Saturday, December 31, 2005

Sunset near Ad Diwaniyah

A lot has happened since my last post. The elections two weeks ago were a positive step forward. We'll have to see how the horse trading over the new parliament goes. As I've said before this is slow and messy work. The elections were not perfect, yet huge numbers showed up. Other problems with the Interior ministry prisons have cropped up. This is the danger of the militias. Many militia members were given jobs in the ministry and abused their position. The hope is that the next interior minister will be from a party with no militia ties.

I continue to be baffled by the media coverage of Iraq and the US government's inability to break through in getting the message out that the juggernaut of progress is moving in Iraq. The media is a strategic battleground and the target is primarily the American public. The insurgents still believe that they can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat with the right mix of made for TV bombings and killings. That is their strategic focus, not to hold any significant piece of territory or gain public support for their cause. They believe the fulcrum is American public opinion. If they can just keep up the metrics like number of attacks per day or number of "collaborators" killed, the Americans will pack up and go home. On a parallel track they seek to slow rebuilding and any deviation from their plan for Iraq. The average Iraqi may be unhappy with American soldiers on the street but they suffer as a direct result of insurgent violence and sabotage of the economy.

In the coming year more Iraqi security forces will come on line and take over more responsibility. The economy will continue to expand and the insurgency will become increasingly irrelevant and as a result weaker. We will have at least some troops in Iraq for many years to come.

My prayer for all Iraqis in the coming year is for peace, for prosperity and for God's blessing and mercy to be poured out on them. I think of my Iraqi friends, their children and families and pray that I might soon be able to return to them, sit in their houses and celebrate their new life, one build with their blood, their tears, herculean effort and faith in the future.

Happy New Year

Monday, October 10, 2005

I know that my Iraqi friends will be eagerly awaiting Saddam Hussein's trial due to start soon. Most of the guys I knew were local Shia whose families had suffered under Saddam. The city of Balad apparently had some troubles around the beginning of the Iran/Iraq war. Some men refused to go off to fight and Saddam's goons came around and rounded up several hundred men, who were never seen again. They sometimes asked me if I knew where Saddam was, If he was still in Iraq. I told them I was sure he was still in Iraq and it seemed to please them that there was a glimmer of hope that he would receive punishment for his crimes. I didn't tell them that our unit was in charge of his medical care. For my friends the death penalty seemed an appropriate punishment for Saddam, several said that they would do it themselves. I remember reading an Iraqi's reaction to seeing Saddam on TV in the courtroom last year. He wept uncontrollably, it was proof to him that his personal tormentor, who had loomed so large in his life had been stripped of all his power. His tears were the tears of unimaginable relief.

The trial will be watched closely by both sides. The prosecution will portray Saddam as an amoral criminal. The defense will portray Saddam as the greatly misunderstood leader, a scapegoat for an out of control superpower who aided Saddam and set him up for a fall. Expect the picture of Donald Rumsfeld shaking Saddam's hand to figure prominently.

There is a danger to giving Saddam a stage. He is not stupid and can be pursuasive, insidiously so. There were several American personnel that had daily contact with Saddam, who incredibly started believing some of his BS. I know one said "he's a misunderstood guy, he's an intellectual, he writes poetry". To most people this would seem impossible, and I found it appalling. The problem is over time, in a vacuum, a person becomes immune to what you know this guy did and its only the present that matters and when he's speaking what you want to hear the fog descends. This is the danger, not to the Iraqis - they know him too intimately, but to those who want to pounce on the immorality of the US invasion. The subtle twisting that Saddam is capable of will be on full display. I guarantee that we will hear more about how Saddam was a threat to no one, he was a bastard but really the US is the problem. The Galways of the world will decry the injustice and proclaim the proceedings a show trial. They should rightly be ignored. This is too important for the average Iraqi. If this trial is somehow botched and Saddam gets anything less than life in prison, the corrosive effect on peoples trust of the justice system will be difficult to remedy.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

I've been following developments in Iraq closely. I'm confident that progess is happening. The current offensive along the Euphrates is a good sign. That so many Iraqi troops are involved in the fight is better. It means the center of insurgent operations is getting further and further from population centers and butting up against the Syrian border.

Much was made about only one Iraqi Army battalion being able to operate independently (category 1). What has been missed is that many other battalions are involved in counter terrorism operations all over the country. They may need logistic support or perhaps aircover from the coalition troops, but they are doing the job.

One incredible statistic I heard was the dramatic decrease in the number of mortar attacks in Ninewah province (Mosul area). Last year they were getting 300 a month. I remember have a somewhat sick contest between Mosul Airfield and us at LSA Anaconda to see who would have the most indirect fire attack in a month. Some months MAF would win, sometimes we would. This last month, in the entire province there were less than 10 mortar attacks. This is significant, but is only a part of the picture.

We noticed a dramatic drop in the quality of our enemy during our year. In the early spring of 2004 we were receiving aimed fire from mostly mortars and some large rockets. One Katusha Rocket was fired from 28km out and hit the base, just missing a housing area. We also had mortars consistently hitting around important command and control areas of the base. By the fall, the insurgents had apparently lost the professionals and guys who didn't know what they were doing were firing potshots at us and for a period couldn't even get a shot over the wire. Gradually the institutional knowledge faded leaving unskilled guys who were much more likely to get themselves killed that kill anyone. There were the odd lucky shots and we had a number of fatalities and injuries but nowhere near what it would have been if they knew what they were doing.

The IEDs were a different matter and they have increased in lethality. They are really the only thing that the insurgents have left. This is in direct response to being unable to launch any effective operation other than suicide attacks against civilians.

The insurgency will continue for a while as they continue their downward spiral of lack of effectiveness (except at getting media exposure), lack of public support and their own lack of vision.

The Fourth Rail has been giving excellent coverage on the current operations and interesting analysis.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Just a short entry. I'm finding it impossible to keep things up on this blog. I'll just write when I can.
I attended a Memorial Day ceremony in our town and talked with our Congressional representative Rob Simmons. He's been a great supporter of the troops and I thanked him for that.

I keep up with the goings on in Iraq through the Army publications off the MNC-I website.

The other day I found the 81st Brigade's newletter, the Desert Raven. These were our force protection guys at Anaconda and throughout the theater, they also trained some of the Iraqi National Guard Battalions. I came across the pictures of the Iraqi soldiers who were killed by a car bomber at one of our gates in January. The gate was 250 meters from where I lived and we felt the blast that morning. The soldiers were manning the first checkpoint when they were killed. Looking at their pictures made me feel a closer connection to these men, whom I never met yet they died protecting me.

Monday, April 25, 2005

This morning at church we sent off our Pastor's daughter, who will soon be going to Iraq with the Air Force.

Some of the Doctors that I deployed with in January of last year are now back in Iraq. The Docs go for 90 days, but some look like they may do that 90 days as a kind of annual thing. The ranks of some of the specialists like psychiatrists and a few surgical specialties are thin and they can expect a quick turnaround. In our Battalion we had Physicians and Dentists from something like 27 states and territories. Lots of state surgeons and a boatload of full bird colonels and one former general who took an administrative bust so he could stay in the Army a little longer (Generals have to retire at 60). He'll retire at General pay so don't feel too sorry for him.

Yesterday our family support group threw a party at a local casino. I couldn't make it because its a little nuts in my house now. Our new daughter was born on April 13th and I'm taking a few weeks off from work to help out. We need to reach a new equilibrium with 5 kids.

I've heard from a few people in Iraq. The general consensus is that attacks at their bases have decreased, with a spike in the last week. The civilian casualties are terrible and seem to be the focus of the remaining insurgents. Its really hard to get the true picture from what I read and watch on TV. I wish I had my SIPRNET terminal back and could get a less filtered view. The wrangling in the new Iraqi government is not productive and may be putting some wind back in the sails of the insurgency, demoralized by the elections. My impression is that Iraq moves forward still, the vast majority go about their lives, University students are taking exams, farmers are harvesting the spring crops, businessmen sell their wares, engineers rebuild infrastructure. There is hope for tomorrow.

Some blogs I've been reading this week are Major K, the battalion Intel Officer in an Army Infantry Unit, 365 Days and a Wakeup from a Captain in the same unit and the Blogs of two Marine Cobra pilots stationed near Ramadi. Some of the pilot's descriptions of accompanying CASEVAC flights brought back memories of the many times I saw the Marines flying casualties to our hospital in Balad, the CH-46s would come in 50 feet over our building and land at the pad while their Cobra escorts circled our base.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

This week the Abu Ghraib Prison was attacked twice by a large group of anachronisms...I mean insurgents. The attack was the sort of thing that has happened several times using car bombs, RPGs and small arms. Since our medics ran an aid station at the BCDF (Baghdad Central Detention Facility) we kept an eye on the intel from the neighborhood. We were warned on multiple occasions of just such an attack, trying to breach the perimeter with a VBIED and then driving another one in for more damage. A ground attack would follow as insurgents streamed into the compound to free the prisoners. It was worrisome when a detailed map of the facility showed up on a website sympathetic to the insurgency. Their plan looked good on paper, in practice these attacks never achieved their goals. They did, however, show how much they cared about the prisoners inside by mortaring the place all the time. In April 2004 a barrage killed over 20 prisoners and injured 100.

Because of the stupidity perpetrated there, Abu Ghraib has assumed even greater significance as a symbolic target after the elections because of the insurgency's limited ability to conduct attacks without killing large numbers of innocent people and pissing off the Iraqi public. Their PR guy is doing a terrible job and should be fired (up).

I remember back in the summer of 2004 when things were going on in Samarra an SF officer lamented how badly we were being beaten in the PR war and how the insurgency was expertly manipulating the international press into a strategic weapon. Now the International press has been defanged by the Iraqi elections and the insurgency is desperately searching for the magic bullet event that will inspire their people and fan the flames. They are now reaching the point of being delusional to think that their actions will inspire anyone other than themselves. The magic bullet does not exist. The Juggernaut of public opinion is moving swiftly and many of them are finding themselves crushed beneath its momentum, turned in or fought outrightly by citizens with a much different and more compelling view of the future. They have reached a critical point from which they will not recover. The insurgency is like a satellite in a decaying orbit. I can say that confidently now. There were some dark moments last year for me when things looked like they were spiraling out of control. I was always optimistic but there were some moments of doubt.

March was reported to have had the lowest number of attacks since February 2004 (the lowest). Attacks are down to 40-50 a day. Let me tell you a little secret. Attack numbers have limited utility (though it is good to have less). When we measured attacks, we liked to have the numbers broken down to a bit finer detail. Total attacks in a given day could include kids throwing rocks at a convoy, a guy taking one or two potshots with an AK-47, unaimed RPG, mortar and rocket fire and ineffective IEDs. Most of these type of attacks produced few, if any casualties. The more important metric was complex attacks and ambushes that indicated a certain level of sophistication, mass casualty car and suicide bombers, and aimed indirect fire. I don't think I would be going too far out on a limb to suggest that there has been a more precipitous decline in the latter types of attacks indicating that the insurgency has lost its best and brightest. This was what we were observing when I left in January.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

The political wrangling hopefully will conclude soon with a coalition government. Despite some violence, it seems to me that the progress continues in Iraq. It also seems Iraqis are more optimistic than Americans about their future.

Several coalition partners have announced phased withdrawals bowing to political pressure at home, these include Italy, Ukraine, and Bulgaria. The Netherlands ended their time this past week and most will soon be gone.

It was interesting to watch the spins on the second anniversary of the invasion.

I particularly like the headlines "As Anti-War sentiments mounts, nations drop out of US coalition" and "The incredible crumbling coalition". Some people are still trying to make Iraq out to be an unqualified debacle, despite evidence to the contrary. There were protests around the world today because of the anniversary. The crowd in London was the biggest I heard of at 45000. They had hoped for over 200,000. In the US over 500 protests were planned. The papers commented that there was "less enthusiasm" for participating than in past anti-war rallies. Hey, that's what a reality check does!

I think the recent events in Palestine, Lebanon and the elections have given a few in the rabidly anti-war crowd some pause.

A case in point of progress is Sadr City, a huge mostly Shiite area in Baghdad. In September the 1st Cav was getting over 150 attacks a week. Moqtada's Militia was running rampant. The Cav did a few things that made a difference. First they hunted down and wore down the militia. They would make a lot of noise like an entire brigade was about to come through and the bad guys were on edge for weeks waiting for the big attack. When they did go in it was no contest. After that, there was a large weapons buy-back program. I watched the numbers every day and was amazed by the number and type of weapons, hundreds of mortar tubes, thousands of mortar rounds, 5000 plus anti-personnel mines plus everything else including a US made Dragon anti-tank weapon. I sat in Intel meetings where the buyback was poo-pooed as just a way for the insurgents to turn junk into cash as happened a few times before. In Sadr City the stuff had to be operational to get the big bucks. The commander believed that this would put some much needed cash in the hands of the families of Sadr City. A few weeks later a massive employment program hired over 15,000 people to rebuild roads, sewers and other parts of the infrastructure. The end result is now Sadr City is a completely different place. The weekly attacks are down to between 0 and 5. To put it a different way, the insurgency in Sadr City flatlined, while the citizens came back to life. It is still poor but positive signs of life are all around.

The pullouts really don't cause me any concern, they are reflections more of local politics than things getting too hot in Iraq. The chance of the security situation unraveling because of the pullout of several thousand coalition troops is slim to nil. The improved security is a testament both to coalition and Iraqi troops and security forces. I hope our troops will also be able to draw down a bit in the coming year. The absence of the Italian pizzeria in Tallil is more problematic. The Italians are in a relatively quiet part of the country that is predominately Shiite. Save a few roadside bombs once in a while, the place is stable. One of our doctors in their zone went outside the wire visiting villages and Bedouin camps with the Civil Affairs guys almost every day.

All the coalition troops have done an outstanding job in their respective areas. The leadership of many of the countries often sent troops despite the unpopularity of the enterprise. I always appreciated any coalition troops I came across as comrades in arms whether they were Polish, Ukrainian or Mongolian Infantry, Thai Medics, Japanese engineers, Australian surgeons or British Special Forces. Everyone who was there and those who continue to be have played a very significant role in rebuilding Iraq of which they should be proud.
The Iraqi military and security forces are shouldering larger roles and taking over jobs the coalition once had to perform.