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Back from Baghdad

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By Michelle Malkin  •  January 17, 2007 04:04 AM

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The digs at FOB Justice

My HotAir.com colleague Bryan Preston and I are back from Iraq. Thanks to Allah and Ian for holding down the fort at HA and thanks much to guest-bloggers Mary Katharine Ham, See-Dubya, and the Big Lizards for filling in here during my absence. Be sure to bookmark their blogs.

Our first Hot Air in Baghdad video report is here.

Bryan’s first post-trip essay, a thorough assessment of “mistakes, fumbles and ways forward to win–and what victory actually looks like,” is here. He’s also got video stills of our encounters with shady operators on both sides of the sectarian divide while on patrol with U.S. troops.

My syndicated column today provides an overview of the counterinsurgency efforts we witnessed first-hand–and I’m posting the column below, illustrated with photos I took throughout the trip.

We’ll report on our investigation of the Associated Press’s media malpractice in an upcoming New York Post exclusive.

And we’ll both be publishing much more over the next several days, including more in-depth interviews with, and profiles of, the troops at our embed unit on Forward Operating Base Justice–plus some lighter moments on our journey involving The Stinky Pants, our Chai drink-a-thon, an appearance by Che Guevara, and my Helmet Bobblehead imitation. We have tons of folks to thank (I’m hoping to get in touch with each and every one you personally) and I’ll have reflections on the embed program, new media, and the info wars at the end of our series.

Be sure also to check out the latest dispatches from fellow blogger embeds Bill Ardolino and Michael Yon (radio interview here). Independent blogger/photographer Eric Bowen is also headed to Iraq soon. Michael Fumento is planning to return shortly. And keep an eye on blogger embed guru Bill Roggio. Although we were there for a brief period, Bryan and I learned much on the ground and outside the wire. There really is no substitute for being there. I highly recommend the experience to fellow bloggers and pundits of all stripes.

In fact, one of our hosts at Forward Operating Base Justice said they would be happy to welcome Keith Olbermann as an embed. And Chris Matthews (last heard smearing U.S. troops as participants in “ethnic cleansing”), too. The rooms at The Tiger’s Lair (pictured above) are spartan, but toasty warm. How ’bout it, boys?

***

What I saw in Iraq

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Last week, I embedded with U.S. Army troops at Forward Operating Base Justice in northern Baghdad. Outside the wire, we toured the slums and met with neighborhood leaders inching toward self-sufficiency in al Salam. We sipped chai with a sheikh who condemned terrorists on all sides. We watched residents bicker over a civil affairs blanket drop in Khadamiyah. We sat with slimy Mahdi Army apologists in Hurriya. We stopped by a Sunni insurgent enclave, which soldiers I patrolled with dubbed a “sniperville,” in al Adil.

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A convoy prepares for a blanket-drop and intel-gathering mission.

There’s nothing glamorous or romantic about these missions. No one will make a movie about our men and women in uniform engaged in the tedious, painstaking business of moving Iraq toward stability and governability. But if the war is to be won—if security is to be established and the foundations of a civil society bolstered—this is ground zero. The troops I met ask only three things of their fellow Americans back home: time, patience, and understanding of the enormous complexities on the ground.

In Washington, counterinsurgency theory (COIN) is a neat, elite intellectual abstraction. Since coalition forces simply can’t catch and kill every insurgent lurking in the populace, the theory goes, it’s up to the military to persuade the Iraqi people to turn on the insurgents, join the political process, and help themselves. (See also the Patriquin Powerpoint and The Theory of Counterinsurgency in Six Easy Paragraphs.) At FOB Justice–former headquarters of Saddam Hussein’s ruthless military intelligence unit, the site of the dictator’s execution by hanging, and home to the Dagger Brigade 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division–COIN is a vivid, hands-on reality fleshed out.

Here, a task force of brainy commanders, brawny patrol officers, courageous Arab-American interpreters, wizened trainers and intel gatherers, baby-faced convoy drivers, and grim-humored gunners attempts to put President Bush’s “winning hearts and minds” idealism into daily practice.

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The emblem of the Dagger Brigade

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Lt. Col. Steve Miska of Task Force Justice walks the streets of Khadamiya

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Lt Col. Miska wears a name tag in Arabic. An ice-breaker with residents, it reads “Miska of Khadamiya.”

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Meeting with Iraqi Army soldiers and local firefighters–and watching for signs of JAM (Jaish al Mahdi — the Mahdi Army)

Modern war in the Middle East is no longer as cut-and-dry as shooting all the bad guys and going home. We are fighting a “war of the fleas“–not just Sunni terrorists and Shiite death squads, but multiple home-grown and foreign operators, street gangs, organized crime, and freelance jihadis conducting ambushes, extrajudicial killings, sectarian attacks, vehicle bombings, and sabotage against American, coalition, and Iraqi forces. Cellphones, satellites, and the Internet have allowed the fleas to magnify their importance, disseminate insurgent propaganda instantly, and weaken political will.

I came to Iraq a darkening pessimist about the war, due in large part to my doubts about the compatability of Islam and Western-style democracy, but also as a result of the steady, sensational diet of “grim milestone” and “daily IED count” media coverage that aids the insurgency.

I left Iraq with unexpected hope and resolve.

The everyday bravery and consummate professionalism of the troops I embedded with has strengthened my faith in the U.S. military. These soldiers are well aware of the history, culture, and sectarian strife that has wracked the Muslim world for more than a millennium. “They love death,” one gunner muttered as we heard explosions in the distance while parked in al Adil. Nevertheless, these troops are willing to put their lives on the line to bring security to Iraq, one neighborhood at a time.

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Sheikh Mohammed Bagher (r) of Khadamiya speaks to troops about security and the economy

They have teamed with Sunni and Shia, Iraqi civilian and soldier, alike to establish local government structures and security framework districts. “We are not here to build the Iraqi Security Forces,” Lieutenant Colonel Steven Miska, deputy commander for the Dagger Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, said. “We’re here to grow them. You can’t just plant and walk away.” Capt. Aaron Kaufman of Task Force Justice added: “It’s not a six-month or year-long process, especially when you’re talking about training the Iraqi forces.”

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Lt. Col. Miska jokes with Iraqi Army Col. Abbas of the Alpha Battalion

The troops I met scoff at peace activists’ efforts to “bring them home now.” But they are just as critical of the Bush administration and Pentagon’s missteps—from holding Iraqi elections too early, to senselessly breaking up their brigade combat team, to drawing down forces and withdrawing last year in Baghdad and Fallujah, to failing to hold cities after clearing them of insurgents. They speak candidly and critically of Shiite militia infiltration of some Iraqi police and Iraqi Army units and corruption in government ministries, but they want you to know about the unseen good news, too.

Every day, Iraqi Army trainees risk their lives and their family’s lives to come to work at FOB Justice. Residents of Khadamiyah have approached the base with tips. Schools are re-opening; neighborhood councils are sharing intelligence. “All those things are coming together,” Capt. Stacy Bare, civil affairs officer, said emphatically.

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Iraqi women greet troops headed to a neighborhood advisory council meeting

Winning the counterinsurgency battle is not just about keeping Iraqis safe. It’s about keeping Americans safe–by sending a message that the mightiest military in the world cannot and will not be outwitted and outlasted by the fleas. On the emblem of the Dagger Brigade are two imperatives: “Continue mission!” and “Duty first!” They are committed to their mission. They deserve our commitment to them.

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Michelle’s embed tour, with her HotAir.com colleague Bryan Preston, was sponsored by the New York Post (which provided media credentialing) and paid for with personal funds and donations from blog readers. Video reports of their Iraq journey can be viewed at HotAir.com.

***

Milbloggers who have served and blogged from FOB Justice:

Boots in Baghdad
IRR Soldier

Let me know if there are more.

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