional Arabic souk. If it weren’t for the vaguely Arabesque windows, little would distinguish it from any other drab worker’s paradise.

Farris Iraq from Distance 2.jpg

“It’s like a gulag city,” one Military Police officer said. The grace note, if I could call it that, is the encircling coil or razor wire at the city limits which keeps insurgents from coming in and blowing up buildings and people. Billowing plastic bags have been snagged along the length of the wire.

Sergeant Guerrero had a private meeting scheduled with the local Iraqi Police chief, so I climbed a ladder to the roof where I could get a better view.

Farris Iraq 1.jpg

Farris Iraq 2.jpg

An Iraqi Police officer pointed out an American military outpost on top of the water tower. His job entailed sitting in silence in a rooftop bunker with a machine gun in case the station is attacked. I assumed the Americans on the water tower overwatched the city with sniper rifles. I didn't ask, but if they are it would not be a secret.

Water Tower Farris.jpg

Back in Fallujah, Captain Steve Eastin explained why.

“We can’t put up a sniper’s nest without everyone knowing,” he said. “So we’ve decided to use that knowledge to our advantage. It works for us that insurgents know they could be shot by a sniper at any time.”

I climbed back down the ladder into the police station and was struck by the number of scuff marks on the walls. How do they get there? Clean white paint now makes up less than half the walls’ surface area, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what the Iraqis are doing to make them look like this.

“Mister! Mister!”

An Iraqi Police officer behind a desk saw my camera and beckoned me over. He wanted me to take his photograph. He summoned more Iraqis to stand next to him and pose with suddenly serious expressions on their faces. Just before I clicked the shutter, the officer picked up the phone and placed the receiver next to his ear, as if it would make him look more important.

IPs Farris.jpg

Many Iraqi Police officers will not let me take their pictures. They’re terrified insurgents will find them and target them and their families. Others act like local kids I met every day on the street who all but demand I make them famous.

Al Farris looks nothing like any other town in Iraq, at least on the outside. I was hoping to join the MPs on a patrol and possibly see the inside of someone’s apartment on one of their routine intelligence gathering missions, but that was not on the schedule. They did have a patrol lined up, but it was in the next town over, in Amariyah.

So I joined Sergeant Guerrero and his men on a quick five-minute ride to the Amariyah station. A blown up Mitsubishi truck was “parked” out front.

VBIED Amariyah 2.jpg

“It was a VBIED,” he said. A vehicle-borne improvised explosive device, or – in regular English – a car bomb. “It was just a few weeks ago. There were four passengers. One was killed.”

“Only one?” I said. “Why pack four people into a car bomb?” I said.

“They didn’t know it was a car bomb,” he said. “It blew up at the checkpoint near the arches. We’re trying to figure out who planted it. We have had more than one insurgent deliberately ride along in a suicide VBIED, though.”

“Isn't that a waste of a suicide bomber?” I said.

“They aren't very pragmatic,” he said. “The way they see it, they all get their 72 virgins either way. It's more about the 72 virgins than actually winning the war.”

Sergeant Timothy Kimball told me the blown up Mitsubishi was most likely an assassination.

VBIED Amariyah.jpg

“Who was it?” I said. “Someone important?”

“Who knows?” he said. “You'll get assassinated for making a sandwich around here.”

We stepped into the Iraqi Police station chief's office. The lights were out and the curtains were drawn. Three Iraqi Police officers smoked cigarettes on a couch under an English language “No Smoking” sign. A mysterious old man in a red keffiyeh kept to himself in the corner. I suspected he was a tribal leader. He obviously was not a police officer.

“Is it okay if we go on a patrol with your men?” Sergeant Guerrero said to the chief.

“Of course,” the chief said.

The mysterious man in the corner watched us with intelligent and calculating eyes. He did not inhale from his cigarette while we were present.

We left the station with a unit of Iraqi Police officers, and we walked the streets of Amariyah on foot.

Begin Patrol Amariyah.jpg

“We're trying to get them away from Saddam's ways,” Sergeant Kimball said. “They're leaps and bounds better than they were. Their hearts are in the right place. They do not like Al Qaeda. It's like an Iraqi Mayberry here.”

The nearby city of Fallujah has been walled off from the rest of Iraq with Jersey barriers, checkpoints, and high-tech surveillance cameras. No one who doesn't have a resident sticker on the windshield of their car is allowed to drive in. Visitors must park outside the city limits and walk. Sneaking in undetected is no longer possible.

What about Amariyah?

“So,” I said to Sergeant Guerrero as we walked. “What if I tried to just drive in here in a Jordanian rental car? Would the Iraqi Police let me in?”

“Hmm,” he said. “I don't think they'd know what to do with you. I wouldn't know what to do with you. You'd probably be detained at every checkpoint in the province until they figured that out. I don't recommend trying.”

I had no intention of trying. I was just trying to figure out what was allowed.

Market Amariyah.jpg

As we approached the main market area, a conservatively dressed woman said “salam aleikum,” peace be upon you, to Sergeant Guerrero.

“Wow,” he said and turned his head as she passed. “That's the first time a woman has ever spoken to us out here.”

“It's no big deal in Fallujah,” I said. “Happens there all the time.”

“Here it never happens,” he said. “Until now.”

Corner Amariyah.jpg

Minaret Amariyah.jpg

Fallujah is an extremely conservative city even by Arab standards. Amariyah is about as hard-core as it gets. Even so, the jihad has nearly been vanquished. If it can't survive even here with American targets driving and walking around, it will be in serious trouble everywhere in the world, at least in the long run.

An Iraqi Police checkpoint was set up in the middle of a four-way intersection.

“Salam aleikum,” I said to the officer in charge.

Our interpreter was walking beside me.

“Can you ask the officer,” I said, “what we he would do if I pulled up to his checkpoint in a civilian car? I'm curious how closed this village is.”

The interpreter asked my question for me.

“I'd search your car,” the officer said. “And as long as I didn't find anything suspicious, you would be welcome.”

“An IED exploded at this checkpoint three weeks ago,” Sergeant Kimball said as we walked on.

Three Young Men Amariyah.jpg

Open cities are dangerous in Iraq, and Amariyah is a lot less closed than Fallujah. IEDs and car bombs have exploded there so much more recently. Sergeant Kimball's assertion that the village is an Iraqi Mayberry is slightly dubious. But only slightly, and I still take his point. Like most other places in Anbar Province, this village was ferociously violent a year ago. Reducing all that to intermittent single attacks is an accomplishment.

Our joint patrol swung into a residential neighborhood. A house-sized pile of rubble was all that remained on one corner.

Destroyed House Amariyah.jpg

“What's the story here”? I said to Sergeant Guerrero.

“It was like that when we got here,” he said. “Apparently the guy living there was an Iraqi Police officer who joined the insurgency. He fired rockets at Iraqi Police from inside his house. So the Iraqi Police destroyed his house.”

Four kids up ahead sat on a low chain link fence. Sergeant Guerrero approached them. Our interpreter and an Iraqi Police officer followed.

“Are the Iraqi Police friendly?” the sergeant said to the kids.

They nodded.

Interviewed Kids Amariyah.jpg

“Of course they said yes,” our interpreter said. “An Iraqi Police officer is standing right next to you.”

“Tell him,” Sergeant Guerrero said, “that I want to talk to these kids in private.”

Our interpreter said something to the officer. The officer did not budge. We waited for a few moments and moved on.

“That was suspicious,” I said to Sergeant Guerrero and the interpreter.

“I think he did not understand,” our interpreter said.

Perhaps, but I wasn't sure. Either way, Sergeant Guerrero did not press the point.

“Sometimes I'm surprised we can hold this country together against the insurgents,” an MP said when we returned to the station. “Then I work with these Iraqis and I understand. Competence isn't a typical trait in this country.”


The small town of Saqlawiya is the most dangerous in the area. “That's where you'll want to go,” First Lieutenant Barry Edwards told me, “if you want to say you get shot at once a week.”

That isn't the reason I decided to go, but I did travel there to join Major Allen Laughlin who went on a foot patrol so he could take the temperature of local public opinion.

A unit of Iraqi Police officers went with us, as usual. Several masked their faces in the station before stepping outside.

“I tell them they shouldn't do that,” Sergeant Gentry said. (I did not catch his first name.) “I tell them they should be proud of being Iraqi Police and not hide behind a mask. If they're afraid of the people, the people will be afraid of them.”

Major Laughlin wasn't afraid of the people. The whole point of his going on patrol was so he could meet them.

On our way out of the station we walked through a maze of concrete walls, hesco barriers, and razor wire. This place was much more heavily fortified than stations in Fallujah. There is no way an insurgent could get himself inside the compound without being shot. Leaving such a place on foot felt a bit dicier than walking outside the far less barricaded Fallujah security stations. Crossing beyond that kind of security heightened my sense of vulnerability.

But only a little. Saqlawiya looked and felt exactly like Fallujah, only it was much smaller. Most cities and towns in Iraq look the same. Many neighborhoods in Kirkuk are built largely of cinder blocks, which is unusual. Dokuk has its mountainous backdrop and some colorful buildings. Al Farris’s weird Arabic-socialist layout sets it far apart from everything else. But otherwise every place I've been in that country looks almost the same – and that includes the Kurdish cities of Erbil and Suleimaniya, as well as Baghdad and Ramadi.

Major Laughlin stopped a man on the street and asked some basic questions.

Major Laughlin.jpg
Major Allen Laughlin

“What do you think of the Iraqi Police?” he said.

“Good Iraqi Police,” the man said. “No insurgents.”

“Would you say the same thing to me if the Iraqi Police weren't out here with us?” the major said.

White Haired Guy Saqlawiyah.jpg

“Yes,” the man said. “They took care of the Ali Babas.”

The real question – one that unfortunately could not be answered – is whether or not the man would say the same thing if an American Marine officer were not standing there. That's what Military Intelligence agents are for. They have methods that are much more reliable than walking around and asking strangers casual questions while carrying rifles.

“If you could have us fix one thing,” Major Laughlin said, “what would it be?”

I see no reason to doubt an honest answer to that one.

“Water and sewage,” the man said. “Basic things.”

“Thank you, sir,” the major said, “for your time.”

And we walked on.

Most of Anbar Province is Sunni, but Saqlawiya is split between Sunnis and Shias. There is no sectarian violence in Saqlawiya right now.

“Do you trust the police,” Major Laughlin said to an elder man who ran a vegetable stand.

Vegetable Stand Amariyah.jpg

“We are all from the same tribe,” the man said.

This is important. Iraqis identify with family, tribe, sect, and nation – in that order. Racial differences between Arabs and Kurds preceded sectarian differences under the regime of Saddam Hussein, but this appears to have cooled somewhat lately. Racist Arab Nationalism in Iraq is not what it was.

Iraqis have a hard time tolerating authority figures from other tribes and – especially – other races and sects. But when the local authorities belong to same tribe, ancient social arrangements don't clash with modern local political structures. The Americans did not understand this when they first arrived in Iraq, and that, to put it mildly, was not helpful

“Do you feel safe?” Major Laughlin said to a man minding a small store.

“Yes,” the man said.

New Store Saqlaiwiyah.jpg

“Were you or your family hurt by insurgents?”

“No,” the man said. “but we did not feel safe until recently.”

“Do you trust the police?” the major said. This time no Iraqi Police officers were nearby. The man could speak freely. At least he only had to worry about what a Marine officer might think, rather than what the Iraqi Police might think.

“Yes,” he said.

I'm not convinced this is particularly useful information. Security in Saqlawiya is vastly improved, and local politics are much more stable. That matters tremendously, more than anything else. But it's still theoretically possible that every Iraqi the major had spoken to so far was only saying what he thought the Americans wanted to hear. Marines do not punish Iraqi civilians if they're disgruntled, but it's hard to say how many local people truly believe that. Besides, Arabs are polite and hospitable people. Some will say kind things about Marines and Iraqi Police officers because they don't want to be rude. It is sometimes difficult to discern honest opinion from perfunctory boilerplate, at least with strangers.

We rounded a corner past the main market area and came across a brand-new “supermarket” that had opened shortly after the insurgency was crushed.

Supermarket Saqlawiyah.jpg

An Iraqi “supermarket” is hardly a Safeway, let alone a Whole Foods. It's more like an expanded 7-11 with more rice and fewer hot dogs and Twinkies. These stores are rare. Most Iraqis get their meat from a butcher, their bread from a bakery, and their fruits and vegetables from an outdoor stand.

What struck me about the sign on that store, and on many other stores in Iraq, was the English word “supermarket.” The only people in Saqlawiya who find English helpful are the Marines. And me.

I’ve seen this far beyond Iraq. Even in small towns in Libya – one of the most closed societies in the world – I found store signs in English. The amount of English in a genuinely cosmopolitan city like Beirut is even more striking, though no longer surprising. Beirut, at least, has a huge tourist industry. Imagine how differently you would think about Arabic civilization if small towns in Kansas and Nebraska – not to mention large cities like New York and Chicago – had storefront signs in the Arabic language even though no Arabs live there. Perhaps the word “imperialism” wouldn't seem so much like a stretch. Of course no one forces Iraqis or Libyans to put English words on their signs, so it's telling that they do so anyway, and that they did not choose Chinese or Russian.

Iraqi Police officers had set up road blocks to keep cars away from the patrol, and traffic was backing up in a long line. The street smelled of urine, dust, and exhaust.

Civilians aren't allowed to drive where Americans and Iraqis are on foot patrols because potential suicide car-bombers have to be kept away. That did not stop us from walking through stopped traffic. No car-bomber would know in advance that he would need to be stopped in that particular line of traffic at that exact moment in order to blow us all up. Patrol times and routes vary and are never advertised in advance. The odds that a car bomber just happened to be there at that moment were minuscule and not really worth worrying about – especially now that there is no more than one violent incident in the city per week.

I noticed something after a while, though.

“Kids aren't running up to us in this town,” I said to Major Laughlin. Everywhere else I've been in Iraq – including Baghdad – kids mob us on the street, ask American troops for candy, and demand I take their picture. But not in Saqlawiya. “What's that about?” I said. “They're impossible to shake off in Fallujah.”

“Good question,” Major Laughlin said.

He did not know the answer, and apparently hadn't even thought of the question. This was one of those times where my experience in different parts of Iraq was perhaps more valuable than a Marine officer's deeper and more prolonged experience in a single location.

Be wary of any “expert” who says they know what’s going on everywhere in Iraq. It’s impossible to have both a general and a granular understanding of that country in real time. You can know one area well, or you can know several areas superficially, but you cannot have an intimate understanding of the entire country while it's in upheaval and flux. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve been there or how how many articles and languages you read.

Our last stop before returning to the station was a carpet shop. I didn't see any hand-made carpets of the kind you'll find in tourist bazaars in Istanbul and Cairo. These were all machine-made carpets for local consumption in a weak economy.

Machine Made Carpets Saqlawiyah.jpg

The man who owned the place was different from all the other Iraqis in Saqlawiya Major Laughlin had briefly spoken to. All were friendly and seemed supportive, but this man's friendliness and support was obviously sincere. Human emotions and body language are largely the same across cultures and time, and I can sometimes tell when someone is faking it or when they clearly are not. He wasn't just being nice or saying what was expected due to a misplaced fear of reprisals. He positively beamed when he saw us approaching, like he was a kid on Christmas morning.

Carpet Store Guy Saqlawiyah.jpg

“Hello, my friends,” he said and put his hand on his heart.

I assumed he and the major were friends. American military officers have forged tight friendships with people all over Iraq, but it was clear from their conversation that they had not met before.

“Is this a new store?” Major Laughlin said.

“Yes,” the man said. “I just moved here a few weeks ago. From Baghdad.”

“Why did you move?” the major said.

The question had to be asked, but the answer could not have been more predictable.

“Terrorism,” he said. “It is much safer here. And it's hard to move around over there. So many walls. Here it is more open. Would you like a drink?”

“Thanks, but no,” Major Laughlin said. It wasn't the right thing to say.

“We are Arabs!” the man said. “We have to offer you drinks.”

Middle Easterners (Arabs and non-Arabs alike) are often offended if you say no to their offers of hospitality.

The man fished some dinars out of his pocket and sent his son across the street to buy cans of soft drinks from the store. He refused to accept Major Laughlin's answer of no.

When the young man returned, he handed me a can of orange soda, a 7-UP to Major Laughlin, and a Pepsi to our interpreter Fadi.

Fadi is a Jordanian Arab who was born in Kuwait and raised in Pennsylvania. He speaks English without an accent and is as culturally American as I am. He is also a citizen. The Marines call him Fadi-Cakes.

“Do you trust the police?” Major Laughlin said to the carpet store owner.

“Of course,” the man said. “That's why I moved here. The whole neighborhood is cooperative.”

“Have you met the police chief?” the major said.

“No,” the man said.

“How about the mayor?”

“No,” the man said. “I don't even know who he is.”

“The mayor is new,” Fadi said to me by way of explaining.

“Well,” Major Laughlin said. “We'll work together and make things better around here.”

“With large hearts,” the store owner said, “we welcome you.”

Back at the station I leaned against a Humvee while waiting for my ride back to Fallujah. Several Marines sat on the hood and joked with each other. A medevac helicopter flew overhead and I noted it in my notebook. I write down just about everything even if it does not seem important.

“Day Three,” a Marine said when he saw me scribbling. “I saw a helicopter.”

Everyone laughed, including me. They are all just as amazed as anyone else that Fallujah and the surrounding areas are mostly free of violence these days. Some seemed to take pity on me that there were no explosions to write about.


I spent the night at the Amariyah station where American Military Police officers live and work. They were recruited from the Texas National Guard and serve now in the regular Army. The station is outside of town, in the desert away from the lights and the noise. The electrical generator failed after the sun went down and the entire area was plunged into darkness.

It was extraordinary. Never had I heard such loud silence in Iraq beyond the mountains of Kurdistan. Not until I was far away from the interminable roar of hundreds of generators did I realize just how loud really Iraq is most of the time. The soundtrack of Iraq isn’t bullets and bombs – imagine instead a dozen lawnmowers within a block of your house. You stop noticing after a few hours, though, until they fall silent. Sitting out in the desert with a failed generator it was as though I had gone suddenly deaf, or had been whisked away through a hole in the dimension to the Oregon wilderness.

“It's beautiful,” I said to two MPs who stood outside on the patio and smoked cigarettes. “The stars. And the quiet.”

Sometimes Iraq looks and feels like a world unto itself. The quiet starry nightscape reminded me, in a way that's hard to describe, that Iraq is on the same planet.

“Look at the night sky through this,” a soldier said as he handed me the night vision eyepiece he had unscrewed from his helmet.

I looked through it and up. The sky exploded with thousands of stars I had never seen against a blinding background of night vision green. None are visible with the naked eye, but they’re there all the time, even in daylight. Now I could see.

And I could hear.

Distant thumps from artillery cannons sounded like whispering thunder on the horizon.

“That's Baghdad,” the soldier said when I asked where it came from.

I felt at peace in the Iraqi wilderness, as though I had slipped into a bath. But Iraq is still a nation at war, and the cannons kept firing. Somewhere, too far away for any of us to hear, outgoing shells crashed and ignited in ferocious explosions. Somebody probably died.

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:47 AM | Comments (16)

March 8, 2008

Hillary Isn't the Monster

I was at first relieved to learn that Senator Barack Obama had chosen Samantha Power as a foreign policy advisor. Her book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide is hardly wishy-washy or leftist, and I concur with Max Boot that it could have been written by a neoconservative. It had been years, though, since I had paid her any attention. Until, that is, Noah Pollak forced me to take a fresh look. Much of what she has written and said since her book’s publication has been troubling, and she turned out to be the most controversial of Obama’s advisors. Yesterday she resigned after calling Senator Hillary Clinton a “monster” in an interview with a Scottish newspaper. I suspect an additional (though unstated) reason may have been the unwanted storm of controversy surrounding her, a storm that has had the Obama campaign on the defensive for some time now.

To her credit, Power disavowed her most controversial idea American troops be sent to Israel and the Palestinian territories–but troubling questions remain. If she thinks Clinton is a monster, what does she think about the dictators of Syria and Iran? She doesn’t approve of them. That’s obvious. But neither she nor Obama has ever been so “undiplomatic” as to suggest that they’re monsters.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:33 AM | Comments (5)

March 6, 2008

Hezbollah's Media Relations

Michael Young has a terrific article in Reason magazine about the collateral damage (as he put it) in think tanks, academia, and the media after the assassination of Hezbollah Commander Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus. He zeroes in on leftist icons Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein for their full-throated support for the Syrian- and Iranian-backed terrorist militia. (Be sure to watch Finkelstein’s performance on Lebanon’s Future TV here, and note how exasperated his interviewer Najat Sharafeddine is with his views.) The absurd alliance of violent Islamists and leftists has been covered elsewhere at length. At least Finkelstein and Chomsky are honest with their audience about what they believe and where they’re coming from.

Young also points out what may be a more serious problem, one much harder for most observers to see. Certain things are expected of those who want to maintain access to groups like Hezbollah. As Young points out,

Hezbollah is adept at turning contacts with the party into valuable favors . . . Writers and scholars, particularly Westerners, who lay claim to Hezbollah sources, are regarded as special for penetrating so closed a society. That’s why their writing is often edited with minimal rigor. Hezbollah always denied everything that was said about Mughniyeh, and few authors (or editors) showed the curiosity to push further than that. The mere fact of getting such a denial was considered an achievement in itself, a sign of rare access, and no one was about to jeopardize that access by calling Hezbollah liars.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:22 AM | Comments (1)

March 4, 2008

In the Slums of Fallujah

In the Slums of Fallujah.jpg

FALLUJAH, IRAQ – Captain Steve Eastin threw open the door to the Iraqi Police captain’s office and cancelled a joint American-Iraqi officer’s meeting before it could even begin. “Someone just shot at my Marines,” he said. “We can’t do this right now.”

I following him into the hall.

“What happened?” I said.

“Someone just shot at my guys at the flour mill,” he said. “A bullet struck a wall four feet over a Marine's head. We have to go in there and extract them.”

“They don't extract themselves?” I said.

“They're on foot,” he said, “and we're going in vehicles. They don't extract themselves on foot.”

And I was getting comfortable and even bored in post-insurgent Fallujah. Complacency kills, and Fallujah isn't completely free of insurgents just yet.

Complacency Kills.jpg

“Can I go with the extraction team?” I said.

“They’ve already left in Humvees,” he said.

But he did send a patrol to the flour mill less an hour later, and I went with them.

Captain Eastin is the commanding officer of Lima Company, and they operate in the slums of southern Fallujah. The houses down there are smaller than they are in the rest of the city, and much more decrepit. Southern Fallujah isn't nearly as rough as a Latin American, Indian, or Egyptian shantytown, but its residents live a hardscrabble life and largely depend on charity for survival. There isn't much of an economy. Unemployment is well over 50 percent. Many residents worked in the industrial district, but only a few factories have re-opened so far. Business owners are waiting for government compensation which was supposed to have been delivered from Baghdad months ago.

Rubble and Blank Walls Fallujah.jpg

During periods of heavy fighting there were more insurgents in this part of the city than in the north, but they fought more for money than ideology. They needed the survival cash Al Qaeda paid them.

“Get your shit on!” Corporal Z bellowed at the privates under his command. He screamed at just about everyone, including me. He's a tyrant to work underneath, and he's a royal pain to work near. His belligerent attitude was unprofessional, and I was surprised his fellow Marines put up with him. I'm referring to him as Corporal Z instead of his full name because my objective here isn't to name and shame him as an act of revenge.

“Are we walking or driving?” I said to him before I realized who I was dealing with.

He scowled at me like I was the dumbest human being he had ever seen.

“We don't drive,” he said. “We walk. You got that? We walk. We don't ever drive out of here.” He scoffed and shook his head.

Forty five minutes earlier his commanding officer Captain Eastin sent a unit to the flour mill in Humvees. Corporal Z only thought he knew what he was talking about.

As it turned out, though, we did walk. The previous patrol had been safely extracted, and the Marines didn't want to look like they were scared.

Lieutenant Justin Lappe led the unit from the joint security station to the flour mill where the shot had been fired. We walked out the gate, and we walked quickly.

“Fuck,” Corporal Z said. “Fuck. I hope I get to shoot somebody today.”

We were in earshot of Iraqi civilians, and I hoped they didn't understand English.

“What's his problem, anyway?” I said to Lieutenant Lappe.

“He's from the south side of Chicago,” he said, as if that explained it. “I guess he grew up in a really bad area. For the last five months I've tried to civilize him, but it can't be done and I've given up.”

“How many people is he in charge of?” I said.

“You'd think he was in charge of a hundred people the way he yells at everybody,” he said. “But he's only in charge of ten. Don't let him get to you. We've all learned to ignore him. I don't even hear him anymore.”

Corporal Z reminded me of another Marine NCO in Fallujah whom I'll call Sergeant C. Sergeant C does not play well with others. He made it clear he hates journalists as a species and that he was going to take it out on me personally. It was nearly impossible to have anything resembling a normal conversation with him.

“When are we moving out, sergeant?” one of his men asked before rolling out on a mission.

“In a few minutes,” Sergeant C said. “Now calm down and stick your tampon back in.”

I saw him slap a private – hard – in the head in the chow hall during lunch. Any private sector employer would have fired him on the spot.

Lieutenant J.C. Davis at Camp Baharia once asked me how everybody was treating me.

“Like gold,” I said. “With one exception. I am not really getting along with Sergeant C.”

The lieutenant laughed out loud hard.

Nobody gets along with Sergeant C,” he said.

What struck me most about Corporal Z and Sergeant C, though, is how unusual they were. I met hundreds of Marines in Fallujah, but only these two had this kind of attitude problem. Most soldiers and Marines in Iraq are far more polite and respectful of others than Americans generally.

I will not publish Corporal Z's and Sergeant C's names because I don't wish to cause them any trouble, but they nevertheless violated MJT's First Rule of Media Relations: Be nice to people who write about you for a living.

The flour mill where Marines had been shot at was only a quarter mile away, but the Marines still walked quickly and didn't stop to talk to any Iraqis. They were much more serious and focused than usual. They knew, and I knew, that we were much more likely to be shot at this time.

An Iraqi Police station had just been constructed a few blocks from the mill, and we stopped to pick up some of their officers to take with us. I waited in the front parking lot.

The neighborhood looked terrible: shoddy houses, concrete walls, barbed wire, garbage, and rubble. I snapped a few pictures.

Garbage Slums of Fallujah.jpg

Destruction Near Flour Mill Fallujah.jpg

A poor man and his two children saw me point my camera in their general direction and decided to pose for me. They thought I wanted a picture of them. I didn't really, but I took one anyway.

Family Barbed Wire Fallujah.jpg

They had an innocent and kind look about them, and I felt bad that they didn't realize that what I was really trying to photograph was their destitute neighborhood. They did not seem ashamed of their humble circumstances.

It would not have surprised me if they had. When I tried to photograph a slum in Cairo near Giza – a slum that was in much worse shape than this one – my taxi driver was embarrassed and implored me to put down my camera. He knew I was a journalist, and he wanted to protect Egypt's dignity.

A unit of Iraqi Police officers emerged from the station with their gear on, and we walked the few remaining blocks to our destination.

Flour Mill Angled Shot.jpg

The flour mill is the tallest building in the area, and I thought it looked like an ideal location for a sniper's nest. I walked toward it in a random zigzag pattern to make myself a more difficult target.

Iraqi Police on Way to Flour Mill.jpg

An Iraqi Police truck roared past us on the street and nearly ran over several Marines and Iraqi Police officers. The driver slammed on the brakes. Officers jumped out with their AK-47s at the ready and merged into the staggered line of Marines.

Flour Mill from Below.jpg

The flour mill loomed ominously overhead. Was the earlier shot fired at the building or from the building? That wasn’t clear to me, and I dearly hoped the shot had come from somewhere else.

We made it inside the parking lot. A handful of Iraq civilians were already there talking to some Iraqi Police officers.

Consult at the Flour Mill.jpg

“Get in here! Get in here!” Corporal Z bellowed at everyone, American and Iraqi alike. “We need to shut this gate now!”

At the Flour Mill Fallujah.jpg

Just behind the sliding gate were the words Complacency Kills. Corporal Z, for all his faults, at least wasn’t complacent.

Complacency Kills Flour Mill.jpg

Once everyone was inside the parking lot, an Iraqi Police officer lackadaisically shut the gate to keep the city at bay. I assumed, then, that the shot had not come from the flour mill or we likely wouldn’t have barricaded ourselves in. Everyone seemed tense, but only slightly – except for Corporal Z who looked like he wanted to fire his weapon. I hoped his superior officers kept him away from detainees.

“Are we going inside?” I said to Lieutenant Lappe.

“I don't know,” he said. “We need to talk to the owner, but he isn't around. The Iraqis are trying to locate him.”

The purpose of the mission was to find him and talk to him, and also to show force. The Marines who were shot at had to be extracted, but at the same time they can’t be seen steering clear of a place just because somebody fired a round at them.

This is as much action as the Marines see any more in Fallujah, which is why the city and the rest of the province are being handed back to Iraqis.

The police could not locate the owner, so we left.

I spoke to Corporal Benjamin Smith on our walk back to the station. He had been in Fallujah before.

“I was hit more than ten times with IEDs in 2006,” he said.

“What kind of IEDs did they use out here?” I said. I was pretty sure there were no EFPs – explosively formed projectiles that tear through tanks, Humvees, and people as though they were made of wet paper. EFPs are made in Iran and are therefore supplied to Iraqi Shia militias. Fallujah is Sunni.

“155 [mm] artillery shells,” he said. “Mortar rounds. Propane tanks. P4 explosives.”

“What was Fallujah like then compared to now?” I said.

“We did a few foot patrols,” he said, “but mostly convoys. Kids even ran up to us then sometimes, but not very often. There are lots more people in the street now. Only once in a while, back then, did anyone wave. It was very rare. Typically, people who saw Marines turned their backs. It was a tough environment.”

An Iraqi Police truck roared down the street. One of the officers threw handfuls of leaflets over the side. Kids scrambled to pick them up.

The belligerent Corporal Z waded into the crowd of kids, smiled warmly, patted one on the head, and gave the others high-fives. What was this? He can’t be nice to Americans, he said he hoped he got to shoot somebody that day, but he’s affectionate with the kids?

Kids Waving on Way to Flour Mill.jpg

“I like it when the kids swarm around me,” he said when he saw that I watched him. “I feel a lot safer.” This was the first time I heard him speak in a normal tone. He’s complicated.

Corporal Smith and I kept walking together.

“What's the most intense thing you saw in Fallujah back then?”

“An SVBIED,” he said. Suicidal vehicle-borne improvised explosive device. In other words, a suicide car bomber. “It was a civilian van. It swerved right toward me, and the guy blew up himself and the van. We found pieces 150 yards away. The engine block blew 50 feet in the air and landed on a Humvee. What was left of the guy was nasty, as if he'd been drawn and quartered.”

I didn't know what to say.

“There was another time when an SVBIED fuel tanker came at us,” he said. “Our EOF [escalation of force] measures couldn't stop it. The driver made it into the outpost. He destroyed four Humvees and even melted one of them. No one was killed, though. Just one dead insurgent. Enemy contact was a daily occurrence then. Me and everyone I know who was here then and now are like, what the fuck? This is Fallujah? Sometimes we'll be driving along and I'll pass a place where I got hit. I'll say oh fuck, this is that place where I got hit and everybody stops talking. It's like fucking crickets in the Humvee.”

Lieutenant Lappe overheard our conversation. I think he was worried that I was getting nervous.

“No one can lay down an IED anymore without somebody calling it in,” he said.

Marine Buys Candy Fallujah.jpg

He fished some Iraqi dinars out of his pocket, walked up the counter of a small store, and bought a huge bag of treats for the kids. It was instant kid bait.

“Chocolate! Chocolate!”

“Mister, I love you!”

“These kids are our security,” he said.

And the Marines are their security.

Kids burst out of every house on the street and formed a violent mob. They fiercely pushed, hit, kicked, and screamed at each other in a mad scramble for a small piece of candy. Someday, I thought, these children will be adults.

Lieutenant Lappe was horrified by their behavior, and he held the bag over his head and told them to calm down. They didn’t calm down. They just keep pushing and punching each other to get as close to the bag of candy as possible.

“You know what?” he said. “Fuck it.” And he threw the bag of candy up into the air over their heads. It landed in the street with a loud smack and broke open. The mob descended and it was all elbows and fists.

“Jesus,” I said.

“Yeah,” the lieutenant said. “These people have issues.”

We walked past a nice-looking Opel sedan. A Marine peered into the driver side window. Another crouched down and looked underneath.

“The Opel is like the Humvee for the muj, man,” said another.

“It's a bad ass car,” our Iraqi-American interpreter said and grinned.


“There are no reporters in all of Fallujah, except Mike,” Captain Eastin said to his men when I first arrived. “So if he talks to you, talk to him. It's the only way to get our story out.”

Soldiers and Marines tend to be a bit more friendly and trusting when I'm introduced to them in this way, and Lima Company was no exception.

I sat with a handful of jokesters in the smoke pit outside the station while First Sergeant Alonzo Baxter held court and entertained us all with his war stories and wisecracks. I can't quote him exactly because I did not have my notebook or voice recorder with me at the time, but almost everything he said was hilarious.

“This guy ought to be famous,” one of his fellow Marines said.

“I'm famous already,” Sergeant Baxter said. “I've been on TV. Ain't no thing.”

“Well, I'll make you famous again,” I said and snapped his picture.

Sgt Baxter Fallujah.jpg
First Sergeant Alonzo Baxter

Lieutenant Colonel Chris Dowling paid a brief visit to the station from Camp Baharia just outside the city. He caught wind of the smoke from Sergeant Baxter's cigar.

“What are you smoking?” Colonel Dowling said. “Is that a Cuban?”

“It's a Cuban,” Sergeant Baxter said.

Colonel Dowling scowled at Sergeant Baxter and looked like he was gearing up to read him the riot act – or worse.

Colonel Dowling Fallujah.jpg
Lieutenant Colonel Chris Dowling

“You want one, sir?” Sergeant Baxter said meekly.

The colonel put his hands on his hips. Then he laughed. “Yeah,” he said. “I'll take one.”

Sergeant Baxter handed Colonel Dowling a Cuban cigar.

“Now I get a free pass next time I mess something up,” he said.

“Oh, no you don't,” Colonel Dowling said.

“Ah, come on, sir,” Sergeant Baxter said. “Just something small.”

The colonel then made an announcement. Secretary of the Navy Donald C. Winter was going to drop by and pay us a visit. Every Marine in the smoke pit sat bolt upright in their chairs. “So we need to get this place straightened up now.”

Five seconds later I was the only one who remained sitting. The rest were busting out brooms, organizing clutter, and taking trash to the burn pit.

No one, including the colonel, had any idea the Secretary of the Navy would be dropping by their random Joint Security Station in a rented house in the slums of Fallujah. How unlikely was that?

“Is he going to patrol?” I heard one Marine say.

“Fuck no,” said another. “That's like President Bush going on patrol.”

Marines don't like it when you point this out, but they are part of the Department of the Navy. They like to fashion themselves as more bad ass than the Navy, the Army, and the Air Force. They do have a point. A Marine is much more likely to see combat than a service member in any of the other branches. The Marine Corps takes far more casualties per head than the others. But the Secretary of the Navy outranked the bejeezus out of every man at that station. They found Lieutenant Colonel Dowling a little intimidating, but the news of a visit from Donald C. Winter made me think of that famous bumper sticker: Jesus is Coming. Look Busy.

Two hours later, he arrived. Lieutenant Colonel Dowling shook his hand, called him sir, and introduced him to the Marines. They stood and faced him like star struck teenagers and seemed terrified that he might find them inadequate.

He did not.

Instead he read a letter written by an Iraqi woman who wanted to thank the U.S. armed forces for freeing and protecting her country.

Each Marine was asked to briefly introduce himself. Each was given one of Donald C. Winter’s very own “unit” coins.

Sec of Navy Handshake Fallujah.jpg

Sec of Navy Coin Fallujah.jpg

After the formalities, Sergeant Baxter approached the secretary with a cigar in his hand.

“Would you like one, sir?” he said. “It’s a Cuban.”

Secretary Winter happily grinned and did not even bothering putting on a show of disapproval.

“Why thank you,” he said. “I think I will.” Then he slipped the cigar into his pocket.

I quietly introduced myself to his aid Becky Brenton.

“What’s he doing this for, exactly?” I said. I doubted it was for a photo op. I was the only reporter in all of Fallujah. He crossed paths with me by sheer chance. It was obvious that he wasn’t there for any attention from me.

Sec of Navy Fallujah.jpg

“He wants to thank the troops,” she said. “He does this every year. He’s on his way to Afghanistan now.”

“Well,” I said, “this is a good time for him to come to Fallujah. It’s not dangerous anymore.” I thought he might be on the dog and pony show happy tour circuit. I was wrong.

“Oh,” she said. “He’s been here before. And he was in Haditha last year.”

“Last year,” I said. “When Haditha was still hot.”

“He risked getting blown up just like everyone else,” she said.

She introduced me to him, and he was startled to see me.

“Get their stories out,” he said as he shook my hand.

“I will,” I said. “That’s why I came.”

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:47 AM | Comments (33)