In Huseybah for Steel Curtain

HUSEYBAH — Hello all. Currently in Huseybah covering Operation Steel Curtain. Will write more later.
*UPDATE 11/9/05 2:45:20 AM:* And “here it is”:http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1127376,00.html on TIME.com. The most interesting aspect to me was about the tribal politics the U.S. is exploiting.
A note on civilians. I didn’t see one civilian hurt or mistreated while I was with the Marines of the 2/1. For one, there aren’t many there. Huseybah, normally about 30,000 people, is almost abandoned. I made it halfway through the city, and found maybe 10 houses with families in them. Best estimate is that about 5,000 civilians remain.
Secondly, I never saw a Marine shoot first. They never fired a round unless fired upon, which is in keeping with their rules of engagement. Now, when they were fire upon, even if it was just some guy taking potshots, the entire company would open up. If they brought the tanks in, it was all over.
Some will say, “yeah, well, that unit was probably behaving themselves because they had press with them.” Well, I moved freely between Fox and Golf company, and all the various platoons over the three days I was up there. They were often completely surprised to see me and it was sort of a “spot press check” on the squads. Secondly, the New York Times and CNN is embedded with the 3/6 in the north of the city. No one is reporting significant effronteries to civilians. And if they _are_ behaving themselves because of the press, doesn’t that make the case for _more_ embedding not less, as the press is fulfilling its watchdog role and keeping people honest — and, presumably by extension, civilians alive?
Anyway, I’m back in Baghdad now.

Embedded in Anbar

“Saed’s capture is a lucky break, and maybe it will help. Because these days, Fox Company has been catching hell from insurgents who have been pushed out of the city of Fallujah and into the surrounding countryside since U.S. forces wrested the city from insurgent control last November….”

CAMP DELTA, al-Karma, Iraq — Must make this one short and sweet, as I’m running of of battery on my laptop, but since Thursday evening, I’ve been embedded with the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines of the II Marine Expeditionary Force surrounding the garrisoned town of Fallujah. I’ve not yet had a chance to get into the city proper yet, as the 2-2 doesn’t operate there (that’s the 2-6 and 2-7’s area of operations) but al-Karmah is an interesting little town.
It’s just to the north of Fallujah and Camp Delta, home of Fox Company, is nestled in between Fallujah and al-Karmah next to the old Oil-for-Food warehouse. (It’s now an alleged staging area for the insurgents in the area who regularly poke their heads up and take potshots at the Fox Company.)
I just want to share some notes and observations I’ve made over the last two days.
*Friday, October 28, 2005*
For the short drive to Camp Delta just across a half-hearted stream from the town of al-Karma, the Marines of Fox Company ride only at night. They do this to minimize the IED threat, says Capt. Mike Estes, the company commander, which is still ever-present almost a year after U.S. troops attacked the rebel stronghold of Fallujah and its surrounding towns, such as al-Karmah. Dust and grit pepper the googles of Fox Company, because they ride in high-backed, up-armored lorries instead of humvees.
Earlier, Capt. Chad Walton, a spokesman for the 2nd Marines at Camp Fallujah to the south, said that Fallujah was closed to the outside world, with only residents allowed in after showing ID cards that proved their address. The Marines man five entry checkpoints to the city, turning away anyone who can’t provide the proper credentials or whoever they deem suspicious.
“Obviously, it’s not foolproof,” says Walton. “But it’s way better than it was.”
The Marines of Fox Company agree; they talk of driving through the old city without having a shot fired at them. But Fallujah is thoroughly occupied. Iraqi police and Army take second stage to the Americans, who aren’t shy about showing their presence, in contrast to Baghdad where U.S. patrols are almost scarce these days until you get near major installations such as the airport or the Green Zone. The Iraqis aren’t prepared to take over security operations yet, and it will likely be years before they can. Is a thorough occupation what it’s going to take to pacify the restive cities of the Sunni heartland?
*Saturday, October 29, 2005*
It’s still dark when the Marines of 3rd platoon, Fox Company starts out. The idea is to get a jump on their quarry, the leader of a mortar team that has been peppering Fox Company’s base, Camp Delta just south of al-Karmah. The air is cool on the skin and the sun brightens the sky from the direction of Baghdad. Ahead, date palms are black against the indigo sky, and lush greenery of reeds, cottontails, rice, dates and olive trees line the dirt roads.
3rd Platoon takes it easy. The commander, Lt. Anthony Carter of Endicolt, N.Y., doesn’t believe in the brute force method of cordon-and-knock. It’s easier — and more — effective to take a more discreet and polite approach, he says. Whereas the U.S. Army excels are roaring up in humvees, soldiers piling out and putting on a show of force, Carter’s Marines instead walk up to the house where they believe Ali Muhammad Saed, the mortar team leader, is living.
They’re in luck. He’s out front fiddling with his orange-and-white taxi. He doesn’t seem surprised to see him and sits quietly while Carter orders all other military-age men in the immediate neighborhood to be rounded up and brought to Saed’s house. Soon enough, three men and two boys are brought over and they all squat on the porch of the house. It’s possibly the most peaceful and respectful raid in Iraq’s history.
“The days of just running in the house are over,” Carter says. “If you flash-bang every house, you’re not making many friends.”
Saed’s capture is a lucky break, and maybe it will help. Because these days, Fox Company has been catching hell from insurgents who have been pushed out of the city of Fallujah and into the surrounding countryside since U.S. forces wrested the city from insurgent control last November. While direct engagements are rare — the Marines always win and the insurgents know it — IEDs and suicide car bombs are taking a toll on Fox Company. Since their deployment in July, the 2-2 has had 12 Marines killed. Fox company has nine guys out wounded and Carter’s 3rd Platoon has had 6 purple hearts awarded — out of a force of 37 guys. Only one of 3rd Platoon’s awards came from being shot. The rest have come from IEDs and car bombs. So numerous are incoming mortar attacks on Camp Delta that body armor and helmets are required anytime a Marine goes outside a building.
“It’s not more violent,” says Lance Cpl. Thomas Cummings, 21, of Horicon, Wisc. “But what is violent is more intense.”
This wasn’t supposed to happen. As the political process moved forward, embassy officials said all year, the violence should decrease. There would be a coupling in increased Sunni participation and a decrease in violence. But most of the injuries that have befallen 3rd Platoon, says Lt. Carter, have occurred since the Oct. 15 referendum.
Just two hours later, the nearby boom of an IED followed by the rattling of gunfire were a late coda his remarks. An ambush, somewhere. Someone else was catching it today.

Another Day in Ramadi

Signs warning “Complacency kills” dot the bases of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment in Ramadi. The Marines stationed in this provincial capital in the treacherous Sunni triangle are bored. Bored of patrols, tired of manning outposts and frustrated by an enemy they can’t meet face-to-face. The signs attest to the tedium of their days.

_(Note: This is the dispatch I planned to file from my last embed in Ramadi back in May. For a variety of reasons it never made it into TIME, but I thought you guys might like to see it. This was a typical day on a week-long embed at the end of May.)_
RAMADI — Signs warning “Complacency kills” dot the bases of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment in Ramadi.
The Marines stationed in this provincial capital in the treacherous Sunni triangle are bored. Bored of patrols, tired of manning outposts and frustrated by an enemy they can’t meet face-to-face. The signs attest to the tedium of their days.
Unlike the few soldiers and Marines taking the fight to insurgents in towns such as al-Qa’im on the Syrian border, most of the 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, including the guys of the 1-5, are not likely to “get some,” as the young warriors like to say. There are few firefights in Ramadi, a city of about 375,000 people, but lots of roadside bombs. Marines are hunkered down in their bases. When they get out, they patrol the streets, search cars and houses and act more like police than a military force.
“We’re not on the offensive anymore,” said Lt. Brian Huysman, commander of Alpha Company, from his post at the Anbar Province Government Center, which his men guard. “We’re not here to stop the insurgency, but to help the Iraqi government grow.”
His men guard the building so the Anbar government, such as it is, can function. The day after the provincial council elected a new governor, he was promptly kidnapped. Now the deputy governor has taken over the duties of governor. Marines also help set up the new police force, which is non-existent at the moment. The screening process for the new applicants is set to start May 22. “It’s a day-in, day-out kind of thing,” Huysman said thoughtfully as he watched Iraqis wave metal detecting wands over Anbar Governorate employees coming into the triple-walled compound. “There’s no corner to turn. It’s just a slow, slow process.”
By early afternoon, the sun has hit peak intensity, and the men of 1st platoon, Charlie Company are sweating heavily in their body armor. They’re on a patrol to investigate anti-American graffiti on three “known bad guy” mosques near the canal. Three Shi’ites from Najaf, members of the 18th Brigade of the new Iraqi Army—the Desert Lions— are with them because mosques are sensitive sites. Marines aren’t to enter unless the Iraqi troops determine there’s reason to search. There is almost no traffic or people on the streets, making the hairs on the back of Marines’ necks bristle.
They search a palatial house and find a Kalashnikov magazine with a single armor-piercing round in it, in the lead position. The man who says he lives there isn’t arrested, nor is his ammo confiscated, but he’s put on a watch list. In another house, next to one of the suspect mosques, Capt. John Maloney, commander of Charlie Company, talks to the owner, an old man in a white dishdasha. He offers the Marines water, but the captain defers to the Iraqi troops with him, and asks him to support them and give him information about insurgents.
The old man replies that if they are Shi’ite, they have no business in Ramadi. He fears the insurgents and their homemade bombs, but he also fears the Shi’ite government in Baghdad and its new army. His fear reveals the fault lines of the new Iraq and the challenge the Marines face in their mission here.
It’s frustrating. No one knows how long it will really take to build a credible government that all Iraqis believe in. The lack of enemy contact — and missions that seem designed to avoid contact with insurgents — frustrates the leathernecks. Marines are trained to fight, acknowledges battalion commander Lt. Col. Eric Smith, and any Marine will say he’d rather be in a gunfight than patrolling a city. However, “There will be no knockout punch here,” Smith said. “It is a daily grind.”
But while the duties are tedious, they’re still dangerous.
“Try watching your buddy get blown up by an IED set by chickenshits who won’t come out and fight,” growled a lance corporal in 1st platoon of 1-5’s Charlie Company.
Five Marines have died since the 1-5 arrived in early March.
And the duties are vital. Iraqi security forces are not ready to take over, fears of civil war loom and insurgents can still move relatively freely. But these boring day-to-day tasks of the Marines in Ramadi are the new American strategy in Iraq: Avoid casualties, hold down the violence and hope the Iraqi security forces can take the fight to the insurgency.
Like much of Anbar province, Ramadi is a dirty, dun-colored place, made up of squat two- and three-story buildings. It tumbles out in a triangle from the intersection of the Euphrates River and the Habbaniyah canal, which feeds into Lake Habbaniyah to the south. And like most Iraqi cities, the dividing line is carelessly maintained between the city and the countryside. Ramadi just kind of runs out of steam to the south and shrugs into farmland as it gets closer to the lake.
Roads from Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia converge here, before merging into the major highway leading to Baghdad. Before the war, these roads made Ramadi a smugglers’ haven, one barely under the control of Saddam Hussein. Today, insurgents and foreign fighters make use of the same smugglers’ trails and while it’s not the insurgent stronghold Fallujah was, the deeply conservative culture, a population that’s 90 percent Sunni and a local leadership made up of tribal sheikhs and imams gives the Marines’ enemies plenty of purchase in Anbar’s capital.
The 1-5 in turn occupies three bases on the strategic tip of the city where the river and canal split: Camp Ramadi, Hurricane Point and Snake Pit. They have responsibility for the western half of the city while the Army’s 1st Battalion of the 503rd Infantry Regiment has the eastern half. With no police force to speak of — it fell apart earlier this year in the face of persistent insurgent attacks — the Marines are the main security presence in the city.
That doesn’t mean they’re happy about it. “I cannot contain my excitement of going on this patrol,” Lance Corporal James Bellasario, 19, of White Hall, Mont., said sarcastically before 2nd platoon of Charlie Company began a sweep for weapons caches on the banks of the canal.
He worries that the lack of obvious successes in Iraq will mean the conflict slips the American public’s mind. “If that happens,” he said, taking a long drag on a cigarette he is too young to buy in some states, “what the hell are over here for? It will be just like Vietnam.”
Maj. Benjamin Busch, with a civil affairs unit attached to the 1-5, sympathizes. “It’s always nice to have a specific place that’s a focus of your effort,” he said. Ramadi doesn’t offer that, as there are no strategic targets other than the goodwill of the citizens, which is vital to the Marines’ efforts here. “When it comes to the actual engagements, the Marines are winning. But the insurgents have incredible power to shut the city down.”
That power is fear, and the people of Ramadi feel it. When insurgents plan an attack, the people know it. Sometimes they tip off the Marines, sometimes they don’t. Members of 2nd platoon grumble about this.
Such patrols are designed not only to find weapons caches, said Smith, but also to squeeze the insurgents from operating in areas of town and undermine their ability to terrorize. The theory is that the mere presence of Marines rather than heavy offensive actions will prove to Ramadi citizens the insurgents can’t provoke or drive away the Americans because for the insurgents, just attacking the Marines is a victory. Attacks show the Americans aren’t in control and undermine citizens’ sense of safety.
“In a sense, not having contact is good, because if I’m able to keep the level of violence down until the government can take over, that’s a successful day,” Smith said. “That gets me to the strategic aim of stability.”
Now, as another day ends without incident or encounter with the enemy, Maloney likens the current battle for Iraq as a chess match. “The trick here, like chess, is to set up the environment,” he said.
His men moved into position as he spoke: some on lookout on roofs, others down the road looking for men planting IEDs. Still others were stopping cars in snap vehicle checks in an attempt to surprise insurgents. He was continuing to apply pressure, but nothing to a breaking point. The goal was to get insurgents to show themselves while keeping his pieces in play.
“Every time they’ve come out, they’ve lost a pawn,” he said. “And they’ve lost a few knights, too.”
Ramadi’s dust hung in the air, backlit by the setting sun. The muezzin’s call to prayer drifted over the city. The Marines headed back to Snake Pit, knowing that when they moved out of the area, the insurgents would come back out to plant more IEDs. As Huysman of Alpha Company said earlier: “They’re trying to see where we’re not watching, where they can get close.”
Another day winds down in Ramadi.

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Suicide Blasts hit Green Zone

We woke today to the muted sounds of thumps and booms. One big one, followed by a smaller one. Then mortars flew over our home. It was another attack on the Green Zone, and it killed two people.

ajaj.JPG

A duststorm known as ajaj has settled over Baghdad.

The hazy building in the background is about 30 meters away.

©2005 Christopher Allbritton

BAGHDAD—We woke today to the muted sounds of thumps and booms. One big one, followed by a smaller one. Then mortars flew over our home. It was another attack on the Green Zone, and it killed two people.

The first explosion was a car bomb that hit the fortified complex’s entrance that civilians, journalists and even National Assembly members often use to get inside. Many a time I’ve gone through the maze of blast walls, tank traps, concertina wire, HESCO barricades and ID checkpoints thinking that each time was a point of vulnerability. Cars from Jumhuriya Bridge and from the direction of Haifa Street approach the small intersection, often driving right up to the foot of the blast walls.A small contingent of Iraqi and U.S. troops, who sit atop an M1-A1 Abrams battle tank, man the entrance.

The second boom was a suicide bomber who rushed into the crowd that gathered following the first explosion and blew himself up. There are reports that a third bomber was possibly wounded and apprehended before he could deliver his deadly payload.

Continue reading “Suicide Blasts hit Green Zone”

Bumps in the Road

While the Administration indulges in happy talk, Iraq is getting worse and worse. Just today, another Iraqi journalist was killed by American troops.

BAGHDAD—The Americans have killed two Iraqi journalists inside of a week. One was killed Friday and I just heard news of the other. I know a lot about the first death, but at the request of his family, I can’t publish much because his widow fears retribution for her husband having worked for a Western news organization. But he was killed with a single shot to the head by Americans in a passing convoy.

[UPDATE 30/6/05 11:33 +0400 GMT: The journalist I mention above is Yasser Salihee, who worked for Knight Ridder. The full story is available here. As Tom writes in the copy, “Knight Ridder didn’t previously report on Salihee’s death because his family was worried about reprisal from insurgents, who often target Iraqis working for Western organizations. The family’s wish to have Salihee’s story told now outweighs those concerns.”]

The second I don’t know much about, as I just heard about it. Details haven’t started coming in yet.

[UPDATE 29/6/05 10:38 +0400 GMT: Sorry for the harshness of my above words. I wasn’t trying to say that the first Iraqi journalist was killed by Americans for being a journalist. There is no evidence that he was killed for anything but being near a convoy and being in the wrong place at the wrong time. However, a single shot in the head does suggest he was definitely targeted and not the victim of a lucky shot.]

I think the Americans have gotten a lot more trigger-happy and twitchy after the campaign of car bombs and other violence that has gripped Iraq for the last, what? Five weeks? Six? I’ve lost track. I can’t tell anymore what headlines from the Associated Press listing the number of dead are new bombings or just updated casualty figures from earlier in the day.

“We have a choice now,” said A., my gruff, scotch-drinking office manager, confidant and mentor in all things Iraqi. “We can be killed by Zarqawi or the Americans.”

Since returning, it feels like I’m listening to the same record I’ve been listening to for a year, only with the volume turned up. Donald Rumsfeld, the American Secretary of Defense, says U.S. is winning the war and that the media are focusing too much on bad news. I know this because the press releases from the American Forces Information Network tell me so:

Progress in Iraq Takes Back Seat to Violence in Media, Rumsfeld Says

By Petty Officer 3rd Class John R. Guardiano, USN

American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, June 26, 2005 — The “solid progress” being made in Iraq seldom gets the same level of media attention as terrorist killings and beheadings there, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said today.

Moreover, the Iraqi people, he argued, are winning against the insurgency and, with the help of American and coalition forces, will prevail.

“The fact of the matter is that the progress has been solid,” Rumsfeld told George Stephanopoulos on the ABC News program “This Week.”

“It’s amazing, it’s historic, what’s taken place,” he said. “Twenty-five million Iraqi people have been liberated, and they have now have a sovereign government. And they’ve had a successful election, and the hospitals and the schools are open, and they’re making good progress on developing a constitution. And they’re going to have a final election in December of this year.”

Yet, none of these facts is well known to the American public, the secretary said. “They’re not as newsworthy, apparently, because (they) don’t get reported as much,” Rumsfeld said. “What gets reported is that 10 Iraqis are killed (by) a suicide bomber, or an American soldier is killed.”

The secretary said this is not the media’s fault; it’s just the nature of wartime reporting.

“War is a tough, difficult, dirty business,” he explained. “And when it’s reported, it leaves people with the impression—correctly—that it’s a terrible thing. It’s everybody’s last choice, nobody’s first choice.”

Rumsfeld said this has been true throughout American history. “We know that this has been true in the Revolutionary War. We know it was true in the Civil War. We know it was true in World War II (sic) and World War II,” he said. “If all people know is what they see on television or read in the press—the negatives,” he explained, then they don’t see the progress that is being made.

Army Gen. John Abizaid, commander of U.S. Central Command, and Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., commander of Multinational Force Iraq, are the people with the most direct knowledge of what’s transpiring in Iraq, and they “feel very good about the progress that’s being made,” Rumsfeld said.

Casey told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week that only “one-tenth of 1 percent” of Iraqis are involved in the insurgency.

“For those of us who have spent many months in the field,” Abizaid told the committee, “we see good progress in both Iraq and Afghanistan. We sense good progress against the extremism that once seemed so pervasive in the region. … Progress in counterinsurgency and counter-terrorist work is not easily recognized. Setbacks, casualties and difficult problems undoubtedly remain ahead. … We will need patience and strength to achieve success.”

But while negative media coverage of war has been the historic norm, television and the modern media may have exacerbated the problem in recent history.

On the NBC News program “Meet the Press” with Tim Russert, the secretary noted that according to historian David McCullough, author of a new book titled “1776,” if the American Revolutionary War had had the same type of media coverage as the Iraq war, then “there wouldn’t have been a successful revolution.”

As far as Iraq is concerned, “the progress is impressive,” Rumsfeld said. “I think they’re going to choose the path of lightness. The sweep of human history is for freedom. Look at what’s happened in Lebanon and Kyrgyzstan and the Ukraine.”

The secretary said the American people can be optimistic about a good outcome in Iraq, but the optimism must be tempered with an understanding of reality. “We have to recognize that it’s a tough, tough, tough world, and there are going to be bumps in the road between now and then,” he said.

“Bumps in the road”? Just earlier today, presumably before the Iraqi journalist was killed, an Iraqi member of parliament was killed in a car bomb attack. I can’t even begin to tell you how many Iraqis have been killed in the weeks I was away. And how many more Iraqis, journalists or otherwise, will die because the Americans can’t tell who’s friend or foe? Those aren’t “bumps in the road.” Those are signs that you went off the road without a map a long time ago.

Where do you even begin combatting the head-in-the-sandism, brazen propaganda and revisionism of the above release. (By the way, it’s about the fourth or fifth one I’ve received in the last few days touting the same theme, apparently in concert with President Bush’s push to let Americans know that everything is going hunky-dory.)

News flash: Iraq is a disaster. I’ve been back one day, and the airport road was the worst I’ve ever seen it. We had to go around a fire-fight between mujahideen and Americans while Iraqi forces sat in the shade of date palms on the side of the road, their rifles resting across their laps. My driver pointed to a group of men in a white pickup next to me. “They are mujahideen,” he said. “They are watching the Americans.” Indeed, they were, and so intently that they paid no attention to me in the car next to them. We detoured around two possible car bombs that had been cordoned off while Iraqis cautiously approached.

Rumsfeld’s assessment of “good progress” on the constitution is not accurate, as the committee to draw it up still hasn’t completely agreed on how the Sunnis will take part.

When I was in Ramadi, I found the morale to be lower than expected. It wasn’t rock-bottom among the Marines of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, but it wasn’t great. Most of the ones I talked to weren’t confident they were doing anything worthwhile, and were instead focused on getting home alive. If a few Iraqis had to die to make that happen, well, war is hell.

I’m not sure who’s winning this war, the Americans or the insurgents. But I know who is losing it: the Iraqi people. Those bumps in the road are their graves.

In Ramadi

In Ramadi, the insurgent stronghold du jour.

FORT AL-RAMADI, Ramadi, Iraq—Made it here last night after a couple of chopper rides from the Green Zone. Chinooks and CH-46 Sea Knights (the Army and Marine heavy-lifting chopper, respectively) are frickin’ loud. But all went well. We should be going out later today, although I’m not yet sure where we’re destined.

More later as time permits.

The Trouble with Weekends

When I left on Feb. 2, Iraqis observed their own weekend: half a day off on Thursday and off on Friday, the Islamic holy day. Since I’ve returned, the Allawi government has proposed Friday and Saturday as the days off… Which has prompted charges of a Jewish plot against Iraqis.

BAGHDAD — Iraq is a funny place sometimes, not the least because of its people. For instance, they can be warm, funny and generous. And yet, get a group of, say, 10 men together, and they soon fall to arguing about the littlest thing. Hell, I’ve seen them argue even when they agree with one another. And I’ve seen a small group of men turn into a lynch mob like a light switch had been flipped.

But this is not a “look at the wacky Iraqis” post. This is a post about the hair-trigger temper of a populace under the twin pressures of occupation and random horrible violence. This post is about a people who, prior to the 1991 Gulf war and the subsequent sanctions, were warmer, more hospitable and more generous than they are now. And while Iraqis have always been suspicious of outsiders, they are now positively paranoid. Dangerously so.

The latest outrage to hit Iraq is the revised plan for the weekend. When I left on Feb. 2, Iraqis observed their own weekend: half a day off on Thursday and a full day off on Friday, the Islamic holy day. This was a little inconvenient for westerners working here, since that meant we started work on a Saturday while our editors were taking these two days off. The only real overlap in the Iraqi workweek and the rest of the world’s was Monday through Wednesday and that dratted half-day on Thursday.

Well, three weeks ago, the Iraqi interim government decreed that the weekend would henceforth be two full days: Friday and Saturday. On the surface, this makes a lot of sense. It means government workers won’t be making the hazardous trip to and from work quite as often, and it will allow Iraqis to interact with the rest of the world four out of five business days. But college students, many of them belonging to organizations professing loyalty to populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, are outraged. They’re demonstrating on university campuses all over Iraq denouncing Saturday-as-holiday as a “Zionist conspiracy.” Why? Because Saturday is the Jewish sabbath, and Jews are, well, the bad guys in Iraq. One of my staff here at the TIME house is furious with the idea of taking Saturday off, saying, “The Jews occupy Iraq and they want to take their day off.” (He also believes the Iranians occupy Iraq because of the Sistani coalition’s victory in the Jan. 30 elections. He’s Sunni.)

At any rate, it now appears the Allawi government will back down and make Thursday and Friday the “new” weekend, giving the Iraqis only three workdays in common with most of the rest of the world. But hell, that’s OK. I’m a freelancer. I’m all in favor of setting your own schedule. [UPDATE: I couldn’t find any independent confirmation on this, so I’m cutting it.]

On the surface this is silly. And some could point to this as just another example of the paranoid mindset of many young Iraqis. But there’s a reason for this mindset: For years, Iraqis have had to eat and breath conspiracy theories because so often there were conspiracies to contend with. (You think totalitarian states operate with transparency?) And the damage of the United Nations sanctions over 12 years hardened Iraqis’ attitudes toward the world, causing them to think, not unreasonably, that the world was out to get them. A people who already suspicious of outsiders because of their Bedouin/tribal heritage came to hate foreigners because the cause of many of their problems were foreigners meddling in Iraq. The list is long: The Americans who betrayed them in 1991, the Security Council that abandoned them in the years that followed, The Americans in 2003 to the present, and now the widespread belief that Syria and Jordan (among the Shi’ites) and Iran (among the Sunnis) are further meddling behind the scenes to destroy Iraq by supporting either “terrorists” or Persian cats paws.

It’s not a coincidence that Iraq currently has tense relations with all three countries in some form or another. The Kurds’ prickly relations with Iran and Turkey aren’t helping matters either. Until the Iraqis are able to stand up to their neighbors, who really are meddling in many disreputable ways, they’ll never be able to dispel their distrust of the outside world, workweeks will remain uncoordinated and the Jews will remain perpetrators of dark plots to undermine Iraq and Islam. Until the people’s confidence returns, regardless of who runs this place, you’re going to have a country that’s not ready to play well with others.