Thursday, December 27, 2007

Check out "Weaponology 2" on the Military Channel

I became an Army Ranger in June, 1970 (Ranger class 13-70) while stationed at what was then the “Ranger Department” at Fort Benning. At the time there wasn’t a Ranger Regiment and the only active Rangers were either with me at the Army’s Ranger School, assigned to one of the Army’s regular or airborne units or serving in one of the Ranger Companies in Vietnam.

Although I didn’t serve with those legendary Ranger units (I was a platoon leader with the First “Air” Cav), my Ranger training helped me adapt to the brutal war in Vietnam. With the mentoring of a couple of excellent sergeants, then-Lieutenant Grist began his real education in the craft of war.

Remembering the lessons of some of history’s famous Rangers like Major Robert Rogers of the legendary Roger’s Rangers of the mid-1700s, I learned to read the signs left by the enemy on jungle trails (“trotters” as we referred to them). My sergeants also taught me the art of locating bunker complexes, how to recognizing the smell of the enemy (which is determined by both heritage and diet), the necessity of thinking like a warrior every minute of every day and many, many other things that helped ensure our survival in combat.

I'm nothing special - just an old soldier who’s been around long enough to have served in both Vietnam and Iraq. There are untold numbers of others who have served in more wars and who endured many more horrible experiences than me. I have known or talked to many of these soldiers and I am awed by their courage and sacrifice.

Over the last year, I’ve discovered that participating in the world of blogging opens doors to many parts of the world. Emails from various countries in Europe, Asia and the Middle East have inspired me to continue to write about the War on Terror. Veterans and active members of our military and the military of other nations have written to share experiences or give support to our troops.

One of the emails came from a British production company that films the series "Weaponology" which can be viewed on the Military Channel. They were filming the second season of this program, Weaponology 2, which would focus on the various special operations forces throughout the world. One program was about the Army Rangers. I guess they couldn’t believe an old Ranger from the 1970s was still serving in the Army.

When this company asked to interview me, I had to go through my chain of command in the First Army all the way to the commanding general, Lieutenant General Russel Honore, to get permission for these guys to talk to me. The interview finally took place at the Orlando reserve center and the Army Ranger program first aired on December 18th.

So if you happen to watch this program on the Military Channel and you see a few segments with some old soldier named Grist – yeah, it is this old Vietnam/Iraq war veteran. (The above photo is me in Vietnam in 1970.)

SFC Chuck Grist

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Another Christmas at War

Christmas at war is a lonely and sobering experience. The above photo shows part of the “Soldier’s Tree” my wife Debbie created. It is covered with red, white and blue lights and dozens of patriotic ornaments of all kinds. She put this tree together the Christmas before I went to Iraq. She has kept the tradition going and displays it every year.

The following tells about my own Christmas Eve in Vietnam in 1970:

* * * *

During the Christmas season of 1970, one of my squad leaders and I hitched a ride on a Vietnamese vegetable truck back to the Bien Hoa army base so we could watch the Bob Hope Christmas Show. Afterwards we hopped on a helicopter for a quick flight to the brigade headquarters at a firebase near Xuan Loc.

We were playing cards on this particular holiday night, drinking a lot of beer and feeling somewhat melancholy when we heard mortar rounds begin to hit the firebase. We were reminded that another soldier was recently wounded by a mortar only a few feet from our tent and the hole was still in the ground.

We looked at each other and someone said “Should we take shelter?” Almost in unison we said “Nah…” and continued to play cards. The explosions from the mortars stopped shortly thereafter.

I decided to take a break, so I walked to the bunker line along the perimeter. It was dark and I looked up at the moon and the stars as I thought about my family back in Orlando and how they must be enjoying the holidays.

Suddenly, I heard the sound of weapons firing near a local village in the valley below. When I looked into the dark valley, I saw tracer rounds arching into the sky. I recognized the red tracers of the friendly troops, but then I saw the green tracers of the enemy being fired in the opposite direction.

I don’t know why it struck me as funny (sick, war-time G.I. humor, I guess), but I realized that the tracers being fired by each side were the Christmas colors of red and green. All that could be seen in the darkness of the valley were the colored tracers as they crossed each other’s path.

For no particular reason, I softly sang, “Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way…”

* * * *

Soldiers never forget where they were during their Christmas in a war zone – no matter how many decades pass.

Merry Christmas to our warriors throughout the world; may they pass the season and their tours in safety and return to their families as soon as possible.

And may God continue to bless the United States of America.

SFC Chuck Grist

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Headed to War

After watching the unit train for months, we finally bid them farewell. They boarded their aircraft and flew away, going to a war that started before some of them even graduated from high school. (The above photo is my unit leaving for Iraq in 2004.)

I stood by the gate as they filed through and I shook hands with every single one of them: The officers, the sergeants and the young men and women they lead. Looking them in the eyes as I have so often over the years, it is impossible not to think the unthinkable.

There is that terrible chance some of them won’t come home. Because we are the ones who trained and prepared them for man’s most horrible game, we will track them carefully during their deployment. They know they can still call on us by phone, email or “snail” mail. If they need us, we will still try to help them, even from here, but their leadership is strong and they will do just fine.

We must have faith that we gave them the tools, the training and the leaders to fight their war. Fortunately, many of their officers and sergeants have already been to war – some more than once. They have the experience to mentor those wide-eyed youngsters who will set foot into their first war zone and face a dedicated, ruthless enemy.

May God bless and protect these warriors and may He safeguard their families at home.

SFC Chuck Grist

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Al Sadr's Quest for Power in Iraq

My “series” of posts on Muqtada al Sadr and the Mahdi Army continues.

Al Sadr may be trying to position himself in order to eventually declare that he is the “Mahdi” or “the guided one”. According to many fundamentalists, this individual will appear when Muslims are being oppressed throughout the world. The Mahdi will make war against those who are deemed to be oppressors. All Muslims will be joined together in peace and justice and the Mahdi will rule over all Arabs. According to believers, the Mahdi will even pray at Mecca with Jesus (“Isa” in the Quran).

Although Muqtada’s father was a high-ranking ayatollah, Muqtada has not even completed his formal religious training. This article talks about his quest for Islamic credentials:

* * * *

Iraq cleric Sadr eyes higher religious credentials

Reuters: December 14, 2007

KUFA, Iraq: Powerful Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is taking advanced Islamic studies in a bid to earn credentials that would allow him to issue religious decrees, a top aide to the young firebrand said on Friday.

Some senior figures in the Shi'ite clerical establishment view Sadr, who commands the feared Mehdi Army militia and has a bloc of legislators in parliament, as an upstart given his lack of scholarly achievement.

The anti-American cleric has a strong following among poor, urban Shi'ites across Iraq. Attaining higher religious credentials would likely enhance the influence of Sadr among majority Shi'ites, engaged in a power struggle for influence in the oil-rich south as foreign troops scale down their presence.

Senior aide Salah al-Ubaidi, speaking in the southern town of Kufa near the holy Shi'ite city of Najaf, said Sadr was looking to gain the title of "Marji", a term used for a cleric who is qualified to make religious decisions for his followers.

"Sayyid Moqtada al-Sadr is studying the Hawza like any other Shi'ite student who aims to reach the level of Ijtihad," Ubaidi told Reuters, referring to a term that describes a level that allows someone to issue religious decrees or "fatwas".

He said Sadr, who is believed to be in his 30s, was studying at Najaf, adding it was unclear how long it would take the cleric the achieve the credentials, but the process normally takes years.

Sadr's followers currently have to seek guidance on religious issues from clerics who have the necessary qualifications.

If Sadr succeeds, he could earn more respect from top Shi'ite clerics who have been unsettled by his rising following, which they believe stems from his respected father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, who was killed by suspected agents of Saddam Hussein along with two of his sons in 1999.

Ubaidi denied Sadr was developing his religious stature to push for more influence in mainly Shi'ite southern Iraq, a region rich in oil reserves.

"He has no interest in public funds," Ubaidi said.

Sadr's main mass movement Shi'ite rival is the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC), headed by Abdel Aziz al-Hakim.

Hakim also built his reputation partly through his father Muhsin al-Hakim, one of the most prominent Shi'ite scholars of recent times. But Abdel Aziz al-Hakim has a closer relationship to traditional clerics at the top of the hierarchy than Sadr.

Sadr, who led two uprisings against U.S. forces in 2004, froze the activities of the Mehdi Army for six months in late August after some of his followers were blamed for sparking intra-Shi'ite violence at a major religious ceremony.

The U.S. military has welcomed the ceasefire and said it has helped bring down violence in Iraq.

Sadr has vowed to reorganise his militia and root out rebellious elements who are ignoring his commands and taking the law into their own hands.

(Reporting by Khaled Farhan in Najaf; writing by Mussab Al- Khairalla in Baghdad, Editing by Dean Yates and Ibon Villelabeitia)

* * * *

We must remember that the future of Iraq will ultimately be determined by Iraqis, not America and its Coalition partners.

Since Arabs have a history of following charismatic religious leaders, we should always look at the fundamentalist Islamic leaders who may be trying to position themselves as the “voice” of Islam. There are quite a few of these potential “wannabe Mahdis” including al Sadr, Osama bin Laden and the religious leaders in Iran.

SFC Chuck Grist

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Mahdi Army Spreads Fear Through Intimidation

A couple of days ago, I posted a piece on Muqtada al Sadr's Mahdi Army and the threat it poses to the future of Iraq. The American and Iraqi governments have already paid a heavy price in blood because they failed to deal with the Mahdi Army when it was a much smaller force. The ultimate price has yet to be determined.

Taliban-like threats and intimidation of the Iraqi people will not end any time soon. Muqtada al Sadr has big plans for himself and his militia. Those plans have nothing to do with democracy or the basic rights of man.

* * * *

Washington Post
December 13, 2007
Pg. 1

Iraq's Youthful Militiamen Build Power Through Fear;
Schoolgirls Told to Wear Scarves, Under Threat of Death

By Sudarsan Raghavan, Washington Post Foreign Service

BAGHDAD -- On the first day of class, two male teenagers entered a girls' high school in the Tobji neighborhood, clutching AK-47 assault rifles. The young Shiite fighters handed the principal a handwritten note and ordered her to assemble the students in the courtyard, witnesses said.

"All girls must wear hijab," she read aloud, her voice trembling. "If the girls don't wear hijab, we will close the school or kill the girls."

That October day Sara Mustafa, 14, a secular Sunni Arab, also trembled. The next morning, she covered up with an Islamic head scarf for the first time. The young fighters now controlled her life. "We could not do anything," Sara recalled.

The Mahdi Army of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is using a new generation of youths, some as young as 15, to expand and tighten its grip across Baghdad, but the ruthlessness of some of these young fighters is alienating Sunnis and Shiites alike.

The fighters are filling the vacuum of leadership created by a 10-month-old U.S.-led security offensive. Hundreds of senior and mid-level militia members have been arrested, killed or forced into hiding, weakening what was once the second most powerful force in Iraq after the U.S. military. But the militia still rules through fear and intimidation, often under the radar of U.S. troops.

"JAM is alive and well in Tobji, although they have gotten younger, like in many other areas," said Lt. Col. Steven Miska, using a military acronym derived from the militia's name in Arabic. For much of this year, his soldiers operated in Tobji.

The rise of this new generation is a reflection of the Mahdi Army's deep infiltration of society and could presage a turbulent resurgence of the militia as the U.S. military reduces troop levels. The emergence also highlights the struggle Sadr faces in his quest to control the capital and lead Iraq.

In late August, the 34-year-old cleric declared a freeze in operations, in part to exert more authority over his unruly, decentralized militia. Many followers stood down, so much that U.S. commanders give Sadr some credit for a downturn in violence this year. But some militia leaders have ignored Sadr's freeze, and their young, power-hungry foot soldiers may ultimately undermine the cleric's popular appeal.

"We have to show people we are not weak," said Ali, a 19-year-old Mahdi Army fighter in Tobji.

'I Was in Control. I Ruled'

Two years ago, Ali was unemployed. He recalled that he idolized his older cousins who were veteran Mahdi Army fighters. Like them, he was born and raised in Tobji, a wisp of a neighborhood in north-central Baghdad where every neighbor knows the other. Its official name is Salaam, or peace.

Ali and his cousins once befriended Sunnis, Kurds and Christians. But after the February 2006 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, sectarian violence shattered Tobji's tribal and social bonds. Suddenly sect was all that mattered to Ali, and the militia became his new family. He was 17.

Abu Sajjad, a 44-year-old former Mahdi Army fighter, remembered seeing a rise in disaffected, jobless recruits at the time. "They were nothing before they joined the Mahdi Army," said Abu Sajjad, who asked to be called by his nickname to protect his security. "The Mahdi Army will protect them better than their tribes or their families."

Older fighters quickly indoctrinated Ali. "They are Sunnis. We are Shia. They are not going to kick us out of Tobji," Ali recalled them saying.

Ali, tall and slim with wavy black hair, spoke on condition that his full name not be used, fearing arrest by U.S. forces and retaliation by the militia. He is trying to leave the militia and has joined the Iraqi army, which he keeps secret from his comrades. In separate interviews, Sunni and Shiite residents said that Ali was a well-known Mahdi Army member involved in several attacks.

Initially, Ali was assigned to a militia checkpoint. He searched cars and demanded that drivers give their tribal names, so he could determine their sect. "I was a teenager. I was in control. I ruled," said Ali, who during a four-hour interview wore a brown sweater and, like many Shiites, a silver ring on his left pinky. "If I told any car to stop, it would stop."

At the local Sadr office, recruits were given lessons in Shiite religion and Mahdi Army ideology, which centered on Shiite supremacy. The recruits were ordered to inform on anyone suspicious or breaking Islamic codes.

"They can convince anybody," Ali said. "If they tell you that your father is a bad man, you will be more than happy to kill your father."

Ali also worked in a barbershop. When customers discussed their lives, he took mental notes and later reported what he had heard to the Sadr office.

Four months after he joined, Ali fought his first street battle. He fired a rocket-propelled grenade into the house of a member of a Sunni tribe called the Egheidat, killing him. Ali said he felt remorse, which vanished as smiling, older fighters hugged him.

"You are a hero," one of them told Ali. "The rocket saved our lives."

Two Egheidat leaders, including Mustafa Salih, Sara's father, said that Ali was known to have fired RPGs during the battle, but they were unsure if he had killed anyone.

Mahdi Army commanders punished young fighters for disobeying orders. Offenders were taken to a room inside the Sadr office, filled with steel cables, whips and slabs of iron, where they were tortured. Ali said it was called "The Happiness Room."

Murder and Protection

On the streets of Tobji one recent day, clusters of girls headed to school in their uniforms, all wearing the hijab. The portrait of a serene Haider Hamrani, a 17-year-old militia fighter shot dead by U.S. forces, stared out from a billboard.

Young men with cellphones circled the neighborhood, which was plastered with images of Sadr. They drove mopeds on side streets or gathered on corners. Some wore jeans, others baseball caps, blending into the landscape. They were the early warning system, keeping watch for strangers and U.S. patrols.

"No one will suspect they are Mahdi Army," Ali said.

Today, more than half the militia here is under age 20, said Ali and another young fighter named Mahmoud. The new generation is heavily involved in the militia's income-generating schemes. They sell the cars of kidnap victims and rent out the houses of displaced Sunnis. The militia also demands payments from generator men supplying electricity. Each month, youths collect 5,000 Iraqi dinars, or about $4, in protection money from every household.

"The more flagrant, younger crowd tends to focus on organized crime and lining their pockets with cash," said Miska, the U.S. officer.

Many young militiamen appear to have become ruthless murderers, replacing older fighters who have been captured or gone underground. Ali said he took part in four killings, all of neighbors. After Ali informed the Sadr office that his childhood friend Wissam had joined the Iraqi army, several young militia members abducted him and his mother. First they shot Wissam. When his mother kneeled over his body, screaming and in tears, they shot her in the head, Ali and Mahmoud said.

Another neighbor, a divorced woman, was killed after Ali mentioned that he had heard on the street that she was a prostitute -- a crime in the view of the militia -- although he had no proof. One of her assassins, Ali said, was a 17-year-old named Saad, who had joined at age 15.

When young fighters are told to kill someone, Ali said, "they will kill that person the next day without hesitation."

Nearby, in the living room of his narrow two-story home, Abu Ali Hassan, a 42-year-old Sunni, has hung a portrait of Imam Ali, one of Shiite Islam's most revered figures, in case militia fighters visit. Each month, he hands them the 5,000 dinars, which he calls "extortion money."

He's noticed that older fighters have all but vanished. "They are running the neighborhood through these kids," said Hassan, a Transportation Ministry employee.

Like many areas in Baghdad, Tobji has experienced a decline in violent attacks. But most Sunnis who fled have yet to return, community leaders said. Those who remain live under constant fear that they are being monitored. This year, the militia started to deploy women as spies, Ali and other residents said.

Desperate, Hassan has befriended a few young militiamen on his street. "God forbid, if anything happens to me tomorrow, they will be useful to me," he said. "Now, they are the supreme power in our neighborhood."

Shiites as Victims

Increasingly, the militia's victims are Shiites.

Tobji's Shiite head of the local council, Abu Hussein Kamil, and another official were assassinated in August. Kamil, Ali said, had not given jobs to relatives of the militiamen and was suspected of collaborating with U.S. forces. "He was hurting his own people," Ali said.

In June, several young fighters tortured and killed a Shiite generator man because he would not give additional electricity to the house of a militia member, his family and neighbors said. "They call themselves the Mahdi Army, but they act like a gang," said Majid al-Zubaidi, 28, the man's brother. "They just want to show they are in control of everything. They want people to fear them."

"Now, both Sunni and Shia are upset with the Mahdi Army," Zubaidi said.

Abu Sajjad, the veteran fighter, said many older militiamen are also angry. The youths are tarnishing the militia's image as guardians of Shiites, he said. One day, he witnessed two young fighters on a moped drive up to a car and fatally shoot the driver, a Shiite who had publicly criticized Sadr. Abu Sajjad urged the Sadr office to punish the assailants, but nothing happened, he said.

The leaders of the office protect the shebab, as the young men are called in Arabic, Abu Sajjad said. "The shebab are their eyes in the neighborhood and are following their orders."

On another day, a 17-year-old fighter went to the Sadr office and complained that his parents had ordered him to leave the militia. The office threatened the family, said Abu Sajjad, who knows the teenager and his family.

The U.S. military has exploited this generational rift and the anger of residents, Miska said. His troops paid informers for tips that often led to raids and arrests. But some community leaders complained that the American military had also targeted moderate leaders who brought some discipline to the militia.

"It's hard to believe they can't distinguish between the good people and bad people," said Ali Khadim, 44, a prominent Shiite tribal leader. U.S. troops, he said, recently raided his own house, where his elderly parents live.

Schoolchildren 'Seduced'

Down the street from the Sadr office, the tan wall of a secondary school was covered with posters of Sadr and Imam Ali. A long black banner commemorated a Shiite holiday, as women covered in head-to-ankle abayas seemed to float by.

Inside some of Tobji's schools, young militiamen have pressured teachers to disclose exam answers and give high grades to relatives of Mahdi Army fighters. They have ordered them to give Shiite religious lessons to students, including Sunnis, according to teachers and parents.

"They have turned the schools into their safe houses," said Fadhil Hassan, who teaches at a school in Tobji that he asked not be named, fearing retaliation. A young fighter wanted by U.S. forces shows up every day, Hassan said, and sometimes hits students on the head or shoulder with a stick, separating Sunnis from Shiites.

Now, students with problems are also turning to the Mahdi Army, he added, and looking up to militiamen as role models.

"They are seduced by these young fighters," Abu Sajjad said. "When children get power and pistols, this is their biggest dream come true." By infiltrating the schools, he added, the fighters have found the most effective means of controlling Tobji. "Families will be terrified through their kids."

Following the arrests of Mahdi Army commanders, Tobji's tribes are trying to reassert themselves. But ancient rules built on honor and respect hold little sway over the new generation.

Khadim, the Shiite tribal leader, has tried to persuade several young fighters to leave. Only one did, he said.

Ali is trying to quit. He's in love with a Sunni woman from the neighborhood. If the militiamen learn of this, he fears he will be killed, he said.

Worried about his future, Mustafa Salih has added his name to a list of Sunnis keen to launch a sahwa -- or "awakening" -- protection force, like those the U.S. military has funded in other areas. The tipping point came when he saw his daughter, Sara, rush home from school in October, upset that she had to wear a hijab.

"Why plant extremist ideas in children?" Salih asked bitterly.

Today, Sara's head scarf has become a metaphor for the militia's grip on her neighborhood. "It feels like someone is choking me," she said.

* * * *

Remember that Muqtada al Sadr already controls a large percentage of the seats in the new Iraqi Parliament, giving his Iranian sponsors the eyes and ears they need to plan their own vision for the future of Iraq.

In reality, al Sadr and his militia are the "resident evil" of Baghdad and just as dangerous as the foreign terrorists or the Sunni insurgency.

SFC Chuck Grist

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Mahdi Army - Iran's Surrogate in Iraq

There will come a day when the United States largely pulls out of Iraq at the request of that nation’s leaders. If our goals are met, then a multi-party Iraqi government will be able to defend itself from outside aggressors and provide a stable, democratic environment that will protect the interests of all the various political factions.

One of the largest wild cards in the future of Iraq will remain Muqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army, a Hezbollah-like militia that has opposed the American and Coalition presence since day one. When I was in Iraq in 2004, the Mahdi Army was already building its relationship with Iran and this militia became a force to be reckoned with. Many Americans died during al Sadr’s uprisings that year.

Al Sadr’s opposition seems surprising since we liberated Iraq’s Shiites from decades of oppression under Saddam Hussein. On the other hand, such opposition isn’t surprising when we realize that Iraq’s most radical Shiites are simply an extension of the Iranian fundamentalist leaders who are the sworn enemies of America.

With Shiites comprising some 60% of the Iraqi population, this majority will surely lead the way toward the future of Iraq – whatever kind of future that may be.

This article from today’s Christian Science Monitor talks about the Mahdi Army of 2007. The above photo is Muqtada al Sadr:

* * * *

Christian Science Monitor
December 11, 2007
Pg. 1

Iraq's Sadr Uses Lull To Rebuild Army

By Sam Dagher, Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

KARBALA, IRAQ -- For more than three months, the Mahdi Army has been largely silent. The potent, black-clad Iraqi Shiite force put down its guns in late August at the behest of Moqtada al-Sadr.

The move has bolstered improved security in Baghdad, even though the US says some Mahdi Army splinter groups that it calls "criminals" or "extremists" have not heeded Mr. Sadr's freeze.

Away from public view, however, Sadr's top aides say the anti-American cleric is anything but idle. Instead, he is orchestrating a revival among his army of loyalists entrenched in Baghdad and Shiite enclaves to the south - from the religious centers of Karbala and Najaf to the economic hub of Basra. What is in the making, they say, is a better-trained and leaner force free of rogue elements accused of atrocities and crimes during the height of the sectarian war last year.

Many analysts say what may reemerge is an Iraqi version of Lebanon's Hizbullah - a state within a state that embraces politics while maintaining a separate military and social structure that holds powerful sway at home and in the region.

"He is now in the process of reconstituting the [Mahdi] Army and removing all the bad people that committed mistakes and those that sullied its reputation. There will be a whole new structure and dozens of conditions for membership," says Sheikh Abdul-Hadi al-Mahamadawi, a turbaned cleric who commands Sadr's operation in Karbala.

Sheikh Mahamadawi says each fighter would have to be vouched for by fellow fighters in good standing and would have to undergo a series of physical and character tests. "He must have high morals, strong faith, and above all, be obedient."

Sadr is also said to have created a special force called the "golden one" to cleanse the ranks of the Mahdi Army, or Jaish al-Mahdi in Arabic, from unwanted members, according to militia and police sources.

One Mahdi Army fighter, who did not wish to be named, says safe houses have been rented in Najaf for senior militiamen from neighboring Diwaniyah, where a joint Iraqi-US crackdown on the militia has been under way for months.

He says militiamen are spending their time carrying out good deeds like giving blood and sweeping streets to endear themselves again to the masses. The name of the Mahdi Army has, in many areas, become associated with killings, kidnappings, and extortion.

During the freeze, he says, he continues to be in contact with members of his unit but has returned to his day job as a hotel receptionist in Najaf, where he awaits instructions from his commanders. "There is just bound to be another war as long as the occupation remains. Our main enemy is America."

The Mahdi Army's next phase

In recent weeks, Sadrists - many dressed in black and donning white cloaks to symbolize martyrdom - have marched in Baghdad and the south. The largest rally took place in Najaf on Nov. 15, when tens of thousands of militiamen were bused in from all over Iraq to commemorate the ninth anniversary of the killing of Ayatollah Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr, their spiritual leader and Sadr's father.

They paraded through Najaf's Valley of Peace cemetery, which was the scene of some of the worst fighting between the militia and the US in 2004. Celebrants flashed victory signs and shouted anti-American slogans. Those attending received a CD showing footage of purported roadside bombings planted by the militia against US forces and militiamen in training.

Mothers of Mahdi Army fighters killed since 2004 wept in a special section of the cemetery reserved for them. Like the Hizbullah cemeteries in Lebanon, hundreds of tombstones were festooned with artificial flowers and billboards praising the heroics of the so-called martyrs.

As for Sadr's intent, his spokesman in Najaf, Salah al-Obeidi, says: "We have new visions for what the Mahdi Army will do in the next phase."

Mr. Obeidi explains that most Shiite parties have embraced the political process wholeheartedly and accept the presence of US forces, while the Sadrists, who continue to oppose it, need to keep their Army as a "national resistance force."

In his latest statement last week, Sadr said: "I tell the evil Bush, leave our land, we do not need you or your armies.... I tell the occupiers ... you have your democracy and we have our Islam; get out of our land."

And using language that could have been torn right out of the fiery speeches of Hizbullah's leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, he urged the Mahdi Army to continue to abide by his freeze order for now.

The cleric warned the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki against extending the mandate of US-led multinational forces. He blasted Mr. Maliki's Dawa Party and its allies, the Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq (ISCI) and the Badr Organization, for targeting Sadrists. And he chided Iraqi security forces, many of them beholden to ISCI and Badr, for taking part in those anti-Sadrist operations.

The early history of Hizbullah, too, involved bloody internal fighting with a rival Shiite group and training by Iran before it became a skilled guerrilla group.

"Iran is definitely interested in having its own proxy political and military force in Iraq, just like Lebanon. Iran may try to wait a bit now to see who will emerge as the more dominant force," says Riad al-Kahwaji, a Dubai-based military expert on Iran. "All the indications so far are that [Iran] has invested a great deal in the Mahdi Army."

But, he adds, "it has been a bumpy start. The Mahdi Army is far from being the organized fighting machine like Hizbullah."

Shiite rivals do battle

The Mahdi Army freeze grew out of fierce battles in late August between ISCI and its affiliate, Badr, both headed by Sadr's archnemesis Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, in Karbala. In two days of fighting, more than 50 people were killed at the city's shrines during an important pilgrimage. The outside wall of the revered Imam Hussein mausoleum still bears the scars of the fighting.

Video footage of the clashes provided by Sadr's aides in Karbala shows black-clad men loyal to the cleric taunting guards, who are largely made up of Badr partisans, and then hurling shoes at them for refusing them entry into the shrine. Later, these guards are seen firing directly at throngs of pilgrims.

Mr. Maliki himself came down to Karbala at the time and gave police chief Brig. Gen. Raed Shaker, carte blanche to go after the Mahdi Army.

About 500 people were arrested at the time, including several provincial council members loyal to Sadr. General Shaker also declared publicly that the Mahdi Army was responsible for the assassination of at least 400 people in Karbala since 2004.

"These are only the bodies that we found," he said in an interview. "This is all documented. I am not doing this for any political agenda."

Umm Bassem says the Mahdi Army killed her son Bassem Hassoun, an Iraqi Army officer. She says they crippled her second son, Haidar.

"It's the fault of Sayyed [honorific] Moqtada; he encouraged them and armed them," says a tearful Umm Bassem, a nickname that means "mother of Bassem," as she clutches a portrait of her late son.

Mahamadawi, Sadr's aide in Karbala, says there may have been bad apples in the ranks of the Mahdi Army.

"We are not saying they are all angels, they are humans that can make mistakes; we have punished some and kicked out others," he says, adding that there is an intent by the government to sully the image of the Mahdi Army and finish it off. He also accuses the Karbala police of committing unspeakable crimes against the Sadrists including the killing of two children of a wanted militiaman in October and the torture of prisoners.

The assault on Sadr supporters

Anger against the police force, mixed with vows of revenge, reigns among the Daoum tribe in their village fiefdom on the outskirts of Karbala. Sixty-five of their members were among those arrested in the aftermath of the August events.

Muhammad Miri, who has been released since, lifts up his shirt to show scars on his back from what he says are from torture with wire cables. He says at least 22 prisoners were also sexually abused by police interrogators.

A police officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says his claims are true. Widely circulated video footage also shows Hamid Ganoush, a Sadrist provincial council member, blindfolded and on his knees as he is being hit on the head with a shoe by interrogators who press him on the whereabouts of Ali Shria, a Karbala Mahdi Army leader, believed to be in Iran now.

The risk now is that these ever-deepening intra-Shiite feuds may also take on a tribal aspect.

A Baghdad-based US Department of Defense intelligence analyst, who tracks the Mahdi Army and who spoke on condition of anonymity, says intra-Shiite feuds in Iraq have always managed to sort themselves out, adding that he believes Sadr will maintain his freeze despite the rhetoric, as his paramount concern is political survival.

"It's working well. It's serving Sadr's interest well because it's solidifying his position as the clear leader ... and satisfying our desires to eliminate rogue criminal elements," he says. "I am not seeing any evidence that there is [a danger] that this is going to unravel."

Echoing recent remarks by top US military officials, he says that while there has been a decrease in roadside bombs - using Iranian armor-piercing explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) - against US troops, the militia's rogue elements still operate.

He blames recent bombings in Baghdad and mortar attacks on the Green Zone on Thanksgiving Day on these rogue elements. He also says a "massive" cache of Iranian-made arms was found in Diwaniyah recently, and on Dec. 1 a dealer of Iranian weapons was arrested in the city of Nasiriyah in southern Iraq.

"The guy was a major mover of lethal aid in his area," he says.

Some of these so-called rogue groups have also been blamed for the kidnapping of five Britons in May from the Finance Ministry in Baghdad. A group calling itself the "The Islamic Shiite Resistance in Iraq" released video footage of one of the hostages on Dec. 4 accompanied with a written statement demanding British troops leave Basra within 10 days.

Britain has pulled out from inside the city in September and now has only 4,500 soldiers left at an air base outside the city. The pullout of the bulk of this force is expected soon, leaving the Mahdi Army as the strongest armed group among its rivals in Basra.

Top US officials in Iraq have made no secret of their concern over Iranian plans to turn the Mahdi Army into another Hizbullah-like organization, pointing to their capture of a Hizbullah operative in March in Basra.

"His sole purpose in life was to come to Iraq to try to make JAM [Jaish al-Mahdi] a mirror image of Hizbullah," the Defense analyst says.

A senior official in Sadr's rival party, the ISCI, which is very close to the Iranian government, says Mr. Hakim received assurances from Iran at the highest level that they would rein in the hard-line factions within the Islamic Republic who might be supporting Sadr's militia.

"The events in Karbala embarrassed the Iranians," says the official, who requested anonymity, referring to the sanctity of the shrines to Shiite Iran. "There is a nationalist current in Iran, though, that does not want to see stability in Iraq ... this keeps us worried."

The Sadrists have long distanced themselves from Iran publicly and sought to portray themselves more as Arab nationalists.

Sadr's spokesman Obeidi says while the movement admires Iranian-backed Hizbullah, the Mahdi Army is different.

He says the US military and the Mahdi Army's Shiite rivals are trying hard to force the dismantling of Sadr's militia forming tribal councils across the Shiite south, much like the Americans did in Sunni parts of the country to combat Al Qaeda.

But, the spokesman says, this strategy isn't going to work in the south, where many of the tribesmen's sons are Mahdi fighters.

* * * *

Keep watching the Mahdi Army, Muqtada al Sadr and their partnership with Iran. When it comes to such Islamic fundamentalist relationships, all we can do is watch, wait and keep our weapons at hand.

SFC Chuck Grist

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Generations of Valor

This photograph needs no explanation....

* * * *

SFC Chuck Grist

Thursday, December 6, 2007

A Date Which Will Live in Infamy

To my parent’s generation, the horrible date was December 7th; to the current generation it is September 11th. Both were sneak attacks resulting in thousands of casualties and permanent damage to the soul of our nation.

The “greatest generation” from the 1940’s struck back and defeated the Imperial Japanese military machine and their Nazi allies decisively and completely. Now the new “greatest generation” is fighting a world-wide battle against the latest form of fascism – brutal fundamentalist Islamic fascists who have their own dismal vision of how they would rule the world.

Perhaps Plato was right when he said, “Only the dead have seen the end of war”.

* * * *

On Sunday, December 7th, 1941 the Japanese launched a Surprise attack against the U.S. Forces stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. By planning his attack on a Sunday, the Japanese commander Admiral Nagumo, hoped to catch the entire fleet in port. As luck Would have it, the Aircraft Carriers and one of the Battleships were not in port. (The USS Enterprise was returning from Wake Island, where it had just delivered some aircraft.

The USS Lexington was ferrying aircraft to Midway, and the USS Saratoga and USS Colorado were undergoing repairs in the United States ).

In spite of the latest intelligence reports about the missing Aircraft carriers (his most important targets), Admiral Nagumo Decided to continue the attack with his force of six carriers and 423 aircraft.

At a range of 230 miles north of Oahu, he launched the first wave of a two-wave attack.

Beginning at 0600 hours, his First wave consisted of 183 fighters and torpedo bombers which Struck at the fleet in Pearl Harbor and the airfields in Hickam, Kaneohe and Ewa.

The second strike, launched at 0715 hours, consisted of 167 aircraft, which again struck at the same targets.

At 0753 hours the first wave consisting of 40 Nakajima B5N2 "Kate" torpedo bombers, 51 Aichi D3A1 "Val" dive bombers, 50 high Altitude bombers and 43 Zeros struck airfields and Pearl Harbor Within the next hour, the second wave arrived and continued the Attack.

When it was over, the U.S.losses were:

USA : 218 KIA, 364 WIA;
USN: 2,008 KIA, 710 WIA;
USMC: 109 KIA, 69 WIA;
Civilians: 68 KIA, 35 WIA.

TOTAL: 2,403 KIA, 1,178 WIA.

USS Arizona (BB-39) - total loss when a bomb hit her magazine.
USS Oklahoma (BB-37) - Total loss when she capsized and sunk in The harbor.
USS California (BB-44) - Sunk at her berth. Later raised and Repaired.
USS West Virginia (BB-48) - Sunk at her berth. Later raised and Repaired.
USS Nevada - (BB-36) Beached to prevent sinking. Later repaired.
USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) - Light damage.
USS Maryland (BB-46) - Light damage.
USS Tennessee (BB-43) Light damage.
USS Utah (AG-16) - (former battleship used as a target) - Sunk.

USS New Orleans (CA-32) - Light Damage..
USS San Francisco (CA-38) - Light Damage.
USS Detroit (CL-8) - Light Damage.
USS Raleigh (CL-7) - Heavily damaged but repaired.
USS Helena (CL-50) - Light Damage.
USS Honolulu (CL-48) - Light Damage..

USS Downes (DD-375) - Destroyed. Parts salvaged.
USS Cassin - (DD-372) Destroyed. Parts salvaged.
USS Shaw (DD-373) - Very heavy damage.
USS Helm (DD-388) - Light Damage.

USS Ogala (CM-4) - Sunk but later raised and repaired.

Seaplane Tender
USS Curtiss (AV-4) - Severely damaged but later repaired.

Repair Ship
USS Vestal (AR-4) - Severely damaged but later repaired.

Harbor Tug
USS Sotoyomo (YT-9) - Sunk but later raised and repaired.

188 Aircraft destroyed (92 USN and 92 U.S. Army Air Corps.)

* * * *

This generation can never adequately express its gratitude to the original "greatest generation" for their courage, their determination and their sacifice during the heroic efforts that led to the total defeat of our enemies in World War II.

SFC Chuck Grist

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

With Al Qaeda Safe Havens, What Do They Expect?

"The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue."

Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-Tung) on guerrilla warfare

The following article in today’s New York Times emphasizes once again that the Al Qaeda problem will never go away as long as the terrorists have safe havens in which to recruit, train and equip new “holy warriors”.

Our troops did a magnificent job in routing the Taliban and Al Qaeda from Afghanistan. Unfortunately, our self-imposed and “politically correct” rules of engagement have now put us on the defense, trapped within the borders of that country.

We won’t enter the tribal regions of Pakistan to squash the Al Qaeda bases, but the enemy continues to make its own rules. Their leaders are free to casually sip tea, read the Quran and plan their next terror attacks in safety.

The initiative belongs to them…

* * * *

New York Times
December 4, 2007

U.S. Senses A Rise In Activity By Al Qaeda In Afghanistan

By Thom Shanker

KABUL, Afghanistan, Dec. 3 — American military and intelligence officials are detecting early signs that Al Qaeda may be increasing its activities in Afghanistan, perhaps even seeking to return to its former base of operations, a senior Defense Department official said Monday.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates arrived in Kabul late Monday for meetings with government leaders and military commanders to discuss how to speed economic and political development at a time of increasing violence.

The senior Defense Department official, aboard Mr. Gates’s plane, said, “We are seeing early indicators that there may be some stepped-up activity by Al Qaeda.” No details were offered.

The official cautioned, “It’s pretty hard to pull trends out of a few indications,” but added that even tentative evidence of increased Qaeda activity in Afghanistan “is something we are concerned with.”

The official spoke on standard rules of anonymity to discuss intelligence on Al Qaeda and Mr. Gates’s agenda before the secretary’s third trip to Afghanistan during his first year in office.

Mr. Gates, in brief comments before landing in Kabul, said he was interested in how combat operations could be better woven into a “comprehensive development strategy” to include accelerated economic and political development.

“One of the clear concerns we all have is that in the last two or three years there has been an increase in the overall level of violence,” Mr. Gates said, adding that the rise in attacks and bombings was notable in southern Afghanistan, which had served as the Taliban’s spiritual base.

“I am not worried about a backslide as much as I am about how we continue the momentum going forward,” he added.

Officials said Mr. Gates also planned to assess whether the recent political turmoil in neighboring Pakistan had given greater freedom of movement to Taliban and Qaeda forces in tribal areas along the Afghan border.

Pentagon and military officials said the higher number of attacks and roadside bombings could be attributed to increased money for the insurgency from foreign sources and profits from domestic poppy production. The officials also attribute the increase in violence to the sanctuary provided in tribal areas of Pakistan that has allowed the Taliban and Al Qaeda to regroup.

Mr. Gates spent most of Monday in Djibouti, in eastern Africa, to inspect one of the most unusual missions in the American military. The operation, called Task Force Horn of Africa, has not captured or killed a single terrorist or foreign fighter, yet it is viewed by Pentagon officials as a model military deployment.

The task force’s mission is to apply the “soft power” Mr. Gates advocated in a Nov. 26 speech at Kansas State University, when he said American counterterrorism efforts required not only combat operations, but also a broader range of economic development and diplomacy.

American combat personnel in Djibouti train regional armed forces to strengthen their own counterterrorism abilities. Combat engineers build schools and hospitals and dig wells in an effort to promote stability and prevent terrorists from taking root.

In his first trip to Djibouti, Mr. Gates visited Camp Lemonier, a former French Foreign Legion compound that is home to the 2,000 troops in the task force and support missions. The operation is already shaping the way the Pentagon will organize its efforts in coming years.

The American military is organizing a new Africa Command, the first American combatant command dedicated solely to Africa. The lessons learned from the operation in Djibouti will shape the command’s emphasis on defense as well as on diplomacy and development, according to senior Pentagon officials.

The mission was first devised to trap terrorists expected to flee Afghanistan along traditional smugglers’ routes down the Persian Gulf, into the Arabian Sea and past the Horn of Africa.

But the overlapping ground, maritime and air patrols across the region appear to have deterred the use of that route.

American intelligence and military officers say Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups continue to move through the region, with small numbers believed to be operating in ungoverned parts of Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia and Yemen.

* * * *

The only path to victory in war is to turn the enemy’s offense into the enemy’s defense. As long as we remain on the defense in any war, we are simply reacting to the enemy’s tactics and he is the one who chooses when and where the next battles will be fought.

Such is the nature of guerrilla war…

SFC Chuck Grist

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Read "The Advisor" from Iraq (Part 2)

Apparently there is some difficulty with the link in my previous post. Try this one and, hopefully, it will lead you to a site where you have access to the advisor as well as other useful information:

Let me know if you have problems.

SFC Chuck Grist

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Read "The Advisor" from Iraq

I would encourage everyone to subscribe to "The Advisor", a PAO newsletter from Iraq. Go to this link to read the current issue:

To subscribe yourself, here is the contact information:

The Advisor Staff
MNSTC-I Public Affairs
Baghdad, Iraq
Email Address:

Good information from "the horse's mouth", so-to-speak...

SFC Chuck Grist

Friday, November 30, 2007

Good News from Iraq

The following article is encouraging and a great holiday gift to the members of the American military who have been working so hard to give the Iraqis a better life. The above picture was published with the article:

* * * *

6,000 Sunni Iraqis Join Pact With U.S.
Associated Press - November 29, 2007

HAWIJA, Iraq - Nearly 6,000 Sunni Arab residents joined a security pact with American forces Nov. 28 in what U.S. officers described as a critical step in plugging the remaining escape routes for extremists flushed from former strongholds.

The new alliance - called the single largest single volunteer mobilization since the war began - covers the "last gateway" for groups such as al-Qaida in Iraq seeking new havens in northern Iraq, U.S. military officials said.

U.S. commanders have tried to build a ring around insurgents who fled military offensives launched earlier this year in the western Anbar province and later into Baghdad and surrounding areas. In many places, the U.S.-led battles were given key help from tribal militias - mainly Sunnis - that had turned against al-Qaida and other groups.

Extremists have sought new footholds in northern areas once loyal to Saddam Hussein's Baath party as the U.S.-led gains have mounted across central regions. But their ability to strike near the capital remains.

A woman wearing an explosive-rigged belt blew herself up near an American patrol near Baqouba, about 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, the military announced Wednesday. The blast on Nov. 27 - a rare attack by a female suicide bomber - wounded seven U.S. troops and five Iraqis, the statement said.

The ceremony to pledge the 6,000 new fighters was presided over by dozen sheiks - each draped in black robes trimmed with gold braiding - who signed the contract on behalf of tribesmen at a small U.S. outpost in north-central Iraq.

For about $275 a month - nearly the salary for the typical Iraqi policeman - the tribesmen will man about 200 security checkpoints beginning Dec. 7, supplementing hundreds of Iraqi forces already in the area.

About 77,000 Iraqis nationwide, mostly Sunnis, have broken with the insurgents and joined U.S.-backed self-defense groups.

Those groups have played a major role in the lull in violence: 648 Iraqi civilians have been killed or found dead in November to date, according to figures compiled by The Associated Press. This compares with 2,155 in May as the so-called "surge" of nearly 30,000 additional American troops gained momentum. U.S. troop deaths in Iraq have also dropped sharply. So far this month, the military has reported 34 deaths, compared with 38 in October. In June, 101 U.S. soldiers died in Iraq.

Village mayors and others who signed Wednesday's agreement say about 200 militants have sought refuge in the area, about 30 miles southwest of Kirkuk on the edge of northern Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region. Hawija is a predominantly Sunni Arab cluster of villages which has long been an insurgent flashpoint.

The recently arrived militants have waged a campaign of killing and intimidation to try to establish a new base, said Sheikh Khalaf Ali Issa, mayor of Zaab village.

"They killed 476 of my citizens, and I will not let them continue their killing," Issa said.

With the help of the new Sunni allies, "the Hawija area will be an obstacle to militants, rather than a pathway for them," said Maj. Sean Wilson, with the Army's 1st Brigade, 10th Mountain Division. "They're another set of eyes that we needed in this critical area."

By defeating militants in Hawija, U.S. and Iraqi leaders hope to keep them away from Kirkuk, an ethnically diverse city that is also the hub of Iraq's northern oil fields.

"They want to go north into Kirkuk and wreak havoc there, and that's exactly what we're trying to avoid," Army Maj. Gen. Mark P. Hertling, the top U.S. commander in northern Iraq, told The Associated Press this week.

Kurds often consider Kurkik part of their ancestral homeland and often refer to the city as the "Kurdish Jerusalem." Saddam, however, relocated tens of thousands of pro-regime Arabs to the city in the 1980s and 1990s under his "Arabization" policy.

The Iraqi government has begun resettling some of those Arabs to their home regions, making room for thousands of Kurds who have gradually returned to Kirkuk since Saddam's ouster.

Tension has been rising over the city's status - whether it will join the semi-autonomous Kurdish region or continue being governed by Baghdad.

"Hawija is the gateway through which all our communities - Kurdish, Turkomen and Arab alike - can become unsafe," said Abu Saif al-Jabouri, mayor of al-Multaqa village north of Kirkuk. "Do I love my neighbor in Hawija? That question no longer matters. I must work to help him, because his safety helps me."

In Baghdad, a bus convoy arrived carrying hundreds of refugees home from Syria. The buses, funded by the Iraqi government, left Damascus on Tuesday as part of a plan to speed the return of the estimated 2.2 million Iraqis who have fled to neighboring Syria and Jordan.

Also Wednesday, an Iraqi journalist Dhia al-Kawaz who said 11 members of his family -two sisters, their husbands and their seven children - were killed in their Baghdad home challenged the government's denial of the deaths.

The Iraqi government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, insisted that the deaths - reportedly Sunday in a northern neighborhood of Baghdad known to be a Shiite militia stronghold - never took place.

Al-Kawaz, who has lived outside Iraq for 20 years, told Al-Jazeera television: "I ask the spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh to let all of my family appear on TV."

The media advocacy group Reporters Without Borders condemned the attack and claimed Iraqi police at a nearby checkpoint failed to intervene.

Copyright 2007 Associated Press.

* * * *

Americans must keep the faith that it will work out in the end. We cannot give up when so many have given their lives.

SFC Chuck Grist

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A World War II Story of Chivalry & Courage

The item below was forwarded to me by one of the officers with whom I served in Iraq:

* * * *

A B-17 War Story:

Charlie Brown was a B-17 Flying Fortress pilot with the 379th Bomber Group at Kimbolton, England. His B-17 was called 'Ye Old Pub' and was in a terrible state, having been hit by flak and fighters. The compass was damaged and they were flying deeper over enemy territory instead of heading home to Kimbolton.

After flying over an enemy airfield, a German pilot named Franz Steigler was ordered to take off and shoot down the B-17. When he got near the B-17, he could not believe his eyes. In his words, he 'had never seen a plane in such a bad state'. The tail and rear section was severely damaged, and the tail gunner wounded. The top gunner was all over the top of the fuselage. The nose was smashed, a propeller feathered and there were holes everywhere.

Despite having ammunition, Franz flew to the side of the B-17 and looked at Charlie Brown, the pilot. Brown was scared and struggling to control his damaged and blood-stained plane.

Aware that they had no idea where they were going, Franz waved at Charlie to turn 180degrees. Franz escorted and guided the stricken plane to and slightly over the North Sea towards England. He then saluted Charlie Brown and turned away, back to Europe.

When Franz landed he told the C/O that the plane had been shot down over the sea, and never told the truth to anybody. Charlie Brown and the remains of his crew told all at their briefing, but were ordered never to talk about it.

More than 40 years later, Charlie Brown wanted to find the Luftwaffe pilot who had spared the lives of the crew. After years of research, Franz was found at last. He had never talked about the incident either, not even at post-war reunions

They met in the USA at a 379th Bomber Group reunion, together with 25 people who are alive now - all because Franz never fired his guns that day.

Research shows that Charlie Brown lived in Seattle and Franz Steigler had moved to Vancouver, BC after the war. When they finally met, they discovered they had lived less than 200 miles apart for the past 50 years !!!

* * * *

Quite a story!

SFC Chuck Grist

Monday, November 26, 2007

Terrorists and the Border

Securing America’s borders is not about “political correctness”; it’s about enforcing the law as written and it’s about the safety and security of the American people.

America will be attacked from within its borders again. You can buy all the fancy TVs you want, all the big, gas-guzzling SUVs you desire and you can stick your head in the sand like a lot of politicians, but it’s going to happen.

See the article below:

* * * *
Washington Times – November 26, 2007

Islamists Target Arizona Base
Terrorists said aided by cartel

By Sara A. Carter, Washington Times

Fort Huachuca, the nation's largest intelligence-training center, changed security measures in May after being warned that Islamist terrorists, with the aid of Mexican drug cartels, were planning an attack on the facility.

Fort officials changed security measures after sources warned that possibly 60 Afghan and Iraqi terrorists were to be smuggled into the U.S. through underground tunnels with high-powered weapons to attack the Arizona Army base, according to multiple confidential law enforcement documents obtained by The Washington Times.

"A portion of the operatives were in the United States, with the remainder not yet in the United States," according to one of the documents, an FBI advisory that was distributed to the Defense Intelligence Agency, the CIA, Customs and Border Protection and the Justice Department, among several other law enforcement agencies throughout the nation. "The Afghanis and Iraqis shaved their beards so as not to appear to be Middle Easterners."

According to the FBI advisory, each Middle Easterner paid Mexican drug lords $20,000"or the equivalent in weapons" for the cartel's assistance in smuggling them and their weapons through tunnels along the border into the U.S. The weapons would be sent through tunnels that supposedly ended in Arizona and New Mexico, but the Islamist terrorists would be smuggled through Laredo, Texas, and reclaim the weapons later.

A number of the Afghans and Iraqis are already in a safe house in Texas, the FBI advisory said.

Fort Huachuca, which lies about 20 miles from the Mexican border, has members of all four service branches training in intelligence and secret operations. About 12,000 persons work at the fort and many have their families on base.

Lt. Col. Matthew Garner, spokesman for Fort Huachuca, said details about the current phase of the investigation or security changes on the post "will not be disclosed."

"We are always taking precautions to ensure that soldiers, family members and civilians that work and live on Fort Huachuca are safe," Col. Garner said. "With this specific threat, we did change some aspects of our security that we did have in place."

According to the FBI report, some of the weapons associated with the plot have been smuggled through a tunnel from Mexico to the U.S.

The FBI report is based on Drug Enforcement Administration sources, including Mexican nationals with access to "sub-sources" in the drug cartels. The report's assessment is that the DEA's Mexican contacts have proven reliable in the past but the "sub-source" is of uncertain reliability.

According to the source who spoke with DEA intelligence agents, the weapons included two Milan anti-tank missiles, Soviet-made surface-to-air missiles, grenade launchers, long guns and handguns.

"FBI Comment: The surface-to-air missiles may in fact be RPGs," the advisory stated, adding that the weapons stash in Mexico could include two or three more Milan missiles.

The Milan, a French-German portable anti-tank weapon, was developed in the 1970s and widely sold to militaries around the world, including Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Insurgents in Iraq reportedly have used a Milan missile in an attack on a British tank. Iraqi guerrillas also have shot down U.S. helicopters using RPGs, or rocket-propelled grenades.

FBI spokesman Paul Bresson would not elaborate on the current investigation regarding the threat, but said that many times the initial reports are based on "raw, uncorroborated information that has not been completely vetted." He added that this report shows the extent to which all law enforcement and intelligence agencies cooperate in terror investigations.

"If nothing else, it provides a good look at the inner working of the law-enforcement and intelligence community and how they work together on a daily basis to share and deal with threat information," Mr. Bresson said. "It also demonstrates the cross-pollination that frequently exists between criminal and terrorist groups."

The connections between criminal enterprises, such as powerful drug cartels, and terrorist organizations have become a serious concern for intelligence agencies monitoring the U.S.-Mexico border.

"Based upon the information provided by the DEA handling agent, the DEA has classified the source as credible," stated a Department of Homeland Security document, regarding the possibility of an attack on Fort Huachuca. "The identity of the sub-source has been established; however, none of the information provided by the sub-source in the past has been corroborated."

The FBI advisory stated the "sub-source" for the information "is a member of the Zetas," the military arm of one of Mexico's most dangerous drug-trafficking organizations, the Gulf Cartel. The Gulf Cartel controls the movement of narcotics from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, into the U.S. along the Laredo corridor.
However, the sub-source "for this information is of unknown reliability," the FBI advisory stated.

According to the DEA, the sub-source identified Mexico's Sinaloa cartel as the drug lords who would assist the terrorists in their plot.

This led the DEA to caution the FBI that its information may be a Gulf Cartel plant to bring the U.S. military in against its main rival. The Sinaloa and Gulf cartels have fought bloody battles along the border for control of shipping routes into the U.S.

"It doesn't mean that there isn't truth to some of what this source delivered to U.S. agents," said one law-enforcement intelligence agent, on the condition of anonymity. "The cartels have no loyalty to any nation or person. It isn't surprising that for the right price they would assist terrorists, knowingly or unknowingly."

* * * *

If your local leaders, your law enforcement agencies, your Senators or your Representatives won't take action against illegal immigration and won't actively promote stronger border security, then you need to vote their sorry asses out of office or petition their removal from their jobs.

After all - it is YOUR country. Participate in its defense now....

SFC Chuck Grist

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving - Remember the Troops

I will be leaving my temporary military training assignment to travel home for a few days. I'm looking forward to spending Thanksgiving with my family in Florida.

Even though I have to be back here the weekend after the holiday, I am keenly aware that I am so much more fortunate than my comrades in the war zones.

Many of these brave men and women haven't seen their families in a year or more. It is their efforts that make it possible for all of us to enjoy a blessed holiday with our families in peace and safety.

To all of America's soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines: Thanks for your service, your courage and your sacrifice. I am unbelievably proud to be one of you. God bless you all and please be safe.

America, enjoy your Thanksgiving; your children are taking care of you in Iraq and Afghanistan....

SFC Chuck Grist

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Can the Sunnis and Shiites Ever Reconcile?

America’s soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines have done a magnificent job of removing Saddam Hussein and creating an atmosphere in which the new Iraqi government can take advantage of its freedom. With cooperation, decisive action and a spirit of reconciliation, Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds can build a prosperous nation of the kind never seen before in the Middle East.

The problem is that the Shiite-dominated government still won’t reach out to the Sunnis because they represent the party of Saddam Hussein. The Sunni minority ruled over Iraq – and the Shiites – with an iron hand. Now that the Shiite majority has the power, they fear sharing any of that power with the Sunnis. (Above picture shows me with some Shiite security guards in Baghdad's Green Zone in 2004.)

Unless the people of Iraq try to put their past behind them for the sake of all their people, there will be little the Americans or the Coalition can do to prevent a catastrophe. Our presence alone will not fix Iraq. Only Iraqis can ultimately build their own nation.

As the article below says, there is now a window of opportunity for the Iraqis to move ahead, to improve the daily lives of all their people, to create a rich future for an ancient land and to learn to live together in peace and brotherhood.

If thousand-year-old feuds and hatreds cannot be quelled, then America will soon face some hard decisions. We can’t do everything for the Iraqis. We’ve opened the door to freedom and prosperity, but they must accept the ultimate responsibility for the success or failure of the new Iraq.

* * * *

Washington Post
November 15, 2007
Pg. 1

Iraqis Wasting An Opportunity, U.S. Officers Say
Amid Relative Calm, Government Is Urged to Reach Out to Opponents

By Thomas E. Ricks, Washington Post Staff Writer

CAMP LIBERTY, Iraq -- Senior military commanders here now portray the intransigence of Iraq's Shiite-dominated government as the key threat facing the U.S. effort in Iraq, rather than al-Qaeda terrorists, Sunni insurgents or Iranian-backed militias.

In more than a dozen interviews, U.S. military officials expressed growing concern over the Iraqi government's failure to capitalize on sharp declines in attacks against U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians. A window of opportunity has opened for the government to reach out to its former foes, said Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the commander of day-to-day U.S. military operations in Iraq, but "it's unclear how long that window is going to be open."

The lack of political progress calls into question the core rationale behind the troop buildup President Bush announced in January, which was premised on the notion that improved security would create space for Iraqis to arrive at new power-sharing arrangements. And what if there is no such breakthrough by next summer? "If that doesn't happen," Odierno said, "we're going to have to review our strategy."

Brig. Gen. John F. Campbell, deputy commanding general of the 1st Cavalry Division, complained last week that Iraqi politicians appear out of touch with everyday citizens. "The ministers, they don't get out," he said. "They don't know what the hell is going on on the ground." Campbell noted approvingly that Lt. Gen. Aboud Qanbar, the top Iraqi commander in the Baghdad security offensive, lately has begun escorting cabinet officials involved in health, housing, oil and other issues out of the Green Zone to show them, as Campbell put it, "Hey, I got the security, bring in the [expletive] essential services."

Indeed, some U.S. Army officers now talk more sympathetically about former insurgents than they do about their ostensible allies in the Shiite-led central government. "It is painful, very painful," dealing with the obstructionism of Iraqi officials, said Army Lt. Col. Mark Fetter. As for the Sunni fighters who for years bombed and shot U.S. soldiers and now want to join the police, Fetter shrugged. "They have got to eat," he said over lunch in the 1st Cavalry Division's mess hall here. "There are so many we've detained and interrogated, they did what they did for money."

The best promise for breaking the deadlock would be holding provincial elections, officers said -- though they recognize that elections could turn bloody and turbulent, undercutting the fragile stability they now see developing in Iraq.

"The tipping point that I've been looking for as an intel officer, we are there," said one Army officer here who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of his position. "The GOI [government of Iraq] and ISF [Iraqi security forces] are at the point where they can make it or break it."

The latest news of declining violence comes as the U.S. troop contingent in Iraq has reached an all-time high. This week, the U.S. troop number will hit 175,000 -- the largest presence so far in the 4 1/2 -year war -- as units that are rotating in and out overlap briefly. But those numbers are scheduled to come down rapidly over the next several months, which will place an increasing burden on Iraqi security forces and an Iraqi government that has yet to demonstrate it is up to the challenge, senior military officials said.

Indeed, after years of seizing on every positive development and complaining that the good news wasn't being adequately conveyed, American military officials now warn against excessive optimism. "It's never as bad as it was, and it's not as good as it's being reported now," said Army Maj. Gen. Michael Barbero, chief of strategic operations for U.S. forces in Iraq.

On the diplomatic side of the Iraq equation, U.S. officials said they realize time is short. "We've got six months because the military is leaving," said one official. But this official and others expressed irritation with the military's negativity toward the Iraqi government -- which they interpret as blaming the State Department for not speeding reconciliation.

"That's their out," the official said of the military. "It's convenient, and I know plenty of them have been helping that story around."

Diplomatic officials, none of whom were authorized to speak on the record, insisted that progress is being made, even if it lags behind military successes. They highlighted two key elements needed for political reconciliation in Iraq, one domestic and one external. Internally, sectarian politicians remain deadlocked on a range of issues. Shiite political groups are holding back as they vie for national power and control over resources, while the majority Shiite population fears that the Sunnis hope to recapture the dominance they held under Saddam Hussein.

In recent weeks, U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker has focused on external forces, hoping to persuade neighboring Sunni Arab governments to increase their official presence in Iraq -- no Arab government currently has an embassy in Baghdad -- to boost the confidence of Iraqi Sunnis.

Late last month, Crocker traveled to virtually every nearby Arab country except Syria and Saudi Arabia. His message, one official said, was "Look, you have got to get behind this because you've got to do everything you can to give all sides confidence."

The U.S. military approach in Iraq this year has focused on striking deals with Sunni insurgents, under which they stop fighting the Americans and instead protect their own neighborhoods. So far about 70,000 such volunteers have been enrolled -- a trend that makes the Shiite-led central government nervous, especially as the movement gets closer to Baghdad.

Indeed, all the U.S. military officials interviewed said their most pressing concern is that the Sunnis will sour if the Iraqi government doesn't begin to reciprocate their peace overtures. "The Sunnis have shown great patience," said Campbell. "You don't want the Sunnis that are working with you . . . to go back to the dark side."

The Army officer who requested anonymity said that if the Iraqi government doesn't reach out, then for former Sunni insurgents "it's game on -- they're back to attacking again."

The year-long progress in fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq could carry a downside: Maj. Mark Brady, who works on reconciliation issues, noted that a Sunni leader told him: "As soon as we finish with al-Qaeda, we start with the Shiite extremists." Talk like that is sharply discouraged, Brady noted as he walked across the dusty ground of Camp Liberty, on the western fringes of Baghdad.

But not all agreed that the Sunnis would take up arms. "I don't think going back to violence is in the cards," said Barbero. Rather, he predicted that if they give up on reaching an accommodation, they will resort to new political actions. One possibility mentioned by other officials is a symbolic Sunni move to secede from Iraq.

Also, some outside experts contend that U.S. officials still don't grasp how their empowerment of militias under the bottom-up model of reconciliation is helping tear apart Iraq. Marc Lynch, a George Washington University expert on the Middle East, argued recently on his blog, Abu Aardvark, that partly because of U.S. political tactics in Iraq, the country is drifting "towards a warlord state, along a Basra model, with power devolved to local militias, gangs, tribes, and power-brokers, with a purely nominal central state."

Officials identified other potential problems flowing from reductions in violence. Military planners already worry that if security continues to improve, many of the 2 million Iraqis who fled the country will return. Those who left are overwhelmingly Sunni, and many of their old houses are occupied by Shiites. How would the Shiite-dominated Iraqi army and police handle the likely friction? "Displaced people is a major flashpoint" to worry about in 2008, said Fetter.

The answer to many of Iraq's problems, several military officials said, would be to hold provincial elections, which they said would inject new blood into Iraq's political life and also better link the Baghdad government to the people. The question under debate is whether to hold them sooner, while the U.S. military still has available its five "surge" brigades, or hold them later and let Iraqis enjoy their growing sense of safety -- even though a smaller U.S. military would have less flexibility. "Some areas, you need them right now, to get people into the government," said Campbell. "But the other side of me says, let it settle in, let security develop, let people see some services." Later rather than sooner is especially appealing because the election campaigns are expected to turn violent.

But the longer the provincial balloting is put off, the more likely the current political stalemate will continue. Also, if the elections are postponed until, say, the fall of next year, they will be held on the eve of a U.S. presidential vote in which the Iraq war promises to be a major issue, military planners here note.

So, how to force political change in Iraq without destabilizing the country further? "I pity the guy who has to reconcile that tension," said Lt. Col. Douglas Ollivant, the chief of planning for U.S. military operations in Baghdad, whose tour of duty ends next month.

Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.

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SFC Chuck Grist

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Veteran's Day, 2007

I would like to remember all of my fellow veterans today. They are my brothers and sisters in arms and there is an unspoken link between us that spans the generations.

Veterans from World War I, War War II and Korea inspired me by their example and by their deeds to serve my country in the military. I thank all of them for their service and their sacrifice.

My fellow veterans from Vietnam and Iraq are my blood brothers and blood sisters. There is nothing I would not do for them. They have my respect and my gratitude for being there when I needed them and when their country needed them.

As I continue to train and prepare soldiers who will soon head to one of the war zones, I am inspired daily by their positive attitudes, their desire to learn and their dedication to each other. This new "greatest generation" is continuing the tradition they learned from their fathers and grandfathers.

Today let us take the time to remember the veterans who have served their country in both peace and war as well as those who have made the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf.

May God continue to bless America.

SFC Chuck Grist

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Retired Colonel Continues to Serve in Iraq

One of the men who made quite an impact on me in Iraq was Colonel Logan Barbee. Since our tour in 2004, Barbee has retired as both an Army Colonel and as an Agricultural Professor at the University of Florida. Instead of heading to the country to goof off, he has continued to serve his nation while working for the State Department on a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Iraq.

The following article about Barbee and his work appeared recently:

Down on the farm in Iraq

by Amanda Marquart of Medill Reports at Northwestern University

Oct 25, 2007 - WASHINGTON -- Carp farms. Not exactly what you expect in the sandy, citified Iraq we see on television. But you can find thousands of acres of watery fields teeming with fish in southern Iraq.

Aquaculture is just one farming industry in Iraq. Wheat, rye, barley, vegetables, mushrooms and olives are also grown there -- so too dates, livestock and honeybees. “Farming – that’s where people’s hearts are,” said American advisor Logan Barbee.

Barbee is the agricultural adviser with the Babil Provincial Reconstruction Team. He said similar to many third-world countries, Iraq is in need of “newness” for its agricultural sector – new brood livestock, new seeds and new queen honeybees. He helps the Iraqis acquire these things legally and also brings in experts ranging from artificial insemination technicians for livestock to experts specializing in date palms.

Provincial Reconstruction Teams, or PRTs, are groups made up of U.S. and coalition troops, civilian federal employees and expert contractors. Their purpose is to bolster local authorities in Iraq through coaching, teaching and mentoring of provincial and local government officials in governance and economic development, according to the Special Inspector General of Iraq Reconstruction.

Barbee is one of eight agricultural advisers working with the Iraq PRTs. He was an agricultural extension agent for the University of Florida for 25 years before beginning work for the USDA in Iraq. He works with landowners, sheiks, farmers and female beekeepers among a “wide spectrum of Shi’a, Sunni and tribal entities,” he said.

Asked about his work in Iraq, Barbee replied in a thick Southern accent, "We’re not teaching these people how to farm. They’ve been farming since the beginning of time - we can learn more from them."

Despite the common perception that Iraq is full of sandy desert, he said “this is the only Arab country with abundant water.” Barbee’s area, Al Hillah, located 60 miles south of Baghdad, is fed by both the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

One thing Iraqis learned from the U.S. years ago was how to use American-imported hormones to increase carp production by 40 percent. The three types of carp grown in Iraq, silver, grass and common carp, are enjoyed as delicacies.

A typical day for Barbee involves leaving an old Baathist hotel in a Blackwater Security-protected convoy. He attends meetings with local people who have agricultural backgrounds and bilingual advisors who help him navigate Iraqi culture. He also may spend time with farmers and agricultural workers on their farms.

Barbee said he takes certain precautions even though the areas he works are secure and "only a few areas are contested."

"We haven’t been shot at for a few months," he admitted cheerfully in a telephone interview from Al Hillah. "The guards are pretty aggressive. But they have to drive fast – we’re only in an armored Suburban with heavy windows and doors. Those vehicles can’t protect us from explosives."

Of the controversial Blackwater security details, he said, "We’d all have to go home if it weren’t for them. Our troops are busy working on the PRTs (reconstruction teams). We need someone to protect us (civilians) while we do what we need to do."

The dangerous environment that teams labor in has led some to question their presence in Iraq.

"In many areas PRTs have to be careful about revealing themselves -- revealing an American face on any project that’s U.S.-funded -- because of the potential controversy or conflict it could stir," said Stuart Bowen, special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, in testimony to the House Armed Services Committee on Oct. 18.

This admission led Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., to ask, "How do I explain to my taxpayers back home that the American face on a project makes it unappreciated? . . . This is an untenable situation. If they don’t want the help, if they actively despise us, why are we there?"

At a Tuesday hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, however, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice praised the reconstruction teams.

"We have found a formula that puts the reconstruction effort at the local level where it can get to the people," she said, calling the PRTs a "real breakthrough" in the rebuilding of the country’s infrastructure.

By the end of the year, the USDA plans to send in an additional 13 agricultural advisers to join the reconstruction teams across Iraq. The U.S. Agency for International Development estimates that the Iraqi agricultural sector can grow from 5 percent to 15 percent of the national GDP if fully developed. Already agriculture provides one quarter of Iraq’s employment opportunities.

That makes sense to Barbee. He said, "This is Mesopotamia - where farming began."

* * * *

Logan Barbee is quite an American. Keep it up, Colonel!

SFC Chuck Grist

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Remembering My Journey to Kurdistan

"I was born in the shadow of the Kurdish flag in Mahabad and I am ready to serve and die for the same flag." Massoud Barzani, President of Kurdistan

As Turkish troops mass on the border of Kurdistan, it seems appropriate to remember my own journey to northern Iraq in July, 2004. My team, the C.O.B.R.A. Team, was the personal security detachment for then-Brigadier General Charles “Sandy” Davidson. We escorted the general during his visit to his civil affairs troops.

I wrote much of the following article as an op-ed piece that was published in the Orlando Sentinel that same month. It is included in a book I have written and hope to get published at some point.

Although I came to respect the Kurds and their unique culture, I still believe they should curtail the activities of the guerrillas who are conducting attacks into Turkey. The existing Kurdistan is a beautiful country with a great future. I would hate to see the peaceful nature of this wonderful land degenerate into war with Turkey.

The above photo shows me in a Kurdish village with members of the legendary Peshmerga, the militia that has protected the Kurds for over sixty years.

* * * *

July, 2004 - Kurdistan in northern Iraq:

The heat on the dusty hill overlooking the northern Iraqi border was unpleasant, but it was better than melting in Baghdad. Along with the general and the rest of the C.O.B.R.A. Team, I looked out on a river junction that twisted like some wild blue snake through the desert. I could glance north across one river and barely see a Turkish army guard tower in the distance. When I turned to face the other river, the barren desert hills of Syria rose before me.

The trip from Mosul in a Blackhawk helicopter took us over a giant blue lake, over dry open desert, and through remote hills and valleys. Finally, we reached an isolated border outpost, the northern-most Iraqi military position in what the people there knew as Kurdistan. Protecting us from that point on would be the Peshmerga (which means “those ready to die”), the Kurdish warriors who had protected their own people for almost sixty years.

General Davidson wanted to visit some of his soldiers, but he also wanted to meet some of the Kurdish people with whom those soldiers worked and view some of the civil affairs projects created by the members of his command. The soldiers on the small civil affairs teams were making friends and making a difference as they tried to improve the quality of life for a courageous and unique group of Iraq’s citizens.

Our tour of the outpost ended with a convoy of NTVs headed east because this part of our journey was overland. Though we were still guarding the general, the Peshmerga were guarding all of us.

Driving over paved roads and mountain trails, we stopped briefly at a Kurdish village where General Davidson and his officers shared refreshments with the leaders of the small community. We continued on to Dohuk where we spent the night in a “safe house” protected all the while by the Peshmerga.

I found great comfort in standing on the roof of this house and surveying the beauty of the mountains that surrounded us. In such a peaceful place, filled with an overwhelming sense of tranquility, it was hard to believe there was a war going on. Some of the Peshmerga soldiers said the Arab insurgents had a difficult time making inroads in Kurdistan because they were easily recognized by the Kurds.

Traveling with the soldiers of the Peshmerga was a young man whose name still can’t be revealed without putting his life in danger. At the age of only 19, he had already spent over a year working as an interpreter for the Americans. Born in Kurdistan, but raised in California, he was proud to be both an American and a Kurd. When the United States invaded Iraq, destiny called and he returned to his first home to help defeat the regime of Saddam Hussein.

The young man liked to repeat a saying we heard frequently in Kurdistan: “Ten Kurds will die before one American dies”. The Kurdish people loved Americans and they were happy to treat soldiers, as the interpreter said, like “rock stars”. They would die for their American friends and they did everything they could to keep our soldiers out of harm’s way. There was still resentment reserved for Britain, however, for failing to give the Kurds their own nation when the British Empire carved up the Arab lands early in the twentieth century.

With the help of the young interpreter, the C.O.B.R.A. Team shared conversation and food with the men of the Peshmerga. We came to know and respect them as fellow soldiers and as just plain regular guys. We all spoke of our families, our homes and our children. Just as I discovered with the Shiite and Sunni Arabs I came to know, the Kurdish people also wanted peace, a safe place to raise their families, a decent way to make a living and a good future for their children.

The Kurds endured a life of prejudice, discrimination and violence under the regime of Saddam Hussein. March 16, 1988, is referred to as “Bloody Friday” because this was the day that Hussein’s forces dropped poisonous gas on the Kurdish city of Halabja. According to our Kurdish friends, some five thousand citizens, mostly women and children, were killed in mere minutes and thousands more perished after days of attacks.

The American policy was that separate “militias”, such as the Peshmerga and al Sadr’s Mahdi Army, must be disbanded. Although the Kurdish leadership supposedly agreed in principal, the Peshmerga soldiers laughed. There was certainly no indication that the Mahdi Army or the other militias in the southern part of the country would disappear any time soon. The Peshmerga warriors also didn’t believe their own fabled army would cease to exist either.

Many of them had been in the Kurdish army since they were twelve years old, it was the only life they knew and the Peshmerga diligently served as the protection for their fellow citizens. The Kurds were a friendly, gentle people, but upon entering the towns and villages of northern Iraq, one thing was plainly missing.

The Iraqi flag wasn’t flown anywhere. The Kurds proudly displayed their own banner, the Kurdistan tri-color of red, white and green with a bright sun glowing in the center. In the new Iraq, the Kurdish people lived with a wait and see attitude for the time being.

As we traveled across the top of Iraq through the towns, villages and cities of Kurdistan, I was amazed by the extraordinary beauty of it all. We saw picturesque mountains and valleys, gently flowing rivers and a waterfall recreation area that seemed out of place in a country at war.

Both adults and children waved and smiled at us and we were greeted everywhere like long-lost relatives. I was never treated this way by the citizens of any foreign country and it helped me to imagine how American soldiers in World War II felt when they were welcomed into liberated European countries.

On our second night, we stayed at the guest house of Kurdish President Massoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). His late father, Mustafa Barzani, was the most prominent Kurdish national leader in their recent history and, according to the Peshmerga, he was considered the father of modern Kurdistan and an inspiration to all the Kurdish people. As we traveled throughout northern Iraq, Mustafa Barzani’s picture was hanging everywhere.

The next day we escorted the general to what the Americans considered the Peshmerga “Pentagon” or the headquarters of their military forces. General Davidson met with one of their generals, we were all served refreshments and the two generals exchanged gifts. Davidson gave his counterpart one of his commanding general’s coins; the Peshmerga general gave Davidson a Kurdistan flag.

As we reached the final city of our visit, Erbil, we drove through the six thousand year old massive stone citadel that overlooks the city from a giant hill. The Peshmerga took care of us right up to the time we boarded our Blackhawk helicopters for the long and arduous flight back to the Green Zone. I was sad to be leaving such a peaceful and beautiful place.

Before we climbed onto the helicopters, the young interpreter reached up to his shoulder and pulled off his Kurdistan flag patch and gave it to me. I was grateful to receive such a special gift from one of America’s and Kurdistan’s bravest citizens.

When we returned from our trip to northern Iraq, I brought back a small piece of paper I found on a table in the waiting area of Mosul’s Civil Military Operations Center. That building was filled with Iraqi civilians who were working with the Americans. The spelling and grammar are the way it was written, apparently from the heart:

“To day the CPA has handover the sovereignty to the Iraqis. As an Iraqi I feel so happy, but I have to say that all Iraqis owe much for the brave, the Americans, who have shed bloods for free, peaceful and democratic Iraq. Salute for all the brave Americans and all that cooperate with them to achieve this Noble goal,
Long live freedom, Long live freedom fighters,
Long live the USA The leader of liberty in the world.”

It was signed simply: “Iraqi”

At least one Iraqi thought enough of America’s sacrifices to write it down. If there was one Iraqi that felt this way, then there were ten; if there were ten, then there were a hundreds and surely thousands.

We were indeed appreciated by some of the citizens of Iraq and it made me feel damn good.

* * * *

SFC Chuck Grist