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April 25, 2007

Community Policing in Kirkuk

-Patrick S Lasswell

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Chief Sherzad Applying the Standards Expected by His Community to a Drive By Shooting Accomplice. An essential element of Community Policing is ensuring that use of force is appropriate for the expectations of your community.

When we got outside the truck was just pulling up and smack was about to be laid down. After a brief conversation with his officers to ascertain specifics, Iraqi Police Chief Sherzad directed that the suspect be brought out. The brief interview that followed with the young man was distinctly unsatisfactory, and Chief Sherzad slapped the young man. Michael Totten and I were stunned but not threatened. Of course we had not been running around on a motorcycle shooting up Kirkuk.

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Important Note: Do Not Display “Attitude” Towards Senior Police Officials. This note will be repeated as often as necessary to meet the standards of Law Enforcement in Kirkuk. Here is Chief Sherzad offering a hand in understanding this concept.

The situation was puzzling for Michael and me because while obviously intimidating, the police officers were not menacing. For people unaccustomed to law enforcement in the middle east or even in their own towns, this must seem from the photographs to be the worst kind of police brutality imaginable. But it was all very measured and intelligently controlled. If this was Egypt, I would have been sick to my stomach because the police there are deeply corrupt, insufferable thugs in filthy uniforms who view menacing coercion as the high point of their days. These Iraqi Police (of Kurdish ancestry) were clean and fit in uniforms that would be perfectly acceptable in the United States. These are the kind of armed security people from Kurdistan that I am perfectly comfortable getting in a car with after just meeting and going for a drive in the country with. These people are protectors, not violators and abusers. There were other things out of place, though.

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When your hairstyling is causing excess attitude, Chief Sherzad will be happy to help adjust it...and your attitude.

In my military capacity I deliver violence at the maximum effective range available to me, my primary training is in directing weapons to target thousands of yards away and underwater. Without compromising national security, I can reveal that I've never had to sink a submarine in a bar fight. Even without a sonar or weapons control computer, I could tell that the blows being landed on the young man were measured. After getting a close up look at the young man's face, I was surprised to see that he wasn't bleeding. If I had been hitting the drive by shooting accomplice, I am certain that I would have done some damage...and I would have been wrong to do so. The Iraqi Police were slapping the young man in a very precise manner, and only Chief Sherzad was doing so...until Mam Rostam came up.

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General Mam Rostam (right), Peshmerga Hero Arrives to Verify Community Standards. General Rostam is a literally legendary Peshmerga (Kurdish Mountain Soldier) and the last person you want to see if you are just finished making a big mistake.

Even before one of the most distinguished of all people in Iraq confronted the drive by accomplice, the young man was having just about the worst day of his life. The story coming out is that he gave a friend a ride on his motorcycle and the friend got stupid and started shooting. This is not an auspicious beginning to one's day, and then he got caught. Hauled away to what is obviously a big shot's house, he is getting smacked around by a police chief who is both extremely competent and seriously pissed off. Two Americans are going nuts getting him on film, one of them is even taking stills with one hand and shooting video with the other. Then in walks somebody who could give Dirty Harry lessons in being a badass and he's not taking any excuses. The smack Mam Rostam gave that kid made a sound like his brains had popped out of his head and dented the truck.

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Chief Sherzad Explains the Urgent Need for Cooperation in Finding the Shooter. “I will stick the bike up your ass if you don’t get your friend here now.”

The Iraqi Police are not just giving the young man a hard time for entertainment's sake, they are sweating an accomplice to get a shooter off the streets as soon as possible. When his phone rang, Chief Sherzad made the young man answer it in handcuffs so he could talk his friend into turning himself in. With obvious authority, the chief took the phone and gave orders. Our translator tells us that the deal is that if the shooter doesn't come in, the driver will spend time in prison for him. Some things are still not adding up, though. A lot more made sense when we were told that the accomplice and the shooter were Kurdish and that nobody had been killed. The lack of injury and conversational tone were better explained by that circumstance. Further updates indicated that the accomplice had family connections that are protecting him. Michael and I were happy, if still a bit confused, because we got to record actual security operations in Kirkuk and neither of us were even a little bit blown up.

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Chief Sherzad Explains Vehicular Firearms Discharge Policy in Kirkuk. Encompassing all aspects of his community standards, he explains the religious dimension: “I will pull out your soul; shooting at people...”

For the last two weeks, we've been excited to get this story posted because we knew we had something great to share. Last week before he went on an anniversary trip with his lovely wife, Michael posted a copy of the video we took to YouTube. Yesterday I was surprised to find that this was a big hit with a forum I recently joined, The Kurdistani. I asked my friends if any of them would be willing to translate the video for us, and the administrator of the site agreed to do so. Shkar Sherzad Hafiz sent his transcription back very quickly, needlessly apologizing for the quality of his excellent work. Once I read it, a lot more things fell into place.


Everything becomes more clear with a full translation. The folly of youth and the importance of civic discipline made apparent.

The story makes a lot more sense now because we know that the young man and his trigger happy friend are part of one of the secret security organizations. He got out of the truck with a load of attitude because he was a hot-shot special operative fighting the good fight who just got picked up by the regular cops. Chief Sherzad wasn't having anything to do with that, and established exactly how deep the manure pile he was in and that his only choices were head up or head down. It took some percussive maintenance on the young man's head to break down the barriers to understanding. When Mam Rostam comes up, the accomplice has a moment of hope which is quickly dismissed with additional percussive maintenance because the Peshmerga legend does not appreciate young idiots shooting up his home town on a lark. After this final moment of manually applied clarity, the young man releases his attitude and realizes that when you are in deep dirt, it is far better to be head up. The young man did not break down in tears even after a world-class slap-down because he has the kind of strength necessary to go dangerous places and deal with dangerous people. He's not in Mam Rostam's league, but who is?

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Chief Sherzad and General Mam Rostam are genuinely committed to bringing Kirkuk forward.

This video and Shkar Sherzad Hafiz's translation tell us a lot of important things about the security situation in Kirkuk, most of them good. It is not good that young secret security agents think they can get away with being idiots with guns for even a second. It is great that they got caught and are getting treated like criminals, regardless of their connections. It is great that Chief Sherzad and General Mam Rostam are deeply committed to making Kirkuk work and tremendously offended by stupid young men who forget that firearms are tools, not toys. It is great that General Rostam let Michael and me out with our video and pictures intact and did not feel threatened by our witnessing this embarrassment. They were more proud of their policemen and the fine work they are doing, as they should be.

A lot of people are stuck on the idea that the Iraqi's can't govern themselves or take care of their own security. Based on my personal, first-hand observations I can say that there are some very good people working to make Iraq safer and doing an excellent job. They are receiving the tools and training to do the job and they have tremendous aptitude and a good understanding of the principles involved. I'm proud to know Chief Sherzad and General Mam Rostam and honored to have witnessed them in action. I'm even oddly comforted by the resilience of the young man who had the worst day imaginable and still kept tremendous composure. Assuming he's not permanently assigned an important position guarding sheep on a mountain someplace, he will probably be a significant asset to Iraq's future security...once he finds better companions. Not everything is as it first appears in Iraq.

Please Support Independent Reporting from Iraq
Email address is mrs.risk at gmail dot com


Michael Totten's excellent coverage
of this event is also up and well worth reading.

All photos copyright Patrick S Lasswell

April 18, 2007

With the Peshmerga in Kirkuk, Iraq

-Patrick S Lasswell

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Peshmerga Training in Suliamaniya.

Embedding with the Peshmerga is different than going with the other Coalition forces. For one thing, there is the absolute absence of paperwork. Michael showed me some of the bureaucracy he has to struggle with to go to Baghdad. On the other hand, we had to provide our own car and driver. Since we had an ace driver who was also our translator and friend, this was fine with us. Going in a low visibility sedan instead of a Hummer with a turret and “ATTACK ME” written all over it also has a certain appeal. This is not to say that we were accepted without security precautions or providing bona fide's, it's just that they were more organic and less structured. It's easier to keep track of visiting journalists when your Media Relation's personnel rotation in-country is from birth to death. The choice of where to go on an embed was not my greatest happiness, though.

My immediate response to Michael Totten's suggestion that we go to Kirkuk was to smack him upside the head. Due to the length and character of our friendship and business deals, he accepted this with equanimity. After all, he had just won the argument. If I had a good reason not to go to Kirkuk, I would have offered superior logic. If I was deeply unwilling to go, I would have offered superior liquor. If I was genuinely afraid, I would have administered more than a token tap and suggestion of physical improbability. I was in, it was just a matter of negotiating the conditions.

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Michael Totten, About to be Smacked Upside the Head. I should stop going to Duhok with him, something uncomfortable always happens there. This time it happened to me.

Kirkuk is a city with unique conditions because although there are areas solidly in the unsafe red zone, most of it is strongly secure and pro-US. Talking about security in Iraq is first a matter of discussing race and sect. Western political correctness trends toward babble at the best of times, but in Iraq it is excruciating. We must talk about race and sect because they are killing themselves over it. Kirkuk is historically Kurdish, but there is also a strong component of racial Iraqi Turkomen remnant from the original 9th Century Turk migration out of Central Asia. Also hanging on in a living rebuttal to the concept of historical inevitability are some Assyrian Christians.

The violence comes from and mostly stays in the areas of recent Arab immigration, another poison legacy of Saddam Hussein who was unable to control this oil-rich region so he destabilized it. Not only did Saddam transplant Arabs from the South, he sent another of his enemies, the Shia Arabs. This was a blatant and deliberate move to counter the Kurds, and if they incidentally wiped out the local Turkomen, so much the better. Saddam's planting his enemies amongst each other to get them fighting is still yielding a harvest of hatred and blood. But because the new Arabs were placed according to bureaucratic decree instead of organic availability, the settlements of the insurgents are contained. The place is risky, but the risk is moderate. I found myself trapped by my own blog title.

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Kirkuk is a Nasty Place. With old taxi's and dirty streets even after a rain, you don't go here for pleasure.

This is the part my wife is going to hate. Kirkuk isn't just nasty, it really is dangerous. In the month we were in Iraq, there were dozens of attacks there including one memorable day when four idiots detonated themselves inside of eight hours. The potential wealth of the area draws terror financing and organization. For perspective, imagine a VA Tech psycho attack once a week in a metro area the size of the Omaha, Nebraska. One difference is that the police and the citizens are prepared and willing to confront murderous idiots with appropriate force. My part of not aiding the lunatics is simple, I don't publish locations or pictures that reveal specific locations. I used my GPS receiver until right outside of town to help me orient myself, then turned it off so if it was captured it couldn't be used to hurt my hosts. One of the biggest obstacles the imported homicide bombers have is not knowing their way around town. For all the jihad dollars and dupes coming into town, lack of local knowledge and cooperation outside the Arab zone means the violence stays localized.

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Most Cities in Iraq have a Copy of this Hospital.

One of Michael's rules for operating in the Middle East, and it's a good one, is that you find people you trust, and then trust them. For our purposes, that meant independently asking a lot of people if it was safe for us to go to Kirkuk and with whom. To cross-check the validity, we asked if it was also safe for us to go to Mosul. Universally it was acknowledged that it would be safe for us to go to Kirkuk, and that the best person to go with was General Mam Rostam. Universally it was also acknowledged that going to Mosul was just stupid. The best caveat I heard was our translator (and friend) Hamid, who reminded us that in Kirkuk we were “hard currency”. Any terrorist group that caught us would recieve a lot more financing and attention.

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Nice Neighborhood in Dohuk, Iraq. This is nowhere near and nothing like Kirkuk, but it has scenery and elevation. Kirkuk is table flat and has walls.

Once we decided to go and had verified notional wisdom of doing so, we put off testing the actual validity of our choice until the end of the trip. Partly that was to ensure that the consulting job we came here to do was in the can and wrapped up beyond question. Partly that was to make sure we had plenty of additional material to work on if something happened. Mostly it was to reduce the amount of time we were not telling our wives what we had done. We both like being married and do not relish the opportunity to evade their questions or risk their trust.

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Kirkuk is a Really Nasty Place. With no skyline and decades of malignant neglect it's hard to believe you are in the richest city in the world.

We both also felt a deep need to validate our logic and choices in the Middle East by going to Kirkuk. To the extent that we have a marketable skill worth charging consultant rates for, it is that we both accurately comprehend what the ground truth is and make good decisions on the basis of our experiences, intellectual rigor, and insight. If going to Kirkuk is wrong and we thought it was right, we should not be in this business. If going to Kirkuk is right and the terrorist's fear, uncertainty and doubt overmasters our mental processes, we should not be in this line of work. If one of us is unable to operate in Kirkuk, we need to revisit the conditions of our partnership.

Two Views of Kirkuk. Going in fast and coming out at a reasonable speed.

Normally I don't go in for the kind of trust exercises touted in corporate retreats. With eight years of active duty, most of it on undermanned destroyers at sea in every ocean, I can verify trust at a glance. More than that, I can and do get people to perform at their best during critical periods. I'm also working with Michael Totten, who is not exactly a shrinking violet and has only let me down by not being up for work the day he passed a kidney stone...and then for only the one day. The trip to Kirkuk established that intellectually, physically, and emotionally we could work anywhere in Iraq worth working. This was a lot more than closing your eyes and falling backwards, this was keeping your eyes open and heading into understood danger.

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Judge Rizgar Mohammad Amin. Faced down Saddam Hussein in court and considers General Mam Rostam a good friend.

We had dinner and an interview the evening before the trip to Kirkuk with Judge Rizgar Mohammad Ameen at his house. Judge Rizgar sat on the bench during the first phase of Saddam Hussein's trial and allowed his identity to be known. As soon as we have a translation, we will be posting that interview. Judge Rizgar offered his endorsement of traveling with General Mam Rostam and added his own travel story. A few years ago they were flying together to Baghdad and the plane was diverted from landing at the last minute. For an hour and twenty minutes they flew in waiting patterns over the city and Judge Rizgar remembers looking over at General Rostam and telling him that they won't let the plane land because they know who's on it. There are plenty of people in Baghdad who have good reason to fear letting as legendary a fighter as the general on the ground.

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General Mam Rostam. Legendary Peshmerga, Member of Kurdistan Parliament, and troubleshooter in one of the most troubled cities in the world.

We met with General Mam Rostam on the street outside his house in Suliamaniya as his convoy was getting ready to head to Kirkuk. I was wearing a white Ex Officio shirt, grey North Face slacks, tan rigger's belt, tan Danner boots, and a black trauma kit strapped to my leg. I think the general approved of my accessorizing. With the trauma kit I was showing that I was prepared, by not wearing body armor, I was showing that I was not nervous. The general has a reputation for taking journalists on “exciting” rides. We showed up dressed appropriately professional for the trip we were on, instead of wildly over prepared for a trip we were afraid of. That's why I think the general cut us some slack and got us to Kirkuk in a brisk, but not fear-inspiring manner.

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Patrick S. Lasswell, General Mam Rostam, Michael J. Totten. Michael is looking stern in this picture because he went to Kirkuk but not on a hell ride. You just can't make some people happy.

The drive through the city was fast going in. Cars got out of the way once they saw the SUV barreling down the street at high speeds. Once we got to the house where we would be talking with General Mam Rostam we went through the now familiar introductions with all the subordinate staff and were sat down for talking on the porch. It was a lovely spring day, hotter than Suliamaniya, and the roses in the front yard were already in bloom. Small cups of something like muddy espresso shots were delivered to all participants on the porch, I drank mine straight off like the others but Michael tried to savor every shred of coffee goodness. Fairly quickly we established our bona fide's with our questions; we knew what to ask and how to ask for it. One of our questions was about the differences in security between the Kurdish portions of Kirkuk and the parts where things got blown up. To answer us, Gen. Rostam offered to take us to a police station later in the day.

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Two Kurdish Gentlemen Seeking Intervention in a Shooting Dispute from Gen. Rostam

As we were talking, two Kurdish gentlemen came in and were seated with us on the porch. It developed that there was an accidental shooting and they were intermediaries settling the differences between the affected tribes. Part of the job of being a living legend and troubleshooter in Kirkuk is making sure that small problems don't become huge ones. Unlike the more urbane parts of the Kurdish Region, nobody in Kirkuk was making excuses about participating in tribal structure. Until 2003, this place was under Saddam's thumb, and the kinds of political growth that the Kurdish Regional Government is tirelessly trying to display just hasn't happened yet. Also awaiting development are trash removal, modern sewage disposal, and widespread security. General Rostam dealt with the visitors during a break in our conversation, fixing municipal services is going to take longer.

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Two Iraqi Turkomen Gentlemen Visiting. I think they were brought in to show us that the Turkomen aren't being oppressed. They didn't look or act oppressed.

Part of the process of interviewing important people in the Kurdish region and the Middle East is the interruptions. Some of it is probably for show, but a lot of it is dealing with small problems kicked upwards. Since Michael and I have benefited repeatedly from interrupting with just this kind of phone call, we don't mind. During one of the interruptions, two more gentlemen arrived and were greeted as close friends. General Rostam told us that they were Turkomen and that they were not being oppressed. It is hard not to take this as boilerplate political posturing, except that they were invited to lunch. Getting invited to meals happens all the time to Michael and me, sometimes we have conflicting invitations come simultaneously and have to act quickly to avoid hospitality feuds. That happens because we are Americans and people in Kurdistan respect and need us. By inviting the Turkomen to lunch, General Rostam indicated that they are respected and needed. This is a bond that lasts longer than one meal.

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Police Chief Major Sherzad. Not afraid of terrorists, really.

Shortly before lunch the police arrived in the form of Iraqi Police Chief Major Sherzad. A neat and trim man, he kept his radio in close proximity. He managed to look orderly Instead of going to the police station, the local chief came to us. General Rostam was eager to show us the best parts of Kirkuk, which turns out to be the people working to make it work despite an active enemy. We talked about security in Kirkuk and how he kept things safe in the Kurdish zones. Major Sherzad was proud of his accomplishment of minimal attacks, dozens of captured terrorists, and scores of discovered weapons caches in a sector that was 80% Arab. He and his police accomplished this through integrity, hard work, and active trust with the inhabitants. The chief had more great things to tell us that I will cover in my next post before we were called in to lunch.

The inside of the house was different from all the other presentation spaces I've been to in Iraq because there were no carpets. In other places you are expected to take off your shoes to avoid carrying the omnipresent dirt into the house. Here you were expected to keep your footwear on because when events occurred time was of the essence. Since I wear great Danner desert boots that take forever to don and doff, this suited me fine. The table was crowded with all the participants invited to share food. The Turkomen sat across from me and one of General Rostam's aides was wedged into the corner to my right. The main course was chicken, but the proportions were off, a taller local breed not in commercial production around the world. On the walls were pictures of Peshmerga fighters and special guests to this house, including many US personnel. Throughout Iraq people from the US are forbidden to eat in local homes...except at General Rostam's. Somebody must have figured out that if General Rostam wanted to hurt the Coalition he wouldn't violate hospitality, he'd just refuse to show up for work in Kirkuk for a couple of weeks. US troops live because Mam Rostam is committed to making Kirkuk work.

Tea after lunch was enjoyable and more exciting than I expected. I burned a CD of the pictures I had taken to give to General Rostam as a gesture of good faith and a nice token of our trip. As we were preparing to move back out to the porch, Major Sherzad's radio started going off in earnest. It developed that some idiot had been shooting from a motorcycle. Then came word that the driver of the motorcycle had been caught and was being brought to our location. As he stepped off the porch towards the arriving police trucks, Major Sherzad announced “I'm not going to feel good until I slap that man.”

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Police Chief Major Sherzad Applying Percussive Maintenance to a Drive By Shooting Accomplice.
More coming soon in part 2: Community Policing in Kirkuk
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Michael Totten's post on this trip is very much worth a look.

April 12, 2007

Unreported Story from Iraq

-Patrick S Lasswell

Nobody has taken the time to cover this story in the seventeen years I've been seriously studying the Middle East. Not text, not stills, and certainly not video.



Exclusive to Moderate Risk, please credit appropriately.

Thanks to Michael Totten who brought this to my attention when we were in the field.

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April 10, 2007

Travels Through the Souk in Suliamaniya, Iraq

-Patrick S Lasswell

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Shopping for Gold with Mother in the Suliamaniya Souk

If you've never been through a real middle-eastern market before, you've missed a wonder. Especially for those of us accustomed to shopping in strict rectilinear grids laid out according to the results of exhaustive market research. To add strangeness to the western mind, similar vendors are set alongside each other in Kurdistan, so competitors see each other. We normally avoid putting two grocers side by side, but here you have six or twelve all calling out for your business. Loudly.

Through the Produce Souk, Past a Butcher and some Fabric Stalls to a Housewares Shop

Over time, different shops encroach into the sub-markets so you will sometimes have fabric stores next to grocers or houseware shops in a goldsmith area. It is all marvelously confusing and fascinating in ways that local Saturday and Farmer's Markets wish they could be.

Into the Souk, Past Honey Sellers, Spice Merchants, Home Fittings, Carpet Shops, and Cosmetics Vendors to the Perfumerie

Malls are encroaching on this way of life and soon these markets will be extinct. Our troops in Iraq rarely get to see and never get to wander carelessly through them. Come with me, get jostled by the crowd, surprised by unseen steps, and be amazed by the simultaneously chaotic and orderly splendor of it all. You'd hardly know there is a war on only one hour away.

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One Large Alley was Filled with Cigarette Vendors


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Cute Little Girl in a Fabric Shop


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Mmmm...Pickles... I love pickles and every time I pass this place it makes me want to stop and try everything. The worst part is that they'd let me!

Plus: Play Spot the Totten!

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April 05, 2007

A Dormant Hell in Iraq

-Patrick S Lasswell

The Red Building in Suliamaniya, Iraq, is a legacy of Saddam Hussein's brutal state. It is shattered and dormant it is like an extinct volcano in the middle of the city, reminding everyone that hell once ruled here. This is where the Hussein regime took suspect citizens and held them for years to break their families. The people taken here were mostly family members of the Peshmerga fighting in the hills and held hostage to force others to comply, not because they were suspected of anything themselves. Over 7,000 people died in less than 10 years from torture and mistreatment alone here before the beatings stopped for good in 1991. That's about two a day killed here not through official execution, just excessive abuse...and this is only one relatively small city in Iraq. At the end of the Gulf War, the people of Suliamaniya captured the Red Building after three days of fighting, and turned the place into a museum so that the suffering here would be remembered.

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The Red Building in 2007. The bullet scars make it look like a well-chewed bone.

Visiting it yesterday, we were surprised to find a large number of buses outside. It turns out that high school students were visiting the place so that they would know what happened here. The prospects for anyone seeking to resume brutal occupation diminish with each group. Many of the young people who passed through yesterday weren't alive yet when this place was shut down. Perhaps why everybody treats me so nicely here is that everybody knows that this place was open until the US destroyed Saddam's army.

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Young Women Visit the Red Building. Now they get to leave unmolested.

In the cells of the prison some excellently rendered statues of the kinds of abuse suffered by people brought here have been added. Some of the most chilling are people just handcuffed and left to wait. Pondering your unknown future while handcuffed to a railing, apart from the rest of the prisoners is one of the most devastating tortures because it forces your mind to work on itself. Your fear exhausts you and your exhaustion makes you stupid and more susceptible to fear. Around and around your brain, the hard floor, exposed isolation, and mind numbing fear cycle you into destruction.

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Statue of a Prisoner Handcuffed to the Stairs. Left to wait and imagine, this can break people without much effort.

One place left without any ornamentation or even a placard is the rape room. Off by itself on one end of the prison area is this reinforced concrete structure. One wall is a set of windows, the largest windows in the entire compound, and they are facing the prison block. There is enough room for dozens of guards to watch the proceedings, as well as the husbands or fathers of the victims being abused. When they captured the Red Building in 1991, they found women's underwear inside, but now it is scrupulously clean.

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The Rape Room at the Red Building. The most despicable theatre on Earth.

The cells themselves have some blankets strewn about to indicate conditions. Only a few of the cells have toilets in them. In the other cells are buckets. Although it looks relatively roomy with just one statue inside, fifty or more prisoners would be kept for months in the space of an average bedroom. Accurately depicting the crowding conditions would have taken years to properly accomplish.

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A Mother and Child in Saddam's Prison. What happens when the free people cross the state.

The Red Building is a dormant hell that reminds us of what happens in the active hell of a fascist state. The solidified lava of an extinct volcano tells us in stone the power of nature. The stone of the Red Building tells us not only of what evil does, but that evil can be overcome. For a decade this place stood as a daily reminder of what could happen to you if crossed the state. Now it stands as a reminder of what happens to the state when it crosses you.

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The Red Building Today. What happens when the state crosses free people.
Please Support Independant Reporting from Iraq

Postscript: Be sure to check out Michael Totten's latest on those keeping hell from here.

April 02, 2007

Robot Video from Iraq

-Patrick S Lasswell

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Fresh from the Factory. Zara Company's WAN Water made in Suliamaniya, Iraq

Last week I spotted something amazing, formed into the base of my water bottle was a bold announcement: the bottle was made in Iraq. Previously, all the water we bought in Iraqi Kurdistan was from Turkey and Iran, and since I drink a lot of water, I noticed that. The first time I drank water from Iran, it was more than a little odd, then a little triumphant because I wasn't a hostage. But this water was not only made here, it was good, and the bottle was different, too. Instead of the standard 500ml, it was 600ml and beautifully formed, clear, and excellently labeled. This wasn't “attempted in Iraq”, this was proudly Made in Iraq.

I pointed out the bottle to Michael and it took him a while to get it. It takes a lot of handshakes and a lot of effort to make this good a product someplace where power is available two hours a day and manufacturing has been stifled since before there were automobiles. Especially after decades of Saddam Hussein doing everything in his power to eliminate productivity for the Kurds, including Stalinist governmental controls, concentration camps without industries, trade destroying sanctions, and genocide. Iraqi Kurdistan used to be incredibly productive, and now it is largely a consumer society, dependent on government money from oil sales. The post-invasion freedoms are producing a boom, but sustaining that growth depends on building things here that are globally competitive. This water was as pretty as the bottles of Evian I got in London last year and tasted better besides.

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The more portable blanks that will become bottles enter into a warming oven to prepare them for forming.

I think the war has atrophied the journalist's mental process, for too long all they've been doing is waiting for the next car bomb to write their stories. Here was a real factory, not a car bomb factory, in someplace where factories are unheard of. The phrase, “If it bleeds, it leads” has imposed a kind of retardation on journalist mentality and initiative. Instead of reporting important things that change people's lives and accomplishments that matter, they wait for the next fireworks show and tell us they aren't really death cult paparazzi.

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Salar Fakhri. Refugee, Engineer, Entrepreneur, Iraqi Kurd. Working to make a future in Iraq.

We got in touch with our fixer and he arranged things so that a few days after noticing the imprint, we were standing next to the machine making them and the man who got things working in Iraq, Salar Fakhri. The factory Salar built was unremarkable to me at first because everything seemed perfectly in order. Then I remembered that my personal standard for factories is my experience at Intel circuit board and computer production plants in Oregon. Salar has brought high technology standards to Iraq. People moved around the machinery in lab smocks taking care to keep the line moving smoothly. There was no yelling over the equipment noise, no frantic action to avert disaster at the last minute, no hint of grime on the equipment, and nothing to suggest that this was anything but a modern industrial plant.

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Local Water from Iraq and Imported “Mullah” Water from Iran After Minerals are Revealed with Electrical Current.

Salar was open in sharing his story with us on video. One of the many Kurdish refugees from the 1976 Saddam-Shah-Kissinger diaspora, he found a home in the United Kingdom where he pursued his engineering studies. He found work in a variety of computer engineering positions including Apple. When it became apparent in late 2002 that this President Bush was serious about getting rid of Saddam for good, Salar decided to commit to making Iraq work. Noting the critical shortage of bottled water production capacity in his old homeland, he decided to become an expert in the field. The rapid pace of the high technology world produces people who can learn new skills with incredible speed, and before long Salar had a clear idea of what would produce the most competitive product. Then began a four year odyssey to get a factory up and running with his life savings.

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Mountains Behind WAN Plant, Source of the Water.

Transportation of the first equipment load to Iraq went smoothly from Aqabah, Jordan up to Iraqi Kurdistan, but then bandits and terrorists closed that route. The second load waited on the dock for several months before coming in from Turkey. With all the equipment in place, struggling with the local government for a place to set up the factory took years of delays. Eventually, an abandoned Pepsi plant was made available. After that, the problem of getting the Taiwanese engineers to come to Iraq was the roadblock. It was difficult to convince the engineers that the Kurdistan region was the safe part of Iraq. Then power availability dropped to two hours a day while fuel prices for the generator skyrocketed. Next came training people with no manufacturing experience how to operate precision machinery in extreme aseptic conditions and instill in them a genuine appreciation of quality production. With production underway, actually selling the water in competition with Iranian product that does not face any quality standards for importation or sale. Teaching Iraqi consumers about the importance of quality water is Salar's next challenge.

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EU Standard Water From Turkey, WAN Water from Iraq, and Mullah Standard Water from Iran. Minerals exposed for comparison.

A lot of people in America and around the world don't think that Iraqi's are doing anything for themselves. I've had the privilege of getting to know Salar and others who are working just as hard to make their homes a better place. It is not easy, but it is getting done. Seven months ago, all there was to drink here in Iraq was imported water. Now I know of five water bottling operations, four of them in Suliamaniya province alone. Iraq will never be as smooth running as Salar's machines, but don't say that nobody is making the effort.


WAN Water Bottling Plant in Operation in Iraq.

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