February 29, 2008

The Moderate Supermajority

My Contentions colleague Abe Greenwald takes a gloomy view of a new Gallup survey that shows 93 percent of the world’s Muslims are moderates. “We need to find out from one billion rational human beings why they largely refuse to stand up for humanity and dignity instead of cowering in the face of fascist thugs,” he wrote.

First of all, I’d like to agree with Abe’s point that even this sunny survey suggests we still have a serious problem. If seven percent of the world’s Muslims are radical, we’re talking about 91 million people. That’s 65 times the population of Gaza, and three and a half times the size of Iraq. One Gaza is headache enough, and it only took 19 individuals to destroy the World Trade Center, punch a hole in the Pentagon, and kill 3,000 people.

Some of the 93 percent supermajority support militia parties such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the West Bank’s Fatah. So while they may be religious moderates, they certainly aren’t politically moderate.

I’m less inclined than Abe to give the remaining Muslims — aside from secular terror-supporters — too hard a time. I work in the Middle East, and I used to live there. I meet moderate Muslims every day who detest al Qaeda and their non-violent Wahhabi counterparts. I know they’re the overwhelming majority, and a significant number are hardly inert in the face of fascists.

More than one fourth of the population of Lebanon demonstrated in Beirut’s Martyr’s Square on March 14, 2005, and stood fore square against the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis that has been sabotaging their country for decades. When I lived in a Sunni Muslim neighborhood of Beirut, the overwhelming majority of my neighbors belonged to that movement. The international media gave them lots of exposure, but moderate, liberal, secular, and mainstream conservative Muslims elsewhere rarely get any coverage. They are almost invisible from a distance, but it isn’t their fault.

Journalists tend to ignore moderate Muslims, not because of liberal bias or racism, but because sensationalism sells. At least they think that’s what sells.

And reporters often assume extremists are mainstream and “authentic” when they are not. Somehow, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has been designated the voice of American Muslims. But CAIR is, frankly, an Islamic wingnut organization with a minuscule membership that has declined 90 percent since September 11, 2001. (More people read my medium-sized blog every day than are members of CAIR.)

The coalition of Islamist parties in Pakistan got three percent of the vote in the recent election. Pakistan’s radicals have made a real mess of the place, but they can’t get any more traction at the polls than Ralph Nader can manage in the United States.

Riots in the wake of the publication of Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammad was one of the most pathetic “activist” spectacles I’ve ever seen, but the press coverage blew the whole thing way out of proportion. The same gaggle of the perpetually outraged have been photographed over and over again, like the bussed-in and coerced Saddam Hussein “supporters” at rallies in the old Iraq who vanished the instant television cameras stopped rolling. Take a look at the excellent 2003 film Live from Baghdad, written by CNN producer Robert Weiner, and you will see a dramatization of this stunt for yourself.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 3:41 PM | Comments (97)

February 26, 2008

Guns in the Desert

ANBAR PROVINCE, IRAQ – The Humvee slammed to a halt on the desert road between Fallujah and the town of Al Farris. I peered around the driver's head from the back seat and tried to figure out what was happening.

“Why are we stopping?” I said.

“IED,” Sergeant Guerrero said.

I swallowed and took the lens cap off my camera.

“Where?” I said.

All five Humvees in our convoy had stopped and pulled to the side of the road. None had been hit.

“We think there's one buried off the road around here.”

Two soldiers, including Sergeant Guerrero, stepped out of the vehicle. “Can I get out, too?” I said. I had no idea how long we would stop or if they would even let me out of the truck.

“Sure,” Sergeant Guerrero said. “You can get out.”

All IEDs are dangerous no matter how much body armor you're wearing if you're standing anywhere nearby when they explode. Some create small explosions that are merely intended to harass convoys. Others are formidable anti-tank mines. A smaller number create explosions as big as air strikes and will absolutely destroy you if you're not inside a heavily armored vehicle. The term IED, short for improvised explosive device, is used to describe just about any explosive that isn't discharged from a weapon.

Below is a video of a gigantic IED explosion that looks as big as a monstrous daisy cutter bomb. Imagine standing anywhere near that when it went off.

I slowly pushed open the vault-thick up-armored door and stepped out into the desolate countryside of Al Anbar. An Iraqi Police truck was parked in the desert a few hundred feet to our right. I hoped there wasn't an IED trigger man lurking somewhere who was waiting for all of us to expose ourselves.

An Iraqi Police officer joined us and led us to a group of his colleagues standing around with shovels in their hands.

Leading to Cache Site Iraq.jpg

“It's actually a weapons cache,” he said. “Not an IED. It's out here somewhere.”

Most of the American troops in the Fallujah area are Marines, but these were regular Army soldiers and Military Police officers recruited from the Texas National Guard. They and the Iraqi Police officers have forged a straightforward agreement with the civilians in the area: we'll protect you from insurgents if you'll identify them and lead us to their IEDs and weapons caches. Someone from the nearby village of Al Bahuri had just called in a tip to the Iraqis. Their job was to find the cache and destroy it in a controlled detonation. No one had a metal detector, though, and they weren't sure where, exactly, the cache was buried.

“The Blackhawk guys ought to come out here,” Sergeant Guerrero said.

IP Digging Cache Iraq.jpg

We joined the Iraqis with their shovels. Several shallow holes had been dug into the ground. They were looking for the cache, but didn't know where it was. The caller who phoned in the tip told the Iraqis he saw insurgents burying a gigantic crate the size of a shipping container, but he could only narrow down the location within 100 meters. The same source had earlier reported a cache of rockets. The Iraqi Police found those rockets, so they figured the source was reliable.

I looked for freshly dug dirt. If this cache were really the size of a shipping container, there should be a large area where the ground was disturbed.

Our Iraqi interpreter Karim found a small section of soft dirt, retrieved a shovel from an Iraqi Police officer, and started digging.

I kept scouting the ground. I wasn't a part of the Army unit, obviously. I'm a journalist. But I felt useless just standing around while Karim worked the shovel. I might as well help out a little and occupy myself in some way. And besides, it was cold outside. I needed to walk around to stay warm. Iraq's climate is a ferocious blast furnace during the summer, but winter is hardly warmer than it is in my native Pacific Northwest.

Cache Hunt Desert Iraq Wide Shot.jpg

There was a small amount of trash laying around. I looked carefully for piles of cigarette butts and spit-out sunflower seeds which might suggest insurgents had been there.

“The insurgents are very good at hiding caches,” Sergeant Phillips said.

“What do you suppose is in this cache?” I said.

“It's hard to say exactly,” he said. “Probably AK-47s and RPGs. Maybe some artillery shells.”

I walked over to Sergeant Guerrero.

“Are you going to ask the locals what they know?” I said.

“Nah,” he said. “That's their deal. The Iraqi Police have their sources. We're their liaisons, their trainers. We're not in charge anymore. We're just here to help them become police officers instead of paramilitaries.”

Sgt Guerrero Iraq.jpg
Sergeant Guerrero

I kept hearing this sort of thing, and it always slightly surprised me. It may seem like Americans are in charge in Iraq, but that is really only true to an extent.

“We make sure they follow the rule of law,” Sergeant Guerrero continued, “that they don't abuse prisoners. We're trying to get them self-sustaining so we can pull out and go someplace where there's some actual fighting.”

“At this point,” Sergeant Phillips said, “we're just waiting for the Iraqi Police to work their magic."

Weapons caches are usually found on land somebody owns. It wasn't clear whether anyone owned the land we were standing on, but if so they didn't seem to mind Americans and Iraqis digging holes all over the place. No one from the village next door came out to talk to anyone. No one even came out to watch. I found that curious, and it made me slightly uneasy. Often it means the locals know an explosion or ambush is imminent.

“Hey,” Sergeant Phillips said. “They brought in a front-loader.”

An Iraqi Police officer drove up in a bulldozer. Now we might be in business. I really hoped they would find something. There is so little “action” in and around Fallujah these days that this, I realized, might be as interesting as it gets anymore.

Bulldozer Cache Hunt Iraq.jpg

The Iraqi Police officer chewed up the desert with his machine. He seemed to enjoy it in the way a twelve-year old American boy (or even me for that matter) would enjoy playing around with what is essentially a gigantic power tool.

At one point we all thought he hit pay dirt when the blade struck something solid. Everyone tensed in anticipation. But it was just rocks.

Sergeant Phillips and I wandered off and found a huge patch of soft dirt that looked and felt like sand on a beach. The ground everywhere else was gritty and hard-packed.

“Hey,” he said. “Look at this.”

He found a wire sticking out of the ground and very carefully pulled on it. I stepped back, not really far enough to protect myself if something exploded, but out of sheer instinct. Nearly half of Anbar Province was wired to blow at one point.

The wire came up out of the sand in his hand. Nothing exploded.

Wire Cache Hunt Iraq.jpg

I dug with my boot.

“It's really soft sand all the way down,” I said. “And this soft area is bigger than a shipping container.”

“Hey!” Sergeant Phillips said to Sergeant Guerrero, who was watching the bulldozer with his hands on his hips. “Come take a look at this.”

Sergeant Guerrero walked over. Karim, our interpreter, followed with his shovel.

“It looks like someone trucked in all this sand,” Sergeant Phillips said. “Nothing else around here looks anything like this.”

“Yeah,” Sergeant Guerrero said.

It did look promising.

Karim jabbed his shovel into the ground next to the wire that Sergeant Phillips had just pulled up. I kept poking around with my boot.

“That's the most work I've seen Karim do,” Sergeant Guerrero said. Karim laughed at the good-natured ribbing at his expense. “Somebody get a video camera.”

“I have my still camera,” I said. “I'm making him famous right now.”

Digging Desert Iraq.jpg

Karim dug furiously and wiped sweat from his forehead. He reached up and detached the Velcro strap on his body armor as if he were about to take his vest off.

“No, Karim,” Sergeant Guerrero said. “Keep it on.”

I sympathized with both Karim and the Sergeant. Rural Anbar Province is not very dangerous these days, but it's still Iraq. And we were poking around where insurgents had buried guns in the desert. They could be watching us through the scope of a sniper rifle or with a manual detonation trigger in hand. No one could know that the phoned-in tip to the police wasn't a set up. Why were no Iraqi civilians watching or talking to us? A cluster of houses stood only 200 meters away. Body armor is uncomfortable, but I wasn't about to take mine off.

Sergeant Guerrero summoned the Iraqi Police and told them what we had found. Karim translated.

“There was a wire here somewhere,” he said. “Where did it go? Karim, did you bury it with that shovel?”

No one could find the wire. Karim had indeed buried it with the shovel. The sergeant wasn't mad, though. It was not a big deal.

The bulldozer driver came over and moved tons of the soft sand into a gigantic pile.

Sgt Phillips Iraq.jpg
Sergeant Phillips

“I feel like Geraldo Rivera,” Sergeant Phillips said. “We're gonna open it up! We're gonna open it up! Doh! There's nothing in there!”

“None of the people who live here and coming out of their houses,” I said to Sergeant Guerrero. “What's up with that?”

“No,” he said. “They won't.”

“In Fallujah they do,” I said. “They always do.”

“Here the men are out working,” he said. “The women are home alone by themselves, and there's no way they're coming out here to hang out with us.”

I relaxed a bit then.

“Please find something,” Sergeant Phillips said.

I looked at my watch. We had been out there two hours. The wind was getting colder, and this didn't look promising.

“Alright,” Sergeant Guerrero said. “I'm done with this shit.”


Later we found something on the edge of the city of Karmah.

Two Marines Field Outside Karmah.jpg

I walked with a Marine unit under the command of Lieutenant Schroeder through farmland between Fallujah and Baghdad, just barely beyond the city limits. A small river flows through there, and insurgents were known to sometimes camp in the shore reeds and launch attacks inside the city from there.

Palm Trees Outside Karmah.jpg

The gentle winter sun warmed my face, and there was no wind. Iraq could not have felt more peaceful and tranquil. It seemed somehow wrong that the Marines carried rifles and that we wore body armor and helmets in this idyllic landscape. Arabic music could faintly be heard from one of the houses at the edge of the town. A black cow mooed at us. I felt like an intruder as Iraqis and farm animals watched us spread out and move through the fields.

Cow and Children Outside Karmah.jpg

Boy Field Karmah.jpg

The ground was strewn with large clods of hard dirt. White residue from an organic fertilizer looked a little like salt. A soft breeze shook the tall reeds. Otherwise, I heard only my own footsteps in the grass. I felt perfectly at ease, but it sounded like the dreadful quiet in a suspenseful war movie just before a platoon gets ambushed with machine gun fire and hand grenades.

Tall Reeds Outside Karmah.jpg

Reeds Outside Karmah.jpg

Boat Outside Karmah.jpg

Lieutenant Schroeder and his Marines peered into the reeds for signs of insurgents while an Iraqi man in the next field over waved his arms over his head and beckoned us to come talk to him.

“Let's go see what he wants,” said the Lieutenant. So we did.

Three Iraqis Outside Karmah.jpg

“I found an IED,” the man said. His two sons stood quietly next to him. “It is over there behind a mosque.”

We stood in farmland, but were just a few meters beyond the city limits of Karmah.

“If you go looking for it,” he said, “you won't find it. But I know where it is.”

Lance Corporal Waddle made a radio call to Outpost Delta. “It's most likely an MRE bomb,” he said. MRE bombs are made of C-4 explosives packed in MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) packages that look like discarded trash on the side of the road.

Marines Consulting Outside Karmah.jpg

He read the man's name off the ID card into the radio and asked Delta to check it against the list of wanted insurgents. The Marines would not let the man lead us anywhere without vetting him first.

The man's name cleared and he led us into the city.

“I need you to stay back,” Corporal Waddle said to me,” in case we run into resistance.”

Some Marine units are more protective of me than others. Lieutenant Schroeder's was particularly so. I was frequently instructed to stay back and, when in town, to only walk within a few inches of a wall.

Lieutenant Schroeder Karmah.jpg
Lieutenant Schroeder

The lieutenant sent a squad ahead to set up an overwatch on a roof in case we were being led into an ambush. Karmah was only very recently pacified. The war lasted longer there than it did in Fallujah, and every Marine I spoke to said it was a far more dangerous place.

We entered the town and walked past ugly repair shops on the way to the small mosque where the IED was supposed to be.

Rundown Shops Karmah.jpg

“There's a pretty nice restaurant right over here,” Lieutenant Schroeder said. “Take a look.”

Restaurant Karmah.jpg

I popped my head in and snapped a quick picture.

“Hello, hello,” the restaurant manager said. “Welcome.”

“Shukran,” I said. Thank you.

I would have loved to stay and eat something other than the same old Marine food, but there was a job to be done.

We cut into the trash yard behind the mosque so no one would see us coming. Rusted cars were piled up against the wall behind the mosque and repair shops. This, supposedly, is where the Iraqi man found the IED, but it seemed an unlikely place for it. Most IEDs are mortar rounds, artillery shells, or anti-tank mines deployed alongside or underneath roads.

Junkyard Karmah.jpg

“Don't get any closer,” Corporal Waddle said. “We need to stay out of the blast radius in case it blows.”

One Marine, whose name I didn't catch, accompanied the Iraqi man to the location of the explosive. “It's an 82mm mortar round,” he said when he returned. “It's not an IED. Most likely a round that didn't go off when it was fired.”

Every time I thought something vaguely exciting might happen, it didn't happen. There is no war in Western Iraq any more. This is a mop-up.

Lieutenant Schroeder called the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Team from Camp Fallujah. Their job is the destruction of weapons caches, IEDs, and other hazardous explosives with controlled detonations. They arrived an hour or so later as a local man led his goats through the junkyard to feed on the garbage.

Goats Junkyard Karmah.jpg

The EOD team leader looked at the explosive round through his telescopic rifle scope.

“Are you going to blow it here or move it first?” I said.

“Depends on if they've got something hooked up to it,” he said. “Sometimes they'll call these things in and it's a trap.”

Lieutenant Schroeder's Marines kept a close eye on the man who led us here, just in case.

A Marine from the EOD team parked a truck mounted with an ECM device (an electronic countermeasure) in the yard. When turned on, the device jams cell phone signals which are often used by insurgents to manually trigger roadside bombs and other explosives. Then the team sent in a robot that set down a C-4 bomb of its own next to the unexploded ordnance.

“We need to clear everyone out of here,” said the EOD team leader. Lieutenant Schroeder told his men to fan out away from the blast radius as Iraqi Police officers stopped traffic on the street and evacuated civilians to a safe location a few blocks away.

“How close can we be to the explosion?” I asked Corporal Waddle.

Corporal Waddle Karmah.jpg
Lance Corporal Waddle

“The potential casualty radius is 100 meters,” he said. “So we need to move out 300 meters or take cover.”

“How about we take cover instead of move out?” I said. I was aching for excitement, even of the controlled variety.

So he and I took cover behind a three-foot high berm. I can't be certain, but I think we were inside the kill zone. I carefully peeked over the lip. They weren't quite ready to blow it up yet, but I sat back down in the dirt.

“Do not stand up until after it blows,” Corporal Waddle said, although he didn't have to.

We stayed on the ground and waited. The EOD team leader announced a one-minute countdown on the radio. I waited in anticipation. At 30 seconds to detonation, I hoped one of those gigantic camel spiders (also known as wind scorpions) didn't decide this was the perfect time to...


The explosion came earlier than expected, and if you can imagine a person jumping into the air and hitting the ground at the same time, that was me. Recall the loudest clap of thunder you have ever heard in your life, then multiply the volume by four. I felt the shock wave ripple through my whole body. It damn near knocked the molars out of my mouth.

I peered up over the berm. Smoke from the explosion quickly dissipated. I fumbled for my camera and only managed to take a late picture.

Smoke from Controlled Det Karmah.jpg

Corporal Waddle and I rejoined the rest of his Marine unit.

“Too bad you weren't in the parking lot with your camera,” one of the Marines said to me. “It was pretty funny. The Iraqis completely freaked out and hit the deck.”

The explosion startled me, too. The last explosion I heard was a car bomb in Baghdad from two miles away. I wondered if the Marines would have laughed if they were looking at me instead of the Iraqis.

“You told them there would be an explosion, right?” I said. “They must be used to hearing explosions here anyway.”

“Yeah, the Iraqi Police told 'em. But two of 'em pissed themselves right there in the lot.”

Rubble Back to Base Karmah.jpg

We walked past a field of rubble on our way back to the station.

“Three months ago, this wouldn't have happened,” Corporal Waddle said. “The locals didn't start trusting us until now.”

Shortly after we returned, I heard one Marine tell another that their company found ten separate caches of weapons and explosives in the last six hours alone.

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:23 AM | Comments (82)

February 22, 2008

The Arabs and Obama

by Lee Smith

(Editor's note: While I'm filling in for Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit, Lee Smith offered to write an article for us here. Lee is a friend I know from Beirut. He is the former editor-in-chief of The Village Voice Literary Supplement, and his work regularly appears in The Weekly Standard and Slate. He is writing a book on Arab culture for Doubleday. -MJT)

Last week Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Tamara Coffman Wittes reported from a conference in Qatar that Barack Obama's candidacy is all the rage in the Arab Gulf states.
A friend from the Gulf tells me her young relative was so excited about the Democratic candidate that he tried to donate money over the Internet, as he'd heard so many young Americans were doing. Then he found out he had to be a U.S. citizen to do so. Another young woman, visiting from next-door Saudi Arabia, said that all her friends in Riyadh are "for Obama." The symbolism of a major American presidential candidate with the middle name of Hussein, who went to elementary school in Indonesia, certainly speaks to Muslims abroad.
That's an interesting way to make a point lost on most American commentators: Barack Obama's father was Muslim and therefore, according to Islamic law, so is the candidate. In spite of the Quranic verses explaining that there is no compulsion in religion, a Muslim child takes the religion of his or her father.

The point of course is not that Obama is really a Muslim, because in America he is whatever he says he is. American ideas about such things as choice, religion, freedom of expression – including the freedom to choose your own faith – are different from the rest of much of the world. For us, a man is whatever religion he wants to practice, or not practice. But for Muslims around the world, non-American Muslims at any rate, they can only ever see Barack Hussein Obama as a Muslim.

It's useful keeping in mind that difference between how Americans see our lives and our actions and how others see us, given that one of the chief conceits of the Obama campaign is that a president of his biological identity will redeem our reputation around the world after George Bush enflamed the better part of humanity by invading two Muslim countries.

Or, as Fareed Zakaria put it:

We're moving into a very new world… For America to thrive, we will have to develop a much deeper, richer, more intuitive understanding of them and their peoples. There are many ways to attain this, but certainly being able to feel it in your bones is one powerful way.

Perhaps this is the only obvious strategy available to a presidential candidate whose Washington experience to date has afforded him little time to grasp the niceties of policy-making. And indeed there's already evidence that some Middle Easterners, or the people in whose part of the world the United States has expended vast human and material resources over the last six years, are not impressed with Obama.

Over at From Beirut to the Beltway, Abu Kais gives low scores to a recent Obama recent speech about Lebanon.

From Now Lebanon:

"Washington must rectify the wrong policy of President George Bush in Lebanon and resort to an efficient and permanent diplomacy, rather than empty slogans," [Obama] added. He also said that the US must cooperate with its European and Arab allies to sponsor an inter-Lebanese consensus on a stable and democratic Lebanon.

To which Abu Kais replies:

What kind of diplomacy that has not been tried before by the "Europeans and Arab allies" will help Lebanon? I am not going to defend the Bush administration's policy in Lebanon. It may reek of "empty slogans" at times, but how does talking to criminals create solutions? And pray explain how supporting the Hariri tribunal, as Obama said he does, can be reconciled with chatting up the ones who killed him?

Lebanese journalist Michael Young and Iraqi blogger Iraqpundit have expressed their reservations about one of Obama's foreign policy advisers, Samantha Power. The self-described "Genocide Chick" seems to them insufficiently concerned that an American withdrawal from Iraq will lead to genocide. Her solution? Move people from one area to another and give money to Iraq's neighbors to stabilize the country. You can't blame her for basically parroting the egregiously cynical recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, but in reality this means that US forces should be complicit in the sectarian cleansing of Iraq and pay off countries like Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia that have themselves funded and supported death squads targeting Iraqi Shias, Kurds and Sunnis as well as US troops.

It's true that the Lebanese and Iraqis have benefited, and suffered, more than anyone from the Bush White House's regional transformation program, so you can't hold it against them if they're more interested in a man's ideas than in the faith he professes or the color of his skin.

Other Arabs apparently think that the color of man's skin should matter, but are not sure it will, like Hezbollah friendly-analyst Amal Saad-Ghorayeb.

"There's always the sense that African-Americans would be more sympathetic (to Arabs), because they're oppressed too," Saad-Ghorayeb said. "But," she added, "that wasn't really the case with Colin Powell or Condi Rice, was it?"

In fact, Secretary Rice really does believe that African-Americans and Arabs have something in common, which is why she has likened, for better or worse, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to Martin Luther King, Jr. and thrown all her weight behind a Palestinian state that only she seems to believe in at this point. She hasn't gotten much credit for her efforts, or her race for that matter. When she was named Secretary of State, the Saudi press outdid themselves in lampooning the first black woman to serve as America's top diplomat.

"They exaggerated her features and were amazingly crude and disrespectful in showing her body," Peter Theroux told me. Theroux was asked to serve under Rice as Persian Gulf director from 2003-2005 when she was the National Security Adviser. "One cartoon from the daily Al-Watan showed her as a boxer with boxing gloves, hitting a punching bag shaped like an Arab; with her wearing some form-fitting thing that showed the shape of her breasts. You never, ever see Saudi newspaper cartoons show any woman that way, let alone a senior official in an allied government. But with Rice being black, and a woman, an infidel, and wielding power - I think that just pushed them over the edge."

I was in Beirut when she first traveled there as Secretary in the summer of 2005 to show her support for an Arab society that had just come out of fifteen years of Syrian occupation. The pro-Syrian opposition protested her visit, including Hezbollah supporters who marched with placards that would have made a Klansman proud – "N----r," read one sign with a picture of Ms. Rice's face, "go home."

Sure, there are numerous instances of dark-skinned people who won respect in the Muslim world, like Bilal ibn Ribah, the first muezzin, a slave of East African origins whose allegedly sonorous voice won him the admiration of the prophet of Islam and earned him the right to call the early Muslim community to prayer.

And then there was the revolt of the Zanj, the East African slaves whose uprising in Basra against the Abbasids from 869 to 883 AD is a key historical episode for Arab, especially Iraqi, communists.

But generally, it should come as no surprise to anyone save the most cloistered third-world fantasists, that a society which discriminates against sex, religion, ethnicity, language, nation, tribe, and family is not likely to have very progressive attitudes about race. Arab society, like many others, has a race problem. For instance, abd, or slave, is a word commonly used to refer to blacks, regardless of a man's stature, or his faith.

لا تشتري العبد إلا والعصا معه ..... إن العبيد لأأنجاس مناكيدو

"Don't buy a slave unless you get a stick, too," wrote Al-Mutanabi, the incomparable tenth-century Baghdad poet. "For slaves are vile and vexing."

The poet directed the line at the black Muslim commander he had once served. I found it posted recently on a Syrian Web site as a comment on Obama's mild rebuke of the Damascus regime.

So, if we're concerned about how we look to the rest of the world, we should at least recognize how much of the world looks at things. Laugh as some may about the Bush Administration's idea to export democracy to the Middle East, they had the basic principle right. The world needs our help more than we need to petition its approval. We are a people who choose our own faith, and, after a civil war and a civil rights movement, a nation where the dignity of each individual human being is accorded respect, and men and women are equal regardless of race, sex, religion or creed.

The Middle East is not like that and George W. Bush thought it wise, for the sake of Arabs and Americans, to try to do something about it, an initiative that inspired some Arabs while it enraged others. (So now guess who the good guys are in the Middle East and who are the bad ones?) What made them like or dislike Bush wasn't the color of the president's skin or his religious faith, but his ideas. It's not clear to me why Americans seem now to be trying to export a very un-American idea - that a man's color and his faith matter.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:03 AM | Comments (110)

February 20, 2008

One-Third of Instapundit 2/20/2008

I posted the following links on Instapundit today while Glenn Reynolds is on vacation.

OBAMA’S ADVISORS are alarming people from Jerusalem to Beirut to Baghdad.

FIDEL CASTRO’S LEGACY debated on the left: Chris Bertram says “let’s hear it for universal literacy and decent standards of health care.” Armed Liberal says “ If the price of universal literacy is prison camps for writers, count me out.”

A BOMB IN DENMARK completely destroyed a shop in Copenhagen following a week of rioting over cartoons and hash. Abe Greenwald comments in Commentary.

ALI ETERAZ writes on the secular resurgence at the expense of Islamists in Pakistan.

BRACE YOURSELF: Moqtada Al Sadr’s ceasefire between the Mahdi Army and the Americans is set to expire Saturday in Iraq. If he doesn’t renew it (and he might not), it will be bad news for him, bad news for us, and bad news for Iraq.

RULES OF JOURNALISM: CNN tells its reporters how to write about Fidel Castro. “Please note Fidel did bring social reforms to Cuba – namely free education and universal health care, and racial integration. [sic] in addition to being criticized for oppressing human rights and freedom of speech.” Was he just criticized for oppressing human rights and freedom of speech, or did he actually, you know, oppress human rights and freedom of speech?

John Derbyshire is right: “Wherever there is a jackboot stomping on a human face there will be a well-heeled Western liberal to explain that the face does, after all, enjoy free health care and 100 percent literacy.”

A JOURNALIST FOR HEZBOLLAH’S Al Manar TV station was arrested and is accused of plotting a terrorist attack in Morocco, of all places.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:30 PM | Comments (47)


Glenn Reynolds is taking a short vacation, so Megan McArdle, Ann Althouse, and I will be filling in for him at Instapundit until Monday.

At the end of each day, I'll cross-post my InstaMJT links here.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:52 AM | Comments (10)

February 18, 2008

The Dungeon of Fallujah

“This is not Norway here, and it is not Denmark.” – Lebanese Forces militia leader Bashir Gemayel.

FALLUJAH – Next to the Joint Communications Center in downtown Fallujah is a squalid and war-shattered warehouse for human beings. Most detainees are common criminals. Others are captured insurgents – terrorists, car-bombers, IED makers, and throat-slashers. A few are even innocent family members of Al Qaeda leaders at large. The Iraqi Police call it a jail, but it's nothing like a jail you've ever seen, at least not in any civilized country. It was built to house 120 prisoners. Recently it held 900.

“Have you seen that place yet?” one Marine said. “It is absolutely disgraceful.”

“The smell,” said another and nearly gagged on remembering. “God, you will never forget it.”

I hadn't seen or smelled it yet, but I was about to.

“Come on,” American Marine Sergeant Dehaan said to me. “Let's go take a look.”

I picked up my notebook and camera.

“Leave the camera,” he said. “The Iraqis won't let you take pictures.”

“Don't you have any say in it?” I said. This was the first and only time during my trip to Fallujah that somebody told me not to take pictures.

“Nope,” he said. “The jail is completely run by Iraqis. They'll freak out if you show up with that camera. If it were up to me, yeah, you could take 'em. But it's not.”

If the Marines wouldn't mind if I took pictures, I think it's safe to say the No Photograph policy is not a security measure. The Iraqis, it seems, don't want you to see what I saw.

Sergeant Dehaan and I were joined by Rich Crawford, a civilian Law Enforcement Professional who works with the Marines and helps them train the Iraqi Police.

“It's bad in there,” he said as we walked toward the jail. “But I've seen worse.”

“Where have you seen worse?” I said. He looked like someone who had been around. The hard lines in his face looked as though they were carved by sobering experience as much as by time.

“In Latin America,” he said. “In Colombia. I was a DEA agent there. The jail here is bad, and it might be the worst you'll ever see. But you need to know it isn’t the worst in the world.”

“Actually,” I said. “This will be the first time I've ever been inside a functioning jail.”

Sergeant Dehaan rapped on the gate. An Iraqi Police officer grinned when he saw us and let us in.

“I brought you something,” Sergeant Dehaan said and handed him boxes of instant oatmeal and toothpaste.

“Is this food?” the Iraqi said as he squinted at a box of oatmeal. It was a Quaker Oats Variety Pack. Iraqi stores do not sell oatmeal.

“Yeah, you mix it with water,” Sergeant Dehaan said.

“It’s good,” I said.

The officer did not understand, so Sergeant Dehaan pantomimed pouring boiling water into a cup and stirring the oatmeal with a spoon. I don’t think the message got across, but one of the Iraqi Police officers at the jail probably figured it out eventually.

“And this?” the Iraqi said as he held up the toothpaste. He made a brushing motion across his teeth with his finger.

“Yep,” Sergeant Dehaan said. “It’s toothpaste.”

Our Iraqi host grinned again, put his hand on his heart, and bowed slightly. He then led us into the back toward the prisoners.

“This guy is great,” Sergeant Dehaan said, referring to the Iraqi officer. “He has two wives and six daughters. Al Qaeda murdered four of his brothers.”

I didn't know what to say. For years in Fallujah, every day was September 11.

“Can you believe this building is only three years old?” Sergeant Dehaan said to me.

What?” I said.

No, I didn’t believe it. The building looked at least sixty years old, and it looked as though no maintenance work had ever been done. Floor tiles were broken, the foundation was cracked, the stairs were uneven, and the walls were utterly filthy as though they hadn’t been painted once since I’ve been alive.

“A really bad contractor built it,” he said. “It was during the war.”

“I guess it’s been hit a lot, too,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said. “This place was hit constantly by insurgents.”

A handful of Iraqi Police emerged into the hallway and greeted Sergeant Dehaan with hugs and kisses on his cheeks. They shook my hand and said welcome. One offered a cigarette. Iraqis are always offering cigarettes. It was strange to think that these people ran such a terrible jail. Did they ever offer cigarettes to prisoners?

Frankly, I doubt it, although I did not think to ask at the time.

Sergeant Dehaan led me and Rich Crawford to Major Ibrahim's office. The major is the warden, so to speak, and has worked as an Iraqi Police officer in cities all over Iraq. We sat in plush chairs set up in a semi-circle in front of his desk. A young boy brought us hot glasses of sweet tea.

“How many prisoners are here right now?” I said.

“320,” Major Ibrahim said.

So the jail is “only” at triple capacity now.

“It's a jail,” Rich Crawford said. “Not a prison. None of them have been tried yet. Later they'll move to a prison if they're found guilty.”

“I can fill you in on all this stuff,” Sergeant Dehaan said. “These two have business to discuss. Come on, I'll show you the cells.”

We left the major's office and Sergeant Dehaan rapped on the door of another office. A prison guard emerged with a key ring in hand and led us through a secure door and into the hallway that took us to the prisoners. I didn't feel like we were in a jail. The doors to the cells looked like doors leading to offices or sleeping quarters. There were no bars. I could not see the prisoners from the hallway.

The guard opened the first door and walked right in. He didn’t even slow down. I gingerly stepped inside and found myself surrounded by children. They lounged on the floor. Some stood up when they saw us.

What the hell?

“This is the room for minors,” Sergeant Dehaan said. “They're treated better.”

They are? The cell was the size of my living room. Two dozen children lived in this place. They slept on the floor on blankets and had no personal space whatsoever. The kids were grubby, but they didn't appear beaten down or even in bad spirits necessarily.

“Some of them are related to wanted men,” he said.

“Is that the only reason they're here?” I said. “What are they, hostages?” This would be a real scandal if Americans were running the jail.

Sergeant Dehaan ignored my question, but he seemed to sympathize with what I was getting at.

“You see this kid here in the Adidas shirt?” he said.

The kid stood in front of us, smiled, and admired Sergeant Dehaan's rifle. He did not have the look of a hostage about him, but he was in jail even though he hadn't comitted a crime.

“He's the little brother of a high-up Al Qaeda guy,” he said. “The other day he was being kicked around in the yard by some of the others kids who hate him because of his brother. But he hasn't done anything wrong. We saw what was happening and put a stop to it. We took him aside and gave him some cake to make him feel better.”

Another cell lay beyond a door at the back of the kid's room. The guard turned the key and opened it. He and Sergeant Dehaan entered first. I followed and braced myself for what I might see.

“Holy shit,” I said when I stepped through the door. This was not at all what I expected.

150 men were smashed together in a single windowless room the size of my house.

“This is the biggest cell,” Sergeant Dehaan said.

No kidding.

There was no furniture. Most men sat on blankets and carpets. A few near the door cautiously stood up to greet us, but they did not shake our hands. They seemed slightly wary, and had a weird look of innocence on their faces, almost like the kids in the previous room who really were mostly innocent.

Sergeant Dehaan and I must have been genuine novelties. The Iraqi prisoners weren't used to seeing foreigners. That much was obvious. The men looked at us like we were a curious yet benign alien species. I didn't feel threatened, but I was shocked to find myself standing there with nothing in between me and such a huge number of prisoners. I expected small cells with bars on the doors. I expected that no one could touch me no matter how hard they tried if I stayed clear of the bars. But any one of them could have reached out and touched me at any time. We were surrounded and vastly outnumbered.

The heat in the room was suffocating. It was winter outside, and very cold at night. But it was easily 85 degrees Fahrenheit in that room. The warmth came from everyone's ambient body heat. Amazingly, the “cell” didn't smell bad even though I was told that it did.

It must be awful in August, though. The building was made of concrete, which made it a heat trap.

“There's no air-conditioning in this building during the summer,” Sergeant Dehaan said. “And there's nowhere for the prisoners to take a shower.”

The place probably smells like an animal cage during the hot months of the year.

Sergeant Dehaan gestured toward a small room off to the side.

I stepped through the doorway and found a single Arabic-style toilet – basically a hole in the floor. It was, of course, filthy. The room smelled of strong sour urine. There was no wall or curtain for privacy. Dirty cooking pans and dinner plates were stacked in the toilet itself.

“There are six cells total,” Sergeant Dehaan said. “The others are all a lot smaller.”

“They once crammed 900 people into this place?” I said.

“They did,” he said. “And it was standing room only. There was no room for them to sit down. They had to sleep standing up.”

Every single person in that “cell” was a man. Was one of the six cells for women?

“They don’t arrest women,” said Sergeant Dehaan. “Ever. That just is not done in this country.”

That seemed right to me. Women are treated badly overall in Iraq. Their social roles are strictly proscribed. There are so many things they aren’t allowed to do in this culture. Crime is one of them.

Iraqi Arab culture is slowly reverting back to itself now that the totalitarian regime of Saddam Hussein has been replaced. His government arrested women every day. They were often raped and viciously tortured by his mukhabarat agents.

I didn’t feel nervous, exactly, standing there with all those suspected Iraqi criminals around me. Sergeant Dehaan and the Iraqi guard seemed pretty comfortable. I wondered, though, if I should be. I didn’t exactly feel at ease, either.

“Are there any insurgents in here?” I said.

“No,” Sergeant Dehaan said. “They’re kept in their own cell. They are way too dangerous to be left in here with these guys.”

I wasn’t sure it was wise for me to ask this, but there was no helping it: “Can I see them?” I said.

“Sure,” he said.

Before we went to see the insurgents, several more Iraqi Police officers joined us with weapons. The guard with the key unlocked the door. The Iraqis went in first and yelled at the prisoners. I gingerly followed and found myself in a smaller and equally crowded room jammed wall-to-wall with suspected terrorists of Al Qaeda. Nothing stood between me and them except the Iraqi cops and their guns.

“Salam Aleikum,” Sergeant Dehaan said to the prisoners as he stepped inside. Peace be upon you.

I refused to say that to them. Politeness has its limits.

It was darker in there. The men hadn’t shaved. They sat on the floor and squinted up at the police holding weapons. And they squinted at me. Unlike the suspected criminals in the previous room, none smiled or greeted us in any way. They did not seem curious. They looked at us as if we were bugs.

“They’re extremely violent,” Sergeant Dehaan said as though they weren’t sitting right there in front of us. He patted his rifle. “They’re treated the same as everyone else, but they have to be segregated.”

My skin tingled and I felt flashes of heat. These men would kill me if I met them anywhere else.

Not all Middle Eastern terrorists are alike. I have been inside Hezbollah’s headquarters south of Beirut. I brushed shoulders with Hamas leaders in the Palestinian parliament, although I was there to interview other people. Never once did I worry that the Lebanese or Palestinian terrorists would actually harm me. Al Qaeda is different. These guys are like Arabic Hannibal Lectors.

“Is it safe to be in here?” I said.

“Well,” Sergeant Dehaan said. “There’s five cops. And me.”

Last summer in Ramadi I met a handful of detainees who were suspected of being Al Qaeda. They looked like doofuses who couldn’t get a date or a job.

Most of the men in this room looked like they were perfectly willing to murder us all with their hands. I could see it in their eyes, in the sinister way some of them squinted at me, in the tightness of their jaw muscles. I wished I had a gun of my own.

Should we have even been standing there in the first place? More than 50 potential killers all but surrounded us. They sat on the floor, but some of them were less than three feet away.

“The nastiest ones are the little guys,” Sergeant Dehaan said. “The little rat-looking bastards. They're the ones who have done the worst things to people.”

I’ve seen how cruel Iraqi kids can be when they fight over candy the Marines hand out to them. The little rat-looking insurgents most likely were mercilessly picked on as children. When they joined Al Qaeda their bottomless hatred was unleashed against Iraqis even more than it was unleashed on the Americans.

“We have to get out of here,” Sergeant Dehaan said. “The cops are getting nervous.”

He was right. They were. Their hands twitched. Their eyes darted rapidly around the room.

“Let’s go then,” I said. If the cops are nervous, I’m out of there.

We left and I shuddered. There would be no interview in that room.

“Human rights organizations would have a cow if they saw this place,” I said to Sergeant Dehaan. I felt little sympathy at the time. It was just an observation.

“Well, what should the Iraqis do?” Sergeant Dehaan said. “Let them go?”

“Of course not,” I said. “That would be idiotic. It's just so....nasty in here. And people think Gitmo is bad.”

Sergeant Dehaan was comfortable with his mission in Iraq and the flaws of the Iraqi Police he was tasked with training and molding.

“I prefer these small and morally ambiguous wars to the big morally black-and-white wars,” he said to me later. “It would be nice if we had more support back home like we did during World War II. But look at how many people were killed in World War II. If a bunch of unpopular small wars prevent another popular big war, I'll take ’em.”

The jail in Fallujah is the only functioning jail I have ever visited. I did, however, go inside one of Saddam Hussein’s former jails in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The famous “Red Building” in the city of Suleimaniya is a horror show. It’s a museum of sorts now, in the way Auschwitz is a museum. Perhaps monument or memorial are better descriptions.

Before it was liberated by the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga, resistance fighters and their family members were arrested, interrogated, and sadistically tortured inside its walls. A free-standing rape room with large windows was built just outside. Bloody women’s underwear was found on the floor after the Baath regime agents were ousted. Inside some of the cells are messages carved by children into the walls. “I was ten years old. But they changed my age to 18 for execution.” “Dear Mom and Dad. I am going to be executed by the Baath. I will not see you again.”

10,725 people were murdered in the Red Building alone by the previous government of Iraq. All died during torture. Formal execution actually took place in Abu Ghraib.

I wrote about and photographed this hideous place on my first trip to the country, and Martin Kunert left the following note in my comments section:

“Two years ago, I produced the documentary film Voices of Iraq, where we sent 150 DV cameras across Iraq and allowed Iraqis to film their own lives. The cameras got into the prison you visited and others. I viewed several hours of video and testimony detailing the horrors of Saddam's torture. One woman recalled tearfully how her newborn baby was fed to dogs in front of her eyes. Another video shows floors stained with blood and fat that liquefied off torture victims and poured onto the tiles below them. What transpired in those chambers is beyond belief. It takes a strong stomach to go through the tours you're experiencing.”

An Iraqi interpreter I met in Baghdad who calls himself Hammer spent time in Abu Ghraib prison while Saddam was in charge.

“On the bus to the jail I didn’t have handcuffs,” he said. “I asked why. The guard said Look behind you. The first guy behind me got a 600 year sentence. The next guy got six hanging sentences. The third guy was sentenced to be thrown blindfolded out of a second story window. Twice. Another guy f*cked his mother and sisters three times. He was freed on Saddam’s birthday. Another guy had his hand cut off.”

I don’t know if it’s true or not, but he said he was swept up and imprisoned for no reason. It’s certainly possible. That’s the kind of country Iraq used to be.

“The guards who ran Abu Ghraib sold hallucinogenic drugs to prisoners for money,” he told me. “They forced me to take them. You need protection in there. You find someone and give him drugs and cigarettes. You pay off the guards to just punch you in the face or move you to a different cell instead of kill you. I was freed 26 days after I arrived, on Saddam’s birthday before I finished the three months. I can’t live with this nightmare anymore.”

He does not live with this nightmare anymore. Different nightmares now haunt decent and innocent people in his country.

It seems somehow inadequate, tone-deaf, and perhaps even wrong to say Fallujah’s disgraceful warehouse for humans is progress. But it is.

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:48 AM | Comments (88)

February 17, 2008

We Are Not Creating More Terrorists

According to the conventional wisdom in certain quarters, the war in Iraq is only creating more terrorists. As usual, the conventional wisdom is wrong.

Here is Iraqpundit:

It’s important to note that, whatever the raw numbers of jihadis in Iraq, they have been by far the most lethal aspect of the so-called “insurgency”; their aim all along was to foment a sectarian civil war among Iraqis, especially by slaughtering as many innocent Shiite men, women, and children as possible.

Gerecht’s second point is that the jihadis who have entered the country have not been embraced by the Iraqis. As he puts it, “the arrival of foreign holy warriors is deradicalizing the local population -- the exact opposite of what happened in Afghanistan.”


The percentage of Muslims saying that suicide bombing is justified in the defense of Islam has declined dramatically over the past five years in five of eight countries where trends are available. In Lebanon, for example, just 34% of Muslims say suicide bombings in the defense of Islam are often or sometimes justified; in 2002, 74% expressed this view.” In that survey, Al Qaeda’s reputation in the Muslim world had plummeted. To use Bin Laden’s own imagery, he had become the “weak horse” in his battle with the U.S.
Meanwhile, a brand new Muslim country declared independence today.
An outpouring of adulation for the United States — Kosovo’s staunchest ally in its quest for independence and the architect of NATO’s 1999 bombing campaign against Mr. Milosevic — was evident everywhere. Thousands of revelers unfurled giant American flags, carried posters of former President Bill Clinton, and chanted “Thank You U.S.A.!” and “God Bless America.”
Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:27 AM | Comments (17)

February 15, 2008

Obama Imitates Olmert

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has one of the lowest approval ratings in his country’s history thanks to his disastrous prosecution of the July 2006 war in Lebanon against Hezbollah.

Nevertheless, and contrary to Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah’s delusional and arrogant boasts, Hezbollah didn’t win. I toured South Lebanon and the suburbs south of Beirut – Hezbollah’s two major strongholds – after the war. The magnitude of the destruction was stunning. It looked like World War II blew through the place. (Click here and here to see photos.) Nasrallah survived and replenished his arsensal stocks, but, as Israeli military historian Michael Oren put it, “If he has enough victories like this one, he’s dead.”

Israel didn’t win, either. None of Israel’s objectives in Lebanon were accomplished.

The best that can be said of that war is that it was a strategic draw with losses on both sides. Hezbollah absorbed the brunt of the damage.

It should be obvious why Israel didn’t prevail to observers of modern assymetrical warfare and counterinsurgency. Olmert’s plan, such as it was, was doomed to fail from Day One. It may not have been obvious then, but it certainly should be by now.

American General David Petraeus proved counterinsurgency in Arabic countries can work. His surge of troops in Iraq is about a change of tactics more than an increase in numbers, and his tactics so far have surpassed all expectations. The “light footprint” model used during former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s tenure may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but American soldiers and Marines had no chance of defeating insurgents from behind barbed wire garrisons. Only now that the troops have left the relative safety and comfort of their bases and intimately integrated themselves into the Iraqi population are they able to isolate and track down the killers. They do so with help from the locals. They acquired that help because they slowly forged trusting relationships and alliances, and because they protect the civilians from violence.

The Israel Defense Forces did nothing of the sort in Lebanon. Most Lebanese Shias are so hostile to Israel that such a strategy might not work even if David Petraeus himself were in charge of it. Even then it would take years to produce the desired results, just as it has taken several years in Iraq. Israelis have no wish to spend years fighting Hezbollah in Lebanon. International pressure would force them out if they did.

A Petraeus-like strategy wasn’t an option for Olmert. That, however, doesn’t mean we can’t compare the effectiveness of the Olmert and Petraeus strategies.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:23 AM | Comments (28)

February 12, 2008

The Final Mission, Part III

Humvee Dubat Fallujah.jpg

ANBAR PROVINCE, IRAQ – The United States plans to hand Anbar Province over to the Iraqis next month if nothing catastrophic erupts between now and then. The Marines will stick around a while longer, though, and complete their crucial last mission – training the Iraqi Police to replace them.

The local police force would collapse in short order without American financial and logistics support. “The biggest problem they have is supply,” Corporal Hayes said to me in Fallujah. “They're always running out of gas and running out of bullets. How are they supposed to police this city with no gas and no bullets?”

What they need more than anything else, though, in the long run anyway, is an infusion of moderate politics. Fallujah is in the heartland of the Sunni Triangle. The city was ferociously Baathist during the rule of Saddam Hussein. It is surly and reactionary even today. Even by Iraqi standards. Even after vanquishing the insurgency. Fallujans may never be transformed into Jeffersonian liberal democrats, but young men from New York, California, and Texas are taking the Iraqis by the hand and gently repairing their political culture.

I accompanied Lieutenant Andrew Macak and Lieutenant Eric Montgomery to an ethics class they taught to members of the Anbar Provincial Security Forces (PSF). PSF members are police officers who operate at the provincial level rather than the city level, much like state police in the U.S. The class was held at a station in Karmah, a small city wedged between Fallujah and Baghdad. Coursework included the ethical responsibilities of police officers, the importance of human rights, and the permissible rules of engagement in counterinsurgency operations. The material was the same as that taught by Marines everywhere in Al Anbar – in Fallujah, Ramadi, Hit, and Haditha.

“We’re teaching them about the Law of Armed Conflict,” Lieutenant Montgomery said. “If they become a police state, people are not going to support them.”

IP with glasses and AK Fallujah.jpg

Post-Saddam Iraq is not a police state. Even so, while it's orders of magnitude more moderate and humane than the genocidal and fascistic regime it replaced, many individuals in the government and police departments have rough authoritarian habits that are rooted in Arab culture itself as much as they are legacies from the previous era.

“If we find Al Qaeda guys or weapons traffickers, we capture them,” Second Lieutenant Gary Laughlin said. “Iraqi Police, though, are too rough with detainees, more than I think is morally acceptable. They are rough before anything has been proven. They aren't hitting them, necessarily, but they are pushing them and throwing them around. We report this to Captain Jamal in Jolan. He takes care of it.”

Many Iraqi government officials and police officers have a hard time adjusting to the standards expected of them, but a small number are real stand-up guys who want to do the right thing.

“Captain Jamal is very pro-active,” Second Lieutenant Mike Barefoot said. “That's not a typical trait among Iraqis, except, unfortunately, among the insurgents. He's pro-active in building up the community, not just in fighting insurgents. He throws parties. He holds town hall meetings. He rents a tent, chairs, loudspeakers, cameramen, everything that matters. He spends money out of his own pocket. Where he gets that money, I don't know.”

The regions of Iraq that suffered most from the insurgency are, perhaps not surprisingly, more strongly anti-terrorist than other parts of the country. Likewise, Iraqis from these regions who suffered the most tend to be more committed to responsible moderate politics.

“Captain Jamal's brother's house was blown up and he was killed,” Lieutenant Barefoot said. “He was targeted because his brother is an Iraqi Police captain. It was a highly motivating experience.”

I rode with four Marines in a Humvee to the Karmah station for the human rights class. On the way we heard gunshots.

“I'm hearing heavy gunfire,” our gunner said. He stood in the open-air turret on top of the vehicle and could hear better than we could. All I heard was the roar of the engine.

“Where's it coming from?” Lieutenant Montgomery said.

“From the south,” the gunner said. “It sounds like a heavy fire fight, sir. I think it might be at the sheikh's house.”

Well, I thought. I was just outside Fallujah and getting closer to Baghdad. Something dramatic was bound to happen sooner or later if I stayed in the area long enough. Right?

Not necessarily.

While trying to figure out what was going on, we pulled into the parking lot at the station and found the local sheikh in an argument with Anbar Provincial Security Force officers and Marines. He was trying to secure the release of several Al Qaeda ringleaders and IED makers who had just been captured and who were partly responsible for the vicious murder and intimidation campaign that had only recently ended.

“You have to let them go,” the sheikh said.

Trying to Secure Release Iraq.jpg

“We can't let them go,” Lieutenant Montgomery said

“You have to release these people so they will be less mad,” the sheikh said. “Otherwise they might start it all up again.”

“That is completely unacceptable,” Lieutenant Macak said. “They are members of Al Qaeda. They killed coalitions forces. And they can't start anything up again if they're in prison. If they're guilty, they won’t be released any time soon.”

Most low level insurgents are placed into the Iraqi criminal justice system when captured, but detainees face American military justice if they’ve killed Americans.

It was a bit strange to hear how local authorities will sometimes abuse detainees before they are even charged with a crime, and then minutes later hear a sheikh plead on behalf of a high-level insurgency leader.

“It's such twisted logic,” Lieutenant Montgomery whispered to me.

Is it, though? Earlier I was told that the very people who inform on insurgents will unseriously go through the motions of trying to secure their release. They do this to prevent retaliatory attacks from insurgents still at large in the area. Perhaps that's what was happening here, but it's hard to say.

Someone in Iraq was obviously happy these alleged Al Qaeda leaders were captured. The gunfire our gunner had heard just a few minutes before wasn’t a fire fight. It was a celebration.

“They're firing off all the ammo we gave them,” Lieutenant Montgomery said. Our gunner had said the shots sounded like they were in front of the sheikh's house. I seriously had to wonder then: did the sheikh really want these insurgents released from custody? Franky, I doubt it. But I don't know, this is Iraq. The wheels are on crooked, and there are no straight lines in this country.


I stood outside the classroom and drank tea with Lieutenant Macak, Lieutenant Montgomery, and our Palestinian interpreter who called himself Tom. While I stirred and sipped my tea, Tom chain-smoked Gauloises cigarettes imported from France.

“Tom, do you have a lighter?” Lieutenant Montgomery said.

“Tom doesn't need a lighter,” Lieutenant Macak said. “He just lights one from the other.”

Tom laughed and handed over the lighter. Lieutenant Montgomery lit a Camel and inhaled deeply.

“If we can get the Iraqis to not beat detainees,” he said, “that's a big step.”

Meanwhile, Americans back home argue about whether water-boarding is torture and if it should be outlawed. I’ve had no exposure to interrogators who are tasked with extracting information from high-level terrorists like Khaled Sheikh Mohammad – who reportedly really was water-boarded. But I can say, for whatever it’s worth, that I heard nothing but “liberal” opinions about how ordinary detainees should be treated from every soldier and Marine who talked about it, both on the record and off. Military justice, I suspect, is more in line with the values of domestic liberals and Democrats than many probably realize.

Prisoner abuse is a serious violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. American Marines spend a great deal of time and energy trying to eradicate the practice in Iraqi Police departments.

The class was about to begin, so we set aside our glasses of tea and put out our cigarettes.

Twenty or so Iraqi Provincial Security Force officers filed in and sat on hard wooden benches facing the white board. I took an empty seat in the front.

It was no warmer inside the classroom than outside. Windows were broken and sand-bagged.

Broken Sandbagged Windows Fallujah.jpg

The power was out and the heat was off. Iraq got cold fast. It was warm when I arrived, hot a mere two weeks before I arrived, and then it was very suddenly freezing. Summer is long, winter is short, but spring and fall only last about two weeks apiece. Iraq is one of the least physically comfortable countries on Earth.

Some of the Iraqis had sore throats. While they made tea for themselves and for us, one of the Marines gave them packets of Vitamin C to boost their immune systems against the virus that was going around.

Before getting into the ethics of policing and warfare, Lieutenant Montgomery discussed weapon safety. “Don't point your weapon at anything you don't intend to shoot,” he said to the Iraqis seated in front of him. He said that with a straight face. The Iraqis listened and kept straight faces of their own as if they were actually taking him seriously.

PSF Training Class Board 2.jpg
Lieutenant Eric Montgomery

PSF in Class.jpg
Anbar Provincial Security Force officers

It was a laughable moment from a bizarro world where the Americans pretend to be teaching and the Iraqis pretend to be learning. The Iraqis have heard this hundreds of times, but they are not going to change their behavior any time soon. They will point their weapons at me. They will point their weapons at their American allies and teachers. They will point their weapons at their fellow Iraqi Police officers. They will point their weapons at you if you ever go to Iraq. They recklessly wave the barrels of their rifles in every direction. Those rifles are almost always in Condition One – ready to fire – even though they ought to be in Condition Three or Four. I was more likely to be shot by an Iraqi Police officer on accident than by an insurgent on purpose.

But the Marines drive the point home over and over again anyway. The Iraqis know what they're supposed to do. They know how to do it even if they don't want to do it. At some point, though, they might say enough after accidentally shooting each other too many times and decide it's time to implement those safety regulations they've heard so much about.

Lieutenant Montgomery spent most of his time in the classroom talking about human rights and the very restrictive rules of engagement that apply to American and Iraqi combatants. (Police officers, unfortunately, are often counterinsurgent combatants. They aren’t handing out speeding tickets like regular officers in countries that are not at war. They are part of the multinational coalition in Iraq, and their rules of engagement are dictated to them by Americans.

Bullet Holes Iraqi Police Truck Fallujah.jpg

The Marines are not imposing American values per se on the Iraqis. They’re grounded in international law, and they’re deadly serious about it. Lieutenant Montgomery didn’t give a lecture on the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, or anything else that is particular of or exclusive to the United States. Instead, he taught the U.N. Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials.

“The human rights in question are identified and protected by national and international law,” the Code of Conduct says. “Among the relevant international instruments are the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Being Subjected to Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners and the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.”

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An Iraqi Police officer in Fallujah

“No law enforcement official may inflict, instigate, or tolerate any act of torture or other cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment or punishment,” Lieutenant Montgomery said. He read it off the white board.

Later, I cross-referenced what he said with the Code of Conduct itself. As it turned out, he was quoting from it verbatim.
No law enforcement official may inflict, instigate or tolerate any act of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, nor may any law enforcement official invoke superior orders or exceptional circumstances such as a state of war or a threat of war, a threat to national security, internal political instability or any other public emergency as a justification of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
Lieutenant Macak had some words of his own for the class. “If someone confesses under torture,” he said, “that confession is useless.”

According to planet-wide conventional wisdom, United States soldiers and Marines are on an abusive rampage in Iraq. Relentless media coverage of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib – which really did occur, but which the United States didn’t sanction or tolerate – seriously distorted what actually goes on in Iraq most of the time. The United States military is far from perfect and is hardly guilt-free, but it’s the most law-abiding and humane institution in Iraq at this time.

PSF Training Class Board.jpg

“Human rights are legal tools in the hands of citizens against abuse of power by an oppressive state,” Lieutenant Montgomery said. “If human rights are not respected, sooner or later it will lead to violence and instability…Human rights are rights that derive from the inherent dignity and worth of the person, and they are universal, inalienable, and equal. They are the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace. They belong to people simply because they are human.” Again, he read from it the white board. All Iraqi Police officers in Al Anbar are exposed to this material.

It is imparted to Iraqi Police and Provincial Security Force officers through instruction. It is demonstrated to Iraqi civilians by example.

Lieutenant Macak told me about a local woman some Marines met who was missing a leg. Needless to say, she had a hard time getting around. These Marines pooled their resources and bought her a wheelchair with money from their own salaries.

Such people do not wish to recklessly fire their weapons and harm civilians. Their rules of engagement are sharply restrictive, much more so than most American civilians have any idea. The rules are certainly more restrictive than Iraqi civilians expected when the Americans showed up in force in 2003.

Some Marines complain about the rules which might even be a bit too restrictive. “You can't defend yourself out here,” one sergeant told me. “If you're manning a checkpoint, and a car is coming at you going 90 miles an hour, you can only shoot after it’s less than 25 meters away. You have less than one second to legally stop it, and it could be a VBIED [a Vehicle-borne IED, or a car bomb]. If you shoot quicker than that, you go to jail.”

Lieutenant Montgomery went over several what-if scenarios with his students.

“You're in a convoy,” he said, “and you see a man crouching behind a tree 100 meters off the road. You see a garbage bag on the side of the road with wires sticking out of it. What can you do?”

Three Iraqis partially answered the question. All answered correctly. None said it would be okay to shoot the guy even though it is very possible that he’s an IED trigger man.

PSF in Class 2.jpg

If the police officers sitting in that classroom ever believed it was American policy to indiscriminately shoot at Iraqis, they certainly know better now.

I've said before that American soldiers and Marines aren't the bloodthirsty killers of the popular (in certain quarters) imagination, and that they are far less racist against Arabs than average Americans. They are also, famously, less racist against each other, and they have been since they were forcibly integrated after World War II. This is due to sustained everyday contact with each other and with Iraqis. The stereotype of the racist and unhinged American soldier and Marine is itself a bigoted caricature based almost entirely on sensationalist journalism and recklessly irresponsible war movies.

Liberal journalist George Packer has spent a lot of time in Iraq and is a reliable critic of the Bush Administration and the war. He, like me, has his opinions and doesn't conceal them. But he reports what he sees honestly and comprehensively. You can trust him whether you agree with his views or not.

In a current World Affairs article he pans some of Hollywood's recent anti-war box office flops. “[T]he films...present the war as incomprehensible mayhem,” he wrote, “and they depict American soldiers as psychopaths who may as well be wearing SS uniforms. The G.I.s rape, burn, and mutilate corpses, torture detainees, accelerate a vehicle to run over a boy playing soccer, wantonly kill civilians and journalists in firefights, humiliate one another, and coolly record their own atrocities for entertainment. Have these things happened in Iraq? Many have. But in the cinematic version of the war, these are the only things that happen in Iraq. At a screening of The Situation, I was asked to discuss the film with its director, Philip Haas. Why had he portrayed the soldiers in cartoon fashion, I wondered. Why had he missed their humor, their fear, their tenderness for one another and even, every now and then, for Iraqis? Because, Haas said, he wanted to concentrate on humanizing his Iraqi characters instead.”

It's not hard to humanize Iraqis and Americans. A competent writer or director can do both at the same time. In fact, it requires deliberate effort or willful ignorance for a writer or director to humanize Iraqis while at the same time dehumanizing Americans. Packer humanizes both because he's a good writer, he's honest, and he actually works in Iraq. He leaves his fortified hotel compound and makes an effort to get it right, unlike so many writers, directors, and journalists in the stereotype-manufacturing industries.

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You know who else is in Iraq and therefore knows what the country is really like? Iraqis. (Of course.) They see and experience much of the same kinds of events George Packer and I have seen and experienced. They don't learn about Iraq from Reuters and Hollywood. And they are less anti-American than they were during the initial invasion in 2003 – at least many of those who have had sustained contact with Marines and soldiers. Sustained contact with the “other” breaks down bigotry all around, even in war zones.

The violent strain of anti-Americanism in Fallujah and the surrounding area has ebbed almost completely. People here know Americans are not the enemy. They know Americans protect them from murder and intimidation from the head-choppers and car bombers. They know Americans provide medical care to Iraqis hurt by insurgents and even to insurgents wounded in battle.

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If the Iraqis who listen to the Marines' lectures on human rights and the rules of engagement ever took seriously the once common comparison between the American invasion of 2003 and the bloodthirsty Mongol invasion of the 13th Century, they certainly don't anymore. They may not absorb all the lessons of their coursework, and they may still resent the American presence on principle to an extent, but at least they know what Americans really are like as people and warriors. The class taught by Lieutenant Eric Montgomery wasn’t designed with public relations in mind, but it has that effect all the same.

“If the police are dishonest and corrupt,” Lieutenant Montgomery said, “the entire government will be viewed as dishonest and corrupt. Of all the agents of the government, you are the ones the people will have the most direct contact with. So it's more important for you to be honest than it is for anyone else.”

Many Iraqi Police officers, though, are not honest.

“One police chief is thought to be smuggling weapons in,” Captain Stewart Glenn said to me back in Fallujah. “Trouble is we can't prove it. So we’re not doing much at the moment. We can't arrest him. He is widely respected in the community for helping secure the area. So we don't want to arrest him because the locals would go what the hell? We're in a tough spot with this guy.”

“Iraqi Police said they couldn't go on patrol with us because they were out of fuel,” said another Marine whose name I didn't catch. “So we bought them fuel. The very same day we saw them selling that fuel on the side of the road. We give them guns, and the guns disappear. Now we make them put a deposit down on the weapon before we give it to them. That took care of the problem.”

“There can be no abuse of power by the state,” Lieutenant Montgomery said to his class. Iraqis certainly didn't get that civics lesson from the regime of Saddam Hussein. They did, however, acquire many bad habits from the regime of Saddam Hussein.

After class, the Marines led the Iraqis outside and showed them how to search potentially dangerous suspects.

The Iraqis laughed as they tried out their new moves. It looked like they were only half serious.

“These guys aren't the sharpest tools in the drawer,” a Marine said to me as I snapped some pictures.

“Well,” I said. “Hopefully some of it sticks.”

“Some of it does,” he said. “It does.”

Please support independent journalism. Traveling to and working in Iraq is expensive. I can’t publish dispatches on this Web site for free without substantial reader donations, so I'll appreciate it if you pitch in what you can.

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:39 AM | Comments (55)

February 10, 2008

Lebanon's Jumblatt Threatens War

Just a few nights ago I said to some out of town friends that I thought another war, between Hezbollah and whichever adversary first decides to pick up the sword, is all but inevitable in Lebanon. I wish it weren't so, but it probably is. If the Israelis don't do it, someone in Lebanon will unless the Syrian and Iranian regimes are first brought to heel.

Right on schedule, Druze chief Walid Jumblatt throws down the gauntlet.

Abu Kais has the story, from articles he translated from Arabic:
In one of his most aggressive speeches since the civil war, Walid Jumblatt said March 14 will go to war against Hizbullah if that’s what the militia wants. “Our existence, dignity and Lebanon are more important than anything else. You want disorder, so be it.”, he said, addressing Hizbullah and the forces he said are trying to bring back Syrian hegemony. ”You want war, so be it. We have no problem with weapons, no problem with missiles. We will take your ready-to-use missiles. We have no problem with martyrdom and suicide.”

Jumblatt also rejected Hizbullah’s “open war” against Israel under “fake slogans that serve the Syrian regime and the Iranian empire.”

Read the whole thing.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:15 PM | Comments (65)

February 9, 2008

Assad Suckers Obama

Senator Barack Obama went on the record about the never-ending political meltdown in Lebanon, and for a moment there I thought he might have it just right.

“The ongoing political crisis is resulting in the destabilization of Lebanon,” he said, “which is an important country in the Middle East. The US cannot watch while Lebanon’s fresh democracy is about to collapse.” So far so good. “We must keep supporting the democratically-elected government of PM Fouad Siniora, strengthening the Lebanese army and insisting on the disarmament of Hezbollah before it leads Lebanon into another unnecessary war.”

This is all excellent, so let’s get something out of the way. Barack Obama is not a leftist. He is a liberal. The difference between an American liberal and an American leftist on Lebanon is enormous. I can’t tell you how many Western leftists I’ve met who ran off to Beirut where they endlessly excuse or even outright support Hezbollah. (They are “victims” of Zionism, they aren’t pro-American like those icky “right-wing” bourgeois Maronite Christians, etc.) Some of these Hezbollah supporters, tragically, are journalists. They put me in the right-wing “imperialist” and “orientalist” camp for no more than saying what Barack Obama just said.

Obama’s problem isn’t that he’s on the wrong side. His problem is he’s the latest in a seemingly limitless supply of naïve Westerners who think they can reason with Syria’s tyrant Bashar Assad.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:23 AM | Comments (98)

February 8, 2008

Black Iraq Humor

My sense of humor darkened considerably when I lived in Lebanon. Beirutis, especially, have learned to laugh at things that would make the average American suburbanite's blood curdle. It's a coping mechanism, and I acquired a bit of it myself.

Iraq does the same thing to people:

Hat tip: Patrick Lasswell in the comments.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:26 AM | Comments (24)

February 7, 2008

Iraqi Civics and Car Bombs

Bill Ardolino has published the first installment in a four part series at the Long War Journal about Iraqi politics based on dozens of interviews with major players. In an email, he writes, "This first installment is like an 8th grade civics lesson about the Iraqi executive branch, albeit some of the players have car bombs."

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 5:03 PM | Comments (9)

February 3, 2008

The Final Mission, Part II

IP Truck and Rubble Fallujah.jpg

FALLUJAH – The United States military plans to formally hand over Anbar Province to the Iraqis this spring because the insurgency truly is finished in that part of the country. Most Americans have heard about the success in this province by now, but few seem to be aware that the cities of Anbar were the scenes of the most ferocious fighting: Ramadi, Haditha, and – worst of all – Fallujah.

The Americans in Fallujah are focused now on what they expect to be their last mission: the training of the Iraqi Police to replace the Marines.

Optimism and cynicism exist side by side. All the Americans I spoke to said the Iraqi Police are improving. Most are cautiously optimistic about their ability to stand on their own – later. Hope comes naturally in Fallujah right now because even this place, of all places, is peaceful and quiet. But a substantial minority has serious reservations after spending some quality time with Iraqis.

“We should have just left Saddam in power,” said an MP from the Texas National Guard who did not want to be named. “That's all these people understand.”

Fallujah is the heartland of Baath country. It's the most aggressively Sunni Arab city in all of Iraq. Residents deny the insurgency once had a popular base of support, possibly to save face, but it did. Some Fallujans are Islamists, some were and still are disgruntled Baathists, and others just needed the money. Even some police officers were insurgents.

“Some of them will tell you straight up that the only reason they're Iraqi Police officers is because it pays better than the insurgency,” Sergeant White said. “I hear that and I want to say Hold this guy while I go get my pistol.

“Some Neighborhood Watch guys were insurgents, too,” Lieutenant Mike Barefoot said. “We know some of them by name. They were working for insurgents to get paid, not because they were jihadis. So we pay them more.”

“How do you feel about them?” I said.

“I sympathize with them,” he said. “If they're shooting at me, it's time for them to die. They aren't my friends. But I can hang out with them and shoot the shit. We do try to be nice to them to make it harder for them to join another insurgency later. We don't want them to get fired because they love the action and we don't want them loose in circulation.”

“How many do you suppose were ideologically motivated?” I said. That's a hard question to answer, but an officer who has been in Fallujah for months should have a better sense of it than I do.

“Only a very small percentage,” he said. “They wanted to be free, or employed, or they were there for the action. Not because they wanted to live under a religious tyranny. There are lots of mosques here, as you know, but very few people are in the mosques during prayer time.”

He could tell I was slightly skeptical. If what he said wasn't true, though, in 2004, it certainly is in 2008. “The reason we're winning isn't because of the Marines,” he said. “We've done our part, but we're winning because of our support from the Iraqi people.”


I sat down with three Police Transition Team members who work exclusively with the Iraqi Police.

“We've already seen a pretty significant difference,” Specialist Brian Henderson said. “When we first got here and went on patrols with the guys from the Dubat station they were just looking around. Now they're trying to work on their intervals, their staggers, the stuff that we've taught them. They're putting this stuff into play more and more.”

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Specialist Brian Henderson

“What's the biggest challenge for you guys?” I said.

“The language barrier is tough,” Specialist Tomas Morales said. “They do want to learn. They want to get it right, and we want to help them get it right. But we only have one interpreter per squad, per fifteen guys.”

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Specialist Tomas Morales

The shortage of interpreters also made it hard for me to interview Iraqis. Hardly any of them speak English, and it takes years of full-time intensive study and immersion to speak a dialect of Arabic well enough to conduct a professional interview.

An Iraqi Police officer asked me if he could borrow my pen while I was writing in my notebook. I thought he only needed it for a second, but he ran off when I handed it to him.

“You have to be careful with these guys,” Specialist Henderson said. “You'll think they're borrowing it, but you'll never see it again.” He then gave me a weather-proof space pen so I could continue taking notes during our interview. The Iraqi Police officer returned a few moments later, handed my pen back, and flashed me a grin. They aren't all liars and cheats.

“When I was in Ramadi a few months ago,” I said, “the Iraqi Police were having major logistics problems. The Americans were taking care of everything for them.”

“That's one of the things we do here,” Specialist Alan Martin said. “This station is pretty well-established. Someone takes account of all their weapons. They had problems with Iraqi Police giving their weapons away to family members because they thought they were gifts. Same with vehicles and stuff like that. Now they're keeping a count of them and making them sign for them, letting them know they're accountable.”

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Specialist Alan Martin

“If you all left today,” I said, “could the Iraqi Police stand on their own?”

“I think this station [Khaderi] would last a while,” Specialist Henderson said, “but they need some supervision still. I know many of them who really don't want us to leave.”

“Do any of them want you to leave?” I said.

“I don't think...I think they're just wanting to rely on themselves,” Specialist Morales said. “It's like a pride thing. They don't really want us to leave, but they want to be established on their own.”

The Police Transition Teams, which include Marines and members of the Texas National Guard, live and work in small Joint Security Stations with the Iraqis. They focus strictly on a single unit of Iraqi Police officers, and they're responsible for security in only one small precinct of the city.

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Joint Security Station, Fallujah

“I swear I don't mean to sound like I'm selling something,” Sergeant Stephen Deboard said when I first arrived in the city. “But what the Marines are doing out there in the city is amazing. They are so integrated in the community. The first time I stayed at one of the stations I awoke to the sound of an Iraqi baby crying and the smell of the neighbor's eggs cooking. They're living right there with the Iraqis.”

“I never thought I'd walk around a place like Fallujah and see people I know,” Sergeant Clarence Foster said and laughed.

The small stations are a world apart from Regiment headquarters at Camp Fallujah ten miles outside the city. Hardly anyone who lives and works at Camp Fallujah goes outside the wire on a regular basis.

Camp Fallujah doesn't even feel like it's in Iraq. Large military bases look and feel more like Planet Army. (In the case of Camp Fallujah, it's more like Planet Marines.) There aren't many Iraqis around, although there are some. Almost everyone is an American, and most of the buildings are temporary structures built by Americans, specifically by the Kellogg, Brown, and Root corporation (KBR).

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Outdoor smoking section

At night it's dark at Camp Fallujah and Camp Baharia, a smaller but still large Marine base outside the city on a lake where Uday Hussein once had a retreat and a complex of night clubs. Lights are out after dark so insurgent mortar men will have a harder time aiming their rounds. Neither base comes under mortar fire these days, but the Marines feel no need to add street or stadium lights. Everyone carries small LED flashlights. At Camp Baharia, dim red lights are placed on objects such as trash cans so no one bumps into them in the dark.

The Joint Security Stations are converted houses. Marines and Iraqi Police officers live in them, and they feel as much like homes as military and police stations. The highest ranking officers are usually lieutenants, and lieutenants are the lowest ranking officers in the military. Joint Security Stations, then, have a much less formal feel than the large bases where battalion and regiment level officers live.

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Marines and Iraqis play football and soccer in the back yard, watch movies on big screen TVs in the rec room, and lift weights in makeshift gyms with equipment they designed and built by hand. Weight-lifting isn't the only thing that goes on in those gyms. “Marines are getting into Pilates now,” Lieutenant J.C. Davis told me. “That shit hurts. It just hurts.” Pilates, officially, is no longer girly.

Unfortunately, living in a rented house in Iraq means living like Iraqis. Dust and filth cover everything. If they have running water at all, it isn't potable. Toilets don't work properly, and the Marines rarely even attempt to use them. Have to take a piss? There's a tube out back that leads into the ground. Solid waste goes somewhere else. Needless to say, no women live or work at these stations.

Piss Here Fallujah.jpg

Large bases are luxurious by comparison, even though the “standard of living” at these places is lower than the standard of living for poor Americans in public housing compounds in the slums. No one ever complains.

There is no garbage collection at a Joint Security Station, and there certainly isn't a recycling program. All trash is tossed into a burn pit. These burn pits give off a strange sort of scorched-everything-at-the-same-time smell. It is neither pleasant nor foul, and it smells probably like a city would if it were on fire.

A Marine unit I embedded with spent a few hours at the Fenton station in the Dubat neighborhood on the way to the main Fallujah station downtown. Earlier in 2007, Fenton took a hit from a suicide dump truck bomb. The explosion blew gigantic concrete Texas barriers into the house. Amazingly, only the driver was killed.

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Fenton Station, Dubat, Fallujah

We stopped there to have lunch and I gagged on my way into the kitchen.

“What is that smell?” I said. It was sour, horrendous, and so overwhelming I could taste it.

“Rat piss,” Sergeant Foster said.

“Oh, God,” I said, and bolted out the door back into the living room. “Seriously?”

“Seriously,” he said.

“I killed twelve of them in here myself,” said another MP.

The others laughed at me, but at the same time they sympathized. They saw their own selves reflected back at them. All reacted the same way to their rodent-contaminated kitchen when they were first exposed to that nastiness. “You get used to it after a while.”

I did not stay for a while, so I did not get used to it. All of us had to retrieve our food from the fridge and use the microwave, but some of the MPs actually ate in that stench cloud.

The food at these stations in terrible. You're lucky if you can scrounge up a microwaved hot pocket or pizza. Usually we were stuck with tasteless and over-cooked “chow” that spent months or even years in cardboard boxes stacked in the pantry. Steaks are cooked in boiling water. Corn is canned, of course. The macaroni and cheese is so bland it doesn't even work as plausible comfort food. Barbecued ribs are all bone. Meals in Iraq prepared by Marines at small stations gave me a real appreciation for food served in the gigantic D-FACs (dining facilities) at Camp Fallujah. And food at Camp Fallujah's D-FACs makes dinner at Denny's sound awesome.

Embedding with the military in Baghdad and Fallujah has given me a deeper appreciation for the comforts of modern civilization than I would have thought possible when I was younger.

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At least the Marines' food is hot. It wasn't when they first got there.

“All we had was a bunch of stoner food,” Specialist Henderson said back at the Khaderi station. “When we first moved in we roughed it and lived off muffins, beef jerky, and Pop-Tarts. I'm never eating another Pop-Tart again.”

He and I ate microwaved pizza-stuffed Hot Pockets for lunch. They weren't too bad. Another Marine ate two hamburger patties sandwiched between two Hot Pockets. Somehow he managed to get his mouth around all that. He washed it down with apple juice concentrate that was supposed to be diluted with water. Marines need their calories.

“There's a lot of military houses in this part of the city,” Specialist Henderson said. “Lots of retired generals live around here. And there's no bullet holes in these houses. Kinda makes you think, doesn't it?”

The Askeri neighborhood next door took a heavier beating because it was the entry point for the battle of Al-Fajr in November, 2004.

“We couldn't go ten feet in Askeri in 2005 without drawing all kinds of fire,” Specialist Kaufman told me. “There were blown up cars everywhere.”

Informal group interviews are hard to maintain because they often segue into small talk and jokey banter.

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Specialist Kaufman

“My personal goal is to shave his mustache,” Specialist Henderson said about Specialist Kaufman, out of the blue and apropos of nothing. “He's like the Pringle's guy.” It's a little bit harder to extract information from younger Marines, but they can be more fun to hang out with.

“I guarantee you that if I invented Pringles,” Specialist Kaufman said, “I wouldn't be here.”

Pringles Guy.JPG

“I drew the Pringles man on the ladder up to his bunk,” Specialist Morales said and laughed.

“Now why don't you suck my left nut and make my right nut jealous,” Specialist Kaufman said.

“Dude, what would you do if we shaved off half your mustache in your sleep?” Specialist Henderson said.

“I'd keep the other half,” Specialist Kaufman said.

Young Marines and soldiers almost constantly joke around with each other when they aren't actively doing something that requires their complete attention. Occasionally they will even make fun of me when they sense that I won't get offended and give them bad press to get back at them.

Some Marines and soldiers, though, just do not know what to make of me. At the small stations in the city I was almost always the only civilian around. Many did a double-take when they saw my civilians clothes. Who the heck's this guy? Many seemed to think I only just arrived in Iraq and haven't seen anything yet. After I returned from every foot patrol, somebody always asked me what I thought. “Kind of boring, actually,” I always said. “But that's good.” The response was almost always the same: laughter. I think they expected me to be scared. Every civilian they talk to at home thinks Fallujah is scary. But I knew better because I was in Fallujah just like they were. There's no war in Fallujah right now, and that's obvious when you're there for several weeks.

I met a young Marine named Austin -- he did not give me his last name and he wasn't wearing his rank – who grew up in East St. Louis, Illinois. “I'm from a really bad area,” he said. “I didn't even go outside when I was a kid. Fallujah is a lot better.” I believe that from what I've read about East St. Louis. “My Mom doesn't believe me. She thinks I'm hiding stuff from her. So does my sister.”

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Joint Security Station, Jbail, Fallujah

I cannot tell you how many times I heard someone say “Mom, it's fine here,” when talking to family members back home on the phone. “Don't believe everything you see on TV.

One Marine I met, Lieutenant Brandon Pearson, was particularly suspicious of me when I showed up at his station. He asked me all kinds of questions as if I might be some kind of a threat. Who do you work for? What are you trying to do here, exactly? Are you authorized to just walk around without an escort?

Later he apologized for being standoffish and paranoid. “I don't really know what I'm supposed to say to a reporter,” he said.

“You can say whatever you want,” I said. “Just don't tell me anything classified.”

He didn't say much on the record about the mission in Fallujah and preferred to talk of more personal matters. I liked him after he relaxed and was always happy to see him.

“I love fighting,” he said. “Well, not fighting exactly, at least not for its own sake. I mean, I love forcing an oppressor to stop abusing a defenseless person. I love telling him this isn't your day. I can't imagine anything more satisfying than that.”


I visited Lieutenant Nathan Bibler's Joint Security Station on the very last day of its existence. The Marines and the Iraqis were moving out of their large rented house and into a brand-new station that had just been built by an international contracting company.

While his men loaded sandbags from the windows and roof onto a seven ton truck, he and I sat in his office and talked about his mission and the Iraqi Police.

Now You Cant See Me Fallujah.jpg

“Do you trust the police?” I said.

“I trust that they know what's going on in Jbail,” he said, “and that they don't want another insurgency from Al Qaeda or anyone else.”

Jbail is in the slums of Fallujah, in the southern part of the city. Many of Jbail's residents worked in the industrial district, but most of the factories there haven't re-opened.

“We talk to the police,” he continued, “and hang out with them downstairs sometimes. A lot of them have had family members killed by Al Qaeda, especially the chiefs. So I trust that they want security to be established.”

“How competent are they?” I said.

“They know the people really well,” he said.

“I mean, do they have good police skills?”

“That's what the Police Transition Team is for,” he said. “The transition from para-military to police is what's going on right now. When the Neighborhood Watch was created they were taking fire just like we were, if not more. Now that things have calmed down, we can focus on the finer details that come with police work like tactics and communication.”

Earlier in the afternoon I joined him and his men as they walked to a mukhtar's house for a meeting. (Mukhtars are neighborhood representatives on Fallujah's city council.) The mukhtar wasn't at home, so we missed our meeting, but I got a tour of the neighborhood. The poorest section of town didn't feel any more dangerous or sketchy than the nicer areas to the north of us.

“How dangerous would it be for me to walk around in Fallujah by myself?” I said. “How safe or stupid would that be?”

Men with Bicycles Fallujah.jpg

“It depends,” he said. “You could probably go right now and walk around this whole area today and be fine. You'd be approached a lot by the kids, but you'd be fine. But if you made that a pattern, I wouldn't be comfortable with that. If Al Qaeda or someone is watching, you'd be in trouble. But I think if you did it once you would be fine. You see how people are.”

Yes, I see how people are. Every Iraqi I met in Fallujah who was not being held in a jail as a suspected terrorist was friendly, warm, and hospitable. It is, of course, possible that I've met someone who would kidnap me if I didn't have the Marines as my bodyguards, but the overwhelming majority of Fallujans wouldn't hurt me even if they do hate my guts for being American. The problem is that a small percentage would do something terrible if they could, and it's impossible to know who to trust. I certainly shouldn't trust the entire city of Fallujah and walk around loose on my own. I suspect the lieutenant is right, though, that if I did it once nothing would happen. The average Fallujan isn't a terrorist. The whole city rose up as one against the head choppers and car bombers.

“There haven't been many attacks in the city since we got here,” Lieutenant Bibler said. “We haven't found a house with bomb-making materials in it.”

I should stress, here, that he is speaking specifically about his area of operations, which is the neighborhood of Jbail. It is the only part of Fallujah he has even seen.

“We haven't found anyone taking pictures or anything like that,” he said. “Which is not what we expected coming in. It's a tribute to the unit that was here before us, and to the Iraqis who have worked so hard to flush that stuff out. We've been patrolling hard since we got here. We found some weapons caches and explosives, but it was old. It had been there for a while.”

“Where do you find this stuff?” I said.

“In lots,” he said. “Buried under rubble.”

Lot with Rubble Fallujah.jpg

“How do you find it?” I said.

“People,” he said. “People call it in. The Iraqi Police have brought in most of it.”

“Do you know what the local people think of the Iraqi Police?” I said.

“They're happy that the Iraqi Police are keeping security,” he said. “You know the Neighborhood Watch? They have to come from this neighborhood. We have 157 of them. So a lot of the community is a part of that effort. And you have their families that are connected. Iraqis have pretty big families. For the most part people are happy with it. Because security is so good we hear about issues like water, food, and electricity. A lot of people are looking forward to the barriers being lifted so they can drive freely without having to pass through the checkpoints.”

Each neighborhood is surrounded by concrete Jersey and Texas barriers that route all vehicle traffic through checkpoints. The walls are inconvenient and ugly, but they instantly put a stop to the car bombs.

Two Iraqi Cops South Fallujah.jpg

“The checkpoints work really well because the Iraqi Police check every vehicle, every ID,” he said. “It really stemmed the flow of weapons because they're going to get caught with them.”

Lieutenant Bibler was moderately optimistic about Fallujah's prospects. Just about every Marine I spoke to was surprised by the dramatic changes that had taken place. A full-blown revolution had taken place in the city. But I understand why some Marines have a dim view of the place. It's hard, sometimes, to trust that a corrupt and incompetent police force will ever be able to hold off the likes of Al Qaeda without some assistance.

One problem with the Iraqi Police that gets almost no press at all is their immaturity. Someone remarked that “they act like a bunch of third graders,” and at times they really do. Every day Iraqi kids gave me the mister mister picture picture routine when they saw my camera. Some of the police officers did the same thing. They want me to take their picture over and over and over again. It's a way for them to get fifteen seconds of fame. Other Iraqi Police officers don't want me to take their picture because they are still afraid of the insurgents.

Three Kids Volleyball Game Fallujah.jpg

At the Amariyah station in a village just outside Fallujah, several Iraqi Police officers sat at the dispatcher's desk and watched explicit pornography streamed over the Internet. They whooped and yelled and elbowed each other as the video kept getting racier. I sat at a desk just behind them and tried to work on an article, but they kept trying to get me to watch the video with them. Several Marines shared this work space with them, and all of them ignored the Iraqis and tried to pretend the porno show wasn't on.

Marines aren't even allowed to check their personal email accounts while they're on duty, let alone watch explicit sex videos on a laptop.

Irony abounded in that room. Iraqi culture is orders of magnitude more sexually conservative than American culture. Soldiers and Marines in particular are not shy or restrained when it comes to sex (except when they have to be while they're on deployment). Yet the Americans in the room were the ones put off by the pornography. It wasn't because they are uptight or square, but because porn on the job could hardly be less professional. Some of them rightly accused the Iraqi men of hypocrisy. “How come you guys cover your women but you sit around all day looking at our women without any clothes on?”

I had to pick up my laptop and move. The movie wasn't the only distraction. The Iraqi dispatcher's radio was set to screaming loud, as they usually are. I don't know how they can stand to listen to garbled Arabic and loud static squelches at such a high volume. Arabs (and also Israelis) have an entirely different definition of “loud.” Europeans who think Americans are too brash and loud ought to spend some time in the Middle East and hear what people really sound like when they have no volume control.

Sergeant White walked past the dispatchers and their porn and shook his head. Later, when we were outside the station and outside Iraqi earshot, he unloaded on them. He was not too impressed with the Iraqi Police in general. “They don't show up for work,” he said. “They say I'll be at work tomorrow, Inshallah. I call bullshit on that. I tell them that they made a decision not to come into work the night before and that they can't blame that shit on God.”

Back at the main Fallujah police station, Sergeant Jason Howell pulled me aside.

“What are you hearing from Marines about the Iraqis?” he said.

“A whole range of opinion,” I said. “I probably hear the same things you hear. It doesn't sound to me like anyone censors themselves.”

He clearly itched to say something to me on the record. I didn't know if it would be good or if it would be bad, but that didn't matter. I turned on my digital voice recorder.

“I was here before,” he said. “This isn't my first time in the Fallujah area.”

I knew then that he would say something good about the Iraqi Police. He has seen progress with his own eyes on two separate deployments. All the returning veterans I spoke to were on average more optimistic than the others.

“You had the same job before?” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “I was actually in Karmah.”

Karmah is a smaller city about a ten minute drive (at normal speeds) from Fallujah toward Baghdad. It is sort of a suburb, and also a place unto itself. Every single Marine and MP said Karmah was more dangerous, violent, and terrifying than Fallujah. You probably have not even heard of it, but that's because journalists have not spent any time there. From the point of view of Americans who fought there or elsewhere in Anbar, Karmah might as well have been Mordor.

Stairs Through Broken Doorway Fallujah.jpg

“I was on a Police Transition Team,” he said. “We were the first embedded Police Transition Team that had taken over that station. When we started we had around 65 Iraqi Police, and when we left we had 94. We made a lot of progress. We improved the station. The biggest success we had there was the relationship we built with the Iraqis. This mission revolves around the relationships and friendships we make with these guys. They won't work with you unless they trust you, just like you won't work with them unless you can trust them.”

“You trust them, then?” I said.

“I do,” he said. “In general. There will always be some questions, just like in a police department back in the States. You won't necessarily know everybody that well or on that personal of a level. But in general I do trust these guys. They sacrifice a lot to do this job. I think a lot of people who come over here with a negative outlook, with a negative opinion of them, they don't think about the fact that they aren't just sacrificing their own safety. While they're out here doing this job, nobody is at home protecting their families. Their families are at home unattended, and they are constantly threatened. Coalition forces are obviously high-priority targets for insurgents, but another major priority is these Iraqi Police officers and their families. They risk a lot. They put a lot on the line to do this job.”

“You seem more optimistic than some of the others I've talked to,” I said. “Is that because of your experience last year, or is there another reason?”

“I had a very good experience last year,” he said. “We were fully embedded. We lived in the police station 24/7. I didn't leave the police station but once a month. I had very good relationships, life friendships, with my Iraqi Police officers. After all the things I've seen – they show you respect if you understand what they put themselves and their families through – it gives you a better understanding of the sacrifices they make.”

“What do you think about the Iraqi Police who used to be insurgents?” I said.

He laughed darkly. Clearly he did not want to talk about that.

“There's some controversy about this in the U.S.,” I said. “A lot of people are worried that we are arming and training our enemies.”

“Obviously if that happens, that's bad,” he said. “I've been lucky enough so far not to have experienced that. I haven't met any Iraqi Police who were insurgents. I've heard of that happening, but I haven't had that experience.”

“What if you did meet an Iraqi Police officer who was an insurgent?” I said. “Would that bother you or be water under the bridge?”

Some Marines really don't care all that much as long as the Iraqis are genuinely on their side now. So many Iraqis switched sides after the Anbar Awakening that it may not even be possible to keep all the former insurgents off the police force. It might even be foolish to try, just as dissolving the Iraqi Army after the invasion is widely seen now as a mistake.

“If that happened,” Sergeant Howell said, “there would have to be some questions and further investigation. All I can really say is, thank God I haven't had to deal with that personally.”

“So, what kind of progress have you seen?” I said. “What were the Iraqi Police like when you first got here compared to what they're like now?”

“A lot of the guys in general have a lot of experience,” he said. “Whether it's policing or with tactics and patrolling operations. A lot these guys were in the Iraqi Army for 20 years before joining the police force. There are people who were medics in the Iraqi Army. And the good thing about these police stations is that the Iraqi Police are from the local towns. Soldiers in the Iraqi Army come from everywhere in the country. This really helps the Iraqi Police because they know all the civilians who live in these towns, just like in the small towns back home. This helps build trust between the police and the civilians.”

What about the progress he's seen?

“When we first got to our station last year,” he said, “the Iraqi Police were not being paid, they weren't really operating, and few bothered to show up for work. By the time we left, we had 94 Iraqi Police officers hired. They were being paid. They did show up for work. They were doing joint operations with us. They were going out into the city, talking to people. The biggest thing that helped us was our relationship with them, the friendships. I have to be honest with you. Saying goodbye was emotionally hard. I lived with these guys for seven months.”

He choked up a bit and had to look away for a moment, lost in memories of something deeply personal and trying hard not to cry.

IP with Keffiyeh Karmah.jpg
An Iraqi Police officer in Karmah

“I was lucky enough three weeks ago to go back to Karmah,” he said. “And my Iraqi Police were still there. The same guys from last year. As soon as I came into the station and they saw me they started jumping around, dancing, and yelling. There are four brothers who are all Iraqi Police at the Karmah station. One of the brothers was on shift when I got there. That night he called his brothers and his father – his father is a tribal leader – and they all came in the next day. Their father wanted to meet me.”

He choked up again slightly and had to pull himself together.

“So...there's a lot more to this mission,” he said. “If you go into everything with an open mind, you can take so many lessons out of this mission, not only with community policing and the mission at hand, but with human relationships in general.”

Iraqi Police Nice Chair Fallujah.jpg

I had heard this before. Maybe the majority of Americans who work closely with Iraqis feel something like this. Despite the corruption. Despite the incompetence. Despite the fact that some of them act like a bunch of third graders. The Iraqis really are brave, even if it doesn't look that way sometimes from far away or even up close. They are fighting for their survival in ways most Americans can barely imagine. Their enemy is possibly the most ferocious group of indigenous killers in the entire history of Mesopotamia.

“We’ve actually become attached to these people on a personal level,” Army Colonel John Charlton said to me in Ramadi last summer. “We feel responsible for their safety. We’re concerned about what will happen to our Iraqi friends if we don’t succeed in this country.”

To be continued...

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:57 PM | Comments (19)

February 2, 2008

I Can't Resist Asking...

After the Iowa caucus I asked readers who they would vote for if the choice were between that state’s winners. Barack Obama beat Mike Huckabee, 51 percent to 49 percent, among readers of this Web site.

Iowa likes losers, apparently. Let’s update the poll. Now who would you vote for, assuming the front-runners pull through?

Who will you vote for in November?
Hillary Clinton
John McCain
Write-in candidate
Cartoon character
No one
Free polls from Pollhost.com
Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:15 PM | Comments (87)