Autumn in Baghdad is cloudy and gray. Trapped in rush-hour traffic one October morning, without warning my car bucked up and back, like a horse whose reins had been brutally pulled. For a jolting instant the explosion registered only as the absence of sound, a silent blow to the stomach; and then a beat later, as hearing returned, a faint tinkling chorus: the store windows, all along busy Karrada Street, trembling together in their sashes. They were tinkling still when over the rooftops to the right came the immense eruption of oily black smoke.
Such dark plumes have become the beacons, the lighthouses, of contemporary Baghdad, and we rushed to follow, bumping over the center divider, vaulting the curb, screeching through the honking chaos of Seventies-vintage American cars, trailing the blasting horns and screaming tires for two, three, four heart-pounding moments until, barely three blocks away, at one end of a pleasant residential square, behind a gaggle of blue-shirted Iraqi security men running in panic about the grass, shouting, waving their AK-47s, we came upon two towering conflagrations, rising perhaps a dozen feet in the air, and, perfectly outlined in the bright orange flames, like skeletons preserved in amber, the blackened frames of what moments before had been a van and a four-wheel drive.
Between the two great fires rose a smaller one, eight or nine feet high, enclosing a tangled mass of metal. Pushing past the Iraqis, who shouted angrily, gesturing with their guns, I ran forward, toward the flames: the heat was intense. I saw slabs of smashed wall, hunks of rubble, glass, and sand scattered about, and behind it all an immense curtain of black smoke obscuring everything: the building, part of the International Red Cross compound, that stood there, the wall that had guarded it, the remains of the people who, four minutes before, had lived and worked there.
“Terrorism,” the US Army lieutenant colonel had told me ruefully the week before, “is Grand Theater,” and, as a mustached security man yanked me roughly by the arm, spinning me away from the flames, I saw that behind me the front rows had quickly filled: photographers with their long lenses, khaki vests, and shoulder bags struggled to push their way through the Iraqi security men, who, growing angrier, shouted and cursed, pushing them back. Swinging their AK-47s, they managed to form a ragged perimeter against what was now a jostling, roiling crowd, while camera crews in the vanguard surged forward. Now a US Army Humvee appeared; four American soldiers leaped out and plunged into the crowd, assault rifles raised, and began to scream, in what I had come to recognize as a characteristic form of address, “GET. THE FUCK. BACK! GET. THE FUCK. BACK!” Very young men in tan camouflage fatigues, armed, red-faced, flustered; facing them, the men and women of the world press, Baghdad division, assembled in their hundreds in less than a quarter of an hour: in the front row, those who, like me, had had the dumb luck to be in the neighborhood; behind them network crews who had received a quick tip from an embassy contact or an Iraqi stringer, or had simply heard or felt the explosion and pounded their way up to the hotel roof, scanning the horizon anxiously, locating the black beacon, and racing off to cover the story—or, as Lieutenant Colonel George Krivo put it bitterly, to “make the story. Here, media is the total message: I now have an understanding of McLuhan you wouldn’t believe. Kill twenty people here? In front of that lens it’s killing twenty thousand.”
Behind the flames and the dark smoke, amid the shattered walls and twisted metal, a dozen people lay dead, many of whom had been unlucky enough to find themselves passing the front of the International Red Cross compound when, at half past eight in the morning, a man later claimed to be of Saudi nationality drove an ambulance with Red Cross markings up to the security checkpoint and detonated what must have been several thousand pounds of explosives, collapsing forty feet of the protective wall and sending a huge sandbag barrier cascading forward.1 The Red Cross compound, with its security wall and sandbags and manned checkpoints, was a “hardened target”—as were, indeed, the three Baghdad police stations that, within the next forty-five minutes, suicide bombers struck, in the neighborhoods of al-Baya’a, al-Shaab, and al-Khadra.
In the rhetoric of security, all of these attacks failed dismally. “From what our indications are,” Brigadier General Mark Hertling told Fox News that afternoon, “none of those bombers got close to the target.” In the rhetoric of politics, however, the attacks were a brilliant coup de théâtre. In less than an hour, four men, by killing forty people, including one American soldier and twenty Iraqi police, had succeeded in dominating news coverage around the world, sending television crews rushing about Baghdad in pursuit of the latest plume of smoke and broadcasting the message, via television screens in a hundred countries, first and foremost the United States, that Baghdad, US official pronouncements notwithstanding, remained a war zone.
Within a week, as members of the Red Cross left Iraq and many of the few remaining international organizations followed close behind, the attackers had set in motion, at the “highest levels” of the Bush administration, a “reevaluation” of American policy. Within two weeks, even as President Bush went on vowing publicly that the United States “would not be intimidated,” he abruptly recalled L. Paul Bremer, the American administrator in Iraq, who rushed back to Washington so hurriedly he left the prime minister of Poland, one of America’s few major allies in Iraq, waiting forlornly for an appointment that never came.
After two days of intensive consultations, administration officials unveiled a new policy. They decided to discard what had been a carefully planned, multiyear process that would gradually transform the authoritarian Iraqi state into a democracy—seven clearly defined steps intended to allow democratic parties, practices, and institutions to take root, develop, and grow, eventually leading to a new constitution written and ratified by the Iraqi people and, finally, a nationwide election and handover of power from American administrators to the elected Iraqi politicians it produced. The administration put in its place a hastily improvised rush to “return power to the Iraqis.” In practice, this meant that in seven months the United States would hand over sovereignty to unelected Iraqis (presumably those on the American-appointed Governing Council, many of them former exiles, who had been pressing for such a rapid granting of power since before the war). Elections and a constitution would come later.2 Despite President Bush’s fervent protestations to the contrary, this was clearly a dramatic change in his policy of “bringing democracy to Iraq”—and, by extension, of making Iraq the first step in what he recently described as his “forward strategy of democracy in the Middle East.”
If victory in war is defined as accomplishing the political goals for which military means were originally brought to bear, then eight months after it invaded Iraq, the United States remains far from victory. If the political goal of the war in Iraq was to remove Saddam Hussein and his Baathist regime and establish in their place a stable, democratic government—then that goal, during the weeks I spent in Iraq in late October and early November, seemed to be growing ever more distant.
When I arrived in Baghdad, Iraqi insurgents were staging about fifteen attacks a day on American troops; by the time I left the number of daily attacks had more than doubled, to thirty-five a day. Though military leaders like General Ricardo Sanchez, the overall commander, have repeatedly denigrated the attacks on his troops as “strategically and operationally insignificant,” those attacks led the CIA to conclude, in a report leaked in mid-November, that the “US-led drive to rebuild the country as a democracy could collapse unless corrective actions are taken immediately.”3 The United States fields by far the most powerful military in the world, spending more on defense than the rest of the world combined, and as I write a relative handful of lightly armed insurgents, numbering in the tens of thousands or perhaps less, using the classic techniques of guerrilla warfare and suicide terrorism, are well on the way toward defeating it.
“What we have here,” Lieutenant Colonel William Darley told me, “is basically a constabulary action. I mean, this is pretty much the Old West here. Peacekeeping. Where are the regiment on regiment, division on division engagements? We’ve seen almost nothing above the squad level. Basically this is not a real war.” I heard this view, in various versions, expressed by American military men all over Iraq, from staff officers to combat commanders to lieutenants on the ground. Most of these men I found deeply impressive: well trained, well schooled, extremely competent. What joined them together, as the war grew steadily worse for American forces, was an inability, or perhaps a reluctance, to recognize what was happening in Iraq as a war.
“There’s a deep cultural bias in the United States that if a military doesn’t resemble ours, it’s no good,” the military strategist George Freidman of the private intelligence company Stratfor told me. “We have the strongest conventional forces in the world. So no one fights us conventionally. They fight us asymmetrically.”
In Iraq, asymmetric warfare has meant a combination of guerrilla attacks on US and other coalition forces and terrorist attacks on a variety of prominent nonmilitary targets, including hotels, embassies, and international organizations. Beginning late this spring, the guerrilla attacks were centered in Baghdad and the so-called “Sunni Triangle” north and west of the capital but, since mid-autumn, they have increasingly spread to the north and, more slowly, the south of the country. Since late summer, highly effective terrorist attacks, including suicide bombings, have grown steadily more audacious and sophisticated, particularly in their use of the international press to multiply their political effect. In responding to both lines of attack, US intelligence—the “center of gravity” in any guerrilla war—has seemed poor or nonexistent.
The guerrilla attacks have built on, and worsened, the American occupation’s unpopularity among many Iraqis, capitalizing on, among other things, the US military’s failure to provide security during the early weeks of the occupation and the daily humiliations and occasional brutalities that come with the presence of an occupying army. The terrorist attacks have served to consolidate and then worsen the international isolation the Americans have labored under since the catastrophic diplomatic decisions that led up to the war and have succeeded in depriving the coalition of additional military forces and international help in rebuilding the country.
Terrorism is certainly—as the lieutenant colonel put it—Grand Theater. Or to put it a slightly different way, terrorism is a form of talk. To hear what is being said, one must look at the sequence of major bombings in Iraq over the last several months:
For the Saudi claim, see Mohammad Bazzi, "Saudis Suspected in 2 Iraq Attacks," Newsday, November 11, 2003.↩
See Susan Sachs, "US Is Set to Return Power to Iraqis as Early as June," The New York Times, November 15, 2003.↩
See Jonathan S. Landay, "CIA Has a Bleak Analysis of Iraq," Philadelphia Inquirer, November 12, 2003.↩
For the Saudi claim, see Mohammad Bazzi, “Saudis Suspected in 2 Iraq Attacks,” Newsday, November 11, 2003.↩
See Susan Sachs, “US Is Set to Return Power to Iraqis as Early as June,” The New York Times, November 15, 2003.↩
See Jonathan S. Landay, “CIA Has a Bleak Analysis of Iraq,” Philadelphia Inquirer, November 12, 2003.↩