March 31, 2009

Hezbollah Doesn't Have Wings

A few weeks ago Britain decided to unfreeze “diplomatic relations” with Hezbollah, and the nonsensical phrases “political wing” and “military wing” have been used to describe the Iranian-backed militia ever since. Britain now says it’s okay to meet with members of Hezbollah’s “political wing” while maintaining the blacklisting of its “military wing,” but these “wings” don’t exist in any meaningful sense. If Hezbollah were actually two distinct entities with separate policies it might make sense for British diplomats to do business with one and not the other, but that’s not how Hezbollah is structured. Of course Hezbollah’s fighters and members of parliament aren’t the same individuals, but Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah is the leader of the entire organization.

The Obama Administration knows better. One U.S. official wants Britain to explain “the difference between the political, social and military wings of Hezbollah because we don’t see the difference between the integrated leadership that they see.” “The US does not distinguish between military, cultural and political wings of Hezbollah,” another U.S. official said, “and our decision to avoid making such a distinction is premised on accurate available information indicating that all Hezbollah wings and branches share finances, personnel and unified leadership and they all support violence.”

Christopher Hitchens published a compelling piece in next month’s Vanity Fair wherein he compares and contrasts two rallies he attended in Beirut in February — one commemorating the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, and the other commemorating the assassination of Hezbollah commander Imad Mugniyeh last year in Damascus.

“Try picturing a Shiite-Muslim mega-church,” he wrote of the Hezbollah rally, “in a huge downtown tent, with separate entrances for men and women and separate seating (with the women all covered in black). A huge poster of a nuclear mushroom cloud surmounts the scene, with the inscription OH ZIONISTS, IF YOU WANT THIS TYPE OF WAR THEN SO BE IT! During the warm-up, an onstage Muslim Milli Vanilli orchestra and choir lip-synchs badly to a repetitive, robotic music video that shows lurid scenes of martyrdom and warfare. There is keening and wailing, while the aisles are patrolled by gray-uniformed male stewards and black-chador’d crones. Key words keep repeating themselves with thumping effect: shahid (martyr), jihad (holy war), yehud (Jew). In the special section for guests there sits a group of uniformed and be-medaled officials representing the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

Was the Mugniyeh rally staged and attended by Hezbollah’s “political wing” or its “military wing?” It doesn’t make any difference. The question doesn’t even make sense because Hezbollah doesn’t have wings.

Matthew Levitt at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy points out the absurdity of this kind of hair-splitting. “The European Union,” he wrote, “has not yet designated any part of Hezbollah — military, political or otherwise — although it did label Imad Mughniyeh, the late Hezbollah chief of external operations, and several other Hezbollah members involved in specific acts of terrorism.”

The European Union thinks the “military wing” of Hezbollah isn’t a terrorist organization, even while declaring its deceased commander Imad Mugniyeh a terrorist. How can a terrorist commander’s lieutenants and other subordinates not themselves be terrorists?

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:04 AM | Comments (13)

March 30, 2009

An Ominously Pre-War Feeling

“The whole place has an ominously pre-war feeling to it,” Christopher Hitchens says of Lebanon in his new piece in Vanity Fair.

He narrates, of course, the now-famous story where he, Jonathan Foreman, and I were assaulted by goons from the Syrian Social Nationalist Party on Hamra Street in West Beirut. (You can read my version here if you haven’t already.)

Christopher and I spent most of a week together in Beirut, but we split up once when he attended a Hezbollah rally while I met with Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea in his mountain redoubt. I hadn’t met Geagea before, but I’d been to Hezbollah events many times. I knew already from experience that hanging out with Hezbollah for an hour gives Lebanon a distinct “pre-war” feeling.

This is what Christopher saw:

christopher-hitchens-0905-03.jpg

“Try picturing a Shiite-Muslim mega-church,” he wrote, “in a huge downtown tent, with separate entrances for men and women and separate seating (with the women all covered in black). A huge poster of a nuclear mushroom cloud surmounts the scene, with the inscription OH ZIONISTS, IF YOU WANT THIS TYPE OF WAR THEN SO BE IT! During the warm-up, an onstage Muslim Milli Vanilli orchestra and choir lip-synchs badly to a repetitive, robotic music video that shows lurid scenes of martyrdom and warfare. There is keening and wailing, while the aisles are patrolled by gray-uniformed male stewards and black-chador’d crones. Key words keep repeating themselves with thumping effect: shahid (martyr), jihad (holy war), yehud (Jew). In the special section for guests there sits a group of uniformed and be-medaled officials representing the Islamic Republic of Iran. I remember what Walid Jumblatt, the leader of the Progressive Socialist Party and also the leader of the Druze community—some of my best friends are Druze—said to me a day or so previously: ‘Hezbollah is not just a party. It is a state within our state.’ It is also the projection of another state.”

Read it all.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:19 AM | Comments (2)

March 27, 2009

Baghdad in Fragments

Dusk Adhamiyah.jpg

Many third world cities look better at night than during the day. Darkness hides shabbiness. You have to imagine what the city actually looks like. If you live in a first world city yourself, you might fill in the blanks with what you’re familiar with. It's only during the day that you can see just how run-down the place really is.

Baghdad isn't like that. Baghdad looks worse at night because you can barely see anything. When your mind fills in the blanks, real and imagined roadside bombs, militiamen, booby traps, and snipers lurk in the shadows.

The city can be spooky at night. Millions of people live in Baghdad, but it’s dark after hours. Few lights illuminate the mostly empty sidewalks and streets. The city’s electrical grid is still offline half the time and must be replaced. Homes without generator power are dark more often than not, and almost everyone who owns a generator turns it off when they go to sleep. Baghdad after sundown is as poorly lit as a remote mountain village.

But it’s not a remote mountain village. The sound of gunshots is still a part of the general ambience. You'd be surprised by how quickly you get used to hearing them. They're like background noise as long as they aren't too close and you aren't the one being shot at.

While walking the sidewalk of the Adhamiyah district with United States Army Second Lieutenant David Dimenna’s patrol unit, I heard three pistol shots in rapid succession from just a few blocks in front of us, followed by a fourth.

“Iraqi Army?” Lieutenant Dimenna said.

An Iraqi civilian passing by looked concerned. “There’s a checkpoint down there,” he said.

Another civilian walked past us as though nothing had happened. He was used to the sound of gunfire in Baghdad.

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Second Lieutenant David Dimenna

These days when American soldiers hear gunshots, they assume the shots were fired by Iraqi Army or Iraqi Police. Iraqi security forces are famous for bad trigger discipline. They enjoy firing shots into the air, and they regularly shoot themselves and each other on accident. Lieutenant Dimenna still took the shots seriously, though. We were in Baghdad, after all, which, despite the dramatic reduction in violence, is still a dangerous city.

We climbed into Humvees. Lieutenant Dimenna called FOB (Forward Operating Base) Apache and reported the gun shots. We drove without headlights on Baghdad’s dark streets. His men had night vision. I had to rely on my eyes.

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The area where the gunshots came from was nearly as dark as a forest at night. An Iraqi Police truck parked just up ahead flashed its red and blue lights.

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Lieutenant Dimenna stepped out of the Humvee and spoke to one of the officers.

“We didn't fire the shots,” one of the Iraqis said. “Maybe it was the Iraqi Army.” He gestured up the street by tipping his head. “They have a checkpoint right there.”

“Okay,” Lieutenant Dimenna said. “Good to see you, but we have to go check that out.”

I couldn't see the Iraqi Army checkpoint in the dark and wouldn't even have known it was there if the officer hadn't told us it was there.

“I don't know who fired the shots,” one of the Iraqi Army soldiers said when we got there. He pointed toward a dark and creepy abandoned building just up the street. All I could see was its silhouette against a backdrop of stars. “I think they came from in there.”

Somebody fired gun shots within two block of an Iraqi Army checkpoint, and they didn't bother to find out what happened? If I were alone and distressed in Iraq, I would hate to have to count on those guys to save me.

A Blackhawk helicopter flew overhead and fired countermeasure flares out the sides designed to divert heat-seeking surface-to-air missiles. They sounded like fireworks.

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Surface-to-air missile countermeasures fired from a Blackhawk, Adhamiyah, Baghdad

Though we could have walked to the abandoned building in less than two minutes, we drove in the Humvees.

My eyes were beginning to adjust to the darkness, but I could still barely see. The only reason I know what the street looked like is because I took pictures. My camera sees better than I can in the dark if I hold it still long enough to take a photo with the shutter held open.

Darkened Building at Night Where Shots Fired Adhamiyah.jpg

I wondered if we were going inside the building. I wouldn’t be able to see anything in there, and I didn’t relish the thought of joining Lieutenant Dimenna and his men while they chased an armed man through its black hallways.

We parked in front and got out. I heard two middle-aged men speaking in Arabic, though I couldn’t see them. They were Iraqi Army.

“A drunk guy walked past here,” one of them said. “He was talking shit, and he assaulted one of my officers.” He said they wrestled the man to the ground and arrested him after firing off a couple of shots.

“I'm glad to hear he was detained,” Lieutenant Dimenna said. “But let's see if you can arrest people without firing your weapons.”

*

Iraq’s capital looks dark at night from the air. It’s no giant brightly-lit circuit board, as most cities are. It looks, instead, like a dense night sky reflecting on a brilliant sea. You can't see the streets because there are so few lights. Most houses go dark after nightfall. The only lights you can see are from houses with generators where the family hasn’t yet gone to bed. The city is perhaps only one percent as lit at night as cities anywhere else.

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Lieutenant Dimenna and his men chose an intersection at random and set up a temporary checkpoint. Every passing car was pulled over and searched. Military age men were politely asked to step out of their vehicles and frisked. Civilians are no longer allowed to carry weapons in Baghdad. They won’t be arrested if they’re caught, but the weapons will be taken away.

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Embedding with the United States military in Baghdad at the end of the surge is no longer like risking your neck in a war zone. It’s more like going on ride-alongs with the police. But it’s not like riding along with the New York police, or even with the Mexico City police. Baghdad is still Baghdad. While no longer a city at war, it’s not exactly peaceful and normal yet either.

The young men pulled from their cars didn’t seem to mind being patted down by foreign soldiers, but I imagined they did.

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Lieutenant David Dimenna pats down a young Iraqi man, Adhamiyah, Baghdad

“Outwardly they seem to be okay with it,” Lieutenant Dimenna said, “and they know it's to keep the area more secure.”

The Adhamiyah district is one of the more liberal in the city, but it’s still conservative even compared with other Arabic capitals. More than 90 percent of the people I saw outside were men, and more than 90 percent of the women I saw wore a headscarf over their hair or an enveloping all-black abaya.
Lieutenant Dimenna said there were a few bars in the area, but I didn’t see any. And they’re nothing like the stylish bars of Beirut and Tel Aviv. “They’re called casinos,” he said. “Only men go there, and most of them are hard surly drinkers. They go to play cards and drink and sit on the couches in back.”

After searching cars for twenty minutes or so, we got back in the Humvees and drove. My thoughts, as usual when driving around in Iraq, turned to roadside bombs. It’s not scary. The odds of actually being hit are quite low, especially now. I found it impossible, though, to keep my mind entirely off IEDs.

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Bridge over the Tigris River, Adhamiyah, Baghdad

“What are we doing now, exactly?” I said after a few minutes.

“Driving around aimlessly,” our driver said.

Lieutenant Dimenna sat in the front passenger seat.

“We’re just out being seen,” he said, “and making sure nothing bad is going on. It's good that things are quiet, but it's also hard. It's hard looking for IEDs when we know there aren’t many around.

Cows crossed the street in front of us. Cows, in the middle of a city of more than six million people. I couldn’t imagine seeing cows other, smaller regional cities like Beirut, Amman, or Kuwait. In Cairo, perhaps, at least on the outskirts. Baghdad is like a large village in many ways, though at least it’s less tribal than Iraqi villages.

Suddenly we were driving through a nice neighborhood with larger homes, a little more light, a great deal less trash, and lines of palm trees on each side of the street. It looked pleasant at night. Perhaps daylight would reveal ramshackleness I couldn’t see.

I didn’t see many bullet holes, and I saw even fewer houses and buildings that had been destroyed. Ruined houses were easier to spot in Fallujah, and I saw whole swaths of central Ramadi that had been flattened, but most of Baghdad looked like it was never at war. Whenever my thoughts turned dark in Baghdad – which happened sometimes – I tried to remember how much worse it used to be in Ramadi, and that Ramadi today is sort of okay. Iraq was careening toward oblivion in the beginning of 2007, yet it’s still in one piece.

Even if security were up to regional standards – and make no mistake, it is not – Baghdad still isn’t a place where most people would want to go on vacation. Its historic sites are a mess.

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Clock tower, Adhamiyah, Baghdad

Restaurants are almost entirely limited to basic chicken and kebab places – nowhere you would want to take a date. If fine dining establishments and cafes exist in Baghdad, I’ve never seen them. I don’t mean to be a snob about the place. That’s just how it is. Iraqis have more important things to worry about than bringing their “third places” up to international standards. Fancy restaurants would likely just get car-bombed now anyway. If I were a businessman living in Baghdad, I wouldn’t even think about opening one until a few years from now at the earliest.

We got out and walked past a shop destroyed by a car bomb a week before I arrived.

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Aftermath of a car bomb, Adhamiyah, Baghdad

A massive IED exploded at an Iraqi Army checkpoint just one block away at the same time.

“The IED didn’t kill anybody,” Lieutenant Dimenna said. “No one was manning the checkpoint when it went off. We do things a little differently from the Iraqis. We relieve men in place. If their shift ends, they go home whether the next guys are there to take over or not.” Those Iraqis who left their post early were saved by their laziness.

A kid ran up to us, as kids so often do in Baghdad.

“Can I have my guns back?” he said to Sergeant Pennartz. “I want to shoot chickens.”

Kid Who Wanted His Gun Back Adhamiyah.jpg

“We gave you back the shotgun,” Sergeant Pennartz said. “But you can’t have the other guns back. They’re against Iraqi law.”

The kid’s grandfather had given him an Ottoman-era shotgun worth more than 20,000 dollars. An Iraqi court made an exception to the law and let the kid keep it.

“Sometimes the system works,” Lieutenant Dimenna said.

The kid asked me to take his photo while he posed with Sergeant Pennartz.

“I took guns from your house,” Sergeant Pennartz said to the kid, “and now we’re friends?”

Lieutenant Dimenna gave the kid a tip card with a phone number on it and asked him to have his family to call if they see anything suspicious.

“Sometimes people do actually call,” he said to me.

*

The U.S. Army was conducting what it called “census work,” where soldiers knocked on doors at random and asked residents their names, their occupations, and a couple of security questions. Citizens selected for visits had no choice but to let the soldiers in, though they were always asked nicely as if they did have a choice.

A man wearing pajamas opened the first door we knocked on and squinted at us. His hair was messed up, and he looked annoyed. I wanted to apologize for bothering him.

“Yes,” he said, “please, come in, welcome.” He spoke perfect English. I could tell by the tone in his voice that he didn’t want us in his house. He didn’t seem hostile, just irritated that he was forced to get out of bed.

Lieutenant Dimenna rattled off his list of questions: How many people live in this house? What are all your names? Where does everyone work? How many cars do you have?

The man’s adult son came downstairs and said hi. He did seem happy to see us, but the old man was still peeved. I felt like an intruder. I didn’t take pictures. I didn’t even ask if I could take pictures.

“What’s your biggest concern in the area?” Lieutenant Dimenna said.

“Security, of course,” the man said. “But also services. Electricity, water, and sewer. The condition of the streets. Everything is terrible.”

“Do you have any specific security concerns?” Lieutenant Dimenna said.

“It’s a lot better in general,” the man said. “I don’t have any specific concerns. Our community is educated and everyone knows each other here. So it's quiet.”

The man was given a tip card with a phone number to call if he wanted to report any problems.

We left and began the exact same routine at a house across the street where all the lights were turned off.

A soldier rang the bell. Nobody answered. Another soldier loudly banged on the metal gate with his gloved fist. He made a hell of a racket. I cringed and felt horrible. Everyone on the block surely could hear us, and at least half of them asleep. I didn’t want to go in. I would have preferred to stay outside and not bother people who were trying to sleep. But what if something interesting happened?

A young man emerged from the house and opened the gate. He didn’t seem annoyed in the least, despite the fact that we had obviously woken him up.

A 60 year old woman in a hijab sat us down on couches in the front room.

I was surprised by how nice the house was on the inside. Homes in Iraq are almost always nicer on the inside than the outside suggests. It surprises me almost every time I walk into one, no matter how many times it happens. The public environment in Iraq is a vast slum, but interior private homes and lives are much richer. It’s hard sometimes to figure out where a real slum begins and ends in Iraq.

We didn’t take off our boots even though Iraqis don’t wear shoes in their homes. Soldiers can’t take their boots off in Iraq, nor can I take off mine if I’m traveling with them.

The young man was a student, and his father was a professor. They sat on a couch opposite me and Lieutenant Dimenna.

The lieutenant asked the usual questions.

“Our biggest concern,” the professor said, “is security and war.” That’s what almost everyone in Iraq says when asked this question. Government corruption, trash, too few hours of electricity – these are still secondary concerns. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an Iraqi say “the economy” when asked what ails his country, even though the economy is in horrendous condition. There are worse things in the world than not having much money.

I didn’t even go inside the third house during the census-taking part of the mission. The soldiers were intrusive enough by themselves, and the routine was dull. Few seemed happy to see us. It was night. I was tired and wanted to get some sleep myself.

So I stayed outside and talked to Sergeant Pennartz who stood watch on the porch.

“I sure hope this holds,” he said, “because we're going to pull out soon. I think it's a mistake. This country is going to need help for years. But at the same time I really really really don't want to come back here. That's how a lot of us feel. We don't want to pull out, but we also don't want to be here. I just hope the peace holds so we don't have to come back and fight for the ground we already won and abandoned. Again.”

Another soldier – I did not catch his name – asked me if I wanted an energy drink.

“Hell, yes,” I said. “Please.” What I really wanted was an espresso.

He took a Rip-It from a cooler in the back of the Humvee and passed it to me.

“We're having a competition,” he said, “to see who can drink the most Rip-Its on a single patrol. So far the record is seventeen. Starting Monday we're going to see if anybody can make the double dozen.”

“On the surface everyone will tell you Sunnis, Shias, we don't care, we're all Iraqis,” Sergeant Pennartz said. “But talk to them for a while and they'll tell you what they really think. Do you know what those Shias did? Et cetera. Some Sunnis say Shias were never in Iraq until the Iran-Iraq war. Some are totally ignorant and say they’ll never live next to Shias.”

We eventually climbed back in the Humvees and headed back toward the FOB. On the way I saw orange trees covered in dust behind crumbling walls. Wild dogs ran in the streets. Iraqi Police officers huddled around a fire to keep warm like bums around a burning trash can in The Bronx.

“Sometimes,” Lieutenant Dimenna said, “during the worst of the rainy season, the sewage here gets up to ankle level.”

*

“I think they've given up trying to fight us,” Staff Sergeant Christian told me back at the FOB. “They finally learned they can't beat us. All hell broke loose in Sadr City this spring, but they got their asses kicked and finally decided to just let us build our wall.”

He meant the Gold Wall. It cuts off the southwestern third of Sadr City from the rest. American soldiers patrol that southwestern third, while the Iraqi Army maintains exclusive control of the northeastern two-thirds. The famous Jamilla market area is in the American sector, and it's economically rebounding now. The wall was built last spring when Mahdi Army insurgents who infested the Jamilla Market area were pushed just far enough away from the center of Baghdad that they could no longer fire their limited-range rockets into the Green Zone.

Another wall with an entirely different purpose was built in Adhamiyah, and it has been there much longer. Most of Adhamiyah is Sunni, and it's adjacent to hostile Shia areas. When sectarian violence between the two communities peaked, the U.S. Army erected a three-mile long wall with gigantic concrete barriers to keep Shia militants out. Vehicle checkpoints were placed at every entry into the neighborhood. The wall was controversial at first, but sectarian violence dramatically plunged. Normal life – as much as life can be normal in a dysfunctional city like Baghdad – returned to the area. Most early critics of the wall did a re-think.

“The Adhamiyah wall will stay in place until further notice,” Major Mike Humphreys said. “It channels traffic. The people in Adhamiyah know who is supposed to be there and who isn't. There have been suggestions to take the wall down, but people who live there like it now. Lots of people in Sadr City want the Gold Wall gone, but business owners want it to stay up.”

“People are pretty friendly now,” Sergeant Christian said. “They invite us dinner. Hell, they invite us to parties. Back in 2005?” He laughed. “There's no way.”

“The biggest threat in our area is Al Qaeda,” Sergeant Manuel Juarez said. “It's mostly Sunnis here. AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq] targets the Sons of Iraq because they're trying to destabilize Baghdad. Sometimes Sons of Iraq guys fight other Sons of Iraq guys. There is a lot of stupid tribal and personal crap going on.”

Sons of Iraq are local security men organized by the United States military for neighborhood watch and checkpoint work. They have since been absorbed by the government of Iraq. Most are being trained for regular army and police work.

“There aren't any car bombs in the market,” Sergeant Juarez continued. “The streets are too narrow and they can't get cars in. A Sons of Iraq guy was recently killed by a car bomb outside the Hanifa mosque, but it's generally been safer since we laid siege to Sadr City. Enemy contact is pretty minimal these days.”

Friendly Women Adhamiyah.jpg

“Everyone seems cool,” he said. “We haven't seen anyone too angry. It's hard to read people, but their friendliness does seem genuine. It's gotten better. As you can see, some of these buildings are shot up, but that wasn't our doing. They were already like that when we arrived. Back in 2004 and 2005, we really got jacked here.”

“We do find some IEDs,” Sergeant Nick Franklin said, “but they're mostly targeting the Sons of Iraq. We found one two days ago, though, outside an abandoned house that I think was targeting us. Sniper attacks are the biggest threat. We lost a guy in September to a sniper. We get car bombs once in a while, but they are targeting Iraqi civilians. It's AQI going for the big bang.”

I joined him and his unit on a daytime patrol.

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Sergeant Nick Franklin

“We need to pick up Sons of Iraq witness in a shootout that happened a few days ago,” he said. “I'm thinking I should arrest him just to make sure he actually shows up in court.” I think he was joking.

His men set up a temporary checkpoint at an intersection in a residential neighborhood. He chose that location because he knew his witness could often be found there.

Checkpoint Adhamiyah.jpg

Sure enough, he was there. And he agreed to show up in court the next day.

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Sergeant Nick Franklin (right) and Sons of Iraq witness (left)

“So you didn't need to arrest him,” I said. I had to speak loudly because the power was out in the neighborhood and half the houses on the street had their generators turned on. It sounded like two dozen people were mowing their lawns at the same time.

“He might have enough on this guy we've been after for a while,” he said. “But we don't want to pick him up if we can't get enough evidence. We've been detaining guys lately who've been back on the streets after six months. Apparently, killing Americans will only get you six months in jail in Iraq.”

“What do they have to do to get put away longer?” I said.

“They have to get caught with actual contraband,” he said. “IEDs and car bombs.”

“Imagine,” I said, “spending only six months in jail for blowing people up with anti-tank mines in the States.”

We loaded up in Humvees, and I rode with Sergeant Juarez.

Sergeant Manuel Juarez.jpg
Sergeant Manuel Juarez

“Right here is the place to go for grub,” he said as we passed a chicken stand.

“You guys eat out here?” I said.

“Hell, yeah,” he said. “There’s a guy up the street who will sell you a hamburger for a dollar.”

“Are the burgers any good?” I imagined they would not be.

“Well,” he said. “They're Iraqi. But I'll pay a dollar for one.”

Many of the streets in the neighborhood were unpaved. Raw sewage ran in rivulets down the center of many.

“Local contractors were hired to fix these problems,” he said, “but they took the money and ran.”

I snapped a few pictures out the window.

“We're going to go through the market,” he said. “We need to avoid this one particular Sons of Iraq guy. He whines about everything and will suck up hours of our time complaining.”

“What does he whine about?” I said.

“Pretty much everything,” he said. “We took their AKRs away from them recently and he whined about that for hours.”

Our convoy of Humvees rounded a corner and entered an older part of the neighborhood.

“That guy with the green shirt,” Sergeant Juarez said, “makes the best chicken. He uses wood instead of that rotisserie shit. It's not like the fucking mesquite we have in the States, but it's good.”

A young woman walked next to our Humvee as we drove.

“Oh shit, she even waved at us!” the driver said. “I figure we have to plant the seed early,” he joked, “so that in a few years we can date them.”

School Girl Leather Dress Adhamiyah.jpg

We parked and got out of the trucks.

“So, what’s the plan?” I said to Sergeant Franklin.

“Our purpose,” he said, “is population engagement and information engagement operations. We're handing out flyers about bad guys. Most end up in a fire or in the garbage, but sometimes people use 'em. Kids like to collect 'em like they're trading cards, and they always make sure they get one.”

Flyer Telling Kids to Use Trash Cans.jpg
A flyer telling kids to throw their garbage into a trash can

“The majority don't want to us to leave,” he said.

“How do you know?” I said, unsure if I should really believe it.

“They tell us one on one,” he said. “We tell them the country has to sink or swim at some point. They don't like the Iraqi Police or the Iraqi Army. The Iraqi Police used to kidnap and murder people. The Iraqi Police at JSS Adhamiyah won't go on patrols unless we make them. They’re pretty much useless, but at least they're less dangerous now that we're watching them. Some civilians here say they want us to stay forever because things are better with us around. They don't necessarily want us out in the streets every day, but they do want us somewhere in Iraq.”

Houses near the market were older than most in the area. They weren't surrounded by walled courtyards as most are in Baghdad. Front doors were just barely set back from the streets and the alleys. The neighborhood could be rather charming if it were fixed up; and it had more Eastern character than the modern parts of the city.

The covered market, though, was a horror.

Adhamiyah Vegetable Market.jpg

Clouds of flies swarmed the vegetables.

Vegetables in Adhamiyah Market.jpg

A thin river of foul water and sewage flowed in the walkway. I smelled the tang of rotting garbage and piss.

“Most attacks against us these days are retaliatory,” Sergeant Franklin said. He didn't seem fazed by the disgusting conditions. I guess he was used to it. “It's not all organized Al Qaeda around here anymore. We haven't had any complex attacks against us lately.”

When we emerged from the market, he gently ribbed our Iraqi interpreter Tom. Tom was not his real name. All Iraqi interpreters use pseudonyms to conceal their identity from potentially dangerous locals. “We went into a house recently and Tom neglected to tell me a woman was scrubbing the floor with her shirt off.”

“Was she wearing a bra?” I said.

“Nope,” he said. “She was topless. Tom here is a dirty young man.”

Tom grinned.

I was happy to get a look at Baghdad without having to worry overly much about my own safety. Many reporters who stayed away from Iraq during the surge in 2007 and 2008 but went back at the end said they could hardly recognize Baghdad any more, that it was a different city. Those reports raised my expectations too high. It didn't look all that different to me. There were more people out on the street. The security situation had been completely transformed. But the city was otherwise as run-down and corrupt and generally dysfunctional as it was before.

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We passed beneath a rat's nest of electrical wires. A transformer sizzled and popped over my head and blue smoke curled upward.

*

“Do you have anybody you want to arrest?” I said to Lieutenant Michael Kane before I joined his men on a patrol in the area.

“Actually, yes,” he said. “There's an old Baathist guy who sometimes gives us intel. A few days ago he called and said he wants to come in and talk, but he doesn't want anyone to see him coming back to the FOB. So he asked me to arrest him in front of everybody.”

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Lieutenant Michael Kane

“A fake arrest then,” I said.

“That's what he wants us to do,” he said. “It seems unnecessary to me, but it's his deal.”

We set off to find him at dusk. The sun had gone down and there wasn't much light left in the sky.

Our convoy of Humvees parked on a muddy side street. We got out and walked. A long row of private generator stations that supplied electricity to several houses were set up along this muddy street. Our Baathist guy said he would wait for us near one.

“Make sure you don't photograph his face,” Lieutenant Kane told me.

“Of course,” I said. “I wouldn't think of it.”

We waited next to one of the gigantic neighborhood generators. It was enclosed in a shed and made so much noise it was hard to hear what anyone said. Our former Baathist guy wasn't where he said he would be. Lieutenant Kane peeked inside the shed. No one was in there.

I felt slightly uneasy. Something in the air just gave me the creeps. What if we had been set up? Perhaps an anti-personnel bomb was inside the shed. If a bomb had been planted to take out me and the soldiers, no one else in the neighborhood would be hurt. We were isolated. I stepped away from the shed just in case, but no one else did.

“Maybe he's at the other end of the street,” Lieutenant Kane said. Most Iraqis gave terrible directions. One American officer I spoke to said the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police would be twice as effective if only they could learn to read maps. Sometimes they get lost at night in their own cities and neighborhoods.

We walked down the street. The former Baathist informant was waiting for us outside a different generator shed. Three of his friends were there with him.

Lieutenant Kane stiffly walked up to him as though he were furious and might punch him.

“Hey!” he said. “You're under arrest!”

The man threw his hands into the air.

“Flex-cuff him,” Lieutenant Kane said to one of his men.

Our informant was gently led up against the cinderblock wall and flex-cuffed.

Arrested Baathists Hands Adhamiyah.jpg

The man's three Iraqi friends looked terrified.

“I won't arrest you,” Lieutenant Kane said, “as long as you tell me everything you know about him.”

“I don't know anything!” one of them said.

“Do you know why I’m arresting him?” Lieutenant Kane said. “He's a JAM guy.” JAM is short for Jaysh al Mahdi, Moqtada al Sadr's radical Mahdi Army militia. “What the fuck is he doing around here?”

“I don't know!” said another of the Iraqis.

“Where does he live?” Lieutenant Kane said.

All three Iraqis pointed at the same house at the exact same instant. I would have laughed out loud if they had pointed at different houses, but they gave up their buddy without even blinking.

“If you can give me some info,” he said, “I can pay you good money.”

“We are Sons of Iraq,” one of them said. “We'll tell you anything you want. But we have a problem. Checkpoint Ten is out of ammo.”

“You guys are taking the ammo we’re giving you and selling it,” Lieutenant Kane said. “Did you get into a fight I don't know about?”

“We fired at the national guard,” the man said.

“What the fuck?” Lieutenant Kane said.

Kane and SOI Guys.jpg
Lieutenant Michael Kane questions men in the Sons of Iraq program

“They wouldn't stop at the checkpoint,” the man said. “We didn't know who they were.”

“You guys have to be careful!” Lieutenant Kane said. “They're Iraqi Army. You need to be keeping your ammo. And don't shoot at the Iraqi Army!”

“We also need ammo at Checkpoint Eleven.”

“Where's that ammo going?”

“We only have one magazine per AK-47.”

“That's all you need.”

The Baathist informant was blindfolded and stuffed into the back of a Humvee, and we drove away. When we got back to the FOB I saw that his blindfold had been removed.

“Are you okay?” Lieutenant Kane gently asked him as we walked toward the compound from the parking lot.

The man smiled and nodded, but he looked ill at ease.

*

Lieutenant Kane was in charge of security in Eastern Adhamiyah. “Our area is a really shitty poor area,” he told me.

Adhamiyah Residential Street.jpg
Adhamiyah, Baghdad

Eastern Adhamiyah is also sometimes a creepy area.

“It was a real JAM Special Groups hotbed area,” he said. “Now it's mostly just low level shitheads. AQI is still around, too.”

Both Sunnis and Shias live in Eastern Adhamiyah.

They used to call one area “JAM Alley.” Shortly before I arrived one of their Humvees was hit with an EFP, an Explosively Formed Penetrator, the most terrifying IED ever designed. EFPs fire liquid copper plates faster than bullets at passing vehicles. The molten metal cuts through Humvees and tanks as though they were made of Jell-O. Few things in Iraq gave me the creeps as much as driving on a road with a known EFP threat.

“That last EFP slug was a close call,” Lieutenant Kane said. “It skimmed the turret on the Humvee and ripped through some trees. Fortunately, nobody was killed.”

Terrorist and insurgents aren't the only creepy people around. He once saw a deaf kid tied to a tree in someone's back yard.

Thousands of Iraqis mounted a huge demonstration against the Status of Forces Agreement, or SOFA, between the United States and the government of Iraq in Eastern Adhamiyah. SOFA allows American soldiers to remain in Iraq for a few more years, although combat soldiers will have to evacuate Iraqi cities to the perimeter in June. Naturally the anti-SOFA protest erupted in the eastern part of the neighborhood. It has long been more hostile than the other parts of the area. Lieutenant Kane said some kids still throw rocks at Americans there, although that never happened while I was around.

Four Kids Adhamiyah.jpg

Our foot patrol began at an Iraqi Police station. Several local officers were scheduled to come with us. Most patrols these days are conducted by Americans and Iraqis at the same time.

I didn't hear much praise for these officers. Local civilians are afraid the police and the army will trash their houses and beat them up if they’re arrested. American soldiers aren't happy about that, and they have additional complaints I didn't hear from Iraqis.

LT Kane Two IPs and a Civilian.jpg
Lieutenant Kane and two Iraqi Police officers speak to a civilian in Adhamiyah, Baghdad

“They're having tribal problems at checkpoints,” Lieutenant Kane said. “One tribal leader was about to tell everyone to go get their AK-47s because one of his men got searched by a Sons of Iraq guy from a different tribe. Lots of Sons of Iraq guys won't search their friends. I tell them I don't care if it's their father at the checkpoint – search him.”

Iraqi Police officers still routinely fire negligent discharges in the stations.

I forgot my AK was loaded, one of them said to me recently after he damn near shot his foot off,” Lieutenant Kane said. “I asked him why he was carrying it by the trigger. That's how I always carry it! he said.”

Lieutenant Kane rolled his eyes.

“They're like Keystone cops,” said another soldier.

“Some go out of the station with their helmets on the back of their heads and their shoes untied,” Lieutenant Kane said. “They're like kids.”

“Just wait until they're running this place by themselves,” I said.

“I don't even want to get into that,” he said. “Some of these guys completely freaked out last week when Iraqi Army soldiers fired a warning shot near them. Their eyes got huge, and they were like, whoah.”

“This is Iraq,” I said. “They aren't used to that yet? I'm used to it and I don’t even live here.”

Blackhawk Over Baghdad x.jpg

“Then there are other people,” he said, “who shrug when bombs go off in their neighborhood as long as their windows don't get blown out. They say oh, it's just a bomb, it's not a big deal.”

Iraqi Police officers have a narrow job description. They don’t handle mundane domestic disturbances like Western police officers do. Some Iraqis look, then, to Americans.

“One woman's husband was being a total asshole,” Lieutenant Kane said. “She came to us and said he makes bombs. I said does he really? She looked down and said no. I asked her why on earth she would say something like that if it isn’t true. I guess he was beating her up, but we're not equipped to handle domestic problems over here.”

Trash Pile Adhamiyah.jpg

Trash is still all over the damn place in Baghdad. There isn't as much of it as there used to be. The much-touted progress is real. But progress in a place like Iraq is relative.

“Iraqis are happy when they see Americans picking up trash,” Lieutenant Kane said.

“Why do they throw their trash everywhere, then?”

“It's mostly out of habit,” he said. “You've seen these new blue dumpsters around?”

I had.

“One guy complained about all the trash in the neighborhood, but I later saw him throw his own bag of trash next to the dumpster. And the dumpster was empty. He could have played frigging racquetball in there.”

Dumpster with Trash Next to It.jpg

He wanted to do more “census” work. We knocked on doors and sat in various living rooms for ten minutes.

I no longer felt so intrusive, although we were no less intrusive than when I was sensitive about it. I had gotten used to it, and the soldiers were even more used to it.

“Some people won't give out information unless we check every house on the block,” Lieutenant Kane said. “And they often won't talk to us unless we're inside their houses.”

His men confiscated AK-47s from two houses in a row. “Sorry about this,” he said to the owners. “You aren't allowed to have these by order of Prime Minister Maliki.” I didn't see anyone get into trouble for having weapons. They just weren't allowed to keep them.

One of the Iraqis who was forced to hand over his AK had a wild mane of hair and a shifty look in his eyes. His wife served us small glasses or orange juice as most of us sat in the living room. Two soldiers searched upstairs.

“Sir!” one of the soldiers called out. “This guy has a 50 gallon barrel of gasoline on the roof. And he does not have a generator.”

I wondered then if my orange juice was poisoned. It was an absurd and paranoid thought, but it's hard not to think that way at least once in a while in Baghdad. Just before we set out on this patrol, I was told not to touch any gas cans on the sidewalk. A few days earlier someone tried to pick one up, but it was too heavy. He then noticed it had wires sticking out the sides that led to a detonator hidden somewhere.

Woman on Roof Adhamiyah.jpg
Woman on roof, Adhamiyah, Baghdad

No men were home in the next house. Three middle-aged women and two elderly women welcomed us into the living room. One of the middle-aged women looked nervous. Her hands shook and she swallowed hard. A five-year old girl ran up and clutched her leg.

“She's scared,” her mother said. “We moved here last year from Ur. A Stryker force there kicked in our gate while looking for Ali Babas.”

“Don't worry, don't worry,” Lieutenant Kane said. “We're not here to hurt you.” He smiled and waved at the child. The little girl stared at him and stayed behind her mother's leg.

“Are you going to take our money?” the woman said.

The lieutenant looked pained.

“We're not going to take any of your things,” he said. “We're not going to take your money. I promise. We're just talking to people in the neighborhood and searching for illegal weapons.”

The woman relaxed slightly. But only slightly.

“We don't have any weapons,” she said.

“Okay,” Lieutenant Kane said. “I believe you.” Nevertheless, some of his men searched the house for illegal weapons. “Are you having any security problems in the neighborhood?”

“No, no,” the woman said. “There are no problems here.”

“How about your daughter at school? Want me to go beat up some bullies?”

Big laughs all around as Lieutenant Kane grinned. The worried woman seemed to feel more at ease now.

“Does your daughter get good grades?” he said. “Is she going to be prime minister one day?”

“No!” yelled every woman in the house at the same time. “No! No politics! No!” They were genuinely horrified by the suggestion. Politics is not an honorable profession in Iraq. Maybe it never will be.

On our way back to the FOB, we drove through the Qahira neighborhood. “There used to be tons of Mahdi Army posters in this neighborhood,” our driver said.

“We took them down one night at three in the morning,” Lieutenant Kane said. “And we put Iraqi Army posters up in their place. Those got taken down immediately, but the Mahdi Army posters never came back. Nobody said anything about it in public, but it was different when we went inside private houses. Thank you, they said. Thank you. Thank you for taking those down..”

Post-script: You tip waiters in restaurants, right? I can’t go all the way to Iraq and write these dispatches for free. Travel in the Middle East is expensive, and I have to pay my own way. If you haven’t donated in the past, please consider contributing now.

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:14 AM | Comments (11)

March 25, 2009

The Persian Version

Here’s a fun piece in City Journal by my friend and colleague Jamie Kirchick about his recent experience on Iran’s Press TV. I don’t even want to excerpt this thing. Just go read it and laugh.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:39 AM | Comments (37)

March 23, 2009

The Petraeus Model Won’t Work for Israel

Andrew Exum, founder of the fine counterinsurgency blog Abu Muqawama, wrote a short piece for the New York Times in which he suggested Israelis could learn something from Americans in Iraq and make a greater effort to reduce civilian casualties during future conflicts in Gaza and Lebanon.

“[I]t may be in the best interests of the dominant military actor to adhere to rules of engagement that go beyond the laws of land warfare and international conventions,” he wrote. “The time may arrive when Israel decides that highly kinetic, enemy-centric military operations do not necessarily serve Israel’s longer-term strategic aims. Instead, Israel may want to adopt lessons learned from the United States experience in Iraq and Afghanistan and place a higher emphasis on the prevention of civilian casualties at the expense of lethality and force protection.”

Israelis already go far out of their way to reduce civilian casualties, even when doing so puts the lives of their own soldiers at risk. Nevertheless, as Exum says, the Unites States goes even further. When General David Petraeus took over as commander in Iraq, protecting civilians from insurgent and terrorist violence was made top priority. The most effective way to protect the lives of American soldiers, it was decided, was by first protecting the lives of Iraqi civilians. This, I believe, is what Exum is getting at. He’s a former U.S. Army captain in Iraq, and he knows what he’s talking about.

The Army’s new counterinsurgency manual explains why this works. “Ultimate success in COIN [counterinsurgency] is gained by protecting the populace, not the COIN force. If military forces remain in their compounds, they lose touch with the people, appear to be running scared, and cede the initiative to the insurgents. Aggressive saturation patrolling, ambushes, and listening post operations must be conducted, risk shared with the populace, and contact maintained…These practices ensure access to the intelligence needed to drive operations. Following them reinforces the connections with the populace that help establish real legitimacy.”

David Kilcullen, an Australian counterinsurgency expert and advisor to General Petraeus, said something similar in an interview published in yesterday’s Washington Post when asked which lessons learned in Iraq can be applied in Afghanistan. “I would say there are three,” he said. “The first one is you’ve got to protect the population. Unless you make people feel safe, they won’t be willing to engage in unarmed politics. The second lesson is, once you’ve made people safe, you’ve got to focus on getting the population on your side and making them self-defending. And then a third lesson is, you’ve got to make a long-term commitment.”

Unfortunately, this won’t work in Gaza and Lebanon. At least it won’t work right now. Lebanese and Palestinian civilians don’t need nearly as much protection from Hezbollah and Hamas as Iraqis needed from Al Qaeda and sectarian death squads.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:54 AM | Comments (60)

March 20, 2009

Did North Korea Just Kidnap Two American Journalists?

The Associated Press reports that North Korea “detained” two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee from Al Gore’s Current TV, for filming the border region.

It looks, however, like the reporters were “detained” for shooting film of North Korea from the Chinese side of the border. They were in China interviewing refugees who fled North Korea. North Korean military and police officers don’t have jurisdiction in China. If they crossed the border and grabbed two American journalists, those journalists weren’t “detained.” They were kidnapped.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:27 AM | Comments (18)

March 18, 2009

Stories from Baghdad

I spent the last week transcribing my notes and recorded interviews from Baghdad – which came to seventy single-spaced pages in Microsoft Word – and I’ve finally organized this mass of material in a way that makes some kind of narrative sense. I would have finished this long ago had I not been invited to Israel and Lebanon, but I don’t get offers for free trips very often, and I would have been a fool to turn those opportunities down. So stay tuned for a series of long dispatches from Iraq at the end of the surge. Thanks for being patient.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:50 PM | Comments (0)

Little Nazis

Fascism is always descending on the United States, but somehow it keeps landing in Europe.” – Tom Wolfe

I can’t imagine that Nazism could ever become mainstream in Germany again, or anywhere else in Europe for that matter, but this isn’t encouraging.

Roughly one in 20 15-year-old German males is a member of a neo-Nazi group, a higher proportion than are involved in mainstream politics, according to a study released on Tuesday.
Many politicians fear a resurgence of right-wing extremism as unemployment creeps higher in Germany, which is facing its deepest recession since World War II. Government figures have shown anti-Semitic crimes rose at the end of last year. "It is shocking that right-wing groups have more success recruiting male youths than the established political parties," said Christian Pfeiffer, author of the report issued by Lower Saxony's criminal research institute.

Pfeiffer said fewer than 2% of young men were active in mainstream politics, compared to the 5% involved in far-right groups.

The study, conducted in 2007 and 2008, also revealed that neo Nazi-symbols – in either rock music, stickers or special clothing - were used by one in 10 of the youths surveyed. The swastika and other Nazi symbols are banned in Germany.

The highest proportion of neo-Nazis was in former communist eastern Germany, where almost one in eight youths were in such groups. More than 14% of those questioned were described as racist, and anti-Semitism was rife.

What would our European friends think if something like this were happening in America? What would Americans think?

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:14 AM | Comments (20)

March 13, 2009

The Worst Airline Company in the World

After spending several weeks each in Iraq and Lebanon at the end of 2008, I bought a plane ticket to the U.S. from Beirut on December 22 and figured I had plenty of time to get home for Christmas. I had no idea, though, that I had purchased my ticket from the worst airline company in the world – Italy’s national carrier Alitalia – and that a two-hour layover in Rome would turn into an ordeal that lasted longer than a week.

I placed my most critical and expensive items in my carry-on bag so they wouldn’t get damaged or lost. Yet the woman at the Alitalia check-in counter in Beirut’s international airport said my bag was too large and would have to be checked. I wasn’t happy about that, but I did as I was told and surrendered my luggage. She neglected to tell me that Alitalia’s baggage handlers were on strike and that it would be a very long time before I would see my property again – if I ever would see it again.

My flight left Beirut on time, and I had no idea what I was in for in Italy.

After I landed in Rome, the Departures board said my flight to Chicago was delayed two hours. I didn’t mind. I had a 24-hour layover there, so I could wait patiently. But an angry stirring of passengers at the flight counter caught my attention.

“What’s going on?” I asked an American woman who looked concerned yet approachable.

“I’m not sure,” she said. “But somebody told me the baggage handlers on are strike and that we might not be going anywhere.”

A few moments passed before I absorbed what that meant. My laptop was in my carry-on bag that Alitalia had forced me to check. My work from Iraq and Lebanon was on that machine. My Nikon camera was in that bag. I didn’t want to hand it over, but the airline forced me to hand it over and didn’t tell me what was happening in the bowels of the company.

At least I had the presence of mind to make backup copies of my recorded interviews and place them on a flash memory stick that I carried around in my pocket. My hand-written notes and my photographs, though, were not in my pocket. Alitalia’s baggage handler’s union was holding much of my Middle East work hostage.

The man and woman working at our Alitalia flight counter wouldn’t tell us what was going on, and I assumed it was because they didn’t know. They looked slightly stressed, and I felt bad for them. They weren’t on strike, but they had to deal with the fallout. And that fallout was about to get nasty.

A fifty year-old Italian man in a fedora started screaming at both of them.

A man standing next to me chuckled.

“Do you understand what he’s saying?” I said.

“I’m from Argentina,” he said, “but I speak Italian. That man is cursing like you wouldn’t believe.”

Mr. Enraged was screaming like you wouldn’t believe – wild-eyed, nostril-flared, spittle-flecked screaming.
Listening to him and imagining which curse words he used he was entertaining, but mostly the guy came across like a belligerent jerk. The two Alitalia employees on the receiving end of his tirade weren’t responsible for our predicament. The baggage handlers were on strike, but the counter employees were still on the job.

Later, though, I realized that Mr. Enraged was just ahead of everyone else. The rest of us booked on the flight to Chicago would learn soon enough that a huge number of Alitalia's employees absolutely deserved to be screamed at.

Our flight was delayed another four hours. Almost every other Alitalia flight in the airport had been cancelled. You might think we were lucky that our flight hadn't been cancelled. That's what I thought at the time, but I was wrong.

“I live in the UK,” a man said, “but I was born here in Italy. They will not fly us to Chicago. They will do nothing but lie. Trust me. I know how this country works.”

Our flight was delayed again another three hours, and the man and woman and the flight counter put on their coats and walked away. Several passengers impotently screamed at their backs in Italian. Two hundred of us were left stranded alone.

No one had screamed at them in English. Not yet.

European Union regulations required the airline to book us with another company so we could get home. But they refused to book us with another company. Word slowly trickled into the crowd from passengers who had been stranded in Rome’s airport for days. Alitalia hadn't booked any of them on flights with other airlines, nor did the company reserve or pay for hotel rooms as the law required.

Certainly there were worse fates than being stranded in Italy. Daniel, the Italian-speaking man from Argentina, knew that better than most of us. He lives in the Indianapolis now and works as a professor of Social Work.

“Indiana is a big change,” he said, “but I like living there.” He has fond memories of his hometown of Buenos Aries, but also terrible memories. “There were leftist terrorists and right-hand terrorists killing people all over the country. When the army took over, everyone cheered. But the army was no better, and they went after the intellectuals. 30,000 people were killed or disappeared. It was a horrible fascist regime.”

Daniel managed to remain calm even after order and civility in the airport later disintegrated. His American friend and traveling companion Greg was about a disgruntled as I was. “No one is coming back here,” he said. “They’re supposed to rebook us, but they’ve abandoned us.”

“I think we should get some people together and go to the office,” I said, “since they refuse to rebook us. Ten people should be enough to put pressure on them.”

He agreed, and we asked others standing next to us if they wanted to join us. Everyone seemed to think it was a good idea. I had only been stranded in Rome for a half day so far, but some of those who had been marooned for days looked like they were ready to punch somebody.

“Hell yes,” a young American man said. “Let’s go to the office. I know right where it is. I saw it on my way in here.”

He said his name was DJ, and he wore a Palestinian keffiyeh around his neck.

“You’re sure you know where it is?” I said.

“Yeah, man,” he said. “Let’s go.”

“Hey!” I said as loud as I could so everyone in our waiting area heard me. “We’re going to the office to demand a new ticket. Who wants to join us?”

The crowd roared its approval. I expected just a handful of tag-alongs, but it looked like every single person wanted to join us.

So DJ and I led more than two hundred people through the terminal toward the Alitalia office.

As soon as I realized I might write about this, I bought a notebook and pen from one of the stores. I wanted to take notes in real time and record more or less accurate dialogue.

“You’re sure you know where this place is?” I said to DJ. I had no idea where we were going. We were inside an island terminal that could only be reached by train.

“Yeah,” DJ said. “But hang on.”

In front of us was a long Alitalia counter staffed by employees who served the entire terminal rather than just our flight to Chicago. DJ stopped and spoke to man wearing the company's uniform.

“Why are we stopping here?” a woman said.

“I don’t know,” I said. “This isn't the office.”

“This is the blind leading the blind,” said a man.

I stepped up to the counter next to DJ. And DJ started screaming at the man standing in front of him.

“I will kick your ass if I see you outside,” the Alitalia employee said to DJ.

“Let’s go!” DJ said. “Grab your coat and let’s go!”

This was hardly what I had in mind when I suggested a trip to the office.

“Hey,” a woman said and grabbed my arm. “Look. They’ve posted the European Union’s Passenger Rights on the wall.”

She was right. Our rights were spelled out in English just behind the foul-mouthed Alitalia employee who, instead of complying with regulations, had just threatened DJ with physical violence. The European Union required Alitalia to provide us with food, hotel accommodations, and a ticket on another airline because we had been delayed for more than five hours. We were also legally owed up to 600 Euros, around 1,000 dollars, in compensation.

I had already been delayed more than five hours. Some of us had been delayed for days. None of us had received food, hotel accommodations, or rebooked flights on a functional airline.

“Hey!” I said to the man who had threatened to kick DJ’s ass. “Our rights are printed right there on the wall. You need to book us on another flight or give us a hotel room.”

He narrowed his eyes at me and shook his head.

Now,” I said.

He ignored me.

When others saw the list of passenger rights on the wall, they became angry, and fast. Italian passengers were no longer the only ones riled up. More than a dozen surged to the counter and started yelling at the man in English who refused to do what the law required of him.

“I will call the police!” said the Alitalia man.

The crowd erupted in cheers and applause.

“Yes!” a woman said. “Call the police! Call them now!”

A look of horror and dread washed over his face. He knew his airline was in violation and that the police were not likely to help him.

So what did he do? He put on his coat and walked off the job. Hundreds of furious paying passengers booed and hissed as he left. I kept an eye on DJ in case he decided to chase the guy down and take him up on his offer to fight.

Instead, DJ found another Alitalia employee to scream at, this time a woman.

“I am a man!” he said. And he was a drunk man. His breath smelled of booze from the airport's café-bars. “Just because my voice is high-pitched doesn't mean I'm in puberty!”

DJ was seriously beginning to lose it. I had no idea what he was talking about anyway. His voice was no more high-pitched than anyone else's.

“Will you please call a manager,” I said to the woman. DJ wasn’t getting results with his tirade, so I thought I'd play the good cop. “If you can’t resolve this by yourself, just call a manager over.”

She looked at me, then looked away without even acknowledging that I had said anything. This was becoming a pattern among the staff, and my patience was just about at an end.

“Hey!” I said. “Some of us have been here for days, and your airline is breaking the law.”

This time she didn’t ignore me. She squinted and jutted her chin.

I gave up. Being polite didn’t work, and neither did yelling.

A manager in a tie finally came over. Two dozen people rushed and surrounded him.

“What?” he said. “Is something the matter? What’s going on?”

The crowd booed and jeered.

“Oh, come on,” Greg said to the manager. “Give me a break.”

“You know what’s going on,” I said. I had been waiting for ten hours by then, and I was one of the newcomers.

The manager looked at his feet in embarrassment. Who did he think he was kidding?

“You need to rebook us or put us up in a hotel,” I said. “You’re in violation of European Union regulations, and you know it.”

He looked at me when I spoke to him, but he ignored me and turned away.

“Hey!” I said. “You heard me. Are you going to do your damn job or not?”

He looked at me again, but he still didn’t say anything.

An American woman approached the manager in tears and told him her son had just died and that she needed to get to Chicago for his funeral. Would he please just rebook her on another airline?

“No,” he said.

And then the crowd lost it.

Five enormous black men stormed up to the manager while punching their hands with their fists.

“Motherfucker!” one of them said and flared his eyes and his nostrils. I thought for sure we were about to see blood on the floor.

The black man was hyperventilating and literally shaking while he tried with all his might to restrain himself from committing violence. A few passengers stepped between him and the manager. None of us wanted a riot. But a riot felt imminent.

“Do you know what’s going on with these Africans?” a woman said to me. “They’ve been here for four days, and now the airline is saying there's no record they ever booked a flight at all.”

“We want to go home!” the five Africans yelled in unison.

Four days they had been waiting!

“Get it, man?” said the first African man. He looked ready to rip out the manager's spine with his fingers. “We want to go home!”

“Where are you guys trying to go?” I asked one of the calmer African men.

“Nigeria,” he said. “Now he’s saying we never purchased a ticket.”

These men had Alitalia boarding passes. They wouldn’t have even been to pass through security without them.

“Unbelievable,” said an American man. “The staff is obviously racist against these guys.”

“Our luggage is right outside that window,” a man said to me. “It’s sitting there on the tarmac next to the plane.”

One woman told me she checked in her cat in its carrier two days ago. She was worried her cat might soon die. (In hindsight I can say that her cat almost certainly died.)

A three-year old African girl sat on the Alitalia counter and cried hysterically while her father screamed “We want to go home!” at the staff.

Three police officers arrived to calm down the crowd. The most enraged of the African men picked up one of the officers, slung the cop over his shoulder, and took him away.

Here we go, I thought. This is when it begins.

I thought about lighting a cigarette. Rules no longer applied. I doubted anyone would say anything, and I doubted even more that anyone would make me put it out. I was pretty sure that if I lit a cigarette, other people would light up cigarettes, too. It actually seemed slightly dangerous, though. The mood in the terminal might have shifted yet one more degree toward total breakdown. A cop had already been taken away to God-knows-where by an unruly passenger, and the other two officers didn’t do anything. I kept my cigarettes in my pocket.

Anyone could have pushed the terminal over the edge at any moment. If just one person swung a punch at an employee, it might trigger a riot. I could feel it. The Africans were ready to roll, as were DJ and several of the Italians. Most American passengers seemed a bit more restrained, but even that was beginning to change. The Alitalia staff looked terrified. Their eyes darted sideways as they scanned the terminal for threats and calculated escape routes.

An American couple named Sofocles and Tatiana were on their way home from vacation in Greece.

“I thought Athens was screwed up,” Sofocles said, “but I've ever seen anything like this.”

“We witnessed the riots,” Tatiana said, “but this feels much worse.”

What? That sounded crazy, but that's what she said. Athens had just erupted in actual violence.

Violence in Rome’s airport was in the air, but it hadn’t actually broken out yet. I think she must have felt trapped. We could only leave our terminal by train, whereas the violence in Athens could be avoided by just walking away or taking a taxi. There would be no walking or running away if a riot broke out in our part of the airport.

The Alitalia manager loosened his tie and wiped sweat off his forehead while dozens of passengers surrounded and screamed at him. I was angry, too. Just rebook us already. But I also felt a bit sorry for him. Our little mob got its way, though, because he finally did what he was supposed to do and secured accommodations for us at a hotel near the airport.

“There is a shuttle bus outside that will take you to the Airport Palace Hotel,” he said to me, Daniel, and Greg. “Please tell the others.”

“You should make an announcement,” Greg said. “There are more than a hundred passengers on the flight.”

“Please just let everyone know,” the manager said.

He never did make an announcement. He didn’t even put up a hand-written sign on the counter. Greg, Daniel, and I were made responsible for hundreds of strangers who were, by then, scattered throughout the terminal and mixed in with hundreds of others who were booked on separate flights. How were we supposed to find everyone and let all of them know?

Why on earth were Daniel, Greg, and I were put in charge? The reason, I suppose, is because we took some initiative, but the manager basically told us to do his job for him. So the three of us told ten people each and told them to tell ten more people each. Hopefully most of our fellow passengers would eventually find out that hotel rooms finally had been taken care.

Daniel, Greg, and I left the terminal and went looking for the shuttle bus. We couldn’t find it.

“I’m going to take a taxi,” I said. “I don’t want the hotel to fill up while we’re just wandering around out here in the rain.”

“I’m in,” Greg said.

“Let’s go,” Daniel said.

Sofocles and Tatiana found us and asked if they could share our taxi, as well.

“Of course,” I said.

So we found a taxi.

“Airport Palace Hotel,” I said to the driver.

“The Airport Palace Hotel?” she said. “It doesn't exist.”

“I knew it!” Tatiana said. “Oh God, I knew it! They lied to us again.”

I had no faith whatsoever in Alitalia's staff, but I didn't think even they would go that far.

Our driver called a friend. The Airport Palace Hotel did, in fact, exist.

No one was at the front desk. The hotel seemed entirely empty of guests.

“Hello?” Greg called out toward the back.

A manager emerged from an office while chewing his dinner.

“Hello,” I said. “Alitalia booked us for some rooms here.”

“Outside,” the manager said dismissively with his mouth full of food. He pointed. “Outside. Right. Under the bridge. Right.” He then went back into his office and slammed the door.

We stepped outside.

“I guess he’s sending us to another hotel,” I said.

“Is it just me,” Greg said, “or is that man an asshole?”

“He’s an asshole,” I said.

We followed his directions, but we didn’t see another hotel.

“What are we supposed to be looking for, exactly?” I said.

“Let’s go back,” Greg said.

So we went back.

“Excuse me,” said to the manager. “Where are we supposed to go, exactly?”

“Did you follow my directions?” he said.

“Yes,” Greg said.

“I don’t think so!” the manager said as though were we the stupidest people he had ever met in his life.

He then gave us more precise directions, and we found another hotel owned by the same company.

I was startled by the staff at the next hotel. They were perfectly pleasant and helpful.

Daniel, Greg, Tatiana, and Sofocles, and I sat down to dinner.

“Merry Christmas, everybody,” I said.

Greg groaned. “Don't say that,” he said. “At least don't say that yet.”

*

Alitalia told me to go to the airport again the next morning for rebooking, though I doubted they would actually book me on a flight that would actually leave. I would have bought another ticket on a different airline so I could be home for Christmas, but the Alitalia staff refused to hand over my luggage. And they refused to let me retrieve my luggage myself. My laptop, camera, and notebooks were being held hostage.

At least a thousand people waited in line for rebooking at the main Alitalia counter. That’s where I would need to go if I wanted a new ticket on a different airline. It took the staff around 20 minutes to process each passenger. At that rate it would have taken me more than a week to get a new ticket.

So I went to the check-in counter to get a new worthless Alitalia ticket.

Sofocles and Tatiana were in line already. They let me join them, and we shared contact information. They lived in Chicago, where my luggage might theoretically appear at some later date, and they offered to help me retrieve it if I decided to go home without it.

As we approached the front of the line, I noticed that the man in front of us was checking in luggage.

“Excuse me, sir” I said. “You might not want to check your luggage. The baggage handlers are on strike. The planes aren’t flying, and once you check your luggage, they won’t give it back.”

How dare you!” said the Alitalia woman working the counter.

“You aren't warning this man,” I said. “So I'm warning him. Somebody should have warned me before I gave you my luggage. .”

“He’s checking in!” she said.

Sofocles and Tatiana laughed out loud.

“He’s checking in?” I said. “He’s not going anywhere. Nobody’s going anywhere.” I turned around and made an announcement to everybody in line behind us. “They’re on strike. You aren’t flying today, and if you get them your luggage they won’t give it back.”

“That's not true!” the Alitalia woman said. “How can you say that?”

“How can you stand there and lie to these people?” Tatiana said.

Passengers in line behind us with luggage shifted and murmured to each other. They had no idea what they were getting themselves into until I told them.

“It's not my job to warn people,” I said to the woman behind the counter. “It's yours. Have a little decency, will you?”

She angrily stabbed her keyboard with her fingers as she rebooked me on another Alitalia flight that was supposed to leave on Christmas Eve the next day. But it did not leave the next day. When I arrived the airport, my flight to Chicago wasn’t even on the Departures board. It was cancelled before I even got there, as I figured it would be.

I walked up to a counter where an Alitalia employee sat in front of a computer.

“Excuse me,” I said.

She yelled at me. “This counter is closed!”

The rudeness and hostility from company staff was just constant. It would have shocked me if I had arrived in Italy from the United States, but I had just arrived from Lebanon and Iraq, two of the most polite countries on earth. Obviously Rome is a more pleasant city than Baghdad, but I missed the Iraqis, and I missed the Lebanese even more.

I found another Alitalia woman behind a different counter.

“Excuse me,” I said.

“Yes?” she said. I was surprised she didn’t bitch at me.

“Is the flight to Chicago cancelled? It’s not on the board.”

“I don’t know, let me check.”

She stepped into a back office and emerged a few moments later.

“Yes,” she said, “it is cancelled.”

“Ugh,” I said. “I've been here for days.” I was hoping for a little commiseration, but I shouldn't have said anything.

“You've been here for days?” she said. “Why? What happened?”

“Oh, give me a break,” I said. “Don't pretend you don't know what's going on.”

She nodded, appeared slightly embarrassed, and walked away without saying a word.

The absurdly long line of more than a thousand people from the day before was shortened to a mere hundred or so. This was the line to wait in for those who wanted to be rebooked on a different airline. So I got in line. It “only” took two or so hours to get through it.

Blessedly, the woman at the counter was friendly.

“I can get you on a Delta flight that leaves in an hour,” she said.

“Excellent!” I said. “Oh, thank you so much.” I wanted to hug her. “I don’t suppose my luggage will be on the flight, will it?”

“Unfortunately, no,” she said. “But you can look for it in a few days at the Lost and Found in Chicago. Delta flights leave from Terminal Five. Hurry. Go right away. Get to Terminal Five and check in with Delta.”

I took the bus to Terminal Five and hurried to the Delta check-in counter. When I got to the front of the line, the man behind the counter said “What are you doing here?”

“Checking in?” I said.

“This is an Alitalia flight,” he said. “And that flight has been cancelled.”

“It’s not even operated by Delta?” I said.

“No,” he said. “It’s an Alitalia flight.”

My ticket said Alitalia on the top of it, but I assumed that was because Alitalia booked it, not because it was for an Alitalia flight. I might think that woman at the counter was incompetent, but I had been lied to so many times by so many Alitalia employees that I slightly doubted it.

“That is the worst airline in the world,” I said. The man was Italian, not American. I hoped I didn’t hurt any feelings of national pride he might have for that airline, but I needed to vent.

“Oh,” he said. “I know it. It is a horrible horrible airline. We hear complaints about them every day. I'm so sorry you have to fly with them.”

I went back to the Alitalia terminal. The woman at the desk was either a liar or an idiot, but I wasn’t going to give her a hard time. I just needed her to rebook me again, this time for real.

The line was longer than it was earlier, and I had waited in that line for two hours when it was shorter. I scanned the counter for the woman who had booked me just a few minutes before, but I didn’t see her. So I stepped up to the edge of the counter and motioned to the manager.

“Excuse me,” I said. Maybe he would know where she was.

“Don't you dare summon me!” he screamed and pointed his finger at me. “You do that with your family, but not with me!”

Fuck you,” I said loudly enough that everybody in line could hear me. I hardly ever curse at total strangers, and I could hardly believe I had just said that.

Dozens of people cheered and broke out in applause. Everybody wanted to tell this company off. The manager curled his upper lip and glared at everybody with hatred. .

Sofocles and Tatiana were near the front of the line, and they let me join them. I wouldn’t have to wait two or three more hours, after all.

“We went downstairs to file a luggage complaint,” Tatiana said. “Six guys were just sitting around and laughing and eating at the office. They refused to help anybody. They weren't doing anything and wouldn't even acknowledge our existence. It was unbelievable. Something is wrong with this place.”

A manager finally helped her file the complaint. And he told her that 70,000 pieces of luggage were in the basement or out on the tarmac.


Somebody shot some video of a small sample of the luggage downstairs and posted it to YouTube.

An Alitalia man at the counter – friendly for a change! – booked us on what he said was a British Airways flight to London.

“Is this actually a British Airways flight?” I said. “Is it operated by British Airways or by Alitalia? I can’t be booked on another Alitalia flight.”

“I understand,” he said. “Yes, it’s a British Airways flight, and it's operated by British Airways.”

“You’re sure?” I said. I had a hard time believing anything anyone at Alitalia told me, even if they were convincing and friendly.

“I promise you, it's British Airways.”

He lied.

It was an Alitalia flight, as I learned when I got to the check-in counter.

Sofocles, Tatiana, and I checked in together. We were basically traveling together at that point. When we got to the front of the line, we handed our tickets to the man at the counter.

“Where did you get these?” he said.

“Oh my God,” Tatiana said.

“From the rebooking counter,” I said. “Is there a problem?”

He didn't say anything. He just tapped a few keys on his keyboard.

A woman worked the window next to him. “How many flights have you cancelled today?” I asked her.

“None,” she said.

“They're lying again!” Tatiana said.

“You cancelled ours to Chicago,” I said.

I live in the UK, a man had said to me days ago. But I was born here in Italy. These people will do nothing but lie. Trust me. I know how this country works.

My God, he wasn’t kidding.

We didn’t have much time to get to our flight, assuming it would even take off. According to the Departures screen, it was already boarding. I was amazed to see that it was boarding since it turned out not to be a British Airways flight, after all.

I looked at my watch.

“We need our boarding passes,” Sofocles said and tapped his foot.

Suddenly the man who was processing our tickets stood up, put on his coat, and walked off the job, without handing us boarding passes and without saying a word.

“Where do you think you’re going?” I said to his back.

He turned around and glowered at me as he walked briskly away.

“We’re screwed,” Tatiana said.

One Alitalia employee after another had walked off the job right in front of me. In a way, I could hardly blame them. The airport was a zoo full of screaming people. Alitalia had clearly reached a tipping point, as had its passengers.

“Thank God for the United States,” an elderly man standing behind me said in an Italian accent.

“You live in the States?” I said.

“I was born in Rome,” he said, “but I’ve lived in Chicago for thirty five years.”

The woman at the next window gave Sofocles, Tatiana, and me our boarding passes.

We ran to security gate and cut through the line with apologies.

“Excuse me, sorry, our plane is boarding.”

Nobody complained.

As it turned out, though, there was no need to cut through the security line. Our Alitalia flight had been delayed thirty minutes for the sake of people like us who had been rebooked at the last minute. The airline finally did something right.

Tatiana waited at the gate while Sofocles and I went to a café to get sandwiches. Just as we reached the front of the line, the cashier loudly slammed down the “Closed” sign and walked away without saying a word.

“What the hell?” Sofocles said.

“What a strange country,” said a Pakistani man standing behind me in line.

Our flight to London actually took off. I didn’t have my luggage. I didn’t know if I would ever even see my luggage again. But at least I was getting out of Rome’s ridiculous airport.

“Thank you for choosing to fly with us,” the Alitalia pilot said a few minutes before we landed in London. Several passengers snorted derisively.

*

Sofocles, Tatiana, and I barely made our connection to Chicago. Of course our luggage didn’t arrive, but I have a friend in Chicago. I stayed at his house for a few days and waited there so I could retrieve my bags if they showed up at Lost and Found. My luggage wasn’t checked all the way through to my home town because I had a separate plane ticket to Portland on a separate airline.

I spent days on the phone asking about my luggage. It didn’t show up. Nobody at Chicago’s airport even knew if Alitalia’s baggage handling staff had gone back to work yet.

So I gave up and went to the airport to buy a new ticket home on United Airlines. Alitalia would supposedly deliver my luggage to my house if it ever arrived, and there was no longer any point in waiting around. But I thought I’d go to the Alitalia office in Chicago just in case. I braced myself to be screamed at and lied to again.

“Hi,” I said to the woman at the Alitalia counter. “I flew here from Rome a few days ago, and I don’t have my luggage. Is there any chance it’s here somewhere?”

“Actually, yes, there is a chance,” she said in an American accent. “We have a whole bunch of bags in the back room.”

I handed her my claim tickets, and she went back to look for my stuff. She was in the back office for a quiet a while. I hoped she was actually looking.

Finally she emerged with one of my bags in her hands.

“That’s my bag!” I said.

She smiled.

She had found the bag with my laptop and camera inside, the one that was supposed to be my carry-on bag, the one they forced me to check in Beirut. If I could choose only one of my two bags to get back, it would have been that one. The other just had clothes and other easily replaceable items inside.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” I said.

“You are quite welcome,” she said. “And I’m sorry about all this trouble.”

“It’s okay,” I said. “It isn’t your fault. I’m just glad to have this bag back. This one has all my valuables in it.”

“There is another flight coming in an hour or so,” she said. “Check back in two hours and we’ll see if your second bag has arrived.”

I felt fifty pounds lighter, and greatly relieved that Alitalia’s staff in Chicago was so much more pleasant to deal with than Alitalia’s staff in Rome’s airport.

I came back two hours later. The woman who had helped me earlier had been replaced with another.

A handful of people stood in line ahead of me. The young man at the front of the line – who was, I believe, from Mexico – wanted to know if his luggage had arrived.

“We don’t have any luggage here,” the Alitalia woman said in an Italian accent.

I felt like I had just been whisked back to Rome. I knew this woman was lying. The whole back office was full of luggage. I had seen the pile myself, and one of my own bags had just been retrieved from that pile by her American co-worker.

“There’s a ton of luggage back there,” I said. I held up my bag so that everybody could see. “Your co-worker found this bag back there just over an hour ago.”

The woman was stunned. She hadn’t seen me before. She had no idea I had already been to that counter, no idea that her co-worker had already helped me, no idea that I knew she was lying.

“Well!” she said. “This man’s luggage isn’t back there.”

“How would you know if you haven’t looked?” the man from Mexico said.

“I just know!” the woman said. “I’m here by myself and I am very stressed out. Go home! Go home and we’ll ship your luggage to you when we can.”

“I need my luggage today,” the man said. “I have medicine in there that my mother needs.”

“Go home!” the woman said. “I know it’s easier for you to get it right now, but it’s easier for me if we ship it to you.”

The man left empty handed and muttered something in Spanish under his breath.

My second checked bag arrived at my house a month later. It had been left outside for days in Rome’s winter rains. All my clothing was covered in mold.

Alitalia owes me 600 Euros, plus damages. They’ll never pay it.

Post-script: Exposing ethically bankrupt corporations isn’t part of my regular job, but sometimes things happen, and this is a public service. If this warning is worth something to you, or even if you merely found it entertaining to read, please consider a donation. And stay tuned for a series of dispatches from Beirut and Baghdad.

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at 7:47 AM | Comments (55)

March 9, 2009

The U.S. Needs a Reset Button for Britain

While President Barack Obama tries to improve U.S. relations with rogue states like Syria and Iran, he might want to ensure ties with our closest ally aren’t strained in the meantime. Damascus and Tehran will remain hostile as long as they’re ruled by Bashar Assad and Ayatollah Khamenei, but Britain has long been a reliable friend no matter who is in charge. President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair forged a strong personal friendship despite their ideological differences, yet President Obama is off to an embarrassing start with his Downing Street counterpart.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown felt half snubbed on his visit to the U.S. a few days ago when he didn’t receive the customary press conference and dinner. According to London’s Daily Telegraph, the Obama administration says the president was too tired.

Presidents and prime ministers from all countries are exhausted most of the time. An excuse like that wouldn’t wash if President Manny Mori of Micronesia were blown off. I doubt very much that Prime Minister Brown was slighted on purpose, but an unnamed State Department official quoted in the Telegraph wants the British to believe the cool welcome is all they should have expected.

“There’s nothing special about Britain,” he reportedly said. “You’re just the same as the other 190 countries in the world. You shouldn’t expect special treatment.”

The same as Somalia, Turkmenistan, and North Korea? Good grief. Great Britain is the mother country of the United States of America. School children know it. At least they knew it when I was a child. The “special relationship” between the U.S. and the U.K. is so well-established it shouldn’t even have to be mentioned. It’s not a Bush administration policy that’s up for review. It has existed longer than Barack Obama has been alive.

Rudeness, unfortunately, isn’t the end of it.

Mr Brown handed over carefully selected gifts, including a pen holder made from the wood of a warship that helped stamp out the slave trade - a sister ship of the vessel from which timbers were taken to build Mr Obama’s Oval Office desk. Mr Obama’s gift in return, a collection of Hollywood film DVDs that could have been bought from any high street store, looked like the kind of thing the White House might hand out to the visiting head of a minor African state.

Somebody needs to be fired. Even the head of Burundi deserves something nicer than what he could get for a dollar at a bootleg store in the market. It hasn’t been that long since Democratic Party support staff assisted the White House when foreign heads of state came to visit. Plenty of people in Washington know how this works. Surely Secretary of State Hillary Clinton knows a few of her husband’s former staffers who can find a replacement.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:18 AM | Comments (51)

March 7, 2009

The Personal and the Political in the Middle East

Roger Cohen is taking heavy criticism for a piece he recently wrote in the New York Times in which he said the “annihilationist” anti-Semitic rhetoric of the Iranian regime tells us less about Iran than the fact that he, an American Jew, was treated with “consistent warmth” on his trip to Tehran and Isfahan. I can’t say I agree, but I sympathize to an extent with what he’s saying because I've had similar surprises in the Middle East, happening upon hospitality instead of expected hostility.

Arabs, Persians, and Kurds are so well-known for their considerate treatment of guests it has become a guidebook cliché. No one expects rudeness in, say, Tunisia or Morocco, but I can see why a Jewish visitor might be startled by a warm welcome in a country whose government threatens to incinerate the Jewish State. I imagine he felt a bit like I did when I first visited Baghdad in the scorching summer of 2007 when violent insurgents still waged pitched battles with American soldiers.

I had already visited the friendly Kurdish region in Northern Iraq before I dared venture south into the Red Zone. Western civilians were hunted there by militias and death squads, and it wasn’t the sort of journey one embarked on lightly. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous or that I expected to feel welcome. My nervousness ebbed slightly, though, because I did receive a warm welcome from every single Iraqi I met in the capital. Baghdad’s Arabs weren’t an iota less friendly or hospitable than even the Kurds who hoped their autonomous region could be made into the 51st American state.

Of course I was embedded with the United States military and had soldiers from the 82nd Airborne as my own personal bodyguards. Kidnapping me wasn’t an option for the Iraqis I met on the street. Their politeness, however, was optional and given freely. Don't assume they smiled and said "welcome" just because the Americans carried weapons. Several soldiers I met had been inside Sadr City, and they told me even children there threw rocks and gave them the finger. (I have since been to Sadr City myself, and can report that the mood is calmer these days.)

It would have been a serious mistake, though, had I assumed too much about Iraq and its politics from the friendliness of its people. A significant number of Iraqis at that time still supported the very insurgents who would have covered my head with a hood and dragged me into an alley if they had the chance. Somebody in Iraq was setting off car bombs and laying IEDs and cutting off heads, and I’ve spent enough time there now that there’s little chance I haven’t come into contact with some of those people. Roger Cohen himself might have scoffed if I had written a column where I dismissed the Iraqi insurgency as irrelevant because the Iraqis I met were nice to me personally.

Arabs, Persians, and Kurds are among the easiest people in the world to get along with in person, including many Arabs, Persians, and Kurds who belong to terrorist organizations. I have met perfectly pleasant individuals who support and are members of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.

I've spent twice as much time in Lebanon as I have in Iraq, and only on the rarest occasions have I encountered any hostility. Two men I met in Beirut who staunchly support both Hezbollah and the Assad regime in Damascus treated me to a Cuban cigar, a half dozen cups of strong Turkish coffee, and two fascinating hours arguing about Middle East politics. One told me he was a lawyer and handed over his business card. “If you need any help while you’re here,” he said, “call me right away.” His party’s slogan is “Death to America," but I have no doubt his offer to help me was sincere.

Most Westerners who spend time in Muslim countries have similar stories to tell. Jeffery Goldberg related some of his own on his Atlantic blog recently. “I was once with a mullah in Pakistan,” he wrote last week, “who told me that Allah would soon fulfill his promise and destroy the Jews, but who invited me to stay in his guest room rather than make a dangerous night drive back to my hotel. I took him up on his offer, and slept soundly. It wouldn't be fair of me to call this sort of hospitality superficial, because it grows from a real spirit of personal generosity, but I've learned the hard way that the personal isn't always the political.”

It's likely that many Iranians Roger Cohen met really don’t feel hostility toward Jews or even toward Israel. Just about everyone I know who has been to Iran has told me the regime’s face to the world is unrepresentative of what a huge number of Iranians think. But even if Cohen met Iranians whose beliefs are in lockstep with those of the regime – which also is likely – I wouldn’t expect anything less from them than what he reported. Every Middle Eastern person has been raised in a culture where hospitality even toward people from enemy countries is mandated. Not every person lives up to the standard, of course, but most of them do. We'd be wrong to think this reflects much on their politics.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:05 PM | Comments (22)

March 4, 2009

Hezbollah Scouts Out The Hague

A United Nations tribunal to investigate and put on trial the assassins of Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri opened this week in The Hague, and Hezbollah has been caught running reconnaissance missions outside the grounds.

According to French newspaper Le Monde, Dutch police have caught individuals affiliated with Hezbollah taking photographs of the tribunal headquarters on three separate occasions. A Hezbollah spokesman denies the accusation, of course, and I might even believe him if the police didn’t insist it already happened three times. If one person were caught taking photographs, we might write this off as a fluke or a misunderstanding. Two separate incidents are harder to dismiss. Three make a pattern.

If anyone would have asked me a week ago if I thought Hezbollah might use or even threaten to use force against the tribunal I would have said no, and I would have said no with confidence. Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah desperately wants to be thought of as the leader of a “resistance” movement instead of a terrorist army. He spattered his own brand with blood when his fighters, along with armed men from Amal and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, seized West Beirut with automatic weapons last year. But still, in recent years, he has only pointed and fired his weapons at Lebanese and Israelis. Westerners, even Jewish Westerners, have been strictly off limits.

Never forget, though, that Hezbollah has, in the past, used violence against people who are not Lebanese and who are not Israeli.

Until September 11, 2001, Hezbollah was responsible for killing more Americans than any other terrorist organization in the world. A Hezbollah suicide truck bomber killed 241 Marines when he rammed his payload through the gate at the barracks near the airport in the suburbs south of Beirut. Fifty eight French soldiers were killed by another Hezbollah suicide truck bomber in West Beirut two minutes later.

In 1994 another Hezbollah suicide bomber exploded himself and his vehicle outside a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and killed 85 people two years after the same group ignited a car bomb in front of the Israeli embassy there and killed 29.

Hezbollah men armed with pistols and hand grenades hijacked TWA Flight 847 from Athens to Rome in 1985, and cells led by Hezbollah commander Imad Mugniyeh kidnapped 96 foreign civilians – mostly Westerners – between 1982 and 1992. After they kidnapped Beirut’s CIA station chief William Buckley, they tortured him to death, and they did it on video.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:19 AM | Comments (2)

March 3, 2009

Interviewed at NOW Lebanon

Hanin Ghaddar interviewed me at NOW Lebanon over coffee as I was wrapping up my recent trip to Beirut. The transcript is a bit rough and ungrammatical, but it’s perfectly readable.

The comments there are rude and obnoxious because the deranged “Angry Arab” blog linked to the interview and sent his troll squad over. It might be nice if a few friendly voices posted a comment or two for some balance.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:19 PM | Comments (5)