This September, at the height of Ramadan, I flew north in a US Army helicopter from Baghdad to Samarra, a former sanctuary of the extremist group known as al-Qaeda in Iraq, on the east bank of the Tigris River, known for years by US troops as “the worst city in Iraq.” Between 2005 and early 2008 Sunni extremists imposed a theocracy here, executed “spies” in the central market, and financed their operations through protection rackets and by hijacking fuel trucks. In February 2006 militants with al-Qaeda in Iraq blew up the Golden Dome of the city’s al-Askariya Shrine, a revered Shia pilgrimage site that contains the bodies of two ninth-century imams. The bombing plunged the country into a civil war in which tens of thousands of people died. Sixteen months later, in June 2007, al-Qaeda in Iraq destroyed the shrine’s minarets, and a few weeks before that, a suicide bomber drove a truck into police headquarters, killing the police chief and eleven of his men, and sending the rest of the seven-hundred-man force fleeing for safety across the river.
By the time I arrived in Samarra, however, the al-Qaeda forces had retreated. In February 2008, the US Army’s 101st Airborne Division signed a deal with two powerful Sunni tribes in the city, and two thousand fighters—many of whom had previously been laying improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to kill American troops—were put on the US payroll. The Sons of Iraq, or Concerned Citizens Council, an offshoot of the Sunni Awakening movement that had brought peace to neighboring Anbar province in 2007, started to give intelligence to their new US allies about al-Qaeda in Iraq operations in the city.
This increase in valuable intelligence, combined with US firepower and the improved performance of the Iraqi police and military, sharply reduced the levels of violence in and around Samarra. According to US Army figures, hostile actions against American soldiers dropped from 313 in July 2007 to seventeen in August 2008. “The Sons of Iraq had seen how low the city had sunk, they saw how al-Qaeda had oppressed the population, and they turned against them,” I was told by Captain Nathan Adams of the 101st Airborne, as we sat in an air-conditioned briefing room beside the helicopter landing zone in Samarra. Working together, he said, “we’ve made Samarra an unattractive option for them.”
On a steamy afternoon I traveled with a platoon from the First Brigade Combat Team of the 101st Airborne in Samarra that was escorting Brigadier General James Boozer, deputy commander of the US Army’s First Armored Division, of Task Force Iron, on a tour of the city. In the 120-degree heat, we threaded our way through a maze of Sons of Iraq checkpoints, blast walls, and bombed-out government buildings surrounded by coiled barbed wire.
The First Brigade Combat Team—including several hundred troops based inside the city—had borrowed from the strategies that US troops had used in Anbar province, absorbing the lessons of Fallujah, Ramadi, Hit, Tal Afar, and other former combat zones: they had reinforced a berm—a continuous mound of earth—that surrounded the city, constructed watchtowers for constant surveillance, and set up three checkpoints through which much of the city’s population passed. Samarra was broken into a dozen neighborhoods, each one protected by a perimeter of blast walls. The US forces also conducted a census of every adult male in the city, to make it more difficult for al-Qaeda guerrillas to infiltrate unnoticed. Samarra felt to me like a maximum- security prison. But it was a safe prison, and the restrictions of movement and heavy military presence were, for the Samarrans I talked to, certainly preferable to the anarchy and carnage that they had lived with for nearly five years.
We drove down to the Tigris River to inspect a new bridge that was finally being completed after a three-year delay. Provincial contractors, after being threatened and sometimes killed by al-Qaeda in Iraq, were back at work. About twenty US troops fanned out across the riverbank, as Boozer, Colonel J.P. McGee, and I walked halfway across the bridge—a series of metal plates balanced on pontoons. “I don’t think a single contract was carried out in Samarra [in three years],” I was told by McGee. “You’d be crazy to do it—you’d either get killed or give up all your money. Everything’s changed since March.” He mentioned, by way of example, the UNESCO-sponsored project to reconstruct, here in the heartland of the former Sunni insurgency, the Golden Dome, the holy Shiite site that had been destroyed in February 2006.1
But how much has really changed? The Iraq of November 2008 is a far safer place than it was one year ago. Yet as two new books about America’s experience in Iraq make clear, five years of violence and civil war have left a legacy of deep sectarian division. Waiting for an Ordinary Day, by former Wall Street Journal Baghdad bureau chief Farnaz Fassihi, follows the lives of several Iraqis she came to know between 2002 and 2005, and examines how US political and military failures contributed to the cataclysmic breakdown of society—failures that continue to have strong effects today. The Strongest Tribe, a detailed account of the Iraq war by Bing West, a US Marine veteran, picks up the tale from the perspective of the US forces in Iraq, and demonstrates how, by trial and error, luck, and skilled leadership, US commanders turned the war around beginning in late 2006. Both books make it clear that the US occupiers, at the cost of tens of thousands of lives, permitted extremism to spread, and failed to encourage the growth of civil institutions. The books also show that the disastrous situation described by Fassihi is sure to have lasting effects, even as the military strategies described by West have dramatically improved security in some of the most violent regions.
Fassihi, the Iran-born daughter of Tehran intellectuals who emigrated to the United States after the Shah’s downfall, was a close observer of the disastrous US decisions that turned the rage of the disenfranchised Sunni population into a full-scale rebellion. She got much attention in September 2004 when an e-mail that she had intended to be read only by friends and colleagues from Baghdad was circulated on the Internet; and her Hobbesian portrait of a disintegrating Iraq provided a counterpoint to the blandly optimistic pronouncements of the Bush administration. “I avoid going to people’s homes and never walk in the streets,” wrote Fassihi. Her pessimistic view of the US occupation was much quoted by liberal bloggers, while arousing the fury of neoconservatives on the eve of the 2004 US presidential election:
I can’t go grocery shopping anymore, can’t eat in restaurants, can’t strike up a conversation with strangers, can’t look for stories, can’t drive in anything but a fully armored car, can’t go to scenes of breaking news stories, can’t be stuck in traffic, can’t speak English outside, can’t take a road trip, can’t say I’m an American, can’t linger at checkpoints, can’t be curious about what people are saying, doing, feeling. And can’t and can’t….
Drawing on three years of intrepid reporting in Iraq, starting with the last year of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Fassihi shows how ordinary Iraqis suffered under the occupation. Sabah Nasser, his wife Marie-Rose, and their sons Ayad and Ziad, for example, are well-to-do Catholics in Adhamiya, a predominantly Sunni neighborhood of Baghdad, whom Fassihi first meets a few months before the invasion and visits frequently during the war. The Nassers have little love for Saddam, but view the imminent US invasion as an affront to Iraqi sovereignty, and they distrust US motives. After the Americans arrive and are unable to prevent Baghdad’s descent into lawlessness, violence begins to overwhelm the family. Ziad decides to marry his fiancée in the middle of a raging Sunni insurgency—“Clinging to plans in wartime, even if they seem insane, provides a sort of relief,” Fassihi writes.
Then, as the Nassers drive through Baghdad delivering wedding invitations, Ziad is nearly killed with his mother when assassins open fire with machine guns on a passenger in the car in front of them. Sabah hires armed guards to stand outside the church door during the ceremony—gangs of kidnappers often troll for victims on such occasions—and orders guests to leave the church “in fifteen-minute intervals to avoid a long procession of wedding cars attracting attention.” By the end of the book the Nassers, fearful of being targeted by Sunni Islamists, stay inside their house, avoiding eye contact and conversations with their Muslim neighbors. “Everyone seems to be pulling more tightly into their own sectarian cocoons, looking for protection and revenge,” Fassihi observes.
Iraq’s insurgency was fed in large part by disaffected members of the Iraqi army, disbanded by L. Paul Bremer in May 2003 in what historians will surely regard as the worst single decision of the post-invasion period. But as Fassihi makes clear in Waiting for an Ordinary Day, Iraqi civilians—shopkeepers, auto mechanics, and teachers—driven by nationalistic pride, fear of disenfranchisement by the Shia-dominated government, and anger at the sometimes brutal tactics of the US military, also joined the insurgents.
In one of Fassihi’s strongest chapters, she tells the story of Najim Abdulhussein, a devout Muslim, grocery store owner, and community leader who had good relations with American troops—he distributed army-issued cooking gas canisters to his neighbors and served on a fifteen-member local council that had been set up by the Americans shortly after the invasion. Abdulhussein and his seventeen-year-old son were arrested during one of the largely indiscriminate sweeps by American troops through Sunni neighborhoods of Baghdad in August 2003, a gas canister used for inflating helium balloons cited as evidence of their subversive activity.
Abdulhussein’s US captors pinned the paper label “Bomb Maker” on his dishdasha, then put him and his son into Abu Ghraib prison, which was swelling with men and boys arrested in similar sweeps across Iraq. For six months, Abdulhussein was interrogated, humiliated, and tortured daily. “His hands were tied behind his back, and his face was covered by a hood, under the sweltering sun. After thirteen hours he collapsed, unconscious,” Fassihi writes of one such session. Abdulhussein was liberated from Abu Ghraib after the publication of Fassihi’s article on the front page of The Wall Street Journal. When Fassihi attempted to do a follow-up article after his son’s release, a year and a half after his father’s, she found that it had become physically impossible: “The family’s neighborhood is a bastion of insurgency,” she writes, “and too dangerous for even our Iraqi staff to go to inquire on behalf of an American newspaper.”
Fassihi captures the early, freewheeling days when ambitious young reporters who stayed at the al-Hamra hotel in Baghdad cruised the streets by day, then gathered around the pristine pool in the courtyard every evening. As the insurgency spread, Fassihi moved to a guarded house in the well-to-do Mansour neighborhood, which became an al-Qaeda in Iraq enclave; terrorists began kidnapping Westerners and beheading them. A bomb exploded beneath a US Humvee just in front of the house, shattering all the windows and badly shaking up Fassihi and her colleagues.
The Wall Street Journal team retreated to a compound in the Green Zone, the heavily fortified government enclave along the Tigris; they gave up freedom of movement for guaranteed protection and became frustratingly detached from the “Red Zone” just beyond the last blast wall. Fassihi’s Iraqi staff, however, remained dangerously exposed. The nephew of Fassihi’s interpreter is kidnapped and held for ransom; the office manager’s brother, a doctor, is shot to death in what seems to be a campaign to murder all physicians in Baghdad. Two staff members flee Iraq. She comes to know well two Iraqis who provide insight into the virulent anti-Americanism sweeping the country:
Haqqi and Munaf are neither religious zealots nor anti-Western. They are not unemployed or disenfranchised. Their generous monthly paychecks come from an American organization. They are cordial when they interact with American soldiers. They like practicing American slang, which they pick up from us and from watching sitcoms like Friends. They listen to Western and Arabic pop music, and they like to party and dance….
Intellectually they understand that the insurgency is destabilizing their country and halting progress. Yet, an intuitive sense of pride stirs them to support the resistance. I can’t help but think that if the insurgents are succeeding in tapping into the nationalist sentiments of Iraqis like Haqqi and Munaf and winning their sympathy, if not their cooperation, the Americans have lost the heart of the battle.
As Fassihi sees it, the US-style democracy promoted by American policymakers never stood a chance in the aftermath of the ill-planned invasion and occupation. The newly empowered Shia religious parties, with the help of neighboring Iran, sought to transform Iraq into a theocracy run by the hawza, the Shia clerics based in Najaf. That, in turn, provoked a fatal distrust between Shias and Sunnis that fed the Sunni insurgency.
Fassihi’s account of her visit to the Sunni city of Fallujah in 2004 captures the dwindling influence of Sunni tribal sheikhs who traditionally have strong power bases in Anbar province in the face of an insurgency increasingly being directed by fundamentalist imams. Around this time, a Sunni extremist organization run by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian terrorist who was subsequently killed by US forces, declared loose allegiance to Osama bin Laden and became known as al-Qaeda in Iraq. As extremists linked to al-Qaeda in Iraq tightened their control of Fallujah and other cities, Fassihi finds the Sunni tribal leaders dithering between neutrality and capitulation to the insurgents. The US occupiers, meanwhile, stood by. “The Americans could not bring stability and security to Iraq,” a disgusted tribal chieftain tells her ahead of the 2005 elections that Sunnis boycotted, propelling a Shia extremist government to power.
The Shiite Islamists and Kurds are getting together and the Americans are nodding yes. We need to get organized and create a third force…. We are educated people who love our country. I don’t see why America wouldn’t support the tribes.
Fassihi’s report on the aftermath of a suicide bomb attack that killed dozens of children in Baghdad—they had gathered around a US Humvee to receive candy—is stark evidence of the US military’s failure to protect the citizens of the country it had ostensibly come to liberate.
In fact, as Bing West documents in The Strongest Tribe, US commanders missed repeated opportunities to enlist the Sunni tribal sheikhs and their fighters against the takfiris —the Sunni extremists, including some foreigners, who were imposing a reign of terror in Anbar and blowing up Shias in Baghdad. In March 2005, around the time that Fassihi had her encounter with the sheikhs, for example, fifty tribal leaders of Anbar offered to provide the US with five thousand men in exchange for weapons, ammunition, and vehicles. “They would agree to boundaries and point out the takfiris. That would stop IED attacks along the main roads,” West writes. US commanders rejected the offer and told the sheikhs to deal with the Iraqi government. But the government was then firmly in the hands of Shia religious parties largely hostile to the Sunni minority, thus precluding any such arrangement with the tribes. By mid-2005, West writes, Shia death squads were killing Sunnis in Baghdad; the Shia government (first under Prime Minister Ibraham al-Jaafari, then under his successor, Nouri al-Maliki) looked the other way, and Sunnis in Anbar provided sanctuary to al-Qaeda in Iraq. General George Casey, then the commander of US forces in Iraq, privately acknowledged that Baghdad was “sliding toward chaos.”
The belts around Baghdad had virtually no presence of either US or Iraqi forces. The southwest approach was the staging ground for car bombs and suicide bombers. From Arab Jabour on the Tigris west through what was called the Triangle of Death to the Abu Ghraib district adjoining Anbar Province, terrorists enjoyed a vast sanctuary. Inside Baghdad, al Qaeda disciples sneaked into Shiite neighborhoods to bomb unsuspecting civilians during the day. At night, Shiite militia groups firebombed Sunni neighborhoods, gradually extending their influence and becoming the de facto government inside the city. Maliki, though pressed by Khalilzad [the American ambassador] and Casey, refused to take decisive action against the Jesh al Mahdi. Despite that, Casey remained determined to push Maliki and his commanders into the lead, letting them make mistakes until they learned.
US forces in the field, besieged by a mostly unseen enemy, hampered by a lack of intelligence, and unaided by poorly trained Iraqi troops—and with little direction from Baghdad or Washington—were left to make things up as they went along. There were a few successes. In Tal Afar, for example, a violence-wracked, mixed Shia-Sunni town north of Tikrit, Colonel H.R. McMaster and the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment conducted search-and-destroy missions in surrounding villages. They surrounded the city with a thick dirt berm and ran around-the-clock patrols through the streets, first alone, then with the Iraqi police. They blocked off infiltration routes, and took back the city from al-Qaeda in Iraq street by street.
By contrast, in towns like Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, where US troops hunkered down in the blasted heart of the city, the police disappeared, half the population fled, and al-Qaeda in Iraq moved at will through the streets. The situation was worse in the Upper Euphrates Valley, north of Ramadi, where—in cities such as Haditha, Hit, and Husaybah—the Iraqi security forces dissolved after the Iraqi government refused to pay them, leaving a few thousand Marines and soldiers to patrol thousands of square miles of territory.
West traces the improvement in the security situation back to December 2006, when Casey began to understand that American troops were spread too thin on the ground and were too isolated from Iraqi civilians to stop the runaway violence. Casey saw that his strategy of steadily withdrawing US forces from some cities while rapidly building up the Iraqi army and police was failing. Sectarian divisions were undermining the Iraqi troops’ effectiveness, and civilian trainers were doing a generally poor job. Casey tried a new “Gap Strategy,” a precursor to the surge, that “made American forces directly responsible for protecting the population by clearing and then holding the neighborhoods,” West writes. Troops in Baghdad left the large, cushy “forward operating bases” (FOBs) from which they “commuted” to war, and were redeployed in combat outposts, or COPs, and joint security stations, neighborhood firebases where they ate and slept alongside Iraqi soldiers and stayed in close contact with the local population. “Plopping COPs in the midst of violence ensured that the American soldiers would vigorously patrol,” writes West.
There was no driving back each evening to a massive FOB for an excellent dinner, a check for e-mails, a new DVD release, and a bunk in an air-conditioned room, guarded by disciplined Ugandans, Gurkhas, Peruvians, and other militaries that had hired on.
Casey’s replacement, General David Petraeus, one of the heroes of West’s tale, placed two more US brigades in vulnerable Baghdad neighborhoods and oversaw a counterinsurgency strategy that made protection of Iraqi civilians paramount. His effective management of the 30,000-man “surge” cut down the activities of Shia death squads, stopped infiltrations by Sunni suicide bombers, and dramatically reduced the violence.
At the same time, US commanders in Anbar province finally began listening to the tribal sheikhs, led by the charismatic Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, who mobilized thousands of former insurgents into an effective fighting force against al-Qaeda in Iraq. (Sattar was murdered in a car bomb attack outside his Ramadi home in September 2007.) Visiting once-ferocious battlegrounds such as Ramadi, Habbaniya, and Haditha, West observes with admiration how US troops, who had previously fought blind against a shadowy insurgency, were now working closely with the tribes to pinpoint—and destroy—al-Qaeda in Iraq cells.
As West points out, the success of the Sunni Awakening movement also depended on the shifting allegiances of the Sunni population, which had grown disgusted by the excesses of the fundamentalists. “Like Robespierre being consumed by his own Reign of Terror in 1794, the nature of al Qaeda in Iraq eventually locked it into a death struggle with the very Sunni population it claimed to be trying to liberate,” West writes.
Meanwhile, the radical Shia cleric’s once-fearsome Mahdi Army, weakened by joint military campaigns by US and Iraqi forces in Basra and Sadr City, has become quiet. It has not, however, disappeared, and could reemerge. What Petraeus has called “the malign influence” of Iran has recently made itself felt largely in the political and economic spheres—for example, through its connection to the leading Shia parties and its large-scale support for rebuilding Iraq’s Shia shrines. But that influence continues to be strong and it would be foolish to discount Iran’s power to affect events in Iraq.
As Fassihi writes in the epilogue of Waiting for an Ordinary Day, the legacy of the US misadventure can be measured in part by the grim statistics: more than four thousand American troops and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed or wounded, two million Iraqis displaced internally and another two million languishing as refugees in neighboring countries. But it can also be observed in the political landscape that remains little changed by improvements in Iraq’s security. The Shia nationalist coalition of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Dawa party and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council led by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, which are rivals for political power, appears unified on one goal: the entrenchment of a Shia Islamic state in Iraq and the marginalizing of the Sunni and Kurdish minorities.
Nowhere is that more evident than in al-Maliki’s hostility toward the Sunni Awakening movement, made up largely of Baathists and former insurgents. The 100,000-man force of the movement is perhaps the greatest challenge to Shia dominance. Last summer al-Maliki announced that the government would, by October 2008, take over control of the major Sunni force in Baghdad, called Sons of Iraq. While US pressure appears to have postponed that move, Iraq’s stability will almost certainly depend on how the Shia government chooses to deal with this large and potentially unfriendly Sunni armed force. The signs have not been promising. As Peter Galbraith wrote in these pages, General Jim Huggins, who oversaw the Iraqi police in the Sunni belt south of Baghdad, submitted in late 2007 a list of three thousand names—most from the Awakening but also including a few hundred Shiites—to the Iraqi government for incorporation into the security forces. Four hundred were accepted, and all were Shiites.2 In her epilogue Fassihi writes: “Iraq’s fragile stability hinges on deals brokered with Sunnis and Shiites.” So far there’s little indication that the al-Maliki government has any intention of making such deals.
West, too, in The Strongest Tribe, acknowledges the fragility of the peace. While maintaining that Iraq is “on the road to stability,” he writes that a rapid pullout of US troops “may shatter” the country, deepen the sectarian rift, and lead to renewed war. Yet West offers no insights into how to consolidate the security gains made up to this point. He supports the continued training of Iraqi security forces—who have made great progress over the past year and a half—and the gradual drawdown of US forces, while insisting that “some American forces will be needed for years, in steadily decreasing numbers.” He offers no prescriptions for a political settlement that might reassure Sunnis and Kurds that they will have a place in the new political order.
The new status-of-forces agreement being negotiated by the US and Iraqi governments—which seems to be facing stubborn opposition in the Iraqi parliament—calls for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraqi cities and towns by the end of 2009, and the removal of all American troops from the country by December 31, 2011. That is more or less consistent with the sixteen-month time frame proposed by President-elect Barack Obama. Passage of the act is by no means assured, however, and the deepening split between the two main Shia parties—Maliki’s Dawa and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, which is close to Iran—raises the prospect of a weakened Shia front ahead of provincial elections.
Those elections, scheduled for January 2009, could be an important step toward the inclusion of the Sunnis, who boycotted the 2005 elections and thus have little representation even at the provincial level. But the elections won’t satisfy another important constituency: Iraqi Kurds. In Kirkuk, a Shia government plan to create equal representation on the local council among Kurds, Turkmen, and Arabs has been opposed by the Kurdish majority. The current provincial council will remain in place until a separate election law for the province can be passed, though no one can say when that will be.
In Samarra, many of the American troops I met expressed anxiety about the future. The 101st Airborne Division is pulling out of Salauddin province at the end of 2008, and the new US forces, I was told, are likely to face new attacks. “Al-Qaeda is going to regroup and it will challenge whoever replaces us,” said one officer of Charlie Company, as we sat in Patrol Base Olson’s grimy dining facility. A far greater concern is the fate of the local Sons of Iraq. Under pressure from the al-Maliki government, the US troops have begun reducing the force’s salaries—from $300 to $200 a month—and stopped automatically rehiring men when their three-month contracts expire. The US military has in turn put pressure on the al-Maliki government to integrate the Sons of Iraq into the local police force, which is woefully undermanned, but the officers I spoke to were divided about how the government would respond. “I think the government of Iraq has come to realize that the Sons of Iraq contributed to the security of the country, and there’s a sense that ‘we owe them their just dues in terms of employment,’” General Jim Boozer said. But an officer whose company patrols within Samarra’s municipal limits told me that the government had yet to hire a single Sons of Iraq fighter. “All these guys want is to get off our meal ticket and into the Iraqi security forces, but so far it hasn’t happened,” he said. The consequences of such inaction, according to the US officers I talked to, were potentially deadly: “I don’t think the [Sons of Iraq] leaders will return to a full-fledged insurgency,” one US army colonel in Samarra told me, “but I could easily see some of the [unemployed] fighters going back to laying IEDs.”
One sweltering evening the US troops took me to meet Abu Rashid, a chain-smoking former Iraqi army officer who led Samarra’s insurgency and who co-founded the Sons of Iraq here in February 2008. (Rashid had given a briefing to US Army officers a few months earlier, explaining to the rapt soldiers exactly how the insurgency in Salahuddin province had been financed, armed, and organized.) We sat in the courtyard of a villa in the Qadasiya neighborhood, once an enclave of top Iraqi military officers and Baathists, as a household generator—the only source of power for most of the day—rattled in the back garden. It was a telling scene: half a dozen American soldiers, their M16s resting at their feet, sipping sodas and eating apples with their former Sunni enemies, hard-looking men in dishdashas and Arab headdresses who not long ago spent their days trying to kill some of these very troops.
“The Americans and the Sons of Iraq have a common enemy, and so we’ve come together,” Rashid told me, as he puffed on an Iraqi cigarette. When I asked the Sons of Iraq leader whether he was concerned about the reduction in their forces, he told me, “They can’t stay fighters forever.” Some, he said, will join the police and the army, and “when everything calms down and the money starts coming in, the rest will get jobs on public works projects.” I asked whether he trusted al-Maliki to make sure that the Sons of Iraq found employment after they were disbanded. Abu Rashid shrugged and said, “We do not have confidence.” The feeling seems to be mutual. It’s clear that scarred former battlegrounds such as Samarra have made remarkable progress over the past year and a half. But the sectarian tensions described by Fassihi in Waiting for an Ordinary Day and by West in The Strongest Tribe seem powerful enough to pull Iraq apart again.
—November 5, 2008
See my account of this project in the forthcoming Smithsonian Magazine of January 2009.↩