The Digital Journalist
Grave and Deteriorating
January 2007

by Chris Hondros

For those of us who have frequented Iraq over the past few years, the solemn evaluation a few weeks back of the "deteriorating" situation on the ground by the much-touted American bipartisan Iraq Study Group was hardly news. After three long years of effort to stabilize Iraq, it's clear from the moment one arrives in Baghdad that progress is an invisible commodity when compared to the danger and chaos that flows like the oil from this desert.

The physical arrival into Baghdad hasn't changed much since President Bush stood on the deck of an aircraft carrier and proclaimed, "mission accomplished." It's the same one-hour flight from Amman, Jordan, on a battered Royal Jordanian commuter jet in which all the signs are in Spanish. All arrivals still use the same spiral-landing approach into Baghdad to avoid being blown from the sky by a lucky shot from a shoulder-fired missile. Tramping through the airport lobby is like being dropped into a time capsule. The arrivals and departures marquee still lists Athens and Moscow and other world capitals, the words frozen in place from the day in March 2003 when the airport was closed and then, a few weeks later, seized.

Lt. Col. Steven Miska of Task Force Dagger smiles as he shares a picture of his two children with an Iraqi woman on Dec. 1, 2006, in the Hurriyah neighborhood of Baghdad, Iraq. Hurriyah has been the site of violent incidents in recent weeks, including alleged sectarian mosque burnings and the killing of an U.S. Army colonel by a roadside bomb, one of the highest-ranking American deaths in the Iraq war.

(Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images)
Still the same smiles and hugs upon being picked up by the Iraqi staffers my office has employed for almost four years now, though these smiles now seem more strained, their faces more weary. Still the longer-than-the-miles journey down the deadly airport road toward the relative safety of the protected hotel (the Hamra) where a dozen or so media outfits have been hunkered down since the beginning. And the same exhalation of relief upon arriving to this tall white enclave outside the Green Zone, relief magnified now by the increasing chaos of a war gone bad. I got my first taste of what the Study Group called "grave and deteriorating" quickly, as I dropped off some bags and then headed down to the Green Zone (another nervous drive) to get embedded with the U.S. military.

I'd returned to Iraq to embed with the U.S. Army's Task Force Dagger, which operates in central Baghdad. With me was Regis Le Sommier, the New York-based America bureau chief for Paris Match, the storied French magazine.

One of the heads of Task Force Dagger, Lt. Col. Steve Miska, had e-mailed to say he would pick us up in front of the press center in the Green Zone. But just as his convoy arrived a few blocks away, a car bomb was found parked around the corner from the press center. All vehicle traffic to the area was halted. Journalists are not allowed to simply walk around the Green Zone unescorted, so we were stuck. Finally, after several frustrating hours during which night fell, Col. Miska and six of his men, in full battle gear, showed up on foot. They had hiked for a mile or so to pick us up. We shook hands quickly and then ambled our way back to the convoy in the dark, saying little as we walked, and arriving finally in 20 minutes.

"Okay, let's get back to the FOB," Miska said as we loaded in the Humvees.

Regis frowned, then leaned over to me. "What is 'FOB'?" he asked quietly.

"Forward Operating Base," I said, glad to finally be the one providing linguistic help to my friend, who speaks several languages fluently and in our previous travels together has invariably been the translator.

A man detained by Iraqi forces for suspicion of insurgent activity stands blindfolded against a wall as he is processed, Nov. 25, 2006, on a joint U.S.-Iraqi Army military base in West Baghdad, Iraq. Dozens of detainees are kept at the jail, which was intended to hold prisoners for a few days while they're processed, but often keeps them for months due to processing backlogs in the Iraqi system.

(Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images)
After a three-mile journey that seemed much longer, we arrived at FOB Justice, a former Saddam-era barracks that housed his intelligence services. Col. Miska immediately sat us down for a pre-embed briefing to give us the lay of the land in the new deteriorating Iraq. I was able to see him clearly for the first time; he was on the tall side, lean and with sharp features and a no-nonsense air, like many career soldiers. A huge map of Baghdad was projected onto a wall, the sprawl of the massive city bisected by the Tigris River. Col. Miska used a laser pointer to mark out a swath of central Baghdad west of the river's curving course.

"This is my AO," Col. Miska said ("area of operations," I mumbled to Regis, who by now just cocked his head toward me whenever he didn't understand something). "It goes from Khadamiyah here against the river, where the FOB is, all the way out to Abu Ghraib in the west. We haven't had too many problems with VBIDs lately ("suicide car bombs," I whispered) but we've been having a problem with EFPs."

That was a new one, even to me. "Hold on, sir. 'EFPs'?"

"Explosively Formed Projectiles," Miska said grimly. "They're shaped charges, designed to concentrate the force of the explosion to penetrate any possible armor," He paused. "These are new technologies in this theater that are being provided by … other elements."

"Other elements? You mean Iran?" I asked.

He paused again then shrugged. "Yeah, that's pretty much it. Anyway, we've been having problems with EFPs lately here," (the red dot bounced along the map) "and here."

"But those are all-Shi'a neighborhoods," I said. "Wouldn't the Shi'a be happy about you guys being here since you've basically handed them power?"

"You know, it seems bizarre to me, too," he said, with some weariness in his voice.

We learned later that the areas Col. Miska was pointing out were where just a week before a full colonel, Thomas Felts, Sr., had been killed by an EFP that rammed through his Humvee and out the roof. The force of the explosion had been so precise and concentrated that while he had been killed almost instantly, his driver was uninjured. Regis and I were given his old room in the officers' barracks. It was a constant reminder of what can happen in the blink of an eye in a place strangling on despair and hatred.

Was the EFP that killed Col. Felts set off by Al-Qaeda or a local zealot hell-bent on kick-starting a religious civil war? Was it homegrown or furnished by Iran or Syria …or was it purchased with funding from rich Saudis? Nothing is clear in Baghdad anymore-- nothing except the fact that the death toll is climbing at a wildly accelerating pace. What does victory in this war look like? The answer is different in every neighborhood and therein lies the biggest challenge, both militarily and politically.

Lt. Col. Steve Miska of 1st Infantry Division (second from right), along with a translator, meets with Sheik Mohammed Bagher (second from left), chairman of the Khadamiya neighborhood council, and his aides on Nov. 22, 2006, in the sheik's office in Baghdad, Iraq. Lt. Col. Miska frequently meets with local dignitaries in the West Baghdad region he commands, trying to bridge the gap between Sunnis and Shiites and stand-up Iraqi security forces. American forces regularly patrol the Shiite neighborhood on the Tigris River, home to Baghdad's most holy Shiite mosque.

(Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images)
The Balkanization, district by district, of Baghdad became more apparent the next day, when Col. Miska and a small team drove a mile from their base into Khadamiyah for a meeting. The neighborhood is home to one of the most holy sites in Shi'a Islam, the grave of a Shi'a saint surrounded by a huge mosque visible for miles around. The mosque is protected by religious forces as well as the mostly Shi'a Iraqi Army forces, who generally don't attack U.S. troops there.

"I go anywhere I want in Khadamiyah, day or night," Miska stated matter-of-factly.

The meeting was with a local administrator, Sheik Mohammed Bagher, an Iraqi adorned in a lush traditional dishdasha. His eyes were wise and he spoke with an almost regal authority. He had a modest office on the ground floor of a government building. Periodically, during the meeting, a Shi'a woman covered in black would appeal to him to sign paperwork from outside his window. She'd pass in a folded document to him, he'd sign it and hand it back out of the window without interrupting what he was saying. Col. Miska and his translator sat on a couch sipping Iraqi tea from small glasses.

After some pleasantries, it was time for business.

"We need funds to rebuild Khadamiyah," Bagher said.

"Well, we want to provide some assistance," Miska replied.

"We've seen some projects being built in Hurriyah," the Sheik noted, a dark look passing over his face. Hurriyah is an adjacent neighborhood to Khadamiyah. Bagher continued."Those funds should be spent in Khadamiyah, not Hurriyah."

"My area of operations goes all the way out to Abu Ghraib," Miska countered. "There are dozens of neighborhoods in my AO that need funding, and Khadamiyah is already better off than the others. There's Hurriyah, yes, and Shula, and Gazaliah that also badly need projects funded."

Bagher shook his head.

"Ah, but all eyes in Iraq are on Khadamiyah," he said. "When people come to Iraq, do they go to Hurriyah or Gazaliah? No, they come to two places only, the Green Zone and Khadamiyah, to see the shrine. Would you compare the United States and Congo in Africa? No, there is no comparison."

"Well …," sighed Miska. I could tell he was choosing his words carefully.

Bagher interrupted, "The Americans need to rebuild Iraq now, just like they rebuilt Germany and Japan."

"That took decades," Miska said brusquely, finally pushed to frustration. Nonetheless, the colonel and the sheik talked over specific projects that might be funded and set up a meeting for the following week.

It was a scene I saw played out again and again day after day. Promises of sewer repairs, community centers and countless infrastructure needs from electricity to water. Each neighborhood has its own demands and its own subtle way of threatening instability should demands continue to go unmet. It's Catch 22 for the U.S. It cannot rebuild Baghdad because of the ongoing war with insurgents and the escalating violence between Sunni and Shiite factions. And it cannot end the violence because the hardship of Iraqis living without the basic necessities of life year after year breeds more violence as well as opportunities for exploitation by outside forces such as Al-Qaeda and Iran.

The needed reconstruction isn't helped by the fact that Baghdad is one sprawling urban zone, at least 10 miles across. Its hundreds of neighborhoods blend seamlessly into one another in ways that befuddle outsiders but are clear to the locals. It's like New York in the '70s; one or two streets can make a huge difference. Having the wrong brand of Islam on the wrong street has become a death sentence.

The Iraq Study Group has suggested that there is no military solution for Iraq, but rather a political one. It would be difficult to spend time on the ground here and argue with that point. But how can a political solution be found when there is a different power broker on nearly every street corner and the influence of nations such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria are growing here far more quickly than U.S. power?

Col. Miska seems to be on the right path. He understands what's gone wrong with the occupation thus far and is seeking to correct it as best he can.

"Counter-insurgency," he told me, "is mostly about winning over the people. In fact, it's all about winning over the people."

But his efforts feel like the trickle of a garden hose on a raging warehouse fire, a fire that according to the Iraqi staff I work with is burning out of control.

The Iraqis who work in my office have always been my touchstone on how things are really going in Baghdad. They're broadly representative of the Iraqi middle class in the capital. There are about 10 of them, give or take a few who are hired seasonally. Most are drivers, a few are translators or photographers, and one, Moussa, runs the operation as the office manager. They're mostly Shi'a, as are the majority in Baghdad broadly, though one or two are Sunni. They're not particularly devout by Iraqi standards, though the sight of one or the other of them on their knees praying around the office during the day is common.

An Iraqi boy in a room where women and children are sequestered peers at Sgt.Trevor Warrior of the 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment of the Second Infantry Division (the "Stryker Brigade"), Dec. 2, 2006, in the tense Shulah neighborhood of Baghdad, Iraq. Soldiers were searching house-to-house for weapons or other insurgency-related items, and women and children of the house usually are placed in a separate room from men during these searches.

(Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images)
Moussa and I have often discussed the politics of Iraq during my visits. Often he has been guardedly optimistic about progress. It's been easier to feel that way these past years if you're Shi'a because they've gained the lion's share of power. But this time his pessimism has been notable. When I asked him his opinion, he was blunt: "I think the situation is very bad." I asked him if Iraqi society has broken down, which is what a lot of Americans now seem to think.

Moussa, a proud Iraqi, normally takes offense at such notions, but not this time.

"I think in many ways it has," he says. "So many have left, almost everyone who can. My wife is a college student and every day she comes home with news that another friend of hers has left school to go to Syria or Jordan. Or look at Habeeb," he says pointing to a driver in our office, "his father, mother, sister, brother, all are in Syria."

Indeed, our daily drives from the office to the Green Zone, about 20 nervous minutes through the heart of Baghdad, have gotten notably faster as traffic has thinned along with the mass exodus. No one knows exactly how many Iraqis have fled their homeland but most estimates put it in the millions.

Habeeb, in fact, ended up taking Regis aside and begging him for what he might be able to do to help him gain political asylum in France.

"I'm Sunni. I can't live in my neighborhood anymore," he said, his eyes starting to well. "I've had people come to me and say, 'we think you drive for foreigners,' and they start rumors about me. Jihadis, bad men, they visit my house and ask me where I go everyday. I don't think I will be alive next year."

It is a thought that must surely cross the minds of nearly everyone left in this place regardless of ethnicity or religious beliefs. Iraq cannot go back in time to how it was before nor would most Iraqis want it to. The lone bright spot for some in this country is the pending execution of Saddam Hussein [the execution took place on12/30], for the Shi'a and Kurds at least. But just as that trial seems laboriously stuck dwelling on the details when the outcome has already been determined, Iraq seems just as incapable of moving forward.

Like the names of the far away cities frozen on the marquee at the Baghdad airport, Iraq's future, for now, is a dream frozen somewhere out of reach beyond the bullets and bombs of the moment.

© Chris Hondros

Chris Hondros, a staff photographer for Getty Images, just returned from his eighth trip to Iraq. The names of his co-workers in Baghdad have been changed to protect their identities.

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