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Builders of Nations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Really,” I said. “Iraqi-Americans?”

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

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

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

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

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

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Water Plant Fallujah.jpg

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

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

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Iraqi Police Chief Colonel Faisal (left)

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

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

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

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Iraqis painting a school

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

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

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

“What do you mean by well?” he said.

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

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

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Inside Lieutenant Bibler’s Joint Security Station

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe all of them,” I said.

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

*

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

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

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

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A mukhtar’s house

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

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

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Captain Steve Eastin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Major Kenneth Gudgel (left)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lieutenant Schroeder

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

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

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

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

Gasperetti School.jpg

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

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

“Why?” the lieutenant said with genuine surprise.

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

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

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

We left after a few minutes.

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

“Have you made any progress?” I said.

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

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

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Corporal Gasperetti

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

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

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Mukhtar Hamid Hussein

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

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

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

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

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Many thanks in advance.

Blasphemers Unite!

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

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

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

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

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

Reviewed in the NYT: Mirror of the Arab World

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

Mirror of the Arab World Cover.JPG

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

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

Freedom Fighter Called “Terrorist” by INS

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dungeon of Fallujah — Upgraded

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Liberation of Karmah, Part I

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

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

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Karmah, Iraq

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

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

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

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

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

“Did he switch sides?” I said.

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

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

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

Extensive Rubble Karmah.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rubble Karmah 1.jpg

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

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

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

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

“That’s all it took?” I said.

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

Fortification Karmah.jpg

Heavy fortification in Karmah

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

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

Marines Taking Cover Karmah.jpg

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

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

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

Sideways Thumbs Up Karmah.jpg

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

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

“It was his family members?” I said.

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

Garbage Mud and Buildings Karmah.jpg

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

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

Iraqi Gunner Karmah.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

“Very cooperative,” Sergeant Perusich said.

“Well, define cooperative,” Lieutenant Macak said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

Hospitalman Flagg Karmah.jpg

Hospitalman Joshua L. Flagg and Captain Quintin Jones

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

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

Lance Corporal Varney Karmah.jpg

Lance Corporal Joshua S. Varney and Captain Quintin Jones

Sergeant Perusich Karmah.jpg

Sergeant Joseph M. Perusich and Captain Quintin Jones

Lance Corporal Arden Karmah.jpg

Lance Corporal Johnathan L. Arden and Captain Quintin Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

War Damage Karmah.jpg

Rough Corner Karmah.jpg

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

Just around the corner was the traffic circle.

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

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

Lollipop Karmah 2.jpg

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

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

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

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

Sheikhs Karmah 1.jpg

Crowd Lollipop Karmah.jpg

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

Flag Minaret Karmah.jpg

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

Liberation of Karmah.jpg

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

Sheikh Speech Karmah.jpg

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

Sheikh Interview Zoomed Out.jpg

An Arabic-speaking journalist interviews Sheikh Mishan Abbas

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

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

Captain Jones and Mayor Karmah.jpg

Captin Quintin Jones and Mayor Abu Abdullah

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

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

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

Stores Karmah.jpg

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

Driscoll and Jones Karmah.jpg

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

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

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

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

Truck Men Guns Karmah.jpg

Men Parading with Flag Karmah.jpg

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

Crowded Market Karmah.jpg

Vegetable Stand Karmah.jpg

Pickles for Sale Karmah.jpg

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

Two Boys Karmah.jpg

Kid Flag Angle Karmah.jpg

Shaking Hands w Marine Karmah.jpg

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

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

Admiral and Kid Karmah.jpg

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

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

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

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

To be continued…

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Who Else is Afraid of Kosovo?

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

The Israel of the Balkans

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

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

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

Israelis, as Amir Mizroch “notes”:http://72.14.253.104/search?q=cache:xx6vStsddw8J:www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite%3Fpagename%3DJPost%252FJPArticle%252FShowFull%26cid%3D1203343699593+%22israel+won’t+recognize+kosovo+for+now%22&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=1&gl=us&client=firefox-a in the Jerusalem Post, have excellent relations with the Kosovars. “Israel has an interest in helping to establish a moderate, secular Muslim state friendly to Jerusalem and Washington in the heart of southeast Europe,” he writes. Indeed, Kosovo is neither an enemy state nor a jihad state. Its brand of Islam is heavily Sufi, which is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the Wahhabism and Salafism that inspire Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

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

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

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

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

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

What Iraqis Want You to Hear

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

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

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

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

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

Iraq Opinion Lag Narrows

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

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

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

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

Iraq Poll 2008 1.JPG

Iraq Poll 2008 2.JPG

Iraq Poll 2008 3.JPG

Handshakes with the Enemy

Abe [Greenwald] “already blogged about this”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/greenwald/2926, but I wanted to follow up on Diana West’s “fretting”:http://www.washingtontimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080307/EDITORIAL04/969332747/ in the Washington Times about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent trip to Iraq, where he was supposedly given a warm reception by the Baghdad government. “[O]ur Iraqi allies have welcomed our Iranian enemies right into it.” Not so fast. Iraq and Iran are two Shia-majority countries. They share a long border and a terrible history, as Abe pointed out. They should be expected to have relations of some kind, and the more civil the better considering the depth of hatred Iranian Persians and Iraqi Arabs have for each other. Another full-blown war between Iraq and Iran is in the interests of no one.

In any case, a meeting, a few agreements, and a photo op don’t make these two countries an axis. Iran supports insurgents that for years have been trying to destroy the Baghdad government using terrorism, guerilla warfare, assassination, and sabotage. Who can seriously believe after all this—not to mention the centuries of conflict that preceded it—that the two governments actually like each other? Baghdad may formally welcome Ahmadinejad, but certainly not his proxy armies.

But let’s put that aside for the sake or argument and assume Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki may be a quiet Iranian sympathizer. What about Iraq’s president?

“Mr. Ahmadinejad was greeted with multiple kisses from Iraqi President Jalal Talabani,” West notes before saying “Blech.” Talabani is not only Iraq’s president. He is also the political leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the staunchly secular leftist political party with its home base in the Kurdish city of Suleimaniya. The PUK provides funds and materials to at least two exiled Kurdish Iranian political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan whose explicit goal is “the destruction of the Islamic Republic regime in Tehran”:http://reason.com/news/show/122023.html. Each of these parties has their own private army. One crossed into Iran recently and fought the regime in the streets during an uprising in the city of Mahabad. The idea that the secular, leftist, and Kurdish Jalal Talabani supports the theocratic, rightist, and Persian Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, while at the same time funding and supplying revolutionaries who cross the border, doesn’t make sense.

“Read the rest in Commentary Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/2945.

Hillary Isn’t the Monster

I was at first relieved to learn that Senator Barack Obama had chosen Samantha Power as a foreign policy advisor. Her book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide is hardly wishy-washy or leftist, and I concur with Max Boot that “it could have been written by a neoconservative”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/boot/2679. It had been years, though, since I had paid her any attention. Until, that is, Noah Pollak “forced me to take a fresh look”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/pollak/2551. Much of what she has written and said since her book’s publication has been troubling, and she turned out to be the most controversial of Obama’s advisors. Yesterday “she resigned”:http://www.breitbart.com/article.php?id=D8V8N9Q00&show_article=1 after calling Senator Hillary Clinton a “monster” in an interview with a Scottish newspaper. I suspect an additional (though unstated) reason may have been the unwanted storm of controversy surrounding her, a storm that has had the Obama campaign on the defensive for some time now.

To her credit, Power “disavowed her most controversial idea”:http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/957778.html—that American troops be sent to Israel and the Palestinian territories—but troubling questions remain. If she thinks Clinton is a monster, what does she think about the dictators of Syria and Iran? She doesn’t approve of them. That’s obvious. But neither she nor Obama has ever been so “undiplomatic” as to suggest that they’re monsters.

“Read the rest in Commentary Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/2870

Hezbollah’s Media Relations

Michael Young has “a terrific article”:http://www.reason.com/news/show/125203.html in Reason magazine about the collateral damage (as he put it) in think tanks, academia, and the media after the assassination of Hezbollah Commander Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus. He zeroes in on leftist icons “Noam Chomsky”:http://memri.org/bin/articles.cgi?Page=archives&Area=sd&ID=SP116506%20 and “Norman Finkelstein”:http://switch3.castup.net/cunet/gm.asp?ai=214&ar=1676wmv&ak=null for their full-throated support for the Syrian- and Iranian-backed terrorist militia. (Be sure to watch Finkelstein’s performance on Lebanon’s Future TV “here”:http://switch3.castup.net/cunet/gm.asp?ai=214&ar=1676wmv&ak=null, and note how exasperated his interviewer Najat Sharafeddine is with his views.) The absurd alliance of violent Islamists and leftists has been covered elsewhere at length. At least Finkelstein and Chomsky are honest with their audience about what they believe and where they’re coming from.

Young also points out what may be a more serious problem, one much harder for most observers to see. Certain things are expected of those who want to maintain access to groups like Hezbollah. As Young points out,

Hezbollah is adept at turning contacts with the party into valuable favors . . . Writers and scholars, particularly Westerners, who lay claim to Hezbollah sources, are regarded as special for penetrating so closed a society. That’s why their writing is often edited with minimal rigor. Hezbollah always denied everything that was said about Mughniyeh, and few authors (or editors) showed the curiosity to push further than that. The mere fact of getting such a denial was considered an achievement in itself, a sign of rare access, and no one was about to jeopardize that access by calling Hezbollah liars.

“Read the rest in Commentary Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/2836.

In the Slums of Fallujah

In the Slums of Fallujah.jpg

FALLUJAH, IRAQ — Captain Steve Eastin threw open the door to the Iraqi Police captain’s office and cancelled a joint American-Iraqi officer’s meeting before it could even begin. “Someone just shot at my Marines,” he said. “We can’t do this right now.”

I following him into the hall.

“What happened?” I said.

“Someone just shot at my guys at the flour mill,” he said. “A bullet struck a wall four feet over a Marine’s head. We have to go in there and extract them.”

“They don’t extract themselves?” I said.

“They’re on foot,” he said, “and we’re going in vehicles. They don’t extract themselves on foot.”

And I was getting comfortable and even bored in post-insurgent Fallujah. Complacency kills, and Fallujah isn’t completely free of insurgents just yet.

Complacency Kills.jpg

“Can I go with the extraction team?” I said.

“They’ve already left in Humvees,” he said.

But he did send a patrol to the flour mill less an hour later, and I went with them.

Captain Eastin is the commanding officer of Lima Company, and they operate in the slums of southern Fallujah. The houses down there are smaller than they are in the rest of the city, and much more decrepit. Southern Fallujah isn’t nearly as rough as a Latin American, Indian, or Egyptian shantytown, but its residents live a hardscrabble life and largely depend on charity for survival. There isn’t much of an economy. Unemployment is well over 50 percent. Many residents worked in the industrial district, but only a few factories have re-opened so far. Business owners are waiting for government compensation which was supposed to have been delivered from Baghdad months ago.

Rubble and Blank Walls Fallujah.jpg

During periods of heavy fighting there were more insurgents in this part of the city than in the north, but they fought more for money than ideology. They needed the survival cash Al Qaeda paid them.

“Get your shit on!” Corporal Z bellowed at the privates under his command. He screamed at just about everyone, including me. He’s a tyrant to work underneath, and he’s a royal pain to work near. His belligerent attitude was unprofessional, and I was surprised his fellow Marines put up with him. I’m referring to him as Corporal Z instead of his full name because my objective here isn’t to name and shame him as an act of revenge.

“Are we walking or driving?” I said to him before I realized who I was dealing with.

He scowled at me like I was the dumbest human being he had ever seen.

“We don’t drive,” he said. “We walk. You got that? We walk. We don’t ever drive out of here.” He scoffed and shook his head.

Forty five minutes earlier his commanding officer Captain Eastin sent a unit to the flour mill in Humvees. Corporal Z only thought he knew what he was talking about.

As it turned out, though, we did walk. The previous patrol had been safely extracted, and the Marines didn’t want to look like they were scared.

Lieutenant Justin Lappe led the unit from the joint security station to the flour mill where the shot had been fired. We walked out the gate, and we walked quickly.

“Fuck,” Corporal Z said. “Fuck. I hope I get to shoot somebody today.”

We were in earshot of Iraqi civilians, and I hoped they didn’t understand English.

“What’s his problem, anyway?” I said to Lieutenant Lappe.

“He’s from the south side of Chicago,” he said, as if that explained it. “I guess he grew up in a really bad area. For the last five months I’ve tried to civilize him, but it can’t be done and I’ve given up.”

“How many people is he in charge of?” I said.

“You’d think he was in charge of a hundred people the way he yells at everybody,” he said. “But he’s only in charge of ten. Don’t let him get to you. We’ve all learned to ignore him. I don’t even hear him anymore.”

Corporal Z reminded me of another Marine NCO in Fallujah whom I’ll call Sergeant C. Sergeant C does not play well with others. He made it clear he hates journalists as a species and that he was going to take it out on me personally. It was nearly impossible to have anything resembling a normal conversation with him.

“When are we moving out, sergeant?” one of his men asked before rolling out on a mission.

“In a few minutes,” Sergeant C said. “Now calm down and stick your tampon back in.”

I saw him slap a private — hard — in the head in the chow hall during lunch. Any private sector employer would have fired him on the spot.

Lieutenant J.C. Davis at Camp Baharia once asked me how everybody was treating me.

“Like gold,” I said. “With one exception. I am not really getting along with Sergeant C.”

The lieutenant laughed out loud hard.

Nobody gets along with Sergeant C,” he said.

What struck me most about Corporal Z and Sergeant C, though, is how unusual they were. I met hundreds of Marines in Fallujah, but only these two had this kind of attitude problem. Most soldiers and Marines in Iraq are far more polite and respectful of others than Americans generally.

I will not publish Corporal Z’s and Sergeant C’s names because I don’t wish to cause them any trouble, but they nevertheless violated MJT’s First Rule of Media Relations: Be nice to people who write about you for a living.

The flour mill where Marines had been shot at was only a quarter mile away, but the Marines still walked quickly and didn’t stop to talk to any Iraqis. They were much more serious and focused than usual. They knew, and I knew, that we were much more likely to be shot at this time.

An Iraqi Police station had just been constructed a few blocks from the mill, and we stopped to pick up some of their officers to take with us. I waited in the front parking lot.

The neighborhood looked terrible: shoddy houses, concrete walls, barbed wire, garbage, and rubble. I snapped a few pictures.

Garbage Slums of Fallujah.jpg

Destruction Near Flour Mill Fallujah.jpg

A poor man and his two children saw me point my camera in their general direction and decided to pose for me. They thought I wanted a picture of them. I didn’t really, but I took one anyway.

Family Barbed Wire Fallujah.jpg

They had an innocent and kind look about them, and I felt bad that they didn’t realize that what I was really trying to photograph was their destitute neighborhood. They did not seem ashamed of their humble circumstances.

It would not have surprised me if they had. When I tried to photograph a slum in Cairo near Giza — a slum that was in much worse shape than this one — my taxi driver was embarrassed and implored me to put down my camera. He knew I was a journalist, and he wanted to protect Egypt’s dignity.

A unit of Iraqi Police officers emerged from the station with their gear on, and we walked the few remaining blocks to our destination.

Flour Mill Angled Shot.jpg

The flour mill is the tallest building in the area, and I thought it looked like an ideal location for a sniper’s nest. I walked toward it in a random zigzag pattern to make myself a more difficult target.

Iraqi Police on Way to Flour Mill.jpg

An Iraqi Police truck roared past us on the street and nearly ran over several Marines and Iraqi Police officers. The driver slammed on the brakes. Officers jumped out with their AK-47s at the ready and merged into the staggered line of Marines.

Flour Mill from Below.jpg

The flour mill loomed ominously overhead. Was the earlier shot fired at the building or from the building? That wasn’t clear to me, and I dearly hoped the shot had come from somewhere else.

We made it inside the parking lot. A handful of Iraq civilians were already there talking to some Iraqi Police officers.

Consult at the Flour Mill.jpg

“Get in here! Get in here!” Corporal Z bellowed at everyone, American and Iraqi alike. “We need to shut this gate now!”

At the Flour Mill Fallujah.jpg

Just behind the sliding gate were the words Complacency Kills. Corporal Z, for all his faults, at least wasn’t complacent.

Complacency Kills Flour Mill.jpg

Once everyone was inside the parking lot, an Iraqi Police officer lackadaisically shut the gate to keep the city at bay. I assumed, then, that the shot had not come from the flour mill or we likely wouldn’t have barricaded ourselves in. Everyone seemed tense, but only slightly — except for Corporal Z who looked like he wanted to fire his weapon. I hoped his superior officers kept him away from detainees.

“Are we going inside?” I said to Lieutenant Lappe.

“I don’t know,” he said. “We need to talk to the owner, but he isn’t around. The Iraqis are trying to locate him.”

The purpose of the mission was to find him and talk to him, and also to show force. The Marines who were shot at had to be extracted, but at the same time they can’t be seen steering clear of a place just because somebody fired a round at them.

This is as much action as the Marines see any more in Fallujah, which is why the city and the rest of the province are being handed back to Iraqis.

The police could not locate the owner, so we left.

I spoke to Corporal Benjamin Smith on our walk back to the station. He had been in Fallujah before.

“I was hit more than ten times with IEDs in 2006,” he said.

“What kind of IEDs did they use out here?” I said. I was pretty sure there were no EFPs — explosively formed projectiles that tear through tanks, Humvees, and people as though they were made of wet paper. EFPs are made in Iran and are therefore supplied to Iraqi Shia militias. Fallujah is Sunni.

“155 [mm] artillery shells,” he said. “Mortar rounds. Propane tanks. P4 explosives.”

“What was Fallujah like then compared to now?” I said.

“We did a few foot patrols,” he said, “but mostly convoys. Kids even ran up to us then sometimes, but not very often. There are lots more people in the street now. Only once in a while, back then, did anyone wave. It was very rare. Typically, people who saw Marines turned their backs. It was a tough environment.”

An Iraqi Police truck roared down the street. One of the officers threw handfuls of leaflets over the side. Kids scrambled to pick them up.

The belligerent Corporal Z waded into the crowd of kids, smiled warmly, patted one on the head, and gave the others high-fives. What was this? He can’t be nice to Americans, he said he hoped he got to shoot somebody that day, but he’s affectionate with the kids?

Kids Waving on Way to Flour Mill.jpg

“I like it when the kids swarm around me,” he said when he saw that I watched him. “I feel a lot safer.” This was the first time I heard him speak in a normal tone. He’s complicated.

Corporal Smith and I kept walking together.

“What’s the most intense thing you saw in Fallujah back then?”

“An SVBIED,” he said. Suicidal vehicle-borne improvised explosive device. In other words, a suicide car bomber. “It was a civilian van. It swerved right toward me, and the guy blew up himself and the van. We found pieces 150 yards away. The engine block blew 50 feet in the air and landed on a Humvee. What was left of the guy was nasty, as if he’d been drawn and quartered.”

I didn’t know what to say.

“There was another time when an SVBIED fuel tanker came at us,” he said. “Our EOF [escalation of force] measures couldn’t stop it. The driver made it into the outpost. He destroyed four Humvees and even melted one of them. No one was killed, though. Just one dead insurgent. Enemy contact was a daily occurrence then. Me and everyone I know who was here then and now are like, what the fuck? This is Fallujah? Sometimes we’ll be driving along and I’ll pass a place where I got hit. I’ll say oh fuck, this is that place where I got hit and everybody stops talking. It’s like fucking crickets in the Humvee.”

Lieutenant Lappe overheard our conversation. I think he was worried that I was getting nervous.

“No one can lay down an IED anymore without somebody calling it in,” he said.

Marine Buys Candy Fallujah.jpg

He fished some Iraqi dinars out of his pocket, walked up the counter of a small store, and bought a huge bag of treats for the kids. It was instant kid bait.

“Chocolate! Chocolate!”

“Mister, I love you!”

“These kids are our security,” he said.

And the Marines are their security.

Kids burst out of every house on the street and formed a violent mob. They fiercely pushed, hit, kicked, and screamed at each other in a mad scramble for a small piece of candy. Someday, I thought, these children will be adults.

Lieutenant Lappe was horrified by their behavior, and he held the bag over his head and told them to calm down. They didn’t calm down. They just keep pushing and punching each other to get as close to the bag of candy as possible.

“You know what?” he said. “Fuck it.” And he threw the bag of candy up into the air over their heads. It landed in the street with a loud smack and broke open. The mob descended and it was all elbows and fists.

“Jesus,” I said.

“Yeah,” the lieutenant said. “These people have issues.”

We walked past a nice-looking Opel sedan. A Marine peered into the driver side window. Another crouched down and looked underneath.

“The Opel is like the Humvee for the muj, man,” said another.

“It’s a bad ass car,” our Iraqi-American interpreter said and grinned.

*

“There are no reporters in all of Fallujah, except Mike,” Captain Eastin said to his men when I first arrived. “So if he talks to you, talk to him. It’s the only way to get our story out.”

Soldiers and Marines tend to be a bit more friendly and trusting when I’m introduced to them in this way, and Lima Company was no exception.

I sat with a handful of jokesters in the smoke pit outside the station while First Sergeant Alonzo Baxter held court and entertained us all with his war stories and wisecracks. I can’t quote him exactly because I did not have my notebook or voice recorder with me at the time, but almost everything he said was hilarious.

“This guy ought to be famous,” one of his fellow Marines said.

“I’m famous already,” Sergeant Baxter said. “I’ve been on TV. Ain’t no thing.”

“Well, I’ll make you famous again,” I said and snapped his picture.

Sgt Baxter Fallujah.jpg

First Sergeant Alonzo Baxter

Lieutenant Colonel Chris Dowling paid a brief visit to the station from Camp Baharia just outside the city. He caught wind of the smoke from Sergeant Baxter’s cigar.

“What are you smoking?” Colonel Dowling said. “Is that a Cuban?”

“It’s a Cuban,” Sergeant Baxter said.

Colonel Dowling scowled at Sergeant Baxter and looked like he was gearing up to read him the riot act — or worse.

Colonel Dowling Fallujah.jpg

Lieutenant Colonel Chris Dowling

“You want one, sir?” Sergeant Baxter said meekly.

The colonel put his hands on his hips. Then he laughed. “Yeah,” he said. “I’ll take one.”

Sergeant Baxter handed Colonel Dowling a Cuban cigar.

“Now I get a free pass next time I mess something up,” he said.

“Oh, no you don’t,” Colonel Dowling said.

“Ah, come on, sir,” Sergeant Baxter said. “Just something small.”

The colonel then made an announcement. Secretary of the Navy Donald C. Winter was going to drop by and pay us a visit. Every Marine in the smoke pit sat bolt upright in their chairs. “So we need to get this place straightened up now.”

Five seconds later I was the only one who remained sitting. The rest were busting out brooms, organizing clutter, and taking trash to the burn pit.

No one, including the colonel, had any idea the Secretary of the Navy would be dropping by their random Joint Security Station in a rented house in the slums of Fallujah. How unlikely was that?

“Is he going to patrol?” I heard one Marine say.

“Fuck no,” said another. “That’s like President Bush going on patrol.”

Marines don’t like it when you point this out, but they are part of the Department of the Navy. They like to fashion themselves as more bad ass than the Navy, the Army, and the Air Force. They do have a point. A Marine is much more likely to see combat than a service member in any of the other branches. The Marine Corps takes far more casualties per head than the others. But the Secretary of the Navy outranked the bejeezus out of every man at that station. They found Lieutenant Colonel Dowling a little intimidating, but the news of a visit from Donald C. Winter made me think of that famous bumper sticker: Jesus is Coming. Look Busy.

Two hours later, he arrived. Lieutenant Colonel Dowling shook his hand, called him sir, and introduced him to the Marines. They stood and faced him like star struck teenagers and seemed terrified that he might find them inadequate.

He did not.

Instead he read a letter written by an Iraqi woman who wanted to thank the U.S. armed forces for freeing and protecting her country.

Each Marine was asked to briefly introduce himself. Each was given one of Donald C. Winter’s very own “unit” coins.

Sec of Navy Handshake Fallujah.jpg

Sec of Navy Coin Fallujah.jpg

After the formalities, Sergeant Baxter approached the secretary with a cigar in his hand.

“Would you like one, sir?” he said. “It’s a Cuban.”

Secretary Winter happily grinned and did not even bothering putting on a show of disapproval.

“Why thank you,” he said. “I think I will.” Then he slipped the cigar into his pocket.

I quietly introduced myself to his aid Becky Brenton.

“What’s he doing this for, exactly?” I said. I doubted it was for a photo op. I was the only reporter in all of Fallujah. He crossed paths with me by sheer chance. It was obvious that he wasn’t there for any attention from me.

Sec of Navy Fallujah.jpg

“He wants to thank the troops,” she said. “He does this every year. He’s on his way to Afghanistan now.”

“Well,” I said, “this is a good time for him to come to Fallujah. It’s not dangerous anymore.” I thought he might be on the dog and pony show happy tour circuit. I was wrong.

“Oh,” she said. “He’s been here before. And he was in Haditha last year.”

“Last year,” I said. “When Haditha was still hot.”

“He risked getting blown up just like everyone else,” she said.

She introduced me to him, and he was startled to see me.

“Get their stories out,” he said as he shook my hand.

“I will,” I said. “That’s why I came.”

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The Moderate Supermajority

My Contentions colleague Abe Greenwald “takes a gloomy view”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/greenwald/2731 of a new Gallup survey that shows 93 percent of the world’s Muslims are moderates. “We need to find out from one billion rational human beings why they largely refuse to stand up for humanity and dignity instead of cowering in the face of fascist thugs,” he wrote.

First of all, I’d like to agree with Abe’s point that even this sunny survey suggests we still have a serious problem. If seven percent of the world’s Muslims are radical, we’re talking about 91 million people. That’s 65 times the population of Gaza, and three and a half times the size of Iraq. One Gaza is headache enough, and it only took 19 individuals to destroy the World Trade Center, punch a hole in the Pentagon, and kill 3,000 people.

Some of the 93 percent supermajority support militia parties such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the West Bank’s Fatah. So while they may be religious moderates, they certainly aren’t politically moderate.

I’m less inclined than Abe to give the remaining Muslims — aside from secular terror-supporters — too hard a time. I work in the Middle East, and I used to live there. I meet moderate Muslims every day who detest al Qaeda and their non-violent Wahhabi counterparts. I know they’re the overwhelming majority, and a significant number are hardly inert in the face of fascists.

More than one fourth of the population of Lebanon demonstrated in Beirut’s Martyr’s Square on March 14, 2005, and stood fore square against the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis that has been sabotaging their country for decades. When I lived in a Sunni Muslim neighborhood of Beirut, the overwhelming majority of my neighbors belonged to that movement. The international media gave them lots of exposure, but moderate, liberal, secular, and mainstream conservative Muslims elsewhere rarely get any coverage. They are almost invisible from a distance, but it isn’t their fault.

Journalists tend to ignore moderate Muslims, not because of liberal bias or racism, but because sensationalism sells. At least they think that’s what sells.

And reporters often assume extremists are mainstream and “authentic” when they are not. Somehow, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has been designated the voice of American Muslims. But CAIR is, frankly, an Islamic wingnut organization with a minuscule membership that has declined 90 percent since September 11, 2001. (More people read my medium-sized blog every day than are members of CAIR.)

The coalition of Islamist parties in Pakistan got three percent of the vote in the recent election. Pakistan’s radicals have made a real mess of the place, but they can’t get any more traction at the polls than Ralph Nader can manage in the United States.

Riots in the wake of the publication of Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammad was one of the most pathetic “activist” spectacles I’ve ever seen, but the press coverage blew the whole thing way out of proportion. The same gaggle of the perpetually outraged have been photographed over and over again, like the bussed-in and coerced Saddam Hussein “supporters” at rallies in the old Iraq who vanished the instant television cameras stopped rolling. Take a look at the excellent 2003 film “Live from Baghdad”:http://www.amazon.com/gp/redirect.html?ie=UTF8&location=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.amazon.com%2FLive-Baghdad-Michael-Keaton%2Fdp%2FB00009ATK1%3Fie%3DUTF8%26s%3Ddvd%26qid%3D1204318754%26sr%3D8-1&tag=michajtottesm-20&linkCode=ur2&camp=1789&creative=9325, written by CNN producer Robert Weiner, and you will see a dramatization of this stunt for yourself.

“Read the rest in Commentary Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/2762

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