HH: Special treat now. From Iraq, Michael Yon, online journalist extraordinaire. Michael, tell us where you are tonight.
MY: I’m in South Baghdad in a district called Rashid.
HH: And Michael, what is the circumstance, what is the situation in Baghdad on this, the 6th day of November, 2007?
MY: Well, there’s not a lot going on, Hugh. I’ve been going out on the streets every day. Yesterday, I saw a Church reopen, the St. John’s Catholic Church over here, and I watched them put a cross back up on the dome and videotaped it, made some photos, and went inside and watched the people sing, and that sort of thing. Actually, believe it or not, it was some Sunni Muslims that invited us over to watch it, but it was Christians that were actually doing the ceremony. But it was pretty interesting.
HH: Characterize Baghdad today compared with your first trip there, I guess two years ago now.
MY: Oh, good grief. When I first came here in December of 2004…
HH: Three years.
MY: It was unbelievable. I mean, there was a lot of steady stream of explosions, car bombs constantly. When I say constantly, I mean numerous per day. Even in 2005, and even earlier this year, actually, in January, February, March, I mean, you would hear numerous, or see numerous car bombs per day. I haven’t even heard a car bomb in, well, not since I’ve come back on this trip. I haven’t heard one in a good six weeks or so.
HH: Well, knock on wood.
MY: (laughing) Usually, seriously, it’s a normal occurrence. You hear it go off, and you write down the time, and you go see what happened.
HH: Tell us what the Iraqis are telling you about this lull or peace or improvement. What do they think is going on here, and how long will it last?
MY: I don’t believe this is a lull. I believe this is the real thing. I believe that we’ve seen lulls before, and I’ve always been very circumspect on taking a chance and saying hey, this is the real thing. But I’ve seen a change in the mood of the people, and it’s remarkable. And I believe if we can just continue to help them progress, and we’ve got a little bit more serious fighting to do up in Ninewa Province, and then in Kirkuk and Salahaddin Province, and also out in Diayala Province, those four provinces. Other than that, I think really, it’s a matter of pouring on the juice and helping them to get this country going again. I mean, they’re just finished with the war, as long as we can help get the monkey off their back in the form of al Qaeda, which is pretty much crushed at this point.
HH: What about the Shi’a militias and the rumored, you know, the fact that they’ve gone to ground, it’s just a ceasefire, they’ll be back? What do you hear about that?
MY: Okay, now that’s a very good point, and I wanted to get to that. That could be the gorilla in the closet there. Muqtada al Sadr actually formed what they call the golden groups that have been out killing people that have been breaking the ceasefire, especially under the name of Jaish al Mahdi. And so that could come up to bit us. I’ve been at a lot of reconciliation meetings with Shi’a and Sunni, and the Shi’a are definitely talking. There’s a huge difference between Jaish al Mahdi, for instance, and al Qaeda. Remember, Jaish al Mahdi, or JAM, was originally formed in response to al Qaeda attacking Shi’a. The difference between…there’s a huge difference between Jaish al Mahdi and people like al Qaeda. Jaish al Mahdi you can reason with. You can actually get them at the table and talk with them. I mean, you might argue a lot, and you won’t always come to an agreement very quickly, but you can talk with them. And so there is a lot of, it’s not like they’re just complete savages like you’ve got with al Qaeda.
HH: Michael Yon, how long have you been back on this trip?
MY: Well, I’ve been here most of the year. Let’s see, I came back and went with the British for a month, and then I’ve been up here, I was just trying to figure that out in my head, It’s kind of early in the morning here, Hugh. I guess I’ve been back for almost two months now.
HH: Is it fair to say that the good guys are winning decisively?
MY: Very fair at this point. If you would have said that back in February, I would have had to say absolutely not. But right now, it’s very fair, and I believe, accurate.
HH: When you talk to American Army and Marine units, are they bored? Are they pumped up? Are they desperate to come home? Or do they think they’re winning, and they want to finish it off?
MY: Bored. I mean, the Marines want to get out of here, because Marines like to fight. A lot of them do, and they want to go over to Afghanistan. The soldiers, these fifteen month tours are very long, and so they really, most of the soldiers really do want to get home very badly, because I was out with a captain two days ago. He’s on his fifth combat tour at this point. Unbelievable. You know, he’s in his 20’s, he’s on his fifth combat tour. So I mean, let’s face it, it’s a war, so that they those normal stresses that are going to come with it. But they also see the progress that they’re making, and so that’s giving them a boost, because it’s very clear. I mean, we were out today, or actually it was yesterday, now, it’s almost 3:30 in the morning. I didn’t hear a shot fired. I didn’t hear a shot fired the day before, or the day before. Usually, you can be in a firefight before breakfast, and another before lunch. It’s just nothing going on except nation building and reconstruction in a lot of the areas.
HH: Michael Yon, I was privileged to have lunch today with the parents of Lt. Mark Daily, an Army lieutenant who was killed in Iraq this year, in January of this year, and who had written to his brother that one of his objectives in joining and going there was to make sure that the Iraqis, brother to brother, could have the same kind of relationship he had with his brother, that if he wanted to go for a cup of coffee with his brother, he hoped someday that the Iraqi brothers could just go out for a cup of tea, and that’s why he was fighting, to bring normalcy and a decent life to these Iraqis. Is that happening?
MY: Yeah, it’s happening. In some areas, quicker than others. You know, we’re just on the front edge of it. But I can tell you, I can see it every day I’m out now, or week by week, month by month now, I really believe that, I’ll be the first to say it and take a chance, I really believe five years from now, I’m going to be back here with my camera and my longest lens shooting bird photos. I just feel that it’s coming. You can sense the change in the people. The Iraqi people actually really tend to like Americans. It’s the ones that don’t like us, you know, that can be a pretty severe difference. But in general, they really want to have a relationship with the United States, and it’s not, we’re not dealing with blood enemies here at all.
HH: Are they grateful?
MY: More and more so. Actually, especially now that things are settled down and they realize that our intentions are not here, you know, we’re not here to steal their oil and that kind of thing. Actually, I’m seeing them express gratitude a lot more than I’ve ever seen it before. And so yes, they’re definitely grateful.
HH: And what about Iran? What does the average Iraqi tell you about Iran?
MY: Well, now that’s not only a good question, but an increasingly kind of semi-humorous question, because every day now, including yesterday again, a retired army colonel, an Iraqi army colonel, told me hey, we will support you in your war against Iran. And he keeps saying this in front of American…oh yeah. Every day I’m hearing that.
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HH: Have those donations continued to flow, Michael Yon?
MY: They are. If they weren’t, I would have to come home, so yeah, they’ve kept me out here, Hugh.
HH: I very much appreciate that they do.
MY: I appreciate it, too. Yeah, it’s incredibly important.
HH: What you were telling me about the Iraqis and their attitudes toward Iran. Be expansive, please.
MY: Well, it’s very interesting, because I’ve noticed that now, more recently in particular, it comes up pretty much every day. You know, the Iraqis, and particularly Sunnis, will say you know, we support you on your war against Iran, or one particular term I’ve heard several times is we will carry your guns, we will carry your weapons. And the American soldiers will often kind of chuckle. Or I remember a Lt. Col. James Crider about a week ago, he just said I don’t think we’re going to be attacking Iran anytime soon, that kind of thing. But they’re, they really, if something were to happen with Iran, I think we could count on full support from a lot of Iraqis, that’s for sure.
HH: And so, are those all Sunni? Or are those some Shi’a as well? In other words, are the Shi’a Iraqis more patriotic and nationalist than they are Shi’a and aligned with Iran?
MY: I haven’t heard any Shi’a that come to mind who’ve brought it up, although I have heard a lot of Shi’a complaining that there is meddling coming from Iran. But you really hear it from the Sunnis. The Sunni, in particular, they’re pretty straightforward about it, and they blame every woe in the world on Iran, or actually, as they say, Persia. And so yeah, you hear it more and more, actually.
HH: And now, can you tell us a little bit about the economy? What’s it look like there? Do you notice a big difference from previous visits?
MY: I wouldn’t say a huge difference, but it’s a very clear difference, and it’s very clearly improving. With the Iraqis, they’re natural businesspeople. I mean, if they get the security, they’re shops are opening up in droves. There’s quite a lot more shops opening up. We’re paying for a lot of the streets to be cleaned up, but I’ve noticed that after the streets are cleaned up, and through time in different areas, they’re getting cleaned up, after they get cleaned up, the Iraqis keep them clean by themselves. Getting them cleaned up and getting buildings fixed is getting them out of that funk and that despair that they’ve gotten into from these years at war. I talked with a man yesterday, he said he had hardly come out of his home for three years. Now he talked with me yesterday to the point where I had to kind of finally, politely excuse myself. I mean, he just wanted to talk and talk, and tell me all these things that I should tell the Americans. One thing he kept telling me was Muslims and Christians are friends in Iraq, and that was one thing he kept pointing out. And he was actually one of the men who invited us over to the opening of the St. John’s Church.
HH: That’s very neat. Now what about the power situation and other utilities? Has that improved?
MY: It has in some areas. Again, a function of security, because the insurgents were targeting the infrastructure, and also people’s ability to fix it. So that’s definitely improving. Plus, they’ve got a lot of generators, so they’re not…when you fly over Baghdad at nighttime in a helicopter, you actually see a lot of lights on. The city looks lit up, though it’s hard to tell how much of that’s coming from the grid, and how much is coming from generators. But it’s not as though the city’s been blacked out. I remember talking with you from Mosul in 2005, and there’s a little hill up there I would talk to you from.
MY: And you can see that the city actually had a lot of lights on. Some of it’s coming from the grid, and others coming from generators. But it’s never been like blacked out like Dresden or something.
HH: 30 seconds, Michael Yon. Are the Iraqi people optimistic about the future, and are they increasingly happy?
MY: Oh, yeah, oh yeah. They’re increasingly happy. The optimism you can see is increasing month by month. They don’t trust their press any more than we trust ours, by the way, and they point that out daily. And they don’t trust their government any more than we trust ours, apparently a lot less. But their optimism is very high, because they’re seeing changes, and they’re demonstrable changes.
HH: Well Michael Yon, we trust you. And thank you for spending time with us, staying up late. It will be transcribed and posted at www.hughhewitt.com. Thank you, friend.
End of interview.