by Ralph Peters
To The Point News
March 9, 2006
BAGHDAD. I’m trying. I’ve been trying all week. The other day, I drove another 30 miles or so on the streets and alleys of Baghdad. I’m looking for the civil war that The New York Times declared. And I just can’t find it.
Maybe actually being on the ground in Iraq prevents me from seeing it. Perhaps the view’s clearer from Manhattan. It could be that my background as an intelligence officer didn’t give me the right skills. And riding around with the U.S. Army, looking at things first-hand, is certainly a technique to which The New York Times wouldn’t stoop in such an hour of crisis.
Let me tell you what I saw anyway. Rolling with the “instant Infantry” gunners of the 1st Platoon of Bravo Battery, 4-320 Field Artillery, I saw children and teenagers in a Shia slum jumping up and down and cheering our troops as they drove by. Cheering our troops.
All day – and it was a long day – we drove through Shia and Sunni neighborhoods. Everywhere, the reception was warm. No violence. None. And no hostility toward our troops. Iraqis went out of their way to tell us we were welcome.
Instead of a civil war, something very different happened because of the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra. The fanatic attempt to stir up Sunni-vs-Shia strife, and the subsequent spate of violent attacks, caused popular support for the U.S. presence to spike upward.
Think Abu Musab al-Zarqawi intended that? In place of the civil war that elements in our media declared, I saw full streets, open shops, traffic jams, donkey carts, Muslim holiday flags – and children everywhere, waving as our Humvees passed. Even the clouds of dust we stirred up didn’t deter them. Remember that the presence of children in the streets is the best possible indicator of a low threat level.
Southeast Baghdad, at least, was happy to see our troops. And we didn’t just drive past them. First Lt. Clenn Frost, the platoon leader, took every opportunity to dismount and mingle with the people. Women brought their children out of their compound gates to say hello. A local sheik spontaneously invited us into his garden for colas and sesame biscuits.
It wasn’t the Age of Aquarius. The people had serious concerns. And security was No. 1. They wanted the Americans to crack down harder on the foreign terrorists and to disarm the local militias. Iraqis don’t like and don’t support the militias, Shia or Sunni, which are nothing more than armed gangs.
Help’s on the way, if slowly. The Iraqi Army has confounded its Western critics, performing extremely well last week. People are coming to trust their new army to an encouraging degree. The Iraqi police aren’t all the way there yet, and the population doesn’t yet have much confidence in them. All of this takes time.
Yet even the police are making progress. We took a team of them with us so they could train beside our troops. We visited a Public Order Battalion – a gendarmerie outfit – that reeked of sloth and carelessness. But the regular Iraqi Police outfit down the road proved surprisingly enthusiastic and professional. It’s just an uneven, difficult, frustrating process.
So what did I learn from a day in the dust and muck of Baghdad’s less-desirable boroughs? As the long winter twilight faded into haze and the fires of the busy shawarma stands blazed in the fresh night, I felt that Iraq was headed, however awkwardly, in the right direction. The country may still see a civil war one day. But not just yet, thanks.
Violence continues. A roadside bomb was found in the next sector to the west. There will be more deaths, including some of our own troops. But Baghdad’s vibrant life has not been killed. The people of Iraq just might surprise us all.
So why were we told that Iraq was irreversibly in the throes of civil war when it wasn’t remotely true? I think the answers are straightforward. First, of course, some parties in the West are anxious to believe the worst about Iraq. They’ve staked their reputations on Iraq’s failure.
But there’s no way we can let irresponsible journalists off the hook – or their parent organizations. Many journalists are, indeed, brave and conscientious; yet some in Baghdad – working for “prestigious” publications – aren’t out on the city streets the way they pretend to be.
They’re safe in their enclaves, protected by hired guns, complaining that it’s too dangerous out on the streets. They’re only in Baghdad for the byline, and they might as well let their Iraqi employees phone it in to the States.
Whenever you see a column filed from Baghdad by a semi-celeb journalist with a “contribution” by a local Iraqi, it means this: The Iraqi went out and got the story, while the journalist stayed in his or her room.
Here’s the key: the Iraqi stringers have cracked the code: The Americans don’t pay for good news. So they exaggerate the bad.
Plus some of the stringers have agendas of their own. A few days ago, a wild claim that the Baghdad morgue held 1,300 bodies was treated as Gospel truth. Yet Iraqis exaggerate madly and often have partisan interests. Did any Western reporter go to that morgue and count the bodies – a rough count would have done it – before telling the world the news?
I doubt it. If reporters really care, it’s easy to get out on the streets of Baghdad. The 506th Infantry Regiment – and other great military units – will take journalists on their patrols virtually anywhere in the city. Our troops are great to work with. I’m just afraid that some of our journalists don’t want to know the truth anymore. And there is the danger of becoming infected with patriotism . . .
For me, though, memories of Baghdad will be the cannoneers of the 1st Platoon walking the dusty, reeking alleys of Baghdad. I’ll recall 1st Lt. Frost conducting diplomacy with the locals and leading his men through a date-palm grove in a search for insurgent mortar sites.
I’ll remember that lieutenant investigating the murder of a Sunni mullah during last week’s disturbances, cracking down on black-marketers, checking up on sewer construction, reassuring citizens – and generally doing the job of a lieutenant-colonel in peacetime.
Oh, and I’ll remember those “radical Shias” cheering our patrol as we passed by.
Lt. Col Ralph Peters (US Army-ret.) wrote this at Forward Operating Base Loyalty in Iraq, where he’s been riding with the 506th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division.