Stories by Rod Nordland

  • Nordland: Somalia's Rent-a-Tree Disaster

    How bad is it in Somalia?  Bad enough that people fleeing the capital have been reduced to renting trees for shelter. It's the sort of thing that happens when drug-addled warlords roam the countryside, imposing taxes of 50 percent on aid recipients. And the sort of thing to be expected of a government whose prime minister, Ali Mohamad Gedi, has publicly accused the United Nations agency feeding the country of spreading cholera along with food deliveries.  And that's the internationally recognized government, which enjoys U.S. support, although it is widely unpopular in southern Somalia and the capital, Mogadishu. That's not surprising, since the prime minister is from a clan that's hostile to the clan that dominates the capital, and the president, Abdulahi Yusuf, is from Puntland, in northern Somalia, a breakaway region that is best known as the homeland of Somalia's pirates, who once again are on the prowl, bedeviling aid shipments even further. "Is there actually any hope for the...
  • Newsweek: Early report from Iraq surge

    If Col. Don Farris hoped to score points on his visit to Charlie Company, he was out of luck. He brought a message from the relative safety of brigade headquarters in At Taji, north of Baghdad, to the troops at Patrol Base Apache in Adhamiya, one of the deadliest neighborhoods in the capital. We have to get out there on foot, he told the grunts—that's how we're going to win over the locals and get to know what's really going on: foot patrols. "F--- that," more than a few of the troops muttered as he spoke. The soldier they call Dragonslayer retreated to his bunk to sit staring at his stuffed toy dragon; he's been carrying it on missions lately, ignoring the worried glances he gets from his buddies. Even one of the most gung-ho men in the unit, a Miamian known affectionately as GI Jew, didn't buy the pep talk. "There's no way that's happening," he said, almost loud enough for the colonel to hear.Nevertheless, Charlie Company is still obeying orders—after a fashion. Its soldiers have...
  • The Iraqis: Four Lost Lives

    For every soldier or Marine who dies in Iraq, at least 20 Iraqis are killed. Some of their stories.
  • Dates, Citrus and IEDs

    Almost every night in Baghdad, American artillery units blast shells the size of engine blocks into the date and citrus orchards of Dora Farms, targeting insurgent mortar teams. The concussion of the big guns can be felt even in the Green Zone, which lies nearly two miles away as a Blackhawk flies. U.S. warplanes regularly bomb the area; M1-A1 Abrams tanks hover at its edges and fire away with their deadly 120mm cannons at insurgents burying IEDs in the road. Some evenings, the sky over this part of southern Baghdad glows orange.The carnage in Dora Farms commenced on a night four years ago this week—a night on which, some Pentagon planners hoped, the war in Iraq might both begin and end. On March 19, 2003, a pair of 2,000-pound bombs landed in Dora Farms, on the south bank of the Tigris River, just across from downtown Baghdad. A CIA informant had said Saddam would be sleeping in an underground bunker there. The "decapitation strike," as it was called, was aimed at achieving George...
  • The Missing Returnees

     Baghdad, March 24, 2007. The Baghdad Security Plan is going so well that Iraqis displaced by sectarian violence are flocking back to their homes in Baghdad, so a number of officials are telling us. The only problem with that: it's probably not true. General David Petraeus, in an interview with the BBC on March 18, said hundreds and even up to a thousand Iraqis had already returned, although he warned the plan is still in its early stages--a hopeful sign. On March 20, a Pentagon official, Major General Michael Barbero, gave a briefing in Washington during which that statistic morphed into hundreds of Iraqi families, which at a conservative multiplier of six to a family, bumps that number well above a thousand people. Meanwhile, Brig. General Qassim Atta al-Moussawi, the Iraqi spokesman for the Baghdad Security Plan, confidently asserted that 2,000 families had returned.Good luck finding them all. Tufan Abdu-Wahab, head of the Baghdad section in the Ministry of Migration and...
  • The Enemy Within

    Baghdad, March 23, 2007. Today it was Iraq's deputy prime minister, a Sunni, who was gravely wounded by a suicide bomber. Yesterday it was Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. Secretary General, whose press conference here was interrupted by a near miss from a rocket. Wednesday, it was the finance ministry, very nearly destroyed by a truck bomb. In one way or another, these were all inside jobs. For the most part they were failed operations, but they all demonstrated a disturbing capacity of insurgents to infiltrate and defeat even the most elaborate of precautions during the massive security crackdown underway for the Baghdad Security Plan.As one of the two highest-ranking Sunni officials in the Shia-dominated government, Salam al-Zubaie took special care. His home and office are in an area just outside the Green Zone, heavily guarded by Kurdish militiamen. He has a third building there as well, which he converted to a mosque, with his own imam. A pious Muslim, Zubaie didn't...
  • Deployments: The Real Numbers

     Baghdad, March 22, 2007: There will soon be more American soldiers in Iraq than at any point in the war so far. The incoming surge of 21,500 troops is only part of that picture; in addition, the U.S. commander, Gen. David Petraeus, has asked for an additional Army aviation brigade, as well as a couple thousand military police. Other support troops will be coming in to Iraq as well, and they weren't all included in the original 21,500 estimate announced by President Bush last month. When all this is complete, sometime in July, the grand total of U.S. troops in Iraq will be 173,000, U.S. military officials here confirmed on background, apparently because of the sensitivity of these details. And it's likely that U.S. troop numbers will stay at that level for months more, perhaps even into 2008. That's only part of the picture, however; the total number of U.S. troops deployed into the war theater, that is, Iraq and neighboring countries, may be as much as 100...
  • Fort Apache

     Patrol Base Apache, Baghdad, March 20, 2007--This is the Baghdad Security Plan at its grass roots level, one of some 77 Combat Outposts (COPs) and Joint Security Stations (JSSs) that the U.S. military has set up in Baghdad's neighborhoods, with American and Iraqi army troops working side by side. This particular one is in Adhamiya, which is, as an Iraqi interpreter nicknamed Steve-O puts it, "the worst place in Baghdad." There are several contenders for that dubious honor, but Adhamiya certainly is one of the most resolutely anti-government neighborhoods, a hardline Sunni area, which is home to the Sunni community's most treasured mosque, Abu Hanifa, and peopled with former Baath Party officials. It was also the last place in Baghdad where Saddam hid out before fleeing the American advance. Apache is technically a COP, but a big one, with a battalion of Iraqi troops in the palace next door, and a large number of American troops in a separately guarded, hardened...
  • Unhappy Anniversary

    Baghdad, March 19, 2007: This is an anniversary that is only going to be commemorated by those who despise it. The war will conclude its fourth year today or tomorrow, depending how you count; U.S. bombing began on the night of March 19, and the ground invasion pushed off on March 20, 2003. A host of antiwar groups arranged a long weekend of rallies and protests and commemorative events throughout the United States. They were lightly attended by Vietnam War standards, as they have been in previous years. There were marches in many European capitals, somewhat better attended, but still small -- not because opposition to the war isn't widespread; Europeans by even greater majorities than Americans now oppose the war. There was almost no commemoration in the Arab capitals of Iraq's neighbors, where antiwar feeling is even stronger; the adventure in Iraq has yet to do much to make the region anything but less safe for democracy and its trappings. And in Iraq, the g...
  • At Last, Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq

    Baghdad, March 17, 2007. The rats have started devouring their own now in Anbar Province. Yesterday Sunni extremists, almost certainly al Qaeda terrorists, set off a coordinated series of three suicide truck bombs, each loaded with chlorine, which the explosions expelled in the form of poisonous chlorine gas. Three hundred and fifty Iraqi civilians and six coalition force members were treated for exposure to chlorine gas in the neighborhood of the bombs, according to a statement from the U.S. military command; death tolls varied but apparently at least two Iraqi policemen died, with one coalition soldier wounded. Iraqi police reports put the death toll as high as 12, apparently from the explosions, not from the gas. What was most significant about these and similar attacks, however, is that they were clearly intended to punish Sunni civilians deliberately and indiscriminately. There have been plenty of indiscriminate terrorist suicide bombs targeting Shia civilians by Sunni extremi...
  • Will the Real Dora Market Please Stand Up?

    The commander of U.S. troops in Baghdad had frank words Thursday about past failures of Baghdad security plans. "They don't have any lasting effect," said Maj. Gen. Joseph Fil Jr., head of the First Cavalry Division and Multinational Division - Baghdad, "because if you don't control that area afterwards to keep insurgents out, our experience was sometimes it comes back worse than before. Frequently it does. The cycle is about six weeks." This time it'll be different, he says. "This one, the pace of the operation is deliberately measured by the ability to stand up security forces that can control the area afterwards. Go into these neighborhoods, get established, conduct clearing operation, as these control operations continue, that's when the other lines of operation, the economic line, the infrastructure line, the government line, repair the sewer systems, get businesses open again, that all becomes very important. I think it will b...
  • Iraqonyms: Technobabble for the Unspeakable

    Baghdad, March 15, 2007 -- The AO was full of AIFs and ECs who were planting IEDs, including EFP and HEPs, along the MSRs particularly near ECPs and TCPs, including complex attacks incorporating IDF and SAF. MI at the FOB assesses the actors were FRE and FRL, TCNs and AQs. Also in the AO, there are JAM elements, which HUMINT indicates in some cases are no longer under OC of MAS, setting illegal IP TCPs and carrying out EJKs of IZs. In recent weeks EJKs of this sort have declined as CFs roll up HVTs. This has necessitated a review of TTP in order to cope with a shift to an increased deployment of VBIEDs, as well as VCIEDs and even VOIEDs, also known as PBIEDs or SVIEDs. It is assessed that the greatest risk to the IZ remains from IDF, and VBIEDs at CPs, but there have also been cases of IRLs. But the large number of PSDs operating in the area also poses a risk of blue on blue attacks and FF incidents are not unknown, especially since the ROEs of the many PSCs are not uniform, despi...
  • Iraqonyms: A Glossary

     A civilian can be driven to distraction by the slew of military and security acronyms that punctuate briefings in Iraq. Here's an essential guide to the Iraqonyms of note:
  • It's Not About Winning

     Now there's another subtle shift, even farther in the same direction, in which the military seems to be focusing away from any possible military solution, in favor of concentration on a political solution. The new U.S. commander, General David Petraeus, set the tone in his first press conference here on March 8. In the 8,000-word transcript, the words "victory" and "win" nowhere appear. "Any student of history recognizes that there is no military solution to a problem like that in Iraq, to the insurgency of Iraq," he said. "Military action is necessary to help improve security, for all the reasons that I stated in my remarks, but it is not sufficient. A political resolution of various differences, - of various senses that people do not have a stake in the success of the new Iraq, and so forth, that is crucial. That is what will determine in the long run the success of this effort." And that, Petraeus and other military leaders seem to...
  • Just Another Day for Baghdad Security Plan

     Baghdad, March 13, 2007. Another day in the Baghdad Security Plan, and this report comes in from one of our translators, who is a Shia and basically pro-American. "Last night at 11 p.m., a U.S. force raided the College of Administration & Economy at Baghdad University in the Wazeeriya district [a predominantly Shia area]. A woman who works there told me that yesterday she left her room closed and this morning she found it open with broken locks, but nothing was missing. One of the guards told her they came at 11 p.m. and disarmed them. 'They ordered us to sit on the ground without any movement,' he told her. 'When I tried to change my place, one of the U.S. soldiers kicked me very hard.' They searched nearly all the offices of the college, including the dean's. "You remember when I told you that my mother-in-law talked to me about a U.S. military operation in Camb district last week, and that the U.S. forces arrested all the teenaged boys and...
  • Ever Wonder What Iraqis Find Funny?

    Baghdad, March 12, 2007. Even in its darkest days, Iraq has proven to be a target-rich environment for its jokesters. Saddam Hussein made a particularly good foil. When the former dictator was hung, goes one of recent vintage, the executioners asked him if he had any last requests. "Yes," he replied. "Call out the reserves!" (Iraqi reservists were called up repeatedly, some serving 20 years or more during his many wars). Iraqis don't have Saddam to kick around anymore, but there's no shortage of replacement subjects. The jokes they tell now are not always terribly funny, at least to foreign ears, but they have a lot to say about their present predicament. A lot of them are about fleeing the country, as 3.9 million have done already. Question: What's the best job in the Iraqi government? Answer: Foreign ambassador. Or: an Iraqi finds Aladdin's lamp and rubs it 'til the genie comes out. "Master, your wish is my comm...
  • Iraq: Silence of the Sadrists

    Early in the latest U.S. and Iraqi attempt to bring peace to Baghdad, one high-ranking Iraqi official included Moqtada al-Sadr in his prayers. "Allah, lo yehdih, lo yedahdih," he prayed, a pun that roughly translates as "Allah, show him the way, or kick him aside." As far as the official, who would only speak anonymously, is concerned, his prayer has been answered. Sadr has all but disappeared from the Iraqi scene the past three weeks, and Sadr's Mahdi Army has been notably quiet, too. Officially, the Iraqi government is attributing that to the new Baghdad security plan, part of a surge of forces that will eventually include 21,500 new American troops. But this official says what's really happening is the taming of Moqtada.The U.S. military announced plans to set up a base inside Shia-dominated Sadr City only late last week. Most U.S. reinforcements are still en route. Yet despite an upsurge in suicide bombings by Sunni extremists, mostly aimed at Shia civilians, the number of...
  • Talking At Iran

    As Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari was giving his opening address at Baghdad's eagerly-awaited international conference Saturday, two mortars landed in quick succession near the ministry compound just outside the Green Zone, sending journalists picnicking on a scrap of lawn outside fleeing for cover. Inside, a cheery Zebari recalled later, "this did not interrupt our discussions at all. I commented, 'this was bad targeting.' And then I kept speaking." Indeed the mortars missed, exploding harmlessly, though the second was closer than the first, never a good sign. "The mortar didn't shake us," he said. It shook us though; inside the ministry annex, a couple journalists dived for cover again when a door was slammed closed by the wind. "We assured the countries present this is normal, in fact we expected more," Zebari said. And he insisted the incident had no bearing on the failure of the conference to reach agreement on whether ...
  • No Comment

    Press releases come at us from all sides in the Iraq war, and on the American side, they came fast and furious, from Corps at Camp Victory, from individual division and brigade public affairs offices throughout the theatre, from the Corps of Engineers and the Marine Corps (usually terse, "A Marine was killed in Anbar province." No further information until next of kin are notified, which is rather like saying, 'A Frenchman was killed in France.'). Most of these never see the light of day, which is a pity. The military doesn't just cover insurgent caches found and detainees captured; they make sure they get some good news in as well. Here are a few examples, too good to make up. Multi-National Corps - IraqPublic Affairs Office, Camp VictoryAPO AE 09342FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASERELEASE No. 20070224-06Feb. 24, 2007Soldier makes a friendMulti-National Division - Baghdad PAOBAGHDAD -070216-A-5016J-001Spc. Brian Helms, an infantryman with Company B, 5th Batta...
  • Surviving Those Checkpoints

      March 8, 2007. Perhaps someone knows how many checkpoints there are in Baghdad these days, but all I know is that it's almost certainly in the thousands. Mostly we hear about these from our Iraqi staffers, who are scattered throughout the city in a fairly good cross-section of neighborhoods. Abu Besma was stuck in his house for two days this week, because it didn't make sense to go out in his mixed Sunni-Shia neighborhood. Just to get out of the immediate half-dozen square blocks in his neighborhood on the western side of Baghdad would have taken him 45 minutes, thanks to repeated car searches by Iraqi police.Abu Abdallah's Sunni neighborhood was better when he left for work, but he went through so many searches on the way in that he decided to stay with us overnight for a couple nights; his 13-year-old son was the oldest male at home to look after the womenfolk. Abu Mustafa lives in a Shia neighborhood, but to get home from his mother's house, on one street...
  • Of Budgets and Peacock Eggs

    Baghdad, March 7, 2007. This never would have happened during Saddam's regime. At a meeting today convened by the office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Barham Salih, to present the Iraqi government budget for 2007, in a week when suicide vest bombers were ambushing Shia pilgrims, when the much-vaunted Baghdad Security Plan was ramping up, the administrator of the city of Baghdad stood up to lodge a complaint. The Public Integrity Commission, said Sabir al-Essawi, had arrested one of his staff officials. "I asked what his offense was and in reply they sent me a note in almost illegible handwriting that said he stole the eggs of a peacock. And the zoo doesn't even have any peacocks."Amid general laughter, the finance minister, Bakir Jabr Salagh, said, "Well, they should at least have said chicken eggs then."Judge Radhi al Radhi, head of the integrity commission, shot back: "We make investigations and we give it to a judge and he decides who is arr...
  • What's Up With Moqtada al Sadr?

     Baghdad, March 6, 2007. No neighborhood in Baghdad has proven more dangerous to American troops than the sprawling, multi-million resident slum of Sadr City, stronghold of the radical Shia cleric Moqtada al Sadr. Since Sadr joined the Iraqi government in 2005, though, there's been an unspoken modus vivendi there. American troops stay out of Sadr City, and Sadr's Mahdi Army stops targeting Americans. Both sides have violated this from time to time; Sadr's followers with particularly deadly bombs known as explosively formed projectiles (EFPs), made with Iranian technology, and Americans with patrols in Mahdi areas and occasional raids of Sadr offices. Those have been blips in an otherwise fairly easy truce. So when the present Baghdad security plan was launched, the big question was whether Americans would patrol Sadr City again, and if they did, whether the Mahdi Army would go back on the warpath. Well they did, and they didn't. Since Monday, troops...
  • Counting the Bombs

    By noon today we'd been body-searched nine times, and car-searched twice, spent a cumulative total of 1 1/2 hours in checkpoint queues or waiting to be searched, and another half hour trying to find escorts who would take us through checkpoints. We managed in the process to be late for every appointment, progressively later as the morning rolled on, but no one much minded since as Baghdad days go, this was pretty normal. And they were all late too, since even quite high-ranking officials have to go through much the same security checks "or if they don't, their staffs do. The precautions are not unreasonable, given the circumstances, but they do take a little getting used to; short tempers should be left at the border. Obey instructions from the guards, reads one checkpoint sign. DEADLY force authorized. Increasingly, those verbal instructions are in Spanish, in the case of our Peruvian Coalition partners, or in Russian, in the case of our Republic of Georgia contin...
  • Africa: War On The Rescuers

    Last Sept. 11 was a momentous day in Darfur, too. After unidentified militiamen attacked aid workers from the Nobel Prize-winning Médecins sans Frontières at a roadblock on that date, most of the international aid groups ministering to Darfur's 6 million people stopped using the roads. On Dec. 18, in the southern town of Gereida, unrelated gunmen attacked the compounds of Oxfam and Action Contre la Faim. More than 70 aid workers subsequently pulled out of the refugee camp there--Darfur's largest, with 130,000 people--leaving only 10 Red Cross employees behind. Yet at the time no one revealed what had really sparked the dramatic pullbacks. In both cases, international staff, including three French aid workers, were either raped or sexually assaulted in territory controlled by the Sudanese government and its allies.Rape as a weapon has become depressingly commonplace in Darfur, where 200,000 Africans have been killed and a third of the population have been sent fleeing into camps in...
  • 'We're Unable to Protect People'

    Somewhere in the harsh landscape around the North Darfur town of Kutum, some 30,000 people have effectively vanished. It's a semi-arid area that hovers between desert and savannah, with thorn trees and grass and dry riverbeds that fill in the brief rainy season with just enough water to support either the pastoralists, like the Arab nomads known here as the Janjaweed, or the agriculturalists, who are the majority of the Darfur population, non-Arab Africans from a variety of tribes.The dispute over how to use that land is at the root of the Darfur conflict, and with the Sudanese government supporting and arming the Janjaweed, it's easy to see who is losing. Flying over that area earlier this week in an African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS) helicopter (a Russian-made Mi-8 leased by Canadians from an American company and flown by Ukrainian pilots for the South African Army), one village after another appears with mud-brick buildings and grass huts burned, fields untended, animals and...
  • Murk of War

    To many Somalis, history is repeating itself. They feel that the United States has once again invaded their country, albeit with a proxy force from Ethiopia, occupying most of the south and central part of it; has bombed members of the former government as they fled last Monday, then has followed that up with helicopter-gunship attacks as well as AC-130 aerial assaults on a daily basis since. After that, they say, Washington deployed American commandos to hunt down remnants of Islamic hard-liners, both from the carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower offshore, and across the land border from Kenya in the south.Not all of this is true. But there's enough of a kernel of truth in this account to make the rest believable—and plenty of murkiness to make almost any version of U.S. involvement in the troubled African nation plausible at this point. The Eisenhower is indeed off Somalia's coast, and the Pentagon has confirmed that it launched a single airstrike against Al Qaeda targets in the far...
  • Islamists Lose … For Now

    Once again Mogadishu has fallen, and once again Somalia's troubles appear only to be beginning anew. This time Ethiopia is the invader, and the hardliners of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) have fled the capital. But the new government still faces opposition. When Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi visited Mogadishu Friday, thousands of residents burned tires and blocked streets in protest, many apparently angry at the presence of Ethiopian troops. Gedi said Friday that the country will face three months of martial law as the new government attempts to restore security.Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys , the ICU’s pro-al Qaeda spiritual leader, made it clear he planned to carry on a guerrilla war with Ethiopia as other Somalis did with the United States. In remarks to a NEWSWEEK reporter as he prepared to leave the capital on Wednesday, Aweys said, "I am going somewhere else in my country, and we will think of a way to overwhelm the enemy ... We will give them unprecedented lessons, as we did...
  • Diamond in the Rough

    Thirteen-year-old kamwala Bijicka wants to be a doctor when he grows up. But right now he's a school dropout digging for diamonds with the rest of his family, working by hand and hoping their pit doesn't collapse. On election day last week in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, his parents took a couple of hours off to vote for a president in the country's first free polls in four decades. Whoever wins, however, isn't likely to lift the Bijickas out of poverty.The Congo has almost unparalleled mineral riches, including gold, uranium, the world's biggest industrial diamond deposits, and 80 percent of world reserves in a mineral called coltan, which is crucial to the manufacture of mobile telephones. Yet decades of vicious warfare, breathtaking corruption and public neglect have reduced its people to among the world's poorest. The Bijicka family will be lucky to make a dollar a day in their little mine, digging up tiny, low-quality diamonds; if they find a good-sized stone, says the...
  • Congo: More Vicious Than Rape

    The atrocity reports from eastern Congo were so hellish that Western medical experts refused to believe them—at first.
  • Congo’s Graveyard Gems

    Diamonds could be among Congo's best friends. But up to now, they've been just one more source of heartbreak and suffering.