CHESTER HAS MOVED!: Another staff-officer war story . . .

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Another staff-officer war story . . .

[This is just a short war story tied to recent events . . . but hopefully interesting. Also, the last war story enticed about $300 in contributions to Spirit of America's Friends of Iraq Blogger Challenge, so perhaps this one will be equally successful. There are only three days left. Donate here. And here's my first war story from last week.] The day after arriving in Ad-Diwaniyah in mid-April, 2003, the battalion intelligence officer, Captain J., and I, headed out from the university to make liaison with elements of an Army battalion that was currently in control of the city. We wanted to see what they could tell us about the disposition of the city and its safety. One of their companies had established a base for itself in an empty warehouse on the grounds of a large industrial and rail facility on the western edge of the city. We found it only after driving past it several times and seeing their OE-254 long range VHF antenna sticking off the rooftop. The company commander gave the two of us and our driver a warm reception and offered to show us where his battalion CP was. We hopped back in the Humvee and followed his directions. The Army battalion had set up its command post in a former training facility for an Al-Quds Division – one of Saddam's "elite" paramilitary forces that he planned to use to "retake Jerusalem" one day. The camp was on the southwestern edge of the city, bordered by a highway on one side and a railroad on the other, if memory serves. There were large ammunition caches on either side of the camp – acres and acres of munitions, though that would not be obvious to my battalion until later. The Army battalion was very hospitable and their S2, or intelligence officer, quickly gave Captain J and me an update about the disposition of the city. An A-team of Green Berets had been in the city for much longer than the infantry battalion, and had attempted to establish a local government with a local cleric in charge, but the cleric had been run out of town by unhappy townspeople. Other than that, there was little news to report abut the city. No problems were expected from the townspeople. At night we could hear gunfire throughout the city, but it was supposedly largely celebratory, according to the intelligence officer. We thanked them and headed back to the university. Over the next week, the Al-Quds training camp would become the home to the entire 1st Marine Division for a week or two as it recocked, and refitted itself for the next phase of the campaign: the post-conflict phase, when various battalions would perform security and stabilization operations. ** Shortly after the remainder of my battalion arrived at the university, I was given a new task. Our part of south-central Iraq was to fall under the command of the 1st Marine Regiment, and the regiment had set up a headquarters in Al-Hillah, about an hour's drive to the northwest on Route 8. I was told to accompany the company commander for Charlie Company and go meet with the battalion staff of 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, one of the subordinate battalions of the 1st Marine Regiment. We would see what manner of engineering assistance 1/4 in particular, or 1st Marines in general, needed from us. 1/4 had established itself in a warehouse facility on the south side of Hillah, a good bit removed from the center of the city (and its traffic) and in a self-contained complex, which allowed for good security on all sides. One of the buildings on the compound was s storage facility for food to be distributed to the populace through one of the old regime's food programs. Another building had been a small pistol manufacturing site, where knockoffs of Bulgarian Makarov .38 caliber pistols were strewn about the floor in various stages of production – though none of them finished. I picked up a sample of a yet-to-be completed lower receiver to take back and show my bosses. [See an example of a Makarov here.] Since at the last moment our battalion executive officer, or second-in-command, had decided to join us in our trip to Hillah, there was little for me to do in terms of liaising with the infantry battalion, except to be present and remember everything that happened for future discussion. This constituted a great deal of what I did during the war. Quite often I was the only lieutenant in a room full of lieutenant colonels. Just as often I was in a receiving mode to transfer information back to my bosses at the battalion. Occasionally I would be fortunate enough to be a fly on the wall in a truly important meeting – as when I sat in on the 1st Marine Division's Course of Action Brief to General Mattis for actions north of the Euphrates River – encompassing the division's plan to destroy two Republican Guard Divisions. Lasted three hours and there was never a dull moment. ** The reason I tell these stories is to show that in mid-April I traveled a fair amount through the Babil province of central Iraq. (I would get to travel even more later, but that's for another story.) What I'd like to discuss is something I noticed wherever I traveled. When we arrived in Diwaniyah, there were still a fair number of Saddam murals all over the place. Every city had five or six prominent Saddam murals or portraits. The entrance to the university had a large portrait of Saddam right next to the gate. It was tile over concrete, reinforced with rebar and removing it was no small task, so Mrines painted some slogans over it instead. After we had been in Diwaniyah for a week or so, many of the Saddam murals had been painted over by the residents of the city – and they had replaced Saddam's image with that of a religious cleric. I had no idea who this was, and why the locals, whom I assumed were Shi'ites, so revered him. The portraits were well-crafted and showed the cleric with an austere look about him, but with a sense of triumph in the background – as though his very austerity had somehow contributed to a great victory. As I traveled more throughout the MEF's portion of Iraq, I found his image everywhere – and in a growing number of places. At first it was a mural or two, but soon, Iraqi taxicabs had small postcard-sized prints of him in the windshields of their cabs, facing outward. I found his image in Samawah, in Hillah, in Diwaniyah – and perhaps evern Nasiriyah, though I'm not sure. In any case, it was clear he was quite a popular fellow. Back at the battalion headquarters, I discovered who he was through an article on the Early Bird, which is available through the classified internet that the military uses, so that troops deployed, with no other communications means can at least have some news. The man's name was Ayatollah Mohamed Bakir Al-Hakim and he was a major Shi'ite cleric. Al-Hakim came from a long geneology of Shi'ite religious leaders. Hakim's political activities during the 1970s led to his imprisonment in 1972, 1977 and 1979. He fled to post-revolutionary Iran in 1980. There he founded the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and remained in exile until his return to Iraq on 12 May. While in Iran, according to the article I read, he gained a distaste for theocracy. He came to dislike the Iranian form of government. He also organized a resistance movement to Saddam's government. Upon the liberation of Iraq by the US, Al-Hakim returned to Iraq and moved his organization, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution of Iraq, with him back to Najaf, where he had begun. There he began to re-establish the SCIRI as a political force. Again, though, Al-Hakim, was not the theocrat that may be expected. According to this article in Al-Ahram, the Egyptian newsmagazine, Al-Hakim
has tried to dampen widespread fears in Iraq regarding the role of the faqih (religious scholar) in administrative as well as religious leadership, arguing that the Iraqi people should decide on the form of government they want, and must participate in the making of political and social decisions. He has proclaimed his commitment to civil society, political diversity and free elections.
As I sat in the battalion headquarters and read about these things, I tried to imagine the deft political maneuvering that was certainly taking place amongst Iraq's Shi'ites now that they were free from Saddam. The calculations, the plans, the alliances, and the moves – an entire political society had been given a free market of receptive minds on which to work whatever programs, policies and agendas it could. It was stunning to imagine. ** After I left Iraq, our battalion left one company reinforced behind to provide engineering support to the security and stabilization battalions. They stayed for an additional 4 months. At the end of their stay, the scheduled movement back to Kuwait was delayed by civil unrest in and around Najaf, which required that they stay a bit longer. The civil unrest resulted from an assassination. Ayatollah Mohammed Bakir Al Hakim was killed on August 29th, 2003, by a car bomb that also killed 124 other Iraqi's. Speculation in the Muslim world at the time was inconclusive as to who might have killed him, ranging from Sunni's to other Shi'ites, to the Israeli's to the Americans themselves. From what one reads of Hakim, he seems to be what Americans could best hope for in Iraq: a religious scholar who opposed Saddam, yet was also opposed to a religious state, and wanted to include all Iraqis in a new government. He seemed a decent man, if this obituary is accurate. ** So now we hear that the Iraqis have founded a new alliance of political parties and it is expected to sweep the elections in January. [See The Adventures of Chester's first report on this here.] We also learn that one of their key candidates is Abdul Aziz Al-Hakim, the brother and successor of Mohamed Bakir Al-Hakim. Already, the western press is claiming that the election will lead to a Shi'ite monopoly on power that will alienate the remaining Sunni's, who will never participate in a government – and perhaps even lead to a Shi'ite theocracy in Iraq. See an opinion piece in this weekend's International Herald Tribune by Marwan Bishara: Iraq: Elections are no savior. Mr. Bishara's analysis is not ground-breaking, when one considers that the IHT is just a compendium of articles from the Washington Post and the New York Times. But he is convinced that
the United Iraqi Alliance, a coalition of mostly Shiite parties organized under the auspices of Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistani, is expected to win a large majority in the 275-seat assembly, enabling it to write up Iraq's constitution. A Shiite domination of Iraqi politics will further polarize the ethnic divide already aggravated by the war and push the door wide open toward a civil war.
Mr. Bishara is especially suspicious of Ayatollah Al-Sistani:
eferred to as a "moderate" for not advocating resistance against the American occupation, the fundamentalist cleric is also seen as a "democrat" for being adamant on holding elections when parts of the country burn. Beyond that, little is known about how he thinks or what he is planning. What is certain, however, is that the ayatollah is a spiritual leader with no political experience or interest, whose only connection to the rest of Iraq, indeed the world, is a network of politically minded functionaries and clergies with sectarian agendas and ambiguous liaisons within and outside Iraq. They feed him information and implement his general directives as they see fit. Today, they are dividing the assembly seats among their close allies in the Shiite parties. That is hardly a cause for optimism. In fact, members of Sistani's entourage are thought to be concealing their true intentions in accordance with the Shiite religious code of Taqiyah, or concealment in the face of danger, which was adopted through centuries of discrimination against them as a small minority within the Muslim world. Sistani's men are exploiting America's need for elections (when all other justifications for the war have been discredited), to prepare for Iranian-style clerical control over a predominantly secular Iraq. In recent days, Arab leaders, including Yawer, have warned against blatant Iranian interference in Iraq and a "dramatic geopolitical shift" in the region resulting from the elections.
Mr. Bishara offers no evidence of the preparations by Sistani's men for clerical control over Iraq. But he goes even further, with his own counter-proposal to the status quo:
Why then does Washington insist on a policy that strengthens the fundamentalists and inflames ethnic strife, instead of empowering secular or Arab majorities in a federal democratic Iraq?
Is Mr. Bishara in the same world that we inhabit? Somehow, the US, by giving the Iraqis the freedom to hold elections for the first time ever, is complicit in the rise to power of Shi'ite Muslims. Doesn't Mr. Bishara understand that the clearest way for the Sunni's to participate in politics is to join the government, join the elections, and end the insurgency? He says the Shi'ite takeover of politics "will probably not last long as the conflict escalates into an open ethnic war inflamed by extremists on both sides." Are we really to believe this? I am holding Mr. Bishara to his word. We will revisit his forecast as time passes to see how correct he is. There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about Iraq. All who have been there, and who aren't journalists, report that it is a country of growing dynamism, and the insurgency is isolated and has no support among the populace. Iraqi bloggers like Iraq the Model are among the most bullish on their country's future – a good sign. The next few months will be quite interesting.

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In his world Mr. Bishara will be 'right' anyhow. I doubt that his relationship with truth-telling is any closer than his relationship with freedom and democracy.

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