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dexter filkins

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From 2003 to 2006 Filkins reported from Baghdad for The New York Times and won a George Polk Award for his coverage of the Marines' bloody battle in Fallujah in November of 2004. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Dec. 22, 2006.

When did you first see militia activity and sectarian violence creeping into your day-to-day experience in Baghdad?

The militia was right away. They were out there. I remember as soon as the insurgency started, the first really, really horrible suicide bombing was Hakim's bombing in August 2003 -- 85 people dead, Hakim dead, and the Shi'ite leadership was just enraged. Editor's Note: On Aug. 29, 2003, SCIRI (Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq) leader Muhammad Baqr al-Hakim was killed when a car bomb exploded outside the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf.

The Shi'ites said, "The Americans are holding us back, and we're losing our patience, because we want to put our people out there." I went out on the streets, and there were people who were in the Badr Brigade, which is the Shi'ite militia connected to SCIRI, one of the big Shi'ite political parties, and they were ready to go. They said, "As soon as we get the green light, we're coming out with guns." So they were there. They were ready to go. ...

And the Kurds had the peshmerga [freedom fighters].

The Kurds had the peshmerga. Most of the political parties -- I'm thinking of six or seven political parties -- almost everybody had their own guys with guns.

[Radical Shi'ite cleric] Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, [also Shi'a,] emerged more slowly. Why? And what did they represent that's different from the Badr Brigade?

The Badr Brigade has a structure. They have uniforms, were trained in Iran. It's a coherent sort of organization. The Mahdi Army is much more decentralized and kind of pick-up basketball with AK-47s. Really, when I see them all out there on the streets, I think the Mahdi Army is basically the Shi'ite male population of Baghdad and southern Iraq between the ages of 18 and 35. It's "Grab your gun, guys. There's a fight; let's go." That's the Mahdi Army. It's very, very loose.

To be fair to the Americans, if they tried to kill Moqtada or tried to arrest him, whether they do that today or did it three years ago, they'd have a heck of a problem on their hands.

The first time I saw the Mahdi Army was in March of '04, right when things started to get tense. It was right before the first big uprisings in April of '04, when the Mahdi Army rose up all across the south, took over briefly in Kut, in Amara, in Basra, rose up all over Baghdad, and the Americans had to go in basically and take them on. There were indications that they were out there in March when the Americans closed down Moqtada's newspaper. That was sort of the spark that got the thing going. That's when the battle lines really froze.

There was an effort going on during this period to disarm militias, to get rid of all these extragovernmental forces with guns.

There wasn't much of an effort. On paper there was an effort, but in reality there wasn't much of anything. The Americans would stand up and say: "We're the guys with guns. We have a monopoly on the use of force. Everything else is illegal, right, unless it's approved by us." They'd say that, and in the beginning, in 2003, 2004, when they had a much better handle on the situation, it kind of held the militias in check. The Americans had a lot more credibility then.

Were they underestimating the power of the militias to disrupt their program?

The Americans saw the problem out there looming -- anybody could see it -- and they didn't want to deal with it. If you look back at the CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority] order ordering the disbanding of the militias, they set up this whole program to provide job training and transition these people to civilian life. ... That order was never carried out in any way that anyone could see. So they promulgated an order, and they said: "All militias are banned. We've got this really nice program for everybody." Then they handed it to the Iraqi government when they left, and the Iraqi government didn't do a thing.

Why didn't the Iraqi government do anything?

For a lot of reasons. The Iraqis didn't do a thing because every major political party had its own militia, so that meant taking away their armed force and taking away their power in the streets. As the situation on the ground and in the streets became more anarchic, it was increasingly clear that you needed that kind of force if you were going to operate and you were going to have influence in Iraq. So nobody wanted to disband.

Did you have conversations with [CPA head administrator L. Paul] Bremer or others about the potential of this many armed forces running free in the streets?

Yes. We brought up all this stuff. They were aware of the problem. ... They knew it was out there. I don't think they knew how big it was, but all the militias were out there, and everybody knew it. Whether it was peshmerga or Badr Brigade or Mahdi, they were increasingly there on the streets. The Americans knew it. They just had too many other problems to deal with. I think they felt at the time, "Let sleeping dogs lie."

Moqtada al-Sadr.

The relationship between the Americans and Moqtada is an extremely complex and interesting one. It's never made perfect sense, no matter how you look at it. Moqtada is under indictment for murder. He's led two armed uprisings against the United States. They killed hundreds of members of his army, but they've basically left him alone. So they've always had this kind of hands-off, "What do we do with this guy?" kind of attitude. And ... when they were trying to demobilize the militias, and they were talking about it and negotiating it, they didn't really know what to do. "What do we do with this guy? He won't even meet with us; he won't even recognize our authority." And he wouldn't. So nobody really knew what to do with him.

Wasn't there a time when Bremer was in favor of going after him?

Yes. The Americans, Bremer included, in 2003 and 2004 indicated that they wanted to go after him. Not so much from them, but from people around them, I know that there were intense internal debates going on about: "What do we do with him? Do we arrest him? Do we kill him? Do we ignore him?" There's no good choice there. I think finally they ended up deciding that he was probably more dangerous arrested or dead than he would be if he was out on the streets, and that's the choice they made.

Was that a good choice?

I don't know if it was a good choice, but we can see what happened, right? To be fair to the Americans, if they tried to kill Moqtada or they tried to arrest him, whether they do that today or whether they did it three years ago, they'd have a heck of a problem on their hands. ...

Tell me about what happened in April 2004.

You had sort of a twin uprising. You had the Sunni uprising in Fallujah, and then you had Moqtada. You had the Mahdi Army, such as it was, occupying the holy shrines in Najaf and Karbala. For a period of several months really, there was this drawn-out, protracted battle to get the Mahdi Army out of the two shrines, the shrine of Hussein in Karbala and in Najaf the shrine of Ali. The culmination of that was in August 2004. It was a tremendous battle. I was there for that. I actually went to the shrine, and I was hanging out with these Mahdi Army guys and they were just being absolutely cut to pieces as the Americans moved in.

What was interesting then, if you look at Moqtada al-Sadr then, in 2004, he wasn't part of the mainstream Shi'ite religious leadership, at the top of which was Ayatollah [Ali al-]Sistani. They detest Sadr. They can't stand him. They think he's from the gutter. That leadership, including the Shi'ite political leadership -- that is, the Supreme Council and the Dawa Party -- they gave the Americans the green light to go in and take out the Mahdi Army, take out Moqtada, with the one absolute condition that they not damage the two shrines.

So what you had was this very strange kind of battle -- really intense street fighting, but neither of the shrines were supposed to be hit. They actually were hit a couple of times; bullets bounced off and they knocked some tiles off. But that split was really interesting, because the mainstream Shi'ite political and religious leadership basically said to the Americans, "Take them out." What's happened since then, after they let Moqtada go, and they let what was left of the Mahdi Army walk, was Moqtada has now gotten so much stronger. Two years later, he's far stronger than he was in 2004. He may be too big for that now.

That decision to let Sadr walk out of there with the surviving forces, there was a lot of debate about that, too, right?

There was a lot of debate about it. ... It was a really difficult decision, because in Baghdad, you had an Iraqi government, [Interim Prime Minister] Ayad Allawi, very tough guy, would probably personally like to kill Moqtada. I don't want to speak for Mr. Allawi, but he didn't like Moqtada. But they weren't elected; this was a government that was sort of cobbled together by the Americans, by the United Nations, so they were unsure of themselves and unsure of their credibility. And Moqtada, as he faced down the Americans and the Iraqi government and portrayed himself and his fighters as the protectors of these holy shrines against these infidels, grew in popularity. So you can see the tentativeness with which the Iraqi government and the Americans acted.

Because his popularity actually gave him legitimacy.

Absolutely. And as the Americans and the Iraqi government squeezed him, he grew in popularity. ...

What you're saying is that by this juncture, Allawi doesn't feel he has enough credibility with the street to go after him.

You can only judge Allawi and the American military by what they did, right? So what they did was put the hurt on the Mahdi Army. They killed hundreds of them. But in the end, they let the leadership go. They let Moqtada walk. So they pretty clearly didn't feel strong enough to take him out.

I remember when Sistani brokered the deal, essentially between the Americans and the Mahdi Army and Moqtada, to end the fighting in Najaf and to get the Mahdi Army out of the shrine, they called this press conference in Najaf; it was 10:30 at night. ... So we all jumped in our cars and drove across town to this house where they were going to announce this deal. These were very serious, sober, responsible people, and they were hoping to end the fighting in Najaf. As we walked up, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Moqtada al-Sadr scurrying out the back door, literally. And he had a guy on each arm, and they were sort of running out the back door.

To me, that was a perfect image of what happened. Moqtada, the young upstart, fiery guy, starts this big uprising, breaks a lot of furniture, kills a lot of people, and then the adults had to come in and clean up the mess. But they let the angry young child run out the back door. It was clear that as long as he was alive, he was going to be a man to be reckoned with.

Let's go back to April of '04. The Americans have a program in place to train police and the army. The White House is saying we're making progress; we're standing them up. And then what happens?

... Well, let me back up. ... Since the invasion in 2003, as the months went on, and the insurgency and the chaos in the streets got worse, the question was always asked: "Do you have enough American troops here to bring order to Iraq?" And the standard answer that the American leadership, military and political, gave was, "We're training the Iraqis to do that." We'd go over to the Green Zone, go to the press conference, and they'd say, "This week there's 100,000 trained police, army, ready to go." The numbers just went up every week. By April 2004 they'd stand up and say: "We now have 200,000 police and army, Iraqi, trained, out there on the streets. That's the answer."

And so what happened? The uprisings happened. You had the American contractors killed in Fallujah in April 2004, and simultaneously you had Moqtada rising up all across the south. Overnight the police and Iraqi army just disintegrated.

Up until that point was there reason to believe that the Iraqi army and police were being stood up? What was going on?

We all had suspicions that the numbers were overstated, that the "200,000 police and army" were masking a quality problem. All you had to do was go out in the streets or go out in the field, and you'd see the Iraqi police officers, and they'd be asleep in their cars, or they wouldn't be there. ...

So why were the police and the army so unprepared for those events in April of '04?

I think the primary answer at the time was that this was a very rushed process. If you went up and talked to these police officers -- the police were a far greater problem because there was a lot more of them -- some of them would say: "Yeah, ... we had a course. I went to Jordan. I came back, and they handed me a uniform, and they handed me a pistol, and they sent me out here." That was it. ...

What those two uprisings told us about the police and the army was that they were --

They were not ready. They disintegrated. Literally all across southern Iraq, in a single evening, they disappeared, thousands of them. They just left.

They were ordered to go into battle. Did they get there? Did they just refuse to leave barracks?

If you take the police forces all around the country, they just disappeared. When the Mahdi Army rose up, whether it was Kut, Amara or Basra, Diwaniya, all those places that the Mahdi Army grabbed in April 2004, the police didn't do anything. They abandoned their stations; they abandoned their posts. They didn't fight. They took off running. They threw their uniforms off.

And in Fallujah?

Same. Fallujah's a little bit more complicated. ... Leaving aside this sectarian stuff, which hadn't really happened yet, in 2003, 2004, one of the big problems was not so much sectarian, but it was infiltration by the insurgents into the police forces and into the army. You could see it. It would be payday at the barracks, and everybody would come outside to get their paychecks, and the mortar shells would come in, right at the right time, you know, 10 [minutes] after 3:00 on Thursday, when everybody was getting paid.

In other words, the guys inside would notify their buddies as to when they were congregating so that they could be targeted.

Absolutely. It's happening all the time. Buses going home, with the soldiers leaving their bases to go on leave -- there would be insurgents waiting for them when the buses left the base. They'd step on to the bus, and they'd machine-gun everybody. That happened countless times. ...

I remember in 2004, in November, in Fallujah, when I went in with the Marines for the big assault. We'd go into a house that was clearly a bomb factory. There'd be stacks of anti-tank mines with cell phones and wires and mortarboards and stuff. You could tell that basically they were making bombs. There would be Iraqi police uniforms all over the place, dozens of them.

What happens as a result of those desertions at Fallujah and Najaf? What do the Americans then do?

Well, they basically start over. They go back to ground zero. They brought in [Gen.] David Petraeus to take over the training, and they set up a very big, very complex, huge, ambitious project to train and equip the Iraqi army and police force. They just went back to square one.

And how did they do with that? How did that work?

A lot of money -- billions of dollars; a lot of people; a lot more training; a lot more thorough; a lot more Iraqi involvement. At every level, it was more professional and more ambitious. If you take the American program that they put in place after the uprising and you compare it to the program they had in 2003-2004, you see how rushed and slipshod the first program was: Get them in, give them a little bit of training, hand them a uniform, get them on their way. After that, when Gen. Petraeus and now Gen. [Martin] Dempsey came in, it was much more thorough, much more expensive, time-consuming, much more ambitious.

But it still didn't do the job.

Well, I think, to be fair to them, they'd say it hasn't done the job yet. You're not just talking about training per se, how to clean a rifle, shoot a rifle. You're talking about really getting into the heads of people. I think this is really the great difficulty that the Americans are having: You have to get an Iraqi to defend Iraq, and to do that, he's got to feel Iraqi. He's got to feel Iraqi first. More than he feels Sunni or Shi'ite or Kurd, whatever else he is, he's got to feel Iraqi. That's what's missing, and that's what they're trying to implant in the army and the police. ...

When Petraeus is there, [Falah al-]Naqib comes into the Ministry of the Interior and decides that what they really need are commandos. Can you talk a little bit about the significance of that?

... Naqib is Sunni. ... My understanding of what happened when Naqib took over is that he set up the commandos, these guys that were basically superpolice, that had a lot of firepower and a lot of mobility. They were just going to go in, kick butt and take names. And I think a lot of them did. There was a lot of evidence that some of them were out of control or pretty rough, not fighting by the kind of tactics that Americans were used to, kind of more of an Iraqi way. ...

Then the election of January '05 hands power to the Shi'a. How does that change the Iraqi forces, especially at the Ministry of the Interior?

It's a huge change. You had a Shi'ite-controlled majority government, democratically elected, taking over. It's important to understand how the Shi'ites feel, by and large. They're a majority in Iraq, always have been, and they've never been in power, not for hundreds of years -- not under the Brits, not under the monarchy, not under Saddam, not under the Ottomans. Now is their time, right? "We're in charge now for the first time, and we're taking over."

And they did. If you take the Interior Ministry, which is responsible for the police and the commandos and those forces of internal security, what you saw over 2005 and into 2006, those forces became overwhelmingly Shi'ite. ... The leadership of the Interior Ministry, at the top of that, was [Bayan] Jabr, who was a former commander of a Shi'ite militia. I think that appeared to set the tone, in style and substance, for what happened in the ministry and in the police forces across the country.

He says he wasn't ever a commander of the Shi'ite militia.

My understanding is that he was directly affiliated with the Badr Brigade, which is the Supreme Council's militia. In any event, unquestionably thousands of police officers and Interior Ministry commandos -- I remember an American official used the phrase "self-incorporated" into the Interior Ministry. I think the number he used, and this was just for Baghdad, was 2,000 members of the Badr Brigade self-incorporated into the Interior Ministry. ...

Here's an anecdote that I remember. I used to go to the home of a very senior Shi'ite political leader every few weeks. He was protected by these guys who were pretty clearly Badr Brigade. They had camouflage uniforms, kind of trim beards, black boots, very disciplined, very well trained. I'd look at them and wave when I went in the door. Over the summer in 2006, I went to the same house, and suddenly it was the same guy, same beard, same black boots, same camouflage uniforms, but suddenly they had patches on their shoulders that said "Ministry of the Interior." ...

What happened to the commandos under Jabr?

It depends on who you talk to. I think the better way to answer this is [to say that] some weeks after the Shi'ite government took power, in middle '05, we started hearing the stories. We started hearing reports of death squads, kidnapping rings, extraditional killings, Sunni males found face down in a ditch, handcuffed, that sort of thing. We started hearing more and more of that. Now, of course, it's quite common. ...

... In all of the footage that we've pulled out of the various libraries and looked at on both battles in Fallujah, you see Americans fighting insurgents. You never, or rarely ever, see an Iraqi soldier.

The Americans are always saying: "They are [Iraqis] out there fighting. They're carrying their weight. They're out front. They're in the lead." We just never see them. When you drive around Baghdad, the Iraqis are manning the checkpoints -- that's true. They tend to go on patrol in areas that aren't terribly dangerous -- that's true. But when it comes to fighting, going into a tough area, the American soldiers do it.

It makes me think back to Fallujah in November of 2004, when 6,000 Marines went in, supposedly 2,000 Iraqi soldiers with them, to take back the city that was controlled by the insurgents. It was incredibly violent: 51 dead Americans, about 450 wounded. Really, really bloody. The Marines I was with captured a mosque. There was lot of hard fighting all the way up the street to the mosque. They fought their way up; they got to the door of the mosque, literally, and they opened the door, and they let the Iraqi soldiers go into the mosque. I remember how clean their uniforms were. They looked like they'd just been ironed and taken off a rack. The Americans were literally covered in dirt, covered in blood.

In a way, the commandos back to 2005 are a kind of anomaly in this, because they actually were getting their uniforms dirty and bloody. When you look across the Iraqi security forces, you stop at the commandos and see something actually that might have some potential. Did that go into the calculation that [SCIRI leader Abdul Aziz al-]Hakim and the Shi'a political leaders had to get control of them?

Yeah, the commandos were important, because the commandos had a lot of firepower. ... So they kind of remade the commandos in their own image, basically.

And they were different than the army who hadn't performed that well, but had worked in the rear with the Americans in the lead.

They were different. They were faster and quicker, but not as well-trained and not as thoroughly trained as the army.

I remember sitting in the living room of a commander of the [Volcano] Brigade. I can't remember the commander's name, but he's been relieved, run out of the town. He's been accused of basically running death squads and everything else. I remember I was talking to him, and his aide-de-camp was sitting in the back with my Iraqi translator. I was chatting with the commander who said: "We've never hurt a flea. I don't think we've ever killed anyone. Anyone! We were always very nice when we go in and we search people's houses and that sort of thing." It was a very frustrating interview, but after I left the interview, the Iraqi who I was with said that when the commander was talking to me and telling me all these things, he was laughing under his breath and saying, "We've killed hundreds of people."

I interviewed Bayan Jabr in Baghdad, and he says that he didn't know of the abuses at the Jadiriyah bunker, for instance. He pretended not to know of any of these abuses. I suppose it's possible that he doesn't know...

You think that's possible?

I think it's possible. I think it's quite possible that a lot of these units operate on the run. I mean, I think they have a general --

But didn't he set the wheels in motion?

He set the wheels in motion. But I think what that means is that they brought in people they could trust, who weren't going to tip off the insurgents as to their location. They brought in people that they knew. It's their people. In Jabr's case, that's SCIRI; that's the Badr Brigade.

I remember as early as 2003 when the insurgency got going and the suicide bombings and the car bombings, and the Sunnis were starting to kill a lot of Shi'a. I remember sitting [with] any number of Shi'ite politicians, and they'd say: "We know who these people are. The Americans, you guys, you don't know who they are. We know who they are. You put us in charge, and we can go get them."

I think that's their feeling. They're not going out there and killing people that they believe are civilians; they think they're killing people who are insurgents. As they say, "We know who these people are." But they're just going about it in a very broad-brush manner. ...

I don't know what Jabr knows. Who knows what Jabr knows? ... Does he know every time a commando brigade or a unit of police officers kidnaps and kills somebody? No, he doesn't. But he's still in charge.

He's responsible ultimately.

Ultimately. Or he was, when he was in charge.

When you say the commandos are not well-trained but they're effective, do you mean they're not trained in what, human rights?

I can tell you what the Iraqis tell us, and what they tell us is that these police brigades, or the commando brigades, move into these neighborhoods very quickly. They move in in trucks very fast. They surround a neighborhood, and they pull all the Sunni males out, and then they're gone. That's what they do. In some cases they're arrested; they're interrogated. In some cases they're never seen again. In some cases they're held for ransom.

And you started to see this in '05.

Late '05 is when death squads, kidnappings, extrajudicial killings, the Jadiriyah prison, that stuff really started to gather. We just heard more and more and more of it.

And what's the American answer to this?

"Be patient." "We know it's a problem." They're not going to deny it. They might deny this or that case, but this takes a long time. This is a brutalized society. You know historically what happens to Iraqis when they get arrested? They get tortured and killed. We've got to teach these people a new way, and that's going to take a long time. ...

The difficulty really is just in trying to assess how [many] of these guys are out of control, and how many of them are effective in doing their job in a decent, honorable way. It's really, really hard. It's in the shadows. Like everything there, it all takes place at night and out of your view, and nobody's really telling you the whole truth, so it's really difficult to know how big that problem is. It's big, but how big? I don't know. ...

I'm very interested in the fact there is no truth on the streets of Baghdad. It's very tough.

Finding the truth in Iraq is very, very hard. It's difficult to know how many police and army are honorable and upright and how many aren't. But all you have to do is drive down a street in Baghdad. You can't go more than a mile without running into a checkpoint. Most of those checkpoints that I've gone through -- I'm American, so maybe there's some hesitation on their part -- but they're not all death squads. If you look back, from the beginning, they're just guys who want jobs. This is a country with, I don't know, 40 or 50 percent unemployment, where if you promise somebody $600 or $500 a month to be a police officer, that's real money. He can feed his family with that.

So these people stand in these lines, and they go to these recruiting centers that have been car-bombed and suicide-bombed, and thousands and thousands of these people have sacrificed their lives, you know? I think some of these people know what's at stake, and they know what they're fighting for. That's pretty clear to me.

But what is their allegiance? I mean, when you scratch the surface and they're presented with raiding a Mahdi Army arms cache, what's their allegiance? Isn't that the question?

I remember talking to an American officer: He said, "Look, all Iraqis have an array of loyalties: their loyalty to their family; their loyalty to their sect, whether it's Sunni or Shi'a; their loyalty to their country." Our job is to kind of rearrange those loyalties, or make some stronger and others weaker. That's what they're grappling with. But some Iraqis have a greater sense of nationhood or fighting for a democratic Iraq than others, of course. ...

The Iraq Study Group comes out with its report and says what we need is more advisers. It starts to sound to some critics that we've been here before. We redoubled our efforts when we got Gen. Petraeus involved. We continue to pour billions more into a project that seems not to improve with time. Violence is at an all-time high, yet we've trained more police and more army than ever before. Is there any evidence that it can work?

I think it would be wrong to deny that there's been progress. There has been progress. There hasn't been enough. If you look back to 2004, when the entire police force across the country disintegrated, ... that hasn't happened, to the same degree. I think the difficulty now is that the sectarian tensions and the civil war, if you will, have accelerated, and those tensions have intensified, and so even the real achievements are now becoming endangered, because communities are being pulled apart.

... I would not agree with the proposition that everything has failed, always, everywhere here. I don't think that that's true. I think that there are units that are pretty effective. There are thousands of police that don't go out and murder people every day. Is that sufficient? Are those numbers sufficient that we can call it a success? No, it's not. But it doesn't mean it's uniformly all bad everywhere. ...

There's been a proliferation of militias. We've got the large militias that we've talked about -- the Badr Organization, Mahdi Army, peshmerga. But now you've got a proliferation taking place that has further complicated the situation.

... The militias were never, particularly if you're talking about the Mahdi Army, it was never that formal an organization anyway. I think what's happened is it's become more and more decentralized. What's so interesting and so difficult about Moqtada al-Sadr is he has this gigantic militia; he has this huge following; he's led armed uprisings against the United States. He also has more seats in Parliament than any other Shi'ite politician -- 30 seats. So you can see he's working both sides of the street here. When he doesn't get what he wants in Parliament, he can call out his friends in the street. So it's really, really complicated.

But as Moqtada has become more house-trained, he's lost a measure of control over his organization, however coherent that organization is. There are individual commanders that have broken off, and the lower down you go, the whole organization has begun to fragment.

If you go to a place like Baghdad now, it's basically anarchy now street to street. If you're a guy with a gun, whether you've got a uniform or not, you're a cop or a commando or whatever, you can do what you want. If you're a group of police officers and you've all got Kalashnikovs and Glock pistols, and you can make some money kidnapping people, then they're going to do it, right? There's nothing right now to stop them. That's what I think is happening.

I keep coming back in my mind -- we have spent so much money on training police and the armed forces and to watch this happen. How does one make sense of that?

People say, "Well, the Bush administration never had a strategy, or doesn't have a strategy to win in Iraq." I actually think they do have a strategy, and they always did. One hand, you kind of build a democratic state; you have elections; you inculcate democratic values. And on the other hand, you train the Iraqi army; you train the Iraqi police so they can take over from the Americans and get out there. That's a strategy.

Nobody has come up with anything else. The problem is it just isn't working. The expectation was that the democratic process would drain away the violence. As more Iraqi police and soldiers came online, the state would stabilize; the insurgency would go away, because they would have a democratic process to channel their demands. What's happened is the democratic process hasn't drained away the violence. It's disconnected from everything. It just seems to exist by itself. The politicians drive around the Green Zone basically. They don't go out in the streets and meet people. They can't deliver anybody anymore. When the people asked President Bush, "Well, get [Prime Minister Nouri al-]Maliki to do this or get him to rein in Moqtada," it's not clear to me that he can, that Maliki has the power to do that. It's not even clear to me that Moqtada can rein in his own people. ...

[When would you say the civil war started in Iraq?]

In 2003, 2004, 2005, largely, violence was a one-way street. It was Sunnis killing Shi'ites and Sunnis killing Americans for the most part. ... If you want a starting point for the Iraqi civil war, it's February 2006, with the bombing of the Shi'ite shrine, the Golden Dome in Samarra.

I think what happened then was finally the Shi'ites lost patience, so the violence became a two-way street. Instead of a one-way street where it was Sunnis killing Shi'ites, Sunnis killing Americans, it started going the other way, too. The Shi'ites started killing Sunnis, and essentially what you have now [began], which is a civil war. I think if you look back, this is what Al Qaeda wanted. This is what they were aiming for.

Who was responsible for the Samarra bombing?

If you look back to February 2004, the captured letter, whose authenticity is unknown, but the Americans believed that it was a letter written by [head of Al Qaeda in Iraq Abu Musab al-]Zarqawi to the leadership of Al Qaeda in which he said: "The only hope we have is to start a civil war, so we've got to redirect our efforts to the Shi'ites. We've got to start killing Shi'ites in huge numbers. That will prompt a civil war. That will bring chaos, and with chaos, we win." That's what's happened. And even though Zarqawi's dead, he certainly looks like he achieved what he wanted to achieve, which is civil war and chaos. ...

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posted april 17, 2007

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