April 30, 2008

Postcards from the Balkans

I'll have some proper material for you shortly, but I'm moving around a lot right now and don't have much time to sit down and write. So here's a photo gallery of the Middle East of Europe on the road to Kosovo:

Belgrade Blocks 1.jpg
Tower blocks, Belgrade, Serbia

Hotel Moscow Belgrade.jpg
Hotel Moskva (Moscow), Belgrade, Serbia

Kids on Tank Belgrade.jpg
Kids playing on tank, Belgrade, Serbia

Mona Shop Belgrade.jpg
A pleasant street, Belgrade, Serbia

Ethnic Cleansing Bosnia.jpg
An ethnically-cleansed Muslim village near the Serbian Republica Srpska, Bosnia

Tuzla from Car.jpg
Tuzla, Bosnia, no sniper fire

Fountain and Minaret Sarajevo.jpg
Turkish Quarter, Sarajevo, Bosnia

European Quarter Sarajevo 1.jpg
Austro-Hungarian section, Sarajevo, Bosnia

Communist Crap Sarajevo.jpg
Communist crap, Sarajevo, Bosnia

Holiday Inn and Towers Sarajevo.jpg
The famous Holiday Inn hotel for war correspondents, Sarajevo, Bosnia

Lampost Library Sarajevo.jpg
A lampost across from the burned out National Library, Sarajevo, Bosnia

Restaurant Nook Sarajevo.jpg
Restaurant nook, Sarajevo Bosnia

Turkish Quarter Residential Sarajevo.jpg
An old residential district, Sarajevo, Bosnia

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:20 PM | Comments (8)

April 27, 2008

Welcome Tony Badran and Lee Smith

While I am traveling (see the post below this one) and have unreliable Internet access, Tony Badran and Lee Smith will be lending a hand here as guest bloggers.

You probably know Tony from his indispensible blog Across the Bay, and you most likely know Lee from Slate and the Weekly Standard. Please welcome both, and be nice in the comments as usual. I will write and post photos when I can. It will be easier when I settle into one place in Kosovo. I am posting this from Belgrade, which is a fabulous and somewhat surreal place to be (it is the Middle East of Europe here in more ways than one), and I will be leaving soon for Sarajevo.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:21 PM | Comments (2)

April 24, 2008

To the Middle East of Europe

“Once upon a time, in a faraway part of Europe, behind seven mountains and seven rivers, there was a beautiful country called Yugoslavia.” From They Would Never Hurt a Fly by Slavenka Drakulić.

I’m out of Iraq material, and it’s time to travel again. But I’m not going to Iraq this time. I haven’t worked in any other country for over a year, and the story in Iraq is fairly static right now.

This trip will be to the part of the world that got me interested in geopolitics and war in the first place – the Balkans. I took a long hard look at the violent destruction of Yugoslavia before I ever took a serious look at the Middle East, and I understood the Middle East instinctively thanks to my grasp of Bosnia, Serbia, and Kosovo. The Turkish (Ottoman) Empire ruled over all these lands for hundreds of years, and the tragic events that unfolded in the wake of its destruction are eerily similar.

The Balkan Peninsula is the Middle East of Europe. There’s a reason why the violent fracturing in countries like Lebanon and Iraq is sometimes referred to as Balkanization. It should surprise no one that genocidal race and religious wars were fought there so recently, and that American troops remain on the ground to this day, as they likely will for a long time in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The region once known as Yugoslavia is where the West has collided violently with the East for hundreds of years. Millions of South Slavs in Bosnia were converted to Islam at sword point by imperialist Muslims from Turkey. Most Mediterranean Albanians – descendents of the ancient Greeks and Illyrians – likewise converted to Islam. The flag of Albania and Kosovo to this day is a centuries-old symbol of the Albanian Catholic anti-Turkish resistance.

Kosovo Flag.jpg

Another civilizational fault line rips through the place – the one between Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Genocidal wars were waged by the Orthodox Serbs against Catholics in Kosovo and Croatia, as well as against Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo. Croatia looks toward Rome. Belgrade looks to Moscow. Bosniaks, in the middle, look to Arabia and Istanbul. Kosovars look toward Tirana, and to New York and Washington. They could not coexist. Yugoslavia was drawn and quartered.

“Only part of us is sane. Only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live to our 90s and die in peace, in a house that we built, that shall shelter those who come after us. The other half of us is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set life back to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations.” – from Black Lamb and Gray Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia by Rebecca West.

Kosovo is the world’s newest country, and its unilateral declaration of independence is more controversial than the existence of Israel. It should be only slightly surprising, then, that many Kosovars, though most are Muslims, identify to an large extent with the Israelis. “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 recent 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?”

Kosovo is perhaps the most pro-American country in all of Europe. It is almost undoubtedly the most pro-American country in the world of Islam. It exists thanks to NATO, but mostly thanks to the United States. And the Kosovars know it. President Bill Clinton is lionized there as a liberator just as President George W. Bush is hailed by the Kurds of Iraq. They are both indigenous people long-oppressed by empires of the East and more recently by ethnic-nationalist states. Both were saved by young American men from places like Indiana, Colorado, and Texas. Kosovars, unlike the more conservative Muslims in Bosnia, support the war in Iraq.

“In the hinterland of Dalmatia, especially in the Knin area, one can hear a kind of moaning song, a primitive archaic intonation, consisting of the well-known doleful modulations of the sounds o-oy…A few peasants, usually in a tavern, put their heads together and let their sorrowful modulations sound for hours, which constitutes a very grotesque sight for a European. And if they are asked why they sing like this, they give the answer: the lament for Kosovo!” - Vladimir Dvornikovic

The residents of Yugoslavia’s final breakaway state are under the gun from Serbia and its patron state Russia, and also from well-heeled Wahhabis from Saudi Arabia who would love to turn it into a fanatical jihad state in Southeastern Europe. All this goes on under the noses of American soldiers, and utterly beyond the eyes of the incurious media.

Bosnia and Kosovo are where the pacifism of my college years died and was buried. I have wanted, no, needed, to visit these places and write about them for more than ten years. I am not doing this on a whim.

“The whole world is a vast Kosovo, an abominable blood-logged plain." From Black Lamb and Gray Falcon by Rebecca West.

Later this year I plan to visit Afghanistan – a country where the war is going badly from what I hear from people I trust. I have seen American troops under the command of General David Petraeus pull off the impossible in Iraq. No one like Petraeus is in charge in Afghanistan. NATO is in charge in Afghanistan, and NATO is a different animal than the United States Army and Marine Corps.

NATO is also in charge of Kosovo, and Kosovo isn’t the failure Afghanistan is – at least, I don’t think so. But there are those in Russia and Saudi Arabia who would like to reverse that. These are two of the same countries that played terrible roles in the destruction of Afghanistan. Soviet Russia paid dearly for that, but the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia never have. And they are at it again. The United States isn’t the only country that mucks around in the rest of the world, and it’s no coincidence that American forces have been drawn into both Kosovo and Afghanistan. Preventing the Islamic radicalization of Kosovars isn’t why NATO went in there, but it’s part of NATO’s job now, or at least it should be.

Someone needs to take a look at what’s happening in the world’s newest country and figure out where it’s going and what it all means. No one seems to want to go there but me. So I’m going, and I’m going in by ground through Bosnia from Serbia’s capital Belgrade. I leave in two days.

Post-script: I don’t get paid for these reports by anyone but readers of this Web site, and I can't afford to do this for free. If my dispatches are worth something to you, please consider a contribution and help make truly independent journalism economically viable.

You can make a one-time donation through Pay Pal:

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Michael Totten
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Many thanks in advance.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:28 AM | Comments (29)

April 22, 2008

The Case of Bilal Hussein

Last week, Associated Press photographer (and alleged insurgent collaborator) Bilal Hussein was released from custody after an Iraqi tribunal decided his case fell under an amnesty law passed earlier in 2008. The United States military had accused Hussein of working with insurgent groups in Anbar Province, in part because of his uncanny ability repeatedly to photograph insurgents in action.

I don’t know if he’s guilty or not, and he deserves the presumption of innocence. Either way, his case brings attention to an issue most consumers of news from Iraq rarely consider: the fact that large media companies--the Associated Press and other news wire agencies and newspapers--work with some sketchy characters in Iraq.

Iraq is full of such sketchy characters, as everyone knows, and large media companies require an enormous staff and network of locals to produce daily news coverage. They can’t cover breaking news every day in a low-intensity war zone without them, especially if violent activity--car bombs, fire fights, assassinations, and the like--are the bulk of what makes up the news. Someone is killed almost every day in Iraq, but the chances that an individual writer or photographer will happen to be present as an eyewitness are minuscule. Reporters who cover breaking daily news spend much of their time on the phone with stringers and sources. They don’t personally investigate every incident in the field. It just isn’t physically possible if they're required to write every day about what happens in a country the size of California, especially when it can take literally days to travel from one part of Baghdad to another.

I’m sure media companies are careful about who they hire, but it’s hard to make the right call every time in a bewildering and inscrutable place like Iraq. Terrorists and insurgents are and have been supported by a substantial percentage of the local population. It’s nearly impossible to build a firewall thick enough to keep them all out.

Read the rest in COMMENTARY Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:02 PM | Comments (13)

April 17, 2008

Now They Have Turned to the Tribes

Sheikh Sattar Abu Risha, leader of the Iraq’s Anbar Salvation Council before he was murdered by a car bomb in front of his house in late 2007, summed up the Anbar Awakening movement in a few concise sentences to Johns Hopkins University Professor Fouad Ajami. “Our American friends had not understood us when they came,” he said. “They were proud, stubborn people and so were we. They worked with the opportunists, now they have turned to the tribes, and this is as it should be. The tribes hate religious parties and religious fakers.” The tribal system in Anbar Province is ancient. Attempts to overthrow it are not wise. Both Americans and Al Qaeda learned that the hard way.

Marine Captain Quintin Jones, commanding officer at Outpost Delta in the city of Karmah, told me he works with tribal authorities as well as the mayor every day and can’t get much done if he doesn’t.

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

MJT: So what kinds of things do you do with Sheikh Mishan and the mayor?

Captain Jones: I do everything with them. My battlespace is pretty big. We deal with the security issues. We get out to the surrounding areas. Karmah is Jamaeli-centric. The whole Jamaeli tribe covers Karmah, but we've got these others smaller tribes around. So we try to get the mayor out to see these other smaller villages around Karmah. That way people don't think everything in Karmah is all about the Jamaeli tribe. So we go out there. They need contracts in their areas to fix things like schools, businesses, stuff like that. That's generally what we do. We eat dinner together. We eat lunch together. And pretty much the same thing with Sheikh Mishan, but on the tribal level. Everything has to run through the head sheikh, and he's the head sheikh over all this area.

MJT: So who has more power? The sheikh or the mayor?

Captain Jones: The sheikh. Al Anbar is really tribal in everything that it does. Although they've had a city council in the past, a mayor in the past, a lot of the people in the city want to go to the rule of law through tribal law. Making that transition is really tough. It's a delicate line that we have to walk.

MJT: How compatible is tribal law with a democratic system? Are they merging the two systems, or basically still using the old-world authoritarian model?

Captain Jones: The way to approach it is, there is still a need for the tribal way of life, but we're trying to make it more democratic at the same time. They're parallel. The true part is run by the democratic process. If you look at countries like Bahrain or Dubai – the UAE – they still have a strong tribal base, but they’re somewhat democratic in their governance and the way they approach things. You can't move forward or progress as a country if you're stuck in the tribal way of life.

MJT: Right. But how do they merge them? I mean, nobody elected Sheikh Mishan.

Captain Jones: No. It's just passed down through generations.

MJT: So are some of the people below him elected democratically? Like the mayor. Was he elected, or was he appointed?

Captain Jones: A little bit of both. [Laughs.] They're going to hold elections. Once they hold elections, they will vote in an actual mayor and an actual city council. But because the sheikh is the biggest guy in the area, it defaults back to him if there's a dispute. They'll go to him and he'll try to resolve the issue.

MJT: Do you get the sense that this is the way the average person here wants it to be? Or is that just the way it is?

Captain Jones: It's just the way it is. They don't know what they don't know. If you've never been introduced to a democratic way of life, then you don't know it exists. You don't know that there is another way. So it's an education process.

MJT: Did this tribal system exist when Saddam Hussein was in charge?

Captain Jones: Yes. The sheikhs existed. They were just really suppressed by Saddam. They relegated themselves to tribal disputes and marriages.

MJT: So they were not a part of the state?

Captain Jones: That I can't answer.

MJT: How well do you get along with these guys?

Captain Jones: Pretty good. At this stage, if you want to succeed, it's all about personality. You have to have the personality to be able to go out and immerse yourself in this culture every day and understand, try to understand, what's going on. You'll never fully understand what's going on. For me it's a little easier. I've traveled a lot in my lifetime. My wife is European. She's from Italy. English is her second language. I helped her learn to speak English. So understanding a culture without a language, I've done it.

Last year I was on a military training team where I lived with Iraqis. This is basically my third shot at dealing with different cultures.

MJT: This training with Iraqis was in the States?

Captain Jones: No, it was here in Iraq. I was in an embedded training team with the Iraqi Army last year. But now I'm dealing more with governance than with tactics.

MJT: Have you been anywhere else in Iraq aside from that training?

Captain Jones: I was in Baghdad in '03.

MJT: How was that?

Captain Jones: In '03 it was totally different. I didn't deal with any Iraqis. I did site security assessments. Then I did security at the CPA building for Ambassador Bremer with a team of Marines I had. Last year I was in Haditha.

MJT: How is Karmah now compared with Haditha then?

Captain Jones: Every day Marines were getting hurt and sometimes killed.

MJT: By local insurgents?

Captain Jones: Locals insurgents. Al Qaeda in Iraq. Whoever.

MJT: The locals here and in Fallujah talk about the insurgents as though the insurgents are...not them. Like they are all from somewhere else. I know some of them are from somewhere else. Some aren't from Iraq at all. But a lot of them had to be local, right? At least they were protected by some of the local people.

Captain Jones: You have to understand that everything is tribal. So when the sheikhs came on board with the coalition, whatever the sheikh says to do, that's what they are going to do. The sheikhs said hey, we're not fighting the coalition anymore. They're helping us push out Al Qaeda. Some of these Al Qaeda guys were from here. And they have families that are still here. We work with them. Your brother, for example, might be Al Qaeda but you could be with the coalition. You may not want that way of life. I can't detain just someone because his brother is Al Qaeda.

MJT: When you get a situation like this where one brother is with you and the other is against you, will the one who is with you inform on his brother?

Captain Jones: It just depends. It is truly a case by case basis. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Sometimes he'll inform on his brother, but when you detain the brother he'll come back and say hey, he's a really good guy. Why did you detain him? That's his way of denying that he had anything to do with it. So you have those cases as well.

MJT: Did Sheikh Mishan switch sides?

Captain Jones: No. He has been pro-coalition from the beginning. He lost a couple of his sons. He lost one of his daughters back in September.

MJT: What happened?

Captain Jones: She was killed in a mortar attack.

MJT: A mortar attack on his house?

Captain Jones: Yeah. When we first came in, in late August, there was an area out to the east that was all bad guy country. We hadn't cleared it out yet. So in this area there were pockets where they would launch mortars. They hit Sheikh Mishan's house because they knew he was pro-coalition. So they shot mortars at his house and killed one of his daughters. Prior to that, a couple of his sons got killed and he fled to Syria. He stayed there until General Allen convinced him to come back and lead his tribe.

MJT: And when was this?

Captain Jones: I think it was in July of this year. I think it was July 5.

MJT: So what happened to his sons, exactly?

Captain Jones: Al Qaeda stormed the house. Or in gun battles outside the house. More of the usual.

MJT: Have you ever met anyone who you know has switched sides? I'm sure we have both met some of these people, but have you met anyone who has admitted it?

Captain Jones: Yep. There are some guys that were bad who we work with now. They say they got tired of that life, that they didn't have the right ideals. They were really all about power and money rather than pushing us out. They want safety and security now. There was also some reconciliation with some of the insurgents who decided to put down their guns. They didn't want to fight the coalition any more. We walked them back to the other side. The sheikhs had to vouch for these guys. They said these are not going to pick up arms against you again.

MJT: Do you believe that?

Captain Jones: Sometimes yes, sometimes no. [Laughs.] It's a case by case basis again. Some of these guys have done a lot of good things. They say you can't teach an old dog new tricks. Some of them do revert back to their old ways. I don't mean they've started fighting us again. I mean...if they tortured people before and have switched sides now we have to say Hey, we don't torture people. You detain them and turn them in and let the professionals question them. It has been an ongoing process with some of these guys. We're training them in the laws of war, rules of engagement, and so forth. Sometimes it's a hard concept for them to grasp, and other times they get it, they understand it.

MJT: How's the Baath Party doing these days?

Captain Jones: That I don't know. That I'm trying to figure out myself.

MJT: This is Baath country. Or at least it was. I don't know if it is anymore.

Captain Jones: Right. I'm still trying to figure some of this out. A lot of the guys in this area say they are nationalists and want a greater Iraq. They don't necessarily support this ideal or that ideal. They just want the unification of Iraq. That's it.

MJT: Do you have any Shias here?

Captain Jones: No. They're all Sunnis.

MJT: And all Arabs. No Kurds.

Captain Jones: No Kurds. Not in my area.

MJT: What's the most important thing you still need to do while you're here, before you can leave, if you can only pick one?

Captain Jones: [Long pause.]

MJT: Or how about the top three things, if coming up with only one is hard.

Captain Jones: We'd like to kick start the government and the economy. That has been the big focus for me outside of security, which is obvious. Of course I need to make sure they have security, and that their security isn't porous. We can't have people infiltrating back in.

Now, there are always going to be some insurgents around because we don't know who they are. Only the Iraqis know who they are. So we need to keep the security maintained and set up a system where the government and economy are starting to push back in. I only have a few months left. There is no way I can achieve that in the seven month period we're given, let alone a three month period. So we're trying to set the stage where we have a no-kidding city council with a one- or two-year plan of things they need to achieve. We need to make sure it's running properly so it can be sustained after the Marines have left. That's really what I'm trying to work on here.

We need to give people hope in Karmah. The re-opening of the town square, that gave people hope. They saw that the very worst part of Karmah, the part that was constantly getting car bombs and IEDs, where the police station was constantly attacked because the insurgents see the government as a threat, was able to have so many people outside in that one area. Six months ago that never would have happened.

MJT: The Iraqi Army isn't here, are they?

Captain Jones: They're north of us. We do have meetings once a week where we coordinate with the Iraqi Police and the Iraqi Army. They're our neighbors, if you will, and we need to make sure we're all going in the right direction for the greater area. We do, on occasion, do joint operations. We did a clearing operation out to the east, and the Iraqi Army providing some blocking positions for us as the Iraqi Police pushed up and cleared the area. So we do work with them quite a bit.

MJT: How is the Iraqi Army in this part of the country?

Captain Jones: They're pretty professional. They have a good battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Ali. He's a pretty good guy by Iraqi standards, compared to the Iraqi battalion I was working with last year. He's pretty articulate. He understands and can talk tactics. He has basic common sense. And he looks...he's very professional.

MJT: Are they mostly Shias?

Captain Jones: No, these guys are Sunnis.

MJT: Arabs also?

Captain Jones: Yep. And no Kurds, but that will probably change in a couple of years when they start deploying all over Iraq. Last year in Haditha, the Iraqi Army I worked with was Shia.

MJT: Did they have problems with the [Sunni] locals?

Captain Jones: Sometimes. But down south, in Baghdadi, the Iraqi Army also worked with the Baghdadi Police which is all Sunni. Initially there were some problems because people were saying these guys are thieves, and the others said, no, you're thieves. Blah blah blah blah blah. We had to squelch a lot of that crap. We said, look, we're here to get rid of insurgents, not fight each other. So I had to have them take a step back and look at all the things that the other culture had given to the other guys.

The Shia Iraqi Army, when they first went to Baghdadi, they didn't have anything. But the Sunni Iraqi Police went out and bought them flour, vegetables, and fruit, brought it to them, and gave it to them for free. Here. You're here to help us. Here you go. So I had to remind them what these guys were doing for them. And in the end we'd always go out on joint patrols. So we had Sunni and Shia going out on joint patrols. That's a good thing because when you're going into Sunni neighborhoods with Shias, you have some of their own people working with them. That definitely helped out a lot.

But we don't have any of that here.

MJT: What's the relationship like between the local government in Karmah and Baghdad? Or do they even have one?

Captain Jones: Well, they have the government of Al Anbar. They're the guys who are in contact with Baghdad. What that relationship is like, I have no idea. It doesn't affect me on my level. My local government ties into Fallujah, and Fallujah ties them into Ramadi.

MJT: Right.

Captain Jones: And that's what we're working with.

MJT: Do they have a good relationship with Fallujah?

Captain Jones: They're starting to have a good relationship with Fallujah. A lot of those lines were severed because of the insurgency, but now they're opening those lines back up. It's starting to work a lot better.

MJT: What's the biggest problem here?

Captain Jones: Probably the connection to Fallujah and Ramadi so they can get Iraqi dinars, rather than American dollars, into the army. That's their biggest issue. Once they can do that, we can take them off the coalition aid. So our focus is the transition from dollars to dinars.

MJT: Anything you'd like to add that I didn't ask you about? Anything you wish Americans knew about this place and don't know?

Captain Jones: I wish more Americans knew about the good things Marines are doing at the lower levels. They see a lot of things we're doing at the general level, but they don't see what the privates and lance corporals are doing to further this relationship with the Iraqis and help the Iraqi people. We came here in part to liberate the Iraqi people and help the Iraqi people. And truly we have, at the lowest level. As we move away from kinetic warfare, we have those diplomats if you will, the strategic corporals, who is out there every day, helping Iraqis paint their businesses, helping Iraqis open their businesses, helping disabled people out of their own pockets, starting the Adopt a School programs because they can't get school supplies through the Iraqi chain.

Schools back in the States, through family members, adopt some of these schools and they send school supplies out. Those kinds of things I wish the Americans could see. The actual good things. The progress. I wish Americans could see the number of kids who attached to you today. They were happy, they weren't throwing rocks at you. They were happy to see you and talk to you. They probably asked you for chocolate, but you know, still, they talk to you. That's the message. That's what I want them to know about.

Not all Iraqi people are bad. There are some really truly good people. The fact that they would not let you leave their house today until you ate their food, until you were full, things like that. A lot of people open up their homes when they see that Americans are actually here to help them.

Post-script: I don’t get paid for these reports by anyone but readers of this Web site, and I can't afford to do this for free. If these dispatches are worth something to you, please consider a contribution and help make true independent journalism economically viable.

You can make a one-time donation through Pay Pal:

Alternately, you can now make recurring monthly payments through Pal Pal. Please consider choosing this option and help me stabilize my expense account.

$10 monthly subscription:
$25 monthly subscription:
$50 monthly subscription:
$100 monthly subscription:

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

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

Many thanks in advance.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:34 AM | Comments (20)

April 13, 2008

Published in City Journal -- Hope for Iraq's Meanest City

Fallujah is strange, sullen, wild-eyed, badass, and just plain mean,” writes Bing West in his 2005 war chronicle No True Glory. “Fallujans don’t like strangers, which includes anyone not homebred. Wear lipstick or Western-style long hair, sip a beer or listen to an American CD, and you risk the whip or a beating.” Fallujah has been Iraq’s bad-boy city since at least the time of the British in Mesopotamia; even then, travelers were warned to stay out. More recently, Saddam Hussein recruited some of his regime’s most ruthless officers from Fallujah. Even though it was a quieter city than most in Iraq after the American invasion in 2003, with less looting than in Baghdad and a staunchly pro-American mayor, the Americans should have known that Fallujah was trouble.

But they didn’t, and so they were unprepared when a rogues’ gallery of Islamists, Baathists, and garden-variety malcontents made the city the launching pad for an Iraqi insurgency. The Fallujans who embraced the insurgency were foolhardy, too: had they looked at what similarly-minded Islamist totalitarians had done to Afghanistan, they would have known what hell awaited them at the insurgents’ hands. General David Petraeus’s radical transformation of counterinsurgency tactics has come at just the right time: the overwhelming majority of Fallujans, deciding that America is the lesser of evils, have now aligned themselves with the Marines and the American-backed city government.

The insurgency arose in Fallujah before spreading to the rest of the country. Perhaps it is fitting, then, that the insurgents—now on the run elsewhere in Iraq—were first beaten here in the City of Mosques.

Read the rest in City Journal

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 4:20 PM | Comments (5)

April 12, 2008

Make Michael Yon a Bestseller

Michael Yon's new book Moment of Truth in Iraq is now shipping from Amazon. My copy arrived a few days ago and it looks excellent. I'll let you know what I think once I dig into it.

Michael is the best foreign correspondent working in Iraq. If you haven't been following his work, I need to make his book required reading for you. If you have been reading him all this time, you already know why you need to pick up a copy.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 5:20 PM | Comments (14)

April 8, 2008

Builders of Nations

Builders of Nations.jpg

“This is my hardest deployment,” Marine Sergeant Cooley said as he unfastened his helmet and tossed it onto his bed. “We weren't trained for this kind of thing.” He's been shot at with bullets and mortars, and he's endured IED attacks on his Humvee, but post-war Fallujah is more difficult and more stressful than combat. He isn't unusual for saying so. Many Marines I spoke to in and around the Fallujah area said something similar.

“We're trained as infantrymen,” Captain Stewart Glenn said. “But here we are doing civil administration and trying to get the milk factory up and running.”

“We make up all this stuff as we go,” Lieutenant Mike Barefoot added.

While most Americans go to school, work traditional day jobs, and raise their families, young American men and women like these are deployed to Iraq, Kosovo, and Afghanistan where they work seven days a week rebuilding societies torn to pieces by fascism, terrorism, ethnic cleansing, and war. It is not what they signed up to do. Some may have geeked out on nation-building video games like Civilization, but none of the enlisted men picked up any of these skills in boot camp.

Officers pick up some basic relevant skills, though, as well as a more complete education. Lieutenant Nathan Bibler runs a Joint Security Station in the slums of Fallujah and works with local authorities every day.

JSS Jbail Fallujah.jpg
Lieutenant Nathan Bibler's Joint Security Station, Jbail, Southern Fallujah

He has a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science. “In a lot of ways it helps me analyze and interpret,” he said. What helps more than anything, though, is a training program Marine officers go through in 29 Palms, California, before they're deployed.

“We were living in a town they built out in the desert with Iraqis.”

“Really,” I said. “Iraqi-Americans?”

“Yeah,” he said. “I don't know if they were all U.S. citizens, but Iraqis who were already in the U.S. We were living in this town that they built. We lived in the town with the Iraqi Police right next door. Actually they lived with us part of the time.”

Enlisted men don't go through role playing training in 29 Palms, but every officer who mentioned it to me said those exercises were eerily effective, that actors from Iraq hired to play Iraqis in Iraq during counter-terrorist warfare turned out to be surprisingly like real Iraqis in a real counter-terrorist war.

Most of a Marine officer's training revolves around fighting, of course, but they do pick up some of the basics they need to build nations.

Humvee Driver Fallujah.jpg

“There was so much stuff to learn about,” Lieutenant Bibler said. “Generator power, water treatment plant filtration. One of our big tasks – besides security, which is number one – is keeping our pulse on the infrastructure here and getting an accurate picture of what Fallujah is actually like. Our training was good, and this is what it was like. They couldn't mimic it to this scale, but this is what it was like. We also trained for kinetic warfare, of course – shooting and all that.”

Just down the street from Lieutenant Bibler’s station is a massive construction site. A local Iraqi contracting company is building a water treatment plant with American money.

Walking Toward Water Plant Fallujah.jpg

Water Plant Fallujah.jpg

Solar-powered street lights are being erected all over Fallujah to take strain off the failing electrical grid and keep the city well-lit during outages. Locals are hired to pick up trash that accumulated during the periods of heavy fighting, and new weekly garbage collection contracts are being awarded. The city government is being rebuilt from scratch. Micro loans are given to local shopkeepers to jumpstart the economy.

“We hire day laborers for twelve dollars a day to clean up certain areas,” Captain Steve Eastin said. The average monthly salary in Fallujah is around 300 dollars, so twelve dollars a day isn’t as stingy as it may sound. “We’re paying to have the mosques repaired. Iraqi Police Chief Colonel Faisal helped convince the imams to trust us. He’s well-educated and speaks the language of justice and democracy.”

Colonel Faisal Fallujah.jpg
Iraqi Police Chief Colonel Faisal (left)

Every mosque in the city was anti-American during the peak of the insurgency, but every single one has flipped in the meantime. Every day the imams exhort the people of Fallujah to support the American effort. The Marines know this because they have Arabic-speakers who sit in and listen to what gets said.

“What's the most interesting thing you've seen since you got here?” I asked Lieutenant Bibler.

“How the people interact with Marines,” he said. Almost everyone I spoke to in Fallujah said the friendliness of the local people amazed them. They expected unrelenting hostility, and for good reason. Fallujah used to be vicious.

Painting School Fallujah.jpg
Iraqis painting a school

“What's the most discouraging thing you've seen?” I said.

“Just the magnitude of what they need,” he said. “Health care. Jobs. That's the biggest one for me, getting them long-term work. It's not something I have much control over, or any control over, really. That's the most frustrating part. I see these kids every day and I want them to have health care and income so they don't have to be so worried. It's very frustrating.”

“How long do you think you need to stick around?” I said. “Assuming everything goes well.”

“What do you mean by well?” he said.

“Assuming there isn't another insurgency,” I said. “How much is there left to do before you can say, okay, we don't need to be here anymore and we can go home, to Baghdad, to Afghanistan, or wherever.”

“The gauge is, is the security and infrastructure that has been established here in Fallujah strong enough to stand once we leave?” he said. “I can't vouch for the rest of the city, but the police here have the security. The police know what's going on.”

Inside JSS Jbail.jpg
Inside Lieutenant Bibler's Joint Security Station

“What do you suppose would happen if you had to leave right away,” I said, “if Washington ordered you out right now?”

“I can't vouch for what would happen in the rest of the country,” he said. “Because things have been so quiet here, no one in my platoon has fired a shot in anger. Normally you would expect a new unit to be less familiar with things and be an easier target. We haven't been shot at once or had a single IED go off since I've been here. The last one was in July. So it's hard to gauge what the insurgency – Al Qaeda in Iraq – is trying to do right now. So if we pulled out...ah, man, that's a tough question. Right now I'm not sure.”

I suspect he hedged a bit because he feared I was asking him to talk “out of his lane.” American troops are told not to talk above their pay grade to journalists, so I reformulated the question.

“What do you suppose is the weakest point you need to work on and help them with most?” I said.

“Okay,” he said. “Well, we've got the security piece pretty good. There haven't been any shots fired. We just need to build up the governmental side and jump-start the system enough to make it so it can run on its own efficiently enough that it can last.”

“What's the current state of the government?” I said. “If it still needs to be built up, what's it like now?”

“All I can really speak about is the Fallujah government,” he said. “What they're really trying to work with is getting the community leaders to buy in to the system. The money is there. We're trying to distribute it as efficiently as possible.”

“How many people in the current government are old Baathists?” I said. Fallujah is an old Baath Party stronghold.

“I don't know,” he said. “There is just speculation. Some of the community leaders were probably Baathists, but I've never had a conversation with one who I know is a former Baathist.”

“Do you guys even care at this point?” I said. There hasn’t been any Baathist violence in Fallujah for a long time, so perhaps it’s not that big a deal. Besides, many Iraqis joined the Baath Party out of necessity, not because they drank the Kool-Aid.

“Well,” he said, “it has to matter at least a little bit. It's something I would consider if I knew it about someone. But instead of just sweeping everybody aside and building a community structure from the bottom up, they've used the one that existed already, the mukhtars. How many of them are former Baathists, I don't know.”

“Maybe all of them,” I said.

“Perhaps,” he said. “But I can understand a survivalist mentality among them. We're working with them to build faith in this system. Every day we try to push more and more of it onto them.”


I accompanied Captain Eastin to a town hall meeting where various mukhtars met with community leaders, including Fallujah’s chief of police. Several other Marine officers also attended, as did representatives from the Army Corps of Engineers. We sat on plastic chairs in a circle in a room mostly devoid of furniture.

Town Hall Meeting Fallujah.jpg

Iraqi Police Chief Colonel Faisal showed up in a Western suit and tie to much pomp. Everyone stood, including me. He sat first, at a small table in the center of the room. Two Iraqi Police officers videotaped the meeting with hand-held camcorders.

The mukhtars looked like a shady and inscrutable bunch. All are rich. None are elected. The City Council appoints them. Fallujah tried to move away from the tribal political system some time ago and adopted the mukhtars to edge out the sheikhs.

Muktar House Fallujah.jpg
A mukhtar's house

“Mukhtars are sort of like mayors of neighborhoods,” Second Lieutenant Gary Laughlin explained to me earlier. “There are five in the Jolan sector. Three are good. Two not so much. They all come from powerful families. They enrich themselves with graft from various contracts. A few in the past got some big contract money, then fled to Jordan with their families.”

Town Hall Meeting Circle Fallujah.jpg

The meeting was held at a rented house next to Captain Eastin's Joint Security Station. The station was being dismantled rack by rack and sandbag by sandbag because a brand-new station was opening up down the street. Marines next door tossed sandbags onto the roof of the meeting house.

Captain Eastin Fallujah.jpg
Captain Steve Eastin

Combat operations are finished in Fallujah, but this was still a mission of war. If the Marines and city leaders cannot get Fallujah back on its feet, the city could fall again to the insurgency.

Most mukhtars gulped from cans of Pepsi and orange soda. Half smoked cigarettes.

Drinking and Smoking Fallujah.jpg

“You all smoke too much,” Captain Eastin said. Everyone laughed. No American in the room lit a cigarette, but many looked like they could use a beer. American military personnel aren’t allowed to drink while deployed overseas. There isn’t much drinking in Fallujah anyway. Alcohol isn’t banned like it is in Iran and Saudi Arabia, but there is only one bar in the city, and there is no sign out front.

The Marines and the mukktars discussed the electrical grid. Iraqis did most of the talking, which is what I was told to expect.

“The mukhtars used to talk and direct their comments toward us,” Captain Glenn had told me earlier. “Now they direct it toward each other and toward the sheikhs. They used to focus on asking the Marines to do this and do that. Now it's the police talking to the mukhtars and the mukhtars talking to themselves. At this point we pretty much jot down the notes.”

Two Iraqis Town Hall Meeting Fallujah.jpg

Iraq’s electrical grid is a world-famous piece of crap. The engineers who built it were incompetent. It has been sabotaged for years by insurgents. Even in areas like Fallujah, where there is no more insurgent sabotage, civilians inadvertently sabotage it themselves in a perfect example of the tragedy of the commons. When transformers blow out, residents move their wires to another transformer where they can temporarily get more electricity. After a while that transformer gets overloaded and blows out. More residents then move their wires. And so on.

Major Kenneth Gudgel said he was concerned that much of the equipment given to Iraqis by Marines is not being installed.

Major Kenneth Gudgel Fallujah.jpg
Major Kenneth Gudgel (left)

“I've seen Iraqis buying electrical transformers with money out of their own pocket,” he said. “Why are they doing this? We've given you money for all the transformers you need. It isn't fair that people have to pay for these things when the United States government has already paid for them.”

“Yes,” said one of the mukhtars. “You are right. We will look into it.” From the look on Major Gudgel’s face, I don’t think he was convinced.

Holding Court Fallujah.jpg

An expensive-looking chandelier hung over our heads. Rooms were connected by arches. But the floor was made of uneven cracked concrete, like a sidewalk in need of repair. The floor was wet, too. The place leaked. Most windows were broken. Those facing west onto the street were sandbagged.

Fallujah Meeting From Outside.jpg

Sandbagged Windows Meeting House Fallujah.jpg

Every fifteen seconds or so another sandbag landed with a loud THUMP on the roof as Marines next door took down the station and prepared to move. I don’t know why they tossed sandbags from one roof to another instead of into the yard. The house shook. Unbroken windows rattled. I half-expected the ceiling to come down on our heads.

This part of Fallujah reminded me of what Halabja looks like these days – the now-infamous Kurdish city up north that Saddam Hussein all but destroyed with chemical weapons, artillery, and air strikes. It's not quite as bad as all that – the houses are bigger and at one time were nicer. But the decrepitude and cash-poor economy are similar.

Only two women showed up at the start of the meeting. Both were Marines. An Iraqi Army soldier sitting next to me stared at both. Most likely he didn't realize that staring is considered more rude to Americans than it is to Arabs.

He offered me a sip from his water bottle. I declined because I was nursing a cold and did not want him to get sick. He asked my name, then asked the name of the more attractive of the two female Marines.

“I don't know,” I whispered to him. “I haven't met her.”

“Will you take my picture with her after the meeting?” he said.

“Uhhhh,” I said. “I don't know. You will have to ask her if that's okay.”

I didn't want to do it because I didn't want to embarrass the poor woman. I'm sure she gets too much unwanted attention from Iraqi men as it is. I hoped the soldier sitting next to me would lose interest or forget about the whole thing by the time the meeting was over.

A few minutes later, a local woman stopped by. Every Iraqi Police officer in the room with a cell phone took her picture with their built-in cameras. Women make up slightly more than fifty percent of the population in Fallujah, but they are perhaps only two percent of the visible population.

She wore a hijab – the modest Islamic headscarf that covers the hair of conservative women – and sat next to a female American Marine captain.

Women Town Hall Meeting Fallujah.jpg

She came from a school. Captain Eastin suggested she start a Parent Teacher Association, like the PTA in the United States. It's highly unlikely that he was trained to say such a thing. He was just making it up as he went along, which is typically what Americans in nation-building roles do. Hardly any Marines have experience running cities in the United States. Very few, if any, served on their local city councils. Probably none have ever been mayor. But they live in the United States. They all know how a modern society is supposed to work simply from being immersed in one for most of their lives.

Americans in Iraq try to replicate what they know. Sometimes it doesn't work. What they suggest sometimes can’t work. Their ideas often baffle the locals. Iraq will never become a distant suburb or colony of America with Arabic characteristics. No one is trying to turn it into one. They're just bringing their American experience to Iraqis and saying “here's how we do it, maybe something similar will work in your country.”

Iraqis aren't stupid just because their society is dysfunctional. They may be confused by some American ideas, but Iraq likewise bewilders Americans. It takes a long time to learn how to navigate the alleyways of this complex and opaque society.

Stairs Through Broken Doorway Fallujah.jpg

Iraqis will often Iraqify, so to speak, ideas that Americans come up with. When Americans and Iraqis put their heads together they often resolve problems in ways that neither would have thought of on their own.

“Iraqi solutions are sometimes weird,” Captain Glenn said. “But it's almost always more effective than the Western solution we would come up with.”

“Give me an example of a weird solution,” I said.

“Some of the day labor projects,” he said. “We give a little bit of money to unemployed guys for some work, like cleaning the streets, rubble removal, things like that. You and I might say, hey, let's get some people and go out there and we'll pay them. They'll do that, but they just go about it in a really roundabout sort of way. They'll hire a couple of people to pick up trash, but then they'll just pick up a little trash and then go paint barriers or something. Meanwhile I'll be thinking, let's just go pick up rubble and trash. They are very non-linear. Also, like providing the trash cans. We purchased some trash cans. We wracked our brains about the accountability of the trash cans – we were thinking militaristically about accountability, the ten digit grid and where, exactly, these trash cans should go. The mukhtars said here's what we'll do. We'll get these trash cans and we'll talk to the senior man, the elder or the hajji in the area where the trash cans will go. We'll have him sign for it, then it's his trash can and he manages the trash can. That's not something we would have thought of.”

I visited a school in the city of Karmah, between Fallujah and Baghdad, with Lieutenant Schroeder and Corporal Gasperetti. They needed to speak to the chief administrator about school supplies.

Lieutenant Schroeder Karmah.jpg
Lieutenant Schroeder

“Please don't take any picture of women in here,” Corporal Gasperetti said. “We tried taking their pictures during a census, but they asked us not to. So please don't.”

“Ok,” I said. I knew already that most Iraqi women don’t like to be photographed. There are more women in public than you might think from looking at my pictures.

The school was squat with few windows. All the windows were barred. Trash was strewn in the yard. A sad-looking flag pole was all that decorated the courtyard.

The school had opened up again just recently after the insurgency was put down. Getting the place cleaned up and stocked was an on-going process that had barely begun. Corporal Gasperetti was in charge of the project. He barely outranks a private, but this was his job. Too much work needs to be done to leave it all to the high-ranking officers.

Gasperetti School.jpg

He rapped on the door of the administrator’s office. She opened the door and said “Salam” a bit glumly. She was overweight, as many Iraqis are, and she did not wear a headscarf. A poster of a Bavarian mountain village hung on the wall behind her desk.

Corporal Gasperetti asked her which school supplies she needed most. After a few moments, he turned to Lieutenant Schroeder and said “You guys are making me nervous.”

“Why?” the lieutenant said with genuine surprise.

“Because you’re my boss,” Corporal Gasperetti said. “And because I’m not used to be around a reporter.”

“Don’t worry about me,” I said and laughed. “I am not going to make you look stupid.”

I might make him look stupid if I thought he deserved to look stupid, if he were screwing up his job in some way. But nothing I heard him say or saw him do justified any bad press.

We left after a few minutes.

“She’s an old Baathist,” he said. “I'm trying to win her over by helping her out.”

“Have you made any progress?” I said.

“She’s loosened up a bit,” he said. “She used to be hostile.”

Gasperetti is “just” a corporal. And he's in charge of building a school. He's responsible for flipping a Baath Party functionary into the American column. And he's younger than I was when I finished college.

Corporal Gasperetti.jpg
Corporal Gasperetti

Winning over Iraqis is hard. It takes time, but it can be done.

After the town hall meeting in Fallujah, Mukhtar Hamid Hussein approached Captain Eastin.

Man with Glasses Fallujah.jpg
Mukhtar Hamid Hussein

“We appreciate the security you provide to us,” he said. “And how you watch over us as we also protect you.” Mukhtar Hussein was the chief of Fallujah’s mukhtars. “For a long time we were enemies. But now we are friends.”

“It was a miscommunication,” Captain Eastin said. That was a serious and generous understatement.

“There were mistakes on both sides,” Mukhtar Hussein said. “But now we are brothers.”

Post-script: I don’t get paid for these reports by anyone but readers of this Web site, and I can't afford to do this for free. If these dispatches are worth something to you, please consider a contribution and help make true independent journalism economically viable.

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:54 AM | Comments (23)

April 4, 2008

Blasphemers Unite!

Egypt's Grand Imam Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi threatened “severe” consequences if the Dutch government doesn’t ban Parliamentarian Geert Wilders’ anti-Islamic film Fitna. It makes no difference to Tantawi and other perpetually outraged Islamists that the Netherlands is a sovereign country with its own laws. Ever since Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini condemned Salman Rushdie to death for writing the supposedly offensive Satanic Verses – and sent death squads after him and his publishers around the world – radical Islamists have seen it as their right and duty to enforce their own unilateral anti-blasphemy laws on the human race. (Meanwhile, liberal American Muslim Aziz Poonawalla hosts Fitna on his own Web site even though he, as should be expected, doesn’t like it.)

Fitna isn’t the only recent movie hard-line Islamists hope to squelch beyond their own borders. The other is Persepolis, an animated film based on Iranian author Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel of the same name about repression under both the Shah Reza Pahlavi and the Ayatollah Khomeini. General Wafik Jizzini at Lebanon’s Ministry of the Interior banned it because, he said, Shia officials (read: Hezbollah) said it was offensive to Islam and – you guessed it – Iran. Islamic Republic officials and their proxies are true to form here, considering it was they who kicked off the international anti-blasphemy campaign in the first place.

“The heart of every culture-loving Lebanese breaks with every ban,” writes Abu Kais, a Lebanese Shia who lives now in Washington and writes the indispensable blog From Beirut to the Beltway. Beirut is a genuinely cosmopolitan and culturally rich city, more so than any other Arab capital. And Lebanon, true to its form, fought back. Tarek Mitri, Lebanon’s Minister of Culture, managed to overturn the ban and get Persepolis on the big screen after all.

It’s too bad Fitna and the reaction to it sucked all the media oxygen out of the room. I haven’t seen Geert Wilders’ short film, but he’s sounds like a reactionary who makes a poor poster boy for free expression (he wants to ban the Koran in the Netherlands). He not only thinks radical Islamists shouldn’t be able to buy their own copy, but neither should moderate Muslims or people like you and me who might want to study it for our own reasons. The man has a death threat hanging over his head from nutjobs the world over, as do employees at the Internet company LiveLeak that hosts the film, yet an enormous amount of the public discussion revolves around whether or not his film is offensive. It is offensive to some people, including many reasonable people. But that’s beside the point.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:33 AM | Comments (13)

April 1, 2008

The Liberation of Karmah, Part II

This is the second in a two-part series. Read Part I here.

Liberation of Karmah Part 2.jpg

KARMAH, IRAQ -- The small city of Karmah sits between Fallujah and Baghdad, two Iraqi cities that have suffered more insurgent and terrorist violence than most. Karmah, however, was more hard-hit than either. It’s right on the bleeding edge of Anbar Province where the outskirts of Baghdad taper away. Unlike Fallujah, it has no hard perimeter to defend, nor was it considered a top priority for counterinsurgency operations. Surge forces in Baghdad drove Al Qaeda in Iraq members out of the capital’s neighborhoods and straight into Karmah during most of 2007.

Houses Palms Kids Karmah.jpg

Al Qaeda in Iraq did in Karmah what they have done everywhere else – intimidated and murdered civilians into submission. They decapitated police officers and placed severed heads all over the city. They destroyed the homes of anyone who opposed them. The message was clear: This is what will happen to you if you work with the Americans.

Blown Up House and Palms Karmah.jpg

The story in Karmah should be familiar by now. Iraqis said no. We will work with the Americans and drive you out of our country. So many Stateside Americans still wonder aloud why mainstream Muslims refuse to stand up to terrorists, so apparently the story in Karmah – which is hardly unique to Karmah – isn’t familiar enough.

I joined Lieutenant Casey Alleman on a foot patrol in the city at dawn when the air was still cold and the sun cast long shadows.

Three Iraqi Men Morning Karmah.jpg

Fewer Iraqis were out on the street. Many were still sleeping or cooking breakfast at home.

Slaughtered Sheep Karmah.jpg

Most stores were open, though, and the lieutenant ducked into a hardware store and bought several cans of blue spray paint. I didn't ask what they were for because I assumed I'd find out.

Even this city, of all cities, has gone quiet. Saturation patrolling by Marines who live embedded in the community’s neighborhoods stanched the terrorist outflow from Baghdad and purged the local insurgency’s remnants. The main market area downtown was recently re-opened to much ceremony and fanfare. Marine veterans who had served in Karmah before can hardly believe their own eyes – a year ago Karmah was thought to be as dark as Mordor.

Man and Greens Karmah.jpg

Our first official stop of the morning was at a grade school. Children rushed to the windows to smile and wave as we walked up the steps.

Kids in Window Karmah.jpg

A young boy came running out the front door with tears in his eyes and a bruise on his eyebrow. A soft-faced teacher or administrator in his forties stepped outside to make sure the kid didn't run off too far. “He was in a fight,” he said and opened his palms.

Lieutenant Alleman called out to his unit's medic. “See if you can clean this kid up,” he said. Our medic cleaned the boy's wound and gently applied a band-aid.

Medic Boy Karmah.jpg

I stepped inside the school yard. Hundreds of children saw me and the Marines, and the whole place erupted in screams of excitement. It was as if Britney Spears or the guy from Coldplay had shown up. The volume was just extraordinary and I took a few steps back in surprise.

Crazy Kids School Karmah.jpg

Wildly screaming children jockeyed for position in front of my camera. After a few minutes of pandemonium, teachers coaxed most of the kids into classrooms and left a few behind to pick up the trash and sweep the sidewalk around the courtyard.

Hallway School Karmah.jpg

“Are they picking up the trash to impress us?” I said to Lieutenant Alleman. It's hard to say why, exactly, but that's what it looked like.

“Yeah, pretty much,” he said. “We can get them to do it, but what we really need to do is get them to do it when we aren't here.”

The schools are gender segregated by days of the week. One day each school is for boys, and the next day the same school is for girls.

A few months ago the schools were opened again for the first time in years. Much hay was made about girls being allowed to return to school in Afghanistan after the Taliban regime was demolished. Hardly any Americans know that in the rougher cities of Iraq, neither girls nor boys could go to school for years because local rule by Al Qaeda was so oppressive and violent.

“People just stared at us as recently as August,” Lieutenant Alleman said. “They wouldn't, or couldn't, engage us. But when we started painting buildings and stuff like that people realized we were trying to help. None of the schools were open when we got here [last summer]. We helped them open up five. It's hard to hate someone who gives your kid candy and helps him get to school.”

The lieutenant and I quickly popped into a classroom. The kids cheered the lieutenant again. I snapped a few pictures.

Kids in Class Karmah.jpg
Lieutenant Casey Alleman in an Iraqi boys' classroom

Excited Kids Class Karmah.jpg

Their teacher asked them to remain seated. Most of them did, but a few couldn't restrain themselves. We left in a hurry so we wouldn't be too much of a distraction. Lieutenant Alleman had a brief meeting with the top administrator, and we were off.

The school kids were reluctant to clean up trash when Americans aren't looking, but Karmah's adults are more grown-up about it, as should be expected. “We started a cleanup program a few months ago,” the lieutenant said. “Now they're doing it on their own. You see these white buildings? We paid for the paint, and the owners went to work.”

Painted Stores Karmah.jpg
A recently painted building

Then I knew why he picked up cans of blue paint on the way to the school.

We stopped by a shop and said hello to the man who owned it and his sons who helped run it.

Spray Paint Karmah 0.jpg

“We have the paint I promised you,” Lieutenant Alleman said. He then asked the man to close the garage-style door so his Marines could paint it blue. Brushed paint would have looked better than sprayed paint, but there wasn’t any available that day.

Spray Paint Karmah 1.jpg

Spray Paint Karmah 2.jpg

As the Marines spray-painted the door, the Iraqis washed down a second door with a hose so the next round of paint would adhere better.

Spray Paint Karmah 3.jpg

Two young boys ran up to us. A Marine asked them how school was going.

“Fuck school,” one of them said. He said it in English. “Give me your knife. I want to kill my teacher.”

Iraqis exaggerate and think this sort of thing is funny. Last year in Ramadi I heard a kid ask an Army lieutenant to drive his Humvee over to the adjacent tribal area and kill everybody. He wasn’t serious. He laughed and thought it was funny. I did not find it funny, nor did the lieutenant. It’s especially not funny since this is Iraq where that kind of thing actually happens, though the violence is usually political or sectarian rather than tribal.

“Where did you learn English” I said.

“From my teacher,” the boy said.

“The teacher you want to kill?” I said. “He taught you English and you want to kill him?” Somebody needed to let this kid know this is no way to talk.

Kid with Hoodie Karmah.jpg

“Mister,” his friend said. “America good. Iraq no good.”

“Iraq good,” I said, though I do not believe it. Iraq is in much better shape than it was a year ago, but it’s still a terrible and often disturbing place. I said “Iraq good” because I wanted to be polite. It didn’t feel right to insult his country to his face while I was a guest, even if I would be agreeing with what he had already said. I understand why Arabs sometimes say “America good” just to be nice. I don’t hold it against them or dismiss them as patently dishonest, not for this. I had just done essentially the same thing, and for a similar reason.

The kid knew I wasn’t sincere. Perfunctory going-through-the-motions politeness is detectable across cultures. I can often tell when I'm getting that from Iraqis. This kid knew the drill.

“Iraq no good,” he said again, this time with more force. He would not hear otherwise from me.


Middle Easterners will rarely let you into their homes without feeding you – and if they put food in front of you, you have to eat it.

Abu Jabar Azabi was no different. He greeted Lieutenant Alleman, the rest of the Marines, and me at the gate to his yard and sat us down on some benches he had put on the front lawn. Chickens ran around on the grass.

Marines Civilians House Karmah.jpg

“I don’t have food in the house,” he said. “My son and I will go to a restaurant and get some for you.” He did not get food for himself or his family. He only went and bought food for us.

Azabi lives in a new house because Al Qaeda destroyed his old one with a car bomb. He refused to let them use his house as a sniper nest, so they blew it up. He is lucky to be alive. It goes without saying that he’s no fan of the insurgency. A photograph on his living room wall shows him posing with a squad of Marines.

He had to sell his farm, and he needed a job. Lieutenant Alleman gave him a local garbage collection contract so he can make a living. He is paid 300 dollars a week, which is around four times the average salary in the area.

His home was quite pleasant, as are most homes I’ve been inside in Iraq. It’s strange. Most Iraqi cities look terrible from the street. Much of the country looks like a vast slum from the outside. Private spaces are different. Expensive carpets, personal computers, televisions, DVD players – all these things are fairly standard.

The Middle East is more communitarian than the West, but Iraq’s urban design appears to be anti-social. Most houses are surrounded by walls. It can be a bit jarring while walking the streets, but it’s comforting when you’re inside. Houses in Iraq are much more like “castles” than American houses, which comes in handy at times when terrorists and militiamen roam the streets.

After a half hour or so, Azabi came back with food. He and his son placed kabobs, vegetables, bread, and French fries in front of us and left us alone while we ate. None of us thought this was necessary, but Iraqis believe it is.

“He does good work for us,” Lieutenant Alleman said as he stuffed vegetables and grilled lamb into his bread. “At first he acted like he didn't want to be paid. But before we hired him he told us he needed the money. It was very confusing. Then his son quietly asked us for the money when we were getting ready to leave. It's a pride thing, I guess. This culture can be very confusing at first, but you get used to it.”

The Marines ate in shifts. Half sat at the table while the other half kept an eye on the neighborhood. More than half the food was gone for the second shift, but that was okay. When Private Jean sat down to eat, he didn’t want any.

“Eat, Jean,” Lieutenant Alleman said, “or you'll undo five months of work.” Everyone laughed.

Private Jean Karmah.jpg
Private Jean

“The whole table?” Private Jean said. He eyed the food with tremendous suspicion.

“No, Jean, just eat a damn piece of meat,” the lieutenant said.

“Do I have to?”


He settled on a French fry, which looked safer than meat. You don’t want to see or even think about the sanitary conditions in Iraq’s kitchens, but despite what I’ve seen I’ve never been sick from the food.

After the food was finished, Azabi joined us at the table. His sons, his wife, and his mother also came out to say hi. Many Iraqi women stay in the background even in their own homes, but not every Iraqi family is so conservative.

Lieutenant Alleman couldn’t have a proper meeting with Azabi, however, because we did not have an interpreter. Lance Corporal Crask was designated our unofficial interpreter because he spoke Arabic better than the rest of us. His accent sounded almost perfect to my ears, but he’s not fluent yet. Some topics had to be set aside for a later date.

Man and his Family House Karmah.jpg
Abu Jabar Azabi (lower-left) and his family

“Azabi is the most accepting guy we've met,” Lieutenant Alleman said to me.

“Do you get intel from him?” I said. I assumed that’s what this really was all about.

“No,” the lieutenant said. “It might put him in danger. Occasionally we'll ask if there are any Ali Babas around, and he'll say no. But we are going about recruiting him as an agent in the textbook way. We just haven't actually done it. It seems like there is always something he wants to tell us, but we haven’t yet figured out what it is.”


Iraq’s brief run of pleasant winter weather was ending. Dark clouds rolled down over Mesopotamia from the mountains of Kurdistan. The cold air and the dishrag gray sky made Karmah feel like London or Seattle before a storm. I brought a rain poncho along just in case -- no way will I carry an umbrella around Iraq with Marines – and it looked like I was about to need it.

Sergeant Joseph Perusich brought me along on an evening patrol where he and his men wanted to investigate the “local atmospherics” and “deny enemy activity.”

Sergeant Perusich.jpg
Sergeant Joseph Perusich

“How do you pronounce your name?” I said.

“Per-OO-sitch,” he said.

“Where is it from?” I said. I quietly guessed his name was from Russia.

“It’s Croatian,” he said. I was close. “My family is Croatian. Slavic. But it’s also a Serbian name. Most of the guys here just called me Sergeant P. It's easier to pronounce and remember.”

We walked along a nasty-looking canal, away from the city center, toward the outskirts of town and Karmah’s undefined edge. The city fades by increments into the countryside and the outskirts of Baghdad.

Canal Karmah.jpg

Following Marine Karmah.jpg

Our first stop was a blown-up former IED-maker's house that I had asked to see.

Gutted Insurgent House Karmah.jpg

“It looked like this when we got here,” Sergeant Perusich said. “It was definitely a bad guy's house.”

Gutten Insurgent House 2 Karmah.jpg

“Look on the wall there,” he said. “You can see where he drew a Humvee being hit with an IED.

Humvee Drawing on Wall Karmah.jpg

Across the street was another destroyed house. This one was blown up by Al Qaeda.

Car Bombed House Karmah.jpg

Car Bombed House Karmah Side View.jpg

“The Iraqi Police who work the checkpoint across the street used to live here,” he said. “Al Qaeda drove a truck bomb right into it.”

I believe the Marines who told me the fighting was worse in Karmah than in the more-famous nearby cities of Fallujah and Baghdad. It is noticeably more ramshackle and battle-scarred than the larger towns that get so much more media coverage.

The Iraqi Police who manned the nearby checkpoint moved into a new house just down the street. They weren’t about to let this one get taken out with a truck bomb. The driveway was blockaded with gigantic Hesco barriers, which are basically sofa-sized “sand bags” wrapped in cardboard and wire. Driving through those is impossible from a narrow and winding dirt road without a straight-shot “runway” leading up to the target. Garbage and rubble was strewn about in the yard. Windows were broken and sand-bagged.

Sergeant Perusich asked the officers on duty if they needed anything.

“We need ammo,” they said.

Consulting with Perusich Outside Karmah.jpg

The Iraqi Police always seem to need ammunition. They rarely pull the trigger anymore except when they shoot into the air, but they always complain of a shortage of bullets. If the Americans left now and the insurgents returned in force, the insurgents would win for this reason alone. No one can fight without bullets and a healthy supply line.

“We’ll get you some more ammo,” Sergeant Perusich said.

“Thank you,” said the ranking Iraqi officer. “Thank you, and all Marines.”

We continued down the dirt road, deeper into the ambiguously defined area between the suburbs and the countryside. We were still in Karmah or not? I couldn’t tell.

Countryside Karmah.jpg

“This road was terrible,” Sergeant Perusich said. “There were so many IEDs.”

Blown Up Car Karmah.jpg

“It’s easier to hide IEDs under dirt roads,” he said. “Most of them were triggered by pressure plates, but some by command wire.” Command wire IEDs are more dangerous. They’re detonated manually by a trigger man, and can take out units on foot patrols as well as Marines mounted in Humvees.

An Iraqi man sat on the side of the road with his young son. “I love America!” he said.

Man and Boy Outside Karmah 2.jpg

“I love America, too,” one Marine said sarcastically. I suppose he figured the Iraqi man wasn’t sincere. I couldn’t tell one way or the other. Some are sincere about this, and some aren’t.

I Love Karmah.jpg
Someone painted “I Love You” in English on a Jersey barrier

Another checkpoint was set up just ahead. This was run by the Iraqi Civilian Watch. These guys look like a rag-tag militia or posse, but they aren’t. They have been deputized by the local authorities, though they’re paid less than police officers and have limited training and duties.

Post Outside Karmah.jpg
Iraqi Civilian Watch checkpoint

Civilian watch groups did, however, start out as militias of sorts. They sprang up spontaneously all over the place when the awakening movement began. Al Qaeda’s reign of terror in Iraq was just too much to bear. Ordinary civilians decided they would rather stand up and face the insurgents with rifles than cower behind their own walls. There was no real authority in this part of Iraq at the time, but if Al Qaeda were the actual government, the “awakening” could be described as an insurrection or revolution.

“Do you guys need anything?” Sergeant Perusich said.

Neighborhood Watch Outside Karmah.jpg
Iraqi Civilian Watch

“Thank you, no,” the leader of the civilian watch said.

“Seen any suspicious people?”

“Not lately, no. Actually, though, we need more AK-47s.” Iraqis often say they don’t need anything before they say they need something. They want to be independent, but they aren’t there yet. They’re trying to have it both ways. “And we need more lights and generators. This place is dangerous.”

Sergeant Perusich took notes and said he would be sure they got what they needed.

The Marines picked a side road at random and walked down it toward a small cluster of houses. “Let’s check in on that one,” Sergeant Perusich said and pointed toward the house at the end of the street.

Country Road Outside Karmah.jpg

“You mean we’re going in?” I said.

“Yeah,” he said. “But it’s not a raid. We’ll just check in and see if they have anything they want to tell us.”

A wild fox darted across the road right in front of me and scrambled into the reeds.

We reached the front door of the selected house and one of the Marines rapped on it hard. A nervous-looking man answered.

“Salam aleikum,” Sergeant Perusich said. Peace be upon you. “Tell him he’s not in trouble,” he said to our interpreter. “He can relax. We just want to come in and talk.”

A dozen pairs of shoes were placed just outside the front door. The Marines walked in with their boots on. So did I. We couldn’t go down to our socks – someone might shoot at us. I took as few steps as possible inside the house, not wanting to track around too much dust. Dark clouds outside threatened rain. Soon the Iraqis would worry about tracking mud into the house. Western Iraq is a sandbox, and the whole place is like a vast plain of chocolate pudding after a rain storm.

All the men and boys in the house were asked to move into a single room where they could be watched. The Marines weren’t paranoid, but you never know. The Iraqis understood and didn’t complain. They still looked a bit nervous, though.

“It’s okay,” Sergeant Perusich said. “Really, no one here is in trouble. We just want to make sure everything is okay and see if you need anything.”

“You are welcome,” said the man who answered the door.

The house was pleasant inside. Expensive Turkish carpets covered the floors, as did plush pillows. An enormous chandelier hung over the dining room table. A large plasma TV was set up the living room next to a personal computer with surround-sound speakers. Dainty tea glasses were carefully arranged in built-in cabinets.

“What did you think of the ceremony yesterday?” Sergeant Perusich said. The day before, Jamaeli tribe leader Sheikh Mishan Abbas held a ceremony downtown heralding the opening of the market after years of closure during the insurgency.

“It is good,” said the Iraqi. “Karmah is safe now.”

I smiled at the Iraqis and whispered salam, trying to get them to feel more at ease. It must be intimidating the first time American Marines – who look like robots of war with their gear on – show up unannounced at your house.

“Have you seen any suspicious people around?” Sergeant Perusich said.

“No,” the man said. “It has been quiet here for some time.”

It’s true. It has been quiet in the area for some time. There was no reason to doubt the truth of what the man said.

“Okay,” Sergeant Perusich said. “We’ll get out of your way. Thanks for your time.”

And that was that. It was hardly an intelligence gathering meeting. The purpose was to be seen, not only by the residents in the house, but by everyone else in the neighborhood. Those who feared the Americans would feel more afraid. Those who feared the insurgents would feel more at ease.

As we traced our steps back to the main road, the Iraqi Civilian Watch guys we had met earlier walked toward us.

“Our checkpoint is very important,” said the team’s leader.

“All the checkpoints are important,” Sergeant Perusich said.

“This was an insurgent area,” the man said.

“Everywhere was an insurgent area,” the sergeant said. “Don’t worry. We’ll get you guys what you need.”

War Damage Outside Karmah.jpg
War damage on the outskirts of Karmah

We heard gun shots in the distance. I looked at Sergeant Perusich and wondered what he would say or do.

“It’s just the Iraqi Police,” he said and shrugged. “Shooting into the air.” I don’t know how he could know that, but I suppose it’s easy if you’ve been in a large enough number of fire fights.

We headed back toward the station, but took a different return path on narrow trails through the reeds. Small kittens darted around and looked for mice. They seemed healthy and well-fed, though they obviously were not pets.

Paths Through Reeds Outside Karmah.jpg

BOOM. Somewhere something exploded. It sounded like a short clap thunder without the roll.

“What was that?” I said.

“Controlled det, most likely,” Sergeant Perusich said. Explosive Ordnance Disposal teams detonate found IEDs and caches of weapons every day. Karmah is so secure now that even hyper-cautious Marine sergeants are sure there’s nothing to worry about when they hear gunshots and explosions. It’s not even a mop-up in Karmah anymore. It’s a clean-up. The war movie soundtrack in the background was just that – a soundtrack. Harmless or not, it was a constant reminder that we were not in Kansas.

The sun dropped below the horizon. Twilight outside the city was as dark as if we were in wilderness.

We came upon a man sweeping his porch with a straw broom.

“Salam Aleikum,” Sergeant Perusich said. “Have you seen any suspicious people around?”

“No,” the man said and gave us a sly crooked smile. “They all ran away.”

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:37 AM | Comments (63)