Bagh Blog
Friday, April 30, 2004
  I'm back in Wilmette, enjoying the damp overcast Chicago spring. I spent pretty much two full days in transit--I left my hotel at about 8:45 am Baghdad time Thursday (about midnight Thursday Chicago time) and got home from O'Hare about an hour ago. I'll post more when I've regained my equilibrium. For now, though, I can highly recommend Amman as a destination for tourists. It's either a beautiful, quiet, safe and well-run city, or it benefits greatly by comparison to Baghad. To give you an idea of my standards: I gasped--literally gasped--when I saw traffic stopping at a red light. 
Wednesday, April 28, 2004
  I'm back from the embed and leaving tomorrow for Chicago, by way of Istanbul and Amman. I ought to be at O'Hare early Friday afternoon.

The embed was amazing. The scenery up there is stunning--grasslands, low mesas and pyramids carved by the wind out of sandy soil, lush green date palm groves lining blue streams, the mountains of Iran on the horizon. It's still rugged, but it's not a wasteland like the area around Baghdad.

It's also a place where some of the stereotypes of the successful occupation are true. Some of the areas are heavily Kurdish, and it wasn't uncommon, as I rode around with the Army, to see kids and even grown-ups waving at the convoys. We visited a few Kurdish towns where the soldiers were mobbed by cheering kids who ran alongside the vehicles as they pulled out of town.

Some of the same problems that cause death further west are more amusing out there. It was interesting to watch American soldiers try to teach Iraqi security guys American-style discipline and organization. The American soldiers are well-aware that there are cultural differences at play here--I was impressed with the care taken to navigate all the inevitable problems (the guy who feared getting demoted so the boss could promote his cousin, for example).

The military is still chalking the problems up to inexperience and lack of training, which I hope is true. But I was struck again by what seems to be a fundamental disconnect between an American way of doing business and an Iraqi one. A story I wrote about some of this ought to be on the Raleigh News & Observer's website Thursday morning.

Between all the traveling and all the writing I wasn't getting much sleep up there. Even after a night's rest last night I'm still exhausted. Since I have some work to finish today for the RNO I probably won't be posting again until Friday or Saturday, after I get back to Chicago. 
Thursday, April 22, 2004
  I don't have time to post much, because I'm about to walk out the door for my embed.

I read the comments on my post below about corruption in the reconstruction process. I'm interested in the economics of this project but can't say I have too much first-hand information. That'll probably change now that I'll be doing some articles for a business newsletter.

I also wanted to clarify that I'm just taking a vacation in May, not leaving Iraq for good. I'll be posting while I'm back in the States and plan to be back in Baghdad at the end of the first week of June. 
  My itinerary is coming into focus. I'll be embedded with the NC National Guard from tomorrow morning through sometime Tuesday afternoon. I'll be preparing my escape Tuesday and Wednesday and flying from Baghdad airport to Amman on Thursday. Very, very, early Friday morning I'm flying to Istanbul, and then I'll catch a 10:30 flight back to the US. I ought to be in Wilmette in time for dinner.

Friday night will probably be spent hanging out with my folks and recovering from jetlag. Saturday I'm getting a haircut and may also buy some new clothes--to replace the ones I lost when my luggage went missing in Turkey, and to replace the pants that hang off me now because of the Baghdad diet I've been on for over three months. (There are supermarkets and good food here, so it's actually more of a bachelor's diet--I don't cook and eat about one restaurant meal a day).

Saturday night, though... Saturday night. I don't know what I'm doing Saturday night, but it's quite possible that beer will be involved. And a juke box. Guests are welcome. 
  The other day Andrew Sullivan took issue with an editorial in National Review that he felt laid the intellectual groundwork for a conservative abandonment of Iraq. Sullivan and NR seem to have reconciled, but as a disillusioned conservative supporter of the war I was interested in the exchange.

I still agree with quite a bit of the conservative argument for the war--that we're at war with a radical Islamist ideology, not "terrorism"; that therefore some kind of strategic and ideological response is better than simply picking off terrorists one at a time; that Saddam's survival in power, along with the UN sanctions and American bases in Saudi Arabia, were radicalizing and destabilizing the region. I also agree that, now that we're here and are so totally responsible (both morally and according to Arab and world opinion) for Iraq's future, the United States is obligated to search hard and work hard for the best outcome possible.

I'm troubled, though, by the continuing conservative (or neo-conservative, to separate it from Pat Buchanan-style conservatism) assumption that the problem in Iraq is a culture corrupted by 30 years of bad government. Sullivan writes:

"But I know of no neoconservative optimist in the White House who believed that a viable, peaceful democracy in Iraq would be within reach a mere year after the invasion. Yes, many did underestimate the astonishing damage done to civil society by decades of the most brutal dictatorship imaginable, the devastation of sanctions on the Iraqi infrastructure, and the psychological damage done to the communal psyche after living in a collective torture chamber for years on end."

Everything Sullivan says about the damage done by sanctions and the regime is true. The buried assumption, though, is that Saddam's regime was something that existed outside of Iraqi culture, and perverted it. A standard and not-very-convincing argument against regime change was, "Hey, it's their government, who are we to tell them how to live?" Of course it's absurd to claim that Iraqis "chose" to live under Saddam Hussein. But it's also dangerous to assume that a country's government does not in some way reflect its culture, even if it does not reflect the will of its people.

In his article "Tales of the Tyrant" Mark Bowden recounts an exchange in which an Iraqi talks about the differences between rural life in Iraq and urban life in Iraq. Urban life, as this man described it, would be familiar, generally, to any American. Rural life, though, is characterized by lawlessness. The fear of lawlessness breeds distrust of outsiders, loyalty to and reliance on family and village, and violence as a not-uncommon means of policing the community. All of these characteristics were on display in Saddam's regime: his reliance on Tikritis and close relatives, his casual resort to violence, his provincialism (which may have had something to do with his army's belief that watching Black Hawk Down was a reasonable way to guage American military tactics and Americans' stomach for casualties).

The same traits that characterized Saddam's regime characterize the Sunni insurgency and Sadr's militia. Even among Iraqis the people of Fallujah are noted for their insularity and provincialism. Their opposition to the US has more of the character of a blood feud than a movement with any real political objective (the insurgents don't seize police stations like Sadr's militia--they just storm them and kill the cops). Sadr is respected because of his lineage. His popularity has grown, in part, because Iraqis believe absurd conspiracy theories about Americans that are on the outer fringe of western political discourse (that the US would hire police officers simply to murder them in suicide bombings, for example).

In this context it's worth at least considering the possibility that Saddam, while sadistic and murderous, is simply an extreme example of a strain of Iraqi culture to which many Iraqis are drawn. Using a foreign army to impose liberal democracy (and the impersonal bureaucracy that comes with it) on top of a culture characterized by loyalty to tribes and extended families is problematic to say the least. Assuming that the violence of Iraqi society is the product of Saddam Hussein, and not vice versa, is simply an assumption.

It's not only conservatives who focus more on politics (be they Saddam's or the Bush Administation's) than on culture. Spencer Ackerman has argued that polls showing Iraqis' desire for one strong leader, and not democracy, are an indictment of the Bush Administration's failure to impose order on post-war Iraq. There's plenty to criticize in the administration's approach to security. A larger invasion force could have secured arms caches and clamped down on looting; a more realistic assessment of the police and the ICDC would have kept the streets safer and probably curtailed some of the poliical violence. But why not even consider the possibility that Iraqis are attracted to authoritarian politics, and not democratic politics, for reasons that have nothing to do with the United States?

I don't know enough about Iraqi society to argue hard for this interpretation, but that's exactly the problem. I supported the war partially on the grounds of democratic universalism, and now that I'm here I'm suddenly wondering why, exactly, I assumed that all people want democracy. It may be true that all people want justice, and autonomy. It's also true that many Iraqis do want democracy, but they tend to be highly westernized and, in many cases, former exiles--not representative of their countrymen.

At some point the US government and the CPA (and the super-embassy that will replace it this July) will have to grapple with the practical obstacles to federal liberal democracy in Iraq. Already the Governing Council that agreed to a highly western constitution has been marginalized. Its most popular Arab members more or less sided with Sadr and the insurgents in the recent crisis, Brahimi has recommended its dissolution, and Chalabi, the secular Shi'ite once seen as a potential president, is one of the least trusted men in the country. I'm not necessarily giving up on liberal democracy in Iraq, but I need people to point me to the evidence that it's begun to take root in the past year.

We may view liberal democracy as a means of eliminating the negative in Iraqi society and unleashing the positive. But some Iraqis--the most motivated Iraqis--view our presence in their country and our attempt to impart our form of government as a damaging alien intrusion. More moderate Iraqis may be characterized by my translator, a sophisticated Christian who asked me, "How can we be asked to fight for democracy when we don't know what that is?"

Perhaps the CPA just hasn't done a good enough job with the PR. I'm open to the possibility that we've made a series of tactical blunders, that the overall goal is realistic, and that it can be accomplished if we redouble our efforts, correct our mistakes, and inspire Iraqis to fight for a new mode of governance.

But if an Iraqi had seized power from Saddam and then dissolved the Baath Party; dissolved the army; fired many of the nation's most seasoned bureaucrats; declared that--in under two years--tyranny would be replaced with a form of government wholly novel to the country; attempted to convince Shi'ite clerics that women should be equal partners in govenance; etc.; we wouldn't call it a coup d'etat or regime change--we'd call it a revolution. Revolution is a dubious means of changing governments and cultures, and becomes even dicier when the revolutionary power cannot plausibly claim to represent the people or their society. Conservatives shouldn't shy away from promoting their values, but they should also be wary of assuming that revolutions, even revolutions against evil, even revolutions carried out by men and women with liberal principles, are likely to succeed. 
Tuesday, April 20, 2004
  I've learned the true meaning of burn-out. The only activity that energizes me is planning my departure from Iraq. On the other hand, I've also recently learned the true meaning of "mood swing," so I may get back a lot of energy and want to write more on the blog. For now, though, the tale of my mysteriously disappearing and reappearing money will have to wait. My schedule is to embed with the North Carolina Guard this Friday, stay through early next week, and leave Baghdad late next week. Between the embed and the traveling I may not be posting much for a while after this Thursday. 
Monday, April 19, 2004
  I'm too tired to write much. It's good to see some hope for an end to the bloodbath in Fallujah, but I'm wary when two parties trumpet an agreement whose success depends on the cooperation of a third party. Whether this is an effective deal or just a sham depends on whether the city fathers of Fallujah are sincere about reigning in the insurgents, and are also capable of reigning in the insurgents.

If they're both interested in and capable of persuading the insurgents to give up their weapons, and also interested in helping the US facilitate security patrols involving US Marines and Iraqi security forces, it's worth asking why they didn't help out at all before the Marines started pounding the town. Maybe this is a victory for overwhelming military force, but I'm skeptical. It's more likely that the current crisis will be diffused, and things will go back to the way they were in the middle of March--better than they've been in April, but not good in the grand scheme of things.

I'll write tomorrow about the mysterious disappearance of $300 from my room, and its hilarious reappearance. 
Saturday, April 17, 2004
  A quick note on my travel plans: I've decided I'd rather get home as quickly as possible than spend several days in Istanbul--I'm just too worn out to get much out of tourism right now. I'll take some time to see the city on my way back to Iraq in June. If not, I'll get there eventually; Istanbul's not going anywhere (which is more than you can say about some cities in Iraq).

It's starting to look like getting out of Iraq by road is a bit dicey, which means I may be taking a flight out of Baghdad Airport to Amman, and thence to Istanbul. Apparently the take-off is quite an experience, since they get as high as possible as quickly as possible to avoid surface-to-air missiles. No plane has been shot down in Baghdad, and flying is much safer than the roads (that would be true even if Iraq were peaceful--the driving here is something to see).

I'll get two nights and a full day in Istanbul, so I'll at least be able to see some sights and check out the nightlife. 
  A long and involved post describing my mood, my travel plans, and my thoughts on Sadr and Fallujah got eaten by the computer I was working on. It'll just have to take its place alongside the great lost works of antiquity, because I don't have the energy to rewrite it. Spencer Ackerman has a good take on Sadr's prospects. If more senior Shi'ite clerics have the moral authority and the inclination, they can rob Sadr of his support and end the crisis peacefully. If they don't the alternatives are American military action in Najaf (apocalypse now) or American acceptance of Najaf as the unofficial capital of Sadr's anti-American and radical Iraq (apocalypse on the installment plan).

A similar set of bad choices confronts the US in Fallujah. Any negotiated settlement there is a loss for the United States. Gen. Kimmitt promised to pacify the city by returning Marines to the center of the town. The Marines attacked the city for a few days but got nowhere near the center of town, and insurgents harrassed American supply lines by staging some highly successful attack along the highway between Baghdad and Fallujah (I may be mistaken, but I believe all the Americans either missing or confirmed as hostages were seized on the road to Fallujah). The US then declared a unilateral cease-fire and asked for negotiations. Declaring a military objective, failing to meet it, and then calling for negotiations is, I think, the dictionary definition of defeat. This isn't just a matter of sullying the military's honor. It's being portrayed in the Arab press as a defeat for the US--the first time in this war that can be said with some truth. How much fight the insurgency has left is open to question, but this will certainly energize anti-Americans and extremists of all varieties.

The alternative--continuing to pound the insurgents on Fallujah's streets and in its houses--will continue to earn us the enmity of Iraqis and other Arabs. But it may be the best option; our reputation has already taken a beating because of our actions in Fallujah (when people you picked to represent the Iraqi people call your actions war crimes, you know your stock probably can't fall any lower). The US might as well reap the military benefits if it's already suffered the political damage. Iraqis will give the US zero credit for stopping now; we'll still be cruel bastards who murder women and children, but we'll also be weak. Civilian casualties are inevitable in urban combat, something the men who planned this operation presumably knew going in. If the calculus before the operation was that breaking the back of the insurgency will save more lives in the long term, that calculus has not changed. 
Friday, April 16, 2004
  After several days of feeling exhausted, anxious and irritable, my bad mood broke like a fever yesterday afternoon. I had a couple beers on the roof of the Dulaimi with my friend Dan, who's a freelance photographer here. He'd decided a few days ago to leave town--the stuff that's worth taking pictures of is either off limits or too dangerous. I decided yesterday to bump up my return a week, to May 2. I got a very nice offer from the mother of a friend of mine to come speak at the college where she teaches. That seems like a better gig than sticking around Baghdad--after 14 weeks over here I think I may have reached the end of my rope. It may not be a coincidence that I started to feel better around the time I decided not to stick it out until May 9.

I spent a while dealing with email and some minor edits on my last article for Cox, but there were still plenty of folks by the pool when I got out there. There was much revelry, followed by some dancing on the roof of the Dulaimi (but only after the Australian special forces across the street shined their searchlight at us to make sure we weren't terrorists).

I'm considering taking an early flight out of Baghdad and spending some time in Istanbul before returning to the US. I'm not sure jumping right back in to everyday life in America is a good idea.

Speaking of everyday life in America, My dad emailed me an editorial by Peter Beinart in the New Republic (which, for some reason, I can't find on their website), which was my magazine of choice back in the States. I was a little worried by the following:

"But liberals can scale back their expectations of what is now possible in Iraq without abandoning democratic universalism--they can simply say the Bush administration has bungled the job. It is conservatives, who remain generally unwilling to criticize the administration's postwar stewardship, who will more likely be forced--if the situation in Iraq continues to deteriorate--to blame Iraqis instead."

That's certainly a convenient political club capital-D Democrats can wield, but it won't be helpful in figuring out whether liberal democracy is an exportable ideology. There is a difference between saying that every culture has the potential to become democratic and saying that it's possible to impose democracy on foreigners through military action. The Bush administration and the CPA made mistakes--too few troops, too few resources for Iraqi security forces--but it's dangerous to assume that Iraqis' alienation from the CPA and its push for democracy are just the result of Republican bumbling.

Maybe they are, but it's been quite a sight to watch Americans try to hammer Iraqi social institutions into the US's impersonal, bureaucratic, meritocratic image. From watching an American doctor roll his eyes at the seeming unsophistication of an Iraqi counterpart (the doctor being condescended to was one of Iraq's most well-respected physicians), to hearing young American soldiers voice their bewilderment at Iraqi soldiers' refusal to leave their familial and social obligations aside and submit to military discipline (refusing to give orders to their older cousins, for example), to the way Governing Council spokesmen have, in the estimation of western journalists who were here before the war, fallen back into the Baathist habit of viewing the press as a nuisance to be insulted and abused, there are any number of examples of a clash of cultures that "better planning" or "more MPs" simply do not address.

It's certainly possible that a better plan for the post-war would have made things a lot better. But the biggest mistake seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of how to properly bridge the gap between American culture and Iraqi culture, between an American way of doing things and an Iraqi way of doing things. Maybe the gap was never bridgeable in the first place. Political conservatives are obligated not to be lazy--to accept the possibility that their political leaders made huge mistakes that doomed a promising enterprise. But liberals have obligations of their own--and one is to resist the liberal impulse to assume that, with the right plan and enough money, any wrong can be righted. The very impulse that causes a certain kind of liberal (and maybe neo-conservatives can be included here as well) to obsess over the details of policy--to divorce it from interpersonal relationships and unintended consequences and assume that everything can be made to go according to plan--is alien to Iraqis. It's an impulse that I've seen lead good people, people who have the best interests of Iraqis at heart, slide into a kind of colonial contempt for their bumbling charges.

It would be wise to redouble our efforts to formulate plans to ensure an Iraq that is as stable, free and democratic as possible. But continuing to assume that liberal democracy would thrive here if only we'd done it better, or if only John Kerry were president, is a dangerous path to go down. It continues, in a different form, a mistake we've been making since we got here. 
Thursday, April 15, 2004
  Sunday I wrote an article about religious celebrations in Baghdad among Shi'ites and Christians. Despite being told the papers would probably only want 600 words, I wrote about 1,000. Fortunately I was working with a great editor, Elliot, at Cox News. He was on the same page as me about what was important to the story, and he improved the thing while triming it down into a shorter article. It was actually a pleasure to do the editing, which was, if not a first, highly unusual. Inevitably, though, there were some details and digressions that got left out, so I wanted to post the original here.

Baghdad's small Christian minority and its restive Shi'ite majority took solace in faith amid uncertainty Sunday, honoring their martyrs as fighting between a Shi'ite militia and American forces entered its second week.

Chaldean celebrations of Christ's resurrection from crucifixion fell on the same day as the culmination of Shi'ite mourning for Hussein, whose revolt against a despised king was betrayed and killed in battle in 680.

At the entrance to the Virgin Mary Church in Baghdad's Karrada district, a balding, heavyset man smiled and shook the hand of an unfamiliar visitor. But when he opened his arms he was moving in to frisk for weapons, not to impart an Easter morning hug.

In Sunday's heat Malik Shawkit wore a glove on his left hand—to cover injuries he said he sustained in Iraq's war with Iran. In a city where men lounge casually on the sidewalks cradling their AK-47s, he is the rare unarmed guard.

"Yes, we have no guns and no pistols," said Shawkit. "But we have God and the Virgin Mary to protect us."

Iraq's Christian community has not been racked to the same degree as the Muslim majority by terrorism and insurgency. But their apprehension has grown this month as agitation by the incendiary Shi'ite cleric Moqtadr Sadr erupted into open combat between his militia and American soldiers.

The traditional Chaldean Easter celebration begins in the evening and runs late into the night—Chaldeans believe that coincides with the time of Christ's resurrection. This year, for security's sake, services were scheduled for the morning.

"We used to have night mass," said Father Petros Hedad. "This year we didn't, because we are afraid."

The morning service drew a healthy crowd, but Hedad said there were many fewer worshippers than usual.

"The celebration is not so official," said Hedad, reflecting the desire of some Christians here to keep a low profile. "Not like other years. But still, not bad, not bad."

Christians here fear for their physical safety, but also for their comparatively liberal way of life. Conservative Islam has surged here in the year since Saddam Hussein's ouster, and some of Iraq's most risqué wardrobes were on display at the Virgin Mary Church this Sunday.

Some of the elderly women wore shawls to cover their heads, but they worshipped alongside young women in tight jeans and t-shirts declaring that "All You Need Is Love." The young men, too, wore tight shirts tucked into tight blue jeans.

Maria Yonan, who attended services with her son, said she lives in a predominantly Muslim neighborhood. She wore a red jacket and skirt that wouldn't turn heads in the West, but she said patrons at a Baghdad market threw stones at her when she failed to dress modestly enough.

"I am an old woman, and I am married," Yonan said. "But I can't go out dressed like this because of what they might think of me."

A church patriarch dismissed suggestions that Christians had separate concerns from other Iraqis, and said the whole nation hoped for peace. But Shawkit, the church gatekeeper, said this year's Easter was celebrated warily.

"We're scared by the Shia people, because we celebrate at this time when they have sadness," he said. "They suspect we do that deliberately."

At Baghdad's Imam Kazim shrine, though, Shi'ites worshippers were more concerned with their own safety than with Christian celebrations across town.

The grounds of the mosque here, with its white stone courtyard and golden minarets, became a slaughterhouse last month when terrorist bombers targeted Shi'ite pilgrims gathered to begin their mourning for Hussein.

Sunday, for Arbaeen, traffic was closed off for blocks around the shrine. Pilgrims were frisked repeatedly as they approached. Cell phones, which can trigger remote bombs, were checked at the gate.

"I am not scared," one pilgrim said, "because I am thinking, when I come here, of the power of our God."

Some men shouted praise to God, thumped their chests, and chanted the name of Hussein, but the atmosphere was calm—a refuge from the noise and dangers of the surrounding city. Some of the calm, though, was the product of fear—crowds were light as many Shi'ites stayed home to avoid danger.

The destination for most pilgrims was to have been the Hussein's tomb in Karbala, south of Baghdad. But with that city inundated with members of Moqtadr Sadr's militia, last week the Coalition Provisional Authority said pilgrims would travel there at their own risk.

Haider Hussein Ali came to the shrine with his wife and two sons. Before fleeing Iraq to escape persecution by Saddam Hussein, he had prayed to God at the Karbala shrine that he would one day have children, and promised to name his sons in honor of Shi'ite martyrs.

Ali returned to Iraq after the fall of Saddam, and had hoped this year to make a pilgrimage to Karbala with his wife and his sons, seven-year-old Hussein and six-year-old Mahdi. When fighting broke out he decided instead to remain in Baghdad.

"With my family," he said, "I'm afraid."

Ali and his wife said they hoped to make the pilgrimage to Karbala next year, in a peaceful Iraq. But Nadhim Hamid, a 66 year-old man with pale blue eyes and yellow teeth, dismissed questions about his own safety.

"This is our belief—we should visit this day," he said. "My health is very bad and I don't care about death. If I were killed now, so what? I am an old man."

The concerns of this world, though, sometimes trump hope of a better life in the next. Though he hinted his disapproval, Hamid would not discuss Moqtadr Sadr and his militia. In uncertain times, he could not risk being overheard by his fellow pilgrims. 
Wednesday, April 14, 2004
  Nothing much to report, since I spent virtually the whole day at the hotel working on a story. I had decided I'd get more work done at the convention center, so I hired a cab in front of the Hamra. There are guys who hang around the front courtyard waiting for fares; sadly, my days of hailing cabs on the street are done for now. It's the difference between 2,000 dinars and 5,000 dinars--about two more bucks.

I got to Checkpoint Three, waited in line for a few minutes, and when I was standing right in front of the chain link gate they closed it and said there was a bomb threat inside. Maybe I'm jaded, but I knew for a fact that there was no bomb; perhaps the one thing insurgents can't do is smuggle explosives into the Green Zone. So it was just a big annoyance, not an exciting brush with danger. I walked down to the pizza shop where the owners know me, had some lunch, and then went back down to see if the gate was open again. It wasn't, and a lot of soldiers were milling around while a bunch of white SUVs sat on the asphalt in front of the checkpoint.

I'd been planning to meet up with a friend and leave the convention center with his driver, but instead I looked around and found some harmless-looking guys hanging out at a cigarette stand. I talked with them for a minute with soldiers doing their thing a few yards away, and figured that if they were insurgents they were covering it pretty well. I hired the one who turned out to be a cabbie, and told him I was Irish on the way back to the hotel. I over-paid him because... I don't know, because I've decided it's better to err on the side of being kind to strangers these days.

Tomorrow will be a low-key day, and so will the next day. I need a break. 
Tuesday, April 13, 2004
  The traffic's back now that the strike is over. The violence you see on TV still isn't evident in the middle of Baghdad--I felt fine driving around today with my translator, and only got nervous when I got back to the hotel to hear the rumors and watch the news. I don't have the energy to write much today, but after tomorrow I should have a few easy days to get some perspective. 
Monday, April 12, 2004
  Sorry I haven't posted much lately; it looks like my stringing gig with Cox News will end in the next couple days, and I'll give myself a breather before heading out to embed with the North Carolina National Guard. So by the end of the week I'll be trying to make some sense of what's going on.

I was up late last night, up early today, and took the night off. I'm feeling a little burned out. Tomorrow I'm doing a few final interviews with Governing Council folks and, with any luck, the ex-interior minister, who either quit in outrage over American tactics or was fired by Bremer for being the worst security chief in the history of humanity (it was Iraqi cops, not foreign terrorists, who set up a bogus checkpoint to snare and murder three CPA employees last month).

I haven't figured out exactly what the article will say. There's some strange stuff going on public relations-wise, though. I could understand if the CPA said one thing while the Governing Council said another. But at the moment the Governing Council is saying one thing, and the CPA is claiming the Governing Council is saying the opposite. 
Sunday, April 11, 2004
  I had a pretty cool day. I started at a church in Karrada to write about Easter and then headed to the most beautiful place I've seen in Iraq--a Shi'ite shrine where pilgrims gathered to commemorate the death of the martyr Hussein. Just writing to check in--I'll post more tomorrow.

For now I'm respectfully disagreeing with the New York Times' assessment that "War's Fury is Suddenly Everywhere." The weather turned really hot today, and the full fury of western journalists was suddenly poolside at the Hamra this evening.  
Saturday, April 10, 2004
  I've officially become a pundit, which is a little terrifying because it means I have to know what I'm talking about.

Having re-read my article I'm past the terror that I'd said anything really off the mark. The one caveat would be that, in addition to the problem that moderates are hedging, there's also the problem that their proposals are either drowned out by violence or have been over-taken by events. I spoke to a very smart and very sensible representative for Adnan Pachachi, a moderate Sunni who some hope will be a major player in an independent Iraqi government. He seemed no more impressed with the ICDC or the Iraqi police than me, and suggested that it had been a mistake to dissolve the Army last May. We discussed unemployment, and how it provides fertile ground for insurgents and religious radicals to pick up support.

He said nothing I disagreed with, and yet I was reminded of the compelling and internally consistent arguments people made in favor of the war before it started last year (when I say "people made," I should say "I made"). It's one thing to have a plan to combat unemployment and an explanation for the success of radicalism. It's another to have the constituency to implement your program, and most of the moderates we were counting on to lead Iraq to democracy--Pachachi and Chalabi, most notably--spent years in exile and are viewed with suspicion by Iraqis who suffered under the regime but never left their country. That says nothing about the sincerity or ability of the exiles, but it's a telling and difficult problem that our favorite Iraqis are steeped in a political culture--that of America and Western Europe--that is alien to most of their countrymen.

In any case, violent forces--forces of religious reaction and nationalism--have now been unleashed, and re-constituting parts of the army or proceeding with a jobs program may not sway people who have already suffered unemployment and insecurity, and decided that the CPA and the Governing Council are either incompetent or malevolent.

The hope of the Iraqi moderates is that the conflict between the US and Shi'ite and Sunni insurgents is more the product of American mis-steps and heavy-handedness than of some fundamental opposition to representative government along the lines envisioned by the CPA and the GC. And they may have a point; I've watched hostility towards Americans in Baghdad rise with each day American soldiers pound Fallujah and battle Shia insurgents. The Governing Council's efforts to broker a cease-fire between the Americans and the insurgents will be a test of their influence, but even if the cease-fire takes hold it's important to remember that there is an enemy out there. It may not be the case that the moderates are cynically positioning themselves to emerge as the third way between American brutality on the one hand and religious radicals and insurgents on the other. But their belief that moderation is a set of policies to be implemented, and not an ideal that must be shouted out and fought for, is a troubling sign of who has the momentum in Iraq. 
Friday, April 09, 2004
  The battle in Sadr City seems to be over, at least for the time being. I've been watching the fighting in Fallujah and in the south on television, like the rest of the world. I live in a hotel where quite a few of the staff, including the owner and my some-time driver, are from Fallujah. Not for the first time I wish I spoke some real Arabic, so I could ask these guys what's going on when I see half a dozen of them watching coverage of the fighting on al Jazeera or al Arabiya.

I haven't heard this many mortars and counter-artillery strikes in my time in the city; it's insurgents firing into the Green Zone. My friend Wendell said it was this bad, or worse, last December. Mostly what all the tension means for me is very little traffic as I travel around town. It also means I have tense moments like this evening, when my cabbie suddenly veered off Sadoun street and towards Sadr City. As the guy in the backseat offered me a cigarette I felt like asking for a blindfold. They saw I was tense, and pointed out the cross hanging from the rear-view mirror.

They were Christians, not the Mahdi Army, and we were detouring around the Sheraton, which had been mortarted earlier in the day (or maybe detouring around the main square, which had been closed at least part of the day to prevent Sadr sympathizers from gathering). Confirming once again my dubious sense of direction, I looked out my window and saw the Palestine and the Sheraton silhouetted against a deep blue sky; we were running parallel to Sadoun street, not plunging into Sadr's heartland. So much for my iron nerves.

The kidnappings and threats against westerners are making everybody, including me, much more tense than usual. Tonight was the first time I've ever been nervous hailing a cab outside the convention center; it used to be a matter of course, but now seems like a silly risk to take when people are prowling around looking for Americans to snatch. I'll be working with my usual translator for the next few days, so I won't have to worry about insurgents posing as taxi drivers.

My translator's pay comes courtesy of Cox News, for whom I'll be stringing for a few days. I enjoy the work, but could do with about half the excitement I had last time.

Finally, there's also the jarring realization that people other than my immediate friends and family are reading the blog. I figured I'd know I'd hit the big time when people started posting hate mail in the comments section. I've mentioned to a few people that I think my best writing is here, so it's nice to know there's an audience out there. I also have the blogosphere's networking power to thank for my most recent gig, which I'll write about more when I've had more sleep. 
Tuesday, April 06, 2004
  About two months ago Spencer Ackerman at The New Republic, who has a blog lamenting what he sees as the mishandling of the occupation, responded enthusiastically to a long email I wrote him about my take on events in Iraq. He wanted to make my comments a semi-regular part of the blog, but immediately began ignoring me when I wrote back and told him I was just another nobody with an opinion--not a contractor, a soldier or Paul Bremer. I wrote an email in response to this post. Since I doubt it'll see the light of day at TNR.com, and because I'm feeling lazy today, I'm going to reproduce my response below:

You write that "we brought Moqtadr to this point of anti-American prominence," the implication being that
if we had just ignored him he would have remained irrelevant. But, while he may have "no following to speak of in Najaf," Moqtadr has spent a year consolidating his authority in Sadr City while we ignored him. He, not the CPA, is widely respected there for providing order and social services.

As a writer who is justifiably concerned about the power weilded by Iraqi militias, Moqtadr's constant threats to unleash his "army" if his demands weren't met should give you pause. Of course, if the army doesn't really exist--if, as you imply, it's all bluster--then ignoring him is the smart thing to do. But the army does exist, and this week it took quite a few members of the Second Armored Cavalry Regiment of the US Army to retake large areas of Sadr City from the Mahdi Army.

Of course, maybe the militia would have never been used had we not provoked Moqtadr by shutting down his paper and arresting his deputy for murder. But if Moqtadr's willing to take on the United States Army, there's no reason to believe he wouldn't have been willing to take on his Shi'ite brothers once the Americans get out of town. Given that the police fled the militia's advance, and the ICDC (as one should expect by now) played no discernable role in the fighting, it's worth asking whether leaving Moqtadr in place until after the hand-over would have been a smart move.

The strongest counter-argument, I guess, would be to say that, once the Americans left, Sadr's ability to command respect with his anti-American rhetoric would have disappeared, and more moderate voices would have prevailed. But from what I've seen and interviews I've done there are quite a few people in Sadr City who will follow Moqtadr because of who his father was, or because he's from Sadr City and Sistani's from Najaf, or because he's from Iraq and Sistani's from Iran. To top it off, it's widely known that Sistani and Sadr despise each other.

I won't hold my breath waiting for a "conviction" from an "Iraqi" "jury," but it seems highly likely that Moqtadr and his deputy are guilty of the murder they've been charged with--the murder of a moderate Shi'ite cleric in the war's immediate aftermath. That alone ought to color one's opinion of what Moqtadr would have been willing to do to his co-religionists if his militia and his authority had survived the occupation intact.

All in all, provoking Moqtadr, smashing his militia and aresting or killing him, all while the US Army is still officially in charge of security, doesn't seem like an imprudent thing to have done. We're dealing with bad options here, and the benefits of getting rid of this guy and his militia outweigh the bad reputation we'll get among Shi'ites. We already have a bad reputation among Shi'ites--even Sistani hasn't denounced al Hawza's claims that the US is behind terror attacks against Iraqi civilians. If getting a bad reputation among Shi'ites is a deal-breaker for you, I think it would have been wise to have opposed
the war.

I like Ackerman's blog, but as I become more and more pessimistic I've begun disagreeing with his focus on misteps made by the Bush administration, the military and the CPA. Of course they've messed some things up--notably by not having enough troops tasked with establishing security in the wake of the main advance and by not effectively training Iraqi security forces. Overall, though, I think there may just be cultural and ethnic forces at play here that make an occupation, especially an occupation whose goal is federal liberal democracy, very problematic. As someone who supported the war I'd like to think it was a good idea screwed up by bad execution, but I'm not so sure anymore.

That being said, I don't think Moqtadr Sadr is what we have to worry about. He's a nuisance whose movement will probably not survive him, and it seems likely he'll be dead or in prison by this time next week. The problem is what he represents: a conspiratorial worldview that, without evidence, holds America responsible for every ill that befalls Iraqis, and refuses--not rhetorically, but emotionally and intellectually--to acknowledge the difference between the American occupation and life under Saddam Hussein. The people who follow that line seem to be better organized and more willing to fight than anyone else in the country. Significantly, the same mindset that causes al Hawsa to blame the US for bombing Ashura comes into play when Shi'ites deal with Sunnis, when Sunnis deal with Kurds, and when Kurds deal with Shi'ites. The ethnic divide has been papered over so far, but may be impossible to overcome.

Again, it would be comforting to believe that we blew it--that if we'd done something different everything would have worked out for the best. But it may be that what we've got is pretty close to the best we could have expected. I don't think the invasion was a bad idea, necessarily, but we probably need to lower our expectations of what a free and independent Iraq might look like.

This may be an overreaction based on being too close to events. But even though it looks like Sadr has made his play and lost, things have been very tense in Baghdad lately. My friend Howard said an Iraqi crossed the sidewalk to bump into him with his shoulder the other day, and a British journalist here said that, for the first time, he's considering "tooling up." You can get a very reliable pistol in Baghdad for about $500. 
Monday, April 05, 2004
  You'll all be relieved to know that I called off another trip to Fallujah this morning. I had a pretty good idea for a story--go into town and interview a family about the last year. How did they feel about the fall of the regime? What was their first contact with Americans like? What do they think of the occupation and the insurgency--and, in particular, what do they think about what happened last Wednesday and about what the Marines might do in response? The idea was to write about the elipsis between last week's barbarity and the response that's yet to come.

Good idea, but my heart wasn't in it. I probably would have done it if my usual translator had agreed--I trust his judgment and feel comfortable with him. But he wasn't interested in going back, and specifically said that he'd feel comfortable going by himself, but not going with me. At that point whatever urge I had to return was overwhelmed by a strong desire not to make headlines as the world's biggest idiot.

It's hard to sort out my motivation, but I doubt I would have thought of going into Fallujah today if I hadn't been there on Wednesday. Getting the story is one thing. But going back to prove a point, or because I now feel I'm somehow tied to the story in a way other reporters aren't, probably isn't a smart way to make these decisions. My desire to be photographed on the bridge, giving Fallujah the finger, probably doesn't speak well of my motives.

I found another translator, but didn't bother to set up the interview through my connections at the hotel. Last night I had a dream about American soldiers falling into the ocean and being torn apart by sharks, and then seeing their bloody bodies laid out on the deck of an aircraft carrier. When the translator called this morning I told him I wasn't going. He didn't seem too broken up about it.

Once I got out of my room I found out that there was fighting in the city and the Marines had closed off the roads. Then it turned out the roads weren't exactly closed off. A friend of mine had been driving towards Fallujah and come upon what he thought was a military checkpoint. It turns out it was the American position in a firefight between the Marines and the insurgents. The troops were pointing their guns back towards Baghdad and shouting at traffic to get out of the area. They didn't seem too impressed with Mike's press ID.

Having missed another interesting day in Fallujah I decided to join Mike and his driver for a ride around Sadr City. Things seemed normal, except for the four Abrams tanks and the American troops stationed in front of the main police station. We tried to check out the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, mostly as a tourist thing, but were told to scram by an ICDC guy in a Harley Davidson ski cap.

I thought about heading to the hospital to find out about dead and wounded from last night's fighting, but the driver was going in circles and I was falling asleep. I said maybe we should bag it; my friend is a photographer and wasn't too interested in the hospital anyway. He was also concerned that our ever-increasing circles around the area might be drawing the attention of the wrong people. When he told the driver to go back to the hotel the driver said, "Okay, you're scared. I would go to the hospital if you weren't scared." This from the guy who had told us, as we glided down a street filled with old women and teenagers, that we'd be attacked by a mob if we stepped out of the car to photograph the American tanks. I briefly rallied and insisted we go to the hospital, but after a few more minutes of aimless driving I admitted defeat and we headed back to the Dulaimi.

I think I may have given Moqtadr and his followers too much credit yesterday. Before last week I thought he was all bark and no bite. Last night his militia fought Round One with the US Army, but there's no trick to that--the first batch of "martyrs" just needs to be ignorant and reckless--to believe that the US will run away when attacked. The guys who come out for Round Two actually need to be brave and committed.

Now that the Coalition has marked him for arrest, Sistani has called for calm, and a few dozen footsoldiers of the "Mahdi Army" have been killed, we'll see how passionately Moqtadr's followers support him. If there's more violence tonight it's a bad sign; if things are relatively calm I think it means Moqtadr gambled and lost.

The larger problem remains, though. It's one thing for elements of the Second Armored Cavalry Regiment to demolish the "Mahdi" "Army". As my friend's driver put it, "Moqtadr stupid--Saddam could not defeat America, and he had airplanes and tanks and an intelligence agency." It's a sign either of passionate belief or of idiocy that the militia wears a recognizable uniform--all black clothing with a green headband. And, unlike the Sunni insurgents, Moqtadr's strategy seems to be to seize police stations and other key infrastructure in Shia areas, under the apparent belief that the US will turn tail and run.

I have to believe that the US Army in central Iraq has been wishing, for months, that it could fight a uniformed enemy seeking to control buildings, roads and neighborhoods. Street fighting against a militia is no fun, but the US military is well-trained to hold strong points against enemy attack, and to seize roads, buildings and cities from a uniformed enemy. Fighting the Mahdi Army would be like a war game, only easier.

In the long term, though, the ability of the American military to stomp on local militias isn't the issue. The US only got involved after the militia seized several police stations from cops who didn't bother to put up a fight. Where are the passionate defenders of the liberal democracy the United States aspires to create here? If they aren't working at the police station, it's a problem. 
Sunday, April 04, 2004
  Apparently the shit is hitting the fan in Sadr City. Moqtadr's boys were out this morning and afternoon, protesting in front of Green Zone entrances. I don't know how big the protests were, but they were big enough that his militia had closed Sadoun street, home of the Palestine and the Sheraton and also of my favorite chicken restaurant. So Moqtadr's not only ruining the country, he also ruined my lunch.

This evening some reporters said there were rockets and bullets flying in Sadr City, and American tanks parking themselves in busy intersections. I just saw on the web that seven American soldiers were killed in a Baghdad ambush tonight, and I can't think of the last time there was an successful ambush (as opposed to a bomb attack) against American troops in the city. Earlier today some coalition troops, some protestors and (maybe) some instigators were killed when a gunfight broke out at a protest in Najaf.

In many quantitative ways this country is better off than it was before the war. There's more money, more power, better schools. Huge amounts of American and international cash are being thrown at problem areas like health care. Shops are full of goods, school is in session. I don't think, though, any of that matters.

I can't say that I've seen much evidence since I've been here that democracy is something Muslim Iraqi Arabs can practice, or that it's something they want. A few weeks ago John Lee Anderson was wondering why there wasn't a Truth and Reconciliation commission in Iraq like there was in South Africa. At the time I said it was because Iraqis couldn't reconcile with each other until they were all living in a society of their own making, free of the inevitable emasculation and humiliation of occupation. Now, though, I think the reason is simpler. Truth and reconciliation are not particularly valued in Iraq. Iraqis who value those things usually bring them up while they're in the process of pointing out that most other Iraqis are intolerant liars, or in thrall to intolerant liars.

A photographer told me the other day, "This country is turning me into a racist." I said I wouldn't go that far, but that it was certainly turning me into more of a cultural chauvanist. He told me that was the first step.

I've met scores of individual Iraqis who are wonderful people--kind, generous, friendly, funny, and intelligent. But culture is something else, and I haven't spoken to many Westerners here whose opinion of Iraqi culture has been improved by contact with Iraqi culture. It's easy to imagine (I know because I did imagine this) that the culture under Saddam was being perverted by an atrocious government. Now I wonder if a perverse culture yielded an atrocious government. Whatever the West did to support Saddam against Iran, his rise to power was not a Western plot. Perhaps, in some ways, his rule was an extreme expression of Iraqi culture. Saddam's lies, his tribalism, his exploitation of factionalism and his gangsterism are all dominant characteristics both of the Sunni insurgency and Moqtadr's anti-American agitation.

It's unfair to assume the insurgents and the Mahdi Army represent the will of the Iraqi people. But they are the most vital part of Iraqi society--the men who are willing to fight and die for their beliefs. While charred corpses were hanging from a bridge in Fallujah, the ICDC officers on the other side of the river told me they didn't know anything about it because it wasn't their jurisdiction. Who's going to win that fight when the Americans leave?

Of course, if we decide the situation is hopeless and abandon Iraq the situation will get even worse and a lot of good people who wanted a better Iraqi will be slaughtered. So some solution has to be found. But I have a hard time imagining there will be a healthy society here in five years. 
Thursday, April 01, 2004
  Rumor has it the guys who were killed in Fallujah yesterday lived in the Musafir; if the rumors are true than I met two of them, and remember one of them fairly well. He had the physique of a professional wrestler and an all-American manner, so it was odd to hear him speak very good Arabic. He said he'd picked it up on various trips to the Middle East.

I'll post more about what happened Wednesday tomorrow. It was quite a day--morning in Fallujah with Sunni insurgents, afternoon in a Shi'ite protest for Moqtadr Sadr and his lying, hate-filled, anti-American newspaper. I just hope the Kurds don't do something appalling, or I'll have to put all my faith in the Turkmen. 
Taxis without seatbelts, AK's without permits, and commentary without edits. A freelancer's life in Baghdad, by Charlie Crain

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