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RUBS: 01-Feb-2008

Got an email with this comment:

Michael – – Saw the article on you in the NY Times – great stuff! Will you be covering the latest attacks in Mosul? Mosul is getting lots of negative press – – hope you can balance the usual picture. Wish Stryker Brigade was back in their old stomping grounds mopping back. Keep up the super super job you are doing and I will get your book when it is ready. All the best, Michael.
Mike D.

Well Mike D., I don’t know if I will cover Mosul. Given that I might have spent more time during this war in Mosul than any other western writer, it is surprising that slots are so difficult, but the earliest they will let me up there is 12 Feb and the public affairs (PAO) up there is sluggish with communications. Over the past several years, I’ve found that when you sense that PAO is off, you’ll typically have a bad time on that embed because it’s a reflection of something else, and I just got report that a journalist had difficulty with this same set of PAOs.

In a COIN fight, bad press, or bad press relations, is like dirty bathrooms in a restaurant. Bottom line is that units that cannot handle the press have no chance against al Qaeda. Any case, I checked news on Mosul, too, and it looks bad. From the press I am seeing, looks like al Qaeda might slip away. I’m seeing dirty bathrooms up north and this shakes my confidence that that command can handle the offensive or that it understands COIN.

Since I can’t get up to Mosul any time soon, I went to the gym for 90 minutes of cardio. During the workout the alarm started blaring, and an announcement quickly came: ROCKET ATTACK! ROCKET ATTACK! ROCKET ATTACK! So I jumped off the treadmill (which kept going) and hit the ground. The other twenty or so soldiers in the gym kept working out, but a few of them looked at me like fraidy-cat, but when I used to hear that alarm with the British, you could bet your next paycheck that the attack was just seconds away. Some of the larger rockets can be as powerful as car bombs, so it’s a good idea to hug your mother earth and dream of faraway places until the attack is over.

During my two trips with the British, I saw dozens of rocket and mortar attacks and found that the alarms were usually right. But when the alarm goes off with the Americans, there rarely is an attack. On fact, last time I was on this FOB (a few months ago) rockets were ripping the air right over my head (I was flat on the ground) and I think two guys got wounded, but the alarm never sounded. Any case, I was on the ground in the gym with the soldiers who seemed to think I was a fraidy-cat, but I eventually got up, brushed myself off and got back on the treadmill which had kept whirling the whole time.

Today’s “mission” was to start at 1130. It was a simple one: meet with some Sheiks and Iraqi leaders and have lunch. And so at 1120, sitting in the back-left-seat of the Humvee waiting to go, I checked the headset and found it working. Just as I took it off and put it on the ammo cans by the gunner’s feet, that dastardly alarm sounded again, the loudspeakers announcing over the base: ROCKET ATTACK IMMINENT, ROCKET ATTACK IMMINENT. But again no rockets came. While waiting for LTC James Crider to show up at 1130, I shot my first photo since returning to Iraq: a windshield wiper.

The Dragon Brigade —4/1 ID at FOB Falcon—here in South Baghdad is extremely open to the press. You can come and stay long as you want, and go anywhere you want to go. Not surprisingly, they pull down more good press than just about anyone in Iraq. Part of this is because of the PAO staff, who call themselves “The Ghostwriters” (which really cracks me up) are always doing their best to drag the press down here and trying to make them stay. This might seem kind of odd, given how dangerous this place was last year. In fact, General Petraeus told me in July that this place was the canary in the mineshaft. So it’s not like they want to invite you to a disaster area, but the Dragon Brigade fought like hell, and progress in South Baghdad has been tremendous as a result. The canary may have been nearly dead last year, but it’s revived considerably and now is fluttering around these days.

I asked Major Kirk Luedeke, the commander of the Ghostwriters, for some facts to bookend the progress here, and he emailed the following this morning:

One year ago, before we even got here,

January 2007 there were 553 bodies found in Rashid District killed by sectarian violence.

In January 2008, there were just 16.
January 2007 there were 33 rocket or mortar attacks

January 2008 there were 7 [Some of those alarms must be for real.]
January 2007 there were 113 direct fire attacks against Coalition or ISF

January 2008 there were 45 [I’ll keep my helmet on for now.]
January 2007 there were 184 IEDs

January 2008 there were 51 [I’ll keep wearing my earplugs and fire retardant clothes.]
January 2007 total enemy-initiated events were 883

January 2008 there were only 119

Some areas down here in south Baghdad probably are now safer than the so-called Green Zone. The “Green Zone” is actually called the International Zone, because there is nothing Green about it. It’s not exactly a Red Zone, but it could be called the Pink Zone.

Once LTC Crider arrived,  we drove off FOB Falcon en route to a lunch with Sheiks and other Iraqi leaders. LTC Crider’s 1-4Cav Humvee patrol arrived, with me in tow, at an old Sheik’s beautiful home which sits amid the squalor that has engulfed most of Baghdad. Less than five minutes later, giant MRAPs came rumbling down the road, pausing to push up wires along the way so as not to rip them out of the houses.

An MRAP ramp dropped, and down climbed Colonel Rick Gibbs, commander of the Dragon Brigade.

The old Sheik met us at the front of the house, warmly greeting COL Gibbs and LTC Crider, and we all stepped inside the two-story house. It was clean and comfortable, and well-decorated in Iraqi fashion, with antique swords on the wall, and a rifle that might have come from more than a hundred years ago. I could imagine that his great-grandfather might have toted that rifle while riding a camel into battle. The big carpets under our feet looked like they might be from Iran, but the old Sheik said they came from Germany.

There was a huge table of food, enough to feed at least 50 men. There were bananas, apples, oranges and other fruits on one end, along with cans of Pepsi , bottles of Coke, 7-Up, orange soft drinks and bottled water, all arranged in rows on the table.

The feast for at least 50 men included baked chicken, beef, rice, many types of vegetables and it smelled sumptuous. I was ready to eat right then. But it was just before noon, and little did I know that we had 90 minutes of discussion between us and that food.

The conversation began. The interpreter used to be Iraqi, but he moved to America years ago and is American now.  His name is Edward, and Edward has spent an incredible four-years doing combat interpreting, mostly in South Baghdad. (It’s a wonder he’s still alive.) Edward is an excellent interpreter because he’s actually American and so his American English is excellent. After 4-years of interpreting for the military, he’s an expert.

The old Sheik, who seemed upset,  asked through Edward, “Where is Captain Cook?”  The Iraqis I’ve met seem to treat CPT Cook like a local Sheik. The kids know his name.  (“Hey Captain Cook!” “Hey Mohammed!”) When LTC Crider replied that Captain Cook was on the way, the old Sheik smiled as if hearing that his favorite grandson was coming to lunch.

By 12:15, we had shed our helmets and body armor, and once we finished with all the formalities of hugs-and-kisses-and-we-all-love-each-other, we sat down on comfortable couches. There were 6 Iraqi men and one old Sheik, five American soldiers, plus Edward. And so there were 13 people in room. The rank structure of the folks in the room is as follows: Colonel Gibbs is the boss and Edward is his interpreter. LTC Crider works for Gibbs. Captain Cook works for Crider. So it’s Gibbs-Crider-Cook. Cook is the lowest ranking officer in the room. This is important to remember because it comes up later.

At first the talk was higher level, with Gibbs explaining a few things about money hold-ups back in America due to some political issues, and how there were some issues with the Iraqi government and yada yada yada. The conversation covered a range of topics, and after some time the old Sheik saw that I was taking notes. Through Edward, he began directly addressing me. The Sheik wanted to tell the pen taking the notes that these Sunni-Shia problems did not exist before the invasion, but were created when a few traitorous Iraqis gave President Bush bad advice which the Iranians then exploited.

“The Iranians are poison to the Iraqi people,” said the old Sheik. He said he is from the Jabouri tribe, and that many Jabouri are Sunni, like him, but many others are Shia. He pointed to someone across the room and said, “That is my son-in-law, and he is Shia!” and his son-in-law smiled. I see this all over. The fabric of Iraq is finely woven and not coarse like it sometimes appears from afar. The old Sheik said that both Sunni and Shia were friends who often came to his house. They even prayed together. Most of the Shia in his neighborhood had been “cleansed” by al Qaeda, which upset the old Sunni Sheik. He wants his Shia neighbors to come back. (I had written earlier about Sunni asking for their Christian neighbors to come back only a few miles away.)

The conversation moved forward, and Colonel Gibbs said that he had spent about $180 million dollars in the area, but that new funds were being held up in Washington. [Note to Washington from this writer: If you want to see US casualties continue to decrease and for Iraq to continue to recover: SEND MONEY to US commanders.]

At 1235, when Captain Cook finally arrived, the old Sheik practically stood briskly to meet him, and they met with the handshake/hug that is normal, but warmer than usual, like Grandfather meets Grandson, which would soon become perplexing.

Now that Captain Cook was there,  Colonel Gibbs was mostly cut out of conversation  between Captain Cook and the old Sheik. Gibbs, like other senior commanders, just kind of sat back and listened, nodding at times, saying “Uh ha.” “Right.” “Yes.” But what was most interesting was that the old Sheik and Captain Cook were arguing nearly the whole time, and Cook was saying the old Sheik was wrong about this or that.

Later  I mentioned to Cook how strange it was that the Sheik seemed upset when Cook was not there, but then, when he finally arrived, the two of them only argued. Cook told me he argues all the time with the Sheik, and that sometimes the exchange gets a lot more exciting than what we watched that day.

The talk rambled on over numerous subjects until 12:55 when another group of Iraqis arrived. General Kareem from the National Police came in wearing a brown leather jacket, along with two other NP commanders wearing uniforms. There was an Iraqi Lieutenant Colonel from the 3-1-3 Iraqi Army along with his American counterpart LTC Watson, and three more Sheiks. I inventoried the room and counted 23 men, but the room would have comfortably sat 30.

The old Sheik and another Sheik were thumbing their prayer beads as the conversation rambled over important topics. The old Sheik began complaining again that he wanted his Shia friends to move back into their homes and that none were coming, but Captain Cook said that 30 or 40 or even 50 Shia families had already moved back.

(If I could just beam back some of the meetings I go to, readers might be amazed. At one level, the corrupt Iraqi government is excluding Sunni from joining the police, while at a lower level, they are often so intertwined by sect and tribe that it’s hard to make out who’s who and what’s what.)

At 1325, the old Sheik declared it was time to eat, and so we ate with our bare hands. The food was delicious, and Colonel Gibbs said at one point that when he goes home, he’ll have to relearn to eat with fork and spoon, which caused General Kareem to laugh. And then General Kareem asked Gibbs which tribe he planned to join. Which tribe would he register for? “Al Ameriki tribe,” I said. Gibbs laughed, and they kept talking.

Somewhere else in town, women suicide bombers were killing more than fifty Iraqis, but I did not hear the explosions.

The lunch over, it was time to go, and so I asked to ride back in Colonel Gibb’s MRAP to check out the new machine which he’d set up as a command vehicle. Along the way back, we stopped at a park that was under construction, but stalled because the American funds had dried up. I couldn’t help thinking that politics that fails to keep our word always true is more than dumb–it’s dangerous.

As we were driving down what used to be some of the most dangerous roads in Iraq, I asked Gibbs if he was seeing much car bomb activity come up from the south, from Arab Jabour, where al Qaeda had been hiding out making car bombs that killed probably thousands of Iraqis. He said the car bombs had dried up after the surge, but there was still al Qaeda down there and the fight is still on.

As we were riding in the back of the MRAP, talking over the headsets, Edward told me about an incident that happened in Arab Jabour about three weeks ago. More than 30 al Qaeda had come and kicked an old lady and her family out of their house. She called the Americans. Edward was one of the Americans, and gave Edward the exact location of the house, which the Americans confirmed before dropping a bomb on it and killing more than 30 al Qaeda. The Americans are now going through the process of paying for the house.

Folks at home might argue about paying for that house, but I don’t. I say: please pay for the house, it is one step closer to success in Iraq.


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Michael Yon

Michael Yon is America's most experienced combat correspondent. He has traveled or worked in 82 countries, including various wars and conflicts.

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