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

Ralph Peters: Sucker or Liar?

BAGHDAD — I’m sorry for not posting more. Still some latent server troubles. But I have to address an issue: Ralph Peters, who is currently traipsing around Baghdad with the 506th Infantry Regiment 1st Platoon of Bravo Battery, 4-320 Field Artillery, is, to be blunt, full of shit.
He’s currently a “favorite”: of the pro-war set, who say we reporters have “agendas” to undermine the troops and get our civil war on, ’cause, you know, that makes Bush look bad… or something.
(A quick note on the above link: it’s all conservative publications. Why is it I, a professional journalist, get tarred with a “liberal” brush when I have never, ever written for Mother Jones, the Nation or Granta, etc. But polemicists who spend the all their energies cranking out pieces for the National Review, Front Page and the New York Post somehow don’t get called “conservatives” but instead are “truth tellers”? Such a mystery.)
Among the claims in his slanderous column: “The Iraqi Army has confounded its Western critics, performing extremely well last week. And the people trust their new army to an encouraging degree.”
The Iraqi Army — and police, for that matter — stood by while Shi’ite militias ran rampant through Sunni neighborhoods. They only took up the security positions when the Shi’ite clerics, including Moqtada al-Sadr, had already calmed down the worst of the violence. That’s not “performing extremely well,” unless by “extremely well,” you mean not confronting the enemies and keeping your head down until it’s safe to come out. That’s usually called “hiding.”
He also says we western reporters don’t get out on the streets, which is patently untrue. I don’t get out as often as I’d like, but I do get out. My colleagues at TIME, who look much less western than I do, get out much more. And, unlike Peters, we don’t travel with a big-ass armed convoy under the protection of the U.S. military.
He then further slanders Ellen Knickmeyer, of the _Washington Post_, when he says, “Did any Western reporter go to that morgue and count the bodies — a rough count would have done it — before telling the world the news? I doubt it.”
Well, actually, Ralph, I know Ellen. And yes, she did go down to the morgue. While there are many issues with her story, what is undeniable is that she risked a hell of a lot more than you did when she put her life in jeopardy to go down there.
Then he says, “If reporters really care, it’s easy to get out on the streets of Baghdad. The 506th Infantry Regiment — and other great military units — will take journalists on their patrols virtually anywhere.” Well, no, they won’t. Some reporters I know are having trouble getting embeds because they’re not the “right” reporters. They don’t write the “right” kind of stories — meaning they don’t follow the military’s playbook.
It’s more than a little churlish to say, “We’ll take you anywhere, as long as you’re not too liberal/French/whatever” and then turn around and criticize those you refuse to take with you as cowards. If they situation is so rosy, Mr. Peters, why on earth do I need to embed in the first place? Believe me, I’d much rather travel around without a military entourage. You tend to get more truthful answers from Iraqis when they’re not surrounded by soldiers with big guns, after all.
Then, this guy with a “background as an intelligence officer” goes on to say there’s no civil war because, by gosh, _he_ sure didn’t see any thing like that. And the Iraqis _cheered_ the Americans!
Let me try to paint the picture a little more clearly, Mr. Peters: When Sunnis cheer the Americans, it’s not because things are rosy, it’s because they’re more scared of the Shi’ites than they are of you. Sunnis in Baghdad I’ve spoken with have told me they would rather be arrested by the Americans than by the government forces, because at least now the Americans won’t torture you _as badly._ They have no love for Americans, they just know who is best able to protect them from their neighbors.
Yesterday, the general in charge of the Iraqi Army division in Baghdad was killed by a sniper while he was on patrol. An investigation has been opened because there are suspicions he was killed for being Sunni by one of his Shi’ite troops.
To be blunt: We are as close to full-scale civil war as we’ve ever been. We are one more bombing, massacre or atrocity from a national bloodletting. But even if that happens, there will be ebbs and flows. Just because people aren’t curled up in the fetal position under their beds all the time doesn’t mean there’s not a war on of some kind. In Lebanon, for 15 years, people went to the beach, cafés, bars and, in general, tried to live a normal life. For long stretches, a neighborhood would be calm. And then the shells would come, or a running street battle would break out and civilians would go running inside to hide. The violence would eventually pass, like a breaking wave, and they would come out into the light. That’s the way war works, and that’s what’s happening in Baghdad right now.
Finally, two things: Mr. Peters says he has a background in intelligence. And he says he’s been hitching rides with this unit, rather than being assigned to it. He also makes what may be an unintentionally ironic comment when he criticized Iraqi stringers: “The Iraqi stringers have cracked the code: The Americans don’t pay for good news. So they exaggerate the bad.”
First of all, the Americans _do_ pay for good news. They have in the past, when _American officers_ wrote stories and paid local papers to run them. These happy tales invariably painted a rosier picture than was warranted.
Secondly, Gen. George Casey, commander of U.S. troops here, told reporters in a news conference three days ago that the pay-for-play program was on-going. “We were operating within our authorities and responsibilities,” he said, and added that he had not received an order to stop the program. “And, right now, based on the results of the investigation, I do not intend to in the near term.”
Thirdly, just what is Mr. Peters doing here? A former intelligence officer, riding around Baghdad, painting a rosy picture? I may just be assuming stuff here — hell, if Ralph can do it, so can I — but is Mr. Peters one of those story-planting Americans? Was he out getting material and pictures? And has he taken his skills at writing happy stories to the American public?
Peters’ little yarns sure sounds nice, but he sounds either desperately clueless or willfully blind. Officials in the American embassy, at least, are very worried that civil war is upon us, and it’s surely no coincidence that Casey has a reputation for not wanting to hear bad news. And so Peters continues to think because he rolls around in an armored convoy and no one takes a shot at him, there’s no civil war. As someone I’m sure he admires once said, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”
Rant over. For now.
*CORRECTION:* Slight correction regarding my post on Ralph Peters. He is with the 1st Platoon of Bravo Battery, 4-320 Field Artillery rather than the 506th Infantry Regiment, which he mentions farther down in his piece. My apologies.

What Politicians Say

Politicians say a lot of things — very few of which should be taken seriously.

BAGHDAD — Lately, there’s been a lot of talk: reconciliation talks, talks about the government, talks about Sunni-Shi’a partnership, talk, talk, talk.
Don’t listen to most of it. While many are thankful all-out civil war was averted after the violence of the last five days, many others are still spoiling for a fight and now distrust their leaders. In the south, I just heard, many Shi’a in Karbala are very angry over the decision by Moqtada al-Sadr and the Badr Organization to stand down, angry over the public shows of national unity between al-Sadr and other Sunni leaders. My fixer from Karbala tells me the mood in much of the south is, “The politicians just want to keep their positions and they’re willing to sacrifice our lives and our mosques for themselves.” He was especially alarmed by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s call to form more tribal militias to protect the Shi’a.
Karbala is a stronghold of Sistani, who is usually considered a moderate. Chew on that for a while.
He thinks that while this week didn’t spark a full-on conflagration, it will take only one more massacre, one more bombing for this can of gasoline we call Iraq to burst into flame. I tend to agree with him. The government talks are pointless unless something is done about the various militias that are staking out territories and security portfolios. Sunni policemen patrol western Baghdad while Shi’ite Army troops patrol the Shi’ite eastern half. Meanwhile, SCIRI and the al-Sadr Current compete for who can be the most anti-American. They’re barely keeping their militias in check. They’re not leaders; they’re captives of the passions they inflame.
On the Sunni side, the Muslim Clerics Association is calling for its followers to be prepared to descend on Baghdad and protect their comrades and their mosques. Weapons are being stockpiled in the western neighborhoods and roadblocks are going up at the ends of streets.
What Iraqi politicians say to U.S. Amb. Zalmay Khalilzad and to Green Zone-based reporters is largely meaningless. What is much more influential is what they say to their followers through sermons in the mosques, their tribal allies and pernicious whisper campaigns. For example, shortly after Wednesday’s bombing, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim said Khalilzad bore some responsibility. Although he recanted shortly after, the calls for Khalilzad’s expulsion were as strong as ever in mosques loyal to SCIRI and the Badr Organization on Friday.
Not to be outdone, al-Sadr said in Basra it made no difference if Khalilzad stayed or left, as long as the occupation remains.
“Listen, loved ones, look what the feeble-minded want us to do,” he said in Basra. “They want us to expel the U.S. ambassador. No, we want to expel the occupation, not the U.S. ambassador.” He added: “Whether the U.S. ambassador leaves or not, what will that do if the head of the snake remains here? Cut off the head of the snake, then the entire evil will go away. So we want the occupation troops to leave Iraq, even according to an objective [mawdu’i] timetable, as they call it.”
For the last 18 months, we’ve been in a low-grade civil war. The Askariya bombing kicked us up to “medium-grade,” I guess you might call it. Both Sunnis and Shi’a I’ve spoken with are waiting and preparing for it, and that very preparation might make for a self-fulfilling prophecy. For to many Iraqis, it’s only a matter of time.

Attack on Doura

As I type, the mixed neighborhood of Doura, to the south of me, is reeling under a mortar barrage. The refinery there is on fire, it looks like. Fifteen people have been killed and 45 wounded as of last count. I have no idea how many mortars have landed, they’ve been so numerous. The sky is abuzz with Coalition choppers and Iraqi Army units have been seen crossing the Two-Story Bridge from Karradah to Doura.

BAGHDAD — Well, maybe “I spoke too soon”:
As I type, the mixed neighborhood of Doura, to the south of me, is reeling under a mortar barrage. The refinery there is on fire, it looks like. Fifteen people have been killed and 45 wounded as of last count. I have no idea how many mortars have landed, they’ve been so numerous. The sky is abuzz with Coalition choppers and Iraqi Army units have been seen crossing the Two-Story Bridge from Karradah to Doura.
Doura itself is a mixed neighborhood, with both Sunni and Shi’a residents. For months now, it’s been a very nasty place and it’s the current HQ for Al Qaeda in Iraq fighters in Baghdad. You don’t go to Doura unless you’re looking for trouble.

Dodging a Bullet?

We may have dodged the bullet. The immediate threat of violence seems to be ebbing, but tomorrow will be the first day without the curfew and that will be a test of the new environment.

BAGHDAD — We may have dodged the bullet.
Readers of this blog in recent days know that I’ve been very alarmed about the violence going around me. I don’t live in the Green Zone, so I’m not insulated from it as much as they are, and I don’t give much heed to diplomatic happy talk. But so far today, it seems quiet around Iraq and politicians seem — for the moment, at least — to have convinced their followers to stand down. The Sunnis have made noises about coming back to the negotiating table and that’s a good sign. There also was no evidence of any conflict between various parts of the security forces, which was a chief concern of mine, considering how deeply embedded the various militias are to the police, Army, etc.
But still… The curfew is due to lift tomorrow morning at 6 a.m. Baghdad and its surrounding towns are still piano-wire tense. The potential for mayhem remains high. That said, I hope we won’t see a resumption of violence tomorrow, despite the carnage of the past four days.
It is as yet impossible to tally up the death and destruction, but many (mostly Sunni) shrines and mosques have been either occupied and rededicated, damaged or destroyed. At least 200 people have been killed across the country and it’s probably higher. I simply don’t believe the Iraqi “government’s” assertions that only a few mosques were damaged and the loss of life much less than reported in the “exaggerating” media. The track record for truth-telling by Ibrahim al-Jaafari’s “government” is too tarnished to take their soothing words too seriously.
But, as I said, perhaps we dodged a bullet on this. I said in an earlier post that we would be very, very lucky to avoid a civil war. Well, we may have gotten so lucky.
This time.