Die Weltwoche pubilshed an article on my experiences and impressions on Iraq and Anbar province, titled The greatest enemy is the time. The article is published in German, so I have reproduced the text here:
The greatest enemy is the time
How do the American soldiers see the situation in the Iraq? Our reporter went in the heart of the Sunni resistance, Anbar province. A report from the front:
As President Bush unveiled his new vision to move forward on Iraq, the political debate in the United States has continuously degenerated into a simple, binary choice of withdrawal to prevent further American casualties, or surge more troops to attempt to restore order in Baghdad. After spending two months out of the last 12 in the land between the two rivers, one thing I’ve learned is nothing is simple about Iraq, and there are no easy solutions to the vast array of problems. But despite the constant media portrayal of Iraq as a hopelessly violent nation, Iraq is not a nation without hope.
The average life of an insurgency is about nine years. In Iraq, the insurgents and al Qaeda hope to wear down the will of the American government and people, and precipitate a premature withdrawal. When I talk to American troops about Iraq, their greatest concern isn’t for their safety, but they are worried the American public has given up on the war before they can complete their mission. They watch the news – CNN, MSNBC and FOX News are beamed into the mess halls, some even possess satellite dishes with access to BBC World, Al Jazeera and hundreds of programs at their fingertips. Internet is readily available in many areas. I surfed the web in the center of Fallujah on wireless Internet.
American troops watch the news and follow the debate in real time. They will tell you the war they see on television isn’t the war they are fighting. To the troops, the war as portrayed on television is oversimplified and digested into sound bites. The soldiers are portrayed as victims and the violence is grossly exaggerated.
From my own experiences with two months in Iraq out of a year, I had not personally witnessed an ambush, a roadside bombing or other attack. The closest action I saw were some poorly aimed mortar attacks in Fallujah, or a near by patrol getting hit (the bullets and RPGs never made contact). And this is in Anbar province, the most dangerous region in Iraq. I make it a point to accompany the troops on foot and mounted patrols on daily basis. This is not to say attacks do not occur on a daily basis in Anbar – they do,and Anbar is a dangerous place, but just not to every soldier at every minute on every day in every city and town.
The nature of the insurgency in Iraq is complex, and cannot be simply framed as a sectarian war or a war against “U.S. occupation.” The insurgency is designed to destroy any semblance of a democratically elected Iraqi government, and is directed at the developing Iraqi Security Forces, the Iraqi government and institutions, U.S. and Coalition forces, and against sectarian targets.
The real secret about Iraq is the nature of the conflict you will encounter really depends on where you are geographically. In the regions where Sunni, Shia and other ethnic groups live together, such as Baghdad and the surrounding areas, the violence is largely sectarian in nature. al Qaeda in Iraq, Ansar al-Sunnah, along with some other Sunni insurgent groups purposefully attack Shia civilians to stir the sectarian violence and foment a civil war. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the deceased leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, admitted a civil war was his goal in a letter to Osama bin Laden in late 2003. Muqtada al-Sadr’s radical Shia Mahdi Army roams Sunni neighborhoods in and around Baghdad to execute Sunnis and incite Sunni reprisals, helping to stoke the fires of a Sunni-Shia war.
In the Shia dominated south, a power struggle is occurring between rival political organizations for control over government institutions and oil revenue. North of Baghdad, Ansar al-Sunnah, a violent terrorist organization that espouses the beliefs of Osama bin Laden, along with the Islamic Army in Iraq focus their attacks largely on U.S. forces and the Iraqi government.
In Anbar province, where I embedded in the city of Fallujah last December, sectarian violence is virtually non-existent. In fact, Sunni tribes have rallied to protect their Shia neighbors numerous times in the past and drove of al Qaeda attempts to ‘cleanse’ the region of Shia. al Qaeda blood ran in the streets the few times they tried to purge the Shia from Ramadi.
In Fallujah, Ramadi and greater Anbar province, al Qaeda in Iraq the most dominant insurgent organization. al Qaeda focuses its attacks on Iraqi government security forces, government institutions, as well as U.S. Army and Marine units operating in the region. Their ability to fund the insurgency in the impoverished province is their greatest weapon. Unemployed Sunnis are a paid well (as much of $1,000 according to a military intelligence source) to attack Iraqi and Coalition forces. While there is a large volume of insurgent attacks, the large majority of attacks fail. The fact is an overwhelming majority of roadside bombs are discovered and detonated by Iraqi or Coalition forces.
al Qaeda in Iraq is attempting to unite the fractious insurgent groups in the western and northern Sunni majority provinces, and has created an umbrella political organization called the Islamic State of Iraq. Some smaller Sunni insurgent groups, along with some leaders of Iraqi tribes and have been rolled under the banner of the Islamic State of Iraq, along with al Qaeda in Iraq’s Mujahideen Shura Council.
To counter al Qaeda’s attempt to ‘Iraqify’ the jihad, the U.S. and Iraqi government are working to institute political, economic and military solutions. While I was in Fallujah, I witnessed two of the three pillars in action: the military and political efforts.
In the political sphere, I attended several meetings, including the Anbar province mayor’s meeting, hosted by the governor of Fallujah, and the Fallujah city council meeting. Security dominates the discussions, as do reconstruction projects. The political leaders clashed with the Army representatives over certain security policies. The politicians were encouraged to assist with the recruitment of local police, and to work with the tribal leaders to meet the goals. In a recent police recruitment drive at the end of December, the city of Fallujah recruited 80 new candidates. The goal was 60. In Anbar province, 1,115 recruits joined the police.
In the military sphere, the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police are beginning to work together to tamp down the insurgency in the city. The Iraqi Army has a brigade (about 2,000 soldiers) inside the city, and has completely taken ownership of the battle space. The Iraqi Police number about 700, and are beginning to assert themselves despite being targeted by al Qaeda. The Iraqi Police in Fallujah have even developed a 30 man Special Missions Group force which trained to enter building and detain insurgents.
Inside Fallujah, there is no U.S. Marine or Army presence, save the members of the Police and Military Transition Teams – small, 15 to 20 man teams that are embedded within the police and Army units. I embedded as a reporter with both the Police and Military Transition Teams in Fallujah. The Marines in these teams take great risk in dong their daily job. They live, eat and sleep with their Iraqi counterparts, and are wholly dependent on them for security. Their American backup is stationed outside the city limits.
As brave as the American Marines are, their Iraqi counterparts outshine them. The police, who are local to the city, are specifically targeted by insurgents. Since the late sumer, 21 Iraqi police were murdered by insurgents. Their families are regularly threatened with violence. Several police officers told me how that while they were home they would sit with their backs to the door, AK-47 in hand, as they feared their homes would be stormed and their families would be killed.
The Iraqi Army lives inside the city in forward operating bases, without heavy weapons of their own. They depend on American air, artillery and mortars to bail them out when needed. The Iraqi soldiers, or jundi, patrol the streets on foot up to four times a day. Despite the fact that they, as Iraqis, are viewed as ‘occupiers’ by many residents of Fallujah, the soldiers have built their own intelligence networks. While on foot patrols in Fallujah, I watched as Iraqi soldiers were called into courtyards by residents who wanted to provide information on insurgent activity. The Fallujans, while terrified of the insurgents, are tired of the violence and wish to move on.
The police and soldiers do their jobs with very little resources. Some haven’t been paid in a year. Supplies and equipment such as helmets, bullet proof vests, uniforms and batteries are in high demand demand, as the Iraqi Army logistical system is broken. The police just received armor Humvees to patrol the city, and have been up-armoring their pickup trucks with scrap armor kits. Despite these problems, morale and fighting spirit are not an issue. In fact, the police and Army believe that, if given the right equipment, they can defeat the insurgents without U.S. help.
While embedded with an Iraqi Army infantry unit in Fallujah, I watched a program called al-Zawraa. The jundi call this channel ‘Muj TV’ (for mujahideen television), as it broadcasts violent insurgent, al Qaeda and Ansar al-Sunnah videos, as well as calls for violence against the Shia “Persians.” Al-Zawraa is run by a Mishan al-Jabouri, a former Sunni member of parliament who is now wanted by the government and living in Syria.
The Iraqi soldiers watch al-Zawraa to get to know their enemy, to motivate them to fight the insurgents and for amusement. The videos are replayed in a near loop, and the soldiers recognize the locations of the attacks as many of them served throughout Iraq. When asked if they feared al Qaeda and the insurgents, the answer was emphatically “No, just give us guns like you have, tanks like you have and we’ll take care of them.”
Nationwide, the Iraqi Army and Police clearly are not ready to fight the insurgents and militias on their own. Baghdad and Ramadi are clearly two cities where the police and Army would collapse without U.S. backing. But the police and soldiers in Fallujah believe they can. Pride, courage and fighting spirit are certainly traits these soldiers do not lack. They will need time to develop the capacity to fight on their own, and time is the one commodity the West seems to be short of.