Jill Carroll is Free

BEIRUT — Jill Carroll has been released in Baghdad. After nearly three months, during which she was in the thoughts of every reporter in Baghdad, Jill is now in the hands of the Americans and will soon be on her way home to her family. This is the best news I’ve heard in a long time.

art.jill.carroll.afp.giI’ve heard she was first released to the the Iraqi Islamic Party before she was taken to safety in the Green Zone.

UPDATE 3:29:57 PM +0300: It was the Iraqi Islamic Party who received her. The Washington Post seems to have the most details so far. And U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice just gave Jill’s release a shoutout at the summit over Iran’s nuclear program.

UPDATE 3/31/06 2:27:57 AM +0300: The story I did for TIME.com on Jill’s release is up. And the previous story I did when she was first kidnapped is here.

The right-wing nuts already are saying she should have been killed, was treasonous, should be banned from coming home and, in general, spouting their usual mishmash of uninformed — but passionately certain — lies, prejudices and speculation. It’s sickening. (A favorite trope is that because she said her captors treated her well, she must have been in on the kidnapping.)

They base this on an video in which she says the mujahdeen will win because they’re smarter and that the war is wrong, etc. What’s weirdest is their carping on the fact that she was still wearing her hijab and Arabic dress when she was filmed in the Iraqi Islamic Party headquarters. People: She didn’t have any other clothes. And the IIP is a conservative Sunni party. It would have been very disrespectful to the people who were trying to get her home to whip off her hijab in their offices. Notably, in the pics on the Washington Post and New York Times site, she’s pretty obviously wearing a military T-shirt. Man, do these people even consider some of the issues they slam people for?

You Only File FOIA Requests Twice

A while back, I filed a FOIA request on myself with the CIA. Yesterday, I got a letter. I’d tell you what’s in it, but then I’d have to kill you.

BAGHDAD — So. I filed a FOIA request on myself a while back with the CIA. Yesterday my brother received a letter that says that after an exhaustive search they found “one document that we have determined must be withheld in its entirety” based on exemptions to the FOIA and Privacy Act laws. The exemptions cover disclosure of CIA “intelligence sources and methods, as well as the organization functions, names” etc of personnel employed by “the Agency” and “material which is properly classified pursuant to an Executive order in the interest of national defense or foreign policy.”
On the one hand, I think, “Hm. What the hell does the CIA have on me, anyway?” On the other, I think, “Bitchin’! The CIA has spook stuff on me! Who’s the spy in my circle of friends?” Looks like someone in Langley’s getting another FOIA-gram from me…
Seriously, how common is it for a journalist to have a document about him that can’t be released for “national security reasons”? Anyone from the CIA reading this site — and server logs don’t lie, yo — want to chime in and explain? And don’t worry about me blowing your cover. I don’t work for the Bush administration.
UPDATE 23 March 2006 at 1231 +0200 GMT: A copy of the two page letter is available here (page 1) and here (page 2). I wonder if this is part of President Bush’s wiretapping scheme or if the CIA has been “employing journalists again”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Mockingbird, which is supposed to be a no-no.

Blast from the Past

On April 11, 2003, a friend of mine was prescient as to the type of threat the U.S. would face in Iraq. Read this post — or the terrorists win.

BAGHDAD (still) — So, check this blast from the past from my buddy Matt Stannard at the _SF Chronicle:_ Iraqi stragglers still pose threat to allied troops patrolling capital / Hit-and-run attacks likely to persist

Organized military opposition to U.S. and British forces in Iraq has evaporated rapidly since the fall of Baghdad, U.S. military leaders say, but small groups of fighters — irregulars — are still defending the fallen regime.
These “pockets of resistance” — the preferred phrase used widely by pundits — have existed since the first days of the campaign, when American generals said such stragglers would be “mopped up” once the main thrust was complete.

The story dates from April 11, 2003, two days after the U.S. “helped” pull down the Saddam statue in Firdos square near the Palestine Hotel. Ah, we were so young. No one really knew it at the time, but Stannard was eerily prescient in his description of a “third type” of resistance:

A third type of resistance may prove even harder to handle, analysts said: suicide bombers such as the one who reportedly killed himself and injured four Marines at a Baghdad checkpoint Thursday.
Dressed in civilian clothing and willing to die for relatively small military victories, those individual Iraqis — or, in some cases, foreign nationals visiting Iraq specifically to attack Americans — may prove the thorniest challenge for U.S. and British forces in coming days, analysts said.

It was just after these early days — in June and July — that the Iraqi resistance/insurgency formed around these vestigial cells of Ba’athists and fedayeen. Throw in some foreign fighters, sprinkle in a whole lotta Gulf money and bingo — you’ve got a quagmire. It’s really a shame that no one predicted this. Oh, wait! “Someone did!”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/2003/01/the_burdens_of_empire.php

Instead of a nice, clean occupation that results in the first Arab democracy — and a network of Army bases from which to project power throughout the region — I predict the United States will have years of guerilla insurgency from nationalistic Iraqis (some of the fiercest nationalism in the Arab world), the dirty job of suppressing Kurdish and Shi’ite independence movements and Sunni power grabs, the problem of al Qai’da slipping across the borders (with the help of Iran and sympathetic Saudis) into the country to stike at American troops and meddling in Iraq’s internal affairs by Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Russia. And don’t forget the resentment in the region that will occur when the United States begins exploiting the Iraqi oil fields for its own purposes. No one will like that, least of all the Iraqis.

OK. So I wasn’t 100 percent right on all of this. (Russia? What the hell was I thinking?) But I was pretty close. As were a lot of other people a whole lot smarter than me.
But crowing “I told you so!” — which is not even emotionally gratifying anymore — does little to solve the problem. But I don’t know what the solution is anymore. We’re a hair’s breadth away from civil war, American troops can neither stay or go without an even higher body count and we have a political process that is awash with egos, sectarian tensions and lacking in leadership. And that’s just in America. It’s even worse in Iraq.
I have to confess: I can’t see a way out of this briar patch without a whole lot more bloodshed. And at the risk of sounding defeatist — hell, I’ve been here a long time, I can say what I want — I see the likely end as defeat and ruin for Iraqis, the United States and the region. Feel free to use the comment section to suggest realistic solutions ’cause I’m fresh out of ideas. (By the way, if you don’t post a comment, then the terrorists win.)

Neither a Good War, nor a Badr Peace

On Bayan Jabr’s watch, sectarian militias have swelled the ranks of the police units, and Sunnis charge, used their positions to carry out revenge killings against Sunnis.  While allowing an Iranian-trained militia to take over the ministry, critics say, Jabr has authorized the targeted assassination of Sunni men and stymied investigations into Interior-run death squads.

_NOTE: Here is “the story”:http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1175055,00.html I filed for TIME.com over the weekend and which has been occupying much of my time here in Iraq these last few weeks. It will be my final Iraq story for a while, as I’m leaving in a matter of days. After two months, it’s time to take a break._

The bodies began to show up early last week. On Monday, 34 corpses were found. In the darkness of Tuesday morning, 15 more men, between the ages of 22 and 40 were found in the back of a pickup truck in the al-Khadra district of western Baghdad. They had been hanged. By daybreak, 40 more bodies were found around the city, most bearing signs of torture before the men were killed execution-style. The most gruesome discovery was an 18-by-24-foot mass grave in the Shi’ite slum of Kamaliyah in east Baghdad containing the bodies of 29 men, clad only in their underwear with their hands bound and their mouths covered with tape. Local residents only found it because the ground was oozing blood. In all, 87 bodies were found over two days in Baghdad.
The grisly discovery was horrible enough, the latest and perhaps most chilling sign that Iraq is descending further into butchery — and quite possibly civil war. But almost as disturbing is the growing evidence that the massacres and others like it are being tolerated and even abetted by Iraq’s Shi’ite-dominated police forces, overseen by Iraq’s Interior Minister, Bayan Jabr. On his watch, sectarian militias have swelled the ranks of the police units and, Sunnis charge, used their positions to carry out revenge killings against Sunnis. While allowing an Iranian-trained militia to take over the ministry, critics say, Jabr has authorized the targeted assassination of Sunni men and stymied investigations into Interior-run death squads. Despite numerous attempts to contact them, neither Jabr nor Interior Ministry spokesmen responded to requests for comment on this article.
Jabr’s and his forces’ growing reputation for brutality comes at a particularly inopportune moment for the Bush Administration, which would like to hand over security responsibilities to those same police units as quickly as possible. That has raised the distinct and disturbing possibility that the U.S. is in fact training and arming one side in a conflict seeming to grow worse by the day. “Militias are the infrastructure of civil war,” U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told TIME recently. Khalilzad has been publicly critical of Jabr and warned that the new security ministries under the next, permanent Iraqi government should be run by competent people who have no ties to militias and who are “non-sectarian.” Further U.S. support for training the police and army, he said, depends on it.
But ever since Jabr was appointed Interior Minister after the January 2005 election brought a religious Sh’ite coalition to power, Sunnis allege, he began remaking the paramilitary National Police into Shi’ite shock troops. A member of the Iranian-backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), Jabr fled to Iran in the 1970s to avoid Saddam’s crackdown. Jerry Burke, a former civilian senior police advisor to the Interior Ministry, said Jabr’s experience with Saddam’s government has left him bitter and distrustful of anyone he suspects has ties to the previous regime. That would most certainly include the former members of Saddam Hussein’s Special Forces and Republican Guards which initially made up the bulk of the National Police when Jabr took charge.
To help facilitate his transformation of the police forces, Jabr made sure to enlist the help of SCIRI’s armed wing, the Badr Organization. Members of the militia have been a growing presence in the National Police, which now consists of nine brigades, with about 17,500 members divided between the Special Police Commandos, the Public Order brigades and a mechanized brigade, which will soon be transferred to the Ministry of Defense. “Leadership in the commando positions has been turned over to Badr,” said Matt Sherman, a former CPA advisor to the Interior Ministry. “And new recruits are mostly Badr.”
Indeed, outside the ministry headquarters, banners proclaiming solidarity with Imam Hussein, one of Shi’ites’ holiest figures, snap in the spring breeze alongside — and sometimes instead of — Iraqi flags. Most of the guards’ beards are invariably cut in the close-cropped Iranian style, making them stand out in Baghdad, where beards are less common.
Like so many things in Iraq right now, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. As far back as December 2003, David Gompert, the former National Security Advisor for the Coalition Provisional Authority, realized the dangers sectarian militias posed to Iraq’s stability. And in the waning days of the Coalition Provisional Authority, American viceroy L. Paul “Jerry” Bremer issued Order 91, which was intended to demobilize or integrate nine militias totaling about 100,000 men into the Iraqi security forces. But the Kurdish pesh merga and the armed wing of SCIRI, the Badr Organization, still exist today because the order was never completely or competently carried out.
For that, Gompert puts the blame squarely on the Iraqi government, then under Iyad Allawi, as well as the American embassy. With the U.S. military engaged in several major operations in 2004 and the government transitioning from the CPA to a more traditional diplomatic presence with the arrival of U.S. ambassador John Negroponte at the end of June, Gompert says, neither Allawi nor the U.S made the reintegration program a priority. Job training programs run by Allawi’s Labor Ministry were cancelled over personal feuds and pension programs and other aspects of the program of DDR — “demilitarization, demobilization and reintegration” — were bounced around from one command to another.
Making matters worse has been the fact that the police — unlike the Iraqi Army, which is still under U.S. command and supervision — were practically ignored almost from the beginning of the occupation, says Burke. And what supervision the National Police did get came from U.S. military intelligence officers, not civilian police advisors.
This grave oversight, which stemmed from the military’s unfamiliarity with civilian police methods and its unwillingness to learn, has led to numerous abuses and little accountability. The U.S. State Department, “in a report released two weeks ago”:http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2005/61689.htm, documented numerous incidents in 2005, dating back to early May when Jabr was first appointed Interior Minister, where Sunni men were killed execution-style by Interior Ministry police or Shi’ite militias. In each case, Jabr ordered an investigation, and in each case the investigation had yet to report any findings.
Thanks in part to the Interior Minister’s “nonfeasance,” said Burke, the former Interior Ministry adviser, Jabr was at least indirectly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of military-age Sunni men whose bodies have turned up at the sewage plant in southeast Baghdad since late December. Men in police uniforms and vehicles routinely travel through the city in daylight hours with bodies in the back of trucks for disposal at the sewage plant, he said. Prisoners often disappear, Burke said, because they’re picked up at night and no one has an accurate account of who is arrested and where they are taken. “The Special Police Commandos,” he said, using their old name, “are most definitely out of control.”
So black is the reputation of the National Police, that after the Feb. 22 bombing of the Askariya shrine in Samarra, many Sunnis said the perpetrators were Interior Ministry troops who were looking for a pretext to start a civil war. Their fears were further fueled in the bloody two days after the attack, when Iraq became a sectarian slaughterhouse. Instead of protecting citizens from each other, National Police units stood by as Shi’ite rioters — and rival militiamen from Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army — stormed Sunni mosques and swarmed over Sunni neighborhoods, according to numerous reports, including some confirmed by U.S. Gen. George Casey, commander of American forces in Iraq.
The American efforts to try and help stem the deadly sectarianism will likely do little good — and in some respects may well exacerbate the problem. Instead of increasing the number of civilian advisors to Iraq’s local police forces, a spokeswoman for the Multinational Security Transition Command-Iraq (MNSTC-I) said more U.S. military police and military personnel will be assigned to train them. The Special Police Transition Teams (SPTTs) are the model that will be followed. “The SPTTs have been very successful in their efforts,” the spokeswoman said. No change is planned for the oversight program on the National Police.
Gompert notes, “I remember saying, ‘If there is going to be a civil war, it’s going to be fought between Sunni insurgents and Shi’ite militias.” And as long as Jabr is running the Interior Ministry and its police forces, there is little doubt which of the two in such a conflict will have the law — and American training — on its side.

Nothing “civil” about it…

Regular readers know I think we’ve been in a low- to medium-grade civil war for some time, with the Feb. 22 Askariya bombing a huge step toward open conflict. Well, read this.

BAGHDAD — Regular readers know I think we’ve been in a low- to medium-grade civil war for some time, with the Feb. 22 Askariya bombing a huge step toward open conflict. Well, read this by Nir Rosen, who used to write for TIME before he went on to bigger and better things. Nir’s a smart guy. Here’s an early, key point he makes:

…Sunnis were killing Shia civilians, and Shia, often under official cover, were retaliating. I asked Haidar if the rumors I’d heard were true — that the Ministry of Interior had been infiltrated and dominated by the Badr Organization Militia, the military forces of the radical Shia Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution, or SCIRI. Yes, he said, and added that Ministry of Interior members affiliated with Badr were assassinating Sunnis throughout Iraq. Sunni officers were being removed and replaced by unknown Shias.

This jives with my own reporting on this, which will be published tomorrow on TIME.com.

Operation Overblown

BAGHDAD — “Operation Swarmer” is turning out to be much less than meets the eye, or the television camera, for that matter. And that should raise concerns about relying on Iraqi intelligence.

BAGHDAD — Operation Swarmer is turning out to be much less than meets the eye, or the television camera, for that matter.

Iraqi and Coalition forces launched Operation Iraqi Freedom’s largest air assault operation in southern Salah Ad Din province March 16. Named Operation Swarmer, the joint operation’s mission was to clear a suspected insurgent operating area northeast of Samarra.

Operation Swarmer included more than 1,500 troops from the Iraqi Army’s 4th Division, the U.S. 101st Airborne Division and 101st Combat Aviation Brigade. The Soldiers isolated the objective area in a combined air and ground assault.

More than 50 Attack and assault aircraft and 200 tactical vehicles participated in the operation. Troops from the Iraqi Army’s 4th Division, the “Rakkasans” from the 187th Infantry Regiment and the “Hunters” from the 9th Cavalry Regiment assaulted multiple objectives. Forces from the Iraqi 2nd Commando Brigade then completed a ground infiltration to secure numerous structures in the area.

Initial reports indicate a number of weapons caches were captured, containing artillery shells, IED-making materials and military uniforms. Iraqi and Coalition troops also detained 41 suspected insurgents.

That sounds exciting! But according to a colleague of mine from TIME who traveled up there today on a U.S. embassy-sponsored trip, there are no insurgents, no fighting and 17 of the 41 prisoners taken have already been released after just one day. The “number of weapons caches” equals six, which isn’t unusual when you travel around Iraq. They’re literally everywhere.

(Digression: Just to clear some things up, “air assault” does not equal air strikes. There are no JDAMs being dropped, and there are no fixed-wing aircraft involved at all, except maybe for surveillance. An air assault is the 101st Airborne’s way of inserting troops into a battlespace. There is so far no evidence of bombardment of any kind. Also, it’s a telling example of how “well” things are going in Iraq that after three years, the U.S. is still leading the fight and conducting sweeps in an area that has been swept/contained/pacified/cleared five or six times since 2004. How long before the U.S. has to come back again?)

As noted, about 1,500 troops were involved, 700 American and 800 Iraqi. But get this: in the area they’re scouring there are only about 1,500 residents. According to my colleague and other reporters who were there, not a single shot has been fired.

“Operation Swarmer” is really a media show. It was designed to show off the new Iraqi Army — although there was no enemy for them to fight. Every American official I’ve heard has emphasized the role of the Iraqi forces just days before the third anniversary of the start of the war. That said, one Iraqi role the military will start highlighting in the next few days, I imagine, is that of Iraqi intelligence. It was intel from the Iraqi military intelligence and interior ministry that the U.S. says prompted this Potemkin operation. And it will be the Iraqi intel that provides the cover for American military commanders to throw up their hands and say, “well, we thought bad guys were there.”

It’s hard to blame the military, however. Stations like Fox and CNN have really taken this and ran with it, with fancy graphics and theme music, thanks to a relatively slow news day. The generals here also are under tremendous pressure to show off some functioning Iraqi troops before the third anniversary, and I won’t fault them for going into a region loaded for bear. After all, the Iraqi intelligence might have been right.

But Operation Overblown should raise serious questions about how good Iraqi intelligence is. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told by earnest lieutenants that the Iraqis are valiant and necessary partners, “because they know the area, the people and the customs.” But when I spoke to grunts and NCOs, however, they usually gave me blunter — and more colorful — reasons why the Iraqi intelligence was often, shall we say, useless. Tribal rivalries and personal feuds are still a major reason why Iraqis drop a dime on their neighbors.

So I guess it’s fitting that on the eve of the third anniversary of a war launched on — oh, let’s be generous — “faulty” intelligence, a major operation is hyped and then turns out to be less than what it appeared because of … faulty intelligence.

UPDATE 2400 GMT +0300: Time.com has posted the magazine’s official version by Brian Bennett, my colleague who was on the operation today.