Can it hold?

Five years after the Iraq war began, and one year into the US troop 'surge', bombings and attacks in Baghdad and across the country have plummeted, and a relative calm has settled in. But, as pressure to speed troop withdrawals grows, the question on the ground is: can it hold?

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Charles M. Sennott
Globe Staff / March 16, 2008

BAGHDAD - The small convoy of armored Humvees rumbled through the warren of narrow, muddy streets that is the Rashid district on the southwest edge of this devastated capital and lurched to a halt in front of a building the troops call "Reconciliation Hall."

For the last year, Rashid has been the posting of the 700 men of the US Army's First Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment. Under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Frank, the group tagged the "Black Lions" were in the first wave of the "surge" that brought 30,000 new US troops, and a whole new tactical playbook, to Baghdad.

By every measure, their success has been considerable. On the color-coded maps of violence levels in the city, Rashid stood out hot and red a year ago, with more than 500 attacks - roadside bombs, sniper fire, and rockets. Last month, there were fewer than 10. A similar story can be told across the city, where attacks, casualties, and civilian deaths are at the lowest level in four years.

"This place was hell," said Frank, speaking over the grinding of the Humvee's engine and the radio crackle. Though the sectarian fault lines remain as plain as the bullet-pocked and mortar-punched facades of homes the convoy drove by, out of that hell has come what Frank calls "room for hope."

But the larger mission of the surge isn't just to quell the violence but to facilitate political accommodation among Iraq's warring forces. It's a struggle that the commander of US forces in Iraq, General David H. Petraeus, concedes has "a long way to go," and it's what has brought Frank on this day to Reconciliation Hall, for a meeting with Shi'ite and Sunni Muslim leaders.

There, over tiny cups of tea, the next wary steps would be discussed and then the inevitable question would be asked: Can the hard-won successes of the surge hold when the US troops leave?

It was a question that would be underscored again this past week by more bombings and carnage in Baghdad.

Soon enough, Frank would get his answer.

The meeting with community leaders was part of what the US ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, would describe in an interview with the Globe as the critical, final front in the Iraq war, five years and nearly 4,000 American combat deaths since it began with overwhelming US air power dubbed "Shock and Awe" that lit up the night over Baghdad on March 20, 2003.

"It is the hardest part of this: How does it change if we're not there? Because you remove us and the dynamic does change," Crocker said from his office in the fortified Green Zone of Baghdad, where officials work and live. "So you've got to be able not only to accurately assess what is, but what will be. And, you know, that's got to be done with extreme care."

Extreme care, plus courage - the Black Lions have seen 10 men killed and about 100 wounded in action since last March - and a feel for the community developed through something akin to police investigations and social work.

Frank and his men were greeted on the steps of Reconciliation Hall by a group of local tribal leaders. Some men wore the traditional kaffiyeh and robes of tribal chiefs, or sheikhs. And some wore the poorly tailored gray suits and black leather jackets of the former Ba'ath Party, which ruled under Saddam Hussein. This building had been a party official's residence in the section of Rashid called Jihad.

Inside, the hall, with its gilded Ba'athist kitsch and its dusty, cut-glass chandeliers, was bathed in darkness. There is still only intermittent electrical service in the area. But soon the gasoline-fueled generators sputtered to a start and strips of neon flickered on.

Sipping tea, Frank and one of his company commanders, Captain Brian Ducote, listened to the litany of local concerns and complaints about unfulfilled promises of funding from the Iraqi government. They also heard about the delicate - and potentially volatile - process of moving families displaced by war and sectarian hatred back into homes that had, in some cases, been taken over by members of rival sects.

Frank, 40, who hails from upstate New York, nodded his head as he jotted notes on the pad he always carries. He has been part of scores of sessions like this, as much a part of his job as directing armed power at the remaining nests of insurgent incorrigibles. Toward the end of the long meeting, a reporter traveling with the unit asked the local leaders whether the gains on the ground will outlive the surge.

The word came back without hesitation or uncertainty:

"No," said the Shi'ite tribal chief, Sheikh Talib al-Rabei, who serves as chairman of the local 10-member reconciliation committee.

"No," said his Sunni counterpart, Fuad Ali Hussein, a former colonel in the military under Saddam Hussein who is now an imam at a mosque.

Down the long conference table, a half-dozen others on the reconciliation committee delivered the same reply. Frank had a hard time concealing his dismay.

"Really?!" he said, framing the word as both a question and a statement. "I'm a little surprised to hear that. Can they explain?"

He studied the men's faces as his interpreter relayed the question. With his red hair cut "high and tight" and fair skin flecked with freckles, he had the look of a middle-aged Tom Sawyer, that was if Sawyer had served two tours in Iraq, toted an M-16 rifle instead of a fishing pole, and hadn't slept more than a few hours in the last three days. The lines around his eyes seemed to deepen as he heard out his hosts. He looked exhausted.

The room fell silent - but for the drone of the generator outside and the tinkling of cups and saucers as the tea boy collected the last round. It was an awkward moment. For while the Iraqis were encouraged by the ebbing violence, they don't yet see a way forward that they trust.

"The Iraqi forces are getting better, but it is not as organized as it was. It has a long way to go before we can trust that they will provide security," said Nadim al-Tasi, 46, who was a company commander in the Ba'ath military and now serves on the reconciliation committee.

"All of us have lost a great deal in this fight," said Tasi, who is Sunni and whose brother was killed by a sniper from the Mahdi Army of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr - before Sadr declared and then renewed a cease-fire that has contributed much to the decline in attacks.

Sheikh Talib nodded in agreement.

"Let's be honest. You are the security valve," he said, addressing the Americans through an Iraqi translator whose face is covered with a black ski mask to protect his identity. (Like most translators for the US military, he is seen by many Iraqis as a collaborator; he has been told there is a price of $30,000 on his head.)

"I fear what will happen when that security is gone," the sheikh said, now looking more directly at the translator than at Frank.

Captain Ducote, a burly Army officer from Georgia and one of Frank's right-hand men in the field, sensed the temperature rising in the room. A creative coalition builder in Rashid, he quickly put his skills to work.

"The good news is that with your efforts in the reconciliation committee, there will be a time when this can happen. For me, the glass is half full here," he said, pushing back in his chair and spreading his hands wide, like a faith healer.

A fisted glove, a handshake
When Frank and his men arrived in Rashid in February 2007, they immediately took the fight to the enemy, hitting hard against the Mahdi militias on the ascendant Shi'ite side and then pounding Al Qaeda in Iraq insurgent elements that had inserted themselves among the fearful and resentful Sunni side.

They also brokered alliances with former enemies and put onetime resistance fighters on the payrolls of small projects in this community of about 300,000. They've sought out what they call "the reconcilables" - former militia members and resistance fighters on both sides who could be persuaded, or in some cases simply paid, to join the complex mosaic of security forces.

One story they like to tell is of a notorious Mahdi Army militia leader with the nom de guerre of Abu Duma, or "Father of Tears." His militia had been killing Sunni residents or clearing them from Rashid. The Black Lions hit the militia hard, killing many and detaining scores of others. The Sunni community, feeling embattled, took note. Over the summer, Abu Duma expressed a willingness to negotiate through intermediaries, according to a field report from one of Frank's company commanders, Captain Sean Lyons.

"I remember saying to Lyons, 'What are you smoking?' But it turned out there was an opening and we exploited it," Frank said. "It worked."

By September, Abu Duma had begun to cooperate, and the reconciliation group was formed. By November, Frank and his men had facilitated a joint prayer service among Sunnis and Shi'ites at the Al Bakr Mosque in Aamel, a neighborhood in the heart of the Rashid district. By January, a fragile calm was taking hold. Checkpoints were added to further bolster security. A street market long shuttered by the threat of bombings reopened. And by the end of February, nearly 500 families had moved back to their homes.

Frank's unit found a way to instill pride in the pacification: A small company that once minted medals for Hussein's Ba'ath military was hired by the unit to create new medals of honor for citizens helping to make their community better.

It was, said General Petraeus, the intellectual architect of the surge, an inspired touch.

The choreography of reconciliation, he said, can take "a bit of Barnum and Bailey. You know, some plate spinning."

A sober assessment
Erect in a straight-backed chair in his Green Zone office, Petraeus took a few minutes to review a set of charts documenting the progress of the surge. He did so with an air of caution, and even distaste, for the kind of enemy body-count statistics that became infamously known, during the Vietnam War, as the "5 o'clock follies."

"I have been very cautious in our assessments. We have been very quick to say that we haven't turned any corners. There is no light at the end of the tunnel," said the general, who wrote his PhD thesis at Princeton on the lessons learned from Vietnam.

Still, the numbers, from a newly declassified report provided to the Globe, are persuasive. Across Baghdad, every category of attack - from improvised explosive devices to snipers and mortar rounds - is down from a high of more than 1,500 in June 2007 to fewer than 500 in February 2008. Civilian deaths, as reported by military and Iraqi officials, have plummeted, from about 3,500 in January 2007 to approximately 700 in February 2008. US military deaths are down from 110 last May to 15 last month. The casualty rate of Iraqi security forces is about triple that of US troops but is on a similarly steep downward trajectory.

Petraeus said he believes the numbers reflect the truth on the ground but makes no claim that the trend will hold. Still, Petraeus allowed himself a bit of optimism when asked whether he believes the successes of the surge can continue with fewer troops on the ground.

"I think it is possible. It is going to take a lot of support from the Iraqi government," he said.

Petraeus well remembers visiting Rashid at the start of the surge and thinking, "Man, this is going to be very hard." He admires the way Frank and Ducote have mastered the "human terrain" of the district.

But then Petraeus was asked about the scene inside the Reconciliation Hall, and the emphatic "no" offered by Sunni and Shi'ite leaders.

"We see the security improvements as still tenuous. And that is really what you saw in Rashid among the local leaders. There is no question there have been significant security gains. There is also no question that there is hard work to be done in the security arena that can cement that progress," Petraeus said.

Petraeus's and Crocker's offices are in the same corner of a former presidential palace built for Hussein, and they share an ante room. The two men are in constant contact.

That there will be force reductions, Crocker said, is certain. How much and how fast and what will follow when US troop strength fades is less clear. "The overall trajectory is established. We're going down. We are reducing forces. But I can't tell you at this point where or how fast we should go beyond July. It is more than geometry, it is calculus. . . . The question is how do we assess what happens when we are gone. That is hard to do."

When the two men return to Washington to offer joint testimony before Congress next month, they will, they said, argue for a period of assessment after forces return to pre-surge levels in July. A pause of some weeks or months is needed, they said, to be sure the progress is "cemented" before further withdrawals proceed.

But that is a fight for another day, Petraeus said as he boarded a helicopter at the landing zone and flew to his residence at Camp Victory, a huge base near Baghdad International Airport. The eight-minute flight home is quiet time when he ponders what is below, the bombed-out neighborhoods, the parks he has worked to restore, the troops moving in the field below him, and the challenges that lie ahead.

Car bombs and picnics
On the streets below, the story of the war at the five-year mark is also told by people such as the Aheikly family, who, on one of the first warm sunny days of March ventured out from their home in central Baghdad for a day in the park.

For Feraz, 34, an auto mechanic, and his wife, Shaima, 32, a schoolteacher, it was the first time in three years that they felt it was safe enough for such an excursion. And it was anything but safe. They didn't get far from their home when they drove straight into the scene of a car bombing that killed two people and wounded 10 in a crowded market. Amid the all-too-familiar carnage and chaos of a bombing, they promptly turned their car around, unwilling to risk their children's lives.

But then, they said, there was a revolt in the backseat by their three children, who cried and pleaded until Feraz and Shaima relented. They turned the car around yet again and continued on to the park. The children cheered in the backseat, a victory for playtime.

In the Abu Nawas park, it was a beautiful, placid scene; the palm trees swayed along the Tigris River. The children played wildly on a newly repainted playground. Still the parents, who are Sunnis, nervously scanned the perimeter of the park.

"They need this. They need fresh air. But you don't stop worrying," said Shaima.

A few days later, another telling scene. A Shi'ite family walked through the Karada district in central Baghdad, joining a long line of hundreds of thousands of Shi'ite pilgrims heading south toward Karbala for the annual Ashura, the period of mourning and remembrance of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the son of Imam Ali, who is venerated by Shi'ites.

The family, dressed in black, took the juice boxes and small sweet cakes offered to them from tables set up along the pilgrimage route by volunteers, some of whom were Sunni. The food gave them energy for the long journey, by foot and by bus, 30 miles to Karbala.

Abd Faraj, 51, a laborer, walking with his wife, Rasmiya, 51, said Shi'ites were not permitted to make this trek on foot under Hussein and they view their participation as a public profession of their faith and their confidence in the new Iraq.

The couple have marched each of the last four years, but this is the first year they have brought their two young children along.

"We feel it is safer now. Things are better," said Faraj, as he led the family at a brisk pace toward Karbala.

One hour later, news broke of a suicide bomber who detonated explosives strapped to his body at a crowded tent where the tea and cakes were served about 20 miles farther south on the pilgrimage route. Forty people were killed and 100 injured.

Tolerance fractured
Iraq's present, like its past, is all about the battle for power along the ragged edges of sectarianism - Sunnis, Shi'ites, Kurds, and a small, vanishing community of Christians, all vying for their part of the nation's future.

Under Hussein, sectarian divisions were largely tamped down by the force of the regime - though sometimes they were also inflamed when that suited the regime's purposes. As part of the Sunni minority, Hussein's tenure depended on suppressing, often brutally, the ambitions of Shi'ites and Kurds.

But in Baghdad there was also a tradition of tolerance, of mixed marriages and mixed neighborhoods where Sunnis, Shi'ites, and Kurds lived together. Crocker, the US ambassador, said the memory of those years of coexistence needs to be rekindled and drawn upon as the successes of the surge take hold. He points to three pieces of legislation passed by the Parliament last month as signs of a growing political will to head in that direction. They include a budget, a framework for provincial governance, and a formula for amnesty that would apply to thousands in Iraqi jails.

The Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq signed on to this legislation and is one of the main political parties that make up the Shi'ite political alliance that dominates the Parliament. The party is headed by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who hails from a Shi'ite political dynasty out of Najaf. Six of his brothers were killed under Hussein's regime and he lived in exile in Iran before returning after the US invasion of 2003.

The compound where the party is based in Baghdad lies in the shadows of a towering bridge. It is surrounded by blast barriers and barbed wire; the call to prayer echoed eerily off the concrete walls as a reporter was ushered in to greet Ammar al-Hakim, the eldest son of Hakim, who is ill with cancer. Ammar arrived imperiously in the traditional robes and turban and well-trimmed beard of Shi'ite clerical elite, and he delivered his verdict on where Iraq stands.

"I personally believe the increase of the US forces has been helpful. There is an improvement in security noticed by all people," he said.

But, he added, "This 'surge' is not only of American troops, but also of Iraqi troops. More and more confidence is being built by Iraqi security forces.

"This makes us optimistic that the Iraqis will be capable of handling their own affairs. . . . And there is a need for timetables and schedules to build up and strengthen these Iraqi forces. And as they fill the gap, this will reduce the need for US troops," he said.

"The majority Shi'a were afraid from the past. The minority Sunni feared the future. This was the essence of the problem. Now we are working very hard to be sure there are guarantees for all of the partners," he added.

In an effort to help displaced families, he said, the supreme council was working with members of the Awakening movement, a Sunni group that joined with US forces to push Al Qaeda forces out of their neighborhoods. He spoke the glowing language of reconciliation, without mentioning that the council's own militias were responsible in part for some of the displacements of Sunni families.

"Every Iraqi should have his place," he said, and the choice of the word "place" rather than "home" hung for a while in the discomforting air and the practiced piety of his speech.

In Fadel, a Sunni section of Baghdad controlled by the Awakening, which more recently has preferred to be known as Sons of Iraq or simply "resistance," these offers of Shi'ite reconciliation are met with distrust.

The Awakening members were once insurgents fighting US forces. One of them, Khalid al-Qaisi, was wearing a camouflage T-shirt and kept a Glock pistol tucked into his waistband as he walked through the narrow streets where store fronts and tea shops were riddled with machine gun fire.

Garbage was piled and an air of neglect and bitterness was palpable among the Sunni of Fadel. Their mistrust of Americans and Shi'ite political forces such as the supreme council was visible in the cold stares of the men who eyed a Westerner passing through. Behind the Shi'ite ascendancy they see the influence of neighboring Iran and consider America naive about that dangerous regional dynamic.

The Shi'ite political parties in turn blame Sunnis for inviting foreign militants inspired by Al Qaeda and hailing from Syria, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere in the Arab world to come into Iraq.

The commander, Qaisi, took a seat in a tea house where old men played dominoes and younger men smoked water pipes that glowed with sweet apple tobacco. He explained that the loyalty of the Awakening, or "resistance fighters," as they prefer to be called, is directly tied to the American military unit in their area, a unit out of the First Cavalry Division. Qaisi gives a wan smile and says in broken English, "They have the name of 'Red Devils.' "

Unclear is whether the new alliances are built on much more than the $300 per month the Awakening members receive from US forces for serving as community security guards. Is it a new way of life or just a way to get by until the US troops pull out?

As the meeting ends, the Friday call to prayer begins, a cacophonous mix of prayers from the Sunni and Shi'ite minarets.

Welcome home
Back on the streets of Rashid, Lieutenant Colonel Frank's convoy left Reconciliation Hall and plunged into the neighborhood. They dismounted and walked the streets house to house, not kicking in doors but knocking on them and checking on families.

From one door to the next, the soldiers were invited in or struck up conversations on the street. A Sunni man in his 30s complained that Shi'ite youths on motorcycles have been threatening returning families. An elderly woman wondered whether government funds were available to repair her house where mortars crashed through the roof of her house.

The soldiers waved to checkpoints now manned by the Iraqi Army and more than 1,500 members of the Awakening movement. They patrolled mobile neighborhood health clinics - "quick wins," as Frank calls them, funded by 140 "microgrants" of $5,000 each that Frank has secured from the US command.

A member of the provincial government wanted to know when money will come to help reopen the neighborhood school. Frank nodded as he wrote in his notebook. There were numerous questions about electrical service, which is still not functioning for more than a few hours a week in this part of Rashid.

And then he happened upon the Tahi family, a Shi'ite clan.

"How's everything going here. You coming back? That's great!" said Frank as he approached the family and asked whether he could enter the courtyard to talk.

Their home had been attacked by Al Qaeda, they said, and one rocket had burst through the wall last summer just above a bed where Mahdi al-Tahi, a 40-year-old civil engineer, was sleeping with his wife. They fled their home that night.

"It is better now, really. Sunni and Shi'a here have lived together for 30 years," said Tahi, as children played and the men worked with trowels repairing a wall in front of their home that had been riddled with machine gun fire.

When asked why the violence erupted if Sunnis and Shi'ites have such a history of tolerance, he said, "Outside forces do this. There is the Al Qaeda from Saudi and from Syria. And there is Iran. We need to have an Iraq free of outside forces," he said.

But what about the "outside" force of America, he was asked as the group toured his house and surveyed the damage. Frank was down in the courtyard examining electrical wires that had been severed by bombing. He was out of earshot, but Tahi looked nervously around before answering.

"And, yes, America. Eventually, America should go, too," he said. "Not right now, but in time. We need more time. All Iraqis know that. America wants to leave. And Iraqis want America to leave. And they will, God willing."

Charles Sennott can be reached at

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