March 22, 2006

You Only File FOIA Requests Twice

BAGHDAD — So. I filed a FOIA request on myself a while back with the CIA. Yesterday my brother received a letter that says that after an exhaustive search they found “one document that we have determined must be withheld in its entirety” based on exemptions to the FOIA and Privacy Act laws. The exemptions cover disclosure of CIA “intelligence sources and methods, as well as the organization functions, names” etc of personnel employed by “the Agency” and “material which is properly classified pursuant to an Executive order in the interest of national defense or foreign policy.”

On the one hand, I think, “Hm. What the hell does the CIA have on me, anyway?” On the other, I think, “Bitchin’! The CIA has spook stuff on me! Who’s the spy in my circle of friends?” Looks like someone in Langley’s getting another FOIA-gram from me…

Seriously, how common is it for a journalist to have a document about him that can’t be released for “national security reasons”? Anyone from the CIA reading this site — and server logs don’t lie, yo — want to chime in and explain? And don’t worry about me blowing your cover. I don’t work for the Bush administration.

March 21, 2006

Blast from the Past

BAGHDAD (still) — So, check this blast from the past from my buddy Matt Stannard at the SF Chronicle: Iraqi stragglers still pose threat to allied troops patrolling capital / Hit-and-run attacks likely to persist

Organized military opposition to U.S. and British forces in Iraq has evaporated rapidly since the fall of Baghdad, U.S. military leaders say, but small groups of fighters — irregulars — are still defending the fallen regime. These “pockets of resistance” — the preferred phrase used widely by pundits — have existed since the first days of the campaign, when American generals said such stragglers would be “mopped up” once the main thrust was complete.

The story dates from April 11, 2003, two days after the U.S. “helped” pull down the Saddam statue in Firdos square near the Palestine Hotel. Ah, we were so young. No one really knew it at the time, but Stannard was eerily prescient in his description of a “third type” of resistance:

A third type of resistance may prove even harder to handle, analysts said: suicide bombers such as the one who reportedly killed himself and injured four Marines at a Baghdad checkpoint Thursday. Dressed in civilian clothing and willing to die for relatively small military victories, those individual Iraqis — or, in some cases, foreign nationals visiting Iraq specifically to attack Americans — may prove the thorniest challenge for U.S. and British forces in coming days, analysts said.

It was just after these early days — in June and July — that the Iraqi resistance/insurgency formed around these vestigial cells of Ba’athists and fedayeen. Throw in some foreign fighters, sprinkle in a whole lotta Gulf money and bingo — you’ve got a quagmire. It’s really a shame that no one predicted this. Oh, wait! Someone did!

Instead of a nice, clean occupation that results in the first Arab democracy — and a network of Army bases from which to project power throughout the region — I predict the United States will have years of guerilla insurgency from nationalistic Iraqis (some of the fiercest nationalism in the Arab world), the dirty job of suppressing Kurdish and Shi’ite independence movements and Sunni power grabs, the problem of al Qai’da slipping across the borders (with the help of Iran and sympathetic Saudis) into the country to stike at American troops and meddling in Iraq’s internal affairs by Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Russia. And don’t forget the resentment in the region that will occur when the United States begins exploiting the Iraqi oil fields for its own purposes. No one will like that, least of all the Iraqis.

OK. So I wasn’t 100 percent right on all of this. (Russia? What the hell was I thinking?) But I was pretty close. As were a lot of other people a whole lot smarter than me.

But crowing “I told you so!” — which is not even emotionally gratifying anymore — does little to solve the problem. But I don’t know what the solution is anymore. We’re a hair’s breadth away from civil war, American troops can neither stay or go without an even higher body count and we have a political process that is awash with egos, sectarian tensions and lacking in leadership. And that’s just in America. It’s even worse in Iraq.

I have to confess: I can’t see a way out of this briar patch without a whole lot more bloodshed. And at the risk of sounding defeatist — hell, I’ve been here a long time, I can say what I want — I see the likely end as defeat and ruin for Iraqis, the United States and the region. Feel free to use the comment section to suggest realistic solutions ‘cause I’m fresh out of ideas. (By the way, if you don’t post a comment, then the terrorists win.)

March 20, 2006

Neither a Good War, nor a Badr Peace

NOTE: Here is the story I filed for TIME.com over the weekend and which has been occupying much of my time here in Iraq these last few weeks. It will be my final Iraq story for a while, as I’m leaving in a matter of days. After two months, it’s time to take a break.

The bodies began to show up early last week. On Monday, 34 corpses were found. In the darkness of Tuesday morning, 15 more men, between the ages of 22 and 40 were found in the back of a pickup truck in the al-Khadra district of western Baghdad. They had been hanged. By daybreak, 40 more bodies were found around the city, most bearing signs of torture before the men were killed execution-style. The most gruesome discovery was an 18-by-24-foot mass grave in the Shi’ite slum of Kamaliyah in east Baghdad containing the bodies of 29 men, clad only in their underwear with their hands bound and their mouths covered with tape. Local residents only found it because the ground was oozing blood. In all, 87 bodies were found over two days in Baghdad.

The grisly discovery was horrible enough, the latest and perhaps most chilling sign that Iraq is descending further into butchery — and quite possibly civil war. But almost as disturbing is the growing evidence that the massacres and others like it are being tolerated and even abetted by Iraq’s Shi’ite-dominated police forces, overseen by Iraq’s Interior Minister, Bayan Jabr. On his watch, sectarian militias have swelled the ranks of the police units and, Sunnis charge, used their positions to carry out revenge killings against Sunnis. While allowing an Iranian-trained militia to take over the ministry, critics say, Jabr has authorized the targeted assassination of Sunni men and stymied investigations into Interior-run death squads. Despite numerous attempts to contact them, neither Jabr nor Interior Ministry spokesmen responded to requests for comment on this article.

Jabr’s and his forces’ growing reputation for brutality comes at a particularly inopportune moment for the Bush Administration, which would like to hand over security responsibilities to those same police units as quickly as possible. That has raised the distinct and disturbing possibility that the U.S. is in fact training and arming one side in a conflict seeming to grow worse by the day. “Militias are the infrastructure of civil war,” U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told TIME recently. Khalilzad has been publicly critical of Jabr and warned that the new security ministries under the next, permanent Iraqi government should be run by competent people who have no ties to militias and who are “non-sectarian.” Further U.S. support for training the police and army, he said, depends on it.

But ever since Jabr was appointed Interior Minister after the January 2005 election brought a religious Sh’ite coalition to power, Sunnis allege, he began remaking the paramilitary National Police into Shi’ite shock troops. A member of the Iranian-backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), Jabr fled to Iran in the 1970s to avoid Saddam’s crackdown. Jerry Burke, a former civilian senior police advisor to the Interior Ministry, said Jabr’s experience with Saddam’s government has left him bitter and distrustful of anyone he suspects has ties to the previous regime. That would most certainly include the former members of Saddam Hussein’s Special Forces and Republican Guards which initially made up the bulk of the National Police when Jabr took charge.

To help facilitate his transformation of the police forces, Jabr made sure to enlist the help of SCIRI’s armed wing, the Badr Organization. Members of the militia have been a growing presence in the National Police, which now consists of nine brigades, with about 17,500 members divided between the Special Police Commandos, the Public Order brigades and a mechanized brigade, which will soon be transferred to the Ministry of Defense. “Leadership in the commando positions has been turned over to Badr,” said Matt Sherman, a former CPA advisor to the Interior Ministry. “And new recruits are mostly Badr.”

Indeed, outside the ministry headquarters, banners proclaiming solidarity with Imam Hussein, one of Shi’ites’ holiest figures, snap in the spring breeze alongside — and sometimes instead of — Iraqi flags. Most of the guards’ beards are invariably cut in the close-cropped Iranian style, making them stand out in Baghdad, where beards are less common.

Like so many things in Iraq right now, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. As far back as December 2003, David Gompert, the former National Security Advisor for the Coalition Provisional Authority, realized the dangers sectarian militias posed to Iraq’s stability. And in the waning days of the Coalition Provisional Authority, American viceroy L. Paul “Jerry” Bremer issued Order 91, which was intended to demobilize or integrate nine militias totaling about 100,000 men into the Iraqi security forces. But the Kurdish pesh merga and the armed wing of SCIRI, the Badr Organization, still exist today because the order was never completely or competently carried out.

For that, Gompert puts the blame squarely on the Iraqi government, then under Iyad Allawi, as well as the American embassy. With the U.S. military engaged in several major operations in 2004 and the government transitioning from the CPA to a more traditional diplomatic presence with the arrival of U.S. ambassador John Negroponte at the end of June, Gompert says, neither Allawi nor the U.S made the reintegration program a priority. Job training programs run by Allawi’s Labor Ministry were cancelled over personal feuds and pension programs and other aspects of the program of DDR — “demilitarization, demobilization and reintegration” — were bounced around from one command to another.

Making matters worse has been the fact that the police — unlike the Iraqi Army, which is still under U.S. command and supervision — were practically ignored almost from the beginning of the occupation, says Burke. And what supervision the National Police did get came from U.S. military intelligence officers, not civilian police advisors.

This grave oversight, which stemmed from the military’s unfamiliarity with civilian police methods and its unwillingness to learn, has led to numerous abuses and little accountability. The U.S. State Department, in a report released two weeks ago, documented numerous incidents in 2005, dating back to early May when Jabr was first appointed Interior Minister, where Sunni men were killed execution-style by Interior Ministry police or Shi’ite militias. In each case, Jabr ordered an investigation, and in each case the investigation had yet to report any findings.

Thanks in part to the Interior Minister’s “nonfeasance,” said Burke, the former Interior Ministry adviser, Jabr was at least indirectly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of military-age Sunni men whose bodies have turned up at the sewage plant in southeast Baghdad since late December. Men in police uniforms and vehicles routinely travel through the city in daylight hours with bodies in the back of trucks for disposal at the sewage plant, he said. Prisoners often disappear, Burke said, because they’re picked up at night and no one has an accurate account of who is arrested and where they are taken. “The Special Police Commandos,” he said, using their old name, “are most definitely out of control.”

So black is the reputation of the National Police, that after the Feb. 22 bombing of the Askariya shrine in Samarra, many Sunnis said the perpetrators were Interior Ministry troops who were looking for a pretext to start a civil war. Their fears were further fueled in the bloody two days after the attack, when Iraq became a sectarian slaughterhouse. Instead of protecting citizens from each other, National Police units stood by as Shi’ite rioters — and rival militiamen from Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army — stormed Sunni mosques and swarmed over Sunni neighborhoods, according to numerous reports, including some confirmed by U.S. Gen. George Casey, commander of American forces in Iraq.

The American efforts to try and help stem the deadly sectarianism will likely do little good — and in some respects may well exacerbate the problem. Instead of increasing the number of civilian advisors to Iraq’s local police forces, a spokeswoman for the Multinational Security Transition Command-Iraq (MNSTC-I) said more U.S. military police and military personnel will be assigned to train them. The Special Police Transition Teams (SPTTs) are the model that will be followed. “The SPTTs have been very successful in their efforts,” the spokeswoman said. No change is planned for the oversight program on the National Police.

Gompert notes, “I remember saying, ‘If there is going to be a civil war, it’s going to be fought between Sunni insurgents and Shi’ite militias.” And as long as Jabr is running the Interior Ministry and its police forces, there is little doubt which of the two in such a conflict will have the law — and American training — on its side.

March 19, 2006

Nothing "civil" about it...

BAGHDAD — Regular readers know I think we’ve been in a low- to medium-grade civil war for some time, with the Feb. 22 Askariya bombing a huge step toward open conflict. Well, read this by Nir Rosen, who used to write for TIME before he went on to bigger and better things. Nir’s a smart guy. Here’s an early, key point he makes:

…Sunnis were killing Shia civilians, and Shia, often under official cover, were retaliating. I asked Haidar if the rumors I’d heard were true — that the Ministry of Interior had been infiltrated and dominated by the Badr Organization Militia, the military forces of the radical Shia Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution, or SCIRI. Yes, he said, and added that Ministry of Interior members affiliated with Badr were assassinating Sunnis throughout Iraq. Sunni officers were being removed and replaced by unknown Shias.

This jives with my own reporting on this, which will be published tomorrow on TIME.com.

March 17, 2006

Operation Overblown

BAGHDAD Operation Swarmer is turning out to be much less than meets the eye, or the television camera, for that matter.

Iraqi and Coalition forces launched Operation Iraqi Freedom’s largest air assault operation in southern Salah Ad Din province March 16. Named Operation Swarmer, the joint operation’s mission was to clear a suspected insurgent operating area northeast of Samarra.

Operation Swarmer included more than 1,500 troops from the Iraqi Army’s 4th Division, the U.S. 101st Airborne Division and 101st Combat Aviation Brigade. The Soldiers isolated the objective area in a combined air and ground assault.

More than 50 Attack and assault aircraft and 200 tactical vehicles participated in the operation. Troops from the Iraqi Army’s 4th Division, the “Rakkasans” from the 187th Infantry Regiment and the “Hunters” from the 9th Cavalry Regiment assaulted multiple objectives. Forces from the Iraqi 2nd Commando Brigade then completed a ground infiltration to secure numerous structures in the area.

Initial reports indicate a number of weapons caches were captured, containing artillery shells, IED-making materials and military uniforms. Iraqi and Coalition troops also detained 41 suspected insurgents.

That sounds exciting! But according to a colleague of mine from TIME who traveled up there today on a U.S. embassy-sponsored trip, there are no insurgents, no fighting and 17 of the 41 prisoners taken have already been released after just one day. The “number of weapons caches” equals six, which isn’t unusual when you travel around Iraq. They’re literally everywhere.

(Digression: Just to clear some things up, “air assault” does not equal air strikes. There are no JDAMs being dropped, and there are no fixed-wing aircraft involved at all, except maybe for surveillance. An air assault is the 101st Airborne’s way of inserting troops into a battlespace. There is so far no evidence of bombardment of any kind. Also, it’s a telling example of how “well” things are going in Iraq that after three years, the U.S. is still leading the fight and conducting sweeps in an area that has been swept/contained/pacfied/cleared five or six times since 2004. How long before the U.S. has to come back again?)

As noted, about 1,500 troops were involved, 700 American and 800 Iraqi. But get this: in the area they’re scouring there are only about 1,500 residents. According to my colleague and other reporters who were there, not a single shot has been fired.

“Operation Swarmer” is really a media show. It was designed to show off the new Iraqi Army — although there was no enemy for them to fight. Every American official I’ve heard has emphasized the role of the Iraqi forces just days before the third anniversary of the start of the war. That said, one Iraqi role the military will start highlighting in the next few days, I imagine, is that of Iraqi intelligence. It was intel from the Iraqi military intelligence and interior ministry that the U.S. says prompted this Potemkin operation. And it will be the Iraqi intel that provides the cover for American military commanders to throw up their hands and say, “well, we thought bad guys were there.”

It’s hard to blame the military, however. Stations like Fox and CNN have really taken this and ran with it, with fancy graphics and theme music, thanks to a relatively slow news day. The generals here also are under tremendous pressure to show off some functioning Iraqi troops before the third anniversary, and I won’t fault them for going into a region loaded for bear. After all, the Iraqi intelligence might have been right.

But Operation Overblown should raise serious questions about how good Iraqi intelligence is. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told by earnest lieutenants that the Iraqis are valiant and necessary partners, “because they know the area, the people and the customs.” But when I spoke to grunts and NCOs, however, they usually gave me blunter — and more colorful — reasons why the Iraqi intelligence was often, shall we say, useless. Tribal rivalries and personal feuds are still a major reason why Iraqis drop a dime on their neighbors.

So I guess it’s fitting that on the eve of the third anniversary of a war launched on — oh, let’s be generous — “faulty” intelligence, a major operation is hyped and then turns out to be less than what it appeared because of … faulty intelligence.

UPDATE 2400 GMT +0300: Time.com has posted the magazine’s official version by Brian Bennett, my colleague who was on the operation today.

March 15, 2006

Tonight on the Majority Report

I’ll be appearing tonight on The Majority Report on Air America. (Check your local listings for time.) OK. I guess I do go on liberal shows.

But, for the record, Front Page asked to interview me and I agreed. But then I never heard back from them. Oh, well.

UPDATE: There are archived podcasts available, but you have to be a paying premium member to get access to them. Alas.

March 14, 2006

The Big Lie

BAGHDAD — And no, I’m not talking about WMDs or anything like that. More in my quixotic feud with noted fiction writer Ralph Peters, who came here for a little while and declared All is Well, and “the media” are aiming to undermine the heroic mission here in Iraq with all that bad news. Why, he himself saw Iraqis cheering his patrol as he rumbled through Baghdad atop an up-armored humvee.

Let’s conduct a little thought experiment. “The media” here are fiercely competitive. Everyone of us is looking for any angle — any! — that will break news, make our stories stand out or otherwise distinguish ourselves. That’s what journalists do, and the corps here comes from the entire ideological spectrum, from the conservative to the socialist. But weirdly, this herd of cats — which is what we could be best be compared to — have all come to the same conclusion: Iraq is a mess.

I would argue that this prevailing view is the aggregate of a lot of professional reporting, mine but a small bit. If it gravitates toward a single viewpoint, well, that’s the way it is. Sorry, truth hurts. But a guy who writes exclusively for publications that supported the war before it went down comes here and says things are fine, and somehow I’m supposed to suddenly doubt my own observations and experience? Pardon me if I believe my lyin’ eyes instead of him.

But more unforgivably, Peters also continues his libel against Iraqi stringers/journalists by saying the “The Iraqi leg-men earn blood money for unbalanced, often-hysterical claims.” (emphasis added.)

Mr. Peters, you should be ashamed of yourself. Three Iraqi journalists have been killed this week alone trying to report the news, and the stringer who work for us are no less the journalists than the guys at the Iraqi networks. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists:

Muhsin Khudhair, editor of the news magazine Alef Ba, was killed by unidentified gunmen near his home in Baghdad Monday night, becoming the third journalist killed in Iraq in the last week, Reuters and Agence France-Presse reported. The shooting took place just hours after Khudair attended a meeting of the Iraqi Journalists Union, which discussed the targeting of local journalists in Iraq, Reuters said.

The killing punctuated a deadly week for the press. Amjad Hameed, head of programming for Iraq’s national television channel Al-Iraqiya, and driver Anwar Turki were killed on Saturday by gunmen apparently affiliated with al-Qaeda. Munsuf Abdallah al-Khaldi, a presenter for Baghdad TV, was killed by unidentified gunmen last Tuesday as he was driving from Baghdad to the northern city of Mosul.

At least 67 journalists and 24 media support workers have been killed in Iraq since March 2003, making it the deadliest conflict for the media in recent history. The killings continue two trends in Iraq: the vast majority of victims have been Iraqi citizens; and most cases have been targeted assassinations rather than crossfire. CPJ research shows that Iraqis constitute nearly 80 percent of journalists and support staffers killed for their work in Iraq. Overall, sixty percent of journalist deaths were murders.

Maybe Mr. Peters would like a nice chat with “Salih” from the Washington Post, who reported a story about the looting of Saddam’s palaces in Tikrit after the U.S. military turned it over to the Iraqi security forces. His reward? A $50,000 bounty put on his head by the head of security in Tikrit, Jassam Jabara.

Perhaps he’d like to talk to the family of Allan Enwiyah, the translator for the Christian Science Monitor’s Jill Carroll. He was killed when Jill was kidnapped Jan. 7, unprotected by American firepower. She is still captive, by the way.

Or perhaps he’d like to discuss “blood money” with the widow of Yasser Salihee, a careful and conscientious reporter for Knight-Ridder who was killed by American soldiers at a checkpoint when the car in front of him blocked his view of the troops, who opened fire and killed him. Did I know him? Yes, but not well. I found out about his death when Hannah Allam, then bureau chief for Knight-Ridder called me in hysterics.

You want to know what the Iraqis — who frankly do a better job that we do — feel and think? Read this. Highlight:

“To get a story you have to risk your life,” [said Salima] matter-of-factly. “Sometimes I wonder if the people in the U.S. really understand how much we go through in order to write the story.” To underscore that, she told of being pushed from behind by an Iraqi man while covering a story with a Western reporter, of being caught in a firefight in Sadr City, Baghdad’s sprawling and violent slum, and of being threatened by a group of insurgents while out reporting. Yet in a country with few opportunities, journalism is a way to make a living, and to stay involved. “We never know when something could happen to us,” she said. “But then at the same time, I cannot stop living.”

How dare you, Ralph. How dare you question these men and women’s intentions and honesty. I’ve worked with our staff in the TIME house for two years and I’ve never seen a more dedicated, careful group of journalists. They’re not in this for the money. We pay them well, yes, but they could make more money doing other work. Lord knows they’d be safer, and their families would be, too. But they come in to work every day and do their level best to get us every scrap of information and to get it right. Anyone of them is a better journalist than Ralph Peters, who feels his view from the back of humvee is the only valid one. It’s a viewpoint, yes, but hardly the whole story. You come talk with me, Ralph, we’ll go walk the streets of Karradah, drive without armor, feel the copper in your mouth when the fear and adrenaline comes to you in wave after wave and you realize the L-T from the 320th hasn’t got your six for you, man. You come talk to me then.

Finally, I’ll let a former Army guy have the last word. This from a buddy of mine who was a Public Affairs Officer just a few short months ago:

Oh my god, dude. [Peters] is completely full of sh*t. That’s all I can say. Apparently that f**k hasn’t spent enough time down in the trenches here to understad the little bastards will run out and wave at any patrol for one reason — begging for choclate or soccer balls. They don’t care the Grunts are valiently coming to save the day. … He’s not aware of how f**king dangerous it is for gringos to roam the streets here.

On Deadline...

BAGHDAD — Sorry for the lack of posts. I’ve been on deadline working on a project and haven’t had time. There’s much going on here in Baghdad, both politically and in the streets (where the real politics take place.) I hope to have some more analysis and reporting up soon. My apologies.

In the meantime, more than 70 85 bodies have been found around Baghdad in the last 24 hours, most of them bearing signs of torture. One of the victims still had his identity papers on him, which identified him as a 22-year-old Sunni student. However, Iraqi authorities are refusing to identify the other victims found around the capital because they fear fueling (more) sectarian violence. Based on my experience here, it’s likely most of these bodies are of Sunni men, killed in reprisal for Sunday’s car bomb attacks in Sadr City that killed 58 and wounded more than 200. The culprits are probably members of the Shi’ite-led security forces or members of the Mahdi Militia, based in Sadr City.

Or, heck, there’s no reason the killers couldn’t be both, considering how deeply the Iraqi security forces have been integrated into the Shi’ite militias.

No civil war here, though. Nope. Just a slaughter.

Elsewhere, in Palestine, militants rioted across Gaza after the Israelis stormed a prison holding Ahmad Saadat, one of the leaders of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. In Lebanon, today is the first anniversary of the massive March 14 demonstrations that many hoped would establish a new Lebanese politics.

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About

Hi there! Thanks for stopping in. I'm Christopher Allbritton, former AP and New York Daily News reporter. In 2002, I went stumbling around Iraqi Kurdistan, the northern part of Iraq outside Saddam's direct control, looking for stories. (Some might call it "looking for trouble.") In March 2003, I made it back in time for the war, becoming the Web's first fully reader-funded journalist-blogger. With the support of thousands of readers, we raised almost $15,000. You can read my dispatches here. It was one of the moments in journalism when everything worked. It was a grand -- and successful -- experiment in independent journalism.

Now I'm back in Iraq for the third time, and this time, I've effectively moved to Baghdad. It's a raucous, scary and exciting place with a lot of news going on. I now report for a variety of outlets including TIME Magazine and others.

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