Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Karl Zinsmeister, the editor-in-chief of The American Enterprise (TAEmag.com) and author of the new book Dawn Over Baghdad: How the U.S. Military is Using Bullets and Ballots to Remake Iraq.
FP: Welcome to Frontpage Interview Mr. Zinsmeister.
Zinsmeister: It’s a pleasure to be here.
FP: Congratulations on your new book. It took quite a bit of personal bravery to write it, seeing that you spent three months in combat zones with American soldiers in Iraq doing your research. First things first, share a story with us about your experience.
Zinsmeister: I began as an embedded reporter during the hot war which toppled Saddam a little more than a year ago. I had an incredible string of experiences—with everyone from very impressive line soldiers of all sorts, to the top generals in the country, to English-speaking Iraqi civilians pinned down next to me by sniper fire. I came home and wrote the first book about the invasion, called Boots on the Ground: A Month With the 82nd Airborne in the Battle for Iraq, which was out in August 2003.
My next experience in Iraq was commissioning and writing the first public opinion poll ever carried out across that nation. I orchestrated and then published this through the magazine I edit, The American Enterprise. The results were extremely interesting, and showed that ordinary Iraqis are much less fanatical than the typical media coverage implies.
As the guerilla war unfolded during the fall and winter, I became very concerned that the run-of-the-mill reporting from Iraq wasn’t giving a complete and balance picture of developments there. So I decided to re-embed myself with troops in the most troubled parts of the country in January 2004, in order to get a good firsthand look at the counterinsurgency fight and reconstruction efforts. I spent several weeks going out on combat patrols, watching interrogations, listening to intelligence briefings, going into Iraqi homes during cordon and search operations, sitting in on city council meetings, observing powwows between American commanders and radical Iraqi imams or tribal sheiks, and so forth. I walked the streets in Baghdad, Fallujah, Abu Ghraib and points in between.
A lot of journalism is serendipity, and I was very lucky this spring, as I had been during the hot war, in terms of getting to see some important and fascinating things. When I came home I realized I had most of another book already written on my laptop. So my publisher, Encounter Books, and I pushed out what is the only book available today detailing the prosecution of the guerilla war in Iraq, and its actual, ground-level effects on Iraqi society.
Dawn Over Baghdad is not a policy analysis, it is human storytelling and eyewitness reporting written from the perspective of the ordinary American soldiers and everyday Iraqi citizens who are in the thick of things in critical neighborhoods.
FP: Your book focuses on the terrorist insurrection in Iraq, especially in the Sunni triangle. Could you tell our readers a bit about what this threat is and what it entails?
Zinsmeister: Iraq is a big country, and its citizens hold a wide range of viewpoints. There is a large silent majority in Iraq, as in most countries, that is more sensible than most of our readers may imagine. Large swaths of the countryside—for instance the Shiite areas in the southern half of the nation where I spent most of my time during the 2003 hot war—are comparatively quiet and beginning to get on with ordinary life. The Iraqi economy will grow about 60 percent this year, and there is a consumer surge going on. Cell phones are proliferating, about a million cars have been imported, a third of the homes have installed satellite TV, and families are buying up washing machines, air conditioners, radios, and other things long unavailable.
It’s a problem that these relatively stable areas receive so little notice in the West. But on my latest trip I wanted to go right into the Sunni triangle and observe the worst snakepits in Iraq. So I spent most of my time in Fallujah and some rough areas of Baghdad.
The fighters in this region are a mix of former Saddam-ites and religious extremists (Fallujah is a historic center for recruiting into Saddam’s security forces, as well as the center of Wahabi Islam in Iraq), with extensive orchestration from foreign jihadists. The foreigners are not large in number, but Zarqawi’s group is behind most of the more serious and visible attacks, including nearly all of the car bombings.
The high end of the latest intelligence estimates is that there are a grand total of around 20,000 insurgents carrying out violence in Iraq today. They are a dangerous lot, and obviously capable of inducing plenty of instability and fear. This is NOT, however, a broad popular insurrection. Far from it. 20,000 guerillas in a population of 25 million works out to one insurgent for every 1,250 Iraqis. To put that in perspective, realize that, for instance, one out of every 305 Americans is a Hindu. So guerillas in Iraq are four times less common than Hindus are in the U.S.
Now, many of those 20,000 guerillas are well trained in the black arts of terror. And nearly all of them are nihilists who hold nothing sacred as they wage terror. So I’m not denying we are in the midst of a tough and serious guerilla fight in Iraq. But it’s important that Americans understand this is not a mass insurgency.
FP: That’s not something you’d learn from most reporting.
Zinsmeister: The huge, central fact missing from most of the reporting from Iraq this year is that the Shiite middle—who are going to run this country—have so far stuck with us through many travails.
This was demonstrated again when the radical Shiite cleric Moktada Sadr went on the warpath during the spring. Scads of reporters and newsroom analysts declared a general uprising, the loss of majority Shiite support, the beginning of the end for the U.S. in Iraq. I have in front of me, for instance, an April 7 New York Times story written from Washington which announces in its lead sentence that “United States forces are confronting a broad-based Shiite uprising.” A Newsweek headline on April 10 screamed: “THE IRAQI INTIFADA: Suddenly the insurgency is much broader and much more dangerous than anyone had imagined it could become.”
These reports were wrong. Ordinary Shia and Shiite leaders alike subsequently made it clear that the mad cleric does not speak for most of them. They quietly plotted amongst themselves and with the Coalition to neutralize Sadr. Today he remains a fringe figure.
Certainly there are too many dangerous, well-armed fanatics carrying out violence in Iraq today. And much of the rest of the population is afraid cross them: 70 percent of Iraqis believe their family will be in peril if they are perceived to be cooperating with the U.S. Our failure to convince more good Iraqis it is safe to stand up and be counted is a serious problem that needs concerted attention. But fearing the guerillas and supporting them are two different things, and the clear evidence of polling, interviews, and behavior on the streets of Iraq is that most ordinary Iraqis do not admire, aid, or encourage the fighters.
FP: You note that during U.S. bombing and ground raids in Iraq, that you have actually witnessed Iraqis continuing to go about their business, shopping, traveling etc. This is connected to what you have termed the “gentlest war in history.” Can you illuminate this picture for us?
Zinsmeister: The Iraqis quickly learned that the U.S. soldiers and airmen were not the beasts they have been told about in their schools and government propaganda all their lives. They discovered that if they weren’t taking up arms, they had little to fear from Americans. On a number of occasions during the hot war I was staggered at how much effort U.S. soldiers made to avoid hurting innocent people, often transferring considerable danger onto their own shoulders in the process. That has been the most distinctive motif of this war—just as a historical matter, there is no question it is the gentlest war in history, particularly considering that the fighting has taken place in dense cities, often door to door, against enemies who are indistinguishable from everyday citizens, and enemies who have no qualms about using ambulances, mosques, schoolchildren, people in hospitals, women, and other innocents as shields to fight behind—all things I saw, often with disgust and horror, with my own eyes.
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