More Iraq Assessments
Aug 10, 2007 | AIJAC staff
Update from AIJAC
August 10, 2007
Number 08/07 #04
This Update deals with more assessments of aspects of the Iraqi situation, as the “surge” continues.
Its heart is a long but very rewarding interview given by the highly respected Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times bureau chief in Iraq, John Burns, conducted by American radio compere Hugh Hewitt. Burns argues that the surge is making a significant security difference in Baghdad, that the war is certainly not lost yet, and that if any strategy is going to win, the current one is it. He also goes on to deal with other aspects of the local situation, such as the Iranian role in Iraq, and the likely consequences of a pullout in terms of international terrorism. For this important assessment from a highly knowledgeable, independent source on the ground, CLICK HERE.
However, first up we have another assessment from a reporter on the ground, Michael Yon, whose speciality has been embedding with military units. Here, Yon argues for the central role of al-Qaeda in the insurgency and talks of the atrocities he witnessed committed by al-Qaeda forces. He also discusses the signs he sees of the Iraqi population uniting against al-Qaeda, and a ripple effect developing, as successes bring more recruits to the anti-Al-Qaeda alliance. For his full description of both the horrors and the signs of hope, CLICK HERE.
In addition, the Wall Street Journal had some excellent additional reporting on how US forces managed to gain the cooperation of the local tribes to turn Anbar province, once the heartland of the insurgency, into a relatively stable area. The reporter talks to the marine officers responsible for the successes as well as the local Shiekhs, and describes the extraordinary efforts to gain their support. It is also frank about the challenges created by tribal distrust of the Baghdad government and conflicts with the local Iraqi police chief. For this report’s insights into one story of success in Iraq, CLICK HERE.
Al Qaeda is guilty of monstrosities in Iraq – no matter what anyone says
New York Daily News, Sunday, August 5th 2007, 4:00 AM
Amid all this talk of timetables for the War in Iraq, blurred as they are by a strange lemming-like compulsion to declare the “surge” strategy a failure almost before it actually began, one deadline looms larger with each passing day: It’s time for a reckoning with the truth.
The problem is that almost none of those who have cast themselves as truth-tellers have the requisite credibility for the job. The one man who does was told he had only until September to evaluate progress.
I’m not suggesting that I make a worthy substitute for the commanding general, David Petraeus, on this or any subject, but since December of 2004, I have spent roughly a 1½ years on the battlefields of Iraq.
I’ve traveled alongside American Army and Marines and British forces, from Basra to Mosul and just about anywhere of note in between.
When it comes to Iraq, being there matters because of the massive disconnect between what most Americans think they know about Iraq, and what is actually going on there.
The current controversy about the extent to which Al Qaeda is a threat to peace in Iraq is a case in point. Questions about which group calling itself an offshoot of Al Qaeda is really an offshoot of Al Qaeda is a distraction masquerading as a debate.
Al Qaeda is in Iraq, intentionally inflaming sectarian hostilities, deliberately pushing for full scale civil war. They do this by launching attacks against Shia, Sunni, Kurds and coalition forces. To ensure the attacks provoke counterattacks, they make them particularly gruesome.
Five weeks ago, I came into a village near Baqubah with American and Iraqi soldiers. Al Qaeda had openly stated Baqubah was their worldwide headquarters — indeed, Al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed just a short drive away.
Behind the village was a palm grove. I stood there, amid the crushing stench of death, and photographed the remains of decapitated children and murdered adults. I can still smell the rotting corpses of those children.
Clearly, not every terrorist in Iraq is Al Qaeda, but it is Al Qaeda that has been intentionally, openly, brazenly trying to stoke a civil war. As Al Qaeda is now being chased out of regions it once held without serious challenge, their tactics are tinged with desperation.
This may be the greatest miscalculation they’ve made in their otherwise sophisticated battle for the hearts and minds of locals, and it is one we must exploit.
In fact, some Sunni insurgents who formerly were allies of Al Qaeda have turned on them simply because Al Qaeda has proven it will murder anyone — and in the most horrible ways. One of these groups is called the 1920 Revolution Brigade, which turned on Al Qaeda and joined forces with the U.S.
On July 16, I was with American Army forces, Iraqi Army forces and 1920 fighters when together they went off to hunt Al Qaeda. The 1920s guys were in front of us. They got hit by a bomb that was almost certainly planted by terrorists. A major gunfight ensued.
Anyone who says Al Qaeda is not one of the primary problems in Iraq is simply ignorant of the facts.
I, like everyone else, will have to wait for September’s report from Gen. Petraeus before making more definitive judgments. But I know for certain that three things are different in Iraq now from any other time I’ve seen it.
1. Iraqis are uniting across sectarian lines to drive Al Qaeda in all its disguises out of Iraq, and they are empowered by the success they are having, each one creating a ripple effect of active citizenship.
2. The Iraqi Army is much more capable now than it was in 2005. It is not ready to go it alone, but if we keep working, that day will come.
3. Gen. Petraeus is running the show. Petraeus may well prove to be to counterinsurgency warfare what Patton was to tank battles with Rommel, or what Churchill was to the Nazis.
And yes, in case there is any room for question, Al Qaeda still is a serious problem in Iraq, one that can be defeated. Until we do, real and lasting security will elude both the Iraqis and us.
Yon is a former Special Forces soldier who later became a writer and a photographer. His work appears in the Weekly Standard, the National Review and on www.michaelyon-online.com
How Courting Sheiks Slowed Violence in Iraq
By GREG JAFFE
Wall Street Journal, August 8, 2007
Marines Try Payments,
Alliances in Anbar Area;
Chasing Out al Qaeda
RAMADI, Iraq — To understand how the U.S. managed to bring relative calm to Iraq’s unruly Anbar province, it helps to pay a visit to Sheik Hamid Heiss’s private compound.
On a recent morning, a 25-year-old Marine Corps lieutenant from Ohio stacked $97,259 in cash in neat piles on Sheik Heiss’s gilded tea table. The money paid for food for the sheik’s tribe and for two school renovation projects on which the sheik himself is the lead contractor. Even the marble-floored meeting hall where the cash was handed over reflects recent U.S. largesse: The Marines paid Sheik Heiss and his family $127,175 to build it on his private compound.
Lt. Col. Silverman and Sheik Heiss at ribbon-cutting for U.S.-built meeting hall.
Such payments have encouraged local leaders in this vast desert expanse to help the U.S. oust al Qaeda extremists and restore a large measure of stability and security. Today, Anbar is averaging about 100 attacks a week, down from 425 a week last year. On the main street in Ramadi, Anbar’s main city, Iraqi laborers are removing three years of accumulated rubble that couldn’t be carted off previously because of the threat of sniper fire. They’re fixing sewer lines shredded by years of roadside bombs. The work is taking place on the same thoroughfare where al Qaeda in Iraq late last year staged a parade of fighters that was posted on Jihadi Web sites.
“For three years we fought our asses off out here and made very little progress,” says Lt. Col. Michael Silverman, who oversees an 800-soldier battalion in Ramadi. “Now we are working with the sheiks, and Ramadi has gone from the most dangerous city in the world to a place where I can sit on Sheik Heiss’s front porch without my body armor and not have to worry about getting shot.”
The success in Anbar Province, which lies west of Baghdad, hasn’t come easily. The key to the U.S. campaign has been recruiting, cultivating, and rewarding tribal leaders. At points, the effort even involved a Marine general making several trips abroad to woo an important exiled tribal sheik to return home. The progress here, which has unfolded as violence elsewhere in Iraq has climbed, has become central to American hopes of success in the deeply divided country. President Bush has repeatedly touted it and U.S. commanders throughout Iraq are looking to export the Marine model.
But as remarkable as the turnaround here has been, it isn’t clear how broad or lasting the gains will be. With the threat of al Qaeda now gone from their area, many of the Anbari sheiks have begun to jockey with each other for power and influence. More ominously, some tribal leaders, including Sheik Heiss, complain that their real enemy now isn’t al Qaeda, but a Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad — the government the U.S. is trying to build up.
To hold the peace in Anbar province, the Marines say they must convince the Sunni tribes that there is a place for them in the provincial government and in the Shiite-dominated national government. The Marines’ plan is to spread economic, political and security power as evenly as possible among the tribes and the government institutions. They hope to create a balance that will lead, if not to peace, then to stability. It is an agonizingly slow process that, for now, U.S. commanders say, seems to be working.
One of the driving forces behind the strategy in al Anbar is Brig. Gen. John Allen, a brainy and slightly built Marine officer. Gen. Allen has become an avid reader of Gertrude Bell, the British archeologist who in the 1920s drew the lines of modern-day Iraq. Her travelogues, dogeared and underlined, are scattered across his desk.FIGHT FOR IRAQ
“When the tribes are at their best they live in a condition of splendid equilibrium,” says Gen. Allen, quoting Ms. Bell. The lesson, he says, “is that the tribes are constantly shifting alliances to suit economic and security needs.” In the process, they are also testing boundaries with U.S. forces and each other to see how far they can expand their power. About three-quarters of Iraq’s population, both Sunni and Shiite, are members of one of the nation’s 150 tribes.
Each tribe’s leadership consists of a senior sheik and a council of several dozen sub-sheiks whose positions are typically hereditary. The sheiks oversee vast business networks that often include some cross-border smuggling, say the Marines. They award spoils and arbitrate disputes within the tribe. They also seek to place members in key jobs throughout the local and national government so that they can deliver money, power and influence. “Tribal society makes up the tectonic plates in Iraq on which everything rests,” says Gen. Allen.
Saddam Hussein managed the tribes with a combination of cash and brute force, Gen. Allen says. When his government was toppled in 2003, the equilibrium among the tribes that he had constructed over three decades fractured into chaos. Some tribes aligned themselves with al Qaeda for religious reasons, linking with their Muslim brothers to drive out the occupiers, say the sheiks. Others were driven by economics. Smaller tribes saw an opportunity to align with the terrorists and amass wealth and power that had been denied to them.
More than 90% of the fighters aligned with al Qaeda in Anbar province in 2006 were Iraqis, who either came from Anbar or other parts of Iraq, Gen. Allen says. The remaining 10% were foreigners who provided weapons and money.
The al Qaeda leadership quickly moved to seize power from the tribal sheiks and institute Sharia law, which hews to a strict interpretation of the Quran. The tribal sheiks, who tend to be more moderate Muslims — some keep a few bottles of whiskey stashed in their homes — balked at that, and al Qaeda operatives began to slaughter them.
In the fall of 2006, Sheik Sattar Al-Risha, a Ramadi tribal leader whose father and two brothers had been killed by al Qaeda, quietly approached the U.S. about forming an alliance to fight al Qaeda. His tribe, the Albu Risha, lacked the money, prestige and influence of some of the larger Anbar tribes. Within the larger confederation of tribes in Anbar, known as the Duleimy Confederation, the Albu Risha are second-tier players. By linking with the Americans, Sheik Sattar, who is tall, lithe and a polished speaker, saw a chance to get revenge and build strength. His tribe saw an alliance with U.S. forces as a means to gain power.
The U.S. parked an M-1 tank in front of Sheik Sattar’s house and began to train his men. Other tribal leaders in Ramadi such as Sheik Heiss began to rally to Sheik Sattar’s side. Soon the Ramadi sheiks were leading a force of some 2,100 men. With the help of U.S. forces, who provided training and backup firepower, they had by March essentially pushed the radical Islamists out of Ramadi toward Baghdad.
What worked in Ramadi, however, couldn’t be replicated so easily in other parts of the province. To the east in Fallujah, the prominent sheiks had fled to Syria or Jordan. The Fallujah tribes were also reluctant to join in any movement run by Sheik Sattar, whose tribe lacks the wealth and proud history of the Fallujah tribes.
To win the tribes’ allegiance the Marines created a three-prong strategy. First, they sought to convince the most prominent Fallujah sheiks to return home. Second, they had to help them organize, train and equip their men. Finally, they had to give the sheiks some money in the form of reconstruction projects, which they could use to attract followers and consolidate power after months or years in exile. “These guys do everything with money,” says Lt. Col. John Reeve, who is the second-in-command of the 6,000-Marine regiment in the area. “Every deal goes to the sheik. He then trickles the money down to reward sub-tribes who cooperate and punish those who don’t.”
Gen. Allen began to make regular trips to Jordan to meet with exiled sheiks. His top priority was to convince Sheik Mishan al Jumaily, the head of the powerful Jumaily tribe, to return from Syria. U.S. forces had killed one of his four sons in 2003 by mistake at a checkpoint. A second of the sheik’s sons was killed by radical Islamists in 2005. “After he was killed, my wife died of a broken heart,” Sheik Mishan says.
In May, Gen. Allen was having dinner with a prominent Anbari businessman in Amman when he mentioned that he needed to get in contact with Sheik Mishan. It was 9 p.m. The businessman pulled out his cellphone, hit one number on his speed dial and began talking to the 62-year-old sheik, who was in Syria. “Sheik Mishan is coming here tomorrow to see you,” the businessman told Gen. Allen. The sheik drove through the night and arrived in Amman the next day. He and Gen. Allen spent two days together in Amman and Petra, another Jordanian city. In the hours before he returned to Iraq, Gen. Allen made a final pitch to Sheik Mishan to come with him.
“We in the West know there are pivotal moments when the right person can appear on the battlefield, raise the spirits of his people and serve as a tipping point for success,” Gen. Allen recalls saying. “Your return would be that tipping point.”
Sheik Mishan, a small man with round rosy cheeks, begged off. “If I return it will be because God wills it,” he says he replied. He went back to Syria.
Over the following month, Col. Reeve continued to reach out to Sheik Mishan’s tribesmen, providing them training, scavenged weapons and small reconstruction projects. “We had to show them that this group of Americans was going to do something of permanence. We weren’t going to go eat their goat dinner and then disappear for six months,” Col. Reeve says.
In late June, Sheik Mishan’s third son was killed, by a roadside bomb outside of Fallujah. The following day he called Gen. Allen and said he wanted to return to Iraq. The general immediately jumped on a military plane to Amman and on the fourth of July escorted the sheik back to his front door.
With the support of the two main tribes in Fallujah, the Marines trained an 800-man “provincial security force” to fight al Qaeda and man checkpoints in the areas outside of Fallujah where the terrorists had found support, primarily from Sheik Mishan’s own people. The Sheik’s presence, combined with U.S. training and reconstruction contracts, helped galvanize the tribe. Attacks on U.S. and Iraqi army forces in Fallujah plummeted in a matter of weeks.
Today, with al Qaeda gone, many of the tribal leaders in Ramadi and Fallujah have begun to talk about rebuilding their cities, ravaged by four years of war, and jumpstarting the local economy. As recently as March, the Fallujah city council couldn’t meet because of the instability in the area. Two council members were killed and the mayor was arrested. These days, they meet and security in Fallujah isn’t even the main topic of conversation. Instead they argue about the decrepit electricity system and how to start garbage pickup in the trash-strewn city.
Unfortunately, some city leaders and prominent sheiks in Anbar have also already begun to talk about the next fight — against the Shiite militias in Baghdad. “If the Americans give us orders and money we will get rid” of the militias, says Ramadi’s Sheik Heiss. “We will have a new government — run by Sunnis — that will be fair to all.”
Recently, Sheik Heiss says he sent about 50 of his tribesmen to the Mansour district in Baghdad to fight al Qaeda. American officials have since given him strict orders not to deploy his men outside of his tribal areas. Because the sheik is dependent on the U.S. for reconstruction contracts and his men depend on the Ministry of Interior in Baghdad for their pay, U.S. officials are confident he will obey.
The Marines say the best way to keep the sheiks in line is to make them dependent on the Iraqi government for the money and services they need to care for their people and run the patronage networks that sustain their influence. “It’s sort of like putting them on welfare,” says Col. Reeve.
One morning last week, Col. Reeve drove Sheik Mishan to a Fallujah city council meeting. The sheik sat directly behind the mayor and council chairman, who were wearing suits. The sheik wore a traditional Arab dishdasha and a black shawl with gold piping. Amber prayer beads were wound tightly around his thumb.
The first day Col. Reeve brought Sheik Mishan to the meeting, in early July, the council members, who saw the wealthy and influential sheik’s presence as a challenge to government control, threatened to leave, says Col. Reeve. Now they seem to tolerate him. But there is little indication that the two sides — even though both are predominately Sunnis — are working together. The money the city government gets from Baghdad is focused almost entirely on the city proper. Sheik Mishan and the tribal areas outside the city depend almost entirely on the U.S. forces for reconstruction contracts.
On the security side, the Marines are working feverishly to maintain a balance of power between the tribally aligned Provincial Security Forces and the city police. So far it seems to be holding. In late July, Col. Reeve was watching police training when Col. Faisl al Zobai, the Fallujah city police chief, pulled him aside for a private meeting.
Col. Faisl, who sees the tribally dominated forces as a threat to his command of the Fallujah area, had for weeks lobbied Col. Reeve, unsuccessfully, to have them put under him. On this morning, he told Col. Reeve he wanted to send his police forces into the Jumaily tribal areas to clear out some al Qaeda fighters. Because his force wasn’t strong enough to do the mission alone, he needed the Provincial Security Forces’ help.
“Can I order the [sheiks] to support me with 50 men and two trucks of fighters?” he asked.
Col. Reeve told Col. Faisl that the sheik in the area would probably be willing to assist him. “Have you asked him for help?” he queried.
“No. I don’t know what I would do if he said no,” Col. Faisl replied.
Mission in Baghdad
Then Col. Faisl asked if the tribes would give him men to help clear out a neighborhood in Baghdad. Col. Reeve told him a mission in Baghdad was a terrible idea because it would inflame Sunni-Shiite tensions, and that the sheiks wouldn’t support him.
“Col. Faisl wants immediate and unhesitating obedience to his orders,” Col. Reeve explained after the meeting. “I can tell he is frustrated. He can’t go to Baghdad and it is pissing him off.”
For Col. Reeve, though, it was a victory. Col. Faisl, the city police chief, now realized that he had to win the support of the tribes for any big operation. “We’ve created a codependency,” he says. The next day, Col. Reeve asked the tribal commanders if they would provide Col. Faisl with the men to do the raid in the Jumaily tribal area. They said they would.
Today, the sheiks’ biggest fear is that the Americans will leave them to the devices of a failing, sectarian government in Baghdad. Recently, the U.S. military flew a small group of national security experts to Anbar province to have dinner with Fallujah sheiks at the Marines’ base. The think-tankers, who hailed from the Brookings Institution, listened as the sheiks, who came from the Jumaily and Issa tribes, described their frustrations. “We have gotten rid of al Qaeda but we have other organizations that are worse,” said Sheik Mishan, referring to the Iraqi government.
One of the Fallujah sheiks then reached out a hand and placed it on Gen. Allen’s knee. “This is my government,” he said proudly.
Gen. Allen sighed. “Unfortunately, that is the problem,” he said.
The Hugh Hewitt Show, 7-30-07 at 7:18 PM
HH: Pleased to welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show John Burns of the New York Times. Mr. Burns, welcome, it’s been about six months since we spoke, and I gather you’re in Baghdad today?
JB: I am indeed.
HH: How long have you been back in Baghdad?
JB: About three months. We take long rotations here, and then we reward ourselves with nice long breaks back home in the United States, or in my case, in the United Kingdom.
HH: Well, there are three things I want to cover with you today, Mr. Burns. Where are we now in Iraq, in your view? Secondly, where Iraq might be in a couple of years, depending on a couple of developments that the United States might enact? And then finally, in hindsight, what we did right and what we did wrong over the last four years. But let’s start with what you see in Baghdad today. Is the surge working?
JB: I think there’s no doubt that those extra 30,000 American troops are making a difference. They’re definitely making a difference in Baghdad. Some of the crucial indicators of the war, metrics as the American command calls them, have moved in a positive direction from the American, and dare I say the Iraqi point of view, fewer car bombs, fewer bombs in general, lower levels of civilian casualties, quite remarkably lower levels of civilian casualties. And add in what they call the Baghdad belts, that’s to say the approaches to Baghdad, particularly in Diyala Province to the northeast, to in the area south of Baghdad in Babil Province, and to the west of Baghdad in Anbar Province, there’s no doubt that al Qaeda has taken something of a beating.
HH: Now when General Petraeus returns in September to make his report, do you expect Petraeus to be completely candid with the American people about the good news and the bad news in Iraq?
JB: I think there’s no doubt that he’ll be candid. As a matter of fact, every time I’ve spoken to him about it, he talks about the need to be forthright, and as he puts it, he said we’re not going to be putting lipstick on a pig. I think that’s a fairly, that’s military jargon which most Americans will understand. David Petraeus is a man who’s had a remarkably distinguished military career, and he is very clear that he thinks his responsibilities lie not to the White House alone, but to the White House and the Congress conjointly, and through them to the American people. I don’t think that this is just a profession, a claim. I think he really intends that, and he’s been very careful not to make commitments at the moment as to what he’s going to say, though we may guess it. And I think he’s going to say that the surge is having its effects, it hasn’t turned the tide of the war, there’s been too little time for it, and I think he and Ambassador Crocker, who will be his partner in that September report, are going to say one thing very clearly, and that is a quick, early withdrawal of American troops of the kind that is being argued by Nancy Pelosi, for example, would very likely lead to catastrophic levels of violence here. And in that, General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker will be saying something which is pretty broadly shared by people who live and work here, I have to say. The removal of American troops would very likely, we believe from all indications, lead to much higher, and indeed potentially cataclysmic levels of violence, beyond anything we’ve seen to date.
HH: Mr. Burns, some anti-war critics have begun to attack General Petraeus as being not credible and not trustworthy for a variety of reasons, one he gave me an interview, he’s given other people interviews that they consider to be partisan, whatever. Do you believe he’ll be as trustworthy as anyone else speaking on the war?
JB: I do. I can only speak for my own personal experience, and there definitely was in the, in the Vietnam war, there was a failure of senior generals and the joint chiefs of staff to speak frankly about the Vietnam war early enough. There has definitely been some Pollyannaish character to the reporting of some of the generals here over the past three or four years, although in my own view, knowing virtually all of those generals, I don’t think that that was out of fealty to the White House or Mr. Rumsfeld. It’s a difficult and complex question which we really don’t have time to discuss here. But to speak of General Petraeus in particular, General Petraeus is 54 years old. Let’s look at this just simply as a matter of career, beyond the matter of principle on which I think we could also say we could expect him to make a forthright report. At 54, General Petraeus is a young four star general, who could expect to have as much as ten more years in the military. And he has every reason to give a forthright and frank report on this. And he says, and he says this insistently, that he will give a forthright, straightforward report, and if the people in Washington don’t like it, then they can find somebody else who will give his forthright, straightforward report. He is not without options on a personal basis, General Petraeus, and I think he, from everything I’ve learned from him, sees both a professional, in the first place, and personal imperative to state the truth as he sees it about this war.
HH: Speaking more broadly now, in the American higher command, is there optimism that the surge, given enough time, will bring the kind of stability to Iraq that we all hope it achieves?
JB: You know, optimism is a word which is rarely used around here. The word they would use is realism. You have to look at what the plan is. The plan is that with the surge, aimed primarily at al Qaeda, who are responsible for most of the spectacular attacks, the major suicide bombings, for example, that have driven the sectarian warfare here, the belief is, or the hope is, that with the surge, they can knock al Qaeda back, they can clear areas which have been virtually sanctuaries for al Qaeda, northeast, south, west and northwest of Baghdad, and in Baghdad itself, and then have Iraqi troops move in behind them. The problem here is time. How much time does the U.S. military have now, according to the American political timetable, to accomplish this? I think most generals would say, indeed have said, most serving current generals here have said that a drawdown, which took American troops from the 160,00 level they’re at now quickly down to 100,000 or 80,000 over the next, shall we say, year to eighteen months, that’s too fast. If you do that, I think they would say, though they don’t put it quite this frankly, that this war will be lost for sure. Given a little bit more time, they think that it is realistic to think that the Iraqi forces can move in behind them, and can take over the principal responsibilities for the war. The problem is, of course, that American generals have been saying this now for four years, and as we know, the Congress is beginning to run out of patience with that. But I think that they have a good plan now, at least if there is any plan that could save the situation here, any plan that could bring a reasonably successful end to the American enterprise here, it’s probably the plan they have right now.
HH: Now John Burns, a military historian was writing this week that he fears a Tet-like offensive by al Qaeda’s fighters, as well as perhaps radical Shiia militias prior to the Petraeus report. Have you heard warnings or concerns about such a thing?
JB: (pause) Hello?
HH: Yes, Mr. Burns, maybe you didn’t hear that.
JB: Sorry, you were breaking up quite badly, as you have been at several points during our discussion.
HH: Okay, I’ll try it again. A military historian wrote this week that he fears a Tet-like offensive by al Qaeda and radical Shiia fighters in the next weeks running up to the September report. Have you heard warnings about that, concerns about that kind of…
JB: Yeah, it’s not an original thought. As a matter of fact, it’s a thought we’ve heard expressed by General Petraeus and other commanders here, and you don’t have to be a crystal ball gazer or a seer to understand the risks in that. Indeed, there have been one or two attempts to pull off exactly that. The fear has been among the generals here that a major, spectacular attack, aimed for example at the Green Zone, the government and military command complex in the center of Baghdad, of the kinds that was mounted during the Tet offensive when, as you’ll recall, Viet Cong or North Vietnamese troops got right inside the American embassy. That kind of attack would have an…whatever its consequences here, would have an enormous impact and possibly fatal impact from the American military point of view on the balance of opinion in the Congress. You’ll forgive me, I have American attack helicopters flying overhead right now over our compound here in Baghdad.
JB: There was one attempt already to pull off an attack of that kind. It was not on the Green Zone, but on an American military base southwest of Baghdad, when a truck loaded with 12,000 pounds of high explosives, that’s by quick calculation, we’re talking about more than five tons of high explosives, got very close to what they call the wire of an American base in which there were several hundred American troops. A wary gunner in a watchtower, an American gunner, spotted the truck, and killed or fired at the driver, who got out of the truck wearing a suicide vest, as it happens, and the truck did not explode. Had it exploded, there could have been a repeat of what happened in Lebanon in 1982, when as you will recall, a truck bombing of the Marine barracks residential complex near Beiruit airport killed, as I recall, 249 Marines, and speeded Ronald Reagan in his decision to pull American Marines out of Beirut. So yes, there is a definite concern about that, and there has been a tightening of what the American military calls force protection, that is to say I guess self-evidently, the efforts that the force spends to protect itself in respect of that threat.
HH: When we spoke in February, you told us about the killing that had been underway in Adamiya, one of the places where sectarian violence in Baghdad had really flared in October. What’s your assessment of the Shiia on Sunni violence level in Baghdad six months into the surge?
JB: It is reduced, and it’s reduced primarily, as far as we can see, because of the increment, and I’m talking here of a virtual doubling of American troop strength in Baghdad, to speak only the neighborhood in which the New York Times operates here, the Rusafa neighborhood on the east side of the Tigris River, we here now have American troops quartered about a half a mile away from us for the first time in three years. So when you put American boots on the ground, you definitely have an inhibiting effect on this, and we’ve seen that in falling levels of sectarian violence. Where you don’t have American boots on the ground inside Baghdad, you see higher levels of sectarian violence. So I would that on the whole, the situation is somewhat better than it was, which is exactly what you would have expected by introducing a significant increase of American combat troops.
HH: John Burns, that means it’s down, but is there any kind of movement that you can see that would suggest that when, that the Iraqis are coming to their own conclusion that they’ve go to work through other means than violence, is there a lowering of the hatred level there in Baghdad?
JB: Well, of course, that would be what the American military would call the most crucial metric of all. If we could see that, then we would begin to see the end of the war. Now the fact is that the Iraqi people are, of course, exhausted with the violence. The question is at what point does that begin to translate into the kind of stepping up that would make a change in the warfare, specifically the flow of intelligence to the Iraqi and American militaries here, which would enable them to go after the people who are primarily responsible, whether it’s Shiite death squads or its suicide bombers, mostly Sunni suicide bombers. The intelligence flow, we’re told, is a good deal better, very much better than it was. This is an intelligence driven war, but the American military will tell you that they still don’t have enough of it. They have quite a good flow of intelligence, which has allowed them to have some spectacular successes, including one just last night in Karbala, southwest of Baghdad, the holy city where they went after a Shiite militia death squad leader. And this happens virtually every night, usually special forces operations, American led. They’ve have some success with that. So that’s really the key metric. When the Iraqi people’s exhaustion with this war begins to express itself in a full flow of intelligence to the Iraqi and American military, then you will see real progress in the war. Up until now, it’s much better, but it’s still, according to the American military, still not nearly enough to make it a crucial difference.
HH: Now another metric is what the political elite of a country says off the record. And you have those conversations with the Maliki government, with the opposition, with the people in parliament, etc. What do you hear from those conversations, John Burns? Are they beginning to think that it is possible to see a functioning government and a multi-party system that relies on other than guns?
JB: No, I would say that’s probably the most depressing or discouraging aspect of the entire situation. I think it’s probably fair to say that the Iraqi political leaders, Sunni, Shiia, Kurd in the main, are somewhat further apart now than they were six months ago. In other words, the Bush administration’s hope that the military surge would be accompanied by what they called a political surge, a movement towards some sort of national reconciliation, uniting around a kind of national compact, that has simply not occurred. Indeed, the gulf between the Shiite and Sunni leaders in the government is probably wider than it has ever been. There’s a great deal of recrimination. There’s hardly a day when the Sunnis do not, as they did again today, threaten to withdraw from the government altogether. There’s virtually no progress on the key benchmarks, as the Bush administration calls them, matters like a comprehensive oil law that will settle the issue of how oil revenues, which account for 90% of government revenues here, will in future be divided and spent between the various communities, and many other issues, eighteen of them, benchmarks identified by the Congress, there’s very little progress on those benchmarks. Where there is some progress is at the grass roots level, some progress, though we’re beginning to see tribal leaders, in particular, in some of the most heavily congested war areas, beginning to stand up and say they’ve had enough of it, and to volunteer to put forth their young men, either to join the Iraqi police or army, or to join in tribal auxiliaries, or levees if you will. That’s probably the most encouraging political sign. But at the Baghdad level, unfortunately, the United States still does not have an effective political partner.
HH: One of the arguments for those favoring a timeline for withdrawal that’s written in stone is that it will oblige the Iraqi political class to get serious about such things as the oil revenue division. Do you believe that’s an accurate argument?
JB: Well, you would think it would be so, wouldn’t you, that the threat of withdrawal of American troops, and the risk of a slide into catastrophic levels of violence, much higher than we’ve already seen, would impel the Iraqi leadership to move forward. But there’s a conundrum here. There’s a paradox. That’s to say the more that the Democrats in the Congress lead the push for an early withdrawal, the more Iraqi political leaders, particularly the Shiite political leaders, but the Sunnis as well, and the Kurds, are inclined to think that this is going to be settled, eventually, in an outright civil war, in consequence of which they are very, very unlikely or reluctant, at present, to make major concessions. They’re much more inclined to kind of hunker down. So in effect, the threats from Washington about a withdrawal, which we might have hoped would have brought about greater political cooperation in face of the threat that would ensue from that to the entire political establishment here, has had, as best we can gauge it, much more the opposite effect, of an effect that persuading people well, if the Americans are going, there’s absolutely no…and we’re going to have to settle this by a civil war, why should we make concessions on that matter right now? For example, to give you only one isolated exception, why should the Shiite leadership, in their view, make major concessions about widening the entry point for former Baathists into the government, into the senior levels of the military leadership, that’s to say bringing in high ranking Sunnis into the government and the army and the police, who themselves, the Sunnis, are in the main former stalwarts of Saddam’s regime. Why would the Shiites do that if they believe that in the end, they’re going to have to fight a civil war? This is not to reprove people in the Congress who think that the United States has spent enough blood and treasure here. It’s just a reality that that’s the way this debate seems to be being read by many Iraqi politicians.
HH: Would a, John Burns, a contrary approach yield the also counterintuitive result that if Congress and the United States said we’re there for two or three more years at this level, would that assist the political settlement, in your view, coming about?
JB: Unfortunately, I think the answer to that is probably not, and that’s something that General Casey and General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker now, General Petraeus’ partner, if you will, are very wary of. They understand that there has to be something of a fire lit under the feet of the Iraqi leaders. It’s a paradox, it’s a conundrum, which is almost impossible to resolve. Now I think the last thing that you need is an Iraqi leadership which is already inclined to passivity on the matters, the questions that seem to matter most in terms of a national reconciliation here, the last thing they need is to be told, in effect, the deadline has been moved back three years. I would guess the way, if you will, to vector all of this would be to find some sort of solution, indeed it was the benchmark solution, which would say to them if you come together and you work on these benchmarks, then you will continue to have our support. But it seems to me that the mood in Congress has moved beyond that. The mood in Congress, as I read it from here, at least those who are leading the push for the withdrawal, are not much interested anymore in incremental progress by the Iraqi government. They’ve come to the conclusion that this war is lost, that no foreseeable movement by the Iraqi leaders will be enough to justify the continued investment of lives and dollars here by the United States, and that it’s time to pull out. And of course, you can make a strong argument to that effect.
HH: Do you believe that, John Burns, that the war is lost?
JB: No, I don’t, actually. I think the war is close to lost, but I don’t think that all hope is extinguished, and I do think, as do many of my colleagues in the media here, that an accelerated early withdrawal, something which reduced American troops, even if they were placed in large bases out in the desert to, say, something like 60-80,000 over a period of six to nine months, and in effect, leaving the fighting in the cities and the approaches to the cities to the Iraqis, I think the result of that would, in effect, be a rapid, a rapid progress towards an all-out civil war. And the people who are urging that kind of a drawdown, I think, have to take that into account. That’s not to say, I have to say, that that should be enough to inhibit those politicians who make that argument, because they could very well ask if that’s true, can those who argue for a continued high level of American military involvement here assure us that we wouldn’t come to the same point three or four years, and perhaps four or five thousand American soldiers killed later? In other words, we might only be putting off the evil day. It seems to me that’s where this discussion really has to focus. Can those who argue for staying here, can they offer any reasonable hope that three, two, three, four years out, the risk of a decline into cataclysmic civil war would be any less? If the answer is no they can’t, then it seems to me that strengthens the argument of those who say well, we might as well withdraw fairly quickly now.
HH: Now you’ve reported some very tough places, Sarajevo, Afghanistan under the Taliban, and after the liberation from the Taliban, and you’ve won Pulitzers for that. When you say cataclysmic civil war, what do you mean in terms of what you’ve seen before? What kind of violence do you imagine would break out after precipitous withdrawal?
JB: Well, let’s look at what’s happened already as a benchmark. Nobody really knows how many people have died here, but I would guess that in terms of the civilian population, it’s probably not less than 100-150,000, and it could be higher than that. I don’t think it’s as high as the 700,000 that some estimates have suggested, but I think it’s, and I know for a fact, that the sort of figures that were being discussed amongst senior American officials here, as a potential, should there be an early withdrawal and a progress to an all-out civil war, they’re talking about the possibility of as many as a million Iraqis dying. Now of course, that is suppositional. It’s entirely hypothetical. How could we possibly know? But I think you couldn’t rule out that possibility. And the question then arises, catastrophic as the effect on Iraq and the region would be, you know, what would be the effect on American credibility in the world, American power in the world, and America’s sense of itself? These are extremely difficult issues to resolve, and I can’t say, sitting here in Baghdad, that I have any particular wisdom about what the right course would be. And fortunately, as a reporter, I’m not paid money to offer that kind of wisdom, only to observe what I see. And there are days when I thank God that I’m not sitting in the United States Senate or the United States House of Representatives, with the responsibility of putting the ballot in the box on this.
HH: In his recent speech in Charleston, President Bush argued that to withdraw would be to empower al Qaeda in Anbar Province, and to allow them to set up a base there. What do you make of that projection, John Burns?
JB: Well, I think it’s self-evident. Whatever we may make of the original intent of coming here, if the United States did not have a problem with Islamic extremism in Iraq before 2003, it certainly does now. You only have to look at the pronouncements of Mr. bin Laden and Mr. Zawahiri, his deputy, to see that they regard Iraq now as being, if you will, the front line of the Islamic militant battle against the West. And so if American troops were withdrawn, I think that there would be a very serious risk that large parts of this country will fall under the sway of al Qaeda linked groups. Now we could debate what that exactly means. Al Qaeda’s a holding company. Does that mean that Mr. bin Laden would be able to direct affairs in Afghanistan? No, I don’t think he would. I don’t think he does now. But it would mean that Islamic extremists who bear the worst intent towards the United States would have a base similar to the base they had in Afghanistan before 9/11 from which to operate, and I think it’s very likely that they would then begin to want to expatriate their hatred of the United States in some way or another. In fact, it’s already the case, that there are parts of Iraq which are under the sway of groups that swear allegiance to al Qaeda. And just to speak of one of them, the city of Sumarra, where I was yesterday, it’s about sixty miles north of Baghdad, is definitely under the sway of al Qaeda right now. And that would likely get very much worse in the event of an accelerated withdrawal. So I don’t think it’s purely propaganda, political propaganda on the part of the Bush administration to say that there would be a major al Qaeda problem here. It seems to me it’s absolutely self-evident that there would be.
HH: Now given that you covered Afghanistan from the Taliban era, would they have a greater lethality anchored in Iraq than they did when they were anchored in Afghanistan, John Burns, al Qaeda I mean?
JB: I’m sorry, I missed that. Do you want to repeat that?
JB: I understood you were asking me about the lethality of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
HH: No, I was asking when al Qaeda was in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime, they obviously developed potential and capabilities and operational abilities that resulted in 9/11. If they anchored themselves in a lawless Iraq, would their lethality towards the United States be even greater or lesser than it was when they were in Taliban Afghanistan?
JB: I would say it would probably be greater, and for these reasons. Let’s remember that the Afghanistan, that was a sanctuary for al Qaeda and bin Laden, is a very, very underdeveloped, I dare say primitive country. Iraq is not. Iraq is a country that had and potentially still has a major industrial base, it has among Middle Eastern countries one of the most highly educated corps of scientists and engineers, people who were on their way, certainly in the early 1990’s, to developing nuclear weapons, even if that program, as we now know, fell by the wayside after the first Gulf War. Many of these people have left, but would some of them come back? You would then have to add to that the fact that this is an oil country, which even in the situation of a civil war, is exporting billions of dollars of oil to the world, and could potentially export much more. So I would say add to that the question of geography. We’re a thousand miles closer here in Baghdad to Western Europe and the United States than Mr. bin Laden and his followers were when they were in Afghanistan. So I think yes, it could be a serious problem. Whether that problem can be overcome in any foreseeable or acceptable period of time here, I don’t know. If we knew the answer to that, we’d be well on our way to deciding whether or not it’s worth staying here. But I think to deny that there is such a problem, or even simply to blame it on the Bush administration…
(Call dropped. End of Part 1)
HH: Mr. Burns, sorry, we dropped you there as you were…I just need about ten more minutes if I can hold you for that long.
JB: Yeah, sure.
HH: Great. You were talking about that al Qaeda is real in Anbar, and they would pose problems for us, and it’s not a Bush administration figment, I think you were saying.
JB: I’m not sure where we…you still had me on the line when I was talking about why Iraq is different to Afghanistan?
HH: Yeah, but…I got most of that…
HH: And you were, when you got cut off, you were saying that this is not made up by the Bush administration.
JB: So you know, we can all exhaust ourselves with questions of political accountability for this, and whether the Bush administration, post 9/11, made a huge mistake in moving on from an uncompleted war in Afghanistan to Iraq. But it seems to me that perhaps instead of exhausting our energies on that, it would be better to look at the situation as it actually is, set aside for time being, or for history, who is responsible for it, and come to some conclusions about what is best to do about it. And that would have to start from a recognition that it is a really serious problem. And then the question is what, if anything, can be done about it? Will leaving American troops here only exacerbate the problem, and exhaust the United States? Or would it hold out the prospect that the United States and its Iraqi partners could actually begin to knock al Qaeda back? That’s a very complex question, and as I said earlier, I consider it one of my great blessings that it’s my job to report on these things and not to decide on them.
HH: It’s extraordinarily well put. A couple of metrics, though. When I interviewed General Petraeus last week, he was reluctant to talk in terms of the number of al Qaeda or foreign terrorists killed in the last six months of the surge. What do you think that number is? How many al Qaeda are being killed by the surge?
JB: I would say the figure is in the hundreds.
HH: High hundreds or low hundreds?
JB: I would say it’s probably something in the nature of three to five hundred, cumulatively, since the surge began. Now I’ve not got that figure from the American military. I’m simply pulling together various estimates we’ve had from various parts of this offensive as to the people that they have killed. Now of course, that figure isn’t very helpful. You need to know are these people, you know, 17 and 18 year old recruits who have been paid $50 dollars to go and put a roadside bomb somewhere where it can blow up an American humvee? Or are they hard core? How many of the hard core have they got? I think they’ve had some success, and they’ve probably taken off the streets several dozen senior al Qaeda in Iraq linked terrorists. And that has to be significant. The problem is, as General Rick Lynch of the 3rd Infantry Division, who is presently in charge of the surge operations on the southern approaches to Baghdad has said, al Qaeda in Iraq is a hydra. It is a many headed monster which seems to be able to regenerate its heads when they’re cut off. And that’s been the case for a very long time, as General Lynch knows. He was the command spokesman in his previous assignment here. And many was the time wherein I attended briefings by General Lynch in that role, where he produced charts indicating how many first, second and third tier al Qaeda operatives had been killed or captured. And that was three years ago. So you know, it seems that no matter how many are killed or captured, this thing managed to regenerate.
HH: Now John Burns, some argue that withdrawal will stop the momentum for al Qaeda’s recruitment, that we are, our presence there is, in fact, breeding terrorists. Do you agree with that?
JB: Well, I think there’s no doubt that there’s some element of truth to that. But I don’t think that that alone is keeping or sustaining the al Qaeda presence here. As a matter of fact, if you talk, if you look at what’s happened in Anbar, for example, the tribal sheiks in Anbar who have shifted their position on this war, and in effect now put themselves in an alliance with the United States and Iraqi forces against al Qaeda, they’re doing that partly because of al Qaeda’s brutality, but also because of their fears for what this might portend beyond an American presence. In short, whilst they’ve got American troops here, they’re very happy to have them go after al Qaeda, because most Iraqis, and certainly most tribal sheiks, do not want to live in an Islamic caliphate of the kind that Mr. Zarqawi, who was killed a little over a year ago in an American bombing strike, the former leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, declared his intentions. As a matter of fact, the principal al Qaeda front operation here now calls it the Islamic state of Iraq. It’s pretty clear what those people intend. This, for all the religiosity we have seen in the past three or four years, was under Saddam Hussein, and remains a strongly secular society. Most Iraqis, most Iraqis, crave in their lives much of the same things that Americans do. They want to see economic progress. They want to see a degree of liberty. Of course they want also to preserve and protect their religion. But they do not want to live in a Taliban state.
HH: Mr. Burns, what is Iran’s role right now? What is, as you understand it, the game that they’re playing? What did they want to happen there?
JB: Well, it’s very difficult to read it, and I know that American officials who are dealing with this are absolutely perplexed. You would think that Iran would have, as much as any state in the region, an interest in stability in Iraq, and an interest in sustaining the first Shiite co-religionist, if you will, government in Iraq in hundreds of years. But what they’re actually doing is they are definitely, according to the intelligence that the American military passes to us, they are fueling, if you will, this country on its way to a civil war, and they are certainly responsible for providing the weapons technology and actual weapons in the form of what are known as explosively formed penetrators. That’s a particularly powerful form of bomb that have killed now scores of American troops. So how do we understand all of this? In two ways. Number one, Iran, as you know, is a country divided against itself. It has ayatollahs, extremist ayatollahs in many respects, who are in overall charge of the government. It has other ayatollahs who are more moderate. You have Islamic guards who are extremists, and you have a force, the Quds force, which is an elite force which appears to be the force that the ayatollahs, the extremist ayatollahs in Iran are using to, if you will, fuel the war in Iraq by funneling not just weapons and weapons technology and money, but actual agents into Iraq, according to what the American military has told, as they’ve captured some of them, to actually direct Shiite extremist activities, including death squads, including in February of this year, as I recall, an attack in the city of Karbala about 80 miles southwest of Baghdad, in which American soldiers, you’ll forgive me here, but my recollection is that there five of them, were abducted and killed by people wearing fake American military uniforms, and driving fake American military vehicles. This was an operation, so the American military tells us, which was conceived, directed, financed by the Iranian Quds force. So what is Iran up to here? It looks very much as though their interest in striking back at the great Satan, the United States, humiliating if they can the United States in Iraq, matters more to them on balance than creating a stable Shiite led government in Baghdad.
HH: When you talk with American military and diplomatic personnel there, John Burns, do they foresee some sort of military clash between Iran and the United States?
JB: No, I think it’s fair to say they don’t. They would say, of course, that they will do whatever they are directed by the president and Congress of the United States to do. But from everything I know of the American military commanders here, the last thing they want is any kind of military engagement with Iran, and for one very obvious reason. They have their hands absolutely full here. They have an army which is stretched to the point of exhaustion. I read the other day somewhere that something like 70% of the armored vehicles in the United States armed forces are now in Iraq. One indication of that is that if there were a rapid withdrawal, or helter skelter withdrawal, you’d have an army, an United States Army which would be stripped of much of its fighting vehicles. So do they want another war on their hands? They absolutely do not. They want to do the best job they an possibly do here, and they want to get home. How often do you hear American generals and American officers say that? Nobody wants to come home more than we do.
HH: And do you expect, though, that the nuclear ambitions of Iran will lead the Bush administration, do you hear people speculating about strikes on the nuclear facilities?
JB: You know, that’s way, as the military here likes to say, out of may lane. Though I’m sitting here in Baghdad, probably only about an hour’s flying time west of Tehran, and although I have been in Iran a number of times under the rule of the ayatollahs, I find that one extremely difficult to contemplate. But I do think that there are some things that are easy to state about this, and I think everybody who bothers to acquaint himself to the realities would understand it, that a proliferation of nuclear weapons in this region would be an extremely, extremely dangerous thing. And the proliferation of nuclear weapons to Iran would have a particular danger, because of the hostility of the ayatollahs to the West in the first place, and to the state of Israel in the second, and especially a president of Iran who has declared that it is his desire, his intent, to wipe Israel off the face of the map. So clearly, you know, an unstable policy like Iran acquiring nuclear weapons would be a development of the most frightened proportions. What can you do about that? Is it too late? Is the genie dropped out of the bottle? I was in India and Pakistan when those two countries tested nuclear weapons, and in effect, became nuclear weapons states, and I remember very well the sanctions that were placed on India and Pakistan in the immediate aftermath of those weapons tests in 1998, and how now, less than 10 years later, the United States is in harness with both those countries, and most of the sanctions then imposed have been withdrawn. So it’s difficult, is it not, to develop a coherent policy here in which some states, even if they are a lot more responsible we may judge than Iran are allowed to acquire nuclear weapons and others are not. I don’t pretend to have any answers to this, although I will say is, as I say to my children who are now well into their 20’s, I think they’re growing up into a world a lot more dangerous than I did, and I grew up into the world of the Cold War. And we thought that was dangerous enough.
HH: I want to wrap up by asking you just that kind of a question. When you’re sitting around and having a drink with your friends or your wife or your kids, and you’re an Englishman, and you know, what Gordon Brown has said in the last couple of weeks, and MI5 says you’ve got 2,000 jihadists running around London, what do you think the world’s going to look like in ten years? What’s the best case and the worst case out there, as you contemplate all the different moving parts in this clash of jihadist Islamist extremism and the West?
JB: I have to say I find it…and everything not to say quite frightening, and you know, I’ve learned one thing in my 30 years working for an American newspaper, and thus acquiring some kind of understanding, I hope, about the United States, and that is the can do spirit, that the only useful thing to do in the face of this kind of threat is to ask yourself what can we do about it? America has a genius, in my view, for not sitting down and moping about its forlorn state, but of actually doing something about it. And we will see the United States do something about this. I think that our focus needs to be on what is it that is within our control? There’s only so much that you can accomplish by force of arms. I was with General Nixon, who’s command of American troops in North