Published: Tuesday, 19 February 2008 05:00
The current battle for Mosul will be remarkably different. American troops comprise barely a skeleton crew in Mosul and would stand no chance of securing this city of roughly 1.7m people. The overwhelming bulk of the work will come down to the Iraqis. For the first time American troops will be augmenting the primary Iraqi forces, rather than the other way around. Unlike Anbar and Diyala, there is no groundswell of local militias to harness. The various terrorist groups here are in conflict with each other, but none, to my knowledge, has reached out to us to run widespread combat operations against al Qaeda and others.
This will be a crucial test of progress for the ISF. The Battle for Mosul likely will be a long and painful fight for our ISF allies and the Iraqi citizens who have suffered so long under the terrorists here. Good people will be lost. The Iraqis will lose most of these. They almost always do. I went on many missions with the 2nd and 3rd Iraqi Army Divisions in 2005 and 2007, and saw them fight. These officers and soldiers are among the best in Iraq. Since 2005, the police in Mosul have enthusiastically gone after terrorists. In 2008 the ISF is ready to give al Qaeda and other terrorists hell.
Can they do it?
Nobody knows, but the Iraqis and Americans believe they can, and my hopes are with them.
As this battle unfolds, most of my reporting will be done via radio while my book, Moment of Truth in Iraq , nears completion. Undoubtedly, when I return to America for the publication date, gunfire from the Battle for Mosul will still be ringing in my ears.
While fighting elsewhere in Iraq continues to abate – touch wood – the task of rebuilding the country becomes more crucial. Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) will be an increasingly important aspect of the increasingly American-Iraqi mission in Iraq. Australia plans to abandon Iraq, as have others, even while profound progress is obvious. National reconciliation and the introduction of the rule of law, along with economic development, are likely to be the next big stories. Unfortunately, these stories might go untold as demand for news from Iraq plummets along with the violence. It no longer makes economic sense for many news agencies to keep people here. Those who do stay operate at a loss. If making a profit is important, reporting from Iraq is a bad business decision. This seems to be holding for the new or alternative media as well. I haven’t seen a blogger in maybe a year, though I know that some, like Michael Totten and Matt Sanchez, have spent a good deal of time embedded with the troops. Matt Sanchez seems to have more staying power than most; he says he’s spent eight months here.
The best reporting comes from reporters who have spent the most time on the ground here, because the context is complex and evolving. Long distance reporting is like exploring the moon through a telescope. To get a feel for the ground here, a journalist has to be like Captain Kirk. I have often commented on how very different the reality is over here from what most Americans seem to think it is. There is no way to explain how different, except to say “you would have to be here to understand it.” When mainstream reporters get the story wrong, it’s usually because they lack the context and depth of experience necessary to correctly interpret what they see and hear. The same is true for bloggers, some of whom are grandiose in implying that they spend a significant amount of time in the field, but an inventory and audit would not support the claims.
The mainstream media continues to carry the overwhelming bulk of the load. On the other hand, bloggers like Bob Owens, Blackfive, Glenn Reynolds and Michelle Malkin, have served as important media watchdogs, without whom shoddy coverage of the war likely never would have been revealed. Hopefully they will continue to apply spotlights to keep as much accurate and quality reporting as possible, regardless of whether it comes from mainstream or alternative sources.
In Mosul this week, at least five other writers and two photographers were here, from such organizations as The Washington Post, New York Times, The Telegraph and Agence France-Presse. All seven are veteran international reporters, and most have substantial experience covering wars. I have never been in a group of journalists in Iraq where all of us had so much war experience. The A-team is definitely here. Yet by the time of the American presidential election, the Iraq news stream likely will have diminished to almost nothing, precisely when events over here will demand the most skilled and experienced reporters. That is when, bets are on, many of the bloggers will again trumpet Iraq-experience they do not possess. Fact is, for battlefield reporting, mainstream media retains a virtual monopoly, and the bloggers are not in a position to compete, or at least are utterly failing to compete on teh most important battle ground: the ground. These harsh truths come as plea to bloggers to get over here and walk the walk. Alternative voices are needed. Stop talking. Start walking.
Many Iraqis seem eager to reconcile. Iraqis, to my knowledge, do not talk of partitioning Iraq, as many folks thousands of miles away used to think was inevitable. The negotiations in Baghdad are grinding and frustrating, but progress is occurring, although it never will occur quickly enough for either Iraqis or for us.
Recently I wrote about a man who was wrongly incarcerated by Iraqi authorities. He is Sunni and comes from a powerful family. His brother, Dr. Mouyad, is a cardiologist whom I have spoken with many times. Dr. Mouyad has shouldered an important and very dangerous burden helping to rebuild his South Baghdad neighborhood. Dr. Mouyad’s brother, Walid, was arrested about ten months ago for allegedly murdering three bakery workers. Their bodies were rigged with explosives, which destroyed the bakery and killed those who had come to recover the bodies. Walid was arrested–the evidence against him consisted of two written statements– and disappeared into the labyrinth of the Iraqi legal system.
First Lieutenant Travis Lee, intelligence officer for 1-4 Cav at FOB Falcon in South Baghdad, investigated Walid’s arrest. Since 1-4 Cav was working with Dr. Mouyad to rebuild the neighborhood, it was important to know if American soldiers might be dealing with the brother of a terrorist. Lee noticed that both statements implicating Walid were identical, signed anonymously, and apparently in the same handwriting. The statements said that the incident had occurred on 10 October 2006. Lee checked the Combined Information Data Network (CIDNE), which tracks Significant Activities (SIGACTS) throughout Iraq. CIDNE is a database that can be easily searched by various fields, such as date, location and type of attack. (I recall a diary captured in 2005 in Mosul where the terrorist had listed his attacks, which matched up perfectly to SIGACTs.) When Lee searched CIDNE for a 10 October 2006 triple-murder/bakery bombing, there was nothing. Months of additional research, including interviews of key police officers and civilians in the area, yielded nothing. Lee concluded the bakery bombing simply had not occurred. Period.
Walid was in jail, potentially facing execution, for a crime that hadn’t been committed. For three months Lee exchanged phone calls with Master Sergeant Diaz, an American soldier at the National Police Training Team. Diaz picked up the case and stayed on it.
Walid’s case is not the only one.
Concerning an amnesty law recently passed by the national government, Alissa J. Rubin reported in the February 14 New York Times: “The vast majority of the 26,000 prisoners held in Iraqi jails are Sunni Arabs, some of whom have been held without charges for months.”
Month after month, Lee and others from 1-4 Cav, including the commander Lieutenant Colonel James Crider, tried to persuade Iraqi judges to drop the charges against Walid. At the request of 1-4 Cav, other American soldiers training Iraqi police nearby the prison where Walid was being held, looked in on the prisoner. Walid was being well treated, but he had also been held for ten months without seeing a judge.
Major General Jeff Hammond got involved, eventually signing a letter requesting that Iraqi authorities review the case. On 13 February, Lee, Crider and others from 1-4Cav headed down to the judge’s chambers near the Ministry of Interior. I accompanied them.
When we arrived, hundreds of National Police were in the compound. They were training, marching, and generally making noise, but friendly toward us. Inside the judge’s chambers were four judges, each with a Koran on his desk, much as American judges often have Bibles.
The first judge wore a blue shirt and a matching striped blue tie. He offered us chai, which we sipped. Although he apparently had never met Walid, the judge refused to believe that the prisoner was anything other than a terrorist. During the course of conversations, the judge offered at least five times to give Crider a tour of the jail, saying the prisoners were well fed and well cared for. But Crider did not want a tour; he wanted to secure Walid’s release. (The judge was not kidding about the well-fed part: after ten months in custody, Walid was rotund.)
While the judge kept saying that Crider was welcome to take Walid, he refused to sign a formal release. Crider kept insisting on a signature. The judge wouldn’t budge. Crider kept his cool, telling me later that he did not want to show any emotion or do anything to cause the judge to feel defensive.
At one point the judge asked Crider, “If I do not sign the document are you going to take him?”
“I cannot take him without your permission.” Crider said.
The judge refused to sign the document, telling Crider: “I trust you more than the Iraqi police because you have no sectarian influences.”
Crider promised the judge that Walid’s release would go a long way toward reconciliation. It must have been very tempting for Crider to just take Walid without the judge signing the release, but that would be circumventing the rule of law.
Another judge told his colleague just to release the prisoner, but the first judge refused. For ninety-five minutes, Crider kept pleading. Finally the first judge offered to take Crider to a more senior judge and Crider accepted. And so off we went, along with the first judge, to a senior judge, who also was very cordial. This time there was coffee instead of chai. These sorts of talks can provoke dreams of: Bora Bora. Coconuts. Grass skirts. Red flowers in flowing black hair. Then back to reality: Iraq. Bombs. Blood. Injustice. War.
While the senior judge listened intently to Crider, the first judge never interrupted. When Crider stopped speaking, the judge began to answer, but first he politely asked Crider if he had finished. “Yes,” Crider answered. The judge proclaimed his respect for American soldiers and their adherence to the rule of law. He said Prime Minister Maliki had issued a memo that prisoners like Walid were not to be released under such circumstances. The discussions continued.
Near the end, Crider said, “I come from a nation where we are under the law. Not under men.”
Crider explained that Walid had been in jail for nearly a year without seeing a judge. The judge said that he gets people from Basra, Fallujah, Diyala, Kirkuk and Mosul, who sometimes have been detained for five or six months without seeing a judge, and when they arrive in Baghdad, the prisoners often come with no documentation whatsoever. The authorities do not know the detainees’ names, or what the charges they are being held on. All they know is that the prisoners have been arrested, and so they remain in custody.
The senior judge said he would review the case and get back to Crider the next morning. We drove to Dr. Mouyad’s house, where he fed us, but nobody told him that they were attempting to free his brother. There was an old man outside Mouyad’s home, whom I had seen several times before. The old man had abandoned his farm and his flock because his son had been arrested by the Iraqi Army and disappeared.
The old man came to Baghdad where, day after day, he patiently waited to speak with Crider. I remember the day when he finally did speak with Crider, who told the man he had checked into the case, and believed his son was innocent, and would try to secure his freedom. The old man broke down and began to cry. He walked away and hugged one of his other sons, who thanked Crider. LTC Crider had located the prisoner, and told his father he was well and not being mistreated. The Iraqi Army know that we know he is being held, which is some help to the prisoner.
We left Mouyad’s house and drove back to FOB Falcon, passing the spot where an EFP had taken off the front end of a car some days earlier. It had also peppered a Stryker. I dreamed of Bora Bora.
The next morning I was to fly to Baghdad. When I got up to check email, the internet was down so I figured an American must have been killed. The Army unplugs the internet when people get killed to give the military time to notify the families. In fact, an MRAP carrying the Brigade Command Sergeant Major was driving down Route Irish (between Camp Victory and the International Zone) when an EFP detonated and destroyed the engine. Everyone was okay.
At FOB Falcon, we loaded into another MRAP. The soldiers were going to drop me at the landing zone at Camp Liberty so I could get to Mosul. We headed up Route Jackson, passing the places where so many bombs had killed so many people. Soon we were on Route Irish, where the MRAP had been destroyed that morning. Another MRAP behind us broke down so we had to tow it, but eventually I got on a helicopter to Camp Speicher, and then another helicopter to Mosul, which was cold and raining and muddy. The battle would soon begin.
At FOB Marez in Mosul, I was finally able to log onto the internet. There was an email from Dr. Mouyad and another from LTC Crider. Walid had been released!
Michael - We got a call this morning from the judge who I “negotiated” with for two hours yesterday to learn that the Chief Judge decided to dismiss Walid’s case and let him go free and clear to return home. This time we arranged for MSG Diaz to be there and it went very smooth. We picked up Walid and returned him to Dr Moayad. See the attached pics! This was one of the most touching moments of my time here. A true injustice reversed!! Dr Moayad’s mother was speechless and could hardly stand. She believed Walid was dead even though one of her daughter’s had visited him in prison. She thought that they were telling her that so she would not get upset. She came into the driveway and threw candy at all of the soldiers ( an ancient Arab tradition to show gratitude) and kissed me on the chest. I got a lot of “man kisses” for this one too. Of course, 1LT Lee and CPT Hamilton worked so hard and the letters from COL Gibbs and MG Hammond were invaluable too. Thought you would like to hear the rest of the story. Sorry you could not witness it!
Yet up here in Mosul, the fighting continues. I do not share the optimism of some pundits and advisors. That said, though violence is relatively high in Mosul compared to the rest of Iraq, the violence is Mosul is also remarkably lower than I have seen it before.
I remain skeptical, but have to point out that there is real and serious reason for hope, including the fact that the current MNF-I command climate has facilitated a long string of successes. My skepticism, while tempered by my confidence in the current command, persists because there are too many variables at play in Mosul to predict what will happen beyond the reach of the headlights.
The enemy remains deadly here. At about 0310 on 16 February, the base was rattled by a gigantic explosion. I pulled out of bed and walked into the darkness with my nightvision monocular, searching for the hot mushroom cloud, which I did not see. The boom came from a controlled detonation of truck bomb captured less than a day before, perhaps set out to attack our people. The truck, containing an estimated 5,000lbs of explosives, was taken outside the inhabited area and detonated, reminding many people of the Zenjeeli bomb that detonated a few miles from base less than a month ago. One officer told me the Zenjeeli bomb contained up to 30,000lbs of explosives. Soldiers felt their buildings shake on base, and saw a gigantic mushroom cloud lift into the sky and float away. Dozens of people were killed. The next day, when Brigadier General Saleh Mohammed Hassan arrived to inspect the damage, he was murdered by a suicide bomber. Foreign terrorists including Saudis continue to flow into Mosul. Two things are certain: there are bloody days ahead; and, I will report the good, bad and ugly from Mosul as it unfolds.
Bora Bora. That’s where I want to be. But at the end of this journey, no matter where that is, no matter how things work out in Mosul, at least once I saw justice and freedom flow into the parched sands of Iraq.