Former CNN and Time journalist, Australian Michael Ware, writes a devastating critique of the Iraq war from the inside, as a man who spent years reporting the apocalyptic insurgency that ravaged the war-torn nation. From the Lowy Interpreter:
When insurgent leadership factions first offered peace terms, at least to my knowledge, it was to prevent the nascent conflict. It subsequently evolved into terms to end the insurgency and assassinate al Qaeda. It was a conversation pressed spasmodically by the guerrillas, with a view to a negotiated political settlement with the US.
I remember precisely where I was the first time the emerging insurgent leadership told me of their intentions. It was way back in the war’s first summer. In 2003. Before the insurgency’s full fury had been unleashed. I remember the carpet in the room in the farmhouse where I was sitting, cross-legged. Even now, as I write, I still see it.
We were amid the lush green along the Euphrates in a village brimming with recently discarded Iraqi military who until not too long ago had been at the heart of Saddam Hussein’s secretive police state. Fifteen or so of these men gathered in a sparse living room for lunch, and I was the guest.
My host was a man I knew had been a colonel in the former regime’s intelligence service. Like many of his kind, he believed his commission had not been terminated by the American invasion. He and his family became my good friends. His sons were former military. Sometimes we’d shoot bottles out the back of their small rural property.
As we all ate with our hands, scooping great clumps of rice from a vast communal platter piled high, so heavy and unwieldy it took two adolescents to place it in the centre of the room atop an orange plastic sheet, my host began to speak. He told me in long, detailed bursts of oration how all of them, and their comrades, had been so terribly wronged by the occupation. And how perilous the situation had become for the Americans.
It quickly became evident something tectonic had shifted within these guys I’d come to know (first for a TIME Magazine article collating anecdotes on the Battle of Baghdad, then as friends and long-standing sources). This, I recall thinking, is why I’d been invited for lunch. They had militarised. There were discernible semblances of command and control. They were energised. It would not be long before US forces would only enter this area with great caution and ready to brawl. ‘But,’ I asked through my translator, ‘can you defeat them?’
My friend didn’t miss a beat. ‘No,’ he said, with an are-you-kidding kind of look on his face. ‘They’re the greatest military on earth, of course we cannot defeat them on the battlefield.’ There was simply no way for them to go head-to-head with the occupying forces. But, he continued, they had read Mao, and Ho Chi Ming, and Giap, and Che. ‘We will win,’ he said to me, with a wry smirk. ‘And we’ll do it on that,’ and he pointed to a dead television set covered in a corner of the room. ‘On television.’
He and I had drunk whiskey together. When the old man wasn’t around some of the lads would proudly show me their best porn. We all smoked like Victorian factory chimneys. The guys paraded some of the prostitutes they would occasionally engage. We shared wild and funny times. Still, something had changed. And he said: ‘could you explain something for me?’
‘If I can, of course. You know that.’
‘Then tell me. I used US satellite imagery to kill Iranians in the eighties. Some of us did Ranger or Pathfinder training in the States. Al Qaeda? Never in this country. Right?’ he asked, rhetorically. ‘We had no great love for Saddam, and didn’t mind you taking him down. If you came for the oil, then take it; we have to sell it to someone. And, we’re happy if the occupier becomes a guest and we host US bases, akin to Germany and Japan.’
‘So, how is it we end up on the opposite sides of this thing? I don’t get it. I just don’t get it.’
And there it was. Spoken. An insurgency.
The US military, it seemed to me, was labouring under an entirely different misapprehension. The US Army, which then owned Baghdad and the rest of the country with it, simply could not understand who was shooting at them nor why they would be shooting in the first place.
Then, by mid-2004, there was revolutionary change on the civilian side of the US mission.
In June of that year, sovereign power was transferred from America’s Bremer back to the nominal Iraqi government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. The transfer took place two days ahead of schedule, to avert mass attacks. The ceremony appeared rushed and in secret. Official US Government photos released soon after showed Bremer on the tarmac of Baghdad’s airport, scampering out of the country.
For the Americans, the bumbling CPA was replaced by the US embassy and a relatively informed and quintessentially pragmatic State Department. A welcome, seismic shift. With Ambassador John Negroponte in place, halting dialogues could begin to splutter, and stutter, and stumble. Even before November 2004’s great Battle of Fallujah, one of the best-placed Ambassadors in America’s five-Ambassador embassy went to the edge of that besieged insurgent metropolis to discuss terms with the city’s high command.
The insurgency, for its part, flexed its muscle in Iraq’s twin elections in 2005. In the first, in January, the leadership told its constituents not to participate in the process, to vote by boycott. En masse the Sunni population stayed away from the ballot boxes.
But it was in the second ballot, in December 2005, that the insurgency in Iraq came of age. In that election, not only did the insurgency urge its people to vote, which they did in droves, but the high command told its fighters to do the same. One commander I’d long known told me his men would drop their weapons and vote, and fifteen minutes later would be attacking an American convoy.