Second Chances
General David Petraeus visits Baqubah.


Baqubah, Iraq — When distinguished visitors come to where the action is, it can be disruptive to the point of wasteful. I’ve heard commanders grumble all over Iraq about the steady streams of VIPs who, while intending to be seen observing operations, instead seize the mechanics with their clumsy footprint. These are called “dog and pony shows.”

But on D+18, when a most important “visitor” came to Baqubah, not only did he not seem to cause a hiccup, but everyone I talked with was happy to see him. General Petraeus came to Baqubah on July 7, 2007, amid practically zero fuss.

The day wasn’t much different from any other. Mine began with an unrelated mission with the Brigade deputy commander, from which we returned around noon. General Petraeus had lunch with commanders, followed by a couple of interesting briefings that the tag-along press — there for only those few hours — were allowed to attend.

After the briefings, General Petraeus headed downtown to an area where many of the buildings had been made into bombs. Most VIPs will not dare leave base, but the top generals and command sergeant majors in this war all roll downtown taking their chances with getting blown sky-high.

When I wrote the dispatch “Be Not Afraid,” I thought at least dozens of soldiers might be killed when we attacked on June 19, and that hundreds might be wounded. After years of experience, the terrorists had prepared Baqubah to an extent greater than either Fallujah or Ramadi had been. During one of the briefings Saturday, General Petraeus mentioned that Baqubah was probably the most rigged city of the entire war. Another officer at the briefing said there is so much explosives residue in Baqubah that the bomb dogs get confused.

Since the beginning of Arrowhead Ripper — with the loss of one 3-2 SBCT soldier killed in action — troops found more than 130 bombs planted in ambush, about two dozen buildings rigged to explode, and more than half a dozen car bombs. (That’s only the beginning.) Yet street by street, house by house, step by step, the infantry soldiers cleared Baqubah, working under intensely stressful conditions. They cleared block by block, no place to sleep but the ground, no showers to wash away the sweaty grit of war. This combat-experienced brigade outsmarted the enemy. I’d like to say more, but the enemy will get no help from these pages.

Saturday, while riding in a Stryker to where General Petraeus was checking out the ground situation, I met Robert Reid from the Associated Press. Mr. Reid seemed to take interest in the information about the graves I reported recently, taking notes while we drove into Baqubah. Mr. Reid would later e-mail that he has been a journalist for nearly 40 years, having first come to Iraq in 1982.

As the soldiers clear Baqubah of the enemy and its deadly trappings, the people here are coming forward and talking. Some Iraqis worry that the U.S. will leave Baqubah too soon, only to have al Qaeda return and start dealing retribution to “collaborators.” That may explain why so many Iraqis here are offering useful information that helps save American lives and keeps al Qaeda out.

The fourth update for what I call “The Battle for Baqubah” described a mission to a village about 3.5 miles from the military base where I — and varying numbers of journalists (now down to one photographer) — stay while covering Operation Arrowhead Ripper. No journalists came along when I accompanied American soldiers to the abandoned village whose nearby palm groves offered the overpowering stench of decaying human flesh. I photographed and videotaped Iraqi and American soldiers as they disinterred the remains of adults and children. In one grave, soldiers recovered the heads of decapitated children, some with still partially recognizable remnants of flesh and hair. When I left the village, the digging was still ongoing, but I had seen and heard enough for the update I published the next day.

Thinking that the reporters here or their editors back home might have been scared off the topic of mass graves, I offered my source material. These included map coordinates, names of Iraqi and U.S. Army officials, my photographs and videotape, and even, in the end, permission to take what I’d written and photographed and use that free of charge.

Today, there are indications that the massacre might be much bigger than what I initially reported in “Bless the Beasts and Children.” Shortly after I published “Bless the Beasts and Children,” I asked a local Iraqi official about the village and the graves. The Diyala Provincial councilmen, Abdul Jabar, went on video explaining why he believes that there might be hundreds of people buried in the area, and he said the correct spelling is actually al Ahamir. (Most Iraqis’ names seem to have variant spellings.)

Watch the interview here.

Meanwhile, “Baqubah Update 05-July 2007” seems to have generated a dust storm of doubts. That dispatch focused on the emerging presence of Iraqi government leaders in Baqubah — both behind the scenes and actually working hard, as well as out front maintaining high visibility — stepping up to get their city operating again.

The situation under al Qaeda had degenerated on all levels. Although Diyala is Iraq’s breadbasket, it has been ten months since a food shipment arrived here. Fuel is at a near standstill; the lights are mostly off; and water flow is better measured by drip rate than cubic liters per second.

With dispatches in the works for these topics, the July 5 update was more a chronicle of my observations of the long overdue and very much welcome emergence of Iraqi political leaders from out of hiding. During a meeting, an Iraqi official in the room — who asked to remain anonymous — provided a narrative of how al Qaeda took control of Baqubah and much of Diyala Province. The paragraph that generated controversy follows:

The official reported that on a couple of occasions in Baqubah, al Qaeda invited to lunch families they wanted to convert to their way of thinking. In each instance, the family had a boy, he said, who was about eleven years old. As Lt. David Wallach interpreted the man’s words, I saw Wallach go blank and silent. He stopped interpreting for a moment. I asked Wallach, “What did he say?” Wallach said that at these luncheons, the families were sat down to eat. And then their boy was brought in with his mouth stuffed. The boy had been baked. Al Qaeda served the boy to his family.

Every syllable I wrote about this reported incident was in that paragraph, which offers no opinion about the veracity of his words.

Mr. Abdul Jabar had lived near the al Hamari village. He had more details about what happened there, and he was willing to go on the record with them. The reported incidents, wretching though they were and are, were reported “as is.”

When context is other people’s children
As I write these words just a few miles from the graves I saw, the resulting controversy about whether what the man said was true, or whether his words should have been written if the writer couldn’t verify them, seems precious. There is no imaginary line of credulity that al Qaeda might cross should it go from beheading children to baking them.

No unnamed Iraqi stringer claimed that al Qaeda had taken over Baqubah. Al Qaeda said this through the press. I sit writing these words in Diyala Province just a short drive from where the self-proclaimed leader of al Qaeda in Iraq was killed by a bomb delivered by a U.S. warplane. Al Qaeda: the organization that gleefully bragged about murdering roughly 3,000 people by smashing jets full of civilians into buildings and earth. Al Qaeda in Iraq: who proudly broadcast their penchant for sawing off the heads of living breathing people, and in such a manner as to ensure lots of spurting blood and gurgles of final pain, in some cases with the added flourish of the executioner raising up the severed head and squealing excitedly.

These are the same terrorists I often come face to face with: not on television or in magazines, but on bloodstained streets ablaze with human carnage. I remember the charred corpse of a small Iraqi boy. I remember the wailing Iraqi parents and countless other scenes that I am likely to see again and again. Back in 2005, terrorists here were intentionally attacking children…

Click here to read the full dispatch — with photos — from Michael Yon, from Iraq.

– Michael Yon is an independent writer, photographer, and former Green Beret who was embedded in Iraq for nine months in 2005. He has returned to Iraq for 2007 to continue reporting on the war. He is entirely reader supported and publishes his work at