The Spark of Rebellion: A Reservoir Exhausted

April 16, 2014

Editor’s Note: War on the Rocks is proud to publish this series on the tenth anniversary of the events they describe in 2004. This is the final of five parts.  Read parts onetwothree, and four.


A rebellion against the American occupation in Iraq had begun on Sunday, April 4, when militants loyal to Moqtada as Sadr attacked Coalition and Iraqi government positions in Baghdad and across the South and South Central regions of the country. Being the softest of targets, the offices of the USAID-funded Local Governance Program (or LGP) had been overrun, with hard drives pulled and data helpful to getting basic services again destroyed. The expat teams of four of the project’s five provincial offices in the South Central region had all abandoned their residences and were hunkered down on their nearest military base, enduring nightly mortar attacks and suffering as supplies (and patience) dwindled. While all hoped to get out of the fight, the military had more pressing matters to attend to in putting down the rebellion, and when a Palestinian Operations Officer was kidnapped in Najaf, the revelation that he held Israeli citizenship led project leadership to order the relocation of its remaining, resident staff.

In Diwaniyah, on Camp Santo Domingo, Team Leader Arnoux Abraham resigned himself to the inevitability that he and the rest of the civilians on his team would never realize their plans. Instead, they prepared to leave at the first opportunity. With intermittent access to email, the team’s Civil Engineer, Steve Blanchard, found out what had happened to the other teams and concluded that only one exit was open to them.

The second and final group of Hillah expats evacuated to Baghdad under warning the roads are full of IED’s. They were also fired upon. Will not be conveying to Baghdad it seems. The road south to Kuwait was discarded yesterday following reports of increased activity in those sectors. It seems helicopter evacuation is our only means now.

However, as a retired Marine himself, Arnoux recognized that, with the Marines dug in in Fallujah and multinational forces fighting a sideshow across the Shia heartland, the military had far greater priorities than extracting a small team of do-gooders who probably had no business being in Iraq in the first place.

As if to underscore the point, the commander of Coalition Forces, Lt. General Ricardo Sanchez, stunned an audience during one of Bremer’s daily CPA briefings by speaking up. The general usually kept silent through the briefings. Part of that was temperament, but part was his intense dislike of the CPA “proconsul” whom the general blamed for the Shia uprising. At the end of this particular CPA briefing, the normally silent commanding officer announced plainly that his priority was his troops. Though he only stated the obvious, Sanchez’s unexpected announcement and blunt delivery shocked the State Department and USAID officials in the room. Had the LGP teams been there to hear it, they would have known they were in for a long wait.

What he did not know, Arnoux could guess. He and his team had resigned themselves to wait and to wait indefinitely until the situation normalized and they were again able to drive on their own, although all hopes of returning to their offices and residences had vanished when they realized that the first looters to rifle through their possessions and steal their best suitcases were the very guards and police officers they had paid to protect them. As truth was often the first casualty of war, for the team in Diwaniyah at least, trust was its first fatality.

As time wore on, the living conditions in the camps worsened. Garbage started to pile up, and the camps were running low on water. Then on April 10, an opportunity presented itself that no one expected.

Following the Madrid bombings on March 11, Spain’s Conservative government was turfed out at the polls a week later, with a Socialist, non-interventionist one voted in to replace it. The new government wanted Spanish soldiers out of Iraq, and, taking advantage of the ceasefire Sadr declared to let Shia pilgrims make their trek to Karbala, the Spaniards decided Easter Sunday would be the day they left.

Acting swiftly, the LGP Team Leader in Diwaniyah notified the project’s headquarters in Baghdad that he, too, intended to seize the moment and try to drive his team out. Before they could depart with the Spaniards, however, they first had to get to the Spaniards. So on the afternoon of Saturday, April 10, a small detail of Blackwater, the State Department’s security provider, organized a mad dash from the Teaching Hospital to Camp España – about a 15-minute drive south of town. Restricting the civilians to one bag apiece, Blackwater operatives divided them between vehicles and made a run for it. Steve Blanchard, for his part, sat in the rear or counter attack team vehicle on the backseat with a bodyguard sitting behind him, the guard holding a machine gun pointed at the back window which he promised to shoot out at the first sign of trouble.

Fortunately for the team, aside from the bat out of hell driving protocol that was standard for private security companies, no such trouble occurred.   About an hour before sunset the team of development workers and accidental terror tourists entered the Spanish base, albeit to a less than welcoming reception. After the bombings in Madrid, Steve noted a change in attitude on the part of the Spanish brigade that had been responsible for civilian-military affairs in the province since the previous September. In particular, he described an unaccustomed coolness in a once-friendly relationship with a fellow engineer.

The death of over 200 in Spain from the latest bomb insanity may be tainting their geopolitical love of the Yankee juggernaut. Inside [the camp] I met Juan Antonio, whom I have worked with, off and on, for months. There was a decidedly open distance between us. Something different from the cordial understanding we had maintained over time. Only later did I think that possibly he might have known someone or possibly blamed America for the death and destruction forced upon his land. The Spaniards had lost less than 10 soldiers in a year of occupation in the heart of Iraq. Now the children and wives of soldiers lay in morgues. How could they not feel reprehension towards the U.S.?

On his last night in Iraq, Steve wandered around Camp España in the dark, disoriented. He was supposed to be wearing a helmet but didn’t, ignoring mortar warnings. He tried to check email in a makeshift Cyber Café but couldn’t, their Spanish interfaces discouraging ‘gringo usage.’ In the end, he retired to a bunk room where he and his 7 other refugee colleagues endured a night of surprising cold, made more uncomfortable by anticipation of what lay ahead of them the next morning on the highway to Kuwait. The journey itself was uneventful, aside from its unusual pace. Normally, when SUVs plied Iraq’s highways they ran at speeds of 120 km an hour, reportedly because it made it close to impossible to hit a vehicle with a rocket-propelled grenade. But because of the heavy armored transport and fighting vehicles being driven out of country by the Spaniards, the pace of the team’s evacuation slowed to what seemed like a crawl. Those with any weapons training carried arms, among them AK-47s, M 4s, and 9mm automatic pistols, both vigilant and hopeful that they would not have to fire them, while those without a service background, like Steve, drove their soft-skinned SUVs.

Anxious and attentive the whole way, and close to exhaustion from a week without sleep and 4 nights of mortars and firefights, Team Diwaniyah, along with their Spanish escorts, surprisingly drove the entire way without incident and with no stops, except for one at a large Port-a-John slum in the middle of the desert. They finally reached the border between Iraq and Kuwait at about 1500 hrs.  There, Iraqi officials looked over their documents, American soldiers seized their weapons and Kuwaiti officials (with what might be considered misplaced zeal) searched the vehicles of the retreating team for alcohol. Kuwait law forbade spirits, obliging those who imbibed to conceal. So once cleared to go, the team left Iraq and entered Kuwait with two liters of bourbon.

An hour or so later, the team drove their SUVs into the rotunda of the opulent Kuwait City Sheraton where they were met by former team members and transferred to comfortable rooms where they could shower and finally sleep.

That same Sunday morning that Team Diwaniyah departed Camp España, the team Karbala, led by Vijaya “VJ” Samaraweera woke up to the only positive event of their entire ordeal. Although rations had dwindled over the week of their forced confinement, the mess hall eventually having nothing to serve them but hamburgers without buns, the commander of the Polish forces had squirreled away a surprise: that Sunday morning the troops and the team enjoyed an Easter breakfast. The lull in fighting intended to permit Shia pilgrims to visit the holy sites in Karbala gave the team a moment’s respite, but with the implication that once the city cleared of supplicants, the battle would be rejoined. Unfortunately for the team, that respite would not support their evacuation, either, as the roads were still heavy with the faithful returning from the shrines, with the Sadrist stronghold of Hindiyah standing as a bottleneck and deterrent to a flight by road from Karbala back to Hillah.

Meanwhile, due to the continuing lock down, Baghdad’s Team Leader, Al Haines, could not get to the Green Zone for a hoped for ‘sunrise service’ on Easter morning. He stayed on his compound in the Karada District, holding a small “sunset service” on the roof of the Marble Hotel instead. In his journal, he recorded leading a few others before a “majestic” sunset:

I did quote a scripture, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you.” Then with emphasis I applied His condition, “Not as the world giveth”. I concluded with the knowledge that I have of the love of God for us, His children and that surely He must weep over the tragedies that His children are having to suffer. We then held hands and I prayed for the blessings of the Lord to be with us and to watch over and bless the people of Iraq.

It would not be blessings, however, that a frustrated VJ flung in the direction of headquarters from the vantage of his enforced confinement on Camp Juliette in Karbala. On April 12th, he wrote:

I am now past frustration: I am angry, appalled and reached a point where I am sick of platitudes and urgings of patience. How is it that everyone else . . . is out of the SC region and not us?

On the 13th he learned that his nemesis the CPA Governance Coordinator would be flown by helicopter to Kuwait, leaving the development workers under his notional care behind and wrote to the LGP Chief of Party with a sense of resignation:

Patience is the only currency we have, the only currency we control – but it is not an inexhaustible reservoir.

His reservoir ran completely dry the following morning after another night of mortars and explosions in the city. Fed up from repeatedly trying to call the LGP headquarters Operations “hotline,” a despondent Vijaya wrote in a final email, “I want to scream.” In answer to a question posed by HQ, he admitted, “no programs are functioning; contractors are asking for payments.” Mindful of the implications and credibility of the project should it be reorganized and return, he advised paying them “lest our reputation is tarnished by further tardiness.”

As Vijaya sank into despair, his being the last team still stranded and unable to reach Kuwait, Coalition Forces launched a counter strike against Sadr’s Mahdi Army in Hindiyah.  Once Hindiyah and checkpoints along the way were in the hands of Iraqi police, it opened up the possibility of finally leaving Camp Juliette. And on the night of the 14th, after his patience had reached its limit and he had written his caustic final email, Vijaya was informed by Special Forces that they had received approval from their higher-ups to run the road.

While knowing that the trip would still be risky, especially as it would have to be undertaken in their soft skin SUVs, the team preferred that uncertainty to staying another night as “guests of the CPA.” Although they were advised that the road between Karbala and Hillah was mostly clear, Team Karbala would still have to drive through the bottleneck of Hindiyah. Although, nominally in the control of the Iraqi police, Hindiyah nevertheless remained sympathetic to the Sadrist cause and, more threateningly, had multistory buildings in the middle of town which would expose the travellers to potential sniper fire. VJ had no higher ups of his own to ask for permission. He was responsible only to Firoz and the 2 Aussie PSD who had endured 14 days of captivity with him, and so they chose to risk the road rather than suffer another night as guests of the CPA.

Just as Team Diwaniyah did with the retreating Spanish troops, Team Karbala divided up responsibilities for driving and riding shotgun, with one exception. Vijaya, who on principle had never touched a weapon in his life, astounded his security provider and the Special Forces soldiers offering him a way out by refusing their offer to allow him to also carry a weapon.

The next morning, proceeding at a cautious pace, the convoy made its slow way up the road through the bottleneck of Hindiyah and – remarkably without incident – on through Babil province to the multinational base on the site of the ruins of ancient Babylon. There, they spent one final night before proceeding the next day to LGP headquarters in Baghdad. VJ’s team was the last of the project’s 17 resident provincial teams to be extracted. From Baghdad, Vijaya flew to Amman, Jordan and from there back home to Burlington, Massachusetts, where in an email on April 26, he resigned.

Earlier, on the 14th, the same day that Vijaya had sent his last email from Iraq, the expats who had been relocated to Kuwait gathered at the Moevenpick Hotel for the first day of a two-day session to discuss re-entry strategies. Howard Edwards, the air evac’ed Team Leader from Kut, had been appointed the project’s Chief of Party in Kuwait, and Don Seufert, most recently the Team Leader from Hillah, had been named the head of its Program Unit. They were charged with keeping the LGP running. They would struggle, however, with the project’s first experiment in “remote management,” and with the mostly angry 85 expats they tried to supervise.

Mindful of the emotional trauma that the staff had experienced during their relocation, Al Haines had noted: “It is my hope that there will be counseling services available.” The RTI Home Office in North Carolina had agreed, and on the first day of the two-day reentry workshop, hired psychologist Lynn Hagan to make a presentation and make herself available (at no cost) to anyone who wanted to talk to her. Some did, some did not, with a skeptical Steve Blanchard passing judgment on the whole ordeal:

Many in the group related with the message that stress is real. We should all be aware of the many forms it manifests itself in. Sleeplessness and lack of sleep, passivity and aggressiveness, loss of appetite and obesity. It’s this kind of open-ended analysis that I find particularly useless, like modern-day astrology for those who refuse to rationalize the violence of the world.

The relocation to Kuwait proved to be its own ordeal. Some thought of it as going from the fire to the frying pan, while others thought of it more like going from Hell to Purgatory. All were waiting, and all were bored. Then on April 16, the same day that Coalition Forces retook Kut from the Mahdi Army, the ex-ats who had been relocated from Iraq to Kuwait were relocated once again from the luxurious Sheraton to the funky Shamiyah Palace Hotel. The move crushed morale, with many complaining about declining standards of living, and maintaining that, despite receiving $93 a day per diem (on top of their full salaries), the city was too expensive. Some resigned; others waited until the end of the month when LGP management was rumored to be planning a massive layoff. The night before it occurred, Steve recorded:

Tomorrow the RTI hammer falls. This party will be over. 30-50 of us will be axed. Very much needed. This project is broken. So much went wrong. So idealistic – even now—with all the grand discussions of democracy and transparency. In the meantime, skilled militias plot to explode devices in the most calculated of civic locations, extracting Iraqi blood in an effort to boil away any remaining wisps of sanity from those who wait for western government to miraculously self-assemble in the cradle of civilization.

Of the 5 South-Central Team Leaders affected by the events of April, only Howard Edwards and Don Seufert would return to Iraq in positions of leadership. Following his stint as Chief of Party in exile, Howard reentered the country as the project’s Regional Team Leader for the southern provinces, overseen from Basrah. Don went back to Hillah, succeeding Jim Mayfield as the Regional Team Leader for the provinces of South Central. Their Regional Service Centers became mini Green Zones, with concrete blast walls and enhanced security that turned them increasingly into the kind of compounds that Vijaya’s neighbors in Karbala had warned him against.

As for the rest, Najaf’s Acting Team Leader, Bruce Hutchins, would leave; Diwaniyah’s Team Leader, Arnoux Abraham, would leave; and Baghdad’s Team Leader, Al Haines, would take a position with his church in Chicago, Illinois. Likewise, LGP’s senior management would leave, its first Deputy Chief of Party ending his contract on his 1 year anniversary, going in the sort of ‘natural attrition’ he had worked to avoid. And the project’s Chief of Party, after a short vacation with his family in May, announced that he wanted to leave the project by the end of July.

So too the project’s kidnapped Ops Officer in Najaf would leave the project, last of all LGP staff affected by the insurrection of April.

Contrary to the rumors that circulated once his nationality was discovered and broadcast to the world, Nabil was not tried by an Islamic tribunal, nor was he executed for being an Israeli spy. Instead, his plight became the subject of intense and intensely personal negotiation. While Nabil’s family was in Palestine lobbying PLO leader Yasir Arafat to intervene on his behalf, LGP Operations and Iraqi personnel in Hillah negotiated his ransom. Nabil himself would be shuffled between locations in Najaf, and as his political value diminished, his kidnappers’ demands for money similarly declined. From an opening bid of $1 million for his release and return, they eventually settled on a cash payment of $10,000, and on April 22 – after 17 days of captivity – a wan but healthy Nabil was delivered to the RSC. With a thick beard he had grown during his time as a hostage, Nabil was forwarded on to headquarters, where, sitting in the bedroom of the National Director of Operations, he described his ordeal. Outside and unseen, a rare spring thunderstorm gathered, and as Nabil spoke, looking at no one in particular, he flinched with each successive clap of thunder. The next morning, a clean shaven and rested Nabil departed Iraq, escorted by junior Operations officers, first for Amman, Jordan, from where he made the crossing back to Israel.

Outside the disrupted project, those whose actions determined the events of April would make decisions that affected Iraq’s future. Paul Bremer, the self-styled proconsul and head of America’s occupation government, the Coalition Provisional Authority, would return sovereignty to the Iraqi people in the person of an elderly judge on June 28, two days before planned. His abrupt departure, on direct orders of the White House was both praised and condemned at the time. Those who praised it considered it a clever move to deny the insurgents another opportunity to celebrate their resistance. Those who condemned it saw it as a cowardly retreat.

Moqtada as Sadr, who had provoked Bremer and whose Mahdi Army had taken advantage of the Americans’ distraction in the Sunni Triangle to make its own power grab on April 4th, declared a tactical ceasefire on June 6th. His forces would regroup and resume hostilities in August, after a falling out with the Governor of Najaf, engaging the Marines in the environs of the Imam Ali Shrine on the grounds of the largest Muslim cemetery in the world.

And the First Marine Expedition that had gone into Fallujah on the night of April 4th only to be pulled back would wait through the summer. Not permitted to attack, they would stand aside and wait while Fallujah became a beacon for jihadists from throughout the region. They would wait as a hastily organized unit of the Iraqi Army – the “Fallujah Brigade” – first took responsibility for the city and then took the side of the insurgents. They would wait, in fact, until George W. Bush had been safely elected to  second term before engaging in what has become known as the Second Battle of Fallujah, the bloodiest single engagement fought by the United States since the Vietnam War.


Author’s note: The content of this article series was drawn from contemporary emails, journal entries, notes and photographs of those cited.


An attorney specializing in development in the Muslim world, Lamar Cravens has spent the majority of the last 20 years in countries in transition. He spent six and a half years in Iraq, holding several positions on the Local Governance Program, and has also worked in Yemen and Egypt (after the Arab Spring revolutions in each), South Asia and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.


Photo credit: U.S. Army