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?”

“Yes.”

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.”

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 April 1, 2008 12:37 AM
Comments

Interesting how you mention how nice, clean and well furnished houses are in the Middle East when you look outside and see all of the rubbish.

I can never get past that. Inside they have the latest electronics, yet yards from their home open sewage runs and garbage lays rotting. Someday these people's govermment's will actually provide services for their people. They deserve better.

The only place I have seen in the Middle East that isnt that bad is the Gulf. In most places in Kuwait, UAE, Qatar and Bahrain you wont see this type of thing too often.

Posted by: Marc Author Profile Page at April 1, 2008 6:59 AM

Excellent as always, Michael. You are doing such a service, you have no idea, and you are getting better and better at this. Thank you.

Posted by: Maggie45 Author Profile Page at April 1, 2008 11:35 AM

I can confirm that Michael doesn't get sick in Iraq, but we usually eat in either nice places or before the flies can land. Last year I got sick from a kabob shop up on the Iran border, but that was after a long day and I wasn't as careful with the hand sanitizer as I should have been. Michael survived those kabobs fine.

Marc,

I saw some less conspicuously clean places in Dubai in '92-93, but I can easily imagine that they got cleaned up or buried under a skyscraper since then.

Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell Author Profile Page at April 1, 2008 11:37 AM

Beirut is pretty clean. The Sukleen company is out there everywhere, all day, cleaning everything.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at April 1, 2008 11:56 AM

Patrick,

Dubai has changed A LOT since that time, let me tell you.

As to Beirut, portions of it are cleaner, some are not. Some of the camps in and around Beirut are just outright dirty, but I guess maybe we wont count the camps.

Posted by: Marc Author Profile Page at April 1, 2008 12:39 PM

We used to eat food from vendors etc in rural Mexico that was most certainly not subject to a lot of sanitation and special handling. My completely un-scientific theory is that the elapsed time from harvest/slaughter to dinner plate was much shorter and spoilage had less time to set in. Also, the way livestock is kept is less crowded and artificial in places like this. No feed lots and mass poultry farms, so less disease. Subsistence farmers and herders have little or no access to antibiotics so their population of animals isn't the walking wounded and diseased.
From my observation, visitors got sicker from the water than the meat in the off the grid places we used to visit.
It stands to reason that conditions are similar in rural Iraq.

Posted by: Lindsey Author Profile Page at April 1, 2008 1:44 PM

Lindsey,

There is some evidence that cattle raised exclusively on grain become substantially less resistant to disease. Some feed lots are adding hay to reduce their losses to disease. You are probably right about that aspect of cooking.

In Iraq, I've seen things similar to the butcher shop in Michael's picture above. The sheep was killed and dressed out practically where it fell.

Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell Author Profile Page at April 1, 2008 4:31 PM

Good report. Keep it up.

Posted by: Qifa Nabki Author Profile Page at April 1, 2008 6:43 PM

Patrick,

Right, and the meat was on the table in a few hours rather than days. Lack of refrigeration tends to keep you honest. Plus, when you are feeding your own kids and neighbors, quality control is a bit closer to home.
I saw lots of butcher shops like that in Mexico too. I remember being very impressed with the skinned hog heads.
I was a weird kid.

Posted by: Lindsey Author Profile Page at April 1, 2008 9:06 PM

Great post Michael.

Question: It seems that conservative bloggers and columnists (and lots of their commenters) have been moving toward a more broad attack on Islam itself over the past few years (mocking Islam as the Religion of Peace, discussions on how Islam and Democracy can't coexist, Islam as the real enemy of the West, etc.).

Michael Medved discussed this issue as well.

IMO, the Left remains unhinged and irrational about Iraq so I won't go there - my question deals with conservatives (or neocons or libertarians or whatever) who are pro-Iraq war.

I think (I hope) most Westerners agree that there are real issues with Fundamentalist Islamism and Wahhabism - sexism, intolerance, jihad, injustice, gang rapes as punishment, honor killings, lack of humor, control of information, ease of being offended and flipping out (by cartoons even), etc. But for conservatives to claim Islam and the 1.3 billion muslims are our "enemy" just seems illogical to me. There is a contradiction with many of these more conservative, pro-Iraq war people. If Islam is "bad" and "they" - all or most muslims - are the "enemy" then how can one who believes this be in support of the US strategy in the Iraq war?

The strategy is to pump billions of dollars into Iraq, rebuild their infrastructure and economy, create stability, establish democracy, and let the Iraqis (almost all muslims) run their own country? I don't see how these two beliefs can be reconciled - Islam is "bad" (muslims can't be trusted) and the US strategy in Iraq is "good" (the Iraqis - mostly muslims - can be trusted). If conservatives really think that most muslims are "the enemy" (which implies that they should be defeated or killed) then shouldn't these same conservatives want to dramatically change the strategy in Iraq, e.g., force Islam out of the government, not allow Islam to be tought anymore, convert them to Christianity, always have power over the Iraqis, pull out and let them kill each other in a civil war, or maybe even kill them all? Something different anyway.

It just seems odd to me that many conservatives cheer on the troops and the US strategy, read Totten's artices and say "see, it took a while but the US is winning," and then at the same time claim that most or all muslims or Islam is our enemy. What do conservatives really believe as "winning" in Iraq if Islam is "bad?"

And there seems to be a knee-jerk reaction with many of these conservatives too - as soon as someone says something to the effect that maybe maybe most or all muslims are not the enemy these people immediately get labeled as apologists or appeasers. Weird. Dogma sucks.

It really does sound like there are many people who want to start the Crusades all over again, yet claim the war in Iraq (and Afghanistan) as a success by establishing democracies there. I don't get it.

Posted by: markytom Author Profile Page at April 2, 2008 7:11 AM

Good article, Mike. But you're almost seeming more like a photojournalist these days. Some great shots.

markytom: It really does sound like there are many people who want to start the Crusades all over again, yet claim the war in Iraq (and Afghanistan) as a success by establishing democracies there. I don't get it.

LGF is perfect example of what you're talking about. CJ links to MJT's articles, some of which speak highly of moderate Muslims, and they receive great praise in comments.

It's just a matter of groupthink. These people are badly informed, and when Charles directs them to think a certain thing, they'll think it automatically. Most of the time it's directed against Muslims, but occasionally it isn't. Unless he touches on something really hot-button (like abortion) everyone will agree with him.

Perfect example. When Hamas at Fatah were fighting for control of Gaza, he'd write "what a bunch of savages"-themed posts. But then later, he posted that they were only "pretending" to be enemies. I have no idea how he could think this. But in both cases, 99% of the commenters agreed, even though they had seen these two groups stomp to death and throw each other off buildings.

Pretending to be enemies, indeed.

A lot of people need someone to tell them what to think. And even if some of it creates paradoxes like this, they'll buy it

Posted by: Edgar Author Profile Page at April 2, 2008 9:27 AM

Good article, Mike. But you're almost seeming more like a photojournalist these days. Some great shots.

True. The photographs of people just hanging around, matter-of-factly sitting over a recently slaughtered sheep, schools packed with extremely active kids, some of whom make jokes about killing their teachers. Those teachers have a lot of hard work to do.

LGF is perfect example of what you're talking about. CJ links to MJT's articles, some of which speak highly of moderate Muslims, and they receive great praise in comments.

Actually Charles at LGF has been waging a long-running ideological battle against the most extreme hate-Muslim crowd - the types who want to ally with fascist groups in Europe (like the BNP) to fight "Islam". One BNP member suggested that CJ was a collaborator with either Islam or the left (the extremists tend to regard both as 'enemies') and said that CJ was "the equivalent of a Second World War Nazi collaboratorwho would have been shot because of his treason"

Although he sometimes falls back on the 'blame Islam' routine, he's consistently anti-fascist.

A lot of anti-Islam people commented on Medved's article. They explain their point of view pretty well.

Posted by: maryatexitzero Author Profile Page at April 2, 2008 10:24 AM

Markytom: It just seems odd to me that many conservatives cheer on the troops and the
US strategy, read Totten's artices and say "see, it took a while but the US is winning," and then at the same time claim that most or all muslims or Islam is our enemy.

I don't get it either. I've been baffled by this contradiction for some time now. This might make a good topic for an article.

If Muslims per se were the enemy, General Petraeus's counterinsurgency strategy would not only fail, it would not be worth trying.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at April 2, 2008 10:46 AM

Mary,

I don't think the problem is so much with Charles but with his commenters. If he had taken the opposite position, and come out strongly for the BNP, ridiculing those who called them fascists, and telling everyone what a great service they were doing, I guarantee hundreds would have agreed with him instead.

If anything, he's suffering from an inflated ego. And who can blame him? If I wrote something every day and 1000 people wrote that they agree with me, eventually I'd start to think I was infallible and say silly things occasionally.

Anyway, I don't mean to steer the debate away from MJT's article, but it is an interesting phenomenon that someone could read LGF and MJT and think both are spot-on, even though the blogs have much different messages (MJT likes to show how many moderate Muslims exist, while Charles often tries to show how even the moderates are really extremists).

Posted by: Edgar Author Profile Page at April 2, 2008 10:50 AM

markytom,

It really does sound like there are many people who want to start the Crusades all over again, yet claim the war in Iraq (and Afghanistan) as a success by establishing democracies there. I don't get it.

The old knights had lighter armor than our guys do, but no gatorade.

Seriously, while there are an excess of blowhards on the extreme right, their traction is extremely weak. There is a real problem in Islam in that the authoritarian aspect impedes re-assessment and reconciliation. Most of the traction in the conservative discussions is based around the notion that feedback is good, and that Islam needs to have a more open discussion with itself over what is working and what is crazy talk.

Nevertheless, there are a lot of Islamic blowhards who make incredibly over the top pronouncements and get air time saying and doing the goofiest stuff. MEMRI excels at putting these gems out onto the net, and the oddities deserve the ridicule they get in the west. Since a lot of conservatives see these moments (that make the unhinged ladies of "The View" look like coldly rational forensic scientists), a lot of conservative reaction is to the hyperbolic elements of Islamic culture.

Many of the same people who are decrying the latest hysterical rants of Ahmadinejad and Wahabi faith healers also point to Michael's work with pride. They do so because the quieter work that is being done by soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan is the progress they want. The conservatives still point out the hyperbolic failures away from the war, but they are very proud of the sustained successes of the war that are not covered elsewhere.

There will continue to be uneducated and uninformed blowhards on the far right, but I think that is going to damp much more significantly than will happen on the left. The right respects the military a lot more than the left does. (I live in Portland where the black block marches with the rest of the anti-war movement carrying banners that say "F*ck the Troops!" You can't both respect them military and let that be part of your message, ever.) The US military has a much more nuanced appreciation for the situation in Iraq than the anti-war movement ever will, if for no other reason than untrue preconceptions of the situation on the ground do not get anti-war activists killed. That depth of understanding is absorbed more readily by the right than the left these days, just because the right is listening to the source while the left is listening to themselves.

Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell Author Profile Page at April 2, 2008 10:54 AM

If he had taken the opposite position, and come out strongly for the BNP, ridiculing those who called them fascists, and telling everyone what a great service they were doing, I guarantee hundreds would have agreed with him instead.

I'm not sure about that - most of the pro-BNP types were former LGF readers. CJ really got a lot of grief for the stand he took against Euro-fascism.

But some LGF readers do blame "Islam" - and they like MJT's articles, and they cheer our progress in Iraq, even though Iraq is full of Muslims. I can't explain the contradiction either, even after reading the responses to Medved's article.

markytom asked a really good question.

Posted by: maryatexitzero Author Profile Page at April 2, 2008 11:03 AM

It made a big impression on me, especially after a while, when I was in Iraq - this phenomenon of horribly dirty streets...trash, rivers of human waste...etc, but once you are in that courtyard wall that every Iraqi house has, it is incredibly well-kept and clean. Even saw a few American-style front lawns with grass and everything inside courtyard walls that had bridges over human sewage in the main doorway.

It really is a phenomenon, and I believe it goes back to the Saddam era. There is such a culture of mistrust, and self-protection, and hording almost, and for good reason. A self-proclaimed anthropologist in Fallujah once equated this to a child building a fort, and hording everything important to him inside of it. Streets are public property, but within those walls is your castle, your private domain, and thats what you care about.

Another thing that always cracked me up was the appliances on display in extravagant cases. Blenders, mostly. Occasional toaster. RIght up with the wedding photos and tea set, never used.

Really good point about the going back to school in Iraq versus in Afghanistan. This is one of my favorite articles of yours, Michael. I hope you milk your wealth of material from this trip for all its worth and keep the reports coming!

Posted by: PDK Author Profile Page at April 2, 2008 12:48 PM

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 04/02/2008 News and Personal dispatches from the front lines.

Posted by: David M Author Profile Page at April 2, 2008 12:52 PM

I'd say that's true Lindsey. Our farm animals have to be pumped up with antibiotics because they are kept in overcrowded, cramped and unnatural conditions. Factory farming is quite cruel. The animals and the people would be better off if more humane farm environments were the norm.

Posted by: Boojum Author Profile Page at April 2, 2008 1:08 PM

This makes me think of this George Packer piece.

These stories do a very good job of making the bigger picture seem like an abstraction. They make the war seem over, the population friendly, and the whole mission seem like an altruistic gesture to touch any ideologue's heart. They couldn't do this good a job, if not for the sincerity of the people being portrayed. They couldn't do it if they weren't honest stories.

well. that's probably naive of me to say that. I should just look at how easy great works of fiction seem completely real to know that's not true. But it seems true anyway. Forgetting about however one should or shouldn't use this to understand Iraq, this really is great journalism. As good as anything produced by the New York Times, which means, basically, as good as the best journalism on earth.

The reason it reminds me of the Packer piece is because, for me, George Packer is trying to say that most possible emotional, moral, or logical theory of what happens in Iraq or what it means, whatever assumptions about motives, beliefs, or consequences, you can find a piece of Iraq that corresponds to it. There really is no one coherent story, or even any consistent character sketch.
So even people who don't look at it abstractly can all be looking at the same thing- or, what is abstractly considered to be the 'same thing', since Iraq itself is an abstract concept - and see different things.

Sometimes I read Mike's stuff and feel suspicious because the theme is so consistent. But the theme is rooted in at least a piece of reality, and deserves a piece of one's awareness.

It hasn't changed my positions, but it's made me appreciate their inherent fallibility, even as I continue to hold them.

Posted by: glasnost Author Profile Page at April 2, 2008 4:04 PM

Glasnost,

My theme isn't actually consistent. I have written contrary pieces. I can re-link them if you need reminders.

Most of my work, though, fits more into one "narrative" than the other because the facts I am exposed to fit that "narrative."

I write what I see and hear. Period. If I encountered more gloom than I do, I would write more gloomy stories. I have no doubt that different people than yourself would find my work suspicious under those circumstances, even though my agenda would be exactly the same as it is now. A bunch of readers at Hugh Hewitt's place once accused me of having an anti-surge agenda based on something I wrote. I don't ask whose partisan agenda is served by a fact before asking myself if I should publish it.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at April 2, 2008 4:23 PM

glasnost,

Sometimes the singing gets better after the revolution, or in this case after the insurgency failure. Dog continue to bite men, and the US military is more competent than anybody else ever was.

Five years into the fight and our casualty count is lower than five weeks on Iwo Jima. (It may comfort you to know that the last of those opponents didn't surrender until 1951. ) We captured Iwo Jima so we could achieve moderately lighter casualties in air bombardment, a campaign we could have done entirely without since we were choking Japan to death with naval interdiction.

Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell Author Profile Page at April 2, 2008 4:32 PM

Mike,

I didn't link to that Packer piece to suggest that you should be considered one of the people he was complaining about, but because I thought he did a good job of touching how full of contradictions is the inherent reality.

The country wouldn't be so close to split down the middle if it wasn't for the the way in which the reality of the situation contains so many pieces that each say very different things about what's going on, and what the moral equation is of the larger picture.

It's easy to blame people for misrepresenting reality to suit their worldview. But beyond that layer of obvious wrong, is a much harder layer of people looking fairly clearly at different parts of a system and coming up with very different implications of what it means.
No one's innocent of that, which means that no one is really guilty, or everyone is.

Posted by: glasnost Author Profile Page at April 2, 2008 8:38 PM

Yes, Glasnost, I know.

George Packer is a good reporter, unlike so many dishonest hacks out there who frankly need a new job.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at April 2, 2008 10:13 PM

I would drop my 2 cents regarding the "War on Islam" and Iraq confusion.

I believe that most of the people that talk about hostility of Islam mean the expansive, bloody Salafist variant that the Iraqis would probably call "Al Qaeda". I mean the variant that pushes killing of apostates, beheading, cutting off hands, gender inequality etc., in short, the wonderful medieval package of Sharia.

Is this variant the true Islam? From the theoretical, theological point of view, probably yes; the Salafists adhere to the Quran and Hadiths with fanatism. From the practical point of view, no, since most of the Middle East is much more tolerant and relaxed in this regard.

This militant Salafi variant is probably more visible and vocal in Europe than most Americans (or perhaps even Iraqis?) would believe. The immigrant youth from Morocco, Iraq, ... etc., lives in suburbs, separated both from the mainstream culture of the West and the traditional Islam of the Middle East. They can choose between becoming full-fledged Westerners, or turning to the Islam that is taught in mosques by the Imams; and the Imams are often firebrand Wahhabis, who have no problem persuading their young followers that Wahhabism and Salafism is the only true Islam ever and everything else is takfir. I think that especially Britain has a huge problem with fundie clerics.

Another reason which stirs resentment of the Euros is the fact that the islamic immigrants tend to create ghettoes where secular law is not respected. An average European is disgusted with any honor killing or forced marriage that happens on the Euro soil, especially when motivated by alien system of values. The old motto "When in Rome, do as Romans do" seems to be abandoned by the multicultural intellectual circles, and this irritates the folk in the street very much.

Posted by: MarianCZ Author Profile Page at April 3, 2008 2:01 AM

MarianCZ: I believe that most of the people that talk about hostility of Islam mean the expansive, bloody Salafist variant that the Iraqis would probably call "Al Qaeda"

That's not what I am observing in the conservative blogosphere. A year or two ago I would agree - people qualified their terms to Al Qaeda, Islamofascists, Taliban, etc. But there seems to have been a shift this year where a much broader brush is being used to decry Islam, in all forms, not just the Fundamentalist muslims.

If you read the columns and comments at sites like Michelle Malkin, Hot Air, Ace of Spades, Townhall, LGF, Neil Boortz, etc., there is more and more attacks on all of Islam - things like Islam is the enemy, there are no moderate muslims, general complaining about behavior in the muslim world, general attacks on the Quran and Mohammad - the attacks seem to be much more general and inclusive now of all muslims.

I don't see very much cheering for the Iraqis anymore either. If I were an Iraqi and look at the conservatives (pro-Iraq war people) I might think bin Laden was right in that there really is a Western war on Islam. You can't say you support the Iraqis and the US strategy if you also believe that we need to fight a war in general against Islam. (A "war on Islam" is ridiculous anyway when 1 in 5 people in the world, spanning most every country, is muslim - 1.5 billion.)

And if I look at the liberals (anti-Iraq war people) I would think that they didn't really care about Iraqis with the cut-and-run, pull-out strategy and leaving the Iraqi people to be eaten by the Al Qaeda wolves or fall into civil war. You can't say you support the Iraqis and choose to abandon them and let them die.

It's as if both sides - liberals and conservatives - are coming to the same contradictory thought - "we support the troops but not the mission" but for different reasons.

Do Americans, both conservative and liberal, really want a free and soveriegn Iraq even if the Iraqis choose laws/religion/behaviors with which they disagree?

Posted by: markytom Author Profile Page at April 3, 2008 7:02 AM

Good comments Markytom.

Marian,

I think you generalise a bit too much. There is no such thing as a "Salafi" monolith just as there is no such thing as a Islamic monolith.

Many Salafi completely reject the idea of violence, or even of getting involved in politics all together.

If you have read Tariq Ramadan, and some would refuse because he is "the enemy", you'd find that he splits the "Salafi" movement into six different camps, only one group out of the six would support and engage in acts of violence and half of them reject any involvement in the political sphere in the first place.

The extremists hold onto one view of The Qur'an and Hadith that the majority of other Muslims do not believe in. Stating that AQ's Islam is the most true version of Islam is like stating that Eric Rudolph's version of Christianity is the most true version.

Like with any other religion there are many different ways to view verses of the Koran and the hadith. There are major differences of which hadith are accepted, which are doubtful, and when you get past that they cannot agree on what the hadith even mean. That is just within the Sunni Islam branch, never minding the Shi'a who have a who different way of looking at things and other texts that they look to for answers.

To a certain extent the countries in Europe are to blame for the problems they are having with their Muslim populations. They brought in mostly poor and uneducated people, much different than the well educated Muslim population here in the USA.

They are often treated very poorly and not accepted in the mainstream society. I have spent a lot of time in Europe and have seen it with my own eyes. Because of their treatment they do often tend to form their own "ghettos" in a way which doesnt really exist here in the US.

People who are poorly treated by society, have no education, skill and money are prime target for extremists. They plight kind of reminds me of East German youth after reunification and how many of them ended up supporting the far right and openly Nazi groups. Who can forget the anti-immigrant riots and attacks of the 1990s in the east of Germany?

It was just recently that the Germans actually changed their laws to start to really accept the Turks. It used to be that you'd have 3-4 generation Turks who were born in Germany and didnt speak a word of Turkish, only German, but they could get German citizenship and had to go to the Turkish Embassy to get a passport. Decades of such institutional racism doesnt go away over night.

It is much too simple to blame a religion when the situation is much more complex. Look at the issues with the Roma in Italy, how quotas are now being set up as to how many can come to Italy, and the problem with racism and anti-social behavior. Many take the racist route and blame it on the fact that they are Roma, never wanting to look at the real causes of the issues.

You say that they can become "full fledged Westerners" but I suggest you tell that to a guy named "Ahmed" born and raised in Paris who tries to get a job with equally qualified guys named "Jean-Pierre". Your idea sounds nice, but it isnt so easy in real life.

Here in the USA even the Irish were not considered white for decades and decades after they came here. They used to hang signs that said "No Irish Need Apply" or "No Negroes or Irish Allowed".

African Americans are still working on it here in the USA and they have been here in one form or another for some 400 years. Irish got their's but they didnt have to overcome skin colour.

It takes time.

Posted by: Marc Author Profile Page at April 3, 2008 8:30 AM

Michael,

A few questions. Have you read Frederick Kagan's recent report called Iraq: The Way Ahead? You can find it on the AEI website. I would love to know your opinion. I was also wondering if you had traveled to any of the more Shia-dominant areas around the 5 cities or Basra and had any sense of how the political/social dynamics there compare to Anbar. Finally, have you done or would you be willing to do any speaking on college campuses?

Thanks for all your work. I am never anything but impressed by your writing and observations.

Posted by: Flagg Author Profile Page at April 3, 2008 9:12 AM

While most Muslims are surely moderate, the fact remains that the mid-east has created a sub-culture - encompassing the media, schools, mosques, and entertainment - that demonizes all that is not like itself. In the years prior to 9-11, the Grand Mosque in Mecca was regularly sermonizing on the vileness of non-Muslims (the Saudis put a lid on it soon after). Two million pilgrims go there every year, and no one raised any objection. Collectively, all those moderates contributed to the creation of extremism by their acquiescence – or maybe they really do think non-Muslims are inferior. It should also be pointed out that many Arabs were applauding terrorism because of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. What’s happening now is the same thing that happened to the good Dr Frankenstein. The monster they created and nourished got out of control.

Posted by: Boojum Author Profile Page at April 3, 2008 10:10 AM

Packer captures my disillusionment with this paragraph:

The Beauchamp dispatches show the extent to which the discourse over Iraq has been poisoned and how quickly the left, the right, and the military were willing to go to the mat to defend their version of what is—or what they thought ought to be—true. No one cares anymore about the troops, the truth of their reports from Iraq, or the serious issues of professional journalism associated with a series of this type. The troops have become pawns in this debate; their stories a kind of Rorschach test that reveals more about how we view the war than its reality on the ground.

It seems Iraqis have become pawns in the debate as well (if not completely invisible).

I don't think I agree with Packer's conclusion that the war was folly (at least not yet - I'm still an optimist), but it does appear more and more that Americans are interested in the abstraction of "Iraq - the fantasy" instead of "Iraq - the reality."

Democracy in Iraq is good. Islam is bad. Christianity is superior to Islam. Defeating Al Qaeda is good. Since few moderate muslims denounce extremists they must be complicit in the extremists' crimes. Freedom of choice is good. Choosing laws that are not completely Western based are bad. The Quran promotes violence. This is a war for oil. The Iraqis don't want us there. The Iraqis love us. The US needs to pull out now. Let's nuke 'em all.

All the "debate" these days seems so dogmatic (hence so much anger) and unreal and meaningless - each place seems to have become an echo chamber (your site is one of the very few that isn't - but not as many people seem to be commenting these days). People seem to act like Iraq is a done deal now, their thoughts solidified about it, and it's time to move on the the next bright, shiny object - the election, the economy, Chinese spies, whatever.

Sorry for all the long posts - this week I've come to the conclusion that Americans, left, right, center, libertarian, pro-war, anti-war, or otherwise, probably don't have the resolve to finish the job and truly create a stable, free, new start for the Iraqis. And if that's the case, we shouldn't have gone in there in the first place.

I hit some sort of pain threshhold I guess.

Michael - do you feel that your articles are just fueling the "Iraq - the fantasy" - where people use your reports just to reconfirm and extol their dogmatic beliefs on and about the war and reconstruction of Iraq, or are there people out there still interested in learning about and truly discussing the risks, complexities and realities of what's going on in Iraq with an open mind?

Posted by: markytom Author Profile Page at April 3, 2008 10:22 AM

Flagg:Have you read Frederick Kagan's recent report called Iraq: The Way Ahead?

Not yet.

I was also wondering if you had traveled to any of the more Shia-dominant areas around the 5 cities or Basra and had any sense of how the political/social dynamics there compare to Anbar.

I spent a week in Baghdad last July. The dynamic was similar even then, though it was sketchier.

Finally, have you done or would you be willing to do any speaking on college campuses?

College campuses tend to be extremely hostile places for people who don't kowtow to left-wing orthodoxy. I'm treated better in Iraq than I would be at my old alma mater, I probably get paid more to go to Iraq though I'm hardly getting rich from it, and I reach more people through writing, so I don't have much of an incentive to do this right now. I'd consider it if I were offered good money, but I will not voluntarily subject myself to being jeered at in public by ignorant children.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at April 3, 2008 10:38 AM

Markytom: Michael - do you feel that your articles are just fueling the “Iraq - the fantasy” - where people use your reports just to reconfirm and extol their dogmatic beliefs on and about the war and reconstruction of Iraq, or are there people out there still interested in learning about and truly discussing the risks, complexities and realities of what's going on in Iraq with an open mind?

Probably a bit of both.

It hardly matters right now anyway. I'm a bit burned out on the subject and will soon take a break and write about somwhere else. I'll go back later this year, probably to Baghdad, but I have something else up my sleeve in the meantime.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at April 3, 2008 10:41 AM

Michael,

Stepping into the college cesspools would be a bad plan because you do not want to become a polarizing figure. A lot of people around college campuses, particularly your alma mater, are deeply invested in keeping them ideologically uniform. Going there would cause people like the Anarchists to vilify you for the most fragmentary shreds of things you said.

You are guilty of the worst sin, you supported and continue to support the war in Iraq. They would have to violate your right to speak and peaceably assemble to preserve the First Amendment.

Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell Author Profile Page at April 3, 2008 11:21 AM

The shortest answer to markytom's question that I can come up with is this: I want Iraq to succeed because its failure greatly increases the chances of a future that is too horrible to contemplate. Islam and the West are in a low level conflict today, and the odds of the conflict escalating increase greatly if Iraq fails.

So I cheer every success, and am greatly heartened when I read about the reception the schoolchildren give our Marines in this article.

Posted by: MartyH Author Profile Page at April 3, 2008 12:58 PM

Islam and the West are in a low level conflict today, and the odds of the conflict escalating increase greatly if Iraq fails.

I don't follow this thinking at all, and it relates to markytom's question above: "Do Americans, both conservative and liberal, really want a free and soveriegn Iraq even if the Iraqis choose laws/religion/behaviors with which they disagree?"

A democratic Iraq means a Shia Iraq. The Shia in Iraq support two main movements, that of the extremely Iran-friendly IISC/Dawa coalition, and that of al Sadr. Either of those mean a relatively fundamentalist Islamic Iraq that is allied with Iran.

Posted by: double-plus-ungood Author Profile Page at April 3, 2008 1:32 PM

DPU,

A democratic Iraq means a Shia Iraq.

You are exactly correct. This is why the Kurds and Sunni are pressing so hard for a federal democracy. Instead of a horde of Shia in Baghdad pushing around Kurds in Erbil or Sunni in Ramadi, there will be limitations on the powers of national government to act locally. Pure democracy is exceptionally prone to the kind of nightmares you are describing, which is why only the thugs are pushing for it.

Keep in mind also that the Kurds have already fought their revolution and won. For the last five years the Kurds have been building their economy and infrastructure while many other parts of Iraq have been actively destroying theirs. Combined with the high percentage of the Iraqi Army that is composed of Kurds, there is a substantial capacity to resist mob rule in Iraq.

Also important to remember is that the Shia do not move as a monolithic bloc. The vast majority of the Shia do not support the Mahdi Army, as last week's events showed. Just as Sadr was only able to get an uprising of significance in Basra and Sadr City, attempts to grab the oil fields will probably come to a similar sticky end.

I've talked to people who did a lot to engineer the revolution in Iran, and I don't think the same kind of betrayal that put the Mullahs in power could happen in Iraq. Even if the Sunni couldn't muster the political organization to stop it, the Kurds would cut the Mullah supporters off at the knees (figuratively speaking). Iraqi Kurdistan does a lot to function as a ballast to stabilize Iraq.

Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell Author Profile Page at April 3, 2008 2:16 PM

This is why the Kurds and Sunni are pressing so hard for a federal democracy. Instead of a horde of Shia in Baghdad pushing around Kurds in Erbil or Sunni in Ramadi, there will be limitations on the powers of national government to act locally.

This is assuming that some kind of federalist agreement can be hammered out. Which is a large assumption.

The vast majority of the Shia do not support the Mahdi Army, as last week's events showed. Just as Sadr was only able to get an uprising of significance in Basra and Sadr City, attempts to grab the oil fields will probably come to a similar sticky end.

From my own readings, I think that al Sadr is very popular with many of the Shia, and probably more popular than any other individual. I think that events last week probably significantly increased that popularity.

You obviously disagree with that assessment, and we may need to wait to see what happens before knowing for sure one way or another.

Even so, if the Shia largely support the IISC/Daw, it might be worth remembering what the "I" stands for in that, and who they are closely allied to. My point still stands, I think.

Iraqi Kurdistan does a lot to function as a ballast to stabilize Iraq.

If they are not themselves hamstrung by Iran and Turkey, and if they are able to reach a federalist compromise that keeps them part of Iraq. Those are big ifs. A more likely scenario, IMO, is that Iraq splits, and that the Shia portion go the way I suggest.

Posted by: double-plus-ungood Author Profile Page at April 3, 2008 2:24 PM

The fact that the Iranian friendly Maliki attacked the Iranain friendly Sadr in Basra last week shows that the situation is more complicated than you laid out. In a coalition government, third parties often hold disproportionate power. If the Sunnis and Kurds develop good political skills, they can take advantage of the fact that both Shia factions want to be top dog.

Finally, note that the population of Iran is not too happy with its government right now. I'm not sure if the Iraqis will subject themselves to the same level of repression. Maybe, if Iran can guarantee an end to the violence-but the only way they could do that is if they are one of the principal causes of the violence. In other words, act as a protection racket.

You may be right-Iraq may fall under Iran's sphere of influence. At least we will have given them the opportunity to choose otherwise.

Posted by: MartyH Author Profile Page at April 3, 2008 2:29 PM

Most college professors are liberal by my experience and when a discussion sidetracks to political issues, the majority of the class tends to shift to the left. But generaly professors will encourage debates from both sides, minus some terrible knuckleheads (ones who think George Bush is the next Hitler, etc) who stops just short of indoctrinating their students. I've had some bad experience with those.

I can tell that students in my MFA class are spoonfed information from the popular media about Iraq or the middle east, and much of it no longer applies to the present situation. For instance, an editorial piece in my school paper declared that Iraq is "teeming is insurgents everywhere" and that's mccain's dedication to Iraq is "idealistic".

I still remember how one particularly liberal student rejoiced about how Move.org's "General Betrayus" ad on the NY paper, long after military blogs revealed how the organization quoted selectively to denounce him.

Posted by: lee Author Profile Page at April 3, 2008 2:37 PM

DPU,

If they are not themselves hamstrung by Iran and Turkey, and if they are able to reach a federalist compromise that keeps them part of Iraq.

How do you spell federalism in Kurdish?
P-E-S-H-M-E-R-G-A

How do you spell federalism in Sunni?
S-O-N-S O-F I-R-A-Q

How do you spell federalism in Shia?
I-N-C-O-M-P-E-T-E-N-C-E

Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell Author Profile Page at April 3, 2008 3:28 PM

Well, thank you Patrick, although I don't think that addresses the point very well.

Posted by: double-plus-ungood Author Profile Page at April 3, 2008 3:49 PM

DPU,

Shia Islamists face a literally uphill battle pushing for mob/Mullah rule in Iraq because the Kurds can hide in the hills and snipe forever. They are much better equipped to do this now than they ever were. As badly as Turkey doesn't want an independent Kurdistan, they want a second Iran and an independent Kurdistan less. If Iraq attempts mob rule, Kurdistan will break off with Sunni help and the whole region gets put into play. I strongly suspect that Turkey will come in on the side of Federalism if open conflict erupts.

Iran is more constrained in their options because they already have a hand and a foot into the tar pit of Iraq. If they send in their conscript troops to Iraq they genuinely risk internal revolt. If the Azeri and the Kurds could find common ground, Iran would stop existing as an Islamic Republic inside of a year. (That's not going to happen, and I am unclear as to why. I will try to find out next trip.)

Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell Author Profile Page at April 3, 2008 4:26 PM

If Iraq attempts mob rule, Kurdistan will break off with Sunni help and the whole region gets put into play.

This, to my mind, is the most likely scenario. Especially considering the Kirkuk and Mosul issue. Although I doubt that the Sunni will side wholesale with the Kurds.

Posted by: double-plus-ungood Author Profile Page at April 3, 2008 4:48 PM

Personally, as a current college student I find your assumption that Mr. Totten would not receive fair treatment insulting.
Blackfive has spoken at my school before, and we had 5 lt. colonels from the Army War College address one of my classes and they did not feel any sense of mistreatment. It does depend on the school, but my school has a rather liberal reputation and still most speakers have been treated with respect, even if they were vehemently disagreed with.
Also, mr. totten, as you now have my email, if you would be interested in speaking at my school email me and i could put you in touch with professors that would be very enthusiastic to have you visit.

Posted by: joshs Author Profile Page at April 3, 2008 4:56 PM

MJT:
Not that I disagree that you would be ill-received at your alma matter, but it might say more about your alma matter than it does about you.

I certainly wouldn't want to stray on to that campus with the wrong bumper sticker on my car... That would probably be the death penalty in The People's Republic of Eugene. :)

Posted by: Lindsey Author Profile Page at April 3, 2008 9:23 PM

DPU,

This, to my mind, is the most likely scenario. Especially considering the Kirkuk and Mosul issue. Although I doubt that the Sunni will side wholesale with the Kurds.

One of the reasons that the Kurdish leadership is irritating a lot of Kurdish people is because they will not pull the trigger. I am sure that they understand the stakes and will not invite that disaster. We talk a lot about historical inevitability, but the reality is that the Kurdish leadership is going to put off the hell storm as long as they can.

The advocates of immediate Kurdish autonomy have several crippling obstacles. The Iraqi Kurds are doing much better than the Iraqi Arabs. Things are improving in Iraqi Kurdistan and there is real potential for continued improvement. Every Kurd who really wants to fight a war, is fighting a war already. The Kurds with access to enough money to fight a war are doing much better with the peace. Any one of these obstacles might be overcome, but the combination makes a near-term revolution unlikely.

By the way, Kirkuk is an issue, Mosul is a recovering disaster. The kinds of security the Kurds were able to establish in Kirkuk gives them some reason to ask for control of that city. The Kurds never secured areas of Mosul like they did in Kirkuk. The historical arguments for control of land are mostly unimportant in this context. The Kurds held ground in Kirkuk, they never held ground in the same way in Mosul. The US does not owe the Kurds for Mosul the way they owe them for Kirkuk. The Kurds do not have security apparatus in Mosul the way they do in Kirkuk, and this is a circumstance where deeds, not words, count.

Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell Author Profile Page at April 4, 2008 1:04 AM

By the way, Kirkuk is an issue, Mosul is a recovering disaster.

I understand the issues at play with Kirkuk and Mosul. What I meant is that they are both a potential flashpoint for a conflict between Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq. It's obviously in everyone's interest to put it off for as long as possible, but it cannot be put off indefinitely.

Posted by: double-plus-ungood Author Profile Page at April 4, 2008 9:51 AM

The Kurds held ground in Kirkuk, they never held ground in the same way in Mosul. The US does not owe the Kurds for Mosul the way they owe them for Kirkuk. The Kurds do not have security apparatus in Mosul the way they do in Kirkuk, and this is a circumstance where deeds, not words, count.

I'm somewhat unclear on what you mean by the US owing the Kurds for Mosul. Do you mean that the US owes them a favor for the security work they have done there? Or does the US owe them the portion of Mosul that Kurdistan is claiming?

Posted by: double-plus-ungood Author Profile Page at April 4, 2008 9:54 AM

DPU: I'm somewhat unclear on what you mean by the US owing the Kurds for Mosul. Do you mean that the US owes them a favor for the security work they have done there?

I think Patrick answered your question already with this: The kinds of security the Kurds were able to establish in Kirkuk gives them some reason to ask for control of that city.

He's wrong, of course. I mean, does China deserve to control Tibet because they've done such a good job of policing it for the past 50 years?

Posted by: Edgar Author Profile Page at April 4, 2008 11:54 AM

Edgar: I mean, does China deserve to control Tibet because they've done such a good job of policing it for the past 50 years?

Kirkuk is mostly Kurdish, and was even more Kurdish before Saddam ethnically-cleansed part of it. Tibet is a terrible parallel.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at April 4, 2008 12:07 PM

He's wrong, of course. I mean, does China deserve to control Tibet because they've done such a good job of policing it for the past 50 years?

Well, this is the wrong side of the fence for me, but I think Patrick said "reason" and not "right" or "deserve".

Regardless of whether the Kurds have reason or right to want Kirkuk and Mosul, they currently want all of Kirkuk and half of Mosul, and the Sunni and Shia don't want to give them up.

This is a problem. I suppose that if they delay the decision-making process long enough, some kind of comprimise can be worked out when emotions have cooled somewhat. If the issue comes to a head in the near term, however, I think much blood will be spilled.

Which may be why the December referendum was delayed "for technical reasons".

Posted by: double-plus-ungood Author Profile Page at April 4, 2008 12:37 PM

DPU,

This is a problem. I suppose that if they delay the decision-making process long enough, some kind of comprimise can be worked out when emotions have cooled somewhat. If the issue comes to a head in the near term, however, I think much blood will be spilled.

Global warming reversed and I'm agreeing with DPU twice in the same thread; can the apocalypse be far behind?

The elephant in the room we are ignoring is something I touched upon earlier, the Kurds are bringing a lot more competence to the table than most of the other parties. Saddam was not particularly notable for developing the competence of the Arabs, actually he viewed competence with alarm and often had potential rivals strangled in the crib (too often literally). Decades of that form of oppression stunted the capacities of the Arabs, and the Kurds were better able to avoid the same fate through establishing their own territory or leaving the country.

Regardless of the Kurds ability to secure, they bring a lot more to the table with their ability to administer than many other parties. Even so, the number of Kurdish JFK School of Government graduates is small compared to the need, though not zero because I've had drinks with one. I suspect a lot of the Kurdish frustration about Mosul is that it was so badly administered that it couldn't be secured. In that they probably have a legitimate complaint, even though the sectarian aspect blocks progress.

Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell Author Profile Page at April 4, 2008 1:23 PM

MJT: Kirkuk is mostly Kurdish, and was even more Kurdish before Saddam ethnically-cleansed part of it. Tibet is a terrible parallel.

I have no idea how your arrived at that conclusion. How on earth is Tibet a "terrible parallel" when:

a) it has a majority population of a minority ethnic group within a larger political entity (China)

b) it has been controlled by a repressive regime for many years

c) the central government has moved in ethnic Han Chinese to make it more Chinese

Posted by: Edgar Author Profile Page at April 4, 2008 3:23 PM

Edgar,

My point is that if Kirkuk is Tibet, the Kurds aren't the Chinese. They're the Tibetans.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at April 4, 2008 3:26 PM

It seemed, Edgar, like you were suggesting the Kurds in Kirkuk were analogous to the Chinese in Tibet. Did I misread you?

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at April 4, 2008 3:27 PM

MJT: It seemed, Edgar, like you were suggesting the Kurds in Kirkuk were analogous to the Chinese in Tibet.

No, I'm just pointing out that having kept security and order in a place shouldn't necessarily give you the right to possess it. People have fought long and hard for territory they weren't entitled to before. Doesn't mean they "deserve" it. Why should we extend this right only to the underdog, was my point?

And by the way, I think kicking the Arabs out of Kirkuk would in fact be "ethnic cleansing," despite the fact that Saddam moved them in in the first place.

Posted by: Edgar Author Profile Page at April 4, 2008 4:13 PM

Edgar: I think kicking the Arabs out of Kirkuk would in fact be “ethnic cleansing,” despite the fact that Saddam moved them in in the first place.

Agreed. If homes were taken illegally (some were and some weren't), they should be given back, but no one should be forced out of the city.

We'll have to wait and see what happens. Could be a real mess, but maybe it won't be.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at April 4, 2008 4:29 PM

Michael,

I do not think there is any problem with being Arab in Kirkuk, I think there is a problem being Arabist or Islamist in Kirkuk. I suspect there is much more pressure on Arabs to be ethnically or religiously active from other Arabs than there is pressure to be gone from the Kurds.

I also suspect there is a fair amount of money, low millions of dollars, for the Turkmen to agitate in Kirkuk. I'm not saying there isn't legitimate concern on the part of the Turkmen, but there is probably a lot of astroturfing going on there as well.

Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell Author Profile Page at April 4, 2008 4:58 PM

Michael,

In your opinion, are the Kurds ethnocentric in the sense that they see "Arabs" themselves as a danger? I remember you writing that it was impossible for your Iraqi Arab friends to enter Kurdistan.

If they are, do you think it's just a matter of simple nationalism, or do they see the Sunni Arabs as more extreme religiously than they are (and hence a danger to stability)?

Posted by: Edgar Author Profile Page at April 4, 2008 8:32 PM

The problems "moderate" Islam has are that
a) the most authoritative Surah are the latest, and they are the most absolutist and bloodthirsty;
b) the richest Moslem country, KSA, is religiously the official turf of Wahabbists, and they have (and use vigourously) almost unlimited access to Saudi funding -- including takeover/construction of most of America's mosques
c) there is no central authority in Islam to refute the extremists
d) the appeal of martydom and jihahism is explicitly countenanced in the Koran, etc., and the extremists are experts at leveraging this into large numbers of fanatical young male agents and adherants;
and e) the edge that a small or significant dedicated minority always has over the non-activist majority. (Historical examples abound.)

There may be voices and movements within Islam opposing the loud calls for the subversion and destruction of all that is Western, but they've failed miserably to find a megaphone or channel to make themselves widely heard, much less effective.

Complacent talk about moderate Muslims is arguably whistling in the dark. Good luck with that.

Iraqis have become rather disillusioned with sectarian government, and have an opportunity to dispense with much of it in the foreseeable future. We'll see; the flag still says, "Allahu Akbar", the cry of the jihadist launching and pressing an attack on infidels.

Finally, there is ambiguity, and even duplicity, in the dominant "moderate Muslim" meme: 'Islam means Peace'.
It is EXPLICITLY the peace of acquiescence: complete submission, conversion, or death. Co-existence was espoused by Mohammed in his weak early years; later he repudiated it as his armies and conquests caught fire. He is, remember, the (one) Perfect Man, who should be emulated in all things. First kiss up, then kill.

Posted by: Brian H Author Profile Page at April 4, 2008 10:59 PM

Edgar,

In the Middle East you are either ethnocentric or your ethnicity has disappeared. The Kurdish leadership is pretty clear on the importance of accommodating other ethnicities; although they are less than perfect at expressing multi-culturalism, they do espouse it publicly and often.

I remember last year about this time when I was in Suli. I was at the bodega next to the hotel I was staying in and one of the other hotel guests came up to me and pulled up the sleeve to show a small tattoo of a cross on his arm. He was a Christian and was happy about seeing Americans (who were presumably also Christians). I will probably never know this guy's story, but to all external appearances, he looked just like any other Kurd.

The problem the Kurdish leadership has is there are so many crypto-christians, jews, yezidi, Sufi muslim, zoroastrians, and God(s) knows what else that monolithic ethnocentric actions will fall apart for lack of support. The smartest move the KRG ever made was abandoning ethnicity as a motivator. Moving away from the protectors of particular stretches of dirt is the next challenge.

Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell Author Profile Page at April 5, 2008 12:27 PM

“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.

Perhaps I should be ashamed and remain silent, but I find this absolutely hilarious. It so outrageous, that its funny - and I am at a complete loss for words to explain why it is funny.

Posted by: AGA Author Profile Page at April 8, 2008 12:44 PM

Thank you for the report, Michael. Here it is May, and I just read it. Wish I had read it while it was happening. BTW, my boy's first name is Casey (Lt. Alleman)...

Posted by: salleman Author Profile Page at May 11, 2008 8:22 AM
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