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Iraq: The Real Election

1.

The essence of any insurgency, and its most decisive battle space, is the psychological. [It’s] armed theater: you have protagonists on the stage but they’re sending messages to wider audiences. Insurgency is about perceptions, beliefs, expectations, legitimacy, and will. Insurgency is not won by killing insurgents, not won by seizing territory; it’s won by altering the psychological factors that are most relevant.”1

Just past dawn on January 30, Iraq’s Election Day—the fourth of the US occupation’s “turning points,” after the fall of Baghdad, the capture of Saddam Hussein, and the “handover of sovereignty”—I stood at the muddy gates of Muthana Air Base outside Baghdad watching the sun rise, pink and full, into a white-streaked sky; then, feeling a sudden tremor beneath my feet, I started abruptly: the explosion was loud and, judging by the vibrations, not far off.

I turned to the US Army captain who had been waiting with me next to Muthana’s inner watchtower, and saw his lazy smile. He had been watching me.

Mortar?”

No, sir,” Captain Vic Schairstein said. “That would be an IED”—an improvised explosive device. “That’s the low pitch. We’ve taken so many mortar rounds by now you can tell by the pitch whether they’re 60s, 82s, whatever. It’s like an outfielder judging a pop fly by the sound of the bat.”

My face, puffy from a sleepless night spent on a makeshift canvas cot tracking incessant small-arms fire and intermittent explosions, must have betrayed concern, for here the captain’s smile broadened. “Don’t worry, sir, it’s early,” he said. “They haven’t had time to go to the mosque to get all jihaded up yet.” Then, as my ride appeared—two armored BMWs rumbling slowly up the muddy track toward blast walls and barbed wire—and the captain helped me gather up my flak jacket and my helmet, he offered a final word for the day ahead. “Those VBIEDs”—vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, military-speak for car bombs—“have you ever noticed how they all tend to be white? I guess that’s for purity. Anyway, you might keep that in mind.”

The sun was turning orange now, the sky pale gray, and the gathering light on Baghdad’s streets revealed no cars, pure white or otherwise. Driving slowly through the monumental avenues and great squares we saw… nothing: no cars, no people, no dogs. Nothing moved. It was as if every living thing had been felled by a sudden and lethal plague.

Until we noticed, wrapped about a distant bridge, a glittering necklace of barbed wire; within it a clutter of tan American armor and, among the humvees and blast barriers and tank traps, a sudden burst of movement. What was happening? We slowed and squinted, and in a moment realized with a start that we were happening: the soldiers had seen us—four or five assault rifles were leveled at us and the big gun of one of the humvees was swinging to. Arms flailed in the air; mouths opened and closed; they were shouting, though we could hear no words. A soldier sprinting forward, rifle pointed at us in his right hand, held up a clear signal with his left: we were not to move.

Three or four minutes passed; we were scrutinized through binoculars, telescopic sights. We kept our eyes forward and our hands visible and waited. Up ahead now, at the bridge checkpoint, I saw the soldier motion with his rifle: come forward—but slowly, slowly. We crept forward and then about two hundred yards from the checkpoint we were halted once more and with his rifle the soldier motioned the driver from the car.

Our Iraqi driver, who worked for The New York Times, glanced back at me. He was to have collected me at Muthana the night before but, in the gathering darkness and the imminent curfew, American soldiers had stopped him. “When I started to get out of the car they fired over my head,” he told me. “The soldier ordered me to kneel on the ground and then to walk to him on my knees with my hands on my head. Then he rested his gun barrel here”—he touched his temple—“and said, ‘They’re going to search the car. If anything happens, the first thing I do is shoot you.’”

Slowly, carefully, our driver opened the door and stepped out; hands on head, he advanced slowly toward the bridge, a sleepwalker in the suddenly bright morning. Several guns were trained on him but most remained fixed on us. No one spoke. When he reached the soldiers he was roughly seized, his shirt pulled up, torso searched, credentials checked; then a full body search. Finally, guns raised, they motioned us out. Arms up, we inched forward; at last we in turn were seized, frisked, credentials checked; led finally into a small barbed-wire enclosure: wait here. The driver was sent back to the car, ordered to bring the vehicle forward—but slowly, slowly. We stood watching as the soldiers encircled the car, opened the hood, trunk, passed a mirror under the chassis, began dismantling the panels in the trunk…

Onto the dusty tan city that was Baghdad, dotted with Saddam’s grandiloquent Babylonian modernism—the minatory office towers, the ceremonial gates and looming monuments—had been superimposed, in the two years of occupation, an entirely new architecture, a harsh gray city of a distinctive high-brutalist style. Oceans of concrete had flowed into Baghdad, miles of barbed wire had been unwound around and through it, mountains of sand had been poured over it, and everywhere these most basic of elements had been gathered and shaped into the distinctive forms I saw before me. Lining the bridge, Berliners: twelve- or fifteen-foot-high blast barriers of rough concrete named for the Berlin Wall that now marched by the hundreds and thousands along Baghdad’s main streets and avenues, masking vast parts of the city from public view.

Blocking the bridge and surrounding the American armor were Jersey barriers: concrete half-walls that, arranged in the form of “chicanes,” or tight S-curve-shaped obstacles, force vehicles to slow and stop. Tank traps: massive iron bars welded together in crisscross forms so that they resemble the jacks a giant child might play with, typically draped, as here, in flamboyant swirls of barbed wire. Hesco barriers: huge square canvas bags reinforced with steel and filled with dirt or cinderblocks, the giant’s version of a sandbag, stacked in their scores and hundreds. Sandbagged bunkers. Steel watchtowers. Iron blast doors. X-ray machines. Magnetometers. Sniffer dogs. And the ubiquitous squads of men, some uniformed but more often not, armed with 9 mms and AK-47s and the clear willingness to fire first and ask questions afterward.

A year before the concrete elements of this new architecture had encircled the ministries, the public buildings, the military bases, and of course the hotels. Now, under the pressure of hundreds of suicide bombings and kidnappings, they had metastasized, acquiring extra layers and additional cordons, and moved in force into residential neighborhoods, surrounding the homes of government workers and politicians and businessmen and finally doctors and lawyers and anyone of any means or power, anyone who might conceivably, for reasons political or financial, be targeted for assassination or kidnapping.

So pervasively had this new rough concrete and steel world imposed itself that one evening in the well-to-do district of Mansour, my driver, bewildered by the proliferating roadblocks and checkpoints and chicanes, found himself unable to find a way out of a neighborhood he had known well for decades but that had now become something alien and unfamiliar, a kind of gray mirror-maze of security. In barely two years the capital on which Saddam had lavished such money and attention had been entirely recast, by architects at least as megalomaniacal: the insurgents and their suicide bombers, and the security experts, military and civilian, who took on the task of thwarting them. Together the bombers and their adversaries had built this city, one bomb at a time—hundreds of bombs since the occupation began, killing at least two thousand people. And on Election Day it remained a work in progress.2

The half-dozen checkpoints at which we were stopped, the barbed-wire pen in which I now stood—all of this was the insurgents’ doing; for they had let it be known, in the couple of weeks before Election Day, that “150 car bombs and 250 suicide attackers are prepared to strike in coming days.” Asked at a “Green Zone” news conference about these reports, which CNN had attributed to “intelligence sources” cited by “a top Iraqi police official,”3 the interior minister of the interim government remarked that “the insurgents were trying to increase talks and rumors on the streets.” Indeed, and they had succeeded; now the Americans were responding.

Fifteen months before, on the second day of what came to be known as the Ramadan Offensive, when insurgents in the space of forty-five minutes struck Red Cross headquarters and several police stations with suicide car bombs, I had an appointment with a top American intelligence officer. When I finally arrived at the meeting, a bit late and somewhat disheveled—I had happened to be near the Red Cross when the car bomber struck4—I remarked that such attacks were probably impossible to prevent. You’re quite wrong in that, the officer had responded sharply:

We could stop these things entirely if we were willing to do what was necessary. We could stop car bombers if we stopped all driving. But that would be inconsistent with another, overriding imperative—letting Iraqis live a reasonably normal life. That would prevent the return to normalcy that we need to have. Politically at least, we can’t take those steps. Which means that in the end these things are not a military problem, they are a political problem. We could stop them but to do it, we would have to shut the place down.

On Election Day, the political imperatives were different. In the months before, the Americans had increased the number of US troops in the country by 20,000 and had mounted a series of aggressive offensive operations against the insurgency that had reduced Fallujah to near rubble, had sent insurgents in other cities of the Sunni heartland underground, and had filled to capacity Abu Ghraib and the other military prisons in the country with suspected AIFs (or “anti-Iraqi forces,” as the Americans called the insurgents).5

At the checkpoint, as US Army helicopters passed low overhead, the soldiers finished searching the car and brought us out from behind the barbed wire, searched us again more thoroughly, then let us put our bags back in the car and allowed us to depart. I asked the military’s translator—his face covered by a brown knit ski mask, to prevent insurgents retaliating against him or his family—whether he would vote that day; he said nothing. “Speaking for this sector, sir,” his sergeant put in quickly, “the polling sites are real secure. The question is whether people will come out of their houses and vote. If they want to, it’s real secure.” He gestured all around him. “No way a car bomb gets through this.” On Election Day, there would be no “vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices” for there would be no vehicles. On Election Day the American military in Iraq had shut the place down.6

  1. 1

    See Steven Metz, “Relearning Counterinsurgency,” a panel discussion at the American Enterprise Institute, January 10, 2005. I have slightly edited the language from the rough transcript.

  2. 2

    See Iraq Index: Tracking Variables of Reconstruction and Security in Post-Saddam Iraq, Brookings Institution, March 25, 2005 (updated). The index gives a total of 220 “mass casualty bombings” of which 136 “reported so far were suicide bombings.” The death toll from these “mass casualty bombings,” including suicide bombings, Brookings estimates at 2,290, with 5,059 wounded. These numbers are certainly on the low side, though estimates vary a good deal.

  3. 3

    See “Sources Say Hundreds of Iraq Attacks Planned,” CNN, January 20, 2005.

  4. 4

    See my “Delusions in Baghdad,” The New York Review, December 18, 2003.

  5. 5

    See Edward Wong, “American Jails in Iraq Bursting with Detainees,” The New York Times, March 4, 2005.

  6. 6

    Never have elections been held under such difficult conditions, with a level of violence so high that the country had to be locked down for several days in order for the vote to be held.” See Marina Ottaway, “Iraq: Without Consensus, Democracy Is Not the Answer,” Policy Brief, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 2005.

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