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First into Mosul: A War Reporter’s Journey to Iraq’s Kurdish Front

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First into Mosul: A War Reporter’s Journey to Iraq’s Kurdish Front

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The last American troops, with the exception of a small embassy contingent, left Iraq in the dead of a mid-December night – not even telling their Iraqi counterparts that they were leaving.  Thus the war ended with something of a whimper. Chris Kline – there from the very beginning – recalls the resounding and resonating bang with which it started.

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[three_fourth_last]By 2003, war with Iraq had been looming for some time. I didn’t think the war was a particularly good idea but, as a freelance war reporter, I wanted in on it. I knew that offering myself as a correspondent who could get into Northern Iraq clandestinely was my best chance. As the last journalist to interview the late Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov inside insurgent-held Chechnya, underground journeys were my niche. My agent lobbied hard and I secured a plum contract with the leading American television network to quietly cross with my team into Iraqi Kurdistan by whatever means possible. Once in, I had been instructed to lie low until hostilities broke out. When the shooting began, my task would become straightforward: to follow the course of the campaign in the north alongside the Kurdish Peshmerga, hardy guerrillas, whose name meant “those willing to face death.”

Once western troops materialised in the north, I was meant to link up with them too, though I’d never officially been embedded. In the current terminology I’d serve as a “unilateral”, free to roam the battlefield at my own risk, as I saw fit. I wouldn’t go as a barefoot indie, though, on a wing and a prayer. The network gave me all I had requested, not least, an operating budget of $500,000 in cash (which I carried in a shoulder bag from New York) and freedom to handpick my crew. I chose what I considered a reporting elite, uniquely suited to the task.

There was Sofie, a resourceful Danish/South African field producer, brave as she was beautiful. She had been one of the only journalists to film inside Iraqi Kurdistan between the two Gulf Wars. Her contacts with Kurdish leaders were invaluable. Sofie never took no for an answer and was like a bloodhound sniffing out key information.

Christian was a battle-tested former British soldier, of Rhodesian origin, late of HM’s 1st Battalion, the Parachute Regiment. He proved as indispensable as Sofie. Tough but soft-spoken and always jovial, he was my military adviser, team medic, chief bodyguard, quartermaster and captain of the ex-Peshmergas we hired as our security detail,who he also trained. He could handle a vehicle like a race-car driver. I dubbed him news support producer, and he and Sofie worked in perfect symbiosis. Sofie was the left side of my brain; Christian was my strong arm and anchor in moments of mortal danger and critical decision-making.

Rupert, an ace South African cameraman, who had worked on my Chechen documentary, rounded off the team and wore another hat as our chief technician, keeping the satellite kit running and ensuring all broadcasting gear functioned well, regardless of the circumstances. In his leisure time, Rupert was a globally ranked paragliding maniac and I figured his temperament suited him for where we were going.

Our entry into Iraq had taken long months of negotiations to set up. The most difficult challenge had been to secure permission from the Syrian government to cross into Iraqi Kurdistan from their territory. Iran had refused us. Turkey wasn’t even worth trying. So it was the Syrian route or nothing. We had been overjoyed when our special entry permits came through, thanks to Sofie’s insistent negotiations.

The ruse was that I was an American academic, an Ivy League anthropology professor from New England, come to study a sect of Kurdish Sufi mystics (the crew posing as my researchers) at the invitation of a Kurdish university.

I expect the Syrian government knew exactly who I was but the border guard colonel at the final frontier post didn’t betray this knowledge. The laconic colonel spoke fluent English in an accent reminiscent of Boris Karloff. After a cursory view of our personal luggage, we were invited into the colonel’s office and offered cups of tea as the colonel chain-smoked Marlboros at his desk, his flunky eyeing us warily from his post behind his master.

Above the desk an old-fashioned ceiling fan hummed but did little to dispel the stifling heat and stale tobacco-tinged air. The colonel asked no further questions, merely sipped his tea and smoked, while eying Sofie and repeating, “You have a very beautiful secretary.” When the protocols had been observed and face saved, the colonel simply let us go.

A short drive later, we repeated a similar ritual with a lesser Syrian official, who didn’t speak at all but poured us cup after cup of the inevitable tea. Another hour and he, too, let us go. We then loaded into a small boat, powered by an outboard motor and put-putted across the Euphrates river into “Kurdish Free Territory.” A relay of cars from our Kurdish hosts was waiting to take us to our destination. We drove for hours into the night on winding mountain roads, stopping once, briefly, so I could triumphantly call the news desk in New York on my sat phone to declare “we’re in.”

Washington had counted on Ankara’s support in allowing heavy US divisions to enter Northern Iraq from Turkish soil. The Turks, adamant that Northern Iraq was their legitimate field of influence – their ‘near-abroad’ -considered anyone else operating in Kurdistan as intruders, even American allies. Prolonged American involvement would also mean losing a measure of control they were keen to retain.

Ankara allowed one subtle concession without much fanfare, pretending to look the other way, as some 900 American Special Forces soldiers, Green Berets, were permitted to slip across the border. Their task would be to help lead, train and coordinate the tens of thousands of Peshmerga militia and the uniformed, better-disciplined soldiers of their regular forces.  This was the classic mission of special operations commandos as “force multipliers.”

The Green Berets would also serve as the eyes and ears on the ground for Allied air squadrons, the substitute for the heavy firepower the Kurds lacked, and which the absence of conventional US forces denied them. We would link up with the Green Berets as soon as possible.

Bombing by Allied war planes marked the opening of hostilities and my task was to describe the impact of the air campaign. Aerial bombardment is a strange spectacle. It is invariably exciting as a display of modern fire power and it makes for good television. But one often forgets there are people underneath the bombs being smashed to pieces, being burnt to cinders, being atomised, and crushed by debris. Before I left for Iraq, my jingoistic boss had warned me about my reporting. “Don’t go native,” he said. “Remember which side you’re on.” Note to self: the enemy is never meant to be as human as your own country’s soldiers. Well, on one particular night it was not possible.

Our Kurdish sources had warned us that US naval aircraft would hit the Iraqi entrenchments and system of pill boxes and gun emplacements, all of 2000 yards away in a village called Kalak, just on the demarcation line between Kurdish territory and Iraq proper. We felt sorry for the Iraqi soldiers opposite because we knew many had tried to surrender, only to be turned back by the Kurds. A colleague allowed us to set up on the rooftop of the small house he had rented, which gave us an ideal vantage point.

I called New York and told them to make sure we were live on air when the carrier plane would come to launch its strike. It all went like clockwork, as the single fighter-bomber dropped its lethal ordnance on the Iraqi positions, enveloping them in a massive fireball. I provided a blow-by-blow narration with the suitably cinematic effect of the detonations behind me on camera. Great television, as far as my desk was concerned, less wonderful for the Iraqis on the other end.

I lost some of my neutrality during one of my live shots and said “enemy or not, God help whoever is underneath that.” The anchor in New York didn’t quite know how to respond. When silence finally fell, I heard one of the most horrible sounds I have ever heard. The acoustics were such that the gully separating us from the Iraqis made them quite audible. What I heard were the screams of the wounded. I called my uncle in the US on the sat phone and told him, “What a strange job I have, listening to other men dying.”

By now, it was time to link up with the Green Berets, a twelve-man “A” team we met on a hilltop position in a place called Ain Sifni. We found them almost speechless at the Peshmerga whom they’d been advising. There hadn’t been much tactical innovation in the battle that day. The guerrillas, numbering several thousand, had simply launched a frontal attack yelling age-old Kurdish war cries – more 1914 than 2003. Before the commandos could restrain them, they had rushed forward and the Iraqis had simply run away.

We introduced ourselves, and, from that moment on, we were attached to the twelve-man team that constituted the most forward deployed unit in the whole of the Allied army invading Iraq. Wherever their Land Rovers went, we followed. We lived rough from that point on, camping out wherever the commandos made their forward base as they advanced. It was the ideal way to follow the campaign in the north.

Soon the Peshmerga were advancing towards Mosul, rather than heading south to link up with the Anglo-American forces driving on Baghdad. But it was a massive game of bluff. Facing the Peshmerga and the handful of Green Berets was the Iraqi 5th Army, some 50,000 strong, with all the heavy weaponry of a mechanized army – something the almost barefoot Kurds, with little more than small arms and rocket launchers, could not remotely match.

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So long as the Iraqis kept retreating the advance went ahead. One spectacularly beautiful morning I beheld a sight that struck me as belonging to a different age, not to a modern, industrial war. There, on a verdant plain framed by snow covered peaks, was a ten thousand-strong Kurdish Army, uniformed regulars among them. But most were Peshmerga. No two uniforms or pieces of uniform were the same.

Tribal daggers worn in sashes, ammo belts draped across chests like Mexican revolutionaries, a sea of turbans and baggy trousers that had always defined a Kurdish warrior’s dress. They were assembled as if on parade in columns of one hundred or more. Some in each column wore pennants on their backs, battle flags to distinguish the units. And they were singing battle songs they had no doubt sung since antiquity.

One couldn’t help but be moved by it. It was the only moment of beauty I witnessed in the whole campaign. It was the pageantry of war in an almost Napoleonic sense. Hopeless romanticism. I felt strangely guilty for admiring the scene. After that, they piled into trucks and headed for the villages barring the way to Mosul.

We followed our band of Green Berets to witness the taking of one of the towns en route, but as the Peshmerga cautiously deployed their foot patrols, they were greeted by white flags. So it went throughout the day. No resistance was offered in village after village, The 5th Army simply wouldn’t fight.

We drove for a few miles and found a troop of Peshmerga taking shelter by a culvert on the side of the road. We could hear the roar of artillery in the distance and they told us not to drive on. The Iraqis, at last, were offering resistance, shelling the way ahead with heavy 120mm mortars. Our job was to see the fighting, so we foolishly dismissed their warning as they gesticulated wildly for us to stop.

We merrily drove away in our white Toyota, with TV in black tape on the bonnet and an Allied recognition symbol on the roof, followed by another jeep with four of our Peshmergas behind. There was nobody on the road and we passed the village where we were meant to rendezvous with our American mates.  There was no sign of their vehicles. We drove ahead, unaware that they too had retreated and were worriedly watching us from a hilltop through high-powered binoculars. We were driving straight into the Fifth Iraqi Army, alone.

We came to a lone bombed-out house, clearly shattered by aerial attack. We stopped and I told Rupert to get out and film it so we could illustrate the impact of the air campaign. Christian stayed at the wheel. Sofie and I joined Rupert, four of our Peshmerga behind him. Suddenly there was a loud crack. I watched a mortar round detonate, as if in slow motion, just over the house. I was mesmerised by the yellow, red, and blue flames, then the black and grey smoke. In retrospect, I realised it was high explosive and the soft ground surrounding the house had absorbed the concussion, which by itself would have killed us without leaving a mark.

We dashed for the cars and I told Christian to “drive like a bat out of hell” which Sofie, at the time, found uproariously funny. Christian executed a perfect, screeching nine point turn, and we drove at speed back to safety.

By the next day the Iraqi military seemed to have vanished again and together with the Peshmerga Army we drove to the very outskirts of Iraq’s Mosul. Lest the Peshmerga flooding in prompt Turkish ire and invasion – and a monumental headache for the Allied war effort in the north, the Green Berets were ordered to stay on the fringes of the city and deliberately restrain the Kurds.

But our news desk wanted us in the city. Christian was in his element and volunteered to do a recce drive into the city with a handful of our best Peshmerga. He returned intact about an hour later and said the path was clear. We told our desk we’d go in. As we mounted up one of the Green Berets turned to me. “ I have seen reconnaissance in force, I have seen reconnaissance by fire. I ain’t never seen reconnaissance by journalist.”

As we drove in, we saw what would have promised a bitter fight for the city, had it happened. Everywhere, there were perfectly prepared trenches, sand-bagged machine gun nests, artillery emplacements, tanks in hull-down position, anti-aircraft guns with their barrels depressed for ground use, ammunition belts, small arms and large calibre rounds, all neatly stacked and ready for use, but not a single Iraqi soldier in sight. The Iraqi 5th Army had become a phantom force, leaving all its ghostly defences behind and it would seem, having discarded its uniforms. Its tens of thousands of soldiers had simply melted away.

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We drove to a safe house arranged for us by our Kurdish tribal contact. Rupert and I set up on the rooftop. We’d be broadcasting via satellite throughout the day as the first news team into the city. Christian and Sofie headed for the airfield to pursue a rumour that a handful of US troops had gone in to secure it and that more might be coming by helicopter from the 10th Mountain Division and Marines.

But the initial quiet had been deceptive. Mosul was a volatile admixture of Sunni, Shia, Arab, Kurdish, Turkman, Christian, Muslim, even Zoroastrian. It was a microcosm of all of Iraq’s dormant sectarian tensions, which Saddam’s bloodstained fist had kept in check. But no more. Myriad rival militias proliferated almost overnight and started settling scores, accumulated over thirty plus years of Saddam. The city was awash with weapons left behind by the defunct Iraqi 5th Army. There were so many unsecured armouries; it was a veritable cornucopia of lethal toys. You could buy a Kalashnikov assault rifle for less than fifty dollars, or you could just as easily steal one. And then there were all those high explosive shells lying around – how they would come to haunt us later, reborn as IEDs! The future Iraqi insurgency never needed to import weapons. Iraq was already a giant arsenal.

Just as Rupert and I did a camera check and got the sat bird working, we could hear a cacophony of automatic weapon gunfire erupting. Before long I spied fires and plumes of smoke everywhere I looked. I kept my body armour on and filed many live reports for New York and London. I had the distinct impression the shooting was coming nearer. More than once I flinched at bursts that seemed to echo closer and closer. After a while I was no longer standing up to camera. Rupert lowered the tripod and we both knelt, shielded by a wall.

At around dusk it sounded like the shooting was just down the street so we decided to call it a day and head to the airport to rejoin Sofie and Christian. The Peshmerga were terrified of making the drive across the city. Our Kurdish contact begged me not to attempt it. But I felt like a rat in a barrel. I hadn’t heard from Christian, so I rang him on the sat phone. I told him our Peshmerga were quivering and he had to help me rally them and fetch us to lead the convoy. He told me there were all of forty GI’s at the airport. They were surrounded. Then, holding out the phone to pick up nearby sound, he said, “Listen to this, mate.” I could clearly hear the crackle of incessant small arms fire.

He got back on the sat and said he’d leave Sofie to take her chances with the soldiers and drive back alone to rally us. He arrived about forty-five minutes later and we headed back to the airport. Christian and I led the way in our Toyota. Our frightened Peshmerga were in the vehicle behind. Christian was at the wheel, another Peshmerga with an AK was in the front passenger seat. I was directly behind Christian, and Rupert sat behind the bodyguard. We made our way across the city in silence. Rupert was ashen-faced, and who could blame him? I was praying wordlessly, calling on all the Sufi saints to watch over us.

I had also discreetly armed myself. There was a spare 9mm pistol in the medical kit that I meant to reach for, if things ever got too bad. Well, they had. This was not a question of stupid heroics by a journalist. I knew the Geneva Conventions weren’t going to be observed by the armed groups that now held the city in its grip, so I apologise to no one for picking up a weapon. We weren’t in Switzerland. In moments like this, Christian unequivocally had the authority and I’d follow his lead. I wasn’t going to start anything.

As we drove, the orgy of violence and looting that had marked the day was evident. Debris was everywhere; occasionally we passed a corpse in the street. Here and there, gutted shops and houses burned. There were no lights, save for flaming tyres that marked improvised militia checkpoints, and, of course, which militia would it be when you drove up? Nobody was in uniform. The darkness, illuminated only by scattered fires, had a spectral quality. It was like driving through the landscape of a conscious nightmare and a perfect reflection of my own cringing fear. Ask me to encapsulate one of my darkest days ever and I’ll tell you: Mosul, by night, the first day the city fell.

The saints were with us, because we drove through a half a dozen checkpoints and were simply waved through. If all passed without incident then it was a straight eight km stretch to the airfield where we could be reunited with Sofie and take our chances with the GIs. But there was one more checkpoint. The petrol soaked tyre gave out sooty smoke and there was a crude barrier of wood and oil barrels barring access. We pulled up slowly and rolled down our windows to speak and show we meant no harm.

Outside the window of the bodyguard in the front seat there were six or seven men holding Kalashnikovs – thus far not training them on us. On the driver’s side there was just one man, a little bit in the distance, who came at us at a sprint, screaming. He cocked his AK-47 on the run.

He looked insane, sweaty, his hair dishevelled. He was wild-eyed and his pupils were dilated. Was he high on drugs, his own fear, his bloodlust? All three? Had he killed today or seen a friend or family member die? He was full of rage towards someone. None of them could see that Christian and I were both armed. In the eerie half-light, I could make out every detail on the madman’s face. He wouldn’t stop yelling. He seemed incapable of talking. Was it even Arabic? He was the one in charge. God, why him? When he got to Christian’s window, the others pointed their weapons at us, too. Our car wasn’t armoured. Our bodyguard kept his own AK visibly in his lap but stayed silent and made no menacing moves.

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Crazy Man pointed his barrel at Christian’s chest, then mine, then Christian’s head, then mine, then back to Christian. The gun barrel was inches away. He then tried to force the barrel inside the vehicle through Christian’s open window. Christian grabbed it with his free arm – not suddenly, not slowly, just a deft deliberate gesture – and began to move it away from his body. Then he started speaking, softly, like you would to a frightened child or a spooked horse, in a gentle, kindly, reassuring voice, almost a whisper, holding the gun barrel at bay throughout. “Easy buddy … easy, easy … we don’t want to hurt you … easy.”

I was watching Christian with the utmost concentration and trying to keep the other militiamen in my peripheral vision. I wondered when the Mexican standoff would just go to hell and we’d all die in a sudden fusillade. I prayed some more that nobody would fire, but I promised myself I’d take one of our executioners to the ever-after, if I could. What a ludicrous thought!

The lunatic had stopped screaming but he kept trying to force the barrel in. Even one-handed Christian was stronger. I was sweating profusely. Fear of imminent death smells bad. Then, in a fluid instant, Christian pushed the AK away, simultaneously slammed his foot on the accelerator, crashed through the barrier, and took us away at speed.

None of the militiamen fired. I don’t know why, perhaps because it happened so quickly, they were startled into inaction. Perhaps, being every bit as terrified as we were, they were just as happy and relieved nothing happened. It felt interminable, but the whole episode from start to finish lasted all of ninety seconds, if that. Christian’s composure and quick-thinking action saved all of us. I was happy to hand my pistol back to him.

As we drove the last stretch to the airport, Christian had me hold an infrared beacon out the window, so US soldiers wearing night-vision goggles could recognise we were friendlies. We reached the airport and had a relieved reunion with Sophie and the rest of our Peshmerga. Our team was intact and safe, but not out of danger yet. Our Special Forces friends had at last been given orders to enter the city by themselves and had arrived only a few hours before. They described their own hair-raising drive into Mosul in their thin-skinned vehicles – none of us had armoured vehicles. One Green Beret made a circle with his thumb and forefinger and then made a sucking noise. It was a crude gesture representing a human sphincter puckering from fear. I knew exactly what he meant.

The commandos then put us through an Alamo scenario. The gunfire all around the gutted airport kept crackling in the near distance, and they told us where we were meant to retreat to and keep fighting, if whoever was attacking the perimeter broke through to our current location at the terminal. If that could not be held either, there was a last-stand position. Christian and our twelve Peshmergas would be part of the defensive force.

We all desperately needed sleep after nearly 72 hours without it, but we slept fully clothed and ready to move if the alarm was raised. We were awakened near dawn by the roar of massive CH-53 helicopters, packed with US Marines. By daylight, mountain troopers from the 10th Division had been trucked in. The airfield, at least, could be defended, although there were only a few hundred soldiers to keep the peace in a violent city of over 3.5 million.

Late that morning, the Special Forces team we knew best had been assigned as quick reaction force. We were then detailed to join another Green Beret troop in a patrol into the city centre. We ended up at Mosul’s Central Hospital. Minutes after we had parked near the emergency room entrance, firefights had broken out in the surrounding blocks. We were effectively trapped and the commandos too felt it was the better part of valour to stay until the shooting died down and a column of their own could escort us all back to the airfield. But they couldn’t reach us for hours. There were so few Allied soldiers in the city, they were quite simply overstretched, rushing from one violent brushfire to another. Meanwhile most of the armouries were left unguarded.

The scene that unfolded before us was harrowing. Every ten or fifteen minutes, bullet-pocked ambulances would rush into the casualty-clearing area, sirens screaming. The paramedics’ faces were terror-stricken, drawn with the strain of their incessant ordeal. All the casualties were gunshot victims. Civilians were being killed by stray bullets, and it seemed that every other casualty being offloaded from the gurneys was dead on arrival. The uniforms of the ambulance men were spattered with blood. The hospital whites of the trauma surgeons and nurses who ran out to meet the ambulances were crimson-stained too.

We tried to not get in the way, but we began filming. Another ambulance sped right up to the ER entrance and unloaded its shattered human cargo, the paramedics yelling. Then another pulled up behind it. The first casualty lay unattended. I noticed it was a dark-haired woman in her mid-thirties. She looked peaceful and beautiful but her expression was unmistakably that of death. A small portion of the top of her head was missing. Her husband was inconsolable and though they had never met before, he embraced one of the other journalists there and sobbed on his shoulder. The man had lost his wife simply because she had been standing in the doorway of their home. A random bullet had hit her. She was soon taken away to the morgue.

There was a pause in the constant flow of casualties and at that moment, the trauma doctors and nurses, civilians and ambulance men surrounded us. I started questioning them, jotting down notes, but they weren’t interested in questions. They wanted to vent their anger. The chief surgeon spoke fluent English and focused his ire on me since I had been identified as an American. He was dignified, but he was enraged. He kept slapping the blood-soiled surgical apron covering his chest. “What have you done to our city? Is this the democracy you’ve brought us?” I didn’t know how to answer him. I still don’t.

The next day, the Arab tribal chieftains of Mosul came to the airport to meet with the Special Forces colonel serving as interim Allied commander for the city. The nobles had come wearing their best tribal finery, as befitted their rank and the solemnity of the occasion.  These were men at the very apex of Iraqi society. They were expecting a certain politesse, a deference rightly due them in their ancient culture. But the colonel was out of his depth and managed only to unwittingly insult and alienate them. His tone was patronising. He harangued them like errant schoolboys, and lectured them on the virtues of Western democracy that they were now expected to adopt. He may as well have been speaking Chinese. They listened to him in quiet bewilderment. It was the very moment we lost Mosul. Within a few short months almost all of those Arab clan chiefs became leaders of the insurgency.  Clearly the colonel had never read any T.E. Lawrence.

Neither, just as clearly, had George W. Bush, making his ridiculous “Mission Accomplished” speech in a too-tight flight suit on an aircraft carrier in a display of cheap, theatrical, mock-warrior posturing, while the insurgency were busy sharpening their knives and letting Al Qaida stream into Iraq to teach them how to make IEDs. I wonder too how it is that Tony Blair, enabling handmaiden to Bush’s ill-advised war, which engendered the very thing it was meant to contain – terrorism – is now the EU’s Middle East Peace Envoy. That seems akin to Nero being appointed as head of Rome’s fire brigade.

The Anglo-American invasion of Iraq is destined to mark the pages of history as one of the greatest strategic blunders of all time. All told, despite western denials, the Iraqi death toll, thus far, may well figure between 600,000 to one million dead, perhaps more. Add to this butcher’s bill, a further nearly 5000 Coalition dead and we must pose the question: what was it for? On the basis of a grand lie – what one disaffected US intelligence officer labelled “faith-based intelligence,”! – when there were no linkages to 9/11, no weapons of mass destruction, a war was unleashed that accomplished nothing other than the destruction of a nation, further-diminished good will for the West in the region, and the awakening of Iraqi sectarian tensions, likely best left alone.

First the British and now the Americans have slouched home, so what is Iraq now but a tinderbox of violence? Shia and Sunni hatred may well still deliver full-scale civil war, even greater slaughter, and the collapse of an extremely fragile and corrupt putative democracy, not remotely assured of continuity or survival. As unpleasant and worrying is the possibility of an Iraq in close alliance with Iran. Teheran is already noticeably eager to step into the power vacuum, as soon as the last American boots have left. We have only made the Middle East more dangerous for everyone.[/three_fourth_last]

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