Michael Ware


Middle East Institute, 2007 Conference, Washington DC

On October 29 & 30, 2007, the Middle East Institute held its annual conference at the National Press Club in Washington DC, and Michael was a member of one of the panels:

2:45 pm - 4:15 pm Panel III: Post Iraq War Jihadists: Where Next?
Fawaz Gerges, Sarah Lawrence College, Christian A. Johnson Chair in International Affairs and Arab and Muslim Politics
H.E. General Ehsan ul Haq, former Chief of Pakistani ISI
Michael Ware, CNN Correspondent Baghdad
Paul Pillar, Georgetown University, Security Studies Program

Audio clips and transcripts...

Clip 1 with transcript, 19:29
"I'm nothing more than a witness."

Clip 2 with transcript, 1:53
"It ain't gonna be Rwanda, but it's gonna be Bosnia."

Clip 3 with transcript, 1:56
"This is America
turning on the government it created."

Clip 4 with transcript, 3:13
"Under the guidelines of every insurgent or militia group...
journalists fit fairly and squarely as legitimate targets."


Well, thank you for having me, and let me say at the outset, in no way do I assume that I have the weight or the authority of my fellow panelists. I'm nothing more than a witness. That's all I've done and that's all I do, I bear witness, in first Afghanistan and now Iraq. And I've tried to see it from as many sides as humanly or inhumanly possible, for the purpose of not just understanding what's happening now and for deconstructing the myriad of lies, but also to perhaps one day help feed discussions like this about what it shall mean and what it shall do.

So what I can offer is perhaps less, in that I can give you much more of an anecdotal, more empirical sense of jihad in Iraq, and from that perhaps you can take from it and begin to decide what that will mean after Iraq. Because from the outset let me say that most of what you have been told and most of the information that you have been given upon which to form your opinions is wrong. Or is indeed outright lie or spin or propaganda. I mean, it's a fundamental truth of war that everybody lies -- their governments, our governments, the good guys, the bad guys, even the civilian in the street, who is enflamed with passion or exaggeration, or it's simply Chinese whispers. The trick is distilling the truth, and you can only do that when you can see it with your own eyes. And in the fog of any war that is extraordinarily difficult, as you well know, and in Iraq it's become particularly so.

So let me just tell you a little bit about the Iraq that I have seen, and that might inform you a little bit about the jihad of Iraq and what the jihad of Iraq has become and may mutate into.

I lived in Afghanistan for about a year, which meant I spent some time in Pakistan, I dealt with the Taliban, I dealt with foreign fighters, I moved through Waziristan, the northwest frontier provinces, and then I shifted into Iran. And Iran was an open sketchbook for me -- Iraq, sorry. Iraq was an open sketchbook, I knew nothing about it.

And one of my first encounters was before the invasion, I was in the north, running free with the Peshmerga, and from the very beginning there was two front-lines: one against Saddam but also one against Ansar al-Islam, which was largely an al Qaeda affiliate or came from the broad school. And immediately I thought I was back in Afghanistan. On that battlefield -- and it really was a battlefield, it was WWI-type stuff, long running trench-lines, it was Tora Bora mountain domains, dug-in positions, unforgiving combatants, suicide bombers, it was murderous and butcherous. And that was my first taste and that was before the onset of the invasion.

And then in 2003 I had the misfortune to all but be there when the first significant car bomb went off in August 2003 attacking the Jordanian embassy. And then for better or for worse, friends of mine were killed in the United Nations Headquarters car-bombing as well and I stood in that crater while they were digging out Sergio de Mello.

When I finally arrived in Baghdad after the collapse of the front line, I knew much from what I had absorbed from my colleagues about what had happened on our side of that conflict, of the invasion -- what the 3rd ID had done, what the Marines had done, the 101st Airborne Division. I really didn't know what had happened on the Iraqi side. So through a number of Iraqi characters, some CIA assets, some assets for other intelligence agencies, and through just people I knew -- neighbors, translators, drivers, all of whom, of course, had served in the military -- I started to seek out the members of Iraq's military who had fought those battles or had chosen not to fight those battles and I sought them -- I hunted them down.

So when I first met them in the summer of 2003, they were anything from the Corporals to the Lieutenant Generals, to the senior cabinet ministers who had all just simply been sent home in disgrace and dishonor and were sitting in their houses, and at that point I could talk to them and they were willing to tell me the story of that war. And I stayed in touch with these people, and then I watched as they started, bit by bit, to pick up their Kalishnikovs and take potshots at American convoys and then I started to see them gather together and do it more collectively and then I saw one group begin to coordinate with another group and then I saw hierarchies emerge and then I was taken to Iraqi insurgent training camps. This was at a time when we were being told that they were dead-enders and criminals and they'd be done by Christmas.

And I'd see it with my eyes.

Now, at that point, these men -- for want of a better term -- were, broadly, "nationalists" or they were men who had been dishonored or they were just professional soldiers who resented the fact that foreign tanks were in their streets, entering their houses, searching their bedrooms, searching their women, and so forth. And by and large, for the vast majority of the Iraqi insurgency as we first came to know it -- the Sunni insurgency, the guerilla war -- that is from whence it came.

Now, these were men who even as they were fighting, I could spend time with. Now, obviously I received much criticism for that, but I just wanted to understand. And I felt the responsibility of history upon me to do so, because as I said, we were being lied to, and we're never going to understand it if we don't know what really happened. We're not going to know what's coming if we don't really know what happened.

So these were men you could sit, they would smoke cigarettes, many of them liked whiskey, many of them liked to carouse, for want of a better term. They were very much secularists. And slaughtering me and cutting my head off just wasn't on their radar. Thank god. And I could sit with their families and so forth.

It wasn't until the beginning of 2004 -- and by that time, as I said, Zarqawi was beginning to make his presence felt; Zarqawi, who was always on the ouster with old-school classic al Qaeda anyway, with these bombings and a few other acts of violence. It was nowhere near the tempo that we've now become so frighteningly accustomed to. They were still then unique.

But by the end of 2003, by the beginning of 2004, I'd be sitting with these same men -- professional military officers, professional intelligence officers; Iraq's version of West Pointers and members of the CIA. These weren't religious fanatics. They might have been ideologues or they might have been power-hungry, or they may have been selfish bastards, but they were not religious fanatics.

And then over a cup of tea one afternoon, I had to pinch myself to remember I was in Iraq, because suddenly I thought I was back in Afghanistan. This same group that I had known for some time suddenly started pestering me about why wasn't I a Muslim? They'd never done that. Then I watched as they prayed. They'd never done that. Then they produced a video, and I'd seen past videos, and suddenly it was full of religious iconography and rhetoric and it had a religious framework, and then there even started to emerge references to bin Laden and jihad. That was not in their vernacular when it began.

So I actually witnessed the Islamization or the radicalization of part -- part -- of the Sunni insurgency.

Now, as the years went on -- 2004, 2005 -- this continued, but it really just remained at a certain element, very angry young men or men from generally conservative areas, akin to our Bible Belt, who'd been repressed by Saddam and their mullahs and their mosques had always been watched and if they got a little too out of line religiously there were sanctions brought upon them. So to some degree there was ripe ground there, but by and large, amongst the Iraqis in general -- the Sunnis -- and amongst the Iraqi insurgents, there was not the heart for jihad.

From day one in 2003, the hierarchy of Saddam's military and intelligence and security apparatus offered the Americans a deal. What they said was that, "We never liked al Qaeda. We never had them in our country. As a regime, we never tolerated them. We are not al Qaeda. We do not share their agenda for Islamic jihad or global Islamization. We do not share their methods and tactics."

They also said, "We're deeply opposed to Iran, as were you when you were our allies and we used your satellite imagery to wipe out their divisions."

They said, "We're prepared to host US bases" -- the verbatim quote was, "akin to Germany and Japan."

"We're more than happy to normalize diplomatic relations."

And they said, "How did we end up on the wrong side of this? Don't take us down this road."

At that point, in the early days of the CPA and Ambassador Bremer, General Sanchez, they weren't just rebuffed, they were once more dishonored.

So what emerged was a marriage of inconvenience. The classic case of 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend.' So you had these professional military officers in Fallujah during those heady days of the summer of 2004 -- and I was in and out of there a lot, and I was also with the US military when they retook Fallujah -- and these two groups were working side by side, but I can tell you, the assassinations that went on, the fights that went on, the turf wars that occurred... it was a very unhappy alliance.

But bit by bit as time went by -- through our fault, and it must be said through the vision of a man called Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, who played the whole situation like a virtuoso on a violin -- that changed.

Much of it was about money. The jihadists were NEVER short of cash. Plus they had an ideological framework that very readily applied to an angry young man. And they gained the momentum.

Now, a classic case, very simple illustration. There's a central part of Baghdad called Haifa Street. From Haifa Street you can fire mortars on the US embassy. Haifa Street was the domain of essentially the Ba'athists, the former military. They owned it, they ran it. They were the ones who battled the Americans in those narrow lane-ways. They're the ones who would fire mortars and rockets at the embassy and the Green Zone.

Then Ansar al-Islam sent a couple of representatives. Then Tawhid wal-Jihad, Zarqawi's group, sent a couple of representatives, and then they started to throw money around, and then they started to grow. And it got to the point where suddenly one day during one fierce pitched battle with the Americans, at the end of the battle, as the smoke cleared, literally with a burning American Abrams in the central avenue of Haifa Street, Zarqawi and the Jihadists took over. So much so that some of the Ba'athists came to me to tell me of this, and they feared the rise of the Islamists. And I said, "Well, how do I know this is true, I must see it for myself," so they took me in there. And lo and behold, I drive down that main avenue and it is lined with Tawhid wal-Jihad flags. Now, I was then grabbed by what essentially became al Qaeda, they were preparing to execute me, and it was the Ba'athists who saved me.

But more and more as time went on, the idea, the money, the power, the momentum grew and took root. And yes, al Qaeda came to dominate much of the Sunni battlefield.

It was after four years, more than 3,000 American deaths that finally the Americans and the Ba'athists came to an accord. And what is dressed up as tribal alliances and civilian volunteers is that America has cut deals with the Ba'athists that they rejected in 2003, and the Ba'athists are doing exactly what they promised. Who do you think knows where al Qaeda sleeps at night? Who is not bound in knots by rules of engagement and the niceties against assassination and mutilation and torture? They started it in Anbar Province, in Ramadi, with an American commander I know, and it worked. And then it spread.

The surge hasn't done this. Trust me.

Sure, the surge has contributed to helping develop an environment in the capital, but it hasn't done -- the success, as it may be, limited or what, against al Qaeda has come from the deal with the Ba'athists on the terms they originally offered. And let me tell you, this is the end note: what was the sticking point in 2003 and what's now the binding point between the Americans and the Ba'athists and the Sunnis at large, and what's also helping to bring America's pro-Western Arab allies back into alignment is Iran.

What the Ba'athists said in '03 was, "We're willing to work with you, but that government is full of Iran's men and we won't deal with them." And the Americans said, "Look, any agreements we come to must be tri-partied. It must include that government." And the Ba'athists said, "Well, if you want to -- they are our enemy and they are your enemy. If you don't realize it, come back when you do." Eventually America did.

So all these tribal counsels and these police auxiliaries who are now protecting large chunks of Baghdad, that's brought these death tolls down, are American-backed Sunni militias that in part receive funding and support from neighboring Arab countries and are essentially a counterbalance to the largely Iranian-backed or -influenced Shia militias that are actually the government.

So the anti-al Qaeda success that we're seeing has come with a price. The building blocks for the proxy war are now in place. Maybe that will be the buffer and that will be the balance that remains, but that's the legacy that we're going to leave. And as the highest American officials in the country tell me, Iran is the big winner of this war. America's Arab allies know that, and the Iraqis know that.

And at the end of the day, the greatest export from Iraq will be that most of the Iraqi jihadis will stay in Iraq, and most of the foreigners who go there to fight, die, because that's why they go. And there's very little Iraqi leadership at the upper echelons. When Zarqawi was killed he could have been replaced by an Iraqi, but he wasn't.

The true power is the idea. And what we didn't have in Afghanistan, what we didn't have before, was the internet. They can export this idea with less need for the veterans to come home to do it. It's the inspiration that this new breed of jihadi now represents. Zarqawi forged it in the fire of the war in Iraq. Osama bin Laden was never comfortable with it, even Zarqawi's mentor was never comfortable with it, but we now have a new breed that's harder, more brutal, and more unforgiving than the al Qaeda we've ever known, and they're spreading through the internet. And what helps give them life and what ultimately the West has used to help limit them is the Arab world's fear of Iran.


Clip 2
Referring to what a panelist in the earlier session said, and I mean, obviously it's hard for me to keep as attuned to the domestic political current here as I'd like, given that I live in Baghdad -- the bottom line is, it doesn't matter whether you're for or against this war, whether you agreed with the way it's been executed or not: you're stuck. I'm sorry, you've really screwed it.

Withdrawal now, even a phased withdrawal, will bear such consequence -- not for us, but for our children and their children. I can't even begin to imagine it. And that's not to mention what I call the moral dilemma for liberal America: okay, we want our boys and girls home, who doesn't? They want us out, you can understand that. It ain't gonna be Rwanda, but it's gonna be Bosnia. And that's what the top war planners tell me. And you're gonna leave a vacuum, and take a wild guess who's gonna fill it. And just think about the proxy war that will be fought.

Now, the previous panelist said that there won't be a regional war. That's right -- Saudi tanks aren't going to roll across the border, but everyone's already playing in Iraq. Everyone's already backing their horse; arming, funding, politically supporting. And the minute you drop down to 100,000, 75,000 troops -- that's only enough to keep your boys and girls alive. They won't be able to affect a thing. They can barely affect anything now.

It's the horrid reality of our time...because until we come up with a solution, we're stuck there.

Clip 3
Let me just say General Haq is right -- arming groups is extraordinarily dangerous. But that's what the American administration has done with this government. Even the senior officials on the ground don't call the Iraqi government their ally. The arming of the Sunni tribes is a two-fold purpose. The most immediate is to put pressure on al Qaeda. That won't wipe them out, you never will, but it returns them to their natural order: a constant cancer that one must live with.

But the second, the most significant element, the broader element of the embracing of these Sunni tribes is this is America turning on the government it created. Don't forget, American agencies recommended the complete disbandment of the Iraqi national police. Why? Because the Americans have no control over it, and they are death squads in uniforms.

The reason why civilian deaths in Baghdad are down are threefold: one, anyone that can leave has left; anyone left behind is now in segregated enclaves; and for a long time the Sunnis were vulnerable. They were naked. US-backed government death squads would come in and slaughter them -- drill bits, all sorts of business -- and dump their bodies. Now these neighborhoods have their own militias to protect them. And as American soldiers, as General Petraeus, as Ambassador Crocker will tell you, they were the men two weeks ago we were fighting against. But we give them support -- we give them air support -- and now their neighborhoods are safe.

So it makes the numbers look good for now, and maybe it's the only way you'll get your boys and girls home, but it is gonna have long-term consequences.

Clip 4
We're here in the National Press Club and so it's appropriate to ask a question about the role of the media, and I think, Michael Ware, I'll direct this to you although ask others for comment. The questioner writes, "Two clear differences between the Afghan war --" to which I referred initially -- "and Iraq are found in the media environment. For one thing, we are almost two decades along in the 24-hour news cycle, and there are competing news outlets distributed worldwide in that cycle, like al-Jazeera, that we didn't have before. Do these factors actually make events more combustible or do they shorten the story arc and cut short the impact of any given set of events?"

Well, I think they do all those things. I mean, one, it helps inform much quicker, much more readily. I mean, goodness gracious, I've been in combat with US soldiers and we've learned things off the radio or off CNN in the DFAC or the chow hall before we've received orders from above. So there's a certain sense of real-time that helps inform all of us.

Yes, it can also be inflammatory, even if it's true -- the way it's handled or the timing of its release.

Nonetheless, overshadowing all of these: please...it's the internet.

I mean, if you want your kind of news, you don't have to watch CNN or even al-Jazeera. You know the website to go to. You know where you download your videos. You know where you can get what you want. I mean, you know...these are markets. And the markets know what they want and they know where to go and get it.

And don't forget, you know, there's a lot of criticism of the media about Iraq in terms of the good news, the bad news, blah blah blah blah blah. Well -- A -- unlike any conflict I have ever been in, I've never been hunted. There's no sense of journalistic objectivity or neutrality. You're not an observer. Under the guidelines of every insurgent or militia group -- and I've been with all of them: I've dealt with the Quds Force of Iran, I've dealt with Jaish al-Mahdi, I've dealt with the Badr Brigade, I've dealt with al Qaeda in Iraq, I've dealt with Ansar al-Islam, Ansar al-Sunna, I've dealt with Brigades of 1920 Revolution -- I can rattle them off, and under all of their targeting guidelines, journalists fit fairly and squarely as legit targets. Either because we're part of the problem or because our propaganda value is so great that it outweighs all else.

And at the end of the day, none of the actors in these things need us any more. They don't need us to get their message out. They think we distort it, whether it's the US Public Affairs officer who goes nuts because he doesn't think that the general was shown in the right light or you showed his bad side or whether it's al Qaeda, who doesn't think that you were damning enough of the Americans or that you downplayed their casualties. Because they have their own delivery systems.

The world has changed.