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RUBS: 04-Feb-2008


[Note: Dispatches this month will be in the RUBs condition: Raw Unedited and Barely Spellchecked before publishing. These dispatches are being written on the fly because I am on the ground, always on the move, gathering raw material and finishing Moment of Truth in Iraq.]

04 February 2008

[South Baghdad with the 1-4Cav]
“Sons of Iraq”

After the meeting in South Baghdad neighborhood (Mulhallah 840) described in my previous RUBS dispatch, there was some drama between National Police (NP) and the Concerned Local Citizens (CLCs). But, names are always changing in Iraq, and as of about a week ago, the CLCs are now the “Sons of Iraq.” Technically, the Sons of Iraq (CLCs) work for the National Police, but they are paid by the Coalition. This is a temporary and politically expedient compromise, but for now it appears to be a smart choice, given the ground situation.

A couple of weeks ago, I did a remote interview from London on CNN, while the network’s correspondent Michael Ware was in Baghdad. During the interview, Michael Ware called the Sons of Iraq “America’s Militias.” His characterization was not inaccurate, since the Sons of Iraq(CLCs) are paramilitary organizations working closely with (and financed by) the Coalition, but the characterization is not entirely fair to Iraqis or Americans. For instance, the Iraqi government is blocking Sons of Iraq (CLCs) members from joining the police force. Meanwhile many Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad can only be guarded by the Sons of Iraq(CLCs), since the mostly Shia National Police are often corrupt and unprofessional. The Iraqi Army continues to get stronger, and could take over some of the policing task, if they weren’t off fighting enemies like al Qaeda. Also, whenever possible, police work should be kept separate from military operations.

Until just recently, the National Police (NP) used to shoot into the 840 neighborhood, and the locals would shoot back. Lieutenant Colonel James Crider from 1-4 CAV would tell the NPs to stop shooting at the people, but the NPs said they would only stop shooting when the people stopped shooting at them. Crider said that as government officials, it was the NPs’ responsibility to break the chain of violence.

1-4 CAV’s mentoring has begun to work. Today, the NPs regularly patrol 840 and neighboring 838 without incident. The markets are open and filled with goods for sale. There are working streetlights, playgrounds, internet cafes, and at least one video-game store where kids play combat games (boys will be boys). The people are hopeful. I like these neighborhoods because it’s easy to walk around and talk to Iraqis, without fear of being attacked. In fact, 838 is so safe it feels like Dohuk in the northern Kurdish region, where I spent days alone and unarmed.

A total of about twenty thousand people live in 838 and 840. The NPs shop in both neighborhoods, and though the locals are wary of the police, they at least tolerate the NP presence because the 1-4 Cav also has 24/7 presence in both neighborhoods. The people know that if they have a problem with the NPs, the Americans will step in.

The violence in 838 and 840 was mostly caused by al Qaeda, not the people rising up against the Americans, as occurred in Anbar Province. In other words, many of the “insurgents” were more like invaders here. Also unlike Anbar, where the people stood up against al Qaeda and then reached out to the Americans, in 838 and 840 it was the Americans who started to fight al Qaeda, and then the people emerged to help us, eventually forming the Sons of Iraq.

Now there are three groups watching over the two neighborhoods: the National Police, the Americans from 1-4 Cav, and the Sons of Iraq(CLCs). The Sons of Iraq(CLCs) are causing zero problems as far as I can tell. After all, the Sons of Iraq(CLCs) are residents of these neighborhoods and their members want to protect their neighborhoods and eventually get hired by the GOI (Government of Iraq), which is too dumb, bureaucratic, sectarian (or all three) to hire them.

[Note: I had dinner with Lieutenant General James Dubik on the evening of 04 February 2008. I brought up the matter, and LTG Dubik told me that National Police are hiring Sunni CLCs, and of the last 2,000 hired, 50% were Sunni and 50% Shia. LTG Dubik told me tonight that the next group hired will be comprised mostly of Sunni. This contrasts sharply with a recent news report that the Iraqi government refuses to hire Sunni for the National Police.]

Still, it’s a fragile peace, as shown by the events of 01 February, when one of the NPs reportedly insulted some Sons of Iraq(CLCs), apparently referring to their women. Tensions had already been mounting between the two groups as the Sons of Iraq(CLCs) accused the NPs of firing into their houses. After the reported insults regarding their women, the Sons of Iraq(CLCs) swarmed toward the NPs. Luckily, General Kareem from the NPs came out and calmed everyone down. I did not know about the confrontation because I was at a nearby Sheik’s home with our guys preparing to have lunch with, among others, General Kareem.

After lunch, I drove off with Colonel Ricky Gibbs in his MRAP, leaving 1-4 CAV behind in 840. While we drove away, about thirty Sons of Iraq(CLCs) carrying AK 47s confronted the NPs. Soldiers from 1-4 CAV intervened to calm things down, but the Sons of Iraq(CLCs) were too agitated. The American soldiers made the decision to take all of their weapons—the Sons of Iraq(CLCS) gave them up voluntarily—defusing the potential for a dangerous escalation. Other members of Sons of Iraq(CLCs) were observed by 1-4 CAV apparently setting an ambush for the NPs, but the soldiers intervened and stopped that potential catastrophe as well. Our guys told the NPs to go home for the day, and gave the Sons of Iraq(CLCs) back their weapons without ammunition.

Imagine how violence between “America’s Militias” and the NPs—as employess and agents of the GOI—could have played in the Iraqi and American news: “AMERICA’S MILITIAS ATTACKING IRAQI GOVERNMENT.” Good grief! It happens like that sometimes.

The next day, 02 February, we had a meeting with eight Iraqis. Five were men from the neighborhoods, and three were junior NP officers. The meeting, presided over by Major Callahan from 1-4 Cav, concerned kerosene distribution. After much aggressive lobbying from the Americans, the Iraqi government had finally agreed to hand over 36,000 liters of kerosene. The meeting was a planning session to distribute the kerosene to people in the neighborhoods.

Once that business was concluded, LTC Crider brought up yesterday’s narrowly averted bloodbath between the NPs and Sons of Iraq(CLCs) and how the stupid remarks of one NP could have led to a shootout.

Crider explained the situation and calmly talked about professionalism. At first the conversation between the Iraqis was civil, but soon hands were flying and voices rose. Crider just listened, until it reached a point when he said: “Be calm. I am calm.”

And that was it. Like the Horse Whisperer.

The Iraqis calmed down immediately. Crider said not to punish the NP who had committed the insult. They were fine with that. No punishment. Just move on. After the meeting, we went back into the Humvees and drove out to the neighborhoods.

We walked around and talked with folks for a couple hours, including the Sons of Iraq(CLCs) with their AK-47s. The Sons of Iraq(CLCs) we spoke with did not want to fight the NPs, but it was also clear these were men guarding their neighborhoods. Originally, the neighborhoods were mixed Sunni/Shia, although many Shia moved out when it got too dangerous. Now that the neighborhoods are peaceful, the Shia are moving back in. The Sunni Sons of Iraq(CLCs) protect the Shia, too.

While we walked around, there were many “thank yous” and smiles from the locals; lots of complaints, too. 1-4 Cav is the de-facto government for 838 and 840. At one point, Crider was surrounded by some fifteen men complaining about the Government of Iraq, saying it was useless and the Americans ought to whip them into shape. I felt no danger surrounded by Iraqis. These Iraqis were not armed, but even if they were, I am in the close company of heavily armed Iraqis many times per week, often all day and night long. Nothing has ever happened around me, except the occasional accidental firing of an AK bullet.

Captain Nicholas Cook is responsible for neighborhood 840. The people who live there have offered Cook a home if he comes back after his deployment ends. I believe they mean it. The Iraqis here want President Bush to know they think the GOI is worthless. Interestingly, although they complain about the mostly Shia government, they do not complain about the Shia people. They do, however, complain about JAM (the catch-all phrase for Shia militias), and ask that the Coalition break the militias. I am increasingly seeing the green flags of the Shia flying down here, which intimidates people. They need to be told to stop flying those flags because it needlessly exacerbates tensions.

It would be as if a huge white community flew Rebel flags on public bridges near a small black community. Why do that? It’s not about pride, but intimidation. Here in Iraq, the Shia people don’t need to fly those green flags for religion any more than certain Americans need to fly Rebel flags.

Despite various complaints, that day the residents were visibly happy to see us. Both the NPs and the Sons of Iraq(CLCs) were on good behavior, the day was cool, sunny and bright, and the kids were playing in the playgrounds.

Other writers who come here and see peace, find it boring, and quickly leave. This is my third trip to visit the 1-4 Cav and have found it to be a great opportunity to talk with Iraqis as peace finally comes to them after so much war. This is the perfect chance to study counterinsurgency where it’s working, while events are still very fresh in the minds of the soldiers and the people.

We then headed to 838 to see Dr. Mouyad Muslah Hamid al-Jabouri, a cardiologist who had a prominent medical post in the old regime. (He operated on one of Saddam’s sons after he got shot.) If he was working on Saddam’s family, Mouyad must have been one of the best doctors in Iraq. When the Americans started spanking al Qaeda in the individual neighborhoods, our folks never knew Mouyad was there. Beginning about six months ago, Mouyad emerged from obscurity to become a community leader, helping renovate the two neighborhoods (with American money and his own).

From the first, one can detect Mouyad is exceptional as he speaks intelligently on subjects ranging from sewerage to electricity to tribal matters to high-level politics. And he’s a cardiologist. LTC Crider spends endless hours with Mouyad trying to decipher Iraq and improve the neighborhoods. I’ve met Mouyad maybe ten times and shared many hours of conversations. Talking with Mouyad for an hour, I can learn more about Iraq than I usually learn in days.

So much goes on in Dr. Mouyad’s home that I call it “The Embassy.” Captain Hamilton from 1-4 CAV has an office there. Battles have raged so close to this location that back in 2007, a 1-4 CAV soldier was killed less than fifty meters away.

Since I first met Dr. Mouyad several months ago, he has been “discovered.” Recent visitors to his home include roughly ten American Generals, including Odierno and Petraeus on separate visits. A long line of journalists have been to his home, even Geraldo Rivera, but I doubt they spent enough time with him to realize that Mouyad is a Renaissance Man.

On 02 February Colonel Gibbs presented Dr. Mouyad with a plaque signed by General Petraeus. The inscription reads:

Multi-National Force – Iraq
Dr. Mouyad Muslah Hamid al-Jabouri
Sharia Abu Tayarrah

For exceptionally meritorious leadership to the people of Doura. You have impacted your community by being a catalyst for change through the development and supervision of critical work programs such as sanitation repairs, electrical system rehabilitation, and micro-generation projects. Your efforts, along with your partnership with Coalition Forces, have returned security and prosperity to your community and will continue to serve as a model for others to follow. Your accomplishments reflect great credit upon you, your family, the people of Doura, and the free citizens of Iraq.

The same day he received the plaque, Dr. Mouyad was expecting five distinguished visitors from America. Waiting for the visitors to arrive, we discussed a range of issues, including the NP. Recently a resident of 838 had driven up to the checkpoint at the entrance to the neighborhood and an NP wanted to search his car. There was an argument and the man got out. The NP got angry and shot three bullets into the car’s engine, ruining it.

Maybe the NP had been in the right to demand that the car be searched even though the man was a known resident. But once he fired the three shots, he was in the wrong. How to handle this? Complaining to the NPs would probably achieve little. There is no internal NP mechanism to resolve such conflicts. This was as a tribal matter. The tribe the policeman belonged to negotiated with the tribe of the victim and agreed that if the man sold his car, the policeman’s tribe would pay the difference between the sale price and the car’s value before it was shot. However, the man wanted more than that, so in the end the dispute remains unresolved.

Of course Iraq has government courts, but their rulings are often not as binding as tribal settlements. Speaking of courts, Dr. Mouyad’s own brother has been held in confinement by the Iraqi Government for ten months without being charged or even seeing a judge. Someone might consider asking Prime Minister Maliki why Dr. Mouyad’s brother is being held at Ministry of Interior Prison Number 4.

Mouyad, Crider and Hamilton talked about a story regarding some National Police who saw a man looking at a building around 7 p.m. in 838. Apparently he said something about wanting to rent a building. The NPs took him into a building and one of the policemen punched him.

This anecdote and others like it that I have heard, stands in stark contrast to the manner by which Iraqis know the Americans now treat prisoners (these days, anyway). Numerous times I have seen Iraqis come up to American commanders asking about a family member or friend who was detained. When they learn that Americans have detained the person, they are relieved. But if they find he is in Iraqi government custody, there is dread and despair.

Colonel Gibbs told the story of an Iraqi man who turned in his own two sons to Gibbs’ Fourth Brigade, First Infantry Division. The man said he knew if the sons were guilty they would be held, but if innocent would be released. Following an investigation they kept one son and released the other. Smart father. It’s better to be in an American detention facility than have Special Forces blasting down your door. After all, Gibbs’ brigade has suffered 89 Killed in Action (KIA), and over 700 wounded. This war is for keeps.

The GOI sent a film crew to 838 and filmed scenes from the peaceful streets. The GOI then broadcast the clips, claiming the GOI had captured these scenes in spite of great danger. What danger? If there were a hotel in 838, I’d rent a room for a week and talk with Iraqis every day. Captain Hamilton was furious that the GOI stole credit, because they do not do any of the reconstruction. Instead, they often get in the way. That day, Dr. Mouyad just smiled and shook his head.

Eventually the distinguished visitors arrived in giant MRAPs, while Apache helicopters covered them from above. The MRAPs dropped their ramps and the distinguished visitors poured out, including Anthony Cordesman from Center for Strategic and International Studies, Kim Kagan, from the Institute for the Study of War along with her husband Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, who was a key figure in selling “the surge” to President Bush.

They took short walks through 838 and 840, and I talked for a few minutes with Fred Kagan. We had an interesting conversation, and he is a very smart man, yet I was left unsure as to whether he understood the very significant challenges we face in Nineveh Province. He seemed assured that victory there is a foregone conclusion. The conversation left me feeling uncomfortable considering his level of influence. The battle for Mosul and Nineveh is not over by a long shot, and it would be a mistake to underestimate this enemy. I believe our casualties will continue to rise in February as we push into them. There are still pockets of al Qaeda south of Baghdad, out in Diyala, up in Salah ad Dinh, and other places.

After the tour it was back to Dr. Mouyad’s house, where we sat around a dinner table covered with fruits, sweets and a cake that Mouyad’s mother had baked. The distinguished visitors asked very smart questions and Dr. Mouyad gave some interesting replies. He was concerned that the Doura secton of Baghdad has about one million residents but no seats in Parliament, when, he said, it should have at least eleven.

After some time, the visitors had to leave for dinner with General Petraeus, so they drove back to FOB Falcon to catch their helicopters. I stayed with Captain Hamilton, LTC Crider and others at Dr. Mouyad’s house where we talked into the night. Mouyad was full of interesting quotes like: “When you marry without love, it’s perfect,” and “When a woman knows you love her, she goes crazy.” From my conversations with him, I could write a book titled: Tuesdays with Mouyad.


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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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