April 8, 2009

Sadr City After the Fall

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One year ago, Moqtada al Sadr’s radical Mahdi Army militia strongholds in Basra and Sadr City were two of the biggest threats remaining to the Iraqi republic. Al Qaeda in Iraq had been reduced to a remnant, but the country still was a violent mirror of Lebanon. Hezbollah threatens the Lebanese capital and can start unilateral wars on a whim, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki had to ask himself if that was the kind of country he hoped to be left with as Americans talked of a combat force draw down. Lebanon has neither a capable national army nor tens of thousands of foreign troops on her soil as backup. The Iraqis did, though. Their army, with help from the American military, was ordered into the southern city of Basra to purge the streets of the Shia militiamen. After nail-biting fits and starts, the Iraqis prevailed. Then they stormed Sadr City and took back the last bastion of resistance in the capital.

I visited Sadr City on my recent trip to Iraq, and I expected to be horrified when I got there. It was safer than it had been, of course, but it was still known as the great slum of Baghdad – like Hezbollah’s dahiyeh south of Beirut, only bigger and meaner. Almost as many people live in Sadr City as in all of Lebanon. Much of Iraq looks like a slum as it is, so an actual slum in Iraq must look like…what?

Most Iraqi cities look more or less like every other Iraqi city, but there are exceptions. The worst I had seen so far was Kirkuk in the north.

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Kirkuk, Iraq

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Kirkuk, Iraq

Nowhere I'd seen in Baghdad, Fallujah, Ramadi, or anywhere else was as run-down or gruesome as Kirkuk. Yet I had never heard Kirkuk described as the worst place in Iraq. The vast slum of Baghdad must be even worse. I was sure of it. Going to Sadr City seemed slightly crazy.

“Adhamiyah and Sadr City are the most important sectors in all of Iraq,” Major Mike Humphreys said to me at Forward Operating Base (FOB) War Eagle in Northern Baghdad. It was the first stop for embedded reporters on their way to Sadr City with the American military. “Sadr City is, of course, the most volatile place in the country, and it's named after Moqtada al Sadr's father. It was the big question about the future of Iraq.”

That, of course, was why I wished to see it. If Sadr City was okay, the rest of Iraq might be okay. But if Sadr City was still like a vast Hezbollah dahiyeh in Baghdad, it could easily bring down the rest of the country.

The way into Sadr City itself was from Combat Outpost (COP) Ford, a one-company base wedged between Sadr City and the adjacent Beida neighborhood. Captains Todd Looney and A.J. Boyes ran the company, and they were two of the friendliest and most hospitable American military officers I had yet met. I stayed up for hours talking to these two in their quarters and never once felt like I was imposing. Their outpost developed an excellent reputation among journalists as a place to be based, and I wished I could have stayed longer.

Looney and Boyes' company did most of the fighting in Sadr City last year when the Jamilla Market area was purged of militiamen and a three-mile long wall of concrete barriers was erected to keep them from coming back in.

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Tanks at Combat Outpost Ford used during heavy fighting last year in Sadr City

“On our worst day,” Captain Looney said, “we only got eight barriers up. But once we figured out how to do it, we didn't lose any more people.” Three of his men were killed before they taught themselves how to build a wall under fire without getting blown up or shot. Framed photographs of the dead hung on the wall.

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Captain Todd Looney (left)

“The Iraqi Army did pretty good, too,” I said. “They did better in both Sadr City and Basra than most people expected,” I said.

“Absolutely,” Captain Boyes said.

Most analysts at the time thought the Mahdi Army would hand the Iraqi Army its ass on a plate. I wasn't terribly optimistic myself. Purging urban neighborhoods of guerrillas is tough work. First World professional armies often fail. The Iraqis, though, stunned the world.

“People didn't think the resolve of the national government would be there,” Captain Boyes said. “They didn't think the prime minster was going to carry out what he promised.”

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Captain A.J. Boyes

“You guys had their backs, though,” I said, “which certainly helped.”

“I don't think it was as much as people think,” he said.

“No?” I said. “Really? Well, you guys were here. You would know.”

“We have friends who were down south in training teams,” he said, “but most of the Americans in Basra weren't doing the fighting themselves. It was very much an advisor role.”

“Wasn't there air support, too?” I said.

“Yes,” he said, “there was an air asset. But I don't think it was all that significant. And the Iraqis operate completely independently now in 75 percent of Sadr City. Only in the southern sectors of Jamilla and Tharwa is there an American presence. Once you get north of the wall, the Iraqi Army operates without any support.”

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Map of U.S. and Iraqi forces in and near Sadr City in May, 2008

“The purpose of the Gold Wall,” Major Mike Humphreys told me earlier, “is to prevent Mahdi Army Special Groups criminals from having access to south Sadr City. On March 25, 2008, 107mm rockets started being launched against the Green Zone in response to the violence that was going on in Basra. There were twelve to fifteen attacks per day on the Green Zone, and these rockets packed a powerful punch. They had big warheads on these things, and were nothing to smirk about. They were being launched from south Sadr City because it's the limit of the 107mm reach. The rockets were purchased from Iran. We found some stamped with 'born on' dates after the fighting began. So we know that these guys were supported by Iran. We know for a fact they were dealing with Iran. The same thing with their EFPs, their explosively-formed penetrators. They're getting those directly from Iran.”

EFPs are the most terrifying IEDs ever designed. They fire molten copper plates faster than bullets at passing vehicles which cut through Humvees and tanks as though they were Jell-O.

“Do you know who they're buying them from in Iran?” I said. “Are they buying them from the government?”

“Who knows?” he said. “Maybe if we did know we could do something about it.”

My Spanish colleague Ramon Lobo from El País in Madrid co-interviewed Major Humphreys with me.

“I think they get them from the Revolutionary Guards,” he said.

“Right,” I said. “Which is, of course, part of the government.”

“According to Iraqi media,” Major Humphreys said, “they're getting support from the al Quds Force.”

The Quds Force is basically the special forces branch of Iran's Revolutionary Guards. Its commanders report to “Supreme Leader” Ayatollah Khamenei. Their mission is the arming and training of guerrilla and terrorist organizations around the Middle East – especially in Lebanon, Iraq, and the Palestinian territories.

“One thing you'll notice on the map,” Major Humphreys said, “is that all roads point toward the Green Zone.”

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“The roads were perfect launching positions,” he said. “These guys built their launching pads, they had engineers who knew what they were doing, they knew the right angles, and they knew where they were going to launch from. They were very well-trained. Al Qaeda is mostly a bunch of thugs who are paid by people outside Iraq just to wreck havoc by dropping poorly made IEDs. They're not very well organized. But the Shia militias are used to working in a military manner with senior commanders, and with training sponsored by international forces in Iran. They have a sense of leadership. These guys knew what they were doing. They were launching these rockets from roads that are perfectly lined up to the Green Zone every day.”

Not only did the Shia militias buy their rockets from Iran, they paid with cash extorted from businesses in the Jamilla market. So the Iraqi government had yet another reason to want them out of Jamilla.

“It's hard to block this whole area off,” Major Humphreys said, “because there are so many nooks and crannies that people can get in and out of. So we started building the wall. And it took us about two months. It's a three-mile wall on what we call Route Gold. And it worked. As soon as the last barrier went in, the violence in south Sadr City almost completely stopped.”

Mahdi Army senior leaders fled as soon as they lost their funding, resources, and territory in and around the market. Some went to Iran. Others went into hiding somewhere else in Iraq. They wanted to get back in, but they couldn't. So they made a face-saving deal with the government. They “agreed” to stay out of Sadr City entirely as long as American soldiers stayed on the south side of the Gold Wall.

“So Prime Minister Maliki sent his Iraqi Army north of the wall,” Major Humphreys said. “We breached the wall in several different places and the Iraqi Army moved forward in this massive passage of lines.”

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The Iraqi Army breaches the Gold Wall and heads into north Sadr City (photo from Getty Images)

“The Iraqi Army literally moved right through our lines,” he said, “and set up their operations in north Sadr City. And now the Iraqi Army rules north Sadr City independently.”

Iraqi Army soldiers found massive caches of rockets and EFPs. They even found an EFP factory up there.

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An EFP factory discovered by the Iraqi Army in Sadr City

The only reason they were able to find all this stuff was because the residents of Sadr City were fed up with the Mahdi Army's violence, corruption, and shakedowns.

They also found IRAMs, Improvised Rocket-Assisted Munitions, or “flying IEDs.”

An IRAM, basically, is a lob bomb. It's a 107mm rocket with a gigantic bomb strapped to the side. They're too heavy to fly far, but they fly far enough.

“I was right there at JSS Sadr City when they launched an IRAM,” Major Humphreys said, “and I thought I was a goner. Seven IRAMs were launched off a truck that was parked right behind the station. They launched the rockets about a hundred meters, and they knew exactly what angle and depth to put them at. A 107mm rocket can hit the Green Zone from there. But these don’t. They go a hundred meters. They have these big chunks of explosives tied to them, and they just lobbed ‘em over the wall. The guys that saw them said they looked like giant flying car mufflers.” He laughed. “Seriously, they just flip-flopped until they came down on the building. Incredible explosions. Just incredible. Seven of 'em. One right after the next.”


Millions of people live in Sadr City, and it's just one part of Baghdad. It's often described as the poorest, most over-crowded, and most politically deranged place in the capital, if not the whole country.

I'm not sure I believe all that anymore. And my assumptions began to buckle before I even saw it.

“The Jamilla Market is flourishing now,” Major Humphreys said. ”It was a sewage swamp.”

“Like the Bakara Market in Somalia,” said Ramon Lobo, my colleague from Spain.

“Do they even have a sewer system in Sadr City?” I said.

“Oh yeah,” Major Humphreys said. “Let me tell you about Sadr City. Sadr City has the most up-to-date infrastructure in all of Baghdad. It was built in the 1960s as a place to house miscreants, for the most part. It was built to modern building codes with modern infrastructure. It had a very modern sewer system, electrical power grid, modern buildings, everything.”

That didn't sound right at all.

“Now, that surprises me,” I said. “A lot. It's a slum. It's the worst place in the city economically.”

“Well, that's what they say,” he said. “But you've got to realize, too, that it was built to hold a million people, and some estimates say there are as many as 3.2 million there. So it's overpopulated, for sure. But if you fly over Sadr City at night, you don't see blackness. You see light. You see electricity. It's not what it's made out to be. It has modern infrastructure, it's just not maintained.

“The problem with the sewer system in Sadr City was that it was clogged, it was backed up, nobody was maintaining it. We went in there and thought the sewer was completely destroyed in Jamilla Market. It was a swamp. It was a swamp of sewage. But once this fighting was over, we sent the sucker trucks in there. The workers got down into the system. They sucked everything out. They blew pressure through the lines. They cleared out all the empty water bottles and trash. They cleaned it up, and it works. There is great potential in Sadr City. It just needs maintenance and workers.

“We have this area called Ur. You want to talk about a slum? That is a slum.”

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Northern Baghdad

“It's a shantytown,” he said. “People who live there for the most part are squatters who’ve come in and set up their little tents and buildings. If you looked at a photograph from space at night, Sadr City is lit and Ur is pitch black. It's an area we want to fix up, partly for the people who are living there, and also because it's an entry point into Sadr City. If we can win over the population there, we can isolate Sadr City from the bad guys.”


I never saw Ur, but I did see Sadr City, and it wasn’t even remotely what I expected before I heard Major Humphreys' description at War Eagle.

It didn’t look pretty. Few urban areas in Iraq can be described as pretty right now. But it wasn’t a shantytown, and it wasn’t much worse than what I saw anywhere else. It was a lot nicer than what I saw in Kirkuk, though I only saw the southwestern quarter where the American military was allowed to operate.

“This is the checkpoint where the fighting started back in March,” Captain Boyes told me when he took me on a tour of the place.

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Walls, Sadr City

“The building that’s all shot up over there was hit with a fucking bazooka.”

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This building was hit with a bazooka when major fighting in Sadr City broke out last year

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Damaged apartment buildings in Sadr City

A tower was erected at the checkpoint.

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“An Iraqi Army guy was up there when it was hit with an RPG,” Sergeant Kincaid said as he chewed his cigar.

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Sergeant Kincaid, Sadr City

“He was smoking cigarettes like crazy afterward, but he was alright.”

Captain Boyes and his men briefly inspected Iraqi Police checkpoints that morning, so I saw most of the area when I tagged along.

“This checkpoint,” he said when we arrived at the next one, “is the gateway to Sadr City. All vehicle traffic has to go through it. It looked like shit when we first got here, but we put in barriers and nets for the Iraqis to make their shifts a little more safe and more comfortable.”

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American Humvees at the gateway to Sadr City

“This is the nicest part of Jamilla,” he said. “And Jamilla is the nicest part of Sadr City. It's really overcrowded here.”

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Jamilla, Sadr City

So I was looking at the nicest part of Sadr City. I would see worse areas in a few minutes, but even those areas defied my expectations. I believed Captain Boyes when he said the area was overcrowded, but it didn’t look overcrowded. Houses and apartments were crammed with people, but the city itself wasn't all that tightly packed with apartments and houses.

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Sadr City

Beirut, Lebanon, is a immensely pleasing city. It’s many times more dense with buildings than Sadr City, and it doesn’t feel all that crowded most of the time.

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Beirut, Lebanon

The difference, though, I suppose, is that individual homes in Beirut aren’t as jammed with so many people.

A Communist Party office was set up near the gateway to Sadr City.

“We keep trying to meet the communists,” Captain Boyes said, “but haven't been able to do it yet.”

“Fucking communists,” one of the soldiers said when he overheard.

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The Iraqi Communist Party headquarters in Sadr City

I thought about defending the communists, but didn't feel like arguing. I met some of them in Erbil, and thought they had a respectable role to play in the country. Most aren’t pining away for the dictatorship of the proletariat. Iraqis attracted to Marxism are mostly there for the anti-racist and anti-sectarian secular nationalism. Iraqi Communists have half-baked economic ideas (at best), but they’re on the right side of three of the biggest problems vexing Iraq -- racism between Arabs and Kurds, sectarianism between Sunnis and Shias, and Islamist fanaticism. They’re also reasonably pro-American.

I was slightly surprised to find that Major Humphreys was right about Sadr City’s infrastructure. It’s not that I didn’t believe him. I was just so accustomed to seeing shoddy infrastructure everywhere else, even in Kurdistan, that I was startled to see anything that didn't look broken.

The most debilitating infrastructure problem in Iraq is the fraying electrical grid. It’s in slightly better shape now than it was, but the power is still off around half the time in everyone’s house. The grid is an outdated Third World catastrophe, and the problem feeds on itself. When a transformer blows out, residents plug their wires into another transformer which then promptly blows out from the overload. And so on like falling dominoes.

Adhamiyah is supposedly one of the nicer parts of Baghdad, yet the rat’s nest of wires I saw there was frightful.

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A rat's nest of wires in the “better” neighborhood Adhamiyah

The wires and poles in Sadr City, by contrast – at least in the parts of Sadr City I saw – looked almost like those in the United States.

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Electrical wires, Sadr City

It’s difficult to measure Iraqi public opinion from walking the streets – unless public opinion is unrelenting hostile, which it has been in some places. The first time I visited Baghdad I wrote off Sadr City as a no-go zone. Some American soldiers told me even kids threw rocks at them every time they went in there.

This winter, though, I saw smiling kids giving high-fives to Americans. Something clearly had changed.

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Iraqi childen sit on the steps of an American MRAP Humvee in Sadr City

Even if anti-Americanism was still prevalent in Sadr City (and it probably was), it was, for the most part, the civilized kind found in Jordan. It was invisible, in other words, and not ferocious or violent.

COP Ford’s other area of operations, the Beida neighborhood, is directly adjacent to Sadr City. It was cleaner, more prosperous, and more pleasant than Sadr City, but it still made sense to think of the place as part of a Greater Sadr City. Iraqis can’t live mere blocks from a “slum” of millions of people without experiencing a spillover effect. Now that Sadr City was stabilized, though, Beida was on the mend.

Beida’s local government headquarters, the Beladiyah, got around 20 million dollars a year from the government of Iraq, but hadn't been spending it. The neighborhood was in better shape than much of Baghdad despite the lack of spending on the local government's part. One reason was because the U.S. military had been sponsoring its own projects, but recently the Army stopped allocating money and starting working through the Beladiyah to save U.S. taxpayer dollars. Even so, the area was fairly clean and well-ordered despite, not because of, the Beladiyah's projects.

I joined Captains Looney, Boyes, Clint Rusch, and Todd Allison on a visit to the office. Captain Rusch spoke to the Beladiyah's director about installing dumpsters. There is still a ridiculous amount of trash on the streets.

“We need to make sure people actually, you know, use the dumpsters,” he said.

“These trash collection points will create an environmental problem,” the director said.

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Beladiyah director

“An environmental problem?” Captain Allison said. “Are you kidding me? That's the least of your concerns right now. Trust me.”

“Mike,” Captain Looney said quietly as he leaned toward me. “You know who Sisyphus is?”

“Of course,” I said.

Sisyphus is a figure in Greek mythology who was forced to push a rock up a hill, watch it roll down, and start all over again for eternity.

“We're pushing the rock, baby,” he said.

Unlike in the myth, though, pushing the rock got results. Smart-looking shops lined one side of Beida's market street.

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Legal shops, Beida market

Illegal squatter shops lined the other.

“The Beladiyah chief’s cracking down,” Captain Looney said to the owner of one of the illegal shops who sold shoes. “A bulldozer’s clearing all this out tomorrow, so you need to move your merchandise and take any of these building materials you want to keep with you.”

“Am I going to get compensation?” the man said.

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Squatter shop owner, Beida

“No,” Captain Looney said. “You are not going to get compensation. Why should I pay you to obey the law? Right now you're breaking the law.”

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Squatter shop, Beida

Captain Rusch took me aside and explained. “The regular non-squatter shops are registered and vetted,” he said. “Part of the concern here is security. The government is worried the squatter shops might be owned or controlled by insurgents. Someone could easily plant a bomb inside one. Also, the squatters are on government property, and the government wants to turn that side of the street into a park.”

“I don't care if you're a part-time teacher,” Captain Looney said to the man selling shoes. “I mean, it's great that you're a teacher. But I have to enforce the law. This comes from the Beladiyah. That's how liberal democratic societies work. You have laws, and the laws get enforced.”

The man was disgruntled and still didn’t understand why he had to uproot his shop.

“I feel like I'm talking to my kid brother,” Captain Looney said to our translator Eddie.

The guys running the squatter shops actually were eligible for a kind of “compensation” if they would run their business legally. Anyone who wanted to start a business in Baghdad was eligible for a 2,500 dollar microgrant from the U.S. military – free money that would never need to be paid back.

“I don't like the run-down cheap shops,” Captain Looney said to me, “because somebody might pay 200 dollars to put an IED in one. Someone with a nice expensive shop won't let anyone put an IED anywhere near it. Another problem with squatter shops is that they're often targeted by extortionists.”

Someone left a dismantled bus in front of his house around the corner. At first glance I thought the bus had been destroyed by a bomb.

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“Move it,” Captain Looney said to the owner.

The owner objected.

“Why are you arguing with me?” Captain Looney said. “You're breaking the law. We could arrest you right now. We won't, but we could. So don't argue with me. This neighborhood is not going to be a hawasim.”

Hawasim is an Arabic word for slum.

The area actually looked decent compared with much of Baghdad – especially compared with next-door Sadr City, and even more so compared with the real hawasim in Ur to the north.

Another Iraqi man had car parts, including filthy old engine blocks, splayed out on the sidewalk in front of his house.

“Do you think anyone walks by here and says, ooh, look at those car parts!” Captain Looney said to the man. “No. Nobody wants to look at that. Clean it up. We'll help you tonight. We'll bring some guys out here tonight to help you move all this stuff.”

“I know this guy,” Eddie said to me. “He's a mechanic, and he leaves all this crap in front of his house so he can eat, sleep, and fuck his wife all day without having to commute to work.”


“I just signed 165 small business grants,” Captain Looney told me back at the COP, “that we will use to stimulate the local economy. Not only does it help out the local economy by giving people more capital to run their businesses, it also increases security because they realize coalition and Iraqi security forces are looking out for their interests. It makes them more likely to cooperate.”

Captain Rusch told me the microgrant program is the non-kinetic equivalent of the Gold Wall.

“I understand why it's a good idea,” I said, “but why does it work better than anything else?”

“It's a well-executed and targeted display of money as power,” Captain Boyes said. “It's a weapon system. It’s great. We have to interact with the locals. Not only is the platoon leader going out to find a viable candidate for this grant, he has to spend that time analyzing the business, talking to the shop owner and seeing what the business needs. The money can be used for anything to start a business. It can be used to expand a business, to hire new employees, anything like that. They'll go in there and talk to the shop owner and ask him what are the top three needs.”

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Sadr City

“We typically don't put any dollar amount on it,” Captain Looney said. “We say what are your top three needs to improve your business? And we'll ask them how much that will cost. Most of the time they have a well thought-out plan. They'll give us exactly what they need, how much each item costs, and we'll bounce that off what we know from our own experience and how much we know it should cost. We're not going to let them say it costs 5,000 dollars for a small generator. We're not going to be raked over the coals. Most people are honest. They give us a fair estimate of the costs. As soon as we give them the money, they use the money immediately to improve their location.

“I can take you to a hookah bar and chai shop,” he continued, “where we've given them a grant and they made drastic improvements to the outside. That had a great impact because it showed what U.S. forces are willing to do for Iraqis. It's a cultural and social hub of this neighborhood. Many people see what we've done for them. We didn't just make an investment with one person, the business owner. There may be hundreds of local men in the area who go to this hookah shop every week, and we made an impact with all of them.”

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Park, Sadr City

“We see it as a business opportunity for them and a security opportunity for us,” Captain Boyes said. “We've increased the general atmospherics. People are more open to talking to us or giving us a phone call and giving us information. We have had actual tangible results where people have called up and told us where IEDs were placed. And the only reason he called us is because his brother received a microgrant.”

Unfortunately, only the southwestern quarter of Sadr City benefited from the program.

“You aren't even allowed to go on the other side of the Gold Wall, are you?” I said.

“No,” Captain Boyes said.

“How do you know what goes on in there?” I said. “Do you have sources?”

“The Iraqi Army is extremely good at sharing intelligence,” he said. “We have independent agencies, the NGOs and IGOs, that send out atmospherics reports in public. The Iraqi media is in there. There's a lot of stuff that goes on in there that gets reported. Atmospherics do come out. People do talk about what goes on inside, and the Iraqi Army operates in there every day.”

“I read an article recently,” I said, “by an American reporter who went to a Sadr City tea shop on the other side of the Gold Wall with some Iraqi friends. He told his friends he was surprised by how safe he felt there. But his friends said he was only safe because they were with him, that he might not last if he were there by himself. I don't know if it's true, but that's what they told him. Does that sound right to you? Is that how it is?”

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Iraqi women, Sadr City

“I don't know,” Captain Looney said. “I mean, there's still terrorist groups out there that need money. What better way to get money than to kidnap a Westerner? What better way to make a spectacular statement than to do something like the Nick Berg incident?”

“The radical Shia groups worry me less than the radical Sunni groups,” I said.

“Culturally, though,” Captain Boyes said, “any time I’m in an Iraqi's home I feel perfectly safe. Their culture demands they accept you and protect you.”

“Yes,” I said. “I know. I always feel safe in their houses, too.”

Most Westerners who spend time even in dangerous Muslim countries feel safe when they're off the street and in somebody's house. Muslims are culturally and religiously required to show hospitality even to enemies.

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Iraqi boy, Sadr City

“I was once with a mullah in Pakistan,” Jeffrey Goldberg wrote on his Atlantic blog recently, “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.”

“I wouldn't say I feel safe to that extent,” Captain Looney said. “I don't feel as threatened, but is it really worth fully trusting somebody like that?”

“Maybe not,” I said, “but they're not going to mess with me in their house if I'm with you guys and you guys are armed. I mean, what are they going to do?”

“I'm not worried about that,” he said. “I'm worried more about someone knowing I'm there and attacking the location I'm in. The day you become complacent is the day you get attacked. Constant vigilance, brother.”


I joined Captain Looney and his men on a visit to Mustansiriya University. Three students had been shot there recently by Mahdi Army militiamen.

“There was a real interesting mood at this college after that happened,” one sergeant told me.

Captain Looney had a meeting scheduled with Dr. Ali J. Al Obedi, Dean of the Administration and Economics College.

“I get a kick out of the sign over the door to his building,” Captain Rusch told me as we walked across campus.

“What does it say?” I said.

“You'll see,” he said and laughed. “You can't miss it.”

I saw it on the way in.

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“The Deanery!” he said. “As if it's a dean-manufacturing factory.”

A half-dozen Iraqi Army soldiers stood around Dean Obedi's office when we arrived. He politely asked them to leave.

I sat on a couch with Captains Looney, Rusch, and Allison. A teenage boy brought us Turkish coffee and chocolates.

“Do you need any help with anything?” Captain Looney said to Dean Obedi.

“We're having problems with protesters,” the dean said in Arabic. “I'm trying to institute a uniform policy and make sure students show up on time for class. I think there might be a terrorist element among the protesters.”

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Dr. Ali J. Al Obedi, Dean of the Administration and Economics College at Mustansiriya University

Captain Allison rolled his eyes and leaned over to whisper to me. “Sometimes Iraqis escalate the threat level,” he said quietly, “to get the attention of Americans who might otherwise ignore what they think is a problem.”

“It's a sign of progress,” Captain Looney said to the dean. “There were no protests here under Saddam Hussein. I don't see any problem as long as the protests aren't violent.”

If student protesters who are late for class are the current “terrorist” threat at Mustansiriya University, the area has really calmed down. Not only had three students been shot by Mahdi Army militiamen not long before I arrived, but seventy people, including several female students, were killed nearby on a single day in 2007.

Captain Looney and Dean Obedi talked about Mustansiriya's security needs while Captain Allison and I discussed the university itself.

“Here at the business college,” he said, “they take classes like Microsoft Office and Tourism.”

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Captain Todd Allison

“It will be ten years before they get much tourism, “ I said, “and that's if they're lucky. Hardly anyone will pay money to visit Baghdad.”

“They'll get people from Syria and Jordan a lot sooner than they'll get people from the U.S. and Europe,” he said. “And, of course, they'll get tourists from Iran.”

I strolled the campus for a few minutes after the meeting and took pictures.

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Students, Mustansiriya University

Students at Cafe Mustansiriya.jpg
Students at a cafe, Mustansiriya University

Almost every time I raised my camera, young women turned and covered their faces as though having their picture taken was scandalous. This happens everywhere in Iraq, including in Kurdistan. It's the main reason I have so few pictures of women. I can occasionally sneak a few, though.

Two Young Women Mustansiriya.jpg
Students, Mustansiriya University

“What's that about anyway?” I said to our interpreter Eddie, a native of Baghdad who has lived in San Diego for decades and speaks perfect English. Women in most other Muslim countries aren't nervous when they see my camera.

“Mostly it's just female modesty,” he said. “Some might also be afraid of the radicals.”

Shia Sign Sadr City.jpg

More than 90 percent of the women on campus wore headscarves. Baghdad contrasts sharply with Beirut where fewer than 25 percent wear headscarves, and even more so with Azerbaijan and Kosovo where fewer than one percent bother with headscarves.

“Most women here don't want to wear it,” Eddie said. “They aren't required by law like in Iran. They do it because they are afraid. Baghdad is still infested with radicals. When my sister visits Iraq, she has to wear it even though she doesn't want to. I also don't want her to wear it, but even Christian women in Baghdad are wearing it now. These women you see who refuse are risking their lives.”

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 April 8, 2009 12:31 AM

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 04/08/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

Posted by: David M Author Profile Page at April 8, 2009 6:57 AM

That is some of the best reporting I've read on Iraq. That is some the best reporting I've read period. You should start a journalism school for western reporters who want to learn their trade.

Keep up your good work.

Doug Santo
Pasadena, CA

Posted by: Doug Santo Author Profile Page at April 8, 2009 7:06 AM

Modesty? Or a cultural attitude that sees women's bodies as simply vile?

Posted by: Boojum Author Profile Page at April 8, 2009 8:27 AM

Informative reporting, as usual, Michael.

A long, hard slog ahead, but encouraging, hard won progress many can be proud of.

mnf-iraq had a piece recently about tearing down a concrete T-wall barrier in Samarra:

"The site selected for the initial barrier removal is in a section of Samarra that was once used for public executions in darker days. Today it is a peaceful marketplace."

Posted by: Paul S. Author Profile Page at April 8, 2009 5:19 PM

Great article,
Point of clarification, though. I was in JSS Sadr City in April/May 2008. There were a number of different units involved with putting up the wall, not just this one. C/1-68, D/4-64 and B/1-14 did the primary wall emplacement. 1-2 SCR was in charge of JSS Sadr City when it was IRAMed and they backed up the Iraqi Army when they initially went into Sadr City along with C/1-64.

Posted by: mrshankly01 Author Profile Page at April 8, 2009 6:20 PM

Facinating article. In Israel we can only envy the job the American army is doing managing their own (temporary) occupation of Iraq. If only we had the resources and the mindset to combine military intervention with development and empowerment of friendly elements, we'd all be much better off. Instead, it looks like the Americans are doing the job for us.

Posted by: MarkC Author Profile Page at April 10, 2009 8:54 AM

MJT, good article.

mrshankly01, thank you for your service sir. What is your assessment of how the Iraqi Army Construction Engineering Battalions and Combat Engineering Battalions (with their Explosive Ordinance Disposal companies)are coming along?

The severe funding shortage for the Iraqi Army has significantly delayed equipment procurement (including for the engineering elements) and caused most of the IA's training through put to lie fallow. The IA has canceled all basic training since September 2008 (and instituted a hiring freeze.) Less understandably, the Iraqi Army is not using most of its training centers to retrain or upgrade existing units. (to save a few bucks.)

This isn't just affecting the IA. Even the fabled ISOF is suffering:
"The ISOF brigade currently has 824 soldiers
who passed the Selection Course in May 2008
but cannot be added to the official rolls due to
the hiring freeze. These personnel would be
sufficient to bring all units to full operational
capability by July 2009 and complete force
generation. However, the ISWCS has encountered
persistent difficulties obtaining support
from the MoD for ammunition, equipment, and
pay for the trainees, causing courses to be
postponed. Failure to resolve the funding issue
for the 824 Selection graduates is already
having a significant impact on INCTF’s
sustainment capability. INCTF advisors have
made this a priority in the months ahead."
Page 64:

DJ's latest summary of the ISF funding shortage is:

Boojum: "Modesty? Or a cultural attitude that sees women's bodies as simply vile?" What are you getting at Boojum? Cultural attitude? In what way is western "cultural attitude" any better than Iraqi "cultural attitude"?

Posted by: anand Author Profile Page at April 10, 2009 11:00 AM


Following Long War's daily reports recently, Mosul looks like a current hotspot; maybe your upcoming reports have a tie-in.

Take care.

Posted by: Paul S. Author Profile Page at April 10, 2009 6:25 PM

In the Neterlands most muslim women wear a heascarf. Maybe its 80%.

There have been reports that (muslim and non-muslim) women that don't wear one, are called whore in the street.

Posted by: Onslo Author Profile Page at April 13, 2009 6:34 AM

Sorry for the delay in responding.
My info is as of DEC 08, when I redeployed.
I can't say much about the Iraqi Army Engineering efforts as I didn't witness any. The wall was put up by American Infantry, Tankers, Scouts and Engineers. Now, while I was at Camp Falcon, the Iraqi National Police were being trained and executing route clearance missions along the Hillah Highway.
Hope this helps.

Posted by: mrshankly01 Author Profile Page at May 23, 2009 12:44 AM
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