Iraq Journal: Al Qaeda Lost

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

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I have met and interviewed dozens of Army officers in Baghdad and Ramadi but none as admired and respected by the men who serve under them as 3rd Infantry Division Lt. Col. Mike Silverman from Midway, Ga.

Junior officers and enlisted men nicknamed him "the 40-pound brainer" and admire him for his guts as well as his head. "He went out and spent 12 hours a day in his hot tank" during the battle of Ramadi, one soldier said.

"He risked getting blown up just like everyone else."

"I had served with him before," another said. "When he told me he needed me in Ramadi, that was all I needed to hear. I mean, I didn’t have any choice because the Army gave me my orders, but that didn’t matter once I knew Col. Silverman was out here."

"I’d do anything for that man," a third said, "and I don’t like officers."

I had dinner with him at the dining facility and interviewed him in his office at the Blue Diamond base in northern Ramadi.

"How long have you been in Ramadi?" I said.

"Since the last week of January 2007," he said. "When I first got here my area of operations was the southern half of downtown. It was ugly then, especially for the civilians. We found more than 50 dead in just one grave in the desert. Fifty-thousand to 70,000 people have returned so far since the war ended in April."

"Describe the progress you’ve seen so far," I said.

"Sure, let’s look at the Abu Bali area, for example," he said. "Six thousand or so people live there. When I first arrived there were 10 attacks every day just in that small area alone. Since May 1, 2007, we’ve had only one attack total in that area.

"The people went from having two to three hours of electricity a day to having 12 hours a day. Insurgents kept blowing up the power lines, but now that they’ve been cleared out the government has put them back up. Commerce has really taken off."

"What’s the most encouraging thing you’ve seen here?" I asked.

"On the second or third day the PSF [Provincial Security Forces] took over a checkpoint on a highway."

The Provincial Security Forces are a "national guard" of sorts controlled by the tribal authorities in addition to the Iraqi army and Iraqi police in the area. They resemble a militia in some ways, but they’re a legal branch of the Iraqi security forces, authorized and paid by the Ministry of Interior in Baghdad.

"An ice truck dropped off its ice at a checkpoint," he continued. "The truck behind it in line exploded. Everybody was killed. For a five- or six-hour period we weren’t sure the PSF would go back to work. But eight hours later they were back in business. They are 100 percent committed to anti-terrorism and anti-sectarianism."

"What’s the worst thing you’ve seen here?" I asked.

He wasn’t sure what to say and had to think about his answer for a few moments.

"The worst thing I’ve seen, I think, is the aftermath of a VBIED," he said.

A VBIED is a vehicle-born improvised explosive device. In other words, a car bomb.

"I’ve seen that about 10 times," he continued. "Some people are turned, literally, into red blotches. Some are just vaporized. Their families will never see them again, not even their bodies. And the smell … there’s this awful car bomb smell, the acrid stench of homemade explosives and diesel fuel. Nothing else in the world has that smell.

"Most of the VBIEDs were intended for civilians, but the Iraqi police usually stopped them first at the checkpoints. So they were the ones who usually got blown up. The driver of the VBIED would panic because he was caught and then kill everyone at the checkpoint. Nevertheless, the Iraqi police kept bravely manning the checkpoints and replacing the police who were murdered. I’m telling you, they aren’t doing that for $310 a month."

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