Karl Zinsmeister: Contemptible

BEIRUT — *Sigh* Another attack on the war corps by a guy who’s now the senior domestic policy advisor for President Bush. He’s also the guy who wrote this gem:

In another article, this one at the American Enterprise Institute’s Web site on June 20, 2005, Zinsmeister, after another period as an embed, wrote, “What the establishment media covering Iraq have utterly failed to make clear today is this central reality: With the exception of periodic flare-ups in isolated corners, our struggle in Iraq as warfare is over….Contrary to the impression given by most newspaper headlines, the United States has won the day in Iraq…. the battle of Iraq is no longer one of war fighting—but of policing and politics.”
The article is titled, “The War Is Over, and We Won.”

Yeah, ’cause policing and politics have proven to be so easy. But I just don’t have it in me today to take issues with this guy. Maybe I’m just “whiny”:http://web.mac.com/callbritton/iWeb/B2I%20Extras/Clips_files/A_Badr_Peace-1.pdf and “appallingly”:http://web.mac.com/callbritton/iWeb/B2I%20Extras/Clips_files/Hostile_Territory.pdf “soft”:http://web.mac.com/callbritton/iWeb/B2I%20Extras/Clips_files/Among_the_Believers.pdf.

More on the CBS crew

Not a single journalist in Baghdad believes that they’re telling the story of “a determined people … fighting for freedom and liberty.” Everyone I know thinks the places is disintegrating and heading for a hell on earth.

BEIRUT — In the _Times’_ story about yesterday’s attack, which killed two CBS crewmen, a U.S. soldier and an Iraqi interpreter, as well as gravely wounded the correspondent and six other soldiers, U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad was quoted as saying:

“These brave journalists risked their lives to tell the world the story of a courageous people and a proud nation,” he said. “The terrorists who committed this evil crime have shown themselves for who they are. They do not want the world to see the truth of what is happening in Iraq, where a determined people are fighting for freedom and liberty.”
“That story must and will be told,” he said.

Please. Dozier, Brolan and Douglas were doing a Memorial Day story on the troops, which probably came down from their editor as one of those perennial stories journalists have to do whenever the holiday rolls around. (Pity the poor editor who assigned that story. Every editor has to live with the knowledge that their story assignments could be placing people they know and care about in danger. Speaking from experience, I would much rather be the reporter on the ground than the assignment editor. The guilt if something goes wrong is almost unbearable.)
But back to Zal. I know the embassy has to stay on message, but not a single journalist in Baghdad believes that they’re telling the story of “a determined people … fighting for freedom and liberty.” Everyone I know thinks the place is disintegrating and heading for a hell on earth. Nir Rosen’s “Republic of Fear” op-ed is spot on. “Read it.”:http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/05/26/AR2006052601578.html I’ve run across almost every thing he says in his article, and most other journalists have as well. Our local staff have to live this day in and day out, so we get to hear just how awful it is. Relatives disappearing, multiple ID cards, massacres one street over.
Yeah, sounds like a determined people fighting for liberty to me. Not. More like a frightened people just trying to keep their heads down and stay alive while saving up enough money “to flee the country.”:http://select.nytimes.com/search/restricted/article?res=FA0815FE385A0C7A8DDDAC0894DE404482 (Times’ firewall, sorry.)

Secret listening program in Iraq

BEIRUT — Wow, talk about intriguing. At the very end of the _New York Times_ story on the looting of Saddam’s bunkers under the noses of the Americans, James Glanz drops this little bombshell:

But the palace still retains its aura of mystery. Tucked away on the undamaged side is a largely secret communications project that Lucent is carrying out for the Iraqi Interior Ministry, said Frank Gay, a Lucent program director. A Lucent employee who refused to give even his first name let a reporter and photographer peek into the room where people worked quietly at laptops. “There’s nothing to see,” the employee said, hustling his guests on.

WTF? “Largely secret”? “Iraqi Interior Ministry”? My ears are all a-pricked. Actually, we (meaning journalists) always assumed our calls and emails were monitored by the U.S. military and others. Interesting to see it confirmed. Get cracking on this one, James!

Defending Ellen (and the rest of us…)

BEIRUT — I was about to write a scathing retort to Airedale’s slag on Ellen Knickmeyer when I something more important happened: “Today, CBS cameraman Paul Douglas and soundman James Brolan were killed, and the correspondent, Kimberly Dozier, was critically injured”:http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2003/02/24/iraq/main541815.shtml when the convoy they were embedded with was hit by an IED. This brings the total journalists killed in Iraq to 71 with an additional 26 media workers (translators, drivers, etc.) also dead. My sympathies go out to all of their families.
“Airedale’s comment”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/2006/05/alalousi_stands_alone.php#comment-31398, reprinted below, should be see in this light. My response is below his comment.

on a side note, this reporter Ellen Knickmeyer
has filed a story from Baghdad ( green zone ) about an investigation into a possible incident of excessive force atrocity of marines and Iraqi soldiers ( Shia ? ) in a convoy through sunni dominated Haditha.
What I read was that a video tape ‘happened’ to catch the explosion of an IED and the following mi lai ……
Do you know this “Ellen Knickmeyer” who files reports about Haditha eye witness accounts from a Baghdad office?

The story that Airedale is referring to is “here”:http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/12998125/.
First of all, let’s clear something up. ALMOST NO REPORTERS LIVE IN THE GREEN ZONE. I really don’t know why this has to be repeated so often. The U.S. military does not allow us to live there. The _Washington Post_ house, where Ellen lives, is right next to the TIME Magazine house, where I lived. We most certainly do NOT live in the Green Zone, and we go through the ups and downs — well, mostly downs — of living in Baghdad like other Iraqis. We have almost constant contact with Iraqis through out staff and their families.
And most of us don’t _want_ to live in the Green Zone. It’s boring. It’s almost impossible for our Iraqi staff to get in and out. And when they do, they open themselves up to retaliation from insurgents and terrorists who see anyone using a GZ entrance as a collaborator. It’s hella dangerous.
And, yes, I know Ellen well. We worked together briefly back in 1997 when I was new to the Associated Press and she was an old hand on the International desk.
But that’s not important. What’s important is the way reporters work in Baghdad these days. More on that later. But also important is Airedale’s blatant misreading of the story. The video didn’t “happen” to catch an IED and the massacre that followed. The story makes no mention of that, either, so Airedale didn’t read any such thing. Secondly, TIME Magazine broke this story back in February. I know the guys who brought in the video and I’ve seen it. It’s grim. It’s a recording of bodies, bloodstains, bullet holes and shell casings. It’s obvious from the video that this was a massacre and not a firefight.
I’m not going to go into too much, for security and competitive reasons, but TIME Magazine reporters — not Iraqi stringers — interviewed survivors of the massacre in a safe place in Baghdad after bringing them down from Haditha. I’m not sure how Ellen did it, but my read is that she did something similar, or used one of her Iraqi staffers to interview survivors in Haditha.
Oh, wait! That’s exactly how she did it: “The 24 Iraqi civilians killed on Nov. 19 included children and the women who were trying to shield them, *witnesses told a Washington Post special correspondent in Haditha this week* and U.S. investigators said in Washington.”
In another paragraph, she writes: “Townspeople led a Washington Post reporter this week to the girl they identified as Safa. Wearing a ponytail and tracksuit, the girl said her mother died trying to gather the girls. The girl burst into tears after a few words. The older couple caring for her apologized and asked the reporter to leave.”
Hm. Sure sounds like a Washington Post reporter, possibly Ellen, did some shoe-leather work there.
But, look: This is how it’s done these days; we rely on stringers and Iraqi staffers who can go where Westerners can’t. It’s not perfect, but it works better than you think. Our Iraqi staffers are getting better and better: more professional, more discerning, more skeptical. I have utter faith in the Iraqi TIME staffer who brought this story to us, and I’m sure Ellen has the same confidence. Since I know Ellen and I know her to be a good journalist, I’m going to say I’m pretty sure she knows what she’s doing.
This accusation that reporters don’t go out has been dogging the press corps in Baghdad since things got bad, and it’s almost wholly undeserved. Why the hate, brother? Other than the obvious and clumsy White House attack on the media to discredit all news coming out of Iraq as “biased,” I also think it’s because the Washington press corps was so phenomenally bad in the lead-up to the war that people think we’re all the same people. We’re not. I don’t know any Baghdad reporters who were also in the Washington corps before the war. Except for maybe some TV and magazine parachute journalists.
But the fault, dear brutes, lies not just in ourselves, but in the stars of the blogosphere, sites like Daily Kos and Instapundit. Blog culture has created such a distrust of _all_ so-called Mainstream Media that it’s almost heretical to defend “the press” in a blog these days. Well, fire up the coals and burn me at the stake then: _I think the journalism coming out of Baghdad has been some of the best the international press corps has produced._ Under tremendous difficulties, we have produced some great journalism — like TIME’s Haditha scoop, for instance. No other enemy has been so covered as the Iraqi insurgency; hell, the press in Baghdad understood there was an insurgency before the U.S. military did!
Our military coverage has been, in a word, great. Tom Lasseter’s coverage from embeds has been some of the most hard-hitting of the war. He has been ahead of the curve on the sectarianism fury within and between the various security forces — and he did all that reporting while embedded.
We had one major misstep: Abu Ghraib. I’ll cop to that (not personally, of course.) Reporters had been hearing that stuff for weeks and months beforehand, but we just couldn’t believe that Americans were piling naked guys into piles and putting glowsticks up their asses. It just seemed too outrageous. And every reporter in Baghdad has had the experience of hearing an Iraqi blame the “Israeli missile” for what was obviously a suicide bomb. Iraqis do have a tendency to exaggerate.
But we learned after our lesson; we stopped dismissing seemingly wild Iraqi claims out of hand, earning us unending scorn from the right which thinks the press corps is populated by raging lefties who think the U.S. military is a bunch of baby-killers. It’s not. I think most of us thought, initially, that an all-volunteer military with Vietnam behind it would have learned some lessons from My Lai, etc. about the abuse of power. We were all shocked by Abu Ghraib. We’re not shocked now.
Which brings us back to Haditha. I’m incredibly proud to be associated with an outlet that broke this story and which got an investigation going into this. The evidence I saw on that videotape was overwhelming against the Marines involved. Men are going to go to jail for a long time over this, _inshallah_.
And we did it using the exact same frustrating, imperfect and flawed reporting methods Ellen used. And we were right, dammit. And so is Ellen. To criticize her for her using Iraqi staffers to go where she can’t is to criticize and doubt _all_ of the reporting that comes out of Iraq these days. Lord knows the Bushies would like you to lose all faith in the media so they can claim all the bad (but true) news is a giant conspiracy by east coast liberal elites out to undermine the troops. You’re perfectly free to believe that. But you won’t be getting the story of America’s misadventure in Mesopotamia.
Two more men are dead and a woman critically injured for that story. You may not like the stories coming out of the theatre of battle. Well, I don’t like what the Marines did in Haditha. If you want me to “support the troops,” whatever that means these days, how about a little support for the press corps?

Al-Alousi Stands Alone

I’d like to pick a wee bone with Tom Friedman. Well, actually not him specificially, but really the American tendency to emphasize the actions of individuals over larger, countervailing forces in politics. Exhibit A: Friedman’s opinion that the action of a brave Iraqi in Parliament is a good reason to keep at it in Iraq

BEIRUT — I’d like to pick a wee bone with Tom Friedman. Well, actually not him specifically, but really the American tendency to emphasize the actions of individuals over larger, countervailing forces in politics. Exhibit A: Friedman’s opinion that the action of a brave Iraqi in Parliament is a good reason to keep at it in Iraq (Times’ Select, sorry):

I am often asked why I don’t just give up on Iraq and pronounce it a lost cause. It would certainly make my job (and marriage) easier.
What holds me back are scenes like the one related in last Sunday’s Times story from Baghdad about the Iraqi Parliament’s vote to approve the country’s new cabinet. Our story noted that during the Iraqi parliamentary session, the Sunni party leader Saleh Mutlaq, a former Baathist, stood up and started denouncing the decision by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to have Parliament vote on the new cabinet even though he hadn’t yet filled the key security posts.
At that point, another Sunni politician, Mithal al-Alousi, told Mr. Mutlaq to sit down. “Iraqi blood is being spilled every day,” Mr. Alousi said. It was time to move forward. When Mr. Mutlaq pressed on with his denunciations, Mr. Alousi “pulled him down into his chair,” The Times reported. That was a gutsy move — live on Iraqi TV. Many Sunni insurgents may not like what Mr. Alousi did, but he did it anyway.
As long as I see Iraqis ready to take a stand like that, I think we have to stand with them. When we don’t see Iraqis taking the risk to build a progressive Iraq, then it is indeed time to pack and go. That moment may come soon. It’s hard to tell. I won’t hesitate to say so — but not yet.

If only it were _Iraqis_ instead of _an Iraqi_ taking a stand. As the saying goes, one swallow does not a summer make.
I know Mithal al-Alousi and Saleh Mutlaq. I’ve spoken with them both on numerous occasions. I like them both, in their own way, and consider them friends of a sort. But al-Alousi is different. He’s the most — and possibly only — truly honorable Iraqi politician I’ve met. This is a guy, a Sunni, who stands firmly for secularism, who doesn’t believe that the Israeli-Palestinian fight is one that Iraq should be in, and who paid for a trip to Israel in order to foster ties with the strongest economy in the region with the lives of his two sons. He also believes in equality before the law, and — no former Ba’athist he — has been harshly critical of the De-Ba’athification Commission because it was run by political hacks working for their respective parties, so they were able to grind many, many axes against men and women who did nothing wrong but try to feed their families in an unjust system.
Obviously, he’s not a perfect man. He was jailed for a year in Germany for attempting to take over the Iraqi embassy prior to the March 2003 invasion. But even that grew out of his frustration with Saddam’s regime.
(Edit: And his trip to Israel _was_ ill-advised in the political climate of Iraq. But he was following the lead of his old buddy Ahmad Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress, who said to the Council on Foreign Relations that “Iraq should recognize Israel”:http://www.cfr.org/publication/6044/conversation_with_ahmad_chalabi.html. (Way down at the bottom.) When al-Alousi took actual steps to follow that up, the INC hung him out to dry and called for his head. With friends like that…)
Mutlaq, on the other hand, is a former Ba’athist and claims to have some pull with the insurgency. What the two men have in common, other than being co-religionists, is that neither has any real constituency to speak of.
Al-Alousi, bless him, got a single seat in Parliament. Mutlaq has about 11, I believe, but his claim to influence rests in his alleged influence with the Ba’athist elements of the insurgency. Sorry to say, every Ba’athist ever interviewed by TIME viewed Mutlaq as a pretender and paid no attention to him.
So those who have hoped more than planned for this war are betting on what is probably a losing horse, despite al-Alousi’s honesty and earnestness. if only there were more guys like him in power! But there aren’t, because religion and tribal loyalties get the better of Iraqis when they need to stand up for guys like al-Alousi. I know many Iraqis who like and admire al-Alousi, but when it came time to vote in December, they went with the Sistani list (if they were Shi’a) or Adnan al-Dulaimi’s list (if they were Sunni), even though they said beforehand how much they disliked clerics running the show. Al-Alousi’s vision of secularism and liberalism just can’t compete with the forces rending Iraq these days. And hoping people like Mutlaq and Dulaimi will be able to curb the insurgency — or even want to, since that’s all that gives the Sunnis a seat at the table — is a real gamble. Based on what I know, I don’t think the newly-elected Sunni parliamentarians will be able to deliver jack.
Friedman’s desire to look at al-Alousi as a sign that all is not lost in Iraq is natural. Americans are predisposed towards celebrating the actions and intentions of individuals in politics. We vote for candidates rather than lists, which points up the incompatibilities of American expectations and hopes, and the forces of group-think, sectarianism and tribalism at work in Iraq. Unless you’re Saddam, one person is just not going to make a huge difference in Iraq. Case in point: When the Americans ran the show, the appointed a secular Shi’ite, Ayad Allawi, as prime minister, who turned around and waged war on Fallujah and Moqtada al-Sadr. Now, after two elections and one referendum, the Iraqi people have elected a government that has become more sectarian, not less; more divided and divisive. Today, al-Sadr’s a kingmaker within the government and the insurgency is as virulent as ever. That’s democracy in Iraq. Modernity lost.
Look, I’ll be honest: I don’t know what the American course of action should be exactly. Stay? Leave? It’s a bit of a trick question because the military component of the American presence has been, well, almost the entirety of the American presence, and this has long not been a military problem. Of course U.S. troops should go as soon as possible. But what’s really needed is an army of police trainers, technicians and people who can get the economy back on its feet and power flowing again, from America and from around the region. You want to see the forces of secularism advance in Iraq? Put al-Alousi in charge of the electricity ministry and then spare no expense to get the lights back on for more than four hours a day in Baghdad — and then let him take the credit. Put secularists in charge of the anti-corruption watchdog Committee for Public Integrity and give it some real bite. Rid plum posts like the Finance Ministry of discredited retreads like Bayan Jabr and put real economists in place so they can boost employment in the south. That would be a good start.
If the Iraqis are unwilling to take steps that de-emphasize local, tribal and sectarian loyalties in their politics — and fast — well, maybe the U.S. should just pack up and leave. These days, al-Alousi is a lonely swallow indeed.

Iran supplying Zarqawi?

Omar over at Iraq the Model translates an article from az-Zamman that claims Iranian Revolutionary Guards are supplying Abu Musab al-Zarqawi with advanced weaponry, with Lebanese Hizbollah as the intermediary.
Here’s what you should know about this: Zarqawi _hates_ the Shi’a community, with the fiery passion of the Sun’s core. When I was with TIME, we monitored al Qaeda in Iraq’s (AQI) pronouncements through the Web, market DVDs and audio tapes. If the stack of Zarqawi fulminations against the Americans and Jews were a foot high, for example, his tirades and sermons against the Shi’a were 10 times that. He hates ’em, which is pretty much in tune with hard-core Wahhabi doctrine.
On the other hand, he never said a word against Iran. Instead, it’s the Ba’athists who see the Persians as the bogeyman to the east. Thanks to an 8-year war with Iran, the Ba’athists are fighting an insurgency against the Iraqi government, which they consider an Iranian plot. Zarqawi’s aims are much bigger than that, and focus more on the American presence.
Now, one of my old sources — who I hear has since been picked up by the Iraqi Interior ministry, the poor guy — told me once that Iran _was_ supplying Sunni insurgents in Iraq in a bid to keep the Americans bogged down to the tune of $100 million to $200 million a year. The Iranians were acting through what the CIA would call “cut-out” groups and the Sunni insurgents often didn’t know who their ultimate bankrollers were. My source was neither insurgent, nor American, nor tied to the Shi’ite parties. He moved between all the parties because of his apparent neutrality and his information was always top-notch. He told me about the shaped charges of IEDs months before they started becoming mainstream knowledge.
Back to Zarqawi. Thanks to Zarqawi’s virulent anti-Shi’ism, it is highly unlikely that he would deal with Lebanese Hizbollah, or that Hizbollah would want to deal with him anyway, unless they’re complete lapdogs to Tehran. I don’t believe they are, despite such accusations from right-wingers in Washington and Tel Aviv Israel.
So what are we are to make of all this?
# Probably, the story is fundamentally true, in that Iran is sending advanced weaponry, including Strela-7 missiles and lots of Kalashnikovs, to Sunni insurgents. Some of these weapons will inevitably find their way to Zarqawi’s boys. Iran is also lending support to the Shi’ite militias such as the Badr Organization and Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. A certain amount of chaos next door benefits Tehran.
# Thanks to a network of middlemen, it is unlikely the Sunnis fighters know the ultimate source of the weapons, and if they do, they possibly don’t care. The Ba’athists, mainly, are fighting alongside Zarqawi now because their enemies are more or less the same, but Ba’athist commanders know that should they dislodge the Shi’ites from power — a highly unlikely event, in my opinion — Zarqawi will turn his guns on them. They (mostly) cooperate with AQI anyway, because he’s got the money.
# Iran is willing to fund guys to blow up Shi’ites if their larger aims — keeping America off-balance and bogged down, and cementing their hold on Iraq’s government — are met.
No. 3 is a controversial claim, I know, and some people (*cough, cough* Juan Cole) refuse to entertain the idea that Iran would sacrifice Iraqi Shi’ites for their plans.
That kind of thinking works well in logical, algebraic formulations of the issue, but it doesn’t work well with the hard, geopolitical facts on the ground in Iran and Iraq. Iran was _quite_ willing to send 15-year-old Shi’ites to their deaths on the front-line with Iraq in that 1980-88 war because they’d be martyrs, which has a long tradition in Shi’ism. Plus, they’re dealing with Iraqi _Arab_ Shi’ites. A lot of Iraqi Shi’ites died so that Iran wouldn’t break out of the Fao during the Iran-Iraq War, and it’s unlikely Tehran has forgotten that. Iraqi Shi’ites may share a faith, but they don’t always see eye to eye.
So, the mullahs in Tehran could regard the Shi’ite losses in Iraq as a) regrettable but acceptable losses and b) a convenient reason to expand their influence next door, in much the same way that Turkey regards violence against Turkomans as a reason to keep their fingers in Kurdish affairs. (“We must protect our Shi’ite brothers!”)
Hard-nosed power politics makes for strange bedfellows indeed.

Update on Iranian trip

BEIRUT — Things are moving along, albeit slowly, for “my Iranian trip”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/2006/04/iran_reporting_trip.php. I’ve discovered that I can’t just get a tourist visa and then write, although some people do that. Instead, I need to get a journalistic visa because if I go the tourist route, and I publish articles, the Iranians will likely not let me back in the country. This is unacceptable to me, as I don’t think you can do very good journalism with a one-off, parachute trip. You have to get to know the place, return many times, etc.
So, going the official route, with my hands raised and showing the Iranian information ministry that I mean no harm is the best route for me.
Many of you have already been exceedingly generous, and the fund is up to almost $1,600 now. I reckon about $4,000 is needed for a good two-week excursion to the Islamic Republic, as I’ll have to hire fixers, cars, hotels, etc. So if you want to contribute, please feel free to “hit the tip jar, donation fund, whatever you want to call it”:https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_xclick&business=chris%40back%2dto%2diraq%2ecom&item_name=Back%2dto%2dIraq%2ecom&no_shipping=1&return=http%3a%2f%2fwww%2eback%2dto%2diraq%2ecom&no_note=1&tax=0&currency_code=USD&bn=PP%2dDonationsBF&charset=UTF%2d8.
Things here in Beirut, however, have entered a weird stasis. The National Reconciliation Council, which has been billed as the first time all the leaders of the various political factions have sat down together, seems intent on institutionalizing itself into a feckless club house in which “Michel Aoun”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michel_Aoun, the former Army general stamps his feet to become president and Hizbollah’s General-Secretary backs him up on the conditions that they don’t have to disarm. This is, needless to say, unacceptable to the March 14 coalition that includes “Walid Jumblatt”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walid_Jumblatt, the Druze leader, and “Saad Hariri”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saad_Hariri, the son of the slain “former prime minister”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rafik_Hariri whose assassination Feb. 14, 2005 started this whole thing.
People in Beirut are pretty fed up, but at least the security forces aren’t shutting down all of downtown every time the Council meets now, pissing off all the merchants there. There’s a real sense of disappointment among the young people I talk to that the so-called Cedar Revolution, which looked great on television and succeeded in getting the Syrian Army out of Lebanon (mostly), has run out of steam and has been hijacked by the same old families that have run this place (some would say into the ground) for decades.
One of my friends, the scion of a powerful Shi’ite political family opposed to Syrian influence, has pretty much thrown in the towel. The Syrian Army has left, but the influence is still there, he says, and “Émile Lahoud”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emile_Lahoud, Lebanon’s president and Syrian protégé, will serve out his term and the same old politics of old will prevail. Syrian President Basher Assad will wait out the Bush administration and things will return to the bad old days of the 1990s. He does allow that it won’t be quite as bad, but the days of total Lebanese sovereignty seem far away still.