May 30, 2009

Kim Jong Il, the Second?

North Korea has been a minor obsession of mine for some time, but I’ve paid less attention to its foreign policy than to the psychotic slave state Kim Il Sung built at home. Even so, his son Kim Jong Il seems to be acting more recklessly than at any time I can recall.

So Tom Ricks sure got my attention when he quoted U.S. intelligence analyst John McCreary on his Foreign Policy blog:

“During the past 40 years North Korean leaders have been blustery but fundamentally risk averse. They have done nothing that would risk the total destruction of their state -- which means Pyongyang for all practical and symbolic purposes -- until now.... The actions in the past two days represent risk accepting behavior, defiance bordering on recklessness. This behavior began shortly after Kim Chong-il's stroke in August 2008. If Kim is ordering these actions, he has had a personality change, which can occur if dementia follows a stroke, according to medical authorities.”
Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:59 AM | Comments (8)

May 29, 2009

The Mother of All Myths

Dennis Ross, Special Advisor on Iran for the Secretary of State, has a book coming out next month that inconveniently takes issue with the Obama Administration’s thesis of “linkage.” “Of all the policy myths that have kept us from making real progress in the Middle East,” Ross writes in a chapter titled “The Mother of All Myths,” “one stands out for its impact and longevity: the idea that if only the Palestinian conflict were solved, all other Middle East conflicts would melt away.” Meanwhile, the Obama Administration – which Ross currently works for – is pressuring Israel in part because the president hopes progress toward the resolution of the Palestinian conflict will help derail Iran’s drive for the development of nuclear weapons.

Ross finished the manuscript and sold it to Viking Press before the president hired him, but he was right when he wrote it, and he’s still right today. The biggest problems in the Middle East – and Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons surely is one of them – have little or nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Iranian regime’s hatred of Israel is real, to be sure, and nuclear missiles in its arsenal would pose a serious threat, but Iran, in all likelihood, would wish to arm itself with the world’s most powerful weapons even if Israel did not exist.

Scholar Martin Kramer identifies nine regional “conflict clusters” and argues that “these many conflicts are symptoms of the same malaise: the absence of a Middle Eastern order, to replace the old Islamic and European empires. But they are independent symptoms; one conflict does not cause another, and its ‘resolution’ cannot resolve another.”

Ross almost sounds like he’s debunking a strawman when he says believers in the theory of ‘linkage’ think “all other Middle East conflicts would melt away” if only the Palestinians had a state. I don’t know if President Barack Obama would go that far, but former President Jimmy Carter nearly does. “Even among the populations of our former close friends in the region,” Carter said, “Egypt and Jordan, less than 5 percent look favorably on the United States today. That’s not because we invaded Iraq; they hated Saddam. It is because we don’t do anything about the Palestinian plight. Without doubt, the path to peace in the Middle East goes through Jerusalem.

The populations of Egypt, Jordan, and other Arabic countries have a nearly inexhaustible list of grievances against the United States. Many are based on phantasmagoric and state-manufactured conspiracy theories that have nothing to do with the West Bank, Gaza, or anything else in the real world. And their populations certainly were inflamed by the invasion of Iraq regardless of what they thought of Saddam Hussein. American support for Israel aggravates a huge number of Arab Muslims, but most of the region’s “conflict clusters,” as Kramer calls them, have little or nothing to do with either Israel or the United States.

Former President Carter, like most Westerners, has a Western-centric view of the world. It could hardly be otherwise. Most Chinese have a Chinese-centric view of the world, Indians an Indian-centric view, etc. One of former President Carter’s problems here is a Western-centric analysis.

Of the Middle East’s five most serious problems aside from the Arab-Israeli conflict, only one – the war in Iraq – was caused in any way by Israel or the United States. And Israel is not involved in the war in Iraq. The other four – radical Islamism, the dearth of democracy outside Lebanon and Iraq, Iran’s push for regional hegemony, and the conflict between Sunnis and Shias – simply can’t be blamed on the United States, Israel, or the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:36 AM | Comments (9)

May 27, 2009

The Future of Iraq, Part II

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The first time I visited Baghdad, I only stayed for a week. The place stressed me out. The surge was only just then beginning, and though I never was shot at personally, I often heard the sound of gunfire in the background. One night, shadowy militiamen stalked me and a U.S. Army unit I was out on patrol with. Car bombs exploded miles away, but sounded as though they were detonated just a few blocks away. You have no idea, really, how terrifyingly loud those things are until you hear one yourself.

I left Baghdad and headed out to Anbar Province – which just months earlier was one of the most dangerous places on earth – because I wanted to relax. That part of Iraq had just quieted down for the first time since Fallujah exploded in 2004. The big question on everyone’s mind in 2007 was whether or not it was possible to export the Anbar Awakening – the reconciliation between Iraqi tribes and Americans who forged a united front against terrorism – to a gigantic and hypercomplex city like Baghdad.

Nobody knew the answer, and many had doubts. I had doubts, too. But the doubters were wrong. The Awakening, or something that looks a lot like it, has now swept across every last corner of Iraq’s capital city.

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Baghdad, Iraq

During my most recent trip to Iraq, I spoke to Major Mike Humphreys at a medium-sized base in Northern Baghdad while on my way to the Sunni-dominated Adhamiyah area and the former Mahdi Army stronghold of Sadr City. He told me about the Sons of Iraq program, the institutionalization of the successful Awakening model in Baghdad.

“Sons of Iraq is something the U.S. government adapted from what started as a Sunni movement,” he said. “It started in Anbar Province about two years ago.”

“You're talking about Sahawa al Anbar,” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “The Awakening, which is what Sahawa means in Arabic. It's very much a political movement,” he said. “What you had were Sunni tribesmen who were tired of the violence, tired of Al Qaeda in Iraq. These Sunnis said we've had enough and we're not taking it anymore. They stood up to protect their own neighborhoods from these Sunni extremists that were terrorizing their people. Then it spread, and it spread very rapidly throughout Iraq.”

Baghdad has suffered terribly since the insurgency exploded after Saddam’s regime was demolished, but the physical war wreckage I’ve seen in the capital is insignificant compared to what I saw in Anbar’s provincial capital Ramadi. Ramadi was more wracked with destruction than even Fallujah. Ramadi looked like World War II had recently ripped through the place. Two American colonels I spoke to there compared the Battle of Ramadi to Stalingrad. It’s no wonder Iraq’s muscular anti-terrorist movement began there.

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Ramadi, Anbar Province, Iraq

“From the point of view of the Shia-controlled government,” Major Humphreys said, “the Awakening movement could be considered threatening because you basically had what amounted to a Sunni militia. Now the way we've tried to adopt that was by considering it as a Sunni-led political movement operating along political lines instead of military lines. So we’ve incorporated that movement into something that could be used to protect the people in Adhamiyah. We took these members who called themselves Awakening and we gave them a job for 300 dollars a month to stand guard in their neighborhood.”

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Adhamiyah, Baghdad

Adhamiyah is mostly Sunni. It was a stronghold of support for Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party regime. More recently, it was a stronghold for Al Qaeda in Iraq. Not until Al Qaeda thoroughly ravaged the place did local residents decide the Americans were the lesser of evils.

“Now many of these people,” Major Humphreys said, “many of these Sunnis of Adhamiyah, were former AQI operatives. But the only reason they were out working for Al Qaeda is because they needed sustenance. They needed a paycheck to put food on the table, and AQI provided it. So we provided them with a stable job. Most of them already had their own weapons, so we weren't arming them. We were just giving them jobs. They go out and they guard their neighborhood. And they say, you know what? We've got a stable job here and we're tired of violence. And AQI, you're not welcome here anymore.

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Iraqi girl, Adhamiyah, Baghdad

Some analysts have described this phenomenon as “buying off” or “bribing” insurgency. This is half true at best. The insurgency did not go away. The leaders were never bought off. Only the opportunists and low-level operatives were. And they weren’t even really bought off. An authentic anti-terrorist movement took hold in Iraq, and some former low-level operatives were given jobs as long as they were deemed to be loyal to the local authorities. Al Qaeda in Iraq still exists. It was never bought off. Its leaders remain fanatically ideological and can’t be bought off or bribed for all the money in the world.

“AQI was forced out of Adhamiyah,” Major Humphreys said. “AQI is no longer welcome. Now granted, AQI is not completely done. There are still elements out there operating. They would like nothing more than to get back in and gain control. But their days are extremely numbered. We recently had a couple of car bomb attacks. That's AQI trying to re-establish itself. But we're on the hunt for this car bomb cell. And I think we're pretty close to getting them thanks to the Iraqi Army and the Sons of Iraq that are getting tips on AQI members. The people won't allow it, and that broke AQI.

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Adhamiyah, Baghdad

AQI was popular in Adhamiyah, at least for a while. Hardly any residents signed onto Al Qaeda’s program because they were interested in the death penalty for cigarette smokers or the segregation of “male” and “female” vegetables in the market. Al Qaeda’s weirdly modern totalitarian vision has nothing to do with even conservative Islam as traditionally practiced in Iraq. They supported Al Qaeda because Al Qaeda was killing Americans.

“The Sahawa movement is Sunni,” Major Humphreys said, “but the Sons of Iraq program is divided between Sunni and Shia, about 60-40. It's 60 percent Shia and only 40 percent Sunni. This is what bugs me about the media. Sons of Iraq is constantly referred to as a Sunni movement, but it's not. The Sons of Iraq are functioning very well in North Adhamiyah, and they are Sunnis and Shias working together. It's not being well reported at all, and I've tried on numerous occasions to get reporters to see that, but people at the bureaus still see Sons of Iraq as the Awakening movement. But it's not true.”

My Spanish colleague Ramon Lobo from El País in Madrid joined me for the interview and had some questions of his own.

“If American troops leave in one, two, or three years,” he said, “do you think the situation will be stable? Is the progress we're seeing real progress?”

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Bridge over the Tigris River, Adhamiyah, Baghdad

“In most of our area the Iraqi Army or the national police are already in control,” Major Humphreys said. “We are very much in an overwatch position. We observe what they do and assist them. They don't have the intelligence infrastructure that we have. They don't have the aerial reconnaissance platforms that we have, or the human terrain teams. So we support them with that. But they do have a very good intelligence network. I mean, the Iraqi Army and the national police both, in our area especially, have developed such a rapport with the people in the neighborhoods. People are telling them what's going on.”

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Government building, Tigris River, Baghdad

Unlike Major Humphreys, I wouldn’t describe the relationship between civilians, the police, and the army as a “rapport.” Many people in the neighborhoods don’t actually like the police or the army. I heard a number of complaints from Iraqi civilians, some second-hand from American officers and others directly from Iraqis themselves. But Iraqis like terrorist and insurgent groups even less. Some Americans find this hard to believe, but imagine how you would feel if political extremists exploded themselves at shopping malls in your neighborhood. It would hardly matter what you thought of the local police, you would almost certainly cooperate with them if it got the bombers off the streets and in prison.

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Adhamiyah, Baghdad

Turning Adhamiyah around was a major development, but it was minor compared with the pacification of Sadr City last spring. Sadr City is one of the worst places in all of Iraq – and that’s saying something. It’s a vast slum. It’s a vast slum in Iraq. Millions of people live there. And until recently it was a stronghold of Moqtada al Sadr’s radical Shia Mahdi Army militia. It was to Iraq what Hezbollah’ dahiyeh south of Beirut is to Lebanon – a ramshackle militia-ruled state-within-a-state where neither the police nor the army dare tread.

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Looking toward the city center across the Tigris River

Early last year, militiamen fired rockets into the Green Zone from the Jamilla Market area in South Sadr City, and the American Army took it back. At the same time, the Iraqi Army seized the northern portion of Sadr City. Both areas in Sadr City remain quiet today. The U.S. military isn’t allowed in North Sadr City, but the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police have the place under control.

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U.S. military surveillance balloon

“It's hard for us to see what goes on in north Sadr City,” Major Humphreys said, “because we don't go there. We only know what we see from aerial reconnaissance platforms and what we hear from the Iraqi Army. But journalists go in there sometimes by themselves. A reporter from the Washington Post recently followed around a former member of the Jaysh al Mahdi Special Groups. And this former JAM member said he is constantly on the run. He can't go home anymore because his neighbors report on him. He can't go into his old hangouts because there are Iraqi Army checkpoints there. The guy was completely flustered. And this was a Jaysh al Mahdi leader. If they’re still fighting we call them “Special Groups” members because we don't affiliate them with Moqtada al Sadr's office that still says they're in a ceasefire. So if they're fighting, they are not aligned with Moqtada al Sadr.”

It’s not necessarily true that those who fight aren’t aligned with Moqtada al Sadr. The U.S. military is giving Sadr a door. The Americans are trying to convince him to exchange bullets for ballots. Those who fight Americans or Iraqis are therefore politely described as “Special Groups” members even if it isn’t true. Theoretically, it allows Sadr to stand down and wash the blood off his hands without losing face.

“We've seen enormous progress in our area in the last six months,” Major Humphreys said, “and a lot of it is because of what happened in Sadr City. We had a very young Iraqi Army brigade – and by that I mean a lot of relatively young new recruits, not a lot of experience. They had checkpoints around Sadr City. This was the 42nd Brigade. When fighting in Sadr City broke out, most of these checkpoints were overrun by the Mahdi Army militia. Iraqi Army soldiers either ran or were killed. It was pretty bad initially. We ran in real quick, shored up all the checkpoints, and sealed off Sadr City so the violence couldn’t escape. That emboldened the Iraqi Army leaders. They knew we had their backs. And they immediately moved back up and resecured their positions. As long as they knew we had their backs, they were much more bold, more brave, and more capable.”

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

The Iraqi Army passed right through American lines on their way into North Sadr City where they smashed the Mahdi Army in battle. If the Lebanese Army were to try this in Hezbollah’s dahiyeh south of Beirut, they’d lose. Hezbollah would clobber the Lebanese soldiers, and civilians in the area would help them. But Sadr City’s civilians were sick nearly to death of being ruled by violent fanatics, and they tipped the balance.

“Immediately there was this snap back like a rubber band,” Major Humphreys said. “What started out as clearly a Jaysh al Mahdi initiative quickly became a coalition forces joint initiative with the Iraqi Army. And the Iraqi Army really started fighting back and doing a remarkable job. We were fighting side by side in the southern part of Sadr City, as well as around the outskirts of Sadr City from where they were firing the 107 milimeter rockets at the Green Zone.”

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“I look at it as similar to our War of Independence,” he continued. “We had militia units, small organizations, that were formed out of the ashes of the American Revolution. Some of those units are still alive today in our active army. They began their heritage then. And now these Iraqi units, because of what happened in Sadr City, they have begun their heritage, their history. And as they develop through time and grow, they will always have that. If you look at our brigade flag, there's all these streamers hanging off it. Each one of those streamers represents a campaign that unit fought in. These Iraqis are now doing that. These new Iraqi units that just got their start in Sadr City can put a streamer on their flag that says they were there, they were there at the Battle of Sadr City.”

Iraqis didn’t think the Mahdi Army was beatable. As the battle began, neither did most American journalists or foreign policy analysts. It’s hard sometimes to be optimistic about Iraq. It takes effort for me even today. But pessimists have been proven wrong repeatedly during the last couple of years just as optimists were proven wrong again and again during the first half of the war.

“Before Sadr City broke out,” Major Humphreys said, “the Jaysh al Mahdi was seen as this mystic, mythical beast that was beyond the realm. It threatened them every day. It was incredibly vicious and undefeatable. So when these Iraqi Army units started moving, they were overcome by fear. But then they realized they can stand up to these guys. They have the capabilities. They have the training. They have the equipment. And they have the support from coalition forces to actually win. They can actually fight and win.”

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A young Iraqi manning a checkpoint, Sadr City, Baghdad

“And without that support,” Ramon Lobo from El País said, “it would be very difficult.”

“Then yes, now no,” Major Humphreys said. “They needed our direct support. They needed us to shore them up. They needed us to put our arms around them and hold them up. But now, not so much. They operate independently in Sadr City right now. They own North Sadr City, which is two-thirds of the entire city.”

“How long did it take them to take it back?” I said.

“They moved into North Sadr City in about two months,” he said. “We've made enormous strides in the last six months, and I am not talking baby steps. I'm talking about enormous strides in developing a capable and competent Iraqi military.”


Major Humphreys works at a large base in Northern Baghdad. He doesn’t go outside the wire onto Iraq’s streets very often. There’s nothing wrong with that, and in some ways it’s an advantage. He sees a big picture, but he isn’t so far up the chain of command that he lives “echelons above reality,” as some lower-ranking officers put it.

Still, the street level view of Iraq is more detailed and nuanced. Those who grasp it best, in my experience, are the NCOs, lieutenants, and captains. They understand strategy as well as tactics, and they go out in the streets every day with their men to forge relationships with, and sometimes tragically fight, the Iraqis.

Two of the most hospitable officers I’ve met yet in Iraq are Captain Todd Looney and his XO Captain A.J. Boyes at Combat Outpost Ford on the outskirts of Sadr City. Looney and Boyes’ company did most of the fighting last spring. They were out there every day, and they, too, were shot at.

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Tanks used by the U.S. Army in the Battle of Sadr City, Combat Outpost Ford

I felt slightly depressed when I arrived at their outpost. I had heard what seemed like a relentless torrent of negativity at Combat Outpost Apache in Adhamiyah, next to the famous “Gunner Palace” which is now an Iraqi Army base. Many Americans at Apache sounded gloomy about the future of Iraq once I probed beneath their default sunny optimism. They made a strong case that Iraq is too dysfunctional to keep it together after they leave. After watching Lebanon’s slow-motion descent in the years since the Syrians left, I was inclined to agree with their dark assessment. Lebanon is much more advanced than Iraq, and if Lebanon is basically hosed (and, believe me, it is), it’s difficult sometimes to see how Iraq won’t be.

Iraq is ahead of Lebanon in a few key ways, though, and Captains Looney and Boyes found the pessimism of some of their fellow Americans rather annoying. They made an equally strong case that Iraq will be more or less fine, and I found their arguments just as persuasive.

We drank Army coffee in their quarters late one night after many of their men were asleep.

“How do you guys feel about what will happen after you're gone,” I said, “when everyone from the U.S. is gone, when Iraqis are running the country themselves.”

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Captain Todd Looney

“Will Iraqi democracy look like democracy in the United States?” Captain Looney said. “No. But a form of democratic government in Iraq will serve an example for others. When people get a taste of freedom, they want to keep it. There is no person in the world, man or woman, who does not want to be free. Free to make their own choices, free to choose their own government, free to exercise the rights we have under the Bill of Rights. Everybody wants that. There's not a culture on earth that doesn't want that. If they don't want that, it's because they haven't been exposed to it. Once it gets seeded here, and once freedom is able to spread, and people see it working, I think it will start catching in other areas and begin to spread there. For me to be able to look back on that and say, hey, I had a part in that, I was partially responsible for the freedoms these people now experience, I think that's something to be proud of.”

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Iraqi teenager, Adhamiyah, Baghdad

“You think that's a likely outcome?” I said. “Or a possible one, at least?” I am not sure. Sometimes I think so, and sometimes I don’t.

“I do,” he said. “I think it's likely that it will happen. A critical time, of course, will be when we begin the drawdown our president is talking about. When that happens, we'll see. But the potential for success is definitely there.”

“What I've been hearing at Apache,” I said, “from both Americans and Iraqis, are real concerns about the nature of Iraqi society. Looking beyond the security improvements, which at this point are obvious, there are still so many problems that might not be fixable. The corruption, the sectarianism, the tribalism, the backwardness, the religious extremism, the fact that so many people here lie all the time, the laziness. All that stuff. You know how it is here.”

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Captain A.J. Boyes, Sadr City, Baghdad

“I think people see what they want to see,” Captain Boyes said. “Everybody looks through some sort of lens. If you look back at historic counterinsurgencies and nation-building as a whole throughout contemporary history, when you have large powers going through and conducting nation-building – not colonialism, but nation-building – it's generational. It doesn't happen overnight. You don't go from having Saddam on the streets and the statues still up on April 8 to having Saddam gone and a Starbucks and a McDonalds on April 9.”

“Here's an example for people to understand the timeline,” Captain Looney said. “Let's use our own country. The Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863, but we didn't finally sign the Civil Rights Act until 1964. It took 101 years for us to go from no slavery to equal rights. And I would argue that not even up until the early 1990s did we actually begin to achieve racial equality. So people are disappointed that after five years in Iraq we haven't gone from a dictatorship to America in the Middle East? Isn’t that a little unrealistic?”

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Pre-Saddam architecture, Adhamiyah, Baghdad

“And we had a democratic government for 100 years before the Emancipation Proclamation,” Captain Boyes said. “Our democracy was uninterrupted for the entire time between then and now. In Iraq they've had either monarchy or fascism. All those things you mentioned are real problems. But at the same time, we can show you Iraqis who literally pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and are now extremely successful. They're the antithesis of every Iraqi stereotype out there. They're hard-working. They're forward-thinking. They do everything at what you and I would consider a high standard of work. It's already here. Until the 1960s, this place was considered the pearl of the Middle East. This was the place to be. They've had 50 years of bad luck and bad leadership. Hopefully that will change and they'll stay on this path of democratization. I think there is truly a budding democracy here. The judicial process, the legislative process, the executive. We're seeing coalitions forming in government. We're seeing true debate. They've had to jump-start some of these things with international help, but at the same time they've really come a long way. So I think the future isn't bright yet, but the possibility is there for this to become a well-functioning society.”

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“Look at the resources available in this country,” Captain Looney said. “They have, relatively speaking, an unlimited supply of petroleum. They have great agricultural capabilities. Iraq is not a desert like Kuwait or Saudi Arabia. Those countries have oil and sand. Unless they're going to start becoming major exporters of mirrors and glass, that's not going to do them a lot of good. Iraq, on the other hand, has huge amounts of resources. Have you seen how lush the palm groves and orange groves are on the Tigris and the Euphrates? The orchards? They have unlimited capability to produce agricultural products, and combined with textiles and oil they could use those revenues to bring in other industries. Somebody just has to bring it all together. Their military, too, has the potential to be great again. Before Desert Storm they had the fourth largest army in the world.”

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Tigris River, Baghdad

“They were far from the fourth best army, though,” I said.

“But their military education is based on the British system,” he said. “They are not as unprofessional as we think, it's just that they were not led in the best manner.”

“The Iraqi Military Academy,” Captain Boyes, “was looked upon very highly in the Middle East as a great place to send junior leadership for development. It could go back to that.”

“The problem is when you have a despot,” Captain Looney said, “a dictator who runs an army like Hitler ran Germany's during World War II. When you cut off the head of the snake, it dies immediately. Our army is so decentralized that we can succeed at junior officer and non-commissioned officer levels. They can’t because they haven't developed those levels. It's a very stove-piped organization.”

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Tigris River, Baghdad

“What happened to the old officers when Paul Bremer dissolved the Iraqi Army years ago?” I said. “Did some of them come back, or are they still purged?”

“Some of them came back,” he said. “Colonels and below were allowed to come back. Very few senior military leaders were allowed to return to the new Iraqi Army. Some of them didn't want to come back. Some of them didn’t want to be in the service in the first place. They were conscripted. The issue is how you said they weren't the fourth best. What is the difference between our army – which I would say is the best the world has ever seen – and the British Army and the Australian Army and the Canadian Army? What do we all have in common? We're all volunteer forces. None of us were drafted. People join because they want to, because they feel a sense of duty, because they feel a sense of national pride. They're going to fight more aggressively and be more dedicated to the cause than those who were pressed into the service.”

“Now it's an all volunteer army,” Captain Boyes said. “And they’re receiving better training and better equipment. They are better supported.”

“It's also a good idea to have an all volunteer army because of the all the radicals running around here,” I said. “If they had a conscription army, all those radicals would end up in the army.”

“Yes,” Captain Boyes said. “The Iraqi Security Forces have made leaps and bounds, and that's not only because they've been partnered with us. People are able to trust them again. It has been five years since Saddam was in power, and during that time people did not trust the security apparatus.”

“They still don't in Adhamiyah,” I said. “I've had Iraqis tell me themselves that they’re afraid of the police and the army.”

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Adhamiyah, Baghdad

“It's changing, though,” Captain Boyes said. “And it has to because we won't be here to facilitate that for very much longer. In our area, and in other areas, people are cooperating far more with the Iraqi Security Forces. The ability of the Iraqis to now direct their own operations, plan their own operations, execute their own operations, all based on intelligence they've collected from the locals, is truly a sign of real progress.”

“Americans have to be smart enough to understand that what they say becomes reality,” Captain Looney said. “What you say can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If I walk up to you and you're an Iraqi civilian, and I tell you that Lieutenant Kaddam of the National Police is trustworthy and is here to work for the Iraqi people, that's what you're going to do, at least a little bit more than you did the day before.”

“That's absolutely the case,” Captain Boyes said. “And the people see how we interact with the Iraqi Security Forces, too. In the past we operated independently of any Iraqi force, but now people see are joint missions, Americans and Iraqis walking side by side on patrols. American and Iraqi platoon leaders talk to shopkeepers together. It's becoming far more integrated, and the people see that.”

Sadr City is overwhelmingly Shia, and I wondered if these two captains had ever worked in Sunni areas which are much less friendly to Americans generally. Iraq’s Sunni Arabs overwhelmingly opposed the invasion and demolition of Saddam Hussein’s regime, but Shias on average have been much more supportive. Saddam Hussein brutalized them almost as viciously as he did the Kurds.

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Adhamiyah, Baghdad

“Have you guys worked in Sunni areas?” I said

“Yes,” Captain Boyes said. “Previously.”

“His platoon did the cordon on Abu Musab al Zarqawi and hit him,” Captain Looney said.

“Our company had an area in Diyala Province,” Captain Boyes said, “on the border of Salahadin Province. It was on the west of Baqouba. It was a large territory with a diverse population. Sunni towns, Shia towns, towns with mixed population. We operated in Sunni areas. We operated in Shia areas. And this time we have about a 99 percent Shia area.”

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Adhamiyah, Baghdad

“Can you characterize the differences between one and the other?” I said. “Most of my time has been spent among the Sunnis. Opinion polls have showed the Kurds to be more than 90 percent pro-American, the Sunni Arabs around 90 percent anti-American, and the Shias about 50-50. Can you feel the difference, and does that affect your ability to work with the population? Those numbers suggest it might be easier to work with the Shias.”

“I don't think so,” Captain Boyes said. “Well, maybe in other Shia areas. Here, before the fighting in the spring, this Shia area was extremely anti-American aside from the safe neighborhood of Beida. We had this bastion of a safe neighborhood in Beida, and we had the area in North Adhamiyah that was predominately Shia and only somewhat negative toward Americans.”

I wasn’t surprised to hear that Beida had long been a safe area. I found it much cleaner and better developed than much of what I had seen in Adhamiyah and – especially – in Sadr City itself.

“On my previous tour,” Captain Boyes said, “Hibhib was a 95 percent Sunni town where Zarqawi was killed. It was extremely anti-American and anti-Iraqi government. They wanted a Sunni-dominated powerhouse in the Middle East. And they were not cooperative with us in any way whatsoever. Within six months I could walk through that town by myself with an interpreter, leave my four gun trucks several hundred meters away, go to a tea shop, and have breakfast with the town. At first there would be six guys, and then an hour later there would be 300 people gathered around asking questions.”

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Billboard, Sadr City, Baghdad

“You actually did this?” I said.

“Yes,” he said.

“You had a weapon?” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “It was on the ground. I sat there, surrounded by Iraqis, and just talked. We didn't even talk business all the time. I asked how everyone's family was doing, asked what was going on in the town. I went to Jedida one time and watched a World Cup match in the town on TV.

“Could you do that here?” I said. We were wedged between Beida and Sadr City.

Kid with Broom Sadr City.jpg
An Iraqi kid with a broom, Sadr City, Baghdad

“Yes,” he said. “I would feel perfectly comfortable doing that here.”

“Now, what if I were to walk around here by myself without a weapon, without you guys protecting me?” I said.

“I don't think you'd have too many issues,” he said.

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Park, Sadr City, Baghdad

“You know, the chances of you getting struck by lightning are not that great,” Captain Looney said, “but in the middle of a lightning storm you probably shouldn't go outside with a steel pole and stick it in the air. That's what you'd be doing, my friend.”

“Yeah,” I said. That’s one of the reasons I travel with the American military when I’m in Baghdad. I couldn’t do my job if I required absolute safety, but I feel – and am – much safer with armed men around. “I know people who visit Iraq without protection, though.” I said. Ramon Lobo, my colleague from Spain, visited Iraq many times without protection before embedding with the American military.

“Exactly,” Captain Boyes said.

“And nothing has happened to any of them,” I said.

“There are people who are anti-American in nature, and anti-Western in nature,” he said. “But it is a safer area now. And after six months of walking around and talking to the shop owners, we were able to change the atmospherics. We didn't do anything special. It was just a matter of getting down into the population and talking to them, opening a dialogue. And we weren't just coming in once a month. It was constant.”

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Adhamiyah, Baghdad

“When people aren't familiar with each other,” Captain Looney said, “they think the worst about each other. They don't realize how much they have in common. I'll sit down with people and say okay, let's talk about our differences. And then let's talk about what we have in common. We want to have a safe environment for our families to live in. We want our children to have a better life than we did. We want to be happy in our profession. We want to be happy with our family. What beyond that makes us so different? Okay, they're Muslims and I'm a Christian. But we talk about this stuff and they realize we aren't that different.”

Insurgent and terrorist groups feel threatened by even this basic level of cultural interaction. When I visited the Lebanese border from the Israeli side a few months before the 2006 war, a Turkish-Israeli Kurd named Eitan showed me a destroyed building just over the fence on the Lebanese side. “Look over there,” he said and pointed toward Lebanon. “That’s the old French customs house It, too, was used when the Lebanese-Israeli border was open. Hezbollah blew it away. [Secretary General Hassan] Nasrallah wanted to make sure there was no contact at all between our two peoples.”

Contact between peoples really does reduce tension and can help reduce the chances of war. That’s one reason why Hezbollah prohibits contact between Lebanese and Israelis. (The other reason, of course, is that they know many Lebanese spy on Hezbollah for Israel.)

Eitan is an Israeli. He is therefore, at least technically, at war with the people of Lebanon. But he waved hello to them every day, and sometimes they waved back even though they weren’t supposed to. They were friends when the border was open, and they didn’t feel like – or act like – anything else when the border was closed.

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Adhamiyah, Baghdad

“You've seen Dances with Wolves?” Captain Looney said. “Remember how when they don't know each other, they're scared of each other? But as they get to know each other, they realize they're not that different? They want the same things in life. They want peace. They want prosperity. They want a better life for their children. What culture in the world does not want those things?”

“And unfortunately,” Captain Boyes said, “until recently, and still when you get farther out of the cities, a guy from one village may not travel very far in his lifetime.”

“Maybe not at all,” I said.

“Maybe not at all,” he said. “Especially in a place like Afghanistan and the frontier region of Pakistan. They really don't travel very far. Here a guy may not leave his province more than a couple of times during his life. And when he does, it's usually on some kind of religious pilgrimage. So he's almost always surrounded by people of his exact same faith and culture. So do they ever really experience what it's like to meet and talk to a Sunni, a Kurd, a Shia, or somebody else? There is a generational gap. If we take a snapshot of Iraqi politics, security, and governance right now in 2008 and come back two generations from now and compare them side-by-side, I think we'll see a huge difference. I think it will be almost entirely better.”

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Children rest on a U.S. Army Humvee, Sadr City, Baghdad

That sounded right to me. Even when I feel like Iraq is a doomed country, which I do around half the time, that still sounds right to me.

“But what is it going to be like in one year?” I said. “Or two? That's the big question.”

“Well yes,” Captain Boyes said. “It is. Any time something new happens in a counterinsurgency, when there are new security forces, there is an immediate spike in violence because the insurgents are testing the ability of the new element.”

“Iraq is about to experience a power vacuum,” I said, “when you withdraw from Iraqi cities.”

“Exactly,” he said. “When we leave and transition all of what we do now to the Iraqi security forces, will there be a spike in activity? Absolutely. One hundred percent.”

That stopped me cold. Captain Looney and Captain Boyes are the most optimistic American officers I’ve spoken to recently in Iraq. And they thought the odds of a spike in violence are 100 percent.

“You guys are the optimists,” I said. “And yet you think this.”

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Blackhawk helicopter over Baghdad

“Yes,” Captain Boyes said. “There will be a spike in violence. They're going to want to test the new Iraqi Security Forces. What is their reaction to an attack going to be compared with what it is now? How will the Iraqis operate independently? It should be up to the media to portray this as something expected. There will be a spike in violence because the insurgents are going to test the Iraqi Security Forces, but I have complete faith that the resolve of the Iraqis will be there.”

“You guys expect a spike in violence,” I said, “but think Iraq will be okay anyway?”

“We're realists,” Captain Looney said.

“You're optimists compared with some of the people I talked to last week,” I said.

“There's going to be a spike in violence because it's only natural,” Captain Boyes said. “Those who think otherwise aren’t being realistic. And those who say there's going to be a spike in violence and another civil war are too pessimistic. It will be somewhere in the middle. Eventually the bad guys will understand that the Iraqi Security Forces are here to stay. They are improved. They are vastly superior to anything we have seen in the past.”

To be continued

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

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:35 AM | Comments (17)

May 26, 2009

Did Hezbollah Kill Hariri?

The German magazine Der Spiegel dropped one heck of a political bomb on Lebanon a few days ago when it reported that United Nations investigators are now fingering Hezbollah, rather than Syria, for the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's assassination with a car bomb in downtown Beirut on Valentine’s Day in 2005.

The story is based on information from anonymous sources “close to the tribunal” and documents of unknown authenticity. We don’t know yet if the lead is accurate. Intriguingly, though, the UN’s spokesperson for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon neither confirms nor denies Der Spiegel's report. If a potentially explosive accusation like this one were false, I’d expect the UN to deny it emphatically.

Someone in Lebanon's anti-Hezbollah “March 14” coalition may be hoping to use disinformation in Der Spiegel as a political weapon. These things happen. I’ve been lied to in Lebanon by people I trusted. It’s also possible that someone inside the UN thinks the people of Lebanon have a right to know what Hezbollah has done before they go to the polls next month and place assassins in the saddle in Beirut.

One of my own well-connected sources in Lebanon had this to say over email: "A rumor that the tribunal is going to end up issuing its indictments against Hezbollah, not Syria, has been floating around Beirut for the past month or so, and among highly credible sources. The impression I've gotten is that it would be largely a political move, a way to nail Hezbollah – and by association Iran – while largely letting Syria off the hook in the interests of promoting this fantasy-world 'rapprochement' with Damascus. Everyone I've heard discussing this still believes Syria did it. It's a no brainer [sic] even if Hezbollah did play a role in carrying out the assassination."

It is strange that, according to the Der Spiegel report, the evidence no longer points toward Syrian President Bashar Assad. That doesn’t quite pass the smell test. It’s possible, I suppose, that the UN may want to whitewash or downplay Assad’s involvement for diplomatic reasons, to promote “rapprochement” with Damascus, as some Lebanese seem to think. What is far less likely – and, in my opinion, almost impossible – is a UN plot to indict Hezbollah on false pretenses. Either Der Spiegel’s sources are taking the magazine for a ride, or the evidence against Hezbollah is authentic.

Hariri’s son and Future Movement party leader Saad Hariri is being extraordinarily careful. “We will not comment on any press leaks that do not directly come from the Special Tribunal for Lebanon,” he said. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, Hezbollah’s fiercest critic since Syria's ousting in 2005, is cautious too. “We cannot allow what the Der Spiegel magazine released on Saturday to become another Ain el-Remmaneh incident,” he said, referring to the Lebanese civil war’s trigger in 1975.

Leaders of the “March 14” bloc could hardly ask for a more effective political weapon against Hezbollah during the run-up to the election next month, but they also couldn’t ask for one that’s more dangerous. Jumblatt is right to invoke the incident that ignited the worst war in his country’s history. Accusing Hezbollah of assassinating Hariri – and, by implication, of assassinating a number of journalists and members of parliament in the meantime – could easily do to Lebanon what Al Qaeda’s Samarra mosque bombing in 2006 did to Iraq.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:00 AM | Comments (3)

May 23, 2009

Did Hezbollah Assassinate Rafik Hariri?

According to Germany’s Der Spiegel, United Nations investigators now believe Hezbollah assassinated former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on Valentine’s Day in 2005. Der Spiegel might be wrong, and, if not, UN investigators themselves might be wrong. I’m no fan of Hezbollah, but I need more evidence before I’m willing to say “Hezbollah did it.”

Even so, this could be an enormous bombshell in Lebanon where voters go to the polls in a few weeks.

UPDATE: The Der Spiegel story isn't sourced, so it could be bogus. But NOW Lebanon reports that the UN spokesperson for the tribunal has "no comment." I'd expect the spokesperson to deny the story if it were false. At this point, I'm willing to assume the UN really does think Hezbollah did it.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:09 PM | Comments (12)

May 22, 2009

Davos in the Desert

Dispatches from conferences in the Middle East don't tend to make interesting reading, but Jay Nordlinger managed to write five this week. He attended the World Economic Forum on the Middle East next to Jordan’s Dead Sea, and what he saw and heard is far more interesting than I would have expected.

Here is a taste.

It can be a wondrous thing to hear Arab elites talk behind closed doors. They can be bracingly, sometimes thrillingly, candid. They recognize the problems of Arab society; they are eager to confront and surmount them.

At a lunch, I hear things like, “We Arabs are at the bottom of everything — at the bottom of every index: literacy, capitalism, the rights of women. Everything. In our countries, we have cults of personality, dictatorships, dynasties . . . Where is democracy? Where is rotation in office?

“In the past, extremist Islam was unusual; now it is usual. In the Soviet Union, South Africa, South Korea, there was restructuring. But not in our region. We have no Gorbachev, we have no de Klerk, we have no Kim Dae-jung. The vast majority of our people are chromosomally reasonable and moderate. And the human spirit must be unleashed here.”

How touching it is, too, to hear a Syrian woman plead for human rights. Many of her countrymen — many of her best ones — are in cells.

I wish the whole world could hear what I have heard at this lunch.

But you also hear the old voices — the Old Guard, as I call them. And, as always, they are depressing. They cannot speak without fingering Israel and the United States. In their eyes, everything bad stems from Israel and the United States. And no progress can be made until Israel ceases to occupy the West Bank. (They’re now out of Gaza, of course. Fat lot of good that did.)

Arab countries can’t drop crippling socialism until Israel leaves the West Bank. Nepotism must continue until Israel leaves the West Bank. Women cannot drive until Israel leaves — and “honor killings” must go on. Corruption must prevail in Arab countries as long as Israel occupies the West Bank.

Etc., etc. This attitude is not only insane — it is harmful to the point of destructiveness.

As a rule, I encounter two types of Arab elite: those who recognize Arab problems, and are willing to tackle them; and those who fixate on Israel and America. Members of the former group are so refreshing, you want to hug them; members of the latter group are not just lamentable, but despicable. They are the excuse-makers. And they hold the entire region back.


There are major Arab excuse-makers here by the Dead Sea — and the leading one, I would say, is Amr Moussa, the longtime secretary-general of the Arab League. He is the epitome, the purest representative, of the Old Guard. But you know who most of the excuse-makers are? Americans and Europeans. Middle Easterners themselves are far more likely to be candid and clear-eyed.


In these journals past — from the Middle East and from Davos — I have remarked on the anti-Americanism of the Americans. It is always strutting about. An Arab says that his country must liberate itself from illiteracy and ignorance, in order to make progress politically. An American woman says, chortling to her companion, “We need to do that in America.”

Keep laughin’, lady.

Read all five parts here, here, here, here, and here.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:49 AM | Comments (4)

May 21, 2009

The HuffPo's Lonely Planet Foreign Policy

Roger Cohen seems to have invented a genre. At the very least he has imitators. Olivia Sterns just published a piece at the Huffington Post decrying Syria’s “misrepresentation” in the media and arguing that President Barack Obama “embrace” Damascus’s tyrant Bashar Assad as a peace partner because the locals were nice to her when she visited Syria on vacation.

“Often described as a hotbed of anti-Americanism,” she writes, “that eschews ties to the West under Iranian tutelage, in reality that reputation couldn't be further from the truth.” Her evidence that Syria isn’t really a hotbed of anti-Americanism? Assad schedules date nights with his stylish wife, locals in the souks are friendly to tourists, and the police keep visitors safe. All these things are true, but so what? Syria is still Iran’s staunchest ally, a hotbed of anti-Americanism, and a state-sponsor of terrorism and “resistance.”

Sterns lives in London and no doubt knows better than I do that European anti-Americanism is often in your face, rude, and obnoxious. The political is sometimes personal in the West, but that’s rarely the case in the Middle East. Arab hospitality even toward visitors from enemy countries is legendary and the stuff of guidebook clichés, yet Sterns writes as though she is startled to discover that Arabs have manners, that Syria isn’t a Mordor teeming with flesh-eating Orcs.

There’s nothing wrong with writing about personal warmth in Arabic countries. I often color my own dispatches from Lebanon and Iraq with Arab hospitality, but I’m careful to avoid making sweeping assumptions based on little else.

On my last trip to Iraq I visited the Adhamiyah sector of Baghdad. The people living there were just as friendly as the stridently pro-American Kurds in the northern provinces whose only insurgency was waged against Saddam Hussein, but their political views were radically different. U.S. Army soldiers introduced me to a trusted Iraqi informant who told me around 60 percent of his neighbors supported Al Qaeda not long ago. My Iraqi translator, who knows public opinion better than I ever will, said the neighborhood was a Baath Party stronghold when the old regime was in power and that a majority of the people there remain anti-American. Few Iraqis I casually met betrayed even a hint of hostility, and most would have been too polite to reveal it had I asked what they thought of me and my country.

If Sterns wants to write about what Syria's people actually think about America and the peace process, she should ask them and quote them. They might politely conceal their anti-Americanism, but they aren’t at all likely to hide their support for Hezbollah or their hatred for Israel.

Listen to what Lee Smith heard during the 2006 war when he escaped Lebanon to Damascus, where posters of Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah were ubiquitous even in Christian areas. “If you think that the U.S. or anyone can offer the Syrian government a deal to abandon its support for Nasrallah and Khaled Meshal,” said a 25-year-old TV producer, “you are crazy, because all Syrians support the resistance.”

“The Arabs are traitors,” another Syrian told him. “All the rest deal with Israel or they signed peace treaties with Israel. The only men in the Middle East worth anything are our President Bashar, Hassan Nasrallah, and Ahmadinejad. The Arab leaders combined aren't worth the shoes of these three brothers.”

Smith had a hard time finding anyone in Syria who opposed Hezbollah’s jihad against Israel. “It is clear,” he concluded, “that the regime and the people are in perfect sync.” His in-depth reporting is strikingly different from that of Sterns and provides real evidence that Syria is part of the problem and not the solution.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:44 AM | Comments (73)

May 14, 2009

Brace for a Hezbollah Victory

Brace yourself for a possible Hezbollah victory in Lebanon. On June 7, 2009, Lebanese voters will go to the polls, and even some in Beirut’s current “March 14″ government think the Hezbollah-led “March 8″ coalition might squeak out a win.

Lebanon, though, isn’t Gaza. A “March 8″ upset at the ballot box, if it happens, won’t come about the same way Hamas won the last Palestinian elections. Palestinians had only two viable parties to choose from, Fatah and Hamas. One Palestinian I know said Fatah’s corrupt men were so hated that even then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert might have won if he stood for election against them.

Politics are much more complicated in Lebanon. The country is so ideologically fractious it makes Iraq look cohesive. Lebanon has almost as many political parties as people, yet most end up in one absurdly diverse coalition or the other. Not everyone in the anti-Syrian “March 14″ camp is a liberal democrat, and not everyone on the “March 8″ side is a jihadist.

“March 14″ includes both right-wing Christians and the Muslim Brotherhood, for instance. They agree on Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah being menaces, but little else. Liberal Christians, libertarian Sunnis, disgruntled Shias, and most of the Druze are there, too.

Hezbollah leads the “March 8″ bloc, but is just one part of it. The Party of God is joined by the secular Shia Amal party because the two make a formidable duo in promoting Shia interests within Lebanon’s sectarian political system.

Michel Aoun’s predominantly Christian Free Patriotic Movement viscerally fears and loathes Saudi Arabia. And the Aounists, for now anyway, would rather forge a cynical tactical alliance with Syria, Iran, and the radical Shias than get in bed with Wahhabis and the rest of the Arab world.

The Aounists are just using Hezbollah because they think it’s expedient and convenient. “The situation in the South is finished,” one of them told me, referring to the violent conflict between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006. “If it happens again, [Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan] Nasrallah will lose his case.” “We’ll extend our hand and ask them to join us,” said another. “But we can’t wait forever. If they refuse to disarm, we’ll crack the sh*t out of them.”

Hezbollah supporters themselves are all over the place ideologically. Many thrill to jihad and the destruction of Israel as the leadership does. Others believe Hezbollah’s military strength is Lebanon’s only defense against an impending Israeli invasion. They want deterrence, not war, and simply fail to understand that a disarmed Hezbollah is their best bet for peace and quiet. They are bombarded daily with hysterical propaganda on Hezbollah’s Al Manar TV and in Hezbollah’s schools against the supposedly warmongering “Zionist Entity.” Others simply reward Hezbollah with votes out of gratitude for their network of hospitals, schools, and other humanitarian fronts.

On my last trip to Lebanon, several “March 14″ supporters made a convincing case that daily life in Lebanon wouldn’t change much if “March 8″ won in June. Hezbollah has the freedom to do whatever it wants even now, because Lebanon’s government has always been weak and a hair’s breadth away from irrelevance no matter who runs it. Hezbollah itself is only expected to win ten parliamentary seats out of a total of 128. That’s less than eight percent.

Geopolitically though, everything will change. Lebanon’s current “March 14″ government is an ally of the West and of Arab governments other than Syria’s. Prime Minister Fouad Seniora has repeatedly – and I think honestly – stated he wants a renewed armistice agreement with Israel. A “March 8″ government would reverse all those diplomatic efforts and push Lebanon back into, or at the very least toward, the Syria-Iran axis. War prospects with Israel would increase, and any eventual war would almost certainly turn out more destructive than the last one if the people of Lebanon willingly elect a coalition led by a jihadist party vowing war and destruction.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:24 AM | Comments (44)

May 12, 2009

The Future of Iraq, Part I

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Captain Todd Allison

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

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

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General Nasser

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

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

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

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

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Major Kareem

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

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

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

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

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Major Kareem (left), Captain Heil (right)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tigris River, Baghdad

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

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

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

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

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

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Captain Todd Looney

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

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

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

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An Iraqi manning a checkpoint, Sadr City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

We jointly interviewed the colonel in his office.

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

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Baghdad night life

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

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

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Iraqi Police officer, Sadr City

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

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

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

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Gunner Palace, Iraqi Army base, Adhamiyah, Baghdad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Iraqi Army post, Sadr City

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

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

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

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Old Adhamiyah district, Baghdad

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

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

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

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Market, Adhamiyah, Baghdad

I have no doubt the colonel is right about that.

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

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

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Young girl, Adhamiyah, Baghdad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Two men on a stoop, old Adhamiyah district, Baghdad

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

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

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

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

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

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Adhamiyah, Baghdad

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

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

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Clothing store, Baghdad

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

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

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A billboard in Baghdad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Iraqi civilians, Baghdad

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

“Maybe nobody knows,” I said.

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

To be continued


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Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:40 AM | Comments (38)

May 11, 2009

Lebanon Before the Collapse

Sometimes I have a bad feeling about the future of Iraq, despite the fact that Iraq is in better shape now than it was. But sometimes I don’t. On even numbered days I can convince myself that Iraq will be sort of okay.

I have a bad feeling about Lebanon on even and odd numbered days. I don’t know anyone who has been there recently who thinks the future is bright, that more war isn’t coming, that enormous geopolitcal tectonic plates aren’t gearing up to rip the place into pieces again.

David Samuels was there recently for The New Republic, and he perfectly captured the pre-collapse mood.

Everywhere I go in Beirut, I find the same strange oscillation between the assumption of relative normalcy and the belief that in a week, or a month, or a year at the most, the country will collapse…

Violence here takes place in the shadows, with occasional public eruptions like Hezbollah's 2006 war with Israel, or the events of May 2008, when the central government moved on Hezbollah's private communications network, backed by Sunni villagers armed with light weapons who had been imported from the north. The result of this amateurish gambit was that Nasrallah sent his cadres into the streets, disarmed the Sunnis, and seized Beirut from the central government, which then granted him a slice of formal state power at Doha.

In between such delicate moments, you can get a pretty accurate sense of how Lebanon works by sitting in a restaurant in the Albergo Hotel, a decidedly luxurious place where I had lunch with a former intelligence professional and watched a dozen Lebanese cabinet ministers savor excellent Italian dishes. The tailored suits, the loosened ties, the broad hands, the arrangement of tall flowers in the center of the room--the scene had the sunlit inner presence, the radiant sensual completeness, of the world of physical objects as painted by Bonnard or Vuillard. Watching the ministers as they conducted their business, it was easy to see how the philosophical embrace of the physical world makes good sense here. Nasrallah and his patrons in Iran guarantee the stability of the country while, day to day, mouthing all kinds of insane stuff designed to paralyze the faculty of reason. Someday soon, the key will turn in the lock, the door will open, and they will blow Lebanon to smithereens. Meanwhile, there are precious moments of physical existence to be savored, such as a diamond necklace for one's wife, a pair of earrings for one's mistress, a sizeable deposit in a numbered bank account, and shrimp fettucini at the Albergo.
Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:43 PM | Comments (0)

May 10, 2009

Sorry About That

I spent the last eight days in an all-consuming workshop class about the book publishing industry – publishers, editors, agents, proposals, contracts, and a hundred other things – that I needed to get a better handle on before I can take my career to the next level. I thought I'd have time to do my regular job while immersed in this stuff, but that was impossible.

I'm back now, and much better informed and equipped than I was a week ago. And I'm just about finished with my next dispatch from Iraq. Don't go away.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:03 PM | Comments (10)

May 6, 2009

Afghanistan's Only Pig Quarantined

I was going to write something serious about the H1N1 influenza virus spreading around the world, but now that it seems to be fizzling out (at least for now), I thought I'd post something light and funny instead.

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan's only known pig has been locked in a room, away from visitors to Kabul zoo where it normally grazes beside deer and goats, because people are worried it could infect them with the virus popularly known as swine flu.

The pig is a curiosity in Muslim Afghanistan, where pork and pig products are illegal because they are considered irreligious, and has been in quarantine since Sunday after visitors expressed alarm it could spread the new flu strain.

"For now the pig is under quarantine, we built it a room because of swine influenza," Aziz Gul Saqib, director of Kabul Zoo, told Reuters. "We've done this because people are worried about getting the flu."

Worldwide, more than 1,000 people have been infected with the virus, according to the World Health Organization, which also says 26 people have so far died from the strain. All but one of the deaths were in Mexico, the epicenter of the outbreak.

There are no pig farms in Afghanistan and no direct civilian flights between Kabul and Mexico.

"We understand that, but most people don't have enough knowledge. When they see the pig in the cage they get worried and think that they could get ill," Saqib said.

The pig was a gift to the zoo from China, which itself quarantined some 70 Mexicans, 26 Canadians and four Americans in the past week...
Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:42 PM | Comments (6)

May 4, 2009

One of Those Weeks

My next dispatch from Iraq is 90 percent finished. Unfortunately, this has turned into one of those weeks where I can't get any work done. I'm not having a bad week. I'm just extraordinarily busy on a brief out-of-town project that has nothing to do with this Web site. So I'm stalled at the moment. But I have a few things I want to post here that won't take too much time to throw together, so hang in there...

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:54 PM | Comments (0)