The Future of Iraq, Part II

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The first time I visited Baghdad, I only stayed for a week. The place stressed me out. The surge was only just then beginning, and though I never was shot at personally, I often heard the sound of gunfire in the background. One night, shadowy militiamen stalked me and a U.S. Army unit I was out on patrol with. Car bombs exploded miles away, but sounded as though they were detonated just a few blocks away. You have no idea, really, how terrifyingly loud those things are until you hear one yourself.
I left Baghdad and headed out to Anbar Province — which just months earlier was one of the most dangerous places on earth — because I wanted to relax. That part of Iraq had just quieted down for the first time since Fallujah exploded in 2004. The big question on everyone’s mind in 2007 was whether or not it was possible to export the Anbar Awakening — the reconciliation between Iraqi tribes and Americans who forged a united front against terrorism — to a gigantic and hypercomplex city like Baghdad.
Nobody knew the answer, and many had doubts. I had doubts, too. But the doubters were wrong. The Awakening, or something that looks a lot like it, has now swept across every last corner of Iraq’s capital city.
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Baghdad, Iraq
During my most recent trip to Iraq, I spoke to Major Mike Humphreys at a medium-sized base in Northern Baghdad while on my way to the Sunni-dominated Adhamiyah area and the former Mahdi Army stronghold of Sadr City. He told me about the Sons of Iraq program, the institutionalization of the successful Awakening model in Baghdad.
“Sons of Iraq is something the U.S. government adapted from what started as a Sunni movement,” he said. “It started in Anbar Province about two years ago.”
“You’re talking about Sahawa al Anbar,” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “The Awakening, which is what Sahawa means in Arabic. It’s very much a political movement,” he said. “What you had were Sunni tribesmen who were tired of the violence, tired of Al Qaeda in Iraq. These Sunnis said we’ve had enough and we’re not taking it anymore. They stood up to protect their own neighborhoods from these Sunni extremists that were terrorizing their people. Then it spread, and it spread very rapidly throughout Iraq.”
Baghdad has suffered terribly since the insurgency exploded after Saddam’s regime was demolished, but the physical war wreckage I’ve seen in the capital is insignificant compared to “what I saw in Anbar’s provincial capital Ramadi”: Ramadi was more wracked with destruction than even Fallujah. Ramadi looked like World War II had recently ripped through the place. Two American colonels I spoke to there compared the Battle of Ramadi to Stalingrad. It’s no wonder Iraq’s muscular anti-terrorist movement began there.
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Ramadi, Anbar Province, Iraq
“From the point of view of the Shia-controlled government,” Major Humphreys said, “the Awakening movement could be considered threatening because you basically had what amounted to a Sunni militia. Now the way we’ve tried to adopt that was by considering it as a Sunni-led political movement operating along political lines instead of military lines. So we’ve incorporated that movement into something that could be used to protect the people in Adhamiyah. We took these members who called themselves Awakening and we gave them a job for 300 dollars a month to stand guard in their neighborhood.”
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Adhamiyah, Baghdad
Adhamiyah is mostly Sunni. It was a stronghold of support for Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party regime. More recently, it was a stronghold for Al Qaeda in Iraq. Not until Al Qaeda thoroughly ravaged the place did local residents decide the Americans were the lesser of evils.
“Now many of these people,” Major Humphreys said, “many of these Sunnis of Adhamiyah, were former AQI operatives. But the only reason they were out working for Al Qaeda is because they needed sustenance. They needed a paycheck to put food on the table, and AQI provided it. So we provided them with a stable job. Most of them already had their own weapons, so we weren’t arming them. We were just giving them jobs. They go out and they guard their neighborhood. And they say, you know what? We’ve got a stable job here and we’re tired of violence. And AQI, you’re not welcome here anymore.
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Iraqi girl, Adhamiyah, Baghdad
Some analysts have described this phenomenon as “buying off” or “bribing” insurgency. This is half true at best. The insurgency did not go away. The leaders were never bought off. Only the opportunists and low-level operatives were. And they weren’t even really bought off. An authentic anti-terrorist movement took hold in Iraq, and some former low-level operatives were given jobs as long as they were deemed to be loyal to the local authorities. Al Qaeda in Iraq still exists. It was never bought off. Its leaders remain fanatically ideological and can’t be bought off or bribed for all the money in the world.
“AQI was forced out of Adhamiyah,” Major Humphreys said. “AQI is no longer welcome. Now granted, AQI is not completely done. There are still elements out there operating. They would like nothing more than to get back in and gain control. But their days are extremely numbered. We recently had a couple of car bomb attacks. That’s AQI trying to re-establish itself. But we’re on the hunt for this car bomb cell. And I think we’re pretty close to getting them thanks to the Iraqi Army and the Sons of Iraq that are getting tips on AQI members. The people won’t allow it, and that broke AQI.”
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Adhamiyah, Baghdad
AQI was popular in Adhamiyah, at least for a while. Hardly any residents signed onto Al Qaeda’s program because they were interested in the death penalty for cigarette smokers or the segregation of “male” and “female” vegetables in the market. Al Qaeda’s weirdly modern totalitarian vision has nothing to do with even conservative Islam as traditionally practiced in Iraq. They supported Al Qaeda because Al Qaeda was killing Americans.
“The Sahawa movement is Sunni,” Major Humphreys said, “but the Sons of Iraq program is divided between Sunni and Shia, about 60-40. It’s 60 percent Shia and only 40 percent Sunni. This is what bugs me about the media. Sons of Iraq is constantly referred to as a Sunni movement, but it’s not. The Sons of Iraq are functioning very well in North Adhamiyah, and they are Sunnis and Shias working together. It’s not being well reported at all, and I’ve tried on numerous occasions to get reporters to see that, but people at the bureaus still see Sons of Iraq as the Awakening movement. But it’s not true.”
My Spanish colleague Ramon Lobo from El Pa“s in Madrid joined me for the interview and had some questions of his own.
“If American troops leave in one, two, or three years,” he said, “do you think the situation will be stable? Is the progress we’re seeing real progress?”
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Bridge over the Tigris River, Adhamiyah, Baghdad
“In most of our area the Iraqi Army or the national police are already in control,” Major Humphreys said. “We are very much in an overwatch position. We observe what they do and assist them. They don’t have the intelligence infrastructure that we have. They don’t have the aerial reconnaissance platforms that we have, or the human terrain teams. So we support them with that. But they do have a very good intelligence network. I mean, the Iraqi Army and the national police both, in our area especially, have developed such a rapport with the people in the neighborhoods. People are telling them what’s going on.”
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Government building, Tigris River, Baghdad
Unlike Major Humphreys, I wouldn’t describe the relationship between civilians, the police, and the army as a “rapport.” Many people in the neighborhoods don’t actually like the police or the army. I heard a number of complaints from Iraqi civilians, some second-hand from American officers and others directly from Iraqis themselves. But Iraqis like terrorist and insurgent groups even less. Some Americans find this hard to believe, but imagine how you would feel if political extremists exploded themselves at shopping malls in your neighborhood. It would hardly matter what you thought of the local police, you would almost certainly cooperate with them if it got the bombers off the streets and in prison.
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Adhamiyah, Baghdad
Turning Adhamiyah around was a major development, but it was minor compared with the pacification of Sadr City last spring. Sadr City is one of the worst places in all of Iraq — and that’s saying something. It’s a vast slum. It’s a vast slum in Iraq. Millions of people live there. And until recently it was a stronghold of Moqtada al Sadr’s radical Shia Mahdi Army militia. It was to Iraq what Hezbollah’ dahiyeh south of Beirut is to Lebanon — a ramshackle militia-ruled state-within-a-state where neither the police nor the army dare tread.
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Looking toward the city center across the Tigris River
Early last year, militiamen fired rockets into the Green Zone from the Jamilla Market area in South Sadr City, and the American Army took it back. At the same time, the Iraqi Army seized the northern portion of Sadr City. Both areas in Sadr City remain quiet today. The U.S. military isn’t allowed in North Sadr City, but the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police have the place under control.
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U.S. military surveillance balloon
“It’s hard for us to see what goes on in north Sadr City,” Major Humphreys said, “because we don’t go there. We only know what we see from aerial reconnaissance platforms and what we hear from the Iraqi Army. But journalists go in there sometimes by themselves. A reporter from the Washington Post recently followed around a former member of the Jaysh al Mahdi Special Groups. And this former JAM member said he is constantly on the run. He can’t go home anymore because his neighbors report on him. He can’t go into his old hangouts because there are Iraqi Army checkpoints there. The guy was completely flustered. And this was a Jaysh al Mahdi leader. If they’re still fighting we call them “Special Groups” members because we don’t affiliate them with Moqtada al Sadr’s office that still says they’re in a ceasefire. So if they’re fighting, they are not aligned with Moqtada al Sadr.”
It’s not necessarily true that those who fight aren’t aligned with Moqtada al Sadr. The U.S. military is giving Sadr a door. The Americans are trying to convince him to exchange bullets for ballots. Those who fight Americans or Iraqis are therefore politely described as “Special Groups” members even if it isn’t true. Theoretically, it allows Sadr to stand down and wash the blood off his hands without losing face.
“We’ve seen enormous progress in our area in the last six months,” Major Humphreys said, “and a lot of it is because of what happened in Sadr City. We had a very young Iraqi Army brigade — and by that I mean a lot of relatively young new recruits, not a lot of experience. They had checkpoints around Sadr City. This was the 42nd Brigade. When fighting in Sadr City broke out, most of these checkpoints were overrun by the Mahdi Army militia. Iraqi Army soldiers either ran or were killed. It was pretty bad initially. We ran in real quick, shored up all the checkpoints, and sealed off Sadr City so the violence couldn’t escape. That emboldened the Iraqi Army leaders. They knew we had their backs. And they immediately moved back up and resecured their positions. As long as they knew we had their backs, they were much more bold, more brave, and more capable.”
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The Iraqi Army breaches the Gold Wall and heads into north Sadr City (photo from Getty Images)
The Iraqi Army passed right through American lines on their way into North Sadr City where they smashed the Mahdi Army in battle. If the Lebanese Army were to try this in Hezbollah’s dahiyeh south of Beirut, they’d lose. Hezbollah would clobber the Lebanese soldiers, and civilians in the area would help them. But Sadr City’s civilians were sick nearly to death of being ruled by violent fanatics, and they tipped the balance.
“Immediately there was this snap back like a rubber band,” Major Humphreys said. “What started out as clearly a Jaysh al Mahdi initiative quickly became a coalition forces joint initiative with the Iraqi Army. And the Iraqi Army really started fighting back and doing a remarkable job. We were fighting side by side in the southern part of Sadr City, as well as around the outskirts of Sadr City from where they were firing the 107 milimeter rockets at the Green Zone.”
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“I look at it as similar to our War of Independence,” he continued. “We had militia units, small organizations, that were formed out of the ashes of the American Revolution. Some of those units are still alive today in our active army. They began their heritage then. And now these Iraqi units, because of what happened in Sadr City, they have begun their heritage, their history. And as they develop through time and grow, they will always have that. If you look at our brigade flag, there’s all these streamers hanging off it. Each one of those streamers represents a campaign that unit fought in. These Iraqis are now doing that. These new Iraqi units that just got their start in Sadr City can put a streamer on their flag that says they were there, they were there at the Battle of Sadr City.”
Iraqis didn’t think the Mahdi Army was beatable. As the battle began, neither did most American journalists or foreign policy analysts. It’s hard sometimes to be optimistic about Iraq. It takes effort for me even today. But pessimists have been proven wrong repeatedly during the last couple of years just as optimists were proven wrong again and again during the first half of the war.
“Before Sadr City broke out,” Major Humphreys said, “the Jaysh al Mahdi was seen as this mystic, mythical beast that was beyond the realm. It threatened them every day. It was incredibly vicious and undefeatable. So when these Iraqi Army units started moving, they were overcome by fear. But then they realized they can stand up to these guys. They have the capabilities. They have the training. They have the equipment. And they have the support from coalition forces to actually win. They can actually fight and win.”
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A young Iraqi manning a checkpoint, Sadr City, Baghdad
“And without that support,” Ramon Lobo from El Pa“s said, “it would be very difficult.”
“Then yes, now no,” Major Humphreys said. “They needed our direct support. They needed us to shore them up. They needed us to put our arms around them and hold them up. But now, not so much. They operate independently in Sadr City right now. They own North Sadr City, which is two-thirds of the entire city.”
“How long did it take them to take it back?” I said.
“They moved into North Sadr City in about two months,” he said. “We’ve made enormous strides in the last six months, and I am not talking baby steps. I’m talking about enormous strides in developing a capable and competent Iraqi military.”
Major Humphreys works at a large base in Northern Baghdad. He doesn’t go outside the wire onto Iraq’s streets very often. There’s nothing wrong with that, and in some ways it’s an advantage. He sees a big picture, but he isn’t so far up the chain of command that he lives “echelons above reality,” as some lower-ranking officers put it.
Still, the street level view of Iraq is more detailed and nuanced. Those who grasp it best, in my experience, are the NCOs, lieutenants, and captains. They understand strategy as well as tactics, and they go out in the streets every day with their men to forge relationships with, and sometimes tragically fight, the Iraqis.
Two of the most hospitable officers I’ve met yet in Iraq are Captain Todd Looney and his XO Captain A.J. Boyes at Combat Outpost Ford on the outskirts of Sadr City. Looney and Boyes’ company did most of the fighting last spring. They were out there every day, and they, too, were shot at.
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Tanks used by the U.S. Army in the Battle of Sadr City, Combat Outpost Ford
I felt slightly depressed when I arrived at their outpost. I had heard what seemed like a relentless torrent of negativity at Combat Outpost Apache in Adhamiyah, next to the famous “Gunner Palace” which is now an Iraqi Army base. Many Americans at Apache sounded gloomy about the future of Iraq once I probed beneath their default sunny optimism. They made a strong case that Iraq is too dysfunctional to keep it together after they leave. After watching Lebanon’s slow-motion descent in the years since the Syrians left, I was inclined to agree with their dark assessment. Lebanon is much more advanced than Iraq, and if Lebanon is basically hosed (and, believe me, it is), it’s difficult sometimes to see how Iraq won’t be.
Iraq is ahead of Lebanon in a few key ways, though, and Captains Looney and Boyes found the pessimism of some of their fellow Americans rather annoying. They made an equally strong case that Iraq will be more or less fine, and I found their arguments just as persuasive.
We drank Army coffee in their quarters late one night after many of their men were asleep.
“How do you guys feel about what will happen after you’re gone,” I said, “when everyone from the U.S. is gone, when Iraqis are running the country themselves.”
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Captain Todd Looney
“Will Iraqi democracy look like democracy in the United States?” Captain Looney said. “No. But a form of democratic government in Iraq will serve an example for others. When people get a taste of freedom, they want to keep it. There is no person in the world, man or woman, who does not want to be free. Free to make their own choices, free to choose their own government, free to exercise the rights we have under the Bill of Rights. Everybody wants that. There’s not a culture on earth that doesn’t want that. If they don’t want that, it’s because they haven’t been exposed to it. Once it gets seeded here, and once freedom is able to spread, and people see it working, I think it will start catching in other areas and begin to spread there. For me to be able to look back on that and say, hey, I had a part in that, I was partially responsible for the freedoms these people now experience, I think that’s something to be proud of.”
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Iraqi teenager, Adhamiyah, Baghdad
“You think that’s a likely outcome?” I said. “Or a possible one, at least?” I am not sure. Sometimes I think so, and sometimes I don’t.
“I do,” he said. “I think it’s likely that it will happen. A critical time, of course, will be when we begin the drawdown our president is talking about. When that happens, we’ll see. But the potential for success is definitely there.”
“What I’ve been hearing at Apache,” I said, “from both Americans and Iraqis, are real concerns about the nature of Iraqi society. Looking beyond the security improvements, which at this point are obvious, there are still so many problems that might not be fixable. The corruption, the sectarianism, the tribalism, the backwardness, the religious extremism, the fact that so many people here lie all the time, the laziness. All that stuff. You know how it is here.”
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Captain A.J. Boyes, Sadr City, Baghdad
“I think people see what they want to see,” Captain Boyes said. “Everybody looks through some sort of lens. If you look back at historic counterinsurgencies and nation-building as a whole throughout contemporary history, when you have large powers going through and conducting nation-building — not colonialism, but nation-building — it’s generational. It doesn’t happen overnight. You don’t go from having Saddam on the streets and the statues still up on April 8 to having Saddam gone and a Starbucks and a McDonalds on April 9.”
“Here’s an example for people to understand the timeline,” Captain Looney said. “Let’s use our own country. The Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863, but we didn’t finally sign the Civil Rights Act until 1964. It took 101 years for us to go from no slavery to equal rights. And I would argue that not even up until the early 1990s did we actually begin to achieve racial equality. So people are disappointed that after five years in Iraq we haven’t gone from a dictatorship to America in the Middle East? Isn’t that a little unrealistic?”
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Pre-Saddam architecture, Adhamiyah, Baghdad
“And we had a democratic government for 100 years before the Emancipation Proclamation,” Captain Boyes said. “Our democracy was uninterrupted for the entire time between then and now. In Iraq they’ve had either monarchy or fascism. All those things you mentioned are real problems. But at the same time, we can show you Iraqis who literally pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and are now extremely successful. They’re the antithesis of every Iraqi stereotype out there. They’re hard-working. They’re forward-thinking. They do everything at what you and I would consider a high standard of work. It’s already here. Until the 1960s, this place was considered the pearl of the Middle East. This was the place to be. They’ve had 50 years of bad luck and bad leadership. Hopefully that will change and they’ll stay on this path of democratization. I think there is truly a budding democracy here. The judicial process, the legislative process, the executive. We’re seeing coalitions forming in government. We’re seeing true debate. They’ve had to jump-start some of these things with international help, but at the same time they’ve really come a long way. So I think the future isn’t bright yet, but the possibility is there for this to become a well-functioning society.”
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“Look at the resources available in this country,” Captain Looney said. “They have, relatively speaking, an unlimited supply of petroleum. They have great agricultural capabilities. Iraq is not a desert like Kuwait or Saudi Arabia. Those countries have oil and sand. Unless they’re going to start becoming major exporters of mirrors and glass, that’s not going to do them a lot of good. Iraq, on the other hand, has huge amounts of resources. Have you seen how lush the palm groves and orange groves are on the Tigris and the Euphrates? The orchards? They have unlimited capability to produce agricultural products, and combined with textiles and oil they could use those revenues to bring in other industries. Somebody just has to bring it all together. Their military, too, has the potential to be great again. Before Desert Storm they had the fourth largest army in the world.”
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Tigris River, Baghdad
“They were far from the fourth best army, though,” I said.
“But their military education is based on the British system,” he said. “They are not as unprofessional as we think, it’s just that they were not led in the best manner.”
“The Iraqi Military Academy,” Captain Boyes, “was looked upon very highly in the Middle East as a great place to send junior leadership for development. It could go back to that.”
“The problem is when you have a despot,” Captain Looney said, “a dictator who runs an army like Hitler ran Germany’s during World War II. When you cut off the head of the snake, it dies immediately. Our army is so decentralized that we can succeed at junior officer and non-commissioned officer levels. They can’t because they haven’t developed those levels. It’s a very stove-piped organization.”
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Tigris River, Baghdad
“What happened to the old officers when Paul Bremer dissolved the Iraqi Army years ago?” I said. “Did some of them come back, or are they still purged?”
“Some of them came back,” he said. “Colonels and below were allowed to come back. Very few senior military leaders were allowed to return to the new Iraqi Army. Some of them didn’t want to come back. Some of them didn’t want to be in the service in the first place. They were conscripted. The issue is how you said they weren’t the fourth best. What is the difference between our army — which I would say is the best the world has ever seen — and the British Army and the Australian Army and the Canadian Army? What do we all have in common? We’re all volunteer forces. None of us were drafted. People join because they want to, because they feel a sense of duty, because they feel a sense of national pride. They’re going to fight more aggressively and be more dedicated to the cause than those who were pressed into the service.”
“Now it’s an all volunteer army,” Captain Boyes said. “And they’re receiving better training and better equipment. They are better supported.”
“It’s also a good idea to have an all volunteer army because of the all the radicals running around here,” I said. “If they had a conscription army, all those radicals would end up in the army.”
“Yes,” Captain Boyes said. “The Iraqi Security Forces have made leaps and bounds, and that’s not only because they’ve been partnered with us. People are able to trust them again. It has been five years since Saddam was in power, and during that time people did not trust the security apparatus.”
“They still don’t in Adhamiyah,” I said. “I’ve had Iraqis tell me themselves that they’re afraid of the police and the army.”
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Adhamiyah, Baghdad
“It’s changing, though,” Captain Boyes said. “And it has to because we won’t be here to facilitate that for very much longer. In our area, and in other areas, people are cooperating far more with the Iraqi Security Forces. The ability of the Iraqis to now direct their own operations, plan their own operations, execute their own operations, all based on intelligence they’ve collected from the locals, is truly a sign of real progress.”
“Americans have to be smart enough to understand that what they say becomes reality,” Captain Looney said. “What you say can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If I walk up to you and you’re an Iraqi civilian, and I tell you that Lieutenant Kaddam of the National Police is trustworthy and is here to work for the Iraqi people, that’s what you’re going to do, at least a little bit more than you did the day before.”
“That’s absolutely the case,” Captain Boyes said. “And the people see how we interact with the Iraqi Security Forces, too. In the past we operated independently of any Iraqi force, but now people see are joint missions, Americans and Iraqis walking side by side on patrols. American and Iraqi platoon leaders talk to shopkeepers together. It’s becoming far more integrated, and the people see that.”
Sadr City is overwhelmingly Shia, and I wondered if these two captains had ever worked in Sunni areas which are much less friendly to Americans generally. Iraq’s Sunni Arabs overwhelmingly opposed the invasion and demolition of Saddam Hussein’s regime, but Shias on average have been much more supportive. Saddam Hussein brutalized them almost as viciously as he did the Kurds.
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Adhamiyah, Baghdad
“Have you guys worked in Sunni areas?” I said
“Yes,” Captain Boyes said. “Previously.”
“His platoon did the cordon on Abu Musab al Zarqawi and hit him,” Captain Looney said.
“Our company had an area in Diyala Province,” Captain Boyes said, “on the border of Salahadin Province. It was on the west of Baqouba. It was a large territory with a diverse population. Sunni towns, Shia towns, towns with mixed population. We operated in Sunni areas. We operated in Shia areas. And this time we have about a 99 percent Shia area.”
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Adhamiyah, Baghdad
“Can you characterize the differences between one and the other?” I said. “Most of my time has been spent among the Sunnis. Opinion polls have showed the Kurds to be more than 90 percent pro-American, the Sunni Arabs around 90 percent anti-American, and the Shias about 50-50. Can you feel the difference, and does that affect your ability to work with the population? Those numbers suggest it might be easier to work with the Shias.”
“I don’t think so,” Captain Boyes said. “Well, maybe in other Shia areas. Here, before the fighting in the spring, this Shia area was extremely anti-American aside from the safe neighborhood of Beida. We had this bastion of a safe neighborhood in Beida, and we had the area in North Adhamiyah that was predominately Shia and only somewhat negative toward Americans.”
I wasn’t surprised to hear that Beida had long been a safe area. I found it much cleaner and better developed than much of what I had seen in Adhamiyah and — especially — in Sadr City itself.
“On my previous tour,” Captain Boyes said, “Hibhib was a 95 percent Sunni town where Zarqawi was killed. It was extremely anti-American and anti-Iraqi government. They wanted a Sunni-dominated powerhouse in the Middle East. And they were not cooperative with us in any way whatsoever. Within six months I could walk through that town by myself with an interpreter, leave my four gun trucks several hundred meters away, go to a tea shop, and have breakfast with the town. At first there would be six guys, and then an hour later there would be 300 people gathered around asking questions.”
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Billboard, Sadr City, Baghdad
“You actually did this?” I said.
“Yes,” he said.
“You had a weapon?” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “It was on the ground. I sat there, surrounded by Iraqis, and just talked. We didn’t even talk business all the time. I asked how everyone’s family was doing, asked what was going on in the town. I went to Jedida one time and watched a World Cup match in the town on TV.”
“Could you do that here?” I said. We were wedged between Beida and Sadr City.
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An Iraqi kid with a broom, Sadr City, Baghdad
“Yes,” he said. “I would feel perfectly comfortable doing that here.”
“Now, what if I were to walk around here by myself without a weapon, without you guys protecting me?” I said.
“I don’t think you’d have too many issues,” he said.
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Park, Sadr City, Baghdad
“You know, the chances of you getting struck by lightning are not that great,” Captain Looney said, “but in the middle of a lightning storm you probably shouldn’t go outside with a steel pole and stick it in the air. That’s what you’d be doing, my friend.”
“Yeah,” I said. That’s one of the reasons I travel with the American military when I’m in Baghdad. I couldn’t do my job if I required absolute safety, but I feel — and am — much safer with armed men around. “I know people who visit Iraq without protection, though.” I said. Ramon Lobo, my colleague from Spain, visited Iraq many times without protection before embedding with the American military.
“Exactly,” Captain Boyes said.
“And nothing has happened to any of them,” I said.
“There are people who are anti-American in nature, and anti-Western in nature,” he said. “But it is a safer area now. And after six months of walking around and talking to the shop owners, we were able to change the atmospherics. We didn’t do anything special. It was just a matter of getting down into the population and talking to them, opening a dialogue. And we weren’t just coming in once a month. It was constant.”
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Adhamiyah, Baghdad
“When people aren’t familiar with each other,” Captain Looney said, “they think the worst about each other. They don’t realize how much they have in common. I’ll sit down with people and say okay, let’s talk about our differences. And then let’s talk about what we have in common. We want to have a safe environment for our families to live in. We want our children to have a better life than we did. We want to be happy in our profession. We want to be happy with our family. What beyond that makes us so different? Okay, they’re Muslims and I’m a Christian. But we talk about this stuff and they realize we aren’t that different.”
Insurgent and terrorist groups feel threatened by even this basic level of cultural interaction. “When I visited the Lebanese border from the Israeli side”: a few months before the 2006 war, a Turkish-Israeli Kurd named Eitan showed me a destroyed building just over the fence on the Lebanese side. “Look over there,” he said and pointed toward Lebanon. “That’s the old French customs house It, too, was used when the Lebanese-Israeli border was open. Hezbollah blew it away. [Secretary General Hassan] Nasrallah wanted to make sure there was no contact at all between our two peoples.”
Contact between peoples really does reduce tension and can help reduce the chances of war. That’s one reason why Hezbollah prohibits contact between Lebanese and Israelis. (The other reason, of course, is that they know many Lebanese spy on Hezbollah for Israel.)
Eitan is an Israeli. He is therefore, at least technically, at war with the people of Lebanon. But he waved hello to them every day, and sometimes they waved back even though they weren’t supposed to. They were friends when the border was open, and they didn’t feel like — or act like — anything else when the border was closed.
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Adhamiyah, Baghdad
“You’ve seen Dances with Wolves?” Captain Looney said. “Remember how when they don’t know each other, they’re scared of each other? But as they get to know each other, they realize they’re not that different? They want the same things in life. They want peace. They want prosperity. They want a better life for their children. What culture in the world does not want those things?”
“And unfortunately,” Captain Boyes said, “until recently, and still when you get farther out of the cities, a guy from one village may not travel very far in his lifetime.”
“Maybe not at all,” I said.
“Maybe not at all,” he said. “Especially in a place like Afghanistan and the frontier region of Pakistan. They really don’t travel very far. Here a guy may not leave his province more than a couple of times during his life. And when he does, it’s usually on some kind of religious pilgrimage. So he’s almost always surrounded by people of his exact same faith and culture. So do they ever really experience what it’s like to meet and talk to a Sunni, a Kurd, a Shia, or somebody else? There is a generational gap. If we take a snapshot of Iraqi politics, security, and governance right now in 2008 and come back two generations from now and compare them side-by-side, I think we’ll see a huge difference. I think it will be almost entirely better.”
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Children rest on a U.S. Army Humvee, Sadr City, Baghdad
That sounded right to me. Even when I feel like Iraq is a doomed country, which I do around half the time, that still sounds right to me.
“But what is it going to be like in one year?” I said. “Or two? That’s the big question.”
“Well yes,” Captain Boyes said. “It is. Any time something new happens in a counterinsurgency, when there are new security forces, there is an immediate spike in violence because the insurgents are testing the ability of the new element.”
“Iraq is about to experience a power vacuum,” I said, “when you withdraw from Iraqi cities.”
“Exactly,” he said. “When we leave and transition all of what we do now to the Iraqi security forces, will there be a spike in activity? Absolutely. One hundred percent.”
That stopped me cold. Captain Looney and Captain Boyes are the most optimistic American officers I’ve spoken to recently in Iraq. And they thought the odds of a spike in violence are 100 percent.
“You guys are the optimists,” I said. “And yet you think this.”
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Blackhawk helicopter over Baghdad
“Yes,” Captain Boyes said. “There will be a spike in violence. They’re going to want to test the new Iraqi Security Forces. What is their reaction to an attack going to be compared with what it is now? How will the Iraqis operate independently? It should be up to the media to portray this as something expected. There will be a spike in violence because the insurgents are going to test the Iraqi Security Forces, but I have complete faith that the resolve of the Iraqis will be there.”
“You guys expect a spike in violence,” I said, “but think Iraq will be okay anyway?”
“We’re realists,” Captain Looney said.
“You’re optimists compared with some of the people I talked to last week,” I said.
“There’s going to be a spike in violence because it’s only natural,” Captain Boyes said. “Those who think otherwise aren’t being realistic. And those who say there’s going to be a spike in violence and another civil war are too pessimistic. It will be somewhere in the middle. Eventually the bad guys will understand that the Iraqi Security Forces are here to stay. They are improved. They are vastly superior to anything we have seen in the past.”
To be continued
Post-script: You tip waiters in restaurants, right? I can’t go all the way to Iraq and write these dispatches for free. Travel in the Middle East is expensive, and I have to pay my own way. If you haven’t donated in the past, please consider contributing now.
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