March 5, 2006 -- BAGHDAD
I'M trying. I've been trying all week. The other day,
I drove another 30 miles or so on the streets and alleys of
Baghdad. I'm looking for the civil war that The New York Times
declared. And I just can't find it.
Maybe actually being on the ground in Iraq prevents me from
seeing it. Perhaps the view's clearer from Manhattan. It could
be that my background as an intelligence officer didn't give me
the right skills.
And riding around with the U.S. Army, looking at things
first-hand, is certainly a technique to which The New York Times
wouldn't stoop in such an hour of crisis.
Let me tell you what I saw anyway. Rolling with the
"instant Infantry" gunners of the 1st Platoon of Bravo
Battery, 4-320 Field Artillery, I saw children and teenagers in
a Shia slum jumping up and down and cheering our troops
as they drove by. Cheering our troops.
All day - and it was a long day - we drove through Shia and
Sunni neighborhoods. Everywhere, the reception was warm. No
And no hostility toward our troops. Iraqis went out of their
way to tell us we were welcome.
Instead of a civil war, something very different happened
because of the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra. The
fanatic attempt to stir up Sunni-vs.-Shia strife, and the
subsequent spate of violent attacks, caused popular support for
the U.S. presence to spike upward.
Think Abu Musab al-Zarqawi intended that?
In place of the civil war that elements in our media
declared, I saw full streets, open shops, traffic jams, donkey
carts, Muslim holiday flags - and children everywhere, waving as
our Humvees passed. Even the clouds of dust we stirred up didn't
deter them. And the presence of children in the streets is the
best possible indicator of a low threat level.
Southeast Baghdad, at least, was happy to see our troops.
And we didn't just drive past them. First Lt. Clenn Frost,
the platoon leader, took every opportunity to dismount and
mingle with the people. Women brought their children out of
their compound gates to say hello. A local sheik spontaneously
invited us into his garden for colas and sesame biscuits.
It wasn't the Age of Aquarius. The people had serious
concerns. And security was No. 1. They wanted the Americans to
crack down harder on the foreign terrorists and to disarm the
local militias. Iraqis don't like and don't support the
militias, Shia or Sunni, which are nothing more than armed
Help's on the way, if slowly. The Iraqi Army has confounded
its Western critics, performing extremely well last week. And
the people trust their new army to an encouraging degree. The
Iraqi police aren't all the way there yet, and the population
doesn't yet have much confidence in them. But all of this takes
And even the police are making progress. We took a team of
them with us so they could train beside our troops. We visited a
Public Order Battalion - a gendarmerie outfit - that reeked of
sloth and carelessness. But the regular Iraqi Police outfit down
the road proved surprisingly enthusiastic and professional. It's
just an uneven, difficult, frustrating process.
So what did I learn from a day in the dust and muck of
Baghdad's less-desirable boroughs? As the long winter twilight
faded into haze and the fires of the busy shawarma stands blazed
in the fresh night, I felt that Iraq was headed, however
awkwardly, in the right direction.
The country may still see a civil war one day. But not just
yet, thanks. Violence continues. A roadside bomb was found in
the next sector to the west. There will be more deaths,
including some of our own troops. But Baghdad's vibrant life has
not been killed. And the people of Iraq just might surprise us
So why were we told that Iraq was irreversibly in the throes
of civil war when it wasn't remotely true? I think the answers
are straightforward. First, of course, some parties in the West
are anxious to believe the worst about Iraq. They've staked
their reputations on Iraq's failure.
But there's no way we can let irresponsible journalists off
the hook - or their parent organizations. Many journalists are,
indeed, brave and conscientious; yet some in Baghdad - working
for "prestigious" publications - aren't out on the
city streets the way they pretend to be.
They're safe in their enclaves, protected by hired guns,
complaining that it's too dangerous out on the streets. They're
only in Baghdad for the byline, and they might as well let their
Iraqi employees phone it in to the States. Whenever you see a
column filed from Baghdad by a semi-celeb journalist with a
"contribution" by a local Iraqi, it means this: The
Iraqi went out and got the story, while the journalist stayed in
his or her room.
And the Iraqi stringers have cracked the code: The Americans
don't pay for good news. So they exaggerate the bad.
And some of them have agendas of their own.
A few days ago, a wild claim that the Baghdad morgue held
1,300 bodies was treated as Gospel truth. Yet Iraqis exaggerate
madly and often have partisan interests. Did any Western
reporter go to that morgue and count the bodies - a rough count
would have done it - before telling the world the news?
I doubt it.
If reporters really care, it's easy to get out on the streets
of Baghdad. The 506th Infantry Regiment - and other great
military units - will take journalists on their patrols
virtually anywhere in the city. Our troops are great to work
with. (Of course, there's the danger of becoming infected with
patriot- ism . . .)
I'm just afraid that some of our journalists don't want to
know the truth anymore.
For me, though, memories of Baghdad will be the cannoneers of
the 1st Platoon walking the dusty, reeking alleys of Baghdad.
I'll recall 1st Lt. Frost conducting diplomacy with the locals
and leading his men through a date-palm grove in a search for
insurgent mortar sites.
I'll remember that lieutenant investigating the murder of a
Sunni mullah during last week's disturbances, cracking down on
black-marketers, checking up on sewer construction, reassuring
citizens - and generally doing the job of a lieutenant-colonel
Oh, and I'll remember those "radical Shias"
cheering our patrol as we passed by.
Ralph Peters is reporting from Forward Operating Base
Loyalty, where he's been riding with the 506th Infantry
Regiment, 101st Airborne Division.