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michael ware

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Ware is unique among Western journalists for his extensive contacts within the insurgency. He is TIME Magazine's Baghdad bureau chief and has covered the war from the very beginning, entering Iraq before the invasion. Throughout his time there, he kept a personal video record of his travels. In this interview, he talks about the evolving nature of the insurgency and the tensions and growing conflict between the Baathist/nationalist Iraqi insurgents and foreign jihadis, particularly Zarqawi's Al Qaeda in Iraq forces. He also talks about the Iranian connection, why Fallujah was a turning point for the insurgency and the extraordinary risks that he has had to take in his reporting. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted over several days in the fall of 2005.


[What is the general ideology of the foreign insurgents in Iraq?]

... It's the jihad. Idealistically, they're striving to create or to return to the ultimate Islamic caliphate, where borders dissolve and nation-states cease to exist, and it's one great Muslim world stretching from Spain through North Africa, the Middle East, all the way down to Indonesia and into parts of Asia. It's ruled by the caliph, and it's lived accorded to Sharia principles.

Now, that's the ultimate aim. However, just maintaining a perpetual state of jihad elevates you and your community closer to God. That alone is an end in itself.

[And so that's why they're drawn to Iraq?]

Look, this is a magnet for any young man, who, like in Afghanistan, like Osama bin Laden himself in the '80s, you want to serve the cause, you pack up, and you go. It's the same with the money. If you want to give money for the jihad, then you want it to go where it's needed most and where it's sexiest. ... And Iraq is the hot place to be. It's the hot place to give your money, and if you want to serve anywhere in jihad, then this is the place to come. This is where you can fight the infidel, the great Satan himself, face to face.

Now, when you go home from your tour of duty, and you sit around the mosque or the teahouse, and you can say, "I was there; I fought in Iraq," that silences a room. And what we're now seeing is not only the physical building of this generation, [but] through the boundless promise that the Internet has offered the jihad world, there's a whole generation that's been inspired. Look how much has now been done in the name of Iraq and in retribution: from the London bombings to Bali and estranged involvement here in Iraq.

It's re-enlivened the entire organization and the cause and the idea. [For Abu Musab] al- Zarqawi and his immediate organization, [and] more broadly [for] Al Qaeda, they are the main beneficiaries of this war. The very thing George Bush says he came here to prevent, he is actually fostering and giving life to. It has to be the greatest irony of this whole experience.

Iran has played on some levels what one could describe as a very smart game in Iraq. They've backed every horse in the race, waiting to see which ones will come good.

And I see it; I've touched it. I've sat with these people ... under a dictator like Saddam, where there was no Al Qaeda; there were no camps like there were in Afghanistan; there were no training programs; there were no cells and safe houses. I have been to Al Qaeda camps, Al Qaeda communities; I've seen them training. I am now in possession of their training video, so eerily reminiscent of what we saw coming out of Afghanistan: foot soldiers going through obstacle courses, men in masks learning how to search houses, fire missiles, handle weapons, bombs, assassinations, drive-by shootings. We're now seeing that happening here in Iraq. That is only happening as a result of the U.S. invasion and ongoing prison [problems]. This is going to be the great legacy of the war in Iraq.

And only now [am] I seeing the U.S. military intelligence publicly stating [on] the increasing Islamicization of this war and of the Iraq insurgency. Iraqis who were fighting for a myriad of reasons, by which they self-identified as nationalists, as freedom fighters, were fighting a very immediate thing in a foreign occupation. Among men whom I would meet in 2003, and I would say, "What will it take for you to put down your weapons? What will end this conflict?," and their answer [was], "For the Americans to leave." A year later, I asked one of those same men: "You once said to me if the Americans left, your war was over. What now, if the Americans leave, what will you do?" He looked at me straight back and said, "If the Americans leave now, I must follow them wherever they go." Every day this war continues, more and more Iraqis join the jihad, the holy war, and that is a global fight.

So even if we can hold the border insurgency at bay in Iraq, ... even if the American military could start to see some kind of progress in its fight here in Iraq, the longer this fight goes on in almost any form, the more America loses in the sense that its enemy grows larger and stronger.

[But isn't there a large portion of the insurgency that remains nationalist?]

There is, but that has increasingly been hijacked by the Islamists.

[Do you think that the nationalists who are insurgents are now regretting entering into this marriage of convenience with the Islamists?]

... The secularists, the nationalists, the Baathists went into that strategic alliance with their eyes wide open. It was never a happy marriage. From day one, you could see the friction and the tension, be it over tactics, be it over materiel, be it competition for attention or resources or money, or be it just turf wars and power conflicts.

... I've been a keen student of these tensions, and we saw them really playing out in Fallujah, during what could be described as the glory days of Fallujah, when the insurgents held that city and could unequivocally call it their own. It's where Americans not only dared not tread, but could not tread. [The insurgents] could run it as their own fiefdom, as they wished. And from that base, they could launch in so many ways. It was there, in that hothouse, where we [saw] these many permutations of the insurgency live together. [And] there were battles in the streets; there were tit-for-tat arrests and assassinations all the time. Everyone was battling for a little bit of control, sometimes ideologically, ... or sometimes it just came down to who owned the street. [It was] very basic denlike behavior.

I remember, for example, a very senior Baathist commander. He comes from one of the main strains of the Baathist insurgency, linked to the faction headed by Muhammad Yunis al-Ahmed, who gives direction of money principally from Syria. He and some of his organization had a meeting with some very senior members of Zarqawi's organization, principally foreigners but also Iraqis. They thrashed out the issues that they had to deal with, and they're sitting down afterwards in the afternoon drinking some chai. They're just having a conversation. Eventually it turns [in] a certain direction and became somewhat heated, as the Iraqis called them Arabs. [And a senior foreign fighter] turned around and said, "You know, if you Baathist gang return to [the] power you seek, we'll be coming for you." And the Baathists snapped straight back: "We are under no illusions about that, and we will be ready." That's the way it's been from the beginning.

I had another contact with a Baathist commander, mid-ranking, who ... was drifting closer and closer towards the Zarqawi organization's sphere of operation. Essentially he was being recruited, and he and I spent a lot of time going through the processes that he was being taken through. Anyway, it got to a point where he was getting very serious about this recruitment, and then I went away. And when I came back 10 days later, I caught up with him and said, "So how is that going?" And he in essence said to me, "I have completely rethought that whole strategy." He said, "I finally sat down with some of the upper echelon" -- and this is a man who himself had been in battle since the beginning of the occupation; this is a man who's killed goodness knows how many American soldiers and Iraqi soldiers -- and he said: "I was scared sitting with these men. From one moment to the next, you don't know what's going through their minds. And these guys, if they even think you are betraying them, you're dead." And he said, "It's as though they are from another planet." Then he said to me: "I realized midway through all of this that there [are] only two ways to leave their organization: You either die in battle or you die at their hands." So he extricated himself and his entire organization from that.

Now, that was the summer of 2004. So for anyone in intelligence circles to claim that this [leaning toward the Islamist faction within the insurgency] is a sudden development is deluding themselves. The real problem is that, despite the tensions, despite the turf wars, ... more and more Iraqi fighters are drifting to the Al Qaeda fight. Slowly but surely, the nationalists, the freedom fighters, as they identify themselves, [have] bit by bit lost ground within the insurgency. ...

... We have witnessed this insurgency evolve. The very first insurgents I met weren't insurgents; they were just ticked-off Iraqis who had lost their rank in the armies, lost all their privileges, their honor, their standing. Americans were now suddenly traipsing into their homes and disrupting their women. "Hello, I'm ticked off. Well, let's just go take a few potshots." It was just them and some of their brothers and the guy next door. Some of these guys now have hundreds and thousands of dollars on their heads. ...

Who exactly makes up this unseen enemy, the nationalists who are insurgents?

The backbone of the insurgency are just professional military officers, otherwise ordinary guys who love their home and love their family and worry about their kids and want to make sure they get off to school OK and come back OK and they get a job and have a career and have children of their own.

When [I'm brought blindfolded into their houses to meet with them], I'm in a living room, and we're sitting, and there's kids playing, and there's toys in the corner, and the wife's out the back making the food, and ... the kids [are] joking and playing. These are ordinary men with ordinary family concerns, but to their minds there's a foreign occupier on their soil. And on a number of occasions these guys have said: "Ask an American soldier to imagine he's in the Midwest, in the USA, and a foreign occupying army is in his small hometown, and on his main street is a foreign tank and barbed wire and bunker positions with foreign troops who are searching the women of his home, and who at any moment can storm into his mother and father's house and turn it upside down. Ask him to understand that," they'd say to me. That is the bulk of the insurgency in Iraq. ...

Then there's another element which is small but so nasty it sometimes can dominate. These are a group of men whose commitment cannot be questioned, to whom death is something they seek rather than just accept. These are men who can do the most barbarous things one can imagine and not even blink, and who will sit with you afterwards over tea or there with a handful of lamb and rice as they're putting it into their mouth, talking to you about what it's like as you're severing a head or the particular forms of torture that they prefer, or sharing their complete lack of empathy for the civilians that they watch their own bombs kill. ... For these men, you look into their eyes, you sit with them, and you're peering into a very dark soul. ...

[Give me an example of what an insurgent leader might be like.]

What you then see is a man who you can describe as one of the emirs of Baghdad. ... He was a Baghdad emir, and he was given a section of Baghdad. Beneath him were a number of emirs, all of whom control a number of cell leaders who controlled their individuals. So he was one of the ones who was in the car making the battle assessment and then part of the decision-making process to fire the mortars at the American patrol base in retribution. ...

What's he like as a man?

This Baghdad emir -- he is among the most accessible and, dare I say it, trustworthy insurgent contacts I've made. I knew this guy back when he was following the orders of his cell leader in the very early days. But he had a natural talent for leadership, and he very rapidly rose up the ranks. It's like every time I saw him through 2004, he'd been promoted again and again. He has a family, kids. I've been to his house a couple of times. I was either taken there at night or I was taken blindfolded, ... but I've been there several times, and he's actually a gentle kind of guy when you take him away from the field and when you strip him bare of the insurgency. I mean, these men are killers; these men are warriors; these men do have methods and means that are deeply troubling. So for me, it's always fascinating to be able to capture moments of their human side. ...

He's a relatively senior former military officer in Saddam's armed forces, reasonably well educated, fairly savvy, and is a man who I think more than a lot of others applies reason to his fight as opposed to just naked ideology, which I think is why I've been able to engage with him.

Is he Islamist in any shape or form?

No. He's one of these guys who primarily identifies as nationalist, but part of his family and a lot of his tribe are Islamist indeed, [and] are in Zarqawi's organization, and he's worked very closely with them throughout. He's one of these guys who it's very hard to categorize and pin down. He very much represents the fluidity of the insurgency itself. So in effect, he works for Zarqawi, but then again he was a nationalist, and then again he ran his own race, and then again he was receiving funding from a multitude of sources. So he very much reflected the complex nature of the insurgency itself.



[Tell me about how things really began to shift in the summer of 2004 in Fallujah.]

Fallujah was a point of transformation in many ways for the insurgency, and one of the things to note is that that wasn't necessarily [by] design. Fallujah had always been a source of unrest, even in the immediate aftermath of the invasion. It was the scene of a number of protests and riots. In fact, it's there that the 2nd Airborne, with the presence of some of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, actually attempted to send troops in to raid this area, but they were met with fierce and well-organized resistance. So U.S. forces, by and large, were kept outside, but of course there was complete freedom of movement of the insurgents in and out of the city.

More significant about that period is that with this call to arms that was sparked by the killing of the Blackwater contractors, and then in the midst of the insurgents' relative success in claiming Fallujah and being able to hold it, it brought together these disparate insurgent forces, and it was in the hothouse of Fallujah that those who had not coalesced began to coalesce. Those that had lost or hadn't found structure began to find it. Groups that had only the barest nodding acquaintance in the past began to deconflict operations or operate together. And it's [then that] Fallujah became a real melting pot for the insurgency, and it brought a unification [that] to that point had really been lacking.

... So the alliances and structures that joined to make new hybrids in Fallujah were then transferred to other parts of the country. It was through Fallujah that we could see this process where the insurgents were coming together in much more organized ways, with hierarchical command structures, with coordination and much more adept methods of fighting, that this war [could] really take root. It was from there that we began to get, more than ever, a national insurgency.

How do the insurgents fare as fighters, in tactics and style?

Well, hit and run, hit and run, classic guerrilla stuff. ... The insurgents never allow you a time to really get hold of them. They attack you from here, you target your fires, and almost as you're doing that, they're gone into another position, and they hit you from there. But they just hit and go and hit and go and hit and go and hit and go. And it's very, very hard. Combating these insurgents is like trying to hold water in your hand. Just when you see the window that they're shooting from and where they're coming from, and you're closing your hand on that, it all just seeps out through the cracks. That's how this battle was fought with these men from the 1st Infantry Division day after day after day as they progressed south through Fallujah. ...



I'll try and give you an overview, and then you'll see how complicated and deep it really, really is.

I've always said it's generally a two-track war in Iraq. The two-track war has always been the homegrown Sunni, insurgent, self-identifying, freedom fighter, [in the] nationalist fight. That's your day-to-day drip feed of ambushes, roadside bombs, rocket attacks, mortar attacks. These are the guys who were once in uniform and are now out of uniform fighting to liberate their country from a foreign occupation.

The second track has always been the high-profile, mass-impact terrorist strike led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

There's actually a third track, to be honest, and that is an Iranian-backed, Iranian-directed, Iranian-funded and, at the very least, Iranian-inflamed insurgency in the south of Iraq and in parts of Baghdad. To put it simply, Iraq is of enormous strategic interest to the ayatollahs in Tehran. In this region, the major check against the expansion of their power had always been Saddam. When the West removed Saddam and removed his army, that made it open game. I've obtained Iranian military intelligence documents that were smuggled out of Tehran and brought to me which show the extent to which they capitalized upon this during the chaos of the invasion.

Tens of thousands, perhaps 100,000 Iraqi Kurds went to Iran during Saddam's regime. Many, many, many of them were then put into fighting units by the Revolutionary Guard, or they were formed into opposition groups, almost exactly what the Americans have done time and time again. In fact, one of these groups, the Badr [Brigade], they were made [from] a unit of the Revolutionary Guard extraterritorial force. ...

As the Americans and the Brits advanced from the south, these forces poured across the border and started seizing ... all the symbols of power: the governor's office, police headquarters, all of these things, ... even the universities. So they assumed a de facto power. They filled the vacuum that was left [by the withdrawal of Saddam's forces], and as I've said, I've got some intelligence documents that show, for example, in one southern city how they were there in control when the American Marines arrived.

British army reports ... corroborate this. When the board of enquiry was looking at the background, they found that yes, by the time we arrived in some of these places, there were these militias that had seized such control that we were forced to negotiate with them for the security of the area.

... So essentially, just as the Americans did in Afghanistan to oust the Taliban and Al Qaeda -- an alliance of native opposition groups were backed, funded and then led by special forces -- that's precisely what Iran did to America here in Iraq. So they seized real and effective control of the south.

... [Now,] as British military intelligence describes to me, as secret U.S. intelligence documents clearly show, as members of these militias have told me, and as the Iranians' own documents betray -- what they're doing is, it's like an occupation by stealth. In all the things that the American occupation is trying to do on all the levels -- military, political, diplomatic, economic, humanitarian -- the Iranians are mirroring this. They've got military forces here performing certain functions. They're pumping in money using front companies. They're trying to take advantage of and dominate the economy of the south. They're particularly interested in the oil and other forms of commerce. They're just pumping people and money and literature into their madrassas, the mosques, the universities. What has happened to Basra University is mind-boggling -- all this kind of thing.

So in every way, on all the levels of a civil military operation, the Iranians are nearing, and with enormous sums of money. These opposition groups that were formed to oppose Saddam, and some of which have been formed after the arrival of the Americans, are ... answering to and being funded by the Revolutionary Guard just across the border. The main aim of the military aspect of this Iranian-backed campaign is to bog down the coalition forces without actually provoking them. So the idea is to just chip away, say, at the British presence in the south, just unsettle them so much that they never feel stable, so, as a very senior British commander in the south told me, "so that we must remain in force-protection mode."

Basically, while the British and the Americans in the south are concerned primarily with keeping themselves alive, they don't worry about anything else that is happening outside that channel. That allows these militias and these political parties to continue seizing control and consolidating their own power.

Now, [there are] very sinister applications of this Iranian-backed insurgency. One of them is the formation of an Iraqi insurgent network led by a former senior intelligence officer within the Badr Brigade in the days that it was in Iran. After the American invasion, to specifically confront the U.S. occupation, his network was formed by the Kurds' force, or the special forces extraterritorial in the Revolutionary Guard. The Revolutionary Guard facilitated a relationship between his network and Lebanese Hezbollah. In fact, members of his network, it is understood from interrogations and documents, traveled to southern Lebanon, where they were taught various techniques, particularly techniques to combat the American Army. ...

So Iranian technology has actually found its way into the Sunni insurgency?

Yeah, Iran has played on some levels what one could describe as a very smart game in Iraq. They've backed every horse in the race, waiting to see which ones will come good. Since 2003, I've had Iraqi Sunni Baathist commanders telling me about the Iranian money they get. It's not funding their operations. It certainly wasn't then. In fact, these Baathist commanders, the biggest complaint to me about these damned Iranians was that they're too smart by half: "Instead of just giving us the money in one big lump sum, they feed it to us in little bits so we've always got to go back to them asking for more." That way they can maintain the contact and keep getting the intelligence.

Also, let's look at the other end of the extreme: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. This is one of the most extreme Islamic militants you can imagine. Part of his grand strategy is to first provoke the Shi'a and to then ultimately confront and destroy them. So this is a sworn enemy of the Shi'a religious divide. Nonetheless, we know that Zarqawi has had access back and forth through Iran.

We know that Ansar al-Islam, a [Kurdish] group ... [that gave Zarqawi] sanctuary in Iran, has had support from the Revolutionary Guard; that senior members of Al Qaeda have fled from Afghanistan or from Saudi [Arabia] and have made their way to Iran. Some of them are under house arrest, and Iran refuses to hand them over. Others just happen to be there. As a very senior military intelligence general here in Iraq described it to me, he believes Iran's policy is that as long as these guys don't make trouble in Iran, then the Iranians can tolerate their presence. "You behave here, you're making trouble elsewhere. We aren't on the same page, but for now we all have the same enemy. Fair enough." So Iran is playing a very, very complicated game.

And yet al-Zarqawi is killing Shiites.

Zarqawi is killing Shiites, and for me it's one of the enduring contradictions of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and one of the questions I would like to be able to ask if ever it were possible for me to meet him. But I think what it comes down to is realpolitik. One must make do where one can.

Now, I would suggest that the relationship between Zarqawi and the Iranians has always been a very stressful one, and I'm sure it changes constantly, so its current state one can only guess at. ...

So within this realm of Shi'a militant organizations, you have a vast array of characters just in the Sunni insurgency. One of the best examples perhaps is Moqtada al-Sadr . ... Moqtada is one of these Iraqi Shi'as who never left Iraq, so he does not feel beholden to Iran, and that does several things. One, that makes him enormously popular on the street, because he stayed and suffered as those who could not escape stayed and suffered. Also, it means he's free of any stench of foreign intervention, so he can draw upon a Shi'a nationalist support base. Iraqi Shi'a themselves have no great love for Iranians. These are Arab Shi'a, many of whom fought against Iran in the Iran-Iraq War, some by design, some because they were conscripted. So Moqtada can draw upon all of this.

At the same time, Moqtada does have a relationship with the Revolutionary Guard, and we've seen this in the aftermath of some of the battles, and this has been learned from sensitive site exploration by the Americans. But that relationship for Moqtada is [a] very difficult [one]: "Yes, I'll take your money. Yes, I'll take your weapons. No, I don't buy into your ideology, and we all know that on any given day if I get a better offer, I'm going." It's a very problematic relationship. So that's in direct [opposition] to other groups which were formed, equipped, trained, designed and dispatched by the Iranians lock, stock and barrel.

... So this insurgency has many faces: three primary channels, all of which mix and blur at different points. The ground shifts constantly. But the one unifying factor is the presence of foreign occupying forces, and that's the Americans.



Would you define al-Zarqawi as Takfirian [an Islamic sect that demands the murder of any non-Muslim, or even Muslims who oppose the Takfiris' goals]?

I'm not qualified enough to answer that, but what I can tell you [is] that even within the Al Qaeda and broader jihad movement, he is very much on the extreme fringe. He is more militant than the militant. I think this is one of the reasons why he was not brought into the Al Qaeda fold proper much earlier, say [in] Afghanistan. I think there [were] just differences in opinion.

It's this young generation that's being enthused by Zarqawi; it's he that has brought them alive.

... [L]ook at how he waged his war here in Iraq under the banner of Tawhid and Jihad [Jama'at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad] -- Unification, or Unity and Holy War -- and the video beheadings of Westerners and the almost arbitrary use of mass-impact weapons with high civilian casualties. You look at ... the secret discussions that went on around Zarqawi, where even his own mentors -- the founders of his organization, whom Zarqawi met in prison ... and who chatted and cultivated Zarqawi -- these people were saying, "Listen, wonderful work that you're doing, and the flame that you have set alive is remarkable; however, there's just some edges to it that you really have to address." ...

But once Zarqawi joined Al Qaeda formally, for what I believe is a host of reasons, you begin to see a change. There has not been one Zarqawi beheading video. And by and large we've seen Zarqawi and his organization leave the hostage market.

We're talking about Western beheadings, but there have been beheadings of Iraqis.

There will continue to be beheadings of Iraqis for a whole myriad of reasons. That's not the sole domain of Zarqawi's organization. It's about striking at those who align with your enemy, foreign or internal. It's striking the apparatus. It's as the Taliban in Afghanistan said to me when I was meeting with them in secret Pakistani hideouts, that there was a certain point about nine, 10, 11 months after the initial American invasion where they said: "We've shifted strategy. The order's been given, and it's trickled down. Our focus has shifted from directing attacks on American forces, which are exacting a very high price from us anyway, to stabbing the Americans' eyes and ears." It's the same here.

So the beheadings and the intimidation and the executions of Iraqis seen in any way to be collaborating or assisting or associated with the coalition or its puppet regime will continue. But what we're talking about here is that high-profile, purely politically motivated video execution by Zarqawi's organization, and since he has joined Al Qaeda, there has not been one. ...

[In the letters that emerged between Al Qaeda and Zarqawi, it seems that there was some disquiet about his tactics, which Al Qaeda members believed were alienating Iraqis.]

Yeah, that's true, and that's a continuation of this debate. Zarqawi, in many ways, has not only confronted the West, but he's also challenged the jihad community itself, and he's forced it to look again at itself and its strategic objectives, and even its tactics. So he's enflamed great debate.

Nonetheless, the suspicion that I harbor is that in the final wash down the track, be it in years or in generations, what we will see is that the form of Islamic militancy will have more of the mark of Zarqawi than it will of the more moderate. It's this young generation that's being enthused by Zarqawi; it's he that has brought them alive.

And bin Laden is not a part of that generation?

No. Certainly the way I see it, and the way it's been expressed to me by individuals who have become a part of Zarqawi's organization, Sept. 11 was the end of a form of Al Qaeda. Sept. 11 was the final product of the Afghan generation. ... And I'm sure the Al Qaeda strategists knew that after Sept. 11 an attack would come, and the organization would be dispersed, and [they would] have to revert to an underground movement and would be under great stress. And if you look at what bin Laden has said, and if you just analyze the nature of the actions, it was an inspirational event: "You see what we can do? Now you go out and do it. We've trained you. We've funded you. We've shown you the way." And that's always been a fundamental Al Qaeda principle.

So very much it was franchised terrorism, and it was, "Think globally, act locally," with a very local phase to every manifestation. And it didn't have to be Al Qaeda in every appearance. It was Abu Sharif [leader of Asbat al-Ansar, a Lebanon-based group] here and the Moral Liberation Front there, and something else here and something else here. But in all its permutations, it was a furtherance of a fundamental Al Qaeda-inspired ideology or concept. It's the idea that is most powerful.

So what we saw after Afghanistan is this movement seeking its new birth, its next platform, and through Zarqawi we see this personified. He had a camp in Herat, [Afghanistan], for his organization, which was not Al Qaeda but was definitely affiliated and working within it. It's then reported that he went to Kandahar, joined the defense of that, and eventually fled through Iran. Then there [are] various reports about where he went and how long he spent and whatever. But essentially, what he was doing was ... shopping around as a terrorist consultant for hire. He was looking for the next place or group or cause on which to graft himself. And ultimately, the U.S. administration gave him Iraq as the next platform upon which to build the new generation. It was the ultimate tool with which to recruit.

If you go back and you see the letter that Zarqawi wrote to Osama bin Laden, which was intercepted, ... it constitutes Zarqawi's business plan. "This is what I intend to do with this platform, seeking the support of Osama bin Laden." You go back and read that document now, and Zarqawi has followed through with everything that he promised. Every tenet that he outlined, he has, if not fulfilled, he has pursued vigorously. And it was here that Al Qaeda was given a rebirth. This is what we're now seeing: This Bush administration is the midwife to the next generation of Al Qaeda, and that's a generation that is principally being shaped or flavored by Zarqawi. ...



Editor's Note: In September 2004, Michael Ware heard that Zarqawi's people were trying to take control of the insurgency in Baghdad. Ware was determined to verify Zarqawi's takeover, but, as he recounts here, it nearly cost him his life.

... There was a point in September 2004 where this quietly growing presence of Zarqawi's fighters [in the Haifa Street area of Baghdad] peaked, and Zarqawi's organization had supplanted the local Baathists' authority in Haifa Street. ...

... One of the Baathists came to me and said, "The takeover is complete," basically. So suddenly Zarqawi's flags -- black banners with the golden orb in the center -- were fluttering and waving from the buildings and trees that lined this major thoroughfare. This was a declaration of ownership, of arrival, of defiance. So I needed to verify this and record it, and that's when I went down there, and I was grabbed by Zarqawi's people.

They pulled you out of a car and put a gun at the back of your head and were going to pull the trigger.

Yeah. And they have live grenades, and they pulled the pins, and they were holding them to me, and they had me under one of those banners, and they were in the throes of getting ready to execute me. They were preparing to execute me. ...

What was happening in your head at the time?

I thought that it was over. I had a lot of dealings with Zarqawi's organization directly. There was no room for any doubt in my mind. I know what happens to foreigners once they're in the hands of Zarqawi's people, and some of the men there, by their accents, were clearly identified as Syrian, not Iraqi. I felt, personally, that I was at the opening of a tunnel.

But it was a very senior Baathist commander who comes from one of the main strains of the Baathists, who eventually said, "Do you really want to start this war between us over this?" And this heated debate went on for -- whilst it was only perhaps 10 or 15 minutes, to me it felt like a lifetime. My life was in the balance.

[It was] very heated. There was screaming in faces, and I could watch the crowd of low-level foot soldiers who were there from either side. I could see them sway from one side to the other, and it wasn't until the very end that through gritted teeth, after saying, "You bring a Westerner here, and you expect us to let him leave alive?," that the Zarqawi people, gritting their teeth, said: "Fine, you can have him. Take him. Get out." And I got out that way.

That was very hard to recover from. Nonetheless, the point remains, [that] day you saw the subsuming of a local indigenous Iraqi fight, with very different agendas, by a foreign-inspired, foreign-led, foreign-funded global holy war. Now later, again, that was reversed, and right before the January 30, 2005, election in Iraq, the nationalist insurgents had reclaimed power in that area. ...

What's the personal experience [of living so close to these areas of violence]?

I, and certainly the members of the Iraq staff that work with me, we've become very accustomed, I hate to say it, to carnage. After three years here, we've all lived through this war. At least I'm privileged enough to [get] some [time away] from it from time to time when I retreat to the West on the occasional break, whereas most live it day in, day out, inescapably.

I remember sitting back in Australia recently on one of the rare moments where I talk about the war, and I was doing it for a particular reason with a member of my family. They stopped me [and] said, "Do you realize for the last 15 minutes all you've done is rattle off a list of friends and people you know who have died in the last three years?" And the worst part of it was, I hadn't come to the end of the list. ...

[Describe the time in the early days of the insurgency, when you could move with more freedom and traveled to an insurgency camp.]

This was in some way a dreadful and wonderful experience, wonderful in the sense that I came back alive and I encountered the very people I'd set out to find, which was these early insurgent leaders who were bringing a real backbone to what was then just an emerging fight. But it was terrifying.

I was driven in a vehicle to a nominated rendezvous point in Baghdad with Iraqi friends of mine that had helped make this contact, but these friends of mine were themselves unsure about these people. Then they picked us up in their vehicles, and we had to leave ours behind. Then we're split up into different vehicles, and then we're driving for an hour in the dark through city streets and back roads and suburban [areas] to suddenly being in fields and rural areas, and even my Iraqi friends got to the point where they had no idea where we were, north or south of the capital, east or west, far or close.

We had no idea what these guys wanted to do with us. We delivered our lives into their hands. And when we were finally taken to this farmhouse -- which when we arrived, [we were] told [it] was one of the early training facilities for the insurgency -- and went inside, there was what later turned out to be one of the first significant Iraqi insurgent leaders. Gathered with him were all his cell leaders or company commanders. One by one he had them rattle off where they all [were] from. ..."I'm from Ramadi"; "I'm from this part of Baghdad"; "I'm from that part of Baghdad." ... There was an enormous development journalistically in terms of understanding the insurgency back then in the fall of 2003. ...

[On another occasion, in the winter of 2003], they blindfolded me. We went to a farmhouse of a mediator. That was fine. At the farmhouse they blindfolded me and bundled me onto the floor of the car and then loaded [it] with insurgents and weapons, and then we drove for I don't know how long. Finally we stop the car, they take me out, and they're shuffling me along, and still with the blindfold on. They sort of threw me in through this window, like I had to step up. I could feel that there was a window and a drop, and then they pushed me through, and I climbed and fell on the ground.

Then I was allowed to take the blindfold off, and I was able to see that I was in this barn, this great big, long, long mud-wall barn. And this group of insurgents then stood together, covered their faces. I turned. They told me, "Turn on the camera now," and then made a statement.

In that position were you not scared shitless?

I've since done it many times -- you know, being with insurgents as they're attacking Americans -- and having been embedded with U.S. forces, I'm fully aware of the capabilities in firepower and the U.S. military to respond to these things. So yeah, it's not a pleasant experience at all. I've been under American fire. I've had U.S. snipers shooting at me. I've been under U.S. mortar and artillery fire. I've been with guys as U.S. Bradley armored fighting vehicles are pumping out 25 mm cannon rounds at us.

[What about the risks on the other side, when you're with the coalition? Describe the time you were with U.S. soldiers rooting out insurgents from a house.]

... [W]e were fighting from here to there away -- that's how close it was -- and as this sergeant was shooting around the corner, the bullets are coming through the wall. It was extraordinary.

... [U]nder the stairwell the insurgents had basically a bunkered fighting position, and they had two machine guns, Kalashnikovs and an RPG, a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, and they let the first couple of guys come round into the hallway before they lit them up. ... Then there was this staff sergeant who's since been nominated for this bravery. When he eventually stepped back round the corner and sprayed and killed them, he said to me: "I could see their eyes, and there was no fear. I'll never forget those eyes." ... And he says that drilled into him -- that scared him more than anything. So that was his very personal, very human encounter with this insurgent enemy, and he says it will never leave him.

As 3rd Platoon was driven out of the house by these insurgents in their bunkered positions, inside the house they drew the patrol in, the platoon in, and then ambushed them literally in the stairwell at five, six feet away. So there was lots of firing in the house, bullets going everywhere, ricochets, people getting ricocheted rounds. Eventually the platoon pulled out.

And they take positions across the road in this building under construction. There was a lot of panic, a lot of confusion. No one knew what to do. Staff Sgt. [David] Bellavia stood there pacing like a caged animal in the street, and you could hear him thinking out loud, and you eventually hear him say: "Who's got ammo? Right. You on my left, you on my right, stick with me. Charlie's Angels, let's go." So they move forward and they stop just behind the Bradley that's sitting at the front of the house. It's been pouring in fire, eventually to no avail, but just pouring in fire.

So he suddenly turns round, and there I am with my camera kneeling, and ... he says, "What do you think you're doing?" And I basically said nothing, you know. And he goes, "Well, where are you going?" I said, "Oh, I'll stay right here." And he goes, "Right, let's go" -- voom. And of course I immediately follow them in. ... [H]e entered this darkened house where we knew the insurgents were laying in wait. He had night-vision goggles, and I didn't have night vision, so I was blinded.

We get inside the first living room, and then he enters that hallway where the bunkered position was, and he fights, And then ... he must have spun round and saw me, and ... he was going, "Who's that, who's that?" I'm going, "It's me -- it's Mick!" "Mick who? Who's Mick?" His gun's pointing directly at me. I'm going, "The journalist, the journo!" "What journo?" And I'm going, "Time magazine!" From memory it's all blurred, but I think someone else eventually had to say, "It's the journalist, Sarge!"

... [A]fter this extraordinary thing that he did, he went into this darkened house where he knew these Al Qaeda foreigners were waiting, ... and there was five or six of them, and he went in and took them on on his own. After he'd killed them all one by one, single-handedly, he was pretty pumped, you know; there was this adrenalin. And the platoon leader and the rest of the platoon were still back across the road, and they're screaming out for a report: "What's going on? What's happening? What's the status?" And I remember him screaming out: "I'm kind of a bit stressed right now! Just give me a moment and I'll let you know."

... [W]e've since become friends and have an e-mail exchange. He still doesn't believe that I went in that house with him. He just says: "You are one crazy-arsed motherfucker. You had no gun; you had no night vision; you had no need." But there's a bond there now that time will never erase.

And you got a good story.

It was. It was an extraordinary story. It was an extraordinary story, and it was a very human story about the tale of that battle, and it was through him and through that incident and then through the events that occurred to 3rd Platoon that I was able to tell the story of the battle of Fallujah just as I had done from the insurgent side in the months leading up to that. ... It just brings the whole story of Fallujah full circle. ...

War is about soldiering, and that's the story I try to take back, and that's where I find the truth. And this is the problem with reporting on these wars. ... In the wars that I've been covering since Sept. 11, 2001, first in Afghanistan, then here, so often you find that the battle is fought in this place, and then the cordon goes around it, and the journalists are denied the access to it. Or even if they're embedded with the forces going in, they're not at the point, to quote a Hollywood film, "where metal meets flesh." It's harder and harder ... to do, it seems, in modern warfare, particularly in the warfare we saw in Afghanistan and the warfare that we saw in northern Iraq, [which] was a carbon-copy rerun of the war in Afghanistan. That was U.S. Green Berets operating largely in secret, using and leading indigenous militia forces in high mountain terrain in isolated battlefields away from the world's view.

With lots of air support.

With lots and lots of air support. And even now in these battles in Iraq, which are more set piece affairs -- like, look at the battle of Tal Afar. I was the only camera there. This was a battle of 7,000-plus men backed by armor and Bradleys and artillery and F-16 fighter jets and every weapon system the Americans had going in to attack a city.

If I'd stayed in my embed I would have been 100 meters from the front line. So it took me and the photographer, Franco Pagetti, to jump out of the relative safety of our Bradley, break embed, and run loose alone in the city for us to see the battle. Now, that's what's required.

... The only truth you can rely on is the truth that you see. And for me to relay not just the truth of what happens but the truth of the experience is to be there in it with the soldier, to be as cold and as wet as he is, and as hungry as he is, to be sleeping for days in the same muddy, water-filled foxhole as him, to be under the same artillery barrage as him, to live in that same fear.

You've lost people, haven't you?

Yeah, we've lost people. Back in 2003 we had one of our senior translators assassinated just a few blocks from the house on his way to work. Three gunmen stepped out from this suburban corner as he turned and just riddled his car with bullets. He took a few to the brain and a few to the back. He was kept alive for a day or so, but he died that moment really. So the decision was made to pull out of the house we were in at that time, leaving just a token guard presence. Someone then came and threw an explosive device into the front yard and destroyed a lot of the facade of the house. ...

I've had members of my Iraqi staff, too, kidnapped by Zarqawi's people, tortured mercilessly, one held for two months, only released when the Marines overran the safe house in Fallujah where he was being kept. Found beaten near to death. ...

What's your relationship with Zarqawi, or Zarqawi's people?

Well, I have no relationship with Abu Musab. Sheik Abu Musab operates in a stratosphere that is beyond my experience and is beyond the experience of, I'd vouch, almost every insurgent commander and leader in the country. The number of people who would have sat and met face to face with Zarqawi would be very, very small. With his organization, I've been in contact with foot soldiers, mid-level commanders and then the head of his media office since May 2004.

I'm still in contact with them. I still receive videos and messages. I receive invitations to submit questions. But it's a very precarious relationship. It's a double-edged sword, that kind of access. ...

It's a very, very complex relationship. I very much get the sense that, certainly among the insurgents generally -- and I know the Baathists do, but it's much more pointed among Zarqawi's people -- they watch me, and they watch this house, and they watch my staff, and after the second fellow from my staff was kidnapped and tortured, I sort of sent him away and said, "You just need to go and recover, and don't worry about your salary; everything's fine; just do what you need to do." So that took him out of the equation.

So then they focused on another member of my staff, and they started showing up at his house at night, thankfully when he wasn't there. ... He avoided them as long as he could, but it soon got to a point where he knew he was either going to help them or they would kill him.

It was shortly after that that he and our housekeeper, who carpool, were driving to the house. ... A bomb was detonated right underneath their vehicle. The translator who had been targeted took the worst of it. Fortunately we got him out of the country, and surgeons were able to save his life and save his limb. He's [now] been granted refugee status in Australia because of his association with me.

Are you going to survive this war?

It's my intention. Yeah, I'm going to survive this war. There's no point getting the story if you can't come back and tell it. There's a lot to be told from this place, and I'm going to make sure that I'm here to tell it.

And what drives you to do that?

This is history unfolding, and for some reason I've been put or thrust into a position where I'm one of the very few who can bear witness to that, for a start.

More importantly, we need to know what is really happening here, and then we need to know why this is happening here. Then we need to know what are the broader implications of what is happening here. And if we just rely upon the U.S. military or the U.S. government to tell us, if we just rely on the insurgents or Al Qaeda to tell us, we're never going to know; we're never going to understand. You've got to get in, peel it back. You've got to physically be there to see it.

... I mean, the implications of what's happening here in Iraq right now are going to be with us for decades, and be it that what I'm doing and what I'm writing and saying can in some minute way contribute to the writing of the history of this, or even better can in some way help us understand what is happening now so we can understand what is yet to come, then I'll have done what I'm supposed to do. ...



... [T]he trouble with the Americans, in terms of understanding the insurgency, is a distinct lack of continuity. American forces are here for a deployment tour, and from having spoken to U.S. military intelligence officers and intelligence officers from other agencies and from other countries, the handover of information isn't always necessarily complete. So there can be a database and there can be sketch maps of all the insurgent architecture of their organizations, but a lot is lost with each transition. ...

... And that's not even including the fact that Americans sit through their interrogations having enormous difficulties -- as they've confessed to me time and time again -- at actually getting inside the insurgency. They don't know what it's like to sit with these guys and have a meal; they don't know how these guys sit and eat and what they talk about. They don't see the casual way in which they'll just very easily hide a weapons [cache] almost in plain sight but yet so craftily hidden, and how it would be [that] an 8-year-old boy will be told to "go and fetch those 82 mm [guns] that came in last week."

... So that atmospheric [sense] the Americans completely lack. So not only are they coming from a very difficult position, but even what they have they don't share as well as they could, and invariably stuff just gets lost.

We got a certainly different sense when we went back to Iraq this time [the fall of 2005] in the [intensity] of attacks.

What the American military has proven it can do very effectively is disrupt the enemy, to penetrate him and destroy his infrastructure and put him on the back foot. But what we've also seen the enemy do well is the insurgents' incredible ability to regenerate.

Let's take, for example, the fact that in August, September, we saw the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment and 5,000 Army forces retake the town of Tal Afar from Al Qaeda forces. ... But despite disrupting the Syrian border and the flow of traffic, retaking Tal Afar, now in part charging back into the Euphrates Valley, look at the number of U.S. soldiers who were killed in October. This is what, the fourth highest death count on record, three years into the war, despite all these immediate successes.

Were these insurgents always destined to fight this fight?

No, not at all. By these guys' own admission, they do not have any inherent or fundamental grievance with the United States. These were soldiers and security officers and intelligence officers who served Saddam or Saddam's regime. There's many of them, including the guys in this grainy night-vision footage, [who] have made clear to me, "Saddam was my commander in chief, but I served Iraq." They're professionals, some of whom were trained by the Americans in the '80s, some of whom had Ranger training in the '70s. So these guys had no inherent beef with the United States; it was the occupation.

Even after the toppling of Saddam, many of the insurgents I know and some of the men in [my] early film would tell me, "Look, we've got no real problem with you removing Saddam." Some of them are actually grateful [because] they came from tribes that had always been part of the regime. At the slightest hint or moment of paranoid delusion, Saddam would institute a purge against all the officers from their tribe. Some of them had even been jailed by Saddam. ... So in the immediate aftermath of the invasion, most of these guys in the insurgency as a whole ... gave the Americans a chance; they gave them a window. They stood back and watched them [come in]; they went home like they all were told to do. They served either for the Americans, or they left their intelligence headquarters and they went home and they sat and they waited.

And then they started to see what happened, and that's when they started picking up their [guns], and then they started picking up RPKs [Ruchnoi Puleymot Kalashnikova, light machine guns] and then they started picking up RPGs, and then they started picking up surface-to-surface missiles, and then they started making IEDs [improvised explosive devices]. Then they started launching complex ambushes. Then they started coordinating with Zarqawi's nascent Al Qaeda organization. There was a moment in time when all of this could have been avoided in so many ways. ...

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posted feb. 21, 2006

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