Military history

CHAPTER 12

The Vanishing World

JAFF AND I were riding in a taxi on Highway 1 outside of Bayji, at the tip of the Sunni Triangle, when we pulled into a roadside kebab joint for lunch. It was November 2003. The kebab place was big and loud, maybe fifty tables, and the driver told us he’d be waiting outside. We were about fifteen minutes into our kebabs when the driver walked back in, leaned over and spoke in a quiet voice. “Be calm,” he said. “Please stop eating, get up and leave immediately.” And we got up just like that. I don’t remember if we paid. We walked quickly to the car and climbed in and the driver hit the gas and sped off. “Some people in the parking lot were talking about killing you,” he said.

That was one of the first signs. A month later, Jaff and I drove to Ad-Dawr, a village on the Tigris near the spider hole where Saddam Hussein had been captured a few days before. Saddam, I was told, had been attending Friday prayers at the mosque in Ad-Dawr during his months on the run. We stopped and asked some kids where the mosque was, the one where Saddam prayed, and the kids pointed us around the corner. So we rounded the corner, and the mosque was right there, and so were a group of men with wrapped faces who started shooting at us. At the moment, I was on a satellite phone with the antenna stuck up against the rear window. “Jesus, they’re shooting at us!” I yelled to a colleague. We were moving pretty fast and they missed, and we rounded the corner. As we drove out, I saw men with wrapped faces everywhere, standing on the rooftops, looking down on us.

My colleagues were coming back with similar stories. Ashley and his driver, Tariq, had been driving around Samarra in Tariq’s Toyota when three insurgents pulled up next to them with Kalashnikovs and opened fire. The bullets missed and Tariq sped off. In traffic, Tariq put some distance between his Toyota and the BMW carrying the insurgents. Then, on the open road, Tariq hit a patch of broken glass and one of his tires went flat. The BMW was approaching fast. Just then, out of the sky, appeared an Apache helicopter. Ash figured afterwards that the Apache pilot must have thought that Ash and Tariq fixing their flat were insurgents laying IEDs. The Apache circled a couple of times to check them out. The BMW turned away.

Joao, the photographer, was asleep in his car in Falluja when his driver, Qais, noticed a car behind them with four guys with faces covered by kafiyas. Wrapped faces: that was a bad sign. Qais gunned his old BMW to 140 mph. The car behind them, an Opel, pulled alongside them but couldn’t keep up. Qais had to buy a new car after that, his engine was ruined, but they got away. Ian Fisher was just sitting in traffic one day, also in Falluja, when a man came over and stood in front of his car, flipped the switch on his Kalashnikov to fully automatic and fired the whole clip. The guy shot the bullets out and away from Ian but he stared at him the whole time. When the clip was empty, the guy walked away.

Falluja was always the worst. In early 2004, I went to see the police chief—Falluja still had a police chief then—and Jaff and my driver, Waleed, and I noticed that a car was trailing us. I wasn’t sure but Jaff and Waleed seemed certain; the Iraqis always knew. We drove out of town and pulled into Camp Falluja, the American base. About an hour later we drove toward Baghdad for a couple of miles, and the car appeared again. Whoever it was had been waiting for us to come out. We had a BMW that day, and I was grateful for that. We sped up and left them behind.

It was the spring of 2004 when we lost the country—as a place to go, I mean. For a month Iraq was engulfed by uprisings, Sunni and Shia, full-blown rebellions in every city outside of Kurdistan. Iraq disappeared for us then, and it never came back. I was in Falluja a couple of days before the uprising. The Marines had just arrived in Iraq, all pumped up and determined to take over for the Army, and they’d gotten into a firefight on their first day. They’d killed some civilians and shot up a neighborhood called Al-Askari. Jaff and I had spent the day trying to figure out what had happened, and at lunchtime we drove into the downtown and pulled into Hajji Hussein’s, Falluja’s best kebab house. The place was jammed, a hundred tables, all the clamor of lunchtime, when I stepped through the door, and all the noise stopped. It was like a scene from one of those westerns when the sheriff walks into the saloon through the swinging doors and everyone stops talking. “Be calm,” Jaff said under his breath. Jaff, a former guerrilla fighter, was always cool. We sat down. We were careful not to show any fear. It took a few minutes before everybody started carrying on again. I never went back to Hajji Hussein’s after that. Never went back to Falluja after that, except with the invading marines.

A few days after that, a group of four American security guards, Blackwater guys, were attacked and killed. A crowd of frenzied Fallujans dragged their bodies through the streets and hung two of the black and toasted carcasses from the city’s main bridge over the Euphrates. The images were beamed around the world. The seven-month-long siege of Falluja began. A few months later, Hajji Hussein’s kebab house was destroyed in an airstrike. The Americans said it was a terrorist “safehouse,” from which “innocent civilians knowingly stayed away,” but I always wondered about that.

In August 2004, the Mahdi Army had taken over the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf, the Shiite holy city, and the American Army was going in to flush them out. A huge battle was unfolding. Najaf lay at the southern end of a string of Sunni cities south of Baghdad that had slipped from American control. I knew it was going to be a bad drive. We hung dark screens in the car windows, and I lay in the back seat for most of the drive. Along the way, whenever I peeked out the back window, I spied an apocalyptic landscape of shot-up cars and abandoned trucks. No government, no army, no police. Outside of Mahmudiya, south of Baghdad, an ambulance from the Red Crescent sat in the middle of the road, smoking. Only a couple of days before, an Italian reporter named Enzo Baldoni had traveled to Najaf in a similar convoy and been kidnapped by insurgents as he passed through the town of Mahmudiya. We drove through Mahmudiya as well, down its narrow main street, which was so glutted with traffic that the locals were peeking inside our car. I lay down in the back seat and pulled the bulletproof vest over my face. A few days later, Baldoni was murdered.

It didn’t take a lot of energy to imagine what would happen if they got you. All you had to do was watch one of the videos the insurgents were putting up on the web. One of the first showed a pale young man with a thin beard sitting cross-legged on the floor. He was dressed in an orange jumpsuit. The orange jumpsuit: you knew right away that stood for Abu Ghraib, the place where the American soldiers had humiliated the Iraqi prisoners and taken photos for souvenirs. You knew right then the video wasn’t going to end well. But in the video, the young man seemed remarkably calm; as if he hadn’t imagined what was coming. Five men stood behind him, each wearing a mask and black clothing. The pale-skinned young man introduced himself. “My name is Nicholas Berg, from West Chester, Pennsylvania.” The masked man in the middle began reading from a script. He had a hoarse, guttural voice, not the voice of a gentle man. “Where is the sense of honor, where is the rage?” the masked man asked. “Where is the anger for God’s religion?”

Then, with a little flip of his hand, the man with the hoarse voice handed his script to a man on his left. It was a nonchalant gesture, the kind an executive would make when he wanted his personal assistant to take his briefcase. Just a little flip. And then he pulled out a large knife. The masked man grabbed Berg’s hair and pushed him to the ground and Berg screamed, realizing what was next. The masked man pulled Berg’s head back and went to work with his knife. When the masked man finished, he held up Berg’s head for the camera. Berg was found a couple of days later near an overpass in Baghdad.

It was one of the truisms in Iraq that it would be better to be captured by Shiite guerrillas than Sunni ones. The Mahdi Army guys could be violent, and a lot of them were uneducated, but they seemed to lack the hollow-eyed bloodlust of their Sunni counterparts. Whatever else they were going to do, the Mahdi Army wasn’t going to put you in an orange jumpsuit and make a video. During the summer of 2004, my colleague Ed Wong ventured into Sadr City and spent the night with some Mahdi Army fighters. At the time, AC-130 s gunships were pounding the Mahdi Army’s strongholds; you could hear the cannons going all night. Ed came back the next morning, and everyone asked him how it was. Ed said it went fine. “They spent most of the night trying to figure out how to get the porn channel on their satellite television,” he said. We all got a kick out of that.

WE’D HAVE THESE conversations, usually over dinner. What would happen, someone would say; if the bad guys got inside the compound? What would we do then? We’d knock that around a little. Then someone would say, What if they actually got inside the house? Would it be better, for instance, to use a pistol, which was more easily controlled, or a Kalashnikov, with its greater accuracy and power? A discussion would follow. All the Westerners in Baghdad were having the same conversations. Some of us had already been kidnapped. Some had been killed. There was a story going round about a reporter for the Los Angeles Times who had ordered his Iraqi guards to shoot him if any kidnappers managed to pull him from his car. Just kill me, he said. I don’t want to end up in an orange jumpsuit.

What if the compound were overrun? For a time, we had a trapdoor built into the brick wall at the back. It led to the outside world, toward the Palestine Hotel, only a few hundred yards away, which housed a company of American soldiers. Then one day the Americans departed. So we talked about what it might take to land a helicopter inside the compound—not enough room for that. Then we started talking about Zodiac boats, inflatable rafts we could drag down to the Tigris, fifty yards away. Paddle them over to the Green Zone. There was a lot to consider. Assuming, for instance, that space in the boats was limited, which Iraqis were we going to take with us and which would we leave behind? And how were we going to make sure the Americans protecting the Green Zone wouldn’t mistake us for insurgents, out there in the river?

The bureau became a fortress, a high-walled castle from another century. We blocked off Abu Nawas Street, one of the city’s main thoroughfares, which ran along the front of the house. We brought in a crane to erect concrete blast walls, a foot thick and twenty feet high. We strung coils of razor wire across the top. We hired armed guards, twenty of them, then thirty, then forty. After a time, armed guards became our single largest expense. We gave each of them a Kalashnikov, and some of them kept grenades in their lockers in the basement. We put searchlights on the roof, then machine-guns, 7. 62 mm, belt-fed. The French Embassy was around the corner, and we determined at one point that the bullets from our machine guns intersected with the bullets of the French guns in the area behind our houses. We liked that, the interlocking fields of fire.

We hired a security adviser, a former soldier, for near $ 1,000 a day, making him the highest-paid member of our staff. We bought three armored cars, including a BMW once owned by the German diplomatic service, for $ 250,000. Not long afterward, the BMW stopped a Kalashnikov bullet fired into its roof. Then there was the life insurance the newspaper took out for us, about $ 14,000 per month each, an amount we figured indicated that the insurance company had determined that at least one of us was not going to live. The electricity in Baghdad usually lasted for only about four hours, so we generated most of our own. For $ 60,000, we imported a generator the size of a toolshed from the United Kingdom. We trucked it overland across Europe and then through Turkey and across the Iraqi border. Some of the Iraqis working for us went up to the border to bring it down, and on the way south they were stopped by insurgents.

“For the Americans?” the masked men kept asking.

“No, no,” our guys said. “Not for the Americans.”

Then they waved them through.

I trusted the Iraqis who worked for us. And if I hadn’t trusted them, they would have proved me wrong. The Iraqis who worked for us could have done us in so many times. They liked the money we paid them, of course, but it was more than that, I think. Living through all that together, we wanted to help each other survive. Waleed, whom I always drove with—he pulled me out of the crowd that day. Jaff saved me I don’t know how many times.

Plus, the Iraqis who worked with us were getting killed. We Americans might have been cowering behind the blast walls, but our Iraqi employees had to go home at night. Fakher Haider, our stringer in Basra, was a man of few words and a large mustache. He’d fought against Saddam in the uprising in 1991, and in Basra’s murky byways he could still make out the good guys from the bad. One night, a group of armed men who said they were police officers came to his house and took him away. Fakher told his wife not to worry, that he’d be back soon. He was found a few hours later in a deserted area outside the city, with his hands bound behind him and a bag over his head. There were bruises on his body and a bullet in his head. Fakher had been reporting a story about the infiltration of Basra’s security forces by sectarian militias. He was our first, but not our last.

I never asked about loyalties. In July 2004, when Saddam Hussein was arraigned, the Iraqis on our staff sat riveted in front of the television in the newsroom. On seeing Saddam in the dock—reduced, haggard, dressed in a cheap suit—one of our translators began to weep. Jaff, who’d fought against Saddam, laughed out loud at the sight of him. On hearing Jaff, one of our Sunni translators, Basim, stormed away.

“How dare you make fun of our president that way!” he said.

Iraq was so complex, its ways so labyrinthine, that trust, in the end, was all we had. If we had tried to understand what was really going on outside, if we had tried to understand the pressures the Iraqis were working under, we would have left the country. In November 2005, one of our drivers, Emad al-Samarrai, told us that he’d received a series of telephone calls from a man claiming to be an insurgent. Emad was one of several members of the Samarrai family who worked for The New York Times: his father, Abu Ziad, and his brother, Uday, worked for us, too. They were Sunnis from Samarra, and I presumed they knew insurgents. Most of our Sunni employees did.

Emad was so petrified that, with the help of some of the other Iraqis on our staff, he made a transcript of the threatening calls. It was impossible to know where the truth began and where it ended, but Emad was a delicate, sensitive man, and the fear in his eyes seemed real when he told us the story. Assuming the record of the conversations was accurate, it opened a window onto the world we never saw.

Caller: Emad, for how long have you and your father and brother been walking in this dark way?

Emad: Which way do you mean?

Caller: Which way? You know which way I mean.

Emad: You mean journalism?

Caller: Journalism, Emad? Emad, listen to me carefully. We have accurate information from trusted sources regarding your work, and your location near the Ishtar Sheraton. We know all the Iraqi staff, and we will work on killing them one by one.

Emad: Why?

Caller: Because we know you are not press, we know what goes on with you…

The next day, the anonymous caller dialed again:

Caller: We have someone who works with you, who supplies specific information about you, we are tracing you and we know the nature of your work. You are not press but CIA, and the one who sits behind you in the car is CIA.

Emad: The CIA?

Caller: Don’t act surprised. The one who sits with you in the car, the one with the gray shirt, is a senior official with the CIA. He destroyed Iraq.

The caller went on to tell Emad that the only way he could save himself was to bring one of the Western reporters to him. That is, to the insurgents. If Emad refused, the caller said, he and his cohorts would kill him and his family.

That’s when Emad came to us. Should we have believed him? We didn’t have much choice. We decided to give Emad and his family two months off, and they left the country. When they returned, the threat had evidently passed, but after a time Emad and his brother left Iraq and did not return.

Incidents like the one with Emad made me wonder: Why do the insurgents let us stay in Baghdad? Out there in the wide open, driving around? Some of them had started killing reporters, and, sure enough, over time, most of the Western reporters left the country. Those of us who stayed kept on working. Sure we were crazy, but it was also true that the insurgents knew where to find us. They knew who we were. If they had wanted us dead, then we would have been dead. So why did they let us live? I assumed they had decided that we were useful to them. That was not a comforting thought, even if it meant they would let us survive.

ONE DAY in the summer of 2004, Jaff and I were driving through the string of unfriendly towns north of Baghdad. We were hungry, and as we entered the town of Tuz Khurmatu Jaff ordered the driver to stop. Tuz was an ethnically mixed place—split between Arabs, Kurds and Turcomen—and one of extreme tension. Jaff picked out a kebab house which, he said, was owned by local Kurds and so relatively safe. We walked in and Jaff said something to the owner, and then we headed toward the back and sat down. And everyone in the restaurant was staring at us. No one was saying anything, just looking. It was like the scene at Hajji Hussein’s a few months before. Under my breath, I suggested to Jaff that perhaps we ought to leave. Jaff didn’t say a word, but reached down and unstrapped his Browning 9 mm pistol and laid it on the table in front of him. Then he ordered his kebab, as if there was nothing amiss. Within a few minutes, everyone got back to minding their own business.

Jaff was always a step in front of me. That day when we drove to the mosque in Ad-Dawr where Saddam had been praying, my jaw fell open as I saw all the masked insurgents standing on the rooftops. I muttered something to Jaff and then I looked: he had already pulled his Browning out and was pointing it at one of the insurgents through the car window, as if to say, Don’t even think about it. Jaff was tall and good-looking, with a taciturn air he picked up as a member of the peshmerga, fighting the Baathists. He looked like Clint Eastwood and carried himself like Harry Callaghan, Eastwood’s famous cop. Jaff was shrewd and calm, and, like Dirty Harry, he gave off the hint that he was enjoying himself.

As an American—as someone who could leave Iraq anytime I wanted—I sometimes found myself taking cheap thrills from my brushes with death. Most of the Iraqis I worked with had had enough of those. At times, Jaff, too, seemed like he was living off his adrenaline, seeing Iraq not as his home but as a great adventure. During the battle of Najaf in August 2004, Jaff and I waded into a demonstration of Iraqi pilgrims who had come, they said, to protect the Shrine of Imam Ali from an American attack. The crowd surged, and the Iraqi police panicked and opened fire. With gunfire ringing out and demonstrators dropping around us, Jaff and I took off running. Then, three hundred yards down the road, he stopped.

“I forgot my sunglasses,” he said.

So Jaff ran back, against the massive human tide, into the gunfire. I hid behind a telephone pole. He came running up a few minutes later, his $ 200 Ray-Bans in hand. They were a gift.

“Christine would have killed me,” he said, referring to the reporter who’d given him the glasses. We resumed our running. We were laughing, too.

Yet for all of Jaff’s coolness, he’d known hardship as well. He’d survived many close calls as a guerrilla fighter, including street-to-street fighting with the Baathists in Sulaimaniya after the first Gulf War. Jaff’s father was a prince in his tribe, the largest in Kurdistan, and in the poison gas attack on the village of Halabja in 1988, Jaff lost thirty-four members of his family.

Jaff was always listening, even when I didn’t realize. Once I told him I’d spent a summer working on a natural gas pipeline in the Gulf of Mexico, and that my coworkers had been mostly rednecks from Louisiana. Their not-very-playful nickname for me was “college boy,” which, I hardly needed to explain to Jaff, was short for “sissy.” I was taunted mercilessly, I told him.

Some weeks later, Jaff and some of his friends found themselves at an American checkpoint in Adamiyah, a dangerous Sunni neighborhood in northern Baghdad. They’d gone out for late-night kebabs. It was a spooky part of town, and probably not a good idea to be out at all. The American soldiers weren’t quite sure what to make of Jaff. They checked his pistol and they checked his weapons permit, and they handed them back. The Americans were friendly but they were intimidating just the same. One of them spotted his Thuraya satellite phone, with which, courtesy of The New York Times, Jaff could call anywhere in the world.

“Hey, let me see that,” one of the soldiers said.

Jaff handed it over.

“You mind if I use this to call my mom?” the soldier asked in a cocky way.

“Forget it, college boy,” Jaff said, and all the soldiers burst out laughing at their comrade.

“Where’d you learn that?” the embarrassed soldier demanded. “Where’d you learn that?”

BY THE SUMMER OF 2006, the Green Zone had come to resemble one of those medieval fortifications designed by Vauban, the French engineer of castles. With every possibility of attack accounted for, the fortifications grew into gothic, improbable shapes, triangles and diamonds and mazes, ends in themselves. Concrete blast walls formed a perimeter around the vast compound and then turned outward, reaching hundreds of yards into the city. There were walled lanes for American soldiers to enter the Green Zone, walled lanes for VIPs and walled lanes for the Iraqis, each one topped and crisscrossed by coils of barbed wire. Inside each concrete lane stood an interior wall that could be sealed off, offering perfect lines of fire without escape, in case things got out of hand. Kill-zones, they called them. They looked like the chutes in a slaughterhouse.

The first checkpoints were manned by untrained Iraqi cops, cannon fodder for the bombers. The Iraqi cops let almost everyone through, which was part of the problem, of course. Closer in stood a layer of Iraqi soldiers, young Shiites in their first jobs. They were getting bombed all the time. Behind them stood the first handful of Americans, kids on a tank. The Iraqi soldiers, perhaps because they were always new, perhaps because they had resigned themselves to dying, were friendly and good-natured. The Americans were pulled as tightly as wires.

Most Iraqis weren’t allowed to drive into the Green Zone—they had to approach on foot. Each morning, hundreds of Iraqis lined up to go inside the Green Zone to their jobs, and the lines stretched into the street. The lines moved at a glacial pace, stalling because of the searches; and the suicide bombers feasted on them. In the beginning, the Americans just pushed the lines farther out into the street, presumably because it was the Green Zone itself they wanted to protect. So the bombers struck the Iraqis there. It took many months for the Americans to finally secure the Iraqi employees, but even then the bombers kept coming. I never witnessed a bombing at the entrance to the Green Zone, but often, as I walked in, I stepped through heaps of glass and metal.

Once you got through those first lines of defense, you could expect to be searched six or seven times before you got into the Green Zone itself, and more if you were going to see an American or an Iraqi official (as opposed to attending a press conference). The people along the way who were conducting the searches were usually soldiers from one of the smaller countries that had joined the American coalition. For a long time, it was soldiers from Georgia, in the former Soviet Union, who checked IDs. Most of them couldn’t speak any English or any Arabic, so there were a lot of problems. The same with the Gurkhas, armed guards from Nepal, who were well trained but usually unable to communicate.

Once you got through the searches and ID checks, you’d walk through a barbed-wire path to the bus stop in front of the Rashid Hotel. The Rashid was an old Baathist place that still functioned even though it was inside the Green Zone. And after a time, a bus would come, and it would take you to the Republican Palace, where the American embassy was. And here, met by an escort, you’d go through a bulletproof door and into an alcove where you would drop off your ID and passport and head inside the embassy itself. And then, perhaps ninety minutes after you’d left your office, you’d be ushered in to see an American diplomat who would proceed to tell you what was happening outside.

Most of the diplomats were serious, dedicated and capable people, and they were brave, too. But they couldn’t resist the tide that was pulling them deeper and deeper into their fortified bunkers, farther and farther away from Iraq. In the summer of 2006, I went to the embassy to meet a new diplomat, a political-military officer. He was new to the country. I’d gone to talk to him about Iranian influence in the Mahdi Army. “They pay people to pay Iraqis to do stuff,” he said. That was it. A blank look. I pressed the diplomat for a few details, but all I got was the blank look. In 2003 and 2004, when I saw that look on the face of an American official, I presumed it was because he was holding something back, something secret. And now, in the wilted, dying summer of 2006, I realized that the diplomats weren’t telling me anything because they didn’t have anything to say.

One night, after I’d flown into Camp Victory, the American military headquarters adjacent to the Green Zone, some soldiers agreed to drive me to the front gate where I could meet my ride home. As a captain drove his SUV toward the edge of the secure area, his hands began to tremble on the steering wheel. “We don’t like doing this at night,” he said. It was as if he were driving me to the edge of the known world, a place of children’s dreams. The soldiers dropped me off and sped away, kicking up sand in the parking lot, before my ride showed up.

It was in the Green Zone that I would think the war was lost. I didn’t think about losing when I was outside—when I was in Iraq. There was too much reality pressing in, too many things changing, too much in play. No: it was when I was waiting for the bus outside the Rashid Hotel, watching the overweight American contractors, making more money than they’d ever dreamed of, saunter into the restaurant for dinner at 5 p.m. It was when one of the American generals in charge of Baghdad, in his office in Camp Victory, pronounced the name of the Iraqi prime minister three different ways in a half an hour, “Molokai,” “Maleeki,” “Malaaki,” each time as if he were speaking of some sort of exotic plant.

One night George Packer, a writer for The New Yorker, and I stayed late in the Green Zone talking to an Iraqi intelligence officer. It was dark when we left his office, and I called ahead for Waleed to come and get us. The Iraqi official had left it to us to walk out through the maze of gates and blast walls, perhaps a mile in all. When we got to the last checkpoint at the main entrance, all that remained for us was to walk through a final gauntlet of concrete. A group of Chilean guards tried to stop us. They seemed genuinely alarmed for us. “No se puede ir afuera en la zona roja,” one of them said, looking at us as if we were mistaken. You can’t go out into the Red Zone. “Peligroso demasiado. Muy, muy peligroso.” Too dangerous. Very, very dangerous. A few days before, the Chilean told us, a reporter had walked outside from this very spot and been shot at by a sniper in the building across the road as she made the half-mile walk to her car. “Vivimos en la zona roja,” I told the guards, resurrecting my Spanish. We live in the Red Zone. Out there. The Chileans, stunned, looked at each other and looked at us. George and I walked into the street.

IN EARLY 2006, as I sat with a Sunni sheikh in the lobby of the Babylon Hotel, I noticed an American security guard walk in. He was as large as an NFL lineman, with a crewcut, a tight shirt and a microphone in his ear. He was carrying an M-4 rifle. Definitely a man from Blackwater, the American security firm that protected VIPs.

“What is this?” Sheikh Akbar said, sitting up in his chair, a look of fear coming over his face.

The Babylon Hotel, which sat on the east bank of the Tigris, would have been at home in the old Soviet Union. It was a massive, brutalist thing, with marble floors and monstrous, sequined chandeliers. The lobby’s news shop sold out-of-date Arabic newspapers and rusty cans of Right Guard.

A second American appeared in the lobby, also with a gun, and then a third. Outside the lobby window, a pair of snipers had taken up positions nearby. A helicopter hovered overhead.

Soon my answer appeared. A phalanx of Blackwater gunmen stepped into the lobby, and behind them, nearly invisible in the pack, was Robert Ford, the American embassy’s chief political officer. Ford spoke perfect Arabic and was the best American diplomat in Iraq, and he was always friendly. Surrounded by the gunmen, he was almost invisible. The phalanx moved our way, guns pointing. I stood up.

“Hi, Robert,” I said, as calmly as I could, daring the Blackwater guys to shoot me.

“Hi,” Robert said. He was wearing a bulletproof vest.

Sheikh Akbar sat in petrified silence. The phalanx moved by, gliding toward the corner of the lobby, toward a small table like mine. And then I saw him: Wamid Nadmi, the leader of something called the National Patriotic Movement. He was a Baathist to the core, an apologist for Saddam. I’d listened to his lectures at his home in Adamiyah.

Ford and Nadmi sat down. It was a routine meeting between an American diplomat and a Sunni political leader. Nothing more, nothing less. Ford stayed for a while, and then got up, disappearing inside the phalanx, disappearing inside his Humvee, disappearing into the Green Zone.

ONE DAY, IN the summer of 2005, with the temperature hovering at 122, I drove across town to see Ahmad Chalabi, the deputy prime minister. Unlike most of the senior Iraqi officials, who by then had retreated into the Green Zone for protection, Chalabi was still living in his own home. Along with the car I rode in, I deployed a “chase car,” a second vehicle, filled with armed guards, to follow behind me and come to my aid if we came under attack.

To get there, I drove to the outskirts of Chalabi’s neighborhood, Mansour, passing through a series of checkpoints and concrete chicanes manned by Iraqi gunmen without uniforms. At the entrance to Chalabi’s street, there was another checkpoint, made of cement and barbed wire, and more armed guards. I realized why he didn’t live in the Green Zone: he had one of his own. In front of Chalabi’s house, stood another blast wall. Next to the wall stood a bank of generators, guzzling gasoline and coughing smoke.

In his sitting room, Chalabi and I drank tea and talked about Iraq. As usual, he had a raft of plans and diagrams spread out before him. We talked about electricity. We talked about corruption. Then Chalabi began describing his efforts to broker a cease-fire in Tal Afar, a city that had imploded in bloodletting. It was 250 miles away.

“I had all the sheikhs here with me,” Chalabi said. “Right here in this room.”

Chalabi walked me outside. About a dozen bodyguards walked with him.

On my way home, I noticed that a car was following me. Three times, the mysterious car accelerated to get close. Two men were inside: a young man, maybe in his thirties, and a bald man behind the wheel. As the car drew close, my chase car—that second vehicle, filled with guards—cut the men off in traffic. I sped away.

Communiqués (1)

1.

Total number of attacks on Americans and Iraqis, for the week ending October 7, 2005: 743.

Average number of attacks per day, for the week ending October 7, 2005: 106.

—Press briefing

Major General Rick Lynch, spokesman

Multi-National Forces–Iraq

October 13, 2005

2.

The mujahideen stayed in the area for nine days and nine nights, waiting for the American forces. The Marines came. A patrol of nine came on foot to ambush our mujahideen while they were firing their mortars, but their ambush became a mujahideen ambush. The mujahideen surrounded the Americans—their aim was to capture them—but the Americans started shooting, so the mujahideen fired back with machine guns supported by their brothers with mortars. They killed some of the Americans and cut the throats of whoever was still alive. All of them were dead except for one. He was injured and asked the mujahideen for help. The mujahideen captured him before the American helicopters arrived. They carried away the captured soldier and also the gear of the dead Crusaders. No one was hurt, thanks unto Allah.

Allah is great; glory to Allah, His messenger, and the believers.

—News Release

Bashir al-Sunnah, spokesman

The Military Corps of Ansar al-Sunnah Army

August 3, 2005

3.

Insurgent groups claiming responsibility for attacks on Americans and Iraqis in Iraq, May to October 2005:

1. Al-Qa eda of Mesopotamia

2. Ansar al-Sunnah

3. Khalid bin al-Walid Military Column

4. Fatma Group

5. Ali bin al-Hussein Group

6. Ja’afar bin Mohammed Group

7. Zein al-Abedin Group

8. Mohammed bin Musailam Brigade

9. Mohammed al-Fateh Brigade

10. The Martyrs Brigade

11. Military Brigades of the Abu Anas al-Shami

12. Abu Imam al-Iraqi Brigade

13. Military Column of the Martyrs

14. Abd al-Rahman Company

15. Omar Hadid Brigade

16. Abu al-Yamani Brigade

17. Abdul Aziz al-Moqren Brigade

18. Al-Fat’h Brigade

19. Al-Farouq Brigade

20. Mohammed al-Qassem Brigade

21. Abu Osman Brigade

22. Mohammed Jasem al-Issawi Brigade

23. Al-Bara’a bin Malik Suicide Brigade

24. Abi Suleiman Khaled ibn al-Walid Brigade

25. Snipers’ Brigade

26. Al-Waqas Group of the Seif al-Haq Brigade

27. Abu Bakr of Seif al-Haq

28. Abdul Aziz al-Muqrin Brigade

29. Al-Hoda Brigade

30. Martyrs Brigade of Abdul Ghaffar

31. Tawheed Group of Seif al-Haq Brigade

32. Ansar Suicide Brigade

33. Al-Qa’aqa’a Brigade

34. Om al-Momenein Brigade

35. Abu al-Walid al-Ansari Group

36. Al-Zobeir ibn al-Awam Brigade

37. Islamic al-Ghadab Brigade

38. Mohammed ibn Salma Brigade

39. Al-Moqren Brigade

40. Assassination Brigade

41. Brigade of al-Falluja Martyrs

42. Sattar al-Hadid Brigade

43. Abu Sifyan Hasan al-Zaedi Brigade

44. Ali bin Abu Talib Brigade

45. Al-Waqas of al-Tawhid Brigade

46. Al-Tawheed Brigade

47. Abu Bakr Brigade

48. Omar ibn al-Khattab’s “May Allah Be Pleased with Him” Brigade

49. Abu Yaman al-Madaenini Brigade

50. Rocket Brigade

51. Attack Brigade

52. Al-Shohada’a Brigade

53. Thi al-Nooraine Brigade

54. Mohammed Allah Messengers Brigade

55. Forqan Brigade

56. Ibn Taimiya Brigade

57. Tawheed Lions of Sharhabil bin Hosna

58. Men’s Faith Brigade

59. Tawheed Lions of Abdullah ibn al-Zobeir

60. Al-Mustafa Brigade

61. Othman bin Afan

62. Al-Muqdad bin al-Aswad

63. Abu Bakr al-Siddeeq

64. Martyrs Brigade of Ansar al-Sunnah

65. Al-Miqdad Brigades Group

66. Mohammed Brigade of Thi al-Nouren Brigade

67. Al-Qa’aqa’a Brigade of Ansar al-Sunnah

68. Air Defense Brigade

69. Engineering Section of Thi al-Noorain

70. Knights’ Brigade of the Al-Qa’aqa’a Brigade

71. Muslim Youth Brigade

72. The Mujahideen of Othman bin Affan

73. Assassination Brigade of the Men of Faith Battalion

74. Al-Furqan Battalion

75. Snipers’ Brigade of Ansar al-Sunnah

76. The Assassination Brigade of Ansar al-Sunnah

77. Usoud al-Tawheed

78. Al-Forsan Brigade

79. Sharhail bin Hosna

80. The Jihad Information Brigade

81. The Islamic Army of Iraq

82. The Victorious Army Group

83. Saraiya al-Hamza

84. Huthaifa ibn al-Yaman Brigades

85. Saria al-Baraa Brigades

86. Al-Jihad Brigade of the Victorious Army Group

87. Al-Farouq Brigade of the Victorious Army Group

88. Twentieth of July Revolution Brigade

89. Saad bin Maaz Brigade

90. Abdullah bin al-Mubarak Brigade

91. Al-Zalazel Brigade

92. Al-Hassan Brigade

93. Islamic Front of the Iraqi Resistance

94. Imam al-Hussein Brigades

95. Al-Rashideen Army

96. Imam Brigade

97. Abu Obeida Aymer bin al-Jarrah

98. Army of the Mujahideen

99. Al-Miqdad Brigade

100. Hassan al-Basri Brigades

101. Army Squad of the Companions of the Prophets of Mohammed

102. Al-Raa’d Brigades

103. Supporters of the Sunni People

4.

The growing number of mujahideen groups, which multiplied when the people realized their value, is causing confusion about which group is speaking for which. We are asking people to reject any statement signed by the Sajeel Battalion of the Islamic Army that does not carry their slogan or seal.

—Leaflet, found on the streets of Ramadi

Islamic Army of Iraq

October 2005

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