Graeme Wood


Holding Pattern Kuwait

Not my favorite place in the world, but my new blog at The Atlantic, Prepared for the Worst, starts here.

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Birth of a Nation

The south of Iraq is dominated by prickly and humorless factions — groups often indifferent to the perceptions of outsiders, and rarely willing to soften their image to soothe the nerves of the journalists who want to report on them. The north of Iraq presents the opposite problem: the Kurds are just so damned smooth, so endlessly accommodating, that a journalist has to keep his guard up to make sure he isn’t getting played. Read the rest of this entry »

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Muqtada’s Victory

Four years ago last week, the subcommander of an armed faction in Iraq appeared in a grainy video — shot somewhere in Baghdad and distributed to Western journalists — and vowed to kill the leader of a rival group. Today that subcommander is alive but forgotten, and his rival, Muqtada al-Sadr, is one of the most powerful figures in the country. The forgotten subcommander, of course, is Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the three-star whose command of Coalition forces in Iraq lasted a scant two months after he issued the kill order on Sadr. The contrast between Sadr’s massive public rallies and Sanchez’s furtive low-fi video should have given a clue as to how high young Sadr would rise. Read the rest of this entry »

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The roadside bomb is the signature weapon of the Iraq war, but measured purely by the man-hours of dread they inspire, rockets and mortars easily have it beat. Roadside bombs kill soldiers only when they’re on the road. But indirect fire can hit U.S. bases at any hour, in any place, and with little warning. (Some bases have red-alert sirens, which usually crank up only after the attack has started and are therefore widely ignored.) The homey comforts of the bases — rich food, well-stocked stores, fast-food restaurants — only increase the psychological stress, since they make death a constant presence during what otherwise feels like your safest moments. That war-zone Whopper tastes a lot less like comfort-food when you know each bite could be your last.

The effect of these new weapons is to rob U.S. soldiers of one small consolation: Whereas rockets that use a point-detonated fuze (an object on the nose of the rocket that causes it to blow up when it hits its target) often don’t explode when they land in bases, these new fuzes rely on radio-frequency detonation and probably produce fewer duds. And when the fuze activates, the rocket explodes a few meters above the ground, rather than on the ground — creating a wider and more deadly kill-radius.

Although these fuzes could, if used correctly, substantially reduce the security of American soldiers, there is good news. First, the leaked document says U.S. forces found the proximity-fuze weapons in February 2006. It has been a long time since then, and the casualty rate from mortars does not, from anecdotal reports, seem to have increased much, if at all. The second, more interesting bit of good news is that the mortars that do land are not always targeted precisely. A properly trained mortar team can be miles away and drop a mortar in an area the size of my office. The Green Zone, site of much of the civilian government, is well-mapped, and mortars do rain down in tight clusters there. But on military bases — where photography and maps are prohibited — they land much less precisely.

The leaked report, classified as secret, wasn’t even sure whether the insurgents knew their new fuzes were better than the ones they had been using. Judging by the middling skill with which they’ve been lobbing the rockets in so far, it’s quite possible the insurgents are as clueless as the report hopes. But even if they are, it’s a scandal that at this late stage in the war they’re able to shoot mortars and rockets into U.S. bases so easily, rattling nerves even when they toss in a poorly-aimed dud.

Originally appeared at

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Useful Anarchy

Someone, somewhere, is hunting for rape statistics right now, to show that nationwide in the U.S., the rate of sexual assault is lower than the rate among contractors in Iraq. I would not be surprised if that is so. There are, for one thing, far fewer women per capita to assault among Iraq contractors than among the American population at large, and it’s far more probable that a female contractor is armed or has easy access to a weapon of vengeance. On the other hand, there does seem to be a connection between gruesome crimes like this one and the climate of lawlessness and license in which military contractors operate. Read the rest of this entry »

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Tour of Duty

The Smart Set

I tried getting into Iraq the easy way first, by applying for a tourist visa. The first Iraqi I ever met, a diplomat in Bangladesh, clapped me on the shoulders when I rang the embassy’s buzzer and asked for a visa in early 2001. “Let me tell you about my country,” he said, shifting in his sandals and flicking a cigarette butt into a puddle. No one gets in as a tourist, he explained, except by joining an expensive group tour. He looked me over — my dirty hat, scuffed boots, goofy grin — and said I could never afford it.
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Prospects for the Kirkuk Referendum

Article in Jane’s Intelligence Review about what will happen when the referendum happens, or doesn’t, in Kirkuk.

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Among the Kurds

The Atlantic (online)

When I visited the PKK training camps in northern Iraq last year, about half the terrorists I met were women, and most of the rest looked barely old enough to shave. This week, according to reports, after years of threatening to bomb the camps, the Turkish military started pounding the PKK’s camps near the Turkish border hard. The PKK have used those facilities to train for their guerrilla struggle in Turkey. The earnest ideologues I met in the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers Party, having long practiced for war, are now probably living through it, and facing the gravest dangers of their young lives.

The average age when I visited last year hovered somewhere between college sophomore or young grad student. Indeed the PKK members called their training facilities “the world’s greatest university,” offering an intense outdoor education, where everyone triple-majored in political philosophy, guerrilla tactics, and history. They bunked in communal dorms and tents, and they spent their days and nights in classes (principally on the works of their imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan) and bull sessions peppered with buzzwords like “praxis,” “radical feminism,” and “cultural hegemony” that reflected the movement’s origins in European academic leftism. They trained every day in warfare, maintained their ramshackle campus, and prepared mentally and physically for the day when they would leave their studies in the remote heights of the Qandil Mountains and go kill Turkish soldiers.

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