Adam Ash

Your daily entertainment scout. Whatever is happening out there, you'll find the best writing about it in here.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Iraq: Bush changes course (sort of), US diplomat says we've been stupid, two reports from Iraq front, & more plans

As election day looms, the Iraq War looms larger and larger. So we have today's goodies for you. First, Bush says he's not "staying the course" anymore, perhaps because it's become such a good slogan to run against. Second, a US diplomat speaks the truth to the Arabs and has to retract it -- after all, the Bush regime runs an Orwellian Ministry of Truth, didn't you know? Plus, two reports from the frontliness in Iraq - pretty strong meat, so have breakfast first. And other stuff to keep you abreast of the latest about Our Great Mistake.

1. President Bush: 'We've Never Been "Stay the Course"' -- by Theo Stein/Portland Press-Herald

We all know by now that President Bush has trouble reconciling inconvenient facts with the beautiful truths that inhabit his skull, but the White House's latest attempt to deny reality is, frankly, nuts.

During an interview on ABC's "This Week," host George Stephanopoulos asked where James Baker's Iraq proposal fell between "stay the course" and "cut and run." Bush's response: "Well, hey, listen, we've never been 'stay the course,' George." Huh?

For those of you just back from a long trip to Mars, "stay the course" is, in fact, the semantic formulation the GOP has used to differentiate itself from the "cut and run" Defeatocrats. Not only has the president, his spokespeople, his enablers and the right-wing punditocracy used "stay the course" innumerable times, it aptly describes the administration's tragic approach to the Iraq occupation.

Nevertheless, on Monday, press secretary and cheerleader-in-chief Tony Snow said it was inaccurate to describe U.S. policy in Iraq as "stay the course."

The transcript included this mind-bending exchange:

Question: "Is the president responsible for the fact people think it's stay the course since he's, in fact, described it that way himself?"

Snow: "No."

The abandonment of this rhetorical buttress on which the GOP based its entire campaign strategy _ while disgraceful in its dishonesty _ would be a blessing for both the United States and Iraq.

There can be no hope of intelligent dialogue on strategies to salvage what increasingly looks to be a hopeless situation when the administration refuses to admit change is required.

The midterm elections have forced on Bush an accountability moment. A Newsweek poll conducted Oct. 19-20 showed 65 percent of Americans feel we're losing ground in Iraq, while 54 percent believe invading Iraq was a mistake. A poll of Iraqis conducted by the University of Maryland showed 78 percent believe the U.S. presence is causing more violence than it prevents, while 71 percent support a withdrawal within a year.

Among the unforgivable tragedies of this war is the real possibility that the erosion of the president's domestic political base, rather than an objective assessment of what's best for the Iraqi people, may be what forces him to acknowledge reality.

Most foreign-policy observers no longer make any pretense about American "victory" in Iraq. The discussion is centered on finding the least-worst option.

With "stay the course" abandoned, Bush has two choices. He can escalate the U.S. effort in Baghdad in hopes of restoring security in the capital, or he can begin the process of disengagement while pushing for a political power-sharing arrangement Iraqis can live with.

Given how the war has stretched the U.S. military, escalation is not a realistic option.

Step one should be cashiering Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, whose failure to provide sufficient military forces for the war and occupation all but doomed Iraq to its current agony.

The United States also needs to abandon its unilateralism, and bring in Iran, Syria and Iraq's other neighbors, all who have much to lose if an all-out civil war erupts.

Iraqis must themselves be convinced to crack down on the sectarian death squads, which are now busy murdering the innocent.

The country's leaders need to hear in clear, unambiguous terms that the United States intends to withdraw its troops over a period of 18 months to two years, and that our willingness to stay longer depends on their ability to reach difficult agreements on disarming the militias, protecting minority rights and equitably apportioning oil revenues.

With so much blood spilt and so many blunders committed, merely avoiding disaster may itself be a long shot.

The coming elections may be a referendum on the president, but Democrats and Republicans need to be ready to work together on what comes next.

What Bush cannot be allowed to do is prolong the ongoing lunacy in the hopes that he can simply bequeath it to his successor in 2008.

For the sake of this country and the one we currently occupy, Americans must come together over this principle.

Acknowledging reality is the right place to begin.

(Theo Stein is an editorial writer for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram and can be contacted at 207-791-6481 or:

2. Senior US diplomat's candor gets play in the Middle East, ire at home
Alberto Fernandez has recanted comments that US moves in Iraq show 'arrogance' and 'stupidity.'
By Dan Murphy/Christian Science Monitor

When senior State Department official Alberto Fernandez said in an interview on Al Jazeera Saturday that US policies in Iraq have been marked by "arrogance" and "stupidity," he was expressing a sentiment widely held in the Arab world.

To many Arabs, it was a stunning moment of candor. It led front pages of newspapers across the region. Mr. Fernandez - whose fluent Arabic and dozens of regional television appearances have made him the voice of American policy to millions in the Middle East - struck the sort of tone that public policy experts say the US needs if it is to regain some of its credibility in Arab eyes.

The only problem was, his comments were immediately disavowed by the Bush Administration. Now the future of Fernandez - one of America's most potent public diplomacy weapons in the region - is clouded, and the Arab view of an America that admits to no mistakes has become more entrenched.

Fernandez's primary job is to book American officials on Arab programs, but with most officials reluctant to appear on Arab-language television, particularly on Al Jazeera, which many US officials view with barely disguised loathing, he's been mostly booking himself, doing at least 100 interviews this year.

In a laudatory piece on his efforts in Newsweek this August, Fernandez poked fun at himself. "I'm Cuban,'' he told the magazine, referring to his heritage. "We can't close our big mouths."

But after his latest foray, State Department officials in Washington say Fernandez has, in effect, been told to recant his remarks. At first, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Fernandez's comments were mistranslated.

Then, when an unimpeachable translation of his remarks was produced by the Associated Press, Fernandez was told by his bosses to disavow his comments. In a statement released by the State Department, Fernandez is quoted as saying: "I seriously misspoke by using the phrase 'there has been arrogance and stupidity by the US in Iraq.' This represents neither my views, or those of the State Department."

Marc Lynch, a Middle East expert and political science professor at Williams College whose latest book, "Voices of the New Arab Public," examines the role Al Jazeera and other media play in shaping Arab views, says it appears that Fernandez is being slapped down by the administration for his comments. He worries that could end up seriously undermining American outreach efforts in the region.

"If you can say: 'Yeah, the security situation in Iraq isn't very good and we've made a lot of mistakes, but now we have to get everyone on board to find solutions,' you're going to be much more effective," says Lynch. "The real impact to worry about here is whether future public diplomacy people take away the message that if they display the slightest amount of honesty, they're doomed."

By now, the view that the US has made major mistakes in Iraq is hardly news. It's something that's been acknowledged in print by former senior officials of the US administration there, and retired military generals who served there.

Lost in the furor over Fernandez's remarks - from right-wing blogs calling for his head to those on the left using it as fodder to claim that US policy in Iraq has been a disaster - has been the meat of his comments, which were designed to encourage constructive engagement in the region.

"There is no doubt that there is plenty of room for blame ... but we haven't focused enough on the future and the possibility of failure in Iraq,'' Fernandez told Al Jazeera in remarks later translated by the Associated Press. "We must all focus on saving Iraq for the sake of the Iraqi people and for our sakes, us in the West, and also you in the Arab world. I know that sometimes there is a kind of gloating in the Arab world that America has problems in Iraq ... [but] we must think of the Iraqi people, the Arabs, the Muslims, and the citizens of Iraq more than gloating about the United States."

"[Fernandez] has developed a reputation for being candid and blunt, and he'll often say things that aren't particularly popular at home, but that's earned him a reputation for being a little looser and a little more honest, and I think that helps him to get his point across," in the Middle East says Mr. Lynch. "The stuff he's getting pilloried for was setting the stage for getting across a message that's very important for the United States."

3. What arrogance and stupidity? -- by Linda S. Heard/Gulf News

What could US State Department official Alberto Fernandez possibly have meant when he blamed his own government for "arrogance" and "stupidity" in Iraq? The White House is so overcome with disbelief that its spokesmen are claiming Fernandez' words were lost in translation as he was, after all, speaking in Arabic for the benefit of Al Jazeera's viewers.

That must be it then. Fernandez probably meant "conceited" and just plain "dumb" when we take into the account the richly textured nuances of the Arabic language. But let's stick with the official version. According to the Encarta Dictionary, "arrogance" equates to "a strong feeling of proud self-importance that is expressed by treating other people with contempt or disregard". How does that fit?

Some might say invading on a fabricated tissue of mendacity, moving viceroys into presidential palaces, dismantling an entire army, dismissing civil servants, distributing crony reconstruction contracts, inserting puppet governments, shooting civilians at checkpoints, sexually abusing prisoners, torturing, murdering and raping could be construed as a teeny-weeny bit "arrogant".

Moving on to "stupidity" which the Encarta defines as a "lack of intelligence, perception, or common sense" it seems to me that the Bush administration is guilty as charged. The belief that Iraqis would relish being referred to as "rag-heads" by their trigger-happy occupiers and turn into Sweden overnight showed an extreme lack of intelligence, perception and common sense on the part of Washington's armchair warriors.

Now a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee Senator Jack Reed has added a new addition to the pessimistic lexicon describing Bush's Iraq policy as a "failure".

Anarchy and chaos

Waging a war of choice and sacrificing 665,000 lives - not to mention $336 billion - in the name of democracy when all that has been achieved is anarchy and chaos could, indeed, fall into the failure category.

Aficionados of the neoconservative creed may still believe the end is worth the means but, in truth, the future looks gloomy. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), more than three million Iraqis forced to flee their homes are facing "a very bleak future".

At the same time, Iraq's health service has disintegrated due to the deaths of over 2,000 doctors and nurses while 18,000 medical personnel have fled.

Billions earmarked to reconstruct clinics and hospitals have disappeared into the ether and essential equipments and drugs are simply not available. Patrick Cockburn, writing in the Independent, says Iraq's hospitals are now "a battleground in the bloody civil war".

Even America's Commander-in-Chief George W. Bush is no longer able to spin the situation on the ground. During a television interview, he hesitantly agreed with New York Times' columnist Thomas L. Friedman's comment (published also in Gulf News on October 19 titled "Barney and Baghdad") that Iraq was the "jihadist equivalent" of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam - credited for turning public opinion against the war .

The president was only making the point that "the enemy is trying to affect the psyche of Americans", later explained one of the loyal White House spinmeisters in a valiant attempt at damage control.

But there surely comes a point when no amount of sugar-coating will work. A leaked report from the Iraq Study Group, set up by Congress and headed by James Baker, rejects the argument for "staying the course". It even goes as far as to suggest Iraq's neighbours, Iran and Syria, should be drawn into the equation. America's allies are emerging out of their sycophantic stupor too.

Terrorist threat

A respected Australian former diplomat Richard Woolcott said the war has increased the terrorist threat to his country. While calling for an urgent exit strategy he accused the US, Britain and Australia of "having made a catastrophic foreign and security policy blunder" that has them "trapped in a dilemma of their own making".

Head of the British Army General Sir Richard Dannatt went a step further calling for the withdrawal of occupation troops whose presence, he says, exacerbates security problems.

"We are in a Muslim country and Muslims' views of foreigners in their country are quite clear," he said. "As a foreigner, you can be welcomed by being invited into a country, but we weren't invited, certainly by those in Iraq at the time. Let's face it. The military campaign we fought in 2003 effectively kicked the door in."

Finally someone at the top has not only got it but is prepared to put his neck on the line to deliver the message. In the face of so much overwhelming evidence and analysis put forward by respected diplomats, generals, intelligence agencies and think tanks will Bush reconsider his strategy?

Despite conferring with his top advisers and generals last week, the answer is a resounding no. The mission is "clear and unchanging" said Bush. "Our goal is victory" and we will "not pull our troops off the battlefield before the mission is complete".

Where is Alberto Fernandez when he's needed? If that isn't arrogance and stupidity then I don't know what is. How many Iraqi civilians and soldiers need to be sacrificed just to save George W. Bush's face? With the mid-term elections on the horizon let's hope Bush and the loyalists within his government and party get to pay a long overdue price.

(Linda S. Heard is a specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She can be contacted at

4. The Fernandez Problem – by Abu Aardvark (

Remarks on al-Jazeera by Alberto Fernandez, director of the State Department's Arab media outreach office, that America had been "arrogant" and "stupid" in Iraq have already generated enormous controversy. The partisan hounds are out . It isn't clear whether the State Department will rise to his defense. It should, because there's a lot more at stake here than the partisan fallout of the reporting of his interview.

What did he actually say? The initial line was that he was misquoted; I don't know since I haven't yet tracked down an Arabic transcript. But a full translation by the AP's Baghdad office can be found here, which offers this fuller excerpt:

But what is important, we believe, is the exercise of flexibility and self- criticism and take responsibility for correcting mistakes and policies if those policies have failed or are unable to present the Iraqi people with what they want most: Security first, second and third, and then (solutions to) a long list of problems, including economic and political one.
Of course, some historians, history will judge American history in Iraq. We tried to do our best but I think there is much room for criticism because, undoubtedly, there was arrogance and there was stupidity from the United States in Iraq."

That's what is being quoted. But look how he continues:

We focused today, and the media focuses on blame. There is no doubt that there is plenty of room for blame. Blame of the United States or others, but we haven't focused enough on the future and the possibility of failure in Iraq. If we are witnessing failure in Iraq, it's not the failure of the United States alone. Failure would be a disaster for the region. We, all of us in the region, countries in the region, have a role in what is happening in Iraq. Failure in Iraq will be a failure for the United States but a disaster for the region. We must all focus on saving Iraq for the sake of the Iraqi people and for our sakes, us in the West, and also you in the Arab world. I know that sometimes there is a kind of gloating in the Arab world that America has problems in Iraq. I fully understand that. But, in the end, we must think of the Iraqi people, the Arabs, the Muslims and the citizens of Iraq more than gloating about the United States.

Reading it makes clear that the parts of Fernandez's comments which have been quoted extensively are mostly a throat clearing preface to saying that Arabs need to move on and talk about Iraq's future instead of "gloating" over American problems. This is a way of establishing credibility and a reputation for candor with Arab audiences - two things that almost all American spokespeople who stick to the administration's script lack. His humility treats those audiences with respect, rather than trying to force talking points crafted in Washington down the throats of skeptical listeners who live in the region and know better. At a time when everyone in America is talking about how and why the US failed in Iraq, and everyone in the Arab media is following those American debates, how credible could he be if he continued to whistle along and pretend otherwise? The admission of some blame about the past sugar coats the key argument about the need for Arabs to step forward and take some responsibility for the future - which is exactly what the US needs right now.

By the way, most of the furor over the interview has missed the really significant part of his interview: his indication of American willingness to negotiate with any part of the Sunni insurgency other than al-Qaeda. This clearly is America's new policy, and it needed to be communicated directly to Iraq's Sunni communities without the filter of interested intermediaries. By airing this invitation to talks on al-Jazeera, which is probably the most widely viewed television channel among Iraq's Sunnis, Fernandez accomplished something of real political significance.

The controversy over Fernandez gets to the heart of the question of whether America can have an effective public diplomacy. Dating back to my 2003 Foreign Affairs article, I have consistently advocated getting American voices on to al-Jazeera and other Arab media and having them engage in real debate. For all that it is demonized by too many Americans, al-Jazeera is still by far the most watched and most politically influential Arab television network. Its programs are the most important place where Arab views of the United States and American policy are formulated. Those arguments about America can happen with or without American participation. All America's absence from those debates accomplishes is to cede the field to its enemies, to allow hostile arguments or allegations to go unchecked, and to give speakers on those programs no incentive to take American perspectives into account.

Over the last year and a half, the American government - from Karen Hughes and the State Department to the Pentagon - have largely come to understand that reality , and have begun re-engaging with al-Jazeera for pragmatic reasons. As a recent story about CENTCOM's efforts put it , "Influencing Arab opinion is a component of the Pentagon's new “long war” strategy, which says that America's conflict with Islamic extremists requires more diplomacy and less bombing." If the US cares about Arab public opinion, reasonable people understand that it can't afford to ignore the most important media outlet shaping Arab public opinion. Karen Hughes went to al-Jazeera (repeatedly) because that is where the eyeballs are, and CENTCOM does the same thing.

As the American government has struggled to retool to act on this newfound understanding of the importance of engaging with the Arab media, Fernandez has been almost a one man show. Fernandez has conducted literally hundreds of interviews in Arabic with various Arab media outlets at a time when few American officials could be bothered or could perform effectively when they tried. In the first weeks of the Lebanon-Israel war, he was the only American official to appear on al-Jazeera , at a time when America desperately needed someone at least trying to defend it. What made him effective was not just his fluent Arabic, but that he is willing to argue, to get angry, to make jokes - in short, to offer a real human face and not just a grim diplomat reading from a script. He has established a strong reputation with Arab bookers and audiences not by "bashing America" but by being honest and candid, which has in turn made his defenses of American policy far more effective.

This kind of public diplomacy is by far the most effective kind of engagement with the media. But it's also dangerous for exactly the reasons currently on display. I've been told by all kinds of old public diplomacy hands that Public Affairs Officers live in fear of having some off-hand comment picked up, translated and sent back to Washington to kill their careers. That this has become ever more likely in the internet era (along with MEMRI and the blogosophere) has a chilling effect on would-be public diplomats. Discretion as the better part of valor is good career advice, but terrible for the country's public diplomacy. The partisan attack dogs who want to collect a scalp may care absolutely nothing about how this might affect the American national interest, but I hope that more serious people do.

The State Department, and especially Karen Hughes, must back Alberto Fernandez to the hilt in this StupidStorm. If he's fired, or transfered to Mongolia, the United States unilaterally disarms in the 'war of ideas' as currently waged in the Arab media. While we do have 'rapid reaction' units coming online in Dubai and London, and CENTCOM has its own media outreach team, the fact is that Fernandez has been single-handedly carrying the American flag on the Arab broadcast media for years. America simply can not afford to lose him over a silly partisan media frenzy. And if Fernandez is punished, it's safe to guess that nobody will be foolish enough to step up and take his place and do what he did. And that will be a major loss for America in a place where it can ill-afford any more losses at all.

5. Our State of Desperation in Iraq (4 Letters to NY Times)

1. To the Editor:
“Trying to Contain the Iraq Disaster ” (editorial, Oct. 24) advocates firing Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld; no permanent American military bases in Iraq; Iraqi reconciliation talks; increased financial aid; an increase in American troops to stabilize Baghdad; and increasing the dialogue with Syria and Iran.

But increasing financial aid will result only in more guns and bombs in the wrong hands, since money is fungible and there is no real government in Iraq.

Adding more American troops will just result in more American casualties. That tactic did not work in Vietnam, and it will not work in Iraq.

Common sense dictates that we exit Iraq immediately. We cannot undo the Bush administration’s mistakes, and we should not sacrifice even one more American life for the God-forsaken place known as Iraq.
Timothy Bal

2. To the Editor:

Your editorial about what we should do next in Iraq seems to suggest that even though “the odds are very long,” we can still somehow set things right.

We need to admit defeat and the horrible mistake our anger about 9/11 led us to commit.

The fact is that our completely inept and increasingly corrupt occupation creates a target for further anger and violence.

We should also recognize that Iraq would have eventually had to deal with a post-Saddam Hussein society, and that transition would have been bloody in any case.

It should be obvious that we only do damage by staying in Iraq with an offensive military completely unequipped to do the police work that lawlessness requires.

Plus, the Iraq invasion has undermined our leadership everywhere in the world; obstinacy gains us no respect. Worse, the continued diversion of Iraq postpones the urgent reforms necessary to keep our own country from collapsing further toward corruption, incompetence, religious fanaticism and economic sclerosis.
Hendrik Van den Berg

3. To the Editor:

I applaud you for a serious treatment of our last best hope to extricate ourselves from the mess that is Iraq (editorial, Oct. 24).

Unfortunately, our executive branch seems incapable of truthful reflection. Any sort of truthful admission of error is still light-years away. At every turn, this administration has resisted with scorn the well-meaning advice of friend and foe alike.

It is a wishful fantasy that this administration would be willing to listen to reason, do the right thing, admit error, fire Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, give up its dreams of a utopian future and buckle down and do the hard work of reconciliation.

These officials will not change because there has been no pressure on them to do so from a fawning press that won’t face the truth, a deluded public that thinks “staying the course” and whatever other slogan lobbed at it is a “plan,” and a supine Congress that is busy feathering individual nests and attacking one another.

What will be the wake-up call for this country?

The real world is the world of compromise and peacemaking. I hope that there is a way out of our heartbreaking state of division and loss. I hope that the country I love is still capable of waking up from this nightmare and of restoring reason and sanity.
Elizabeth Scupham

4. To the Editor:

Re “Bush, Facing Dissent on Iraq, Jettisons ‘Stay the Course’ ” (news article, Oct. 24):

When the slogan “a reformer with results” was not effective, it was changed to “a compassionate conservative.”

Similarly, when the attempt to dismantle Social Security by creating “private accounts” did not play well, they were renamed “personal accounts.”

Now President Bush has changed his wording on Iraq from “stay the course” to “win by adapting.”

The only adaptability this administration is adept at is changing slogans. Whether it is Iraq, the economy, energy or the environment, its ideologically driven policy of catering to its corporate and elite donors never changes.
Fred Polvere

6. Into the abyss of Baghdad
By Patrick J. McDonnell/LA Times

BAGHDAD —I keep seeing his face. He appears to be in his mid-20s, bespectacled, slightly bearded, and somehow his smile conveys a sense of prosperity to come. Perhaps he is set to marry, or enroll in graduate school, or launch a business — all of these flights of ambition seem possible.

In the next few images he is encased in plastic: His face is frozen in a ghoulish grimace. Blackened lesions blemish his neck.

"Drill holes," says Col. Khaled Rasheed, an Iraqi commander who is showing me the set of photographs.

He preserves the snapshots in a drawer, the image of the young man brimming with expectations always on top. There is no name, no identification, just a series of photos that documents the transformation of some mother's son into a slab of meat on a bloody table in a morgue.

"Please, please, I must show these photographs to President Bush," Rasheed pleads in desperation, as we sit in a bombed-out palace along the Tigris, once the elegant domain of Saddam Hussein's wife, now the command center for an Iraqi army battalion. "President Bush must know what is happening in Baghdad!"

I covered Iraq for two years, beginning a few months after the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion. For the last year, I have been gone. I wondered how the country had changed.

I found that this ancient byway of Islamic learning and foreign invaders has gone over to the dark side. A year ago, car bombs, ambushes, daily gun battles and chronic lack of electricity and gasoline were sapping the city. But not this: the wanton execution of individuals because of sect — a phenomenon so commonplace it has earned a military shorthand: EJK, for extrajudicial killing.

Every day the corpses pile up in the capital like discarded furniture — at curbside, in lots, in waterways and sewer lines; every day the executioners return. A city in which it was long taboo to ask, "Are you Sunni or Shiite?" has abruptly become defined by these very characteristics.

Once-harmonious neighborhoods with mixed populations have become communal killing grounds. Residents of one sect or the other must clear out or face the whim of fanatics with power drills.

Gunmen showed up one day on an avenue where fishmongers have long hawked barbecued fillets. They mowed the vendors down. Maybe it was because of the merchants' beliefs — the fish salesmen were Shiites in a mostly Sunni district, Dawoodi. Maybe it was revenge. No one knows with certainty. No one asks. All that remains are the remnants of charcoal fires.

"It's like a ghost city," laments Fatima Omar, a resident of the Amariya district, which once abounded with street life. She is 22, a recent graduate of Baghdad University, an English major — and, like many of her generation, unsure of what future she can expect. "So many of our men are either dead or have gone away," she says. "We may be doomed to spinsterhood."

People are here one day, gone the next. Those who do go out often venture no farther than familiar streets. In the sinister evenings, when death squads roam, people block off their lanes with barbed wire, logs, bricks to ward off the killers.

Many residents remain in their homes — paralyzed, going slowly crazy.

"My children are imprisoned at home," says a cook, Daniel, a Christian whom I knew from better times, now planning to join the exodus from Iraq. "They are nervous and sad all the time. Baghdad is a big prison, and their home is a small one. I forced my son to leave school. It's more important that he be alive than educated."

But homes offer only an illusion of safety. Recently, insurgents rented apartments in mostly Shiite east Baghdad, filled the flats with explosives and blew them up after Friday prayers. Dozens perished.

Even gathering the bodies of loved ones is an exercise fraught with hazards. A Shiite Muslim religious party controls the main morgue near downtown; its militiamen guard the entrance, keen to snatch kin of the dead, many of them Sunni Muslim Arabs. Unclaimed Sunni corpses pile up.

A year ago, many still extolled "Shiite restraint," the majority sect's seeming disavowal of tit-for-tat reprisals for massacres of Shiite pilgrims, policemen, clergy and lawmakers, among others. But you don't hear much anymore about Shiite restraint. Its principal proponent, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, now seems a septuagenarian afterthought, his increasingly exasperated words from the southern shrine city of Najaf reduced to near irrelevancy.

U.S. FORCES find themselves in a strangely ambiguous role. Troops still battle mostly Sunni insurgents, especially in the western province of Al Anbar. In Baghdad's Sunni districts, however, where residents once danced alongside burning Humvees, American troops are now tolerated as a bulwark against Shiite militias. But even that acceptance has its limits.

"Some boys came up here and shook our hands the other day," a sergeant recalls to me at a frontline base called Apache in the Adamiya district, the last major Sunni bastion on the east side of the Tigris. He is on his fourth tour: three deployments to Iraq, one to Afghanistan, and has seen little of his own children. "But later I saw that their fathers slapped the boys," the sergeant continues. "I guess they told the kids never to greet us again."

On a recent patrol in Adamiya, one of the capital's oldest sections, U.S. soldiers went door to door speaking with merchants and residents, trying to earn their confidence. Everyone seemed cordial as people spoke of their terror of Shiite militiamen. Then a shot rang out and a soldier fell 10 yards from where I stood with the platoon captain; a sniper, probably Sunni, had taken aim at this 21-year-old private from Florida ostensibly there to protect Sunnis against Shiite depredations. The GI survived.

Coursing through the deserted cityscape in an Army Humvee after curfew empties the streets is an experience laced with foreboding. U.S. vehicles, among the few on the road, offer an inviting target for an unseen enemy. Piles of long-uncollected trash may conceal laser-guided explosives. Russian roulette is the oft-repeated analogy.

"Everyone's thinking the same thing," a tense sergeant tells me. "IEDs," he adds, using the shorthand for roadside bombs, or improvised explosive devices.

ONE evening, I accompanied a three-Humvee convoy of MPs through largely Shiite east Baghdad. Before leaving the base, the commander performed an unsettling ritual: He anointed the Humvees with clear oil, performing something akin to last rites.

The objective that evening was to patrol with Iraqi police, but the Iraqi lawmen are hesitant to be seen with Americans, whom they regard as IED magnets. The joint patrol never worked out. Still, good fortune was with us: no attacks.

The next night, an armor-piercing bomb hit the same squad, Gator 1-2. A sergeant with whom I had ridden the previous evening lost a leg; the gunner and driver suffered severe shrapnel wounds. "Timing is everything, especially in Iraq," the captain and unit commander wrote in an e-mail informing me of the incident.

The U.S. mission here is now defined largely as training Iraqi police and soldiers. But Sunnis don't trust the mostly Shiite security forces, often with good reason. The question lingers: Are U.S. troops equipping Iraq's sectarian avengers?

At this point, anything seems possible here, a descent of any depth into the abyss. Militiamen and residents are already sealing off neighborhoods by sect. Some have suggested district-to-district ID cards. Word broke recently of a plan to build barriers around this metropolis of 6 million and block the city's entrances with checkpoints. The "terror trench," as some immediately dubbed it, seemed to have a fundamental flaw: The killers already are in Baghdad.

An Iraqi colleague ventured recently to the funeral of two Sunni brothers snatched from their homes near southern Baghdad's Dora district and later found slaughtered. They had disregarded threats to get out. Absent from the ceremony at a relative's home were the traditional mourning tent, the loudspeakers blaring Koranic verses, the elaborate banners honoring the departed.

With grief such a cheap commodity, most folks seem hesitant to call attention to their sorrows. The funeral was behind walls, a hushed affair. Few showed up. The family apologized for the muted ritual. You shouldn't have bothered, the relatives told the few guests, it is too dangerous these days. Visitors sipped sweetened tea, fingered beads, smoked a cigarette or two and moved on.

( Times staff writers Salar Jaff and Zainab Hussein in Baghdad contributed to this report.)

7. Following a death trail to Sadr City
U.S. forces think the kidnap-and-kill forays haunting Iraq originate in the insular Shiite stronghold of Baghdad.
By Patrick J. McDonnell/LA Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Where are the killers coming from?

That was the question U.S. officers pondered at a cramped command post called Apache. They examined a map showing where scores of corpses had turned up in recent weeks.

A rectangular swath of northeast Baghdad stood out. Not for the bodies found in the district, but for the clusters of corpses discovered along its tattered outskirts.

"Sadr City," said Capt. Will Wade of the 1st Battalion, 77th Armored Regiment. "That's the nucleus."

The sprawling, densely populated Shiite Muslim stronghold known as Sadr City has always been a place apart. To some, it's a den of thieves, con men and fanatics; to others, an incubator of athletes, artists and clerics.

Two years ago it was a battleground where fervent but outmatched militiamen led by Muqtada Sadr, the militantly anti-U.S. cleric, made suicidal stands against American tanks and helicopter gunships.

These days, many U.S. commanders view the neighborhood as something akin to Cambodia during the Vietnam War — a sanctuary for the militia known as the Al Mahdi army, whose zealous volunteers are dispatched elsewhere in pogroms against their Sunni Arab countrymen.

"They're in the export business, so a lot of their force is outside Sadr City," said Maj. Charles St.Clair, who served as a military advisor in Sadr City with the 506th Regimental Combat Team. "The fact that the Corleones or the Gottis may live in my neighborhood doesn't mean they do all their business there."

The teeming district of more than 2 million people — no one knows the population with any certainty — operates as a kind of autonomous city-state in a shaky, informal truce with U.S. troops. Although it suffers regular car bomb attacks, Sadr City is among the safest districts in a fearful capital.

Markets still bustle here with a vibrancy drained from much of Baghdad. A citywide curfew that extinguishes most night life is largely ignored here. Many police eschew body armor. Men still play dominoes and sip tea at smoky cafes.

Yet the very source of the stability, Al Mahdi militiamen who enforce security and rigid Islamic codes of dress and behavior, evokes dread elsewhere in Baghdad, where turf is fast being carved up along sectarian lines.

The Al Mahdi army was born in Sadr City three years ago, the urban disenfranchised answering the call of clerics who sought enthusiastic legions to shield holy places and oust the "occupier."

"People here do not like the Americans, but they are exercising restraint," said Fatah Sheik, a prominent leader in Sadr City. "In my personal opinion, the earth beneath the occupiers should be jolted and shaken so that they don't get the idea they are standing on solid ground and decide to stay longer."

Many have likened the Al Mahdi army, with its messianic fervor, to Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim militant group in Lebanon dubbed a terrorist organization by Washington but lionized here. A four-story portrait of Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader, greets motorists at one of the main entrances to Sadr City.

Like Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Shiite organization here runs an extensive social service network and controls patronage-rich government ministries including health and agriculture. Like Hezbollah, it makes payments to slain militants, which it dubs martyrs. And it helps deliver rations of water and food.

U.S. and allied forces are worried that Sadr City is becoming an Iraqi version of the Hezbollah bastions of southern Beirut and the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon.

"If we are to avoid a descent into civil war and anarchy, then preventing the [Al Mahdi army] from developing into a state within a state, as Hezbollah has done in Lebanon, will be a priority," William Patey, Britain's former ambassador to Iraq, wrote recently in a confidential memo leaked to the media.

After U.S. forces raided Sadr City in August, the Shiite-dominated administration of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki made it clear the district was virtually untouchable.

"This won't happen again," he said.

Postwar U.S. administrators at first dismissed the Sadr movement as little more than a marginal nuisance. They opted instead to deal with more established Shiite leaders, despite their close ties to Iran.

Today, few doubt that the Al Mahdi army is a formidable and permanent national force, whether viewed as thugs or saints. The destruction of a major Shiite shrine in the Sunni-dominated city of Samarra in February galvanized the group into sectarian warriors reaching well beyond Sadr City.

U.S. forces appear to have settled for a kind of containment that generally avoids direct clashes in Sadr City. They worry more about the kidnap-and-kill forays that many think originate here.

"They'll send out an exporter, a gang, half a dozen cars of people in the middle of the night, all armed with AKs," Maj. St.Clair said.

The corpses usually show up the next day, often strewn along the no-man's land of levees, canals, junkyards and dirt roads along Sadr City's periphery. The grounds near a shuttered cigarette factory, once a U.S. base known as Camp Marlboro, were for a long time a popular destination for corpses.

Although most victims are Sunnis, the executed may also include Shiite "collaborators," common criminals and accused apostates, authorities said.

Inside Sadr City, militiamen are no longer as visible, having set aside their trademark black button-down shirts and black trousers for plaid shirts and dark trousers, typical civilian garb.

But people in Sadr City are quick to point out that the Al Mahdi army is all-seeing.

Militiamen on the alert for infiltrators and potential car bombers watch the district's half a dozen major entrances — others have been shut down for safety reasons — and work closely with a police force thoroughly penetrated by the Al Mahdi army.

The Al Mahdi army's folk-hero status in Sadr City is to some extent coerced. No one wants to cross the militiamen, who can be ruthless and rely on a network of informers. Two years ago, the bodies of several local councilmen who cooperated with the U.S. Army were found hanging from lampposts, signs denouncing "collaborators" pinned to their shirts.

"Sadr City is its own place, and they do things their own way," said Staff Sgt. John Johnson of the 258th Military Police Company, a burly father of four who has worked as an advisor to Sadr City police. "They have to live here, and they have to say the right thing. This is Sadr City."

A place apart
Sadr City operates as a kind of autonomous city-state in a shaky, informal truce with U.S. troops. It is among the safest districts in the capital.

The beginning: Built in the 1960s as an urban renewal project, Revolution City was designed in geometric precision to house poor settlers from the rural Shiite Muslim south. Saddam Hussein later renamed it Saddam City.

After the invasion: Residents generally welcomed U.S. troops in 2003. The district was renamed Sadr City for Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq Sadr, assassinated during Hussein's rule after he founded a mosque-based social service network. Within a year, Sadr City erupted against U.S. troops.

Population: 2 million to 3 million, at least five times what the community was designed to house. Numbers swell daily with Shiite refugees fleeing Iraq's sectarian turmoil and seeking safety in an area controlled by followers of Muqtada Sadr, the virulently anti-U.S. cleric and son of the district's namesake. Sadr is the spiritual leader of the Al Mahdi army.

A slum? Although many sections fit the description, especially in the impoverished north, Sadr City also includes a prosperous merchant class, among them smugglers, forgers and other criminals. The district's 79 sectors encompass 19 square miles.

Proud history: Residents, who often display a swagger born of street survival, boast of the poets, doctors, engineers and athletes who came from Sadr City. Many in the district also were military conscripts during Hussein's regime.

Falling apart: Although it has received $200 million to upgrade infrastructure since the U.S.-led invasion, Sadr City still suffers from inadequate sewer lines, electrical blackouts, poor roads, spotty water supply and derelict schools.

( LA Times staff writers Raheem Salman and Suhail Ahmad contributed to this report.)

8. Alternative Realities -- by George Packer/The New Yorker

When the National Security Council met to discuss Iraq earlier this month, in Washington, the sense of urgency was palpable. The director of national intelligence described the deterioration of security in Baghdad and Basra; the Iraqi Army was near collapse, he said, and another explosion of sectarian violence was imminent. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff reported that the American commander in Iraq was asking for two new combat brigades immediately and fifty thousand additional troops in the coming months.

"We've just heard a very dour intel briefing," the national-security adviser said, opening the floor to discussion. "With more resources, can we really get it right? Can we do it better than we've done in the past three and a half years?"

"What is 'it'?" another participant asked. "What do we mean by success? A democratic Iraq?"

"Can we achieve a stable, unified Iraq?" the national-security adviser persisted. "Does anyone here believe that's still possible? And, if not, then Plan A has failed and we have to come up with other options."

"Plan A is dead," the Secretary of State announced, and sketched out a new strategy to bring Iran, Syria, and Iraq's other neighboring countries into negotiations, in order to prevent civil war from spreading across borders. "We have to take what is a hugely eroded leadership position in the international community and try to turn it around. It's a hell of a long shot."

The meeting was remarkable for its clarity: the principals looked at unpleasant facts from every angle, asked fundamental questions about the choices available, criticized past failures, and agreed on new plans without concern for the political fallout. The old habits of wishful thinking and blind loyalty were gone.

If this discussion had taken place at the White House, one could be a little hopeful, not just for a change of policy but for a change of climate in which new policies might be imagined. Instead, it occurred a mile away, at the Brookings Institution, where a dozen civilian and military officials of previous Administrations had come together for a daylong war game on Iraq.

Conversations like this one are taking place in quiet corners of the government and the military, within small groups of trusted friends, but they are not happening where it matters. Obstacles to critical thinking are not exclusive to this Administration, with its incurious President and its ruthless political "commissars," as they are known among their colleagues. The fear of leaks, and the damage they can do to an appearance of unity and resolve, makes it almost impossible for top officials in any Administration to speak freely in groups of more than three or four. But the resistance intensifies when the White House is under siege. "The worse the situation gets," the imaginary national-security adviser said, "the harder it is to make the point that there's a problem." When the real Office of Policy Planning at the real State Department proposed writing a memo on the alternatives facing the Administration if its Iraq policy failed, the idea was dismissed by the department's real leadership.

The President's Iraq war is lost. Plan A - a unified and democratic Iraq that will be a model in the region - is no longer achievable. The civil war for which the Administration will not consider new responses is already at hand. Because no one in power can admit any of this, the United States is in the position of trying to hold still while the ground shifts violently underfoot. The resistance to thinking about Plans B, C, and D means not only that this country remains stuck while Americans and Iraqis die but that its ability to affect events six or twelve months away is rapidly diminishing.

In the Brookings war game, the mock National Security Council, functioning the way the National Security Council should, responded to the deterioration in Iraq by making certain decisions, and then responded to the consequences of those decisions. By the end of the day, American policy had shifted from the President's "democracy agenda" to a focus on stabilizing Baghdad and bringing the warring parties to the conference table, to an effort to stem the flow of refugees, to a policy of countering Iranian domination of Iraq. By that point, the American forces were out of Baghdad and positioned along Iraq's borders and in Kurdistan. It was the revenge of Realpolitik. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs reminded the committee that the new policy meant greatly increased casualties among Iraqis and "a terrible loss for U.S. prestige, credibility, and legitimacy." But, in an atmosphere of critical thinking and open debate, the officials had to accept it.

Others are trying to fill the vacuum of debate from the outside. Recently, Dennis Ross, who was President Clinton's Middle East envoy, proposed in an op-ed in the Washington Post that the United States should negotiate its departure with the Iraqi government, basing the timing and manner on whether the factions there can reach a settlement: "If Iraqis are ready to resolve their internal political differences, to adjust to reality and to make the hard choices they face, our presence can help in the transition. But if they continue to avoid reality, our presence will simply prolong both their state of denial and ours."

Earlier this year, Congress commissioned the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan panel chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Representative Lee Hamilton, which is looking into Iraq policy and will offer recommendations. Such is the paralysis of official Washington that the course of the war seems to be waiting for the report, which won't be released until after next month's elections. News stories suggest that it will call for changes along the lines of the Brookings war game: talk to Iran and Syria, negotiate with armed Iraqi factions in a Dayton-style conference, and, as a last resort, reduce American casualties by shifting from supporting the government in Iraq to containing the fighting.

Every one of the proposals coming from outside the real Administration starts from the assumption that its policy has failed. Plans B, C, and D are also admissions of defeat. They are an acknowledgment that our highest interests in Iraq no longer involve the welfare of Iraqis. For anyone who had hoped that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein would bring a better life to Iraq's people, these are hard truths to accept. But they also suggest that between the President's resolve to persist in folly and the public's instinct to be rid of Iraq there is a range of choices that could prevent the disaster from inflicting permanent damage on American interests. This kind of clear, rational thought is less heartless - even, in the end, less defeatist - than willful blindness.


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