The Next Iranian Revolution

Reason Cover Next Iranian Revolution.jpg

Reason Magazine just published an article I wrote this summer called The Next Iranian Revolution, about Kurdish Iranian exiles in Iraq plotting revolution against the regime of the Islamic Republic. There are two groups of armed revolutionaries just outside the city of Suleimaniya; one is liberal, and the other is communist. Both call themselves Komala. I wrote about these people on the blog in the spring but there’s quite a bit of material in the magazine that I didn’t cover here. The article only exists today in the dead tree version, but will appear online later this month. Below is an excerpt.

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

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

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

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

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

Read the rest in the October issue of Reason Magazine, which should be available now in book stores and news stands. (Or you can wait for the free online version.)

In the New York Daily News

The opinion page editor of the New York Daily News asked me to write an article for him and say whether I think the surge in Iraq is working or not. The truth is that it’s complicated, and I could easily write 10,000 words on the subject. But I was limited to 650 words because there is only so much space on his page. Ah, newspapers. The Internet has spoiled me.

So here’s the really really short version of what I think of the surge.

The Future of Iraq

by Michael J. Totten

Iraqi Flag Mushadah.JPG

MUSHADAH, IRAQ — “Al Qaeda terrifies locals,” said Major Mike Garcia from Canyon, Texas, before he put me in a convoy of Humvees with 18 American Military Police on their way to the small town of Mushadah just north of Baghdad. “The only people Iraqis may be more afraid of is their mothers. When we arrest or detain people and threaten to call up their mom, they completely freak out. Please, no, don’t tell my mother they say. Women are quiet outside the house, but they severely smack down their bad kids inside the house. When your Iraqi mother tells you to knock something off, you knock it off.”

The American military has slowly figured out how to leverage Iraq’s culture to its advantage, but it only works to an extent. Locating, killing, capturing, and interrogating terrorists and insurgents is the easy part. The hard part is training Iraqis to do it themselves.

Our destination in Mushadah was the local police station where American Military Police train and equip Iraqi Police, and where it’s still too dangerous for either Iraqis or Americans to walk the streets.

“I am not trying to scare you,” said Captain Maryanne Naro, from Fort Drum, New York. “But don’t get out of your vehicle unless something catastrophic has happened to it.”

I walked the streets of Baghdad every day with soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division, but that clearly wasn’t going to happen in Mushadah.

“It’s pretty bad up there,” she added. “AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq] is all over the area because they’ve been pushed out of Baghdad, Ramadi, and Fallujah.”

Just driving to Mushadah from the base at Camp Taji was dangerous in a weird sort of way.

“Our convoys are hit with IEDs every day on the road,” she said.

I swallowed hard. “Should I really be going up there?” I said.

“Oh, don’t worry,” she said. “It’s fine.”

I laughed. It’s fine? How is that fine? Nothing, except perhaps kidnappers, is scarier in Iraq than IEDs, especially now that Iranian-manufactured armor-piercing EFPs — Explosively Formed Penetrators — are deployed by Shia militias.

“None of us have been hurt,” she said. “They’re just small harassment attacks. Most of the IEDs are mortar rounds, and the Humvees are armored. They usually just pop tires and blow off our mirrors. They do it to piss us off.”

“The route clearance team is out there right now,” said mission leader Sergeant James Babcock, from Adams, New York, as he showed me which of the five Humvees I was to ride in.

Mine was in the middle of the convoy. The Humvee behind mine was recently hit with an IED.

Humvee Shrapnel Mushadah.JPG

“That shrapnel can’t go through the armor,” Sergeant Babcock said when he saw me taking a photograph of the damage. “The doors are armored and the windows are bulletproof. All that shrapnel did was tear holes in the trunk and rip through cases of Gatorade. It was kind of annoying.”

“No one fires off EFPs in the area?” I said, referring to the unstoppable molten copper penetrators.

“Nah,” he said. “It’s just Al Qaeda here.” Sunni insurgents and terrorists don’t have access to the Iranian-made weapons.

“There’s a lot of harassment,” Captain Naro said, “and not a lot of competence.”

We saddled up and left Camp Taji to the north. Everyone locked and loaded their weapons on the way out the gate.

“Hopefully we won’t have any fireworks for you today,” my driver said.

Well, I thought, it certainly would be interesting if there are some fireworks for me today. Not every Humvee in Iraq is up-armored, and not every IED-laced road in Iraq is free of those terrifying EFPs. And so, I figured, if I’m ever going to be hit with an IED, let it be today.

It was a strange feeling, a bit like being in a shark cage — inches away from mortal peril, but kinda sorta okay…as long as an IED didn’t explode under the vehicle.

“AQI always puts the IEDs in the same places on this road, in culverts and holes they already dug,” Captain Naro said. “We just swerve around them.”

“Are they stupid?” I said.

She gave me a look, as if the question was a little too cocky, that it was dangerous to dismiss Al Qaeda as stupid. I agree, of course, in general, but I can’t help but think putting IEDs in the same places over and over again isn’t too bright.

Getting into a Humvee with the Army in a war zone all by itself can be a little bit stressful. The ranking officer inside often reminds everyone else of the safety procedures — which are not at all like the safety procedures you’ll hear from a stewardess on United Airlines just before take off.

“Combat lock!” he might yell, which means everyone must lock their door so no one can open it from the outside and shoot people inside.

“Everybody remember what to do if someone throws a grenade in the truck?”

No, I did not remember. It is not something anyone ever taught me.

“Yell grenade grenade grenade and get the hell out as quickly as possible. If you don’t have time to get out, turn your back to the blast and hope for the best.”

The drive from Camp Taji to Mushadah only took 20 minutes, and our Humvee drivers swerved suddenly and dramatically 8 or 9 times to avoid possible IEDs. They also drove the Humvees about as fast as they could. The assumption was that the IEDs on this road were manually detonated by a trigger man. There are many places to hide.

Trees on Road to Mushadah.JPG

Fast moving targets are harder to hit. And because the IEDs don’t explode on their own, the odds of any Humvee in particular being hit were no greater or less than the odds of any other Humvee being hit. Riding in the front of the convoy was no more dangerous than riding anywhere else. And riding in the middle or in the rear wasn’t safer. Of course that didn’t stop me from trying to convince myself that I rode in the lucky Humvee that wouldn’t be hit for some reason. Everyone does it.

Convoy to Mushadah.JPG

There weren’t any fireworks that day, at least not against my convoy. But we still weren’t quite safe once we reached the police station.

“Get inside,” Sergeant Anthnoy Doucet, from Lake Charles, Louisiana, said to me when we stepped out of the Humvees. “This place is a mortar magnet.”


Every place in Iraq is hot during the summer, but the Mushadah police station was merciless. Only two rooms had air conditioning. The rest were miserable sweat boxes.

Captain Maryanne Naro was supposed to join us, but she had to remain at Camp Taji. That was too bad. I was hoping to see how the Iraqi Police interacted in person with an American woman who outranked almost all of them.

“The police won’t leave the station,” Major Garcia said, “unless Americans are there to protect them. They wouldn’t leave under any circumstances until Captain Naro showed up and was willing to go out on patrol. They were ashamed that a woman had more guts than they did.”

Iraqi Cop Mushadah.JPG

“They will go out alone now for something real basic,” she said. “Otherwise if Americans aren’t with them they’ll hide in the station. They’re hard to work with at times, like they’re kids.”

Incompetence, though, is the least of their problems.

“About half of them are corrupted,” she said, “and it’s hard to get the bad ones out. Some of the higher ups are corrupted too, but it’s hard to prove. They help AQI, they set up illegal checkpoints, and they raid civilian houses so they can steal stuff.”

Not surprisingly then, local civilians are just as afraid of the police as the uncorrupted police are afraid of the neighborhood.

“Locals come in here all the time and talk to Americans,” she told me. “They’re afraid to give intel to the Iraqi Police.”

Mushadah is a bad area with bad police and a bad police station. The building itself is filthy and ramshackle. The stairs to the second floor are murderously uneven, not because they’ve been damaged but because they were built by incompetents. I’ve seen dodgy construction in Iraq — even at Saddam’s palaces, believe it or not — but this station was the worst. I’ll spare you a description of the bathroom.

There was a protective wall in front of the station, but it had recently been destroyed by a mortar round.

Rubble Mushadah.JPG

Another wall on the south side of the building was blown over during a spring wind storm.

The whole place was almost destroyed not long ago. An Al Qaeda suicide bomber filled a dump truck with explosives and tried to ram it into the building, but he drove too fast around a corner and the whole thing tipped over. Everyone would have been killed had he succeeded.

Sergeant Doucet led me to the front door from the inside so I could photograph some of the Iraqi Police standing at attention.

Iraqi Police Mushadah.JPG

“How many of these guys do you suppose are Al Qaeda infiltrators?” I said. I just couldn’t look at them without wondering.

“I don’t know,” he said. “We speculate about it. We don’t investigate them or anything like that.”

“You don’t?” I said. “Why not?”

“We aren’t passive about it,” he said. “If we suspect someone has gone over the edge, he’ll raise a red flag and we’ll deal with it.”

“How much support do you get from local civilians?” I said.

“Locals bring in tips against bad guys all the time,” he said. “Several times a week. What they tell us is not very tangible though. Sometimes it’s useless. Someone will come in here and scream There’s bad guys out there! We’ll ask where. To the west! they’ll say. Well, no crap.”

Doucet Mushadah.jpg

Sergeant Doucet

“Residents are still afraid to give intel on bad guys,” he continued. “Insurgents will kill them if they do. The area is totally unsecured. Even if we question people who live right in front of an IED trigger point they won’t say anything. But, look, forget what you see on the news. People in this community are just like people in any other community. This guy is pissed off at that guy, and you have to deal with it.”

I’ve been in parts of Iraq where local civilians cooperate with the army and police and where they do not. Civilians cooperate as much as security on the streets will permit them. The dynamic here isn’t all that hard to understand, or even that foreign. If you want to see how this has played out in America, watch Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, the classic film from 1954 starring Marlon Brando about the mafia’s infiltration of a longshoreman’s union. No one in that story wanted to cooperate with the police in their murder investigations against the mob because they were terrified of being “next” if they did.

“We have a medical facility here,” Sergeant Doucet said. “Local civilians can come here and use it, and they do.”

They did while I was there. A three year old boy was badly burned at his house — how, I don’t know — and he was brought in to be treated by a medic.

Injured Boy Mushadah.jpg

I let the medic tend to the boy and stepped into the Tactical Operations Center, one of only two rooms in the station that had air conditioning.

“Hello again, sir,” Sergeant Babcock said and pulled up a chair for me. He then gave me more background and asked me not to take pictures of anything in that room.

“Lots of Iraqi Police here had orders to work in Baghdad,” he said, “but they refused. They are Sunnis. This is a Sunni area. Baghdad, as you know, is mostly Shia. Their names and license plates mark them for death. They work here but are counted as AWOL and are not being paid.”

Some of the Iraqi police are honorable men. (And they are all men.) I don’t want to leave you with the impression that all of them are terrorist infiltrators. They aren’t.

“Because of logistics problems we have to go to Baghdad for fuel,” Sergeant Babcock said, “and we have to go to a Shia area. It’s very dangerous for them and they ask us to go with them. They have problems getting ammo as well. There are always problems with ammo.”

And there are severe problems with other stations.

“The Taramiyah station was hit by insurgents earlier this spring,” he said. “It was completely destroyed. Only six officers from that station are brave enough to come to work here.”

Poster Mushadah.JPG

He introduced me to the man in charge of the station, Captain J. Dow Covey from New York City.

“Do you know the Weekly Standard magazine?” Captain Covey asked me.

“Of course,” I said.

“My buddy Tom Cotton was just written up there,” he said. “It was pretty cool seeing him in that magazine.”

“What did he do to get in the magazine?” I said.

“He’s like me,” he said. “He’s a Harvard Law grad who joined the Army after 9/11. I’m an attorney.”

“You’re an attorney?” I said. “What are you doing out here in Iraq?”

“I practiced law for three years,” he said, “then got into investment banking. When 9/11 happened I just had to sign up with the Army. Investment banking is a lot more stressful than this.”

“You’re kidding, right?” I said.

“No,” he said and laughed. “I am totally serious.”

If he was deployed in, say, Kurdistan I could see it. But Mushadah was stressful. Less stressful than investment banking? Investment banking in New York must really be something.


Not much happened the first half of my day at the station, so I lounged with the MPs in their broiling quarters.

Soldier and Sandbags Mushadah.jpg

Soldier Mushadah.jpg

None of them had anything positive to say about the Iraqi Police they were training.

“What can you really ask for in a lazy society? You go in their houses and the floors and covered in pillows.”

“You can tell who is corrupt because their convoys never get hit.”

“This place wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t so fucking hot. I can deal with being shot at and blown up, but 150 degrees is a bit much.”

“Some Iraqi Police recently left the station, we got hit with a bunch of mortars, then they came right back inside. This sort of thing happens a lot. It makes us suspicious.”

“We’re giving them 50,000 dollar Chevy trucks and it’s like a junkyard out back. It’s like Sanford and Son out there. They drive stuff better than we can afford, and they don’t even take care of it.”

“I miss Baghdad. One day we’d be walking out on the street buying sandwiches and playing soccer with kids. The next day we’d get in a firefight with burning tires and RPGs and shit. The next day we’d be hanging out and chilling like normal again. It’s a weird place, and really keeps you on your toes.”

“It’s not like Germany or Japan where people wanted a change. The Kurds up north wanted a change, so they got one. The Arabs don’t, so they aren’t. They hardly change even with us here.”

The Iraqi Army in the area isn’t faring much better.

“They are severely infiltrated by Al Qaeda and the Mahdi Army,” Colonel John Steele, from Dover, New Hampshire, told me back at Camp Taji.

The Iraqi Army soldiers who aren’t double agents are still nowhere near ready to defend their own country.

“We assess, train, and help provide logistical support to prevent catastrophic failure,” he said. “Their logistics are very immature. They are always short on ammo. And we have to hold their hands and make sure they don’t kill themselves and others. We still do some unilateral U.S. actions even though we want to become partnered with the Iraqi Army in all our operations. But we first want to make sure they have all the skills they need to survive in combat.”

Most American soldiers I spoke to about the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police, not just in Mushadah but also in Baghdad, have a dim view of their local counterparts. (The situation is strikingly different in Anbar Province, and I’ll get to that in future articles.) I wanted to know what the colonel thought.

“Do you trust them?” I said.

He paused for a long time and answered very carefully.

“We won’t tell them about sensitive operations until the last second,” he said. “I trust some individuals, though, because I know them. I’d share a foxhole with them as far as ideology goes, but I’m not sure how good their skills are when they are shot.”

Pride is much more important in Arab culture than it is in the West. Humiliation is therefore more painful. I wondered if this created problems when Americans train Iraqi soldiers and police officers. What must it feel like for local men to be yelled at by foreigners who showed up uninvited and knew their job better than they did?

Colonel Steele insists it isn’t a problem.

“They don’t want to be babied,” he said. “They want to be treated as equals and adults. Their shame culture actually helps. Our new recruits recently complained about having sore feet during a march. When they noticed our female soldiers are in better shape than they are, they never complained again. Also, when we first had them try on our body armor, it nearly broke their spines. They want to be physically capable of wearing it, too.”

It’s at least possible that some of the infiltrators may be turned over time. Some former insurgents elsewhere in Iraq are now openly siding with the Americans.

There also is this: “We give them rudimentary skills and a work ethic,” he told me. “They attend the same classes on character and honor and professional conduct becoming a soldier that our own people attend.”

Is he optimistic?

“I am optimistic,” he said. “But only for one single reason. Because I talk to the average Joe in Iraq. I meet the children and parents. Iraqi parents love their children as much as I love mine.”

I knew what he meant. Counterintuitive and contradictory as it may seem, I never felt more optimistic in Iraq than I did when I walked the streets and interacted with average Iraqis. Iraq looks more doomed from inside the base than it does outside on the street, and it looks more doomed from across the Atlantic than it does from inside the base.

Major Mike Garcia said this view of Iraq is typical. “Soldiers who don’t leave the FOB [Forward Operating Base] are more likely to be pessimistic than those who go out on patrol. They’re less aware of what’s actually happening and have fewer reality checks on their gloom.”


Sergeant Babcock invited me to a meeting with Iraqi Police Colonel Hameed, the man who was responsible for the station on the Iraqi side. Sergeant Babcock, Sergeant Doucet, an interpreter, the colonel, and I sat together in the only other room at the station that had air conditioning.

“You are most welcome,” the colonel said to me in a noticeably insincere tone of voice. Some of the MPs think he’s corrupt. I don’t know if that means they think he works with Al Qaeda.

“Thank you,” I said. “May I take your picture?”

“No,” he said, “please don’t.” It didn’t sound like he actually cared though, as if he was just going through the motions of needing protection from terrorists.

He and the American MPs discussed fuel logistics.

“The only reason the Iraqi Police got fuel on the last mission,” he said, “is because you were with us. Otherwise they wouldn’t have given us anything.”

Suddenly Captain Covey, the New York City attorney, nearly broke down the door as he barged into the room.

“Hey!” he screamed at the colonel. “I’m tired of you motherfuckers stealing our fuel cans. I’m going to kick all you motherfuckers out of here. I’m sorry for interrupting your little meeting, but at noon I want every single one of you people off this post.” He stared at the interpreter. “Translate that!” he said.

He slammed the door behind him. Everyone just looked at each other. A quietly horrified expression washed over the face of the colonel when he saw me taking notes.

The meeting was over, obviously. I stepped into the hallway and asked the nearest MP what was going on.

“61 fuel cans have been stolen over the last week by Iraqi police officers here,” he said. “Three more were stolen today. These are fuel cans that Iraqis and Americans risk their lives to go get.”

The tension in the hallway was palpable. None of the Iraqi Police could look me in the eye.

“Can the captain really kick the Iraqis out of here?” I asked Sergeant Babcock.

“Actually, he can,” he said. He sounded mortified at the idea.

Colonel Hameed walked up to Sergeant Babcock. He was furious.

“Your captain offended us by coming in here and yelling like that,” he said. “I need you to find a solution.”

“I’m a staff sergeant,” Sergeant Babcock said. “He’s a captain. I’m also an MP and he’s Infantry. I have to obey him whether I like it or not.”

“This station does not belong to his family,” the colonel said curtly. “This is unacceptable. The building is ours, and he is our guest. A guest cannot fire the owner of the house.”

“We’ll go talk to him and come back,” Sergeant Babcock said.

As it turned out, the whole thing was a screw up. Somebody forgot to update the board and account for three fuel cans that were taken legitimately.

Captain Covey was embarrassed.

“Would you really have kicked them all out of here?” I said.

“In the state of mind I was in then, yes,” he said. “I was ready to do it. But I calmed down and would have gotten in trouble anyway. So no, I wouldn’t have actually done it.”

61 fuel cans really had been stolen that week, however. The Iraqi Police were in serious trouble.

Another Iraqi Police colonel, whose name I did not catch and whom no one thinks is corrupt, arrived on the scene and screamed himself hoarse at his deputies.

“Coalition Forces are screaming at us!” he hollered. “Screaming at us because you keep stealing fuel!”

Angry Colonel Mushadah.jpg

He kicked an empty metal garbage can and clangingly knocked it over. The Iraqi Police glowered at him as if they wanted to scream back and were trying mightily to restrain themselves.

An American MP walked past me. “That’s the first time I’ve seen those guys yelled at,” he said and grinned with satisfaction.


Shortly after noon an International Police Advisor from Michigan named Paul taught an hour-long class to the Iraqi Police officers about taking weapons from potentially dangerous people who are under arrest. The officers seemed to learn as much sitting through that course as I did. Apparently they had never gone over the procedures before.

I couldn’t help wondering as I watched the Iraqis…which of you work for Al Qaeda?

Police Training Mushadah.JPG

Maybe no one in the photo works for Al Qaeda. I don’t have a sense of how many infiltrators there actually are, although Captain Naro thinks the number could be as high as 50 percent.

Is it really a good idea to train these men with that in mind?

“Please don’t publish my picture,” Paul said to me after the class. “And use only my first name. Only my wife knows I’m in Iraq.”

I wanted to know what he thought of the trainees. He has trained police officers all over the world, not just in Iraq and the United States. He could, perhaps, see them through more worldly eyes than the American MPs who had a narrower range of experience.

“They’ve made leaps and bounds in the past two months,” he said. “Every day they make progress. Today they made progress.”

“Are you optimistic about them?” I said.

“Oh, absolutely,” he said. “The Iraqi Police are like sponges. It’s all new to them.”

“Lots of American soldiers I’ve talked to about the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police don’t think very highly of them,” I said.

“Look,” he said. “The other contractors I know who train the police are also optimistic. Many file extensions to stay longer because they feel like they’re making a difference. I never hear anything negative from any of them. We watch the Iraqis progress over time because we work with them daily. Most American soldiers don’t see the progress because they observe the Iraqis from more of a distance. You yourself are only seeing a snapshot in time. If you think it looks bad now, you should have been here two months ago.”

It was time to head back to Camp Taji. The MPs and I saddled up in our Humvees while, in front of us, Iraqi Police piled into their trucks. We would escort them out of the station, then they would be on their own. They were going out alone, apparently for something “real basic,” as Captain Naro had told me.

The Iraqi Police truck in front of my Humvee had an office chair crazily bolted into the flatbed. A policeman strapped himself into that and manned a mounted machine gun. .

Police Truck Mushadah.jpg

“Is he really going out all exposed like that?” I said.

“He is,” Sergeant Babcock said. “I can’t quite decide if that’s pathetic or if it’s a testament to the human spirit. Maybe it’s a little of both.”

We drove back down IED Alley to Camp Taji. It was 4:00 in the afternoon, and so unbearably hot. The air conditioner in the Humvee hardly did anything. I desperately wanted a shower so I could wash Iraq off my skin.

Nothing exploded on our way back.

Major Garcia wanted to know what I thought. I didn’t know what to say.

“Whether we like it or not,” he said, “and whether we like them or not, they are the future of this country.”

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.

The Accidental War Correspondent

I’m almost finished with my next dispatch from Iraq and should have it published later today. While I’m wrapping that up, take a look at food journalist Anthony Bourdain’s hour-long TV episode from Beirut last year. Someone did us the favor of uploading it to You Tube. Bourdain went to Lebanon to film a show about restaurants, but he went in July and ended up as a war correspondent of sorts on accident until he was rescued by the Marines.

He did a better job covering Lebanon than many, if not most, foreign correspondents even though he’s “only” a food journalist. Somebody should give him a prize.

Weekend Quote

Michael Yon sums up General David Petraeus, Iraq, and the surge in one sentence:

It took enormous guts to take the job at this stage of the war, when it’s like an airplane with one of the wings blown off, and there is this pilot in the back of the airplane who easily could have parachuted out the back—where some of the others already have gone—but instead he says, “I can still fly this thing!

You should read the whole thing, though, not just the one sentence.

The Worst Since 9/11

Sam Munson recruited me to post occasional pieces at Commentary magazine’s blog Contentions. (Noah Pollak has also been signed up, by the way.)

My dispatches from abroad will be published here as always, but some shorter posts will appear over there once in a while. My first, about Al Qaeda’s mega attack against a Yezidi refugee camp, is up now: The Worst Since 9/11.

How to Spy in Iraq

By Michael J. Totten

BAGHDAD — American soldiers arrived in Iraq in 2003 with not much of a plan and little idea what to expect. The Iraqi government, military, and police were overthrown and disbanded under de-Baathification. Most Iraqis who knew how to run the country were either sent home or imprisoned. Americans were in charge of just about everything even though they had no experience running even their own country let alone a traumatized and suspicious Arab society. They were confounded by its exotic and dysfunctional ways. When Sunni and Shia militias launched wars against each other and against the Americans, confusion turned to bewilderment.

General David Petraeus fared better than other American commanders in cracking the code of Iraqi society and reducing the insurgency in Mosul from an explosion to a simmer. I saw some of the results of his strategy’s expansion to Baghdad with troops in the 82nd Airborne Division. Instead of staying on base and training Iraqis while security disintegrated outside the wire, they moved into a neighborhood in Baghdad where they now live and work among the civilian population 24 hours a day.

Clear, hold, and build is the strategy now. The Graya’at neighborhood has been cleared of active insurgents, although there still are dormant cells in the area. The Army is working on several modest community and urban renewal projects and is planning larger ones in the near future. Constant patrols and intelligence gathering are the two crucial pieces of the hold part of the strategy.

I went out one night with Lieutenant Larry Pitts and his men one of their intel gathering missions.

“We’ll collect info on Shias in Sunni areas and Sunnis in Shia areas,” he told me. “We make the best of it by going out and meeting the local people. It works because we have a decent reputation around here that we’ve been cultivating for a long time. Reporters would get it more if they were with us from the beginning.”

We saddled up in Humvees, drove down quiet residential streets, and dismounted on a street near a palm grove.

Children came out of their houses to meet us.

Kids Baghdad with Lt Pitts.jpg

We walked, and kept walking, so the parked Humvees would give no indication whose house we were going to visit. When we eventually reached our destination, some of the soldiers dispersed and set up checkpoints several blocks away in each direction.

“We’re trying to make it slightly less obvious that we’re having a meeting here,” Lieutenant Pitts said.

Two families of men, women, and children met us on the lawn inside the gate. Hugs and formal greetings in Arabic were exchanged. Everyone seemed happy to see everyone else. The soldiers had been to this house before. No one but me was a stranger. I was instantly made to feel welcome, however. No people in the world are more hospitable than Arabs, and that includes Iraqis in war time.

A handful of soldiers went inside and made their way to the roof. There they could watch the entire street with their night vision goggles and take out anyone stupid enough to mount an attack on the house. Soldiers are killed in Iraq every day, but it’s still hard to feel nervous even in Baghdad when you’re surrounded by these guys.

The night was reasonably cool for Baghdad in the summer. The temperature rarely drops below 100 degrees Fahrenheit before midnight, but this night it felt like a cool 90 by ten p.m.

Plastic lawn chairs were arranged in a circle on the grass. I expected a relaxing evening of important conversation in comfort. The lawn chairs, though, were not for us. The owner of the house said we should have our meeting inside.

“He owns a store,” Lieutenant Pitts said to me on the way in. “He sells us phone cards and stuff at the right price, not at a jacked up rate. We call his store Wal-Mart.”

Inside the house was brutally hot. The lights were on, but the air conditioner was off. The fierce heat of the day couldn’t escape into the atmosphere like it could in the yard. If we were in the U.S. I would have suggested we sit outside, but I was the stranger and a mere observer in a foreign land and was not about to complain.

The home owner turned on the air conditioner, but it would take a long time for the room to cool down.

“Can I take pictures?” I asked him.

“Of course, of course,” he said. “Just please don’t publish pictures of our faces in Iraq.”

Publishing pictures on the Internet is the same as publishing pictures in Iraq. So I have to be careful about what I let you see. I can’t show you the faces of any Iraqis.

The living room, or salon, was bigger than the entire downstairs of my house in the United States. Most Iraqis live in large houses, but this one was also lavishly decorated with plush couches, nice oak cabinets, and tasteful decorations. The occupants had a much better sense of aesthetics than Saddam Hussein’s family, who decorated their tacky palaces as though they were the Beverly Hillbillies of the Arabs.

We all took our seats on the large billowing sofas. An eleven year old boy placed a small wooden table in front of each of us and served soft drinks and tea.

Tea Baghdad with Lt Pitts.jpg

The soldiers and the Iraqis discussed the rather mundane minutiae of joint community projects. I wrote down much of the dialogue, but it is not terribly interesting and, besides, I wouldn’t want to reveal too much about who these Iraqis are and what they do. Everyone in the community knows they work with Americans. What they don’t know is that they also pass on reliable and actionable intelligence to the military about the identities and whereabouts of terrorists and insurgents.

Lieutenant Pitts passed around a bag of salted American peanuts. Each Iraqi took a handful and wasn’t sure what to do with them.

“They’re peanuts,” he said. “Just like the peanuts you eat, only they’re still in the shell.”

The owner of the house broke open a peanut with his hands.

“No,” Lieutenant Pitts said. “You need to put it in your mouth and suck the salt off it first.”

The children in the room smiled at me and asked me over and over again to please take their picture. I can’t show you their faces, though, because I do not want to put them in danger.

“We brought toys for the kids,” Lieutenant Pitts said. Sergeant Roma and another soldier whose name I didn’t catch handed out Beanie Babies, toy trucks, and coloring books as though they were Christmas presents. One of the boys sprawled on the floor and “drove” his toy truck across the carpet while making loud “vroom” noises.

“Everyone working on the [omitted] project should be paid by the end of the week,” Lieutenant Pitts said.

“Thank you, Captain,” said the man who owned the house. It was the second time he referred to Pitts as a captain.

“I’m a lieutenant, not a captain,” Lieutenant Pitts said. “So please don’t call me captain. If one of my superior officers were sitting here and heard you call me a captain he might get mad at me and think I’m misrepresenting myself.”

Lt Pitts Baghdad.jpg

Lieutenant Larry Pitts

I leaned over and whispered to the lieutenant. “You didn’t come here to talk about community projects, did you?”

“Of course not,” he said. “We’re fishing for something else. It’s a process. Some new lieutenants don’t get the culture, and the locals won’t give them the time of day. How many times have you let total strangers in your house and given them everything they wanted right away?”

The air conditioning was on, I had taken off my body armor and helmet, but I was still roasting. The couch seat and cushions radiated an extraordinary amount of heat that had built up all day. Almost every damn thing in Iraq is hot to the touch, even cushions. I felt as though I was standing too close to a campfire, but I could not step away.

Lieutenant Pitts’ radio squawked. He answered and grinned as the soldier on the other end of the conversation gave him the humorous news.

“They just caught a DUI at the checkpoint outside,” he said.

The soldiers all laughed. Our interpreter Nathan translated, and the Iraqis laughed too.

“What do you do with a DUI?” I said.

Lieutenant Pitts shrugged and shook his head. American soldiers in areas cleared of insurgents act like police officers in many ways — Baghdad P.D. as one soldier put it — but they can’t be bothered with trivial matters like these. That’s for the Iraqi Police who probably don’t care much about drunk drivers either. There are so many more critical problems in Baghdad.

For hours we lounged on the sofas and discussed minor community matters and touched on subjects that were utterly trivial.

Nathan asked our host for a cigarette. He was given a long brown “More” brand menthol.

“Nathan is smoking!” said Sergeant Roma.

“Since when do you smoke?” said the soldier at the far end of the room whose name and rank I didn’t catch.

“It’s my first cigarette ever,” Nathan said.

It was hard to believe Nathan had never once smoked a cigarette. He grew up in Sadr City. Almost everyone in Iraq seems to smoke.

I took a picture of the occasion. Nathan didn’t mind.

Nathan First Cigarette.jpg

Interpreter Nathan smokes his first cigarette

Lieutenant Pitts wiped the sweat off his forehead.

“You Iraqis have the right idea wearing dishdashas,” he said. The dishdasha is the loose-fitting white “robe” worn by many Arab men in hot regions. “They’re a lot more comfortable in this heat than our uniforms. I asked the colonel if I started wearing a dishdasha around the base in my off time if he would think I was crazy. He said he would send me away.”

Everyone laughed. If the Iraqis were offended — and Pitts did not mean his comment that way — they didn’t show it.

“The soccer field you’re building,” said our host to the lieutenant, “is great for the kids, but it also helps with security. Insurgents were using that area as a base. Thank you, thank you.” He put his hand on his heart.

“Listen,” said another Iraqi, who wore a long black beard as well as a dishdasha. “I have something to tell you, but it has to be away from the children.”

He said this in English so the children would not understand. A young man led them outside and suggested they play with their new toys on the lawn.

“When you came and liberated this country,” he continued, “Iraq had 25 million Saddams. America is turning us back into human beings. That soccer field is not for a specific person. It is for everybody. We appreciate that. We believe that if Americans have something that is ours, they will return it to us. If the Iraqi government has something that is ours, we forget it.”

Our host for the evening nodded in agreement.

“We support you,” the man continued. “You support our back, we support your back. But you must understand: If you pull back, we will pull back. I will have no choice but to pull back if I can’t depend on you. It will be much harder for us to stand together. But as long as you stand firmly behind us we will support you against Moqtada al Sadr and the other bastards in the area.”

“Are they Sunnis?” I said to Lieutenant Pitts. Moqtada al Sadr leads the radical Shia Mahdi Army militia.

“No,” he said. “They are Shias. But they don’t like any of the idiot groups, regardless of sect. They want peace.”

It was late at night, but the Iraqis said we needed to eat. I had no idea, but in hindsight I should have known. It seems no Arab is happy if I’m in his house and he isn’t feeding me.

“Come to the table,” said our host. “Let’s have some chicken.”

The soldiers and I walked to the table in the next room and found an enormous spread of barbecued chicken, lamb kebabs, vegetables, and tearable flat bread. The Iraqis deferred to the soldiers, and the soldiers deferred to me. I was the lone foreign civilian, so I was expected to go first. There were no chairs at the table.

“Just stand and eat at the table,” Lieutenant Pitts whispered to me.

There was also no silverware. Iraqis eat with their hands.

I tore off a hunk of barbecued chicken and rolled it into some bread. The spices tasted vaguely of lime.

“This is delicious,” I said. And it was. This was the soldiers’ cue that they could now eat.

“This is some really good chicken,” said Sergeant Roma. He wasn’t just being polite. “It’s much better than the chicken we have at the D-FAC [military dining facility].”

This is how soldiers spend most of their time when they gather intelligence on terrorists and insurgents in Iraq. Not until the very end of the meeting, which is almost strictly social and takes many hours, does anyone get down to business. Jumping right in with a list of intelligence questions is considered the height or rudeness except in extreme or unusual circumstances.

“Would you like a glass of arak?” our host graciously asked me.

Arak is the Arabic version of ouzo, the milky white liquor that tastes of licorice.

“I would love some,” I said. “But I am not allowed to drink alcohol while embedded with the military.”

“Go ahead, it’s okay,” Lieutenant Pitts said.

“I should probably follow the rules,” I said. I hadn’t been embedded long enough to feel like flouting rules yet, but in hindsight I hope I didn’t offend him by turning him down.

After eating we returned, stuffed, to the couches. Nathan, our interpreter, was needed outside. To my surprise, Lieutenant Pitts continued his conversation with our Iraqi hosts, unaided, in Arabic.

“How long did you study Arabic?” I said to him during a lull in the conversation.

“I haven’t studied it,” he told me.

He hadn’t? Most non-native speakers can’t hold down a conversation until they have studied Arabic formally for several years.

“I just listen very carefully before our interpreters translate,” he continued, “and I’ve been picking it up. I still need Nathan to help with the nuances and specifics, but I understand basically what they are saying. And they understand me even though I am not speaking correctly.”

The Army has come a long way since they first arrived in Iraq, and Lieutenant Pitts was shaping up to be a real American Arabist.

We still hadn’t done anything, though, except hang out and socialize with Iraqis. I knew the drill, however. I often work the same way in the Middle East as a reporter when I’m not embedded.

Much of what I do in the Middle East is have dinner and tea, and sometimes alcohol, with Middle Easterners and learn how their culture works and what they think. Most Arabs will tell you far more and answer more honestly over food and drinks than they will if you rattle off a list of pre-packaged questions like you’re pumping them for information. Government officials usually skip the formalities and the socializing, but few others do.

Sergeant Roma, who sat to my left, also speaks Arabic.

Roma Baghdad.jpg

Sergeant Roma

“They think that makes me a spy,” he said, “and that I must be from Jerusalem. They don’t mind, though.”

This was typical of the Arab world, but also a bit odd. They think he’s a spy? What did they think we were doing there in their house? This was an intelligence gathering operation. It was, more or less, spying. The only difference is that the soldiers were up front about it, even though (and this is not contradictory) no one said anything about intelligence gathering yet. Nobody had to. Everyone knew what was up. The United States military has better things to do in Iraq than socialize just for the sake of socializing.

That doesn’t mean the food and gifts and chit chat were a sham. The friendship and affection between these Americans and Iraqis is real. Several soldiers and officers told me that what surprises them most about their time in Iraq is how emotionally attached they’ve become to Iraqis in general and to specific individuals in particular. They didn’t expect it, but that’s what happened. And it’s considered a waste of that friendship to talk strictly business. The business wouldn’t be possible anyway if the friendship and trust weren’t there first.

“Some people around here think anyone who talks to Americans is a spy,” said the Iraqi man with the beard.

I have been suspected and accused of being a spy in every Arab country I’ve been to. The accusation is usually not serious, rarely feels threatening, and is usually humorous or annoying, depending on the context and who said it. But the truth is that huge numbers of Iraqis who talk to Americans really do supply actionable intelligence on terrorists and insurgents. They risk retaliation, but if they don’t take that risk they risk getting ethnically cleansed or car bombed at the market instead. Iraq is an extreme country in a state of emergency. Spies — and I’m using the term loosely here, not referring to James Bond type characters — are literally everywhere.

The only areas of Iraq where the locals won’t provide much intelligence is where the American presence is thin on the ground. It’s not worth risking reprisals if no one is around to provide security. This is one of the major reasons Iraq spiraled out of control for several years. American troops did not provide security for civilians. Today, though, they are.

“We’ve been getting to know these people for months,” Lieutenant Pitts told me before we arrived at the house. “We thought if we got to know them as people and promised to protect them from violence that they would help us win the war against the insurgents. And it works.”

“Some people complain about Iraqis working with Americans,” said the man with the beard. “But then many of them work for Americans as soon as they are offered a job. When they complain they are just jealous. Give people jobs. That is the key.”

“In the four years you have been here,” our host said, “only lately have you finally come around and talked to us about what we want and need.”

“Hopefully in the last six months we’ve been able to improve your area,” Lieutenant Pitts said.

“Yes,” said the host. “Yes! And what about big projects like hospitals?”

“Soon, in the future,” said the lieutenant. “We do have some big projects coming up.”

One of those big projects is the installation of 1,500 solar-powered street lights in the neighborhood. Most sectors of Baghdad only get one hour of electricity every day. And the Iraqi sun is so fierce, solar powered lights are almost a no-brainer. Insurgents sabotage the electrical grid and make it all but irreparable, but there’s no grid for decentralized solar lights to attack.

“Right now you’re light,” our host said. “If you do big projects people will really love you. People see we’re working with you. Support all of us more and it will be okay. They will love you. They will even give you their shoes.”

“What about the big fight at the mayor’s house?” Lieutenant Pitts said. He was referring to the mayor of the neighborhood of Graya’at, not the mayor of the entire city of Baghdad.

“The mayor works for himself,” said the host. “His son, though, was listening to music in his parked car. Mahdi Army men came up and threw sandals at him and beat him up. They fired warning shots in the air. The shots were a way of saying We have weapons.

“A big problem is that lots of displaced people are coming back into this area,” said the man with the beard.

“And what about the illegal checkpoint that we busted up?” said the lieutenant. “I need to know the fallout.”

We weren’t quite getting down to brass tacks yet, but were close.

“What you need to do,” said the host, “is bust up two or three of the other checkpoints so people don’t think you’re taking sides. They are checking ID cards to find out if people are Sunni or Shia.”

The lieutenant and our interpreter Nathan whispered conspiratorially. Pitts nodded. They clearly worked well together.

“Tell them they are only allowed two checkpoints,” the host said, “one at each end of the market. None in the middle. They are taking 5,000 dinars from each vehicle. They use that money to buy weapons for the Mahdi Army.”

“Have you heard about anyone storing weapons?” said Lieutenant Pitts. “Not in these houses but in [omitted]?”

“No,” said the man with the beard.

“We got a report that there are caches there,” said the lieutenant.

“We’ll keep our eyes open,” said our host. “We will [omitted] and get back to you.”

I’m leaving out certain details by choice to protect these Iraqis, but I still want to give you an idea about what was said.

They have clever ways of keeping their eyes on the neighborhood. Their methods have always been used in the alleyways of Arab societies. Insurgents can possibly guess what those methods are, but they will not learn it from me.

Lieutenant Pitts pulled a color print picture out of his pocket. “Do you recognize this man?” he said.

He passed the picture around.

“This guy is bad guy,” he said. “He’s done some bad things to Shias. I was hoping to catch him these evening.”

It was news to me that I might be along for the ride during a night raid. But no one seemed to recognize him, so it looked like that wasn’t happening.

“We have some Sunni friends in [omitted],” Lieutenant Pitts said. “But they’re afraid to tell us about bad Sunnis. We know [omitted] lives in this area. There are no Sunnis here. I just want to sit down and talk to [omitted]. I think he’s the final piece to this puzzle. Then we’ll be able to roll these guys up. We’ve tried to get this guy before, but some other Sunnis in the area warned him in advance that we were after him.”

“I am sorry, my friend,” said the man with the beard and shook his head.

“If you can provide even a small piece of information,” said the lieutenant. “The fuel station we’re building will be open soon. The swing gates and security checkpoints at the market are already in place. The solar lights will be installed shortly.”

The Iraqis shook their heads. I doubt Pitts needed to remind them of what the Army had done for them lately. They seemed plenty motivated already, as Shias, to get Shia-murdering Sunni thugs off the streets.

It was time to move on to the next house. We said our goodbyes and I sincerely thanked the generous Iraqis for their hospitality. When the soldiers rose from the couch the kids ran up and gave them high-fives.

“One last thing,” Lieutenant Pitts said. “If you come back from your vacation in [omitted] and you don’t bring us pictures, we are taking over your store.”

Everyone laughed at the obvious joke.

“We will bring you a gift from outside,” said the man with the beard.

“A real live woman?” said the lieutenant. “Will you bring me a second wife?”

More big laughs all around.

I strapped on my body armor.

“Do you want to stay a while longer and take a nap?” said our host.

“Thank you,” Lieutenant Pitts said. “But we have work to do tonight.”

They’ll have work to do for years.


Those men were Shias who lived among Sunnis. Next we would meet with a Sunni who lived among Shias.

We drove for five minutes, parked the Humvees, and quietly, casually, walked to a different part of the neighborhood.

Grayaat Baghdad at Night.jpg

I had no idea where we were going, and we seemed to take random turns to disguise our intent and direction in case anyone watched.

Then, out of the blue, Lieutenant Pitts tried not to look obvious as he rang somebody’s doorbell.

The city was dark, quiet, and still, and not in an ominous way. It may not have been tranquil, but it felt like it was. As was often the case, I was surprised how relaxed I felt in Baghdad. Suddenly two feral cats screeched and fought tooth and claw in the street.

A man came out the front door and opened the gate leading into the courtyard. He saw me and several soldiers and quietly beckoned us in. We did not go in the house, though. We crouched next to the wall just inside the courtyard where no one could see us. Someone could have heard our conversation if they were standing just on the other side of the wall, but several soldiers spread out on the streets and made sure nobody did.

“Hello,” the man said in English. “I was wondering when you would show up.”

The man had briefly approached Lieutenant Pitts in public a few weeks before and said he had some information to give him. Not wanting to appear obvious, Pitts asked the man where he lived and said he would pay him a visit at some unknown time in the future.

This was that time.

“Do you mind if I take your picture?” I said. I was almost certain he would say no, but thought I would ask.

He laughed. “No, no please don’t,” he said.

“It’s amazing that you asked,” said Sergeant Roma, who crouched next to me. “Most reporters just take the picture.”

“Of course I asked,” I said. “I am not going to risk getting him killed for a picture.”

Sergeant Roma nodded and rolled his eyes at the behavior of some reporters who had embedded with him in the past.

The Iraqi man works for the Baghdad government at a ministry I will not identify in the Green Zone. He showed us his card. “I would never show this card outside the gate in this neighborhood,” he told me.

The cats continued fighting in the street, loud enough to wake people up. Still, we did not go inside. Everyone just lowered their voices.

Jaysh al Mahdi [Moqtada al Sadr’s radical Shia Mahdi Army militia] may want to attack this area,” the man said. “Mostly Sunnis live here. We don’t cause problems for anyone. This area is totally quiet.”

I can vouch for that. No violence erupted anywhere near me at any time during my stay. I wasn’t just lucky. The U.S. Army soldiers based in the area haven’t suffered a single casualty since they arrived in early 2007.

I had thought, though, that we were going to meet with a Sunni who lived among Shias. I asked the lieutenant what happened to the plan. He said he changed it at the last minute when he remembered he needed to meet with this man.

“The American military needs to make sure no one has weapons but you,” the man said. “We are suffering from bandits and thieves. I am Sunni, but I don’t pray any more.”

“Why not?” I said, expecting him to say he was disgruntled with his religion for some reason.

“So Jaysh al Mahdi doesn’t know I am Sunni,” he said. “So many Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police belong to the Mahdi Army.”

It was the middle of the night and we had awoken the man from his bed. The usual Arab formalities and socialization ritual therefore was skipped. Sometimes it’s okay to get right down to business in Baghdad.

Jaysh al Mahdi kidnapped eleven people from this area, killed them, and left their bodies in the dump,” the man said. “I can provide you with the names of the people who did this.”

Considering where the man worked, I believed his information was credible. So did Lieutenant Pitts.

“Colonel [omitted] in the Iraqi Army works with intel files,” the man said. “He pulls files on individual Sunnis and has them assassinated one by one. I know someone who killed 25 people. I reported him to the Iraqi Army and they reported him to the U.S. Army. He was detained for two days and let go. What the hell is going on?”

Lieutenant Pitts shook his head. “I will take care of it,” he said.

“I told this to a different Iraqi Army Colonel,” the informant said, “a man who I thought could be trusted. He said he would help, but he didn’t do anything. You know, Iran is providing weapons to these people. The same guy who killed all these people wants to operate in the [omitted] area. I would give you chai [tea], but it’s the middle of the night.”

“Of course,” Lieutenant Pitts said. “It’s not a problem, and I am sorry for waking you. Listen, would you rather we meet in person or speak on the phone? I don’t want to put you in danger.”

“It is better if we speak on the phone,” the man said.

“Okay,” Lieutenant Pitts said. “We’ll get out of here and let you get back to sleep.”

The man gave the lieutenant his phone number.

“I will not share this number with anyone,” Lieutenant Pitts said. “You gave this number to me, and it will stay only with me. You do not need to worry about who else might get it.”

“Thank you, lieutenant,” the man said.

“And from now on we will only speak on the phone. For your protection. If I see you on the street I will just casually say Salam Aleikum and walk right on past.”

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

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Many thanks in advance.

An Israeli in Lebanon

While I’m working on my next report from Iraq, don’t miss Lisa Goldman’s superb essay about her sometimes wonderful and sometimes frightening experience as an Israeli in Lebanon.

Balance of Terror

By Michael J. Totten

Moqtada al Sadr Billboard Iraq.jpg

BAGHDAD — The American soldier sitting next to me flipped open his Zippo lighter and gloomily lit a cigarette. “Do you know why this base isn’t attacked by insurgents?” he said.

I assumed it was because his area of operations, in the Graya’at neighborhood of northern Baghdad out of Coalition Outpost War Eagle, had been cleared of insurgents. Many American military bases and outposts in Iraq are attacked by Al Qaeda terrorists and Mahdi Army militiamen with mortars and rockets. War Eagle was quiet and had not been bombarded for months.

“We aren’t being attacked because the Mahdi Army is in the next building,” he said. “They don’t want to hit their own people.”

American soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division shared the small outpost with Iraqi Army soldiers who lived, worked, and slept in the building next door.

“You mean the Iraqi Army unit here has been infiltrated?” I said.

He nodded grimly and took a pull from his cigarette.

“That’s a bad reason for us not to be mortared,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said and laughed. It was obvious, though, that he did not think it was funny.

“How do you know this?” I said.

“Heard it from intel,” he said. “Getting information out of them is like pulling teeth, but sometimes they say stuff.”

I went inside the Tactical Operations Center and spoke to the Public Affairs Officer. “What can I help you with, Mike?” he said.

“I want an on-the-record interview with Military Intelligence,” I said.

“Why?” he said.

I told him what I had heard. “I can print rumor or fact,” I said.

He got me the interview.

Master Sergeant Jeffrey K. Tyler met with me privately.

“It’s true,” he said. “Many of the Iraqi Army soldiers here are supporters of JAM.” JAM is military shorthand for Jaysh al Mahdi, or Moqtada al Sadr’s radical Shia Mahdi Army militia. “They aren’t in JAM cells necessarily, but they are sympathizers. They may let JAM guys through checkpoints, for example. They aren’t out kidnapping Sunnis or anything like that. They are sympathizers, not direct actors. Almost all the Iraqi Army soldiers here are Shias.”

“Is their presence here the reason we aren’t getting mortared?” I said. “Because the Mahdi Army doesn’t want to blow up their own people?”

“We think that’s probably so,” he said and nodded with confidence.

I didn’t hear that in the briefing when I first got there.

The outpost isn’t the only safe place in that part of Baghdad. The entire area of operations is quiet. The American soldiers based there haven’t suffered a single casualty since they arrived in country at the beginning of the surge in early 2007. The Graya’at neighborhood has been cleared of active insurgents. It’s safer than the Green Zone, in fact, which is still attacked with incoming rockets and mortars.

“If someone sets up a mortar,” said Lieutenant Colonel Wilson A. Shoffner, “we get phone calls from the locals before it is fired. We reached a tipping point here where we have more friends than the insurgents.”

Major Michael Jazdyk concurred. “We were a target at first,” he said. “Insurgents shot at us with rockets and mortars. But most of the time they killed local civilians. The locals want us here now because we pushed the insurgents out and are keeping them out.”

“How do the local civilians help?” I asked.

“We go on foot patrols and joint patrols with the Iraqi Army,” he said. “We give people tip cards with a phone number on it that they can call and give us intel. An Arabic speaker answers the phone.”

The peace, though, isn’t stable. Many areas of Baghdad have been cleared — even the notoriously violent Haifa Street neighborhood — but insurgents and terrorists need only drive a few minutes to get from one of their strongholds to another part of the city. Gunmen and car bombers from other sectors of Baghdad can and do pass through War Eagle’s area.

Until recently the biggest threat was from the adjacent neighborhood just on the other side of the Tigris. It hasn’t been cleared of insurgents. When the War Eagle outpost was still struck by mortars, they were fired from there over the water. It is the insurgents in that sector who apparently have decided to stop attacking the outpost so they won’t hurt their comrades who infiltrated the base.

Those infiltrators in the Iraqi Army are trained every day by the Americans.

“They act like our friends,” said Master Sergeant Tyler. “It is a façade to an extent, yes. They get benefits from having a good relationship with us and will do and say anything to keep us on their side.”

I heard rumors that the Iraqi Army colonel in charge of his side of War Eagle is himself a supporter of Moqtada al Sadr. I could not, however, confirm that with Military Intelligence. Maybe it’s true and maybe it isn’t. American soldiers there believe it is.

Nothing makes me more pessimistic about Iraq’s future prospects than this. The Mahdi Army is Iran’s major proxy in Iraq. It is, in effect, the Iraqi branch of Hezbollah.

The Iranians know what they’re doing. Lebanon was their proving ground. The Revolutionary Guards built Hezbollah from scratch along the border with Israel and in the suburbs south of Beirut during the chaos of civil war and Israeli occupation. In Iraq they’re simply repeating the formula, only this time more violently.

Most of Lebanon’s Shias were moderately pro-Israel before Iran barged onto the scene. 25 years later, and more than 15 years after Lebanon’s civil war ended, Hezbollah is still a menace to Israel and the elected government in Beirut. Hezbollah still has its own foreign policy. Hezbollah can unilaterally ignite hot wars with foreign countries whether Lebanese as a whole want war or not. The level of “stability” in Lebanon may be the best Iraqis can hope for in this generation if the Mahdi Army and its supporters are not somehow purged from the government, the military, and the police.

If some of the Iraqi Army soldiers at War Eagle only pretend to be friends with Americans, what about the civilians in the area? Are they faking it, too?

Who knows?

I went on mounted and dismounted foot patrols with American soldiers every day in that part of Baghdad. Except for one slightly creepy experience where shadowy figures stalked us in the dark, all the local Iraqis I met and interacted with were exceptionally friendly.

On a typical patrol at dawn the soldiers I embedded with did only two things: they kept up a visible presence in the area and tossed boxes of Girl Scout cookies to children.

As the morning progressed and more people woke up, entire families came out of their houses to greet us and wave. Private Goings, the gunner in the Humvee I rode in, threw one box of cookies after another. Kids and their parents received them ecstatically. We did this all morning, for four hours. Aside from a 20 minute dismounted patrol near a palm grove, all we did was drive around and throw cookies.

Girl Scout Cookies Iraq.jpg

“This is definitely not a war,” said Sergeant Daniel E. Lizanne. He was referring, of course, to his specific area, not to more violent places like Baqubah and Sadr City. “It’s a peacekeeping mission. We’re really just like police officers here. Right now all we’re doing is waiting for somebody stupid to shoot at us.”

It really didn’t look or feel like a war. No one in the area gets shot or blown up. For hours I watched American soldiers act as though they were employed by Santa Claus rather than the United States Army.

Kids Running Up to Humvee.jpg

I felt like I could rent a house, move in, and be perfectly safe. Several journalists I know have stayed for long periods in various parts of the Red Zone in Baghdad and they haven’t been shot or kidnapped yet. It really is possible, if you’re careful.

Still, I did not trust that feeling. I would be crazy to trust that feeling too much in Baghdad where a false sense of security must be fought against constantly. If I end up trusting the locals as a whole, at least before the war’s over, it will be time for me to get a new job.

“A lot of the people around here are Sadr supporters,” said Sergeant Lizanne. “But they’re also pro-coalition. I don’t really understand how that works.”

Don’t ask me to explain it. Moqtada al Sadr is an enemy of the United States. His militiamen kill or at least try to kill Americans every day elsewhere in Baghdad. How anyone in Iraq could support both him and the Americans is beyond me.

Iraq is a bewildering country. I can tell you what I see and what I hear, but I can’t unravel and explain with confidence the contradictions in the hearts and minds of its people. The Kurds are fairly straightforward and easy to read. The recently turned pro-American Arabs of Anbar Province likewise aren’t too complicated these days. Baghdad, though, is all but impenetrable. I don’t suggest you trust any Westerner who hasn’t spent years there who says he or she understands the alleyways and secrets of that city.

In my mind I keep returning to what an Iraqi interpreter named Hammer said to me a few days before. “You can’t understand Iraq because you can’t get inside their mind. When you get inside their mind…it is a crazy mind.”

“Do you think the civilians here are genuinely friendly or just faking it?” I asked Sergeant Lizanne. Private Goings tossed more boxes of cookies.

“Hmm,” he said. “Well, I wouldn’t want to be out here by myself at night, I’ll tell you that much. The children really do love us, though. At least we’re making friends with the next generation.”

The children aren’t the only ones uninterested in fighting Americans.

“The sheiks in our area say they won’t tolerate a single round fired at us,” Colonel Shoffner told me.

This is not propaganda from the Army. It really is true. No one shoots at American soldiers in Graya’at. If the friendliness of the locals was a complete and total sham, somebody would shoot. Instead they rat out insurgents. Every unit I went on patrol with was made up only of American soldiers. Local Iraqi Army Sadr supporters did not follow us around the city like portable human shields.

Iraqi Man Thumbs Up.jpg

On the other hand, some of the locals support Moqtada al Sadr, whose militiamen kill American soldiers.

On the third hand, fighting in Iraq between American soldiers and the Mahdi Army militia rises and falls like the tide. There are times when Sadr’s men don’t act like enemies at all, and not only in localized areas like Graya’at.

“Sometimes Sadr puts out notices saying no attacks on coalition forces,” Master Sergeant Tyler told me. “He explicitly says that violators will be executed. They he’ll turn around and tell them to launch as many attacks in the next five days as possible.”

Sadr’s Army, it seems, deploys violence against Americans as a way to earn points in negotiations. This would make him and his militia less extreme than Al Qaeda. If diplomacy between the two sides is going well, attacks are called off. If the Americans hold out on something Sadr wants or needs, attacks are resumed or ramped up.

I asked several people what might happen if Moqtada al Sadr was pulled out of the Iranian orbit and flipped to the American side, as the tribal leaders of Anbar Province have been brought around to the American side. Sadr would still live in fear of Saddam Hussein if the Americans never arrived and destroyed the old government. A peaceful coexistence of some sort is at least theoretically possible if he can be peeled away from Iran with money and promises.

“I think the reason the U.S. hasn’t killed Sadr yet is because they are trying to flip him to their side,” said Hammer. “All it takes is money. It’s all about money money money for these guys. He has only 16 percent support among the Shia. I am a Shia. I know lots of Shia in Sadr City who hate and fear him, but he has lots of power and influence.”

“If we flip Sadr Iraq might very well reach a tipping point,” Master Sergeant Tyler told me. “The war might be all but technically over. But there would be some blowback from the Sunni side at first.”

Sounds great, but it begs the question: is a tactical alliance with Moqtada al Sadr even desirable?


“I have a story for you,” said an Army interpreter named Feris who moved from Damascus, Syria, to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 1967. “There’s someone you need to meet around the back of the building.”

I grabbed my camera and notepad. Feris took me behind the Tactical Operations Center to the far edge of the outpost.

“Come on,” he said and led me into an area concealed in camouflage netting and roped off with razor wire.

“Are we allowed to be back here?” I said.

“Doesn’t matter,” he said. “Come on, so the others can’t see.”

An Iraqi civilian waited for us where others could not see. He panicked when he saw my camera and hurriedly covered his face and turned his back.

“No pictures, no pictures,” Feris said.

“Okay,” I said. “No problem. Tell him I won’t take his picture.”

Feris put his hand over the lens. I pointed the camera at the ground and said “No picture, no picture.”

The Iraqi who waited turned and looked me in the eye.

Jaysh al Mahdi took me,” he said. “They kidnapped me and dragged me off to the mosque where they beat me.”

“Where?” I said. He didn’t speak any English. Feris translated.

“To the Ahl al Bayt mosque in Sadr City,” he said. “It is next to Muzaffer Square and the Fire Department in Area 55. It is loaded with weapons. Every mosque in Sadr City is full of weapons. At every mosque in Sadr City they beat people. I can take you right to the spot where they beat me.”

Mahdi Army in Basra copyright Nabil al-Jurani.jpg

Mahdi Army militiamen march in Basra. Photo copyright Nabil al-Jurani.

I won’t be going to Sadr City any time soon, but anyone who needs to know where the Ahl al Bayt mosque is shouldn’t have much trouble finding it.

He took off his shirt and turned around. More than a dozen horizontal red and blue bruises crisscrossed his back like blunt lash marks.

“They beat me with iron sticks,” he said, “and fired a gun in the air next to my head.”

Then they shaved his head. The Mahdi Army does this to people they kidnap, to mark them, perhaps, or to humiliate them.

“Why?” I said. “Why did they do this to you?”

“Because I work here,” I said.

He works at the outpost as a civilian, not for the Americans but for the Iraqis.

“They say I work with Americans,” he said. “It’s not true. I told them I don’t even speak English. How can I work with Americans? I want to work with Americans, but I’m afraid. If I could I would kill them and stay on this base forever.”

“Where did they kidnap you?” I said. “From here?”

“They took me from the street in Sadr City,” he said. “They know where I live.”

“How do they know you work here?” I said.

He gestured toward the building where Iraqi Army soldiers live and sleep. Of course.

“The Iraqi Army told them,” he said.

“How do you know?” I said. “How do you know it was them?”

No one else knows I work here,” he said. “Only them.”

If the young man is right, the Mahdi Army sympathizers who infiltrated the Iraqi Army barracks may be a little bit more than the mere passive sympathizers Master Sergeant Tyler suggested.

He lit another cigarette from what remained of his first.

“I smoke so much because I’m upset,” he said.

He took out his cell phone and pointed at the screen.

“They found a video of girls dancing on my phone,” he said. “They deleted it and put a picture of Moqtada al Sadr on it instead. If you have a Sadr picture on your phone, that’s okay, that’s good. If you have a picture of anything else on your phone they will beat you. I don’t like the sonofabitch. Why would I want his picture on my phone?

I kept looking behind me to make sure no one in the Iraqi Army saw us talking. It probably wouldn’t make any difference, but it seemed like something I should do.

Feris shifted his weight from one foot to the other and kept sighing deeply. He was clearly upset. He grew up in Syria under the brutal regime of Hafez al Assad, but has lived in Iowa longer than I’ve been alive. He is hardly more accustomed to hearing these kinds of stories than I am.

“Is there anything you can do to protect yourself?” I asked the young Iraqi.

“What can I do?” he said. “No one can stop Jaysh al Mahdi. They live in the 16th Century. Everyone I know in Sadr City hates Moqtada al Sadr, but they can do nothing. Many people want the Americans to invade.”

I did not need to ask questions. He just kept on talking.

Jaysh al Mahdi has a special car they use to pack people in, take them away, and shoot them,” he said. “They have people on street corners watching out for American soldiers. They watch the city at night with night vision goggles. If anyone is out after midnight they think you’re a spy.”

He was on a roll now, telling me everything, unprompted, because I was a safe person to talk to and because I stood there and listened.

“Sadr is getting rich from Iranian money. They offered me money to join them. 3 million dinars [slightly less than 2,500 dollars.]. They wanted me as a fighter. But I said no. I won’t do that. I hate Jaysh al Mahdi.”

I heard the low sharp boom of outgoing artillery somewhere off in the distance, perhaps from Camp Taji north of the city. It is not a common sound in Iraq. I only heard it once every three days or so, and even then I only heard two or three outgoing shells being fired. Kinetic fire fights do erupt in Iraq, but I haven’t seen or heard any yet.

“They tied my hands behind my back,” he continued. “They kicked my knees backwards.” His lifted up the legs of his pants. Feris looked away. “They made me lay on my stomach and put heavy iron on my back. I had to sleep like that for five nights. My back is all screwed up now.”

“But you still have this job,” I said, “even though they beat you for having it.”

“I have to support my family. My Mom and Dad don’t work. Everyone in Sadr City is very poor. My whole family lives there, except my brother. He went to Lebanon. So many terrorists and criminals live there. If we had money we would all move tomorrow, but I only make 300 dollars a month. We have no TV, nothing, at my house. No one else from my family works. My Dad is too old and has a bad back. My Mom is too old. I want to get married. I’m engaged, but I have no money to get married.”

Neighborhoods all over Baghdad are being cleared of terrorists and insurgents as part of the surge. American soldiers are pushing them out of the city and moving into small houses and stations themselves in the neighborhoods where they can maintain security 24 hours a day. But Sadr City is still a no-go zone for American troops. I asked several high-ranking officers why, but they either don’t know or they don’t want to tell me.

“What if the US assaults Sadr City?” I said.

Sadr City.jpg

Sadr City

“We would all love that,” he said. “Everyone except the Mahdi Army would love that. Every single person I know hates Moqtada al Sadr.”

But some people do like Moqtada al Sadr. Someone in Graya’at put up a billboard with his face on it.

Lieutenant William H. Lord told me earlier that when American soldiers have gone into Sadr City in the past, children flipped them off and threw rocks. Children in our area of Baghdad, by contrast, treat the American soldiers like heroes. General Petraeus has his work cut out for him if and when he decides to surge into Sadr’s domain.

“Even Saddam was better than Jaysh al Mahdi,” he said. “They treat everyone bad. Americans treat us good. Sadr does not. They say Americans rape our women. They lie. It is just propaganda. Americans have plenty of women. Jaysh al Mahdi rapes our women for real. They are animals. But soon enough their day is coming.”

He got antsy and seemed to feel he spent too much time talking to me. He had to get back to work before someone noticed him missing.

“I cry all the time,” he said just before he set off. “I wish I was outside Iraq where I would not have to be afraid.”

I shook his hand. He returned to his post. And I felt useless. What could I do for this man? There are so many with stories like his in Iraq.

“What kind of country is this,” Feris said to me in a trembling voice, “where people do this sort of thing to their own people?”

Meanwhile, or at least so it appeared, I was safer at that outpost because the Mahdi Army was there. They did not want to hurt their own people with rockets and mortars. Moqtada al Sadr’s infiltrators and sympathizers enveloped me in a force field.

Iraq is a strange country. Where else can American civilians like me be protected by terrorist human shields?

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.

Out of Iraq

by Michael J. Totten

I am safely out of Iraq and back in the United States. It’s hard to write while embedded with the military. I had little time and no work space. But now that I’m Stateside again I’ll have time to publish the material I spent the last month collecting. My next dispatch is more than half written and will appear shortly.

Thank you for being patient.

UPDATE: Michael Yon writes: “So much war, so many missions, but never enough time to publish dispatches covering more than a small fraction of it.” I hear you, brother!

He has a new article up on his site, though, if you want some fresh reporting to tide you over until I publish my next one.

Compare and contrast

By Noah Pollak

Yesterday I “noted”:http://corner.nationalreview.com/post/?q=MTQzNzc0NDQwMDE4YWM5ODllNTJjM2JjOWQ5MDgzNDc= in the Corner a story written by Nicholas Blanford, a Christian Science Monitor reporter, that recounts his misadventure trying to report on Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Blanford, not to put too fine a point on it, is more or less a Hezbollah apologist, and has been for a long time. And an ugly one at that: In his piece he blames Hezbollah’s police-state treatment of journalists on, of course, Israel — or more precisely, on the fact that Israel is probably trying to spy on Hezbollah, and Hezbollah fears Israel might use journalists to do so.

Contrast Blanford with another journalist, Charles Levinson, who is also an experienced Middle East reporter. Levinson has a must-read “account”:http://conflictblotter.com/2007/08/06/difficult-dealings-with-hezbollah/ of his recent attempts to report from Lebanon, and instead of writing a piece of conciliatory garbage, he calls Hezbollah’s behavior what it is: fascistic thuggery. Kudos to Levinson. His post took guts to write. And his blog, “Conflict Blotter,”:http://conflictblotter.com/ is excellent.

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.

Hammer Baghdad Iraq.jpg

“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.

Blog Patron Button.gif

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.

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

Raid Night Pat Down.JPG

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.

Sillouette Raid Night.jpg

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.

Patrol Raid Night.JPG

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.

Wiping Forhead Raid Night.JPG

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.

Checking ID Raid Night.JPG

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.

Outside House Raid Night.jpg

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.

Shirtless Raid Night.JPG

“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.”

Terp and Suspect Raid Night.JPG

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.”

Dark Mosque Raid Night.jpg

“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.

Soldiers and Humvee Raid Night.jpg

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.

Three Suspects Raid Night.JPG

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.

Searching Car Raid Night.JPG

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.

Palm Grove and Starlight Baghdad.jpg

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?

Route Brewers from Grove.jpg

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

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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.


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