Sunday, October 02, 2005

And So It Goes

Posted on Thu, Sep. 29, 2005

Insurgents play cat-and-mouse game with American snipers

By Tom Lasseter
Knight Ridder Newspapers

MUQDADIYAH, Iraq - Sgt. Antonio Molina sat on a rooftop in the pitch of night, scanning the road before him with a high-powered sniper scope, hoping an insurgent would scramble out of a car to lay a bomb and give him a reason to squeeze the trigger.

He and three other 3rd Infantry Division snipers were dropped off this week at a house on the outskirts of Muqdadiyah, in an Iraqi province that military officials frequently claim is largely pacified. Dozens of infantry soldiers stormed the abandoned structure in a staged raid and left the four men behind. Alone with their rifles, they moved quietly, fearing that an insurgent ambush might catch and kill them before Bradley Fighting Vehicles could respond.

"Some people don't get the gravity of the situation here; people in the Green Zone are always trying to paint a rosy picture," said Molina, a 27-year-old sniper from Clearwater, Fla. He was referring to the fortified compound in Baghdad where U.S. officials work. "These politicians are all about sending people to war but they don't know what it's all about, being over here and getting shot at, walking through s--- swamps, having bombs go off, hearing bullets fly by. They have no idea what that's like."

Military commanders in Baghdad and Washington say four Iraqi provinces are home to 85 percent of the daily attacks. They claim that a relatively low attack rate in Iraq's 14 other provinces is proof that the insurgency is on its knees.

Muqdadiyah is in one of those 14 provinces, Diyala. Yet five days in the field with a 3rd Infantry Division sniper team suggests that, to those on the ground here, the insurgency is anything but defeated.

Many American troops on the ground in Muqdadiyah expect the violence to continue long after they're gone. They worry that Sunni Muslim insurgents - from a Sunni population that makes up 40 percent of Diyala - will simply move from targeting U.S. forces to ratcheting up attacks against Shiite Muslims, who compose 35 percent of the province. Shiites are a majority in Iraq, and they dominate the Baghdad government.

Muqdadiyah is a relative backwater of some 100,000 people. But the guerrilla war there, while gaining little attention, indicates wider instability than military leaders have acknowledged and could plague efforts to put the Iraqi government on its feet.

"As soon as we leave this place they're all going to kill each other," Molina said at a meeting in his barracks recently.

His sniper team commander, Staff Sgt. Donnie Hendricks, agreed: "It's going to be a f------ civil war."

Hendricks was quiet for a few moments.

"We go out and kill the bad guys one at a time," said Hendricks, 32, who speaks with the soft accent of his native Claremore, Okla., where his high school graduating class had 55 students. "But we're just whittling down one group so it's easier for the other groups to kill them."

Maj. Dean Wollan, the top U.S. intelligence officer in Diyala, said his men had made tremendous gains against the insurgency, but he worries that the fight will grind on for years.

"I think it's going to be a while," said Wollan, 38, of Missoula, Mont. "I think the shortest insurgency we've seen was the one the Brits fought in Malaysia. That was seven years."

Commanders for the 3rd Infantry Division in Diyala said the number of attacks there had dropped from about a dozen a day last year to seven. Roadside bombs, they said, have decreased by a third. The latter trend, though, hasn't held up this month. In September 2004 there were 72 roadside bombs detonated or found, but 106 this month.

"They say attacks are down. Well, no s---," Hendricks said. "We're not patrolling where the bad guys are."

U.S. patrols on a parallel road, Route Marie, ended in late May.

Pointing to Route Marie on a map on the wall of his barracks, Hendricks traced a 2-mile stretch of the road with his index finger.

"They kicked our a-- off this road," Hendricks said. "They hit us with so many IEDs we had to stop using it." He used the military's term for homemade bombs, "improvised explosive devices."

In September, the U.S. Army began using bulldozers in Muqdadiyah to discourage roadside bombs, tearing apart palm groves, fields and roadside stands in the areas near explosions that had targeted American convoys.

On the main supply route to the base on the edge of Muqdadiyah, Route Vanessa Roadside, explosives hit the military's bomb-detecting truck every day for 11 straight days in August. Commanders routinely call in F-16s to provide close support for the vehicle.

U.S. Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, a military spokesman in Baghdad, pointed to Diyala and the 13 other provinces in September as examples of a weakened insurgency.

"So what I'm trying to show you is ... there is indeed areas of Iraq that are relatively safe and secure, and those people in those provinces are working their way towards a peaceful society as they work their way towards democracy," Lynch said, motioning to a map of Iraq. "Sixty percent of the people of Iraq live in these provinces that are experiencing a much, much, much lower level of violence, to the point where they're averaging less than one attack per day."

The U.S. military in Muqdadiyah has reduced patrols from 24-hour cycles to two daily five-hour rotations. And instead of canvassing the entire area, the patrols now concentrate almost exclusively on Route Vanessa, the main route in and out of the base. The insurgents shifted their attacks and now regularly place bombs along that road.

"The bad guys watch our gates. They know when we're out in sector. They just wait for us to leave and then they plant" the bombs, Hendricks said. "They plant them with impunity."

A roadside bomb hit Hendricks' vehicle in June. He has scars on his face and neck and a piece of shrapnel in his jaw.

Beyond U.S. patrols on the main supply route in Muqdadiyah, Iraqi police and army units are responsible for much of the city.

Sgt. Hunter Sabin has spent a fair amount of time near the Iraqi troops, and said that while they were getting better, they were still far from ready.

"I was up in a guard tower outside the FOB (base) and a group of IP (Iraqi police) came up and offered us hash and whiskey," said Sabin, a 26-year-old sniper from Richmond, Va., who was in a Ranger special operations unit during the 2003 invasion. "That's who's protecting the people."

Hendricks taught a sniper's training course to a select group of Iraqi soldiers, but stuck to marksmanship.

"I haven't taught them tactics because they're infiltrated," Hendricks said. "It's like going to a party where you don't know anybody, but somebody in the room - you don't know who - wants to kill you."

Hendricks and his men are career military. Four of the seven are sergeants, the backbone of the enlisted ranks.

Hendricks has spent eight of nine years in the military as a sniper, including five with the Army Rangers. Including his first deployment to Iraq in 2003, he's had nine confirmed kills and nine wounded.

"It takes nothing," he said with a half-grin. "I don't care about these people."

The snipers have formed their impressions of the war on enemy ground.

The team steals out of trucks on the back roads of Muqdadiyah late at night and dashes into the cover of palm groves, scrambling over fences, jumping across canals and flattening against the ground when car headlights sweep by.

They often sit in the same clearings that guerrilla fighters used days earlier to detonate roadside bombs. During a mission in a palm grove, the men pointed to empty cigarette cartons, water bottles and flattened stretches of grass as telltale signs that guerrillas were there recently.

"Haji will use a position. We go find it, stay there overnight, and we know they're watching us," Hendricks said, using the pejorative slang for Iraqis. "We have them in the palm groves with us ... we hear them talking but we can't find them."

Sitting in the darkness, near the edge of a palm grove, Molina looked at the street in front of him.

"The reason why they're fighting us is not Osama bin Laden. They're fighting us because we're here. ... They don't want us here. They just want us to leave. I guess that would be a victory for them," he said. "As far as I can see there's not going to be any victory for us."

Sabin, sitting next to him, nodded.

"In past situations you've had a good guy and a bad guy and the troops were impassioned, but now troops just want to go home," Sabin said. "I don't feel like there's a cause. I don't personally think there's a reason for this."

The two fell silent. Slowly, they went back to peering through their scopes, out at the darkness.


© 2005 KR Washington Bureau and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

Frank Rich Speaks Again

October 2, 2005
In the Beginning, There Was Abramoff
"Terri Schiavo is not brain-dead; she talks and she laughs, and she expresses happiness and discomfort. Terri Schiavo is not on life support."
- Tom DeLay, March 20, 2005

IF you believed Tom DeLay then, you no doubt believe now that the deposed House majority leader is only on "temporary" leave from his powerful perch in Washington and that he'll soon bounce back, laughing all the way, from a partisan witch hunt that unjustly requires his brief discomfort in a Texas courtroom.

Those who still live in the reality-based community, however, may sense they're watching the beginning of the end of something big. It's not just Mr. DeLay, a k a the Hammer, who is on life support, but a Washington establishment whose infatuation with power and money has contaminated nearly every limb of government and turned off a public that by two to one finds the country on the wrong track.

But don't take my word for it. And don't listen to the canned talking points of the Democrats, who are still so busy trying to explain why they were for the war in Iraq before they were against it that it's hard to trust their logic on anything else. Listen instead to Andrew Ferguson, of the conservative Rupert Murdoch magazine, The Weekly Standard. As far back as last December in a cover article on the sleazy lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Mr. Ferguson was already declaring "the end of the Republican Revolution."

He painted the big picture of the Abramoff ethos in vibrant strokes: the ill-gotten Indian gambling moolah snaking through the bank accounts of a network of DeLay cronies and former aides; the "fact-finding" Congressional golfing trips to further the cause of sweatshop garment factories in the Marianas islands; the bogus "think tank" in Rehoboth Beach, Del., where the two scholars in residence were a yoga instructor and a lifeguard (albeit a "lifeguard of the year"). Certain names kept recurring in Mr. Ferguson's epic narrative, most prominently Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist, Republican money-changers who are as tightly tied to President Bush and Karl Rove as they are to Mr. Abramoff and Mr. DeLay, if not more so.

The bottom line, Mr. Ferguson wrote, was a culture antithetical to everything conservatives had stood for in the Gingrich revolution of 1994. Slaying a corrupt, bloated Democratic establishment was out, gluttony for the G.O.P. and its fat cats was in. Mr. Abramoff and his gang embodied the very enemy the "Contract With America" Congress had supposedly come to Washington to smite: " 'Beltway Bandits,' profiteers who manipulate the power of big government on behalf of well-heeled people who pay them tons of money to do so." Those tons of Republican money were deposited in the favors bank of K Street, where, as The Washington Post reported this year, the number of lobbyists has more than doubled (to some 35,000) since the Bush era began in 2000. Conservatives who once aspired to cut government "down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub" - as a famous Norquist maxim had it - merely outsourced government instead to the highest bidder.

Mr. DeLay's latest plight is only a tiny detail within this vast Boschian canvas of depravity. If this were Watergate - and Watergate itself increasingly looks like a relatively contained epidemic of corruption - the Texas grand jury's indictment of the congressman and his associates would be a sideshow tantamount to the initial 1973 California grand jury indictment of the Nixon aide John Ehrlichman and his pals in the break-in at Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office; Watergate's real legal fireworks were still in the wings. So forget about all those details down in Texas that make your teeth hurt; don't bother to learn the difference between Trmpac and Armpac. Fasten your seat belt instead for the roller coaster of other revelations and possible indictments that's about to roar through the Beltway.

The most important plot development of the past two weeks, in fact, has nothing to do with Mr. DeLay (as far as we know). It was instead the arrest of the administration's top procurement officer, David Safavian, on charges of lying and obstructing the investigation of Mr. Abramoff. And what an investigation it is: The F.B.I., the I.R.S., the Treasury Department and the Interior Department have all been involved. The popular theory of the case has it that Mr. Safavian, a former lobbying colleague of both Mr. Abramoff and Mr. Norquist, is being muscled by the feds to rat on the big guys in Washington - much as another smaller fish may have helped reel in Mr. DeLay in Texas.

The DeLay and Abramoff investigations are not to be confused with the many others percolating in the capital, including, most famously of late, the Justice Department and S.E.C. inquiries into the pious Bill Frist's divine stock-sale windfall and the homeland security inspector general's promised inquiry into possible fraud in the no-bid contracts doled out by FEMA for Hurricane Katrina. The mother of all investigations, of course, remains the prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's pursuit of whoever outed the C.I.A. agent Valerie Wilson to Robert Novak and whoever may have lied to cover it up. The denouement is on its way.

But whatever the resolution of any of these individual dramas, they will not be the end of the story. Like the continuing revelations of detainee abuse emerging from Afghanistan, Iraq and Guant√°namo, this is a crisis in the governing culture, not the tale of a few bad apples. Every time you turn over a rock, you find more vermin. We've only just learned from The Los Angeles Times that Joseph Schmitz, until last month the inspector general in charge of policing waste, fraud and abuse at the Pentagon, is himself the focus of a Congressional inquiry. He is accused of blocking the investigation of another Bush appointee who is suspected of siphoning Iraq reconstruction contracts to business cronies. At the Justice Department, the F.B.I. is looking into why a career prosecutor was demoted after he started probing alleged Abramoff illegality in Guam. According to The Los Angeles Times, the demoted prosecutor was then replaced by a Rove-approved Republican pol who just happened to be a cousin of a major target of another corruption investigation in Guam.

We have to hope that the law will get to the bottom of these cases and start to connect the recurring dots. But while everyone is innocent until proved guilty, the overall pattern stinks and has for a long time. It's so filthy that the Republican caucus couldn't even find someone clean to name as Mr. DeLay's "temporary" stand-in as House majority leader last week. As The Washington Post reported in 2003, Roy Blunt, the Missouri congressman who got the job, was found trying to alter a homeland security bill with a last-minute provision that would have benefited Philip Morris-brand cigarettes. Not only had the tobacco giant contributed royally to Mr. Blunt's various campaign coffers, but both the congressman's girlfriend (now wife) and his son were Philip Morris lobbyists at the time.

This is the culture that has given us the government we have. It's a government that has spent more of the taxpayers' money than any since L.B.J.'s (as calculated by the Cato Institute, a libertarian research institution), even as it rewards its benefactors with tax breaks and corporate pork. It's a government so used to lying that Mr. DeLay could say with a straight face that the cost of Katrina relief could not be offset by budget cuts because there was no governmental fat left to cut. It's the government that fostered the wholesale loss of American lives in both Iraq and on the Gulf Coast by putting cronyism above patriotism.

The courts can punish crooks, but they can't reform democracy from the ground up, and the voters can't get into the game until 2006. Meanwhile, on the Republican side, the key players both in the White House and in the leadership of both houses of Congress are either under investigation or joined at the hip to Messrs Rove, DeLay, Abramoff, Reed or Norquist. They seem to be hoping that some magical event - a sudden outbreak of peace and democracy in Iraq, the capture of Osama bin Laden, a hurricane affording better presidential photo ops than Rita - will turn things around. Dream on.

The one notable anomaly is John McCain, who retains a genuine hunger for reform, a rage at the corruption around him and the compelling motive of his presidential ambitions to push him forward; it's his Indian Affairs Committee, after all, that exposed the hideous Abramoff cesspool to public view last year. The Democrats, bereft of leadership and ideas (though not of their own Beltway bandits), also harbor a number of would-be presidents, but they are busier positioning themselves politically than they are articulating actual positions that might indicate what a new governmental order would look like. While the Republican revolution is dead, it says everything about the power vacuum left in its wake that Geena Davis's fictional commander in chief has more traction, as measured in Nielsen ratings and press, than any of the real-life contenders for that job in D.C.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company