Blogging at Commentary

“Commentary”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com asked me to cover the upheaval in Iran on the Contentions blog during the next couple of days, and you can “click here to read what I’m publishing”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/category/contentions/contentions?author_name=totten. I know it’s slightly less convenient for you read my work “over there”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/category/contentions/contentions?author_name=totten, but this means I don’t have to rattle my tip jar over here.

I’m mostly finished with my next dispatch from Iraq, but I’m finding it difficult to concentrate on it right now. It’s a bit “off topic” anyway, so I’m thinking of holding onto it for a bit. Maybe Iran will settle down soon.

In the meantime, you can click “this link”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/category/contentions/contentions?author_name=totten and read only my blog posts at Commentary, or you can click “this link”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/category/contentions and read everyone’s blog posts at Commentary.

Insurrection: Day 2

Insurrection in Tehran Day 2.jpg

The great Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski witnessed and wrote about dozens of revolutions in the course of his life. He has, perhaps, seen more revolutions than anyone in the history of the world. He knew, while he lived, revolutions better than anyone.

In his book Shah of Shahs, about the Iranian revolution in 1979, he describes the beginning of the end for the Shah Reza Pahlavi.

Now the most important moment, the moment that will determine the fate of the country, the Shah, and the revolution, is the moment when one policeman walks from his post toward one man on the edge of the crowd, raises his voice, and orders the man to go home. The policeman and the man on the edge of the crowd are ordinary, anonymous people, but their meeting has historic significance.

They are both adults, they have both lived through certain events, they have both their individual experiences.

The policeman’s experience: If I shout at someone and raise my truncheon, he will first go numb with terror and then take to his heels. The experience of the man at the edge of the crowd: At the sight of an approaching policeman I am seized by fear and start running. On the basis of these experiences we can elaborate a scenario: The policeman shouts, the man runs, others take flight, the square empties.

But this time everything turns out differently. The policeman shouts, but the man doesn’t run. He just stands there, looking at the policeman. It’s a cautious look, still tinged with fear, but at the same time tough and insolent. So that’s the way it is! The man on the edge of the crowd is looking insolently at uniformed authority. He doesn’t budge. He glances around and sees and sees the same look on other faces. Like his, their faces are watchful, still a bit fearful, but already firm and unrelenting. Nobody runs though the policeman has gone on shouting; at last he stops. There is a moment of silence.

We don’t know whether the policeman and the man on the edge of the crowd already realize what has happened. The man has stopped being afraid — and this is precisely the beginning of the revolution. Here it starts. Until now, whenever these two men approached each other, a third figure instantly intervened between them. That third figure was fear. Fear was the policeman’s ally and the man in the crowd’s foe. Fear interposed its rules and decided everything.

Now the two men find themselves alone, facing each other, and fear has disappeared into thin air. Until now their relationship was charged with emotion, a mixture of aggression, scorn, rage, terror. But now that fear has retreated, this perverse, hateful union has suddnely broken up; something has been extinguished. The two men have now grown mutually indifferent, useless to each other; they can now go their own ways.

Accordingly, the policeman turns around and begins to walk heavily back toward his post, while the man on the edge of the crowd stands there looking at his vanishing enemy.


Now take a look at this video uploaded from the city of Isfahan. A ferocious-looking unit of armed riot police officers is shown running away in terror from civilian demonstrators.

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“Reza Shoja reports”:http://www.themedialine.org/news/news_detail.asp?NewsID=25420 for The Media Line.

Car horn protests could be heard throughout the city, as could chants of “Bye bye dictator”, “Ahmadi Nejad is the biggest liar in Iran,” and “The president is committing a crime and the supreme leader is supporting him”.


Listen to the chants on Tehran’s rooftops in the middle of the night.

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“Roger Cohen”:http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/15/opinion/15iht-edcohen.html in the New York Times:

I’ve argued for engagement with Iran and I still believe in it, although, in the name of the millions defrauded, President Obama’s outreach must now await a decent interval.

I’ve also argued that, although repressive, the Islamic Republic offers significant margins of freedom by regional standards. I erred in underestimating the brutality and cynicism of a regime that understands the uses of ruthlessness.


Defrauded opposition candidate Mir Hussein Mousavi belongs to the establishment. The regime is coming apart and turning on itself. “Even clerics”:http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2009/06/an-ayatollah-dissents.html are turning against the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei.

Grand Ayatollah Sanei in Iran has declared Ahmadinejad’s presidency illegitimate and cooperating with his government against Islam. There are strong rumors that his house and office are surrounded by the police and his website is filtered. He had previously issued a fatwa, against rigging of the elections in any form or shape, calling it a mortal sin.


Kevin Sullivan at “RealClearWorld”:http://www.realclearworld.com/blog/2009/06/iran_no_longer_a_theocracy.html:

What’s emerging here could be interesting. Iran hawks prefer to label the Iranian police state as simply “The Mullahs,” but the legitimate clerics in this dispute are the ones standing with Mir-Hossein Mousavi against ONE Mullah and his secular police apparatus. If the election has been rigged in such a fashion, then what you are in fact seeing is the dropping of religious pretense in the “Islamic” Republic of Iran. This is a secular police state in action.

Iranian poet Sheema Kalbasi “agrees with Sullivan’s analysis”:http://zaneirani.blogspot.com/2009/06/from-theocracy-to-junta-yesterday-even.html:

Today is the day that the Islamic Republic officially transformed from a theocracy supported by Pasdaran to a Junta supported by a handful of clerics.


Meanwhile, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is “sounding like Baghdad Bob”:http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/06/13/iran-demonstrations-viole_n_215189.html again today.

The situation in the country is in a very good condition. Iran is the most stable country in the world, and there’s the rule of law in this country, and all the people are equal before the law.


According to “a Twitter post from inside Iran”:http://twitter.com/IranRiggedElect/status/2166325738, the army announced it will not use force against Iranians, only foreigners. The army is made up of conscripts. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Basij Militia, though, are separate armed forces loyal to the regime.

I don’t like relying on Twitter feeds. Rumors are bound to get posted this way. But things are moving so fast. You can follow Twitter feeds yourself “here”:http://iran.twazzup.com/ “here”:http://twitter.com/IranRiggedElect and “here”:http://iranfeeds.tumblr.com/. (“Thanks to David Hazony”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/hazony/69592 at Commentary for the pointer.)

David also points to “a YouTube channel”:http://www.youtube.com/profile?user=ahriman46&view=videos where dozens of videos have been uploaded.


A reader comments “at niacINsight”:http://niacblog.wordpress.com/2009/06/14/mousavi-supporter-to-us-help-us/:

“I am in Tehran. Its 3:40 in the morning. I’ve connected with you [by hacking past the government filter]. It’s a big mess here. People are yelling from their houses — ‘death to the dictator.’ They are setting up a military government. No one dares to go out. No one has seen Mousavi today. Rumor has it that they have arrested him. I don’t have an email but I will contact you again.

Help us.”


“This isn’t encouraging”:http://niacblog.wordpress.com/2009/06/14/election-unrest-day-two/:

According to our private phone conversations with people in Tehran, hundreds of parents have gathered by a police station in Yousef Abad, now known as Seyyed Jamal Aldin Asad Abadi, with their hands raised to the sky saying “Obama, please help us, they are killing our young children.”


The United States will not help. Senator Joe Lieberman, though, “at least thinks we should say something”:http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/06/13/iran-demonstrations-viole_n_215189.html.

[T]hrough intimidation, violence, manipulation, and outright fraud, the Iranian regime has once again made a mockery of democracy, and confirmed its repressive and dictatorial character.

We as Americans have a responsibility to stand in solidarity with people when they are denied their rights by repressive regimes. When elections are stolen, our government should protest. When peaceful demonstrators are beaten and silenced, we have a duty to raise our voices on their behalf. We must tell the Iranian people that we are on their side.

For this reason, I would hope that President Obama and members of both parties in Congress will speak out, loudly and clearly, about what is happening in Iran right now, and unambiguously express their solidarity with the brave Iranians who went to the polls in the hope of change and who are now looking to the outside world for strength and support.


Policemen aren’t massacring civilians in the streets. At least not yet. The police are restrained. Who can say if their hearts even warm to policing right now? Take a look at the video below. Riot police officers ride into a crowd on motorcycles. The demonstrators set one of the bikes on fire, then help a wounded policeman to safety.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see some defections in the ranks of the police. But what about Hezbollah, the Revolutionary Guard, and the Basij Militia? It will take something extraordinary to get them to back down.


“Ardeshir Arian”:http://pajamasmedia.com/blog/iranians-protest-government-cracks-down/:

There are widespread reports of police and security forces, around Tehran and other big cities where there have been demonstrations, who are not Iranian and either speak Persian with a very pronounced Arab accent or speak no Persian at all.

I’ve read reports for a couple of years now that the regime hires Arabs as mercenaries from outside the country because it can’t even pay enough Iranians willing to suppress their countrymen.

Arian adds:

Reports are circulating that Venezuela has sent anti-riot troops to Tehran to help Ahmadinejad, joining Hezbollah members from Palestine and Lebanon who are employed by the Islamic government as anti-riot police — the reason such forces are being brought in is that some of the Iranian police are unwilling to hit people as ordered and some are even joining the protesters.

Maybe. It’s hard to separate fact from rumor right now.


The regime may well yet survive, at least for a while. I wouldn’t bet against it just yet.

Barry Rubin “nails the bottom line”:http://www.gloria-center.org/blog/2009/06/stealing-an-election.html if it does:

The only logical explanation for why the regime did this is that Ahmadinejad’s opponents got so many votes that it frightened the regime. It also shows that the regime is wedded to Ahmadinejad and his approach.

Is a regime that just committed itself irrevocably to the most extreme faction, most radical ideology, and most repressive control over the country going to compromise with the West on nuclear weapons or anything else?

Of course not, like Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1960s, Syria’s rulers in the 1970s, and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in the 1980s (and many examples elsewhere in the world) it is going to use foreign adventurism and mobilizing hatred against the West and Israel to consolidate its hold on the country.


And finally, see my own piece just published in Commentary Magazine about the Islamic Republic regime in Iran: “An Enemy of the World”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/69651.

Over the next couple of days I’ll be posting “regular updates and analysis at the Commentary Magazine blog”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/category/contentions/contentions?author_name=totten.


Stay tuned for another long dispatch from Iraq after the weekend. And if anyone feels like hitting my tip jar today, I promise not to get mad.

Iran on Fire (Continuously updated)

The BBC says clashes between demonstrators and police in Tehran are “the most violent in a decade”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/8098896.stm.

Video below shows a human wave of demonstrators chasing frightened police officers.

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Here is another video. These protests are huge.

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Below are thousands of Iranians chanting not “Death to America” or “Death to Israel,” but “Death to the Government.”

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Oppressive governments that face ferocious resistance in the streets often don’t last very long. The Islamic Republic regime has been durable so far, and reports of its imminent demise have been premature, but there is only so much it can withstand.

Tehran Riot Post Election 1.jpg

“A reader writes”:http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2009/06/why-did-the-mullahs-panic.html to Andrew Sullivan, who is doing an excellent job covering Iran this weekend.

Why did the clergy panic? Because they saw something much larger than just Mousavi being elected. They saw the beginnings of a wave that would sweep them out of power. This started with Khatami. and it won’t stop today just because they declared a fraudulent winner. Mousavi would have been the crowbar with which to pry open the tangled nest of corruption that came into power soon after the 1979 revolution. There is enough pent-up anger in Iran’s youth to fuel a complete wipeout of the regime. If the thugs were so utterly ham-fisted in their attempt to usurp power, they surely will commit scores of idiotic errors in the days to come. I cannot imagine Rafsanjani staying quiet for much longer; the theocracy is about to break wide open. Resistance will take many forms, and now will not stop until the mullahs are permanently out of power. Iran is headed for civil war.

Tehran almost looks like a war zone already. “A heaving volcano”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/2009/06/a-heaving-volca.php, indeed.

Car Burning in Tehran.jpg

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Hundreds of insurrection photos are uploaded “right here”:http://www.flickr.com/photos/mousavi1388/ on Twitter.

“Haaretz is now reporting that Mousavi has been arrested”:http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1092304.html. Yesterday’s report turned out to be false, but maybe this one is accurate. Who knows? We’re in the fog of “war” here.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad “sounds like Baghdad Bob”:http://www.reuters.com/article/latestCrisis/idUSLD585697 right about now: “It was a free and healthy election,” he said.

“Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei, the real power in Iran, sounds even more like Baghdad Bob than Ahmadinejad. “He said”:http://www.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/meast/06/13/iran.election/index.html the “election” was “an artistic expression” of “the joy and excitement of a nation.” Good grief.

“From the Huffington Post”:http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/06/13/iran-demonstrations-viole_n_215189.html:

“My next door neighbor is an Iranian immigrant who came here in 1977. He just received a SAT phone call from his brother in Tehran who reports that the rooftops of nighttime Tehran are filled with people shouting ‘Allah O Akbar’ in protest of the government and election results. The last time he remembers this happening is in 1979 during the Revolution. Says the sound of tens of thousands on the rooftops is deafening right now.” It’s almost four in the morning in Iran.

Andrew Sullivan “writes”:http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2009/06/something-is-happening-in-iran-1.html: “The last time a news event gave me chills like this was the Soviet coup. It ended the regime.” Yes, it did.

You know what this reminds me of? The convulsion that shook Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, Iraq.

Here’s “an excerpt from a dispatch I filed from there a few years ago”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/001514.html:

“Jassim was pissed off because American artillery fire was landing in his area,” Colonel Holmes said. “But he wasn’t pissed off at us. He was pissed off at Al Qaeda because he knew they always shot first and we were just shooting back.”

“He said he would prevent Al Qaeda from firing mortars from his area if we would help him,” Lieutenant Hightower said. “Al Qaeda said they would mess him up if he got in their way. He called their bluff and they seriously fucked him up. They launched a massive attack on his area. All hell broke loose. They set houses on fire. They dragged people through the streets behind pickup trucks. A kid from his area went into town and Al Qaeda kidnapped him, tortured him, and delivered his head to the outpost in a box. The dead kid was only sixteen years old. The Iraqis then sent out even nine year old kids to act as neighborhood watchmen. They painted their faces and everything.”

“Sheikh Jassim came to us after that,” Colonel Holmes told me, “and said I need your help.”

“One night,” Lieutenant Markham said, “after several young people were beheaded by Al Qaeda, the mosques in the city went crazy. The imams screamed jihad from the loudspeakers. We went to the roof of the outpost and braced for a major assault. Our interpreter joined us. Hold on, he said. They aren’t screaming jihad against us. They are screaming jihad against the insurgents.”

By the way, everyone should order and read The Persian Night: Iran under the Khomeinist Revolution by Amir Taheri immediately. I’m just about finished reading it now, and it is absolutely electrifying.

The Persian Night by Taheri.jpg

And finally, see my own piece just published in Commentary Magazine about the Islamic Republic regime in Iran: “An Enemy of the World”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/69651.

Over the next couple of days I’ll be posting “regular updates and analysis at the Commentary Magazine blog”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/category/contentions/contentions?author_name=totten.

Stay tuned for another long dispatch from Iraq after the weekend. And if anyone feels like hitting my tip jar today, I promise not to get mad.

A Heaving Volcano*

Iran’s presidential election isn’t real. The four candidates were hand-picked by the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei. It’s turning into something more than he bargained for, though, even if his regime is rigging the outcome for Mahmoud Admadinejad.

Take a look at “Martin Fletcher’s piece in the Times of London”:http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/guest_contributors/article6480970.ece?openComment=true.

Whatever the reason, Mr Mousavi’s campaign took off. The youth of Tehran and other cities took to the streets in huge numbers. They flocked to Mousavi rallies in their tens of thousands. They turned the capital into a seething sea of green with their ribbons, headscarves, balloons and bandanas. They festooned the city with posters and banners. Until the small hours of each morning they packed squares, blocked junctions and careered around town in cars with horns blaring and pop music blasting.

The Islamic republic has never seen such sights before. It was almost open rebellion, an explosion of pent-up anger after four years in which the fundamentalist President and his morality police cracked down on dissent, human rights groups, and any dress or behaviour deemed unIslamic. “Death to the dictator,” young men and women roared at Mousavi rallies. “Death to the Government.


Mr Mousavi is an unlikely champion for such people. He is no reformist. He promises some social and economic liberalisation, and to do away with the hated “morality police”, but he is not challenging the political system. At 68, and distinctly lacking charisma, he is more Bob Dole than Barack Obama. Mousavi-mania is less a reflection of his popularity than of the loathing most educated, urban Iranians feel for a messianic President who has curtailed freedom, embarrassed Iran internationally and squandered record oil revenues through reckless spending.

In 2005 many liberal Iranians refused to vote, partly because they did not want to legitimise a political system that they abhor, and partly because they were profoundly disillusioned at how the conservative establishment had thwarted the reform efforts of their previous champion, President Khatami. But they will turn out in huge numbers today because they cannot contemplate four more years of Mr Ahmadinejad. “Now you and I vote so he will be defeated,” was the text message sent to millions of mobile phones after campaigning ended yesterday.


It is possible that violence will erupt if Mr Ahmadinejad is declared the victor and Mr Mousavi’s supporters cry foul. It is likely that Mr Mousavi will fail to meet his supporters’ sky-high expectations, partly because the Supreme Leader remains the real power in the land and partly because he is, in truth, a flawed vehicle for their hopes and aspirations.

Only one thing is certain. Iran will never be quite the same again. “We are in a new phase in this country and civilisation,” Saeed Laylaz, a respected political consultant, said as his compatriots prepared to vote.

All this reminds of me a piece I published a few years ago in Reason magazine about exiled Iranian revolutionaries in Iraq called “The Next Iranian Revolution”:http://reason.com/news/show/122023.html. Here are some excerpts:

More encouraging than Komala’s moderation and political evolution is its plausible claim—backed up by most Iranian activists, expatriates, and dissidents—that Iranian society as a whole is far more sensible and mature than it was in 1979, at least at the level below the state, on the street. The aftermath of an Iranian revolution, Mohtadi said, will not resemble the postwar occupation of Iraq with its civil war, insurgency, kidnappings, and car bombs.

“We have an internal opposition,” he said. “We have an internal movement against the regime. Women were warned not to celebrate 8 March, Women’s Day. They did. There are demonstrations in Iran. There are movements in Iran. You have the intellectuals, the political activists, the human rights activists, then the Kurds, Arabs, Azeris, Baluchis, different nationalities. There is a movement in Iran, unlike in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, where you had Kurds and nobody else.” (Iraq’s Shia did rise up against Saddam in 1991, but they had been quiet since Baghdad’s brutal response to that insurrection.) “It’s not like that in Iran.”


“You can complain about the government,” Mohtadi said. “You can insult them. But America is a red line. Khomeini himself is a red line. The Israelis are a red line, absolutely.” Iranians can’t buck the party line on certain topics, but they are brave enough, or just barely free enough, to protest the government to its face. “When [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad spoke to students,” Mohtadi pointed out, “hundreds of students stood up and called him a fascist and burned his picture.”


Islamist law is so widely detested and flouted in Iran that it’s a wonder the regime even bothers to keep up the pretense. In June 2005 Christopher Hitchens wrote in Vanity Fair that every person he visited there, with the exception of one single imam, offered him alcohol, which is banned.

Everyone I met at the Komala compound said the Iranian regime itself wallows deep in the post-ideological torpor that inevitably follows radical revolutions. Except for the most fanatic officials, the government cares only about money and power. “Followers of the regime are not ideological anymore,” Sanjari said. “They are bribed by the government. They will no longer support it in the case that it is overthrown. Even among the Iranian military and Revolutionary Guards, there are so many people dissatisfied with the policies of the regime. Fortunately there aren’t religious conflicts between Shias, Sunnis, and different nationalities.”

Mohtadi concurred. “The next revolution and government will be explicitly anti-religious,” he said.

The Iranian writer Reza Zarabi says the regime has all but destroyed religion itself. “The name Iran, which used to be equated with such things as luxury, fine wine, and the arts, has become synonymous with terrorism,” he wrote. “When the Islamic Republic government of Iran finally meets its demise, they will have many symbols and slogans as testaments of their rule, yet the most profound will be their genocide of Islam, the black stain that they have put on this faith for many generations to come.”

“The regime is claiming Ahmadinejad won”:http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/Ahmadinejad-re-elected-Iran-president-for-second-term/articleshow/4651606.cms, and there are unconfirmed reports that “Mousavi has been arrested”:http://thecable.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2009/06/12/iran_elections_update.

Interesting times are ahead in Iran.

UPDATE: It turns out that Mousavi wasn’t detained.

UPDATE: “Haaretz is now reporting”:http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1092304.html that he has in fact been arrested.

*I stole the title of this post from Amir Taheri’s new book The Persian Night: Iran under the Khomeinist Revolution, which I cannot recommend highly enough.

No Divine Victory for Hezbollah

Lebanese voters went to the polls on Sunday and gave Hezbollah “an unexpected shellacking”:http://www.nowlebanon.com/NewsArticleDetails.aspx?ID=97404&MID=115&PID=2. The anti-Syrian “March 14” coalition led by Saad Hariri’s Future Movement won 71 seats in the parliament. The Hezbollah-led “March 8” bloc won 57. Hezbollah itself only has ten seats in Beirut out of 128.

Most observers and analysts were surprised by the March 14 victory, but I could never figure out where Hezbollah’s additional support was supposedly coming from. Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah strapped a suicide bomb vest around his own country when he picked a fight with Israel in 2006. Mounting an armed assault against the capital, as he did last May, was no way to win the hearts and minds of new voters. Until recently, I was certain Hezbollah and its allies had no chance of winning, but they grew so sure of their own propaganda that they managed to persuade even their enemies that they might come out on top. The March 14 side was rattled, and some of their analysts “convinced even me”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/65851 that Hezbollah might pull it off. But Hezbollah lost, and “Nasrallah conceded”:http://www.nowlebanon.com/NewsArticleDetails.aspx?ID=97493.

Syrian dictator Bashar Assad also lost big when his most powerful proxy in Lebanon was rejected by the majority. “So much for Bashar’s ‘imaginary majority,’” “wrote Lebanese political analyst Tony Badran”:http://beirut2bayside.blogspot.com/2009/06/major-victory-for-march-14.html, “in spite of all his terrorism, bombing, murder, violence, intimidation, coup attempts and information warfare over the last four years.”

“Sanity prevailed,” an unnamed Obama Administration official said after the results were made official. Indeed, it did. The press may be getting slightly carried away with crediting President Barack Obama’s Cairo speech for the March 14 victory, but Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Beirut recently and said everything that needed to be said before voters went to the polls. Biden rightly warned the Lebanese that American aid to their government and military would be reevaluated if the Hezbollah-led coalition emerged victorious.

“The president himself said”:http://www.naharnet.com/domino/tn/NewsDesk.nsf/getstory?openform&A0262ED7CBB071F4C22575CF00551A7F the United States will “continue to support a sovereign and independent Lebanon, committed to peace, including the full implementation of all United Nations Security Council Resolutions.” Everyone in Lebanon knows exactly what this means. A “sovereign and independent” Lebanon cannot be a vassal of Syria and Iran. “Committed to peace” is a slap against Hezbollah’s interminable armed “resistance” against Israel. The relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions demand the disarmament of every militia in Lebanon — including Hezbollah and those in the Palestinian refugee camps.

“Some leftists are kvetching”:http://www.huffingtonpost.com/stephen-zunes/telling-the-lebanese-how_b_211175.html about Obama’s explicitly anti-Hezbollah position. I was slightly worried myself about other potential aspects of the president’s Lebanon policy before it developed, but he deserves support here from conservatives as well as from Democrats who understand that the United States can’t support a terrorist army that “says”:http://www.hudson.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=publication_details&id=4241, “Death to America is a policy, a strategy, and a vision.”

“Read the rest in Commentary Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/69132.

Hezbollah Concedes Defeat

Hezbollah lost the election in Lebanon, and its Secretary General “Hassan Nasrallah conceded defeat”:http://www.nowlebanon.com/NewsArticleDetails.aspx?ID=97493.

These guys drank their own Kool-Aid recently. They were so certain they were going to win that they even convinced some “March 14″ analysts, who then convinced me. I could never figure out how Hezbollah and its allies supposedly increased their support while starting a war with Israel, attacking Beirut, and lining up with the Syrians and Iranians. And as it turned out, they didn’t.

On the road

I’m out of town for a few days and have no time to write and little time even to read. Blogging will therefore be slow. I’ll be home in a few days. Thanks for being patient in the meantime.

Pay the Writer!

Thanks to “Max Boot at Commentary”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/boot/68711 for pointing me to this fun rant from a cranky old favorite.

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Advice for Barack Obama from Lebanon

I received an article in my inbox this afternoon from the terrific folks at the “Lebanon Renaissance Foundation”:http://www.lebanonrenaissance.org/, and they gave me permission to publish it.


As Obama addresses Muslim world; a struggle to win Christian hearts and minds in the Middle East

In preparing to deliver his much-awaited speech from Cairo tomorrow, President Barack Obama may want to keep in mind that future American prestige and influence in the region depends not only on how his message is received by Muslims, but also by the region’s Christians.

After all, just three days after the speech, the voters of Lebanon go to the polls in parliamentary elections, and Christians there are likely to determine the results. Virtually everyone in the region – and especially Iran, America’s archenemy for influence throughout the Muslim world – has a vital interest in the outcome.

If the ruling majority wins, it will be a victory for Western interests; but if the Hizbullah-led coalition ekes out a victory, Iran will stand the victor. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — whose country arms and finances Hizbullah – recently said the outcome of the Lebanese elections “will change the Middle East.” Should Iran’s proxies win, Obama’s message to Muslims, no matter how hopeful and proactive, will be drowned out as Iran and Islamic fundamentalism will be seen as ascendant.

Whereas the majority of Lebanon’s Sunni population is expected to vote in favor of the Western-leaning March 14 coalition and the majority of Shia are expected to back the Iranian and Syrian-supported March 8 coalition, the Christians remain split.

This goes against past experience. Lebanon’s Christians historically have led the effort to protect Lebanon’s sovereignty against Syrian and Iranian meddling. Yet since the 2005 Cedar Revolution, which brought together Lebanese of all communal backgrounds to demand an end to Syrian occupation, both Syria and Iran have succeeded in making significant inroads into the Lebanese Christian communities, which include Maronites, Greek Orthodox, Armenians, and Catholics.

This follows several years of effort by Iran and Syria to build influence among Lebanon’s Christians – often by intimidation and violence directed at Christian leaders who backed the March 14 coalition. But there’s been a soft side to this influence-building: Christian leaders who acquiesced to Syrian and Iranian interference in Lebanon and yielded to Hizbullah’s powerful paramilitary force were rewarded with generous financial, political and military support. In landmark visits to Tehran and Damascus earlier this year Michel Aoun — leader of the largest Christian parliamentary bloc and formerly a staunch opponent of Syria and Iran — was received with honors usually reserved only for heads of state. Both countries described Aoun not only as the leader of Lebanese Christians, but as a leader of Christians throughout the Middle East.

The message from Syria and Iran to Lebanon’s Christians is clear: Stick with us and you will reap the benefits and gain protection; side with the West and you will pay a heavy price.

To its credit, the Obama administration recognized the importance of Lebanon’s upcoming vote, recently sending both Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to Beirut. Congress has been equally engaged as Senator John Kerry, Congressman Gary Ackerman and a number of other congressional leaders have met with Lebanese officials and expressed support for Lebanese sovereignty. These gestures are important, but they may not be enough to avert a Hizbullah victory at the polls.

If the U.S. is determined to prevent Iran from further expanding its influence in the Middle East, American officials must focus not only on winning Muslim hearts and minds but also those of Lebanese and Middle Eastern Christians. There needs to be a concerted effort to win back this community, which has historically been friendly to America but is now at risk of being co-opted by Iran.

So in his address from Cairo tomorrow, President must not only reassure Muslims that America has their long-term interests at heart. He must also reassure Christians throughout the region that the U.S. remains committed to freedom, national sovereignty, and peace. And three days later, we will know whether that message was received among Lebanese Christians, or whether Iran takes a major step towards “changing the Middle East.”

“Lebanon Renaissance Foundation”:http://www.lebanonrenaissance.org/

A Tall Order for Saudi Arabia?

The _New York Times_ “inadvertently highlights”:http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/01/us/01prexy.html?hpw how much more intransigent than Israel most Arab states are. President Barack Obama is soon heading to Saudi Arabia, where he will present wish-lists from the U.S. government, from the Israeli government, and from the Palestinian Authority. Israel isn’t asking for much — just a few symbolic tourist visas, meetings between Saudi officials and their Israeli counterparts, and the opening of a Saudi interests office in Tel Aviv. “These would be a tall order for the Arab kingdom,” the Times says.

Good grief. The Obama Administration expects Israelis to stop building houses in Jewish neighborhoods in suburban Jerusalem that they never intend to abandon, yet the Saudis won’t even _talk _to Israelis or let a few Jews visit the beach.

Once in a while, it’s wise to refuse meetings with enemies. President Franklin Roosevelt didn’t negotiate with Adolf Hitler or Emperor Hirohito during World War II. President Obama won’t hold a summit with the Taliban’s Mullah Omar or with Al Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden. Israel, though, isn’t a threat to Saudi Arabia. Israel has never attacked Saudi Arabia. Israel almost certainly never will attack Saudi Arabia. The overwhelming majority of Israelis want peace and normal relations with Saudi Arabia now. Saudi Arabia’s refusal to even speak to Israelis under these circumstances makes its government more reactionary than Israel’s would have been had then-Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin refused to meet with then-Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1979.

The idea that Saudi Arabia “can’t” have diplomatic relations with Israel until the Palestinian question is resolved has become mainstream, even axiomatic, but it’s nonsense.

Azerbaijan has an overwhelming Muslim majority, but Israel has an embassy there. Relations between the two countries are not only good, “they’re improving”:http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1243872307395&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull. Most Turks, including those in the government, sympathize more with Palestinians than with Israelis, but “Turkey remains an ally of Israel”:http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/english/domestic/10705597.asp. Seventy percent of Albanians are at least nominal Muslims, but “Albania gets along just fine with Israel”:http://www.setimes.com/cocoon/setimes/xhtml/en_GB/features/setimes/features/2006/03/28/feature-03.

None of those Muslim-majority countries are Arab, to be sure, but that shouldn’t make any difference. Egypt and Jordan are Arabic countries. Unlike Saudi Arabia, they fought deadly hot wars with Israel. Yet they both signed peace treaties years ago. There is no iron law of geopolitics that requires Saudi Arabia to remain in a state of cold war with Israel. The only reason the Saudis don’t have normal relations with Israel is because they prefer hostile relations.

“Read the rest in Commentary Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/68152.

Around the Web

I posted the following over at “Instapundit”:http://pajamasmedia.com/instapundit/ today while Glenn Reynolds is goofing off at the beach:

THE TALIBAN abduct up to “hundreds of students in Pakistan”:http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/06/01/AR2009060102953.html.

PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY President Mahmoud Abbas: “No, no, and no”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/trager/67961. Even the _New York Times_ is “losing patience with him”:http://blogs.tnr.com/tnr/blogs/the_spine/archive/2009/06/01/even-the-new-york-times.aspx.

JOSHUA MURAVCHIK: “Islamists Lose Ground in the Middle East”:http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124381143508370179.html#mod=rss_opinion_main

YAACOV LOZOWICK: “High-quality Political Cynicism Galore”:http://yaacovlozowick.blogspot.com/2009/05/high-quality-political-cynicism-galore.html.

[N]o matter how childish the politicians-media-NGO activists are, the foreign reporters who eagerly take only part of the story and use it to damn Israel shouldn’t be exonerated. They could tell the same story I’ve just told you, but scrupulously won’t, ever.

One Third of Instapundit

Glenn Reynolds is on vacation this week, so I’ll be guest-blogging at “Instapundit”:http://pajamasmedia.com/instapundit/ again with “Megan McArdle”:http://meganmcardle.theatlantic.com/ and “Ann Althouse”:http://althouse.blogspot.com/.

In addition to writing, I’m working on a speech this week that I’ll be giving in Washington DC this weekend. Megan and Ann may be a bit busier over there than me, but I’ll do what I can.

Kim Jong Il, the Second?

North Korea has been a minor obsession of mine for some time, but I’ve paid less attention to its foreign policy than to the psychotic slave state Kim Il Sung built at home. Even so, his son Kim Jong Il seems to be acting “more recklessly”:http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5iURO8fOyWVOA0ytFlaAGuC9F7R9wD98GA2784 than at any time I can recall.

So Tom Ricks sure got my attention when “he quoted”:http://ricks.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2009/05/27/mccreary_nokos_acting_unusually_reckless U.S. intelligence analyst “John McCreary”:http://www.afcea.org/mission/intel/NightWatchMcCreary.asp on his Foreign Policy blog:

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

The Mother of All Myths

Dennis Ross, Special Advisor on Iran for the Secretary of State, has a book coming out next month that “inconveniently takes issue with the Obama Administration’s thesis”:http://yaacovlozowick.blogspot.com/2009/05/dennis-ross-my-job-is-futile.html of “linkage.” “Of all the policy myths that have kept us from making real progress in the Middle East,” Ross writes in a chapter titled “The Mother of All Myths,” “one stands out for its impact and longevity: the idea that if only the Palestinian conflict were solved, all other Middle East conflicts would melt away.” Meanwhile, the Obama Administration — which Ross currently works for — is pressuring Israel in part because the president hopes progress toward the resolution of the Palestinian conflict will help derail Iran’s drive for the development of nuclear weapons.

Ross finished the manuscript and “sold it to Viking Press”:http://haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1088479.html before the president hired him, but he was right when he wrote it, and he’s still right today. The biggest problems in the Middle East — and Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons surely is one of them — have little or nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Iranian regime’s hatred of Israel is real, to be sure, and nuclear missiles in its arsenal would pose a serious threat, but Iran, in all likelihood, would wish to arm itself with the world’s most powerful weapons even if Israel did not exist.

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

Ross almost sounds like he’s debunking a strawman when he says believers in the theory of ‘linkage’ think “all other Middle East conflicts would melt away” if only the Palestinians had a state. I don’t know if President Barack Obama would go that far, but former “President Jimmy Carter nearly does”:http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nathan-gardels/jimmy-carter-takes-on-isr_b_36134.html. “Even among the populations of our former close friends in the region,” Carter said, “Egypt and Jordan, less than 5 percent look favorably on the United States today. That’s not because we invaded Iraq; they hated Saddam. It is because we don’t do anything about the Palestinian plight. Without doubt, the path to peace in the Middle East goes through Jerusalem.

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

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

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

“Read the rest in Commentary Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/67801.

The Future of Iraq, Part II

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

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

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

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Baghdad, Iraq

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

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

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

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

Baghdad has suffered terribly since the insurgency exploded after Saddam’s regime was demolished, but the physical war wreckage I’ve seen in the capital is insignificant compared to “what I saw in Anbar’s provincial capital Ramadi”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/2007/09/anbar-awakens-part-i-the-battl.php. Ramadi was more wracked with destruction than even Fallujah. Ramadi looked like World War II had recently ripped through the place. Two American colonels I spoke to there compared the Battle of Ramadi to Stalingrad. It’s no wonder Iraq’s muscular anti-terrorist movement began there.

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Ramadi, Anbar Province, Iraq

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

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Adhamiyah, Baghdad

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

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

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Iraqi girl, Adhamiyah, Baghdad

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

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

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Adhamiyah, Baghdad

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

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

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

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

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Bridge over the Tigris River, Adhamiyah, Baghdad

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

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Government building, Tigris River, Baghdad

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

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Adhamiyah, Baghdad

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

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Looking toward the city center across the Tigris River

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

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U.S. military surveillance balloon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A young Iraqi manning a checkpoint, Sadr City, Baghdad

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Captain Todd Looney

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

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Iraqi teenager, Adhamiyah, Baghdad

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

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

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

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Captain A.J. Boyes, Sadr City, Baghdad

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

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

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Pre-Saddam architecture, Adhamiyah, Baghdad

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

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

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Tigris River, Baghdad

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

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

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

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

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Tigris River, Baghdad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Adhamiyah, Baghdad

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

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

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

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

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Adhamiyah, Baghdad

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

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

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

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

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Adhamiyah, Baghdad

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

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

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

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

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Billboard, Sadr City, Baghdad

“You actually did this?” I said.

“Yes,” he said.

“You had a weapon?” I said.

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

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

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An Iraqi kid with a broom, Sadr City, Baghdad

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

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

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

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Park, Sadr City, Baghdad

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

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

“Exactly,” Captain Boyes said.

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

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

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Adhamiyah, Baghdad

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

Insurgent and terrorist groups feel threatened by even this basic level of cultural interaction. “When I visited the Lebanese border from the Israeli side”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/2006/05/on-the-rim-of-a-volcano.php a few months before the 2006 war, a Turkish-Israeli Kurd named Eitan showed me a destroyed building just over the fence on the Lebanese side. “Look over there,” he said and pointed toward Lebanon. “That’s the old French customs house It, too, was used when the Lebanese-Israeli border was open. Hezbollah blew it away. [Secretary General Hassan] Nasrallah wanted to make sure there was no contact at all between our two peoples.”

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

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

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Adhamiyah, Baghdad

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

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

“Maybe not at all,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Blackhawk helicopter over Baghdad

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

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

“We’re realists,” Captain Looney said.

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

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

To be continued

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

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