Monday, May 31, 2004

Knock, knock

A Reuters article by Samia Nakhoul entitled Cool gunmen hunted down Christians begins with a question asked by Islamic gunmen who seized an expatriate housing complex and killed 22 residents:

"Are you Muslim or Christian? We don't want to kill Muslims. Show us where the Americans and Westerners live," Islamic militants told an Arab after a shooting rampage against Westerners in Saudi Arabia. The four gunmen, aged 18 to 25 and wearing military vests, grabbed Abu Hashem, an Iraqi with a United States passport, in front of his home in the Oasis compound in Khobar, but they let him go when he told them he was a Muslim. "Don't be afraid. We won't kill Muslims - even if you are an American," he quoted them as saying. ... "[The gunman] told me, 'Our jihad is not against Muslims, but against Americans and Westerners'. He asked me to show him which villas had Americans and Westerners."

The shooting "rampage against Westerners" included Indians, Filipinos and Sri Lankans.  The Deccan Herald reported eight Indians killed, mostly janitors. The other dead included three Filipinos, identified by the Arab News as an accountant,  driver and  cook. The victims were neither particularly Western nor obviously Christian. The actual breakdown of deaths was:

Indians 8
Filipinos 3
Saudis 3
Sri Lankans 2
Americans 1
Britons 1
Italians 1
Swedes 1
South Africans 1
Egyptians 1

So it was a trick question. But someone who might have known the right answer was Carlos the Jackal, once a Marxist, now a convert to Islam and an international celebrity. A British reporter who lunched with his French lawyer, Isabelle Coutant-Peyre, describes the experience.

[Isabelle Coutant-Peyre] laughs throatily and lights another Cuban cigarillo. We are sitting in the Palais de Justice bar in Paris, where she swaps her lawyer's robe for a chic leather jacket. Gamine, with jetblack hair, kohl-rimmed eyes and a husky voice, she has an air of rebelliousness. Her mobile phone, which has already rung several times, trills again. She lowers her head and mutters into it: "I'll tell you later. Me too, me too." Snapping the phone shut, she announces: "That was Carlos."

There is no need to ask "Carlos who?". Ilich Ramirez Sanchez — alias "Carlos the Jackal" — was once the world's most wanted terrorist before anyone had ever heard of Osama bin Laden. He has been implicated in a number of international terrorist attacks and recently, in an interview on French television, claimed responsibility for killing more than 1500 people in the cause of Palestinian liberation (he is a convert to Islam). He was imprisoned in 1997 for the murder of two French policemen and an informant 22 years earlier. Today he is Madame Coutant-Peyre's husband — and the author of excruciating love poems penned from his cell. "I am jealous of the sun that tans you," he writes. "Of the shade that caresses you; Of your sheets that do not cover me. Of your legs not intertwined with mine."

He would known that the response was not 'I was a just a poor Muslim with a family. Spare me' or 'I am just a Filipino cook who prepares food' or even 'I am a Swedish European who is on your side'. The gunmen at the Oasis Housing complex, weighed each of these lives and decided to pull the trigger, not according to the human worth of their victims, but according to the column inches they would provide. The cooks and drivers were killed the better to hammer home the implacability of terror. Saudi staff were killed to convey the penalties for associating with the kuffar. The assorted Europeans to provide variety. The American Muslim was pointedly spared so Reuters could emphasize the magnanimity of Jihad. Carlos, better than anyone, would have understood that ordinary humanity is a mere canvas upon which the truly elect can write their Message: that in a media driven war blood must ink the presses -- and that the "militant's" first duty is to ensure that the presses never stop. The correct answer was, 'I am one of you'; and the angel of darkness would have passed him by.

Friday, May 28, 2004

The Global Battlefield

Blogger JK and reader TH both sent links to a tongue-in-cheek article by David Wong called I Want a War Sim. Wong says he is fed up with unrealistic simulations in which good guys and bad guys square off in empty, exotic locales. That is totally unrealistic. What he wants is a simulation where the combatants fight in an area where civilian casualties are unavoidable, television crews dog your steps and Congressional hearings second-guess every move.

I want a War Sim where I spend two hours pushing across a map to destroy a "nuclear missile silo," only to find out after the fact that it was just a missile-themed orphanage. I want little celebrities to show up on the scene and do interviews over video of charred teddy bears, decrying my unilateral attack. I want congressional hearings demanding answers to these atrocities. On the very next level I want to lose half of my units because another "orphanage" turned out to be a NOD ambush site. I want another round of hearings asking why I didn't level that orphanage as soon as I saw it, including tearful testimony from a slain soldier's daughter who is now, ironically, an orphan.

Every War Sim has a "Fog of War" that obscures the map in darkness until units scout the landscape. Well, I want a hazy, brown "Fog of Bullshit" layer below that. I want it to make a village of farmers look like a secret armed militia, I want it to show me a massive enemy fortress where there is actually an Aspirin factory. I want to never know for sure which it was, even after the game is over.

It is a measure of how strange the world has become that Lt. Col. Robert R. Leonhard, U.S.A. (ret) writes in the Army Magazine about how situations similar to Wong's satirical scenario will become the rule rather than the exception (Hat tip, reader MIG). Col. Leonhard argues that Sun Tzu's maxim to fight in cities "only when there is no alternative" is hopelessly outdated because there is nowhere else to fight.

We do not live in Sun Tzu’s world, nor even in that of Clausewitz, Fuller or Liddell Hart. The modern world has urbanized to an unprecedented degree, and it is inconceivable that future military contingencies will not involve urban operations. Sun Tzu lived and wrote (if indeed he was a real person) in the agrarian age, when most of the land was either wilderness or cultivated. Large segments of the population lived outside cities, and warfare typically occurred in flat, open terrain. Such battlefields--the stomping grounds of warriors from Sun Tzu to Napoleon--are becoming scarcer each day. Furthermore, the very success of American joint operations--and joint fires in particular--guarantee that a clever opponent will move into cities for protection. The modern battlefield is urban.

Because such a battlefield is densely populated, modern operations will cease to become purely military in character, instead becoming complex politico-military-media problems. Leonhard maintains that a US military constituted around largely military functions lacks the dimensionality necessary to successfully fight in this new arena. The US military is laboring under the crippling disadvantage of having no dedicated method of dealing with charred teddy bears.

In addition to the familiar tactical issues described above, the urban warrior must deal with refugees, media, curfews, crowd control, municipal government, street gangs, schools, armed citizens, disease, mass casualties, police, cultural sites, billions of dollars of private property, infrastructure and religion, to name but a few factors. In this context, the brigade combat team that dominates the central corridor is woefully inadequate; likewise, the doctrine and force structure behind it.

I have previously tried to demonstrate ("Factors of Conflict in the Early 21st Century," ARMY, January) that the operational level of war is becoming an anachronism because the idea of a theater military campaign is no longer relevant. Theater operations have become so intertwined with global considerations, and military factors have become so integrated with diplomatic, economic and cultural factors, that theater warfare is becoming indistinguishable from global grand strategy. In a similar manner, the challenge of urban operations will serve to redefine the tactical level of war.

The answer to the problem in his view is to break down the traditional walls between military operations and civilian governance. Wars will no longer be fought between armies. They will be fought between societies.

The interagency task force, rather than the joint force, must become the basis for future operations. With the elements of national power coalescing at the tactical level of war, a loose confederation of governmental agencies at the combatant commander level is simply insufficient. An honest look at our recent operations in Afghanistan would reveal a superb performance by our military and a half-hearted, poorly integrated participation by the rest of the U.S. government agencies. As a result, American foreign policy appears to be 90 percent military with a few economic and diplomatic add-ons. This is a recipe for disaster in future urban warfare. We need to graduate to the formation of the interagency task force.

The interagency task force would be built around a Marine expeditionary unit or an Army brigade, reinforced with joint fires. In addition, it would have active participation from the Departments of State, Treasury, Commerce, Justice, the CIA, the FBI and (as needed) Agriculture, Health and Human Services, the Office of Economic Advisors and Labor. It would also have congressional liaison teams. At present, most of these agencies of the U.S. government lack a mission to assist in foreign policy, but this must change. The elements of national power--the integration of which is crucial to effective grand strategy--reside in these agencies. They must become players in war and peace.

Readers who thought that David Wong's idea of sims with "congressional hearings demanding answers" was funny should consider the Army Time's solemn proposal to deploy congressional liaison teams to the battlefield. After all, if the battlefield will not come to the Congressional hearing, the Congressional hearing will come to the battlefield. Nor are these ideas confined to the academic musings of retired Army Colonels. The Belmont Club linked to press release describing the reorganization of Combined Joint Task Force 7 in Iraq into two components, one dealing with the military fight and the other with the political aspects of the operation.

Kimmitt explained that Multinational Corps Iraq will focus on the tactical fight -- the day-to-day military operations and the maneuvering of the six multinational divisions on the ground. Army Lt. Gen. Thomas F. Metz will command the corps. Meanwhile, Multinational Force Iraq will focus on more strategic aspects of the military presence in Iraq, such as talking with sheiks and political leaders, and on training, equipping and fielding Iraqi security forces.

The President's speech at the Army War College marked how far down this path the Armed Forces have already gone. These short paragraphs, describing operations against the enemy in Fallujah and Najaf contain concepts which would have been familiar to Julius Caesar and possibly Napoleon, but totally alien to any Second World War commander.

In the city of Fallujah, there's been considerable violence by Saddam loyalists and foreign fighters, including the murder of four American contractors. American soldiers and Marines could have used overwhelming force. Our commanders, however, consulted with Iraq's Governing Council and local officials, and determined that massive strikes against the enemy would alienate the local population, and increase support for the insurgency. So we have pursued a different approach. We're making security a shared responsibility in Fallujah. Coalition commanders have worked with local leaders to create an all-Iraqi security force, which is now patrolling the city. Our soldiers and Marines will continue to disrupt enemy attacks on our supply routes, conduct joint patrols with Iraqis to destroy bomb factories and safe houses, and kill or capture any enemy. ...

In the cities of Najaf and Karbala and Kufa, most of the violence has been incited by a young, radical cleric who commands an illegal militia. These enemies have been hiding behind an innocent civilian population, storing arms and ammunition in mosques, and launching attacks from holy shrines. Our soldiers have treated religious sites with respect, while systematically dismantling the illegal militia. We're also seeing Iraqis, themselves, take more responsibility for restoring order. In recent weeks, Iraqi forces have ejected elements of this militia from the governor's office in Najaf. Yesterday, an elite Iraqi unit cleared out a weapons cache from a large mosque in Kufa. Respected Shia leaders have called on the militia to withdraw from these towns. Ordinary Iraqis have marched in protest against the militants.

But the really frightening aspect of Col. Leonhard's argument is not that the military and political aspects of warfare have fused, but his realization that foreign battlefields and home front have merged into one integrated area of operations. There is now no real distinction between winning the "media war" and cleaning out a sniper's nest in Ramadi; between Abu Ghraib the prison and Abu Ghraib the media event. Many readers have criticized the Belmont Club's An Intelligence Failure as being too "soft" on the liberal press, arguing that the media's distortions are not simply the effect of incompetence but the result of a deliberate campaign of partisan information. Doubtless many in the liberal press harbor symmetrical resentments. Yet I have held back from framing the argument in these terms until I could place it in the framework of Col. Leonhard's concept of a global battlefield: one in which the WTC towers and the New York Times newsroom are front line positions no less than any corner in Baghdad; and where victory is measured not simply by the surrender of arms but the capitulation of ideas. We have begun the 21st century just as we inaugurated the 20th: at the edge of old familiar places and on the brink of the unknown.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

An Intelligence Failure

The New York Times has published a retrospective on its errors in covering stories related to Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, many of which it now deems are suspect.

Over the last year this newspaper has shone the bright light of hindsight on decisions that led the United States into Iraq. We have examined the failings of American and allied intelligence, especially on the issue of Iraq's weapons and possible Iraqi connections to international terrorists. We have studied the allegations of official gullibility and hype. It is past time we turned the same light on ourselves.

In doing so — reviewing hundreds of articles written during the prelude to war and into the early stages of the occupation — we found an enormous amount of journalism that we are proud of. In most cases, what we reported was an accurate reflection of the state of our knowledge at the time, much of it painstakingly extracted from intelligence agencies that were themselves dependent on sketchy information. And where those articles included incomplete information or pointed in a wrong direction, they were later overtaken by more and stronger information. That is how news coverage normally unfolds.

But we have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been. In some cases, information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged. Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged — or failed to emerge.

The New York Times attributes these errors to reliance on a poisoned source, Ahmed Chalabi, whose it now suspects had an agenda of "regime change" in Iraq. The Times goes on to say that these false accounts, if they were such, were also lapped up by an Administration who shared his goals and were eager to believe them.

The problematic articles varied in authorship and subject matter, but many shared a common feature. They depended at least in part on information from a circle of Iraqi informants, defectors and exiles bent on "regime change" in Iraq, people whose credibility has come under increasing public debate in recent weeks. (The most prominent of the anti-Saddam campaigners, Ahmad Chalabi, has been named as an occasional source in Times articles since at least 1991, and has introduced reporters to other exiles. He became a favorite of hard-liners within the Bush administration and a paid broker of information from Iraqi exiles, until his payments were cut off last week.) Complicating matters for journalists, the accounts of these exiles were often eagerly confirmed by U.S. officials convinced of the need to intervene in Iraq. Administration officials now acknowledge that they sometimes fell for misinformation from these exile sources. So did many news organizations -- in particular, this one.

Some critics of our coverage during that time have focused blame on individual reporters. Our examination, however, indicates that the problem was more complicated. Editors at several levels who should have been challenging reporters and pressing for more skepticism were perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper. Accounts of Iraqi defectors were not always weighed against their strong desire to have Saddam Hussein ousted. Articles based on dire claims about Iraq tended to get prominent display, while follow-up articles that called the original ones into question were sometimes buried. In some cases, there was no follow-up at all.

The problem with this post-mortem is obvious. It ignores the well-documented Clinton Administration belief that Saddam Hussein may had been seeking WMDs too, a fact backhandedly conceded in the fine print: "Ahmad Chalabi, has been named as an occasional source in Times articles since at least 1991" -- and which itself threatens its own conclusions of the provenance of its error by counterexample. Nor could the Times have been unaware of Chalabi's desire to topple Saddam. Chalabi virtually trumpeted it. It misdiagnoses the root cause of news inaccuracy as a reliance on sources with an agenda. If the Times or any other news, police or intelligence organization limited its sources to informants with no 'agenda' whatever, there would be no sources at all.

The real source of error was more basic: sloppy fact checking, the lack of collateral confirmation for important stories and the absence of an internal mechanism to detect mounting inconsistencies within the developing story. The Times feebly fumbles at this, but fails to understand its significance. It admits it ran stories based on material provided to it, but "the Times never followed up on the veracity of this source or the attempts to verify his claims". The paper found that its own follow up articles on the same story contradicted the own original accounts, but failed to see the significance of it. "Articles based on dire claims about Iraq tended to get prominent display, while follow-up articles that called the original ones into question were sometimes buried. In some cases, there was no follow-up at all." The media inability to make sense of its own story and update the basic account based on new information has been highlighted in Belmont Club's The Wedding Party series. As a consequence, the Times was not even aware that it was refuting itself.

The problem with the media is it cannot accurately keep track of the facts. It is not institutionally equipped to grade the reliability of information brought to its front pages. It has no organized method of collaterally confirming stories based on sources that are unlikely to collude. It has no analysis cells to follow a story and continuously reevaluate the reliability of initial information based on subsequent developments.

Jason Van Steenwyk  convincingly shows, by laying out the verbatim transcript of US Marine General James Mattis and coverage by the Globe and Mail, the Guardian, the New York Times, Reuters, Agence Presse France and the Independent how the basic fact of what Mattis said slipped through the toils of these famous newspapers. Mattis was being asked to comment on an attack on alleged wedding party on the Syrian border. His verbatim response was:

I can't...I've seen the pictures, but I can't...bad things happened. Fallujah, I never saw a Marine hide behind a woman or a child or hold them in their house and fire out of the building. I don't have to apologize for the conduct of my Marines.

This sentence, first a refusal to comment, then  a basic reaffirmation of faith in his men based on their conduct in Fallujah, was twisted into a cavalier dismissal of civilian casualties. The New York Times rendered Mattis as:

At a news conference in Falluja, west of Baghdad, he said that two dozen men of military age were among those killed. "Let's not be naive," he said. "Bad things happen in wars." "I don't have to apologize for the conduct of my men," he added.

The Independent has the least accurate rendition of all:

"These were more than two dozen military-age males. Let's not be naive," Major General James Mattis, commander of the US 1st Marine Division, said. But he had no explanation of where the dead women and children in the video came from. "I have not seen the pictures but bad things happen in wars," he said cryptically. "I don't have to apologize for the conduct of my men." 

In the Independent's version, Mattis is quoted as saying he had not seen the pictures, but in the transcript he clearly says he has. The question clearly refers to the alleged attack on the supposed wedding party, but the words "I can't ... I've seen the pictures, but I can't" which clearly indicates a refusal to comment are omitted altogether.

This error did not creep into the accounts of the Times or the Independent or the other newspapers due to a reliance on some 'poisoned source' or a source 'with an agenda' which the Times regards as the fount of mischief. It came from a failure to consult the tape of the interview and a verbatim transcript available. As Jason Van Steenwyk puts it:

Essentially, it looks like they're quoting each other, or some apocryphal Q source material. They're not quoting General Mattis. They didn't even show up at the press conference, and they didn't bother to get a transcript or listen to the tape. But all these reporters are passing their crap off as if they were right from the source material.

The error in this specific case doesn't necessarily have to do with the "liberal bias" that is attributed to these news outlets. It stems directly and plainly from a very poor management of the factual source material. The incident Van Steenwyk describes illustrates the palimpsest-like phenomenon described in Belmont Club's The Wedding Party series, where facts of uncertain provenance all pile on top of one another in a developing story, very often of different dates, with discredited facts receiving equal billing with more reliable information. It is only fair to say that these defects can be found in conservative news outlets as well because the media in general is not organizationally structured to verify and preserve the integrity of information nor to apply rigorous analysis to it.

The incidents of Jason Blair, Andrew Gilligan, Daily Mirror 'fake' atrocity pictures and the Boston Globe 'porno' atrocity pictures should indicate that the basic cause of media error is not the existence sources with 'agendas' but a certain primitiveness in the newsroom. It is inherent in the journalistic process itself as presently practiced. The problem can be fixed when it is recognized. Until then, the public must make do with apocryphal Q.

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

The Wedding Party 3

Reader WEH sends this email from an American acquaintance in Iraq dated May 21, which may bear upon the story of the Wedding Party video.

I can’t be absolutely sure what happened out there but if you know a few things about Iraq it doesn’t sound so outlandish. These people are members of a clan well known in Anbar province. They are supposedly "shepherds" but they are really more like livestock owners. The herds are large and the business is profitable. After the spring rains end, and they just did, these people and other clans like them follow the herds through the desert. They pick that time because the grazing is better. Along the way they have small houses in oases which serve as something between camps and residences.

They are also into smuggling. Mainly they smuggle livestock into Syria where the prices are better. Do they bring back guns and people? Probably. And it can’t be ruled out they may have been hired to slip some Syrians into the country. Whole families join this migration. And they do get married.

This afternoon a very popular Baghdad wedding singer was buried -- his family and the survivors say he was entertaining at the wedding. The reason so many women and children died is that as is tradition, the women and children sleep together, the men apart often in tents watching the stock.

Some of the people there had traveled from Ramadi for the wedding just as people travel to attend weddings anywhere. There's a romance in Arab culture about the desert. Some Americans get married by lakes or in mountains. The reason they returned to Ramadi, 250 miles away, is because that's the clan's base. And having been out there, there's very little between Ramadi and the Syrian-Jordanian border except a mosque-rest stop and Rutba. The US had Rutba sealed off.

They weren’t seeking medical attention. They brought the victims home to bury them in their version of [our family] cemetery. Ramadi is the "home" of all members of the Bou Fahad clan, which is the one of all the victims. There were at least a dozen children killed. One was decapitated. One little girl about [my granddaughter]'s age had holes all over her legs...and in her chest. One boy was missing half his face. Quite a place, Iraq.

If the wedding party victims are lying, they may be failing to mention that XXX-number of Syrian fighters were camped 100 meters down the road, or that they had rented the place to fighters two days before or something like that. My experience in these things has been that people wouldn’t be faking the deaths of their wives and children. The fact that there was a high proportion of women and children killed adds credence -- the kids sleep with the women and the men sleep separately.

This may start to explain the wonderment of some Belmont Club readers who have written to remark how the Associated Press account of the wedding video contrasts so strikingly General Kimmitt's version of events. One reader said, "they might be talking of two separate places". Or are they talking of one place and two separate buildings?

'Massacre Account" 'Syrian Fighter Safehouse Account'
A videotape has been broadcast which purports to show before-and-after footage of a wedding which Iraqis say the US bombed, killing about 40. The film, released by a US news agency, combines a wedding home movie with video of the aftermath of the attack, which the US says targeted militants. Some victims and survivors appear to be present in the wedding video. ...

Associated Press Television News says it cannot confirm the authenticity of the video of the celebrations in Makr al-Deeb, a desert hamlet near the town of Qaim.  ...

AP says a reporter and a photographer who interviewed more than a dozen survivors a day after the bombing were able to identify many of them on the wedding party video. It also says its footage of the aftermath shows remnants of musical instruments, pots and pans, and festive brightly coloured bedding.



BAGHDAD, Iraq - The U.S. military introduced more photographs Monday to bolster its contention that American aircraft attacked a safehouse for foreign fighters near the Syrian border -- not a wedding party, as claimed by Iraqi survivors and police and suggested by footage from the scene.

Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the coalition deputy chief of staff for operations in Iraq (news - web sites), introduced several new photographs Monday — those of a house and white powder he said was being tested for drugs.

Kimmitt again showed pictures of items the military said it found at the attack site, including machine guns, rounds of ammunition, a Sudan Airways plane ticket, medical gear, a Sudanese passport and battery packs associated with improvised explosive devises.

"These are pictures that are somewhat inconsistent in my mind with a wedding party," Kimmitt said. "One could say, yes, it is true that out in the desert you need to have a rifle to protect yourself against Ali Baba but the necessity for rocket-propelled launchers, rocket launchers in the bottom, special machine guns may be a little much for Ali Baba out there."

"What we found on the ground and our post-strike analysis suggests that what we had was a significant foreign fighter smuggler way-station in the middle of the desert that was bringing people into this country for the sole purpose of attacking to kill the people of Iraq," he said.

The working assumption of Wedding Party 2 was that two sites, the Rakat villa and the adjacent structure or tent were struck, largely on the basis of Mrs. Shahib's account in the Guardian. In the light of this new information, it seems the men were in the tent and the women and children in the villa with Mrs. Shahib. First, an earlier AP report claimed finding debris marked 'ATU-35'. "Footage that APTN shot a day after the attack shows bits of musical instruments, pots and pans, and brightly colored beddings scattered around a bombed out tent. It also shows fragments of what appear to be ordnance, one marked 'ATU-35,' similar to markings on U.S. bombs." Reader RIG points out that this appears to be related to the tail unit of a Mk 82 500 pound bomb. Mrs. Shahib would not have survived to rush out of the house during the infantry attack described in Wedding Party 2 had it been struck by a Mk 82 bomb. Her narrative describes the impact of 'shells'. But since the musical instruments of the male band were near the ATU-35 debris, and if it is true that the women and children sleep in one place and men in another, then the bomb hit the tent with the men. The women and children may have been killed in or as they emerged from the villa which was the subject of an infantry assault.

But where are the dead men? The Associated Press wedding video shows mostly men, yet the Guardian report claims that 11 of the dead were women and 14 were children.

The singing and dancing seems to go on forever at the all-male tent set up in the garden of the host, Rikad Nayef, for the wedding of his son, Azhad, and the bride Rutbah Sabah. The men later move to the porch when darkness falls, apparently taking advantage of the cool night weather. Children, mainly boys, sit on their fathers' laps; men smoke an Arab water pipe, finger worry beads and chat with one another. It looks like a typical, gender-segregated tribal desert wedding.

As expected, women are out of sight - but according to survivors, they danced to the music of Hussein al-Ali, a popular Baghdad wedding singer hired for the festivities. Al-Ali was buried in Baghdad on Thursday.

Prominently displayed on the videotape was a stocky man with close-cropped hair playing an electric organ. Another tape, filmed a day later in Ramadi and obtained by APTN, showed the musician lying dead in a burial shroud — his face clearly visible and wearing the same tan shirt as he wore when he performed.

As the musicians played, young men milled about, most dressed in traditional white robes. Young men swayed in tribal dances to the monotonous tones of traditional Arabic music. Two children — a boy and a girl — held hands, dancing and smiling. Women are rarely filmed at such occasions, and they appear only in distant glimpses.

The AP video shows a dead band member almost without a facial mark, peaceful and almost resting. (The very popular Baghdad singer?) Was he the only one killed? If the bomb hit the musician's tent, as indicated by the debris of musical instruments, where are the other dead men? Was there a third structure attacked, the figurative 100 Syrian fighters 'down the road'? Or were there just the two structures?  It would be interesting to compare the AP video with the photographs supplied by General Kimmitt. I don't have the facilities but if anyone could do a frame by frame of the videos and the CENTCOM photos it might be possible to tell if they were the same place.

Monday, May 24, 2004

The Pilgrim's Progress

The story of the 143 MP battalion starts with a prologue -- Operation Iraqi Freedom -- and their war begins around the time that President Bush declared major combat operations over, once the MPs began encountering the chaos, betrayal and dysfunction of Iraq in all its manifestations. The ambiguities asserted themselves from the start.

From 100 yards away, narrow streams of red slashed through the night, lighting up the two National Guard Humvees. ... The order to shoot ignited Hayes. As if slipping into a real-life video game, he let his turret-mounted machine gun roar - short bursts aimed wherever he saw a gun flash. ... Later that night, the squad found a man's body in the area. Residents said there had been four attackers. The surviving three had disappeared, two of them wounded by the American guns. But there was also talk of a home robbery, with shots fired before the soldiers drove by. ... Was this man sprawled out dead from a shot in the head by a well-armed homeowner? Or was he, as would later be put in the military record, an official kill by Hayes, the machine gunner? In this bewildering country, the truth could be either or neither. ... From the turret, Hayes looked down at the body of the man, maybe in his 30s. Hayes hoped he hadn't killed him. But he felt relief, too. He and the others from Hartford's 143rd Military Police Company were still alive.

It was a place of contrasts. Children offered them warm Pepsis. That was expected. But like everything else, the familiar had a twist. The smiles and laughter in the crowd could mean something else.

They all got out of the Humvee. Something had exploded under it, some kind of grenade. A crowd was gathering. The gunner yelled at the Iraqis, "Get back! Get back!" Onlookers were laughing. Rosati put word of the attack over the radio. Another Humvee was nearby and bashed through traffic to get there. Then somebody in the crowd threw a second grenade, which landed in front of Hackett and another soldier.

"Grenade!" Rosati yelled.

The soldiers leapt away. It didn't explode. Whoever threw it neglected to pull the pin that would have triggered it. Rosati decided they needed to get out of there. They piled back into the Humvee, holes punched through its undercarriage by the blast. The other Humvee arrived and provided cover. Somebody had thrown grenades at it, too, but the pins in those were also left in. The damaged Humvee left a smear of oil in the street on its way out. Later, Rosati could hardly believe the restraint of his people, who hadn't fired a shot at the crowd even though it concealed the people trying to kill them. Hackett was going to be OK. The soldier from Putnam would be the first from the unit's Iraq tour to get a Purple Heart, the medal given to wounded soldiers. He wouldn't be the last.

Once the MPs found a group of children who had been killed sawing open abandoned explosives to sell the filler for IEDs. "The children's small hands were working this new trade. They were banging the ordnance on rocks to get at the insides. An explosion tore two of them apart and burned others." The MPs began to secure the site only to find themselves surrounded by crowds and shot at. The crowd was  not grateful, only resentful. Maybe they had interrupted business.

But it was the Iraqi police who proved most incomprehensible. They were corrupt and bound by loyalties in an alternate universe the MPs only suspected existed. The MPs learned that you could trust only those you really knew.

IEDs kept coming, too. On Sept. 19, 4th Platoon was on patrol. The soldiers were following a group of Iraqi police they hadn't worked with before. The Iraqi officers were acting weird. They were lingering on one street for a long time. Then they announced they were done for the night, long before the usual quitting time. They were pulling away very slowly, with 4th Platoon following. The soldiers got impatient and pulled around them. The faces of the Iraqis seemed expectant.

Then the blast came.

Spec. Petsa, riding in the passenger seat, was lifted so violently that he thought for a moment he'd been thrown from the Humvee. Instead, he landed in the back on top of the gunner, Pfc. Hayes. Petsa asked him, "Are you OK?" But he couldn't hear the answer. Petsa had a tiny chunk of concrete in his ear. Hayes had shrapnel wounds to his arm, which would earn him a Purple Heart. A group of Iraqi police was the first to show up and help, but not the ones the soldiers had been working with. Those had disappeared.

Yet as it was their mission to train the local cops, the MPs of 143rd manned Iraqi police precincts with their counterparts even when it was especially rough. One day the station house they were in was mortared heavily. The fire was apparently coordinated by a car that had slowly cruised past the premises, just seconds before the shells began to fall.

Then the ground was shaken by more explosions - mortars. Staff Sgt. Cloutier, a 25-year-old state trooper from East Hartford, yelled at her people to take cover. When the explosions stopped, she hurried toward the screaming. MPs from the 527th had been hit. There was blood everywhere. Somebody was shouting, "Medic! Medic!" ...

"She's not breathing!" somebody yelled over the din.

Members of the 143rd tried to revive Bosveld, 19. Eventually, medics arrived and all three were taken to a combat-support hospital. Bosveld, remembered as a quiet woman who wanted more than anything to go home to Wisconsin after being hurt in a grenade attack the month before, was pronounced dead at the hospital. A piece of shrapnel had passed through her torso. One of the other soldiers lost a leg below the knee, and surgeons saved the legs of the third.

The car was later found to be driven by a man who said he was a coalition interpreter on his way to work. That was the day a lot of police stations were bombed, and the Red Cross headquarters too. The enemy knew the rules of engagement and took full advantage of them. Somewhat later a man was brought in.

One day, Sgt. Lozier watched a man brought in for assault and inciting a riot. He tried to strike the officers and soldiers in the station. When asked what he would do if they let him go, he said he would kill all the Americans he could, and the Iraqis helping them. Afraid of what he might do if they put him in a car to be taken to prison, they decided to deprive him of sleep. After a few days, more docile now, he was driven to Abu Ghraib prison, the main detention center west of Baghdad. As the soldiers of the 143rd often did, they handed the prisoner off to the MPs running the prison. Months later, they found out about the rampant abuse that went on inside the infamous prison. Back home, Lozier saw a photo of a female MP holding a naked Iraqi on a leash. Lozier thinks that man was the unruly one they arrested.

When they returned to Fort Drum, having been rotated home before the heavy April fighting, the men of 143rd found that they while they had lost men in Iraq, in some cases they brought back more than they took. The article, which is classic, ends at church in Trumbull, where Sgt. Sam Defelice and his new bride Spec. Anna Conigliaro, tie the knot. Their baby had been conceived in Baghdad, proof that life will not let death have everything its own way.

And while the prologue is known, the epilogue is not. Although the men of 143rd have not accomplished everything they set out to do, they have clearly accomplished something. Every day that passes without a major terrorist attack, every day we arise to a morning of hope is time we owe to them. For even those who never returned have counted for something and the scales of destiny have felt their weight.

And when he heard the summons, he understood it and called for his friends, and told them of it. Then said he, "I am going to my Father's; and though  with great difficulty I am got hither, yet now I do not repent me of all the trouble I have been at to arrive where I am. My sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage; and my courage and skill to him that can get it. My marks and scars I carry with me, to be a witness for me that I have fought his battles who now will be my Rewarder." So he passed over; and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.
-- John Bunyan, The Pilgrim's Progress

Saturday, May 22, 2004

The Wedding Party 2

This article from the Guardian, 'US soldiers started to shoot us, one by one' is the most serious allegation on the wedding incident so far. It has the plethora of detail characteristic of a true story.

As Mrs Shihab spoke she gestured with hands still daubed red-brown with the henna the women had used to decorate themselves for the wedding. Alongside her in the ward yesterday were three badly injured girls from the Rakat family: Khalood Mohammed, aged just a year and struggling for breath, Moaza Rakat, 12, and Iqbal Rakat, 15, whose right foot doctors had already amputated.

By the time the sun rose on Wednesday over the Rakat family house, the raid had claimed 42 lives, according to Hamdi Noor al-Alusi, manager of the al-Qaim general hospital, the nearest to the village.

Among the dead were 27 members of the extended Rakat family, their wedding guests and even the band of musicians hired to play at the ceremony, among them Hussein al-Ali from Ramadi, one of the most popular singers in western Iraq.

Dr Alusi said 11 of the dead were women and 14 were children. "I want to know why the Americans targeted this small village," he said by telephone. "These people are my patients. I know each one of them. What has caused this disaster?" ...

A large canvas awning had been set up in the garden of the Rakat villa to host the party. A band of musicians was called in, led by Hamid Abdullah, who runs the Music of Arts recording studio in Ramadi, the nearest major town.

He brought his friend Hussein al-Ali, a popular Iraqi singer who performs on Ramadi's own television channel. A handful of other musicians including the singer's brother Mohaned, played the drums and the keyboards.

It answers many of the questions raised in the earlier The Wedding Party, though not in an entirely satisfactory way. In many ways, it provides confirmation for both the US military and the civilian's stories. The wounded, which the Wedding Party predicted would exist, have emerged. Why are they are they at Ramadi, 250 km away? Because they got initial treatment at al-Qaim first and were transferred to the bigger hospital later. What was attacked? "The Rakat villa and the house next door"

The details of the action are remarkably consistent with a raid, on a long surveilled target, not a mistaken random air strike at "celebratory gunfire".

Late in the evening the guests heard the sound of jets overhead. Then in the distance they saw the headlights of what appeared to be a military convoy heading their way across the desert.

The party ended at around 10.30pm and the neighbours left for their homes. At 3am the bombing began. "The first thing they bombed was the tent for the ceremony," said Mr Nawaf. "We saw the family running out of the house. The bombs were falling, destroying the whole area."

Armored military vehicles then drove into the village, firing machine guns and supported by attack helicopters. "They started to shoot at the house and the people outside the house," he said.

Before dawn two large Chinook helicopters descended and offloaded dozens of troops. They appeared to set explosives in the Rakat house and the building next door and minutes later, just after the Chinooks left again, they exploded into rubble.

The civilians being interviewed were inmates of the Rakat villa, one of the targeted houses.

"We went out of the house and the American soldiers started to shoot us. They were shooting low on the ground and targeting us one by one," she said. She ran with her youngest child in her arms and her two young boys, Ali and Hamza, close behind. As she crossed the fields a shell exploded close to her, fracturing her legs and knocking her to the ground.

A recapitulation of the events based on the Guardian story might fairly be this. Two of twenty five structures in the village of Mukhradeeb by the Syrian border were attacked, by a combination of aerial ordnance, infantry assault and finally demolition charges. A number of civilians appear to have been in the house or the structure beside it at the time and were killed and wounded. The civilian casualties were taken to Qaim (sometimes known as Qusabayah) and later to Ramadi, for subsequent treatment.

From the internal evidence, the "bombs" were probably either 30 mm gunship rounds or 70 mm rockets. Fixed wing ordnance of the 500 pound class would have totally destroyed both the villa and the neighboring structure. There is further corroboration of this supposition in the Guardian account.

She ran with her youngest child in her arms and her two young boys, Ali and Hamza, close behind. As she crossed the fields a shell exploded close to her, fracturing her legs and knocking her to the ground. She lay there and a second round hit her on the right arm. By then her two boys lay dead. "I left them because they were dead," she said. One, she saw, had been decapitated by a shell. "I fell into the mud and an American soldier came and kicked me. I pretended to be dead so he wouldn't kill me. My youngest child was alive next to me."

Why would Americans shoot at nonuniformed civilians emerging from a target building? Part of the answer can probably be understood from the account of US Army Specialist Jarob Walsh's account of the April 9, 2004 convoy ambush on the Baghdad western highway, the same convoy in which Thomas Hammill was captured.

My company is fuel transportation. We are the Army Reserve 724th Transportation Company. But in Iraq we have civilian contractors Kellogg Brown and Root. They do all the fuel hauling. So we basically become force protection for convoys. Friday, April 9th, about 7 a.m., my platoon started getting ready for a fuel convoy from LSA Anaconda in Balad to Baghdad International Airport (BIOP). We were running security for 21 civilian fuel trucks. We had 26 in the whole serial. I was in the 21st truck with a civilian, riding shotgun (passenger). I had never ridden with a civilian on a convoy before. The American civilians are non-combatants; they do not carry weapons, so I was the only one in the vehicle with a weapon. It made me extremely uncomfortable, because that means no one has my back if we get attacked.

We left the gates of Anaconda in Iraq about 10 a.m. The convoy was going fine and it was almost a regular day in Iraq; there were cars up and down the four lane highways and there were people everywhere in all the towns; it was a normal day. About an hour and a half into the trip, the people and the cars started becoming fewer. Then, the next thing I knew, my LT (lieutenant) - who is in the lead truck - comes on the radio and says, "We are taking rounds - everyone get ready!" then not even a minute later, someone else comes on the radio and says, "The LT’s truck just blew up and I don’t know where to go or what to do!" I looked at my driver and said "Oh sh** it’s about to get bad." Next thing I know, the truck about a hundred meters in front of us blows up right in front of us.

It was unlike anything I have ever seen in my life. We were in the middle of Baghdad on a main highway being attacked; there were buildings all around us, and people in the buildings firing weapons at us. I looked off to the left at a frontage road and I saw nine cars in rows of three. There was a line of women in front of all the cars, and some of them had children with them. I thought they were just watching us get attacked, and then men started popping up behind them firing at us - they were using the women as shields!! It took me a second to realize that. They were standing on the hoods of the cars behind the women and children; it shocked the hell out of me. Then we started getting hit with small arms fire, which sounded like golf balls hitting metal. I started firing back at them but I couldn’t get passed the women; they were all I could hit, and they started falling down. The men turned around and ran back behind the cars to fire. ...

I turned and looked towards the front of the truck, down the bridge. But before I turned my head all the way toward the front, something hit me in the chest. It hit so hard it felt like Sammy Sosa hitting me with a bat. It knocked me off of my feet, back into the truck. As I laid there, I looked down and saw a round (bullet) buried in the vest on my chest smoking. It smelled awful. I pulled it out of my vest and it burnt the hell out of my hand. I pulled myself back up and got out of the truck. I looked down the bridge in front of my truck and saw two little kids on the bridge, about a hundred to a hundred-fifty meters away. They both had AK-47s; one kid was about ten years old and the other was about seven. The seven-year old was holding his weapon upside down by the magazine, and the ten-year old was firing three rounds at a time at me. His first round hit the driver's side windshield on the truck - right next to my head. I turned around to grab my gun, and when I did, he shot me two more times in the back; the rounds went through me and into the cab of the truck. It infuriated me as he kept shooting me. I grabbed my weapon, jumped out, and fired two rounds over their heads; I didn’t want to shoot them - they were just l'il kids. After I fired over their heads, they turned around and ran down the bridge.

So it is conceivable that American soldiers would shoot at anyone emerging from a targeted structure. Taken as a whole, the Guardian account paints the picture of a raid on the Syrian border on an identified target at which civilian casualties were also inflicted. That is probably what happened. People may judge the event as they will and other details may come to hand to modify this account. Many loose ends remain, principally the identities of the other dead. More than forty deaths were reported at the raid, but only 27 graves are mentioned by the Guardian and not all of them children. But we are a little closer to finding out what happened that night.

Synoptic view

More details on the 'wedding party' attack from CNN:

A senior coalition military spokesman said Saturday that dozens of people killed in a U.S. attack in the Iraqi desert early Wednesday were attending a high-level meeting of foreign fighters, not a wedding. Photos shown to reporters in Baghdad support that contention.

Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said six women were among the dead, but he said there was no evidence any children died in the raid near the Syrian border. Coalition officials have said as many as 40 people were killed. Kimmitt said video showing dead children killed was actually recorded in Ramadi, far from the attack scene.

"There may have been some kind of celebration," Kimmitt said. "Bad people have celebrations too. Bad people have parties too." Kimmitt said troops did not find anything -- such as a wedding tent, gifts, musical instruments, decorations or leftover food -- that would indicate a wedding had been held.

Most of the men there were of military age, and there were no elders present to indicate a family event, he said. What was found, he said, indicated the building was used as a way station for foreign fighters crossing into Iraq from Syria to battle the coalition.

"The building seemed to be somewhat of a dormitory," Kimmitt said. "You had over 300 sets of bedding gear in it. You had a tremendous number of pre-packaged clothing -- apparently about a hundred sets of pre-packaged clothing. "[It is] expected that when foreign fighters come in from other countries, they come to this location, they change their clothes into typical Iraqi clothing sets."

At Saturday's briefing for reporters in Baghdad, Kimmitt showed photos of what he said were binoculars designed for adjusting artillery fire, battery packs suitable for makeshift bombs, several terrorist training manuals, medical gear, fake ID cards and ID card-making machines, passports and telephone numbers to other countries, including Afghanistan and Sudan. None of the men killed in the raid carried ID cards or wallets, he said. "We feel that that was an indicator that this was a high risk meeting of high-level anti-coalition forces," Kimmitt said. "There was a tremendous number of incriminating pocket litter, a lot of telephone numbers to foreign countries, Afghanistan, Sudan and a number of others."

Now we have the beginning of a convergence in this story, and some contradictory details. First, there is agreement that a particular set of buildings was raided while a group of people were present and that "six women were among the dead". It has been established by common account that there was no mistaken bombing raid on celebratory gunfire from 40,000 feet. It was an attack on a set of buildings, including an infantry assault.

But there is a divergence with regard to the purposes of the targeted building. The Guardian account portrays it as a normal innocent residence. Kimmitt categorically identifies it as something else. "The building seemed to be somewhat of a dormitory," Kimmitt said. "You had over 300 sets of bedding gear in it. You had a tremendous number of pre-packaged clothing -- apparently about a hundred sets of pre-packaged clothing. "[It is] expected that when foreign fighters come in from other countries, they come to this location, they change their clothes into typical Iraqi clothing sets."

At this point, either of two things can happen. The press can begin to divide on the credibility of the witnesses. The Guardian may prefer to believe Mrs. Shihab and others prefer to believe General Kimmitt, or it can seek further facts. The problem is that certain sets of facts might turn out to be both true. One possible way to solve the problem of the essential character of the gathering, though not of the house is to examine the dead. Recall that there are 27 graves in Ramadi, some said to contain more than one set of remains said to belong to the victims. At least 25 of them were in identifiable condition.  We know from the Guardian article that "Dr Alusi (of Al Qaim hospital) said 11 of the dead were women and 14 were children. 'I want to know why the Americans targeted this small village,' he said by telephone. "These people are my patients. I know each one of them. What has caused this disaster?" So we would expect nearly all the graves in Ramadi to belong to women and children if Mrs. Shihab's story were true. On the other hand, we would expect to find a lot of buried military age males if it were not.

Trivial Pursuit

Two events -- the attack on a 'wedding party' near the Syrian border and the events swirling around the raid on Ahmed Chalabi's residence -- will provide an interesting backdrop to President Bush's scheduled speech on Monday at the Army War College. The speech is expected to deal with the shape of the transitional government in Iraq, slated to take power on June 30. This report from the Boston Globe hints at the kind of high level horse trading already taking place.

WASHINGTON -- In a sign that a plan for the new Iraqi interim government is beginning to take shape, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi told the Italian parliament yesterday that a candidate has been offered a top position in the new Iraqi interim government, but has yet to accept it. ...

With the deadline for a transition to a new Iraqi interim government six weeks away, US officials and Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations envoy responsible for brokering the new government, have been under pressure to come up with a list of interim leaders who are acceptable to a majority of Iraqis.

''We have a lot of work to do now in the next 42 days, roughly," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told a meeting yesterday of representatives from countries that have contributed to the US-led effort in Iraq. ''We have been in constant consultations with Lakhdar Brahimi all through his current stay in Iraq. We think he is getting closer to the designation of individuals who will be in the interim Iraqi government."

Powell also said that the ''slate of officers" Brahimi will designate will be brought to the UN Security Council and to Secretary-General Kofi Annan so that they could ''examine the quality of these individuals."

The 'wedding party' attack has been described by the US as a strike against foreign militants on the Syrian border. This is a code word for the long-running fight between US forces and the Syrians centered around Qusabayah. The policy background to the armed confrontation was given in an Executive Order imposing sanctions on Syria. The text reads in part:

"I, GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States of America, hereby determine that the actions of the Government of Syria in supporting terrorism, continuing its occupation of Lebanon, pursuing weapons of mass destruction and missile programs, and undermining United States and international efforts with respect to the stabilization and reconstruction of Iraq constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States and hereby declare a national emergency to deal with that threat."

The other event casting a shadow over Monday's address is the raid on Ahmed Chalabi's house. He has now been openly accused of being an Iranian spy, a matter explosive enough, given that America has also been fighting an undeclared war against Iranian agents operating in the Shi'ite south. But Chalabi's arrest has also been linked to the Oil for Food scandal, which is centered around Kofi Annan, the very man Lakhdar Brahimi represents, and who is "examining the quality of individuals" being put forward to lead the Iraqi interim government.

Ahmad Chalabi is in possession of "miles" of documents with the potential to expose politicians, corporations and the United Nations as having connived in a system of kickbacks and false pricing worth billions of pounds. That may have been enough to provoke yesterday's American raid. So explosive are the contents of the files that their publication would cause serious problems for US allies and friendly states around the globe.

Late last year and several months before Paul Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority became involved, Mr Chalabi had amassed enough information concerning corruption in the oil-for-food scandal to realise that he was sitting on explosive material. It was information that would lead to the publication in a Baghdad newspaper in January of a list of 270 businessmen, politicians and corporations, of whom many were alleged to have received money in the form of kickbacks from Saddam's regime. The list published in the newspaper al-Mada included British, Russian and French politicians, among them Benon Savan, who ran the UN's oil-for-food programme.

Some of the contents of the speech President Bush will deliver on Monday are probably already known to insiders. The Las Vegas Sun reported that the President briefed key legislators on Capitol Hill Thursday on the roadmap forward in Iraq. The State Department has been laying the same groundwork with allies overseas.

To exchange ideas about the way forward in Iraq, some three dozen diplomats from coalition nations met at the State Department, where Secretary of State Colin Powell told them, "We have a lot of work to do in the next 42 days." He referred to the June 30 deadline for U.S.-led occupation authorities to hand political power to an as-yet unchosen Iraqi government.

The three metaphorical elephants that will be sitting in the room when President Bush begins his speech on Monday are the unacknowledged belligerence of Syria, Iran and the role the syndicate of corruption centered around the Oil for Food Program plays in shaping postwar Iraq. None of these three forces, which have been vying for influence in post-Saddam Iraq, have been given prominent coverage by the media, which has focused on Abu Ghraib. Yet neither the heavy April fighting, nor the continuing maneuvers against Moqtada al-Sadr nor the brouhaha over Chalabi and most of all the process of selecting the interim government can be understood without them. The shape of the next fifty years in the Middle East will be determined by these hulking, but largely invisible issues while viewers are regaled with the sight of Ba'athists crowned with women's underpants. It will be interesting to see whether President Bush mentions Syria, Iran or the power politics being played through Lakhdar Brahimi at all in his coming speech at the War College, and if he does, how long it will take before the media switch to a replay of the gallery at the 9/11 commission heckling Rudy Giuliani.

Thursday, May 20, 2004

The Wedding Party

It's an imaginary scene from World War 2, though it could have happened. Battalion headquarters gets a report over the phone from a front line sector. 'Armor moving to our front, 300 yards out bearing 75 degrees.' The information is plotted in grease pencil on a 1:10,000 map with an an acetate overlay. The position of the platoon reporting is known on the map. A protractor marks out the bearing and ruler paces off the distance. A symbol for enemy armor is drawn on the acetate. Ten minutes later, more details come in. 'Armor is three tanks'. A number is written in beside the enemy armor symbol. Battalion asks the platoon commander if someone can get a better look at the armor. Twenty minutes later, another update is phoned in. 'Sir, I don't know what they are doing there, but the armor is ours.' The map plot is amended, and the symbol for enemy armor is changed to reflect friendly armor.

Sixty years later a reader browsing internet news stories gets breaking news that an American helicopter has killed forty persons at a wedding. But story goes on after he closes the browser.

Link Time Text
U.S. Helicopter Fires on Iraqi Wedding May 19, 2004 18:16 Zulu By Scheherezade Faramarzi

Associated Press Writer

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) - A U.S. helicopter fired on a wedding party before dawn Wednesday in western Iraq, killing more than 40 people, Iraqi officials said. The U.S. military said it could not confirm the report and was investigating.

Lt. Col Ziyad al-Jbouri, deputy police chief of Ramadi, said between 42 and 45 people were killed in the attack, which took place about 2:45 a.m. in a remote desert area near the border with Syria and Jordan. He said the dead included 15 children and 10 women.

Dr. Salah al-Ani, who works at a hospital in Ramadi, put the death toll at 45.

Associated Press Television News obtained videotape showing a truck containing bodies of people who were allegedly killed in the incident. Most of the bodies were wrapped in blankets and other cloths, but the footage showed at least eight uncovered, bloody bodies, several of them children. One of the children was headless.

US helicopter attacks Iraqi wedding May 19, 2004 20:07 Zulu A US helicopter fired on a wedding party in western Iraq, killing more than 40 people, Iraqi officials said.

The US military said it could not confirm the report and was investigating.

Lieutenant Colonel Ziyad al-Jbouri, deputy police chief of Ramadi, said between 42 and 45 people were killed in the attack, which took place about 2:45am (0845 AEST) in a remote desert area near the border with Syria and Jordan. He said the dead included 15 children and 10 women.

Salah al-Ani, a doctor working at a hospital in Ramadi, put the death toll at 45.

Associated Press Television News obtained videotape showing a truck containing bodies of people who were allegedly killed in the incident. Most of the bodies were wrapped in blankets and other cloths, but the footage showed at least eight uncovered, bloody bodies, several of them children. One of the children was headless.

Iraqis interviewed on the videotape said partygoers were firing in the air in traditional wedding celebration. American troops have sometimes mistaken celebratory gunfire for hostile fire.

U.S. Aircraft Reportedly Kills 40 Iraqis May 19, 2004 20:46 Zulu By Scheherezade Faramarzi

Associated Press Writer

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) - A U.S. aircraft fired on a house in the desert near the Syrian border Wednesday, and Iraqi officials said more than 40 people were killed, including children. The U.S. military said the target was a suspected safehouse for foreign fighters from Syria, but Iraqis said a helicopter had attacked a wedding party. ...

The attack happened about 2:45 a.m. in a desert region near the border with Syria and Jordan, according to Lt. Col. Ziyad al-Jbouri, deputy police chief of Ramadi, the provincial capital about 250 miles to the east. He said 42 to 45 people died, including 15 children and 10 women. Dr. Salah al-Ani, who works at a hospital in Ramadi, put the death toll at 45.

The area, a desolate region populated only by shepherds, is popular with smugglers, including weapons smugglers, and the U.S. military suspects militants use it as a route to slip in from Syria to fight the Americans. It is under constant surveillance by American forces.

In a statement, the U.S. Central Command said coalition forces conducted a military operation at 3 a.m. against a ``suspected foreign fighter safe house'' in the open desert, about 50 miles southwest of Husaybah and 15 miles from the Syrian border.

The coalition troops came under hostile fire and ``close air support was provided,'' the statement said. The troops recovered weapons, Iraqi and Syrian currency, some passports and some satellite communications gear, it said.

US disputes 40 killed Iraqis were wedding party May 20, 2004 01:00 Zulu BAGHDAD - The US army said on Thursday it killed around 40 people in an attack on suspected foreign fighters in Iraq near the Syrian border, but disputed reports that the victims were members of a wedding party. ...

"At 0300 (11pm NZT Wednesday) we conducted an operation about 85km southwest of al-Qaim...against suspected foreign fighters in a safe house," Kimmitt said. "We took ground fire and we returned fire."

Kimmitt said there were no indications that the victims of the attack were part of a wedding party. He said a large amount of money, Syrian passports and satellite communications equipment had been found at the site after the attack.

But Dubai-based Al Arabiya television, quoting eyewitnesses, said the raid on the village of Makr al-Deeb before dawn had targeted people celebrating a wedding and had killed at least 41 civilians.

"We received about 40 martyrs today, mainly women and children below the age of 12," Hamdy al-Lousy, the director of Qaim hospital, told Al Arabiya. "We also have 11 people wounded, most of them in critical condition."

Arabiya showed pictures of several shrouded bodies lined up on a dirt road. Men were shown digging graves and lowering bodies, one of a child, into the pits while relatives wept.

"The US planes dropped more than 100 bombs on us," an unidentified man who said he was from the village said on Al Arabiya. "They hit two homes where the wedding was being held and then they levelled the whole village. No bullets were fired by us, nothing was happening," he added.

U.S. airstrike along Syria border in Iraq reportedly kills more than 40; Iraqis say wedding party attacked May 20, 2004 09:36 Zulu By Scheherezade Faramarzi, Associated Press

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) A U.S. air strike near the Syrian border killed more than 40 people, Iraqi officials said, and while the U.S. military said the target was a suspected safehouse for foreign fighters from Syria, Iraqis said a helicopter had attacked a wedding party.

The attack Wednesday happened about 2:45 a.m. in a desert region near the border with Syria and Jordan, according to Lt. Col. Ziyad al-Jbouri, deputy police chief of Ramadi, the provincial capital about 250 miles to the east. He said 42 to 45 people died, including 15 children and 10 women. Dr. Salah al-Ani, who works at a hospital in Ramadi, put the death toll at 45.

The strike came before American soldiers clashed Wednesday with Shiite militiamen in two cities south of the capital, killing at least eight of them, U.S. officials said. Mortars and rockets fell on widely scattered areas of the Iraqi capital.

One of the challenges facing intellectuals at a time when the political and cultural dimensions of war have grown in relation to the purely military is how to make sense of information acquired through the public intelligence system: the news media. Because modern American warfare now involves only a very small percentage of the population it has become a kind of spectator sport where the plays are actually called from the stands. One would hope on good information. Yet a news industry whose techniques were adequate to cover traffic accidents, murders or cumbrous wars in which armies moved a few hundred yards a day must now must cover events whose complexion can alter in hours. The difference is that this time there is no low-tech acetate overlay, maps, or timeline in battalion notebook. Battlefield events are still reported like isolated traffic accidents, conveying no sense of spatial location, temporal development or continuity. To the extent that any symbols are plotted on the public mental map, they remain there, hours or days after the information has been updated. Long after it became clear that the attack may not have been an attack on a wedding party at all, the original accusation soldiered on. On May 20, 2004 at 09:30 Zulu, after the last entry in the table above, the International Committee of the Red Cross "condemned Thursday an 'excessive' use of force by the US military." The story went on to say that "US troops faced further embarrassment amid claims they killed dozens of people at a wedding celebration in a remote western Iraqi town, at a time when the occupation forces are already reeling from a prison abuse scandal." A reaction based on old news had taken twelve hours to work its way through the Red Cross and emerged to spawn further accusations on its own power.

Although the news media functions as the civilian intelligence system, collecting raw data, processing it and distributing it to the public,  for historical reasons it lacks many of the features which professional intelligence systems have evolved over the years: namely a system of grading information by reliability and existence of analytic cell whose function is to follow the developments and update the results. In the example above, AP writer Scheherezade Faramarzi  performed many of the tasks which our fictional battalion intelligence officer undertook. Her stories evolved from a categorical description of an American attack on a wedding party, to a middle stage in which the wedding party attack remained the primary hypothesis disputed by American military officers; and finally to one in which the roles were reversed --  a story of an attack on a militant safe house described by some Iraqis to have been an attack on a wedding party. 

But for other media outlets, there was no tracking on a mental acetate overlay, no update. The armor symbols remained marked as hostile long after they were known to be friendly, or suspected to be doubtful, if they were marked at all, almost as if the battalion intelligence officer had done a Rip Van Winkle, gone to sleep or gone home. Yet all the suspicious indicators which prompted our fictional officer to ask the forward platoon to get a better peek of the reported armor were present. If the newspapers had an institutionalized tracking cell to evaluate initial reports they would would spotted the tell-tales and asked the reporter to go forward for a better look.

Why was a wedding party in full swing at 02:45 am in the middle of the desert? A glance at the map would show the area in which the wedding took place was 250 kilometers from  "Dr. Salah al-Ani, who works at a hospital in Ramadi," and who "put the death toll at 45."  A long way to go for medical treatment or burial when Qusabayah is 50 kilometers away. Under normal circumstances, there are two wounded for every dead. By the normal ratios there should have been at least 90 injured. There was a videotape "showing a truck containing bodies of people who were allegedly killed in the incident. Most of the bodies were wrapped in blankets and other cloths, but the footage showed at least eight uncovered, bloody bodies, several of them children. One of the children was headless." A video of the dead, but where were the wounded?

Nothing to discredit the initial report on the face of it, and Faramarzi was correct in reporting the initial details, but there enough for someone to say 'get in closer for a better look'. Long before we found out about the satcom radios, the weapons and the cash at the "wedding party". In a war where battlefield reality is no longer directly experienced by the majority, the 'closer look' is all the public has to on which to base decisions which may spell national victory or defeat. But sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes? If the newspapers have neither tracking cell, nor map, nor ruler, nor calendar to follow events how can the public tell what really happened? At this writing, 24 hours after the initial story, some newspapers are still reporting the incident as an attack on a wedding party while others describe it as a strike against a militant group. Two versions and no closure. Except in the case of individual news threads, like Faramarzi's, whose content has evolved, the reportage as a whole resembles a palimpsest, a word used to describe a sheet of parchment which has been overwritten many times by different symbols until finally the newer cannot be distinguished from the older. We are collectively no nearer to definitively finding out the truth about the "wedding party" than we are to discovering anything definite about the Oil for Food scandal, WMD stockpiles in Iraq, the anthrax letters or what the deal was in Fallujah.

The ideal situation would be to track events in two dimensions, space and time, on a computer screen, and to be able to double click on it to drill down on all the supporting material, rated by reliability, to discover the underlying basis for its plotted position. Additionally, one should be able to follow its connections to other related events, people or places. Husabayah, also known as Al-Qaim, has been in the news before. It was the scene of intense fighting between the US Marines and Syrian infiltrators all of last year, as described by Ron Harris of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which was reported once, like a traffic accident, and then forgotten, deprived of any context. Few readers can make the mental connection between the Marine frontier battles and the "wedding party". But whether software or grease pencil is used, the public and the press needs a better way to make sense of the events which directly affect public policy. Only then can it decide whether this incident was simply an unfortunate accident 'typical' of a 'bumbling' US military or part of a wider largely unreported border war against foreign infiltrators.


(Incidentally, I wrote software a few months ago which allows the user to do something very similar to what is described above. It allows the user to define relationships between any arbitrary event, object, person, geographical location or event. The idea was to allow the user to build an unlimited network of connections between any entities so that indirect relationships could be "discovered". The user could then follow the connections or have the whole network displayed from the viewpoint of any chosen node. It took about four days to write and requires Microsoft Access 2000 or better to run. It was the quickest way to prototype the concept. I've sent free evaluation copies to a few bloggers over the last few months. One day I'll do it properly.)

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Light posting over the next couple of days

Posting will be light over the next couple of days due to the pressure of work.

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

The Last Magnolias by the Euphrates

The comparisons between the Iraq campaign and the Civil War occasioned by Magnolia by the Euphrates provoked a storm of email whose quality shows what is possible when people write without rancor in a considered, thoughtful way. Unfortunately, it came in quantities that threatened to lock out my Hotmail account. For that reason I must ask readers not to send any more Civil War related email. The mailbox won't hold it.

MM wrote on May 18. His parallels encompass not simply the Civil War, but the War of Independence.

There is a parallel to Hood's invasion of Tennesse in Nathanial Greene's southern campaign in the Revolutionary War. After Guildford Courthouse Greene moved south, hoping to draw Cornwallis (his British counterpart) after him. Cornwallis, in turn, moved north into Virginia hoping to draw Greene after him. But, Cornwallis moved into enemy territory, whereas Greene campaigned in largely Patriot lands. Patriot thanks to a series of uprisings engineered by people Greene had left behind for just that purpose. Where Cornwallis was effectively without support, Greene had that and to spare.

Hood's situation in Tennesee more closely resembled Cornwallis' in Virginia than Sherman's situation in Georgia resembled Greene's in the Carolinas. However, support for the Conferderate cause was not universal even in South Carolina, and in some areas resistance was active. So while Sherman did not get the support Greene did, he still got more than either Hood or Cornwallis. Most importantly, neither Greene or Sherman faced anything like the resistance Hood and Cornwallis faced in their respective campaigns. Greene succeeded because he had local support. Sherman succeeded because the locals did not support his opponent, and he had the resources needed to achieve his goals. Neither Cornwallis or Hood could gain the suport they needed, nor did they have the resources needed to carry out operations without that support. Plus, both food themselves facing strong resistance. Strong enough to trap them in situations they could not escape.

In Iraq we have the same situation, on a smaller scale, multiplied many times, but essentially the same situation. The terrorists and insurgents are trying to make us react to their movements, and failing. In addition the rebels are losing support as the Iraqi people start to see the Coalition as an ally instead of an occupier. Iraqi and Coalition forces have the inititive, and there is no sign they will be losing it anytime soon. Why? Because we have the resources, plus the local support needed to maintain the initiative in the face of enemy actions. And those resources and the accompanying support are growing on a daily basis.

On May 17, reader LS reflected on the guerilla war that never followed the war between North and South.

I agree with Michael McCanles' reply on the strategy by Grant and Sherman. Indeed, I have argued that Lee was a fool for invading the North, ever: these were political, not military invasions. Had the South had the brilliant leadership its always credited with having, the Confederacy would have ceded much of Virginia and Texas, sucked in its defensive perimeter, and tightened its supply lines rather than expand them. The reason Lee couldn't, of course, was that Jeff Davis refused to give up one inch of Confederate territory, even if it meant winning the war. Thus, Lee had no chance to effect a political solution in the North by bleeding northern armies. Nor did he have the "high ground" that inevitably would have come when the South never invaded the North, but the North constantly invaded the South. Whether that could have translated into British. or French help is dubious, but possible. More likely, it would have extended the war and, without southern invasions, led to even more carping and complaining in the North.

For those who think that political terrorism and car bombings at the entrance to the Green Zone are a new thing, reader MM had some historical observations on May 17.

The period between 1865 and 1876, generally called 'reconstruction', has many parallels with our current 'rebuilding' effort in Iraq

1. The northern army could only effect policies which were supported by a 'media informed' northern electorate. This electorate was fundamentally convinced the south should follow northern election practices. All efforts in the South were gauged in terms of media reports on elections and resulting political harmony. 2. Southern elections increasingly featured the effective use of murder and torture to win elections. The key to effective use of this tactic was keeping the violence out of the northern media. The media policies that emerged were so effective that academic literature on the period still uses the pejorative terms popularized by Southern terrorists (such as the Ku Klux Klan): CarpetBagger: Any white Republican born in the north. Scalowag: Any white Republican born in the south. . 3. Village level violence often included the public torture of victims. 4. Defeated Southern general officers rose to political prestige by mastering (or inventing) election terror techniques. In 1876, General Wade Hampton's revised command staff blended terror and newspaper propaganda to take the South Carolina governorship from a Unionist incumbent. The incumbent had been an officer of Colored Troops in 1865. 5. Southern allies of the invading federal army (colored troops) took leading rolls in occupation police duties, but found themselves increasingly isolated as the occupation continued. Individuals exhibiting leadership or the possibility of leadership were systematically murdered. 6. Unlike the 'media' guided electorate of the north, the south was guided by very pragmatic issues, primarily property rights. At other times in history, members of the defeated army would loose all their property. Victor and allies would divide up the spoil. Thus, the primary focus of defeated Southern soldiers and its officer class was protection of pre-war property rights, including chattel slavery. In general, the southern officer corp was entirely successful in this endeavor, skillfully using the general fear of federal property redistribution to unify a stable electoral majority. Any 'white' voting against the former Confederate political leadership could be branded as 'federal thief', threatening to 'spoil' the south. Yeoman farmers, a group one might expect to enjoy the breakup of large plantations, were neutralized by fears that their property would be 'redistributed' in some '40 acres and a mule' federal program.

Based on this analogy, one can draw the following conclusions

1. Voter intimidation is an inescapable part of post war elections. No occupying army can keep neighborhood gangs from murdering selected neighbors. 2. Threats to local property rights motivate neighborhood gangs. 3. Leaders of the neighborhood gangs are the only agents available for political accomodation. 4. 'Peace' is proclaimed when the 'media' guided electorate accepts a local leadership. The local leadership must master the art of feeding that media interests.

A more complete process than post Civil War American South is the 'modernization' of Highland Scot culture after 1680. Highlanders provide a good example of 'terrorist' for the 18th century. The term 'black mail' comes directly from their protection rackets. The English solution was to convert 'clan leaders' into English aristocrats. This was done by giving them property rights over 'clan' territory'. This effectively made them landlords who would act in predictably civilized manners. They started maximizing rents and production. This in turn forced idle men (former military resources) and their families off the land. Additionally, the new aristocrats found it useful to hang out in London. The political alliances were critical to maintenance of their new wealth. Finally, they started sending their kids to English schools. The tombstone for Highland ethos was constructed by Sir Walter Scott.

With the Highlander modernization program in mind, one can suggest the following principles 1. Focus on tribal leaders and their children. 2. Make tribal leaders the winners of the 'property rights' game currently in play. 3. Adjudicate tribal leader disputes in Washington, expecting their presence at hearings. 4. Mercilessly hound anachronistic ethics.

KG has additional observations on the Civil War that never was.

I've enjoyed the civil war posts.  The notion that civil war "should have" devolved into a full-on guerrilla war after March 1865 but miraculously did not has received some play lately.  In the popular (non-academic) historian Jay Winik recent book "April 1865" he made a big deal out of Lee's refusal to flee to hills and continue the fight with his remaining forces.  "Go home" Lee told his men--Joe Johnston followed Lee's lead and threw in the towel in North Carolina a few weeks later. Makes for interesting "what if" games.  Add Lincoln's assasination into the mix, and things get interesting.  Joe Johnston surrended to Sherman after Lincoln's death.   A fiestier Lee and less gracious Grant at Appomattox, then Lincoln's assassination, and you have the necessary ingredients for a drawn out civil war.  It's unlikely that it would have changed the eventual outcome, but it would have had far-reaching effects, none of them good. How's this related to Iraq?  I don't know.  Perhaps the extreme losses of extended total war left Lee ready to capitulate while our Iraqi foe has not (yet) experienced this. Oh yeah, I'm not a civil war historian so I can't tell you where Winik came up with his thesis.  It's probably an old idea.

David Scribner at Target Blank thinks comparisons between Iraq and the Civil War are inappropriate because among other things, the South was never a repressive tyranny. His argument is elegant and impassioned, but too long to reproduce here. Read the whole thing.

Finally reader MS objected early on to the characterization of the South as having the monopoly of general officer talent. He said on May 14:

I know you didn't touch on it but I think Grant is the most under rated general of that war. He understood hold them by the nose and kick them in the rear. He was the holder. Sherman was the kicker. He was the only Union General to ever pin Lee. He never let lost battles keep him from advancing. And he was in charge of the whole show while being in practical command of the Eastern Armies confronting Lee. Every thing Sherman did was coordinated and agreed to by Grant. B.H.L. Hart writes him off as a pounder, sound though limited tactically, and poor in strategy. I disagree.

I have omitted other letters, including some which argue that comparisons between the Indian Wars and Iraq are more exact -- only from lack of space -- and not for want of merit. Mark Steyn once countered Niall Ferguson's assertion that Americans were so ignorant that not a single US general could possibly know the history of the 1920 Shi'ite uprising against the British by betting ten thousand dollars that he could find a sergeant that did. Steyn named his sergeant. Anyone who has read mail from Belmont Club readers would know he could have named many more.