The Back-Street Front Lines
BAGHDAD-Since the Baghdad security plan began on a rolling start in February, many neighborhoods have been cleared of insurgents by U.S. soldiers in armored Stryker vehicles. The second, "control" phase is underway in many areas. "We are very good at clearing areas," says Maj. Gen. Joseph Fil, commander of the division carrying out the plan, "but that does not count for anything unless you hold it afterward. This time we have forces in place to stay."
Most of the 37 combat outposts and 29 joint security stations (JSS) planned for Baghdad have been set up. Concrete barriers are being erected in markets and seven neighborhoods, along with other traffic and population control measures. Fil's deputy, Brig. Gen. John Campbell, choppers around the city monitoring progress daily. "Everyone agrees that the top priority is to get the violence down," he says.
The picture remains mixed. Sectarian deaths are down by half, but areas of the city remain violent, and the car bomb plague continues. Officials are debating where to put the fifth and final U.S. brigade when it arrives next month. If it is diverted to trouble spots outside Baghdad, some fear that will leave the capital-the declared main focus-with too few U.S. troops.
Sewage problems. A tour of several outposts found some well advanced and others still warding off attacks. A month-long clearing operation in West Baghdad has enabled soldiers to establish JSS Yarmouk in relative tranquillity. In northeast Baghdad, soldiers from 2d Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division arrived at JSS Sulakh in February. Two platoons of artillerymen rotate into the compound every four or five days. One platoon guards the blue-and-white police station while the other patrols with Iraqi soldiers and policemen. Capt. Andrew Artis and his men have finished sandbag defenses, but they have not yet figured out an answer for the stinking sewage system.
U.S. soldiers man an MK-19 grenade launcher on the roof at all times, but Artis credits frequent foot patrols with deterring the sniper who had targeted the police station. Many Iraqis are horrified that the Americans are working with the local police, who are widely mistrusted. But since the Americans moved into JSS Sulakh, a trickle of residents now approach the front gate to report problems.
Farther south, in Adhamiya, Lt. Col. Eric Schacht's 1-26 Infantry Task Force has had a much rougher time in this longtime haven for Sunni insurgents. In early March, Schacht's men set up JSS Adhamiya in the police station a few blocks from Baghdad's main Sunni mosque. A platoon rotates in every 24 hours. For three weeks the soldiers came under intense attack from grenades, molotov cocktails, mortars, and gunfire. They still receive fire daily, but an extra perimeter of concertina wire staves off grenades. With Shiite militias moving in, Schacht's battalion has suffered heavy losses since last August: 17 killed and 71 wounded out of 800 men.
Schacht tries hard to win over Adhamiyans. He meets regularly with the local District Advisory Council, but two of its past four chairmen have been killed, and a third was jailed for killing his successor. Schacht has also reached out to the senior imam at the mosque. But the Shiite-dominated Baghdad government refuses to pick up trash in the area, as evidenced by the garbage-strewn streets. Government rations of rice, beans, and coffee are not reaching Adhamiya. By contrast, across the Tigris River in the Shiite neighborhood of Kadamiya, streets are being paved, gardens planted, and sewage lines fixed.
The battalion will continue its daily patrols and meetings and small-scale fixer-upper projects such as repairing schools and clinics. But its grass-roots effort alone will not turn the tide. Schacht, who has served a total of 33 months here, offers a sobering assessment: "If reconciliation doesn't occur at the government-of-Iraq level, and resources aren't cut loose to help this part of the city, we will end up with the status quo." And that status quo, the inexorable asphyxiation of this Sunni enclave, might be the fate of Iraq writ large.
This story appears in the May 28, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.