The Source

05/30/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

War has many definitions in Iraq. This is why it is possible to hear that the war is winding down, and then wake up to the news that 150 Iraqis were killed in coordinated suicide attacks across Baghdad in just two days. This is what happened last week. I have been thinking about this, because while I was in Iraq last month, many people even told me that the war was finished. "It is over," said Dr. Amer Fayht, the Dean of Political Science at Baghdad University, "it will never come back." Like a lot of people who said this, Dr. Fayht said it slowly and carefully, as if suggesting something as delicate as peace was to risk breaking it.

The day before I left Baghdad, I had lunch with a man in the Iraqi intelligence community who does not want to be named. Through a translator, we spent the afternoon talking about terrorist groups in Iraq. The terrorists, of course, don't refer to themselves as such, and the definition of that word too changes depending on whom you ask. Athil al-Nujayfi, for example, is the new Governor of Ninevah. His detractors point out that in television interviews, he never uses the Arabic word for terrorist -- irhabiy. He only uses the word mujahudeen, whose meaning is more ambiguous, open to positive interpretation, doesn't smell as much of cordite. Several Kurdish officers in the Iraqi Army whose job it is to protect Mosul told me this was evidence that Nujayfi is beholden to terrorists -- the kind of men who pay teenagers to throw grenades in the street, or blow themselves up before shrines, but prefer to be called holy warriors. The intelligence source I spent the afternoon with claimed to have intimate knowledge of such men, and described them.

He began with Al Qaeda. He explained the cellular make up of the organization. Commander, driver, bodyguard comprise a single cell. For three such cells there is a superior fourth cell composed of an administrator, an issuer of fatwas, and another commander. These twelve men, he said, comprise a family. Ten of these families together compose a section. Each section is commanded by an emir with his own finance, fatwa, administration, and security team. Baghdad is home to six sections, and led by a supreme emir, one Abu Omar, the 'prince of Baghdad,' who also controls auxiliary units with particular responsibilities: logistics, raising money through kidnapping, fighting Sunnis allied with the Americans. On the day the large bombings began last week, the Iraqi Military reported that they had detained Abu Omar. Extremists websites denied his capture. The American Military could neither confirm nor deny, but then, as the New York Times reported, the American Military believes him to be a "fictitious Iraqi figurehead" anyway.

The source I was talking with took Abu Omar's existence for granted and did not linger on him. Al-Qaeda, he suggested, was the easy group to understand. He moved on to the Sunni groups. These are not fighting a global jihad, they are fighting for control of their country. The Iraqi Islamic Army, The Army of Mujahudeen, Ansar al Sunna, The Brigade of the 20th Revolution, the Army of Abu Bakr al Sadiq, The Islamic Front for Resistance, The Army of Rashadeen, The Army of the Brothers of Mohammed. Each is distinct. There were a few more important ones he named, but besides this core there were forty-three, he said, that in his opinion were not powerful enough to mention. He described divisions in the leadership of the major groups and their relations to members of Iraqi Parliament. He explained where each received its funding, some from Syria, or Libya, or Saudi Arabia, or the UAE, or simply from within inside Iraq. He explained that recently these groups had formed a Council for the Unification of Iraq, and were planning on secretly supporting two candidates in the coming elections. Some of the groups believe it is appropriate only to kill Americans, he said, while some believe it is appropriate to kill other Iraqis, and this was a matter of contention.

You could call a source like this by different names. A source, yes, but also a spy, an informer, a traitor, a pawn. It matters what you call him, because what you call him suggests how much you trust him -- its the difference between an irhabiy and a mujahudeen. As Iraq's gains are threatened by increased violence, Americans, and people around the world, might be stopping and thinking about what exactly to call the situation there, if not 'war.' An absolute failure, maybe, or an atrocity. Some insist on calling it a victory. In light of last months announcement of withdrawal plans by the United States (though these too are up for debate), some are starting to call it old news. Most Americans just call it the Iraq War, and don't think about it that much.

The American soldiers on the ground, like the 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division that I embedded with in Ninewah Province, don't think about what to call it very much either. When they talk about the war, they tend to tell war stories, as soldiers do. On Mosul's Forward Operating Base Marez, some officers told me a new one. One of their platoons had been on patrol when they came across some Iraqi Army soldiers who had caught a boy, he looked about fifteen, who had just set an IED. The Iraqi soldiers told him: you set it, you defuse it. So they sent the boy across the road where he crouched and began trying to defuse the bomb he had just set. It was at this point that the American platoon leader arrived, and said to them "What the fuck are you doing--" And then the bomb went off. The platoon's medic miraculously saved the boy's life, though not his right arm. And that was the end of the story. The officers had it on video, and we watched it all on a laptop. One officer laughed after it was over, shaking his head, thinking out loud. "You set the bomb," he said, "you defuse it."

So what to call Iraq, now in its seventh year of American occupation? What word to use? There wasn't really time, with the source that afternoon, to talk about it. By the dusty evening we were almost done with an outline of the Sunnis, but had not even touched on the Shia groups, perhaps an even larger part of the picture. The source quickly mentioned several of them, including the remnants of the Mahdi Army, the Iranian trained Hizbollah paramiltaries, the Badr Brigade. But then he excused himself. He was busy, had to go, said he was leaving the country for a while himself.