Remembering Ramadi as Iraq suffers again

Ramadi looked apocalyptic when the Sunni insurgency raged there in 2006.
Ramadi looked apocalyptic when the Sunni insurgency raged there in 2006.

I fought off tears as I read Sunday’s New York Times. The news from Iraq was horrifying.

A vicious civil war seems imminent as fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) point their guns toward Baghdad.

They are men who make al-Qaeda look like nice guys. And the Taliban, wimps.

They have taken over much of Nineveh province — Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and Tal Afar. They are now taking aim at Samarra and threatened to destroy a historic Shiite shrine there. An attack on that shrine in 2006 unleashed sectarian bloodshed. Entire neighborhoods in Baghdad and other places were ethnically cleansed.

I remember how hard it was after that to make amends.

I was in Anbar province when the Sons of Iraq program was just getting off the ground. It began with Sunni Sheik Sattar al-Rishawi who helped launch the Anbar Awakening, a movement to stop the extreme violence that had gripped Iraq’s only Sunni-majority province.

I patrolled with 1-9 Infantry soldiers who dubbed one neighborhood in Ramadi "the heart of darkness."
I patrolled with 1-9 Infantry soldiers who dubbed one neighborhood in Ramadi “the heart of darkness.”

Cities like Fallujah and Ramadi looked apocalyptic. I don’t think I saw a single building in Ramadi that had been spared from bullet holes.

I walked the streets of a Ramadi neighborhood called Melaab with Able Company of the 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment. The soldiers called the place “the heart of darkness.”

When I asked residents what it was like to live there, they glided their right index finger across their throats. Sunni insurgents brazenly beheaded people in public and distributed videos of the executions.

Ramadi, back then, was the perhaps most dangerous place on Earth. And it was widely believed that the sheiks of Anbar were supporting the insurgents.

Then they began withdrawing that tacit support. I sat with Sheik al-Rishawi’s brother, Ahmed, to understand why his family and others had come around to helping the Americans establish peace.

He showed me his camels (see the photo at the top of my blog), sipped sweet chai and told me the people were just weary from that kind of extreme violence. His own father and brothers were killed by Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.

He invited U.S. commanders into his palatial home and talked strategy with them. Such friendships had seemed improbable just months ago but the sheiks were determined to bring peace.

From that movement came the Sons of Iraq. Insurgents who once pointed their guns at Americans and their Shiite brethren began to help keep the killing out of their territories. During the so-called surge in U.S. troops, the Sons of Iraq program was in full swing. The Americans paid them $10 a day to keep terrorism at bay.

When the Anbar Awakening first took hold, an uneasy calm came to Ramadi. I went to a polling station where people were voting in a city council election. Amazingly, there was no gunfire that day.

Outside, Capt. Jamey Gadoury, commander of 1-9 Inftantry’s Charlie Company, took his helmet and flak jacket off. We shared lamb and rice with community leaders and members of the Iraqi police.

There were three ways to deal with insurgents, Gadoury told me as he tore a piece of bread and scooped up a chunk of meat. “You either want to kill them, make them go away or get them on your side.”

“So what happened to the Sunni insurgents here?” I asked.

Gadoury stopped chewing and grinned, as though he were onto some awful secret.

“You’re eating with them, ” he told me.

I looked around and suddenly lost my appetite.

I think of my days in Anbar now as I read the tragedy unfolding in Iraq. All that ingenuity to befriend the enemy and make peace. Where did it all go?

Many have blamed Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki for stirring Iraq’s cauldron of ethnic strife. Others have blamed President Barack Obama for withdrawing U.S. troops prematurely.

I won’t go into all the reasons I think that violence has come back with a venomous vengeance — I’ll save that for a later post.

I will only say this: my heart is broken.

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What’s in a word?

Journalists in newsrooms across the globe have been grappling with the language they use in telling the story of the Libyan uprising.

It’s not Tunisia or Egypt. The unrest there has gone beyond demonstrations and anti-government protests. So what do we call Libyans who are opposing strongman Moammar Gadhafi. Last week, CNN began using the word rebels. So did other news outlets.

Does rebel have a negative connotation? I don’t think so — unless there is Confederate paraphernalia involved. But apparently many people, including those fighting on the streets of Libya, don’t like the word. They didn’t like that we called the opposition fighters rebels.

We also began using sentences that said Libya was inching towards civil war. When does a conflict become civil war?

This was the topic of NPR’s “On the Media” segment Sunday. How do words change the way readers perceive the conflict there?

Here’s how Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines these terms:

Rebel: one who rebels or participates in a rebellion
Civil war: a war between opposing groups of citizens of the same country

Susan Chira, foreign editor of the New York Times, said the newspaper began using both terms when it became clear that there was a military conflict in Libya. But she said the paper, just like CNN, has refrained from saying it’s an all-out civil war, though it very well could become one soon.

Yes, words can change everything.

NPR host Brooke Gladstone noted this:

“Several people have told me that the moment they hear the word ‘rebel’ they begin to disconnect. The effect is compounded when combined with the phrase ‘civil war.’ Whether or not people like us on the other side of the world choose to engage or even follow the story is a decision each of us makes every day. We think we make those choices consciously, weighing the expense and time and mental energy with what we stand to gain. But often we decide without deciding. What we choose can hinge on the unrecognized power of a single world.”

There are other words, too, that we journalists use that can influence the opinions of our readers and audiences.

Take for instance, “regime.”

Merriam-Webster defines it as a government in power. But we don’t ever say the Obama regime, do we? We only use it for governments that are deemed less than worthy.

Or “revolution.” Sudden, radical and complete change — that’s revolution. But is that what happened in Egypt? Or were we too hasty to label it so?

Sometimes terms become contagious, used repeatedly by news outlets without a thought as to whether it’s the most appropriate. The fast-changing events in North Africa have made at least this journalist think hard about every word.