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Second Chances


But on D+18, when a most important “visitor” came to Baqubah, not only did he not seem to cause a hiccup, but everyone I talked with was happy to see him. General Petraeus came to Baqubah on 7 July 2007, amid practically zero fuss.

The day wasn’t much different from any other. Mine began with an unrelated mission with the Brigade Deputy Commander, from which we returned around noon. General Petraeus had lunch with commanders, followed by a couple of interesting briefings that the tag-along press—there for only those few hours—were allowed to attend.

Photo-1After the briefings, General Petraeus headed downtown to an area where many of the buildings had been made into bombs. Most VIPs will not dare leave base, but the top generals and command sergeant majors in this war all roll into danger taking their chances with getting blown sky-high.

When I wrote the dispatch “Be Not Afraid,” I thought at least dozens of soldiers might be killed when we attacked on 19 June, and that hundreds might be wounded. After years of experience, the terrorists had prepared Baqubah to an extent greater than either Fallujah or Ramadi had been. During one of the briefings Saturday, General Petraeus mentioned that Baqubah was probably the most rigged city of the entire war. Another officer at the briefing said there is so much explosives residue in Baqubah that the bomb dogs get confused.

Since the beginning of Arrowhead Ripper—with the loss of one 3-2 SBCT soldier killed in action—troops found more than 130 bombs planted in ambush, about two dozen buildings rigged to explode, and more than half a dozen car bombs. (That’s only the beginning.) Yet street by street, house by house, step by step, the infantry soldiers cleared most of Baqubah, working under intensely stressful conditions. They cleared block by block, no place to sleep but the ground, no showers to wash away the sweaty grit of war. This combat-experienced brigade outsmarted the enemy. I’d like to say more, but the enemy will get no help from these pages.

Photo-3Saturday, while riding in a Stryker to where General Petraeus was checking out the ground situation, I met Robert Reid [right] from the Associated Press. Mr. Reid seemed to take interest in the information about the graves I reported recently, taking notes while we drove into Baqubah. Mr. Reid would later email that he has been a journalist for nearly 40 years, having first come to Iraq in 1982.

As the soldiers clear Baqubah of the enemy and its deadly trappings, the people here are coming forward and talking. Some Iraqis worry that the US will leave Baqubah too soon, only to have al Qaeda return and start dealing retribution to “collaborators.” That may explain why so many Iraqis here are offering useful information that helps save American lives and keeps al Qaeda out.

The fourth update for what I call “The Battle for Baqubah” described a mission to a village about 3.5 miles from the military base where I—and varying numbers of journalists (now down to one photographer)—stay while covering Operation Arrowhead Ripper. No journalists came along when I accompanied American soldiers to the abandoned village whose nearby palm groves offered the overpowering stench of decaying human flesh. I photographed and videotaped Iraqi and American soldiers as they disinterred the remains of adults and children. In one grave, soldiers recovered the heads of decapitated children, some with still partially recognizable remnants of flesh and hair. When I left the village, the digging was still ongoing, but I had seen and heard enough for the update I published the next day.

Thinking that the reporters here or their editors back home might have been scared off the topic of mass graves, I offered my source material. These included map coordinates, names of Iraqi and US Army officials, my photographs and videotape, and even, in the end, permission to take what I’d written and photographed and use that free of charge.

Today, there are indications that the massacre might be much bigger than what I initially reported in “Bless the Beasts and Children.” Shortly after I published “Bless the Beasts and Children,” I asked a local Iraqi official about the village and the graves. The Diyala Provincial councilmen, Abdul Jabar, went on video explaining why he believes that there might be hundreds of people buried in the area, and he said the correct spelling is actually al Ahamir. (Most Iraqis’ names seem to have variant spellings.)

Watch the interview here:

Meanwhile, “Baqubah Update 05-July 2007” seems to have generated a dust storm of doubts. That dispatch focused on the emerging presence of Iraqi government leaders in Baqubah—both behind the scenes and actually working hard, as well as out front maintaining high visibility—stepping up to get their city operating again.

The situation under al Qaeda had degenerated on all levels. Although Diyala is Iraq’s breadbasket, it has been 10 months since a food shipment arrived here. Fuel is at a near standstill; the lights are mostly off; and water flow is better measured by drip rate than cubic liters per second.

With dispatches in the works for these topics, the 5-July update was more a chronicle of my observations of the long overdue and very much welcome emergence of Iraqi political leaders from out of hiding. During a meeting, an Iraqi official in the room—who asked to remain anonymous—provided a narrative of how al Qaeda took control of Baqubah and much of Diyala Province. The paragraph that generated controversy follows:

The official reported that on a couple of occasions in Baqubah, al Qaeda invited to lunch families they wanted to convert to their way of thinking. In each instance, the family had a boy, he said, who was about 11 years old. As LT David Wallach interpreted the man’s words, I saw Wallach go blank and silent. He stopped interpreting for a moment. I asked Wallach, “What did he say?” Wallach said that at these luncheons, the families were sat down to eat. And then their boy was brought in with his mouth stuffed. The boy had been baked. Al Qaeda served the boy to his family.

Every syllable I wrote about this reported incident was in that paragraph, which offers no opinion about the veracity of his words.

Mr. Abdul Jabar had lived near the al Hamari village. He had more details about what happened there, and he was willing to go on the record. The reported incidents, wretching though they were and are, were reported “as is.”

When context is other people’s children

As I write these words just a few miles from the graves I saw, the resulting controversy about whether what the man said was true, or whether his words should have been written if the writer couldn’t verify them, seems precious. There is no imaginary line of credulity that al Qaeda might cross should it go from beheading children to baking them.

No unnamed Iraqi stringer claimed that al Qaeda had taken over Baqubah. Al Qaeda said this through the press. I sit writing these words in Diyala Province just a short drive from where the self-proclaimed leader of al Qaeda in Iraq was killed by a bomb delivered by a US warplane. Al Qaeda: the organization that gleefully bragged about murdering roughly 3,000 people by smashing jets full of civilians into buildings and earth. Al Qaeda in Iraq: who proudly broadcast their penchant for sawing off the heads of living breathing people, and in such a manner as to ensure lots of spurting blood and gurgles of final pain, in some cases with the added flourish of the executioner raising up the severed head and squealing excitedly.

These are the same terrorists I often come face to face with: not on television or in magazines, but on bloodstained streets ablaze with human carnage. I remember the charred corpse of a small Iraqi boy. I remember the wailing Iraqi parents and countless other scenes that I am likely to see again and again. Back in 2005, terrorists here were intentionally attacking children. I shot the photo below on a day when they drove a car bomb through a crowd of children who had run out to American soldiers on patrol.

bieger-and-farahMany soldiers say this photograph symbolizes this war for them. It certainly has become emblematic for me.

In the more than two years since that awful day in May 2005, I’ve witnessed innumerable instances of the work of terrorists of many stripes. One clear indicator of just how bad a terrorist group is, is when battle-hardened soldiers—and writers like me who travel with them—don’t find it hard to believe a story which purports that al Qaeda had baked a child and set his roasted body out as the main course at a lunch for his parents.

People at home might find it incredible, improbable, even impossible. Yet here in combat with al Qaeda, the idea is no more improbable-sounding than someone saying “The chicken crossed the road.” Maybe the chicken crossed the road. Maybe not. The veterans I’ve been talking with here have no difficulty imagining the chicken crossing the road, or al Qaeda roasting kids. Sickening, yes. Improbable, no.


Many look to mainstream media for “verifiable” news from Iraq, as if all those who work for established publications must by definition practice their profession with some basic level of talent and dedication. Not to unfairly single out the Associated Press—who have had some reporters in Iraq, like Tony Castenada, who produced fair and accurate reports—but the AP’s Director of Media Relations, Paul Colford, went on the record for Confederate Yankee about why the AP had not picked up the story of the Al Hamari gravesites, with a statement that seems to indicate they place a high value on reliable sources:

“With regard to Michael Yon, the Iraqi police and the U.S. military—to our current knowledge—have issued no statements to the AP about 10-14 bodies being found on June 29 in a village outside Baquba, even though the military, according to Mr. Yon’s online account, were involved in the discovery.”—Paul Colford

To see what the AP might have by way of reliable, mainstream, news resources, on the morning of 07 July, I asked Talal, an Associated Press stringer in Baqubah, if he had heard about the Al Hamari murders, and our conversation went something like this:

“Yes,” answered Talal.
“How many had been killed?” I asked.
“35,” answered Talal. Not “about 35”, but precisely 35.
“How do you know?” I asked.
“A medic at the Baqubah hospital told me,” Talal said.
“What was the medic’s name?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” answered Talal.
“You didn’t ask?”
“No,” he said. Talal said a doctor told him the same thing, but that he did not know the doctor’s name. He had not asked. Besides which, Talal said, the doctor and the medic were afraid to give their names.
“How were the people killed?” I asked.
“They were shot,” answered Talal as he motioned shooting with a pistol.
“Did you tell someone at AP headquarters in Baghdad?” I asked.
“Yes,” answered Talal.
“Who did you tell?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” answered Talal.

Captain Baker, who was commanding the Iraqi Army soldiers at al Hamari that day, was a primary source of information. I videotaped this interview as his soldiers were still digging up remains nearby:

In all fairness to Talal, he is extremely busy doing the most dangerous job in Iraq: Iraqi journalist. It takes extreme courage, and I see Talal all over the place.  I did a mission with him today on 9 July.  On today’s mission, Talal told me about how two nights ago when he did a mission with Iraqi Army and American soldiers, they started walking at about midnight, trying to sneak up on al Qaeda. They sneaked for six hours, he said, and caught about 30 of them sleeping. Talal said his feet and legs still hurt from the weight of the body armor.

Clearly, context like this is not well-served by the adversarial frame of “mainstream-versus-alternative-news.” Reporting from this war is deadly serious business. Deadly for the reporters, but how they report can also be deadly for us all. Writing is only an honorable profession when done honorably. In a market-driven media, cheap stringers who are usually hard to fact-check fit the low-cost model. I do not know what Talal reports and so make no comment on his reporting. But I will say that Talal is intelligent and extremely courageous, and apparently does not sleep much because I see him all over Baqubah.

On the subject of credit given where it’s due, Robert Reid from the Associated Press was out there Saturday on the ground with General Petraeus, taking notes. It remains to be seen what will come of those, but at least he made them. The times are different for everyone who dares to report on this war. Including Talal. Including Robert Reid. Including Michael Gordon and Alexandra Zavis and Michael Yon. The bloggers who demand fairness and truth are auditing what we write, but the market ultimately determines how much of any kind of reporting about this war ever gets placed before consumers.

The Ground Truth

Photo-4LTC Fred Johnson

A couple weeks ago, LTC Fred Johnson told me a story about General Petraeus. Back when LTC Johnson was Captain Johnson, and General Petraeus was Colonel Petraeus, Colonel Petraeus was Captain Johnson’s new commander. They were doing a live-fire exercise at a range at Fort Campbell when a young soldier named Specialist Terrence Jones tripped and accidentally fired his weapon while conducting a live-fire assault. The bullet from Specialist Jones’ weapon struck Colonel Petraeus, slamming through his chest and taking a piece of his back on the way out. Petraeus fell to the ground, bleeding out of his mouth. He nearly died. We could have lost one of the most important and influential military leaders in generations to a mistake. To a professional misstep.

The best that Captain Johnson and Specialist Jones might have hoped for was a painless end to their military service. I asked LTC Fred Johnson about the story of his own soldier shooting David Petraeus, and I asked how it could be that Johnson was still in the military. Johnson looked me in the eye and said something like, “Mike. You know what Petraeus did?”

“What?” I asked.

“He gave me a second chance.”

Fred Johnson actually got picked up for promotion early.

“But what happened to the young soldier?” I asked, thinking surely there had to be a consequence. Conventional wisdom stipulates that for balance to be restored after accidentally shooting and nearly killing a superior officer, a sacrifice of some magnitude is necessary. A soldier just can’t shoot a commander in the chest and walk away.  There is no such thing as an “accidental discharge.”  Unplanned bullet launches are called “negligent discharges.”  As in negligent homicide.

LTC Johnson answered something like, “Mike, you won’t believe how Jones was punished. Petraeus sent Jones to Ranger School.”

I couldn’t believe my ears! That’s a punishment that a lot of young soldiers dream about, even though Ranger School is a very difficult course. But after thinking on it awhile, I realized it probably explains why LTC Johnson sometimes says, “I believe in second chances.”

Fred Johnson said it just the other day. He said it to me, “When someone gives you a second chance, you should pass it along.”

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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