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interviews: james conway
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As commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (I-MEF), Lt. Gen. Conway was responsible for leading one of the two flanks that took on Baghdad and later for holding and patrolling southern Iraq. He was surprised that the Iraqi military never used chemical or biological weapons on his troops. He was also openly skeptical about finding stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. "We thought indirect fire capability-artillery, rockets, missiles-would be [Saddam's] means for putting the chemicals on us," he tells FRONTLINE. "I don't know how we got it wrong." This interview was conducted on Aug. 19, 2003.

Telling me how the overall strategic mission was described to you for this operation in Iraq.

The strategic mission, of course, was the removal of the regime, and the strategic objective was always Baghdad. We had other objectives as a byproduct of our planning. For I-MEF, it was the initial seizure of the oil fields, so that we could preserve about 85 percent of the production in the southern oilfields so as to get Iraq back on its feet that much faster when the war was over.

It was also to remove the regime and also to find the weapons of mass destruction?

Where there was fighting, it was brisk; it was to the death. These people were fanatic in their attacks on our forces.

Of course that was, in great part, why we thought we were there -- to remove the weapons of mass destruction that gave the regime the ability to potentially strike our nation one day.

You say, "That was one of the reasons we thought we were there." You put that in the past tense.

I still think we'll find weapons of mass destruction, if that's your question. … I still believe that they're there in some form or semblance inside the country. I just think we need to talk to the right person at the right time to get that information.

You made some comments to some other reporters that you were surprised not to find weapons of mass destruction. When you were going through the pre-war planning, you had every expectation that you would find them.

Absolutely. We crossed the line of departure, again, in our suits, and we stayed in our suits for a period of about two weeks until we thought we closed sufficiently on Baghdad that we would not get hit. …

How difficult was this war to plan for?

Any war planning is difficult, based upon the scope and the scale and where you are. We've been planning for it for quite some time. I would offer as much as a year. … We probably had, I don't know, 15 or 20 evolutions of the plan that that continued to focus on different aspects of it. The strategic objectives never really changed, but the tactical and operational objectives did. The scope of the force changed. …

You were also having to do postwar planning. "Phase Four planning, ' I think you call it.

Stabilization ops.

Stabilization ops. So how do you do that, when you have to also be planning the military operation which is changing constantly?

We did some preliminary planning for stabilization. But, quite frankly, we started planning it heavily when we saw that the war was going to move at a faster pace than we had perhaps, at least initially, anticipated. Then we were ready for it, I think, in ample time, by the time we moved to our areas of responsibility outside of Baghdad.

Do you think there was ample planning for the postwar phase?

I think so. I think so.

Because there's been a lot of criticism. People see trouble now. They say we should have been ready for this looting. We should have anticipated some of the security problems that we're facing.

I think if you look at the I-MEF sector, we're quite pleased with Phase Four stabilization operations. We have not had a Marine killed since we left Baghdad. Kids will run for a quarter mile to wave at us and go, "Yay, Bush." We've got great relations with the mayors, the city councils, those types of things.

I will say, Martin, that the rate of progress with what we call the hierarchy of needs is not as great as we would like. The infrastructure is awfully brittle. The electrical power is not coming on perhaps to the degree that we would like so we can get the factories up and the people employed. The fuels -- the benzene, the diesel, the LPG -- are not abundant enough that we feel that we're giving the people all that they expect. Some of those types of things.

But we're also explaining to the Iraqis just why that is, and they're reasonable people. They're working with us.

Was that due to a failure of intelligence on just what the infrastructure would be like?

No, I think it's just brittle. We had some experts come in, for instance, on the electrical grid. They said it's been 30 years since there's been any maintenance really performed, since there's been any reconstruction, any regeneration of the electrical grid. They said you can get it up, but it won't stay up. … It's going to require an entire reconstruction for it to be stable enough to keep the oil wells running and keep the factories running, and those types of things.

So I think its more a product of what Saddam did or didn't do, especially in the south, again with the Shi'ite population, than anything else.

But at the same [time], we're supposed to be ready for whatever we're inheriting.

That's true. That's true.

And the question is out there as to whether or not we were really prepared for what we'd be facing.

It's a question of resources. How much are we prepared to put against it? How much do we expect them to put against it? Those manner of things. How much are we going to see in terms of sabotage and effort on the part of folks out there that we see that are still attempting to support the regime, to try to deter what we're trying to do for their nation? …

Do you ever have a soldier say to you: "What's this got to do with Sept. 11?"

No. No. I think every Marine understands what it has to do with Sept. 11.

But yet you've a lot of criticism of this on this point.

I've heard the question asked. But frankly, I think that it's fairly clear. I think that the president has made it clear. I think that we've tried to make it clear to our troops. … I think that there is some definite correlations. I think that, in striking at capability and striking at a an administration or a government, if you will, that doesn't like Americans, that has tried to kill our president on previous occasions, that has shown a propensity to use those weapons-- I think with a preemptive doctrine, which is now an established norm, what we did made great sense. …

[In a March 17 speech] to your troops, you said, "We're not here to destroy the country of Iraq. We're not even here to destroy the army of Iraq." What did you mean by that -- "We're not here to destroy the army of Iraq?"

It relates, again, to those who are going to fight us versus those who were not.

There were on going negotiations with some of the [Iraqi] generals. Were you involved in some of that?

No, I was not. I was not. I was aware of them ongoing--

What was going on? Can you tell me?

We had contacts who were talking to some of these folks, who were encouraging capitulation, if you will, in large, mass formations. That's not what happened as it evolved. But we also were dropping leaflets saying that, if you will do certain things, we will recognize those things, and we will not take you under fire…. We felt like if we could get that snowball rolling, of capitulated units, use that as an information operations campaign, if you will, to say, "The 51st Mechanized Division or the 11th Infantry Division has capitulated. They're eating three meals a day, and they'll soon be helping return Iraq to its once-great status," then we could we could have real effect on those who we still faced to the north.

Were you surprised that that tactic didn't work?

We were a little bit surprised, because frankly we thought we would see more prisoners of war. We had looked at where we would build the compounds. We looked at how we would feed them, how we would contain them, how we would make sure they had sufficient water, and those types of things. It was going to be a tremendous draw on our own resources. So in that regard, it wasn't a bad thing, Martin. What they did instead of coming to us is they just went home, in a lot of cases.

So really there wasn't as much fighting as there could have been?

As there could have been. That's right.

So they just dissolved away.

That's right. … When we drove down Highway 6, there were probably, in a space of the time that I was visiting the division headquarters that day, 1,000 or 2,000 young Iraqi males walking down the roadway headed towards al-Kut in civilian clothes. We thought they were coming out of Baghdad, so we were quite pleased that they were doing just what they were doing. The word amongst them, based on what our human exploitation teams could tell us, was that they were going home, and that's fine.

So you're surprised you're not finding weapons of mass destruction. You're surprised the army's not really surrendering. Any more big surprises for you?

Well, not a big surprise, but one we had to deal with was that the Fedayeen and the Ba'aathists were as fanatic as they were in their defense. You had said that that there wasn't a lot of fighting, and there wasn't. But where there was fighting, it was brisk; it was to the death. These people were fanatic in their attacks on our forces. We knew that there was the potential for them to be there. We'd even planned to deal with them. But I think we were surprised at their tenacity, if you will. …

On April 6, there was this operation to fly into Nasiriyah 700 Free Iraqi fighters along with Ahmad Chalabi, their leader. What was that about?

They went into Nasiriyah for a while. There was a conference there about the same time, as you recall, and they helped provide security about the city. My overarching observation is that those folks were generally not well received. One thing that I think we've discovered dealing with the Iraqis, as much as we have now especially in Phase Four, is a perception on their part that, if you didn't suffer with them in the last decade or more, you're not going to come in and lead them now. I think that was true of the Free Iraqi fighters. I think it's been true of … SCIRI, former Iraqis who lived in Iran that have now come back in since we've since we've been there. They have attempted to gain traction. My assessment is that they have not done so, and it's principally for that reason.

The Iraqis feel like they've suffered a great deal, and you have to have suffered with them if you're going to lead them now.

… But we expected there to be some more support for those Free Iraqi forces.

I think I think we probably did. Otherwise, we wouldn't have gone to the effort to employ them. But, quite frankly, that was a special operations effort. OGA ran that, essentially, Army ODA teams. …

The Free Iraqi forces had no significant impact?

No. They never were significantly engaged. They never significantly contributed, at least to my mind. …

You say they weren't well received. How did you see that?

That was that was a report we were getting from the people, from my commanders at both al-Kut and Nasiriyah. …

What did they say? What did they tell you?

That they're there, but they're not making much difference. They they're good as interpreters, but as fighters, they're not they're not as accomplished as we might like.

That was gentle language compared to what I've heard.

I'm being diplomatic. … They did not they did not come to our standard, our expectations of what we even might expect from Free Iraqis.

And your commanders were also telling you that they didn't have a lot of support on the ground?

People were not responding to them like we might have hoped. Once again, if you can sort of get a snowball rolling, if you can get the local support and locals want to join the force and that type of thing, then it perhaps becomes another matter. But that was not happening at all.

The idea was that they were going to come in and start some uprisings?

At that point, that area where they were operating was secure for all intense and purposes.

But going north from there, they were to help bring the people behind you?

In al-Kut, they were they were going to help us to reach out to the people, help us to understand what their needs were, those matter of things. Again, it just never came to that.

You get up into Baghdad and the looting begins. Initially, everybody seems to accept that that's to be expected. But in looking back on it, did it get out of hand? At that point, I think you said you were surprised by it.

Yes. I think it's fair to say that I am probably amongst those who changed their opinion, over time, on what we were seeing.

On looting? You've changed your opinion on looting? Tell me why.

Let me provide a word of background. I had the opportunity to fly up to Tikrit to visit our Task Force Tripoli up there. I saw the opulence of the palaces in Saddam's birthplace. Getting to and from there, though, you fly over these mud huts that look like something right out of -- I don't know -- the birth of Jesus. The contrast is just remarkable.

So when the troops entered Baghdad and there was a level of looting, I think I understood, so long as Iraqis were taking office furniture out of the government buildings in a regime headquarters location, those types of things. We watched it for two or three days, I think, pretty much with that attitude.

Not really doing anything about it.

At that point, we weren't prepared to do anything about it. We were still engaged with some of the remaining elements of the regime in Baghdad, and it wasn't our tasking. But I think, and I even told my troops after about the fourth day, "OK, there are no more looters, there are only thieves." Because it went from government buildings to where we discovered that they were going to the hospitals, the museums, the archeological sites. Thieves -- some of whom I'm sure Saddam released, some 80,000 or so they let go from the prisons before the war -- were back on the streets plying their trade again.

It contributed to the difficulty we were going to face in trying to put the country back together. So we again passed the word. "There are no more looters out there, guys. Our benevolent attitude is gone. These people are thieves at this point, and they need to be rounded up."

Is it fair to say we miscalculated on looting? I mean, it is one thing to take a refrigerator, or a chair out of an office; another thing to strip and deconstruct an entire building.

You can say we miscalculated, I suppose. We were also told that it was going to be a lot worse than that. I sat down with five Iraqis who were interpreters that we employed with our force. They said, "General, you may not want to be in the cities for the first three or four days after you have moved past them. Because there will be wanton killing and slaughter, as certain segments of the population rise up and kill others who have who have abused them for years."

On a comparative basis, what I would call the looting, the things that happened in the first 72 to 96 hours were pretty minor by comparison. We did not see the slaughter. We did see the looting. But we were much more concerned, all along, about how we were going to deal with people cutting other people's throats in the middle of the day in the middle of the street.

So we were concerned about bloodletting, feuds, and the looting keeps growing. The looting moves into kind of a different phase, and cripples our ability to put the country back together. I talked to General Garner. He said the 17 out of the 20 ministries that he wanted to get up and running were destroyed. Was it the Marines who protected the oil ministry? Why was that decision made, not to protect the other ministries?

I don't think the oil ministry was on the east side. I'm trying to think if it was one of the buildings we protected. But I don't recall that it was.

But there were instructions that came down to protect some of these ministries or not to protect some of these ministries. For the vast majority, we didn't provide protection.

We did not provide protection. There were there were a couple of areas that we were concerned about -- nuclear plants and that type of thing, for obvious reasons. But the things that came down for us to protect were very few in number in the early going. Not a very extensive list at all.

Why?

I can't answer that.

That's a decision made at a higher level?

Well, I suppose. Again, our tasking at that point was to secure eastern Baghdad from those fighters who were still opposing our forces there. It becomes very difficult, I suppose, to both be engaging an enemy and trying to start to protect the infrastructure.

This is where the debate turns to whether or not we had enough people on the ground to really secure the cities. What's your opinion on that?

I think if we had been told to stop the looting and secure key elements of the city, we could have brought a force to do that.

We had enough forces on the ground to do that?

The Marine Corps is fortunate in that a Marine division has lots of ability to put boots on the ground. Now, a part of our force, if you will recall, was up at Tikrit. We had sent three battalions plus a heavy armored force out of 5th Marine Regiment headed that way. They were at Tikrit from April 12-15. So a part of our force was diverted to another set of mission. But, again, you know we would do what we were told to do, certainly.

You think you could have stopped it?

I think so. I think so. We'd have to look at the list of buildings or facilities that we would be told to [protect]. But I think, potentially, when word gets out that the Marines are not accepting any kind of behavior, that it would have traveled quickly and we could have been effective.

Did you get on the phone and say, "Why aren't we defending these buildings? Why are we letting this country be looted?"

No.

Were others?

I can't answer that.

Do you regret that?

It's made our job tougher in certain areas. I think those people that have had to go into those ministries and that type of thing to reconstruct would certainly regret it. …

The search for weapons of mass destruction. On April 9, you said "We've been to virtually every ammunition supply point between Kuwait border and Baghdad, but they're simply not there." And you say, in terms of the intelligence, "We were simply wrong." How did we get it so wrong?

Let me clarify first of all, to say the "we" that I'm talking about was I-MEF. Our intelligence that we had at the time that led our commanders to believe that when we went up against the Iraqi Republican Guard, that we would be struck -- I don't know how we got it wrong. I'm not sure that we that we did, completely, because, again, I'm not sure that we aren't going to discover those weapons yet inside the country. The search continues. Just the other day we found, I don't know, 20-plus MIGS buried in the desert. I tend to think it's not that hard to bury 55-gallon drums. So the weapons may very well still turn up.

But you were expecting to find weapons ready to be deployed.

That's right. … We really thought, up around al-Kut again in particular, that we would be able to go into some of the artillery ammo bunkers there and find those chemical warheads that we had feared would be fired against us. Didn't happen.

What insight do you have into how it is that your intelligence could have been so far off on that?

I don't think that those answers are available to us yet. I think that the whole of the community is looking at what they believed at the time. What caused them to believe those things? What was the stimulus? How was that stimulus either wrong or misinterpreted? We all want to know the answer to that.

But it is a huge question for people right now, because it goes to heart of, did we really-- Was this war really justified?

Well, again, when the answers are there, I think we'll be able to paint the whole panorama and answer that question. I understand that it's an issue, and it should be an issue; not only for what happened here, but for what might happen the next time. The credibility of the [intelligence] community, I think, is something that we all want to see retained. We want to believe that they've got it right, because operations are based on good intelligence.

It also goes to a more sensitive issue, and that is that you lost men in this operation. That's not an easy thing to see happen, and the question is whether or not the war was justified.

If your question is, was the war necessary? I still believe that, whether or not we ever find a weapon of mass destruction, what we have seen in the nation north of our headquarters about 15 miles is a mass gravesite where about 15,000 people were shot in their head with their hands tied behind their back.

I believe that we have a chance to put a stake in the heart of terrorism. … My belief is that that this may give us that opportunity. So I think that that we did the right thing. I don't think that America ever has to worry about Saddam Hussein again. We move on, and that's a fairly comfortable feeling not to be looking over your shoulder at this guy. …

But the war was sold on the basis of the imminent threat of weapons of mass destruction, [not on the basis of] humanitarian issues of mass graves and his cruelty. So the question is, was it justified on the basis of imminent threat of weapons of mass destruction?

And I still offer that I don't think all the votes are in on that. Good people continue to search, and I am relatively optimistic they'll turn up something before its all over.

But you think it's justified, even if even if there were no weapons of mass destruction? How do you think the war was justified?

The theme that the Marines went in under was "Never Again." Never again should the United States have to suffer the effects of what we saw on 9/11. That's bigger than just Iraq, in my mind. That's bigger than just weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. If we can represent to the country that we're not going to stand by while people threaten us in any fashion, weapons of mass destruction or otherwise, if we can -- again, in the middle of a region that breeds and gives support to terrorists -- create what we hope will be a rich and burgeoning country, then perhaps there's another way out there.

But there were no terrorists involved in Al Qaeda from Iraq that I'm aware of.

From Al Qaeda-- That's true, at least it's true to my knowledge.

So the connections between Saddam Hussein's regime and Al Qaeda are -- what?

But you're limiting it to Al Qaeda. OK? There are lots of other terrorist organizations in the region.

But ones that threaten the United States directly. If it's about Sept. 11, we're talking about those that make attacks on U.S. soil.

Let me turn the tables on you and say right now … we are told that there are terrorists from the region flooding into Iraq that have the opportunity to kill Americans. My view is that we're much better doing that in Iraq than we are doing it in New York or Boston or Los Angeles. Those same people that will risk crossing an international border that is somewhat guarded -- to get at our troops in Baghdad, who are very guarded -- are the same people that will risk getting on an airplane and try and come into the United States to kill us here.

So terrorists do exist in the world. In great part, they originate from the Middle East. I think by virtue of the fact that we're there doing what we're doing, we're helping to defend our countrymen who are here today living, hopefully, a good life. …

Terrorists are coming to Iraq at this point to effect a jihad, and in a very real sense, American soldiers and Marines are protecting America by taking them on there, as opposed to taking them on here. I'll tell you, that the military has been scratching its head since 9/11 saying, "Let's consider this now. Our role is to protect our citizenry. We've always done that by forward-deployed bases and stations, forward deployments. Yet, while we're out there, people come in behind us and destroy two of our most magnificent buildings and kill 3,000 of our countrymen. Is our military doing its job as well as we can or should if, in fact, that happens?"

So I think with that thought process, what we're seeing now is, that yes, we are. If we're attracting terrorists, it's a terrible thing. But on the other hand, it's a better thing to take them on in Iraq than it is to take them on here.

But you've got to be concerned as a military man as to whether or not it is possible we can get into something here that's bigger than we can handle. Do you accept that as a possibility?

I'm not sure I do. I'll have to think about it.

There is, at some point, an operation in Iraq that we can't handle. I mean, a jihad that attracts enough people, that stirs enough people against us-- How many troops are we going to be able to lose every day? … There's a point at which the military has to say, "Look, we cannot ensure that you're not going to continue to see one or two American soldiers dying every day." Politically, that becomes very unpopular back home, at some point.

I think that's a natural sequence of events.

And a question that you've got to be concerned about yourself?

Well, once again I think it's better. We have not had deaths the last few days. Happily. I would go back and say that we think that we're doing things very well in my AO, because we haven't had any Marines killed.

So it is not nearly the grim picture that some would paint that's taking place there. There are more successes than failures. Eighty percent of the Iraqis and maybe more are happy that we're there. They don't want us to leave, because they don't want any form of the Ba'aathists to return. So yes, there's an element there that we're having to deal with. But soldiers and Marines are dealing with it as best they can. …

It is true that only 20 percent of the people can cause us a lot of problems?

Well, it becomes, you know, what do the people want? They've got a tremendous capability to have a very rich country and return to levels of peace and prosperity that they enjoyed back in the middle of the last century. Or they can continue to see turmoil and the fighting and so forth that exists. I mean, at some point, you hope that that the good life sort of wins out. You can't be sure.

In a sense though, we as foreigners-- There's a there's a point at which they find it more humiliating to have us there. You don't want to put your guys out there as sitting ducks. Indeed, many of them are standing on the corner there in Baghdad or down in your immediate area, and it's hard to say they're not sitting ducks.

Yes. Well, it also depends upon your tactics and techniques. You know what we have done in the south, I think is one of the things that has made us hugely successful. We have built an Iraqi police force.

I want to talk about that stuff. I think you have done some things in the south, although you're dealing, in some ways, with an easier part of the country.

You know people say that. But it's funny, before the war, they called them "the volatile Shi'a."

And you got Sadr stirring things up for you.

Yes.

Have you talked to him or Sistani?

No. No. They won't talk with us. …

So you're in a volatile area, with Shi'a, with Badr making his speeches. But yet you're not losing people. What are you doing?

… We worked what we call an inside/out approach, which meant we initially went into the cities, developed city councils and mayors, developed relationships with the people inside the cities, and then started venturing out more to the countryside. But before we did, we had established bona fide police forces. We had to fire about 80 percent of the police that we initially accepted -- I won't say accepted, but initially joined on -- when we came to the cities. We fired several mayors and city council members who were disruptive to the effort. But when we finally got it to where we wanted it, we've had some fairly effective police forces evolve, some great army MP companies that have helped us in the center of the city. …

Are there lessons here that are not being learned?

We don't have a lot of doctrine on this. General Krulak gave us the three-block war concept. Our Marines of the 1930's in Nicaragua gave us the small wars manual. That's about all we have to go on, frankly; that, and a lot of common sense on the part of some great young leaders.

Fact is, it seems to be working for us. Some of it, I'm sure, are the Shi'as and the fact that they realize that they're 60 percent of the population. If they manage this thing right, they can be better off than they ever were before. But I won't take anything away from our Marines and sailors who are out there on a daily basis doing great work, and contributing mightily to what you see happening in the cities in the south. …

The lessons that the Marine Corps is going to take away from this, I hope, will be lessons that we put into Marine Corps doctrine. Things that we found that worked for us here. Again, we don't have that doctrine right now. We need to develop it, because this may not be the last time we do this. In the past, Marines, assault troops, have not done nation building. In this case, the army is stretched. The National Command Authority is asking us to do this, telling us to do this, and we're doing it. But we're sort of feeling as we go.

Fortunately, we're having a good bit of success with it. So my point is we need to record that.

Are you comfortable with nation building as a role for the military?

I think it's probably a necessary part of what we do in the early weeks or months after a war has ended until such time as you can get in those folks that do it professionally, the NGOs, … the U.N., folks like Mr. Bremer and his administration. So yes, I think it's probably a necessary part of it all. The military needs to be able to bridge that for whatever period in time. …

Is it inevitable that the postwar planning gets short shrift because of the overwhelming challenge of war planning?

You know, you shoot the wolf closer to the sled. At one point, the war planning called for 125 days of fighting. It came down to something a little more than a tenth of that. So whereas it I think was in our thoughts, as we get through the worst of the fighting and we see that light at the end of the tunnel, now that we have time to get serious about stabilization operations. It's not that we didn't plan for it, because we did. We planned for it before we ever left Kuwait. But those plans were the ones that were on the shelf, while the war plans were the ones that we addressed on a day-in to day-out basis.

We talked to a number of people at various think tanks around Washington who commissioned experts and wrote up reports. Consistent among them was the need for a constabulary, for a police force to be in place, for jails and judges and a justice system. All of these experts say that their recommendations were ignored.

I can't talk to that. What I can tell you is that when we went into those cities that we were assigned after we left Baghdad, that was one of our first concerns. The people who were doing those things, in great part, were Ba'athists or were somehow associated with the regime, and they really needed to go, because there was absolutely no level of trust or confidence in the people. …

So the first thing that we had to do was bring together a police force and a governance that the people could trust. In one city … we wanted to paint "protect and serve" on the side of the police cars. The police chief said, "What's that mean?" So there was a whole different concept of Western-style policing that we needed to invoke with these people. It took some time.

So I don't know what the experts were saying. I don't know what Mr. Bremer or General Garner could've done more than what we were doing at the local level to get those things up and running.

You had a brilliant military campaign, and then you just get hammered on this postwar period. It must be galling for you.

I guess I've got a thick skin where that is involved. Because as I look at our sector -- and I don't want to keep emphasizing the fact that that our Marines are doing as well as they are -- but at our sector, we're very pleased with what we see. So when I hear criticism about postwar, I think that it's coming in some cases from some fairly negative reporting over those few incidents that do occur on a daily basis, and ignores the tremendous successes taking place elsewhere in the country -- not just in the south, but in the far north. … The perception is entirely more negative than I believe it to be. …

But if Baghdad can't be quelled, if violence in Baghdad continues badly, haven't we bogged down seriously here?

I don't know. There's 6 million people in Baghdad. A microcosm of those people are doing disruptive things and shooting at soldiers. So I just refuse to accept, I guess, your categorization that we're bogged down, or that Baghdad is a huge problem. I think that there are a lot more wins than losses taking place there.

 

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