Iraq: The Real Election


“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.


“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…

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