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Ahmadinejad Stinks Up Geneva

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivered a blistering tirade against Israel on Monday at the supposedly “anti-racist” Durban II conference in Geneva, Switzerland, and dozens of national delegates from Europe “walked out in disgust”:http://pajamasmedia.com/rogerlsimon/2009/04/20/durban-ii-diary-part-3-the-clowning-of-ahmadinejad/. The sheer number of people who refused to sit there and listen to him “must be seen to be believed”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/2009/04/durban-ii-walko.php. His bad reception didn’t end there. Hundreds of protesters followed him as he delivered a press conference and shouted “Shame! Shame! Shame!” as they held up signs reminding all who could see them that “Iran funds Hamas and Hezbollah”:http://blogs.tnr.com/tnr/blogs/the_plank/archive/2009/04/20/durban-ii-dispatch-following-ahmedinejad.aspx.

U.S. President Barack Obama said Ahmadinejad’s remarks were “appalling”:http://www.upi.com/Top_News/2009/04/21/UN-Anti-racism-summit-back-on-track/UPI-58301240333308/. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, a man hardly known as a defender of Israel, said “I deplore the use of this platform by the Iranian president to accuse, divide and even incite.” Delegates from the Czech Republic didn’t only storm out. They refused to come back and listen to any other tyrant who came to Europe to lecture his betters.

Everyone who walked out on camera was right to do so. Most, if not all, were from Europe. It’s strange, then, that a European country is hosting this hate-fest in the first place. They had no reason to expect anything different. This second “Durban” conference held in Geneva is just a rerun of the first one held in Durban, South Africa, which also was little more than a bigoted group-scream against Israel and the United States. It was obvious years ago when the conference was planned what would be on the agenda. A representative from Libya, one of the most brutally oppressive countries on earth, “was chairman of the preparatory committee”:http://article.nationalreview.com/?q=MDM0Y2ExMDkzMmNkM2Y1OGExYTkxOGI1YmFlMTEzNWY. Its vice chairman included representatives from Cuba, Iran, Pakistan, and Russia. None of these countries can teach Western democracies about racism or human rights. The Obama administration was right to boycott this fiasco before it even began.

Surely European countries that sent delegates knew well in advance what they were getting themselves into. Perhaps they even planned to walk out in advance. Even so, allowing a belligerent bigot to deliver a speech at an anti-racist conference is offensive to decent human beings everywhere. Among other things, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denies the Holocaust even happened — a crime in Germany. Would Europe send delegates to an “anti-racism” conference if the head of the Aryan Nations was giving a speech? And what if Slobodan Milosevic was still alive and ruler of Serbia? Would they agree to show up and listen to even the first two minutes of what he’d have to say?

“Read the rest in Commentary Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/63141.

“Durban II” Walkout

Iranian tyrant Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s invective against the “Zionist Entity” didn’t go over too well in Geneva. A huge number of European diplomats walked out in disgust. The scene must be seen to be fully appreciated.

Embedded video from CNN Video

President Barack Obama was right to boycott this hate-fest.

The Dissidents’ War

I read Fiasco by Thomas Ricks because an American Marine officer in Fallujah told me to. “Especially make sure you read the chapter called How to Create an Insurgency,” he said. “Ricks gets it exactly right in that chapter. But you can’t quote me by name saying that because it’s another way of saying the insurgency is Paul Bremer’s fault. And Bremer outranks me.”

Fiasco is a devastating critique of the botched war in Iraq before General David Petraeus took over command. It isn’t what I’d call a fun read, but I don’t think you can fully appreciate what Petraeus accomplished without studying in depth the mess he inherited.

I met Thomas Ricks last week at a basement bar in Oregon near Powell’s Books while he toured the country promoting his new book about the surge, The Gamble. I drank a glass of red wine, a locally-made Pinot Noir. He drank a pitcher of root beer.

MJT: Tell us about your new book

Ricks: It’s about the Iraq war from 2006 to 2008. It’s very different from Fiasco. Fiasco was an indictment. It was an angry book. The Gamble is a narrative. It was a much more enjoyable book to write. It’s an account of the war being turned over to the dissidents. [U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan] Crocker reveals in the book that he was opposed to the original invasion of Iraq. [General David] Petraeus took command just after finishing his counterinsurgency manual, which was a scathing critique of the conduct of the occupation. There was entirely new attitude among Americans, a new humility. A willingness to listen. I saw this reflected in the people they brought in to advise them. Emma Sky, a tiny little British woman who’s an expert on the Middle East and an anti-American anti-military pacifist. She became [General Ray] Odierno’s political advisor. Petraeus once said to Odierno, “she’s not your political advisor, she’s your insurgent.”

Fiasco Cover.jpg

Sadi Othman, who was Petraeus’s advisor to the Iraqi government. He’s a Palestinian-American, born in Brazil, raised in Jordan, six foot seven, the first man to ever dunk a basketball in Jordanian university competition. He was raised and educated by Mennonites and pacifists.

This was a very different group of people with a very different attitude. My thought was that, essentially, the transition to Obama began in Iraq two years before it began here. Because in January they basically said, “okay, if you guys are so smart, you do it.” And they turned the war over to the internal critics of the war.

The surge was not supported by the U.S. military. The only person in the chain of command who really pushed for it was Odierno. His boss [General George] Casey was against it. Their boss [General John] Abizaid was against it. And their boss, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was against it. It really was an insurgency within the U.S. military that set out to fight a very different war with a very different attitude and with a different set of priorities.

The Gamble Cover.JPG

The biggest shift in priorities came when they dropped the swift transition to Iraqi authority which had been an official mission statement — it was number one on the mission statement list. In the back of the book I have an appendix which shows the orders Odierno got when he arrived in Iraq. He was told in 2006 to move his troops out of the cities, seal the borders, secure the lines of communication, and basically let these people have the civil war they seem to want to have. When he rewrote his orders — the orders he gave to himself and Petraeus — they were to move troops off the big bases and into the cities, and drop transition to Iraqi authority as the top priority. Instead our top priority became the protection of the Iraqi people — a huge change in the prosecution of the war.

MJT: Do you think they basically got it right?

Ricks: Look. You have to back up. I think everything in Iraq is the fruit of a poisoned tree — invading a country pre-emptively on false premises. So the question isn’t whether they’re getting it right, it’s whether they’re getting it less wrong. I think it was the best of a lot of bad options. It worked tactically. It improved security. But it failed to achieve its goal. The surge is now over, and the purpose of the surge, as stated by the president and the secretary of defense, was to improve security to create breathing space where a political breakthrough could occur. Odierno says in the book that we did create a breathing space, but some Iraqi leaders — I think he meant [Prime Minister Nouri] Maliki — used it to move backwards.

MJT: How did Maliki move backwards?

Ricks: He became more sectarian and anti-reconciliation.

MJT: At what point did he become more sectarian?

Ricks: This is Odierno’s argument, not mine.

MJT: Okay.

Ricks: And he didn’t say. But, for example, Maliki didn’t really sign up for reconciliation. He persisted with a zero-sum view of Iraqi politics where winner takes all. You guys lose, we win.

MJT: That’s true as far as Maliki’s relationship with the Sunnis, but he’s also gone after the Shia militias with much more force and determination than I expected in Basra and Sadr City.

Ricks: That’s true. He did. But I was talking to an officer who wondered why we didn’t back Moqtada al Sadr. He thinks we should have backed Sadr from the get-go.

MJT: Why?

Ricks: Because within the Shia community he is the one least influenced by Iran and the most nationalistic. His is the only group that, when it demonstrates, carries Iraqi flags. None of the other Shia parties carry Iraqi flags at their demonstrations.

MJT: Let’s back up a couple of years. Who made the decision for the U.S. to not work with Moqtada al Sadr? Wasn’t it Sadr himself who basically said eff-you to the United States? He made the call. Not us. And once that happened, how were we supposed to work with the guy? If he’s ideologically opposed to us, then that’s it. It takes two.

Ricks: We had a discussion inside the U.S. government in 2003 and 2004 over whether to engage him or attack him. Eventually, an order was issued to arrest him. And he took that as a declaration of war. But look. You know Iraq. In Iraq, today’s enemy is tomorrow’s ally.

MJT: Yes.

Ricks: If we applied that standard, that he’s a declared enemy, we never would have put the Sunni insurgency on the payroll. That was one of Petraeus’ great breakthroughs. And, by the way, in one of my favorite moments during my interviews with Petraeus I asked him how he sold the president on that notion, and he said he didn’t. I said, “wait a minute, you have a secured teleconference with him every Monday and you didn’t bring it up?” He said no, it was within his existing authorities. It was a really ballsy move. It was audacious. You want audacity in your leaders. If it had failed, the egg would have been on his face. We went to these allies of Al Qaeda and said “what’s it going to take?” It turned out that it took 30 million dollars a month.

MJT: They weren’t real allies of Al Qaeda, though. You know how it is over there. They were being paid by Al Qaeda, so we just paid them a little bit more.

Ricks: Yes. I think it was a good idea.

MJT: I do, too. But saying we put the Sunni insurgency on the payroll makes it sound more cynical than it was. It’s not like we put [Al Qaeda in Iraq founder Abu Musab al] Zarqawi on the payroll. We put the moderate, more flexible ones on the payroll.

Ricks: Oh, bullshit. We had guys on the payroll who cut off heads, who had killed American soldiers.

MJT: We killed Zarqawi. We flipped and paid the flexible insurgents, the ones who were not particularly ideological.

Ricks: The ones who were venial.

MJT: Before they flipped I wondered why on earth we were even fighting them in the first place.

Ricks: That’s what [Petraeus advisor David] Kilcullen said. 90 percent of the people are fighting you because you’re in their neighborhood.

MJT: Yeah.

Ricks: And if you get out of their neighborhood or cut some deals with them…

MJT: Yes. And we were never going to flip Zarqawi and his guys.

Ricks: Right.

MJT: We could never pay them enough money. They’re real enemies of the United States. But with the others we could say, ‘listen, this is stupid, we should stop this.’

Ricks: Yeah. And Sadr’s people entered into secret negotiations with the United States in, I think, 2007, about whether or not to have negotiations. They said “before we begin any talks, we have to have a date certain when you will withdraw from Iraq.” The American policy said “we can’t do that.” So the Sadrists said “well, then we can’t have talks.” Then the Americans said, “well, just out of curiosity, what was the date you had in mind?” The Sadrists said 2013. Which put them on the right-wing of the U.S. Congress.

MJT: [Laughs]

Ricks: It’s funny. I was talking to Kilcullen about this the other day. You know who Kilcullen is, right?

MJT: Of course. Brilliant guy. [He’s an Australian counterinsurgency expert and advisor to General Petraeus.]

Ricks: He is so smart. Kilcullen was meeting in a safe house with some Sadrists in Baghdad. They had been working with Sadr, but also talking to Americans on and off for years. Kilcullen realized he was talking to a former military officer, a civil engineer, and an accountant. These are the three elements of reconstruction: military security, civilian reconstruction, and finance. And a light bulb went on in Kilcullen’s head. He said “if you guys were going to secure Sadr City, how would you do it?” They began huddling and talking urgently. Kilcullen said “sorry, fellas, I didn’t mean to insult you.” They said “no, no, you didn’t insult us, it’s just that in the four years of talking to Americans, nobody ever asked us that.” This was the change in Iraq.

One of the points in the book is that the surge fighting was tough, the toughest six months of the war, even tougher than the Second Battle of Fallujah. It was a sustained six month battle.

MJT: The first half of 2007. In Bacouba, Mosul…

Ricks: …and Baghdad. I capture it in the siege of Tarmiyah. There were 38 guys in Tarmiyah, the northernmost surge outpost in the Baghdad area. They got car-bombed, mortared, RPGed, and machine-gunned. They held the post, but at the end of the day they had two dead and 29 wounded. The car bomb was heard seven miles away.

But my favorite part of the book isn’t about fighting. It’s called “The Insurgent Who Loved Titanic.” It’s about Captain Sam Cook. I don’t know if you’ve ever come across him. In the little town he’s in, he hears about an insurgent boasting that he set off 200 bombs against Americans. Cook is a really smart guy. He’s been around a while. He was on his second or third tour in Iraq. He sent an invitation to the guy for a cup of tea. That said two things. It said “I know where you are.” And it said “I know who you are.”

The guy comes and says “if you know who I am and where I am, why didn’t you arrest me?” Cook said “because I’ve invited you for tea and won’t abuse the rules of hospitality.”

What Cook wants to do — and I think you understand — is bring in the network. He wants to understand the guy and his network, not just kill or capture one guy. And they began talking. Cooks says, “look, if I see you in the street tomorrow, I might shoot you. But let’s talk. You’re here. Let’s have tea.”

MJT: That’s very Arab. They like to have tea when they aren’t shooting each other.

Ricks: Yeah. And it goes on for a couple of weeks. And one day, the guy says “you need to understand something. I hate everything about America. America is the Devil. Nothing good comes from America.”

But Cook knows the most popular theme for cell phones in Iraq is the theme from Titanic. And he says to the insurgent, “well, you saw the movie Titanic, didn’t you?”

MJT: [Laughs]

Ricks: And the insurgent says “seven times. I cry at the end every time.”

Titanic Poster.jpg

MJT: [Laughs] The Arab world is so much fun.

Ricks: There’s an emotional connection there. The guy never comes over to the American side. He never becomes persuaded to support American goals. But after months of these talks he says, “Look, I can’t surrender to you. It’s a matter of self-respect. But if you will arrange my surrender to the Iraqis and then put me on the payroll, I’ll tell you a few things. And me and the boys will help you out.” Cook says, “Done deal.” And they do it.

The insurgent sits down and says, “Okay. The first thing you need to know is that the reason you never captured me is because every time you came to my house, the Iraqi Army soldiers at the checkpoint called me on my cell phone. You might want to take away their cell phones. Second, we have a deal with the police chief. Our war is with you, not with him. The Iraqi Police are sitting it out. The third thing you might want to know is that my sniper rifle was a gift to me from the Iraqi major you work with.”

Cook said it was like the lights were being turned on. Suddenly he could see it.

This was happening all over Iraq in 2007 and 2008. The Americans were sitting down, talking, listening, and cutting deals. In some ways, it was the Arabization of the American war.

MJT: That’s a good way to put it.

Ricks: And it was combined with a real reduction in American goals. Petraeus’s people never really articulated this, but in their internal discussions they lowered the American goals. They threw out the notion that we’re going to transform Iraq into a beacon of democracy. They said they’ll settle for a more or less stable Iraq that is somewhat democratic and somewhat respectful of human rights. This was never put into any policy statement that I saw approved by the White House. They basically threw out the gold-plated Lexus that was the original plan and settled for a Volkswagen Bug.

MJT: They didn’t have much choice. That’s just reality.

Ricks: Except the Americans, for years, had ignored that reality. And even that minimal goal is tough.

MJT: I got back from Iraq not too long ago, and one of the things I tried to figure out — as much as a person can figure out something like this — is whether or not Iraq will be more or less okay after the U.S. either leaves or draws down significantly. About half the Americans and half the Iraqis I talked to said they’re optimistic, and the other half said they’re pessimistic.

Ricks: In both the Iraqi and American conversations?

MJT: Yes. Half the Iraqis were optimistic, and half the Americans were optimistic. Half the Iraqis were pessimistic, and half the Americans were pessimistic. Whoever I was listening to at the time persuaded me, and I left not knowing what to make of it all.

Ricks: Crocker’s prediction is that the future of Iraq is Lebanon.

MJT: Iraqis will be lucky to get to where Lebanon is. I’ve worked in both countries, and Lebanon is like the Star Trek universe compared with Iraq.

Ricks: [Laughs]

MJT: Where do you fall in this spectrum of opinion? Do you think Iraq will be at least sort of “okay,” or do you think it’s a doomed country?

Ricks: Iraq will not be okay. Americans are not going to be happy with the ultimate product. The best case scenario, I think, is an Iraq that is not democratic, not really stable, still has some violence, and is probably a closer ally of Iran than the United States. This is why the invasion of Iraq was the biggest mistake in the history of American foreign policy.

MJT: Bigger than Vietnam?

Ricks: Oh, absolutely.

MJT: In Vietnam we lost 50,000 people and killed two million of theirs.

Ricks: Vietnam was at the periphery of U.S. interests. The Cambodians suffered a holocaust…

MJT: …Twenty five percent of them were killed…

Ricks: …and America’s allies in Vietnam spent 15 years in “re-education” camps. But six years later we were saying it’s morning in America. It ain’t going to be morning in Baghdad any time soon.

MJT: Sure, but it was morning in America, not morning in Saigon.

Ricks: Yeah, but when you walk out of Baghdad…This is why I think staying in Iraq is immoral, but leaving Iraq is even more immoral. There are no good solutions. The least bad solution is staying in smaller numbers for many years to come. If you walk out of Iraq tomorrow, that’s the Jerry Rubin solution. Remember Jerry Rubin? He was asked what he’s going to do after the revolution, and he said he was going to groove on the rubble.

Iraq would rubble-ize.

MJT: I think so, too.

Ricks: There would be a civil war. And it could spread and become a regional war in the middle of the world’s oil patch. This is why Iraq is a bigger strategic problem than Vietnam. You could walk away from Vietnam. You can’t walk away from Iraq.

That’s not just my opinion. I had dinner with Henry Kissinger, and I asked him which is the bigger problem strategically, Vietnam or Iraq? And he said Iraq.

The argument from the Bush Administration is, well, at least we got rid of Saddam Hussein. But I’m not sure we did. There are a lot of little Saddams in Iraq. And some day, one of them is going to grow up and be a big Saddam, and he’ll probably be a smarter, younger, tougher, meaner version.

MJT: Meaner would take some effort.

Ricks: We took out a guy who was dumb as a box of rocks. He was the only world leader who thought he could take on the U.S. military with conventional means.

MJT: [Laughs]

Ricks: He was in some ways our ideal enemy. The guy who emerges will have studied how to take on the Americans for 25 years. And any strongman who emerges will almost certainly be anti-American because if you can unify Iraq, it will probably be on the basis of anti-Americanism.

MJT: I don’t know if unification on anti-Americanism will really be possible. The Sunnis are anti-American, no question about it. The Shias are mixed, around 50-50, and the Kurds are, well, forget it. You can’t possibly unify the Kurds around anti-Americanism.

Ricks: That’s true.

MJT: They’re more pro-American than Poland.

Ricks: Well, we sell out the Kurds every twenty years.

MJT: Yes, we do. Actually it’s more like every fifteen. According to them, eight times since World War I.

I’m curious what you think of Michael Yon’s work, and I’ll tell you why I’m asking this question. When friends ask me what they should read about Iraq, I say “read Fiasco by Thomas Ricks and Moment of Truth in Iraq by Michael Yon.” They’re very different books, about different time periods in the Iraq war, from different perspectives, but combined I think they fit well together. I don’t think your book and Yon’s book are contradictory, although some people might think so.

Moment of Truth in Iraq Cover.jpg

Ricks: I’m a big fan of Michael Yon’s work. Sometimes I worry if there’s some blogging feud that’s going on.

MJT: Not that I’m aware of. But some readers might think they’d like one and not the other. I actually liked both.

Ricks: I like Yon’s work quite a lot. I’ve followed him closely in Afghanistan lately, and I’m very impressed by him. He’s done some really interesting work in dangerous areas. I think he’s a bit over-optimistic about Iraq, though. He thinks the war is over. And my response is that the war changes. It morphs. It began as a blitzkrieg invasion, it became a botched occupation that led to a slowly rising but durable insurgency. It then led to a small civil war. It then became an effective American counter-offensive. It’s now in an odd lull period where people try to sort out what a post-Bush and maybe post-American Obama-run war will look like. It morphs, but it doesn’t end. I think American troops will be fighting and dying in Iraq for another ten or fifteen years.

MJT: Really? You think that long?

Ricks: Yeah.

MJT: You’re definitely gloomier about it than I am.

Ricks: It will be in smaller numbers. Odierno says in the book that he would like to see 35,000 troops there in 2015. I don’t think any American troops were killed by violence in Germany after the war. A lot of them died in car accidents.

MJT: I think you’re right. I think there were none.

Ricks: The war will be over when American troops stop dying. Then our war will be over. When Iraqis stop dying, their war will be over.

MJT: Yon looks at it from a military point of view. He’s a former soldier, so that’s his filter. I’m a bit gloomier about Iraq than he is, but I’m not a military guy. The other factors, the politics and culture of Iraq, aren’t encouraging.

Ricks: You do have to look at it politically. It’s never going to be a strictly military question. The military is only a means to get to a political end. The Middle East is profoundly Clausewitzian. It’s either armed politics or political warfare. You have these guys on a continuum. You have militias with political wings, and you have political parties with armed wings.

MJT: A lot of the Middle East is like this. Not Kuwait, but certainly Lebanon.

Ricks: I think it’s a great story, the last couple of years. I’m just fascinated by it.

MJT: It is interesting, isn’t it?

Ricks: Another difference between Fiasco and The Gamble is that in Fiasco I knew what the events were that I had to write about. I just had to provide context, meaning, and depth. I knew I’d have to write about the invasion, blowing up the UN headquarters, the first battle of Fallujah, the second battle of Fallujah, and Abu Ghraib. In The Gamble, it wasn’t clear to me what the major events were, partly because there was so much less media coverage. The media was less equipped to cover a counterinsurgency. The battle in Basra in the spring of 2008 was a real eye-opener for me. It was a hugely important turn of events. And there was almost no coverage of it. And the coverage it did get was wrong.

MJT: Yep.

Ricks: The press said it was a huge setback for Maliki.

MJT: And it wasn’t. Although it did look that way at the beginning.

Ricks: Yeah. Americans were freaked. There was a conversation on a Friday night. An Iraqi leans over and says to Petraeus, “the prime minister wants to talk to you about doing Basra.” And Petraeus said, “you mean Mosul?” Mosul was first in their plan. And the Iraqi said, “no, Basra.” Petraeus says, “oh?”

So Petraeus goes over to see Maliki the next day, and Maliki says, “yeah, we’re doing Basra.” The plan laid out for me was that we were going to finish Baghdad, then do Mosul, and then do Basra. And Maliki just threw it all up in the air. He rolled the dice. And that’s one of the themes of the book. Americans taught Maliki how to gamble.

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The UN’s Disintegration in Lebanon

Poland is withdrawing its troops from the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), the U.S. is pressuring other European contributors to the mission to send additional soldiers to Afghanistan, and “Israeli defense officials are worried”:http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1239488111533&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull the multinational force north of the border might collapse entirely. Israelis, however, aren’t the ones who should worry. South Lebanon’s Christians stand to lose the most if that happens.

“If UNIFIL leaves, we’re going with them,” a young Lebanese man told me in the village of Rmeich in February this year. “Everyone is frightened about what might happen.” Rmeich is a Maronite Christian enclave near the Israeli border. Along with the adjacent Maronite village of Ein Ebel, it is surrounded by Shia cities, towns, and villages where support for Hezbollah runs deep. “There are many Hezbollah people near here,” the man continued. “They wear civilian clothes. They used to come into our town with guns and harass us before the [July 2006] war, but not anymore thanks to UNIFIL.”

UNFIL was created in 1978 to help the Lebanese government restore its sovereignty over the area after it was taken over by Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization and used as a base for guerrilla and terrorist attacks against Israel. The force was bolstered by thousands of mostly European soldiers after the war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006 and given a similar mandate. Hezbollah controlled the border area after Israeli soldiers withdrew from the “security belt” in South Lebanon in 2000. War was all but inevitable under those circumstances. So in addition to bringing the Lebanese Army and government back to the border where they might prevent another war outbreak, UNIFIL was supposed to prevent Hezbollah from replenishing its partially depleted stock of rockets and missiles through smuggling roads over the land border with Syria. In this, UNIFIL failed. Almost all analysts say Hezbollah has a larger arsenal now than it did before the 2006 war even started.

UNIFIL gets little credit for helping South Lebanon’s Christians, and that’s too bad. But the force gets far more credit than it deserves for keeping Hezbollah in check. UNIFIL’s presence is something of a problem because it appears the “international community” is doing something constructive to prevent the next war when it actually isn’t. Neither are the Israel Defense Forces, the Lebanese Army, or anyone else.

Some Lebanese officers are still loyal to Damascus. They were never purged from the armed forces after occupying Syrian soldiers and intelligence agents were forced to withdraw in the wake of the massive demonstration in downtown Beirut on March 14, 2005. “Sometimes we see things we don’t understand,” another resident of Rmeich told me recently. “Huge covered-up trucks get through the army checkpoints, and they’re not even stopped. When I go through in my open car, I have to pull over.”

“Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/62182

Hezbollah’s Mushroom Cloud

Christopher Hitchens recently went to a rally in the suburbs south of Beirut and found Hezbollah ratcheting up its belligerence. “A huge poster of a nuclear mushroom cloud surmounts the scene,” “he wrote in the May issue of Vanity Fair”:http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2009/05/christopher-hitchens200905?printable=true&currentPage=all, “with the inscription OH ZIONISTS, IF YOU WANT THIS TYPE OF WAR THEN SO BE IT!” Last week “James Kirchick reported seeing the same thing at the same rally in City Journal”:http://city-journal.org/2009/eon0408jk.html. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time Hezbollah has threatened nuclear war.

Hezbollah isn’t broadcasting this to the world. If Hitchens and Kirchick hadn’t written about it, few would know the mushroom-cloud banner even exists. It’s not so much a threat as it is a revelation of Hezbollah’s dark psyche. But perhaps Hezbollah’s not shouting “nuclear war” for all to hear means its threats are more dangerous than public taunts from the Iranian government. Empty threats and hyperbole are rife in the Middle East. Death threats are rarely carried out anywhere. Most assassins don’t announce their intentions. They kill their victims without warning. Whatever Hezbollah’s mushroom-cloud banner means, we know this much: intimations of nuclear war with Israel are now coming from Lebanon as well as Iran. The worst case scenario — a mushroom cloud over Tel Aviv — might be slightly more likely than some of us thought.

Every foreign policy-maker and analyst must be wondering whether Israel will bomb Iranian nuclear facilities this year or next. Most don’t know the answer. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself might not know the answer. It’s risky. Hezbollah didn’t open a second front against Israel during the Gaza war a few months ago, but it’s unlikely they’ll sit still in South Lebanon if their patron and armorer in Tehran is attacked. Iran’s Al Quds Force may retaliate against the United States in Iraq. A military strike against Iran could easily trigger a regional conflagration.

There’s a theory floating around the Middle East that I’ve heard from Israelis and Arabs alike, and some find it slightly reassuring: Iran doesn’t want to use nuclear weapons against Israel. Rather, Iran wants nuclear weapons so it can transform itself into a true regional superpower. Arab regimes fear this, which is why Saudi Arabia and Egypt have threatened to develop or purchase their own nuclear arsenals to counter the “Persian bomb.” No Arab state got into an arms race with Israel to counter the “Zionist bomb,” but they’re obviously worried about what might happen to them if Tehran weaponizes uranium. The Iranians don’t want to be neutralized by an arms race, so they’re threatening the Israelis and hoping the Arabs will relax or acquiesce. I don’t know if the theory is true, but Hezbollah’s recent mushroom-cloud banner doesn’t quite fit. Hezbollah didn’t put that on stage to calm nerves in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. They used it to thrill a crowd of furious Shia Arabs in Lebanon.

An Iranian bomb would be a problem for Israelis, Arabs, and the rest of us even if Tehran has no intention of using it. The last thing an energy-dependent planet needs is extremist regimes with vast oil reserves threatening to obliterate each other as India and Pakistan sometimes do. And the second-to-last thing Israel needs is a nuclear umbrella protecting Hamas and Hezbollah. President Barack Obama said a nuclear Iran would be a “game changer” last year. He’s right.

The worst case scenario — the incineration of Tel Aviv and a nuclear retaliation against Tehran — isn’t likely. I don’t expect it will ever actually happen. I’m sure enough — at least 90 percent sure — that I feel safe making the prediction in public. I’m a writer, though, not a policy maker. And I don’t live in Israel. I’m safe and can afford to be wrong. I won’t be killed, nor will I be blamed for getting anyone else killed. The Israeli government won’t make the same risk calculations I make. If I’m wrong, they’re dead, and so is their country.

I can’t tell whether or not Israel will launch a pre-emptive strike. But let’s assume, for the sake of discussion, that it’s 90 percent likely Iran’s threats of annihilation are just bluster. And let me ask this: How would you feel if your doctor diagnosed you with an illness and said there’s a ten percent chance it will kill you? Would you find 90 percent odds of survival acceptable? Would you sleep peacefully and do nothing and hope for the best? I travel to dangerous places. It’s part of my job. But those odds, for me, are prohibitive. Those odds are almost as bad as the odds in Russian Roulette, and you couldn’t pay me enough to play that game even once.

American Humor

When Saddam Hussein was still alive and in prison, the Marines on duty forced him to watch the movie South Park – Bigger, Longer & Uncut, where he was portrayed as Satan’s gay lover, over and over and over again.

Saddam and Satan.jpg

He then “sent South Park creators Matt Parker and Trey Stone a signed photograph”:http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/celebritynews/5122031/South-Park-creators-given-signed-photo-of-Saddam-Hussein.html. That, I presume, he did voluntarily.

So Much for Avigdor Lieberman

It seems clear to most observers inside and outside Israel that Avigdor Lieberman’s promotion to foreign minister is bad news for both Israelis and Arabs. He has only had the job for, what, a week now? But he’s already “just about finished”:http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1076401.html. He might even end up “in jail”:http://blogs.tnr.com/tnr/blogs/the_spine/archive/2009/04/07/blessed-is-the-righteous-judge.aspx.

The Real Barrier to Peace

“Marty Peretz”:http://blogs.tnr.com/tnr/blogs/the_spine/archive/2009/04/06/what-s-the-impediment.aspx in The New Republic:

A “two-state solution” is the only possible resolve for the [Arab-Israeli] conflict. And the fact is that, all of the injunctions put before before Jerusalem by the various peace professionals about this solution notwithstanding, the Israeli body politic is itself committed to such a resolve. That has been Israeli policy for at least 16 years. It is a gross lie to deny this. The Greater Israel movement is dead. So is the Peace Now movement that assumed a territorial retreat will resolve everything. This movement died the day after Israel left Gaza.

The outstanding cartographical issues are mostly symbolic and procedural.

So what is the impediment?

It is that Israel cannot assume that any territory from which it withdraws will remain peaceful. What is the evidence that it would? Do you really think that rockets and missiles will not be lobbed into Israel proper on the morning after? And that Palestine’s frontier with its Arab neighbors will not become what Gaza’s frontier with (relatively well-intentioned) Egypt has become. A cease-fire was made, and the cease fire has not held. What’s more, the smuggling of trajectiles and other weapons through the tunnels of the strip goes on unabated. This is despite a United Nations resolution. And in southern Lebanon another cease-fire resolution providing for an end to smuggling from Iran and Syria to Hezbollah is continually violated. One lesson Israel has certainly learned is that U.N. Security Council resolutions are worth less than the paper on which they are printed.

Until this issue is addressed conscientiously and practically there will be no progress on the two-state solution under any borders. And, instead of repeating the two-state shibboleth, it is time for the well-intentioned brokers – President Obama included – to confront the real barrier to peace which is Palestinian and Arab behavior after an Israeli withdrawal. This will be the test, and nothing else.

And here’s “Shlomo Avineri”:http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1076694.html in Haaretz:

According to Hamas, the Jews are responsible for all the ills of modern society – the French Revolution; the Communist revolution; the establishment of secret associations (Freemasons, Rotary and Lions clubs, B’nai B’rith) designed to help them gain control of the world by secret means. They control the economy, press and television; they are responsible for the outbreak of World War I, which they initiated in order to destroy the Muslim caliphates (the Ottoman empire), to get the Balfour Declaration and set up the League of Nations with the aim of establishing their state. They also initiated World War II in order to make a fortune from selling war materials; they use both capitalism and communism as their agents…

But perhaps it is nevertheless worthwhile talking to Hamas – not about its contribution to peace but rather about what is stated in its covenant. Perhaps those who espouse the view that we must talk with Hamas will first talk with it about these subjects? Who knows, perhaps it will change its principles? I do not expect this to happen exactly, but I am certainly curious to know what those who think Hamas is the key to peace in the Middle East will say about these things.

And perhaps they are actually correct, perhaps Hamas is the key. If that’s the case, it’s difficult to expect that peace can be established in our region.

Welcome to America

“This is excellent”:http://baghdadbureau.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/04/03/arriving-in-america-the-other-side-of-this-war/ — an article in the New York Times by an Iraqi who worked for the U.S. military as an interpreter and then moved to America.

It is soooo quiet outside. When I ask about the reason, they say “It’s a residential area.” I quietly respond, “What’s your point?” A flashback from our residential area in Baghdad where 6 a.m. is not too early for the chaotic, loud, orchestra of people selling cooking gas tubes, petroleum, street vendors and not to mention Iraqi police convoys and their loudspeakers. But here it is so quiet you can almost hear yourself think. And, more surprisingly, you can finish that thought.

Also, everyone has a car in here. I have yet to see a single taxi. Oh, and the roads, not so good. I did not expect to find streets in bad shape here. But the traffic is amazing, and weird at the same time. They call it a traffic jam if there’s like 15 vehicles in the street. “Huh?” They obviously could use a trip to the entrance of Sadr City, where cars and vehicles stretch as far as the eye can see at all hours of the day.

It’s so weird, and weirder is that people wait for the light to go green even if there’s no one else in the street and no police officer in sight. I turn around to check if my aunt is all right. “Why is she not moving?” Ah, I’m not in Iraq any more.

Yesterday we took a long drive to get somewhere. My aunt is very cautious and alert while driving through a particular neighborhood. She turns to me and says: “Look!” I turn around and spot two empty cans of soda and, like, three empty bags of potato chips all in a polite pile. “This is a bad neighborhood,” she says. I laugh uncontrollably. I can’t help but recall the piles and piles of garbage that I used to see near schools, hospitals, churches, mosques and museums back in Baghdad.

(Thanks to “Andrew Exum”:http://abumuqawama.blogspot.com/ for the link.)

A Freelancer’s Survival Guide

Kristine Kathryn Rusch taught me how to write when I was twenty years old and didn’t know anything. This Web site — my entire career — might not even exist if it were not for her. What she writes is completely different from what I write, but writing is writing. Genre differences don’t matter much in classrooms and workshops.

She is now publishing a book in installments on her Web site called “The Freelancers’s Survival Guide”:http://kriswrites.com/2009/04/02/freelancers-survival-guide-introduction/. If you’re making a living as a freelancer — not necessarily as a freelance writer, but as a freelancer of any kind — I strongly suggest you “bookmark her site and read it”:http://kriswrites.com/2009/04/02/freelancers-survival-guide-introduction/, especially now that the economy is circling the drain. She has been working and living (well) as a freelancer for more than 30 years, and she knows what she’s talking about. I learned almost two decades ago to take her seriously and do what she says. My life would be very different if I had not.

Foreman’s Dispatch from Lebanon

If you haven’t yet had your fill of reading about Christopher Hitchens getting smacked down on Hamra Street with me and Jonathan Foreman in Beirut, Foreman has now published “his version of the story”:http://www.standpointmag.co.uk/node/1057/full in Standpoint.

If you are tired of reading about that little incident, “read his piece on Lebanon anyway”:http://www.standpointmag.co.uk/node/1057/full. There’s a lot more to it than that, including: a visit to a warlord who keeps his automatic pistol atop the New York Review of Books, a trip to a mountain fortress that looks like a modernist prison, and Muslim girls who tweak both Dad and the Party of God by wearing spray-on jeans in the Hezbollah dahiyeh.

Hezbollah Doesn’t Have Wings

A few weeks ago Britain decided to unfreeze “diplomatic relations” with Hezbollah, and the nonsensical phrases “political wing” and “military wing” have been used to describe the Iranian-backed militia ever since. Britain now says it’s okay to meet with members of Hezbollah’s “political wing” while maintaining the blacklisting of its “military wing,” but these “wings” don’t exist in any meaningful sense. If Hezbollah were actually two distinct entities with separate policies it might make sense for British diplomats to do business with one and not the other, but that’s not how Hezbollah is structured. Of course Hezbollah’s fighters and members of parliament aren’t the same individuals, but Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah is the leader of the entire organization.

The Obama Administration knows better. One U.S. official “wants Britain to explain”:http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/13/world/middleeast/13diplo.html?_r=1&scp=2&sq=hezbollah&st=cse “the difference between the political, social and military wings of Hezbollah because we don’t see the difference between the integrated leadership that they see.” “The US does not distinguish between military, cultural and political wings of Hezbollah,” “another U.S. official said”:http://www.asharq-e.com/news.asp?section=1&id=16071, “and our decision to avoid making such a distinction is premised on accurate available information indicating that all Hezbollah wings and branches share finances, personnel and unified leadership and they all support violence.”

Christopher Hitchens published “a compelling piece in next month’s Vanity Fair”:http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2009/05/christopher-hitchens200905?printable=true&currentPage=all wherein he compares and contrasts two rallies he attended in Beirut in February — one commemorating the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, and the other commemorating the assassination of Hezbollah commander Imad Mugniyeh last year in Damascus.

“Try picturing a Shiite-Muslim mega-church,” he wrote of the Hezbollah rally, “in a huge downtown tent, with separate entrances for men and women and separate seating (with the women all covered in black). A huge poster of a nuclear mushroom cloud surmounts the scene, with the inscription OH ZIONISTS, IF YOU WANT THIS TYPE OF WAR THEN SO BE IT! During the warm-up, an onstage Muslim Milli Vanilli orchestra and choir lip-synchs badly to a repetitive, robotic music video that shows lurid scenes of martyrdom and warfare. There is keening and wailing, while the aisles are patrolled by gray-uniformed male stewards and black-chador’d crones. Key words keep repeating themselves with thumping effect: shahid (martyr), jihad (holy war), yehud (Jew). In the special section for guests there sits a group of uniformed and be-medaled officials representing the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

Was the Mugniyeh rally staged and attended by Hezbollah’s “political wing” or its “military wing?” It doesn’t make any difference. The question doesn’t even make sense because Hezbollah doesn’t have wings.

Matthew Levitt at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy points out the absurdity of this kind of hair-splitting. “The European Union,” “he wrote”:http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/templateC06.php?CID=1257, “has not yet designated any part of Hezbollah — military, political or otherwise — although it did label Imad Mughniyeh, the late Hezbollah chief of external operations, and several other Hezbollah members involved in specific acts of terrorism.”

The European Union thinks the “military wing” of Hezbollah isn’t a terrorist organization, even while declaring its deceased commander Imad Mugniyeh a terrorist. How can a terrorist commander’s lieutenants and other subordinates not themselves be terrorists?

“Read the rest in Commentary Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/60662.

An Ominously Pre-War Feeling

“The whole place has an ominously pre-war feeling to it,” Christopher Hitchens says of Lebanon “in his new piece in Vanity Fair”:http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2009/05/christopher-hitchens200905?printable=true&currentPage=all.

He narrates, of course, the now-famous story where he, Jonathan Foreman, and I were assaulted by goons from the Syrian Social Nationalist Party on Hamra Street in West Beirut. (“You can read my version here”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/2009/02/christopher-hit.php if you haven’t already.)

Christopher and I spent most of a week together in Beirut, but we split up once when he attended a Hezbollah rally while I met with Lebanese Forces leader “Samir Geagea”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samir_Geagea in his mountain redoubt. I hadn’t met Geagea before, but I’d been to Hezbollah events many times. I knew already from experience that hanging out with Hezbollah for an hour gives Lebanon a distinct “pre-war” feeling.

This is what Christopher saw:

christopher-hitchens-0905-03.jpg

“Try picturing a Shiite-Muslim mega-church,” he wrote, “in a huge downtown tent, with separate entrances for men and women and separate seating (with the women all covered in black). A huge poster of a nuclear mushroom cloud surmounts the scene, with the inscription OH ZIONISTS, IF YOU WANT THIS TYPE OF WAR THEN SO BE IT! During the warm-up, an onstage Muslim Milli Vanilli orchestra and choir lip-synchs badly to a repetitive, robotic music video that shows lurid scenes of martyrdom and warfare. There is keening and wailing, while the aisles are patrolled by gray-uniformed male stewards and black-chador’d crones. Key words keep repeating themselves with thumping effect: shahid (martyr), jihad (holy war), yehud (Jew). In the special section for guests there sits a group of uniformed and be-medaled officials representing the Islamic Republic of Iran. I remember what Walid Jumblatt, the leader of the Progressive Socialist Party and also the leader of the Druze community—some of my best friends are Druze—said to me a day or so previously: ‘Hezbollah is not just a party. It is a state within our state.’ It is also the projection of another state.”

“Read it all”:http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2009/05/christopher-hitchens200905?printable=true&currentPage=all.

Baghdad in Fragments

Dusk Adhamiyah.jpg

Many third world cities look better at night than during the day. Darkness hides shabbiness. You have to imagine what the city actually looks like. If you live in a first world city yourself, you might fill in the blanks with what you’re familiar with. It’s only during the day that you can see just how run-down the place really is.

Baghdad isn’t like that. Baghdad looks worse at night because you can barely see anything. When your mind fills in the blanks, real and imagined roadside bombs, militiamen, booby traps, and snipers lurk in the shadows.

The city can be spooky at night. Millions of people live in Baghdad, but it’s dark after hours. Few lights illuminate the mostly empty sidewalks and streets. The city’s electrical grid is still offline half the time and must be replaced. Homes without generator power are dark more often than not, and almost everyone who owns a generator turns it off when they go to sleep. Baghdad after sundown is as poorly lit as a remote mountain village.

But it’s not a remote mountain village. The sound of gunshots is still a part of the general ambience. You’d be surprised by how quickly you get used to hearing them. They’re like background noise as long as they aren’t too close and you aren’t the one being shot at.

While walking the sidewalk of the Adhamiyah district with United States Army Second Lieutenant David Dimenna’s patrol unit, I heard three pistol shots in rapid succession from just a few blocks in front of us, followed by a fourth.

“Iraqi Army?” Lieutenant Dimenna said.

An Iraqi civilian passing by looked concerned. “There’s a checkpoint down there,” he said.

Another civilian walked past us as though nothing had happened. He was used to the sound of gunfire in Baghdad.

Lieutenant David Dimenna.jpg

Second Lieutenant David Dimenna

These days when American soldiers hear gunshots, they assume the shots were fired by Iraqi Army or Iraqi Police. Iraqi security forces are famous for bad trigger discipline. They enjoy firing shots into the air, and they regularly shoot themselves and each other on accident. Lieutenant Dimenna still took the shots seriously, though. We were in Baghdad, after all, which, despite the dramatic reduction in violence, is still a dangerous city.

We climbed into Humvees. Lieutenant Dimenna called FOB (Forward Operating Base) Apache and reported the gun shots. We drove without headlights on Baghdad’s dark streets. His men had night vision. I had to rely on my eyes.

Empty Building Gun Shots Adhamiyah.jpg

The area where the gunshots came from was nearly as dark as a forest at night. An Iraqi Police truck parked just up ahead flashed its red and blue lights.

Police Lights Adhamiyah Night.jpg

Lieutenant Dimenna stepped out of the Humvee and spoke to one of the officers.

“We didn’t fire the shots,” one of the Iraqis said. “Maybe it was the Iraqi Army.” He gestured up the street by tipping his head. “They have a checkpoint right there.”

“Okay,” Lieutenant Dimenna said. “Good to see you, but we have to go check that out.”

I couldn’t see the Iraqi Army checkpoint in the dark and wouldn’t even have known it was there if the officer hadn’t told us it was there.

“I don’t know who fired the shots,” one of the Iraqi Army soldiers said when we got there. He pointed toward a dark and creepy abandoned building just up the street. All I could see was its silhouette against a backdrop of stars. “I think they came from in there.”

Somebody fired gun shots within two block of an Iraqi Army checkpoint, and they didn’t bother to find out what happened? If I were alone and distressed in Iraq, I would hate to have to count on those guys to save me.

A Blackhawk helicopter flew overhead and fired countermeasure flares out the sides designed to divert heat-seeking surface-to-air missiles. They sounded like fireworks.

Countermeasures over Adhamiyah.jpg

Surface-to-air missile countermeasures fired from a Blackhawk, Adhamiyah, Baghdad

Though we could have walked to the abandoned building in less than two minutes, we drove in the Humvees.

My eyes were beginning to adjust to the darkness, but I could still barely see. The only reason I know what the street looked like is because I took pictures. My camera sees better than I can in the dark if I hold it still long enough to take a photo with the shutter held open.

Darkened Building at Night Where Shots Fired Adhamiyah.jpg

I wondered if we were going inside the building. I wouldn’t be able to see anything in there, and I didn’t relish the thought of joining Lieutenant Dimenna and his men while they chased an armed man through its black hallways.

We parked in front and got out. I heard two middle-aged men speaking in Arabic, though I couldn’t see them. They were Iraqi Army.

“A drunk guy walked past here,” one of them said. “He was talking shit, and he assaulted one of my officers.” He said they wrestled the man to the ground and arrested him after firing off a couple of shots.

“I’m glad to hear he was detained,” Lieutenant Dimenna said. “But let’s see if you can arrest people without firing your weapons.”

*

Iraq’s capital looks dark at night from the air. It’s no giant brightly-lit circuit board, as most cities are. It looks, instead, like a dense night sky reflecting on a brilliant sea. You can’t see the streets because there are so few lights. Most houses go dark after nightfall. The only lights you can see are from houses with generators where the family hasn’t yet gone to bed. The city is perhaps only one percent as lit at night as cities anywhere else.

Humvee and Stopped Car Night Adhamiyah 2.jpg

Lieutenant Dimenna and his men chose an intersection at random and set up a temporary checkpoint. Every passing car was pulled over and searched. Military age men were politely asked to step out of their vehicles and frisked. Civilians are no longer allowed to carry weapons in Baghdad. They won’t be arrested if they’re caught, but the weapons will be taken away.

Stopped Cars No Headlights Night Adhamiyah.jpg

Two Opened Cars Night Adhamiyah.jpg

Embedding with the United States military in Baghdad at the end of the surge is no longer like risking your neck in a war zone. It’s more like going on ride-alongs with the police. But it’s not like riding along with the New York police, or even with the Mexico City police. Baghdad is still Baghdad. While no longer a city at war, it’s not exactly peaceful and normal yet either.

The young men pulled from their cars didn’t seem to mind being patted down by foreign soldiers, but I imagined they did.

Dimmena Frisking Adhamiyah 2.jpg

Lieutenant David Dimenna pats down a young Iraqi man, Adhamiyah, Baghdad

“Outwardly they seem to be okay with it,” Lieutenant Dimenna said, “and they know it’s to keep the area more secure.”

The Adhamiyah district is one of the more liberal in the city, but it’s still conservative even compared with other Arabic capitals. More than 90 percent of the people I saw outside were men, and more than 90 percent of the women I saw wore a headscarf over their hair or an enveloping all-black abaya.

Lieutenant Dimenna said there were a few bars in the area, but I didn’t see any. And they’re nothing like the stylish bars of Beirut and Tel Aviv. “They’re called casinos,” he said. “Only men go there, and most of them are hard surly drinkers. They go to play cards and drink and sit on the couches in back.”

After searching cars for twenty minutes or so, we got back in the Humvees and drove. My thoughts, as usual when driving around in Iraq, turned to roadside bombs. It’s not scary. The odds of actually being hit are quite low, especially now. I found it impossible, though, to keep my mind entirely off IEDs.

Bridge at Night Adhamiyah.jpg

Bridge over the Tigris River, Adhamiyah, Baghdad

“What are we doing now, exactly?” I said after a few minutes.

“Driving around aimlessly,” our driver said.

Lieutenant Dimenna sat in the front passenger seat.

“We’re just out being seen,” he said, “and making sure nothing bad is going on. It’s good that things are quiet, but it’s also hard. It’s hard looking for IEDs when we know there aren’t many around.

Cows crossed the street in front of us. Cows, in the middle of a city of more than six million people. I couldn’t imagine seeing cows other, smaller regional cities like Beirut, Amman, or Kuwait. In Cairo, perhaps, at least on the outskirts. Baghdad is like a large village in many ways, though at least it’s less tribal than Iraqi villages.

Suddenly we were driving through a nice neighborhood with larger homes, a little more light, a great deal less trash, and lines of palm trees on each side of the street. It looked pleasant at night. Perhaps daylight would reveal ramshackleness I couldn’t see.

I didn’t see many bullet holes, and I saw even fewer houses and buildings that had been destroyed. Ruined houses were easier to spot in Fallujah, and I saw whole swaths of central Ramadi that had been flattened, but most of Baghdad looked like it was never at war. Whenever my thoughts turned dark in Baghdad — which happened sometimes — I tried to remember how much worse it used to be in Ramadi, and that Ramadi today is sort of okay. Iraq was careening toward oblivion in the beginning of 2007, yet it’s still in one piece.

Even if security were up to regional standards — and make no mistake, it is not — Baghdad still isn’t a place where most people would want to go on vacation. Its historic sites are a mess.

Clock Tower Adhamiyah.jpg

Clock tower, Adhamiyah, Baghdad

Restaurants are almost entirely limited to basic chicken and kebab places — nowhere you would want to take a date. If fine dining establishments and cafes exist in Baghdad, I’ve never seen them. I don’t mean to be a snob about the place. That’s just how it is. Iraqis have more important things to worry about than bringing their “third places” up to international standards. Fancy restaurants would likely just get car-bombed now anyway. If I were a businessman living in Baghdad, I wouldn’t even think about opening one until a few years from now at the earliest.

We got out and walked past a shop destroyed by a car bomb a week before I arrived.

Car Bomb Damage Adhamiyah Night.jpg

Aftermath of a car bomb, Adhamiyah, Baghdad

A massive IED exploded at an Iraqi Army checkpoint just one block away at the same time.

“The IED didn’t kill anybody,” Lieutenant Dimenna said. “No one was manning the checkpoint when it went off. We do things a little differently from the Iraqis. We relieve men in place. If their shift ends, they go home whether the next guys are there to take over or not.” Those Iraqis who left their post early were saved by their laziness.

A kid ran up to us, as kids so often do in Baghdad.

“Can I have my guns back?” he said to Sergeant Pennartz. “I want to shoot chickens.”

Kid Who Wanted His Gun Back Adhamiyah.jpg

“We gave you back the shotgun,” Sergeant Pennartz said. “But you can’t have the other guns back. They’re against Iraqi law.”

The kid’s grandfather had given him an Ottoman-era shotgun worth more than 20,000 dollars. An Iraqi court made an exception to the law and let the kid keep it.

“Sometimes the system works,” Lieutenant Dimenna said.

The kid asked me to take his photo while he posed with Sergeant Pennartz.

“I took guns from your house,” Sergeant Pennartz said to the kid, “and now we’re friends?”

Lieutenant Dimenna gave the kid a tip card with a phone number on it and asked him to have his family to call if they see anything suspicious.

“Sometimes people do actually call,” he said to me.

*

The U.S. Army was conducting what it called “census work,” where soldiers knocked on doors at random and asked residents their names, their occupations, and a couple of security questions. Citizens selected for visits had no choice but to let the soldiers in, though they were always asked nicely as if they did have a choice.

A man wearing pajamas opened the first door we knocked on and squinted at us. His hair was messed up, and he looked annoyed. I wanted to apologize for bothering him.

“Yes,” he said, “please, come in, welcome.” He spoke perfect English. I could tell by the tone in his voice that he didn’t want us in his house. He didn’t seem hostile, just irritated that he was forced to get out of bed.

Lieutenant Dimenna rattled off his list of questions: How many people live in this house? What are all your names? Where does everyone work? How many cars do you have?

The man’s adult son came downstairs and said hi. He did seem happy to see us, but the old man was still peeved. I felt like an intruder. I didn’t take pictures. I didn’t even ask if I could take pictures.

“What’s your biggest concern in the area?” Lieutenant Dimenna said.

“Security, of course,” the man said. “But also services. Electricity, water, and sewer. The condition of the streets. Everything is terrible.”

“Do you have any specific security concerns?” Lieutenant Dimenna said.

“It’s a lot better in general,” the man said. “I don’t have any specific concerns. Our community is educated and everyone knows each other here. So it’s quiet.”

The man was given a tip card with a phone number to call if he wanted to report any problems.

We left and began the exact same routine at a house across the street where all the lights were turned off.

A soldier rang the bell. Nobody answered. Another soldier loudly banged on the metal gate with his gloved fist. He made a hell of a racket. I cringed and felt horrible. Everyone on the block surely could hear us, and at least half of them asleep. I didn’t want to go in. I would have preferred to stay outside and not bother people who were trying to sleep. But what if something interesting happened?

A young man emerged from the house and opened the gate. He didn’t seem annoyed in the least, despite the fact that we had obviously woken him up.

A 60 year old woman in a hijab sat us down on couches in the front room.

I was surprised by how nice the house was on the inside. Homes in Iraq are almost always nicer on the inside than the outside suggests. It surprises me almost every time I walk into one, no matter how many times it happens. The public environment in Iraq is a vast slum, but interior private homes and lives are much richer. It’s hard sometimes to figure out where a real slum begins and ends in Iraq.

We didn’t take off our boots even though Iraqis don’t wear shoes in their homes. Soldiers can’t take their boots off in Iraq, nor can I take off mine if I’m traveling with them.

The young man was a student, and his father was a professor. They sat on a couch opposite me and Lieutenant Dimenna.

The lieutenant asked the usual questions.

“Our biggest concern,” the professor said, “is security and war.” That’s what almost everyone in Iraq says when asked this question. Government corruption, trash, too few hours of electricity — these are still secondary concerns. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an Iraqi say “the economy” when asked what ails his country, even though the economy is in horrendous condition. There are worse things in the world than not having much money.

I didn’t even go inside the third house during the census-taking part of the mission. The soldiers were intrusive enough by themselves, and the routine was dull. Few seemed happy to see us. It was night. I was tired and wanted to get some sleep myself.

So I stayed outside and talked to Sergeant Pennartz who stood watch on the porch.

“I sure hope this holds,” he said, “because we’re going to pull out soon. I think it’s a mistake. This country is going to need help for years. But at the same time I really really really don’t want to come back here. That’s how a lot of us feel. We don’t want to pull out, but we also don’t want to be here. I just hope the peace holds so we don’t have to come back and fight for the ground we already won and abandoned. Again.”

Another soldier — I did not catch his name — asked me if I wanted an energy drink.

“Hell, yes,” I said. “Please.” What I really wanted was an espresso.

He took a Rip-It from a cooler in the back of the Humvee and passed it to me.

“We’re having a competition,” he said, “to see who can drink the most Rip-Its on a single patrol. So far the record is seventeen. Starting Monday we’re going to see if anybody can make the double dozen.”

“On the surface everyone will tell you Sunnis, Shias, we don’t care, we’re all Iraqis,” Sergeant Pennartz said. “But talk to them for a while and they’ll tell you what they really think. Do you know what those Shias did? Et cetera. Some Sunnis say Shias were never in Iraq until the Iran-Iraq war. Some are totally ignorant and say they’ll never live next to Shias.”

We eventually climbed back in the Humvees and headed back toward the FOB. On the way I saw orange trees covered in dust behind crumbling walls. Wild dogs ran in the streets. Iraqi Police officers huddled around a fire to keep warm like bums around a burning trash can in The Bronx.

“Sometimes,” Lieutenant Dimenna said, “during the worst of the rainy season, the sewage here gets up to ankle level.”

*

“I think they’ve given up trying to fight us,” Staff Sergeant Christian told me back at the FOB. “They finally learned they can’t beat us. All hell broke loose in Sadr City this spring, but they got their asses kicked and finally decided to just let us build our wall.”

He meant the Gold Wall. It cuts off the southwestern third of Sadr City from the rest. American soldiers patrol that southwestern third, while the Iraqi Army maintains exclusive control of the northeastern two-thirds. The famous Jamilla market area is in the American sector, and it’s economically rebounding now. The wall was built last spring when Mahdi Army insurgents who infested the Jamilla Market area were pushed just far enough away from the center of Baghdad that they could no longer fire their limited-range rockets into the Green Zone.

Another wall with an entirely different purpose was built in Adhamiyah, and it has been there much longer. Most of Adhamiyah is Sunni, and it’s adjacent to hostile Shia areas. When sectarian violence between the two communities peaked, the U.S. Army erected a three-mile long wall with gigantic concrete barriers to keep Shia militants out. Vehicle checkpoints were placed at every entry into the neighborhood. The wall was controversial at first, but sectarian violence dramatically plunged. Normal life — as much as life can be normal in a dysfunctional city like Baghdad — returned to the area. Most early critics of the wall did a re-think.

“The Adhamiyah wall will stay in place until further notice,” Major Mike Humphreys said. “It channels traffic. The people in Adhamiyah know who is supposed to be there and who isn’t. There have been suggestions to take the wall down, but people who live there like it now. Lots of people in Sadr City want the Gold Wall gone, but business owners want it to stay up.”

“People are pretty friendly now,” Sergeant Christian said. “They invite us dinner. Hell, they invite us to parties. Back in 2005?” He laughed. “There’s no way.”

“The biggest threat in our area is Al Qaeda,” Sergeant Manuel Juarez said. “It’s mostly Sunnis here. AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq] targets the Sons of Iraq because they’re trying to destabilize Baghdad. Sometimes Sons of Iraq guys fight other Sons of Iraq guys. There is a lot of stupid tribal and personal crap going on.”

Sons of Iraq are local security men organized by the United States military for neighborhood watch and checkpoint work. They have since been absorbed by the government of Iraq. Most are being trained for regular army and police work.

“There aren’t any car bombs in the market,” Sergeant Juarez continued. “The streets are too narrow and they can’t get cars in. A Sons of Iraq guy was recently killed by a car bomb outside the Hanifa mosque, but it’s generally been safer since we laid siege to Sadr City. Enemy contact is pretty minimal these days.”

Friendly Women Adhamiyah.jpg

“Everyone seems cool,” he said. “We haven’t seen anyone too angry. It’s hard to read people, but their friendliness does seem genuine. It’s gotten better. As you can see, some of these buildings are shot up, but that wasn’t our doing. They were already like that when we arrived. Back in 2004 and 2005, we really got jacked here.”

“We do find some IEDs,” Sergeant Nick Franklin said, “but they’re mostly targeting the Sons of Iraq. We found one two days ago, though, outside an abandoned house that I think was targeting us. Sniper attacks are the biggest threat. We lost a guy in September to a sniper. We get car bombs once in a while, but they are targeting Iraqi civilians. It’s AQI going for the big bang.”

I joined him and his unit on a daytime patrol.

Sergeant Nick Franklin.jpg

Sergeant Nick Franklin

“We need to pick up Sons of Iraq witness in a shootout that happened a few days ago,” he said. “I’m thinking I should arrest him just to make sure he actually shows up in court.” I think he was joking.

His men set up a temporary checkpoint at an intersection in a residential neighborhood. He chose that location because he knew his witness could often be found there.

Checkpoint Adhamiyah.jpg

Sure enough, he was there. And he agreed to show up in court the next day.

Franklin and Witness Adhamiyah.jpg

Sergeant Nick Franklin (right) and Sons of Iraq witness (left)

“So you didn’t need to arrest him,” I said. I had to speak loudly because the power was out in the neighborhood and half the houses on the street had their generators turned on. It sounded like two dozen people were mowing their lawns at the same time.

“He might have enough on this guy we’ve been after for a while,” he said. “But we don’t want to pick him up if we can’t get enough evidence. We’ve been detaining guys lately who’ve been back on the streets after six months. Apparently, killing Americans will only get you six months in jail in Iraq.”

“What do they have to do to get put away longer?” I said.

“They have to get caught with actual contraband,” he said. “IEDs and car bombs.”

“Imagine,” I said, “spending only six months in jail for blowing people up with anti-tank mines in the States.”

We loaded up in Humvees, and I rode with Sergeant Juarez.

Sergeant Manuel Juarez.jpg

Sergeant Manuel Juarez

“Right here is the place to go for grub,” he said as we passed a chicken stand.

“You guys eat out here?” I said.

“Hell, yeah,” he said. “There’s a guy up the street who will sell you a hamburger for a dollar.”

“Are the burgers any good?” I imagined they would not be.

“Well,” he said. “They’re Iraqi. But I’ll pay a dollar for one.”

Many of the streets in the neighborhood were unpaved. Raw sewage ran in rivulets down the center of many.

“Local contractors were hired to fix these problems,” he said, “but they took the money and ran.”

I snapped a few pictures out the window.

“We’re going to go through the market,” he said. “We need to avoid this one particular Sons of Iraq guy. He whines about everything and will suck up hours of our time complaining.”

“What does he whine about?” I said.

“Pretty much everything,” he said. “We took their AKRs away from them recently and he whined about that for hours.”

Our convoy of Humvees rounded a corner and entered an older part of the neighborhood.

“That guy with the green shirt,” Sergeant Juarez said, “makes the best chicken. He uses wood instead of that rotisserie shit. It’s not like the fucking mesquite we have in the States, but it’s good.”

A young woman walked next to our Humvee as we drove.

“Oh shit, she even waved at us!” the driver said. “I figure we have to plant the seed early,” he joked, “so that in a few years we can date them.”

School Girl Leather Dress Adhamiyah.jpg

We parked and got out of the trucks.

“So, what’s the plan?” I said to Sergeant Franklin.

“Our purpose,” he said, “is population engagement and information engagement operations. We’re handing out flyers about bad guys. Most end up in a fire or in the garbage, but sometimes people use ‘em. Kids like to collect ‘em like they’re trading cards, and they always make sure they get one.”

Flyer Telling Kids to Use Trash Cans.jpg

A flyer telling kids to throw their garbage into a trash can

“The majority don’t want to us to leave,” he said.

“How do you know?” I said, unsure if I should really believe it.

“They tell us one on one,” he said. “We tell them the country has to sink or swim at some point. They don’t like the Iraqi Police or the Iraqi Army. The Iraqi Police used to kidnap and murder people. The Iraqi Police at JSS Adhamiyah won’t go on patrols unless we make them. They’re pretty much useless, but at least they’re less dangerous now that we’re watching them. Some civilians here say they want us to stay forever because things are better with us around. They don’t necessarily want us out in the streets every day, but they do want us somewhere in Iraq.”

Houses near the market were older than most in the area. They weren’t surrounded by walled courtyards as most are in Baghdad. Front doors were just barely set back from the streets and the alleys. The neighborhood could be rather charming if it were fixed up; and it had more Eastern character than the modern parts of the city.

The covered market, though, was a horror.

Adhamiyah Vegetable Market.jpg

Clouds of flies swarmed the vegetables.

Vegetables in Adhamiyah Market.jpg

A thin river of foul water and sewage flowed in the walkway. I smelled the tang of rotting garbage and piss.

“Most attacks against us these days are retaliatory,” Sergeant Franklin said. He didn’t seem fazed by the disgusting conditions. I guess he was used to it. “It’s not all organized Al Qaeda around here anymore. We haven’t had any complex attacks against us lately.”

When we emerged from the market, he gently ribbed our Iraqi interpreter Tom. Tom was not his real name. All Iraqi interpreters use pseudonyms to conceal their identity from potentially dangerous locals. “We went into a house recently and Tom neglected to tell me a woman was scrubbing the floor with her shirt off.”

“Was she wearing a bra?” I said.

“Nope,” he said. “She was topless. Tom here is a dirty young man.”

Tom grinned.

I was happy to get a look at Baghdad without having to worry overly much about my own safety. Many reporters who stayed away from Iraq during the surge in 2007 and 2008 but went back at the end said they could hardly recognize Baghdad any more, that it was a different city. Those reports raised my expectations too high. It didn’t look all that different to me. There were more people out on the street. The security situation had been completely transformed. But the city was otherwise as run-down and corrupt and generally dysfunctional as it was before.

Rats Nest of Wires Adhamiyah.jpg

We passed beneath a rat’s nest of electrical wires. A transformer sizzled and popped over my head and blue smoke curled upward.

*

“Do you have anybody you want to arrest?” I said to Lieutenant Michael Kane before I joined his men on a patrol in the area.

“Actually, yes,” he said. “There’s an old Baathist guy who sometimes gives us intel. A few days ago he called and said he wants to come in and talk, but he doesn’t want anyone to see him coming back to the FOB. So he asked me to arrest him in front of everybody.”

Lieutenant Michael Kane.jpg

Lieutenant Michael Kane

“A fake arrest then,” I said.

“That’s what he wants us to do,” he said. “It seems unnecessary to me, but it’s his deal.”

We set off to find him at dusk. The sun had gone down and there wasn’t much light left in the sky.

Our convoy of Humvees parked on a muddy side street. We got out and walked. A long row of private generator stations that supplied electricity to several houses were set up along this muddy street. Our Baathist guy said he would wait for us near one.

“Make sure you don’t photograph his face,” Lieutenant Kane told me.

“Of course,” I said. “I wouldn’t think of it.”

We waited next to one of the gigantic neighborhood generators. It was enclosed in a shed and made so much noise it was hard to hear what anyone said. Our former Baathist guy wasn’t where he said he would be. Lieutenant Kane peeked inside the shed. No one was in there.

I felt slightly uneasy. Something in the air just gave me the creeps. What if we had been set up? Perhaps an anti-personnel bomb was inside the shed. If a bomb had been planted to take out me and the soldiers, no one else in the neighborhood would be hurt. We were isolated. I stepped away from the shed just in case, but no one else did.

“Maybe he’s at the other end of the street,” Lieutenant Kane said. Most Iraqis gave terrible directions. One American officer I spoke to said the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police would be twice as effective if only they could learn to read maps. Sometimes they get lost at night in their own cities and neighborhoods.

We walked down the street. The former Baathist informant was waiting for us outside a different generator shed. Three of his friends were there with him.

Lieutenant Kane stiffly walked up to him as though he were furious and might punch him.

“Hey!” he said. “You’re under arrest!”

The man threw his hands into the air.

“Flex-cuff him,” Lieutenant Kane said to one of his men.

Our informant was gently led up against the cinderblock wall and flex-cuffed.

Arrested Baathists Hands Adhamiyah.jpg

The man’s three Iraqi friends looked terrified.

“I won’t arrest you,” Lieutenant Kane said, “as long as you tell me everything you know about him.”

“I don’t know anything!” one of them said.

“Do you know why I’m arresting him?” Lieutenant Kane said. “He’s a JAM guy.” JAM is short for Jaysh al Mahdi, Moqtada al Sadr’s radical Mahdi Army militia. “What the fuck is he doing around here?”

“I don’t know!” said another of the Iraqis.

“Where does he live?” Lieutenant Kane said.

All three Iraqis pointed at the same house at the exact same instant. I would have laughed out loud if they had pointed at different houses, but they gave up their buddy without even blinking.

“If you can give me some info,” he said, “I can pay you good money.”

“We are Sons of Iraq,” one of them said. “We’ll tell you anything you want. But we have a problem. Checkpoint Ten is out of ammo.”

“You guys are taking the ammo we’re giving you and selling it,” Lieutenant Kane said. “Did you get into a fight I don’t know about?”

“We fired at the national guard,” the man said.

“What the fuck?” Lieutenant Kane said.

Kane and SOI Guys.jpg

Lieutenant Michael Kane questions men in the Sons of Iraq program

“They wouldn’t stop at the checkpoint,” the man said. “We didn’t know who they were.”

“You guys have to be careful!” Lieutenant Kane said. “They’re Iraqi Army. You need to be keeping your ammo. And don’t shoot at the Iraqi Army!”

“We also need ammo at Checkpoint Eleven.”

“Where’s that ammo going?”

“We only have one magazine per AK-47.”

“That’s all you need.”

The Baathist informant was blindfolded and stuffed into the back of a Humvee, and we drove away. When we got back to the FOB I saw that his blindfold had been removed.

“Are you okay?” Lieutenant Kane gently asked him as we walked toward the compound from the parking lot.

The man smiled and nodded, but he looked ill at ease.

*

Lieutenant Kane was in charge of security in Eastern Adhamiyah. “Our area is a really shitty poor area,” he told me.

Adhamiyah Residential Street.jpg

Adhamiyah, Baghdad

Eastern Adhamiyah is also sometimes a creepy area.

“It was a real JAM Special Groups hotbed area,” he said. “Now it’s mostly just low level shitheads. AQI is still around, too.”

Both Sunnis and Shias live in Eastern Adhamiyah.

They used to call one area “JAM Alley.” Shortly before I arrived one of their Humvees was hit with an EFP, an Explosively Formed Penetrator, the most terrifying IED ever designed. EFPs fire liquid copper plates faster than bullets at passing vehicles. The molten metal cuts through Humvees and tanks as though they were made of Jell-O. Few things in Iraq gave me the creeps as much as driving on a road with a known EFP threat.

“That last EFP slug was a close call,” Lieutenant Kane said. “It skimmed the turret on the Humvee and ripped through some trees. Fortunately, nobody was killed.”

Terrorist and insurgents aren’t the only creepy people around. He once saw a deaf kid tied to a tree in someone’s back yard.

Thousands of Iraqis mounted a huge demonstration against the Status of Forces Agreement, or SOFA, between the United States and the government of Iraq in Eastern Adhamiyah. SOFA allows American soldiers to remain in Iraq for a few more years, although combat soldiers will have to evacuate Iraqi cities to the perimeter in June. Naturally the anti-SOFA protest erupted in the eastern part of the neighborhood. It has long been more hostile than the other parts of the area. Lieutenant Kane said some kids still throw rocks at Americans there, although that never happened while I was around.

Four Kids Adhamiyah.jpg

Our foot patrol began at an Iraqi Police station. Several local officers were scheduled to come with us. Most patrols these days are conducted by Americans and Iraqis at the same time.

I didn’t hear much praise for these officers. Local civilians are afraid the police and the army will trash their houses and beat them up if they’re arrested. American soldiers aren’t happy about that, and they have additional complaints I didn’t hear from Iraqis.

LT Kane Two IPs and a Civilian.jpg

Lieutenant Kane and two Iraqi Police officers speak to a civilian in Adhamiyah, Baghdad

“They’re having tribal problems at checkpoints,” Lieutenant Kane said. “One tribal leader was about to tell everyone to go get their AK-47s because one of his men got searched by a Sons of Iraq guy from a different tribe. Lots of Sons of Iraq guys won’t search their friends. I tell them I don’t care if it’s their father at the checkpoint — search him.”

Iraqi Police officers still routinely fire negligent discharges in the stations.

I forgot my AK was loaded, one of them said to me recently after he damn near shot his foot off,” Lieutenant Kane said. “I asked him why he was carrying it by the trigger. That’s how I always carry it! he said.”

Lieutenant Kane rolled his eyes.

“They’re like Keystone cops,” said another soldier.

“Some go out of the station with their helmets on the back of their heads and their shoes untied,” Lieutenant Kane said. “They’re like kids.”

“Just wait until they’re running this place by themselves,” I said.

“I don’t even want to get into that,” he said. “Some of these guys completely freaked out last week when Iraqi Army soldiers fired a warning shot near them. Their eyes got huge, and they were like, whoah.”

“This is Iraq,” I said. “They aren’t used to that yet? I’m used to it and I don’t even live here.”

Blackhawk Over Baghdad x.jpg

“Then there are other people,” he said, “who shrug when bombs go off in their neighborhood as long as their windows don’t get blown out. They say oh, it’s just a bomb, it’s not a big deal.”

Iraqi Police officers have a narrow job description. They don’t handle mundane domestic disturbances like Western police officers do. Some Iraqis look, then, to Americans.

“One woman’s husband was being a total asshole,” Lieutenant Kane said. “She came to us and said he makes bombs. I said does he really? She looked down and said no. I asked her why on earth she would say something like that if it isn’t true. I guess he was beating her up, but we’re not equipped to handle domestic problems over here.”

Trash Pile Adhamiyah.jpg

Trash is still all over the damn place in Baghdad. There isn’t as much of it as there used to be. The much-touted progress is real. But progress in a place like Iraq is relative.

“Iraqis are happy when they see Americans picking up trash,” Lieutenant Kane said.

“Why do they throw their trash everywhere, then?”

“It’s mostly out of habit,” he said. “You’ve seen these new blue dumpsters around?”

I had.

“One guy complained about all the trash in the neighborhood, but I later saw him throw his own bag of trash next to the dumpster. And the dumpster was empty. He could have played frigging racquetball in there.”

Dumpster with Trash Next to It.jpg

He wanted to do more “census” work. We knocked on doors and sat in various living rooms for ten minutes.

I no longer felt so intrusive, although we were no less intrusive than when I was sensitive about it. I had gotten used to it, and the soldiers were even more used to it.

“Some people won’t give out information unless we check every house on the block,” Lieutenant Kane said. “And they often won’t talk to us unless we’re inside their houses.”

His men confiscated AK-47s from two houses in a row. “Sorry about this,” he said to the owners. “You aren’t allowed to have these by order of Prime Minister Maliki.” I didn’t see anyone get into trouble for having weapons. They just weren’t allowed to keep them.

One of the Iraqis who was forced to hand over his AK had a wild mane of hair and a shifty look in his eyes. His wife served us small glasses or orange juice as most of us sat in the living room. Two soldiers searched upstairs.

“Sir!” one of the soldiers called out. “This guy has a 50 gallon barrel of gasoline on the roof. And he does not have a generator.”

I wondered then if my orange juice was poisoned. It was an absurd and paranoid thought, but it’s hard not to think that way at least once in a while in Baghdad. Just before we set out on this patrol, I was told not to touch any gas cans on the sidewalk. A few days earlier someone tried to pick one up, but it was too heavy. He then noticed it had wires sticking out the sides that led to a detonator hidden somewhere.

Woman on Roof Adhamiyah.jpg

Woman on roof, Adhamiyah, Baghdad

No men were home in the next house. Three middle-aged women and two elderly women welcomed us into the living room. One of the middle-aged women looked nervous. Her hands shook and she swallowed hard. A five-year old girl ran up and clutched her leg.

“She’s scared,” her mother said. “We moved here last year from Ur. A Stryker force there kicked in our gate while looking for Ali Babas.”

“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” Lieutenant Kane said. “We’re not here to hurt you.” He smiled and waved at the child. The little girl stared at him and stayed behind her mother’s leg.

“Are you going to take our money?” the woman said.

The lieutenant looked pained.

“We’re not going to take any of your things,” he said. “We’re not going to take your money. I promise. We’re just talking to people in the neighborhood and searching for illegal weapons.”

The woman relaxed slightly. But only slightly.

“We don’t have any weapons,” she said.

“Okay,” Lieutenant Kane said. “I believe you.” Nevertheless, some of his men searched the house for illegal weapons. “Are you having any security problems in the neighborhood?”

“No, no,” the woman said. “There are no problems here.”

“How about your daughter at school? Want me to go beat up some bullies?”

Big laughs all around as Lieutenant Kane grinned. The worried woman seemed to feel more at ease now.

“Does your daughter get good grades?” he said. “Is she going to be prime minister one day?”

“No!” yelled every woman in the house at the same time. “No! No politics! No!” They were genuinely horrified by the suggestion. Politics is not an honorable profession in Iraq. Maybe it never will be.

On our way back to the FOB, we drove through the Qahira neighborhood. “There used to be tons of Mahdi Army posters in this neighborhood,” our driver said.

“We took them down one night at three in the morning,” Lieutenant Kane said. “And we put Iraqi Army posters up in their place. Those got taken down immediately, but the Mahdi Army posters never came back. Nobody said anything about it in public, but it was different when we went inside private houses. Thank you, they said. Thank you. Thank you for taking those down..”

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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The Persian Version

“Here’s a fun piece in City Journal”:http://www.city-journal.org/2009/19_1_snd-press-tv.html by my friend and colleague Jamie Kirchick about his recent experience on Iran’s Press TV. I don’t even want to excerpt this thing. Just go read it and laugh.

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