Iraq Journal: How to Spy in Iraq

Michael J. Totten is an independent journalist reporting on the war in Iraq. Here is a portion of his latest journal entry provided exclusively for

American soldiers arrived in Iraq in 2003 with not much of a plan and little idea what to expect. The Iraqi government, military and police were overthrown and disbanded under de-Baathification. Most Iraqis who knew how to run the country were either sent home or imprisoned.

Americans were in charge of just about everything even though they had no experience running a foreign country, let alone a traumatized and suspicious Arab society. They were confounded by its exotic and dysfunctional ways. When Sunni and Shiite militias launched wars against each other and against the Americans, confusion turned to bewilderment.

Gen. David Petraeus fared better than other American commanders in cracking the code of Iraqi society and reducing the insurgency in Mosul from an explosion to a simmer.

I saw some of the results of his strategy’s expansion to Baghdad with troops in the 82nd Airborne Division. Instead of staying on base and training Iraqis while security disintegrated outside the wire, they moved into a neighborhood in Baghdad where they now live and work among the civilian population 24 hours a day.

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Clear, hold and build is the strategy now. The Graya’at neighborhood has been cleared of active insurgents, although there still are dormant cells in the area. The Army is working on several modest community and urban renewal projects and is planning larger ones in the near future. Constant patrols and intelligence gathering are the two crucial pieces of the hold part of the strategy.

I went out one night with Lt. Larry Pitts and his men on one of their intel gathering missions.

“We’ll collect info on Shiites in Sunni areas and Sunnis in Shiite areas,” he told me. “We make the best of it by going out and meeting the local people. It works because we have a decent reputation around here that we’ve been cultivating for a long time. Reporters would get it more if they were with us from the beginning.”

We saddled up in Humvees, drove down quiet residential streets and dismounted on a street near a palm grove.

Children came out of their houses to meet us.

We walked, and kept walking, so the parked Humvees would give no indication whose house we were going to visit. When we eventually reached our destination, some of the soldiers dispersed and set up checkpoints several blocks away in each direction.

“We’re trying to make it slightly less obvious that we’re having a meeting here,” Lt. Pitts said.

Two families of men, women, and children met us on the lawn inside the gate. Hugs and formal greetings in Arabic were exchanged. Everyone seemed happy to see everyone else. The soldiers had been to this house before. I was the only stranger. I was instantly made to feel welcome, however. No people in the world are more hospitable than Arabs, and that includes Iraqis in war time.

A handful of soldiers went inside and made their way to the roof. There they could watch the entire street with their night-vision goggles and take out anyone stupid enough to mount an attack on the house. Soldiers are killed in Iraq every day, but it’s still hard to feel nervous even in Baghdad when you’re surrounded by these guys.

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