December 30, 2008

What Would a Proportionate Response Look Like?

“If someone was sending rockets on my house where my daughters were sleeping at night, I would do everything to stop it, and I would expect Israelis to do the same thing.” – President-elect Barack Obama

Now that Hamas’s long war against Israel is matched with a short war in Gaza, protests are erupting everywhere from the blogosphere and Arab capitals to the United Nations, and they began on the very first day. "blogger Glenn Greenwald calls the Israeli retaliation to more than a year of rocket attacks a “massively disproportionate response.” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay “strongly condemned Israel’s disproportionate use of force.” The Israeli counterattack is, indeed, disproportionate, but it could hardly be otherwise. “At last count,” J.G. Thayer wrote, “one Israeli and two Palestinians (sisters, ages 13 and 5) died from rocket attacks. So a proportionate response, one presumes, would have required Israel to kill a single Palestinian and two of its own citizens.”

There were, I suppose, other “proportionate” responses available aside from killing one Palestinian and two Israelis. The Israel Defense Forces might have launched thousands of air strikes against targets in Gaza to match the thousands of Qassam rockets fired at the cities of Sderot and Ashkelon. It’s unlikely, however, that this is what Israel’s critics have in mind.

So what do they have in mind? What would a legitimate and “proportionate” response actually look like? Surely they don’t believe Israel should scrap its sophisticated weapons systems, build Qassam rockets, and launch those at Gaza instead.

The “disproportionate response” crowd doesn’t seem to mind that Israel struck back at Hamas per se. They aren’t saying Israel should only be allowed to negotiate with its enemies or that any use of force whatsoever is wrong. They’re clearly saying Israel should use less force, inflict less damage, or both.

One problem here is that it’s not at all clear how they think Israelis should go about doing it. The weapons used by each side can’t be the same. No one has ever said Israel ought to put its superior weapons systems in cold storage until Hamas can develop or purchase something similar. Presumably Israel is allowed to use its superior technology as long as the casualty count on each side is proportionate.

But how would that work in practice? A single Israeli air strike is going to kill at least as many people as Hamas can kill in twelve months. Does that mean Israel should be given a “license” of one air strike per year to use in the war? If IDF commanders want to take out a target where they expect five Hamas leaders or fighters to be killed, do they have to wait until five Israelis are killed first? If the Israelis endure rocket fire until one civilian is killed, do they get a “kill one Palestinian terrorist” coupon?

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:50 PM | Comments (9)

December 29, 2008

Home Again, At Last

by Michael J. Totten

I just returned home after spending three weeks in Iraq, two weeks in Lebanon, and one week in transit hell on my way home thanks to a labor strike at the airport in Rome. The behavior of the staff at Italy's Alitalia airline -- management and worker alike -- shocked and appalled me. At this point I would rather go back to Iraq than to Italy, and I am not joking. I'm going to write about what happened, partly to blow off some steam, and also to warn you to stay the hell away from that airline at all costs. Alitalia delenda est.

Thanks to Charles Chuman for helping me out on the blog while I was away. Now that I'm back and can write full time, we'll go back to the regular publishing schedule. Stay tuned for dispatches and analysis from Iraq, Lebanon, and...Italy.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:03 AM | Comments (5)

December 28, 2008

Suicide Bomber Targets Iraqi Gaza Protest

by Charles Chuman

The attack on Sunnis protesting the conflict in Gaza can only be understood through Iraqi sectarian violence. If that is not the explanation, I have no idea what to make of this.

Posted by Charles Chuman at 4:44 PM | Comments (6)

Inside Israel's Gaza Attack

by Charles Chuman

If there was ever any doubt, the Israeli plan to attack Gaza was formulated long ago. As I noted in the previous post, the Israelis had a long list of targets gathered through months of intelligence gathering.

Ha'aretz explains some key components leading up to the attacks.

One striking fact now revealed is that Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni flew to Cairo to personally inform the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak about Israel's plans.

Hamas was ready for an Israeli attack after the Israeli cabinet meeting, but a strategic Israeli disinformation campaign lured Hamas into a vulnerable position: ""Hamas evacuated all its headquarter personnel after the cabinet meeting on Wednesday," one defense official said, "but the organization sent its people back in when they heard that everything was put on hold until Sunday."

The article claims:

Long-term preparation, careful gathering of information, secret discussions, operational deception and the misleading of the public - all these stood behind the Israel Defense Forces "Cast Lead" operation against Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip, which began Saturday morning.

The disinformation effort, according to defense officials, took Hamas by surprise and served to significantly increase the number of its casualties in the strike.

Sources in the defense establishment said Defense Minister Ehud Barak instructed the Israel Defense Forces to prepare for the operation over six months ago, even as Israel was beginning to negotiate a ceasefire agreement with Hamas. According to the sources, Barak maintained that although the lull would allow Hamas to prepare for a showdown with Israel, the Israeli army needed time to prepare, as well.

Barak gave orders to carry out a comprehensive intelligence-gathering drive which sought to map out Hamas' security infrastructure, along with that of other militant organizations operating in the Strip.

Posted by Charles Chuman at 4:26 PM | Comments (1)

Why Gaza? Why Now?

By Charles Chuman

The Israeli attacks on Gaza took the world by surprise. Why? Why now? And is it surprising?

A common response about the reason for the current military action is that “the Israelis are tired of daily qassam attacks against Sderot and Ashkelon and require their government do something.”

This simplistic explanation answers the “why?” but not “why now?” When confronted with the further evidence that Israel has sustained barrages of up to 60 qassams a day for years, this explanation makes Israel’s attacks (or counter-attacks) seem even more surprising and disproportionate. It leaves observers confused.

Why did Israel suddenly launch this attack? Why so massive? Why doesn’t Israel target the individual qassam launchers, or mount smaller, more frequent operations? There is no pattern. That might be the point, but it partially explains the shocked reactions.

It’s All About Politics

Others, like Katya Adler of the BBC, believe that the Israelis mounted the attack for political reasons. According to this thesis, the Israelis chose to act now because:

1. Israel holds elections in 2009. The winner of these elections will confront a number of existential questions about Israel’s existence: from the debate over Jewish communities in the West Bank, to the creation of a Palestinian state, to negotiations with the Syrians and the Arab League.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni of Kadima and Defense Minister Ehud Barak of Labor see that Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud is significantly ahead in preliminary polls. However, many Israelis are still skeptical of Netanyahu and are concerned that Likud’s Knesset list is too far to right (see Moshe Feiglin).

The attacks on Gaza prove to the Israeli people that Kadima and Labor - the parties that failed to win the 2006 war - can still defend their country. Israelis do not need to compromise their social and existential beliefs in the name of defense.

2. US President George Bush has given Israel a free hand. President-elect Barack Obama is an unknown quantity, and it is widely assumed that he will be more critical of Israel. If Israel wants to launch a large-scale attack, the assumption is that it is best to do it now under Bush than to wait until Obama enters the White House.

The political explanation was my knee-jerk reaction; however, this explanation is also simplistic.

Military Action

The IDF released pre-attack aerial images of many of the destroyed sites. I have yet to see independent confirmation that these specific sites are actually what the IDF alleges, and that these were the sites destroyed. Regardless, the images show myriad alleged training camps, arms caches and military installations.

This list of targets most likely existed for a long time.

On December 20, 2008 Hamas ended the six month Egypt-brokered truce with Israel claiming that the Israeli blockade of Gaza broke the agreement. The Israelis allegedly wanted to extend the truce, and justified the blockade because of the ongoing qassam attacks that Hamas did not or could not stop.

When the cease-fire ended, the Israelis promised violence would result for obvious reasons: Hamas was re-declaring war. Hamas manifested little interest in negotiations and has shown no interest in returning Gilad Shalit, the IDF soldier Hamas holds hostage since his capture in 2006.

As in 1967, the Israelis chose to act first before Hamas had a chance to launch an attack or kidnap another soldier.

Unlike 1967, Gaza is blockaded, semi-contained, and Hamas does not pose an immediate existential threat to Israel, as Egypt and Syria did. The attacks alienate Palestinian populations in the West Bank, provoked the ire of the Arab League, and have incensed international observers.

The death of 300 people and the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people is tragic. However, I am at a loss to see what other options are available to the Israeli political and defense establishments and to the Israeli voters in Sderot and Ashkelon.

Before these attacks, Gaza was a human rights disaster. Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005 and attacks immediately began. The February 2007 Saudi-sponsored Mecca Agreement to bring Hamas and Fatah together after the Palestinian elections failed miserably when Hamas militarily took control of Gaza and forced Fatah out. Kidnapping skyrocketed. Churches were ransacked. Rocket attacks on Israel increased. The blockade was ineffective, and Hamas called off the ceasefire.

Israel’s response is destructive and asymmetric. That is the point. Israel is proving to Hamas that it is willing and able to mount a war, regardless of Arab and international opinion, if that is what Hamas desires. Hamas and Hezbollah taught Israelis that unilateral withdrawal from territory only prolongs the violence. If Israel’s enemies are willing to use violence, Israel has no qualms about using violence. If, like Syria, Israel’s enemies remain non-belligerent, those enemies can exist in perpetuity. In fact, Israel might even help its enemies achieve their goals, as it has done with the Syrian regime.

A critical re-think of the situation is imperative to end this cycle of violence. The state of Israel is predicated on survival, and it has powerful allies to assist it. The Palestinians need and deserve a state, but rejection of the state of Israel is not how that state and a future peace will occur.

International demonstrations on behalf of Palestinians or Israelis supporting human rights and rejecting violence are commendable as manifestations of humanitarian concern and expressions of free speech. However, ideologies and facts on the ground must change before a solution is found.

Political decisions undoubtedly played a part in the current attacks on Gaza, but this is part of an on-going war and cannot be viewed as a solitary act.

Posted by Charles Chuman at 3:24 PM | Comments (10)

December 21, 2008

The (Really) Moderate Muslims of Kosovo

by Michael J. Totten

Here's a long piece I wrote some time ago for City Journal which is now available online for free. Hope you enjoy it.

On February 17, 2008, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, becoming the newest country in the world—and one of the most unusual. Most of its citizens are Muslim, an oddity in Europe; further, unlike most Muslim-majority nations, Kosovo is overwhelmingly pro-American, and its relations with Israel are excellent as well. No Arab countries have recognized the new nation’s existence yet, and only Saudi Arabia has said that it will. Perhaps this isn’t surprising, since Kosovars differ more radically from their brothers in the Arab world than any other Islamic people on earth.

Most of this difference is probably news to distant observers. Kosovo lies in the former Yugoslavia on Europe’s Balkan peninsula, a distant corner of southeastern Europe where relatively few travelers venture. The fog of war never really lifted after the combatants’ guns fell silent in 1999. The grievances that animated the warring parties seemed inscrutable to many Westerners, who often didn’t understand why Western powers got involved in the first place. Yet despite their obscurity, Kosovars today stand as a rebuttal to the notion that Muslims will be forever shackled to authoritarian rule and wedded to war with the modern, pluralistic “Other.”

About 90 percent of Kosovo’s 2 million inhabitants are ethnic Albanians; 7 percent are Serbs. Of the Albanians, about 3 percent are Catholic, and all the rest are at least nominal Muslims; the Serbs, meanwhile, are all Orthodox Christians. Against this backdrop, many observers interpreted the Balkan wars that tore Yugoslavia to pieces during the 1990s as an inevitable resurgence of ancient hatreds in a post-Communist ideological vacuum.

But the truth was that Serbian nationalists, led by Yugoslavian dictator Slobodan Milošević, had deliberately crafted their own ethnic nationalism as an ideology to replace Communism, seeking to retain power and seize as much territory as possible as the Yugoslav federation unraveled. On June 29, 1989, just a few months before the Berlin Wall fell, Milošević delivered a thunderous speech to throngs of budding Serbian nationalists in the Kosovar village of Kosovo Polje. Exactly 600 years earlier, on the nearby Field of Blackbirds, the Turks had defeated Serbian ruler Tsar Lazar in an epic battle, ending the sovereignty of Serbia’s medieval kingdom and beginning its absorption into the Ottoman Empire. “No one will ever beat you again,” Milošević promised his audience.

Ethnic conflict was relatively new to the area. “There have been many battles and wars in Kosovo over the centuries,” historian Noel Malcolm writes in Kosovo: A Short History, “but until the last 100 years or so none of them had the character of an ‘ethnic’ conflict between Albanians and Serbs. Members of those two populations fought together as allies at the battle of Kosovo in 1389—indeed, they probably fought as allies on both sides of that battle.”

Nevertheless, Milošević used the ancient grievance, along with others both real and imagined, to kindle Serbian nationalism—“a totalitarian ideology,” as Serbian writer Filip David calls it. Three months after his speech at Kosovo Polje, Milošević revoked Kosovo’s political autonomy and imposed an apartheid-like system on its ethnic Albanian majority. There followed three wars in the breakaway republics of Slovenia, Bosnia, and Croatia, and then a fourth of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo at a time when the United States and NATO were in no mood to tolerate any more violent destabilization in Europe. NATO bombarded Yugoslav targets for two and a half months in 1999 until Milošević capitulated and relinquished control of Kosovo to NATO and Russia.

Though Albanian nationalism is less ideological than Serbian nationalism, it, too, can express itself through ugly outbursts of violence. After ethnic Albanian refugees returned to Kosovo under NATO protection in 1999, some lashed out at Serb civilians, houses, and Orthodox churches. Another wave of anti-Serb violence broke out in 2004, following rumors that Albanian children had drowned in the Ibar River after being chased off by Serbs.

But this violence, like the 1999 war, rose out of ethnic tensions, not religious ones. These were fights not between Muslims and Christians but between Albanians and Serbs—and though, again, most Albanians are Muslim and all Serbs are Orthodox Christian, the distinction is crucial. Kosovo’s Albanian Muslims and Albanian Catholics get along perfectly well with one another; in fact, during the war, they fought side by side. And in the later attacks, ethnic Albanian mobs burned Orthodox churches because they were Serb, not because they were Christian. Catholic churches weren’t touched—because their congregations were Albanian. (This isn’t a matter of anti-Orthodox sentiment among Muslims, either. Though no Albanian Orthodox Christians live in Kosovo, 20 percent of the population in Albania itself is Albanian Orthodox, and relations between them and the Albanian Muslim majority are perfectly fine.)

Some observers, especially in Serbia, have blamed the violence in 1999 and 2004 on Islamist jihadists. Those who live and work in Kosovo, and who are charged with keeping the peace, dismiss the allegation. “We’ve been here for so long and not seen any evidence of it that we’ve reached the assumption that it is not a viable threat,” says Zachary Gore, a U.S. Army sergeant stationed in eastern Kosovo.

Kosovo’s brand of Islam may be the most liberal in the world. I saw no more women there wearing conservative Islamic clothing—one or two per day at most—than I’ve seen in Manhattan. There is no gender apartheid even in Kosovo’s villages. Alcohol flows freely in restaurants, cafés, and bars, where you’ll see as many young women in sexy outfits as you’d find in any Western European country. Aside from the minarets on the skyline, there is no visible evidence that Kosovo is a Muslim-majority country at all.

Read the rest in City Journal.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 8:58 AM | Comments (8)

December 18, 2008

Russia to Provide Lebanon with 10 MIG-29s

by Charles Chuman

The New York Times' Bobby Worth reports on the possibility of Lebanon receiving 10 MIG-29s from Russia.

These planes could easily attack targets in Lebanon or Syria, but are vulnerable against the Israelis.

The Lebanese Armed Forces will now have pieces of military equipment more powerful than anything Hezbollah has.

The MIGs will not be a significant threat to Israel. Expert concern and consternation from the US and Israelis about this acquisition, but the most significant implications are likely domestic.

Posted by Charles Chuman at 10:20 PM | Comments (7)

US Arms Lebanese Military

by Charles Chuman


Bobby Worth of the New York Times has an excellent piece on US military aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces.

The primary concern most Americans have about supplying military aid to Lebanon is that the weapons will be used against the United States, Israel, and other American allies. In a country known for corruption and with a history of arms dealing, might these weapons be sold into the wrong hands? The article calms such fears claiming, "American-driven audits have shown that almost nothing given to the army has ended up in Hezbollah’s hands."

For many years, the United States provided more aid to the Lebanese military than any other country. The Lebanese often mocked this aid comparing it to that the Israelis receive. However, no other country supplied the Lebanese with nearly as much aid as the United States. Many Northern Europeans countries are legally forbidden to supply military aid and technology to countries in a state of war. Other countries did not prioritize giving to Lebanon.

Posted by Charles Chuman at 9:23 AM | Comments (1)

December 17, 2008

US-Lebanon Relations

by Charles Chuman

The Aspen Institute and the Lebanese Renaissance Foundation recently hosted a conference in Washington, DC on US-Lebanon relations entitled: "Lebanon: The Swing State of a New Levant."

It was held three years to the date after the assassination of Lebanese journalist, editor, and parliamentarian Gebran Tueni on 12 December 2005.

Much of the conference was filmed and is available at the Aspen Institute Video website.

The panels featured former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former US Ambassador to Israel and director of the Brookings Institute's Saban Center Martin Indyk, US Undersecretary of State and former US Ambassador to Lebanon Jeffrey Feltman, Lebanese Minister of State Nassib Lahoud, Parliamentarian Ghassan Mokheiber, Quantum Group Chairman Elie Khoury, Washington Post commentator David Ignatius, US Congressmen, and many other American and Lebanese politicians, intellectuals, and analysts.

The conference sessions will interest anyone trying to understand the complexities of Lebanon and the future of US-Lebanese relations.

Many thanks to Aspen Institute President Walter Isaacson, LRF President Elie Khoury, LRF Executive Director Firas Maksad, and conference coordinator Benjamin Ryan for organizing such an informative and timely event.

Michael Totten interviewed Elie Khoury, one of the architects of the Cedar Revolution, and published his findings in 2007.

Posted by Charles Chuman at 8:22 PM | Comments (0)

Hezbollah Refuses to Meet Carter

by Charles Chuman

Lebanese Parliamentary Speaker Nabih al Berri refused to meet a US Congressional delegation led by NY-D Rep. Gary Ackerman.

Hezbollah refused to meet with former US President Jimmy Carter claiming that Carter supports "Zionist terror."

These two incidents, similar in simplistic terms: "Lebanese Shia Politicians Refuse to Meet US Policymakers," are extremely different in their underlying implications.

Berri and Ackerman

Berri’s refusal to meet with the US Congressional delegation is understandable given Ackerman’s previous public statements criticizing Berri and the Lebanese opposition, and Ackerman’s efforts to weaken Hezbollah and other Lebanese groups who waged war with Israel.

Berri, a US citizen, is on good terms with American officials and is seen as a moderating presence in Lebanon. A Lebanese Shia who leads the Amal Movement, he is regarded internationally as one of Lebanon’s canniest politicians. Berri would have gained nothing by meeting with Ackerman, but would have been tarred as a pro-Israel capitulation-ist by the pro-Hezbollah press going into the 2009 elections. Berri’s party is in a constant dance of cooperation and competition with Hezbollah.

Berri's move was political, calculating, and will soon be forgotten.

Hezbollah and Carter

If chants of “Death to America,” giving the equivalent of a state funeral to Imad Mughnieh(the man accused of killing 241 American servicemen in the Beirut Marine Barracks bombing and blowing up the US Embassy in Beirut), and protests in front of the US Embassy weren’t enough to convince observers that Hezbollah has a few qualms with the United States, perhaps Hezbollah's refusal to meet a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate will.

Former US President Jimmy Carter arrived in Lebanon as an emissary of peace in the interest of advancing Lebanese sovereignty through legitimate democratic elections. His record proves that he believes that peace is forged through cooperation with one’s enemy to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes (like nuclear disarmament and the peace between Israel and Egypt). Few American policymakers are perceived as being as pro-Arab and as critical of Israel as Carter:

1. While President, Carter set a policy of positive and active engagement in the Palestinian territories.

2. In 1978, Carter was one of the primary voices behind the creation of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL)

3. Carter wrote Palestine: Peace not Apartheid, a work that greatly offended supporters of Israel, and received praise from Palestinian leaders

4. Carter received the Nobel Peace Prize for what the award committee called, his “untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development.”

5. Carter met with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal.

6. In 2007, Carter met with Syrian President Assad.

There is no American leader more critical of Israeli actions than Carter. However, Carter believes strongly in supporting the state of Israel. And no matter how different his views are from those of President Bush, Carter is still a symbol of the United States and the freedoms afforded to American citizens.

If Hezbollah had met with Carter, it would have been interpreted as business-as-usual. The former President routinely meets with groups anathema to US Administrations. The Carter Center is regularly criticized for allegedly “giving a stamp of approval” to groups US Administrations oppose. As an American, this is his right.

Hezbollah’s refusal to meet with former US President Jimmy Carter sent a bold statement, whether or not Hezbollah intended it to be interpreted that way. It is a signal to the incoming Obama Administration that there is little reason to re-examine American relations with Hezbollah.

President-elect Obama's foreign policy team (Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, Jim Jones, and Dennis Blair) never endorsed the idea that the US should negotiate with the Iranians or other foes. The left wing of the Democratic Party is currently attacking the President-elect for appointing a cabinet composed almost entirely of moderates and hawks and not appointing any opposing voices.

Perhaps the left wing should reconsider its stance given that Jimmy Carter, an icon of the left, is not acceptable enough to Hezbollah for a discussion on a generic topic.

Jimmy Carter will undoubtedly try again. He should be lauded for his efforts. In the mean time, President-elect Obama and his team will forge a plan that defends American interests, while engaging new ideas and new initiatives for peace.

Posted by Charles Chuman at 4:05 PM | Comments (4)

December 15, 2008

On the Hunt in Baghdad

by Michael J. Totten

Near JSS Sadr City Night.jpg

BAGHDAD -- “If your men conduct any raids,” I said to Captain Todd Looney at Combat Outpost Ford on the outskirts of Sadr City, Baghdad, “I want to go.”

“We might have something come up,” he said. “If so, I'll get you out there.”

Less than an hour later, one of the most dangerous terrorist leaders in all of Iraq was spotted holding a meeting at a house in the area. An arrest warrant had already been issued by the government of Iraq, and Captain Looney's company was the closest to his location. They would be the ones to go get him.

“Do you still have room for me?” I said.

“Get your gear,” Captain Looney said.

Captain Todd Looney.jpg
Captain Todd Looney, Combat Outpost Ford, Sadr City, Baghdad

Last time I was in Baghdad, in the summer of 2007, I was told that most suspects surrender the instant they realize their house is surrounded. Fighting would be suicidal, and most terror cell leaders do not seek martyrdom. But the guy we were after was far more vicious and crazy than average.

“Is he the kind of guy who might shoot at us during a raid?” I said to Captain Clint Rusch in the Tactical Operations Center.

“Oh yeah,” he said. “He's definitely the kind of guy who will shoot at us. He's a really bad dude.” There was even a chance he was wearing a suicide vest.

The tip-off came in over the phone late at night when the terrorist leader's meeting was almost scheduled to be finished. By the time everyone had their gear and was ready to go, we had seventeen minutes or less to drive across a portion of Sadr City and break down the door before the meeting was over.

We ran to the Humvees.

“Go with Sergeant Gonzales,” Captain Looney said to me. “When we dismount, catch up to me and stay on me.” He looked angry all of a sudden, but mostly he was just being serious. Any of us might be killed in less than an hour.

Our convoy of Humvees roared down Baghdad's streets in the dark without headlights. I checked my watch. No time to waste. We had eleven minutes to catch the bastard before his meeting was scheduled to end. Hopefully he and his pals were on “Arab time” and would hang out and drink tea for a while before heading out.

On the Hunt Driving 1.jpg

Almost every house we drove past was dark. Few streetlights worked. It was hard to believe I was in the middle of a city of millions. Iraq's electrical grid is still in terrible shape. Baghdad is only marginally better lit than the countryside. It produces perhaps only one or two percent as much ambient light after dark as cities in normal countries. Baghdad at night from the air looks more like a constellation of Christmas lights than, say, the brightly lit circuit board of Los Angeles.

The Humvee in front of mine suddenly stopped. Our driver slammed on his brakes.

“Dismount!” Sergeant Gonzales said from the passenger seat in the front.

Here we go.

I dismounted – meaning, I got out of the Humvee. Even hopped up on adrenaline it's impossible to throw those doors open quickly. They weigh hundreds of pounds because they're up-armored with inches of solid steel.

Every soldier could see better than I could. They had night-vision goggles. I had to rely on my eyes in an especially dark corner of a dark city. And my eyes hadn't yet adjusted to darkness. It takes thirty minutes for a man's eyes to adjust to darkness, and we left the brightly lit interior of the base less than only ten minutes ago.

Sergeant Gonzales motioned for me to follow him alongside a wall toward an opening that led into the neighborhood. I stepped in a deep puddle of mud. At least I hoped it was mud. Sewage still runs in the streets in much of Baghdad, and we were in one of the most decrepit parts of the city. But I hardly cared what had just splashed up onto my pant legs. Any second now I might be shot at or worse.

Through the Wall Baghdad.jpg

One at a time we poured through the hole in the wall. Every single house on the other side of that wall was cloaked in darkness. I was still able to take low quality pictures if I kept the shutter open long enough on my camera. It could “see” better than I could.

I had no idea which house we were about to storm into, but the soldiers knew and I followed them up to the gate.

The gate was locked. One of the soldiers – I couldn't tell anyone apart in the dark – kicked the gate with everything he had. Twice. And it did not open.

“Goddamn it!” Captain Todd Looney said.

He pulled out an enormous hammer and swung it hard against the front of the gate.


The gate merely shook.


The metal gate shuddered, but it did not break.


Everyone in the neighborhood must have heard us by then.

Breaking Gate Baghdad.jpg

If a meeting were still going on in that house, they knew we were coming. I kept as close to the wall as I could in case we would be shot at. No one inside the house would be able to hit me as long as I didn't back up into the street.

Taking the house would be much more dangerous now, but the soldiers brought flashbang grenades. Exploding flashbangs will stun and blind everyone in a room for up to ten seconds. All the soldiers had to do was toss one of those babies into a room ahead of them. Ten seconds is an eternity in room-to-room combat. American soldiers can do whatever they want in a room full of terrorists in less than two seconds.


The hammer came down on the gate once again, but it still didn't break. We would have to climb over the wall.

“Keep busting it open while we're climbing the wall!” Captain Looney said.


The wall was about seven feet high and made out of cement. Most of us couldn't get over it without some kind of boost. I'm not used to throwing myself over walls taller than I am, and the soldiers were weighed down with 80 pounds of armor and gear. Someone crouched on all four and let everyone else use his back as a step ladder. That effectively knocked two feet off the wall. It's easy to jump over five feet of wall.

“Keep going over!” the captain said. “Keep going over!”

The gate was locked from the inside. Those on the other side desperately tried to unlock it, to no avail.

“Bolt cutters coming over!” somebody yelled and tossed a pair of cutters over the gate. They came prepared.

And yet still the gate did not open. We had wasted almost a minute while making one hell of a racket outside.

I felt useless just standing there and trying mostly in vain to take photographs in the dark. What was I supposed to be doing? I'm not trained for kinetic raids. I didn't know the procedure.

So I selected a soldier at random and asked. “Is everyone going over the wall? Do I need to go over, too?”

I was ready to take orders from even a private.

“Yes, sir,” he said, whoever he was. “You need to go over.”

Can't say I was thrilled about that. Unless they got that gate opened, I'd be pinned in the tight enclosed courtyard in front of a suspected terrorist's nest. There would be no running away if something happened. But that was preferable to being left all alone on the street in front of that house while the soldiers – my de facto bodyguards – were inside and over the wall.

One of the soldiers who had gone over the wall ahead of me kicked in the front door of the house with his boot. The sounds of smashing glass and twisting metal surely alerted anyone in the house who somehow might not have heard the banging on the gate with the hammer.

If the target inside were indeed wearing a suicide vest, this was most likely when he would martyr himself and take some of us with him. I waited a moment before climbing onto the wall. I had cover from an explosion as long as I stayed where I was. But I didn't hear anything

The soldier crouching in the mud was waiting for me to use his back as a step ladder onto the wall. So I planted my muddy boot in the small of his back. Not that it mattered. He was plenty filthy already. I had five more feet of wall to clear, and for an absurd moment I worried that I might humiliate myself by not being able to make it over the top. That was ridiculous. It was only five feet, and besides – I had so much adrenaline in my body I could have thrown a car.

As soon as I pulled myself onto the wall I realized that every single one of us climbed up in the wrong place. Climbing straight over would have put us in the neighbor's yard. I had to shimmy along the top of the wall several feet so I could drop down in the courtyard of the house we were raiding. I could barely see, and I was terribly exposed.

Yes, he's the kind of guy who will shoot at us.

I was more exposed at that moment than anyone while crawling along the top of that wall.

Get down, get down!

I dropped into the courtyard of the target house.

“Top floor's clear!” I heard someone yell from the inside.

No one had fired a shot yet. No one had exploded a suicide vest.

Then the gate broke open and five more soldiers poured through.

Lights were on in the house when I ran inside. The front door had been violently kicked off its hinges. It leaned up against the couch in the living room.

Broken Door Baghdad House 1.jpg

Shards of glass crunched under my feet. Mud and nasty muck from outside was tracked all over the carpets inside – and this is a culture where almost everyone takes off their shoes before stepping inside. We might very well be in a terrorist leader's house, but a small part of me still felt bad about the mud and the door.

My digital voice recorder was turned on and inside my pocket. It recorded everything, but I have no idea who said what.

“Where's the terp at?”

Terp is short for interpreter. Our interpreter, Eddie, was an Iraqi from Baghdad who had spent the last several decades in San Diego, California.

“They've over there at the next house.”

“Go! Go! Next house! Let's go!”

“Out! Out the gate!”

Every soldier in the house ran out the gate. I followed. The house we had just hit was empty. No one was sure exactly which house in a row of three was supposed to contain the high-level terrorist suspect we were after. So we went house to house.

Some poor bastards would soon return home from wherever they were to find their door broken down, mud all over their carpets, and no explanation.

We ran to the next house and had no trouble unlatching the gate. Each soldier took up position. I stood near the front door and away from the windows. My eyes were beginning to adjust to the darkness and I could sort of see.

“Hit it,” someone said. “Go right fucking in there.”

A soldier kicked the door in with all his might. It crumpled like an empty 7-Up can. Glass shattered. A woman inside screamed in terror. Soldiers streamed into the house.

Someone flicked on the lights.

Broken Door Glass Baghdad.jpg

The woman in the front room screamed again and put her hands on her head. Small children ran behind her for protection.

Breaking In Baghdad.jpg

“Get down! Get down!”

She looked at me in wide-eyed animal terror as if she had just seen Godzilla, and she said something to me in Arabic that I did not understand.

“La etkellem Arabie,” I said. I don't speak Arabic.

I wanted to say “it's okay,” but it was not okay. I had no more an idea what was about to happen than she did.

“Go upstairs,” said one of the soldiers.

“Hey, you, in there,” said another to the woman who had just spoken to me. “Get in there.”

They were rounding up all the women and children into one room and all the men into another.

Get in That Room Baghdad.jpg

“Get in there now!”

Two soldiers led three Iraqi men down the stairs. The men looked frightened and disoriented, but much less so than the women and children. Two were turned around and rapidly flex-cuffed.

The Americans were not fucking around. Odds were high that we were in a terrorist's nest and still might be shot at any moment from any direction.

Guarding the Room Baghdad.jpg

The one Iraqi man who had not yet been flex-cuffed spoke to me calmly in Arabic.

“I am a police officer,” he said. “I have a badge.”

I understood him perfectly well, but I nevertheless told him I didn't speak Arabic. He needed to explain himself to somebody else.

Men were taken into the front room of the house. Women and children were herded into the back.

Detained Baghdad House 1.jpg

Detained House 1 Baghdad 2.jpg

Then the power went out and the house plunged into absolute darkness.

Eddie, our interpreter, screamed at these Iraqis in a furious rage that I had not heard from him before. He sounded like he was prepared to beat any and all of them down any second. His voice demanded instant respect and obedience. While it was possible he spoke to them this way for effect, I suspect his anger at the mass-murderers who had car-bombed his home town for years was totally genuine.

Flashlights came on and I could see again.

Detained in Living Room Baghdad.jpg

Captain Todd Looney stood before the Iraqi man who had told me he was a police officer and asked whether he knew anything about the terrorist leader we were hunting.

“I've never heard of him,” the supposed police officer said.

“Hey!” Captain Looney said. “Everybody knows who he is. Saying you've never heard of him is like saying you've never heard of Moqtada al Sadr.”

I stepped outside the front door and into the courtyard for some air. Glass crunched under my feet again. The door hung at a crazy angle from the only hinge that didn't twist off when it was kicked in.

Broken Door Glass Baghdad 2.jpg

Two men from inside the house had been taken outside and planted face down in the mud with their cuffed hands behind their backs. They trembled in fear.

Detained in the Mud Baghdad.jpg

I went back inside. Captain Looney was speaking to another Iraqi man in a wife-beater t-shirt whom I hadn't seen before. What did he know about the terrorist leader who was supposedly holding a meeting either in this house or the next one?

“I've never heard this kind of name,” he said. His hands shook and he looked at his feet.

Two soldiers in the kitchen briskly opened every cabinet and drawer and searched for anything that was not supposed to be there – weapons, intelligence, anything incriminating or out of the ordinary.

In House Blurry Baghdad.jpg

They didn't mess the place up, but they rifled through everything with a practiced thoroughness.

I heard Captain Looney's voice in the back room where the women and children had been corralled. The woman who had screamed when her door was broken down was crying hysterically.

“I've been in Iraq too long for your crying to affect me,” Captain Looney said in a hard, even, and no-bullshit tone of voice.

She stopped crying instantly. She didn't even continue to sob. She just stopped as if the captain had flipped off a switch.

Guarding the Captured in Room Baghdad.jpg

“I've lost too many of my own soldiers in this country,” he said.

In COP Ford's Tactical Operations Center hang three photographs of American soldiers in Captain Looney's company who were killed in Sadr City by Shia militias. All were personal friends and comrades of every American soldier I was with that night on the raid. “We fight for the men next to us,” the captain had said to me earlier that evening in his office before we set out.

The woman who was somehow able to stop crying instantly also said she had never heard the name of the terrorist we were chasing. Everyone in the room knew she was lying.

“Do you know what this guy does?” said one of the soldiers. “He rapes women like you. He cuts off the heads of men like your husband. And he murders children like yours.”

He also kills American soldiers, but that went unsaid.

Every person in that house did one of two things that night: they either covered up for the terrorist leader, or they revealed they were deathly afraid of him. There is no chance whatsoever that none of them had never heard of the guy. He is a notorious mass murderer on the loose in their own city. Imagine meeting an adult American who says he or she has never heard of Timothy McVeigh or Osama bin Laden. It just doesn't happen.

“I have a daughter,” the woman said. She did, indeed, have a daughter. The little girl held onto her mother's leg for dear life.

“Lots of insurgents have daughters,” Captain Looney said. “Having a daughter does not make you innocent.”

The two soldiers who were searching the kitchen moved into the living room and started opening closets and cabinets.

“I had better not find anything other than one Glock in this house,” Captain Looney said.

Glock Found Baghdad.jpg

One of the soldiers found the Glock pistol that apparently had been declared. The man who told me he was an Iraqi Police officer said it was his. But everyone knew that police officers in Iraq sometimes moonlight as terrorists or insurgents. It meant something that he was a police officer, but it didn't clear him.

I stepped out of the house and into the courtyard again, not quite sure what to do with myself. So I paced. And I needed some air. There was a tremendous amount of emotional violence in that house. I could feel it. All of us felt it. All of us knew we might be shot or even blown up at any moment. But I noticed, only in hindsight, that no one had been struck or even shoved by a single American soldier. The raid was intense, but it was also restrained.

I have been inside dozens of Iraqi homes with American soldiers. This episode was nowhere near typical. The aggression was deliberate, and it had a purpose – it kept the residents from thinking they might try something stupid. We were in much more danger, at least potentially, than they were. No one inside the house would be harmed if they didn't start something, but any of them might have shot at us at any moment.

Nobody was arrested, however. None of the men were the guy the American soldiers were after. Captain Looney said it was time to go back to the base. The residents of each house that had been raided could file some paperwork and get a cash reimbursement for the damage caused on the way in.

Then a call came in over the radio.

A suspect matching the terrorist leader's description had just been spotted fleeing the area a few blocks away.

I have to protect the Army's operational security, so I cannot tell you how the suspect was spotted. But I can tell you that if I were a terrorist or insurgent in Iraq, and if I knew what kind of sophisticated high-tech surveillance equipment the Americans used as a matter of course, it would scare the living daylights out of me. No one can hide in Iraq forever from the American military.

We did not go back to the base. Instead we circled around to where the suspect had been spotted.

We rounded a corner, and I was back in near-total darkness. My eyes had adjusted to the dim light in the house, so I could hardly see again in the darkness that is Baghdad after midnight. This neighborhood was dark even compared with most of the others. Only the faint outlines of homes against the cold backdrop of stars were visible. Still, I could see that the housing conditions dramatically deteriorated as we walked. The homes we had just broken into appeared to be more or less middle class, but behind them was slum housing. What little I could see resembled the hillside favelas in Latin America.

Slum at Night Baghdad.jpg

My boots squished and sucked in the mud and the muck. The street obviously was not paved. All of Baghdad is strewn with trash, but this area choked on it.

I followed Captain Looney.

Slum dogs barked and charged from every direction. Captain Looney pointed his rifle at one. I saw a red laser dot on its side.

Please don't shoot the dog.

I didn't want to see a dog shot right in front of me, and I didn't want to hear any gunfire. We were possibly homing in on one of the most dangerous terrorists in the world, and I could hardly see a damn thing. Whoever it was we were chasing probably couldn't see any better than I could. That was a good thing. Gunfire would reveal our location.

If I hear gunfire too close that isn't ours, I thought, I'm throwing myself onto the ground and planting my face in that muck.

“The target's pushing southeast,” someone said. “That's back behind us.”

But then we heard a gun shot just a few blocks ahead of us on the other side of some houses.

“Shot fired,” someone quietly said into the radio.

It sounded like a rifle shot, not like a pistol. But it wasn't close enough for me to need to face-plant in the mud just yet.

There was no return fire, but I knew this whole thing could turn kinetic and violent at any second.

The mud got deeper, and I had to navigate around giant holes in the road. It wasn't even really a road. It was more like an alley. Most cars were too wide to drive down it.

“Look at that big ass rat,” somebody said.

I couldn't see the rat without night vision. I wondered whether I would accidentally kick it.

I kept near the walls more than the soldiers did. They had night vision goggles and rifles. I didn't have either, and I felt more vulnerable.

Stars shimmered above us. They were the same stars that shimmer above my house back in Oregon. That surprised me on some irrational level. Sometimes Iraq feels like a different planet. Somewhere overhead I heard the distant roar of a jetliner, probably on its way to Kuwait. That put me back in the world. Kuwait is clearly on the same planet as Oregon. And though it's right next to Iraq, it seemed terribly distant because it's so civilized and luxurious. Trust me: unless you're Iraqi, if you fly from Iraq to Kuwait you will feel like you're home.

No one was walking around except us – and the person up ahead we were about to detain. The night was as silent as if we were camping out in Alaska.

Just ahead on the left was a dump site where an enormous amount of garbage had been tossed. I gave it a wide berth. Insurgents sometimes bury anti-personnel IEDs in those piles and detonate them as platoons of soldiers walk past. The entire neighborhood might have been laced with traps for all I knew.

More dogs barked. I faintly heard men speaking in English up ahead and saw the black outlines of motionless soldiers a hundred feet or so up ahead. It seemed they had caught the fleeing suspect who matched the terrorist leader's description.

“They got him,” Sergeant Gonzales said. His job was to monitor the radio with an ear piece and listen to chatter.

Him?” I said.

“They got the guy who matches the description,” he said. “We don't yet know if it's him.”

The area got more and more slum-like as I moved toward them. Then I realized I was inside a junk yard. IEDs and other booby traps could be anywhere and everywhere, but probably weren't.

A small Iraqi man sat on the ground. Three American soldiers stood over him.

“Stand up!” Captain Looney said when we reached them.

Eddie translated.

“Why were you running?”

“I did not run away,” the man said.

“We were watching you,” Captain Looney said. “We watched you run. Only the thief fears the judge. Why were you running from us? Why were you hiding? We saw you hiding. How do you think we found you?”

The man mumbled something in Arabic. I could hardly hear him. I don't think Eddie heard him either because he didn't translate.

“Somebody bring some zip strips,” Captain Looney said.

Someone brought the zip strips. The suspect was then flex-cuffed.

Flex Cuffing Baghdad Slum.jpg

I noticed another man had also been captured. He stood in silence a few feet away and trembled in fear.

The identification cards of both suspects were checked and called into the base. Someone in the Tactical Operations Center compared their names with those in the known terrorist database.

“You still haven't answered my question,” Captain Looney said. “Why were you running? Are you a Muslim?”

“Yes,” the man said.

“Do you read the Koran?”

“No,” the man said.

“You know,” Captain Looney said, “that it says only the thief fears the judge, right?”

A loud and low military plane roared overhead.

“We were scared,” the man said.

“Why were you scared?” Captain Looney said. “Look at me.”

The man looked up at Captain Looney. The captain shined a flashlight in the man's face and checked his appearance against a color photograph of the terrorist leader.

He wasn't the guy.

But the other captured man, the man standing just a few feet away and trembling violently, bore a more striking resemblance to the man we were after.

Captain Looney approached him.

“Why were you running?” he said.

“We were scared,” the suspect said.

“Well, you know what?” Captain Looney said. “When the police come into my neighborhood, I don't run. You know why? Because I haven't done anything wrong.”

“I am afraid of you,” the man said.

“Why?” Captain Looney said. “Why do you fear us? We don't just go running around here killing people like Saddam Hussein did.”

“I am afraid because of the explosion,” the man said.

“What explosion?” Captain Looney said.

“It was four months ago,” the man said.

“What does that have to do with now?” Captain Looney said.

“I am sorry,” the man said. “I apologize.”

A soldier frisked the suspect firmly and thoroughly in a way you do not ever want to be searched. This wasn't your typical airport security line pat-down where the TSA guy knows very well that you almost certainly are not a terrorist.

On the other side of a chain link fence was a van surrounded by enormous piles of junkyard refuse.

Chain Link Fence Slum Baghdad.jpg

“Are you living in that van?” Captain Looney said to the suspect. “Go check out that van,” he said to one of his men.

Two soldiers climbed over the chain link fence and poked around inside the van.

“What the fuck are you doing out here, man?” the captain said.

“We are security guards.”

“Yeah, but what are you guarding,” Captain Looney said.

“There are air conditioners out here,” said Eddie, our interpreter.

“It's junk,” Captain Looney said. “It's just junk.”

Inside Sadr City Junkyard.jpg

Almost every encounter I have ever seen between an American soldier – especially an American officer – and an Iraqi has been polite. Terrorist suspects, especially terrorists with American blood on their hands, obviously get treated differently. No one had physically harmed either of these men, though. I didn't even see either of them get shoved, let alone struck.

“He's shaking pretty good,” one of the soldiers said, referring to the second suspect.

“I was a prisoner in Iran,” the man said. “I have the flu and a bad heart.”

I felt bad for the guy. He did match the physical description of the terrorist we were looking for, but he was just a random guy who coincidentally looked similar. And he got spooked and ran. A key physical characteristic – one that I cannot reveal – all but exonerated him. He wasn't the guy. At this point he was only being interrogated because he ran from American soldiers. In and of itself that's not a big deal, but he ran right after the soldiers raided a house that was thought to be a meeting place for terrorist leaders. He picked a bad time to freak out.

Captain Looney asked him the same questions over and over again and could not get a straight answer. All he got were stock boilerplate answers larded with filler words like “Inshallah.”

“Inshallah” means God willing in Arabic, and it's often associated, from the American point of view, with the evasion of responsibility. “I'll see you tomorrow at three o'clock, Inshallah,” is often correctly interpreted as meaning “There is a good chance I won't be there.” Earlier that day I heard an American soldier say to an Iraqi bureaucrat that his wristwatch didn't come with the word Inshallah on it anywhere.

It's often difficult to get a straight answer out of Iraqis. Evasion is a habitual survival mechanism that evolved in a society that was ruled for decades by a totalitarian police state. It survived the destruction of Saddam Hussein's regime because so many neighborhoods have been ruled by psychopathic militias. It is still not clear to some Iraqis that American soldiers aren't just another psychopathic militia. Canned phrases and stock responses are all you can get out of some people.

“I'm tired of this Iraqi talk,” Captain Looney said to the suspect. “I'm going to hand you over to the interrogators. That's what they get paid to do. I'm tired of hearing Inshallah. Listen up. You can have this conversation with me, be honest with me, and stop giving me these bullshit answers like Inshallah and walah adim, or I'm going to take you to the interrogators and let them talk to you.”

The man mumbled something and ended his sentence with “Inshallah.”

“You're saying it,” Captain Looney said. “You're saying Inshallah. I don't want to hear that word.”

A pair of blackhawk helicopters flew overhead. Military air traffic over Baghdad is constant, partly so insurgents and terrorists will always feel like they're being watched from the air as well as the ground. And they are being watched from the air and the sky as well as the ground.

My Kevlar helmet was beginning to make my head hurt. I wanted to take it off, but I didn't dare in the slums of Baghdad. The air smelled of garbage and piss. Home felt not only thousands of miles away, but years away.

Captain Looney asked the suspect what he knew about the terrorist leader we were after that night. The man said he had never heard of him, which was a lie.

“That's like saying you don't know who Ali or Mohammad is,” Captain Looney said. “What do you know?”

The suspect kept talking in platitudes and had nothing of substance to say whatsoever.

“I'm tired of these motherfuckers,” one soldier said.

Captain Looney spoke into his radio. “These two individuals are living in squalor,” he said. “They're pretty uneducated. I don't think either one of them would be smart enough to even hit the switch on an IED. But we can still bring them in for interrogation, over.”

No one, including me, seemed to think either of them should be brought in and interrogated.

“Ugh,” said one of the soldiers and stepped back. “This guy breathed on me and I just about dry heaved.”

“Don't get so close to him,” said Sergeant Gonzales.

“I was worried I was going to have to shoot a dog back there,” Captain Looney said to me.

“I thought you might,” I said, “when I saw one painted with the red laser dot.”

“I was just trying to scare them away,” he said. “They're only doing what comes naturally. Dogs don't make a choice. People make a choice to be good or bad.”

The radio squawked and he answered. “I think it was bad intel,” he said. “I don't think these guys have anything to do with who we're looking for.”

One of the soldiers who was searching the van stepped out with something in his hand. “Sir,” he said. “We found three M4 magazines and a military map of Fallujah.”

A military map of Fallujah?

“Let me see that,” Captain Looney said.

The soldier produced the map and unfolded it. Sure enough, it was exactly like the maps I had seen on the walls inside U.S. Marine bases in Fallujah last year. An American Marine sergeant's name was written on top of the map with a red pen. How did these guys get that map?

Looking At Fallujah Map Sadr City Junkyard.jpg

“It's not wise to have U.S. military stuff in your house, bro,” Captain Looney said to the suspects.

“Okay,” said the first.

One of the soldiers scrolled through the names in each suspect's cell phone.

“What's your boss's name?” Captain Looney said to the second.

The man mumbled Abu something-or-other. I could not quite make it out.

“Abu” means father of. Arab men often adopt a second name for themselves after they have a son. Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas is also known as Abu Mazen, for instance, which means his son is named Mazen.

“Abu...” Captain Looney said. “What's your boss's real name?”

“I think it's Mohammad.”

“You think it's Mohammad?” Captain Looney said. “Seriously? You don't even know who you work for? Listen. If you keep acting this goddamn stupid, I'm going to detain you for the simple fact that no one can be this stupid unless they're hiding something.”

It is not at all apparent from this exchange, but Captain Todd Looney has a lot of respect for Iraqis in general. I have spoken to him at length, and I've seen him interact with Iraqis who aren't being detained on suspicion of terrorism. It's only fair that I point that out.

It's also only fair to point out that these Iraqis may not be as dumb as they come across. It's common knowledge that Iraqi Police officers frequently abuse those they arrest. Not everyone in Baghdad knows or believes that American soldiers rarely do so and will get in serious trouble if they are caught. And you'd be scared, too, if you were flex-cuffed and aggressively questioned. No one wanted to give any information about the terrorist leader Captain Looney's men were chasing because they were rightly afraid of violent retaliation.

And don't be shocked by the profanity. Military men don't talk like accountants, and they never have. “I don't trust an officer who doesn't cuss,” I heard Captain Looney say to another officer earlier that same day. “We have a nasty job. Our job is killing people.”

He really does not like to kill people. “I'm a pacifist, man,” he had told me in his office. “At least I'd like to be. Of course I know how to fight any time that's what the enemy wants. I'm ready whenever they are. But it's not what I'd rather be doing.”

Some soldiers and Marines I've spoken to feel slightly uneasy in Iraq now that they rarely get into firefights with the enemy. Many don't feel comfortable with nation-building and peacekeeping, partly because it is not what they trained for, and also because it is not the kind of thing warriors generally do. Nation-building is political work. Most soldiers don't join the Army to become politicians.

One night I asked Captain Looney which he prefers: kinetic fighting or nation-building?

“I vastly prefer this,” he said. He meant nation-building. Killing people does not make the would-be pacifist happy.

“Some soldiers tell me they prefer fighting,” I said.

“They're immature,” he said.

“That's a good answer,” I said. And it was. Killing people really is a nasty business, no matter how necessary it sometimes may be. So is raiding the wrong house in the middle of the night and scaring old women and children. It had to be done – don't get me wrong – but I felt horrible watching it happen.

“Get up,” Captain Looney said to each of the suspects who knelt in the mud in the slum junkyard.

“I am at your service,” said the second suspect, the man who had been shaking in fear the entire time. “If I'm guilty, take me.”

“Get out of here,” Captain Looney said. Then he cut the man's flex-cuffs.

The other man's flex-cuffs likewise were cut. Both were free to go.

Interrogating Suspect Sadr City Slum.jpg

They were afraid of American soldiers that night, so they ran. God only knows what they think of Americans now. Did they feel humiliated? Or were they more surprised that they weren't arrested and beaten up? The Iraqi Police might not have been nearly so lenient. And the Iraqi Police today are extraordinarily lenient compared with Saddam's Iraq Police that these men had grown up with. The two suspects might have an even lower opinion of American soldiers than they once did, or they might think better of them today. I have no idea.

All of us – Captain Looney, Sergeant Gonzales, the rest of the soldiers, and I – walked back toward the waiting and idling Humvees that would return us to base. We had come up empty. We did not have the most-wanted terrorist flex-cuffed and blindfolded in the back of one of the trucks. All we had was more mud and muck on our boots to show for the effort.

“Why the fuck are you here voluntarily?” Captain Looney said to me.

I didn't know what to say.

“Do you do this kind of shit all the time?” said another soldier to me on the way back.

“Not exactly,” I said.

“Pretty heavy, I guess,” he said. “We were ready to go kinetic back there.”

“I could see that,” I said. “And yeah, it's kind of heavy. But it's not too dangerous here anymore, at least not in general.”

“It's really not,” he said. “But it sure has the potential to be.”

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:21 AM | Comments (25)

December 11, 2008

Welcome Charles Chuman

I'm nearly finished with a long dispatch from Sadr City, Baghdad, that I think you're going to like. And while my publishing schedule is a bit slower than usual, my friend and colleague Charles Chuman will publish some guest posts here to help take up the slack.

I met Charles years ago in Beirut, Lebanon, after I had been there only a week on my first trip in 2005. A lot of what I know about the country I learned from him and from people he introduced me to. He recently left Lebanon and returned to the United States to work for Barack Obama, but he's still in constant contact with his friends, colleagues, and sources in the Middle East. He knows what's going on in the Levant better than almost anyone. Trust him. I do. And please be nice in the comments.

I'll have more of my own work ready for you to read shortly, so stay tuned for coverage of both Beirut and Baghdad.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 4:37 AM | Comments (6)

December 8, 2008

Iraq at the End of the Surge

Last week I wrote that many Americans and Iraqis I spoke to in Baghdad recently expect a surge of violence after American troops withdraw from Iraqi cities as stipulated by the recently signed Status of Forces Agreement. Many readers seemed surprised by that pessimistic forecast and wondered, after two years of good news, if it could even be true. “Your report and that of Michael Yon,” Richard Everett wrote in the comments section, “published on the same day on the same subject are at so great variance that one has to ask; 'are you two in the same country?' He is positive, you are not. Why the extreme difference?”

Michael Yon did, indeed, publish an upbeat report on the same day called The Art of the End of the War. I encourage everyone to read it. Yon's work is always accurate and informative, and this time is no exception. Richard Everett is right to point out that my piece was gloomy while Yon's piece was not, but Iraq is complex. Iraq produces good news and bad at the same time.

“Al Qaeda was handed a vicious defeat in Iraq,” Yon wrote, “and it can be said with great certainty that most Iraqis hate al Qaeda even more than Americans do. Al Qaeda can continue to murder Iraqis for now, but al Qaeda will be hard pressed to ever plant their flag in another Iraqi city. The Iraqi army and police have become far too strong and organized, and the Iraqis will eventually strangle al Qaeda to death.”

I have no doubt this is true. In some Iraqi cities – Fallujah, Ramadi, Bacouba, and some parts of Baghdad – every day was September 11. Al Qaeda fanatics car-bombed and mass murdered their way into power. Some Iraqis, unlike Americans, have actually had to live under the rule of Al Qaeda. They hate Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al Zarqawi like no one else. After Anbar Awakening leader Sheikh Sattar Abu Risha was assasinated by a car bomb in front of his house in Ramadi, his brother Ahmed Abu Risha said “All the tribes agreed to fight al Qaeda until the last child in Anbar.” How many Americans talk about Al Qaeda like that?

Al Qaeda has been by far the most vicious and sadistic terrorist group in Iraq, but there are many other groups still skulking about in reduced numbers – the Mahdi Army “Special Groups,” Hezbollah, Asa'ib Ahl al-Haqq, and some others have been seriously bloodied and weakened, but they still exist. It's a near certainty that there will be spike in terrorist and insurgent activity when Americans clear the streets because Iraq's most effective counterinsurgents will have cleared out of the way. That doesn't mean the terrorists and insurgents will win. It means there will be a partial security vacuum, and they will try.

I doubt any of the weakened terrorist and insurgent groups will be able to defeat the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police. A retired Iraqi Army general told me not to worry because when they are in charge they will rule the country with much greater force and less concern for human rights than Americans. I wouldn't decribe that as encouraging, exactly, considering what Iraq looked like when it was ruled that way in the past. But at least we no longer have to worry overly much about Al Qaeda seizing power as Hamas did in Gaza after the Israel Defense Forces left. Al Qaeda doesn't have even a fraction of Hamas' popularity, and the Iraqi Army, unlike the Palestinian security forces, have been trained for years by American soldiers.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 3:57 PM | Comments (4)

Iraq is still Iraq, but end of al-Qaeda in Iraq puts end truly in sight

I'm still working on my first long dispatch from Iraq, but here's another short piece in the New York Daily News to hold you over until then. It's hard to write while roughing it in the Middle East, but I'm trying.

I spent the last two weeks of last month as an embedded reporter with the United States Army in Baghdad and was disappointed to see that, despite the overwhelming success of the surge, Iraq is as rundown and dysfunctional as ever. Yes, the country is less violent now than at any time since the U.S. invaded in 2003, but Iraq is still Iraq.

Many Americans and Iraqis I spoke to feel a sense of dread and foreboding about what will happen when American forces soon begin to withdraw. Without the presence of American soldiers as peacekeepers, Gen. David Petraeus' brilliant counterinsurgency strategy will be moot. Many believe the remaining terrorists and insurgents will respond with a countersurge of their own, or that Iraqis might slug it out with one another in the power vacuum.

Despite that gloomy prognosis, however, the most critical American foreign policy objective has been achieved: al-Qaeda in Iraq has been defeated.

The war in Iraq is best thought of as more than one war. The first, in 2003, was a war against dictator Saddam Hussein's Baath Party regime. Few, at this point, dispute that it was a war of choice. Saddam, as it turned out, posed little or no threat to the United States. Removing him from power was a strategic decision, and that war ended when his regime was demolished.

Staying on to stand up and defend a new government likewise was optional - until Abu Musab al-Zarqawi launched al-Qaeda in Iraq. His army of especially vicious killers joined the rising insurgency, ignited a civil war and seized power in portions of Anbar and Diyala provinces and in parts of the capital.

American involvement in Iraq all but ceased to be optional after that happened. No franchise of al-Qaeda could be allowed to control territory anywhere in the world after what their ideological comrades did on Sept. 11, 2001. Al-Qaeda in Iraq was not the only terrorist group in the country, but it was by the far the most sadistic and violent. It was also, perhaps, the only one that threatened innocents outside Iraq. An al-Qaeda-friendly state in the distant wilds of Afghanistan was dangerous enough for the United States and for much of the world. Al -Qaeda-controlled territory in the heart of the Middle East could not be tolerated, especially since Americans were already there on the ground and could do something about it.

If American troops had begun to withdraw early last year instead of ramping up with the surge, they would have left entrenched al-Qaeda statelets in place and likely would have had to return to Iraq to fight yet again.

Read the rest in the New York Daily News.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 5:57 AM | Comments (2)

December 1, 2008

What's Next in Iraq

I'm working on a long dispatch from the Sadr City area. Here is a short piece in COMMENTARY to hold you over in the meantime. Thank you for being patient. Everything, including writing and publishing, is a gigantic hassle in Iraq.

BAGHDAD – For the past two weeks I’ve been embedded with the United States Army in Baghdad, and I find myself unable to figure out what to make of this place. Baghdad, despite the remarkable success of the surge, is as mind-bogglingly run-down and dysfunctional as ever, even compared with other Arabic countries. Iraq is a dark place. At times it feels like a doomed country that has only been temporarily spared the reckoning that is coming. Other times it is possible to look past the grimness and see progress beyond the mere slackening off of violence and war. Is Iraq truly on the mend, or has a total breakdown been merely postponed? Opinions here among Americans and Iraqis are mixed, but nearly everyone seems to agree about one thing at least: terrorists and insurgents will respond with a surge of their own in the wake of the upcoming withdrawal of American forces.

Sergeant Nick Franklin took me to meet an Iraqi woman named Malath who works with the local Sons of Iraq security organization in the Adhamiyah district of Baghdad. When I asked her if she thought her area was ready to stand on its own without American help, she bluntly answered “Of course not.” She doesn’t think Iraq needs another year or two or even three. She thinks it will need decades. “We won’t be ready until young people replace the older generation in the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police. They need to replace the old Baath Party members who are still inside.”

Her view is the darkest. But Iraqis who think the job should only require a few more years are still pessimistic about what they think is likely to happen when the negotiated Status of Forces Agreement goes into effect and American troops withdraw from Iraqi cities in 2009. “We’ve seen hell,” an Iraqi intelligence source said when I met him in his house. “And that hell, if the American forces evacuate, will repeat. If Obama forces an evacuation from Iraq soon, everything will turn against him in this land.”

Read the rest in COMMENTARY.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:16 PM | Comments (10)