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 December 15, 2008 2:21 AM


Posted by: j. marzan Author Profile Page at December 15, 2008 5:50 AM

Thank you for doing this. You and Michael Yon are our window on what is happening there. I think what we are doing is worthwhile but it is tough on the people who have to do it. I wish we had something like Britain's colonial service of people talented and interested in this sort of work. If Iraq can make it, maybe the Islamic Reformation can start there.

Posted by: Mike K Author Profile Page at December 15, 2008 9:16 AM

Thanks, Michael. Too up-close for my nervous system.

The restraint, professionalism and, anchoring both, the courage of our warriors makes me proud to know how well they represent us around the world.

Posted by: Paul S. Author Profile Page at December 15, 2008 10:58 AM

I had forgotten how much I enjoyed reading these posts, since it seems like its been a long time since the last one. It definitely felt like you were practicing a different writing style in the beginning of the post.

Posted by: James Author Profile Page at December 15, 2008 11:57 AM

What have we done with the magnificent Infantry soldiers who went out into the darkness here,with legitimate fear, but no hesitation. Our soldiers perfom magnificiently and our policies leave them crawling through back alleys, raiding houses, searching and confirming, exposed going out from the FOB, exposed executing the mission, and exposed going back to the FOB. And more importantly exposed by our bankrupt policies that have failed to undertand the nature of the people, their culture, appreciate the complexities of situation, and declared victory as late as yesterday, when the people still live in fear and darkness,literally. There is no victory in arrests, shattering homes, matching faces to pictures by flashlight. Northern Ireland killed British soliders for years with the patrol, search and arrest them mentality. Our soldiers deserve better that this. Much better. Try this: A clealry defined,achievable strategic policy and the political will to employ whatever force is necessary wherever necessary, to accomplish that policy. And a clear recognition of the nature of the enemy and that he seeks not the limited goal of freedom of Northern Ireland from Great Britian, but our destruction as a people. We have wasted precious American lives and Iraqi lives with bankrupt policies. Someone save us from this as the OPTEMPO fight rapidly escalates again in Afghanistan, where it never really slowed down. This whole thing is a house of cards built on a table covered in the blood of soldiers who never should have died.

Posted by: DesertOne Author Profile Page at December 15, 2008 12:13 PM

Thanks for a straightforward, honest report on a small unit operation. In almost all cases, those who see American soldiers at work in the field, even in the most dangerous and dirty circumstances, are impressed with their professionalism. It's too bad that the reports written by journalists after they've been in the field are very often colored by bias and political agendas.

I suppose there's a place for rants against U.S. policy and all manner of other ills, real or imagined. This isn't that place.

Thanks, Michael, for taking the risks necessary to learn the truth and then reporting it honestly.

Posted by: Tom Carter Author Profile Page at December 15, 2008 12:30 PM

Great writing...

Posted by: Kevin China Author Profile Page at December 15, 2008 3:08 PM

Michael's description of Baghdad today brought back two memories. I met an Iraqi in the early nineties who told me his friend was a professor in Baghdad sharing writing instruments with his students, while every day they watched a statue of Saddam being constructed. I've always remembered a concept Michael Yon used in posts: maintaining the moral high ground; trust especially, and then cooperation not imposed by intimidation evaporate without it.

Posted by: Paul S. Author Profile Page at December 15, 2008 4:21 PM

With no offense to our troops, I do not consider creating an Islamic country a victory. Islam itself is the problem, but Bush does not understand this at all.

Christians are oppressed with govt backing.

Iraqi Christians Told to Convert, pay Jizyah or die!!

The Islamic Republic of Iraq Part 1

The Iraqis are sitting on about $80 billion dollars and will not even offer to pay their own way. Nation building with Muslims is not worth the cost and does not work.

Posted by: Christopher Author Profile Page at December 15, 2008 4:40 PM

Mike K,
Islam cannot reform as Muslims believe that the Koran is in God's words and mere man cannot change them. "Moderate" Islam is not coming to the rescue. It is time to end all Muslim immigration including student visas.

Posted by: Christopher Author Profile Page at December 15, 2008 4:43 PM

"Kill them all and let God sort them out" is a policy. Just not the one being followed. Deal.

What you say is unfortunately mostly true. My belief is that the gamble is being made that Iraq can evolve into a functionally secular state rather than sinking into the Ummah. Given the stakes, a chance and effort worth taking.

Posted by: Brian H Author Profile Page at December 15, 2008 5:21 PM


Great post.

Thank you

PS. Christianity once was no less extreme if not more than most extreme Islam. If not Christian teachings then Christians themselves have changed. And so will Muslims.

Posted by: leo Author Profile Page at December 15, 2008 8:17 PM

Firslty, great post MT. My ex was a marine and I heard pretty much similar accounts from him, though he was there when the fighting was more intense and so naturally the level of what i heard was more intense. BUt brave of you do be there and let people know what is going on.

Secondly, this is for Christopher - I honeslty hope you dont believe half of what you are writing. As someone else said Christianity was no worse, and neither is judaism right now or even Hinduism for that matter. And in believing that ISlam is the problem itself, you really are no better or no different from those so called awful muslims you refer to.

And if you beleive that nation building is not worth the effort, then why did Bush begin this excercise in the first place?

Posted by: ambika Author Profile Page at December 16, 2008 2:13 AM


Iraq has many problems, including radical Islamism, but the fact that it's a Muslim country per se is not what prevents it from becoming a functioning democracy. Almost no one in the US military in Iraq agrees with what you are saying. Certainly no one in the leadership does. And the United States government, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, dismisses your argument out of hand. I'm sorry, but you just aren't going to be taken seriously by serious people.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at December 16, 2008 7:14 AM

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 12/16/2008 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

Posted by: David M Author Profile Page at December 16, 2008 7:40 AM

Excellent report - we really get a sense of what our troops (and visiting reporters) are experiencing over there. The jostled, low-light photographs also capture the moment.

Posted by: maryatexitzero Author Profile Page at December 16, 2008 8:00 AM

Islam cannot reform as Muslims believe that the Koran is in God's words and mere man cannot change them. "Moderate" Islam is not coming to the rescue.

Christopher - you probably didn't read the earlier reports from Iraq on this site. Some of our most reliable allies in the area are conservative Muslims, the Kurds in Northern Iraq.

Trying to 'reform' a culture by focusing on the religion is like trying to fight WWII Japanese aggression by focusing on Shintoism. The political system is what needs to be 'reformed' in Iraq.

Posted by: maryatexitzero Author Profile Page at December 16, 2008 8:12 AM

Great post Mike. Good first person narrative. Nice details from the ground (rat, dog, etc). Thanks again for going out into the muck for us. Maybe we can go someplace more upbeat this Spring, like North Korea or maybe Siberia? Hey, speaking of, when you get home there should be a nice sheet of ice on the ground! Cheers, Sean

Posted by: sean Author Profile Page at December 16, 2008 10:27 AM

Nicely done.

And OT, but MT's The (Really) Moderate Muslims of Kosovo has hit City Journal as the featured story for the autumn issue.

Posted by: Michael_B Author Profile Page at December 16, 2008 12:08 PM

Outstanding report, and one that I hope will illicit strong and intelligent debate here. I know I have alot to say.

I appreciate what you said in trying to vindicate the "real" Captain Looney as opposed to what he showed on that raid, but out on the streets is where the truth comes out. I have never been more disgusted by any story of any raid. I have never heard of anything more unprofessional.

I have been on hundreds of raids in Iraq. I'll just throw that right out there. Bad intelligence is the NORM. Raiding the wrong house is the NORM. That is why anyone worth their salt knows that professional behavior is always of the utmost importance, because chances are you will have just broken into a really nice person's house.

Quoting the Quran to Iraqis is so unbelievably wrong and hurtful to the mission that I could stop my comments with that and feel that I've gotten my point across.

Walking around like an action movie star saying action movie cliche shit like "I've been in Iraq too long for your crying to effect me" and "only the thief fears the judge"... Are you serious?

And I am sorry, but the "peacekeeping and police-work is not what the military is trained to do" argument is bullshit. That is exactly what the military has been doing and training to do for years now. That held alot of weight at the beginning of this War on Terrorism, but absolutely no longer. Not an excuse.

At the end of this day, these guys broke into two wrong houses, and chased down two wrong suspects. This is fine, this happens every day, and will continue to happen, because it is the nature of the beast. But how they acted while doing it is pretty ridiculous. Where this hurts us is the next morning when those Iraqis tell all their neighbors about what happened last night.

Now, let me be clear, my comments here are by no means a lambasting of these soldiers. I wasn't there. Its just that I have incredibly high expectations. I have them because I have met them myself and seen them met. All American citizens and policy-makers should have the same high expectations of our boots on the ground. Especially the officers. "Not what they trained to do" and "not enough money" MAY INDEED BE TRUE but are excuses. There is no excuse for behaving that unprofessionally.

On a lighter know you've been embedded with the military when the word "kinetic" appears three or more times in one report...

Posted by: PDK Author Profile Page at December 16, 2008 5:32 PM

As a non-vet civilian on the other side of the world, I lack any personal experience, but PDK's comments still puzzle me. If intel tells me a high profile target is in there, anyone there is a suspect or a potential source of relevant information, in my mind; search and question now, gather what you determine may be potentially useful evidence the most effective way you think you can get it and sort out misunderstandings later. I think I appreciate that PDK is referring more to attitude and language, but my reading of Michael's description came away feeling restraint was exhibited, given the nature of the target and what may have happened at any moment if intel had it right.

Posted by: Paul S. Author Profile Page at December 16, 2008 6:33 PM

Superb article Michael, the gripping writing style reminded me a lot of David Bellavia's book House to House, which is a good thing!

It seems to me the Americans have achieved as much peace in Baghdad as they are likely to get (don't get me wrong, the current state IS a massive achievement given where they were a few years ago).

There will always be bad guys like the ones the unit you were with were trying to catch and they do need to be dealt with. However, I don't think an army is strategically the correct tool to fight them, not in civilian populated areas anyway.

In the grand scheme of things these guys are reasonably low level insurgents and should really be dealt with by the Iraqi authorities and their intelligence and criminal justice systems (providing of course these agencies are capable of doing so).

Posted by: Andrew Author Profile Page at December 18, 2008 8:44 PM

I know plenty of US soldiers who think the war was a big mistake. If you really think that our government understands Islam, you are even more naive than I thought. You actually bring up the Democrats to support your argument. Thanks for the laughs. As for your last comment, plenty of people take me seriously, including some experts on the subject, including Ali Sina and I doubt very much you know more about Islam than him.
As for you I see you getting bashed across the net for the naive person that you are.

Posted by: Exposing Islam Author Profile Page at December 19, 2008 8:41 AM

What I posted were facts and facing the truth about Islam does not make me like them. The facts are that the Islamic world is getting stricter and stricter. They are also using democracy to vote terrorist groups into office.

Bush is clueless when it comes to Islam. It is not a religion of peace. It is a religion of domination. Just LOOK around the world. Bush called Saudi Arabia the ideal Islamic state. That says it all.

Posted by: Exposing Islam Author Profile Page at December 19, 2008 8:46 AM

As for your last comment, plenty of people take me seriously, including some experts on the subject, including Ali Sina and I doubt very much you know more about Islam than him.

If you define "Islam" as the cause of world terrorism (or, if the cause of all evil, or whatever) then what do you and all the rest of the hate-Islam brigade plan to do about the problem: join groups like Vlaams Belang and fight for the right to export Muslims, men, women and children, from Europe in cattle cars? Start a series of Gujarat style riots? Have endless, tedious discussions about nasty passages in the Koran? Say mean things about Muslims on the internet?

How many Muslim countries have you visited? Have you ever accompanied US soldiers on a mission like the one described above? Really, what is the plan, and what genuine firsthand research do you base this on?

Posted by: maryatexitzero Author Profile Page at December 19, 2008 11:04 AM
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