Eyewitness Interview: "Iraq Is An Absolute Disaster":
Journalist Michael Ware is the Baghdad Bureau Chief for Time Magazine. He was embedded in Fallujah during the recent US offensive earlier this month, and has covered the war in Iraq since February 2003. He joins us today with his perspective on the situation in Iraq.
WARE INTERVIEW ON WNYC HOST LEONARD LOPATE
NOVEMBER 24 2004
I’m Leonard Lopate, this
is WNYC 93.9 We’re on line at WNYC.org.
In the news today are reports that American Forces are
continuing military operations to overcome isolated pockets of
resistance in Fallujah and it’s surrounding areas. Are things
going as well as that suggests? Well, joining me now with an
eye-witness account is embedded journalist Michael Ware,
bureau chief for TIME magazine, he recently
returned from Fallujah where he was tracking Alpha Company’s
third platoon. Very pleased to welcome you to the show. Hi.
When did you get back from Fallujah?
on Saturday afternoon and arrived in
on Sunday evening.
How long had you been there?
Well, I’ve been based in
for almost two years now. So this is a rare
Did you feel that it was okay to leave Fallujah
because things have been brought under control?
No, I mean, I don’t think we’re ever going to be able to
confidently say that Fallujah is under control. I guess it
depends on what your measure of control really is. There will
always be insurgents in Fallujah. Fallujah is the dark heart of
the insurgency. We may be able to dominate the city now that
it’s been retaken, but whether you effectively control it;
whether you stamp out that rising tide of resistance, I don’t
Is this like Groznyy in
, where the Russian forces have pretty much
levelled the city and still face constant resistance?
Yeah, I mean, there’s things of Groznyy, but certainly it’s
not a direct comparison by any measure. There has been
widespread destruction in Fallujah in the course of this
terrible, terrible battle…
Mosques and homes?
Oh, absolutely, I mean… For example, the military unit I was
with, I mean, the operation in Fallujah involved largely
Marines, but also some army elements. I was with one of those
elements. The way they proceeded through the city, given that
there was booby-traps, improvised explosive devices, riddling
the streets everywhere. Entire houses were rigged to blow. The
way they proceeded was what they call “Reconnaissance by
Fire.” If you’re going to go down a street first you scour
it for any potential danger. How do you do that? You do it with
a 25mm cannon on an armoured Bradley fighting vehicle. Or you do
it with one 20mm tank round. Just blow up everything that looks
vaguely suspicious. Then if someone shoots at you from a
building, or there’s an explosion near a vehicle, don’t mess
with it. Don’t go into the building looking for the guy…
just level the building. And then go through the rubble
Well, that can’t be pleasing people who are not
in support of the insurgents, but who consider Fallujah their
Well, Fallujah, is actually called the City of
. And whether you’re a Sunni, like most of
the people in
are, or whether you’re just an ordinary
Iraqi, it still has some resonance. And to see a city destroyed
liked that obviously won’t go without some repercussion.
Especially since one of our reasons for being in
is to liberate these people, isn’t it?
Or…. do you think the people of Fallujah felt liberated?
Well, I’m often troubled by just exactly why it is that the
West went into
. Because, it seems to me that the best
justification that was made was somehow it related to the war on
terror, yet I’m afraid to say, as in Fallujah, with all of
, if this is to prevent terrorism, then
it’s failing. We’re promoting, or spawning, or giving birth
to terrorism, by our presence there.
Well, in a way you represent a couple of
countries, because you’re from
, which supports the war effort…
And you work for TIME magazine, which is an
international publication, but is really an American
publication. So, ah, do you feel that, that you’re an outsider
from both of the… both of the cultures you have grown up in
and worked within?
No, clearly you can’t shed your, your, cultural grounding,
like you take off a coat. I mean, I can’t divorce myself
entirely from that, but what’s my role in
? What was my role in
for the year before I went to
? It’s to observe and to report… I need
to maintain some sort of sense of …of… neutrality, if not
…. Well, Afghanistan to a lesser degree…
but Iraq was very much a … the big story up to the election,
it seems… both of them seem to be on the back burner, but we
do hear ominous things, such as Afghanistan is now a… one of
the major producers of… of opiates in the world… maybe,
right now, the most dangerous one… Ah, this is after it was
we now… we’ve heard 51, maybe more,
Americans killed just as a result of
the fighting in Fallujah. 868 I think wounded as …
according to today’s New York Times… This doesn’t sound
like a very good thing….
I mean, how much success can we claim?
Okay, in Fallujah, it was a sweeping military victory. The
objective was to retake territory. To deny the insurgents
sanctuary. By and large that’s been accomplished.
Congratulations. Has that broken the back of the insurgency? No.
Not at all… Maybe you’ve dented them temporarily…
The numbers I’ve heard is 250 insurgents rounded
up, which doesn’t seem like very much considering the cost in
American lives, and Iraqi lives… the Iraqis who have fought
along side the Americans. Haven’t most of the insurgents just
slipped out and regrouped elsewhere?
Yeah, when they say “250 insurgents rounded up”, that’s
just men of fighting age. Some will be insurgents, most
certainly. Others may not be. Some we’ll never determine. And,
I don’t know, just every step take we’re alienating the
Iraqi people more and more and more… And we’re producing
more terrorists and insurgents.
Do we have any idea of how many insurgents were in Fallujah and
the surrounding areas when this whole thing began?
There’s various estimates. Military intelligence was telling
me prior to the operation that their best guess, based on signal
intelligence and human intelligence was anything from 1500 to
three thousand. Others put it upward of 5000 insurgents.
However, I can tell you for a fact, most of them had already
left the city well before the operation began.
Were they part of some kind of a unified military
This is a very complex issue. But in a nutshell, there’s
essentially a two track war in
. There always has been. There’s been the
high profile terrorist war led by foreign Jihadis, come to fight
the Holy War inspired by Osama bin Laden, now led by Abu Musab
al Zarqawi. Then there’s the home grown insurgency; former
military officers who are fighting a war of liberation. We’ve
seen those two wars merge. That happened at the beginning of the
year. Now, during the course of this year there was some
friction between those two interests. However, as they were
saying to me shortly before the operation when I asked, “Is it
possible for you to band together again?” They said, “There
is one thing that will unify us once more. And that’s an
attack on Fallujah.”
Hmm. Well, what separates them is very different
visions as to what an
after all this ends would look like…
Yeah, that’s one of the things… I mean it was issues of
tactics. I mean, former professional military officers don’t
like suicide bombings, don’t accept the collateral damage that
the foreign Jihadis accept. Then there’s also the broader
issue as you touch upon, the Jihadis want to establish an
Islamic state. Not just in
, but throughout the entire Muslim world. The
insurgents, the home grown former military officers, they’re
fighting to free their country. The most interesting thing
though is, that the Jihadis, the al Qaida backed sponsored,
inspired, Holy Warriors, have hijacked the entire insurgency.
And now the military officers too are seeking an Islamic state.
How would you suggest the military deal with the
issue of bombing mosques? We’ve been criticised for shooting
at them, but the insurgents often use them as, as havens,
Yeah, it’s a very thorny issue. I mean, the entire crux of
this war is… it’s a matter of propaganda and perception.
This is a war, as the insurgents were telling me even last year,
it’s not going to be won and lost on the battlefield, but on
television. This is what the military calls an “IO
Campaign.” An Information Operation. So, the insurgents are
extraordinarily adept at it, much better than the
military. So, by using a mosque as a
fighting position, that has immediate tactical advantage, but
they know that forces the
military to reduce that mosque to rubble,
and that has an enormous play….
Did they have a lot of sophisticated weapons
insurgents? The insurgents have untapped resources to weaponry
and explosives. Both within the country and stuff that just
pours in over the open borders that we have left largely
unattended. They don’t have great use of heavy weaponry, like
Dushka heavy machine guns, yet they still have mortar systems,
they are very adept, in fact the military intelligence officers
I mix with describe them as ingenious at improvised explosive
devices, booby traps, and the way they lay their snares for us,
are just extraordinary.
Would securing the borders have been a better
tactic? Perhaps we could have avoided some of these problems?
IT certainly would have assisted. You can never guarantee that
you would prevent… but, it would have assisted the
Islamization of this fight. I mean, a lot of the… the
religious fervour that is now fuelling this war… has come
across the borders. Yes, there was fertile ground inside
for this, but it took that inspiration from
abroad to really set it aflame…
You talked about the information war, why has there
been such disagreement over the dead and wounded on both sides?
Is it because… the
government agencies have been downplaying
them, and the… the Iraqi insurgents have been inflating them?
Or is this also a way that the different media control reporting
on this war…..?
It’s a very complicated issue, but let me boil it down to one
broad principle: In this war, like every other war I’ve been
in, there’s one absolute, and that is that everyone lies. On
all sides. Civil, military, the West, the Insurgents, the
Jihadis, everyone is spinning the story. For their own purposes.
I mean, don’t forget….
Well, what does that mean for you? You were
covering the story. You
had to go to the sources you could go to… How much could you
Oh, I don’t trust anyone… ever. Ever. I just can never turn
my back, and I can never trust anything that’s told to me. So,
you need to check, recheck, and check again. For example, in
terms of the insurgents, that’s how I began this long road and
painful path that I’ve eventually taken of actually being able
to penetrate the insurgents, and even the al Qaida Jihadis.
I’d be told many things by them in meetings with them. As
would all reporters. But a man masking his face in a scarf
sitting in a car can tell you anything he likes. So, I kept
saying, “Well, how do I know it’s true?” And it was from
that that they eventually took me in deeper and deeper and
deeper, to just show me, to prove to me their bona fides, and
then the extent of what they were doing. It’s only with your
own eyes that you can ever know anything.
Is that why you allowed yourself to be embedded
with Alpha Company’s 3rd platoon? Because, people
have been concerned that embedded reporters only see what
they’re allowed to see?
Well, that’s very true. That’s the nature of embedding. And
that happens on both sides. When the insurgents take me, to
essentially in inverted commas, “embed me” with their side,
They only want to show me what they want me to see. It’s the
same with the
military. So, it’s up to us to be there to
see it. So, and… and the army, particularly, as opposed to the
Marines, were much better on this… on press freedom, in this
particular operation in Fallujah. I mean, I was with the 3rd
Platoon of Alpha Company from the 2nd Battalion 2nd
Infantry Regiment. They said to me, “Where do you want to
be?” and I said, “I want to be right where your boys are.”
So, I was with 3rd Platoon which was the very first
troops to set foot inside Fallujah on Monday night November 8.
And they led the battle all the way through that week. And I was
there side by side with them. Anything other than that prohibits
me from really knowing the truth.
My guest is Michael Ware, who is
bureau chief at TIME magazine. Recently he
returned from Fallujah, where he was tracking Alpha Company’s
3rd Platoon in their battles in Fallujah. We will
continue our conversation after we take a little break here on
WNYC. Stay with us.
We’re back with Michael Ware who is
bureau chief for TIME magazine. Recently he
returned from observing the fighting in Fallujah. This is WNYC
93.9 AM820. We’re on line at WNYC.org. What pressures are
there on people reporting from
? Recently the Wall Street Journal’s
reporter got into trouble for sending private email messages to
friends that revealed things that she wasn’t even putting in
her articles, but people still… supporters of the war effort..
still wanted the Wall Street Journal to fire her for doing that.
I mean that was absolutely ludicrous. I know Farnaz very well.
There’s not a single one amongst us in
who could quibble with a skerrick or a
phrase of that email. And quite frankly, I was stunned by it,
because, most of us have put that into print anyway. And
certainly, when we avail ourselves of broader media
opportunities on television and radio, we are all saying the
exact same thing:
is an absolute disaster. And it’s
…it’s… it’s not improving. It’s deteriorating with a
rapid pulse. It’s a failing mission. I mean, for me, I’ve
been asked, “Are we winning?” And I say, “Well, that’s
not really the proper question. The question is how can we
prevent from losing?”
But, aren’t a lot of people putting their
hopes… pinning their hopes on the elections that are coming
Well they can pin as much as they like on those elections. I
don’t know what good it’s going to do them. I mean, I’ll
tell you right now, you can set any
date you like, let’s call it January 30th.
You can hold an election. It will certainly look like an
election. And it will sound like an election. But, anything
other than sham, you can’t hope to produce. I mean, the… the
West will do it’s best to support this process, but under no
circumstances can I see any election in Iraq now or anywhere
near in the future that will produce anything akin to a real
mandate for anyone.
Why was Fallujah deemed so important to win?
Couldn’t it have just been cordoned off and kept under
That… That’s… That was one option, although that’s not
as a simple a thing to do as one might think. I mean, until
you’re out on a battlefield, you don’t really understand the
nature of the confusion of it all. And to seal a city, I mean,
can you appreciate just how many tens of thousands of troops you
would have to dedicate to that task? I mean, you’d almost have
to introduce the draft here in
just to seal off Fallujah, to add to the
troop numbers that are already there. The other thing is that
there was a political imperative. I mean, obviously, Fallujah
was a festering sore. It was a gross act of brazen defiance
against the Iraqi government and against the
? Worse that Baquba?
Oh, absolutely. Now, I’ve spent a lot of time in all those
places: in Baquba, in Ramadi, in Tikrit, in Behji, in
… Oh, I’ve spent much time in all those
places on both sides of the fence. Fallujah was particularly
symbolic, I mean, operationally it was very key. It was actually
a city that the insurgents and the Jihadis controlled. And on
their secret websites and on their secret message boards, that
I’ve been able to monitor, through the assistance of the
insurgents.. I get to see the way they talk… and they referred
to Fallujah as… as …
and The Independent Islamic State of
So, it had a symbolic significance?
Absolutely. But, I mean, militarily? At best this is a tactical
victory. We have reclaimed territory. Strategically, it’s done
nothing to stop the terror. And much like the entire invasion of
of itself, but you know…. In many ways
there was certain reasons for doing it, but, but this is… this
is…(stend ?) nothing.. nothing at all. I mean, it was
important… I mean, cos, at the heart of an insurgency, or an
insurgent war, classic counter-insurgency tactics is that
essentially you must deny population from the insurgents. It’s
not about taking territory and holding ground. That’s got
nothing to do with the nature of the fight in
. So, we’re supposed to drive a wedge
between the ordinary people who support and shelter, or at the
very least, acquiesce to the presence of the insurgents. By that
measure, how are we fairing? Well, their support is growing.
It’s not reducing.
Well, one of the first things we heard was that we
had to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. So is that
the battle we’re really losing right now?
I mean it would be glib to say that the hearts of minds of the
people that we haven’t yet killed… but… there is an
element of…. Truth to that. I mean, honestly, I see day by day
as we add to the ranks of the insurgency… Now, be it, I’ve
been there… I’ve watched civilians atomized before my eyes
These are civilians? These are innocent bystanders?
Absolutely. I mean, this is the
confusion of war. By no means, is that meant to be a direct
criticism of the military itself or the individual soldiers
involved. I mean, I can talk to you for many horrid and
nightmarish hours about the nature of that, but let’s not go
there. I mean, innocents die.
And it’s hard to tell who is an innocent and
who’s an insurgent, isn’t it?
Absolutely, and when you have a confused Iraqi father, driving
his terrified family.. trying to escape a battleground somewhere
and he tentatively and fearfully approaches a US checkpoint,
which is manned by baby-faced teenagers who have seen their
friends and colleagues horrendously torn apart and who are
coming under almost constant fire from every direction from an
enemy who hides as a civilian, and leaps out when it’s least
expected…. As that family approaches that checkpoint a nervous
trigger finger is a nanosecond away from… from wiping them all
out…. And I’ve… I’ve just experienced far too much of
Well, we just heard about a soldier actually
killing wounded prisoners…. Because of that kind of anger? The
anger that arises from having seen your friends die?
I mean, I wasn’t in the room when that happened. But I was in
that battlefield, and I’ve certainly seen…. Put it this way,
that… wouldn’t have been the first such occasion. If I had
been there…. And even in Fallujah itself, I saw stuff that was
very akin to that. And that’s the nature of war. And it’s
not so much…. I wouldn’t credit to the anger of an
individual soldier who pulled that trigger. It doesn’t have to
be anger.. You don’t sleep for
a week. You’re in constant battle. You’re on a
perpetual adrenaline rush. It’s all that keeps you going.
You’re nerves are absolutely fried. It’s just instinct half
You sound like you’re battling post-traumatic
stress syndrome. Do you feel that way?
I don’t know. I’m rarely sober enough to think about that.
No, I’m just joking. I mean, no, I wouldn’t say that. .. I
mean, let’s just say that…… war is not an easy business.
And it always exacts a toll in one form or another. On everyone
who is touched by it.
Is there a humanitarian crisis in Fallujah? Has the
Red Cross gone in there yet?
When I left Fallujah itself, no. The Red Crescent or other aid
agencies weren’t being allowed into the city. I mean, that
distress me to a great degree because to whom are they to go in
to deliver aid? In six days of non-stop combat I didn’t see a
single civilian. Now, there were civilians in pockets of that
city. But nothing like the 40,000 that was originally estimated
by military planners. So, the fact that aid agencies aren’t in
there right now, isn’t to me a terribly disturbing thing… I
mean, obviously that’s a major issue in the Arabic press.
Again, this is the Information War.. it’s being played up
enormously about the innocent death in Fallujah. Now, I know
that civilians were killed, but was it on the scale that’s
being… that’s being drawn for us in the Arab media. No, not
My guest is Michael Ware, who is Baghdad Bureau
chief for TIME magazine. He was an eye witness to the fighting
in Fallujah from November 8th until just last
Saturday when he returned to the
. This is WNYC 93.9 AM820. We’re on line at
WNYC.org. So, are we receiving the… You talked earlier about
“spin”… Are we receiving as distorted a view of what’s
going on in
as the local population is… from its news
I mean… To some degree, you must understand it’s difficult
to measure just what message you’re receiving here in your
homes, and in your offices….
You didn’t see the same CNN that we saw?
No, generally, I watch for example CNN International… If I get
access to news at all. But, from what I do know, and from you
know, what I read, and what I’m able to absorb, you’re
subject to as much an….a carefully structured campaign of
information and spin as any constituency that is supporting and
giving the mandate for military operations. And that’s from
the Arab side, and from the
side. I mean, it would be naïve to think
that in some fashion we’re not all being manipulated. And
often, it’s subconscious or it’s not even malign… it’s
just so insidious… and almost imperceptible
and sometimes it can turn on just the hint of nuance…
It amounts to a distortion, at any way you look at it, it
amounts to a distortion… I mean….
It doesn’t matter where we go?… I mean, I could
read your reports in TIME magazine, or watch the BBC. Or I could
watch the French press…. In the end, I’m going to always get
a distorted view, through the filter of whoever’s doing the
I mean, we all do our best. And obviously, some try harder than
others, some succeed better than others, some are less agenda
ridden than others. But, at the end of the day, I mean, just
speaking for my own personal experience, I mean clearly, I bring
whatever personal filters I have inherent within me, but I try
to, I try to keep them out of my reporting. But, I mean, all I
can ever do for you is I can just bring you shards…. From the
broken glass of… of a war. I mean, I can only give you the
slivers that I am able to explore… And that’s the best that
we can do.
Well, actually, this war is closest to World War
Two, because so much of it involves urban warfare, isn’t it?
where it was dangerous to go out of the
cities, but relatively safe within the cities. And then the
First Gulf War was a long distance war, and we were kind of told
that that’s the way future wars would be conducted. But, here
you were going from house to house. From street to street.
Weren’t you? With these soldiers?
Actually, we weren’t just going from house to house. WE were,
without a hint of exaggeration, fighting room to room. I mean,
I’m sitting in your studio here, I’m looking at a large pane
of glass that leads onto the corridor… in one of the fights
that the unit I was with was in… we were on this side of the
pane of glass, and the insurgents were on the other. We.. They
were firing at each other from anything from four to eight feet
How prepared are the soldiers… the American
soldiers for this kind of fighting? In one of your articles they
seemed to be in awe of the insurgents….
I mean, I don’t know if the soldiers themselves are in awe.
They certainly have grown to respect their foe. And any… to do
anything else would be extraordinarily unhealthy for them. I
mean, they still deride them with… with terms and names… but
I mean, that’s the nature of a soldier. But, every individual
grunt has a certain respect for the enemy with whom he is
engaging. They can’t not. I mean, the resilience, the
tenaciousness, and the ingenuity of the insurgents…. It goes
without question. And I mean, there’s another thing… combat,
of any kind, but particularly something so close as point blank
range in urban warfare, is an extraordinarily personal affair.
There is nowhere to hide from yourself in combat. There’s…
You can’t pretend to be anything other than you really are.
There’s no room for bravado. There’s no room for pretences
of any kind. You are stripped bare. And you are who you are. And
that’s on all sides of the conflict.
I get the feeling that you’re also telling me
that Fallujah may be won for the moment, and maybe won for the
rest of this war, but there’ll be many more Fallujahs…
Oh, absolutely. There’s not going to be the great…. You
know… weeping sore that Fallujah was… I mean, it was a
stellar act of defiance. I mean, to be able to actually secure
and control a city, and to beat off the
military, and to play such a savvy political
game that it tied the military hands… But, we’re going to
see it popping up here, there, everywhere… In front, in
behind, beside us, up and down, everywhere. I mean…… this
doesn’t feel like victory to me….
Before the war there predictions that even if it
was easily won that once we left, sectarian civil war would
break out. Now that these soldiers are, the insurgents… have
developed so many battle skills, do you think that’s even more
Well, I mean, I know some of the home grown Iraqi Nationalist
insurgents that I deal with itch for us just to simply get out
of the way and let them get on with it.
What would they bring back, another Saddam Hussein?
Or do they want…..
Actually, many people joke, perhaps a little too seriously, that
if we release Saddam and allowed him to run in this election, he
would go very close to winning right now. Simply because so
desperately crave the security which he was able to deliver. But
this is not the real legacy that I fear of the folly of
. It’s not a civil war that tears
apart, as dreadful as that would be… We
are giving birth to the next generation of Jihad. September 11
was in many ways the end note of al Qaida as we know it. Osama
knew that he would be severely impaired after September 11,
really it was an act of inspiration. He was lifting the lid off
the Pandora’s Box of Jihad. After that, they were looking for
a platform upon which to wage that Jihad, and we gave it to
on the sketchiest of grounds… to prevent a
link to terrorism that was… not… there. Saddam was a threat?
Without a doubt. He was a menace, he was a dictator to his
people. He was a human rights nightmare. But, was he exporting
terror? No! Now, we are doing that. We’ve created the new
. Where the new generation of Al Qaida is
blooding themselves and returning out to the rest of the world
So, we’re seeing a repeat of history? The last
time it was when the
and inspired a Jihad? And now the
, and a number of other allies…
, for example, as the President reminds us,
have done the same thing…
Absolutely, I mean it’s not just turning Iraqis to a religious
fanaticism and a lust for Jihad against us within
. It’s also, I mean…. Some of these guys
I would speak to would say, “Look, we just want the Americans
out of our country, and we want to be left to our own devices.
Iraqi solutions to Iraqi problems.” Now these guys say to me,
“I’m fighting for Islam.” And I say, “Well, what will
you do when the Americans leave?” They said, “Well, we’ll
follow them.” And the other thing is , young Muslim men are
pouring in over the borders. Bathing themselves in the blood of
. And then, going home again. This is
. This was what the Al Qaida generation, or
class of veterans from
did. We’re creating the next generation.
We’ve already created their next leader: Abu Muzab al Zarqawi.
A marginal figure before this invasion. Now, he has a price on
his head that is matched only by Osama himself. And, his place
in the Jihad milieu in fact threatens Osamas.
We’ve run out of time, but I do have to ask you
whether you think anyone in
is listening to you?
….. They may listen, but do they hear? I don’t know. I mean,
I’m ….. what am I? I’m just one insignificant little voice
that rails against the horror and the lunacy that I see. I mean,
I don’t have any expectation whatsoever that I can actually
change things. The best I can do is just document and record and
speak with the voice of the people who are there.
Well, you are the
bureau chief of TIME magazine. And I want to
thank you so much for being with us today. Michael Ware, who was
recently tracking Alpha Company’s 3rd Platoon in
its attacks on Fallujah. It’s ultimate recapturing of Fallujah.
It’s been …. It’s been wonderful having you here….thank
you so much…
Thank you, it’s my pleasure.
Transcript provided by Paul: PKJ@PKJ.CA
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