To the Middle East of Europe

“Once upon a time, in a faraway part of Europe, behind seven mountains and seven rivers, there was a beautiful country called Yugoslavia.” From They Would Never Hurt a Fly by Slavenka Drakulić.

I’m out of Iraq material, and it’s time to travel again. But I’m not going to Iraq this time. I haven’t worked in any other country for over a year, and the story in Iraq is fairly static right now.

This trip will be to the part of the world that got me interested in geopolitics and war in the first place — the Balkans. I took a long hard look at the violent destruction of Yugoslavia before I ever took a serious look at the Middle East, and I understood the Middle East instinctively thanks to my grasp of Bosnia, Serbia, and Kosovo. The Turkish (Ottoman) Empire ruled over all these lands for hundreds of years, and the tragic events that unfolded in the wake of its destruction are eerily similar.

The Balkan Peninsula is the Middle East of Europe. There’s a reason why the violent fracturing in countries like Lebanon and Iraq is sometimes referred to as Balkanization. It should surprise no one that genocidal race and religious wars were fought there so recently, and that American troops remain on the ground to this day, as they likely will for a long time in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The region once known as Yugoslavia is where the West has collided violently with the East for hundreds of years. Millions of South Slavs in Bosnia were converted to Islam at sword point by imperialist Muslims from Turkey. Most Mediterranean Albanians — descendents of the ancient Greeks and Illyrians — likewise converted to Islam. The flag of Albania and Kosovo to this day is a centuries-old symbol of the Albanian Catholic anti-Turkish resistance.

Kosovo Flag.jpg

Another civilizational fault line rips through the place — the one between Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Genocidal wars were waged by the Orthodox Serbs against Catholics in Kosovo and Croatia, as well as against Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo. Croatia looks toward Rome. Belgrade looks to Moscow. Bosniaks, in the middle, look to Arabia and Istanbul. Kosovars look toward Tirana, and to New York and Washington. They could not coexist. Yugoslavia was drawn and quartered.

“Only part of us is sane. Only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live to our 90s and die in peace, in a house that we built, that shall shelter those who come after us. The other half of us is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set life back to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations.” — from Black Lamb and Gray Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia by Rebecca West.

Kosovo is the world’s newest country, and its unilateral declaration of independence is more controversial than the existence of Israel. It should be only slightly surprising, then, that many Kosovars, though most are Muslims, identify to an large extent with the Israelis. “Kosovars used to identify with the Palestinians because we Albanians are Muslims and Christians and we saw Serbia and Israel both as usurpers of land,” a prominent Kosovar recent told journalist Stephen Schwartz. “Then we looked at a map and woke up. Israelis have a population of six million, their backs to the sea, and 300 million Arab enemies. Albanians have a total population of eight million, our backs to the sea, and 200 million Slav enemies. So why should we identify with the Arabs?”

Kosovo is perhaps the most pro-American country in all of Europe. It is almost undoubtedly the most pro-American country in the world of Islam. It exists thanks to NATO, but mostly thanks to the United States. And the Kosovars know it. President Bill Clinton is lionized there as a liberator just as President George W. Bush is hailed by the Kurds of Iraq. They are both indigenous people long-oppressed by empires of the East and more recently by ethnic-nationalist states. Both were saved by young American men from places like Indiana, Colorado, and Texas. Kosovars, unlike the more conservative Muslims in Bosnia, support the war in Iraq.

“In the hinterland of Dalmatia, especially in the Knin area, one can hear a kind of moaning song, a primitive archaic intonation, consisting of the well-known doleful modulations of the sounds o-oy…A few peasants, usually in a tavern, put their heads together and let their sorrowful modulations sound for hours, which constitutes a very grotesque sight for a European. And if they are asked why they sing like this, they give the answer: the lament for Kosovo!” – Vladimir Dvornikovic

The residents of Yugoslavia’s final breakaway state are under the gun from Serbia and its patron state Russia, and also from well-heeled Wahhabis from Saudi Arabia who would love to turn it into a fanatical jihad state in Southeastern Europe. All this goes on under the noses of American soldiers, and utterly beyond the eyes of the incurious media.

Bosnia and Kosovo are where the pacifism of my college years died and was buried. I have wanted, no, needed, to visit these places and write about them for more than ten years. I am not doing this on a whim.

“The whole world is a vast Kosovo, an abominable blood-logged plain.” From Black Lamb and Gray Falcon by Rebecca West.

Later this year I plan to visit Afghanistan — a country where the war is going badly from what I hear from “people I trust”:http://michaelyon-online.com/. I have seen American troops under the command of General David Petraeus pull off the impossible in Iraq. No one like Petraeus is in charge in Afghanistan. NATO is in charge in Afghanistan, and NATO is a different animal than the United States Army and Marine Corps.

NATO is also in charge of Kosovo, and Kosovo isn’t the failure Afghanistan is — at least, I don’t think so. But there are those in Russia and Saudi Arabia who would like to reverse that. These are two of the same countries that played terrible roles in the destruction of Afghanistan. Soviet Russia paid dearly for that, but the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia never have. And they are at it again. The United States isn’t the only country that mucks around in the rest of the world, and it’s no coincidence that American forces have been drawn into both Kosovo and Afghanistan. Preventing the Islamic radicalization of Kosovars isn’t why NATO went in there, but it’s part of NATO’s job now, or at least it should be.

Someone needs to take a look at what’s happening in the world’s newest country and figure out where it’s going and what it all means. No one seems to want to go there but me. So I’m going, and I’m going in by ground through Bosnia from Serbia’s capital Belgrade. I leave in two days.

Post-script: I don’t get paid for these reports by anyone but readers of this Web site, and I can’t afford to do this for free. If my dispatches are worth something to you, please consider a contribution and help make truly independent journalism economically viable.

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The Case of Bilal Hussein

Last week, Associated Press photographer (and alleged insurgent collaborator) Bilal Hussein “was released from custody”:http://www.breitbart.com/article.php?id=D8VUGK500&show_article=1 after an Iraqi tribunal decided his case fell under an amnesty law passed earlier in 2008. The United States military had accused Hussein of working with insurgent groups in Anbar Province, in part because of “his uncanny ability repeatedly to photograph insurgents in action”:http://www.powerlineblog.com/archives2/2008/04/020258.php.

I don’t know if he’s guilty or not, and he deserves the presumption of innocence. Either way, his case brings attention to an issue most consumers of news from Iraq rarely consider: the fact that large media companies–the Associated Press and other news wire agencies and newspapers–work with some sketchy characters in Iraq.

Iraq is full of such sketchy characters, as everyone knows, and large media companies require an enormous staff and network of locals to produce daily news coverage. They can’t cover breaking news every day in a low-intensity war zone without them, especially if violent activity–car bombs, fire fights, assassinations, and the like–are the bulk of what makes up the news. Someone is killed almost every day in Iraq, but the chances that an individual writer or photographer will happen to be present as an eyewitness are minuscule. Reporters who cover breaking daily news spend much of their time on the phone with stringers and sources. They don’t personally investigate every incident in the field. It just isn’t physically possible if they’re required to write every day about what happens in a country the size of California, especially when it can take literally days to travel from one part of Baghdad to another.

I’m sure media companies are careful about who they hire, but it’s hard to make the right call every time in a bewildering and inscrutable place like Iraq. Terrorists and insurgents are and have been supported by a substantial percentage of the local population. It’s nearly impossible to build a firewall thick enough to keep them all out.

“Read the rest in COMMENTARY Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/viewarticle.cfm/The-Case-of-Bilal-Hussein-11353.

Now They Have Turned to the Tribes

Sheikh Sattar Abu Risha, leader of the Iraq’s Anbar Salvation Council before he was murdered by a car bomb in front of his house in late 2007, summed up the Anbar Awakening movement in a few concise sentences to Johns Hopkins University Professor Fouad Ajami. “Our American friends had not understood us when they came,” he said. “They were proud, stubborn people and so were we. They worked with the opportunists, now they have turned to the tribes, and this is as it should be. The tribes hate religious parties and religious fakers.” The tribal system in Anbar Province is ancient. Attempts to overthrow it are not wise. Both Americans and Al Qaeda learned that the hard way.

Marine Captain Quintin Jones, commanding officer at Outpost Delta in the city of Karmah, told me he works with tribal authorities as well as the mayor every day and can’t get much done if he doesn’t.

Captain Jones and Mayor of Karmah.jpg

Captain Quintin Jones and Mayor Abu Abdullah

MJT: So what kinds of things do you do with Sheikh Mishan and the mayor?

Captain Jones: I do everything with them. My battlespace is pretty big. We deal with the security issues. We get out to the surrounding areas. Karmah is Jamaeli-centric. The whole Jamaeli tribe covers Karmah, but we’ve got these others smaller tribes around. So we try to get the mayor out to see these other smaller villages around Karmah. That way people don’t think everything in Karmah is all about the Jamaeli tribe. So we go out there. They need contracts in their areas to fix things like schools, businesses, stuff like that. That’s generally what we do. We eat dinner together. We eat lunch together. And pretty much the same thing with Sheikh Mishan, but on the tribal level. Everything has to run through the head sheikh, and he’s the head sheikh over all this area.

MJT: So who has more power? The sheikh or the mayor?

Captain Jones: The sheikh. Al Anbar is really tribal in everything that it does. Although they’ve had a city council in the past, a mayor in the past, a lot of the people in the city want to go to the rule of law through tribal law. Making that transition is really tough. It’s a delicate line that we have to walk.

MJT: How compatible is tribal law with a democratic system? Are they merging the two systems, or basically still using the old-world authoritarian model?

Captain Jones: The way to approach it is, there is still a need for the tribal way of life, but we’re trying to make it more democratic at the same time. They’re parallel. The true part is run by the democratic process. If you look at countries like Bahrain or Dubai — the UAE — they still have a strong tribal base, but they’re somewhat democratic in their governance and the way they approach things. You can’t move forward or progress as a country if you’re stuck in the tribal way of life.

MJT: Right. But how do they merge them? I mean, nobody elected Sheikh Mishan.

Captain Jones: No. It’s just passed down through generations.

MJT: So are some of the people below him elected democratically? Like the mayor. Was he elected, or was he appointed?

Captain Jones: A little bit of both. [Laughs.] They’re going to hold elections. Once they hold elections, they will vote in an actual mayor and an actual city council. But because the sheikh is the biggest guy in the area, it defaults back to him if there’s a dispute. They’ll go to him and he’ll try to resolve the issue.

MJT: Do you get the sense that this is the way the average person here wants it to be? Or is that just the way it is?

Captain Jones: It’s just the way it is. They don’t know what they don’t know. If you’ve never been introduced to a democratic way of life, then you don’t know it exists. You don’t know that there is another way. So it’s an education process.

MJT: Did this tribal system exist when Saddam Hussein was in charge?

Captain Jones: Yes. The sheikhs existed. They were just really suppressed by Saddam. They relegated themselves to tribal disputes and marriages.

MJT: So they were not a part of the state?

Captain Jones: That I can’t answer.

MJT: How well do you get along with these guys?

Captain Jones: Pretty good. At this stage, if you want to succeed, it’s all about personality. You have to have the personality to be able to go out and immerse yourself in this culture every day and understand, try to understand, what’s going on. You’ll never fully understand what’s going on. For me it’s a little easier. I’ve traveled a lot in my lifetime. My wife is European. She’s from Italy. English is her second language. I helped her learn to speak English. So understanding a culture without a language, I’ve done it.

Last year I was on a military training team where I lived with Iraqis. This is basically my third shot at dealing with different cultures.

MJT: This training with Iraqis was in the States?

Captain Jones: No, it was here in Iraq. I was in an embedded training team with the Iraqi Army last year. But now I’m dealing more with governance than with tactics.

MJT: Have you been anywhere else in Iraq aside from that training?

Captain Jones: I was in Baghdad in ’03.

MJT: How was that?

Captain Jones: In ’03 it was totally different. I didn’t deal with any Iraqis. I did site security assessments. Then I did security at the CPA building for Ambassador Bremer with a team of Marines I had. Last year I was in Haditha.

MJT: How is Karmah now compared with Haditha then?

Captain Jones: Every day Marines were getting hurt and sometimes killed.

MJT: By local insurgents?

Captain Jones: Locals insurgents. Al Qaeda in Iraq. Whoever.

MJT: The locals here and in Fallujah talk about the insurgents as though the insurgents are…not them. Like they are all from somewhere else. I know some of them are from somewhere else. Some aren’t from Iraq at all. But a lot of them had to be local, right? At least they were protected by some of the local people.

Captain Jones: You have to understand that everything is tribal. So when the sheikhs came on board with the coalition, whatever the sheikh says to do, that’s what they are going to do. The sheikhs said hey, we’re not fighting the coalition anymore. They’re helping us push out Al Qaeda. Some of these Al Qaeda guys were from here. And they have families that are still here. We work with them. Your brother, for example, might be Al Qaeda but you could be with the coalition. You may not want that way of life. I can’t detain just someone because his brother is Al Qaeda.

MJT: When you get a situation like this where one brother is with you and the other is against you, will the one who is with you inform on his brother?

Captain Jones: It just depends. It is truly a case by case basis. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Sometimes he’ll inform on his brother, but when you detain the brother he’ll come back and say hey, he’s a really good guy. Why did you detain him? That’s his way of denying that he had anything to do with it. So you have those cases as well.

MJT: Did Sheikh Mishan switch sides?

Captain Jones: No. He has been pro-coalition from the beginning. He lost a couple of his sons. He lost one of his daughters back in September.

MJT: What happened?

Captain Jones: She was killed in a mortar attack.

MJT: A mortar attack on his house?

Captain Jones: Yeah. When we first came in, in late August, there was an area out to the east that was all bad guy country. We hadn’t cleared it out yet. So in this area there were pockets where they would launch mortars. They hit Sheikh Mishan’s house because they knew he was pro-coalition. So they shot mortars at his house and killed one of his daughters. Prior to that, a couple of his sons got killed and he fled to Syria. He stayed there until General Allen convinced him to come back and lead his tribe.

MJT: And when was this?

Captain Jones: I think it was in July of this year. I think it was July 5.

MJT: So what happened to his sons, exactly?

Captain Jones: Al Qaeda stormed the house. Or in gun battles outside the house. More of the usual.

MJT: Have you ever met anyone who you know has switched sides? I’m sure we have both met some of these people, but have you met anyone who has admitted it?

Captain Jones: Yep. There are some guys that were bad who we work with now. They say they got tired of that life, that they didn’t have the right ideals. They were really all about power and money rather than pushing us out. They want safety and security now. There was also some reconciliation with some of the insurgents who decided to put down their guns. They didn’t want to fight the coalition any more. We walked them back to the other side. The sheikhs had to vouch for these guys. They said these are not going to pick up arms against you again.

MJT: Do you believe that?

Captain Jones: Sometimes yes, sometimes no. [Laughs.] It’s a case by case basis again. Some of these guys have done a lot of good things. They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Some of them do revert back to their old ways. I don’t mean they’ve started fighting us again. I mean…if they tortured people before and have switched sides now we have to say Hey, we don’t torture people. You detain them and turn them in and let the professionals question them. It has been an ongoing process with some of these guys. We’re training them in the laws of war, rules of engagement, and so forth. Sometimes it’s a hard concept for them to grasp, and other times they get it, they understand it.

MJT: How’s the Baath Party doing these days?

Captain Jones: That I don’t know. That I’m trying to figure out myself.

MJT: This is Baath country. Or at least it was. I don’t know if it is anymore.

Captain Jones: Right. I’m still trying to figure some of this out. A lot of the guys in this area say they are nationalists and want a greater Iraq. They don’t necessarily support this ideal or that ideal. They just want the unification of Iraq. That’s it.

MJT: Do you have any Shias here?

Captain Jones: No. They’re all Sunnis.

MJT: And all Arabs. No Kurds.

Captain Jones: No Kurds. Not in my area.

MJT: What’s the most important thing you still need to do while you’re here, before you can leave, if you can only pick one?

Captain Jones: [Long pause.]

MJT: Or how about the top three things, if coming up with only one is hard.

Captain Jones: We’d like to kick start the government and the economy. That has been the big focus for me outside of security, which is obvious. Of course I need to make sure they have security, and that their security isn’t porous. We can’t have people infiltrating back in.

Now, there are always going to be some insurgents around because we don’t know who they are. Only the Iraqis know who they are. So we need to keep the security maintained and set up a system where the government and economy are starting to push back in. I only have a few months left. There is no way I can achieve that in the seven month period we’re given, let alone a three month period. So we’re trying to set the stage where we have a no-kidding city council with a one- or two-year plan of things they need to achieve. We need to make sure it’s running properly so it can be sustained after the Marines have left. That’s really what I’m trying to work on here.

We need to give people hope in Karmah. The re-opening of the town square, that gave people hope. They saw that the very worst part of Karmah, the part that was constantly getting car bombs and IEDs, where the police station was constantly attacked because the insurgents see the government as a threat, was able to have so many people outside in that one area. Six months ago that never would have happened.

MJT: The Iraqi Army isn’t here, are they?

Captain Jones: They’re north of us. We do have meetings once a week where we coordinate with the Iraqi Police and the Iraqi Army. They’re our neighbors, if you will, and we need to make sure we’re all going in the right direction for the greater area. We do, on occasion, do joint operations. We did a clearing operation out to the east, and the Iraqi Army providing some blocking positions for us as the Iraqi Police pushed up and cleared the area. So we do work with them quite a bit.

MJT: How is the Iraqi Army in this part of the country?

Captain Jones: They’re pretty professional. They have a good battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Ali. He’s a pretty good guy by Iraqi standards, compared to the Iraqi battalion I was working with last year. He’s pretty articulate. He understands and can talk tactics. He has basic common sense. And he looks…he’s very professional.

MJT: Are they mostly Shias?

Captain Jones: No, these guys are Sunnis.

MJT: Arabs also?

Captain Jones: Yep. And no Kurds, but that will probably change in a couple of years when they start deploying all over Iraq. Last year in Haditha, the Iraqi Army I worked with was Shia.

MJT: Did they have problems with the [Sunni] locals?

Captain Jones: Sometimes. But down south, in Baghdadi, the Iraqi Army also worked with the Baghdadi Police which is all Sunni. Initially there were some problems because people were saying these guys are thieves, and the others said, no, you’re thieves. Blah blah blah blah blah. We had to squelch a lot of that crap. We said, look, we’re here to get rid of insurgents, not fight each other. So I had to have them take a step back and look at all the things that the other culture had given to the other guys.

The Shia Iraqi Army, when they first went to Baghdadi, they didn’t have anything. But the Sunni Iraqi Police went out and bought them flour, vegetables, and fruit, brought it to them, and gave it to them for free. Here. You’re here to help us. Here you go. So I had to remind them what these guys were doing for them. And in the end we’d always go out on joint patrols. So we had Sunni and Shia going out on joint patrols. That’s a good thing because when you’re going into Sunni neighborhoods with Shias, you have some of their own people working with them. That definitely helped out a lot.

But we don’t have any of that here.

MJT: What’s the relationship like between the local government in Karmah and Baghdad? Or do they even have one?

Captain Jones: Well, they have the government of Al Anbar. They’re the guys who are in contact with Baghdad. What that relationship is like, I have no idea. It doesn’t affect me on my level. My local government ties into Fallujah, and Fallujah ties them into Ramadi.

MJT: Right.

Captain Jones: And that’s what we’re working with.

MJT: Do they have a good relationship with Fallujah?

Captain Jones: They’re starting to have a good relationship with Fallujah. A lot of those lines were severed because of the insurgency, but now they’re opening those lines back up. It’s starting to work a lot better.

MJT: What’s the biggest problem here?

Captain Jones: Probably the connection to Fallujah and Ramadi so they can get Iraqi dinars, rather than American dollars, into the army. That’s their biggest issue. Once they can do that, we can take them off the coalition aid. So our focus is the transition from dollars to dinars.

MJT: Anything you’d like to add that I didn’t ask you about? Anything you wish Americans knew about this place and don’t know?

Captain Jones: I wish more Americans knew about the good things Marines are doing at the lower levels. They see a lot of things we’re doing at the general level, but they don’t see what the privates and lance corporals are doing to further this relationship with the Iraqis and help the Iraqi people. We came here in part to liberate the Iraqi people and help the Iraqi people. And truly we have, at the lowest level. As we move away from kinetic warfare, we have those diplomats if you will, the strategic corporals, who is out there every day, helping Iraqis paint their businesses, helping Iraqis open their businesses, helping disabled people out of their own pockets, starting the Adopt a School programs because they can’t get school supplies through the Iraqi chain.

Schools back in the States, through family members, adopt some of these schools and they send school supplies out. Those kinds of things I wish the Americans could see. The actual good things. The progress. I wish Americans could see the number of kids who attached to you today. They were happy, they weren’t throwing rocks at you. They were happy to see you and talk to you. They probably asked you for chocolate, but you know, still, they talk to you. That’s the message. That’s what I want them to know about.

Not all Iraqi people are bad. There are some really truly good people. The fact that they would not let you leave their house today until you ate their food, until you were full, things like that. A lot of people open up their homes when they see that Americans are actually here to help them.

Post-script: I don’t get paid for these reports by anyone but readers of this Web site, and I can’t afford to do this for free. If these dispatches are worth something to you, please consider a contribution and help make true independent journalism economically viable.

You can make a one-time donation through Pay Pal:

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Many thanks in advance.

Published in City Journal — Hope for Iraq’s Meanest City

Fallujah is strange, sullen, wild-eyed, badass, and just plain mean,” writes Bing West in his 2005 war chronicle No True Glory. “Fallujans don’t like strangers, which includes anyone not homebred. Wear lipstick or Western-style long hair, sip a beer or listen to an American CD, and you risk the whip or a beating.” Fallujah has been Iraq’s bad-boy city since at least the time of the British in Mesopotamia; even then, travelers were warned to stay out. More recently, Saddam Hussein recruited some of his regime’s most ruthless officers from Fallujah. Even though it was a quieter city than most in Iraq after the American invasion in 2003, with less looting than in Baghdad and a staunchly pro-American mayor, the Americans should have known that Fallujah was trouble.

But they didn’t, and so they were unprepared when a rogues’ gallery of Islamists, Baathists, and garden-variety malcontents made the city the launching pad for an Iraqi insurgency. The Fallujans who embraced the insurgency were foolhardy, too: had they looked at what similarly-minded Islamist totalitarians had done to Afghanistan, they would have known what hell awaited them at the insurgents’ hands. General David Petraeus’s radical transformation of counterinsurgency tactics has come at just the right time: the overwhelming majority of Fallujans, deciding that America is the lesser of evils, have now aligned themselves with the Marines and the American-backed city government.

The insurgency arose in Fallujah before spreading to the rest of the country. Perhaps it is fitting, then, that the insurgents—now on the run elsewhere in Iraq—were first beaten here in the City of Mosques.

“Read the rest in City Journal”:http://www.city-journal.org/2008/18_2_fallujah.html

Make Michael Yon a Bestseller

Michael Yon’s new book Moment of Truth in Iraq is now shipping from Amazon. My copy arrived a few days ago and it looks excellent. I’ll let you know what I think once I dig into it.

Michael is the best foreign correspondent working in Iraq. If you haven’t been following his work, I need to make his book required reading for you. If you have been reading him all this time, you already know why you need to pick up a copy.

Builders of Nations

Builders of Nations.jpg

“This is my hardest deployment,” Marine Sergeant Cooley said as he unfastened his helmet and tossed it onto his bed. “We weren’t trained for this kind of thing.” He’s been shot at with bullets and mortars, and he’s endured IED attacks on his Humvee, but post-war Fallujah is more difficult and more stressful than combat. He isn’t unusual for saying so. Many Marines I spoke to in and around the Fallujah area said something similar.

“We’re trained as infantrymen,” Captain Stewart Glenn said. “But here we are doing civil administration and trying to get the milk factory up and running.”

“We make up all this stuff as we go,” Lieutenant Mike Barefoot added.

While most Americans go to school, work traditional day jobs, and raise their families, young American men and women like these are deployed to Iraq, Kosovo, and Afghanistan where they work seven days a week rebuilding societies torn to pieces by fascism, terrorism, ethnic cleansing, and war. It is not what they signed up to do. Some may have geeked out on nation-building video games like Civilization, but none of the enlisted men picked up any of these skills in boot camp.

Officers pick up some basic relevant skills, though, as well as a more complete education. Lieutenant Nathan Bibler runs a Joint Security Station in the slums of Fallujah and works with local authorities every day.

JSS Jbail Fallujah.jpg

Lieutenant Nathan Bibler’s Joint Security Station, Jbail, Southern Fallujah

He has a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science. “In a lot of ways it helps me analyze and interpret,” he said. What helps more than anything, though, is a training program Marine officers go through in 29 Palms, California, before they’re deployed.

“We were living in a town they built out in the desert with Iraqis.”

“Really,” I said. “Iraqi-Americans?”

“Yeah,” he said. “I don’t know if they were all U.S. citizens, but Iraqis who were already in the U.S. We were living in this town that they built. We lived in the town with the Iraqi Police right next door. Actually they lived with us part of the time.”

Enlisted men don’t go through role playing training in 29 Palms, but every officer who mentioned it to me said those exercises were eerily effective, that actors from Iraq hired to play Iraqis in Iraq during counter-terrorist warfare turned out to be surprisingly like real Iraqis in a real counter-terrorist war.

Most of a Marine officer’s training revolves around fighting, of course, but they do pick up some of the basics they need to build nations.

Humvee Driver Fallujah.jpg

“There was so much stuff to learn about,” Lieutenant Bibler said. “Generator power, water treatment plant filtration. One of our big tasks — besides security, which is number one — is keeping our pulse on the infrastructure here and getting an accurate picture of what Fallujah is actually like. Our training was good, and this is what it was like. They couldn’t mimic it to this scale, but this is what it was like. We also trained for kinetic warfare, of course — shooting and all that.”

Just down the street from Lieutenant Bibler’s station is a massive construction site. A local Iraqi contracting company is building a water treatment plant with American money.

Walking Toward Water Plant Fallujah.jpg

Water Plant Fallujah.jpg

Solar-powered street lights are being erected all over Fallujah to take strain off the failing electrical grid and keep the city well-lit during outages. Locals are hired to pick up trash that accumulated during the periods of heavy fighting, and new weekly garbage collection contracts are being awarded. The city government is being rebuilt from scratch. Micro loans are given to local shopkeepers to jumpstart the economy.

“We hire day laborers for twelve dollars a day to clean up certain areas,” Captain Steve Eastin said. The average monthly salary in Fallujah is around 300 dollars, so twelve dollars a day isn’t as stingy as it may sound. “We’re paying to have the mosques repaired. Iraqi Police Chief Colonel Faisal helped convince the imams to trust us. He’s well-educated and speaks the language of justice and democracy.”

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Iraqi Police Chief Colonel Faisal (left)

Every mosque in the city was anti-American during the peak of the insurgency, but every single one has flipped in the meantime. Every day the imams exhort the people of Fallujah to support the American effort. The Marines know this because they have Arabic-speakers who sit in and listen to what gets said.

“What’s the most interesting thing you’ve seen since you got here?” I asked Lieutenant Bibler.

“How the people interact with Marines,” he said. Almost everyone I spoke to in Fallujah said the friendliness of the local people amazed them. They expected unrelenting hostility, and for good reason. Fallujah used to be vicious.

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Iraqis painting a school

“What’s the most discouraging thing you’ve seen?” I said.

“Just the magnitude of what they need,” he said. “Health care. Jobs. That’s the biggest one for me, getting them long-term work. It’s not something I have much control over, or any control over, really. That’s the most frustrating part. I see these kids every day and I want them to have health care and income so they don’t have to be so worried. It’s very frustrating.”

“How long do you think you need to stick around?” I said. “Assuming everything goes well.”

“What do you mean by well?” he said.

“Assuming there isn’t another insurgency,” I said. “How much is there left to do before you can say, okay, we don’t need to be here anymore and we can go home, to Baghdad, to Afghanistan, or wherever.”

“The gauge is, is the security and infrastructure that has been established here in Fallujah strong enough to stand once we leave?” he said. “I can’t vouch for the rest of the city, but the police here have the security. The police know what’s going on.”

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Inside Lieutenant Bibler’s Joint Security Station

“What do you suppose would happen if you had to leave right away,” I said, “if Washington ordered you out right now?”

“I can’t vouch for what would happen in the rest of the country,” he said. “Because things have been so quiet here, no one in my platoon has fired a shot in anger. Normally you would expect a new unit to be less familiar with things and be an easier target. We haven’t been shot at once or had a single IED go off since I’ve been here. The last one was in July. So it’s hard to gauge what the insurgency — Al Qaeda in Iraq — is trying to do right now. So if we pulled out…ah, man, that’s a tough question. Right now I’m not sure.”

I suspect he hedged a bit because he feared I was asking him to talk “out of his lane.” American troops are told not to talk above their pay grade to journalists, so I reformulated the question.

“What do you suppose is the weakest point you need to work on and help them with most?” I said.

“Okay,” he said. “Well, we’ve got the security piece pretty good. There haven’t been any shots fired. We just need to build up the governmental side and jump-start the system enough to make it so it can run on its own efficiently enough that it can last.”

“What’s the current state of the government?” I said. “If it still needs to be built up, what’s it like now?”

“All I can really speak about is the Fallujah government,” he said. “What they’re really trying to work with is getting the community leaders to buy in to the system. The money is there. We’re trying to distribute it as efficiently as possible.”

“How many people in the current government are old Baathists?” I said. Fallujah is an old Baath Party stronghold.

“I don’t know,” he said. “There is just speculation. Some of the community leaders were probably Baathists, but I’ve never had a conversation with one who I know is a former Baathist.”

“Do you guys even care at this point?” I said. There hasn’t been any Baathist violence in Fallujah for a long time, so perhaps it’s not that big a deal. Besides, many Iraqis joined the Baath Party out of necessity, not because they drank the Kool-Aid.

“Well,” he said, “it has to matter at least a little bit. It’s something I would consider if I knew it about someone. But instead of just sweeping everybody aside and building a community structure from the bottom up, they’ve used the one that existed already, the mukhtars. How many of them are former Baathists, I don’t know.”

“Maybe all of them,” I said.

“Perhaps,” he said. “But I can understand a survivalist mentality among them. We’re working with them to build faith in this system. Every day we try to push more and more of it onto them.”


I accompanied Captain Eastin to a town hall meeting where various mukhtars met with community leaders, including Fallujah’s chief of police. Several other Marine officers also attended, as did representatives from the Army Corps of Engineers. We sat on plastic chairs in a circle in a room mostly devoid of furniture.

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Iraqi Police Chief Colonel Faisal showed up in a Western suit and tie to much pomp. Everyone stood, including me. He sat first, at a small table in the center of the room. Two Iraqi Police officers videotaped the meeting with hand-held camcorders.

The mukhtars looked like a shady and inscrutable bunch. All are rich. None are elected. The City Council appoints them. Fallujah tried to move away from the tribal political system some time ago and adopted the mukhtars to edge out the sheikhs.

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A mukhtar’s house

“Mukhtars are sort of like mayors of neighborhoods,” Second Lieutenant Gary Laughlin explained to me earlier. “There are five in the Jolan sector. Three are good. Two not so much. They all come from powerful families. They enrich themselves with graft from various contracts. A few in the past got some big contract money, then fled to Jordan with their families.”

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The meeting was held at a rented house next to Captain Eastin’s Joint Security Station. The station was being dismantled rack by rack and sandbag by sandbag because a brand-new station was opening up down the street. Marines next door tossed sandbags onto the roof of the meeting house.

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Captain Steve Eastin

Combat operations are finished in Fallujah, but this was still a mission of war. If the Marines and city leaders cannot get Fallujah back on its feet, the city could fall again to the insurgency.

Most mukhtars gulped from cans of Pepsi and orange soda. Half smoked cigarettes.

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“You all smoke too much,” Captain Eastin said. Everyone laughed. No American in the room lit a cigarette, but many looked like they could use a beer. American military personnel aren’t allowed to drink while deployed overseas. There isn’t much drinking in Fallujah anyway. Alcohol isn’t banned like it is in Iran and Saudi Arabia, but there is only one bar in the city, and there is no sign out front.

The Marines and the mukktars discussed the electrical grid. Iraqis did most of the talking, which is what I was told to expect.

“The mukhtars used to talk and direct their comments toward us,” Captain Glenn had told me earlier. “Now they direct it toward each other and toward the sheikhs. They used to focus on asking the Marines to do this and do that. Now it’s the police talking to the mukhtars and the mukhtars talking to themselves. At this point we pretty much jot down the notes.”

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Iraq’s electrical grid is a world-famous piece of crap. The engineers who built it were incompetent. It has been sabotaged for years by insurgents. Even in areas like Fallujah, where there is no more insurgent sabotage, civilians inadvertently sabotage it themselves in a perfect example of the tragedy of the commons. When transformers blow out, residents move their wires to another transformer where they can temporarily get more electricity. After a while that transformer gets overloaded and blows out. More residents then move their wires. And so on.

Major Kenneth Gudgel said he was concerned that much of the equipment given to Iraqis by Marines is not being installed.

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Major Kenneth Gudgel (left)

“I’ve seen Iraqis buying electrical transformers with money out of their own pocket,” he said. “Why are they doing this? We’ve given you money for all the transformers you need. It isn’t fair that people have to pay for these things when the United States government has already paid for them.”

“Yes,” said one of the mukhtars. “You are right. We will look into it.” From the look on Major Gudgel’s face, I don’t think he was convinced.

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An expensive-looking chandelier hung over our heads. Rooms were connected by arches. But the floor was made of uneven cracked concrete, like a sidewalk in need of repair. The floor was wet, too. The place leaked. Most windows were broken. Those facing west onto the street were sandbagged.

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Every fifteen seconds or so another sandbag landed with a loud THUMP on the roof as Marines next door took down the station and prepared to move. I don’t know why they tossed sandbags from one roof to another instead of into the yard. The house shook. Unbroken windows rattled. I half-expected the ceiling to come down on our heads.

This part of Fallujah reminded me of what Halabja looks like these days — the now-infamous Kurdish city up north that Saddam Hussein all but destroyed with chemical weapons, artillery, and air strikes. It’s not quite as bad as all that — the houses are bigger and at one time were nicer. But the decrepitude and cash-poor economy are similar.

Only two women showed up at the start of the meeting. Both were Marines. An Iraqi Army soldier sitting next to me stared at both. Most likely he didn’t realize that staring is considered more rude to Americans than it is to Arabs.

He offered me a sip from his water bottle. I declined because I was nursing a cold and did not want him to get sick. He asked my name, then asked the name of the more attractive of the two female Marines.

“I don’t know,” I whispered to him. “I haven’t met her.”

“Will you take my picture with her after the meeting?” he said.

“Uhhhh,” I said. “I don’t know. You will have to ask her if that’s okay.”

I didn’t want to do it because I didn’t want to embarrass the poor woman. I’m sure she gets too much unwanted attention from Iraqi men as it is. I hoped the soldier sitting next to me would lose interest or forget about the whole thing by the time the meeting was over.

A few minutes later, a local woman stopped by. Every Iraqi Police officer in the room with a cell phone took her picture with their built-in cameras. Women make up slightly more than fifty percent of the population in Fallujah, but they are perhaps only two percent of the visible population.

She wore a hijab — the modest Islamic headscarf that covers the hair of conservative women — and sat next to a female American Marine captain.

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She came from a school. Captain Eastin suggested she start a Parent Teacher Association, like the PTA in the United States. It’s highly unlikely that he was trained to say such a thing. He was just making it up as he went along, which is typically what Americans in nation-building roles do. Hardly any Marines have experience running cities in the United States. Very few, if any, served on their local city councils. Probably none have ever been mayor. But they live in the United States. They all know how a modern society is supposed to work simply from being immersed in one for most of their lives.

Americans in Iraq try to replicate what they know. Sometimes it doesn’t work. What they suggest sometimes can’t work. Their ideas often baffle the locals. Iraq will never become a distant suburb or colony of America with Arabic characteristics. No one is trying to turn it into one. They’re just bringing their American experience to Iraqis and saying “here’s how we do it, maybe something similar will work in your country.”

Iraqis aren’t stupid just because their society is dysfunctional. They may be confused by some American ideas, but Iraq likewise bewilders Americans. It takes a long time to learn how to navigate the alleyways of this complex and opaque society.

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Iraqis will often Iraqify, so to speak, ideas that Americans come up with. When Americans and Iraqis put their heads together they often resolve problems in ways that neither would have thought of on their own.

“Iraqi solutions are sometimes weird,” Captain Glenn said. “But it’s almost always more effective than the Western solution we would come up with.”

“Give me an example of a weird solution,” I said.

“Some of the day labor projects,” he said. “We give a little bit of money to unemployed guys for some work, like cleaning the streets, rubble removal, things like that. You and I might say, hey, let’s get some people and go out there and we’ll pay them. They’ll do that, but they just go about it in a really roundabout sort of way. They’ll hire a couple of people to pick up trash, but then they’ll just pick up a little trash and then go paint barriers or something. Meanwhile I’ll be thinking, let’s just go pick up rubble and trash. They are very non-linear. Also, like providing the trash cans. We purchased some trash cans. We wracked our brains about the accountability of the trash cans — we were thinking militaristically about accountability, the ten digit grid and where, exactly, these trash cans should go. The mukhtars said here’s what we’ll do. We’ll get these trash cans and we’ll talk to the senior man, the elder or the hajji in the area where the trash cans will go. We’ll have him sign for it, then it’s his trash can and he manages the trash can. That’s not something we would have thought of.”

I visited a school in the city of Karmah, between Fallujah and Baghdad, with Lieutenant Schroeder and Corporal Gasperetti. They needed to speak to the chief administrator about school supplies.

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Lieutenant Schroeder

“Please don’t take any picture of women in here,” Corporal Gasperetti said. “We tried taking their pictures during a census, but they asked us not to. So please don’t.”

“Ok,” I said. I knew already that most Iraqi women don’t like to be photographed. There are more women in public than you might think from looking at my pictures.

The school was squat with few windows. All the windows were barred. Trash was strewn in the yard. A sad-looking flag pole was all that decorated the courtyard.

The school had opened up again just recently after the insurgency was put down. Getting the place cleaned up and stocked was an on-going process that had barely begun. Corporal Gasperetti was in charge of the project. He barely outranks a private, but this was his job. Too much work needs to be done to leave it all to the high-ranking officers.

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He rapped on the door of the administrator’s office. She opened the door and said “Salam” a bit glumly. She was overweight, as many Iraqis are, and she did not wear a headscarf. A poster of a Bavarian mountain village hung on the wall behind her desk.

Corporal Gasperetti asked her which school supplies she needed most. After a few moments, he turned to Lieutenant Schroeder and said “You guys are making me nervous.”

“Why?” the lieutenant said with genuine surprise.

“Because you’re my boss,” Corporal Gasperetti said. “And because I’m not used to be around a reporter.”

“Don’t worry about me,” I said and laughed. “I am not going to make you look stupid.”

I might make him look stupid if I thought he deserved to look stupid, if he were screwing up his job in some way. But nothing I heard him say or saw him do justified any bad press.

We left after a few minutes.

“She’s an old Baathist,” he said. “I’m trying to win her over by helping her out.”

“Have you made any progress?” I said.

“She’s loosened up a bit,” he said. “She used to be hostile.”

Gasperetti is “just” a corporal. And he’s in charge of building a school. He’s responsible for flipping a Baath Party functionary into the American column. And he’s younger than I was when I finished college.

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Corporal Gasperetti

Winning over Iraqis is hard. It takes time, but it can be done.

After the town hall meeting in Fallujah, Mukhtar Hamid Hussein approached Captain Eastin.

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Mukhtar Hamid Hussein

“We appreciate the security you provide to us,” he said. “And how you watch over us as we also protect you.” Mukhtar Hussein was the chief of Fallujah’s mukhtars. “For a long time we were enemies. But now we are friends.”

“It was a miscommunication,” Captain Eastin said. That was a serious and generous understatement.

“There were mistakes on both sides,” Mukhtar Hussein said. “But now we are brothers.”

Post-script: I don’t get paid for these reports by anyone but readers of this Web site, and I can’t afford to do this for free. If these dispatches are worth something to you, please consider a contribution and help make true independent journalism economically viable.

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Blasphemers Unite!

Egypt’s Grand Imam Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi threatened “severe” consequences if the Dutch government doesn’t ban Parliamentarian Geert Wilders’ anti-Islamic film Fitna. It makes no difference to Tantawi and other perpetually outraged Islamists that the Netherlands is a sovereign country with its own laws. Ever since Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini condemned Salman Rushdie to death for writing the supposedly offensive Satanic Verses — and sent death squads after him and his publishers around the world — radical Islamists have seen it as their right and duty to enforce their own unilateral anti-blasphemy laws on the human race. (Meanwhile, liberal American Muslim Aziz Poonawalla “hosts Fitna on his own Web site”:http://cityofbrass.blogspot.com/2008/03/geert-wilders-fitna-part-i.html even though he, as should be expected, doesn’t like it.)

Fitna isn’t the only recent movie hard-line Islamists hope to squelch beyond their own borders. The other is Persepolis, an animated film based on Iranian author Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel of the same name about repression under both the Shah Reza Pahlavi and the Ayatollah Khomeini. General Wafik Jizzini at Lebanon’s Ministry of the Interior banned it because, he said, Shia officials (read: Hezbollah) said it was offensive to Islam and — you guessed it — Iran. Islamic Republic officials and their proxies are true to form here, considering it was they who kicked off the international anti-blasphemy campaign in the first place.

“The heart of every culture-loving Lebanese breaks with every ban,” “writes Abu Kais”:http://www.beirutbeltway.com/beirutbeltway/2008/03/persepolis-bann.html, a Lebanese Shia who lives now in Washington and writes the indispensable blog “From Beirut to the Beltway”:http://www.beirutbeltway.com/. Beirut is a genuinely cosmopolitan and culturally rich city, more so than any other Arab capital. And Lebanon, true to its form, fought back. Tarek Mitri, Lebanon’s Minister of Culture, managed to overturn the ban and get Persepolis on the big screen after all.

It’s too bad Fitna and the reaction to it sucked all the media oxygen out of the room. I haven’t seen Geert Wilders’ short film, but he’s sounds like a reactionary who makes a poor poster boy for free expression (he wants to ban the Koran in the Netherlands). He not only thinks radical Islamists shouldn’t be able to buy their own copy, but neither should moderate Muslims or people like you and me who might want to study it for our own reasons. The man has a death threat hanging over his head from nutjobs the world over, as do employees at the Internet company LiveLeak that hosts the film, yet an enormous amount of the public discussion revolves around whether or not his film is offensive. It is offensive to some people, including many reasonable people. But that’s beside the point.

“Read the rest in Commentary Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/viewarticle.cfm/Blasphemers–Unite–11290.

Reviewed in the NYT: Mirror of the Arab World

The New York Times asked me to review Sandra Mackey’s new book Mirror of the Arab World: Lebanon in Conflict for the “Sunday Book Review”:http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/30/books/review/Totten-t.html?_r=2&oref=slogin&oref=slogin.

Mirror of the Arab World Cover.JPG

It’s too short to excerpt, so “read the whole thing at the New York Times”:http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/30/books/review/Totten-t.html?_r=2&oref=slogin&oref=slogin.

UPDATE: The buffoonish and aptly named “Angry Arab”:http://angryarab.blogspot.com/2008/03/this-is-classic-one-former-resident-of.html calls me a “Zionist fanatic” and accuses me of lying in my NYT bio when I say I lived in Lebanon. For the record, I lived on the sixth floor of the Farah Building on Makhoul Street in Hamra, West Beirut.

Freedom Fighter Called “Terrorist” by INS

Karen DeYoung “published a story”:http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/03/22/AR2008032202228_pf.html in the Washington Post that ought to embarrass anyone making decisions about who deserves permanent residence in the U.S.

Saman Kareem Ahmad is an Iraqi Kurd who worked as a translator with the Marines in Iraq’s Anbar Province. He was one of the few selected translators who was granted asylum in the U.S. because he and his family were singled out for destruction by insurgents for “collaboration.” He wants to return to Iraq as an American citizen and a Marine, and has already been awarded the Navy-Marine Corps Achievement Medal and the War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal. Secretary of the Navy Donald C. Winter and General David Petraeus wrote notes for his file and recommended he be given a Green Card, but the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) declined his application and called him a “terrorist.”

The INS says Ahmad “conducted full-scale armed attacks and helped incite rebellions against Hussein’s regime, most notably during the Iran-Iraq war, Operation Desert Storm, and Operation Iraqi Freedom” while a member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).

The KDP is one of two mainstream Kurdish political parties in Iraq. Kurdistan Regional Government Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani is a member of the KDP. The KDP fought alongside the United States military as an ally during Operation Iraqi Freedom. After Operation Desert Storm the KDP fought the Saddam regime after President George H. W. Bush called on Iraqis to do so. During the Iran-Iraq War, the KDP fought the Ba’athists because they were actively resisting genocide in the Kurdish region where Saddam used chemical weapons, artillery, air strikes, and napalm to exterminate them. And he’s a terrorist?

The Kurds in Iraq—unlike the Kurds in Turkey and the ever-popular Palestinians— did not use terrorism as a tactic in their struggle for liberation. They fought honorably against Saddam’s soldiers, not against Arab civilians in south and central Iraq.

“Read the rest in Commentary Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/3083.

The Dungeon of Fallujah — Upgraded

Last month I published a piece here called “The Dungeon of Fallujah”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/2008/02/the-dungeon-of.php about my visit to the wretched jail in the city. As it turns out, the place was worse than I thought. Prisoners had to supply their own food or starve. I didn’t report that detail because I didn’t know it. But Marine Major General John Kelly (whom I don’t think I met) read my report, investigated the jail, and fixed it. No one in the military talked to me about this. I learned about it from “Mary Madigan”:http://whataretheysaying.powerblogs.com/ in my comments section, she learned about it from “Ace”:http://ace.mu.nu/archives/258556.php, and he learned about it from “UPI”:http://www.upi.com/International_Security/Emerging_Threats/Briefing/2008/03/24/us_feeding_prisoners_in_iraqi_jails/4328/.

WASHINGTON, March 24 (UPI) — The U.S. military says it is taking steps to alleviate conditions at the Fallujah city jail in Iraq after recent visitors found a filthy, overcrowded facility.

“They are being fed now,” Lt. Col. Michael Callanan said of the prisoners, who until recently had to provide their own food or starve. Callanan, the point man for the U.S. military on rule-of-law issues in Anbar province, spoke to United Press International in a phone interview Monday.

Establishing the rule of law and functioning judicial institutions is a priority for Multi-National Force-West, the coalition military command in the province, Callanan said.

He said shortly after a visit to the Iraqi-run jail by the new commander of MNF-W Marine Maj. Gen. John Kelly, cash from a special commander’s contingency fund known as CERP was used to hire Iraqi contractors to feed “the majority of the prisoners in both Fallujah and Ramadi” city jails.

He said “similar measures” were being taken by local commanders with CERP funds at the other 27 smaller jails in the province. In Ramadi, he said, the military was transitioning from using contractors to “providing food … and an empty kitchen” to a women’s volunteer group that would feed the inmates.

He said two new facilities in Fallujah, a city jail for pre-trial detainees and a long-term facility for convicted prisoners, would be complete by spring 2009, and described the CERP contracts as a temporary measure implemented for humanitarian reasons “in order to bridge the gap” until long-term arrangements were put in place by the Iraqi Ministry of Justice.

Kelly’s visit followed a report on conditions at the jail by independent journalist Michael Totten. Totten found a facility built to hold 120 prisoners housing 900 without even minimal provision for sanitation or hygiene.

I’m a little bit stunned. I didn’t intend that piece to be “activist journalism,” but I guess that’s how it turned out.

The Liberation of Karmah, Part I

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KARMAH, IRAQ — Just beyond the outskirts of Fallujah lies the terror-wracked city of Karmah. While you may not have heard of this small city of 35,000 people, American soldiers and Marines who served in Anbar Province know it as a terrifying place of oppression, death, and destruction. “It was much worse than Fallujah” said more than a dozen Marines who were themselves based in Fallujah.

“Karmah was so important to the insurgency because we’ve got Baghdad right there,” Lieutenant Andrew Macak told me. “This is part of the periphery of Baghdad. At the same time, it is part of the periphery of Fallujah.”

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Karmah, Iraq

Lieutenant Macak is not a veteran of Karmah, but Sergeant Jason Howell is. He was deployed in the city from March through October in 2006. “People weren’t out in the streets,” he said. “They were very reserved. They were afraid to talk to us. They had the feeling that, especially in the smaller towns, they were constantly being watched. They were in real jeopardy if they interacted with coalition forces and, especially, the Iraqi Police.”

Lieutenant Macak arrived in Karmah in the middle of July 2007 when the city was still a war zone. “It was moving in the right direction, but it was still active,” he said. “2/5 [Second Battalion, Fifth Regiment], who we relieved, was part of the surge effort. Karmah was still a very dangerous place. The lollipop over here was a big deal.”

“You mean the traffic circle?” I said. The Marines refer to a large traffic circle down the street from the police station at the entrance to the market as the “lollipop.”

“Yeah,” he said. “It was basically IED Alley. The whole road out here in front of the station was just covered in IEDs. No one even went down the roads leading to the north of here. It was an insurgent stronghold. Before 2/5 came in there weren’t many patrols. They didn’t do a whole lot. The Iraqi Police didn’t have any confidence. Their numbers weren’t big and there wasn’t a whole lot of organization. 2/5 came in and started patrolling, started doing what Marines do. They identified local leaders and started engaging them. Sheikh Mishan came back at about the same time from Syria.”

Sheikh Mishan Abbas, like many other sheikhs in Anbar Province, fled to Syria shortly after the U.S. invaded. He heads up the Jamaeli tribe, the largest in the area.

“Did he switch sides?” I said.

“Nah,” Lieutenant Macak said. “He’s never switched sides. You mean did he work for the enemy? No, he never did that. He took off to Syria because he didn’t want to get killed and he didn’t want to be pressured into supporting Al Qaeda. He’s basically the ‘sheikh of sheikhs.’ He’s been known as the sheikh of sheikhs since the British were here in the 1920s.”

Fallujah was a minefield of IEDs, but Karmah was even worse.

“They hit a lot of IEDs out there,” he said. “One of the route clearance teams was reacting to one and got hit by a secondary. It took their Cougar, spun it over, and threw it so high in the air it flipped over the power lines before coming back down. Fortunately the men weren’t hurt. The vehicle remained intact. The armor protected the Marines inside like it was supposed to. This was in the first week of September.”

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Corporal Caleb Hayes wanted to know who I was. He wasn’t expecting to see a journalist. Reporters hardly ever visit Karmah, which is the reason you probably have never heard of it.

“I personally was hit with seven IEDs in the traffic circle alone,” he said. “It didn’t start quieting down until September.”

“Why did it take longer in Karmah than in the rest of the province?” I said.

“It was easier in Fallujah because that city has a hard perimeter,” he said. “There is no definite edge to defend in Karmah. Insurgents just kept coming in. They were pushed into Karmah by surge forces in Baghdad. We always knew we would be shot at when we rolled out of the station in Karmah.”

Anbar Province — which also includes the cities of Fallujah, Ramadi, Hit, and Haditha — is the heartland of Sunni Iraq. These places were the backbone of the Baath Party during the regime of Saddam Hussein. I was surprised, then, to hear so little about Baathists. What happened? Are they just gone?

“Here?” Lieutenant Macak said. “The primary threat was Al Qaeda. After the initial invasion Karmah wasn’t exactly an afterthought, but it isn’t the primary population center. The Marines went in and occupied Fallujah, and progressively moved out from that core.”

He is describing the oil spot counterinsurgency strategy, though he did not use that phrase. Andrew Krepinevich advocated this very thing in Foreign Affairs in 2005. “U.S. and Iraqi forces should adopt an ‘oil-spot strategy’ in Iraq,” “he wrote”:http://www.foreignaffairs.org/20050901faessay84508/andrew-f-krepinevich-jr/how-to-win-in-iraq.html. “Rather than focusing on killing insurgents, they should concentrate on providing security and opportunity to the Iraqi people, thereby denying insurgents the popular support they need. Since the U.S. and Iraqi armies cannot guarantee security to all of Iraq simultaneously, they should start by focusing on certain key areas and then, over time, broadening the effort — hence the image of an expanding oil spot. Such a strategy would have a good chance of success.”

“I call it the snowball effect,” Lieutenant Macak said. “Anyway, there was a gap here that wasn’t well covered at first. So Al Qaeda came in and started their murder and intimidation campaign. I don’t know how many people liked Al Qaeda or fully supported them. Some people probably did. But other people didn’t have their own AK-47s, armor, or tanks or anything, so they had no choice but to submit to them. Otherwise they would end up like their family members with their heads chopped off. If you didn’t support Al Qaeda they would blow up your house.”

Rubble Karmah 1.jpg

Al Qaeda in Iraq waged a vicious murder and intimidation campaign all across Anbar Province as though they were an army of arsonists and serial killers.

“In June when Sheikh Mishan came back,” the lieutenant said, “and this was after two years of Al Qaeda forcing their will on the population — within one week of Sheikh Mishan coming back, three of his family members’ houses were blown up. And a fourth family member’s house was blown up while Al Qaeda kept the family members inside.”

Today Karmah is no more violent than Fallujah — which is to say, hardly violent at all.

“A lot has changed since just before we arrived,” Lieutenant Macak said. “I arrived in July just when the checkpoints were starting up. We expanded what 2/5 started. We took that snowball and made it bigger. As soon as they put that checkpoint up near the lollipop, the IEDs on IED Alley disappeared.

“That’s all it took?” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “But within a couple of weeks of them putting the checkpoint up, they had a suicide car bomb attack. They assumed that no one would want to be out manning that checkpoint if it was just going to get blown up again. So the Marines went out there and fortified it. They maintained a squad-sized Marine element out there for about a month and a half. The Iraqi Police and Provincial Security Forces were out there manning it, as well. We slowly phased the Marines out of it, and now it’s exclusively run by Iraqis. No one would ever go past that point. They had kill lines set up. If they saw any vehicle coming down that road, it would be engaged. They knew anything past that line was Al Qaeda. No vehicles were allowed to move from the east to the west toward that checkpoint.”

Fortification Karmah.jpg

Heavy fortification in Karmah

Implementing basic security measures wouldn’t work in a counterinsurgency if a significant number of local civilians supported the radicals. But the locals were terrified and savagely murdered and tortured by the radicals on a regular basis. Al Qaeda in Iraq is the self-declared enemy of every human being outside its own members and loyal supporters. Nothing could possibly discredit jihad more completely than the jihadists themselves.

“Insurgent activity was a lot worse,” Sergeant Howell said. “Attacks with small arms fire were constant. IEDs were daily. The difference between this place now and when I first got here is day and night. There was no way kids would be playing soccer in the streets. When we patrolled last time we had a much more aggressive posture. It was a combat patrol.”

Marines Taking Cover Karmah.jpg

I’m accustomed to being in Iraq during the new normal. Sergeant Howell reminded me that it is indeed new in this town, as did so many others.

“Some civilians supported the insurgents,” I said to Lieutenant Macak. “Could you tell them apart from those who were intimidated?”

“No,” he said. “They were all really reserved. They stayed in their houses. But now they’re everywhere. They come up to us and greet us, talk to us. The women aren’t so scared and so guarded. Last year you would never see a woman outside the house. Now everybody is in the streets. Kids are playing, people are walking around. People are starting to live like it’s a somewhat normal environment. You can tell just by looking that the environment is a lot safer than it was last year.”

Sideways Thumbs Up Karmah.jpg

Very few insurgents remain in the city. The remnants are thought to be exclusively locals. The Marines believe the foreign leadership cadre has been driven out.

“I had a good conversation with Iraqi Police Lieutenant Colonel Sattar about this last night,” Lieutenant Macak said. “I said Why are your family members the ones kidnapping you, beating you up, and killing your people?”

“It was his family members?” I said.

“Lieutenant Colonel Sattar was captured and held by Al Qaeda for over a year,” he said. “He was beaten and thrashed before they eventually let him go. And the guy who captured him was his cousin. The culture here — they lie, they deceive, they steal, they don’t trust each other. In order to survive. That’s what Saddam Hussein’s era bred in them. If they wanted to survive and do well, they had to go behind everyone’s back. After 20 or 30 years of Saddam, they can’t break away over night.”

Garbage Mud and Buildings Karmah.jpg

A crucial aspect of General Petraeus’ counterinsurgency strategy is an alliance with local authorities as well as civilians. The Army desperately needed to transform itself from a bureaucratic occupation force to a locally integrated security force, but it’s the kind of thing Marines do instinctively when they arrive from abroad in a war zone.

“A lot of the security efforts are locally driven,” Lieutenant Macak said. “The Iraqi Security Forces [which includes the Iraqi Police, Iraqi Army, Provincial Security Forces, and the Iraqi Civilian Watch] go out there and find weapons caches. They dig up IEDs from the road even though we tell them not to. They go capture bad guys and bring them right to our doorstep. They’re not looking for any kind of reward, they just want to do a good job.”

Iraqi Gunner Karmah.jpg

The counterinsurgency doctrines of the Army and Marine Corps are more similar now than they were. Sergeant Joseph Perusich told me how the Marines acquire local intelligence, but “I had already seen the Army use the same tactics in Baghdad”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/001506.html.

“Last time I was out here,” Sergeant Perusich said, “everything was real kinetic. It has calmed down a lot. We don’t go around kicking in doors and throwing in flashbangs anymore. We used to to that a lot, go and bust doors in and run everything over.”

“Now we’re more like FBI agents,” Lieutenant Macak said.

“It helps if you ask the neighbors,” Sergeant Perusich said. “Everybody is really close. So if you ask somebody next door about someone and they say something different, it helps us in our tactical questioning.”

“How cooperative are locals when you ask about other people?” I said.

“Very cooperative,” Sergeant Perusich said.

“Well, define cooperative,” Lieutenant Macak said.

“You mean as far as them not letting us in the house?” Sergeant Perusich said.

“I mean,” I said, “how much information can you actually get out of the neighbors?”

“They aren’t going to just throw all the information out there until they feel comfortable,” Sergeant Perusich said. “If you bust in the house and knock everything over, they’re going to be afraid of you. It all depends on how you conduct yourself. If you talk to them normally, they’ll eventually open up.”

“They have to feel safe,” Lieutenant Macak said. “They don’t want to say something and get themselves hurt. Sometimes they’ll say yeah, go arrest that guy over there, he’s an insurgent and no one has said anything about it. But you have to develop a relationship.”

“What is it that you get out of building a relationship?” I said. “Is it that they trust that you won’t hurt them, or that they trust you’ll protect them from the insurgents?”

“Both,” Sergeant Perusich said. “We have to convince them that we’re here to protect them and their family. But we also have to convince them that we’re not just blowing smoke. They need to know we aren’t here to take anything, steal anything. We’re here to find out who the bad guys are so it’s safe here for us and their families.”

“I think a lot of it is that if they’re going to say something, they want you to do something about it,” Lieutenant Macak said. “If they don’t have the confidence that you’re going to act on something, they’re not going to put themselves at risk. Counterinsurgency is a broad term. If you go out there, get intelligence, and you don’t act on it, you are not going to earn the trust of the people. It works partly because of the efforts of the previous units here, but also because they lived under the murder and intimidation of Al Qaeda for so long.”

Sergeant Perusich had seen fighting in Karmah before, and also in southern Iraq. He fought Moqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia in Najaf and told me the exact same dynamic works there as well as it does in Anbar.


American troops are not only given medals and recognition for killing the enemy and saving each other’s lives. They are also given medals and recognition for saving Iraqi lives.

Just around the corner from IED Alley, at the main station in town, four Marines — including Sergeant Perusich — were given the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal for saving Iraqis who were wounded by an insurgent-laid IED on November 7, 2007.

The first man recognized was Hospitalman Joshua L. Flagg who works as a medic.

Hospitalman Flagg Karmah.jpg

Hospitalman Joshua L. Flagg and Captain Quintin Jones

“While conducting a security patrol in Al Anbar Province,” his senior officer said to all in attendance, “Hospitalman Flagg responded to an improvised explosive device strike that caused severe casualties. Upon arrival at the site, Hospitalman Flagg immediately set up a triage site and began prioritizing patients according to their injuries. He identified deteriorating conditions in two of the patients. Hospitalman Flagg was able to stabilize them both with intravenous fluids and pressure dressings in preparation for an air evacuation. Hospitalman Flagg’s ability to perform under pressure, confidence, and knowledge of medical procedures were the key factors in the stabilization of casualties and the saving of two Iraqi nationals’ lives.”

The lives of two others also were saved. Lance Corporal Joshua S. Varney, Sergeant Joseph M. Perusich, and Lance Corporal Jonathan L. Arden also were awarded and recognized.

Lance Corporal Varney Karmah.jpg

Lance Corporal Joshua S. Varney and Captain Quintin Jones

Sergeant Perusich Karmah.jpg

Sergeant Joseph M. Perusich and Captain Quintin Jones

Lance Corporal Arden Karmah.jpg

Lance Corporal Johnathan L. Arden and Captain Quintin Jones

“At ease,” Captain Quintin Jones said after each man was given his medal. “This is exactly the type of thing you need to be doing for our Iraqi brethren when they are in need. You couldn’t save four of them, but you did save four others.”

On the same day just a few blocks away, local Iraqi leaders held a ceremony where they officially re-opened the market on the main street. Until very recently, almost every business in Karmah was closed. For years they had no security, no economy, and no city utilities. All now are recovering.

Every Iraqi leader in the city showed up, as did hundreds of civilians, Iraqi Police officers, and Iraqi Army soldiers. The Marines were there, too, providing security. Americans did not, however, have anything to do with organizing or sponsoring the event. “We’re just here in the background,” Captain Jones told me.

They wouldn’t remain in the background, however, if they were attacked. The Marines were ordered to place themselves as up-armored human shields around Sheikh Mishan.

“If shots are fired,” an officer said to his men, “collapse around the sheikh.”

Because the ceremony was so close to the station, we walked. I walked with Captain Jones and spoke to him on the way. Lieutenant Macak, the captain’s executive officer (XO), joined us.

“We’re having a grand re-opening for Karmah,” Captain Jones said. “We’re trying to start the governance process and the economic process. A lot of this stuff has been closed for a year or two due to the insurgency coming back in. They kept targeting the Iraqi Police station and blowing it up. Every time they brought in a car bomb, things shut down. They used a lot of these buildings to shoot at the Iraqi Police station.”

War Damage Karmah.jpg

Rough Corner Karmah.jpg

“We brought relative security to the region,” he continued. “We’re trying to re-do these buildings here. A lot of these buildings were shot up. You can see some bullet holes in some of these doors. These buildings were all shot to hell.”

Just around the corner was the traffic circle.

“This is the entrance to the market?” I said.

“It is,” he said. “This is the gateway to Karmah.”

Lollipop Karmah 2.jpg

“As Captain Jones explained, we’re in the background,” Lieutenant Macak said. “We’ve been supporting them, but they have an Iraqi face on everything. They set the conditions and do the legwork. We allow them to take the credit for it, basically, which is a lot of what counterinsurgency is. We provide them the legs to let them stand up and do it themselves.”

The ceremony was held at the so-called “lollipop.”

“This was IED Alley, right here,” Lieutenant Macak said as we arrived. “But not any more because of the efforts of coalition forces, the Iraqi Police, the Provincial Security Forces, the Iraqi Civilian Watch, and the sheikhs. For two or three years now we’ve been saying them, hey, if you’re tired of Al Qaeda, stand up and get rid of them. And they’re actually doing that now. The Iraqi Police now call IED Alley their Victory Circle. It’s a physical representation of what they have accomplished.”

Hundreds of chairs were set up in front of a stage that had been erected on the circle itself. Local sheikhs, city officials, and business leaders sat beneath an awning in case of rain. They drank water poured into tall glasses from bottles. Regular citizens and mid-level leaders sat in plastic chairs exposed to the elements, but there was no rain.

Sheikhs Karmah 1.jpg

Crowd Lollipop Karmah.jpg

The community leaders dressed sharply, some in traditional Arab dress and others with Western coats and ties. Iraqi Police officers, Iraqi Army soldiers, and plainclothes Neighborhood Watch guys milled about. All carried AK-47s and pistols. Brand new Iraqi flags snapped in the wind.

Flag Minaret Karmah.jpg

A live band took the stage and belted out powerful Iraqi folk music indigenous to the province. A group of armed Iraqi men danced to the music in a circle. Some brandished rifles and knives. The passion and intensity of the music was startling.

Liberation of Karmah.jpg

Twenty or so minutes later, Sheikh Mishan stood at the podium and addressed the people of Karmah in poetic, perfectly pronounced, thunderous Arabic. His speech celebrating the end of the insurgency and the awakening of the city of Karmah would knock you back on your heels even if you could not understand one single word. The man was an obvious leader, and he packed a punch.

Sheikh Speech Karmah.jpg

Everyone listened intently. No one applauded. This was a serious affair, not a party. The Marines kept their heads on swivels. This would be the perfect time for any Al Qaeda remnants to execute a devastating act of mass casualty terrorism.

Sheikh Interview Zoomed Out.jpg

An Arabic-speaking journalist interviews Sheikh Mishan Abbas

Mayor Abu Abdullah took the podium as Sheikh Mishan stood down.

“Everything I do, I do with him,” Captain Jones whispered to me.

Captain Jones and Mayor Karmah.jpg

Captin Quintin Jones and Mayor Abu Abdullah

After the ceremony I joined Navy Rear Admiral Patrick Driscoll and Navy Lieutenant Commander Charles E. Summers on a tour of the market.

“Sorry about the dog and pony show,” Lieutenant Macak said to me quietly. “Later we’ll get you out on the streets for real.”

The tour of the market did feel a bit like a dog and pony show, but the re-opened business district is real. Karmah isn’t a fake potemkin city erected by the Marines to impress visitors. Iraqi shopkeepers and their customers aren’t actors hired by the CIA.

Stores Karmah.jpg

I was a little bit bored. I’ve walked so many re-opened business districts in Iraq that I won’t be impressed again until I see a Starbucks, night clubs, or bohemian hangouts. Beirut is full of such places, but Iraq isn’t Lebanon. Admiral Driscoll and Commander Summers, though, were thunderstruck by the ordinariness of it all. They had never seen anything like it in this country. Admiral Driscoll works at Stratcom. Both he and Commander Summers are based in the Green Zone bubble in Baghdad, which is technically Iraq but so unlike everywhere else that seeing it hardly counts. Everyone who is marooned there knows that, or at least should.

Driscoll and Jones Karmah.jpg

Read Admiral Patrick Driscoll (left) and Captain Quintin Jones (right)

“Can you believe this place?” Admiral Driscoll said to me. He sounded like a bit like a kid on Christmas morning. I felt weirdly like a jaded old man who had seen it all even though he is older and more accomplished. I understood then what some American soldiers and Marines mean when they say the top brass lives and works at “echelons above reality.” I’m not blaming the admiral. His job requires him to be isolated from nuts, bolts, and the street most of the time.

The market looked ordinary enough to me, but the top officers weren’t alone in their amazement. I had to remind myself of the ceremony I had just seen. The market was just now re-opening. The opening ceremony had concluded less than an hour before. Karmah recovered later than other cities in this part of Iraq, after all. When I covered the awakening in Ramadi last summer, Karmah was still a hell of insurgent warfare, though I did not know it.

The locals were ecstatic. Dozens of cars and minivans packed with young Iraqi men brandishing rifles and flags roared down the street. They honked horns, cheered as though they had just won a soccer game, and waved in thanks to the Marines and Iraqi Police. Others paraded on foot.

Truck Men Guns Karmah.jpg

Men Parading with Flag Karmah.jpg

The market area improved as we kept walking. The lower portion of the street was made up of simple places like generator repair workshops, butcher shops, and simple vegetable stands. The upper half of the neighborhood was a bit more upscale. A larger number of buildings had been refurbished. Clothing, cell phones, big screen TVs, and refrigerators all were for sale. This portion of the market was actually bustling for Iraq.

Crowded Market Karmah.jpg

Vegetable Stand Karmah.jpg

Pickles for Sale Karmah.jpg

Children ran up to me and the Marines, as they always do.

Two Boys Karmah.jpg

Kid Flag Angle Karmah.jpg

Shaking Hands w Marine Karmah.jpg

“This is a real education,” Commander Summers said. “There are no kids in the Green Zone.”

“We couldn’t have done this a few months ago,” one Marine said to Commander Summers.

Admiral and Kid Karmah.jpg

Lieutenant Commander Charles E. Summers poses with an Iraqi boy who borrowed his helmet

The Middle East beyond Israel strikingly lacks anything resembling political correctness. I hear much more severe denunciations of radical Islam there than I do in the U.S., and I don’t mean from Americans. I hear it from Arabs, and from Persians and Kurds. I hear it in Lebanon all the time, and in Iraq too.

Sabah Danou walked with Commander Summers and Admiral Driscoll. He’s an Iraqi who works for the multinational forces as a cultural and political advisor in Baghdad. “Look,” he said to me and gestured toward a local man with a long beard and a short dishdasha that left his ankles exposed. “He’s a Wahhabi,” Danou hissed. “He is linked to Al Qaeda. That’s their uniform, you know, that beard and that high-cut dishdasha. God, what pieces of shit those fuckers are.”

I never hear soldiers and Marines talk about Iraqis like that, but no one objected to what Sabah Danou said.

To be continued…

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Who Else is Afraid of Kosovo?

China fears Kosovo because the rulers in Beijing fear Tibet may become “the Kosovo of Central Asia”:http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/editorials/archives/2008/03/23/2003406775. This isn’t a bug, it’s a feature.

The Israel of the Balkans

“All we want is to reduce the Albanian population to a manageable level.” — Zoran Andjelkovic, former Serbian governor of Kosovo

Genocide is the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” — United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide

The State of Israel is divided on the Kosovo question: should the world’s newest country be recognized? Some, “like former Minister for Strategic Affairs Avigdor Lieberman”:http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/125290, worry that Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia might encourage Palestinians to make the same move. The small Balkan state, however, may have more in common with Israel than with the West Bank and Gaza.

Israelis, as Amir Mizroch “notes”:’t+recognize+kosovo+for+now%22&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=1&gl=us&client=firefox-a in the Jerusalem Post, have excellent relations with the Kosovars. “Israel has an interest in helping to establish a moderate, secular Muslim state friendly to Jerusalem and Washington in the heart of southeast Europe,” he writes. Indeed, Kosovo is neither an enemy state nor a jihad state. Its brand of Islam is heavily Sufi, which is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the Wahhabism and Salafism that inspire Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

Kosovo doesn’t belong to the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah-Hamas axis. On the contrary, Kosovo has thrown in its lot with the West, and especially with the United States. Serbia’s breakaway province is perhaps the most pro-American country in all of Europe. Bill Clinton is lionized there as a liberator — a main boulevard through the capital Prishtina is named after him — just as George H. W. Bush and his son George W. Bush are hailed as saviors in Iraqi Kurdistan. It should be no surprise then that Mizroch quotes an Israeli official who says Israel most likely will recognize Kosovo if its “influential friends” in the U.S., the U.K., Germany, and France, decide to do so.

Concern that Kosovo’s independence might trigger a similar declaration from the West Bank to Spain’s Basque country to Chechnya and beyond is understandable but perhaps overwrought. Bosnia declared independence without unleashing a domino effect beyond Yugoslavia. So did Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, and Montenegro. Montenegro declared independence from Serbia less than two years ago. It’s doubtful the Palestinians even noticed. Hardly anyone else did. In any case, it had no effect on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The irrelevance of Kosovo to the Arab-Israeli conflict is underscored by the fact that not a single Arab country has recognized Kosovo. The only Muslim countries which so far have bothered are Turkey, Malaysia, Senegal, Albania, and Afghanistan. The governments of all these countries are, to one extent or another, either moderate, in the pro-Western camp, or both. All aside from Albania have sizeable ethnic minorities of their own. Turkey especially frets about its own separatists — the Kurds in the east — but still went ahead and recognized Kosovo almost instantly.

Many in Kosovo are well aware that they have more in common with Israel than with the West Bank and Gaza. “Kosovars used to identify with the Palestinians because we Albanians are Muslims and Christians and we saw Serbia and Israel both as usurpers of land,” a prominent Kosovar recently told journalist Stephen Schwartz. “Then we looked at a map and woke up. Israelis have a population of six million, their backs to the sea, and 300 million Arab enemies. Albanians have a total population of eight million, our backs to the sea, and 200 million Slav enemies. So why should we identify with the Arabs?”

“Read the rest in Commentary Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/viewarticle.cfm/The-Israel-of-the-Balkans-11266

What Iraqis Want You to Hear

Two days ago ABC News released “a new poll of Iraqi public opinion”:http://www.abcnews.go.com/images/PollingUnit/1060a1IraqWhereThingsStand.pdf, and John Burns at the New York Times made “a very perceptive observation”:http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/16/weekinreview/16jburns.html?_r=2&pagewanted=3&oref=slogin that should be taken into account when looking it over.

Opinion polls, including those commissioned by the American command, have long suggested that a majority of Iraqis would like American troops withdrawn, but another lesson to be drawn from Saddam Hussein’s years is that any attempt to measure opinion in Iraq is fatally skewed by intimidation. More often than not, people tell pollsters and reporters what they think is safe, not necessarily what they believe. My own experience, invariably, was that Iraqis I met who felt secure enough to speak with candor had an overwhelming desire to see American troops remain long enough to restore stability.

This feels right to me, not only thanks to my experience in Iraq, but also in places like totalitarian Libya where no one dared criticize the regime in public, and where everyone I spoke to did so in private where they were safe. Saddam Hussein commanded a murder and intimidation regime in Iraq, and today’s insurgents wage a murder and intimidation campaign in the streets. In Fallujah and Ramadi, Iraqi civilians were murdered just for waving hello to Americans, and for accepting bags of rice as charity. Fear should not be ignored when gauging Iraqi public opinion, and that includes fear of American guns as well as fear of insurgents.

I’ve been to Iraq five times, and never once have I heard an Iraqi say anything hostile about Americans. Partly this is because I don’t spend time in insurgent circles. How could I? The Iraqis I’ve met don’t represent the full spectrum. Middle Easterners are also famous for their politeness and, unlike some people from other parts of the world, they will not get in your face if they don’t like where you come from. (Al Qaeda members are an obvious and extreme exception, but they’re hated everywhere in Iraq and are violently atypical.)

“Read the rest in Commentary Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/2998

Iraq Opinion Lag Narrows

I’m working on a long two-part essay called The Liberation of Karmah for this site and a shorter piece for Commentary about Kosovo. I’m behind schedule, though, so I’ll leave you with some data to chew on for now.

Last summer when I returned from Baghdad and Ramadi I was disturbed to see that Iraqi public opinion had barely changed in the wake of the surge. There seemed to be a serious disconnect between the hard data and what I had seen with my eyes. I didn’t quite know what to make of it.

In hindsight it makes sense. American public opinion hadn’t budged on Iraq either last summer. Only now is it starting to shift. Iraqis are closer to Iraq than Americans (obviously), but it seems that opinions are slow to change with the facts even there.

A new poll released today shows that Iraqi public opinion — while not yet where we want it to be — now trends in the same direction as the surge. You can “read the whole thing”:http://www.abcnews.go.com/images/PollingUnit/1060a1IraqWhereThingsStand.pdf (warning: PDF), but here are some samples.

Iraq Poll 2008 1.JPG

Iraq Poll 2008 2.JPG

Iraq Poll 2008 3.JPG


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