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Bacon in the chowhall and other images from Iskandariyah, Iraq, August 3-15, 2004

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In the past weeks and months, Islamic State, abetted by other armed groups, has made stunning advances across Iraq as US-built, trained, and funded Iraqi forces evaporate. Islamic State “exposed the utter rot in the Iraqi army earlier this summer,” wrote analysts at the Soufan Group. This sent me back to my journals from my 2004 embed. The seeds of today’s tragedies were germinating then, in the tragically improvised U.S. occupation and the deep sectarian divide dug by Saddam Hussein that existed before American troops rolled into Baghdad.

Then as now, a boots-on-the-ground perspective of Iraqi forces’ readiness, professionalism, and tactical skill — shaky and poor across the board— was at odds with absurdly glowing reports from top-level US commanders.

Which is why those who truly wanted to know what was happening on the street ignored them and tried to convince grunts, NCOs, and line officers to talk. Not an easy task. “It’s like I told my guys,” a naval gunfire liaison officer told me on August 14, 2004, “we came into someone else’s neighborhood and are trying to tell them how to run it.” I asked a Master Gunnery Sergeant I bunked with whether the U.S. lit the fuse that blew up Iraq. It’s “like the coyote in the cartoon . . . and now we’re fucked.” Both asked me not to use their names.

After a dismounted patrol through Iskandariyah on August 4, I wrote in my journal:

“What are the salient facts and issues stuck inside me this week? Pork is served in the chow hall, in spite of the dozen plus Muslim translators. Translators get cast-off flaks. This entire enterprise is absurd, I feel, contradictory to its core. Democracy as represented by heavily armed, non-Arabic speaking men (and boys) wearing Wylie X sunglasses. Their allies are, in some sense, desperate men or opportunists. They do not give the impression of being the bedrock of the community. The cops are scared. The Iraqi National Guard posture like thugs and petty criminals. They’re scared too. That’s why they wear masks.”

Moments before I hit “publish,” President Obama announced that he had authorized airstrikes on Islamic State military forces in Iraq.  The U.S. military is also air dropping humanitarian aid to people of the Yezidi community who are being attacked and killed by IS, he said.

“I know that many of you are rightly concerned about any American military action in Iraq,” the president said, “even limited strikes like these.  I understand that.  I ran for this office in part to end our war in Iraq and welcome our troops home, and that’s what we’ve done.  As Commander-in-Chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq.  And so even as we support Iraqis as they take the fight to these terrorists, American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq, because there’s no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq.  The only lasting solution is reconciliation among Iraqi communities and stronger Iraqi security forces.

“However, we can and should support moderate forces who can bring stability to Iraq.  So even as we carry out these two missions, we will continue to pursue a broader strategy that empowers Iraqis to confront this crisis.  Iraqi leaders need to come together and forge a new government that represents the legitimate interests of all Iraqis, and that can fight back against the threats like [Islamic State].”

I’m holding my breath.

Full Disclosure outtakes: Babil (2005) and Anbar (2006)

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I’m posting via Vimeo a series more favorite scenes I wasn’t able to fit into my 2008 documentary, Full Disclosure.

These scenes are from 2005 and 2006. (I didn’t shoot video in Iraq in 2004, only stills.) The first scenes focus on activities in Babil province during the run-up to the first post-Saddam election, January 31, 2005. The second chunk is from 1/2’s time in Hit, Anbar province, in early 2006.

There’s no graphic violence, but the video is still NSFW because of expletive-heavy gruntspeak and a flash of a porn magazine.

There’s No Going Back: Iraq Ten Years Later

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After my last trip to Iraq in 2006, I told myself I would return. I’d go to the places I patrolled with the marines and to the homes I stomped into and out of as an appendage of their squads. As an embedded journalist, I learned little about Iraqi people’s lives, other than what these lives looked like when instantly disrupted and upended. Next time, I would go without bulletproof vest or Kevlar helmet — and without the retinue of troops. I would listen and learn. I figured I’d be able to make this trip in five, maybe six years, once the the conflict ended or at least ebbed. But there is no end or ebb on the horizon.

U.S. Marine convoy north from Kuwait to Iraq, July 18, 2004

U.S. Marine convoy north from Kuwait to Iraq, July 18, 2004

A decade ago to this day I was rattling around the belly of an assault amphibious vehicle just a few miles into Iraq. I had overnighted with a U.S. Marine section at Camp Scania, a giant way station for military and contractor convoys heading north from Kuwait. Minutes before folding myself into the AAV, a gunnery sergeant briefed his men. “Ninety-nine percent of the people want us here,” the gunny said as I hovered with my cameras. “The other one percent, we’re going to fucking kill… Stay sharp the rest of the fucking way. Trust your training and trust your fucking senior marines.”

 

Marines from during north to Iraq from Kuwait, July 20, 2004

Marines from 1/2 AAV section during convoy north to Iraq from Kuwait, July 20, 2004

Iraqis harvest salt just across the border from Kuwait, July 21, 2004

Iraqis harvest salt just across the border from Kuwait, July 21, 2004

I remember rumbling past a family of salt harvesters, a young boy and girl begging, a plot of sunflowers, then a group of men washing cars along the roadside. “We pass through the first real city — buildings with stores and homes; folks on the street. I hear birds singing,” I wrote in my journal that night. ” I had prepared myself for pure desolation. This town was beat up and dusty, but still alive.

Minutes later, we pulled into Forward Operating Base Iskandariyah. It was 1430 hours, July 21, 2004.

1st Battalion/2d Marines AAV section arrives in Iskandariyah, July 21, 2004

1st Battalion/2d Marines AAV section arrives in Iskandariyah, July 21, 2004

On my second full day at FOB Iskan, mortars dropped from the air onto the far end of the base, where I was staying with the battalion’s weapons company. Grunts hustled me into the bottom of a packed bomb shelter. I heard shouting and bellowing from the entrance 30 feet away and above me.

Later, I learned that Vincent Sullivan, a marine sniper, had been killed. Others, among them a sergeant named DeBoy, had been hit by shrapnel. I asked myself then, if I had moved just one second faster, would Sullivan be alive, DeBoy unscathed?

I spent several weeks on base and off in surrounding towns—Musayyib, Haswah, and Iskandariyah. Each day, I observed the troops with Iraqis. I watched these young American men struggle and improvise without guidance, on the fly. I watched Iraqis, men and women, shrink and submit, stand up to and challenge the marines. A good day was when no one got hurt or killed, even if nothing got fixed or solved.

Boy on construction team building birthing center funded and then defunded  by U.S. Army. Marines promised to resume support — if local leaders cooperated with them. Jurf-al-Sakhar, Iraq, August 8, 2004

Boy on construction team building birthing center funded and then defunded by U.S. Army. Marines promised to resume support — if local leaders cooperated with them. Jurf-al-Sakhar, Iraq, August 8, 2004

Marines from 1/2 Bravo Co., 2nd Platoon, checking for IEDs during a routine patrol, Babil Province, Iraq, August 20, 2004

Marines from 1/2 Bravo Co., 2nd Platoon, checking for IEDs during a routine patrol, Babil Province, Iraq, August 20, 2004

I made two more trips to Iraq to cover the unit, 1st Battalion/2d Marines, in 2005 and 2006, and the impact of the occupation on Iraq.

After coming home,  I scoured the Department of Defense list of troops killed in action for familiar names once a day, and I would find some. I Googled “Iskandariyah” and the other towns every few hours. And I kept Iraq war-related sites open on my desktop, from boot-up in the morning to shutdown at night.

A year later, I checked the casualty list once a day, Iraq news three or four times.

Five years later, I surfed my way to Iraq news and the DoD list once a week, maybe.

Now, ten years on, I peek at Iraq news only when it finds me through the throbbing headlines.

July 19: “Baghdad bombings kill dozens.” “Obama’s Iraq dilemma: Fighting the ISIL puts US and Iran on the same side.” “Concern and Support for Iraqi Christians Forced by Militants to Flee Mosul.”

I Google my old places. “Iskandariyah,” the city I spent the summer of 2004 with 1st Battalion/2d Marines: June 2, a car bomb killed at least two people and injured 10. May 12: “Two police officers were killed while trying to defuse a bomb in Jurf al-Sakhar, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) south of Baghdad.” March 18: “A bombing in Haswa killed one person. Two other people were wounded in a separate blast.”

I don’t know what to say or to do as the always-simmering violence explodes and our policymakers and pundits debate taking the same well-worn and deadly paths once again, but I would at least like to know the names of these people we call “casualties.”

Invasion of Iraq, +10 years, Part 2

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U.S. Marine searches Iraqi visitors to the Forward Operation Base Iskandariya, which surrounded Musayyib power plant, August 7, 2004

U.S. Marine searches Iraqi visitors to Forward Operating Base Iskandariya, which surrounded Musayyib city’s power plant, August 7, 2004

Iraqis, nongovernmental organizations, and others are working to rebuild Iraq and end the sectarian strife. One can’t ignore their labor and sacrifice. Recent events, including today’s bombings, remind us that they face a terrible task. Islamic State of Iraq, an al Qaeda offshoot, took credit for the murders. Al Qaeda followed the United States into Iraq, we should remember, not the other way around. (See pages 64 through 66 of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s September 8, 2006 report.)

Ken Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, wrote a measured 10th-anniversary piece for CNN that also appears on HRW’s website. The title: U.S. Has Self to Blame for Iraq Failures.

HRW’s E.D. for the Middle East, Sarah Leah Whitson, has an even tougher assessment:

The U.S. legacy in Iraq reflects abuses committed with impunity by American and Iraqi forces throughout the U.S.-led occupation. The abuses set in motion over 10 years ago by the Bush administration’s ‘torture memos,’ and the brutal detention policies that followed, facilitated Iraq’s creation of a system that is today either unwilling or incapable of delivering justice to its citizens.

The recent investigation by BBC Arabic and the Guardian of the U.S. role in training murderous special police commando units give these charges teeth. The head of the effort, retired U.S. Army officer Jim Steele, played a similar role in El Salvador’s U.S.-sponsored “dirty war” against leftist guerrillas.

The Wall Street Journal reported recently that CIA paramilitary units are ramping up their support for Iraq’s Counterterrorism Service (CTS) as a hedge against violence spilling over the border from Syria. This is a force that reports directly to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who has used elite units to mete out violence against his opponents and run secret prisons. The CTS, which has been “accused of committing serious abuses against detainees, worked closely with U.S. Special Forces before the U.S. troop withdrawal in 2011,” Whitson writes.

WSJ‘s writers fail to raise (or their editors failed to publish) the question of oversight of the CIA effort. Given that such initiatives have gone off the human-rights rails in the past, it’s kind of an essential question. That said, they may not have bothered because the answer is obvious: There will be no substantive checks or balances.

“[O]ur power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint,” President Barack Obama said in his first inaugural address. The record shows that humility and restraint do not blossom in the darkness of extralegal policy. Obama seems to have forgotten his own words and he will sacrifice lives as a result.

Invasion of Iraq, +10 years, Part 1

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I’m traveling through Virginia working on Make the Ground Talk, my second doc. I’m pausing with Erin at our favorite Hampton coffee shop, Blend, to note the anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War.

Marine with 24th MEU, hours before crossing the  border into Iraq from Kuwait, July 2004

Marine with 24 MEU, hours before crossing the border into Iraq from Kuwait, July 2004

Demonstration, Union Square, New York City

Demonstration, Union Square, New York City

U.S. forces crossed the border from Kuwait into Iraq ten years ago today. The invasion toppled a dictator—and unleashed a sectarian war that continues. Our focus—the American focus—has been on the cost to us, particularly the service members killed and injured.

But the cost has been far greater for Iraqis. More to follow…

Iraqi Army barracks tour and Omar & Bravo Part 2

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This video is an assemblage of three clips from 2006 that we couldn’t fit into the doc.

The first two are segments of a tour Iraqi Army soldiers gave me of their quarters at 1/2 Charlie Company’s Firm Base 1.

Number three is a second scene from 1/2 Bravo’s encounter with the Anbari college student Omar. In this one, they discuss (American) popular music.

The grunts, IAs, and Omar are clearly consciousness of me and my camera. They perform, as many (all?) of us do when there’s a lens trained on us. This camera consciousness made me uncomfortable as I screened the videotape the first half dozen times, but I realized that such performances were as meaningful as the candid moments — or moments in which folks appeared to be unaware of the video camera but could very well have been calculating and acting.

The IAs direct their mordant jokes and complaints at me and through me to the presumed American audience. Omar and the boys of Bravo are ostensibly communicating among themselves, but they too are calibrating their statements for the “reporter guy” and the people in the U.S. who will see the video. There’s a heap of subtext the men dance around, under, and on top of — the issue of race springs to mind. This verbal shimmying and jiving is funny, ironic, absurd, poignant, and telling.

Agree? Disagree? Weigh in with a comment below!

AND: This will be my final prodding. Voting for Best of Doc 2011 ends in two days. Please cast your final digi-ballots for Full Disclosure!

1/2 Charlie Co. & Chicken Lady

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This sequence, edited by Rachel Shuman and Adam Bolt, was built from footage I shot on one of the first patrols I videotaped. Of all the scenes we had to cut, I was saddest to lose this one. It captures, from a boots-in-the-mud perspective, the perpetual miscommunication between our troops and Iraqi civilians and the general absurdity of the mission.

First Battalion/Second Marine Regiment was nearing the end of its 2004-05 deployment to northern Babil province. Iraq’s first national election since Saddam Hussein’s toppling was two weeks away. Anti-US forces, particularly Sunni militant groups like Hizb al Awda and Ansar al Sunna, had promised violence. “This ain’t the fucking Republicans and Democrats,” Col. Ron Johnson, commander of 1/2’s parent unit, the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, remarked in his characteristically colorful style about the growing Sunni-Shia conflict during a briefing for me and two other journalists.

Days after 1/2 left Babil—and before the unit had even shipped out from Kuwait—a car bomb rocked Musayyib Hospital. Eighteen people were killed. The patrol base Bravo Company set up for the election had been next door, in the Musayyib Police Station.

Less than six months later, a suicide-bomb blast in Musayyib (also rendered as Mussayab or Mussaib) killed more than a 100 people, all Iraqi.

“I knew the spot, an intersection in the city’s center,” I wrote in a 2005 blog post. “I had walked or driven through it a dozen times with grunts… There’s a beautiful mosque right at the crossroads.” The bomb had been planted in a fuel tanker nearby. “The blast ignited the fuel inside the truck, turning what might have been a sadly typical tragedy into mass slaughter.

“In November 2005, bombers attacked the same mosque, killing 20 and wounding 64.”

And so on through the years: December 18, 2011: “A sticky bomb attached to a car exploded when the driver entered a bus terminal…”

I can’t say with any assurance what life is like in Musayyib now. Just as it was in 2005, finding stories about the city (in English) that aren’t about violence and death is very difficult.