An Iraqi Interpreter’s Story

By Michael J. Totten

“Please, sir, can you help me? I must work with Americans, because my psychology is demolished by Saddam Hussein. Not just me. All Iraqis. Psychological demolition.” — Iraqi woman to New Yorker reporter George Packer.

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“The Hammer,” Titan Company Badge # S-10296

Iraqis who are not American citizens and who work as interpreters for the American military cover their faces when they work outside the wire. Mahdi Army militiamen and Al Qaeda terrorists accuse of them of collaboration with the enemy. They and their families are targetted for destruction.

Here is the story of one such interpreter who works with the 82nd Airborne Division in Baghdad. He calls himself “Hammer.”

MJT: Why do you work with Americans?

Hammer: When I was 14 years old all I liked was American cars and American movies. America was my dream. It was a dream come true when the United States Army came to Iraq. It was a nightmare in 1991 when they left again.

Maybe someone will think I’m lying, that I’m just saying this. If my friends say something like Russian weapons are the best or German cars are the best I say, no, Americans are. Everyone who knows me knows this about me.

If anyone says Arabs will win against the U.S. they are wrong. The leaders don’t want to be like Saddam. But if the US leaves Iraq it will be a big failure, especially for me. I don’t want to see this. Never.

MJT: Do you like working with Americans?

Hammer: A lot. Especially when I go outside the wire. I feel like a stranger here. When I go back inside I’m home. I have no friends outside, only family. When I go home I stay in my house. I don’t go out on the streets.

MJT: Why don’t you have any friends?

Hammer: I don’t feel like I belong to this society. They think like each other, but they don’t think like me. I can’t continue with them.

I like to know something about everything, to learn as much as I can. In Iraq if you know too much they will laugh and call you a liar.

When I was 20 I liked American music. They don’t like it. (Laughs.)

I don’t like Saddam. I hate his family.

MJT: Why do you have to cover your face?

Hammer: To protect my family. My family lives in Iraq. If they go to the U.S. I won’t have to do it. But I don’t want anyone to know me, to follow me and see where I live and kill my wife and son.

MJT: How did you feel when the U.S. invaded Iraq?

Hammer: Happy. It was like I was living in a jail and somebody set me free. I don’t want Saddam ruling me. Never. I was just waiting and waiting for this moment.

MJT: What do you think about the possibility of Americans leaving?

Hammer: It is like bad dream. Very bad dream. A nightmare. Worse than that. Like sending me back to jail. Like they set me free for four years then sent me back to jail or gave me a death sentence.

MJT: Tell us about living under Saddam Hussein.

Hammer: It was crazy life, like feeling safe inside a jail. If they sent you to an actual jail nothing changed. They arrested everyone, literally everyone, for no reason and sent them to jail for two weeks just so they could see the jail.

I went there three times. The first time because I worked for a movie company. They sent all of us to jail. It had nothing to do with me.

I was given a three year sentence. My family has money, so I paid the judge 50,000 dollars. I gave it directly to the judge, plus four new tires for his car and a satellite TV. He gave me a three month sentence instead of a three year sentence. He scratched “3 years” off my sentence and wrote “3 months” in by hand.

They sent me to Abu Ghraib. I saw so many things. If you want me to talk about that I would need a whole newspaper.

MJT: Tell us a little about Abu Ghraib.

Hammer: On the bus to the jail I didn’t have handcuffs. I asked why. The guard said “Look behind you.”

The first guy behind me got a 600 year sentence.

The next guy got six hanging sentences.

The third guy was sentenced to be thrown blindfolded out of a second story window. Twice.

Another guy f*cked his mother and sisters three times. He was freed on Saddam’s birthday.

Another guy had his hand cut off.

There was this last guy. He went to the market with his wife. She waited in the car when he went to buy something. When he came back to the car his wife was screaming. Two guys were in the car with her. One held her arms and the other was raping her. He grabbed his AK-47 and chased them away. They ran to their car and he shot them. Their car blew up. They were mukhabarat [Saddam’s secret police]. He got a death sentence. On his second day in Abu Ghraib they killed him and sent the mother- and sister-f*cker free for the fourth time.

The guards who ran Abu Ghraib sold hallucinagenic drugs to prisoners for money. They forced me to take them.

You need protection in there. You find someone and give him drugs and cigarettes. You pay off the guards to just punch you in the face or move you to a different cell instead of kill you.

I was freed 26 days after I arrived, on Saddam’s birthday before I finished the three months.

I can’t live with this nightmare anymore.

MJT: What’s it like out there now for the average Iraqi?

Hammer: If you give average Iraqis electricity right now it will be enough. This is the most important thing. Give them power for seven days in a row and there will be no fights.

After the US came and Saddam fell they earned 3 dollars a month. Now they earn between 100 and 700 dollars a month.

Giving them electricity would reduce violence. If you don’t believe me, ask yourself what would happen to this Army base if the power was cut off forever and the soldiers had to spend the rest of their lives in Iraq. Do think think these soldiers would still behave normally?

Iraqis are paid to set up IEDs. They do it so they can buy gas for their generator and cool off their house or leave the country. Their hands do this, not their minds.

TV is the most interesting thing to Iraqis. They learn everything from the TV. Right now they only have one hour of electricity every day. Do you know what they watch? Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera pushes them to fight. If they got TV the whole day they would watch many things. Their minds would be influenced by something other than terrorist propaganda.

Right now they have no electricity. They have no dreams. Nothing. And Saddam messed with their minds. For more than 30 years he poisoned their minds.

You can’t understand Iraq because you can’t get inside their mind. When you get inside their mind…it is a crazy mind.

MJT: Why is Iraq such a mess? Is it the Americans’ fault?

Hammer: No. You can’t blame it on the Americans. Iraqis are number one at fault for this mess. They are greedy and will do anything for money. They are like people who were in jail for 30 years, were suddenly set free, were given money, then had their money taken away. What will they do next? They will kill for money. They are selfish.

They got selfish from Saddam. Iraqi people used to be different. I am the same person I always was, but most Iraqi people are different now. They feel that no one will help them so they help themselves.

MJT: Is there a solution to the problem in this country?

Hammer: Nuke Iraq.

MJT: Be serious.

Hammer: I am serious. If you screen all Iraqis, 5 million of them would be good people. Clear them out, then kill everyone else. Syria and Iran would surrender. [Laughs.]

Right now they see 100 corpses every day in the streets. It’s not okay to kill the bad people who do that?

Ok, if you want a serious solution try this:

Charge money to the families of insurgents. Fine them huge amounts of money if anyone in their family is captured or killed and identified as an insurgent. Make them pay. You can put it into law. Within one week they won’t do anything wrong because they want money. Their familes will make them stop.

The militias pay them 100 dollars to set up IEDs. Fine them thousands of dollars if they are caught and their families will make them stop. Give them that law. Go ahead. Try it.

MJT: What will happen if the Americans leave next year?

Hammer: Rivers of blood everywhere. Syria and Iran will take pieces of Iraq. Anti-American governments will laugh. You will be a joke of a country that no one will take seriously.

I will kill myself if it happens. I am completely serious. The militias will hunt down and kill me and my family. I will beat them to it by killing myself.

I worked for the U.S. government for four years. Everyone who works as an interpreter for four years and gets a signature from a General or a Senator gets a Green Card. My hope is to get this somehow. I will do anything for this.

I am doing this for my son. Everything for my son. I don’t want my son living here getting into religion and militias and Al Qaeda. I want my son to be free, to have a girlfriend, to get married, and to be a good citizen.

MJT: How often do you get to see him?

Hammer: Two days a month. Sometimes two days every two months. I leave this base without my uniform and dress like them, wearing filthy jeans and a t-shirt, so they don’t know I work here. Then drive to my house and hug my wife and son.

MJT: What does he want to do when he grows up?

Hammer: He wants to be an American soldier. He has his chair in his room with an American flag on it. Has a toy M-4. He has a little uniform that I got at the P/X.

When he sees Saddam he curses Saddam. I never told him to do that. He does this himself. When he holds his toy gun he says he will kill the insurgents. He wants to go to Disneyland. His hero is Arnold Schwartznegger — not the Terminator, but Arnold Schwartznegger. He has all his movies.

Bill Gates is my hero. [Laughs.]

MJT: Do you ever get death threats?

Hammer: Seven times. Once I had to sell my car because of it. Some come from Shia militias, others from Al Qaeda. I had two IEDs in front of my car and was shot at with an RPG when I was working in Kirkuk for Bechtel at an oil plant.

MJT: Why is there peace in Kurdistan but not in this part of Iraq?

Hammer: The Kurds got rid of Saddam earlier. They fought against Saddam just like the Shia fought against Saddam, but the Kurds won their war and the Shia lost. In 1991 the Americans were heroes to the Kurds, but they disappointed the Shia and left them to Saddam. They were not reliable. So the next time, in 2003, some Shia thought they should get help from Iran. They know Iran is not going anywhere. Iran is a more reliable ally than the Americans.

The Shia never forgot being abandoned by the Americans. They talk about this all the time, still. They know the U.S. will leave Iraq and they will face Al Qaeda alone.

Shia people here are very simple, very easy. They are easy to control. They don’t need too many things. Just electricity, rights, a decent life, a good opportunity to get a job.

MJT: Would it be possible to flip the Shia supporters of Moqtada al Sadr into supporting Americans instead?

Hammer: Yeah, it’s easy. Just give them those things. You will push away all the reasons for this trouble. 16 percent of the Shia support Moqtada al Sadr. They have no education. They don’t know what to do. I know how these people think. Give them a good reason to join your side and they will do it.

MJT: What is the worst thing you have ever seen in this country.

Hammer: 60 guys from Al Qaeda kidnapped an interpreter’s sister. She had a baby boy, six months old. They raped her, all 60 guys. Then they cut her to pieces and threw her in the river. They left the six month baby boy to sleep in her blood.

We found him on a big farm south of Baghdad. All that was left was his legs and his shoes. The dogs ate him.

I don’t want this for my family.

These people are like animals who came from another planet.

MJT: What is the most beautiful thing you have ever seen in this country?

Hammer: In all my life? When I was seven years old I heard the sound of wild pigeons every morning. Then something happened and I never heard them again.

Then, on the morning of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, I heard the pigeons again.

Really, I am not joking. I can see you don’t believe me, but I am not faking it.

MJT: What is the most important thing about Iraq that the Americans don’t understand?

Hammer: Don’t just open the jail after 25 years. Let people out step by step. Iraqis need rehab. Give them instant direct freedom and they are going to go crazy. That’s what the U.S. did.

MJT: Will the Americans win this war?

Hammer: I hope it’s going to happen. But it’s not going to happen if the Americans keep doing what they are doing unless they are a lot more patient.

MJT: Anything you want to say that I didn’t ask you about?

Hammer: Because of the few bad Iraqis who work as interpreters for the U.S., no one trusts us. But if you give me a gun I will fight harder than the Americans. You can go home. I can’t. I have to live in this country. If the Americans don’t give a Green Card to me and my family, I have to stay in this prison.

At Camp Taji the First Cavalry Division thinks interpreters are the enemy. They decided that interpreters who aren’t American citizens have to take the American flag off their uniforms before they are allowed to enter the dining facility.

I cried that day.

I wasn’t supposed to, but I complained. I said It’s okay for me to die outside wearing the American flag, but I can’t eat wearing the American flag with Americans? That was the worst day of my life with the American Army.

I’ll tell you what I tell my family. If I die here, wrap me in the American flag when you bury me. I don’t want to be wrapped in the flag of Iraq.

Hammer is looking for employment in and permanent relocation to the United States for himself, his wife, and his son. If you can sponsor him for a Green Card and help save his family, email him at superlink_par@yahoo.com and superlink_70@yahoo.com.

Postscript: 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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If you would like to donate for travel and equipment expenses and you don’t want to send money over the Internet, please consider sending a check or money order to:

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Many thanks in advance.

Thank You All

by Michael J. Totten

I want to say thanks to everyone for being patient while blogging is slow, and thanks even more to those of you who have donated through Blog Patron and Pay Pal. The Army has me insanely busy right now, and my access to the Internet is very strictly limited. I don’t have time to blog, answer emails, or send thank-you letters to those of you who have donated. But I won’t be off the edge of the world for too much longer. All is well here (for me) and I’ll be back as soon as I can.

Baghdad Raid Night

By Michael J. Totten

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BAGHDAD — “We want to use you as bait,” Sergeant Eduardo Ojeda from Los Angeles, California, told me before I embedded with his unit on what was shaping up to be a night raid.

“Excellent,” I said. “That’s why I’m here.”

This is what passes for black Army humor in Baghdad.

“Our TST [time-sensitive target] blew up a vehicle and killed four soldiers and an interpreter in the next AO [area of operations],” he said. “He’s somewhere in our AO now.”

He could tell by the frozen and dubious look on my face that I wasn’t sure I wanted to go on the mission.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “These guys hardly ever fight back when we nail them. And they always lose when they do. Come on. Let’s go f*ck ‘em up.”

I donned my body armor and helmet, strapped my Nikon around my neck, and jumped in the back of one of the Humvees.

“I need your full name and blood type,” said First Sergeant Ray Fisher, from Keokuk, Iowa. “In case something happens.”

Everywhere in Baghdad is dangerous — even the Green Zone — but danger is relative. Not every place in the Red Zone is the same shade of crimson. The 82nd Airborne company I embedded with hasn’t suffered a single casualty since they arrived in Iraq in January even though they patrol their part of the city — the neighborhood of Graya’at, just north of the Adhamiyah wall — 24 hours a day. I comforted myself with the idea that if I’m the first to be shot here, God apparently hates me.

“Stay close to me,” said Sergeant Ojeda as he plugged his mouth with tobacco. “In the dark just look for the short guy. And call me Eddie.”

The military intelligence officers at Coalition Outpost War Eagle knew the target was somewhere in their area, but they didn’t know precisely where or for how long. My unit’s job was to go out and patrol the neighborhood known as Tunis until they could pinpoint his exact location.

We drove in the dark. The soldiers used night vision goggles. I had to rely on my eyes.

“How long are you in Iraq, sir?” Sergeant Fisher asked me.

“As long as I feel like it,” I said. “A month and a half maybe.”

“You’re lucky, sir” he said. “We’re here for 18. I just got back from leave and missed the birth of my baby boy by two days. At least I got to see him.”

“You don’t have to call me sir,” I said.

“Ok, sir,” he said and laughed.

“What’s the situation in Tunis?” I said.

“It’s not too bad anymore,” said Lieutenant Evan Wolf from Omaha, Nebraska. “It’s a rich neighborhood. Lots of educated and cultured people live there, doctors and lawyers, people like that. It was infested with Al Qaeda a while ago, so the neighborhood formed a protectionist militia. They set up road blocks, gates around the mosque, and they drove Al Qaeda out. But now the militia harasses and extorts the residents. They follow us from house to house and intimidate whoever we talk to.”

Our convoy of Humvees crossed an overpass above the Iraqi equivalent of an Interstate freeway and stopped on a dark road among trees just outside the neighborhood. Half the soldiers dismounted the vehicles and set out to patrol the streets on foot. The other half stayed with the Humvees.

“How long will we be out?” I said to Eddy.

“Could be a while,” he said and plugged his mouth with more smokeless tobacco. “Last time we had a raid night we were we out for more than twelve hours.” He spit on the sidewalk. “We chased a guy from house to house to house. Didn’t catch him that night, but he was caught somewhere else three days later.”

I could barely see anything, but the soldiers could see everything. It was next to impossible to tell who was who in the dark.

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Eddy was obvious, though. He was the short guy. He told me to stay next to him, so I did.

“This country would be beautiful if it were not for the invention of the plastic bag,” somebody said. “That bag is everywhere — in the trees, stuck in barbed wire, on the sidewalks, crammed in every corner. Man, when this war is over I’m coming back to open a recycling factory. I’ll be raking it in.”

The area did appear to be nice, billowing plastic bags notwithstanding. Every house was considerably larger than the average American home and seemed to be well-maintained. I wouldn’t mind living in a neighborhood like it myself if it weren’t in Iraq.

“I suppose I shouldn’t smoke,” I said to Eddy.

“You got that right,” Eddy said. “Snipers wearing night vision can see the tip of your cigarette from a mile away. They’ll watch as you lift the cigarette to your mouth and figure out where your head is. Then BLAMMO. They’re really good shots.”

I kept the cigarettes in my pocket.

“We’re being followed,” said Sergeant Fisher.

Eddy, the rest of the soldiers, and I turned around.

“Four of ‘em,” Eddy said.

I couldn’t see anyone but the soldiers standing right next to me without night vision goggles.

“Where are they?” I said.

“In the shadows two blocks behind us,” Eddy said. “There weren’t there a minute ago.”

Curfew enforcement in Tunis was total. In some areas of Baghdad only military aged males driving cars are stopped by Army patrols after 10:00 p.m. But Tunis is infested with a militia. No one is allowed on the streets after dark except licensed generator repairmen.

We kept walking. Half the soldiers walked backwards so they could keep an eye on the men following us.

Some of the soldiers stood in the light from a storefront lit by generator power.

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I tried to stick to the shadows. Presumably the men following us were militia. If they didn’t have night vision goggles — and they probably didn’t — they wouldn’t be able to see me any better than I could see them. And I couldn’t see them.

“Five of ‘em now,” somebody said. “They’re still following.”

The soldiers took up positions, crouched on one knee, and pointed their rifles down the street in the direction of our stalkers. I ducked behind a wall separating two driveways and checked the windows and the roofs of the houses to make sure nobody saw me.

“Why don’t you send the Humvees after them?” I said to the nearest soldier.

“We’re sending them now,” he said.

“More are out now,” said another. “Seven or eight of them.”

No one knew how many were coming out of their houses on side streets. No one knew who they were, either. They could have been local militia thugs, or they could have been the point men of the Al Qaeda leader the Army was trying to home in on. They knew he was somewhere in the area. Maybe he found us before we found him. “We want to use you as bait” no longer sounded so funny.

An old man speaking on a cell phone walked toward us from the direction of our stalkers.

“Turn that phone off right now!” yelled one of the soldiers. “Right now!” He ran toward the man. “You turn it off now!” The man kept talking in Arabic.

Our interpreter told him to shut it off. He shut it off. Perhaps he was giving information to the militia. Perhaps he was talking to his wife. Nobody knew. Either way he was violating the curfew.

“Go home,” somebody told him.

Suddenly the soldiers started walking back in the direction we came from — toward the men who were following us and who hid in the shadows.

“We’re walking toward them?” I said to the soldier next to me. I still couldn’t tell who was who. “Are they still there?” I still couldn’t see them.

“They’re still there,” he said. “We’re pushing back to see what they do.”

For the first time since I arrive in Iraq, I wished I had a weapon myself. When I couldn’t stay in the shadows, I zigzagged at random to make myself a much more difficult target.

Eddie sidled up beside me.

“Stay right next to me,” he said. “If there’s shooting I’ll get you in the safest possible place.” The safest possible place, I thought, was outside Iraq. “If it escalates…” He trailed off.

“If it escalates…what?” I said.

“If it escalates we’ll deal with it,” he said.

“Four more to west,” said a soldier. “They’re running.”

This time I could see them — four men rounding a corner and running away down a street. They were more afraid of us than we were of them.

“Does this kind of thing happen around here a lot?” I said to Eddy.

“It happens,” he said.

The Humvees finally pulled up to the area where the Iraqi men lurked in the shadows. When our foot patrol caught up with them I saw that two of our stalkers had been caught.

The rule for properly building suspense in horror movies is based on how fear works in real life. Faceless and invisible enemies are scary. Real human beings with faces and fears of their own aren’t so much.

Our two busted stalkers looked a lot less intimidating in person. They seemed rather pathetic, actually, and they were not armed.

“My air conditioner is broken,” said the first through our interpreter. “I was just going to a friend’s house to get another one. I can show you the broken one now.”

I’ve been on patrol with soldiers after curfew many times. Most Iraqis out after dark don’t appear to be threatening or up to no good. This guy stood out, though. I didn’t believe he was only trying to borrow an air conditioner. He was twitchy and much more nervous than anyone I had seen captured before.

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And anyway, aside from the twitchiness, why was he stalking Army soldiers in the dark with other military aged men?

Our Iraqi interpreter — who wore a mask over his face to avoid being recognized by the locals — checked the suspect’s identification.

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He did live in the area. ID cards, though, don’t say “militia man” on them.

Two soldiers guarded the second suspect while the rest of us walked to the first suspect’s house and knocked hard on the door.

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No one came to the door. A soldier kept knocking. “Open up!” he yelled.

The residents of the house finally stirred.

“There are lots of people in there,” someone said.

I stepped back, having no idea what to expect.

A large man wearing shorts and no shirt opened the door. An old man in a dishdasha stood behind him. They weren’t armed and didn’t seem threatening.

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“Salam aleikum,” said the shirtless man.

“Can we come in?” said the soldier who knocked.

Shirtless beckoned us in, and so we went in.

Soldiers dispersed throughout the house and rounded everyone — four men, three women, and two children — into one room. Everyone, soldiers and Iraqis alike, were mellow and cool. No one seemed to be angry at anyone. Shirtless seemed to be the head of the household, so the soldiers spoke mainly to him instead of to the young man they had captured outside.

“You’re right, he was bad,” Shirtless said.

“The curfew is for your safety,” said a soldier through the interpreter. “We’re hot, too, okay? Finding an air conditioner isn’t a good enough reason to go outside after dark.”

“Sorry,” Shirtless aid. “Please forgive us. Anything you want, we are with you.”

“There are bad guys out after dark.”

“I understand, very sorry.”

We said goodnight and left the house. There was no interrogation. All the soldiers did was drop the guy off at home to get him off the street. Whether he really was trying to borrow an air conditioner, or whether he belonged to the neighborhood militia, I’ll never know.

The second captured man was still being detained.

“I work at the mosque,” he said through our masked interpreter. “I work there at night. I was just out getting some dinner.”

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We had walked past the neighborhood mosque earlier and there were no lights on inside. It didn’t seem that anyone worked there at night, at least not in any normal capacity.

All of us started walking toward the mosque.

“What are you going to do with him?” I said to Eddy.

“We’re going to take him to the mosque and see if he really works there,” he said.

When we arrived outside the mosque, some of the soldiers squatted in driveways across the street and scanned the roof. I joined them as Eddy and the others took the suspect to the gate.

I crouched near the ground.

“There are four men on the roof,” a soldier said. “You can’t see them anymore. They just ducked away as we got here.”

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“They have a little bunker up there,” he continued. “You can’t see it from here, but it has sand bags and sniper netting around it.”

“What are you going to do?” I said.

“Nothing,” he said. “It’s a mosque.”

“They’re violating curfew,” I said, “and stalking us in the dark from a militarized mosque. And you aren’t going to do anything?”

“Our rules of engagement say we can’t interfere in any way with a mosque unless they are shooting at us,” he said.

We left our stalker with his “co-workers” and walked away.


While waiting for the call from Military Intelligence at the outpost, we walked the streets of Baghdad at midnight. If they could determine which exact house the Al Qaeda target was in, the soldiers I patrolled with would be the first on the scene. Our local infamous insurgent commander would be quietly surrounded by two dozen elite infantry soldiers, and myself with my notepad and camera, before he had any idea he what was happening.

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In the meantime we chased shadows and silhouettes and dark vehicles on blacked out streets without any headlights.

We chased a car so far from our starting point I wondered if the soldiers still knew where we were. Eventually the driver pulled his car over and parked on his own. I got out of my Humvee and followed Eddy to the stopped car. Vicious dogs snarled at us from behind a gate.

Three men were inside. All were told to get out of the vehicle and were questioned and patted down.

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It’s possible the three young men in the car didn’t even know we were trying to catch them. Humvees are driven in Iraq in the dark without headlights, and they don’t go very fast.

None of the young men were armed. The vehicle was searched and nothing was found. They were sent home and told to stay indoors after curfew.

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This is what it is like most nights during counter-insurgency warfare. “It’s like we’re Baghdad PD,” one soldier put it. It isn’t always open war and explosions and bang-bang. Much of it entails patient police work and the chasing of ghosts.

We never did get the call from Military Intelligence. The insurgent commander, whose name I know but cannot reveal, was almost, but not quite, captured that night. His capture would have saved lives, and it would have been something to see.

This isn’t the movies, however. The Iraqi counter-insurgency would be a hard war to film accurately. Most of the time it’s so quiet. But it’s the quiet of an Alfred Hitchcock movie, not of rural Middle America. Explosions, mortars, bullets, rockets…these things can come flying at you at any time.

I watched the dark city of Baghdad through bullet-proof glass. Most homes were blacked out — the electrical grid supplies only one hour of power each day. A few families stayed up late and ran their generators past midnight. Most Iraqis, I knew without seeing, slept on the roofs of their houses where it’s cooler at night.

The palm trees somehow looked both menacing and benign at the same time. They looked slightly more ominous we drove into a dense grove bathed in an eerie glow from starlight shining through dust.

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What may have been waiting for us on the road up ahead? Who may have been watching, perhaps even with the same night vision goggles the soldiers themselves wore?

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Suddenly the trees were gone and the sky opened up. I couldn’t see anything.

“We’re in the slum now,” Lieutenant Evan Wolf said. “It’s a nasty one, too. Some houses are literally made out of cardboard. I would kill myself before I lived here.”

I have no idea how these people survive without air conditioning and clean water. The environment here in the summer is unrelentingly hostile.

“How did you get into this job?” Eddy said.

“I was in the high tech industry a few years ago,” I told him. “I got bored of the cubicle farm and needed to get out of the office.”

“You’re way out now,” Eddy said and laughed.

“I can’t wait to get in the office,” Lieutenant Wolf said.

“Do you like your job?” Eddy said.

“I love my job,” I said. “It’s the best I’ve ever had. Do you like yours?”

“I wouldn’t say it’s the worst decision I ever made,” he said. “It’s hard for soldiers. We all want to go home, of course. But we also want to stay and make sure our buddies did not die for nothing.”

There were no street lights. All I could see was absolute darkness and the faint outlines of hovels against a backdrop of stars.

“It’s always interesting, though,” Eddy said. “No one gets to see places like this. Only Iraqis. And you. And us.”

Postscript: 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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If you prefer to use Pay Pal, that is still an option.

If you would like to donate for travel and equipment expenses and you don’t want to send money over the Internet, please consider sending a check or money order to:

Michael Totten

P.O. Box 312

Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

The Rule, Not the Exception

By Michael J. Totten

I’ll have another article published shortly, as soon as I finish writing it. In the meantime I’d like to promote the following from the comments to the main page.

From Steve B, who has his own blog called Educated Soldier:

Having served with an infantry battalion much like the one subjected in the post during a year in Ar Ramadi when Ar Ramadi was at its most conflicted, I can assure you that the violence is not as you might expect. Our unit suffered pretty massive causalities during our year. However, we patrolled every single day of that year. Those patrols lasted many hours. And, typically, even in then “chaotic” Ramadi, most patrols followed the same peaceful format as the one described in Mr. Totten’s post.

Even in the worst places, day-to-day activity is mundane and quiet. When attacks occur, they do so viciously. In my case, these resulted in my unit’s heavy causalities. Nonetheless, I rarely patrolled in fear. I knew that on most days, our patrol would result in an absence of action. Again, this was in a city considered to be one of the most violent of the war. This peculiar dynamic of the situation in Iraq is lost on Big Media.

It’s not totally their fault either. They can’t be privy to such conditions because most Big Media types don’t patrol everyday, get to know the citizens, or understand the social dynamics. They are reactive types instead of proactive. But we can’t necessarily expect them to be otherwise.

I just wanted to do my part to make everyone aware that Mr. Totten is not reporting the exception, but is instead becoming aware of the “rule.” I base this on my two years experience in the country, on the streets. I implore you to trust my judgment and, because of it, trust Mr. Totten’s assessment as well.

In the Wake of the Surge

By Michael J. Totten

In the Wake of the Surge.JPG

BAGHDAD — 82nd Airborne’s Lieutenant William H. Lord from Foxborough, Massachusetts, prepared his company for a dismounted foot patrol in the Graya’at neighborhood of Northern Baghdad’s predominantly Sunni Arab district of Adhamiyah.

“While we’re out here saying hi to the locals and everyone seems to be getting along great,” he said, “remember to keep up your military bearing. Someone could try to kill you at any moment.”

Gearing Up War Eagle.JPG

I donned my helmet and vest, hopped into the backseat of a Humvee, and headed into the streets of the city with two dozen of the first infantry soldiers deployed to Iraq for the surge. The 82nd Airborne Division is famous for being ready to roll within 24 hours of call up, so they were sent first.

The surge started with these guys. Its progress here is therefore more measurable than it is anywhere else.

Darkness fell almost immediately after sunset. Microscopic dust particles hung in the air like a fog and trapped the day’s savage heat in the atmosphere.

Our convoy of Humvees passed through a dense jungular grove of palm and deciduous trees between Forward Operating Base War Eagle and the market district of Graya’at. The drivers switched off their headlights so insurgents and terrorists could not see us coming. They drove using night vision goggles as eyes.

Night Vision Grayat Road.jpg

Just to the right of my knees were the feet of the gunner. He stood in the middle of the Humvee and manned a machine gun in a turret sticking out of the top. I could hear him swiveling his cannon from side to side and pointing it into the trees as we approached the urban sector in their area of operations.

This was all purely defensive. The battalion I’m embedded with here in Baghdad hasn’t suffered a single casualty — not even one soldier wounded — since they arrived in the Red Zone in January. The surge in this part of the city could not possibly be going better than it already is. Most of Graya’at’s insurgents and terrorists who haven’t yet fled are either captured, dormant, or dead.

A car approached our Humvee with its lights on.

“I can’t see, I can’t see,” said the driver. Bright lights are blinding with night vision goggles. “Flash him with the laser,” he said to the gunner. “Flash him with the laser!”

A green laser beam shot out from the gunner’s turret toward the windshield of the oncoming car. The headlights went out.

“What was that about?” I said.

“It’s part of our rules of engagement,” the driver said. “They all know that. The green laser is a warning, and it’s a little bit scary because it looks like a weapon is being pointed at them.”

We slowly rolled into the market area. Smiling children ran up to and alongside the convoy and excitedly waved hello. It felt like I was riding with a liberating army.

Graya’at’s streets are quiet and safe. It doesn’t look or feel like war zone at all. American soldiers just a few miles away are still engaged in almost daily firefights with insurgents and terrorists, but this part of the city has been cleared by the surge.

Before the surge started the neighborhood was much more dangerous than it is now.

“We were on base at Camp Taji [north of the city] and commuting to work,” Major Jazdyk told me earlier. “The problem with that was that the only space we dominated was inside our Humvees. So we moved into the neighborhoods and live there now with the locals. We know them and they know us.”

Lieutenant Lawrence Pitts from Fayetteville, North Carolina, elaborated. “We patrol the streets of this neighborhood 24/7,” he said. “We knock on doors, ask people what they need help with. We really do what we can to help them out. We let them know that we’re here to work with them to make their city safe in the hopes that they’ll give us the intel we need on the bad guys. And it worked.”

The area of Baghdad just to the south of us, which the locals think of as downtown Adhamiyah, is surrounded by a wall recently built by the Army. It is not like the wall that divides Israel from the West Bank. Pedestrians can cross it at will. Only the roads are blocked off. Vehicles are routed through two very strict checkpoints. Weapons transporters and car bombers can’t get in or out.

The area inside the wall is mostly Sunni. The areas outside the wall are mostly Shia. Violence has been drastically reduced on both sides because Sunni militias — including Al Qaeda — are kept in, and Shia militias — including Moqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army, are kept out.

Graya’at is a mixed Sunni-Shia neighborhood immediately to the north of the wall.

We dismounted our Humvees and set up a vehicle checkpoint on the far side of the market area. Curfew was going into effect. Anyone trying to drive into the area would be searched.

Dozens of Iraqi civilians milled about on the streets.

“Salam Aleikum,” said the soldiers and I as we walked past.

“Aleikum as Salam,” said each in return.

They really did seem happy to see us.

Three Guys Laughing with Cigarette and Juice Grayat.jpg

Two Guys Grayat.JPG

Children ran up to me.

“Mister, mister, mister!” they said and pantomimed the snapping of photos. I lifted my camera to my face and they nodded excitedly.

Kids in Orange and Blue Grayat.JPG

Cute Kid with Striped Shirt Grayat.jpg

A large group of men gathered around a juice vendor and greeted us warmly as we approached. A large man in a flowing dishdasha spoke English and, judging by the deference showed to him by the others, seemed to be a community leader of some sort.

Fat Man Grayat.JPG

Kids pulled on my shirt as Lieutenant Lord spoke to the group about a gas station the Army is helping set up in the neighborhood. Gasoline is more important to Iraqis than it is to even Americans. Baghdad is as much an automobile-based city as Los Angeles. They also need fuel for electric generators. Baghdad’s electrical grid only supplies one hour of electricity every day. It is ancient, overloaded, in severe disrepair, and is sabotaged by the insurgents. The outside temperature rarely drops below 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, even at night. Air conditioners aren’t luxuries here. They are requirements. No gasoline? No air conditioner.

“The gas station on the corner should be opening soon,” the lieutenant said to the group of men. “Do you think the prices are fair?”

The fat man understood the question. Our young interpreter from Beirut, Lebanon, who calls herself “Shine,” translated for everyone else.

Lebanese Interpreter.jpg

Most gasoline in Iraq has to be purchased on the black market for four times the commercial and government rate partly because there is an acute lack of proper places to sell it. A new gas station in this country is actually a big deal.

The men thought the price of gasoline at the station was reasonable. The conversation continued mundanely and I quickly grew bored.

Everyone was friendly. No one shot at us or even looked at us funny. Infrastructure problems, not security, were the biggest concerns at the moment. I felt like I was in Iraqi Kurdistan — where the war is already over — not in Baghdad.

It was an edgy “Kurdistan,” though. Every now and then someone drove down the street in a vehicle. If any military-aged males (MAMs as the Army guys call them) were in the car, the soldiers stopped it and made everybody get out. The vehicle and the men were then searched.

Searching Truck Grayat.JPG

Everyone who was searched took it in stride. Some of the Iraqi men smirked slightly, as if the whole thing were a minor joke and a non-threatening routine annoyance that they had been through before. The procedure looked and felt more like airport security in the United States than, say, the more severe Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank and Gaza.

Four Suspects Grayat.JPG

“What are you guys doing out after curfew?” said Sergeant Lizanne.

“I’m sorry, sorry,” said a young Iraqi man in a striped blue and tan t-shirt.

“There is no sorry,” said Sergeant Lizanne. “I don’t give a shit. The curfew is at the same time every night. I don’t want to have to start arresting you.”

“Why are you stopping these guys,” I said to Lieutenant Lord, “when there are so many other people milling around on the streets?”

“Because they’re MAMs who are driving,” he said. “We’re going easy on everyone else. We’ve already oppressed these people enough. They have a night culture in the summer, so if they aren’t military aged males driving cars we leave them alone. We were very heavy-handed in 2003. Now we’re trying to move forward together. At least 90 percent of them are normal fun-loving people.”

“Do they ever get pissed off when you search them?” I said.

“Not very often,” he said. “They understand we’re trying to protect them.”

Suspect with Cigarette Grayat.jpg

“This is not what I expected in Baghdad,” I said.

“Most of what we’re doing doesn’t get reported in the media,” he said. “We’re not fighting a war here anymore, not in this area. We’ve moved way beyond that stage. We built a soccer field for the kids, bought all kinds of equipment, bought them school books and even chalk. Soon we’re installing 1,500 solar street lamps so they have light at night and can take some of the load off the power grid. The media only covers the gruesome stuff. We go to the sheiks and say hey man, what kind of projects do you want in this area? They give us a list and we submit the paperwork. When the projects get approved, we give them the money and help them buy stuff.”

Not everything they do is humanitarian work, unless you consider counter-terrorism humanitarian work. In my view, you should. Few Westerners think of personal security as a human right, but if you show up in Baghdad I’ll bet you will. Personal security may, in fact, be the most important human right. Without it the others mean little. People aren’t free if they have to hide in their homes from death squads and car bombs.

In another part of Graya’at is an area called the Fish Market. Gates were installed at each entrance so terrorists can’t drive car bombs inside. The people here are extraordinarily grateful for this. Businesses, not cars, are booming now at the market. Residents feel free and safe enough to go out.

Smiling Kid Grayat Night.JPG

“The kids here do seem to like you,” I said to Lieutenant Lord.

“They do,” he said. “In Sadr City, though, they throw rocks and flip us off.”

The American military is staying out of Sadr City for now. The surge hasn’t even begun there, and I don’t know if it will.

I wandered over to the man selling juice at a stand. An American soldier bought a glass from him.

Buying Juice Grayat.JPG

“Have you tried this juice?” the soldier said to me. “It’s really good stuff. Here have a sip.”

He handed me the glass. It was an excellent mixture of freshly squeezed orange juice and something else. Pineapple, I think.

The kids kept pulling my shirt.

“Mister, mister!” they said, wanting me to take their picture.

Two Boys Grayat.JPG

The same kids kept pestering the soldiers, as well. They seemed to get a big kick out of it.

Soldier with Two Kids Grayat.jpg

A small group of soldiers continued talking to the locals about community projects they’re helping out with.

Three Men Grayat.JPG

I tried to listen in but the kids wouldn’t leave me alone. Finally one of the adults took mercy on me and shooed the children away so I could listen and talk to the grownups. The conversation, though, was mundane. The soldiers were talking and acting like aid workers, not warriors from the elite 82nd Airborne Division.

“Man, this is boring,” one of them said to me later. “I’m an adrenaline junky. There’s no fight here. It won’t surprise me if we start handing out speeding tickets.” So it goes in at least this part of Baghdad that has been cleared by the surge.

“When we first got here,” said another and laughed, “shit hit the fan.”

It was all a bit boring, but blessedly so. I knew already that not everyone in Baghdad was hostile. But it was slightly surprising to see that entire areas in the Red Zone are not hostile.

Anything can happen in Baghdad, even so. The convulsive, violent, and overtly hostile Sadr City is only a few minutes drive to the southeast.

“Want to walk past your favorite house?” Lieutenant Lord said to Sergeant Lizanne.

“Let’s do it,” said Sergeant Lizanne.

“What’s your favorite house?” I said.

“It’s a house we walked past one night,” said Sergeant Lizanne. “Some guys on the roof locked and loaded on us.”

Gun shots rang out in the far distance. None of the Iraqis paid much attention but the soldiers perked up and stiffened their posture like hunting dogs.

“Gun shots,” Lieutenant Lord said.

“I heard,” I said. “You going to do anything about it?”

“Nah,” he said and shrugged. “They were far away and could be anything, even shots fired in the air at a wedding. A lot of these guys are stereotypical Arabs.”

The gun shots were a part of the general ambience.


We walked along a narrow path along the banks of the Tigris River in darkness. “The house,” as they called it, where someone locked and loaded a rifle, was a quarter mile or so up ahead.

Tigris at Night 1.JPG

“What will you do when you get to the house?” I asked Lieutenant Lord.

“We’ll do a soft-knock,” he said. “We’re not going to be dicks about it.”

I couldn’t see well, but I could see. Even my camera could see if I held it steady enough.

Palm Tree in Darkness Iraq.jpg

The soldiers had night vision goggles. They could see perfectly, if “green” counts as perfect. One of them let me borrow his for a few minutes.

Night Vision Soldier.jpg

Putting on the goggles was like stepping into another world. The soldiers’ rifles come with a laser that shoots a light visible only to those wearing the goggles. It helps soldiers zero in on their target. It also lets them “point” at things in the terrain when they talk to each other. Some used the green rifle laser to point out locations in the area the way a professor points at a chalk board with a stick.

Night Vision Laser.JPG

We walked in silence and darkness toward “the house.” I could just barely make out the silhouettes of the soldiers’ helmets and rifles and body armor in front of me.

“Where should I be when this goes down?” I quietly said to the lieutenant.

“Just stay next to me,” he whispered back.

We stopped in front of the house. It was shrouded in total darkness on the bank of the river.

The House at Night Grayat.JPG

Lieutenant Lord quietly signaled for half his platoon to go around to the other side of the house. I scanned the roof looking for snipers or gunmen, but didn’t see anyone. Still, I still decided to step up to the outer wall of the house so no one could shoot me from the roof.

We waited in silence for ten minutes. The area was absolutely quiet and still. The curfew was in effect and we were away from the main market area where pedestrians were allowed out after dark.

Feeling more relaxed, I stepped away from the house and toward the river. Once again I checked the roof for snipers or gun men. This time I saw the black outlines of two soldiers standing up there and motioning to us below.

It was time to walk around to the other side, to the front door, and go in. I stayed close to the lieutenant.

The other side of the house, the front side of the house, was lit by street lights. Children laughed and kicked around a soccer ball.

Gun shots rang out in the night, closer this time.

“Take a knee,” Lieutenant Lord said to one of his men.

The soldier got down on one knee and pointed his weapon down the street in the direction of the gunfire. The children kept playing soccer as though nothing had happened. I casually leaned against the wall of the house in case something nasty came down the street.

We heard no more shots. It could have been anything.

A soldier pushed open the gate and moved up the stairs toward the front door. I followed cautiously behind the lieutenant to make sure I wouldn’t get hit if something happened.

Up the stairs was an open area in the house that hadn’t yet been finished by the construction workers.

Inside the House Grayat.JPG

Lieutenant Lord had gotten far ahead of me. I found him speaking to an old man and his family. He, his military age son, his wife, and some children were herded into a single small room where everyone could be watched at the same time.

Kids in House Grayat.JPG

“We’re not going to be dicks about it,” he had said, and he lived up to his promise. The family was treated with utmost respect. The old woman blew kisses at us. The children smiled. This was not a raid.

I stepped into the room and noticed a picture of the moderate Shia cleric Ayatollah Sistani on the wall. It suddenly seemed unlikely that this family was hostile. Still, someone in the house had locked and loaded on patrolling American soldiers.

“We have tight relationships with some of the people whose sons are detainees,” Lieutenant Colonel Wilson A. Shoffner had told me earlier. “They don’t approve of their children joining Al Qaeda or the Mahdi Army. The support for these groups really isn’t that high.”

Perhaps the man’s son was the one who had locked and loaded.

The old man handed Lieutenant Lord an AK-47. The lieutenant pulled out the clip.

“Do you have any more guns,” he said. Our Lebanese interpreter translated.

“I have only one gun,” he said. “I am an old man.”

“I have a pistol,” said the man’s son.

“If you go down into Adhamiyah do you take your pistol with you?” said the lieutenant. Adhamiyah is a Sunni-majority area, and this family was Shia.

“No,” he said. “Of course not.”

Old Man and Young Man in House Grayat.JPG

“Someone here locked and loaded on me when we did a foot patrol along the river a while ago,” Lieutenant Lord said. “Who was it?”

The old man laughed. “It was me!” he said and laughed again. He couldn’t stop laughing. He even seemed slightly relieved. “I thought it might have been insurgents! It was dark. I couldn’t see who it was. All Americans are my sons.”

Lieutenant Lord looked at him dubiously.

“What did you see?” he said. “Tell me the story of what you saw.”

“I heard people walking,” said the old man. “I did not see Americans. I looked over the roof and heard who I guess was your interpreter speaking Arabic.”

“Sergeant Miller,” Lieutenant Lord said.

“Sir,” Sergeant Miller said.

“Does that sound right to you?”

“Sounds right to me, LT,” he said.

“If this is a nice neighborhood,” Lieutenant Lord said, “why did you lock and load?”

“I thought maybe there were insurgents down there,” the old man said.

Are there insurgents here?”

“Maybe. I don’t know. I don’t think here, no.”

“Then why lock and load?”

The old man mumbled something.

“Sergeant Miller, I want to separate the old man from his family,” Lieutenant Lord said. “Keep an eye on them.”

The lieutenant walked the old man to the roof. I followed.

“I’m very concerned about what you’re telling me,” he said. “Who is making you live in fear?”

“I’m a good guy,” said the old man.

“I’m not saying you aren’t,” said the lieutenant. “I’m just very concerned that you are afraid of somebody here.”

“It was the first time. It was dark. I couldn’t see. I’m very sorry.”

“It’s okay,” said the lieutenant. “You don’t need to be sorry. You have the right to defend yourself and your home. Just be sure if you have to shoot someone that you know who you’re shooting at. Thank you for your help, and I am sorry for waking you up.”

The old man hugged the lieutenant and kissed him on his both cheeks.

The family waved us goodbye.

“Ma Salema,” I said and felt slightly guilty for being there.

We walked back to the Humvees.

“Do you believe him?” I said to the lieutenant. I have no idea how to tell when an Iraqi is lying.

“I do,” he said. “I think he’s a good guy. His story matched what happened.”

“He didn’t want to answer your question, though,” I said, “about who he is afraid of.”

There are terrible stories around here about the masked men of the death squads. Sometimes they break into people’s houses and asking the children who they’re afraid of. If they name the enemies of the death squad, they are spared. If they name the death squad itself, they and their families are killed. It’s a wicked interrogation because it cannot be beaten — the children don’t know which death squad has broken into the house.

“He didn’t want to say who he’s afraid of because he’s afraid,” Lieutenant Lord said. “If the insurgents find out he gave information to us, or that he helped us, he’s dead.”

Postscript: 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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If you would like to donate for travel and equipment expenses and you don’t want to send money over the Internet, please consider sending a check or money order to:

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Many thanks in advance.

Welcome to Baghdad

By Michael J. Totten

BAGHDAD — Never again will I complain about the inconvenience and discomfort of airports and civilian airline travel delays. You won’t either if make your way from Kuwait to Baghdad in July during a war.

Military planes leave Kuwait every couple of hours for Baghdad International Airport (or BIAP, pronounced BIE-op). The United States Army’s media liaison in Kuwait dropped me off at the airfield so I could take a flight “up.”

I waited twelve hours in a metal folding chair in a room full of soldiers who, for obvious reasons, had priority over me for available seats.

At least I had a meal. On the other side of the base a McDonalds and Pizza Hut were tucked inside trailers supplied by Kellogg, Brown, and Root (KBR). KBR seems to have built almost everything here that the military uses as housing and storage. Out of plywood, plastic, and sheet metal they construct instant aesthetically brutal outposts of America, which somehow look and feel specifically like outposts of Texas.

I ordered a pizza from a Pakistani employee at the Pizza Hut trailer and paid with American dollars. They don’t use coins on the base. They don’t even have coins on the base. If your food costs, say, $5.75 and you pay with six dollars, you’ll get a small round cardboard disk or chit that says “25 cent gift certificate” on it as change.

All night I waited for a flight and was bumped again and again by soldiers on their way to places like War Eagle, Victory, and Fallujah. Finally I got on a manifest and gathered around a gruff barking sergeant with everyone else.

“I want you all back here in 20 minutes,” he bellowed. “First, I want you to go to the bathroom. Then I want to see you standing in front of me with a bottle of water.”

I went to the bathroom even though I didn’t have to. Then, as ordered, I pulled a cold bottle of water out of the fridge. We lined up with our gear and marched single file into the plane. I felt awkwardly out of place and also like I was in the army myself at the same time.

The plane was windowless and loud as 100 lawnmowers. I crammed pink foam plugs into my ears, strapped on my body armor, and seat belted myself into the side of the plane.

“Hang your bags on the hooks!” barked the sarge. “Hang them all the way up!”

“Don’t fall asleep,” said the soldier next to me. “When you see the rest of us grab our helmets, put yours on, too. We’ll be beginning the spiral dive into Baghdad.”

“To avoid flying low over hostiles?” I said.

“Something like that,” he said.

This was not United Airlines.

The funny thing about the steep corkscrew dive is that I couldn’t feel it. Anyone who says it is scary, as some journalists do, is talking b.s. If you can’t look out the window or see the instruments in the cockpit, you’ll have no idea if the plane is right-side up, flying in a straight line, upside down, sideways, or even spinning into a death spiral. I’m not sure how the others knew when to put on their helmets. Perhaps someone signaled. No one could hear anything over the roar of the plane through their ear plugs.

The landing was smooth and felt no different from an American Airlines touch down in Los Angeles. The back of the plane opened up onto the tarmac. Light like a hundred suns blinded my darkness-adjusted and dilated eyes. I could barely make out the dim shape of military aircraft behind us amidst the pure stunning brilliance. My first view of Baghdad looked exactly as I expected it would — like another world.

We dismounted the plane and I stepped into harsh blazing sunshine.

You know how it feels when you get into a black car in the afternoon with the windows rolled up in July? It’s an inferno outside, but inside the car it’s even hotter? That’s how Iraq feels in the shade. Sunlight burns like a blowtorch. If you don’t wear a helmet or soft cap the sun will cook your brain. First you get headaches. Then you end up in the hospital.

Getting from BIAP to the IZ (the International Zone, aka the Green Zone) is an adventure all by itself. First you haul your gear to a bus stop that feels like Crematoria. Then you get on the bus and ride for 45 minutes to an army base. Then you get off that bus and wait an hour to catch another bus. Then you get off that bus and wait for an hour to catch yet another bus to yet another base. Then you wait in the sun yet again — and by this time you’re totally fragged from the heat — and take another damn bus to a helipad.

All this takes hours. You will be no closer to Baghdad than you were when you started. There are no short cuts.

Once you make your way to the helipad you will wait for a flight on a Blackhawk or a Chinook. If you’re a civilian like me, you will fly last.

I waited for my helicopter flight with two other civilians — Willie from Texas and Larry from Florida.

Willie and Larry work construction for private companies in harsh places like Iraq and Afghanistan. They are both well-rounded individuals with Red State tastes and political views and a worldliness and cosmopolitanism that surpasses that of most people who live in the Blue States. They aren’t allowed to tell me how much money they make, but it is many hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.

“You get hooked on making money,” Willie said. “You think you can do it for one year or two, then quit, but it’s like a drug. Or like when you get one tattoo — all of a sudden you want two tattoos. My wife keeps saying, come on, you can do it for just one more year.”

“My wife would hate it if I was out here for years,” I said.

“You get vacation,” Larry said. “You get more vacation than French people. 21 days every four months. And you don’t have to pay taxes if you take your vacation outside the U.S. Your wife can meet you in the Bahamas.”

A KBR employee who coordinates the Blackhawk flights called our names on the manifest.

“Get your gear, let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!”

Military rules require all Blackhawk passengers to wear long-sleeved shirts. This was the first I’d heard of it, and I hadn’t brought any long-sleeved shirts with me to Iraq. Why would I? It’s 120 degrees in the shade.

Willie let me borrow an extra sweatshirt. I put that on, then my body armor, then my helmet, then my sunglasses which double as ballistic eye protection. Then hauled my 100 pounds of gear out onto the landing zone and lined up with the soldiers. KBR and the army made all of us stand there in line, waiting and broiling in the sun. We waited. And waited. And waited. My clothes were as drenched as if I had fallen into a pool. This is the army. Comfort is not a factor. None of the soldiers complain about heat. They just take it, and they get much hotter than me. They wear not only Kevlar like I do, but full kit body armor with SAPI plates.

Our Blackhawk helicopter was ready.

“Move out!” bellowed the KBR flight coordinator.

Larry, Willie, and I ran behind a line of soldiers toward the Blackhawk.

“Hold up!” said the coordinator.

The Blackhawk pilot lifted off without picking up one single passenger.

“Man,” said the coordinator as he shook his head. The roar of the chopper rotors quickly receded. “No one was mission critical so they didn’t want to give anybody a ride. I do not know what to tell you.”

“F*ck!” Willie screamed.

We hauled our gear back to the waiting area and sat. I drank a bottle of water in seconds. It disappeared inside me. I couldn’t even tell I had drank it.

“Last year in Afghanistan,” Larry said, “I waited a week for a flight. Choppers flew in and out all day every day. I showed up on the LZ for every flight, had my gear ready, and kept getting bumped. A whole week, just to fly one from place to another. At least I was on the clock. We might be here a while.”

We were there for a while. Not for a week, but for 12 hours. We kept getting bumped by new soldiers who showed up with places to go. A second time the pilot took off without picking anyone up. I couldn’t figure out why he even bothered to land. Dozens of people needed a ride. On another occasion Larry, Willie, and I made it all the way to the helicopter itself before we got kicked for some reason.

I tried to embrace the suck. Willie got increasingly agitated.

“Good thing I don’t have my glock with me!” he yelled after we got bumped for the sixth time. “I ought to pour a bottle of water on that electrical board over there and short out the whole frigging place.”

After the sun went down the air mercifully cooled, down to 100 degrees or so — which is lovely after 120, especially when there is no longer burning sunlight. Tiny bats flew over the base from the direction of a reedy lake a few hundred meters away. There were no bugs.

I watched helicopters fly over the city in the distance and launch burning white countermeasure flares to confuse heat-seeking missiles as the pilots flew over hostile parts of the city. This was the only evidence I saw that I was in a war zone. I heard no shots fired, and I heard no explosions.

After having spent several days Baghdad’s Green Zone and Red Zone, I still haven’t heard or seen any explosions. It’s a peculiar war. It is almost a not-war. Last July’s war in Northern Israel and Southern Lebanon was hundreds of times more violent and terrifying than this one. Explosions on both sides of the Lebanese-Israeli border were constant when I was there.

You’d think explosions and gunfire define Iraq if you look at this country from far away on the news. They do not. The media is a total distortion machine. Certain areas are still extremely violent, but the country as a whole is defined by heat, not war, at least in the summer. It is Iraq’s most singular characteristic. I dread going outside because it’s hot, not because I’m afraid I will get hurt.

“I read on the Internet that the war costs 60 billion dollars a year,” Larry said.

“Well, if it’s on the Internet it must be true,” I said jokingly.

A soldier heard me and swiveled his head.

“Did you just say that?” he said incredulously. “You’re with the media and you just said that? Man, we ought to throw your ass right out of here.”

I laughed, but he was only barely just kidding.

Most soldiers and officers I’ve casually met so far are not hostile. Most ignore me unless I say hi to them first. Others say hello or good morning first and call me “sir.” Some are eager to chat. They all seem to want to know where I’m from. Lots of them are from Georgia and Texas.

Larry, Willie, and I finally got on a Blackhawk at 2:00 in the morning (oh two hundred in milspeak.) We strapped ourselves in our seats and piled our hundreds of pounds of luggage on top of us.

Blackhawk helicopters don’t have windows. The sides are open to the air. Fierce hot blasts of wind distorted the shape of my face as we flew fast and low over the roof tops and street lights and palm trees and backyards of the city.

Baghdad is gigantic and sprawling. It looks much less ramshackle from the air than I expected. Individual cities-within-a-city are home to millions of people all by themselves. The sheer enormity of the place puts the almost daily car bomb attacks into perspective. The odds that you personally will be anywhere near the next car bomb or IED are microscopic.

A few minutes after takeoff from the helipad we landed on a runway in the IZ, or the Green Zone. The soldiers left in Humvees. Willie, Larry, and I were left at the airbase alone. My two traveling buddies had rides picking them up, but no one was waiting for me, nor would someone show up. I was expected to make my way to CPIC, the press credentialing center, but how could I do that at 2:30 in the morning? There were no taxis or busses to take.

“You can sleep tonight at our compound,” Larry said, “and find your way to the press office tomorrow when it’s open.”

I would have been in trouble if I hadn’t met these two guys. I may have been deposited in the reasonably safe Green Zone, but wandering around loose on my own in Baghdad, in the middle of the night, hauling 100 pounds of luggage, sleep-deprived, in extreme heat, and with nowhere to sleep does not put me in my happy place.

Mike Woodley showed up in an SUV to give Larry a ride. He said he could get me a bed at their compound before he realized I did not yet have a badge.

“They won’t let you in,” he said.

“Can’t we just tell them I’m on my way to CPIC to pick up my badge?” I said.

“Doesn’t matter,” he said. “If you don’t have it, the guards will not let you in.”

“Is there a hotel I can check into?” I said. “What about the Al Rashid?”

“Al Rashid is in the Red Zone,” he said. “And you can’t get in there without a badge either.”

Actually, the Al Rashid is in the Green Zone, right on the edge of it. But Mike was right about the hotel guards not letting me in without a badge. And I needed to get to the press office during business hours to get it.

“What should I do?” I said. I did not want to sleep on the sidewalk in Baghdad.

Mike pondered my options. And he came up with a great one.

“I can get into the embassy with my badge,” he said, “and I can get you a temporary badge and a bed.”

That’s exactly what he did. He got me a temporary badge into the embassy annex, and he got me a bed with a pillow and fresh linens. For only the second time in a week, I got to sleep in a bed. And I was one lucky bastard. The embassy annex, and the bed I got to sleep in, was at the grandest downtown palace built by Saddam Hussein. The tyrant is dead, and I got to sleep at his house on my very first night in his capital. What better welcome to Baghdad could anyone possibly ask for?

Up next: Night patrols on foot with the 82nd Airborne in a Sunni-majority neighborhood of Baghdad’s Red Zone.

Postscript: Please support independent journalism. I can’t publish dispatches on this Web site for free without substantial reader dontations, 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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Bush speech punditry

By Noah Pollak

I intend to post my own comments later, but for now, here’s what other people are saying about President Bush’s Monday speech on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Michael Oren in the “Wall St. Journal”:http://opinionjournal.com/editorial/feature.html?id=110010347:

…there can be no underrating the sea change in America’s policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict brought about by this administration. If, under U.N. Resolution 242, Israelis were expected to relinquish territory and only then receive peace, now the Arabs will have to cede many aspects of peace–non-belligerency and recognition–well in advance of receiving territory.

Similarly, Mr. Bush’s commitment to maintain Israel’s Jewish majority signals the total rescinding of American support for Resolution 194, which provided for refugee return. Moreover, by insisting that the Palestinians first construct durable and transparent institutions before attaining independence, Mr. Bush effectively reversed the process, set out in the 1993 Oslo Accords, whereby the Palestinians would obtain statehood immediately and only later engage in institution building. Peace-for-land, preserving the demographic status quo, and building a civil society prior to achieving statehood–these are the pillars of Mr. Bush’s doctrine on peace.

But will it work? Given the Palestinians’ historical inability to sustain sovereign structures and their repeated (1938, 1947, 1979, 2000) rejection of offers of a state, the chances hardly seem sanguine.

Much of the administration’s hope for a breakthrough rests on the Palestinians’ newly appointed prime minister, Salaam Fayyad, who is purportedly incorruptible. Nevertheless, one righteous man is unlikely to succeed in purging the Palestinian Authority of embezzlement and graft and uniting its multiple militias.

The Saudis will probably balk at the notion of recognizing Israel before it exits the West Bank and Jerusalem, and Palestinian refugees throughout the region will certainly resist any attempt to prevent them from regaining their former homes. Iran and Syria and their Hamas proxies can be counted on to undermine the process at every stage, often with violence.

Yet, despite the scant likelihood of success, Mr. Bush is to be credited for delineating clear and equitable criteria for pursuing Palestinian independence and for drafting a principled blueprint for peace. This alone represents a bold response to Hamas and its backers in Damascus and Tehran. The Palestinians have been given their diplomatic horizon and the choice between “chaos, suffering, and the endless perpetuation of grievance,” and “security and a better life.”

The “New York Sun”:http://www.nysun.com/article/58573:

Most welcome was Mr. Bush’s pointed remark that Israel’s survival as a “Jewish state” is a basic condition; this amounts to a rejection of the Palestinian “right of return.” Mr. Bush is evidently gambling against long odds that the deteriorating circumstances among the Palestinians highlighted by the Hamas take-over in Gaza, requires a lowering of the bar. The Palestinian leader on whom Mr. Bush is placing his bet, Mahmoud Abbas, has been either unwilling or unable to meet the standards set in the 2002 speech. With the Iranian-backed Hamas looming in the wings, Mr. Bush seems focused on the mere survival of Mr. Abbas and his political allies.

John Podhoretz in the “New York Post”:http://www.nypost.com/seven/07172007/postopinion/opedcolumnists/bribing_abbas_opedcolumnists_john_podhoretz.htm:

Bush made it clear yesterday that the choice is in the hands of the Palestinian people. They need to change, not just their leaders.

Which is why – despite Bush’s embrace of diplomatic techniques used in the past solely to put pressure on Israel – supporters of Israel shouldn’t fear the results of yesterday’s speech.

Yes, Bush called for an “international conference.” Yes, he spoke warmly of European and Arab participation in a two-state solution. But he made it clear that, in the American perspective – which is really the only perspective that matters – there will only be a Palestinian state if there is a Palestinian revolution in consciousness.

Guy Bechor, writing in Ynet News, wants to “pack it in”:http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3425515,00.html:

Perhaps the Israeli government has still not internalized the disengagement mentality that is required here, because any involvement in Palestinian issues on our part always ends in a big bang. What we think bolsters Mahmud Abbas usually serves to weaken him and vice versa. Moreover, will one immunity deal or another change the face of the huge conflict raging between the nationalist stream and political Islam in the Arab world?

As we are not familiar with the rules and as real risks to Israel’s security are at stake, such gestures should be avoided as should involvement in the Palestinian world – which is entirely delusional as far as we are concerned.

Should Israel worry about convening the Palestinian national council? Should it bring Naif Hawatmeh here? What’s going on? Have we returned to the delusional years of Oslo? These are delusions whose time has passed, and the Israeli government would do well to avoid the self-deception, the involvement and the ensuing disappointment that will inevitably occur when it all explodes in its face.

Israel would do well to announce it will no longer interfere in Palestinian life. Not in punishing Hamas nor in compensating Fatah; not in unnecessary targeted killings nor in delusional prisoner releases.

We should disengage from the Palestinian world, for better or for worse, and focus on ourselves alone.

Is Ghada Karmi a Zionist agent? Her “advice to the Palestinians”:http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/story/0,,2128187,00.html in the Guardian is so bad that one could be forgiven for thinking so:

Without confronting the contradiction at the heart of the equation, there can be no Israeli-Palestinian or regional peace. Creating an independent Palestinian state against Israel’s wishes, while simultaneously supporting Israel unreservedly, cannot work. Palestinian demands for an Israeli withdrawal from the 1967 territories, the return of refugees and full state sovereignty are all rejected by Israel. The western powers, which could have countered this rejection, are fatally compromised by their devotion to Israel’s regional supremacy. To resolve the impasse, one of the sides of the equation must fall. On past evidence, it will not be Israel’s. So what does Fatah, having excluded Hamas and obeyed western diktat, hope to gain from this incompatible situation?

Tony Blair’s recent appointment as Middle East peace envoy is indicative. Rather than face the basic contradictions fuelling the conflict, the Quartet preferred another pointless gesture that substitutes process for substance, hoping to convince the Arabs that something is being done, but in reality postponing the moment of reckoning. Palestinians, who will pay the price for this prevarication, must expose the basic contradiction in the western position that perpetuates the conflict. They must confront the west with the inconvenient truth: that trying to meet Palestinian demands and indulging Israel are incompatible, doomed objectives. Only by shedding their differences and regrouping to fight their real enemy, and not each other, will the Palestinians have finally learned the lessons of history.

Long live the peace process

By Noah Pollak

President Bush’s “speech Monday”:http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2007/07/20070716-7.html about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict reminded me of an old joke: A physicist, a chemist, and an economist are stranded on an island with nothing to eat, and a can of soup washes ashore. The physicist says, “Let’s smash the can open with a rock.” The chemist says, “Let’s build a fire and heat the can first.” And the economist says, “Assume a can opener.”

The Bush administration, along with most of those who have been involved in promoting Palestinian statehood, have been assuming a peace process since Israel won the Intifada, Yasser Arafat died, and Mahmoud Abbas became the PA president. But the fundamental characteristic of the post-Intifada era is the peace process’s otherworldliness, its detachment from facts on the ground, its salience among internationalists, journalists, and diplomats, but not among the people of Gaza or the West Bank. This era has been for the Palestinians one of settling into a new reality — one that has meant, for example, that the profound cultural and religious differences between the Arabs of Gaza and of the West Bank have at last imposed themselves as political realities. And this settling in has meant that the Palestinian territories are joining many other areas of the Middle East in being weak states, tribal regions where government authority is weak, corrupt, and disorganized, and the political leaders that westerners would like to work with have disturbingly little control over the factions within their territory. Palestinian nationalism and the Fatah mafia have never been weaker.

And so President Bush announced Monday that “First, we are strengthening our financial commitment.” And second, “we’re strengthening our political and diplomatic commitment” and “strengthening our commitment to helping build the institutions of a Palestinian state.” Bush continued, declaring that in order for a state to emerge, Palestinians

must match their words denouncing terror with action to combat terror. The Palestinian government must arrest terrorists, dismantle their infrastructure, and confiscate illegal weapons — as the road map requires. They must work to stop attacks on Israel, and to free the Israeli soldier held hostage by extremists. And they must enforce the law without corruption, so they can earn the trust of their people, and of the world. Taking these steps will enable the Palestinians to have a state of their own. And there’s only way to end the conflict, and nothing less is acceptable.

This is a high bar, and given the track record of the kind of Palestinian governance that the world has witnessed since Yasser Arafat returned from exile in 1994, a preposterously, impossibly high bar. It is doubtful that President Bush or all but a few incredibly credulous people in his government believe that today, after what happened in Gaza last month, hundreds of millions more in aid money, or yet another international conference, will midwife a Palestinian state. Democratic nations are built from the inside out by single-minded, ambitious leaders working on behalf of a population that has internalized not just nationalist cultural beliefs, but the requirements of consensus-based majoritarian politics. Those characteristics have been evident among Palestinians in only the most desultory manner.

Thus it is difficult to believe that the administration’s latest maneuvers and declarations are earnestly directed at state-building. They are necessary and expedient because they satisfy important diplomatic constituencies, will help America in its other Middle East projects, and represent a general continuation of American policy toward the Palestinians that Bush declared in his “Rose Garden speech”:http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2002/06/20020624-3.html in June 2002. American goals since Hamas took Gaza must necessarily be modest, and directed at a new bottom line for the West Bank, a bottom line that America, Israel, Jordan, and even most Palestinians have a shared interest in protecting. And that is to prevent what happened in Gaza from happening in the West Bank, to ensure that Hamas’ ambition, fueled by Iranian money and leadership, finds no foothold in a geographic area that is more populous than Gaza and much more difficult for Israel — and Jordan — to contain.

And so the money and political attention that the world promises will come rushing into the West Bank are not likely to bring us any closer to a Palestinian state, but they might help the Abbas government consolidate its power: Salaries will be paid, militias will be armed, jobs will be created, and patronage networks will be built. All of this will hopefully be sufficient to prevent the West Bank from sliding toward complete internal collapse, toward Islamism, or both. In this way Fatah and the West Bank may be kept, in some kind of messy and largely unproductive manner, in the western diplomatic orbit. The peace process is dead. Long live the peace process.

A Reminder from Eli Khoury

By Noah Pollak

Eli Khoury, in my opinion, is one of modern Lebanon’s great men. He is an ideologically tireless and physically brave advocate for Lebanese independence, a champion of Lebanon’s nascent civil society, a successful businessman, and a sophisticated analyst of local and regional politics. Michael “interviewed him for this blog”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/001380.html in February, and Michael and I spent some time with him in Beirut last December.

I’m ashamed to say that I missed his “op-ed in the Boston Globe”:http://www.boston.com/news/globe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2007/07/12/in_a_region_of_turmoil_lebanon_at_a_crossroads/ last week, a piece that reminds us, amidst the swirl of events in Iraq, Iran, and Gaza, that the Cedar Revolution remains a fragile triumph, and that the new, post-Syrian Lebanon cannot flourish without steadfast international allies.

Today, Lebanon stands at a historic crossroads between being integrated into the international community or remaining under the heavy influences of external forces. Success requires that the government be willing — and empowered — to allow the people of Lebanon to freely put aside sectarianism and unite behind a common vision. It will mean securing borders from the trafficking of arms and terrorists from Syria and Iran. It will mean stopping the proliferation of Syrian-sponsored terrorist groups, particularly amongst Palestinian refugees. And it will mean confronting the rearmament of Hezbollah. …

The United States and the international community must help sustain Lebanon’s sovereignty and democratic progress. The United States must press the UN Security Council to follow through on its prior resolutions intended to prevent arms flows from Syria and Iran, push for disarmament of all militias, starting with those pertaining to Palestinians, and create the tribunal to investigate the Hariri and other assassinations in Lebanon. And it needs to support Lebanese democracy with resources to strengthen democractic institutions.

Most importantly, the United States and its European allies need to support the government in protecting the upcoming presidential elections from foreign intimidators, so that a free president can supervise the democratic progress, consolidate sovereignty, and neutralize Lebanon of regional conflicts.

Read the whole thing.

Polling Gaza

By Noah Pollak

If the results of the latest poll by “Near East Consulting”:http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1184489824500&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull are accurate, it is fair to say that Hamas is turning into its own worst enemy. Many observers, myself included, have maintained that the most productive policy toward Hamas in Gaza should be one of benign neglect, of allowing Hamas to misrule and abuse the territory so that its subjects would come to understand the perils of electing Islamists to power. Even given the attempts of many interlocutors to rescue the Gaza electorate from the consequences of its own choices, this is exactly what appears to be happening now.

Hamas got only 23 percent support, down from 29 percent in the previous survey last month, while Fatah climbed from 31 percent to 43 percent.

The poll, the first major survey since the Hamas takeover, also showed that 66 percent of Hamas supporters said they would vote Fatah if it undertook reforms. …

Trust in the Gaza-based deposed Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas stood at 37 percent, compared to 63 percent for Abbas. [Fatah] Prime Minister Sallam Fayad got higher trust marks than Haniyeh, 62-38 percent.

“A lot of people answering this question said we like Haniyeh more, but we want people who can really deliver,” [Jamil] Rabah [head of Near East Consulting] said. “People are becoming more realistic.”

Al Qaeda in Iran

By Noah Pollak

It is long past time that one important piece of fantastical rubbish be finally sent on its way: this is the idea that Islamists maintain some kind of fastidious ethnic and theological separatism when it comes to who they’re willing to work with on killing people. The co-option of Hamas and Islamic Jihad (Sunni Arab) by Iran (Shia Persian) is one piece of reality that intrudes on this comforting notion; so is the Iran-Syria alliance, along with the reality of Iranian support for both Shia and Sunni insurgents in Iraq.

A final nail in the coffin comes today from Eli Lake, the New York Sun’s talented national security reporter (and good friend). “Eli’s scoop”:http://www.nysun.com/article/58507 is about the National Intelligence Estimate, an unclassified summary of which will be released today, but whose classified final working draft concludes that:

One of two known Al Qaeda leadership councils meets regularly in eastern Iran, where the American intelligence community believes dozens of senior Al Qaeda leaders have reconstituted a good part of the terror conglomerate’s senior leadership structure.

Iranian hospitality toward Al Qaeda is not a new story — but what is new is the apparent fact that one of two Qaeda leadership councils meets in Iran, and with the complicity of the regime. As Eli notes:

An intelligence official sympathetic to the view that it is a matter of Iranian policy to cooperate with Al Qaeda disputed the CIA and State Department view that the Quds Force is operating as a rogue force. “It is just impossible to believe that what the Quds Force does with Al Qaeda does not represent a decision of the government,” the official, who asked not to be identified, said. “It’s a bit like saying the directorate of operations for the CIA is not really carrying out U.S. policy.”

Stories like these reinforce another very basic idea: terrorism has a return address.

In Country

By Michael J. Totten

I finally made it to Baghdad and am scheduled to begin an embed with a unit in a couple of hours. Getting from the U.S. to Kuwait was a royal pain, but it was as luxurious as a stay in a palace compared with getting from Kuwait to Baghdad in July during a war. If you’re a “princess,” don’t ever come here.

I’ll have some fresh material posted as soon as it is possible for me to do so.

Embracing the Suck to Kuwait

By Michael J. Totten

KUWAIT CITY — I have no breaking news to report. I haven’t even made it inside Iraq.

No one should expect a smooth and comfortable trip to Baghdad and Anbar Province — especially not in July — but things shouldn’t have gone south as soon as Chicago.

While listening to my iPod and waiting for my flight at the gate in Ohare Airport, I noticed some teenagers pointing in amazement at the sky outside the window. I pulled out my earbuds. “They can’t make me get on an airplane right now,” one of them said.

The sky boiled with evil black clouds. Lightning zotted across the heavens.

The kid needn’t have worried. No one was allowed to get on an airplane.

I waited sixteen hours in Ohare for a flight to Dulles International Airport in Washington. My flight to Kuwait from Washington left long before I arrived.

When I did finally arrive I had to wait another sixteen hours for a re-booked flight to Germany. In the meantime, every hotel in the region was full. Washington, apparently, had weather delays of its own. The entire eastern half of the United States was snarled in air jams. So I had to spend the night in the airport.

Dulles is not a nice airport. It is not where you want to spend sixteen hours.

Some European airports have nice lounge chairs where you can sort of get comfortable if long delays force you to sleep there. Not Dulles. Only uncomfortable chairs with no head or foot rests are stocked in that airport.

I found a dozen or so wheelchairs stashed in a corner and thought I’d be clever by wheeling one of them over to a row of chairs and giving myself a place to put up my feet. I stuck my noise-reduction earbuds in my ears, donned by sunglasses, put up my feet, and felt good to go. A bed would have been nice, but this beat the floor. I fell asleep instantly.

A half hour later I woke with no circulation in my feet — the wheelchair was higher than the seat and my feet were too high. So I rolled onto the floor and slept flat on the savagely hard marble. All I could do was laugh at how crappy everything was. I was on my way to Iraq, not the Bahamas, and had no right to expect comfort of any kind. At least I was awakened by the BEEP BEEP BEEP of a guy driving a whatever-you-call it loaded with suitcases instead of a car bomb.

My flight didn’t leave until evening, and I’d be damned if I spent another whole day in an airport. So I took a taxi to the Adams Morgan neighborhood and had breakfast with Noah Pollak, who is briefly there from Jerusalem. I sure didn’t expect to see him any time soon.

We thought about walking around the neighborhood, but the heat and humidity turned the air into a thick nasty soup. So we watched a movie in an air-conditioned theater — A Mighty Heart, as it turned out, the film about the kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. This was probably not the best choice of movies to watch on my way to Iraq, but everything else looked insufferably lame and this film turned out to be slightly okay. (The negative reviews are too harsh. It deserves two and a half stars at the worst.)

United Airlines rebooked me on a late flight to Frankfurt on Lufthansa and told me my luggage would be transferred to them and should arrive with me in Kuwait.

“Are you sure my bags will get there?” I said. The whole system was in chaos.

“They will get there, don’t worry,” the agent said.

My bags did not get here. I have no body armor, no helmet, no camera, no laptop, and only one change of clothes. Lufthansa swears my luggage will arrive here this evening, but pardon me if I’m skeptical. According to their online tracking system, they still have no idea where my bags are.

But hey! This is the kind of suck that isn’t too hard to embrace. I have a king size bed to sleep in after spending four days in the claustrophobic airport security and transportation regime. I can eat when I want and even shower. I may have to wash my socks in the sink, but at least I have a sink.

Postscript: Despite the various snags, I should be in Iraq soon enough.

I can’t publish dispatches on this Web site for free without substantial reader dontations, so please 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 independent project.

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The Israeli Economic Miracle

By Noah Pollak

Against the backdrop of the events that typically cause Israel to be in the news — the conflict with the Palestinians, war with Hezbollah, genocidal threats from Iran, and the like — people often forget that there are normal things happening in Israel. And in many cases, extraordinary things, like the amazing performance of the Israeli economy over the past decade. “Haaretz reports”:http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/880525.html that the TA-25, the flagship index of the Israeli stock market, has increased forty percent in the last year. A period that has included a month of warfare, massive public discontent with the Israeli political echelon, and the takeover of Gaza by Hamas.


The TA-25′s performance over the past year.

This remarkable record has been occasionally noted in the press. If you’re curious, you can read pieces in the “Financial Times”:http://www.ft.com/cms/s/090e5dd2-e88e-11db-b2c3-000b5df10621.html, the “Christian Science Monitor”:http://www.csmonitor.com/2006/0522/p01s03-wome.html, and the “Jerusalem Post”:http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1164881847771&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull. And “this profile”:http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/objects/pages/PrintArticleEn.jhtml?itemNo=727337 of one of Israel’s leading venture capitalists by one of Israel’s leading journalists, Ari Shavit, is fascinating.

What accounts for this growth? A vital factor is of course the Israeli culture, which embraces entrepreneurship, risk-taking, and ingenuity. But no economy, no matter how entrepreneurial its people, can flourish in the poisonous soil of socialism. Israel was always strangled by an overbearing bureaucracy, punitive levels of taxation, and suffocating regulatory policies. In 2003, Benjamin Netanyahu became Ariel Sharon’s finance minister, and during his three-year tenure pushed through a set of “market-friendly”:http://www.ft.com/cms/s/8ec69b4e-0867-11dc-b11e-000b5df10621,dwp_uuid=f98b03ba-4d11-11da-ba44-0000779e2340.html, and desperately needed, reforms. The resulting growth is more evidence that Netanyahu’s greatest accomplishment in government is arguably his economic reforms; he is Israel’s Thatcher, and the line we see today that ascends across the TA-25 index is in large part owed to Bibi.

Add Israel’s to the list of economies that have been saved from self-destruction by simple and obvious market reforms.

On My Way to Kuwait

By Michael J. Totten

I’m leaving for Kuwait now, and should be in Iraq by the end of the week. Co-blogger Noah Pollak is coming out of hiding and will help keep fresh content on the site while I’m in travel limbo and out in the field gathering new material. Be nice in the comments and keep an eye on America for me while I’m away.


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