Sunday, December 31, 2006

New Year's in Baghdad

It just turned midnight here, and for the past twenty minutes I've been listening to the sounds of celebratory fire going off outside my trailer. I'm hearing everything from isolated cracks of small arms fire, to machine guns on full automatic.

It is obviously coming from within the compound, and to be honest, it is pretty annoying. I guess this is what happens when you don't let people drink on New Year's Eve!

All things considered, I look forward to December 31, 2007, when I'll be a little tipsy on champagne, and looking for my New Year's kiss from my wife.

May you and your loved ones have a HAPPY AND JOYOUS NEW YEAR in 2007.


UPDATE: At 0700 on New Year's Day, I was awoken by the sound of incoming mortar/rocket fire. Although I have not been able to get official confirmation yet, it sounded as if twelve rounds impacted over the next fifteen minutes or so. The rounds must have been landing on the far side of the IZ, as my trailer didn't shake at all. As with many early morning indirect fire attacks, I was more annoyed than frightened, and rolled over to go back to sleep as soon as the explosions stopped. Insert your own joke about starting the New Year off with a bang here.

Final Thoughts on Saddam's Execution

Among the early accounts of Saddam Hussein's final moments to emerge thus far are those provided by Marc Santora of the New York Times and Michael Hastings in Newsweek.

Santora reports that "Saddam Hussein never bowed his head, until his neck snapped. His last words were equally defiant." Conversely, Hastings quotes the Iraqi who filmed the execution for the Government of Iraq as saying "I saw fear, he was afraid."

Both stories are allegedly based upon the testimony of Iraqis who personally witnessed the hanging. (Santora doesn't identify his sources, but there are many sound explanations for why he wouldn't without having to invent elaborate conspiracy theories). And yet they convey two very different tones for the event. Hmmmmm . . . I thought things like that never happened! (Okay, I'll really let things go now, although personally, from the video I saw of the execution, Saddam clearly looked more fearful than defiant).

I think that Andy McCarthy, posting on NRO's The Corner, comes closest to summarizing the ambivalence I feel regarding Saddam's execution:
I had to turn off the TV-news.
This is a solemn, important moment. It's not a joyous one. An evil man deserved to die. His elimination was necessary — not close to sufficient, but necessary — for achieving, over time, a semblance civilized stability in Iraq. The celebration in the streets, though, the dancing and firing guns in the air, does not augur well for that achievement.
This wasn't victory. It didn't end suffering. It was, in the heat of a war that has actually gotten more vicious and more uncertain since Saddam's capture three years ago, the carrying out of an essential but unpleasant duty. It marginally enhances Iraq'prospectsts, and ours. But Saddam's death (as opposed to his deposing) has no impact whatsoever on the deep dysfunction and hatred that is rending what passes for Iraqi society. The unbridled display of dancing and shooting says more about that than the death of one man — monstrous though he was — who has been imprisoned for three years.
Saddam's death is a marker worth observing. It is not something to go up in a balloon over.

In other words, the SOB deserved to die, and was extremely lucky not to have had to endure 1/1000th of the suffering (i.e. being fed feet first into a wood chipper) inflicted upon so many of his victims. But at this point, I'm more concerned with the violence that plagues Iraq today, and how we can still salvage a strategic victory in this conflict.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Senator Kerry's Office Speaks

Even though I'm still getting emails about this from self-described Liberal bloggers, this will be absolutely my last comment on this.

In response to perhaps the silliest dust-up in the history of the Iraq conflict, Senator John Kerry's foreign policy aide released a statement regarding the brouhaha I inadvertently started. In the interest of fairness, I will let Frank Lowenstein speak for himself:

“It’s a weird feeling seeing this photo of Sen. Kerry debated and decoded like some artifact out of the DaVinci Codes. It’s strange to me because I was there when the photo was taken. I traveled with Sen. Kerry throughout his Middle East trip. I’m his foreign policy staffer. Myself and Major McKnight were sitting
right there when this photo was snapped.
Snubbed? Alone? Hardly. Sen. Kerry isn’t eating alone. In fact that photo is at an off the record breakfast meeting Senator Kerry conducted early Sunday morning with the very real Marc Santora of the New York Times Baghdad bureau and his younger colleague from the newspaper. The man shown in the green shirt across from Sen. Kerry is Marc Santora. Right after that interview was completed, Senator Kerry videotaped a message expressing his and the country’s support for the troops, to be shown on the armed services network in Iraq. Just the night before, Sen. Kerry was in that very same mess hall at a table where he ate dinner with about 10 U.S. soldiers.
Additionally, Senator Kerry spent nearly a day and half (out of two days in
Iraq) outside of the Green Zone because he felt strongly that he wanted to hear
from troops on the front lines. On Saturday morning, he greeted U.S. soldiers in
Basra, and also met many British troops while he was there. On Saturday
afternoon, he flew to FOB (Forward Operating Base) Warhorse, where he had a town hall meeting with over 100 soldiers. On Sunday morning, he was briefed by U.S.
commanders at a training camp for Iraqi security forces. On Sunday evening, he
traveled to another FOB where he had a long dinner in the camp mess hall with
soldiers, including many from Massachusetts. These troops are nothing short of
amazing, and my boss knows that with every fiber of his being. He’s a combat
veteran. He’s been there.
Sen. Kerry knows that if you’re in public life, you’re going to have things you say and do taken out of context, sometimes photos even. It goes with the job. I just wanted to set the record straight about this photo not just because I was there and I know the truth, but because Sen. Kerry enjoyed his time and his conversations with the troops, and I hate to see anyone try to make some political hay out of all this or pretend this photo is something its not.”

He's correct that it is strange to be endlessly debating this, especially since nothing in Lowenstein's statement contradicts anything I said in my original post, which was also nowhere near as partisan as some paranoids seem bent on making it out to be. (Did these people actually even bother to read what I wrote in that or in previous posts?)

I respect every politician for coming out here, Senator Kerry included, regardless of any disagreement I may have with their views on the war. (In Senator Kerry's case these disagreements are numerous, but that is beside the point). At the same time, there were an unusually large number of stories circulating here about commanders either not wanting Senator Kerry to visit their units, or of soldiers wanting some small measure of payback for the pre-election joke. I personally saw him receiving far less attention or adulation in the same setting than typically received by other politicians and celebrities of his stature.

I never said he was alone at breakfast (something the Liberal blogs started to claim after they conceded that I hadn't faked the picture), nor did I claim that the Senator was unable to meet with any soldiers anywhere while in Iraq.

In other words, Frank Lowenstein and I are telling the same story from two different perspectives, based upon two different sets of facts that overlap for a brief ten minute window. It is amazing that nobody has considered the possibility that we could both be right, that Senator Kerry received an unenthusiastic reception from some troops, but was well-received by some soldiers elsewhere.

In the end, this is, and has always been, a trivial issue, especially while there are real heroes out there making sacrifices everyday to defend our nation. Thank G-d we live in the digital age, as I hate to think how many trees would have been needlessly killed to keep this non-controversy alive 20 years ago.

And with that I'm done on this issue.

Saddam is Dead

One of history's worst tyrants was executed this morning at 0600 Baghdad time. Whatever imperfections there may have been to his trial (although his only defenses were obfuscation and obstructionism), I don't think anyone can say that justice was not carried out.

More important is the question of where do the Iraqis go from here. That remains to be determined, with millions of lives in Iraq and the United States hanging (sorry, poor word choice) in the balance.

Friday, December 29, 2006

The Death of a Tyrant

By this time tomorrow, it is likely that Saddam Hussein will be dead. (No, I don't have any inside information on this. My best guess was that they would execute him last night, but at 0300 all I heard were the helicopters hovering in overwatch for his transition of custody to Iraqi control. If he'd been killed, I think I would have heard a deafening amount of celebratory fire as well).

The enormity of that first sentence throws me for a loss as I write it. Not because I have any moral qualms with the death penalty, at least not in the case of a genocidal dictator. But even as he was exposed as a coward through the circumstances of his capture, photographed in his briefs during his captivity, and revealed to a simple lover of Cheetohs (or Doritos, I forget which), he still seemed a larger than life figure despite these degradations.

There is ultimately no precedent for this, really, a genocidal tyrant being tried and executed for his crimes. (And yes, I recognize that his trial was held under less than ideal circumstances, but it was infinitely fairer than that received by any of his victims). Hitler committed suicide; Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot all died of natural causes (Pol Pot was almost killed by a mob of vengeful Cambodians, but was unfortunately rescued by a group of reporters); and Milosevic died before he could be convicted, although he would have only face a life-sentence for the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo. The closest examples I can think of are Mussolini and Ceaucescu, but even these tyrants were not guilty of crimes any near the scope of Saddam's.

This is not to say that he shouldn't be executed, only that it is an event that seems a bit surreal. And if I feel a sense of uncertainty, imagine how the average Iraqi must feel.

I also wonder how Saddam must feel as he approached his final hours. Will the Iraqis tell him when he is to be executed? If so, will he recognize the finality of it all, or like the First Gulf War and March 2003, will he somehow delude himself into believing it won't actually happen? How does a man with the blood of hundreds of thousands of people, responsible for rape squads and countless acts of torture, as well as the impoverishment of Iraq and destruction of its once vast, ancient marshlands, reflect upon his life? Does he have regrets, or does he look back and think, "Well, I had a really good run of things for about thirty years there. C'est la vie!"?

I have no idea how this will play out amongst Iraqis. Things could get very dicey real quick, although it is not as if Iraqis seem to lack excuses for killing one another or Coalition forces as things are now.

TPMmuckraker, The Left, and Me

Geez, people, lighten the **** up!

Long story made short: my 18 December post on the stories I'd heard and events I'd seen surrounding Senator Kerry's visit got picked up by NRO's "The Corner" and Instapundit. Justin Rood of the respectable Left-of-Center blog seized upon this and questioned the authenticity of the photos. His commenters went one step further, calling me a Bush-Administration plant in the military and a Right Wing Nut. (At least those are the appellations I can reprint).

Two points are pertinent here: Given that it took me about six months to figure out how to insert links into this blog, anybody who knows me knows I'm not technologically savvy enough to photoshop a picture like that. Second, in the actual post itself, I gave Kerry credit for being a good sport, and NEVER claimed there wasn't a single soldier anywhere in Iraq who was willing to shake his hand. I was merely pointing out that he'd received a far more subdued reception than:
- Bill O'Reilly, who on the same weekend had several hundred soldiers wait in line for the chance to meet him; or
- Senator John McCain, who in the same mess hall was mobbed by soldiers wanting a picture or to shake his hand.

To his credit, Justin emailed me to get my side of the story. My response was as follows:


Thank you for your interest and for taking the time to contact me regarding the photos. I certainly did not intend to kick up such a firestorm by posting them on my web log. (Another friend here sent a separate photo and account to radio host Scott Hennen, who subsequently publicized the incident). In the name of fairness, I'm copying the other bloggers you mentioned in your post so that everybody has equal access to this story.

To answer your questions, yes, the photos are authentic. Although I did not personally take the pictures, I saw the person who did immediately after they took them and asked for a copy.

The explanation for the date/time stamp falls under the category of Occam's Razor: the person whose camera was used had just arrived in Baghdad, hadn't taken any pictures with it yet, and hadn't set their date/time stamp yet. (Believe it or not, not all servicemen here are technological wizards. As my wife could tell you, I wasn’t able to figure out our DVR while home on leave). This, as you observed, also explains the seeming discrepancy between the date/time stamp and the commercial availability of the camera model.

To hopefully put this matter to rest, (but given the current state of our political discourse and related conspiracy theories, not likely) I'm attaching two photos taken this morning with the same camera from roughly the same angle. Note the same Christmas and wall decorations (although one poinsettia has been added since December 17), the same flags in the background, and a copy of today's (12/29) European Stars and Stripes as "proof of life." (Incidentally, I commend to your readers Megan McCloskey's article on the Marine Engineering Battalion that has adopted an Iraqi school).

The date/time stamp, for those interested, is exactly twelve days after the original time stamp. Apparently, the owner still hasn't gotten around to setting it.

As to why the Portuguese flag is still flying in the Dining Facility . . . well, okay, you got me there. My guess is that the contractors who run the DFAC either:
a) Have no idea whose flag it is and whether they are still in country or not;
b) Don’t care about the political implications of hanging that flag; or
c) Don’t have anything else to fill the empty wall space.
Either way, I will bring it to the manager's attention at lunch today.

Again, thank you for your interest in this matter. Have a Happy New Year.


Justin reprinted part of my explanation, but also apparently did a background check of me (I should have stayed anonymous . . . darn those Iraqi schoolchildren!) and stated that I was once a "Staff Assistant" to former Undersecretaryary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith. (This is only partially true. Whereas I was brought into OSD Policy by Mr. Feith, and I have great respect for him, in reality I worked in an office several layers of bureaucracy beneath him).

TPM's commenters were less generous, again, calling me a Bush shill and discounting the possibility that anything I say could possibly be true because I worked for the Administration. (Are those really pictures of my son, or some cuter infant I use to gain sympathy? I'll never tell).

As Jonathan Swift once said, "It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of what he was never reasoned into."

Seriously, though, maybe I'm just horribly naive to believe in the possibility of using the blogosphere as a means of elevating political discourse between Right and Left. It is disappointing how quickly people who clearly hadn't read my blog at all were to resort to personal attacks on me and my integrity without ever engaging on the substance.

It is really a sad statement on our nation's politics (both Left and Right) that people could get this hysterical over what was essentially just a mass email to my friends and family. But it has increased my appreciation for what bloggers such as Glenn Reynolds, the Powerline trio, Ed Morrissey, David Adesnik, and others go through every day.

Thursday, December 28, 2006


"If there must be trouble let it be in my day, that my child may have peace."
Thomas Paine

"I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy."
John Adams

David was only ten days old when I was activated for Operation Iraqi Freedom. As painful as it is sometimes, my favorite leisure time activity here is watching the DVDs of David that my wife sends me each month.

G-d willing this will be the first and last birthday of his that I miss, and that he will never have to miss one of his childrens' birthdays due to similar circumstances.


Wednesday, December 27, 2006

A Sleepless Night

Last night I had a hard time falling asleep, most likely because I was crashing on a project and drank an energy drink later in the evening than I should have.

Not that it mattered.

I was awoken at 0055 by the crack of small arms fire. It is not uncommon to hear the Triple Canopy guards fire off an isolated warning shot from the guard towers overlooking the Tigris whenever a boat comes to close to the Western Shore. But last night I heard about thirty shots from at least two weapons. It sounded like someone in the distance was walking on bubble paper.

In some ways, small arms fire is more disconcerting than incoming mortar fire. The blast from indirect fire is a discrete event, and by the time you hear the explosion the attack is essentially over.

But small arms fire could mean many things: Was it just a series of warning shots from multiple guards? Warning shots met by return fire? Or could it be the start of the Jaish al-Mahdi finally storming the compound, an event we joke about in moments of dark humor? Lying in the dark, isolated in my trailer, there is no way of knowing what is happening outside.

(And I'm pretty sure that running outside in my tee shirt and boxers, clutching my 9mm, is not a sound response to these situations, tactically speaking).

It was probably nothing, and certainly does not compare to what thousands of soldiers and Marines out in the field encounter every night. But these uncertainties are the types of moment I look forward to leaving behind in three months.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

First Class

For the Minnesota-wing of my family, a nice story from Peter King's weekly column about the class shown by former Viking star wideout Cris Carter:

Cris Carter, my HBO compatriot, on his Travel Story of the Year:

"I'm flying from Atlanta to Nashville the other day for a business meeting for a security company I have. You see military people all over the airport, thousands of military people traveling. They're all in their camouflage. I get on the plane with my brother John. We're sitting in first-class. The guy across from me, I hear him talking to the flight attendant and all of a sudden he grabs his stuff and goes to the back of the plane.

I hear him saying he's giving up his seat to someone in the military. I told my brother, 'Get up, we're going to the back.' We go to the back, sit down, give up our seats, and one by one, everyone in first-class started giving up their seats. It wasn't a big plane. Then the pilot got on and said, 'Thanks to the generosity of the patrons in first-class, some of our military personnel will be in first-class today. Glad to have you. Thanks for what you do.'

It was an emotional moment, a small thing I would have never thought of. It was nice. How easy you can make someone's holiday trip home a little more pleasant.''

Although nobody offered me their seat when I was traveling on leave, I was approached by many people in the Baltimore and Atlanta airports who thanked me for my service.

Also, Peter King has a touching update on a Staff Sergeant with whom he's corresponded and is now home from Iraq and celebrating Christmas. I disagree with King on many things (in particular his repeated snub of Redskins great Art Monk on the Hall of Fame ballot). But King demonstrates perfectly how it is possible to be both anti-war and genuinely pro-troop, unlike many "activists" who claim support for the troops merely as a prop for their anti-Bush or, as in the case of Cindy Sheehan and supporters, anti-American beliefs.

Thank you Cris Carter and Peter King for your support. It is greatly appreciated.

Sunday, December 24, 2006


(Arabic for Merry Christmas. And yes, there is an Arabic word for Christmas).

Merry Christmas to everybody back home, especially the Maguires and Payeurs. I hope you have a wonderful holiday, and I look forward to seeing you all again this time next year.


Najaf, Part II

Your intrepid correspondent enjoying a parade on a sunny day in Najaf.

Part two of my notes from the Najaf "PIC" ceremony last Wednesday:

- After the signing, a police pickup truck drives in front of the reviewing stand. A police commander jumps out of the back, draws a sword, and salutes the Governor to begin the parade.

- The tribal sheikhs pour out of the stands and gather in front of the reviewing stand. The raise Iraqi flags and the blue flags of the Shi’a tribes. One sheikh shouts a pledge of loyalty into the microphone, and the others chant in response, waving their hands and the flags.

The Najaf Sheikhs pledging their loyalty.

- The first vehicle in the parade is the same Police Commander, followed by a poster depicting the Koran. This is followed by the poster of the Prophet and the Shi’a martyrs, the posters of Talibani and Maliki, and civilians holding pictures of bombing victims.

The Najaf Police Commander and the Koran lead the parade.

The posters of the Shi'a icons, followed by President Talabani and Prime Minister Maliki.

Portraits of martyrs.

- An array of Iraqi Security Force units marched by, having emptied the stands throughout the stadium: Iraqi Army, National Police, Najaf Police, Facilities Protection Service, Commando units wearing black masks, even firemen in bright yellow helmets and boots. A single horsemen passes the reviewing stand, followed by a succession of units . . . well, prancing is the only way to describe it . . . and chanting cadences.

From top to bottom: The Iraqi Army, the Najaf Police, the Iraqi National Police, an Iraqi Commando unit, and the Najaf Fire Brigade.

Iraqi Army and Commando units chanting and prancing.

- One of the units stops in front of the reviewing stand and executes a right face so they face the dignitaries. They are wearing dark green camouflage tee shirts that look as if they had just visited a surplus store somewhere, and black pants. Their faces are also painted black. The commander issues an order in Arabic, the men chant something in response, and then each soldier produces a live frog from his right pocket. They then proceeded to BITE THE HEAD OFF THE FROG and throw its STILL KICKING torso onto the track. The Commander of the unit then produces a live rabbit and holds it by its hind legs in front of him. He pulls out an eight-inch hunting knife, and guts it from its belly to its neck. He grabs the incision on each side, and rips its chest and stomach open. He proceeded to STICK HIS MOUTH INTO THE CARCASS, AND COMES OUT WITH THE STILL BEATING HEART IN HIS TEETH!!! He passes the rabbit to each soldier, who takes a turn BITING INTO THE BLOODY INTESTINES!!!

Hide the pets! It's the Ozzy Osbourne Brigade!
Honestly, I could not have made this up if I tried.

- After the “Ozzy Ozzbourne Brigade” passes, a group of seven horsemen holding Iraqi flags turns the corner to the homestretch of the track. My first thought is “Lord, they are not going to eat the horses, are they?” But instead, they do two laps of the stadium at full speed.

Dessert? No, it's the Najaf Derby!

- The vehicles of the Iraqi Army and Police do drive by of the reviewing stand (I guess nobody wanted to be the ones to walk through the rabbit guts), including Humvees, ambulances, Border Patrol SUVs (even though Najaf doesn’t border another country), police pickups with 40mm guns mounted in the rear, fire trucks, and HazMat vehicles.

- A squad of paratroopers comes to a halt in front of the reviewing stand and provides a martial arts demonstration. In formation, they perform a series of punches, kicks, (think an Arab Kobra Kai) and then a self-defense demonstration with some serious throws that elicits oohs and aahs from the audience. One student punches through a "board" that looks suspiciously like painted styrofoam. Finally, the instructor/commander is surrounded by six of the soldiers and takes each of them out as they assault him one by one.

- This unit is followed by a group of ten teenage boys in martial arts Gis. (At least I though they were teenagers . . . young men in Iraq almost always have thin mustaches as a sign of manhood, so it is sometimes difficult to gauge their age). The instructor yells commands in either Japanese or Korean, and later defends himself against a series of attacks by his students, at least one of whom is wielding a sword. Like the paratrooper unit before them, they end their demonstration by putting one student on another’s shoulders and producing an Iraqi flag in dramatic fashion.

There have been a lot of bad days in Iraq since I arrived last Spring. I start every day with the daily intelligence report, which leads off with how many people were killed over the previous 24 hours. Even on days where the violence is relatively light, it is still too many innocent families being torn apart by the nihilism of evil men. And while I am still fully convinced that our cause here is just, it is frustrating at times to realize that best intentions are not enough, and that the sacrifices our soldiers are making in the field every day (sometimes making the ultimate sacrifice) for a peaceful Iraq and a secure U.S does not seem to be improving the situation here.

But today, the spirit of the Iraqi Security Forces was palpable, and you could see the pride on the soldiers' and policemen's faces as they marched, honored to be assuming responsiblity for maintaining Iraq’s security. Their clear devotion to Iraq as a nation renewed my hope that there is still a chance we can overcome the terrorists and extremists trying to destroy everything the Iraqi people want to build.

Saturday, December 23, 2006


In the immortal words of Frank Costanza, "I got a lot of problems with you people! And now, you're gonna' hear about it."

1. Michael Richards -- Thanks, Michael, now I can't watch Seinfeld reruns without feeling just a little bit dirty inside.

2. Professors Mearsheimer and Walt -- To quote Benny Morris, the revisionist Israeli historian whom the Professors cite extensively to demonstrate Israel's moral failings:
[Mearsheimer and Walt's] work is a travesty of the history that I have studied and written for the past two decades. Their work is riddled with shoddiness and defiled by mendacity. Were "The Israel Lobby" an actual person, I would have to say that he did not have a single honest bone in his body.
And this is from one of Israel's leading domestic critics!

3. Jimmy Carter -- To quote Alan Dershowitz (whom Carter refuses to debate regarding his assertion that Israel is an apartheid state):
Carter's refusal to debate wouldn't be so strange if it weren't for the fact that he claims that he wrote the book precisely so as to start debate over the issue of the Israel-Palestine peace process. . . . Jimmy Carter isn't brave for beating up on Israel. He's a bully. And like all school-yard bullies, underneath the tough talk and bravado, there's a nagging insecurity and a fear that one day he'll have to answer for himself in a fair fight.

4. O.J. Simpson -- Isn't it enough that you literally got away with murder because of an incompetent prosecution, a shameless race baiting defense team, and a frighteningly ignorant jury? Do you really have to continue to torture the families of the victim with a "hypothetical" book about killing their loved ones. Wow, Juice, I really hope you like Hell.

5. Judith Regan -- Not only was it bad enough that you sought to profit from O.J.'s crimes and the suffering of the Goldman and Brown families, but then when you get fired for your colossal amorality, you go ahead and blame your firing on a Jewish cabal. Hey Judith Regan, you stay classy!

6. Mike Nifong -- Speaking of prosecutorial incompetence, or more likely in this, prosecutorial misconduct. This time it was the Durham DA who engaged in despicable race baiting in order to get re-elected. Mr. Nifong, I hope you know a better lawyer than you've proven to be.

7. Mark Foley -- There are literally billions of reasons why the Republicans lost both the House and the Senate in this year's midterms (or more precisely, billions in wasteful earmarks); and yes, Rahm Emmanuel did lie through his teeth when he claimed the Democrats didn't know about Foley's emails months before the election. But wrong is still wrong, and the Republicans shouldn't have put their collective heads in the sand in order to keep a seat.

8. Terrell Owens, Barry Bonds, (insert name of overpaid, selfish athlete here) -- Winston Churchill is reputed to have explained that he read the sports pages before the front page in the morning because he wanted to read about man's accomplishments rather than man's failures. If Sir Winston lived in the age of crybabies and steroid monsters that we do, I wonder if he would have read the sports pages at all.

9. Charlie Rangel, Columbia University, and the San Fransisco City School Board -- And the finalists for outstanding achievement in anti-military condescension, harassment, or bias goes to . . .

10. Muqtada al-Sadr and the Jaish al-Mahdi -- Finally, some people are just too stupid to know when they have won. After decades of enduring oppression and massacres at the hands of Iraq's central government, the Shi'a were liberated, and given their chance at creating a functioning democracy that would ensure they would never be persecuted again. But this apparently is not good enough for the JAM, which continues to target innocent Sunni civilians for torture and extra-judicial killings. Instead of sitting back and developing Iraq's oil fields and getting rich, they are in the process of tearing their country down around them. (Of course, this could have something to do with all the Iranian money they are awash in). Too many good men (i.e. Shane Mahaffee) have died because of them. But many more good people, Americans and Iraqis, will die if the JAM isn't stopped. And that is why we can not just walk away and let the extremists have their way with Iraq.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Najaf, Part I

On Wednesday I traveled to Najaf to attend the PIC (Provinicial Iraqi Control) Ceremony, marking the transfer of authority for all security issues in the province from Coalition forces to the Najaf Provincial Council. Najaf is the third Iraqi province to assume responsbility for its security, and our goal is to transfer the remaining half-dozen provinces with less than two attacks per day to local Iraqi control in the next few months. Hopefully (fingers crossed), we will be able to transfer the responsibility for security to all of Iraq's 18 provinces by Fall of 2007.

For those who don't know, Najaf is the most important city in Shi'a Islam, third in holiness only to Mecca and Medina. The Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf is the resting place of Imam Ali, the son-in-law and nephew of the Prophet Muhammed, who Shi'a believe was the Prophet's rightful successor. Surrounding the gilded mosque is the Wadi as Salam "Wadi of Peace", the largest cemetary in the Muslim world. Shi'a believe that anyone buried near Imam Ali will be guaranteed resurrection on Judgment Day. Najaf was also traditionally Shiism's center of learning until the religious establishment there was crushed by Saddam Hussein.

In other words, Najaf is a very important city to Iraq's history and cultural identity.

So, in no particular order, my notes from my trip to Najaf:

- Flying over Baghdad, a number of traffic jams were visible on the Eastern shore of the Tigris, suggesting people are still going to work despite the horrible violence plaguing the city. Minarets were visible through a layer of black smoke that had covered the city (either from a refinery or from a car bomb that went off at 0705 in the Karada District).

Early morning traffic alongside the Tigris.

- This is my first trip south of Baghdad. The neighborhoods in the southern end of the city are spread out and lack paved roads. In fact, the outlying areas to Baghdad’s south are drabber than those to the north, comprised of more muddy fields.
Eventually the landscape became greener, with agricultural fields in between palm groves. Some fields were bisected by small irrigation canals, tall reeds sprouting up in the water.

- A morning mist covers the fields, but I can see a lot of people outside already at 0837. Small boys are herding sheep and leading cows, men are walking through the fields. There are also a lot of women out: some in colorful outfits tending herds, some in black abayas walking by the side of a canal; some carrying bundles of wheat or reeds on their backs. We pass over one group of children jumping up and down, waving to us.

- Rural towns appear out of nowhere in the middle of vast palm groves, one with a three story watchtower, and clotheslines hanging in between palm trees. Eventually, the landscape completely transforms itself into desert. The desert floor is dotted with large geometric patterns, sometimes consisting of berms that appear about 3-4 feet high with small gaps in between mounds. Because they are in roughly football filed sized rectangles, I guess that they were defensive fighting positions during the war rather than graves or natural formations. In addition to some natural depressions and small rock formations, there are larger mounds of sand with tire tracks nearby in the sand. These definitely were man-made, either company assembly areas for our tanks or theirs.

- Through the haze to the West, I can make out the Golden Dome of the Imam Ali Mosque in the distance just before we land. Unfortunately, it is too far for a good photo, and I'm unable to make out the details of the surrounding cemetary.

- In Najaf, we load into “Vivas,” a South African equivalent of the Humvee used by Aegis in Iraq. It is a 5-6km drive from the Iraqi Army post we landed at and the soccer stadium where the ceremony is held. Although Najaf is a potential economic gold mine because of the tourism industry catering to all the Shi'a pilgrims visiting the Shrine of the Imam Ali, we drive through a poorer district. Low, one story houses sit 20-30 feet off the road, with piles of trash filling the muddy interval. Men, in dress ranging from full-length dishasas to Western track suits, are walking by the side of the road, watching us as we pass.

- Once we reach the soccer stadium, we are escorted onto the field with the rest of the media. Facing the main bleachers, the reviewing stand is in the center, and about 100 tribal sheiks sitting in the section to the right. Various units of the Iraqi Army and Police occupy alternating sections of the bleachers.

Iraqi troops waiting for the ceremony to begin. The guys in the bright yellow hats on the right are Najaf's Fire Department, or the NFD.

The tribal sheikhs of Najaf.

- A speaker sings a slow, mournful tune about Abbas (a Shi'a martyr at the Battle of Karbala), and then recites a poem about Ashurra, Muhammad, Najaf, and the willingness to sacrifice for Haidar. (Haidar means "Lion" in Arabic, and is a common nickname for the Imam Ali). The soldiers and Iraqi police occupying the stands throughout the stadium chant in response.
One army unit begins singing, jumping up and down, and waving their flags. Five other units respond by singing their own chants and dancing. The sound of women ulating fills the stadium. The original unit ups the spirit competition a notch by coming down out of the bleachers and dancing in circles on the track. The atmosphere in the stadium is exhilirating, although I imagine that if I ever were about to be executed in Iran, this is how my final moments would be passed.

"Celebration time, come on!" Iraqi Army troops chant and dance to celebrate the transfer of authority.

- I have learned a valuable trick in Iraq: to truly understand what is going on at any given time, all I have to do is to stand next to an attractive female Western reporter, in this case either Jenny from AFP or Claudia from Reuters. Each is surrounded by several English-speaking Iraqi males offering to translate and explain the ceremony for them. (Later in the day, as we are waiting for our convoy back to the helicopter pad, Iraqi soldiers approach asking to have their pictures taken with them).

- On the opposite end of the field, soldiers are holding 4’x6’ posters. One portrays the key figures of Iraqi Shi’ism: The Prophet Muhammed (with face obscured by a ray of light), the Imam Ali, Grand Ayatollah Sistani, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad al-Sadr (yes, that Sadr’s father, assassinated in 1998 by Saddam), and Ayatollah Muhammad al-Hakim (the founder of SCIRI, assassinated by an Al Qaeda suicide bomber in September 2003). There are also posters of President Talibani and Prime Minister Maliki, which I’m told is the first time portraits of Iraqi political leaders have been displayed in Najaf since Saddam was deposed. Saddam forcibly plastered his visage on every wall and billboard in Najaf, so the habit understandably fell out of favor.

On the left, the poster bearing images of the Prophet, Imam Ali, Grand Ayatollah Sistani, and the murdered clerics Muhamammed al-Sadr and Muhammed al-Hakim. On the right are the posters of President Talabani and Prime Minister Maliki, the first such depictions of them in Najaf. For any jihadists/Islamofascists reading this blog, please note that the Prophet's face is depicted as a ray of light, so this post shouldn't be used as a justification to kill me.

- The main party arrives and the national anthem is played. Although I have no idea what the lyrics are, I actually like the Iraqi anthem, which is a catchy, up-tempo martial tune. Sort of like the Marseilles, but with a better rhythm section. Later in the day, in a heartwarming moment, an Iraqi reporter’s cell phone goes off during General Brooks’ remarks. His ring tone is the Iraqi national anthem.

- National Security Advisor Muwaffak al-Rubaie gives the keynote address, followed by the Provincial Governor and the Chair of the Provincial Council. My rough notes from their remarks is as follows . . . okay, never mind, nothing they said was that remarkable, except maybe for the Governor’s observation that the “terrorists can not distinguish between a Shi’a, a Sunni, or a Christian . . . (I thought I heard him say “or a Jew,” but this had to be my imagination) . . . between the old or the young.” This is an important point to be made by a Shi’a politician.

- Okay, two more quotes from Governor Khalil:
“We will not discriminate by race, but rather judge people by their work.” (Not a particularly original formulation to American ears, but refreshing to hear in Iraq).
“We say NO for dictatorship, NO for terrorists, NO for takfiris [Sunni extremists justify killing all Shi’a by declaring them takfir, or apostates], NO for sectarianism! We say YES for unity, YES for freedom, YES for democracy!

National Security Advisor Muwaffak al-Rubaie delivers the keynote address.

- I’m interviewed by three Iraqi news networks. So if anybody happened to be taping Al-Arabiya Wednesday night and caught a clip with me, please make a copy and send it to Marya. Thanks.

- After the speeches, General Brooks and Governor Khalil come out of the stands to sign the Memorandum of Understanding transferring security responsibility to the Provincial Government. They are immediately surrounded by Iraqi media, reporters and cameramen, at least three deep trying to capture the signing. The master of ceremonies SCREAMS into the microphone with an enthusiasm that would put Bruce Buffer to shame.

Part II tomorrow: "Why I Love an Iraqi Military Parade, and Why PETA Doesn't"

Ambassador Joe Wilson is Suddenly Shy

From yesterday's "Best of the Web" on

"Former ambassador Joseph Wilson asked a federal judge Wednesday not to force him to testify in the CIA leak case and accused former White House aide I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby of trying to harass him on the witness stand," the Associated Press reports from Washington:

"Mr. Libby should not be permitted to compel Mr. Wilson's testimony at trial either for the purpose of harassing Mr. Wilson or to gain an advantage in the civil case," Wilson's attorneys wrote.

Hmm, for a guy who burst onto the scene three years ago as the most garrulous figure since Ted Turner, and who then wrote a book called "The Politics of Truth," Wilson is awfully averse to testifying under oath.

It is hard to believe anybody ever took this clown seriously, especially after the Senate Intelligence Committee officially branded him a liar back in 2004. Then again, given the state of political discourse amongst a certain subset of the American electorate, maybe it isn't so surprising.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

A Holiday Wish (Warning: R Rated)

And now for a moment of levity: Steve Martin's classic Saturday Night Live monologue, "A Holiday Wish" . . . (although I think that his wife granting him the 31-day orgasm wish is more likely than to get the children of Iraq to join hands and sing together in the harmony of peace):

If I had one wish that I could wish this holiday season, it would be that all the children to join hands and sing together in the spirit of harmony and peace.

If I had two wishes I could make this holiday season, the first would be for all the children of the world to join hands and sing in the spirit of harmony and peace. And the second would be for 30 million dollars a month to be given to me, tax-free in a Swiss bank account.

You know, if I had three wishes I could make this holiday season, the first, of course, would be for all the children of the world to get together and sing, the second would be for the 30 million dollars every month to me, and the third would be for encompassing power over every living being in the entire universe.

And if I had four wishes that I could make this holiday season, the first would be the crap about the kids definitely, the second would be for the 30 million, the third would be for all the power, and the fourth would be to set aside one month each year to have an extended 31-day orgasm, to be brought out slowly by Rosanna Arquette and that model Paulina-somebody, I can't think of her name. Of course my lovely wife can come too and she's behind me one hundred percent here, I guarantee it.

Wait a minute, maybe the sex thing should be the first wish, so if I made that the first wish, because it could all go boom tomorrow, then what do you got, y'know? No, no, the kids, the kids singing would be great, that would be nice. But wait a minute, who am I kidding? They're not going to be able to get all those kids together. I mean, the logistics of the thing is impossible, more trouble than it's worth! So -- we reorganize!

Here we go. First, the sex thing. We go with that. Second, the money. No, we got with the power second, then the money. And then the kids. Oh wait, oh jeez, I forgot about revenge against my enemies! Okay, I need revenge against all my enemies, they should die like pigs in hell! That would be my fourth wish. And, of course, my fifth wish would be for all the children of the world to join hands and sing together in the spirit of harmony and peace. Thank you everybody and Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Schaudenfraude (Or John Kerry Visits Iraq)

After praising Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak, Senator John Kerry came to Iraq this weekend.

Before his arrival, rumors were already flowing that every FOB (Forward Operating Base) Commander told General Casey that they already had another "DV" (Distinguished Visitor) to support while Sen. Kerry was in country -- or that they would be in the middle of ongoing operations -- and hence were unable to support his visit. This rumor was either sparked or confirmed by a post by Matt on Blackfive. (Blackfive, for those who don't already read it, is an infinitely more interesting military blog than mine).

Hey, I just came from a meeting where they were trying to get some commander, any commander, in the Green Zone, to host Jawn Carri.

Swear to God, the CG is saying, "You can't tell me you ALL have things going on at that time! Come on!"

So, it appears that JF'nK will be coming to the Palace at the Embassy Annex and sitting around sucking up coffee at the Green Bean while we all try to ignore him.

Me, I'm gonna get a picture with him.

While in Iraq, things didn't get much better for Senator Kerry. Rumor has it that somebody gave his helicopter flights the designation "Weasel 61." (Legend has it that when Senator Clinton visited Afghanistan, her bird was assigned "Broomstick 11" as its code name). Before taking off, supposedly the helicopter pilot jumped out of the front seat while the rotor was turning (an extremely rare event), approached the rear of the bird, and asked Senator Kerry to autograph a copy of the photograph below:

To his everlasting credit, Senator Kerry was a good sport and actually signed it!!!

On Saturday night, a colleague emailed me and told me to bring my camera, as Senator Kerry was scheduled to give a press conference here in the Palace. At 2100, he entered a conference room wearing his leather flight jacket. Unfortunately, there was no media there, except for the enlisted soldiers from AFTN (Armed Forces Television Network) who had to be there. His aide looked around, saw that this just wasn't happening, and quickly escorted Kerry out before I could take a picture.

Finally, the next morning, Senator Kerry ate chow at the Dining Facility. Normally when a Senator/Representative visits, he is joined by a contingent of soldiers/Marines/airmen from his home state. Despite the fact that the MP unit responsible for Green Zone security is an Army Reserve unit from Massachusetts, not a single soldier went to sit with him. (By contrast, Bill O'Reilly, host of that terrible shoutfest on Fox, had over 400 soldiers waiting in line to meet him on Saturday).

Schaudenfraude is the German word for taking pleasure in somebody else's suffering. I don't know whether I should feel this or rather pity for Senator Kerry, who looked like a kid on his first day at a new school. I'm not sure what kind of a reception he expected to receive here given his "botched joke" before the election, but I'm debating whether to give him points for having the chutzpah to come to Iraq.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Quotes of the Day (XIII)

- "Tyranny is our foe, whatever trappings or disguises it wears, whatever language it speaks, be it external or internal, we must forever be on our guard, ever mobilised, ever vigilant, always ready to spring at its throat."
Winston Churchill
Harvard University, September 1943

- "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable."
John F. Kennedy

Appropos of Senator John Kerry's visit to Egypt last week, in which he praised Egyptian dicatator Hosni Mubarak, but somehow failed to even mention jailed democratic activists Ayman Nour and Muhammad Sharqawi, amongst other dissidents.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Out and About in the IZ

The other day I had some free time, and went down to the CSH (Combat Support Hospital) to help a friend distribute some cards sent by an elementary school in Ferguson Falls, MN, and to touch base about how to distribute the care packages that will soon be arriving. (See my previous posts about this below).

It was the first time I’d been back to the CSH since my friend Shane's death back in May. It was very difficult, to say the least, to walk up the stairs to the second floor, and up the small ramp to ICU #1 where Shane was treated. There was one soldier there in a condition that didn’t allow for visitors, which spared me having to relive some of the memories of that day and what followed.

However, other than that one wounded soldier, there were no other American patients in the hospital. In each department we visited, the hospital staff was almost apologetic for how quiet things were and knocked on the closest piece of wood they could find. (The only patient other than the wounded soldier was a young Iraqi girl wounded by a car bomb two-and-a-half months ago. We could hear her moaning in pain from around the corner of ICU #2).

If there is one thing I've definitely been remiss about with regards to this blog, it is that I have not included nearly enough original photos of Iraq. Whether due to lap top crashes, or simply not wanting to look like a tourist whetravelingng alongside the Ambassador or a General, I haven't taken as many photographs as I'd like. I'm therefore resolved to try to include more photography on this site in my remaining three months here.

So, in addition to visiting the CSH, I also had enough time to go and take some long overdue "tourist" pictures of the "Crossed Swords" monument, Saddam's macabre tribute to his "victory" in the Iran-Iraq War.

A long view of the 40-ft tall swords on either end of Saddam's parade ground.

The helmets at the base of the statue and at the entrance to the parade ground (next to the concertina wire) are the helmets of killed Iranian soldiers. It was Saddam's idea to have his forces march over the heads of his vanquished enemies.

The hands and forearms at the base of the statue are supposedly modeled on Saddam's arms. (And yes, that small speck at the base is me).

The Tomb of the Unknowns (also from the Iran-Iraq War), as seen from a distance.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Bad News, Good News: Soccer and Chanukkah Edition

BAD NEWS-- Iraq lost to Qatar, 1-0, in the finals of the Asian Games' soccer competition.

GOOD NEWS-- I don't have to dodge celebratory gunfire returning to earth on my way to and from dinner.

BAD NEWS-- There are now literally millions of Iraqis who are depressed, angry, and have been stocking ammunition for the past three days in preparation for today.

GOOD NEWS-- There is actually a celebration taking place tonight for the first night of Chanukkah.

BAD NEWS-- It is on the other side of Baghdad. All things considered, I don't think it is worth taking the chance of a cross-town trip just to get in a few games of Dreidel.

GOOD NEWS-- The .00001% chance that Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Jaish al Mahdi death squads will catch the Chanukkah spirit and take a night off from killing people. THAT would be a real miracle!!!

"We're Seeing Positive Results"

Major General Caldwell's latest op-ed on the training of the Iraqi Security Forces in Friday's USA can be found here.

The piece we are "rebutting" is here, although in reality it isn't really a rebuttal, since we didn't get to see the editorial while drafting our response, whereas the USA Today editorial board was able review our draft before sending theirs to press. (To their credit, however, they did accept our counterpoint without edits or cuts.)

There are two further points to be made on this subject:
1- USA Today writes, "Training appears to have achieved meager results so far." That is true as far as the overall level of violence in Iraq, especially Baghdad. But it is not true as far as the actual operational capacity of the Iraqi Army. For example, in August 2004, when Mahdi Army forces attacked Najaf, the Iraqi Security Forces there fled without a shot being fired. When a replay of this incident occurred in Diwaniyah this August, the Iraqi Army not only stayed and fought, but inflicted more than three times as many casualties as it sustained, and successfully completed one of the most complex operations known to modern militaries -- a nighttime battle handover in the middle of a firefight. This is merely one example of many we see reported everyday here.

2- Most of the problems with the training of the trainers cited were recognized in a 2005 report, even though some reporters (I'm talking to you, Thomas Ricks) cast them as new or ongoing in recent reporting. To their credit, the USA Today acknowledges that the program has undergone a complete overhaul since then and is now putting experienced and better prepared leaders into the mentoring positions.

One final point: The operation by the 9th Iraqi Army Division cited in the editorial was a success, not a failure. The Military Transition Team did not take the lead, but rather called for Coalition air support and advised the Iraqi commanders during the mission. This is exactly what they are supposed to do when their Iraqi units get in over their head. The expectation that they will occasionally get into operations that exceed their capabilities is precisely why they have American advisors. In the end, the operation was a success: 20 Anti-Iraqi Forces were killed or wounded, and more than 40 were detained, including several foreign fighters.

Okay, one final, final point (and my apologies for turning this into a Monty Python sketch: The Pentagon has never misrepresented the progress of the Iraqi Security Force. What we did do in 2004 and 2005 was to change the methodology by which progress was measured. Originally, the strength of the Iraqi forces was measure by total troop strength. But then once it was realized that many Iraqi commanders had scores of "ghost soldiers" on the books in order to receive more money, we began to only count those we had trained and equipped. Then once it was realized that these numbers could be misleading because of the high rates of absenteeism in the Iraqi Army (Iraq has no ATMs, so soldiers have to travel home to deliver their cash salaries to their families) we began rating units as to their capabilities. So there hasn't been any "misrepresenting," only an honest and continual reassessment of what exactly we were trying to measure.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Eason Jordan

Eason Jordan, former head of the News Division at CNN, has announced he will be starting an all-Iraq news website.


Keep in mind, Eason Jordan was the one who admitted that CNN suppressed news of atrocities in Saddam Hussein's Iraq in order to keep its Baghdad bureau open.

Also, at the 2005 World Economic Forum Jordan accused U.S. forces of deliberately targeting journalists in Iraq. He repeatedly denied making these statements, and was eventually forced to resign from CNN when it became clear his denials were, well, less than accurate.

This is just the sort of refreshing objectivity this conflict needs!

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Iraq in the Asian Games Finals!!!

On a much cheerier note, we just received the warning not to go outside due the large volume of celebratory fire. Sure enough, I looked it up, and Iraq upset South Korea in the soccer semifinals of the Asian Cup, 1-0!

It is impossible to overstate the amount of adversity the Iraqi national team has had to overcome. I actually met them on my first weekend in country back in March, and as cliched as it sounds, they serve as inspiration to everyone working to build a better future for Iraq, regardless of sect, ethnicity, or even nationality. (And they get Iraqis to fire vertically for a night instead of horizontally!)

The finals are on Friday afternoon, in which Iraq will play the winner of the Qatar-Iran game that is starting within the hour. I really hope that I can find a way to watch the championship. After all they've been through, the Iraqi people deserve this victory.

Not a Good Morning

First, I was awoken at 0330. The Marine Colonel who occupies the other side of my trailer had gotten up to do something in the bathroom that sits along the 8-foot corridor separating our rooms, and left his door wide open, his television blaring Fox News. I don't know what he needed to listen to while in the bathroom at 0330, or whether he ever gave any thought as to whether we would be able to hear it in my room.

Forgive the pun, but the Colonel is a strange bird. He keeps hours that don't really conform to either the day or night shift. Whenever my roommate or I gets to the bathroom first in the morning, he leaves his door open, and sits naked in a chair waiting for us to get out. He may be the best officer in the Marine Corps for all I know, but last night his eccentricity veered badly into rudeness.

But that was really trivial to what came next.

I accidentally slept through my alarm, which happens every now and then because I sleep with earplugs in so as to muffle the sound of helicopters flying overhead and the pre-dawn call to prayer from the mosques across the Tigris from my hooch. I opened my eyes at 0658, and almost as soon as I'd gotten out of bed and grabbed my shaving kit, the trailer rocked from an explosion in the distance.

Initially, I thought it was likely another mortar impact within the IZ, the kind that lands close but at most damages a storage trailer somewhere. Instead, when I came into the office, it was being reported that a car bomb had exploded in a square just across the July 14th Bridge from the IZ. A pickup truck laden with 200kg of explosives drove into a crowd of day laborers hoping to find work for the day and detonated, killing 45 and wounding 148 men, although the death toll will likely climb.

Think about it. These guys were just looking for any sort of manual labor so that they could put food on their families' tables, and then some ***hole without a family, wanting to go to "Paradise", ends their life. Even if one were to try to rationalize (i.e. Robert Pape) or justify (i.e. Cindy Sheehan, Michael Moore) the terrorists' cause, there is no logical way whatsoever such a monstrous act furthers the cause of jihad. The fact that there is no link between means and ends should frighten everybody who believes that the best way to secure America is by disengaging from the Middle East.

Days like this break my heart. The 160,000 soldiers, airmen, Marines, and sailors of the Coalition are here trying to help Iraqis rebuild after 35 years of horrific tyranny. Yet only takes a handful of lunatics to undo everything we are trying to achieve in partnership with the Iraqis and increase the level of suffering for everybody . . . especially the families of those killed today.

Monday, December 11, 2006

More Thoughts on the Iraq Study Group

"A fatuous process yields, necessarily, fatuous results." Eliot Cohen in the Wall Street Journal.

"If they're lucky, this document will be tossed in the trash and these men and women will be the laughingstocks of posterity." Mark Steyn,"ISG Must Stand For, uh, Inane Strategy Guesswork", in yesterday's Chicago Sun Times

"In all my time in Washington I've never seen such smugness, arrogance, or such insufferable moral superiority. Self-congratulatory. Full of itself. Horrible."
William Bennett in the National Review Online

Really, the report is that bad.

The things it gets right (i.e. the need for more trainers) are obvious and already being implemented.

The things it gets wrong are either ludicrous (i.e. the assertion that Syria and Iran share a common interest in Iraqi security as us -- or the Iraqis, for that matter) or outright dangerous (i.e. by linking the Sunni insurgency's violence to Israeli concessions, Baker and Hamilton have just justified every terrorist's claim that the way to defeat Israel is by killing Americans. Thanks, Gentlemen, we appreciate the support).

Again, if they had included any former Generals, even supposed "Clinton Generals" (i.e. Zinni, Shalikashvilli, Shelton) with an eye towards winning rather than retreating, then maybe it would have come up with some useful, or even remotely plausible, ideas.

But as it is, this is a report fails to makes any sense as a guide for national policy.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Silly String in Iraq

An interesting story on MSNBC on how U.S. troops in Iraq are using commercially available "Silly String" to detect trip wires in buildings and on IEDs.

Not a bad bit of improvisation for a bunch of uneducated, unemployable, lower-class kids, huh?

Friday, December 08, 2006

Gift Update

My colleague who is organizing the donation program for the Iraqi elementary school has provided me with an updated list of recommended items for the children (grades K-2):

- Crayons
- Markers
- Stickers
- Note books
- Rulers
- Calculators
- Small toys

Alternatively, you can send me items to distribute to the wounded troops here at the Combat Support Hospital in the International Zone.

Again, the address to send donations to is:

CPT Benjamin Runkle
MNF-I, Strategic Effects
Communications Division
APO AE 09316

P.S. I probably don't need to mention this, but if you are sending packages for the Iraqi children, please remember not to include any Christmas/Hanukkah decorations in the packaging. They are kind of sensitive about that sort of thing in this part of the world.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

On a Lighter Note . . .

Last night, at about 2145, a voice came over the Embassy loudspeaker telling everybody to stay in the Palace, that it was not safe to go outside.

Was it because of another rocket attack? . . . Was the Mahdi Army finally launching the long threatened assault on the IZ?


It was because of the "extraordinarily high volume" of celebratory gunfire throughout Baghdad. Apparently, last night the Iraqi men's soccer team defeated Malaysia 4-0 to advance to the quarterfinals of the Asian Games. On Saturday they play Uzbekhistan.

The "All Clear" was given after about 30 minutes, but I will be sure to sleep in my body armor if they win on Saturday as well.

The Military and the Media

Check out this report from Bill Roggio independent journalist who has embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan on numerous occasions during the past three years. His account is fascinating not just because I've spent a good deal of time in each of the locations he mentions (Ali al Salim, BIAP, and LZ Washington), but because the dissatisfaction, nay, the hostility of servicemembers towards how badly the media has covered this war is nearly universal.

But that is okay. Judging from this piece by the New York Times on the AP/Jamil Hussein controversy, it appears the press is even more condescending and hostile towards the military. Key sentence:

It is also true that the institution conducting America’s multibillion gamble in Iraq — the military — says that this standout of atrocities never happened, while a venerable, trusted news agency has twice interviewed witnesses who said, in extensive, vivid detail, that it did.

Hmmm. No bias on this issue. (And apparently no memory that the Associated Press got caught using stringers staging phony photos in Lebanon in order to make it look as if Israeli forces were committing atrocities. But then again, that was a few months ago . . . ancient history for a newspaper).

Again, this is not to say that things are going well in Iraq right now, but rather that the media purposefully distorts the picture of what is going on here, making it far more difficult for Americans to objectively assess what needs to be done from here on.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Some Preemptive Thoughts on the Iraq Study Group

Of course, Major General Caldwell's Washington Post op-ed (see below) will likely get completely ignored because of the combined media circus surrounding Robert Gates confirmation hearings and the release of the Iraq Study Group's report. Speaking for myself, and based strictly upon the leaks that have been made to the press, I think the ISG report will be a signal disaster for Iraq and America's efforts here.

First, the notion that we should negotiate with Iran and Syria to stabilize Iraq is risible. What common interest in Iraq do we have with these two anti-American dictatorships? They clearly do not care whether Iraq is in chaos or not, as both nations are currently stoking the chaos at little or no cost to themselves. They clearly do not want any sort of a democracy to emerge next door, which only points out to their own oppressed populaces that an Arab/Muslim democracy is possible. If we are just looking for a discrete way to withdraw, we can do that without selling out our other interests (i.e. a non-nuclear Iran, a free Lebanon) and just pullout. Further, even if we were to strike some sort of grand bargain with Syria and Iran that led to the withdrawal of U.S. forces, what leverage would we have once redeployed that would force them to hold up their end of the bargain? This suggestion, if true and acted upon, will be a greater disaster than losing honorably in Iraq, because it will compound that defeat with the precedent of capitulation to the demands of anti-American aggressors in the region.

Second, there are rumors that the report will link ending the insurgency in Iraq to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If true, this will do nothing more than validate the Sunni insurgencies propaganda, and lead to a lot more dead Americans. Like many innumerable autocrats in the Middle East, the Sunni extremists justify their violence and inhumanity by citing the Israeli-Palestinian dispute in their rhetoric. This is nonsense, of course -- they just want to regain the power they lost when Saddam was toppled. But if the ISG publicly declares a linkage between the two conflicts, this will justify all the attacks against U.S. troops to many of the Sunnis who are now seeking to end the insurgency through reconciliation. Again, the consequences of this recommendation are potentially disastrous.

Third, the composition of the Iraq Study Group is less than reassuring. Whereas they are quite accomplished in their chosen fields of endeavor, is there a reason to believe that Vernon Jordan and Sandra Day O'Connor can come up with strategic alternatives that have somehow eluded every general in Iraq? Would it have killed them to have included at least one person with military experience in the past 30 years? Even disgruntled former Generals who opposed the war, i.e. Anthony Zinni whom I've criticized heavily in the past, would have been better. (And yes, I respect Chuck Robb for his service very much, but again, foot soldiers do not always make the best strategists).

Finally, and this is a nitpick, I realize, but I wish they'd named it something other than the ISG. The team that searched Iraq for WMD's after Baghdad's liberation was called the Iraq Survey Group, and within the government the first retooling of Iraq policy from the White House in the fall of 2003 was called the Iraq Stabilization Group. Someday when I write my book about Iraq, having to spell out which "ISG" I'm referring to with each reference will likely give me Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. So I have that to look forward to.

Seriously, though, one member of the Baker Commission (as it should be truthfully called) told the New York Times,
''We had to move the national debate from whether to stay the course to how do we start down the path out.''
In other words, they did not even honestly consider how to win in Iraq. This is a slap in the face to every service member here who risks their lives every day to help secure and rebuild this country. Why should they (I use the third person because I don't claim to be under that much threat here in the IZ) face this danger if it is not for the purpose of winning?

Everything other than that quote is a rumor or a strategic leak, which is why it is particularly frightening. Hopefully our worst fears about the Iraq Study Group will not come true, or if so, the President will thank them for their time and shelve the report.

More MG Caldwell (on Fallujah)

This op-ed on Fallujah two years after Operation al Fajr ran in about a half-dozen small town papers (i.e. The Fayetteville Observer, Las Vegas Penny Press, the Valdosta County Times) last week. I just forgot to post it when it appeared.

By Major General William Caldwell, IV

If you follow the news coming out of Iraq, you have seen too many headlines about the bloodshed in Baghdad in recent days. As American servicemen and women prepare to spend a fourth holiday season trying to help build a new Iraq, these headlines have led some people to conclude that our mission is hopeless.

However, my recent visit to Fallujah has reaffirmed my strong conviction that as bad as the situation may sometimes appear, there is still reason to be optimistic for Iraq’s future.

Although it has been out of the headlines for some time, take a minute to recall why the name Fallujah resonates so strongly in our collective memory. Perhaps the most disturbing images of Operation Iraqi Freedom emanated from Fallujah on March 31, 2004, as the bodies of four murdered American contractors were desecrated and the charred corpses hung off the Euphrates River bridge for the world to see. The “Fallujah Brigade,” a unit comprised of former Iraqi army officers, failed to prevent warlords allied with Al Qaeda in Iraq from effectively taking over the city. Foreign fighters and terrorist insurgents imposed a Taliban-like regime over the city, torturing and beheading innocent people who just wanted to enjoy the freedoms returning after the fall of Saddam Hussein. (One torture chamber later uncovered included cages in the basement and a wall covered with bloody handprints). With more than 100,000 explosive rounds stockpiled in weapons caches throughout the city, these invaders of Fallujah exported scores of suicide bombers bent on mass murder. The population of Fallujah fled in droves, reducing the number of residents to only 50-60,000. By October 2004, Fallujah was a city without security, without stability, and seemingly without hope.

In order to rescue the people of Fallujah and eliminate it as a base of operations for Al Qaida, Coalition forces launched Operation Al Fajr, or “The Dawn.” Led by American Marines, Coalition Forces battled 2-3,000 terrorists in the fierce and sustained urban combat. Although Fallujah was liberated, half the city was decimated by the intense combat.

What has happened to Fallujah since that ferocious battle?

Last week, I saw a city of 350,000 people who have made incredible progress over the past two years. In the aftermath of Operation Al Fajr, in March of 2005, there were 3,000 United States Marines and only 300 Iraqi security forces in Fallujah. Today, the people of the city are protected by 1,500 members of their own Iraqi Security Force and only 300 Marines. The police are comprised of native Fallujans, and enjoy strong support from the local population. They are able to patrol their own neighborhoods, enforce their own laws, and handle the transition to responsibility for their own security and growth. Despite the sectarian violence which plagues other parts of the country, I saw the commander of the local Iraqi army unit, a Shi’a, sit and work productively with the local police chief, a Sunni – a relationship few would have believed possible in Fallujah just a year ago.

I attended a city council meeting, where a democratically elected mayor and city council led the deliberations about the peoples’ business. To be honest, the Council’s discussion of traffic control was boring. But the mundane business of a functioning democracy can be boring when its institutions are working properly. At the same time, it was exciting to witness democracy in action in soil that once seemed entirely inhospitable. Membership of the Fallujah Business Association has grown from only 20 members last February to over 350 today, demonstrating optimism for economic growth. I even saw a processing center where Fallujah welcomes persons displaced by instability elsewhere.

Fallujah’s transition has not been easy. Terrorists and insurgents are waging a brutal campaign of murder and intimidation against the city’s government and police force. Unemployment remains high, and there is still much rebuilding to be done. But Colonel Larry Nicholson and the young Marines of Regimental Combat Team-5 firmly believe they have turned Fallujah into a model of what Iraq can become. Iraqis themselves support this hope, as families have been arriving in Fallujah en masse to seek shelter from instability in other parts of Iraq.

In October of 2004, the world saw the incredible courage of the Coalition Force, as Marines did their part to create hope for Iraqis. Today, visitors to Fallujah can see the courage of Iraqis for themselves.

Difficult times remain ahead for the U.S. and Coalition Forces in Iraq. Many sacrifices remain to be made by both U.S. servicemen and women and their Iraqi partners in Fallujah. But the city is an example of what can be achieved when courageous leaders, brave security forces, and hard-working citizens unite for a common goal – a secure and unified future. The progress in Fallujah demonstrates that with time and effort, recovery is possible in Iraq in the wake of brutal violence.

"Why We Persevere"

Major General William Caldwell's op-ed in today's Washington Post on why Iraq is not a civil war, and why labels don't matter anyways:

Why We Persevere

By William Caldwell IV
Wednesday, December 6, 2006; Page A25

BAGHDAD -- I don't see a civil war in Iraq. I don't see a constituency for civil war. The vast majority of the people want hope for their families, not to massacre their neighbors or divide their country. A poll conducted in June by the International Republican Institute, a nonpartisan group that promotes democracy, found 89 percent of Iraqis supporting a unity government representing all sects and ethnic communities. No wonder no "rebel army" steps forward to claim credit for vicious car bombs and cowardly executions of civilians.

I see debates among Iraqis -- often angry and sometimes divisive -- but arguments characteristic of political discourse, not political breakdown. The Council of Representatives meets here in Baghdad as the sole legitimate sovereign representative of the people, 12 million of whom braved bombs and threats last December to vote. No party has seceded or claimed independent territory.

I see a representative government exercising control over the sole legitimate armed authority in Iraq, the Iraqi Security Force. After decades in which the armed services were tools of oppression, Iraq is taking time to build an army and national police force loyal to all. There have been setbacks, but also great successes. In Fallujah, a city almost lost two years ago, I have seen the cooperation between the local army commander, a Shiite, and the police chief, a Sunni.

I don't see terrorist and criminal elements mounting campaigns for territory. Al-Qaeda in Iraq doesn't use roadside bombs, suicidal mass murderers and rocket barrages to gain and hold ground. Extremist Shiite death squads don't shoot people in the back of the head to further their control of the government. I do see random executions seeking to instill fear and insecurity. I don't see a struggle between armies and aligned political parties competing to rule.

I studied civil wars at West Point and at the Army Command and Staff College. I respect the credentials and opinions of those who want to hang that label here. But I respectfully -- and strongly -- disagree. I see the Iraqi people suffering from overlapping terrorist campaigns by extremist groups combined with the mass criminality that too often accompanies the sudden toppling of a dictatorship. This poses a different military challenge than does a civil war.

As the Iraqi people labor to build a country based on human rights and respect for all citizens, they are moving from the law of the gun to the rule of law. Violence will increase before life gets better. Those who know that freedom and democracy offer more hope than anarchy will not give up.

Regardless of what academics and pundits decide to label this conflict, hundreds of thousands of brave Iraqi soldiers, police officers and civil servants will continue to go to work building a free, prosperous and united Iraq. And every day more than 137,000 U.S. servicemen and servicewomen will lace up their boots, strap on their body armor and drive ahead with our mission to support these courageous Iraqis.

Army Maj. Gen. Caldwell is the chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq.

Some further points that should be noted:
- Only 13% of Iraqis polled wanted to divide the country by religious tenets or ethnic groupings – 78% stood for unity. Even in Baghdad, where the worst of Iraq’s sectarian violence has occurred, 76 percent of those surveyed opposed ethnic separation, with only 10 percent favoring it.
- According to a September survey by, 97% of Iraqis expressed strong disapproval of attacks on civilians, and 96% disapproved of attacks against the Iraqi Security Force.
- An October study found 89% of Iraqis across the country agreeing with the statement, “My first loyalty is to my country rather than my sect, ethnic group or tribe.”

These findings are consistent, and not numbers one would expect to see in a nation plagued by a civil war. Labels such as “civil war” and “guerilla war” are broad terms. Broad academic categorizations are sometimes helpful. For Iraq, this kind of simplification obscures more than it illuminates. Academic definitions of civil wars which rely upon casualty figures ignore the historical and strategic context that makes every conflict unique.

Again, this is not to say that everything is going well in Iraq. It quite clearly isn't. And in some ways, the violence that we see here is more difficult to manage and overcome than a simple civil war.

But "civil war" is being bandied about by the media as short hand for failure, which is something that neither our forces here -- nor the Iraqis we work with everyday in the Government of Iraq or the Iraqi Security Force -- are ready to accept.

Monday, December 04, 2006


I've started to get a lot of inquiries from family and friends regarding what I'd like to have sent to me for Hanukkah/Christmas.

I meant to post something about this last week, but as usual, I'm an idiot. Basically, instead of buying a gift for me, I'd rather people help me to contribute to one of two projects I'm involved with here:

1)Gifts for an Iraqi Elementary School -- One of the Iraqi translators in my office knows of an Iraqi elementary school that he can discretely get holiday gifts to. (Believe it or not, suicide bombers have occasionally targeted children who received gifts from U.S. soldiers). Our aim is to provide gifts for kids 6-10, to include:
- Crafts supplies (Crayons, Markers, etc);
- Soccer balls;
- Anything else an 8-year old would enjoy.

2)My office has been supplying wounded soldiers at the Combat Support Hospital here in the IZ with basic necessities. Often, when they are wounded, most of their gear is destroyed as well. So we are trying to supply them with:
- Homebaked goods (Remember - they have to be able to make to Baghdad via mail, so brownies and cookies are better than breads);
- Calling cards or MP3 cards;
- Shaving kits (shaving cream and disposable razors);
- Toothbrushes, toothpaste;
- Socks;
- Puzzle books (i.e. crosswords, word search, soduko);

Our hope is to be able to distribute both sets of items on Christmas Day, although anything that arrives late will still find its way into the appropriate recipients' hands.

My new address (which has changed since October):
CPT Benjamin Runkle
MNF-I, Strategic Effects
Communications Division
APO AE 09316

And obviously, this ends the anonymity that I've maintained for the past year, but getting these items to the kids and the wounded is worth it.



Jack Kelly on Military Mockery

Jack Kelly (a former Marine) effectively destroys Charlie Rangel's moronic assertions about the quality of U.S. servicemen and women (see below), and explains better than I did the reasons why the persistence of these stereotypes amongst Democrats is so disturbing.

Specifically, Kelly notes that:
- A higher percentage of enlistedmen in the military have high school degrees than the general population, and

- The average enlisted soldier has higher scores on the Armed Forces Qualification Test (which is similar to an IQ test) than the average civilian.

- A higher percentage of officers have graduate degrees than does the national population of college graduates.

Here's a thought. Perhaps Virginia's newly elected-Senator James Webb, who was a genuine war hero while a Marine platoon leader in Vietnam, and has long been a defender of the U.S. military and its culture, will demonstrate as much courage in correcting these misperceptions amongst his new colleagues as he thinks he did by insulting President Bush when asked how his Marine office son was doing.

Again, as with the AP issuing corrections for relying on bogus sources, I will not hold my breath.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Notes from Salah ad Din Province

Last week, I accompanied Major General Caldwell to FOB Summerall -- just outside of Bayji in Salah ad Din Province, about 200km north of Baghdad -- to attend a memorial service for Command Sergeant Major Donovan Watts, the senior NCO for the 1-505 Parachute Infantry Regiment. (The 1-505 PIR is part of the 82nd Airborne, the Division MG Caldwell commanded until April of this year). This was my second excursion to Salah ad Din in the last two months, the previous trip being with Ambassador Khalilzad to FOB Speicher outside Tikrit (Saddam's hometown) to inaugurate Salah ad Din's Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT).

Herein are some random notes from the last Friday's trip . . .

-- Because we are travelingg on short notice, we have to fly in a UH-64 provided by Blackwater rather than an Army Blackhawk. Our pilot for the flight was a heavy set contractor with gray hair and a brown mustache, wearing a loose Hawaiian shirt. He looked like the stereotypical Hollywood helicopter pilot who, when not drunk or sleeping, flies the renegade CIA agent/hero into some Third World hot spot that no sane or respectable pilot would go near, providing comic relief along the way. Once we are out of Baghdad, about ten minutes into the flight, I swear I saw him unfold a map on his lap as he was flying, as if to find the directions to Bayji.

-- Because we were flying in civilian chopper, and hence kind of stand out against the autumn Iraqi sky, we travel about 15-20 feet above the deck, at 120 knots for the hour-long flight. Although this allows us to see details of the ground more clearly, it also made the trip feel like an amusement park ride. We barely clear the domes of mosques and pass below the top floor of several high rise apartments. Occasionally, we climb suddenly to avoid the power lines that dot the countryside, than just as quickly dip back down to our “cruising” altitude.

-- Flying over Baghdad, one can see mile after mile of tan, two-story homes stretching out to the horizon, satellite dishes visible on almost every roof. The day before our trip, Sadr City was hit by six car bombs, killing more than 180 Shi'a civilians and wounding 200 more, so the traffic today is relatively light. Many side streets appear to be blocked by the residents with trash or other improvised obstacles in order to prevent VBIEDs. The Iraqi children take advantage of this to play soccer unobstructed in the street. Unlike American cities, the neighborhoods appear to get worse the farther we fly from the city center, until eventually the city’s outskirts are dominated by fields serving as impromptu garbage dumps.

The country side transforms from green fields to a mixture of brown dirt fields bisected either by tall roads sprouting from irrigation canals or rows of palm trees. Soon, the only vegetation visible is the sparse scrub brush sprouting from the white, chalky ground. Eventually, the landscape becomes desert, and old fighting positions for tanks begin to appear. As with the First Gulf War, the Iraqis made the mistake of not digging deep enough into the ground so that the position is not surrounded by an obvious berm of raised dirt, thereby giving away the position from a distance. In addition to the fighting positions, there are much deeper holes dug, with unpaved driveways about 50 feet long, wide enough for two trucks, and descending about 20 feet deep into the desert floor. I saw these on my trip to Tikrit as well, and had no idea what they could be. My best guess is that they are wells, although before the flight I was talking with one of the Blackwater guys relayed a story about four fully loaded Scuds that were just recently dug up, fully intact.

-- The landscape is dotted every few miles with single story, mud brick houses the same color as the surrounding desert. We come across some small farms farther out in the countryside. A man and a woman in a hijab are digging by hand with hoes. I cannot imagine what a rough life it must be for these rural Iraqis to hue a living out of this barren earth. And yet they've been doing this here for thousands of years. On the other hand, we also fly over fields with rows of crops covered with plastic insulation and more modern irrigation/spraying systems.

-- Our gunner, a former Special Forces operator armed to the teeth, makes an effort to wave back to everybody on the ground, who are surprisingly friendly: all the children on small farms we pass, boys shepherding flocks of sheep; a farmer waving a reed at us near a small mosque with the dome destroyed. Not all Iraqis were so friendly: on the trip back to Baghdad, we fly over a boy who appears to try to throw a rock at the trail helicopter.

-- As we cross over the Tigris, tall reeds (somewhere between 12-15 feet high, I'd guess) in which a person could disappear dominate the surrounding marshland. We pass two zaugurats (sp?) (circular pyramids that to most Westerners probably resembles a giant stone Cinnabon), one near a city, the other amidst the ruins in the middle of the desert. We fly over a gleaming white city with a large water tower over a small at a bend in the river. On the way back, we pass an ancient palace whose mud walls are still intact. One of the tragedies of Iraq is that there are so many beautiful old architectural sites that would allow the Iraqis to make a fortune from tourism if they would only stop killing each other.

-- After an hour, we arrive at FOB Summerall, which sits on a plain outside the city of Bayji, home to one of Iraq's largest oil refineries. A long series of hills hovers in the distance. One of the first sites visible after leaving the helicopter pad is a set of three 15-ft. high concrete barriers atop a small rise, standing like ancient obelisks. They are painted with the crests of the units that have served here, and with the names of their dead written below. CSM Donovan Watts is the last name on the 1/505 marker, with the date of 21Nov06 by his name. The 1/505 battalion flag flaps silently in the breeze at half mast.

-- If you have never been to a military memorial service, it is one of the most heart wrenching ceremonies you could imagine, so much so that in the States they usually recommend that family not attend. The most riveting part is a tradition known as "The Final Roll Call." After the chaplain and commander have delivered their eulogies, the company's first sergeant comes to attention and calls the name of a soldier: "Jackson"
A soldier from somewhere in the ranks responds, "Here First Sergeant!"
"Here First Sergeant!"
Silence. . . . "Donovan Watts."
Silence. . . . "Command Sergeant Major Donovan E. Watts."

The final silence sits heavy in the air, bringing with it the realization that your comrade in arms is never coming back. This silence is broken by the first mournful notes of a trumpet slowly playing "Taps."

Although the 82nd Airborne is filled with testosterone laden young men eager to show how physically and mentally tough they are, willing to assume the most dangerous task the military offers, as the trumpet wails there is hardly a dry eye in the formation. CSM Watts was killed by an IED on the 21st after 27 years of military service. One of the worst thing about this war is randomness with which death strikes. It has little correlation to a soldier's skill or experience, as most of the fatal attacks are by unmanned weapons such as IEDs or car bombs that do not give the soldier the chance to fire his weapon in defense. Death here seems more often to be the result of a receiving a losing lottery ticket than due to a lack of tactical proficiency.

-- In front of the battalion formation is a memorial for CSM Watts - a rifle with bayonet point in the ground, a helmet on the rifle butt, with a pair of combat boots on either side. After the service, the paratroopers march in front of the shrine in groups of four, execute a right face when they get to the picture of CSM Watts and render a salute. It takes over half an hour for the entire battalion to pass by, but they clearly would have waited twice that to pay their respects.