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 November 12, 2008 1:28 AM
Comments

Thanks for going, Michael. We'll eagerly await your dispatches from Baghdad. I can hardly wait until I can put it on my list of "must visit". The ancient history that lies within the environs of Iraq is amazing!

Posted by: DagneyT Author Profile Page at November 12, 2008 4:46 AM

It's great news that you're going to Baghdad. It's been a while since I've been able to read your blog. I'm sure the MSM will ignore your great work like they did when you were in Fallujah. Oh by the way they have a KFC right in the middle of Fallujah. Watching a video of Marines buying chicken from this KFC was a surreal site. I knew then that the terrorists were really defeated in Fallujah.

Would you do me a favor while your over there in Baghdad? Could you ask both American and Iraqi personnel if they feel with the election of the Obama, do they think the violence might ramp up? In my opinion everybody knows that the Obama wanted to lose in Iraq with his opposition to the surge. The terrorists know this. They also know that the Obama made it the cornerstone of his campaign to leave Iraq as soon as possible. The MSM failed to ask the Obama what would he do if the violence escalated in Iraq. Is he committed to winning or will he withdraw our troops under fire? I think all it will take is just a "symbolic" uptake in violence. And anti-war nuts and the liberals in congress will call for the US to "lose" Iraq faster. It would be a great propaganda victory for the terrorists. I'm sorry about being so pessimistic, but it's based on history. In 1976 the Democrats fed South Vietnam to the communists by not approving military support. What's going to stop them from doing this again?

Posted by: PeteDawg Author Profile Page at November 12, 2008 9:15 AM

Safe travels Michael. We will continue our financial support and keep you in our thoughts. If you are going to be there over Christmas, let us know as we would like to send a Christmas care package.

YTP Spouse was the CPA advisor to Fallujah through the worst of it all; we are both delighted to hear that the city is totally different now and look forward to your dispatches.

Posted by: Yield to Pedestrian Author Profile Page at November 12, 2008 10:25 AM

I'm curious as to what exactly unrecognizable actually means in the Iraqi context (i.e., incredible improvement). Are you saying you believe you will move about freely, without escorts and without body armor?

Posted by: Seymour Paine Author Profile Page at November 12, 2008 12:20 PM

Seymour Paine: Are you saying you believe you will move about freely, without escorts and without body armor?

It's usually better to keep a low profile and have a good disguise, in my experience. I've walked around the streets Baghdad alone wearing a Richard Nixon mask. Nobody suspected anything as far as I could tell.

Posted by: Edgar Author Profile Page at November 12, 2008 12:58 PM

Seymour Paine: I'm curious as to what exactly unrecognizable actually means in the Iraqi context (i.e., incredible improvement).

We'll both find out soon enough. I'm not entirely certain myself.

Are you saying you believe you will move about freely, without escorts and without body armor?

I could, yes. That has always been true, though. I know a guy who lived on and off in Baghdad's Red Zone for four years and never had body armor or escorts. I think he was more than a little bit crazy, but this sort of thing has always been possible. You might have heard of him: William Langewiesche. Used to write for the Atlantic, now for Vanity Fair. He is one of the best journalists in the world. I've read all his books, and would recommend all of them.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at November 12, 2008 1:00 PM

It's usually better to keep a low profile and have a good disguise, in my experience. I've walked around the streets Baghdad alone wearing a Richard Nixon mask. Nobody suspected anything as far as I could tell.

Edgar

LOL! Good thing you were wearing a Nixon mask, if it was Clinton mask I think you'd stick out like a sore thumb.

Posted by: PeteDawg Author Profile Page at November 13, 2008 12:59 AM

I am also interested about the Iraqi opinion on Barack Obama and the possibility of American withdrawl.

Iraq was pretty much invisible during the presidential candidates. No news on bombings, political progress, nada. Frankly, I'm glad Michael heading back to Iraq.

Posted by: lee Author Profile Page at November 13, 2008 1:41 AM

Without belittling the bravery you exhibit by going to Iraq, which is still -- in my opinion -- a dangerous place to go...

... I think there are more original and pressing destinations you could aim for than (yet another) embedding with the US Military in Iraq...

Cos I think we know what you'll find: things are "getting better," people you meet like the US troops more than they used to, AQ in Iraq is on the back foot, the American soldiers are doing peacekeeping/police type work, there's now more electricity than before.... and look!! The market is bustling with life, you can even buy an iPhone etc. etc.

All good as far as it goes. But we've (you've) been there before and the US Military know you'll give them decent coverage...

I think you should venture forth into where "there be dragons...."

I think you should make it your priority in 2009 to get into Iran, because I do believe that there will be very, very important developments there this coming year -- and the Revolution will turn 30...

...and I think you should try and get into Pakistan, especially NW Pakistan, cos for me that's where the source of the Afghan and the AQ problem starts (and maybe it always did)... plus they already have nuclear weapons, so if that country goes bad, we are all in deep trouble....

Meanwhile, good luck and stay safe....

Posted by: Microraptor Author Profile Page at November 14, 2008 6:21 AM

Forked over some cash today. Since Iraq is my MAIN focus I have not visited here for a time. Luckily I saw this posting referenced at The Mudville Gazette and hurried on over.

Hope Baghdad IS as much better as seen by you, as I have been led to believe. I have the urge to indulge in gloating mindlessly at someone(and he knows who he is), and am happy to contribute a small amount to set that in motion. :-)

Take care

Posted by: dougf Author Profile Page at November 14, 2008 1:39 PM

Michael,

It's easy for us to say, not being the ones going, but I agree with Microraptor that the lair of the beasts, so to speak, contains the heart of the matter right now. I worry that you, Yon and others could get swept away by unavoidable forces, but you guys know the dangers better than we do. Whatever your choices, I always appreciate your honest attempts to inform.

Posted by: Paul S. Author Profile Page at November 14, 2008 1:51 PM

...and I think you should try and get into Pakistan, especially NW Pakistan, cos for me that's where the source of the Afghan and the AQ problem starts (and maybe it always did)...

Iran is an interesting place, but the only Westerners who should go into Pakistan's lawless areas are trained, well-armed professionals who know 20 ways to kill a man with a bowl of baba ganouj.

Posted by: maryatexitzero Author Profile Page at November 14, 2008 8:52 PM

The SOF agreement was overwhelmingly approved by the Iraqi Parliament today.

There goes the last gasp of any notion of them being Iran's puppet, not that one could really take that notion seriously after this spring anyway.

Posted by: TallDave Author Profile Page at November 16, 2008 8:09 PM

Maryatexitzero: "...the only Westerners who should go into Pakistan's lawless areas are trained, well-armed professionals who know 20 ways to kill a man with a bowl of baba ganouj...."

That's true -- up to a point... but it is also possible to get "embeds" with the Pakistani military or Anti Narcotics Force...

Anyways, Barbara Plett got some sort of access out there...

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/7701336.stm

Posted by: Microraptor Author Profile Page at November 17, 2008 7:54 AM

Barbara Plett says:

Many in Bajaur trace the roots of the uprising to a suspected US missile strike on an Islamic seminary, or madrassa, in November 2006, which killed around 80 people.

That radicalised local Islamists, they say, who were reinforced by militants from other Pakistani tribal areas. There was also an influx of fighters from Afghanistan.

Uh huh. Everyone was getting along so well before those warmongering Americans provoked poor, innocent 'local Islamists'.

If a journalist has a demonstrated ability to blame America for Pakistani militancy while simultaneously downplaying Pakistani government support of the Taliban, their decades-long history of using terrorism as a weapon of war against India and Pakistani use of 'militant' groups to intimidate other potential foes, that journalist might be perfectly safe traveling in the "lawless" areas.

Posted by: maryatexitzero Author Profile Page at November 17, 2008 9:13 AM

Michael: This seems like a very dangerous situation, like playing with rattlesnakes. You may think you know them, but....maybe not. It just seems like there are so many bad people there, eventually a foreigner runs the risk of getting noticed.

Posted by: Seymour Paine Author Profile Page at November 17, 2008 1:38 PM

Actually Mary, I was just pointing out that Plett got an embed with the Pakistani army...

I doubt whatever she has written would make any difference if local Islamist militants got hold of that woman.

I expect they'd see a western female journalists who was travelling with their enemies -- and I expect they would kill her, just as quickly as they would kill Mike Totten or any other foreign hack.

Or perhaps you are right, maybe the local Waziristani Al Qaeda wannabes have little lap-tops connected to the internet via sat-phones, and when they capture a foreign reporter who is riding shotgun with the Pakistani Army, they Google the reporter's name, then call in a translator to unpick the nuance of whatever it is said journalist has previously written... then if the captured journo seems to have blamed America more than one might expect, they let them go...

Posted by: Microraptor Author Profile Page at November 18, 2008 3:28 PM

Or perhaps you are right, maybe the local Waziristani Al Qaeda wannabes have little lap-tops connected to the internet via sat-phones, and when they capture a foreign reporter who is riding shotgun with the Pakistani Army, they Google the reporter's name, then call in a translator to unpick the nuance of whatever it is said journalist has previously written...

If Hezbollah has perfected the art of using the mass media as their personal (and unpaid) public relations tool, why couldn't al Qaeda and the Pakistani government do the same thing? Are you saying that the Pakistanis and the Saudis in Waziristan don't know how to use modern technology?

Besides, anyone who reads newspapers knows that British journalists are generally more anti-American than any al Jazeera or IRNA reporter.

The Times of London is currently blaming the American government for the actions of the Somali Pirates - because we didn't have proper respect for the Islamist courts that stoned 13-year old rape victims.

Even the worst Islamist nutter couldn't wrap his head around that kind of pretzel logic, but it makes perfect sense to the British media.

Posted by: maryatexitzero Author Profile Page at November 18, 2008 5:25 PM

Michael,

Firstly I think it's brave of you to go, and please be safe. Since I'm writting a few days after your post your either already there or enroute somewhere. Seems as though you'll be there about the time the parliament debates on the new SOFA agreement. If you hear of anything from the ground, meaning from the American troops themselves, regarding this I would be interested to hear what they have to say. Clearly a lot of people are unhappy with the agreement, and politicians in Iraq, neighbouring countries and the world have spoken out against the deal, but one has'nt heard much from the troops themselves. If you find out anything please let us know.

thanks!

Posted by: ambika Author Profile Page at November 19, 2008 2:24 AM
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