November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving to my American readers.

Sorry the blog is slow. It's hard to write in Iraq. I have some good material, though, and I should have something for you to read soon enough. Most likely I will publish a few short pieces first, but I started working on a long dispatch today that I think you'll enjoy. It will be more intense than anything I've published here in a while.

Stay tuned.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 4:30 AM | Comments (5)

November 19, 2008

In Country

I've just arrived in Baghdad and am waiting in the Green Zone for a flight to my unit elsewhere in the city.

Traveling to and around Iraq is a horrendous pain in the ass, but flying over Baghdad in a Blackhawk helicopter is always a treat. Below are some photos from my flight in today.

Soldier Over Baghdad 1.jpg

Blackhawk Over Baghdad 1.jpg

Blackhawk Over Baghdad 2.jpg

Blackhawk Over Baghdad 3.jpg

Blackhawk Over Baghdad 4.jpg

Blackhawk Over Baghdad 5.jpg

Blackhawk Over Baghdad 6.jpg

Blackhawk Over Baghdad 7.jpg

Blackhawk Over Baghdad 8.jpg

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:38 AM | Comments (12)

November 12, 2008

On My Way to Baghdad

Battle of Ramadi.jpg

My request to embed with the U.S. Army in Baghdad has been approved, and it turns out that I need to leave a bit earlier than I expected. It will take a while before I actually get there – I need to be in Kuwait four days in advance for paperwork and “processing,” and I’m going to stop in New York City for two days on the way to Kuwait. But I’ll be there soon enough and will have a large batch of fresh dispatches for you about what is hopefully the end of the war.

I haven’t spent any quality time in Baghdad for over a year. The first time I visited Iraq’s capital was shortly after General David Petraeus unleashed his surge of counterinsurgency forces. It was impossible to determine whether or not he would succeed at the time. Sometimes the surge seemed a smashing success in the making. Other times Iraq looked despairingly broken beyond repair. The country was still so mind-bogglingly dysfunctional it was sometimes hard for me to believe it was real.

A year ago I went to Fallujah and had to spend a day in Baghdad’s Green Zone filling out paperwork to get myself credentialed. While waiting to be processed I sat outside on the lawn next to the Iraqi parliament building and listened to a 45-minute fire fight just on the other side of the wall in the Red Zone. The BRRRRRAP of automatic AK-47 fire was punctuated by the sound of explosions. Police car sirens wailed, and I remember feeling relieved that at least the Iraqi Police were rushing toward, instead of away from, the fight. I remember hearing a car bomb explode two miles away. It sounded like it exploded mere blocks away. Baghdad in 2007 was still not a place you would want to be.

I’m told the city will be unrecognizable to me now. I know this is true. It is beyond controversy at this point that the war has wound down. But I still have a slightly difficult time believing it on a gut level. News reports from Iraq have been so few and far between lately that I can’t help but picture the old Baghdad in my mind. My experience hasn’t yet caught up with reality. This trip will remedy that.

So stay tuned for an in-depth tour through Baghdad after the surge. I will learn as much from this adventure as you will. The United States will have a new president soon, and a new Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government. Will Iraq and its government survive the next phase? I do not know, and I probably still won’t know by the time I get back. But I’ll do the best I can to figure out where we are at the end of 2008.

I leave in 24 hours.

And I need your help so I can purchase airfare and combat zone insurance. Food and lodging are thankfully free in Iraq as long as I’m with the Army, but I still need to spend some money to get there and to keep myself insured just in case. Please consider a contribution and help make independent writing economically viable.

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:28 AM | Comments (19)

November 8, 2008

PJTV Interview

Sorry I've been away from the site since the election. My wife and I spent a few days in Southern California visiting family. I'm back now.

While I'm settling back in, you can watch Roger L. Simon interview me for Pajamas TV if you're a subscriber.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:22 PM | Comments (4)

November 4, 2008

Election Night

I voted, as always, and if you're an American, I hope you did, too. I'm going to an election party tonight with a politically mixed crowd of my closest friends. We are not going to yell at each other about politics, not even tonight. That's just not something we do.

This is a foreign correspondence blog, and I don't want to get bogged down in polarizing domestic American politics, at least not on the front page. But this election is important, so I'm starting an open thread in the comments.

Who did you vote, and why?

If you do leave a comment, please be nice to those who voted a different way than you did. And remember to feel relieved that we have peaceful transitions of power in this country. In some of the countries I visit and report from, that isn't always the case. Politics elsewhere is sometimes a question of who lives and who dies.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:08 PM | Comments (84)

November 3, 2008

Killing a Crocodile

Last week the United States military conducted a raid inside Syria and killed Al Qaeda leader Abu Ghadiya in a shootout in the village of Sukariyeh. Syria’s government raged against the violation of its sovereignty and staged a massive anti-American protest in downtown Damascus. But, according to the Times of London, the Syrian government itself may have quietly green-lighted the raid in advance.

No one should be surprised if that turns out to be true. It makes perfect sense.

“Syria's interest is to see the invaders defeated in Iraq,” Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shara said in 2003. And so, for years, Bashar Assad’s government supported the flow of Al Qaeda terrorists into Iraq. The reason should be apparent enough. Syria is a state sponsor of terrorism and does not want to be “next.” The last thing either the Syrian or Iranian governments have wanted to see was a quick, easy, successful, and locally welcomed regime change in Iraq. The Iraqi insurgency was their life-insurance policy. It kept American troops busy somewhere else and hollowed out any potential American appetite for the demolition of another belligerent dictatorship in the Middle East.

Assad’s support for Al Qaeda is mostly cynical, though. He hardly shares the group’s ultimate goals. Another reason he helps them make their way to Iraq is because, in all likelihood, he’s delighted to watch them impale themselves on American forces.

Syria’s ruling Baath Party is a secular nationalist regime made up overwhelmingly of minority Alawites, whom the likes of Al Qaeda would like to see murdered en masse. Alawites are one of the Middle East’s relatively obscure religious minorities--like the Arabic Druze and the Kurdish Yezidis--who exist well outside the theological mainstream of the region. They’re a secretive and heretical offshoot of Twelver Shiism, and their beliefs are fused with Christian and pagan elements. Some of their rituals resemble those of the indigenous and ancient Phoenicians. They drink wine in a rite that resembles communion. They believe women do not have souls. Unlike Christians and Muslims, Alawites do not proselytize. Outsiders are not even allowed to convert. They make up around ten percent of Syria’s population, and can only rule the country through the brute force of an oppressive police state.

They aren't at all well-liked by Syria's Sunni Muslim majority, which considers them “infidels.” Stirring up sectarian tensions is, not surprisingly, a serious crime inside Syria. The last thing Assad wants is Lebanonization or Iraqification inside his own country. Those kinds of political problems are strictly for export.

Read the rest in COMMENTARY.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:23 AM | Comments (3)