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Iraq: Live from Baghdad

Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, October 13, 2004; 11:00 AM

Local insurgents in the city of Fallujah are turning against the foreign fighters who have been their allies in the rebellion that has held the U.S. military at bay in parts of Iraq's Sunni Muslim heartland, according to Fallujah residents, insurgent leaders and Iraqi and U.S. officials. Relations have cooled as local fighters negotiate to avoid a U.S.-led military offensive against Fallujah, while foreign fighters press to attack Americans and their Iraqi supporters. Meanwhile, four U.S. soldiers were killed late Tuesday and early Wednesday by separate roadside bombs detonated near their convoys in eastern Baghdad and Sadr City.

Insurgent Alliance Is Fraying In Fallujah, (Post, Oct. 13)
Four U.S. soldiers Killed in Bomb Attack, (washingtonpost.com, Oct. 13)

Washington Post foreign correspondent Karl Vick was online Wednesday, Oct. 13 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the latest news live from Baghdad.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Karl Vick: Greetings from Baghdad, on a grim and dusty day if you're going by looks. Some mornings just dawn brown here, and whatever it is that's suspended between the brown of the city and whatever color you want to call the sky (should we go with taupe?) never seems to get up the energy to move. Then it gets dark.

You probably have some questions.


San Francisco, Calif.: Karl, that was a fascinating story today about Fallujah. Do the Mujahedin leaders there want to participate in the elections? If so, what are the chances they will form a "nationalist front" with Muqtada and other anti-American sectors? Or will Muqtada go with Chalabi and others in forming a sectarian Shiite-only coalition? Thanks.

washingtonpost.com: Insurgent Alliance Is Fraying In Fallujah, (Post, Oct. 13)

Karl Vick: Thanks SF (speaking of haze)...

Well, I think these Muj leaders want their city, at least, to be enfranchised. And no doubt some see themselves on a slate, and slates will be the mechanism for the January elections: 275 names, all in a row. But I'm not sure who see himself that way and who wants to go back to doing whatever they were doing before picking up a gun. One of the very prominent guys in today's story used to drive a truck.

As for who hooks up with Moqtada, it's anybody's guess. You dear here tha Chalabi has been chatting him up, which has the particular ring of brass to which longtime Iraq watchers have come to recognize.

Not hearing seriously of a Shiite only slate so far. Most of the parties are talking about one big slate, in good part becuase the ones that are already established in government are almost all exile parties who need to partner up with groups that have some grassroots support.


Boston, Mass.: Your report on Fallujah indicates the local residents may be starting to turn against the foreign insurgents. Did you recently hear similar reports about the local residents of Najaf, Samarra and Ramadi?

Karl Vick: Each is a distinct place.

In Najaf, the Sadr forces were widely viewed as interlopers and intruders from the start. Najaf is a Sistani town, and though Sadr has followers there, and a base in the adjoining city of Kufa, the Sadr militia came mostly by road down from Baghdad (and Sadr City specifically).

Samarra had the experience closest to Fallujah. Insurgents both foreign and domestic took control of the town. Tribal leaders sought to kick them out, approached the Iraqi government and 1st Infantry Division, and worked out a peace pact. And on a day in early September, the Americans walked into the city and installed a recognized city council and police chief.

But it didn't hold. The chief quit after getting repeated threats from his family. And the insurgents regained effective control of Samarra.

So the tanks rolled. This time the 1st ID came in fighting, Oct. 1. That's what Fallujah fears will happen there, too. The Samarra experience also tends to damp enthusiasm for the sturdiness of any negotiated deal.


Mons, France: General elections are supposed to be held in about three months. Has campaigning started?

Karl Vick: Non.


St Paul, Minn.: Hi KV,
Wondering about the troops' reaction to Rumsfeld's visit -- are you able to get any candid reaction from them? Or, alternatively, what about the Iraqis' reaction these visits and somewhat lofty opinions? Perhaps the daily grind of war and chaos makes them all indifferent to people jetting in and out. Thanks and stay safe.

Karl Vick: Hey Abdul.
I haven't seen any troops since Rummy was here, and Iraqis tend not to much register these fly-bys any more. There so often a dignitary touching down in the Green Zone it's no big deal, and it's not like anyone ambles by Tahir Square to check the price of pomegranites, if that's how the fruit is spelled.

The Post's Steve Fainaru did have a fascinating piece Sunday on how one company of Marines sees the war. (Jaundice is a word.)


washingtonpost.com: For Marines, A Frustrating Fight, (Post, Oct. 10)


Portland, Ore.: What's going on with the Kurds? I read they want independence.

Karl Vick: Me, too. I haven't been up in the Kurdish sections of Iraq since the war, when I was enjoying the country's finest kebabs for three months. But I gather it's still very much a place apart. How far apart may well tell the story of Iraq's future. They *do* want independence. Will they settle for less?


New York: Two questions:

1. We hear from the Democrats that everything is terrible in Iraq and getting worse. We hear from Republicans that although it is "hard work," things are progressing. Which is true?

2. Is there really a possibility that Sadr will team up with Chalabi? Wouldn't Chalabi's close ties to the U.S. make Iraqis reluctant to align with him? And will there ever be a day that we don't have to hear anything more about Chalabi?

Thanks. And stay safe.

Karl Vick: 2. Not if you keep asking these kinds of questions.

1. Not everything in Iraq is terrible and getting worse. They are handing in their weapons in Sadr City. Some of them anyway. Maybe not that many. Well, a few. The streets are busy, and at night you see a lot of people out and about, enjoying cafes and the proverbial cool of the evening in numbers I had not seen in my last couple of visits.

That doesn't mean things are improving, though. My Iraqi friends say one reason people are out and about at night is, frankly, cabin fever from a year and a half cowering indoors. (We exaggerate, yes.) There's also a dark, deep streak of fatalism among Iraqis, who shrug and put it "in God's hands."

But I think the heart of it is that the dangers have some coherence now. Iraqis have gotten car bomb savvy. You should have at least a fighting chance if you avoid police academies, precinct houses and U.S. convoys (both military and paramilitary, meaning these SUVs that private security contractors seem to insist on moving around town in; makes you wonder exactly what expertise is being hired here).


Wheaton, Md.: Does this rift between local and foreign terrorist fighters show that the recent heavy attacks by the U.S.-led forces has worn, or even broken, the morale of the terrorists, along with their ability to keep fighting?

Karl Vick: I don't hear of any morale problems among the foreign fighters. I mean, it must not be any fun to wear out your welcome in Fallujah, to the extent they have, but it's not like self-doubt is a prominent item on the pull down menu of whatever version of Windows was installed in these guys.

They've got their story and they're sticking to it. As Iraq's interim president, Ghazi Yawar, told me the other day, "These guys came here to die."


Raleigh, N.C.: Thank you for your time with us today. I've appreciated your incisive writings.

With all the concerns about kidnappings in Iraq, has anyone pointed out that the U.S. started the kidnapping strategies early on in the war? I read several reports (including in The Washington Post) of children and entire families being kidnapped by U.S. forces and held until their male relatives (in Iraq, the family members of Iraqi army leaders or insurgency suspects; in Pakistan, the family members of suspected al Qaeda leaders) turned themselves in or gave information in interrogation.

Does the U.S. still use this strategy, or did it end with the exposure of abuses at U.S.-led detention facilities?

Karl Vick: I remember that, too. I suppose the quibble would be that the families were "detained" rather than kidnapped. This seems to be an accepted, or at least engrained, method of law enforcement in Pakistan, at least.

I haven't heard of it happening in Iraq, especially recently, but then I don't get out that much any more. It's not so much the kidnapping, you know. More the beheading.


Baltimore, Md.: Karl,

How are the average Iraqis reacting to the beheadings of foreign civilians? Does this get much play in the local publications?

Karl Vick: Yes, it gets play. The overwhelming majority of Iraqis are appalled, of course. You do come by some discussion even among those, however, about whether the Koran calls for the knife to come from the back or the front.

I say this not in jest, nor to suggest Islam advocates violence (quite the opposite). But it's a discussion you do come across. Maybe it's to do with slaughtering sheep or other animals for the feast of sacrifice. I haven't pursued it.


Germantown, Md.: "...but it's not like self-doubt is a prominent item on the pull down menu of whatever version of Windows was installed in these guys."

Karl, you've been reading too much Stephenson.

Question: How are you doing your reporting? Iraqi stringers, or braving the elements yourself and putting all in the hands of God?

Karl Vick: Which Stephenson?

The reporting is, increasingly, by remote control. We are relying more and more on Iraqi stringers and translators to get out and gather the quotes and color and other elements of a story that are available only on the street, where foreign reporters are simply too much of a target these days to be out on a lot. It stinks, but there it is.


Alexandria, Va.: How does your experience in Iraq jibe with the leaked e-mail from Wall Street Journal reporter Farnaz Fassihi that's been going around?

Karl Vick: Leaked!

Farnaz is a friend, and a very strong reporter, and total professional. Her private e-mail, passed along until it emerged from the zone of privacy to whatever you call that place where blogs come from, got it pretty much got it right. I don't think many reporters here would differ with much. Or a lot of people in the military or Green Zone, for that matter.

Nicely written, too.


Washington, D.C.: What is it like reporting there these days? Are you able to get outside of Baghdad?

Karl Vick: Not much, no. When the surprise offensive started in Samarra, a lot of us were trying to get up to embed with the 1st ID asap. The public affairs officers with that division (who are exceptional, by the way), said they could receive us, they just didn't have any helicopters to bring us up from Baghdad. "You can drive," the major said.

Theoretically, we could. And at least on reporter did. But it's a dangerous road, so after consulting with the Iraqis we employ in security, we opted against.

Mind, the last time I waited for a helicopter to take me in or out of an embed it was literally rocked by an RPG. (Staying in isn't all it's cracked up to be either; the floor of our hotel took two 155 mm artillery rounds last week. I'm nursing carpet burns here, people, from hitting the deck.)


El Paso, Tex.: President Bush claims progress and success in Iraq. Please tell me which areas of the country are safe, peaceful, and share some level of normalcy? Which areas do you feel safe visiting with your press credentials? Where can an American -- not with the protection of press credentials or military might-visit?

Karl Vick: Someone's house, maybe. If no one sees you going in or coming out. Or a U.S. military base beyond mortar range.

Any other place (outside the Kurdish north) an American is vulnerable to abduction. The Green Zone gets mortared pretty much every day. The press credentials offer almost no protection, actually.


Escanaba, Mich.:

Good morning.

You earlier stated that there has been no campaigning for the elections in Iraq. Has anyone come forward to claim their candidacy?

Also, while it seems the elections in Iraq are important to Americans, being there, have you observed that the average Iraqi right NOW is much more concerned with just surviving and restoring the infrastructure?

Thank you.

Karl Vick: Escanaba. Fun to say that.

There's no campaigning yet because no candidates or slates have yet been announced. But I don't mean to say there isn't a heap of politicking going on here, among parties, pols, everyone who's looking toward January.

Moqtada is being courted, no question, not by everyone but he's sure got some votes to deliver. I'm more interested in the Sunnis, whether they will remain best known as "rejectionists" or decide the greater danger is of being left behind.

When I saw President Yawar, a Sunni sheik from Mosul, the other day he made it clear that he sees a big role for the Sunni in a winning slate. The electoral urge clearly animates the man, whose eyes danced as he explained why he was expending so much energy on negotiations to find a peace in Fallujah:

"These are my constituents!" he said. "I need their votes!"


New York: Karl,

We hear a lot about the insurgent attacks on U.S. troops and Iraqi police, but my impression from Iraqi blogs is that for a normal Iraqi citizen, the worst problem is criminal gangs, kidnappings, etc., motivated purely by money. Your comments?

Karl Vick: I have the same strong impression. Take abductions. For a full year before kidnapping became a problem for foreigners -- in April, when the insurgency suddenly ran rampant and reporters started being taken -- abduction for ransom was a huge problem in Baghdad. Driven largely, it was said, by criminals Saddam let out of Abu Ghraib a few months before the war, but also by the sense of lawlessness that defined the first year after. (I wrote a longish story about it, or about insecurity in general, that ran sometime in May.)

You're seeing more police around, now but by and large what's held this place together is the basic decency at the root of any society.


Karl Vick: That'll have to do for today, thanks. Great hearing from you all. Let's do it again soon.


washingtonpost.com: Unchecked Lawlessness Stresses Iraqi Society, (Post, May 30)


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