January 13, 2010

On hold

This blog is no longer being updated. Thanks for your interest!

December 11, 2009


Favorite checkpoint story:  After an interview today at the Ministry of Interior, we drove back home down Abu Nawas street, which runs along the east side of the Tigris. With other cars, we went through a vehicle checkpoint, and were stopped by an officer, who leaned in toward the car window.

Officer: Do you have any weapons?

Us: No.

Officer (incredulously): You don't have weapons? Why don't you have any weapons?

Moral of the story: Everyone in Iraq has a weapon. And with good reason.

December 03, 2009

The forgotten war?

The Korean War used to be known as "the forgotten war." More recently, during the hey-day of the Bush administration's adventure here in Iraq, Afghanistan was the forgotten war. No more, of course.

Now, it seems, Iraq is the forgotten war. I've been here nearly 5 weeks now, and I'm amazed at how far this conflict has fallen in the American consciousness, if I am judging it correctly from thousands of miles away. Iraq is off the front pages, off the television screens and, for the most part, off the main page of major news Web sites.

This isn't entirely a bad thing. News follows conflict and bloodshed, and Iraq has less of both than it used to. Sectarian violence is still an every-day occurence, but it is way down. U.S. troop deaths are way down too - there were two deaths each in October and November from combat-related injuries. Most of Iraq's problems now are of a more complex, murkier political and economic variety.

But that's no reason not to pay attention. Iraq appears to be at a tipping point, where things here could get a wholoe lot better--and still go badly, badly wrong. And what happens in Iraq matters a lot, because of its oil, because of its central geographic position in the Middle East, because of the US invasion here, and because it's the only Shiite-dominated political system in the Arab world.

In other words, just as Iraq enters a really critical period, where its leaders will decide whether they will solve differences without violence, and when the country truly stands on its own with a much smaller crutch from the US. -- many in the West have stopped paying steady attention.

The once-huge international press corps here has shrunken significantly, with many verteran war correspondents decamped to Afghanistan. Major U.S. TV networks have pulled out, or are in the process of doing so. Other news organizations are hanging on until after the elections, which have been delayed from January to at least late February or March. (McClatchy, I am proud to say, plans to maintain a presence in Baghdad).

One of my Iraqi colleagues and I were talking the other day and, sad to say, we both knew what it would take to bring Iraq back to the front pages and the television screens. A major bombing that kills dozens or hundreds. Renewed civil strife. Iraq really having weapons of mass destruction.

Regardless of your views of the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq in the first place, the United States has spent enormous amounts of blood, treasure, political capital here in Mesopotamia. It's been the subject of a divisive national debate and played a role in elections for offices high and low. 

And the story is not over. So keep paying attention. I know that even after my assignment here is complete, I will.

November 28, 2009

Iraqi journalists speak out


The crowd was not large, but given the fact that a gathering of outspoken Iraqi journalists is an obvious target for violence here in Baghdad, and that the Muslim world is currently celebrating the Eid al-Adha religious festival, the crowd was large enough.

The scene was Baghdad's Firdos Square, best known to Americans as the place where Iraqis, in a televised event we later learned was stage-managed, pulled down a huge statue of dictator Saddam Hussein after U.S. troops occupied the city in April 2003.

There was nothing stage-managed about today's gathering--a demonstration in response to the near-fatal shooting five days ago of Imad Abadi, a well-known television anchor known for his criticisms of politicians and parties of every stripe, his crusades against corruption, and his aggressive defense of press freedom. Abadi, 36, was wounded in the head and neck, in what the nonprofit group Reporters Without Borders said was clearly a target shooting. He remains in intensive care at a Baghdad hospital.

Investigative journalism is a new phenomenon to Iraqis, and reporting is a dangerous profession. Hundreds of journalists have been killed since 2003. (And, of course, there was no independent media under Saddam's rule). But after talking with a few of Abadi's colleagues and admirers at Firdos Square, I felt their might be hope for the future--at least in the long-term, if not the near-term.

They were eloquent, even without pen and paper, or script and camera.

Abraheem al Khayat, spokesman for Iraq's union of writers, said Abadi had become so outspoken that friends had warned him to be careful. Khayat made an allusion to the silencer presumably on the intended assassin's weapon. "It is a silencer that is required to silence the voices of outspoken people," he said.

Asked whether Abadi was expected to survive, he said: "Maybe he will live, but he cannot work. Maybe he will live, but he will flee" the country.

I asked Muntasar Buzaid, who is affiliated with a private group that defends press freedom, whether he was optimistic or pessimistic about the future of journalism in Iraq. "I have a little of both," he replied immediately. "Now, I am writing with an alias. For me, it will be a milestone when I can write what I want to write using my own name."

Mohammed Ali, a photographer who works with Abadi, spoke for journalists the world over devoted to their craft. "This is our line of work," he said. "We have only one life. I'm a journalist. What can we do? Should I become a farmer?"

Given their bravery, I felt more than a little ashamed that I could spend only 25-20 minutes at the protest because Western reporters, due to security concerns, are advised not to linger in public places too long.

November 21, 2009

North of the "border"

Flew up from Baghdad to the northern Iraqi city of Suleimaniyah this afternoon, crossing the "border" between Arab Iraq and Kurdish Iraq. There is of course, no border there - Iraqi Kurdistan is part of Iraq, de jure if not always de facto.

You have to show your passport when you prepare to leave Baghdad International Airport and again when you arrive in Sul-y, as some people call it for short, even though it's an internal domestic flight. In Sul-y, there are no pictures of Arab politicians. The face of Jalal Talabani, Iraq's president and head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party, and of Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, are much in evidence.

We drove into the city, down well-lit avenues with nice shops and restauarants. After three weeks in Baghdad, I marveled at the lack of checkpoints and armed, at least publicly armed, men. It's like a different country. The Kurds would like it to be, and frictions between Kurds, Arabs and other minorities have made volatile "disputed areas" out of a belt of territories between Kurdistan proper and the rest of Iraq.

As we arrived near our downtown hotel, we had to get out and walk 30 yards or so because the road was torn up by construction. The key word here is "construction." I must have counted a half-dozen construction cranes on the drive into the airport, in various stages of building apartment buildings and other structures.

What a contrast. There is no construction worth mentioning in Baghdad. Trash piles up in the street. Roads are blocked. Despite the emergence of some normal life since the worst violence of 2005-2007, the city still has a stultifying feel, mixed with lots of edginess. The only construction I noticed of note in Baghdad is a huge building that I was told will be a guest house under the control of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and his succesors. It, of course, is in the protected Green Zone.

I feel sad for Baghdad, a proud city of immense historical importance. But for tonight, it feels nice to be able to walk down city streets like a normal person.

November 18, 2009

It's raining in Baghdad

I woke last night to the sound of thunder, as Bob Seger used to sing, and whether it was an explosion, I sat and wondered.

It wasn't. It was a precursor to rain. Rain! It doesn't precipitate much in Baghdad, to say the least, and the cool drops brought a welcome change. The temperature dropped, the air cleared, the dust settled. People seemed to smile just a little bit more. At least I did.

The rain started Monday evening and continued, off and on, through the day Tuesday and into Wednesday. Puddles formed. Raindrops pattered. Steps became slippery.

What's the big deal with a little rain, you ask? Baghdad gets an average of 2.7 inches per year, according to this website. (I've tried to do the centimeters-to-inches conversion for you, dear reader). The average rainfall for July is: zero. The weather here tends to be unchangeable, deadeningly predictable, in fact. It's burning hot in summer; dry, sunny and dusty the rest of the year. Winter, which is just setting in, brings cooler temperatures, occasional clouds and, like Monday and Tuesday, a bit of rain. It actually snowed, just a dash, here in January 2008, the first anyone can remember.

The rain this week was the longest continuous rainfall in recent years, my Iraqi colleagues say. It was especially good news for Iraq, which has been suffering under a years-long drought. It has harmed the date industry, one of Iraq's main agricultural exports, and sent water levels dropping.

Like virtually everything else in Iraq, the storm drainage system doesn't work very well, especially on little side roads and alleys. Large puddles collected in the middle of roads. Some, even in a protected compound where parliament members and other VIPs live, smelled a bit, well, odiferous.

I didn't mind too much. It rained!

November 15, 2009

The other war: fighting corruption in Iraq

November 17 update: Transparency International today released its 2009 version of the Corruption Perceptions Index. Iraq moved up slightly in the rankings, from 178 to 176 out of 180. The other country where tens of thousands of U.S. combat troops are deployed, Afghanistan, was at 179. The United States ranked 19th.

TAJI AIR BASE, Iraq--Iraqi Col. Waleed Khadem Aboub had a typically local solution to the rampant problem of corruption in his country. "Every month, if they execute somebody in every (province) who steals Iraqis' money, I give you my word, nobody's going to do that," Aboub boomed from the back of the class during a question-and-answer session with the American visitor.

"If you hang him up in the street, no one's going to steal again," he concluded.

Corruption has become pervasive in post-war Iraq, from the small bribes that Iraqis must pay to get papers stamped and cases attended to, to the millions allegedly bilked by senior officials. Iraq's former trade minister, facing allegations that his relatives had received hefty kickbacks from import contracts, was arrested in Baghdad airport in May after the aircraft that was taking him out of the country was turned around.

Corruption was exactly what Ambassador Joseph Stafford, anti-corruption coordinator at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, wanted to talk about. At the invitation of MNSTC-I, the military command responsible for training up Iraqi security forces, I joined Stafford for a Thursday morning visit to the Iraqi Counter-Insurgency School at Taji. The school was established in 2006 with U.S. assistance.

Stafford got a fair and polite hearing. He spent about an hour in the office of school's commander, Col. Ahmed Salim Jessem, and then spoke to a class of 32 Iraqi brigade and batallion commanders going through a three-week counter-insurgency course.

The colonel said he believed that ethics were an important part of officer training, but that his chain of command didn't always agree on making it a priority.

Indeed, it was clear that the Iraqi army has a lot else on its mind these days. Iraqi security forces increasingly are taking over from the U.S. military, with serious questions about how ready they are to fill the gap.

In rooms near where Stafford spoke to the class, preparations were underway for a major two-day computer simulation later in November in which large numbers of troops move in to Baghdad to help secure national parliamentary elections scheduled for January. In the simulation, and in real life, they'll have to learn how to coordinate with local civil authorities; protect infrastructure; deal with aggressive journalists; and respond to bombings or other outbreaks of violence.

"We're training them now for the important time, which is the election time," Col. Salim told Stafford.

He was open about problems with the Iraqi army. He said its image among the Iraqi people is much improved from years past, when officers were called "double agents" for working with foreign troops. But, he said the army was rebuilt "in a rush" after the United States disbanded it in 2003. Now, he said, many officers who were loyal to late dictator Saddam Hussein have rejoined. "They are back in the army. And they work like invisible hands."

U.S. military officers and contractors working at the school say the Iraqi military, while improved, still has a long way to go.

As the United States turns the "battlespace" over to Iraqis, often "they don't know what to do," said Army. Lt. Col. Patrick J. Christian, an American advisor to the school.

"Are they serving the population? Are they protecting infrastructure? Do they even know what infrastructure to protect? Are they protecting IDPs (internally displaced persons)?" Christian said, adding that the force lacks the "corporate management" that is second-nature to the American military.

Back in the classroom, Stafford, a former U.S. ambaassador to The Gambia, spoke in Arabic to the Iraqi officers and heard lots of complaints about corruption. Even in the military, one student said, it's necessary to pay a small bribe to get yout papers processed in an hour instead of, say, three days. 

Stafford told them he sees more and more media reports of Iraqis investigated for corruption. And he explained steps the goverment of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, with U.S. help, is taking, including establishment of inspector generals in every ministry and yearly finance reports.

"Maybe you'll say this is a small thing, it's not important," he said, according to the translation. "But in my evaluation, it's a movement forward."

In an interview afterwards, Stafford said the questions he received made clear the Iraqis' recognition "that Iraq has a way to go in terms of a strong anti-corruption regime." But, he said, "they've also taken some important steps."

The private group Transparency International last year ranked Iraq 178 out of 180 countries in public perceptions of corruption, ahead of only Burma and Somalia.

U.S. officials say the study fails to account for steps Iraq has taken recently to establish institutions to battle corruption. They point to a study by another group, Washington-based Global Integrity. That study put Iraq in the lowest category, but on a par with another major Arab country, Egypt, and ahead of Morroco.

November 10, 2009

These are a few of my favorite signs

Well, this is no doubt old hat to my veteran journalistic colleagues here in Baghdad, not to mention diplomats, aid workers, contractors and, most importantly, Iraqis themselves, but first impressions are important.

I know 40 or so words of Arabic, so here in Baghdad, my eye is naturally drawn to any English-language sign that one happens to see. And one happens to see a lot, because moving (rather, trying to move) around Iraq's capital means spending endless hours waiting at checkpoints, moving through checkpoints, cursing at checkpoints. One of my Iraqi colleagues likened the whole business to a real-life version of the "Tomb Raider" video game.

Naturally, this leaves a lot of time to look at the warning signs posted everywhere. I mean, a visit to the heavily fortified international enclave known as the Green Zone (the rest of Iraq, every bit of it, is known as - you guessed it - the Red Zone) can mean a dozen ID checks, four pat-down searches, removing the battery from your cell phone(s), an airport-type luggage scan, maybe even a sniffer dog. The guards are Iraqi, Peruvian, or Ugandan, the latter employed by the security contractor Triple Canopy.

The Ugandans somehow manage to import and retain their infectious African smiles to this dusty, barricaded city. "You live in the Red Zone?" one female guard asked me incredulously yesterday. "Is it safe?" I gave the only reply I could think of in a moment's notice: "Inshallah." God willing. It's an Arabic cliche, made more poignant by the capriciousness of life in Iraqi circa 2009. 

On our way to an interview at the heavily guarded Independent High Election Commission (IHEC) today, an obvious terrorist target since it will organize and conduct January's national elections, I encountered a security firm I had never heard of: Blue Hackle. They have nice polo shorts, with cool logos.

OK, back to the signs. Deadly Force is Authorized doesn't even phase me anymore. It's like the electricity that goes out every 90 minutes. Freaked me out at first. Now I just listen for the generators to kick in. Ten days in Baghdad will do that to you. Deadly Force is About to Be Used would probably get my attention.

But what about No Long Weapons Allowed?? I saw that sign at IHEC. Presumably, pistols and sawed-off shotguns are OK? How about a cross-bow? Poison blow-gun?

There are plenty of admonitions in the vein of "wait here," "do this," "don't do that," "don't even think of using your cell phone here." But I thought Do Not Enter or You May Be Shot was a bit direct, impolite even.

Near Nisoor Square, where in September 2006, employees of U.S. security firm Blackwater killed 17 Iraqi civilians (case still in court, last I checked), there is a sign that, belatedly perhaps, lays down the law to private security contractors. It tells them to slow down their vehicles, use No Sirens and that, if they fail to comply, they could have their driver's license, or even their company's operating license, revoked.

The notice announcing that everyone will be searched Females Included was a bit superfluous, I thought, since everyone is searched, repeatedly.

But I guess the prize goes to the sign that reflected that worst of American imports, the cheerfully insipid alliteration that is meant to inspire in corporate cubicles 'cross country: Polite, it read. Professional. Prepared to Help. Prepared to Capture Criminals.

PS: Don't Even Think of Parking Here.

November 06, 2009

Baghdad, plus 7

It was a shock today to see Saddam Hussein's old Ministry of Information, on the West side of the Tigris in central Baghdad. In more recent times, the building has been known as the headquarters of the Baghdad Provinical Council. Until October 25, that is, when the building was shattered in one of three massive suicide bombings that killed 155 Iraqis.

It's been seven years since I've been to Baghdad--I don't count two quick in-and-out visits in the protective bubble accompanying secretaries of state Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice in 2004 and 2006 respectively--and the city is utterly transformed, both physically and in less obvious ways. In between, there's been a U.S. invasion, an insurgency, unspeakable violence, and Iraq's halting attempts at democratic politics. A lifetime--several lifetimes--in other words.

The idea of a terrorist bombing against a government building in dowtown Baghdad was virtually unthinkable under Saddam's regime. There was violence aplenty, to be sure, but almost all of it emanated from a single source--Saddam--who slaughtered Shi'ites, gassed and displaced Kurds, and jailed, tortured and murdered anyone deemed to be even a remote threat. Such was Saddam's cult that it used to be said that you could not be in any public place in Iraq without seeing his image somewhere. And, I can tell you, it was damn near true.

The pendulum between chaos and dictatorship is one that is all too familiar to the modern Middle East. It's been either the strong-man dictator or the failing state. Today, as 2009 edges toward a close, Iraq seems to be flailing about somewhere in the middle--closer to disorder, with authoritarian tendencies revealing themselves quite a bit, and with Iraqis trying to see if they can make democratic politics work. The latter is no sure bet.

And the blocky white Ministry of Information building--imagine a really ugly government building a tad in the old socialist style, and you got it--is evidence that Iraq's state remains anemic. One end is buckled and mangled from the explosion. Terrorists, probably from Al Qaida in Iraq (AQI), have been systematically targeting the pillars of government, and are expected to keep doing so.

I have a soft spot in my heart for the Information Ministry, although I can't imagine why. It was the place where the few Western reporters in Saddam Hussein's Iraq would go to get the endless permissions needed to operate in the country, and find a local assistant/translator and driver (who doubled as spying eyes for the regime) to work with. (I don't blame them. They had no choice). For the privilege, we handed over large sums of U.S. hard currency and waited endlessly, smoking cigarettes (I smoked backed then) in the dingy press area.

One thing hasn't changed in 7 years. America's attention wavers. While the United States still has 120,000 servicemen and servicewomen here, and has invested enormous blood and treasure, it's hard to find Iraq on U.S. TV screens or newspaper front pages unless there's a terrorist spectacular. In December 1998, I was in Baghdad covering President Bill Clinton's four-day bombing campaign, called Operation Desert Fox, in response to Saddam's refusal to allow full U.N. weapons inspections. In the middle of this huge event, what did we see on CNN as we sat, waiting, on the Information Ministry's first floor? The Clinton impeachment debate, and the suprise admission by Republican House Speaker-elect Robert Livingston that he, too, had had an extramarital affair.

August 03, 2009

Ten Lessons Learned from War

Forty years ago last week I landed in Vietnam as a soldier.

I covered the war in Iraq for the last six weeks as a correspondent.


Several volumes between them -- a dustup in Belize with Guatemala; South Korea's street fights for democracy; the Persian Gulf War; the L.A. riots; Somalia; Bosnia; Kosovo; Iraq last year. Not a large library. Some of them more CliffsNotes than books. But they've all left their mark on me, the way some songs, novels, photographs, paintings and poems haunt you.

The U.S. military leaves formal footprints behind in a war. They're called "lessons learned" and "after-action reports."

This is a personal after-action report.

In the Editor's Note to our Merced Sun-Star's 2007 Special Report, "The War Comes to Merced," we quoted Plato: "Only the dead have seen the end of war." That's Lesson No. 1. As I've found over four decades, from carrying a rifle to carrying a pen, war will always be with us.

Young reporters, like our Corinne Reilly, who twice has covered the war in Iraq in sterling fashion, can count on a war coming along sometime during their careers. Fewer, it seems, want to bear battlefield witness today than my generation and earlier ones did. But if some Twitter dude or lady blogger wants to don the battle-rattle, good on 'em. It'll make them better journalists. And Americans need someone on the ground, watching and listening for them in the most important decision any human society ever makes.

Lesson No. 2 is that we Americans don't learn from our mistakes. Vietnam was a mistake. This war in Iraq was a mistake. We'll get out of it with fewer than the 58,257 dead from Nam. And the Iraqis probably won't lose 2-3 million, as the Vietnamese did. But we won't leave behind a functioning democracy or even, over time, a U.S. ally. As with Vietnam, the so-called leaders who sent our young people across the seas to fight failed to understand both the enemy and the nature of the war.

Lesson No. 3 is that few of those leaders will ever have to pay the price of their folly. The 4,300-plus American dead, 31,000-plus American wounded, hundreds of thousands of dead and maimed Iraqis have paid the cost. But not the McNamaras or the Bundys or the Cheneys or the Wolfowitzes or the Johnsons or Nixons or Bushes. They get medals and money. The ones who made the ultimate sacrifice get lost in the pages of history. Five of their names are carved in granite at Courthouse Park in Merced.

A learning curve leads to Lesson No. 4. By the time I got to Vietnam, America knew it was losing. The late Walter Cronkite had called it "a stalemate" the year before I stepped onto the tropical tarmac at Tan Son Nhut Airbase. Americans don't do stalemates. Before Tet in '68, American soldiers and Marines -- like those in Gen. Hal Moore's and Joe Galloway's book, "We Were Soldiers Once, and Young" -- believed in their mission. By the time the guys in my company landed there, all we wanted was to get home alive.

Lesson No. 4 is that from the Persian Gulf War onward, the quality of soldiers -- and that includes all branches of the service -- has gotten better each year. The volunteer army has produced smart and brave studs, male and female. Each trooper I met over the last 18 years impressed me more each time. From technology to leadership to commitment, the modern American soldier is somebody we can all be proud of.

My dad taught me the next lesson. It may seem to contradict No. 4, but they're opposite sides of the same coin of our realm. National service should be mandatory. My dad said people shouldn't get to vote unless they'd performed two years of national service. Like him, I don't think it has to be only military service. But every able-bodied, able-minded youngster over 18 should be made to serve the country in a way that helps our society. Lesson No. 5 is that the same virtues and values I've found in young soldiers can be applied to peacetime problems right here at home. Sign 'em up and watch what happens -- to our crumbling bridges; to our weak grade schools; to our understaffed hospices; to our trashed national parks.

Another two-sided coin for Lesson No. 6. Take care of our casualties. All you patriots with the bumper stickers and yellow flags and Old Glory on a pole outside your house -- when's the last time you visited somebody in a VA hospital? Or sent a CARE package to troops in harm's way? Or told somebody in uniform, "Thanks for your service"? Or wrote your congressional rep or senator and told them to vote for more money to take care of veterans? Or voted them out if they didn't?

Side two is the Iraqis. We've taken in a grand total of 20,000 out of 2 million Iraqi refugees, let alone the millions we killed, hurt, uprooted and ruined. We need to do as good or better a job with Iraqi refugees as we did with Vietnamese, Hmong, Lao, Cambodians, Bosnians, Somalis. We owe them. I know three personally we can help. Contact me and I'll put you in touch with them.

Lesson No. 7: Obama is making the same mistake in Afghanistan that Bush did in Iraq. It's called "the graveyard of empires" for a reason. We can't fight our way to victory in a land that sucked in and spit out Alexander the Great, the British Empire and the Soviet Union. A couple of excellent counterinsurgency manuals give us blueprints on how to contain al-Qaida, the Taliban, the takfiri Muslims who violate the precepts of the Koran by killing nonbelievers of their warped creed. Launching Hellfire missiles into Afghan wedding parties ain't in either manual.

Vote the rascals out. Or don't vote for them in the first place. Lesson No. 8 is maybe the easiest to learn. War is a team blood sport. It takes both the executive and legislative branches to declare and to wage. We pay for both, in KIA/WIA/MIA, tax dollars and moral stature in the world. Vote for women and men who understand that war should be the last resort of a democratic republic -- not the first.

Lesson No. 9 is like unto No. 8. Teach your children well. Parents, teachers, coaches, Scout leaders, clerics -- all of you charged with instructing our kids should also talk with them about war. Helping them understand better about war is at least as important as teaching them how not to have babies, multiplication tables, the two-handed chest pass, a bowline knot and whether angels are real.

Finally, Lesson No. 10. I'm done. I'm not leaving my home in Merced except for vacation. No more will I walk to the sound of guns. This was my last war. I would not trade what I've learned and felt for gold or fame. Covering wars has let me make friends for life. War has shown me the face of evil -- and the heart and soul of courage and loyalty and honor.

But it's over for me. Now it's for memories and dreams. And for younger reporters.

Thus endeth the lessons.

                                                                                   --Mike Tharp


Baghdad Observer is written by McClatchy journalists staffing the Baghdad bureau.

Feel free to send a story suggestion. Read their stories at news.mcclatchy.com.


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