Getting to Know the General
In a country of tough guys, Adnan Thabit may be the toughest of all. He was both a general and a death-row prisoner under Saddam Hussein. He favors leather jackets no matter the weather, his left index finger extends only to the knuckle (the rest was sliced off in combat) and he responds to requests from supplicants with grunts that mean ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Occasionally, a humble aide approaches to spray perfume on his hands, which he wipes over his rugged face.
General Adnan, as he is known, is the leader of
Early one evening, I was sitting in his office when an officer entered with a click of his heels — an Iraqi salute of sorts. He reported to Adnan that a rebel weapons cache had been discovered, and Adnan congratulated him — but issued a warning. ‘If even one AK-47 is stolen,’ he said, ‘I will kill you.’ After a pause, he smiled and refined the threat. ‘No,’ he said, ‘I will kill your’ — and he used a coarse word that referred to the officer’s most private body part. There was nervous laughter. Everyone seemed certain that not a single gun, or single anything, would go missing.
Not long ago, hard men like Adnan, especially Sunnis, were giving orders to no one. Six weeks after the fall of
A couple of hours after Adnan issued his AK-47 threat, I sat with him watching TV. This was business, not pleasure. The program we were watching was Adnan’s brainchild, and in just a few months it had proved to be one of the most effective psychological operations of the war. It is reality TV of sorts, a show called ‘Terrorism in the Grip of Justice.’ It features detainees confessing to various crimes. The show was first broadcast earlier this year and has quickly become a nationwide hit. It is on every day in prime time on Al Iraqiya, the American-financed national TV station, and when it is on, people across the country can be found gathered around their television sets.
Those being interrogated on the program do not look fearsome; these are not the faces to be found in the propaganda videos that turn up on Web sites or on Al Jazeera. The insurgents, or suspected insurgents, on ‘Terrorism in the Grip of Justice’ come off as cowardly lowlifes who kill for money rather than patriotism or Allah. They tremble on camera, stumble over their words and look at the ground as they confess to everything from contract murders to sodomy. The program’s clear message is that there is now a force more powerful than the insurgency: the Iraqi government, and in particular the commandos, whose regimental flag, which shows a lion’s head on a camouflage background, is frequently displayed on a banner behind the captives.
Before the show began that evening, Adnan’s office was a hive of conversation, phone calls and tea-drinking. Along with a dozen commandos, there were several American advisers in the room, including James Steele, one of the
Things quieted in the office once the episode of ‘Terrorism in the Grip of Justice’ began. First, a detainee admitted to having homosexual relations in a mosque. Then several other suspected insurgents made their confessions; two of them had been captured by Adnan’s commandos in
‘It has a good effect on civilians,’ he had told me, through an interpreter. ‘Most civilians don’t know who conducts the terrorist activities. Now they can see the quality of the insurgents.’ Earlier he said: ‘Civilians must know that these people who call themselves resisters are thieves and looters. They are dirty. In every person there is good and bad, but in these people there is only bad.’
The episodes of the program I have seen depict an insurgency composed almost entirely of criminals and religious fanatics. The insurgency as understood by American intelligence officers, is a more complex web of interests and fighters. Most of the insurgency is composed of Sunnis, and it is generally believed that Baathists hold key positions. But the commandos, who are the stars of ‘Terrorism in the Grip of Justice,’ are also led by Sunnis and have many former Baathists in their ranks, so the Sunni and Baathist aspect of the insurgency is carefully obscured.
Of course, propaganda need not be wholly accurate to be effective. The real problem with the program, according to its most vocal critics — representatives of human rights groups — is that it violates the Geneva Conventions. The detainees shown on ‘Terrorism in the Grip of Justice’ have not been charged before judicial authorities, and they appear to be confessing under duress. Some detainees are cut and bruised. In one show, a former policeman with two black eyes confessed to killing two police officers in
‘Terrorism in the Grip of Justice’ is a ratings success because it humiliates the insurgency, satisfying a popular desire for vengeance against the men who spread terror and death. Yet the program plyas rough not only with its confessing captives but also with the rules and laws that govern the conduct of war. As I learned in
Building a Home-Grown Counterinsurgency