Archive for the Iraq Category

The Godfather of Anbar Province

Posted in Iraq on August 11, 2009 by joder24

When the United States Marines leave Anbar Province, Iraq, the reigns of power will be assumed by a cagey and survivalist group of local leaders, sheiks, and military commanders that some call criminals and others call national heroes (it was those men who answered the call when sheiks across western Iraq called for a fight against Al Quaeda).

Mohammed Hussein Shaffir was a star student and soccer standout until a series of skirmishes with the Baath Party turned him into a criminal and a convict.  Today he’s a Colonel in the heavily armed Provisional Security Force and the most powerful man in the small Anbar town of Haditha.

Click on the picture below to see a video detailing the brief firefight that almost killed him and ended the life of a Baath Party official.

Mohammed Hussien Shaffir

Mohammed Hussien Shaffir


Posted in Iraq on July 21, 2009 by joder24

Short photo set from Haditha, Anbar Province, Iraq

(for best viewing, clip on the link above and on the Flickr page, click on ‘slideshow’ in the top right corner)

haditha soldier

A Message from Baghdad

Posted in Iraq on July 18, 2009 by joder24

Eagle was one of the interpreters working for the U.S. Marines in the small Anbar Province town of Haditha, where I lived from October 2008 until January 2009. I was writing about him recently for an article that’s in front of New York editors (a piece from that article is attached below). I got in touch with Eagle and here’s what he had to say, by way of Iraq update:

hey man
how are you? i feel happy always when i hear from you. i am OK. i am trying now to have job with iraqi government as a terp. things good in iraq. don’t worry about the news. iraq never been 100% safe in last 50 years, so it is so stupid to think 70% safe it is not good. no, it is very good. two days ago we had international match for soccer in baghdad. first time since 2002. fifty thousand attend the match. it was big celebration, and it was big response against any one who have suspicion about the future of iraq. every body watch the match and every body went home in safe. it was the biggest gathering since 2002. so we win against the terror.


The following is from a forthcoming article about a sprawling Marine endeavor in Anbar called Operation Damocles:

Eagle is a 32-year-old Baghdad native with a psychology degree; he’s worked as an interpreter for U.S. forces for six years. In 2008, he was stationed at COP Haditha. He says that when Saddam Hussein was deposed, Iraq lost its father figure (a vital component in paternalistic Arab culture) and looked to the U.S. to replace it. But the Americans rejected the role and as a result Iraqis have been left confused and apprehensive. He also has an incisive point of view on the relationship between Iraqi and American leadership in western Anbar Province.

“Colonel Malay [head of U.S. Forces in western Anbar in 2008] treats Colonel Shaffir [mythical Iraqi leader of the Provisional Security Force] as a military leader,” Eagle says. “Not a militiaman, not a fake Colonel, not a sheik—as a real military leader. And that is the weak point in Colonel Shaffir. He was always chased by the old regime as a criminal; he was nothing. Yes, in his tribe they thought he was a hero, and after 2003 he became something. But the only one who treated him as a real Colonel was Colonel Malay.

“Sometimes Colonel Malay uses Arabic terms with him. Sadiki, my friend. And he called him by Mohammed, Sadiki Mohammed. See, when you use his Iraqi name, and you say it clear, that means you respect him and you care about him. So that’s why Shaffir loves Colonel Malay—because he treats him as Colonel, like him.”

Popular perception among the Marines in Haditha was that the mythical Shaffir was cold and calculating, while his cousin, Faruq, was more likely to fly off the handle and give into whims of passion. Not so, says Eagle.

“Colonel Shaffir is the one who follows his heart,” the interpreter observes, “but he is aggressive. He shows big mercy if you show him you walk straight. But if you don’t walk straight, and start to zigzag, he will be your worst enemy. He was the biggest officer I worked with, and that’s why I always paid attention to him. It was important for the American officers I worked with, and they asked me to analyze his character, as a psychologist.

“I listened to his voice. Three or four good things you tell him about himself, and a short message from Colonel Malay … Colonel Malay says hello, and he sends you a message. And he sends you a letter, and in the letter are words from Shakespeare … and he reads it and says, ‘I understand it. Colonel Malay, he loves me.’ Then you hear his voice is different—he wants to cry. It’s an emotional voice. He’s so emotional, but he can’t show it. Because people, they’ve heard about Shaffir. He’s the one who will straighten up anyone, the one who killed the bad people. But really, he’s Colonel Shaffir with a big heart.”

Eagle goes on to explain that the inclusion of Iraq’s sheik system (in 2006 and 2007) was vital to the U.S. effort. That establishment is the veridical power in the country, he says, and it trumps the authority of the courts, the city council and the IP in the lives of everyday Iraqis. When an Iraqi man or woman has a dispute, he says—for problems ranging from traffic accidents to murder—that person goes first to his or her sheik. The sheik, in turn, confers with a sheik on the other end of the altercation and a deal is reached. The standard penalty for a traffic accident, Eagle says, (depending on the severity) is $3,500. For murder, it’s generally $10,000.

Colonel Malay may have been adept at working with Iraqi security counterparts, but the learning curve vis-à-vis Arabic culture was steep. And though the security arrangement in Haditha seemed to be solid enough to build on, things two hours away—in the town of Hit—were up in the air. A young sheik named Hatim had taken over power in the area, before RCT-5 arrived, and managed to install his tribesman in both the mayor’s office and at the helm of the police department. From the American side, it didn’t makes sense that the Al-Nimr tribe would even put young Hatim (26 years old) into its top leadership role. He was the next in line for blood succession, that much was clear. But his clan, the ?, controlled only about 30-percent of the tribe.

What was clear is that Hatim’s father, then sheik of the Al-Nimr tribe, was killed in 2006 during an oil smuggling operation (U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Colonel Tom Welborn explains that the sheik tried to run an American checkpoint with smuggled oil and that the Marines adhered to escalation of force rules and shot him to death). Oil smuggling, in fact, was to become a leitmotif for RCT-5. In the winter of 2008 (not long after arriving in country) Malay’s command stumbled onto a nasty snag of information. A huge smuggling operation—involving up to 500 trucks—accidentally sparked a pipeline fire and through the ensuing investigation, a number of central figures in Hit’s civic leadership were implicated. Sheik Hatim was involved, as well as his cousin (and the mayor of Hit), Hikmat, as was Salah, Hit’s chief of police.

Posted in Iraq on July 11, 2009 by joder24

The following synopsis began as an outline of the Iraq experience for this site’s “About Page,” but ran so long I’ve turned it into a blog entry.

By 2007, feeling claustrophobic in the small journalism pond that is San Diego, I told my editor at San Diego Magazine, Tom Blair, that the company needed to send a reporter to Iraq. San Diego County is home to Camp Pendleton, the West Coast’s Marine Corps headquarters (it’s also home to the largest naval base in the world). As a result, the military is heavily represented in the magazine’s readership. On a handshake, Tom agreed to sign a letter with the government, saying the magazine wanted me in Baghdad.
He promised to buy two articles from me—which I figured would just about cover my airfare and expenses (pecuniary sacrifice, of course, being one of the dirty compromises of a career freelancer). By the time I got to Iraq, in October 2008, my embed slot with Camp Pendleton Marines had evaporated and I was instead embedded with the 3/7 Marines out of Twentynine Palms, CA. I found myself in a flyspeck Anbar Province town called Haditha (which, I was told, had been the capital of the insurgency in 2005 and 2006).
I anticipated getting my teeth knocked out once a week, as I went into the project not believing in war as an answer to international conflict (my view, I suppose, is paralleled by Kurt Vonnegut’s: I’ve always identified with the segment in Slaughterhouse Five where the narrator tells a Hollywood producer he’s writing an anti-war book and the producer responds, “Why don’t you just write and anti-glacier book”). Quite to the contrary of the bellicose marauders I was looking for, I found a legion of young men who smiled a lot and liked to crack jokes.
Though they carried guns and had different faces, they were, for all intents and purposes, the same guys (no females on the base in Haditha) I’d grown up with in rural Maryland, gone to school with in Ohio and North Carolina, and shared beers with at the corner bar in Southern California. They were regular red-blooded American Joes, and none of them seemed hell-bent on confronting me with their politics. I joined them at a point when the conflict they were prosecuting had become largely non-kinetic. Bullets were replaced with dollars from rebuilding contracts and combat operations had given way to Key Leader Engagements (KLEs), the formal title for bullshit sessions American commanders took part in, on a daily basis—attended by copious amounts of chai tea and cigarettes—with Iraqi security counterparts, local leaders and sheiks.
Through three months in Haditha I was carried on scores of those KLEs, and watched as young American officers advised (often much older) Iraqi officials on governance, security and economics. The mythical sheik, Mohammed Hussein Shaffir, was one of the most important Iraqi figures in Haditha (he was also described to me by the Marine Corps’ top officer in Western Anbar as, “one deadly motherfucker”). A Colonel in the pseudo-Iraqi Army Provisional Security Force (PSF), Shaffir struck me as quiet and competent. He was also heavily armed, closely allied with the Americans, and impeccably hospitable (as, I found, is the Arabic way).
Investigative reporting is one part diligence and three parts luck—and I was fortunate to meet Shaffir so early in my tenure (the Marines, coo coo for acronym, called him MHS). I learned that the erstwhile soccer star had lost five houses and a brother to Al Quaeda. He’d personally killed 56 foreign insurgents. Through the months, and those scores of KLEs, I came to know him fairly well (as well as you can know such a guarded person). Eventually, he invited me to stay at his house. The Marines thought that proposition was absurd, but I felt unequivocally that men like Shaffir would determine the future of Iraq when U.S. troops pull out (which is slated for December, 2011).
The military said there was no way it was signing off on the deal, so I had to officially unembed (the military insisted I return to Baghdad to do it, setting me up for a hair-rising journey back to Anbar). Ultimately, through the dumb luck of an invitation made in passing, I was able to spend more than a week with Shaffir and his force of young (often fatherless … everybody in Anbar has been scarred by the insurgency), devilish and constantly laughing security force.
After that stint, I traveled to an even smaller burg called Bagdadi, where I was adopted by the Barzan family, an absurd outcropping in that absurd place. While under Barzan protection, I was re-christened with the name Josem Barzan Al Obaidi, and became attached at the hip to a 22-year old man named Qusay—a loyal friend who became like a brother (Qusay lost both his legs to a car bomb, in 2007 … though he’s still officially an Iraqi Policeman). In three weeks with the Barzan clan, I gave up using toilet paper, I ate prodigiously, and I came to know the crushing weight of repetition in a war zone (in a place where there is no work, basic services are interrupted—if they function at all—and leaving the neighborhood is vaguely suicidal). I also developed an immeasurable appreciation for Arab hospitality. Every person I met, even those who disdained the American presence, invited me into their homes—anything they had was as good as mine.
A month after unembedding, I finally managed safe transport back to Baghdad, where the military signed me up for a spell with the U.S. Army’s 1-63 Combined Arms Battalion (I wanted to compare Army and Marine protocol). If I thought the Marines were like the people I’d known throughout my life in the U.S., the soldiers I ran into in the Army were the most normal, slice-of-American-life guys I could have imagined (truth be known, the Marines are elite in the American military model—for the simple fact there are far fewer of them—and they know it … nobody is more convinced of Marine Corps superiority than one of its PFCs). I spent two months with the 1-63 and made a number of good friends; men who I came to understand were in Iraq because they genuinely wanted to help and do good.
After two months, I was able to line up another unembed. I went to live with an Iraqi Colonel named Wisam, the Second Battalion commander (25th Brigade, 17th Division) in the small town of Mahmudiya (20 kilometers south of Baghdad) which, as it turned out, was a cardinal point on the Triangle of Death (as a compliment to Wisam and a nod to his joint work with American forces, I can say the Triangle of Death is now the Triangle of Yawns). For two months, I lived with the Iraqi Army and made deep friendships with a series of young officers. They were bright eyed and capable, and almost across the board they were ingratiated to their American counterparts. With them I laughed endlessly, danced everyday (still no toilet paper) and came away with a deeper understanding of Arab customs and mores (some, like the divergent roles of men and women there, I’m still trying to wrap my head around).
From the Second Brigade’s base I was able to broker a stay with another sheik, Mizer Hamdani, whose family represents nearly a million Arabs across Iraq, Syria and Jordan. I was only there for two days before a firefight broke out on the property (one KIA) and the highly protective Colonel Wisam sent an extraction team to whisk me away (which was more flattering than I can explain). After another few weeks with Wisam’s battalion, I returned to the 1-63 (which had relocated to Camp Victory in Baghdad) before I was called away to Spain, ending what proved a mind-spinning and providential eight months in a war zone-cum-globalization/pacification-experiment the likes of which hasn’t been seen before.
Along the way I saw dozens of instances of unaccountably sloppy reporting—largely from left-minded independent journalists who went into the fray with the preconceived notion that whatever the U.S. was doing in Iraq, it was wrong (and who seemed intent on conforming their stories to that angle). I also realized, early on, that the war was voted out of the American consciousness when George Bush was voted out of office. Selling editors back in the states on the multitude of compelling stories I came across was about as easy as talking the high school prom queen into streaking the homecoming game.
The financial crisis, meanwhile, reached San Diego and my two-article deal was cut in half—when all’s said and done, I’m going to lose money on the venture. What’s more, I’ve already been assured by an agent that the book I’m writing about Iraq is not salable (the market’s saturated, he told me). But that’s okay. The experience was priceless. And the flame driving me to pull this work together hasn’t been dampened (pieces of the book and other anecdotes will appear on this site in the months to come).
I feel a deep responsibility to Qusay and Colonel Wisam, to Mohammed Shaffir and the other sheik Mohamed in Haditha; to Lieutenants Ahmed and Jaider (two 20-something natives of the south of Iraq that have lived through three wars in their short lives); as well as to the hundreds of bright-eyed American soldiers I met, who had volunteered for that hot and dusty outpost because there was no other choice when they awoke, confused and anxious, on September 12, 2001. America may have dropped the war from its consciousness, but there are still hundreds of thousands of its young men and women spread out across the Middle East (whether you agree with the fact they’re there or not, they are).
Mostly, I feel indebted and responsible to Qusay—and to all of the Iraqis that took a big risk in protecting me while bringing me into their houses and showing me their lives. I sat in dozens of diwans (central meeting rooms) throughout the country, in the midst of hundreds of sheiks and local leaders, and what they told me can be boiled down to two things: we don’t want our country occupied by foreign invaders, it’s an insult. And we want the Americans to leave—but not now. Not until our army is strong enough to defend us.
Many of those sheiks also told me they wanted the world to hear their stories: the tales of their unimaginable losses, as well as their hospitality, generosity, and will to move on. About their improving economy, long history, and ongoing weddings—as well as the fact that when they laugh they laugh well. A sheik in Haditha (a man with firmly anti-U.S. views who wouldn’t allow me to photograph him or record our conversation) told me his people will survive this event—they’ve done it 12 times before, throughout the long history of the region.
“If your people were knocked down once, as we’ve been knocked down so many times before, you would never get back up,” he told me.
The resilience of the Iraqi people is undeniable and it’s now my duty (despite all those godless, groveling editors and their adherence to the dumbed-down will of the people) to bring it to a larger audience. That starts here (ironically), on the very web that’s brought journalism to it knees. So please pass this post along. And stay tuned for more material.

Journalism’s Slow Death

Posted in Iraq on July 6, 2009 by joder24

Journalism’s woes continue. Mainstream outlets continue to hemorrhage (as a dual-forged result of the Internet inundation and the financial crisis), while the proliferation of new material on the web continues to be rife with trash. Someday, I hope, the industry will pull itself out of this mess and figure out a way to sustain quality investigative reporting. In the meantime, even some of the good outlets are printing stories I either know to be false or completely disagree with (after eight months on the ground in Iraq).
It amazes me that even writers with journalistic creds have allowed their ideological points of view to shape articles, no matter the objective realities that lay before them. One recent article (on the website of the otherwise respected Center for Investigative Reporting) criticized the Iraqi Army’s Special Forces division for putting a gun to a child’s head and threatening a house full of people—the reporter’s point was that those Special Forces units threaten to become death squads. Unlike that reporter, I lived with the Iraqi Army for two months (not, admittedly, with its Special Forces units). And I didn’t see anything approaching death-squad type material.
What I did see were the lists of hundreds of soldiers that have been killed with the bombs of extremists. And I heard the stories (unending) of other soldiers and civilians that have been killed, maimed and tortured by those extremists. I found it particularly entertaining that that reporter’s feelings were so offended by violence—in a war zone. Perhaps he should have left his San Francisco sensibilities where they belonged—outside of a war zone. The civilians I lived with were missing legs—as well as brothers, cousins, uncles and sons—and yet I’ve seen precious few reports treating the horrors visited on the Iraqi population by Arab foreign fighters (one of the most despicable lessons of this conflict is that Iraq’s own neighbors have brought the most sincere kind of wrath).
Plans are underway to begin printing with a website called The Moderate Voice (a centrist-centered site that includes voices from both ends of the political spectrum). Take a look at what Moderate Voice editor Joe Gandelman had to say about the blogging explosion—I think he makes some good points. Check back at this page, periodically, for updates re: the Moderate Voice, as well as new photos (I’m in the process of developing 50 rolls of film I shot in Iraq).

Back in the Saddle

Posted in Iraq on June 30, 2009 by joder24
Day 50 with the Iraqi Army

Day 50 with the Iraqi Army

I’m sitting at a polished dining room table in an affluent neighborhood in Madrid. It’s been a month since I left Baghdad on a C-130 military transport. My head is fully immersed in the First World and Iraq already seems far away. For the first week, however, I was in awe of Iberia’s sturdy buildings, the trashless streets (and working traffic lights) and the people thronging its boulevards. My hosts insist Spain is economically imploding under the pressures of bad fiscal policy and massive reverse-immigration. But looking around I can only say, “Are you kidding me? What I’m seeing here—including the adherence of the people to the social contract and their will to contribute to the community—is a preeminent and beautiful success.”

Between Iraq and Spain, I spent one hellish night in Kuwait. That country is lavishly rich (immigrants are imported—by quota, I’m told—to man blue-collar positions) and it is secure. The people walk the streets in peace and harmony. It’s also dry, not a drop of alcohol to be found (which I realized in horror, after eight months of enforced sobriety in Iraq). The only possible thing to do there is shop at one of the ubiquitous malls—which struck me as something of a slow death. Give me the shit and blood and death of a war zone any day, over that torpid suburban entropy.

Violence in Iraq has spiked in the last few weeks, but yesterday another milestone was achieved—the pullout of U.S. forces from all Iraqi cities. If progress continues as it has for the past two years, I believe Iraq could be a stable and contributing country within a decade; perhaps even a tourism destination. It will take fifty years to restore the country’s infrastructure (electricity, water, sewage, roads, schools, etc.) which languished for thirty years as Saddam used 90-percent of the country’s economy for his war machine. Then, of course, it was hit by terrorists and American-bombs, alike. Most of the world—largely due to the reprehensible job the U.S. media has done—has no idea of the internal challenges Iraq has ahead of it. Though progress has been dramatic, sometimes startling, there are many things that could go wrong in the coming years and decades.

I’m optimistic though. I have to be. In two months living with the Iraqi Army and a month living with civilians, I made some deep friendships. I came to know many good and decent people over there, people who were fed up with the violence and determined to ensure it wouldn’t return. Some of them wanted the U.S. out; others thanked me profusely for the sacrifices of my country. If I had to offer a composite of the wide array of responses I heard, vis-à-vis U.S. presence in the Middle East, it would be this: “The U.S. should leave Iraq—but not now.” Even those who didn’t want the Americans around agreed that the Iraqi Army and security forces need several more years of support to ensure domestic security. The military schedule has been pushed ahead by a U.S. public equally fed up with war. The American commanders I talked to said that’s not a bad thing—they want to expedite the pullout as rapidly as possible. Now it’s wait and see. If Iraqi forces can maintain domestic security, I’m certain foreign investment will begin pouring into the country (which, I’m told by American commanders, has been the plan all along).

That’s the next step, and I think many people tied-up in the country’s future are waiting—is Iraq on the way to renewal or is the other shoe about to drop? Time will tell. Meanwhile, I’ve moved my site and will be blogging regularly again—I have tomes of material from the eight-months I was in country and am compelled to share the stories of the hundreds of soldiers and civilians I met there. Please check back frequently for new pictures, audio, video and blogs. In the meantime, San Diego Magazine has published a three-part article I wrote about the narco war in northern Mexico; please have a look.

Comments are welcome here on the site and perhaps you’ve seen the donation button on the right. As journalism continues sinking under the dual weight of the Internet-threat and the economic crisis, making a living at investigative reporting has become even more tenuous (a legion of talentless scalawags, meanwhile, has taken to the digital world, filling it with half-truths and bile). The donation button may just be the panhandler’s open palm in the world of journalism, but I’m holding my out shamelessly—as I gather funds and equipment for a trek to Afghanistan next fall. Any help would be appreciated. So have a look around and let me know what strikes you.


Letter to a Friend (Iraq)

Posted in Iraq with tags , , , , , , , , on May 4, 2009 by joder24

I’m at the palatial estate of the Hamdani Tribe right now, in the town of Mahmudiya, 20-minutes south of Baghdad. It’s a trip, walking around this place and bumping into and “chatting” with (bumbling through misunderstood words, really) a bunch of men wearing dishdashas (man dresses) and turbans, many of whom are considered minor royalty. Last night Mohammed (one of my hosts and the son of one of the central Hamdani sheiks) took me to his cousin’s house for dinner, where we first we ate ice cream and drank fruit drinks in the garden. The cousin’s house reminded me a lot of being in Florida. It was a bit humid and the evening was cooling off nicely as the sun went down. The house was made of block, like they are in Florida, and palm trees—big ones—dotted the lawn. We came back to the Hamdanis estate, afterwards, and a group of sheiks was sitting in a semi-circle in plastic chairs on the lawn, as they do every night, discussing the day’s events, politics, etc. A quarter moon was nestled in the sky, propped up by a number of sprawling palm trees in the yard, the temp was cool and perfect. It was my vision of Arabia, to a tee.

(24 hours later)

Alright, I’m picking up where I left off, yesterday. A lot’s happened since then. There was a firefight here on the Hamdani’s property yesterday, between the Sons of Iraq (the civilian army being paid by the government to fight against al Quaeda and insurgents) and some unknown entity. I heard the firefight but didn’t think much of it as I’d heard gunfire several times in the two days I was there. Three hours later though, I was sitting in the diwan in the main guesthouse when the Iraqi Army showed up—guys from Second Battalion, where I’ve been staying for the past month. I was like, “Ahmed, what’s up man?” and he was like “Pack your bags, man, you’re coming with us.” I asked if everything was okay and he said, “Just get your bags.” I went and packed my shit up—fortunately I got to talk with Sheik Hamdani before I left, a benevolent man with a PhD from the University of Utah—and minutes later we were packed into three Humvees and heading back towards the town of Mahmudiya.

Somebody died in that firefight, which was enough of an excuse for Colonel Wisam (the guy whose base I’ve been staying on) to send for me. Truth is, the Iraqis weren’t altogether comfortable with me going to the Hamdanis (actually, they aren’t completely comfortable with me going anywhere outside of their care). In fact, the intelligence officer and The Three (their third in command) warned me not to go there at all. Colonel Wisam signed off on it though, so I thought it okay. When I was at the Hamdanis, I felt completely safe. I guess it’s the area around the Hamdanis that’s not totally secure. I talked to a sergeant in the American Army today and he said their intel is that Al Quaeda’s pushing to take the Hamdani’s estate—which I find a bit dubious. It’s so hard to tell over here. The danger seems so far away sometimes, but there’s always a hint of it just around the corner. And nobody that lived through the hell of ’04-’08 is going to believe it can’t come roaring back if given half a chance.

Whatever the case, it made for a nice change of pace—an exciting evening. After being whisked away form the Hamdanis, I was taken to meet Colonel Wisam for a teeming dinner at the house of the sheik of the Al Obaidi tribe; they had some great doma there (which I’m just starting to appreciate).