At Large

Summer Blues in Baghdad

The situation in Iraq is beginning to get a bit discouraging.

By 8.1.05

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BAGHDAD -- The situation in Iraq is beginning to get a bit discouraging. At least that is how it has appeared this summer. It is so hard to believe that the terrorists can roam all over Iraq and be able to plant bombs wherever and whenever they wish with impunity. A guaranteed solution to this problem has eluded me.

In Baghdad there is absolutely no shortage of Iraqi men dressed in various kinds of uniforms -- some of them even well starched and pressed. Many are also very colorful and snappy-looking; as if someone in their Quartermaster Corps is trying to create a look of "instant tradition." God only knows why these men go out daily, in any kind of uniform, for what many of them must know is a latter-day kamikaze mission.

With such a large presence on the streets, why aren't the Iraqis having more success intercepting terrorists before they strike? Every day generates dozens of reports of terrorist successes, but nothing to refute what daily appears on the news. I have heard nothing to contradict the stories either, except for the persistent flow of rumors about the new Iraqi Army capturing and executing terrorists. But for that to be truly effective, you have to advertise the fact you are doing it!

The problem does not appear to be a shortage of U.S. troops. The roads in and out of Baghdad are crawling with convoys of Humvees, especially on the roads considered high-risk, such as the highway to BIAP. I have traveled that road many times, and it is hard to believe the success rate enjoyed by the terrorists given the enormous presence there of U.S. and Iraqi troops. What is also hard to understand is why we have not devised a system, method, or technique for detecting the insurgents as they plant their roadside bombs; a job obviously carried out at night. In spite of the oft-heard saying, "The night belongs to us," there appears to be no system or piece of gadgetry in place to sense the work as it is going on. For a country accustomed to creating gadgets that perform any function, why can't we invent one to handle this chore?

One of this war's worst "crimes against humanity" has been the wholesale slaughter of Iraqi recruits and police cadets. They've been killed by the hundreds as they've milled about, unprotected, in large groups at the entrances to police stations or local military quarters. The other day, in northern Iraq, such a group was standing around when a terrorist wearing a belt of explosives wandered into its midst and detonated himself. At last count, more than 50 Iraqis were killed. This is inexcusable, as I've been saying for months.

One has to wonder about the collective brainpower of the Iraqi military leadership for allowing these circumstances to be repeated almost every day. Similarly, one has to wonder what kind of U.S. military training, coaching, and supervision permits such atrocities to be endlessly repeated. And, in spite of daily examples of mass killings, one never stops seeing dozens of Iraqi soldiers and cadets gathered in large groups all over the city. They are absolutely fresh meat for any terrorist who wants to meet the 72 virgins he has been promised. It really makes one wonder.

One of the major problems we face is a total lack of actionable intelligence. But this can hardly explain it all. I am sure the "good Iraqis" as well as the "bad Iraqis" resort to torture to get information. Why is it, then, that our torturers are not as effective as theirs? Why are our torturers, as long as they are going to stoop this low, less successful? You never seem to hear much about intelligence breakthroughs achieved by means of "stress interviews" conducted by the good guys. All you hear about is the ghastly results of the kidnappings of Iraqis by other Iraqis. The victims are almost invariably ordinary men who were going about their daily lives to rebuild the country for all Iraqis.

Last month, the manager of Baghdad International Airport and three of his engineers were kidnapped. Days later their decapitated bodies were found at the employee entrance to the airport work area. Does anyone dare question the fact that a message has been sent to the people working at and using the airport? How many of them will quit their jobs and stay home? How many passengers using the airport facilities will decide that the trip to Jordan being planned for next week can wait a while after all?

A few weeks ago the father of Aziz, our chief site inspector, was kidnapped. Here's how it happened. Aziz Sr. is the owner of a small factory that makes metal frames. The factory is surrounded by a high fence and employs many armed security guards. A group of Iraqi soldiers came to the factory to discuss neighborhood policing. "Put down your weapons, Brothers!" they said to the guards. When the guards did, these "Iraqi soldiers" proceeded to blow up the safe and take $60,000. Then they kidnapped Mr. Aziz and one of his assistants. They have made several phone calls demanding ransom, and they have played games with Aziz and his family. Aziz has driven all over the province to one "drop site" after another, but so far the kidnappers have produced nothing.

I was recently driving in Baghdad with a couple of our engineers. They told me that they, and their friends, are starting to talk about how things were actually much safer when Saddam was in power; that the real answer might be to bring him back. They pointed out that even though everyone lived in a state of "low grade" terror, at least they were safe from crime, they all had jobs, they were all paid, they all received their monthly food rations, the streets were clean, traffic moved, schools were open, city shutdowns didn't happen, and people weren't kidnapped. I asked them: "If Saddam were to run for president in the December election, would he win? Would you vote for him?" They declined to answer.

I found the conversation quite depressing, but the truth is that everything in Iraq is always on a rollercoaster and perhaps this is just a passing phase. When I return back from our drive through Baghdad, Omar, one of our Kurdish security guards who always shakes my hand and says hello to me, repeated as he does every day: "George Bush, YES!" I am sure that "W" would win an election in Kurdistan in a Texas-sized landslide, but the problem may be the rest of Iraq.

The negotiations on the Constitution continue to lurch along. The other week someone claimed it was a "90% done deal." Later someone said it's "85% done." Sounds as though they may be going backwards. The Iraqi notion of a negotiation is that if each side doesn't get everything it demands, it's okay to threaten a civil war. They are the original "If I can't be captain, I will take my bat and ball and go home" crowd. And all this time I had believed the years spent as rug merchants made them the world's most skilled negotiators.

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