An Insider's Account of the Long Hard Slog

by Matt Taibbi

[Eds. note: The BEAST proudly publishes this exclusive excerpt from the new book by David Twatt, the former senior diplomatic attache to Iraq. From the summer of 2004 straight through to the last bloody days of the U.S. withdrawal in November 2005, Twatt served as the senior aide to the late U.S. ambassador to Iraq, John Negroponte. His book, They Kicked Our Asses: An Iraq Diary, offers a painstaking account of the extraordinary, but ultimately fruitless, efforts by U.S. diplomats to bring democracy and freedom to the Iraqi people. In the excerpt below, Twatt describes his relationship with Negroponte.]

JOHN ARRIVED in Baghdad in the first days after the June 30 transfer in 2004 and was immediately briefed on the security issues, which were already central to our mission and would remain so throughout our stay. From the very first moment, I could see that John had a calming influence on the mission. Many of us were young and untested and had been struggling with the situation foisted upon us, and suddenly here was John, a veteran diplomat who had seen much and seemed equal to the task. His confidence was infectious.

I explained to him the situation. Rebel Mahdi militias loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr occupied Fallujah, Kufa and much of Najaf. A second militia of indeterminate origin, mostly "tallish guys," according to British commanders, had seized much of Umm Qasr. There was periodic street fighting in Baghdad, and we were coping with the recent abductions of three Danish mimes; as a result of those kidnappings, Mimes Without Borders was threatening to cease operations in Iraq unless we provided additional security guarantees.

John listened intently, not saying a word. At times his professional focus was so intense that it almost seemed like he wasn't listening. When the briefing was over, he frowned for a moment, lost in thought, then stood up. "It sounds like we're going to be busy," he said, "but let's go knock one back first."

That was like John. Throughout our entire ordeal, no matter how rough things got, embassy morale always remained at the forefront of his concerns. There could be a full-fledged shooting war breaking out in the triangle, but John would still remember your birthday, would still ask about your kids' soccer games back home. That was just the way he was. The staff loved him.

We went to the "Polo Lounge," which was what the Marines nicknamed the bar in the embassy. It was encased on all sides in 12-inch depleted-uranium plating, but the staff had done a good job of making it seem festive. There was a plastic palm tree and one of those spinning balls you see at dance clubs. John ordered Manhattans and, gazing wistfully at a tropical sea-coast print on the wall, told story after story about his time in Honduras.

"The United Nations gig was okay, but a diplomat ought to be in the field," he said, patting me on the back. He took a deep breath. "David, my friend," he said, "you just can't imagine how great it is to be on the front again."

We drank round after round, hitting it off surprisingly well. He told me his war stories from the Reagan years; I told him about my 3.4 GPA from Arizona State, my wife Sheryl, my Ford Windstar. When we were quite drunk, John leaned over to me and whispered:

"Come on, David," he said. "Let's you and me take this embassy out for a spin. Let's get ourselves a panel truck and round up a bunch of nuns."

"Nuns, Mr. Ambassador?"

"Of course," he said. "David, you may not have noticed, but we have a serious situation here. And it all starts with the nuns. We've got to get them before it's too late. There's no telling what they might leak to the press. Before we know it, this place will be crawling with reporters—the bastards."

"Sir," I said. "The press is already here. The whole war is on television. And sir, there are no nuns here. We're in a Muslim country."

"Bullshit," he said. "Call General Sanchez. He knows where the nuns are. Call him now, he'll be awake. We pay him enough, he ought to be."

Thus began what for John would be a very painful transitional period of his tenure in Iraq. One morning in that first month, a U.S. supply convoy was ambushed outside of Balad and the bodies of two dozen servicemen were paraded on the streets, their heads ultimately lodged on sticks. The AFP photo was carried all around the world.

"Look at this!" John shouted, when I came into his office the next day. "Front page of the New York Times! Those goddamned nuns are leaking everything! Get Azcona in here!"

We summoned Chalabi, who after showing great promise early on had proved a disappointment to our office. Privately, many of the staffers had urged him to insist upon a more pragmatic policy line in his meetings with John, but instead he took the easy way out and merely indulged John's every naive or misguided conception of the situation. He had even taken to wearing a pencil mustache and epaulettes.

"SeŇor Azcona!" John shouted, "I thought you assured me that your people were going to take care of those 'unwanted elements.'"

"Don't worry, SeŇor Negroponte," Chalabi said, "my men assure me that everything is under control."

I had to hand it to Chalabi. He picked up Spanish pretty fast.

"Well, that's good," John said. "We'll get 'em yet. As long as the people still love us."

"SĚ, SeŇor, the people still love you."

A few days later Chalabi called up in the middle of the night to say he had a present. His "Battalion 316," the covert Iraqi police unit John had had the agency guys train, had finally accomplished its mission. We drove out to an abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of Baghdad. Inside were the bodies of 20 Iraqi men, lined up side by side, all with bullet holes in their heads. They had monobrows and bushy mustaches, but they were all dressed in identical black and white Catholic habits. They looked suspiciously like the Shia workers we had supplied Chalabi to handle the domestic service duties in his mansion.

"We found them, SeŇor Negroponte," Chalabi said. "The nuns. You were right. They were telling all sorts of lies."

John was thrilled almost to tears. "Good work, Jose. I knew I could trust you. Now they know we're not fucking around!"

"Sir," I said. "These aren't Catholic nuns. They're Iraqi men. Look, sir, they even have mustaches."

"Of course, of course," he said, patting my shoulder. There was shelling in the distance; it was getting closer every day. Still gazing with relief at the bodies, he whispered to me.

"Listen, David, you'll have to keep this under wraps. If the word gets out that we're killing nuns over here, we'll never hear the end of it."

I sighed. "Yes, sir."

"And David, take these out and bury them in the jungle somewhere."

I did as I was told. I respected the strength of John's convictions, but even then—even then—I began to have my doubts that our policies in Iraq would succeed.


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