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Back from Vegas, Off to Fallujah

I’m briefly home from the Blog World and New Media Expo in Las Vegas and will be leaving for Fallujah in less than 24 hours. Sorry I haven’t had much content here lately, but I’ve been busy and it has been difficult to find time to write. I should have a bit of downtime in Kuwait, though, before I go up into Iraq. I can write then.

The good news is that I won the 2007 Weblog Awards in the Best Middle East or Africa Blog category. Thanks so much to everyone who supported me. I had some tough competition, not only from my friends at Iraq the Model, but also from My Marrakesh, which took second place. That site is a delightful discovery if you haven’t yet seen it. The photos are luscious, and much better than mine.

Best New Blog — Contentions

Can I ask you all to vote one more time in the Wizbang 2007 Weblog Awards? Commentary Magazine’s group blog Contentions, which I contribute to, was nominated for Best New Blog.

If you haven’t bookmarked it yet, you might want to consider it. Lots of great material is published there every day.

You can read all my Contentions articles here.

You can read all my former co-blogger Noah Pollak’s Contentions material here.

And you can vote for Contentions as the Best New Blog here.

I’ll try to have something more substantial for you to read shortly.

Hold Music

Sorry for putting you all on “hold.” I’m packing for Fallujah and the Blog World Expo in Las Vegas at the same time. I hope at least to have another excerpt from House to House: An Epic Memoir of War by Staff Sergeant David Bellavia before I fly off to Kuwait. In the meantime, buy that book. It is extraordinary. And it will help put my own dispatches from Fallujah (whatever they happen to be about) into the proper context.

I will be speaking at the convention if you want to come by and listen or say hi. Matt Burden from Blackfive will be on the same panel with me.

TO BLOG OR NOT TO BLOG: MILBLOGGERS,THE DOD AND THE MEDIA, Moderator: Ward Carroll

Thursday, November 8 (2:45 — 3:45)

Wizbang Blog Awards for 2007

I have been nominated for the Best Middle East or Africa Blog award for 2007 at Wizbang. If you think mine is better than the other fine blogs in this category and decide to go on over there and vote for me, I promise not to get mad.

What the Army Wants You to See

Here’s another piece of mine over at Commentary:

Some colleagues, readers, and friends have suggested the dispatches I published from Iraq as an embedded reporter might not be reliable, even if true, because I only saw what the United States Army wanted me to see. CBS news anchor Katie Couric said as much about her own coverage when she first arrived in Baghdad in September.

I’ve had the same thoughts myself, and I quietly wondered if I should disclose them. I chose not to, though, because my experience, as it turned out, didn’t actually warrant it.

The Army hooked me up with the 82nd Airborne Division in the Graya’at district of Baghdad in July. There hadn’t been any violence there since early in 2007. The soldiers hadn’t suffered a single casualty—not even one soldier wounded. How convenient, I thought, that the Army sent me to such a place. I appreciated not being thrown into a meat grinder and shot or blown up, but Graya’at did strike me as a dog-and-pony-show sort of location. Maybe it was. It could certainly function as one, if that’s what the Army intended.

Read the rest at Commentary.

“A Sophisticated Deathtrap”

House to House: An Epic Memoir of War by Staff Sergeant David Bellavia is the most compulsively readable book yet published about the Battle of Fallujah.

I’m leaving for Fallujah myself in two weeks and will continue book-blogging this as a sort of prologue to my own dispatches to come. My work will need contrast. I don’t expect to be embroiled in fire fights every day, and it would be absurd to read my stories — whatever they turn out to be — as a complete picture of the American experience there.

This is the city where the anti-American Sunni insurgency was born. Its support ran the gamut from secular Baathists to radical Islamists and included disgruntled average Iraqis in between. The Marines mostly cleared Fallujah of insurgents in April, 2004, after a lynch mob strung up the mutilated bodies of Blackwater contracters from a bridge. But U.S. forces later withdrew, and Fallujah was taken over by the insurgents again. General Petraeus’s surge strategy of Clear, Hold, and Build wasn’t in place yet.

Fallujah degenerated into a totalitarian hole ruled by fanatics, and the Army and Marines had to go in and clear it again in November of the same year. The city had been emptied of civilians and was effectively a ghost town occupied by jihadists from all over the place.

Sometimes I worry that Iraq will turn into a California-sized Gaza, but the truth is that some parts have been in worse shape already.

House to House: An Epic Memoir of War

Click the image to order from Amazon.com

Here is Bellavia describing the city as he and his fellow “front-line bullet chewers,” as he called them, are preparing to strike:

Fallujah is a city designed for siege warfare. From the studs to the minarets, every goddamned building is a fortress. The houses are minibunkers with ramparts and firing slits cut into every rooftop. The mosques are latter-day Persian castles with concrete walls three feet thick. Within those walls, the courtyards offer perfect ambush points from every window. Even the shops and the local markets are fortified. Block after block, Fallujah is a sophisticated deathtrap.

Architecture aside, the insurgents have had months to prepare for this battle. They’ve dug fighting positions, mined the streets, booby-trapped the houses, built bunkers, and cleared fields of fire. Every road into the city is strong-pointed, mined, and blocked with captured Texas barriers. Fallujah is shaping up to be the Verdun of the War on Terror. We face a battle of attrition fought within a maze of interlocking fortresses. Attrition is such a sterile word. We’ll be trading our lives for theirs.

[Captain Sean] Sims makes it clear that our initial objectives will be heavily defended. The insurgents have deployed foreign fighters on the city’s approaches. They form the outer crust of their defense-in-depth, so we will face them first. Intelligence reports tell us we’ll face Syrians, Iranians, Saudis, Filipinos, even Italians and Chechnyans. They’re well trained, ideologically motivated, and armed with ample ammunition and equipment. They’ve trained for years to kill us infidels. Some have cut their teeth in Chechnya, Afghanistan, and Somalia. They are veterans just like us — a regular Islamist all-star team.

Bellavia’s memoir reads like a zombie war novel at times:

The bad news continues as Captain Sims closes the laptop and turns to us. “We expect the insurgents have stockpiled drugs. We’ll be facing fighters hopped up on dope again.”

I look over at [Staff Sergeant Colin] Fitts, and I know what he’s thinking. If this is true, these guys are going to be hard to kill. In Muqdadiyah, my squad watched a drug-crazed Mahdi militiaman charge Cory Brown’s Bradley. The gunner blasted him with coax machine-gun fire, shredding his legs. He tumbled off the Bradley and flopped face up onto the street. As we approached him, he started to laugh. The laughter grew into a hysteria-tinged cackle, then ended with a bone-chilling keen. That froze us cold. Watching us with wild eyes, he then pulled a bottle of pills out of a blood-soaked pocket and drained its contents into his mouth. Then he went for something under his jacket. Thinking he was about to detonate a bomb vest, three of us opened fire and riddled him with bullets. We shot and shot until he finally stopped moving.

Leaving my men behind, I went to investigate the corpse. His right arm was torn off. His legs were nothing but punctured meat. Most of his face was gone, and only a bloody lump remained of his nose. Both eyes had been shot out. I put a boot on his chest. The Mahdi militiaman didn’t move. I kicked him. No movement. Given how many times he had been shot, I didn’t expect anything else, but just to be sure, I shot him twice in the stomach. Then I marked him with a chem light so the body disposal teams could find him later that night.

A few minutes later, a Blackhawk landed and we started loading wounded insurgents into it. While we worked, two men carried the shattered husk of that Mahdi militiaman to the helicopter. To our astonishment, he was still alive. Blood bubbles burbled up through his mangled nose and mouth. Blind, in agony, he still managed to scream through broken teeth and punctured lungs. We loaded him on the helicopter and never saw him again.

We later discovered the Mahdi militia had gained access to American epinephrine — pure adrenaline that will keep a heart pumping even after its owner has been exposed to nerve gas or chemical weapons. A dude with that in his system is almost superhuman. Short of being blown to pieces with our biggest guns, he’ll keep fighting until his limbs are severed or he bleeds out.

Most of the military operations in Iraq are more like peace-keeping missions than war-fighting. Counter-insurgency doesn’t usually come with the bang-bang we’re used to from war movies.

Counter-insurgency, though, seems inadequate as a description of the Battle of Fallujah. This was full-throttled war:

Using our Brads as cover, we watch as our gunners prep our first objective area. Tracers streak from their barrels and disappear into the buildings ahead of us. I flip my night-vision goggles down over my left eye and study the buildings. Nothing looks familiar. In fact, the entire area bears no resemblance to the dismount point we’ve studied for the past several days. We’ve practically memorized our aerial recon photos, satellite imagery, and road maps. We know every building we need to assault, every corner we need to cover down on, and every street we must lay eyes on in our assigned area.

Yet none of this looks familiar. The pre-assault bombardment has turned this part of the city into a holocaust of twisted wreckage, mangled buildings, and broken vehicles. Houses have been cleaved in two, as if some sadistic giant has performed architectural vivisection on the entire neighborhood. Floors and rooms have been laid bare, exposed to the ravages of the night’s shelling. Furniture is thrown haphazardly about. Smashed desks, burned-out sofas, faceless TVs lay in heaps within these demolished homes.

The insurgents may have been hopped up on epinephrine and hard to kill, but that didn’t make them good fighters. The Middle East produces extremists in abundance, but it won’t be known for the competence of its warriors any time soon.

Staff Sergeant Jim’s voice comes over the radio, “I got a white van inbound!”

We’re under orders to destroy every vehicle we encounter. Even if it is tucked away in a garage, we’re supposed to treat it as a VBIED — Vehicle Born IED. A van moving through the carnage and destruction to get at us is clearly a threat.

Jim’s gunner, Sergeant Denny Taijeron, is [First Lieutenant Joaquin] Meno’s cousin from Guam. They went to high school together and later attended Guam Community College, where they evidently both majored in wanton urban destruction. They joined the Army at the same time and came to Germany together. Taijeron doesn’t hesitate a bit. The 120mm gun fires, bathing the street in a hellish light. The shell blows the van apart. Pieces spin off into the darkness. When the smoke clears, not even a tire remains.

A second later, an AK-47 barks and an insurgent heaves into view.

Over the radio, we hear Jim say, “Check this guy out.”

The lone gunman stitches the tank with his bullets. He might as well have been an ant throwing grass seeds at a lawn mower.

“Are you fucking serious? Look at this fool.”

Another tanker’s voice replies, “Awww man, that guy is cute.”

Jim’s turret turns, the gun’s elevation changes. Suddenly, the entire street lights up again. The insurgent is vaporized.”

The insurgents are incompetent, to say the least, when they pick up a rifle. They almost always miss, as if they’re unrealistic Rambo movie villains whose only role is to be shot. Some of their tactics, though, are downright terrifying.

Sergeant Knapp is ordered to take a house because the platoon needs a better view of the municipal building.

Knapp now launches himself fully into the middle of the street. The man is all steel and guts. During a firefight in Muqdadiyah last August, he stoop atop a building and poured hot slugs into a group of about twenty insurgents. Bullets and RPGs flew all around, but he never even flinched. He stood and took it, and dealt out much worse.

He reaches the far side of the street. As he does, I urge the next group forward. Slapping helmets, I hiss, “Go! Go! Go!”

Fitt’s squad follows us out of the courtyard. We dash across the street and into the compound of our target house. As I get close, I see Knapp frozen in the doorway.

What the fuck, Knapp? Get inside the fucking house!

The rest of the squad stacks up behind him, and though I try to stop, I careen into the men. We’ve got one big gaggle fuck right in the front courtyard, and we’re vulnerable as hell.

“Get the fuck in!” I order.

Knapp immediately counters with, “No! Get the fuck out! Get out now!”

“Whaddaya got?” I demand, still trying to get untangled from the rest of the squad now backing off from the entrance.

He swings around and grabs my body armor. As the rest of the men back up indecisively, he drags me into the doorway.

“Knapp, what the fuck…”

“LOOK!” he roars.

The first thing I notice are the wires. Wires are common all over the ruins we’ve traversed so far, but they are always dirty, torn, and dull in color. The wires I see inside this house are crisp and clean and bundled neatly with zip ties.

That is not good.

“GO! GO! GO! Get the fuck outta here,” I scream to my squad.

A cluster of wires funnel through one wall, then fan out all over the inside of one room just inside the door like green and orange ivy vines. I follow a few with my eyes and see they end in undersized bricks. This puzzles me for a split second, then I realize the bricks are chunks of C-4 plastic explosive.

Another group of wires runs to a pair of go-cart sized propane tanks stacked along the nearest wall. More explosives are scattered around them.

But the piece de resistance, the stroke of insurgent genius here, is the centerline aerial drop tank sitting in the middle of the room. Designed to give MiG fighter jets extended range, it’s a fuel tank that looks like a misshapen teardrop. The insurgents have slipped garbage bags onto its tail fins. The nose has been removed. The wires disappear inside from there. Using jet fuel as a bomb is what caused the fireballs at the World Trade Center on 9/11. This tank makes one hell of a weapon.

We could lose the entire squad — we could lose most of the platoon — right here, right now.

I turn to Knapp, “Get back to the other house, now!”

He grabs the other men and everyone careens back across the street. I’m left alone in the driveway, staring at this enormous booby trap. I’m horrified by the thought of what almost happened to my platoon.

Fitts jogs to me, “What’s going on?”

I’m so stunned, I can only point.

He peers inside the house and flips out. “What the fuck is this? Holy shit!”

“This is a BCIED, man.” Building-contained IED. “Fucking…building bomb.” I can’t even talk in complete sentences.

You can buy the book from Amazon.com if you want to read the whole thing.

An Act of Kindness from Iraq

I have a new post up at the Commentary magazine blog:

Iraqi Army officers in Besmaya raised a thousand dollars in donations for fire victims in San Diego, California, and the only place that seems to have reported the story is the military blog OPFOR. Author Richard S. Lowry learned about it in a press release from the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq Public Affairs, so it’s unlikely he’s the only one in the media who knows something about it.

Sending a thousand dollars to California will be about as helpful as throwing a glass of water into the firestorm. It’s the thought that counts here. And what surprising thought it is. How many Americans expect charity from Iraq?

As Lowry points out, “most Americans do not consider Iraqis as people.” He’s right. Most of us only know them from sensational media reports about masked insurgents, wailing widows, and death squads. Most of us may instinctively understand that the majority of Iraqis are just regular people, but it’s hard to keep that in mind when the only thing we get Stateside is war coverage. I’ve met hundreds of Iraqis myself during trips to their country as a reporter, so it’s a bit easier for me to see them as just people. I’m still surprised that anyone in that broken impoverished land would even consider donating hard-earned money to Californians.

Read the rest at Commentary.

UPDATE: CNN now has the story on their Web site. Good for them.

This link will take you to all the articles I have written for Commentary. You can bookmark that page if you want to as sort of a supplement to this one.

Remember Noah Pollak? I worked with him in Northern Israel and Southern Lebanon, and he was briefly my co-blogger here. He also has been picked up as a writer by Commentary, and you can read all of his articles here.

Blog World Expo in Las Vegas — UPDATED

I was invited to speak at the Blog World Expo in Las Vegas next month, but I expected to be in Afghanistan, so I declined. As it turns out, though, I will just barely have time to attend (not as a speaker) before I leave for Fallujah.

Who else is going to be there? Leave a comment or shoot me an email.

UPDATE: I’ll be there as a speaker after all. I’m being added to one of the panels.

TO BLOG OR NOT TO BLOG: MILBLOGGERS,THE DOD AND THE MEDIA, Moderator: Ward Carroll

Thursday, November 8 (2:45 — 3:45)

House to House: An Epic Memoir of War

I’m leaving for Fallujah in early November, and part of my preparation involves reading every book I can get my hands on about what has happened in that city so far. The most compulsively readable of the lot is House to House: An Epic Memoir of War by Staff Sergeant David Bellavia.

House to House: An Epic Memoir of War

Click the image to order from Amazon.com

Bellavia spent the first part of his Iraq tour in Diyala Province, which is still a convulsive and dangerous place even now. The notorious city of Baqubah is its capital. It is the second city in Iraq, after Ramadi, that Al Qaeda tried to establish as the capital of its so-called “Islamic State in Iraq.”

The author opens his book with brief descriptions of the fighting in Diyala so we can appreciate, if that is the word, how bad the battle of Fallujah was by comparison when he and his fellow American soldiers and Marines took the city back from insurgents in November 2004.

We’ve all heard and read about how terrorists and insurgents hide behind civilians and use human shields, but it’s hard to grasp what that really means without at least a little dramatization. Here is Bellavia describing one of these incidents in the town of Muqdadiyah, Diyala:

The angst-filled scenes on the street cannot compare to what we find inside these battle-scarred houses. Yesterday, my squad kicked in one door and stumbled right into a woman wearing a blood-soaked apron. She was sitting on the floor, howling with grief. She looked to be in her mid-forties and had Shia tattoos on her face. When she saw us, she stood and grasped Specialist Piotr Sucholas by the shoulders and gave him a kiss on the cheek. Then she turned and laid her head on Sergeant Hall’s chest, as if to touch his heart.

I stepped forward and said in broken Arabic “La tah khaf madrua? Am ree kee tabeeb. Weina mujahadeen kelp?” Do not be afraid. Injured? American doctor. Where are the mujahadeen dogs?

She bent and kissed my wedding ring. “Baby madrua. Baby madrua.” The despair in her voice was washed away by the sound of a little girl’s laughter. When the giggling child came in from the kitchen and clutched her mother’s leg, we immediately realized she had Down’s Syndrome. I was struck by the beauty of this child. Specialist Pedro Contreras, whose heart was always the biggest in our platoon, knelt by her side and gave her a butterscotch candy. Contreras loved Iraqi kids. He had a six-year old nephew back home, and seeing these little ones made him ache for the boy.

We didn’t see the injured baby at first — we still had a job to do. I moved upstairs, searching for an insurgent who had been shooting at our Bradleys. Halfway up, I discovered a smear of blood on the steps. Then I found a tuft of human hair. Another step up, I saw a tiny leg.

Baby madrua.

Ah, fuck. Fuck.

The child was dead. She was torn apart at the top of the stairs. Specialist Michael Gross had followed me partway up the stairs. I turned to him and screamed, “Get back down! I said get the fuck back down!” Gross stopped suddenly, then eased off the stairs, a wounded look on his face. I was overly harsh, but I didn’t want him to see what was left of this dead child…

I’ll never forget that house. The woman kissed each of us good-bye. As she touched her lips to my cheek, I pointed to my wedding ring and asked her where her husband was.

“Weina zoah jik? Shoof nee, shoof nee.” Where is your husband? Show me, show me.

She spat on the floor and cried, “Kelp.” Dog. I guessed he was the corpse on the roof. I touched my heart and tried to convey my feelings, but the language barrier was too great.

A few minutes later, Bellavia’s unit joins another that has made contact with the Mahdi Army.

Newell’s two-rig convoy takes fire from both sides of the highway. The volume swells as more rockets streak across the road. Suddenly, a small boy of perhaps five or six steps out into the street. Standing next to Newell’s Humvee, the kid holds up first two fingers, then five fingers.

Sergeant Grady swings his machine gun around. It is obvious that the boy is signaling to the Mahdi militiamen how many American vehicles are present.

As Grady racks the bolt on his machine gun, Newell realizes what his gunner had in mind. “Don’t shoot the child,” he orders.

“Sir, the kid is giving our position away,” says Grady, his voice nearly drowned out by the swelling volume of incoming fire.

“Don’t shoot the child,” Newell reiterates, his voice stern. Grady gets the message. Our colonel possess a black-and-white sense of morality. The kid, no matter what he’s doing, will not be targeted. At times, our battalion commander’s adherence to such niceties frustrates us, but I know in time we will thank him. Nobody wants a child on his conscience.

Diyala was a bad scene in 2004, as it is now. What Bellavia and his men experienced in Fallujah was more deadly and terrifying by at least an order of magnitude. But he warms us up with tales of violence and woe that are more typical of the restless parts of Iraq, and typical of urban warfare anywhere in the 21st century where moral Western armies fight asymmetric wars against less scrupulous and poorly trained armed combatants.

Perhaps I shouldn’t say Diyala is typical. It was one of the worst parts of the country then, as it is now. Almost everywhere is less violent than Diyala, but Diyala was easy compared with Fallujah.

Iraq is a strange country. Everywhere I’ve been — including Baghdad — is less dangerous than it appears from far away. It isn’t safe by any means. You do not want to go there on holiday. But I’ve seen far worse in Israel, which was packed with tourists even during last summer’s war. I did hear one car bomb in Baghdad in July from three miles away. It was incredibly loud, especially considering how far away it was. But that’s it for me, at least so far.

The flip side of all this is that some of the fighting in Iraq is worse than most people realize. Fallujah in November 2004 just might have been the most nightmarish place in the world. The city was emptied of civilians. American soldiers and Marines fought it out house-to-house and sometimes hand-to-hand with insurgents from Iraq and from all over the Middle East in the eerily emptied ghost town where a quarter million people once lived. Insurgents injected themselves with massive adrenaline shots that made them almost as hard to kill as zombies. The whole city was one giant booby trap. Entire buildings were packed with explosives. Several were often detonated at once.

But first, the easier fight in Diyala, for contrast:

In Diyala, on April 9, 2004, we’re in full battle rattle. The high-intensity urban fighting we’ve practiced since basic training is now finally allowed to be unleashed upon our enemy. There is no weak-stomached four-star general to hold back on our reins. We are again the First Infantry Division of Vietnam and the beaches of Normandy. We pour through compound gates, rifles shouldered, targets falling as we trigger our weapons. Mahdi militiamen sprint from corner to corner, but we are quick and accurate with our aim. We knock them right out of their shoes. Our Brads are rolling, unleashing volley after volley from their Bushmasters into nearby buildings. Yet the militiamen refuse to give up the fight. Tracers from unseen enemy positions spiderweb overhead. They make us earn every house and every inch.

This is our war: we can’t shoot at every target, we can’t always tell who is a target; but we look out for one another and we don’t mind doing the nation’s dirty work. Air Force pilots and Army majors expert in Microsoft PowerPoint have a perfectly clean view of it. We don’t get support if it makes a mess.

Bring it.

We’re the infantry.

War’s a bitch, wear a helmet.

Coming soon: Excerpts from House to House and the terrifying battle of Fallujah. You can buy the book from Amazon.com if you want to read the whole thing.

Israeli Reporters Lap Up Syrian Propaganda

Now that I’m briefly out of fresh material from Iraq (until I go back) I have a bit of time to return to one of my old beats. I start with the strange story of Israeli journalists repeating Syrian lies as possible fact in such reputable newspapers as Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post. Read Syria’s Useful Israeli Idiots over at the Commentary magazine Web site.

I’ll publish more on this blog shortly.

The Case for Kurdistan

Azure magazine just published a long essay I wrote in early summer where I make the case for an independent American-backed Kurdistan in Northern Iraq on moral and strategic grounds. At the time I was slightly more pessimistic about the prospects for Iraq as a whole than I am now, but I still think something like this may be a viable Plan B if the surge fails or if the American public tires of fighting in Iraq before the country is stable.

Here is a brief excerpt from the second half of the essay:

The United States will possibly withdraw from Iraq before the fighting is finished. American public opinion may well demand it. But if that should happen, the war will simply rage on without the Americans, and the Iraqi government might not survive the post-withdrawal scramble for power from insurgents, militias, terrorists, and their foreign patrons. And if the government falls, there probably won’t be another.

Iraq may end up resembling other regional weak-state anarchies, such as Somalia, which exist solely as geographic abstractions. Or it could go the way of Lebanon in the 1980s and divide into ethnic and sectarian cantons. Perhaps it will be invaded and picked apart by Turkey, Syria, and Iran, all of which have vital interests in who rules it and how. Iraq could even turn into a California-size Gaza, ruled by militants who wear black masks instead of neckties or keffiyehs.

But one certainty, at least, is that if Kurdistan declares independence and is not protected, one of two possible wars is likely to begin immediately. The first will involve Turkey; after all, few things are more undesirable to Ankara than Turkish Kurdistan violently attaching itself to Iraqi Kurdistan. The second will be about borders: Iraqi Kurdistan’s southern borders are not yet demarcated. If Turkey doesn’t invade, the Kurds will want to attach the Kurdish portions of Kirkuk Province, and possibly also Nineveh Province, to their new state.

Even if Kurdistan doesn’t declare independence, there may still be more war on the way. “We believe if the Americans withdraw from this country there will be many more problems,” Colonel Mudhafer said. “The Sunni and Shia want total control of Iraq. We are going to get involved in that. Iran is going to be involved in that. Turkey is going to be involved in that. Syria is going to be involved in that. The Sunni and Shia fighting in Baghdad will pull us in. We are going to be involved. Turkey and Iran will make problems for us. It is not going to be safe. All the American martyrs will have died for nothing, and there will be more problems in the future. Americans should build big bases here.” For obvious reasons, the idea of the American military garrisoning its forces in Kurdistan is wildly popular among the Kurds.

Read the whole thing in Azure magazine.

MJT: The Jezebel Interview

Strangest interview I’ve ever done, over at the online women’s magazine Jezebel.

janesiran092707.jpg

Welcome back to “That’s So Jane’s”, a really bad pun we use both as an homage to Jane/Jane’s Defence Weekly magazines and as an excuse to blog about something other than celebrities and drinking and fucking and all our stupid little affluent society problems. There’s a whole Third World out there! And really, don’t take a hot dictator’s word for it: They’re trying to blow us up. In this edition Anonymous Lobbyist talks to Michael Totten, an independent journalist and foreign-affairs expert whose idea of a great vacation spot is Libya. (Though the wife is nagging him to indulge her this year and go to North Korea.) In other words, he’s crazy! This week the two take on A-jad’s hotness versus Blackwater mercenaries’ hotness, Afghanistan’s drug scene, and just when the fuck we’re going to be getting some OIL out of this grand Ponzi scheme to liberate Iraq.

Q: So, first things first: Is there drinking in Iran? Or do they just skip right over that part of the Winehouse catalog and go straight for the H?

A: Oh, they totally drink in Iran. Christopher Hitchens was there a few years ago and he wrote about in it Vanity Fair. He was like, everyone except some dorky mullah gave me a glass or a shot when I went to their house. Porn and heroin are the big new things, though, you’re right. It’s better than Seattle.

Q: Since lots of people in the Western world are calling abstinence the new promiscuity, does that make the hijab the new miniskirt? In all the pictures we see on the TV of Iran, it seems to be pretty popular with the women there.

A: The hijab is the new bikini, actually. Burkhas are the new miniskirts. But women who show too much ankle in Iran get arrested and have their feet plunged into buckets of cockroaches, like on Fear Factor or something. It’s totally gross over there.

Q: Okay, so let’s cut to the chase: Ahmadinejad: hot dictator? Or hottest dictator?

A: Dude needs a shave and a haircut. And a few more inches, if you know what I mean. (He’s short.) And he’s not really a dictator. Ayatollah Khamenei is the real dictator and he’s, like, old. He’s even older than Bob Dole. None of those guys are hot. All the hot ones get strung up and tortured, especially the women who don’t like the new miniskirts. Actually, Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards don’t have as much power and influence as they used to. There’s this unspoken agreement between the people and the government: you pretend to arrest us, as we’ll pretend to behave. Again, it’s like Seattle, only with occasional public hangings.

Read the whole thing.

For entertainment purposes only.

“Al Qaeda Lost”

RAMADI, IRAQ — I met and interviewed dozens of Army officers in Baghdad and Ramadi, but none who were as admired and respected by the men who serve under them as much as 3rd Infantry Division Lieutenant Colonel Mike Silverman from Midway, Georgia. Junior officers and enlisted men nicknamed him “the forty pound brainer,” and admire him for his guts as well as his head. “He went out and spent 12 hours a day in his hot tank,” during the battle of Ramadi one soldier said. “He risked getting blown up just like everyone else.” “I had served with him before,” said another. “When he told me he needed me in Ramadi, that was all I needed to hear. I mean, I didn’t have any choice because the Army gave me my orders, but that didn’t matter once I knew Colonel Silverman was out here.” “I’d do anything for that man,” said a third, “and I don’t like officers.”

Colonel Mike Silverman.jpg

Lieutenant Colonel Mike Silverman

I had dinner with him at the dining facility and interviewed him afterwards in his office at the Blue Diamond base in northern Ramadi.

“How long have you been in Ramadi?” I said.

“Since the last week of January, 2007,” he said. “When I first got here my area of operations was the southern half of downtown. It was ugly then, especially for the civilians. We found more than 50 dead in just one grave in the desert. 50,000 — 70,000 people have returned so far since the war ended in April.”

“Describe the progress you’ve seen so far,” I said.

“Sure,” he said, “let’s look at the Abu Bali area for example. 6,000 or so people live there. When I first arrived there were 10 attacks every day just in that small area alone. Since May 1, 2007, we’ve had only one attack total in that area. The people went from having two to three hours of electricity a day to having twelve hours a day. Insurgents kept blowing up the power lines, but now that they’ve been cleared out the government has put them back up. Commerce has really taken off.”

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

“On the second or third day the PSF [Provincial Security Forces] took over a checkpoint on a highway.”

The Provincial Security Forces are a “national guard” of sorts controlled by the tribal authorities in addition to the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police in the area. They resemble a militia in some ways, but they’re a legal branch of the Iraqi security forces, authorized and paid by the Ministry of Interior in Baghdad.

“An ice truck dropped off its ice at a checkpoint,” he continued. “The truck behind it in line exploded. Everybody was killed. For a five or six hour period we weren’t sure the PSF would go back to work. But eight hours later they were back in business. They are 100 percent committed to anti-terrorism and anti-sectarianism.”

“What’s the worst thing you’ve seen here?” I said.

He wasn’t sure what to say and had to think about his answer for a few moments.

“The worst thing I’ve seen, I think, is the aftermath of a VBIED,” he said.

A VBIED is a vehicle-born improvised explosive device. In other words, a car bomb.

“I’ve seen that about ten times,” he continued. “Some people are turned, literally, into red blotches. Some are just vaporized. Their families will never see them again, not even their bodies. And the smell…there’s this awful car bomb smell, the acrid stench of homemade explosives and diesel fuel. Nothing else in the world has that smell. Most of the VBIEDs were intended for civilians, but the Iraqi Police usually stopped them first at the checkpoints. So they were the ones who usually got blown up. The driver of the VBIED would panic because he was caught and then kill everyone at the checkpoint. Nevertheless, the Iraqi Police kept bravely manning the checkpoints and replacing the police who were murdered. I’m telling you, they aren’t doing that for the 310 dollars a month.”

“What were the battles in the city like?” I said.

“It would only be a mild exaggeration,” he said, “if I compared it to the battle of Stalingrad. We engaged in kinetic firefights that lasted for hours. Every single day they attacked us with AK-47s, sniper rifles, RPGs, IEDs, and car bombs.”

“How many fighters were there?” I said.

“Around 150 hard core fighters,” he said.

What?” I said. “Only 150?”

How could 150 fighters possibly transform a city of 450,000 people into a second Stalingrad?

“I expected you to say there were thousands,” I added.

“It felt like thousands,” he said. “Anyway, I’m only talking about the number of hard core fighters. The 150 doesn’t include the larger number of people planting IEDs. The population couldn’t do anything about these people. They were terribly intimidated. If Americans even handed someone a bag of sugar, his entire family would be killed. There are graves all over Abu Bali. People were taken there, decapitated, and shot in the head.”

He doesn’t really know how many hard-core fighters there were in the city. No one does. I asked Colonel John Charlton the same question — how many were there? — and his answer was very different even as his description of the fighting was identical.

“It looked like Stalingrad a few months ago,” he said. “There were around 750 fighters in the city proper. It could be less. I don’t know, it’s really hard to say. You have to understand, they worked in five- to ten-man cells. And it only takes one guy to fire an RPG or a sniper rifle. They used mosques, schools, and safe houses. We found an auto shop that had been converted into a car bomb factory. Because they had such small cells it was very difficult to go in there and clear them out.”

“Do you think your friendship with the locals is genuine?” I asked Lieutenant Colonel Silverman. Ramadi is in the heart of Iraq’s Sunni Triangle, the most anti-American region in all of Iraq. I had seen what appeared to be genuine friendship and warmth from the Iraqis I’d met, but it was impossible to tell from anecdotal experience if that sentiment was typical in Anbar Province or even real.

“I do,” he said. “Don’t just assume Iraqis are faking their friendship. The first time I was here in 2003 I made friends with locals in Salah a Din Province. They still email and call me to talk even though they know there is nothing I can do for them now that I’m out here in Ramadi. Some of the people we work with just want to make money. For them it’s all business and has nothing to do with their private opinions of us. But most really do want to make Iraq better. You can tell when you interact with people one-on-one if they’re sincere. You can see right through people who are insincere. Many of these guys have been in fire fights with us, so I know they’re on our side.”

“Do you ever meet anyone you suspect was an insurgent?” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “I think some of the guys in the 2nd PSF battalion were insurgents, mostly nationalists who got tired of Al Qaeda. Some were Baathists or belonged to the 1920s Brigade. Al Qaeda started killing them off so they switched sides. One PSF guy in particular knows a little too much about taking IEDs apart. He knows exactly how to dismantle these things, as if he built them himself. I asked him how he knows so much and he said he used to be a TV repair man.” He laughed and shrugged. “But, hey, he’s on our side now. We call him the TV Repair Man and don’t worry too much about it.”

“Did the average Iraqi here switch sides or were most of them always against Al Qaeda?” I said.

“The average Iraqi post-Fallujah was not very happy with us being here,” he said. “If the insurgency only attacked Americans, the people of Ramadi would not have been very upset. But Al Qaeda infiltrated and took over the insurgency. They massively overplayed their hand. They cut off citizens’ heads with kitchen knives. The locals slowly learned that the propaganda about us were lies, and that Al Qaeda was their real enemy. They figured out by having dinner and tea with us that we really are, honest to God, here to help them.”

Anbar Province as a whole isn’t completely secured yet. But most areas have been cleared, and it’s increasingly difficult for terrorists and insurgents to even show up in the province let alone find refuge there.

“Anbar Province all along the Euphrates used to be one huge rat line for getting terrorists into Baghdad from Syria,” he said. A rat line, in military speak, is an enemy logistics route. “That’s over.”

“Do you think what happened here can happen in Baghdad?” I said.

He sat motionless for a time and considered carefully what I had asked him. It was obvious by the look on his face that he wasn’t particularly optimistic about it.

“I don’t know,” he finally said. “One advantage we had here was that the tribes are like small communities, like in rural America. The sheikhs are politically powerful. If we turn them, we turn the people. Urban areas erode tribal affiliation. It’s still there in Baghdad, but it’s weaker. So I don’t know. It did work in the urban parts of Ramadi, though. If we can get it to work in all the provinces in Iraq — and it is working in Diyala Province right now, I know it is — then maybe it can work in Baghdad. It’s hard to say.”

He’s right that the formula works in Diyala Province, and in Salah a Din Province as well. Both provinces, like Anbar, are made up mostly of Sunni Arabs and have had similar troubles with Al Qaeda in Iraq. Even some tribes in the Shia South are beginning to emulate the Anbar model and work with the Americans against Shia militias.

The South, though, is very different from the Sunni Triangle. The Shia insurgents are “moderate” compared with Al Qaeda, and not so likely to be rejected by the entire society. On the other hand, the Shias of Iraq have never been as staunchly anti-American as the Sunnis have been and still mostly are. Saddam Hussein oppressed them almost as severely as he oppressed the Kurds in the North. The trouble for the Americans with the Shias is that so many prefer Iranian assistance, which they deem more reliable after President George H. W. Bush abandoned them to Saddam Hussein after the 1991 Gulf War.

What may make the Anbar model most difficult to implement in Baghdad, even beyond the erosion of tribal authority as Lieutenant Colonel Silverman noted, is that the Sunni and Shia communities each fear the militias and the death squads from the other community much more than they fear those from their own. Ending the insurgency in Baghdad may not be possible without first resolving the ongoing slow-motion civil war.

“What will it take for Anbar Province to stand on its own,” I said, “so American troops can leave?”

“The people here need a more direct and trusting link with the central government,” he said. “It’s tough for Baghdad to get things out here. They need to send more equipment for the police, and it’s not happening. People out here see a conspiracy in all this, even though that might not be the case. Baghdad needs to go out of its way to build trust, as we did.”

I had heard from several American officers that the Sunnis of Anbar see a conspiracy against them in Baghdad. Some even blamed the government for assassinating Anbar Awakening movement leader Sheikh Sattar Abu Risha. Anbar Province is almost exclusively Sunni, and the government is Baghdad is predominantly Shia. It doesn’t help that most Sunnis in Anbar boycotted the last election and have little representation in the capital. (They vow a massive turnout in the next Iraqi election, however.)

“Are you optimistic or pessimistic about Iraq as a whole?” I said.

“I am guardedly optimistic about Anbar, Diyala, and Salah a Din,” he said. “This model works there. If we can control these areas, Al Qaeda has nowhere. The reason my optimism is guarded, though, is because the people out here feel like they are second class citizens. If Baghdad doesn’t do what needs to be done, they will have a very tense relationship.”

“What’s the most important thing you have learned in your time here?” I said.

He wasn’t sure how to answer and had to think for a while.

“Well,” he finally said thoughtfully. “I learned something here that I had heard but never believed. I expected a huge kinetic fight, and that’s what we got. I was told that you win that kind of fight not by focusing on the enemy, but by focusing on the civilians. But I didn’t believe it. It’s true, though. I know because I have seen it.”

Earlier I published the somewhat counterintuitive excerpt from the counterinsurgency manual he was referring to, but here it is again:

Sometimes, the More You Protect Your Force, the Less Secure You May Be

1-149. Ultimate success in COIN [Counter-insurgency] is gained by protecting the populace, not the COIN force. If military forces remain in their compounds, they lose touch with the people, appear to be running scared, and cede the initiative to the insurgents. Aggressive saturation patrolling, ambushes, and listening post operations must be conducted, risk shared with the populace, and contact maintained. . . . These practices ensure access to the intelligence needed to drive operations. Following them reinforces the connections with the populace that help establish real legitimacy.

From “Counterinsurgency/FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5

“What do you think about the media coverage of the Anbar Awakening?” I said.

“I think it’s pretty accurate, actually,” he said, in contrast to the complaints I usually heard about the media from the military. Most soldiers and Marines who grouse about the media, though, are thinking of the war coverage in general rather than reports from Anbar Province specifically. “I think the media accurately describes the reality on the ground here. The only real complaint I have is that every article I’ve read seems to ask when the other shoe is going to drop. I doubt that’s going to happen. Reporters might want to accept the changes in Anbar a little more at face value.”

For a few days it felt to me like the “other shoe” had dropped when Sheikh Sattar was assassinated, but his killers failed to transform the politics and culture of Anbar in their favor. No one can say whether or not another insurgency will erupt, but the odds are vanishingly close to zero that Al Qaeda — the most destructive “insurgents” by far in Iraq — will ever be able to operate again there with impunity.

“Oh, and another thing, too, I suppose,” he continued. “There’s a bit too much suspicion about the Provincial Security Forces. The PSF is actually the least tribal institution in the province. They can go anywhere in any neighborhood and not be rejected as out of bounds. The Iraqi Police have to stay in their areas or the locals will say what are you doing here? The media seems to think they’re some backwards and tribal force, but they’re actually the most progressive and patriotic force in the province.”

“What do you think about media coverage of the Iraq war in general?” I said.

“Most of what they report is accurate,” he said, “and I’m not going to take the same negative line on it like most officers. It’s true that the media doesn’t have the same agenda in Iraq that we do, but I’m not sure it’s the media’s job to have the same agenda in Iraq that we do.”

“What’s the most important thing Americans need to know about Iraq that they don’t currently know?” I said.

“That we’re fighting Al Qaeda,” he said without hesitation. “[Abu Musab al] Zarqawi invented Al Qaeda in Iraq. The top leadership outside Iraq squawked and thought it was a bad idea. Then he blew up the Samarra mosque, triggered a civil war, and got the whole world’s attention. Then the Al Qaeda leadership outside dumped huge amounts of money and people and arms into Anbar Province. They poured everything they had into this place. The battle against Americans in Anbar became their most important fight in the world. And they lost.”

Post-script: Please support independent journalism. Traveling to and working in Iraq is expensive. I can’t publish dispatches on this Web site for free without substantial reader donations, so I’ll appreciate it if you pitch in what you can. Blog Patron allows you to make recurring monthly payments, and even small donations will be extraordinarily helpful so I can continue this project.

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The Next Iranian Revolution is Available Online

Reason Cover Next Iranian Revolution.jpg

My feature article in the current issue of Reason magazine is now available online.

In a green valley nestled between snow-capped peaks in the Kurdish autonomous region of northern Iraq is an armed camp of revolutionaries preparing to overthrow the Islamic Republic of Iran. Men with automatic weapons stand watch on the roofs of the houses. Party flags snap in the wind. Radio and satellite TV stations beam illegal news, commentary, and music into homes and government offices across the border.

The compound resembles a small town more than a base, with corner stores, a bakery, and a makeshift hospital stocked with counterfeit medicine. From there the rebels can see for miles around and get a straight-shot view toward Iran, the land they call home. They call themselves Komala, which means simply “Association.”

Abdulla Mohtadi, the Komala Party’s secretary general, and Abu Baker Modarresi, a member of the party’s political bureau, hosted me in their meeting house. Sofas and chairs lined the walls, as is typical in Middle Eastern salons. Fresh fruit was provided in large bowls. A houseboy served thick Turkish coffee in shot glasses.

Both men started their revolutionary careers decades ago, when the tyrannical Shah Reza Pahlavi still ruled Iran. “We were a leftist organization,” Mohtadi said, speaking softly with an almost flawless British accent. “It was the ’60s and ’70s. It was a struggle against the Shah, against oppression, dictatorship, for social justice, and against—the United States.” He seemed slightly embarrassed by this. “Sorry,” he said.

I told him not to worry, that I hadn’t expected anything else. The U.S. government had backed the dictatorship he fought to destroy. Pro-American politics had not been an option.

Read the whole thing at Reason magazine.

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