May 12, 2009

The Future of Iraq, Part I

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During my last trip to Baghdad I tried to figure out if the worst in Iraq is over or if the dramatic reduction in violence is just a long lull. Half the Iraqis and half the Americans I spoke to were optimistic. The other half think Iraq is probably doomed. I have no idea who's right, and neither does anyone else. This is the first in a four-part series where I'll present both cases and let you decide what to think for yourself. We'll start with the good news.


Captain Todd Allison slipped off his helmet and tucked it under his arm as he and I walked on a dusty residential street in a Shia quarter of Baghdad.

“This is the safest place in the city,” he said. He no longer needed his helmet or body armor, and neither did I. “This street is protected by JAM.

JAM is short for Jaysh al Mahdi, Moqtada al Sadr's radical Mahdi Army militia. Not much of that militia remains since the Iraqi Army purged Basra and Sadr City of Shia insurgents last spring, but Sadr and his men still have clout in some areas. “JAM” is also a somewhat imprecise term used to describe any of the various armed Shia extremist groups in Iraq funded and trained by the Iranian Quds Force.

I joined Captain Allison and captains Todd Looney and Clint Rusch for dinner at Iraqi Army General Nasser's house to discuss politics and security. General Nasser greeted us at the door and welcomed us warmly in Arabic. After introducing us to Iraqi Army intelligence officer Major Kareem, he invited us to sit and drink black tea with sugar.

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(From left) Interpreter Eddie, Captain Todd Looney, General Nasser, Captain Todd Allison, Jaysh al Mahdi member Hajji Jasim, Captain Clint Rusch

“We've also got a JAM guy joining us tonight,” Captain Allison said.

Hajji Jasim, our JAM companion, was from the Organization of the Martyr Sadr, the supposed “political wing” of the Mahdi Army. The distinction between the Mahdi Army's “political” and “military” wings is a diplomatic invention. The U.S. military came up with it partly as an excuse to meet with members of an enemy militia, and partly to signal to Sadr that he can dissolve his militia without having to retire from politics.

The British government is trying this approach with Hezbollah in Lebanon, but Hezbollah refuses to play along and makes it abundantly clear that no distinct “political wing” exists. “All political, social and jihad work is tied to the decisions of this leadership,” said Hezbollah's Deputy Secretary-General Naim Qassem. “The same leadership that directs the parliamentary and government work also leads jihad actions in the struggle against Israel.”

The Mahdi Army, though, is a bit cannier than Hezbollah and is willing to go along with the ruse because it's expedient. “We're all part of the same hypocrisy,” Captain Allison said. “Hajji Jasim is using us, and we're using him.”

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Captain Todd Allison

General Nasser sat in a high-backed chair in front of the window and wrapped himself in a heavy robe as thick as a blanket. “We wear this type of outfit in winter,” he said, “to keep us warm." It was still cold then in Iraq. At least Iraqis felt cold. I did not need a jacket, let alone a thick blanket.

Saddam Hussein threw General Nasser in prison during the 1991 Gulf War. Now that Saddam's regime is out of the way and Nasser's own Shia community dominates Iraq's politics, he's angling to be picked as the Minister of Defense.

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General Nasser

I asked him what most Iraqis really thought about the new Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) signed by the United States and Iraq. The American military is welcome to stay in Iraq for a few more years, but is obligated to evacuate most Iraqi cities by the middle of 2009.

“Most people here are in favor of SOFA,” he said, “but JAM and Iran try to prevent people from knowing what it is really about. Iraqi journalists explain it well, though. We in the security department try to make sure everyone knows about it. The only people who don't accept it are uneducated.”

“That describes most people in Sadr City,” Captain Heil said.

Major Kareem joined the conversation. He's an intelligence officer in charge of the Iraqi Army's 44th Brigade.

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Major Kareem

“They've been brainwashed for five years by JAM,” he said. “But people have been turning against them. Even regular people in those areas are beginning to cooperate. Even many JAM members themselves understand reality and are starting to talk to us. The end is now very obvious.”

“Our concern,” Captain Heil said to Major Kareem, “is that those who are left really just want to keep on fighting. They're the ones aligned with Iran. Are they going to keep fighting?”

“Now we're at the core of the problem,” Major Kareem said.

“If we weren't here,” Captain Heil said, “they couldn't attack us. This is part of the problem. Even when JAM has been defeated, there are groups that just want to attack coalition forces. They all want to claim that they drove us out of Iraq.”

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Major Kareem (left), Captain Heil (right)

If American forces withdrew from Iraq under fire from Shia militias, two contradictory things would happen at the same time. The militias' excuse to exist would be yanked out from under them, but their credibility would be bolstered thanks to their perceived victory.

“Resistance” only makes sense if there is someone around to resist. This is Hezbollah's dilemma in Lebanon. And it explains why Hezbollah became obsessed with the alleged Israeli occupation of Lebanon's Shebaa Farms only after Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000.

Hardly anyone in Lebanon had ever heard of the microscopic and uninhabited Shebaa Farms region before 2000. Israel claims the area belongs to Syria and will be given back if and when Damascus signs a peace treaty. Hezbollah claims the land is Lebanese. The Syrian government refuses to say one way or the other whose land it is. If Damascus says the land is Lebanese, Israel could give it back to Lebanon and undermine the justification for Hezbollah's existence. If the Syrians say the Shebaa Farms belongs to them, Hezbollah's raison d'être would likewise be knocked out from under them. The supposed Israeli occupation of Lebanon would end either way, and Hezbollah would have nothing left to resist. Syria, therefore, will never resolve this problem as long as Hezbollah is useful as a proxy in Lebanon.

Iraqi “resistance” groups likewise have mutually exclusive goals. They must resist the Americans, but they'll be useless the instant they win.

“I've been an intelligence officer for seventeen years,” Major Kareem said, “and I've been working with Americans for five years. The JAM Special Groups are linked in a straight line to Iranian intelligence and Khameini's office. They want to achieve Iranian interests in Iraq. As security forces working with the Americans, our job is to find and eliminate them.”

Ryan Crocker, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon from 1990 to 1993, and to Iraq from 2007 to 2009, compared Iran's sponsorship of Shia militias in Iraq to its Hezbollah program in Lebanon. “Iran is pursuing,” he said in testimony to the U.S. Congress in the spring of 2008, “a Lebanonization strategy, using the same techniques they used in Lebanon to co-opt elements of the local Shia community and use them as basically instruments of Iranian force.”

“Three weeks ago,” General Kareem said, “an American brigade ambushed three Special Groups members. An op was discovered. These three members paid 20,000 dollars to a guy to go onto an American base and kidnap American soldiers. Where did they get the 20,000 dollars? I don't have that kind of money. Hardly anyone in Iraq has that kind of money. That means they have strong financial support. We have to find these groups and detain them.”

Hajji Jasim, General Nasser's guest from the office of the Mahdi Army's “political wing,” sat next to Major Kareem on the couch. “Understand something,” he said to Captain Heil. “In the media, JAM only pretends to oppose the Status of Forces Agreement. Privately, we like it. It helps Sadr more than anything else. Those committing violence are going against Sadr's orders. You wanted the occupation to last 20 more years. Now, under SOFA, it's down to three years. That's great for us.”

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Jaysh al Mahdi official Hajji Jasim (left), Major Kareem (right)

When I met Tom Ricks a few weeks ago, he relayed to me an interesting anecdote from his new book about the surge called The Gamble. “Sadr’s people entered into secret negotiations with the United States in, I think, 2007, about whether or not to have negotiations,” he said. “They said before we begin any talks, we have to have a date certain when you will withdraw from Iraq. The American policy said we can’t do that. So the Sadrists said well, then we can’t have talks. Then the Americans said, well, just out of curiosity, what was the [withdrawal] date you had in mind? The Sadrists said 2013. Which put them on the right-wing of the U.S. Congress.”

If the Sadrists, two years ago, wanted the United States out of Iraq after six years, of course they're privately happy now that the United States has agreed to be out in three.

“Iran supports violent groups,” Hajji Jasim, the JAM guy, said. “But they are small and scared. They aren't scared of you or the Iraqi Army. They're afraid of the Iraqi people. I was in Sadr City today. People were happy. The situation is very calm there. We want safety, for your people and ours.”

“Hopefully you and your people can start doing more and we can do less,” Captain Heil said.

“After you withdraw,” Jasim said, “we will double our efforts.” When he said “we,” he meant Iraqis, not necessarily JAM. “We will prove to you that the Iraqi soldiers can do this.”

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Jaysh al Mahdi official Hajji Jasim (left), Captain Clint Rusch (right)

Not even in an alternate universe would a Hezbollah official say anything like that to an Israeli officer. There is absolutely no chance that Hezbollah will cooperate with the Lebanese Army to stamp out anti-Israeli terrorist cells in South Lebanon.

I didn't know what to make of this guy Hajji Jasim. Whose side was he even on? The lines were not clear. One thing, at least, was clear, however: the similarities between the Mahdi Army and Hezbollah were fewer than ever.

Jasim then had to excuse himself. He couldn't stay long at General Nasser's house because he had an appointment with some of his JAM friends.

I wanted to ask General Nasser more about the new Status of Forces Agreement. Everything the American military will and won't do in Iraq will be determined, at least in part, by that agreement.

“Iraqi people were hurt a lot by militias and JAM,” he said. “And JAM and the militias are the ones who say we don't want Americans here. The agreement says Americans will withdraw in phases and then leave the country. All these militias have lost because SOFA proves Iraq is a secure environment now, and the militias lose money and power in a secure environment. I asked people who protested SOFA if they read it, and they said no. All parliament members agree with it. Those who have read and don't like it want to profit from catastrophe in Iraq. I asked people in JAM why they don't want to sign SOFA, and they said because they want war profits and to violently kick out Americans on their terms like in Vietnam.”

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Tigris River, Baghdad

He seemed to contradict what Hajji Jasim had just said a minute ago. The Mahdi Army, according to Jasim, was secretly happy with the Status of Forces agreement. It ensures American troops will leave Iraq at least eventually. I don't think, however, that either Nasser or Jasim is necessarily lying or even wrong. This is the insurgent's dilemma, the same one Hezbollah faces in Lebanon. Both want to defeat their enemies, but they cannot exist without enemies.

“If Americans leave,” General Nasser said, “JAM's sole reason for existence and resistance is gone.”

“That's true,” I said. “But it's tricky. Hezbollah lost a lot of support in Lebanon after the Israelis left in 2000. But Hezbollah is still strong, still popular among the Shias at least, and still threatens Beirut at gunpoint.”

General Nasser wasn't sure what to say about that.

Captain Todd Looney had an answer, however. “Remember,” he said, “that Israel borders Lebanon. We'll be an ocean away. JAM can't lob rockets at America like Hezbollah can lob rockets at Israel.”

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Captain Todd Looney

“If you pull out of here and leave us,” General Nasser said, “we know the remedy for Iraqi people. We will use force.”

Iraq has never been successfully governed by anyone but a strongman. You might even say Iraq has never been successfully governed at all. Who today sincerely believes the use of force by Saddam Hussein's Baath Party regime was an effective “remedy” for the Iraqi people, as General Nasser put it? Still, despite my unease with what he was saying, I don't think he necessarily meant a totalitarian system is the solution to what ails Iraq.

“Twelve JAM members were brought to court recently,” he said. “They asked to be put under American justice because you are softer and jail people under better conditions. Iraqis are not like Americans. You are educated, we aren't. Without force, Iraqis cannot be civilized. Americans don't use real force. You talk to people nicely and worry about human rights.”

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An Iraqi manning a checkpoint, Sadr City

This is how many Iraqi optimists talk, I am sorry to say. Most Iraqis who think the worst there is over, that the surge was more or less the end of the war, don't believe Iraq is going to look like post-communist nations in Eastern Europe. Baghdad is not the next Prague. Iraq may be less brutal from here on out than it has been, but that doesn't mean it will be a model democracy.

“Do you think,” I said, “the Iranian government can dial up the violence here whenever it wants to?” Iran might very well wish to ramp up attacks against American soldiers in Iraq if Israel strikes Iranian nuclear facilities later this year or next. But Iran can't retaliate significantly in Iraq if the Shia militias are a spent force.

“The Iranians,” he said, “have already used all the violent force in Iraq that they were able to use. Iraq was caught in the middle between Iran and America. This war has been a proxy war fought inside Iraq. Iraqi Shias could only get support from Iran, but Sunnis have all the Arab countries to help them. If Sunni countries stop supporting Sunnis militias, Shias will stop seeking support from Iran. You know what Al Qaeda did to the markets here. We were forced to seek support from Iran.”

Maybe General Nasser is right, and maybe he isn't. I heard a different answer earlier from an American military officer who asked not to be quoted by name. “Iran has been restrained,” he said. “Tehran doesn't want to trigger an open war with the United States. They can turn up the violence if they want to, but if they do, we might be forced to do something about it. So they don't want to.”

“If the U.S. solves three problems,” the general said, “American-Arab relations will be very good. First, resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. Second, promote democracy in the Arab world. Third, destroy the Wahhabis. If you solve these problems, all will be well.”

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An Iraqi man rests on a broken couch, Adhamiyah, Baghdad

“What kind of solution do you want to see for the Arab-Israeli conflict?” I said.

“1967 borders,” General Nasser said. He did not want to dwell on that, though, and I was surprised he even mentioned it. The Arab-Israeli conflict is peripheral, if not entirely irrelevant, to Iraq's problems.

“We need to have a good relationship with the U.S.A.” he said. “The militias have bad slogans. If we finish them off, we will be okay. We need a strong relationship because the U.S.A. is powerful, educated, and prosperous. We are not against Israel or the U.S.A. Americans are my friends. A bad guy can get 40,000 dollars for killing me because they say I'm an American agent.” Then he laughed. “A JAM guy, though, the number two JAM guy after Moqtada al Sadr, recently told me don't worry, I will protect you.

Sometimes it's hard to tell if Iraqis who talk the pro-American talk are sincere or if they're just blowing smoke. General Nasser, I think, was sincere. His body language and tone of voice said so, as did the naked calculation of his own interests.

“I had Iraqis here at my house recently,” he said. “I told them Americans are better than you because they keep their word and they are disciplined. American people are not profiteers. Their wisdom led them to this. I want Iraqis to learn about American honor.”


My Spanish colleague Ramon Lobo from the newspaper El País in Madrid joined me for a meeting with Colonel John Hort in Northern Baghdad. Ramon had been in Baghdad before as an unembedded reporter when the city was much more dangerous than it is now. This was his first trip with the United States military.

He was encouraged by how much safer Baghdad is today. Aside from the ridiculous and overly bureaucratic transportation hassles and delays that everyone who uses military transport has to put up with, he seemed to enjoy spending quality time with American soldiers. “I want to go on as many missions as possible with the Americans,” he told me. “I want to go wherever they go, I want to sleep where they sleep, and I want to eat when they eat.”

He and I spent hours discussing Iraq, the invasion, the original botched occupation, the insurgency, and the surge. Not once did I hear him trafficking in some of the hysterical nonsense I'm accustomed to reading in European media from axe-grinding correspondents who have never set foot in the country. Ramon knew Iraq too well to wallow in any of that.

We jointly interviewed the colonel in his office.

“This is my second deployment,” Colonel Hort said. “My first one was in 2005 and 2006. When I was getting ready to leave in 2006, I didn't see a way ahead. But since the surge – I came in on the tail end of that – we've seen significant changes for the better, almost phenomenal. I saw ten to twelve attacks a day in my area alone. In my area now, down in Adhamiyah and Sadr City, we're down to less than one per day.”

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Baghdad night life

“There are reasons for this,” he continued. “First, there is the surge and helping the Iraqi Security Forces develop. Second, there are the Sons of Iraq and their ability to secure their neighborhoods and see the enemy.”

Sons of Iraq is a program created by the American military that provides basic training for Iraqi civilians who wish to police their own neighborhoods. They have been described as a “militia,” but that's only partly accurate at best. They started out doing checkpoint and community watch work, but they're being promoted now into the Iraqi police and army, and they're deputized and paid by the government of Iraq.

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Iraqi Police officer, Sadr City

“They are able to see the enemy through the internal networks they've established,” Colonel Hort said. “That went a long way throughout this last year while the Iraqi Army continued to get its feet on the ground. The Sadr City fight, more than anything else, created a greater degree of confidence that we didn't see a year ago. And that confidence is also attributed to their successful operations in Basra and Sadr City.”

Last year, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki ordered the Iraqi Army into Basra and Sadr City to purge those areas of Shia militias. Maliki himself is a Shia, and many analysts and observers didn't expect him to send the army after insurgents from his own community.

“The Iraqi Security Forces are growing,” Colonel Hort said. “They've been able to develop source networks. They're much more effective now at targeting the Special Groups than they were. They now have a much more objective view of the insurgency.”

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Gunner Palace, Iraqi Army base, Adhamiyah, Baghdad

“Can you say precisely who you're talking about when you say Special Groups?” I said. Some of these terms get bandied about a little too casually in Iraq, so it's not always clear who or what is being discussed.

“They are groups,” he said, “that have broken away from Moqtada al Sadr's Jaysh al Mahdi organizational structure and have no real component that might facilitate a political resolution. That's one part of the definition.”

“They all started out as part of the Mahdi Army then?” I said.

“Some of them did,” he said. “Some are just plain criminal elements. Most of their leaders were, at one time or another, working as a JAM brigade commander. But when ceasefires are announced, or when some kind of political reconciliation is announced, these individuals never recognize it. As a result, they began to organize with their own institutional structure. They're almost like mafia type groups. When I tell my wife back in the States about the Special Groups, I tell her to think in terms of the mafia.”

“What can you tell me about Hezbollah?” I said. I didn't mean Hezbollah in Lebanon, a group I know all too well. I meant Hezbollah in Iraq, a murky organization that hardly anyone ever talks about. “Are they connected in any way to Hezbollah in Lebanon, or do they just happen to have the same name?”

I actually know that Hezbollah in Iraq is connected in some ways to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Colonel Hort didn't want to talk about that, however. No American officer I met wanted to tell me much about Hezbollah unless I agreed not to quote them by name. The few who were willing to discuss it anonymously said Hezbollah in Iraq members do receive training in Lebanon, Syria, and Iran from Lebanese Hezbollah members. I also know that the Iraqi branch of Hezbollah doesn't engage in any kind of political activity whatsoever. They don't even have a make-believe “political wing.” They don't build hospitals or schools, and they do not collect donations for charity. They don't do anything except kill people. Hezbollah in Iraq is far more vicious than Moqtada al Sadr and his men.

Colonel Hort would tell me this much, however: “Hezbollah was very very secretive in the beginning. We couldn't see them well at all. They were extremely savvy [about operational security]. They were almost like a family in and of themselves. They've been focused on attacks against coalition forces rather than Iraqis or anyone else. They've gotten some specialized training, some weaponry like the RPG-29 – which is one of the best Eastern bloc RPGs out there – and they use them to hit M1 tanks. They've got the IRAM – the Improvised Rocket Assisted Mortar – that they've used to attack some of our Joint Security Stations. Those are their two specialties right there. They've also specialized in some of the more sophisticated EFPs. Hezbollah, though, is not very big. They aren't like some of the other Special Groups out there. We've had a significant impact on them. They are really disrupted right now.”

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Iraqi Army post, Sadr City

Ramon wanted to know about Al Qaeda. “Have they been pushed to Diyala?” he said, referring to one of Iraq's most violent and unstable provinces northeast of Baghdad.

“Not exactly pushed,” Colonel Hort said. “Al Qaeda has been disrupted to the point where they have to rely on a much broader area now to get help. They have to go to Ramadi, maybe, or the guys in Ramadi have to come out to Baghdad. It's a much flatter organization, which makes it more difficult for their supply system and every other component that would make them a successful insurgency. They've found themselves stretched really thin. We're dealing with low grade Al Qaeda right now as opposed to two years ago when they carried out spectacular attacks. We were seeing 20 to 30 civilian casualties a day in Baghdad. We do get that occasional attack that causes casualties in excess of five or ten now, but it's not anything like what I saw two years ago or even a year ago. They're definitely on the run.”

“Do you think the improvements in the last year and a half are permanent,” Ramon said, “or might Iraq become destabilized very quickly when the Americans leave?” I asked this of almost everyone I met last time in Iraq. It is the big question right now, and the truth is, nobody knows. (Colonel Hort here belongs in the optimist camp, though I'll quote pessimists at length in later installments in this series.)

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Old Adhamiyah district, Baghdad

“It's what we call fragile security right now,” Colonel Hort said. “We're watching it closely with our Iraqi military counterparts. My focus, to answer your question, is ensuring that the 11th Iraqi Army Division, which is my counterpart, understands the intelligence requirements in order to target the insurgent groups. They're continuing to develop their human source networks that allow them to see the enemy better. It's something they didn't really have last year. The Sons of Iraq are now part of the Iraqi Security Forces. They're reporting to the battalion brigade division chain of command, whereas they used to report to me.”

“They can see the enemy,” Ramon said. “We can't see the enemy because they don't have a flag or a uniform. But I don't know if it's going to be safe here or not in the future.”

“I guess there are two components to the reconciliation between Americans and Iraqis,” Colonel Hort said. “One is what we've seen in the Sunni community with the Awakening movement. They've also reconciled with themselves and with the government to an extent. I can't speak about whether or not we're there yet, but I do know there's some reconciliation between us and the population.”

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Market, Adhamiyah, Baghdad

I have no doubt the colonel is right about that.

Iraqi public opinion is hard to read. Most Arabs are exceptionally polite and hospitable people, and they'll almost always conceal any hostility as a matter of course. That's true everywhere in the Arab world as long as the people aren't violently hostile.

Much of Iraq used to be violently hostile. Even kids in Sadr City used to throw rocks at American soldiers. Some Baghdad neighborhoods were so dangerous that Americans who left the relative security of their base had a 100 percent chance of being attacked. Overt hostility is rare now, and violent attacks are even rarer. Something important has changed. Reconciliation between Americans and Iraqis is real.

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Young girl, Adhamiyah, Baghdad

“In 2005,” the colonel said, “when I was here we weren't highly thought of across the country. More the opposite. We were the occupier. We heard that word quite a bit. But our training, our understanding of the environment, our respect for the people here, and our focus on engagement with the local population, there was this reconciliation. I want my company commanders to let people know that even though we wear this uniform, we've got all this equipment on and carry a weapon, that underneath all that we're a lot like the Iraqis. We're not that different. This reconciliation isn't just between the Sunnis and the government, but between us and the people of Iraq.”

“Perhaps,” Ramon said, “the violence went down between the Sunnis and the Shias because they killed everybody they wanted to kill. Now they have ethnically pure areas. The mixed areas are the exceptions, so they don't have as many people to kill.”

“But the violence is down in the mixed areas, too,” I said, although I don't think Ramon was entirely wrong. Sectarian “cleansing” was never completed in Baghdad, but most areas in the city are overwhelmingly dominated by Sunnis or Shias. Whether or not this is a direct cause of the downturn in violence, there really are fewer opportunities for neighbors to fight than there used to be.

“The makeup of many of my areas is mixed,” Colonel Hort said. “In some places it's 60-40, although as you get closer to the river, it's more Sunni. And the Sunni-Shia mixture areas have been very quiet. There's a lot of reconciliation going on. The tribal councils have been a big help. The sheikhs are coming together. I mean, there's still tension out there. I'm not going to lie to you. But it's mostly not violent tension.”

There is, of course, still violent tension between Iraq's terrorist groups and militias and everyone else.

“What we're trying to do,” he said, “is disrupt this Al Qaeda network that has been staging low grade attacks every once in a while. They've been going down into Shia neighborhoods and trying to incite a response against Sunnis who are in the next neighborhood. We see that and we go down there to make sure everybody understands who did it, that it wasn't their neighbors – it was terrorists.”

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Two men on a stoop, old Adhamiyah district, Baghdad

“With SOFA,” Ramon said, “it's going to be more difficult.”

“The insurgency now is more criminal than anything else,” Colonel Hort said. “The Al Qaeda threat isn't down to that point yet, but Shia insurgents are becoming more and more criminal than anything else. We're working closely now with Iraqi judges, as well as Iraqi Security Forces, to ensure that when we identify a guy we're getting a warrant and arresting the guy that way. It's a significant change for us that we now need a warrant to make an arrest like we do in the States.”

Some American officers I met are worried that more terrorists and insurgents will remain at large now that warrants are needed for their arrest, but others are convinced this is wonderful news. It is, at least for the time being, just barely possible to wage a counterinsurgency using law enforcement methods instead of war-fighting methods. There is such a thing as an acceptable level of violence, and Iraq is nearer to that point than it has been in years. Baghdad is no longer the war zone it was.

Some also say a transition to warrant-based arrests now instead of later gives American officers time to train their local counterparts how the rule of law works instead of letting the Iraqis sink or swim on their own later.

“How do US military officers feel about SOFA?” I said. “Are you dreading this, or is it more or less what you hoped for?”

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Adhamiyah, Baghdad

“I'll speak for myself here,” Colonel Hort said. “SOFA represents the optimism we've felt in this country. I am concerned about the warrant-based targeting. We have to make sure we're part of the Iraqi judicial system. That's going to require some training. We are going to have to adjust some bases in the city and move them out to the perimeter. But I'm more optimistic than I am nervous or pessimistic. We see the Iraqi military in much better shape than they were a year ago.”

“Do you worry about a timeline for withdrawal?” I said. “There has been some concern in the last couple of years about what might happen if there is a timeline. Is that still a concern, or has there been enough progress in Iraq that we don't need to worry about that anymore?”

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Clothing store, Baghdad

“If, say, we take a step backwards,” he said, “my assessment is that the Iraqi government may say we're pulling out too soon. So I'm not really worried about it. I trust that the senior leadership out there, in coordination with our government, will make the right decision. We've gone too far now to do anything abrupt, and I have a lot of confidence that our senior leaders are going to do the right thing.”

“When I came here after the invasion,” Ramon said, “there were shops selling videos of Saddam's troops kicking the Shias in 1991 in Najaf and Karbala. Two years later I saw another video in the market that showed a man getting his head cut off by Zarqawi. Within sixteen months we had these two videos. These same people used to say they would die for Saddam. They had to say it. But now? The mood of the population has changed. They feel freer expressing themselves. Before they were afraid of the Mahdi Army. I have this sense – I don't know if it's true – that in the last year and a half we've been on the right road. The Bush Administration has done a big favor for the Obama Administration. Obama arrived with everything fixed. If the situation is okay, you can go. And if it's not okay, the Iraqis may ask you to stay a little bit more.”

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A billboard in Baghdad

“We've worn out Al Qaeda,” Colonel Hort said, “and we've taken the Special Groups guys and put them on the run. Half of these guys are out of the country right now. They're fugitives. Those who have come back are fugitives inside the country. We've denied their freedom of movement, and we've gotten inside the enemy's decision cycle.”

“In the last year and a half, when things have gone better,” Ramon said, “has Iranian influence gone down?

“I think so,” Colonel Hort said. “I think it has been more difficult for external countries to have the same kind of influence they had before. It goes back to the Iraqi Army. They know their country better than we'll ever know it. They know their people better than we'll ever know them. They've been able to pick up individuals who had influence. They just picked up a guy at the Baghdad airport who was an Iranian agent coming in.”

“Do you think Iran has a dial, so to speak,” I said, “which they can use to turn up the violence here whenever they feel like it? Or have they already dialed it up as much as possible and are no longer able to turn it up any more?”

“The Shia Special Groups got hit really hard in Sadr City,” Colonel Hort said. “They lost 800 soldiers to the Iraqi Army. They lost a lot of their weaponry during the summer when the Iraqi Army was in Sadr City for the first time in three years. They are significantly suppressed in their ability to project power right now.”

“Israel might hit Iran some time in the near future,” I said. “Washington won't do it, especially not the new administration. But even the last administration wasn't interested. So the Israelis may do it. And the million dollar question for us is: will Iran retaliate inside Iraq? Can they? Can they turn the violence dial up higher, or is it already turned up as high as it will go?”

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Iraqi civilians, Baghdad

“That question,” Colonel Hort said, “is a little bit above my pay grade.”

“Maybe nobody knows,” I said.

“One thing, though,” he said, “is that before we didn't have the area known as Gold in Sadr City. Prior to March, 2008, this area was very difficult for us to operate in. And now we've got great security. The Iraqi Army, which was never inside Sadr City before last March, has four battalions in there. This area was like the capital of the Special Groups and the JAM militia. And now that their safe haven is gone, there really aren't many places for them to go. They still hide out in there, but they're fugitives moving from safe house to safe house. There really isn't any place where they can go to organize large scale attacks. It will be difficult in the future for those organizations. They're collapsing on top of themselves.”

To be continued


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Posted by Michael J. Totten at May 12, 2009 1:40 AM

You mean alternatively, not alternately.

Posted by: molly Author Profile Page at May 12, 2009 4:55 AM

Not necessarily, molly. MJT may be encouraging people to alternate their payment methods, or even to make multiple payments in alternating order. You never know.

Posted by: programmmer_craig Author Profile Page at May 12, 2009 7:00 AM

On a less anal note, very good post MJT. I haven't been following events very much in Iraq lately and its great to see your take on things.

Posted by: programmmer_craig Author Profile Page at May 12, 2009 7:02 AM

MJT, it is a good article.

Could you speak more regarding your perceptions regarding the IA, INP, or IP? One surprising observation to me has been the apparent quality of 44-11 IA Brigade. Its performance has been better than what would be expected from one of the youngest and least experienced brigades in the IA.

Your article alludes to the complexity and nuance of Iraq. For example many Iraqis say that they back both Muqtada and the US simultaneously. This is something that the US media fails to fully capture.

If Pres Obama could reach some kind of accommodation with Khamenei (as he is trying to do), it would significantly improve the situation in Afghanistan and Iraq. Perhaps Sadrists, PM Maliki, Dawa, ISCI, Talabani (I would mention the Fadheela "virtue" Sadrists but they seem to be politically spent inside Iraq) and Iran's other Iraqi partners could facilitate bringing this about. So could President Karzai from Afghanistan (who continues to be accused of being a Vivak--Iranian CIA--asset.)

Posted by: anand Author Profile Page at May 12, 2009 9:17 AM

Thanks as always MJT, yet another great dispatch. I look forward to reading the next three.

It's interesting to read your dispatches from Iraq from previous years, and those who have followed your work during this time would probably agree with me in saying that things have vastly improved going by the tone of your reports. Hearing various JAM members talk about working with the US Military is something that would've been laughable a few years ago. Ramon hits on the head by stating that the "Bush Administration has done a big favor for the Obama Administration".

I'm sure it's not all sunshine and roses though, and I look forward to a healthy dose of reality from your upcoming "more pessimistic" reports. What worries me is the inevitable action against Irans nuclear program by Israel, and how that may cause Iran to ramp up the proxy fight in Iraq against US forces. But it is refreshing to hear that Iraq's Hezbollah problem is less political than the one in Lebanon.

Off to hit the tipjar, keep up the great work!

Posted by: Tman Author Profile Page at May 12, 2009 10:16 AM

You mean alternatively, not alternately.

Yes, thanks.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at May 12, 2009 10:17 AM

Anand: Your article alludes to the complexity and nuance of Iraq. For example many Iraqis say that they back both Muqtada and the US simultaneously.

Sort of, but not really. It's a strange situation, and it's hard to make sense of it. Iraq is an extremely contadictory place.

If Pres Obama could reach some kind of accommodation with Khamenei (as he is trying to do), it would significantly improve the situation in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Yes, but it's not going to happen. Remember, Khameini is supporting the most vicious of the Shia militias who are still killing American soldiers. And Khameini has what is basically a division of the Iranian Army stationed in Lebanon. Read the article about Lebanon in The New Republic that I posted just before this one. Reconciliation with Iran is not in the cards right now.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at May 12, 2009 10:25 AM

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 05/12/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

Posted by: David M Author Profile Page at May 12, 2009 11:14 AM

Best piece of reporting I have seen in years. Great great work Michael.

Posted by: Mark Eichenlaub Author Profile Page at May 12, 2009 12:04 PM


Iraq is an extremely contradictory place.

No kidding. Having run a website covering the Iraq bloggers for the last five years, I just have to smile at that remark of yours.

My favorite blog entry on this issue comes from an Iraqi blogger (Iraq Rising) writing back in 2005:

"A nut-house called Iraq."

I read your article with great interest (good photos, too), and look forward to the next installments.



Posted by: Jeffrey Author Profile Page at May 12, 2009 2:41 PM

Thank you, Michael Totten for these articles. But to me, they seem to be getting very, very complicated. My head is getting pressurized with all these factions smokily mingling, dissipating, then killing each other, joining, fracturing...
..and, I have to say that I'm getting less and less convinced that we're doing any more than treading water, while all these factions are just honing their weapons to kill each other once we've left. We can't stop this. I think the "hearts and minds" approach we talk about is simplistic and naive.
I'm the one who periodically comments here that this area ought to be quarantined. Let American action be limited to remote controlled drones and elite special forces, but no one else seems to've mentioned this.

Posted by: Morningside Author Profile Page at May 12, 2009 6:42 PM

Morningside: I'm getting less and less convinced that we're doing any more than treading water, while all these factions are just honing their weapons to kill each other once we've left.

That's entirely possible. The Iraqis might be doing that without even consciously realizing it at the moment.

You aren't alone in worrying about this, believe me. I'll quote both Iraqis and Americans in Baghdad who say the exact same thing in future installments.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at May 12, 2009 6:51 PM

Interesting and informative, as usual, Michael.

The future of Iraq? What and where are the strongest incentives? Iran is That Presence in the room. Interesting that the infiltration corridors through Syria didn't come up. Maybe later.

"First (America), resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. Second, promote democracy in the Arab world. Third, destroy the Wahhabis." As an American realizing our limitations, I smile to think what Iraqis and others see us as capable of doing; it strikes me as a sad refection of long held and understandable feelings of powerlessness. Either you or Michael Yon once included a comment from Iraqis who assumed the nation that had landed a man on the moon could pull off anything.

A long way to go, obviously. Will enough people of good (and strong) will, locking their focus well out beyond today's intimidating pressures, the old hatreds and self-interest, prevail?

Posted by: Paul S. Author Profile Page at May 13, 2009 1:23 AM

First (America), resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. Second, promote democracy in the Arab world. Third, destroy the Wahhabis." As an American realizing our limitations, I smile to think what Iraqis and others see us as capable of doing...

Good observations, Paul :)

I was thinking about commenting on that part myself. In my opinion, the US isn't (realistically) capable of achieving any of those three items.

1) Arab-Israeli conflict? The only way the US could resolve that is to change sides and force (literally FORCE) Israel into an agreement that Arabs would be happy with. Not going to happen.

2) Promote democracy in the Arab world? Sounds nice. Our best shot at that is in Iraq, since we got to set the starting parameters. We'll see how it goes, I guess. As far as I can tell there's no hope in hell of having democracy anywhere else in the ME, any time soon. Too many bad actors with substantial influence in their countries who don't want to see that happen. Like, Hezbollah in Lebanon, for instance. Amd we certainly aren't going to be "promoting" democracy at gunpoint, so if Arabs want democracy they are going to have to fight for it themselves. We can and probably will support THAT, but we can't do it for them. I'm not clear on which this gentleman had in mind, but if its the latter I wonder what he thinks will start the ball rolling? It doesn't seem like there's much in the way of pro-democracy movements in the ME. I guess maybe that may change if things work out well in Iraq.

3) Destroy the Wahhabis? Is there a way to do that which doesn't involve nuclear weapons? Would nuclear weapons be enough? The US can't accomplish this. We aren't even Muslims over here. We don't have enough influence. It's easy enough to discredit a fanatical religious faction to the point of irrelevancy, but it has to be an inside job.

Posted by: programmmer_craig Author Profile Page at May 13, 2009 1:57 AM

Exactly Craig,

I wanted to quote these three points as well. It shows clearly how unrealistic are the Western approaches and how complementary with Anands and Molly´s delusions.

It would be worthwhile to start interviewing students in Iraqi universities (per e-mail?). It would be interesting to see them exchanging their views with Iranian students who have got even more material to work on, who might be right now the ultimate masters of realism and disillusionment.

It could accelerate the process to voice things we
are not trustworthy to say. Give them a voice.
Turn them thus into actors. Culturally most of Iraq belongs more to Iran than Arab world. Google the Iraqi poet al-Jawahiri.

Obama-Khamenei - forget those useless apparatchiks. They are our past, not future. They can fix only their own breakfast.

Posted by: Czechmade Author Profile Page at May 13, 2009 3:53 AM

The final delusion of Anand and Molly:

Indirectly they claim that mohammad, the prophet of islam, was a takfiri. They claim, that those who follow him in deed and word, are takfiris. So must be their guru as well. Is it not 100% logical?

Posted by: Czechmade Author Profile Page at May 13, 2009 4:12 AM

Don't know what delusions you are talking about Czechmade. Some of Mohammed's followers were crazy Takfiris in need of medical intervention; but I don't believe that Mohammed was one of them. ;-)

I think the list of three would be very useful, but only America, the international community and the muslim world united and collaborating together could address these issues.

I don't agree that America is powerful enough to force an Israel Palestinian peace settlement. I think America's influence on Israel is over rated.
America needs to push for freedom and democracy. But again we don't have the power to achieve these things on our own.
I would substitute "takfiri" for "Wahhabi." I think this is the most achievable. Takfiri popularity is dropping like a stone in the Islamic world. The muslim world (ummah) is well on its way to defeating them.

Posted by: anand Author Profile Page at May 13, 2009 7:38 AM

anand - according to Winston Churchill (and to many Muslims) Wahhabis are Takfiri:

"A large number of Bin Saud's followers belong to the Wahabi sect, a form of Mohammedanism which bears, roughly speaking, the same relationship to orthodox Islam as the most militant form of Calvinism would have borne to Rome in the fiercest times of [Europe's] religious wars.
The Wahhabis profess a life of exceeding austerity, and what they practice themselves they rigorously enforce on others. They hold it as an article of duty, as well as of faith, to kill all who do not share their opinions and to make slaves of their wives and children. Women have been put to death in Wahhabi villages for simply appearing in the streets.
It is a penal offence to wear a silk garment. Men have been killed for smoking a cigarette and, as for the crime of alcohol, the most energetic supporter of the temperance cause in this country falls far behind them. Austere, intolerant, well-armed, and blood-thirsty, in their own regions the Wahhabis are a distinct factor which must be taken into account, and they have been, and still are, very dangerous to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

Posted by: maryatexitzero Author Profile Page at May 13, 2009 9:19 AM

Well, to many Muslims the Wahhabis were Takfiri, until the Wahhabis got rich. Since these Takfiri are now financing most of the mosques and most Muslim "separatist" movements worldwide, Muslims tend to keep their opinions about Wahhabism to themselves.

Posted by: maryatexitzero Author Profile Page at May 13, 2009 9:24 AM

The best (not to mention the most cost effective) way to promote a life style is to be an example of it others choose to emulate---once they have accurate knowledge about it and freedom to choose. In the Middle East? Good luck. Having lived through six decades of this advertising campaign, I'm not holding my breath waiting for the result.

I agree with Craig that Iraq seems to offer the best shot currently---because we're inside and hands on. It's a delicate house of cards though at this point.

Posted by: Paul S. Author Profile Page at May 13, 2009 4:12 PM

Samuel Huntington:
The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion, but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact, non-Westerners never do. —— The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, p.51.

Posted by: Jinx Author Profile Page at May 13, 2009 5:46 PM

As Allied commanders pointed out during WW II, the objective was to liberate, not conquer; the results would look quite different today otherwise. And anyone assuming "The West won the world" is not a student of history.

Posted by: Paul S. Author Profile Page at May 13, 2009 6:53 PM

I love this site: great meeting place for realists and idealogues.


Posted by: deesine Author Profile Page at May 13, 2009 7:50 PM

On this "the West won the world" theme, most of the planet's population is and always has been non-Christian with no tradition of democratically representative government. That's the real world, not some ideological construct.

Posted by: Paul S. Author Profile Page at May 13, 2009 8:29 PM

"The West won the world" . . . Been to China lately? :lol: :lol: :lol:

Posted by: anand Author Profile Page at May 13, 2009 11:19 PM

"Samuel Huntington:
The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion, but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact, non-Westerners never do. —— The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, p.51."

Here is the shallow ideologue. He speaks probably of "colonial powers". I am a Westerner for more than
1 000 years and I did not win the world. But I can be blamed. Where is my share? The booty, my "organized violence"? Help!

Are we blind? Many parts of the world were in total disarray due to somebody else who applied "organized violence". Not only westerners or muslims.

Paraphrase: Islam won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion, but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Muslims often forget this fact, non-muslims and ex-muslims never do (OK survivors in those areas).

Such a massive PC in addition. The Western ability to organize, to apply some work ethic consistently and some laws or rules are zilch, zero in the mind of Monsieur Huntigton. No specific sciences in the West, all have been patiently studing sciences just like in the "West".

Posted by: Czechmade Author Profile Page at May 13, 2009 11:48 PM

Can someone remember what hell on earth was Egypt or Iraq or Syria under Osmanic empire? Or before?

Posted by: Czechmade Author Profile Page at May 13, 2009 11:57 PM

Czechmade, I remember and so do they. Arabs remain very anti Turk to this day.

Posted by: anand Author Profile Page at May 14, 2009 12:03 AM

Turkey has been one of Israel's closest allies since 1948. Why?

Iraq refused 10,000 Turkish peacekeepers (to be based in Sunni Arab areas) in 2003. Why?

The Jews in Palestine were attacked by Arabs for being Turkish collaborators. Why?

Rhetorical questions.

Posted by: anand Author Profile Page at May 14, 2009 12:05 AM

Here is the shallow ideologue. He speaks probably of "colonial powers".

Yes, he does. He also is speaking in the past tense, as you correctly observed. In fact, his prediction is for the future is this:

It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.

This is an illustration of where he believes the fault lines between civilizations may be:

And note that this theory dates back to 1992. He may turn out to have been right. The strange thing is, in 1992 when he came up with the theory the post-Cold War world wasn't looking at all like it was headed for global conflict.

Posted by: programmmer_craig Author Profile Page at May 14, 2009 1:37 AM

Haha Anand, let them tell the whole story.

The Arabs brutalized Turks for 300 years, before they adopted their own style of "organized violence" and excelled in it over the "Arabs". One ex-muslim Turk told me in Prague. And it is obviously correct. The Turks were a free killing zone between Arabs and Byzantine Empire. Being ess than Abrahamic blabla, they must have been treated even worse than Hindus.

They do not remeber that. Never. While many Turks long for Osmanic Empire. Remembering/justifying something equally evil.

Let us establish that those who shout against Western imperialism have mostly an imperialist agenda (including communists) of their own - of much worse kind. Why the French suffer much more than anybody else in regard of US? The answer is simple.

"Clash of civilizations" is a smart marketing strategy to get published and discussed. Nothing more. Boring just like marxist mass movements and class society. Just get a catchy theme and enter the saloons. The nonsense spreads much quicker than truth.

List those who have an imperialistic agenda as common place in their popular imagination. You wan´t find Americans heading the list.

Posted by: Czechmade Author Profile Page at May 14, 2009 3:19 AM

MJT, I have a question for you related to your discussion of Hezbollah. I recall reading about the Ahwazi Arabs who live in the Ahvaz region of southwestern Iran and who are apparently trying to achieve independence from Teheran. I read that the mullahs brought in Hezbollah to quell Ahwazi disturbances in southwestern Iran. Do you know anything about that?

Posted by: Harold Author Profile Page at May 14, 2009 9:12 AM

The takfiris have a sort of takfiri quran:

Qur'an 8:39 "Fight them until all opposition ends and all submit to Allah."

Quran 9:29, "Fight those who do not believe until they all surrender, paying the protective tax in submission."

Quran 9:5, "Fight and kill the disbelievers wherever you find them, take them captive, harass them, lie in wait and ambush them using every stratagem of war."

Quran 8:59 "The infidels should not think that they can get away from us. Prepare against them whatever arms and weaponry you can muster so that you may terrorize them. They are your enemy and Allah's enemy."

Quran 13:41 "Do they not see us advancing from all sides into the land (of the disbelievers), reducing its borders (by giving it to believers in war victories).

This was obviously written to be opposed by real muslims, who make out (obviously) the majority. A sort of test in positive disbelief.

By the way, Molly and Anand, all imams know these verses very well.

Posted by: Czechmade Author Profile Page at May 14, 2009 1:29 PM

On the subject of the future of Iraq.
Just heard on CNN they restored run of express rail line Baghdad-Samara (I think).

Posted by: leo Author Profile Page at May 15, 2009 4:46 PM

I thought you would be interested in a response to your fine article from Sheik Ali Al-Muthaba, Senior Commander, Jaish-al-Mehdi.

Debbie Hamilton
Right Truth

Posted by: Debbie Author Profile Page at May 17, 2009 5:35 PM

MJT, please read Debbie's link. It is a pretty clear eyed to your article from a leader of the Sadrists.

I always regarded Muktada as a potential ally in Iraq. Muqtada had a close relationship with Chalabi in March 2003. It was Muqtada's boys who cheered in the square when Saddam's statue came down on April 9, 2003.

When the State Department, Brits, UN, Arab League, Bremer, all collaborated to take Chalabi down starting in May 2003; Muqtada saw it as an attack on him. Muqtada was denied a seat on the Iraqi Governing Council to weaken Chalabi. Chalabi alone on the IGC remained close to Muqtada in April 2004 JAM smackdown. Perhaps Chalabi was assaulted because of his close alliance with Khamenei. However anti Chalabi policies greatly contributed to the conflict between the MNF/IGC and Muqtada. Another reason is that Dawa, Fadheela (virtue) Sadrists, ISCI/Badr provoked the conflict to weaken Muqtada.

However, many Iraqis at the street level simultaneously supported or condoned both the Sadrists and the US. This perception on the part of many Iraqis allowed Sadrists the political space for the de facto collaboration between JAM and the GoI/ISF/MNF--which has contributed the recent 90% decline in Iraqi violence.

I think a similar model of collaboration should be explored between Hezbollah and the US. I think the Israelis should also explore possible tactical cooperation with Hezbollah.

Posted by: anand Author Profile Page at May 17, 2009 8:39 PM

pretty good stuff.

Posted by: glasnost Author Profile Page at May 17, 2009 11:57 PM

One of Multi-National Force Iraq's Pictures Of The Day for May 19th has this caption:

"A front-end loader demolishes old HESCO protective walls outside an Iraqi Police station on May 18, 2009, in Kirkuk, Iraq."

A tangible sign of progress?

If protective tech interests you, HESCO has descriptions on their site "HESCO Bastion Concertainer® has been a key component in providing Force Protection since the 1991 Persian Gulf War":

Posted by: Paul S. Author Profile Page at May 20, 2009 3:56 PM
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