Hope and Despair in Divided Iraq
By Ullrich Fichtner in Iraq
When describing Iraq, the word "peace" is seldom used. Truth be told, the Americans have restored order to many parts of the county. But Iraq remains fractured, and where new schools are built today, bombs could explode tomorrow.
The Iraq war came within a hair of returning to Ramadi in early July. The attackers had already gathered four kilometers (about 2.5 miles) south of the city, on the banks of the Nasr canal. Between 40 and 50 men dressed in light uniforms were armed like soldiers and prepared to commit a series of suicide bombings. They had already strapped explosive vests to their bodies and loaded thousands of kilograms of explosives, missiles and grenades onto two old Mercedes trucks. But their plan was foiled when Iraqis intent on preserving peace in Ramadi betrayed them to the Americans.
Army Units of the 1st Battalion of the 77th United States Armored Regiment -- nicknamed the "Steel Tigers" and sent from an American base in Schweinfurt, Germany -- approached from the north and south. But the enemy was strong and they quickly realized that in order to defeat it, they needed air support. Before long, Apache combat helicopters, F-18 Hornet and AV-8 Harrier jets approached, the explosions from their guns lighting up the night sky on June 30.
The "Battle of Donkey Island," named after the wild donkeys native to the region, lasted 23 hours. The Americans forced the enemy to engage in trench warfare in the rough brush, eventually trapping them in the vast riverside landscape. It wasn't until later, after the soldiers lost two of their own and killed 35 terrorists, that they realized the scope of the disaster they had foiled.
Three of the captured attackers, who claimed to be members of al-Qaida in Iraq, revealed their plan to plunge Ramadi into chaos once again by staging multiple attacks in broad daylight. By unleashing a devastating series of suicide attacks on the city, they hoped to destroy the delicate peace in Ramadi and bring the war back to its markets, squares, streets and residential neighborhoods.
Two weeks after the battle, Ian Lauer is walking through Ramadi's western Tameem neighborhood, the edges of which melt into the vast Syrian Desert. Lauer, a captain, is in charge of Charlie Company. He hasn't forgotten the Battle of Donkey Island. The members of his company have just emerged from four armor-plated Humvees and are now strolling toward a nearby mosque.
"A few months ago, you couldn't have taken a single step here without getting shot at," says Lauer, a fair-skinned 30-year-old who still seems oddly pale under his suntan "We couldn't leave our fucking camp without being fucking shot at," he says. "Now it's peaceful and it's fucking great."
The Turning Point
In October, 90 "incidents" were reported in Tameem, an area no larger than a few city blocks in Berlin. Twenty of those incidents involved attacks on US troops by gangs of insurgents. Wherever the Americans went they were shot at from apartment buildings, three times with rockets and four times with rocket-propelled grenades. Sixteen remote-controlled bombs exploded along the neighborhood's streets, 14 homemade explosive devices were found and defused, snipers attacked the occupying troops twice and one hidden car bomb was found, ready for use. And so the story continued: throughout November, December, January and February.
By March, however, the number of incidents reported in Tameem had dropped to 43, including only four direct attacks with rifles and pistols and one rocket attack. There were no bombings, snipers, rocket-propelled grenades or car bombs. And the leaders of the region's 23 powerful clans were finally meeting with US commanders for "security conferences," while the imams from the city's mosques met with the military's chaplains.
The Iraqis in Ramadi, almost all Sunnis, had been worn down by chronic violence. Many had been victims of kidnappings or blackmail at the hands of mafia-like terrorist groups. They had finally come to the realization that, in the long run, the Americans were less of a threat and offered more hope than the fanatical holy warriors from Iraq and abroad.
Families began sending their sons to join the new Iraqi police force and military and fathers ran for municipal offices. They began cooperating with US military officials, turning in bombers and revealing their weapons caches, all while going about their daily lives, running their businesses, working as contractors, shipping agents and garbage collectors. Teachers returned to their classrooms, doctors began treating patients again and store owners restocked their shelves. Iraqis were now building the barbed wire barriers around the city, constructed to force travelers through checkpoints. Iraqis even manned the checkpoints as the Americans -- the Iraqis' former enemies -- retreated to the background, watching over as the city made a fresh start.
Since June, Ramadi residents have only known the war from televison. Indeed, US military officials at the Baghdad headquarters of Operation Iraqi Freedom often have trouble believing their eyes when they read the reports coming in from their units in Ramadi these days. Exploded car bombs: zero. Detonated roadside bombs: zero. Rocket fire: zero. Grenade fire: zero. Shots from rifles and pistols: zero. Weapons caches discovered: dozens. Terrorists arrested: many.
An Irritating Contraction
Ramadi is an irritating contradiction of almost everything the world thinks it knows about Iraq -- it is proof that the US military is more successful than the world wants to believe. Ramadi demonstrates that large parts of Iraq -- not just Anbar Province, but also many other rural areas along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers -- are essentially pacified today. This is news the world doesn't hear: Ramadi, long a hotbed of unrest, a city that once formed the southwestern tip of the notorious "Sunni Triangle," is now telling a different story, a story of Americans who came here as liberators, became hated occupiers and are now the protectors of Iraqi reconstruction.
It's Friday, the Muslim day of rest. The city is practically asleep, the air filled a powder-fine sand the soldiers like to call "moon dust." Though still morning, it's 115 degrees Fahrenheit (46 degrees Celsius) outside. In the afternoon, the Iraqi national soccer team will play against Australia in the Asian Cup and win the match, 3:1. Sporting victories, of course, are something Iraqis haven't had much time to think about in the past four years. Shots will be heard in the city after the final whistle, bullets of joy fired off into the blue sky, salutes to a new Iraq.
The square in front of the mosque, a trash-covered wasteland between ruined rows of houses, fills up with people at the end of Friday prayers. Children hang on the American soldiers like grapes on a vine, plucking at their trousers, vying for their attention, for a glance, a piece of candy, a dollar, gazing up at the big foreigners as if they were gods.
The Americans run into acquaintances in the crowd. After being stationed in the city for 10 months, they have become a familiar sight. Bearded men greet the soldiers with hugs and kisses, and passersby hand them cold cans of lemonade. "Thank you, Mister," "Hello, Mister," "How are you, Mister?" they say. They talk about paint for schools and soccer jerseys, and they invite the Americans over for lunch. The Iraqis pose for photos with them, making "V's" for "victory" with their fingers.
Lauer's unit arrives at the home of Ali Chudeir, a charming 30-year-old construction company manager in need of a good dentist. His English is good, but only, he says, because his father practically pounded five new vocabulary words into his head each day as a kid. Bodyguards armed with Kalashnikov rifles lurk around his front door. Chudeir still doesn't fully trust the newfound peace that has come to town. The terrorists, he warns, could return. They are still lurking outside the city, randomly attacking people, he says. "This will continue for a long time. That's why the Americans should stay here longer."
It's clear that Lauer and Chudeir have become friends. They have a lot in common: Both are 30 and have children, Lauer three and Chudeir four. When the Iraqi heard that his American friend was shot in the back at the Battle of Donkey Island, he says, "My family and I wept and prayed for him." The bullet that had hit Lauer stopped just in time to spare his life. It ripped a hole in his T-shirt, but produced nothing more serious than a large bruise thanks to the Kevlar vest he was wearing. But Lauer doesn't like to talk about it, saying only, "I'm a lucky bastard."
Five American officers sit on sofas in front of Chudeir's desk, behaving as if they were on leave, their guns leaning carelessly against a wall, their bulletproof vests removed as they watch Arab MTV on television. Anyone who has satellite TV in Iraq can receive up to 200 stations, including Egyptian Koran channels and Saudi Arabian religious broadcasts, "Pulp Fiction" and "Star Wars" on movie channels, Japanese game shows and English animal series. Five or six news stations are on the air 24 hours a day, while others broadcast European football matches, shows about makeup, cooking, Bollywood movies and luxury car commercials -- mirages of a more carefree life beyond Iraq.
Dinner arrives and it's a true feast, with a spread of kebabs and large pieces of roast chicken, salad and rice with coriander leaves. Chudeir serves sumptuous meals whenever the Americans come to visit, not only because he is a good host, but also because he is grateful to his American friends. Thanks to the American engineers, he says, the city has up to 10 hours of electricity a day now. "We have never had this in all of Ramadi's history. In the end, we will live like civilized people."
As his friends leave, Chudeir waves goodbye with both arms while other neighbors to the left and right do the same. Once again, passersby make the "V" for "victory" sign, greeting the soldiers, "Hello, Mister. How are you?" They're like scenes from another country, another city, a different movie.
The world has become deaf to the word "peace" -- at least when conversations turn to Iraq. It is as if the world were blind to the possibility that the situation in this country straddling the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers could be anything different from the constant stream of increasingly devastating films of the latest car bombings. For most people, Iraq has become nothing but a series of attacks, a collection of images of bombings and victims, a tale of failure, a book about historical guilt and a symbol of the moral decline of the United States of America.
But the real story in Iraq cannot be summed up in short news clips and quick, shaky television images. Body counts and names of the dead tell only part of the story of Iraq today. Research for this story took me on a three-week journey throughout the country, my fourth trip to Iraq in as many years. Under the protection of the US military, it led us to the northern city of Mosul and its suburbs, to Ramadi and to Baghdad. The military did not choose our destinations, SPIEGEL did. Apart from a few technical and strategic details, nothing was censored.
The trip included nighttime helicopter flights across villages and cities, journeys in Humvees through landscapes of burned-out buildings, rides in an armored personnel carrier through war zones and walks through both enemy territory and peaceful markets. This kind of travel is the only way for a Western journalist to work in Iraq. Without a military escort, reporting can only take place from afar, from the relative safety of well-guarded hotel rooms. Of course, hotel rooms aren't the best vantage point from which to grasp the true complexity of the situation. At no point during this journey, even in places where there was gunfire or bombs had recently exploded, were the images entirely consistent.
Car Bombs Here, New Schools There
In Iraq today, car bombs are detonated here while new schools are being built there. And as new hotels open in one part of the country, terrorists lob bombs into wedding parties elsewhere. Some Iraqis are buying new refrigerators, toasters and video games, while others smuggle explosives into the country and sabotage oil pipelines. Children play the violin or the trumpet in music competitions while, only a few blocks away, men from Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Pakistan, Iran or Saudi Arabia attach sticks of dynamite to their bodies to bomb themselves into paradise on busy city squares. The Iraq of today is not a single place that is easy to understand -- it is a country mired in contradictions.
In some parts of the country, especially Baghdad, the situation is even worse than was feared, and in others, it is much better than anyone could have hoped. Traveling through Iraq, four years, four months and a few days after the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom on March 20, 2003, one encounters a country undergoing radical change, not just a country in decline, not just a country falling apart, but also not a country that has been saved.
The situation is so complicated that even the leaders of Operation Iraqi Freedom are sometimes at a loss for words and can do little more than shrug their shoulders. General David Petraeus even has to suppress a nervous laugh when he talks about the immense task he faces.
Commanding the Surge
Petraeus is the commander of a multinational force in Iraq, which is no longer particularly multinational. He commands about 160,000 American soldiers, the size of the current force after the troop "surge" ordered by US President George W. Bush, which was completed a few weeks ago.
The word "surge" seems fitting. It suggests that this is the United States' final push, its last chance to succeed. If this newly revamped force fails to achieve the elusive goal coalition forces have been pursuing unsuccessfully all along -- to stabilize and pacify Iraq -- then the entire operation will be a miserable failure. Iraq will collapse, and the United States will face humiliating defeat and a disgraceful withdrawal that could impact political stability throughout the world.
Petraeus has just finished up a phone call with a Turkish military official and he is running late. Instead of meeting at his Camp Victory headquarters at the Baghdad Airport, we go to Petraeus' office in former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's palace in the Green Zone, the sealed-off section of the city reserved for the Americans, the Iraqi government and their guests.
The Green Zone, officially known as the "International Zone," has become a forbidden city inside the Iraqi capital, surrounded by high concrete walls and accessible only after traversing through an obstacle course of checkpoints.
Both visitors and residents must present their badges at every street corner, where NATO wire and stone barriers dominate the scenery. There are 15 different color-coded identification badges for Green Zone residents, each providing a different level of access privileges. Like a fortress, the new, clay-colored US embassy building (the world's largest) dominates this labyrinth of walls and guard posts, which resembles an open-air bunker more and more every day. The embassy, still empty, stands behind miles of walls reminiscent of urban scenes behind the former Iron Curtain.
It's cold in Petraeus' office. Marines guard his rooms in the palace, which are located behind a series of reinforced doors. A pair of crossed flags stands behind his desk. Petraeus takes a few cans of Diet Pepsi and Sprite from the refrigerator and serves them himself. When he began his tenure here in January, just after the US president appointed and promoted him to become a four-star general, he wrote in an e-mail that the job would be "tough, but not impossible," and that "no one can be interested in a failed Iraq."
Now he sits in a chair in front of a couch, talking about his experiences here. In the first year of the war, Petraeus led the 101st Airborne Division up to Mosul. Then he developed a doctrine on fighting insurgents. Now he leads an entire army. He has placed one of his boots on the low coffee table, a quiet, slim man whose name will appear in the history books.
This September, Patraeus will present his report on the situation in Iraq to the US Congress in Washington, where he must explain the military options. His appearance will come in the middle of an election, and Washington's political and media spin machine will eagerly twist his sentences and dissect his every word, taking his statements out of context and turning them into ammunition for their theories and counter-theories. Petraeus has nothing to gain from this game. No matter what he ultimately says, everyone in Washington -- friends and foes alike -- will end up quoting him.
His message will be straightforward. He'll tell Congress he needs more time and he will describe the situation in much the same way he describes it in the interview: "The situation is not satisfactory, but there is reason for hope."
This doesn't sound like much, but in order to even be able to utter this sentence, Petraeus had to send his troops back into battle. He knew from the beginning that he would "not be running against the clock, but against a stopwatch." In January the general deployed his divisions for a last major offensive against the terrorists and racked up high casualties in the process -- 656 American soldiers died between January and July.
Since the offensive began, day after day, night after night, along the length and breadth of the country, US troops have hunted down bombers and rocket-builders. They've tracked al-Qaida operatives and members of violent insurgency groups with names like Ansar al-Sunna, Jaish al-Mahdi and the Islamic State of Iraq. The campaign has been moderately successful, too. In January, Petraeus said, "The situation is not satisfactory." That he can now add, "it gives rise to hope" is, indeed, progress.
A Decline in Terror Attacks
In many cities and villages in Iraq's 18 provinces, terrorist networks are either weaker or have been destroyed entirely. The number of attacks is declining, as is the number of racially or religiously motivated killings. In January, death squads executed, murdered or tortured 1,800 Iraqis to death, merely because they were Sunnis or Shiites or Christians. Indeed, religious hatred was the cause of dozens of deaths every day.
In June, 600 people were killed for the same reasons -- a number that is still atrocious, unacceptable and horrific -- but at least it represents a decline. And while these numbers are still disappointing, they do give reason for hope.
Earlier this year, thousands of attacks occurred every week, and hundreds died daily. It seemed that terror reigned supreme, that its resources were inexhaustible. But now the trend appears to be reversing itself. Terror is weakening, and its leaders, most recently al-Qaida's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are issuing dramatic appeals to radical communities not to give up the fight. This is a good sign. "They are no longer on schedule," Petraeus says. "They have a problem."
One is that Iraq has come a long way in developing its own security forces. There are now 194,000 police officers in uniform, and the Iraqi army has 154,000 newly recruited soldiers. These organizations are still not as fully functional as they should be, and there have been many reports of corruption and religious activities, but there's been a noticeable shift nonetheless. In the past few weeks, the Americans were not the only ones capturing and killing terrorists. The Iraqis have also been successful. The local police forces, for example, regularly obtain information directly from the population that leads them to the terrorists' weapons caches, training camps and bomb factories.
Something is happening in Iraq that is consistently concealed behind images of bombings. The situation that the White House and its deceptive advisors had erroneously predicted before their invasion -- that the troops would be greeted with candy and flowers -- could in fact still come true. That's already the case in many places. It's as if the terrorists have lost popular support, as if their acts of violence have driven the Iraqi people into the arms of the enemy, the Americans.
But there is little talk of these developments outside of Iraq. The world continues to debate the Bush administration's lies, which hang over the entire operation like a curse, concealing its successes. The lies are legend, and they continue to color the picture the world paints of Iraq.
Old Lies Breed Skepticism
No one can forget how the hawks twisted the truth to engineer reasons to go to war -- the made-up stories of Saddam Hussein as a mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attacks and the trumped-up reports about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. President George W. Bush himself repeatedly told his people and the rest of world horrible fairy tales, painting the most glaring of disaster scenarios, talking ad nauseam about unmanned Iraqi drones that, in his imagination, posed a threat to the US.
The lies didn't stop there, not even after the invasion. Bush kept promising that American troops were on the verge of uncovering Iraq's imaginary weapons of mass destruction. And on May 1, 2003, he gave his now notorious "Mission Accomplished" speech aboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln. At that point, though, the real war hadn't even begun yet.
Bush's advisors, led by Vice President Dick Cheney, continually promised imminent victory. In May 2005, Cheney said that the insurgents were in their "death throes." The following March, Bush said there was still fighting ahead, "in the coming days and months," but another 16 months have since passed. After building so many houses of cards and castles in the sky, it should come as little surprise to the Bush administration now that, even as successes gradually begin to materialize, most take the good news with a grain of salt.
General Petraeus deals with this skepticism day after day, and he is losing the battle for public opinion. Whenever the terrorists score another major victory, when they successfully bomb their way into their own "CNN moments," the television images seem more powerful than hundreds of reports coming in from his senior military staff that they have arrested thousands of terrorists. It is a war of images, and each new attack seems to trivialize the US military's efforts -- especially when reporters, their faces lit up by nearby flames, ask how many more American soldiers must die in this merciless war.
By July 31, 3,659 American soldiers had died in Iraq war; but none died on the day of my meeting with Petraeus. Early that evening, he walks around his desk, bends over a computer screen, scans graphs and columns of numbers, and says, "Still no casualties. It's good news, outstanding news, we don't get that a lot here."
Petraeus is often asked whether his troops are able to hold up their level of morale. Lately, he's had a lot of visitors, and they all ask him the same question. Members of Congress, Senators and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have been to see Petraeus, as have Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Vice President Cheney. They fly directly into the Green Zone, bringing temporary chaos to Iraqi air traffic. And after spending just 12 hours in Baghdad, they are convinced that they understand the situation in Iraq.
So is morale intact? Petraeus makes a few vague gestures. "It really depends on the day," he says. "When a unit has just lost people, it won't have good things to say about the mission. But when it has just uncovered a weapons factory, then everyone is excited and proud to be doing the right thing. That's the way it is."
The mood runs the gamut among US military personnel at the central air bases in this war. There is always plenty of time to talk at these hubs for troop transports because the surge has triggered a logistical nightmare with delays that sometimes last days at a time.
At the big air bases -- the airports in Baghdad, Balad, and Takaddum in Iraq, and at the Ali al-Salam air base in Kuwait -- one gets the sense that the operation is being pushed to its limits. For the surge, entire battalions have had to move around without their transport and reinforcement units. Some brigade commanders who would normally be in charge of four battalions now have six or seven under their command, and they lack aircraft, helicopters, trucks, armored personnel carriers and Humvees.
It is not unusual to see entire platoons waiting up to 48 hours at the Baghdad Airport before they can fly to their next location because all the flights are full. The airfields resemble army camps, with soldiers playing cards along the edges of runways or dozing in the heat, using their protective vests as makeshift pillows.
The US military's civilian contractors are interspersed among the uniformed troops, wild-looking deal-makers, tattooed adventurers often dressed like daring comic-book characters, complete with shotguns strapped to their backs, old World War helmets, leather vests and cowboy boots. They are employees of companies like KBR, Aegis Defense Services, Blackwater and Ecolog: forklift drivers, electricians, spare parts suppliers and oil people. They make as much money in a year in Iraq as they would make in an entire decade at home.
While waiting for their flights, which can take anywhere from a few hours to an entire day, the soldiers sit around, eating their detested MREs, or "meals ready to eat," smoking and telling war stories. Some of the soldiers are on their third tour of duty in Iraq, while others have already served four six-month or two year-long tours of combat duty.
Bobby Lightner, a 26-year-old sergeant, is about to celebrate his birthday on Iraqi soil for the third time in a row. He has spent Christmas in Iraq twice already. In his company, he says, eight men have become fathers in absentia, although some were not entirely sure that the babies being born at home were in fact theirs.
'I'm Done. Never Again.'
A nurse is on her way home, changing flights at BIAP (Baghdad International Airport). A short, rotund woman, she is surrounded by admiring young infantrymen.
She says she has completed seven tours -- three in Baghdad, two in Afghanistan, one in Kuwait and one in Germany, where she worked in the intensive care units of military hospitals. She speaks loudly and without interruption, chain-smoking Marlboro Menthols. She says she can no longer listen to the crying or look at the men. "I send them away, I yell at them and I tell them: 'If you want to cry, then get out of here, go outside, I can't listen to this anymore, I don't want to look at it anymore.'" She takes a drag on her cigarette and coughs. "I'm done," she says. "Never again. I'm handing in my papers tomorrow."
America is paying a high price for the future of the new Iraq. In addition to the 3,659 deaths, more than 26,000 US soldiers have been wounded, scores very seriously. According to official government reports, an estimated one-in-three soldiers who have been stationed in Iraq suffer from emotional disorders, most of them exhibiting symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome. This would mean that tens of thousands of men and women are returning home with serious psychological problems, because they have suffered too much, seen too much, smelled too much, heard too much and killed too many people.
These figures and consequences alone are enough to illustrate why the United States cannot afford a defeat in Iraq. Much is at stake for America -- far more than its reputation on the global political stage. The American people will demand a solid explanation for all the sacrifices of the war, including the financial. They will want to know why their government spends roughly $370 million a day on the Iraq war, especially if, as some predict, it will only turn into another Vietnam. But despite all this, there is much more at stake for Iraq itself.
Those who believe that a speedy withdrawal of US troops would result in the problem capable of resolving itself are deeply mistaken. Though this premise might have rang true in late 2003 or early 2004, when terrorism had not yet stirred up the infernal forces of religious hatred, the situation today is different.
In the Iraq of 2007, that is, in its capital Baghdad, the respective factions in a future civil war are forming along religious lines, and so far only the Americans have been able to prevent it from happening. If the forces in Washington that are demanding the immediate withdrawal of US troops from Iraq prevail, the country will descend into full-fledged civil war, complete with reports of horrific religious cleansing operations, large-scale massacres arising from the blind fury of fanaticism and acts of revenge against anyone who has ever dared to cooperate with the Americans.
This danger is palpable, visible and audible to anyone visiting the south of Baghdad, neighborhoods like Doura and Rasheed, traveling with Lieutenant Colonel Alfredo Mycue and his "Stryker" Battalion. Mycue, standing in the commander's porthole on the front, left-hand side of his "Stryker" light armored vehicle, yells "Tomahawks."
It is shortly after noon on July 9. The muezzins are calling the faithful to prayer from the minarets, and on Highway 5, which passes through Doura and which the Americans have dubbed "Route Senators" on their maps, the enemy has just detonated another car bomb.
Mycue, 42, who commands the 2nd Battalion of the 23rd US Infantry Regiment, calls Route Senators "my road." Twelve hours earlier, in the dark of night, he and his men took a walk through the area to underscore his claim. His troops were wearing night vision devices attached to the front of their helmets, providing them with grainy, black-and-white images of the dark streets, devoid of people, with images of abandoned buildings and entire city blocks, and of stray dogs searching for food in mountains of garbage, drinking from green puddles of toxic water.
As the men walked through the streets, they would hear, sometimes nearby, sometimes farther away, the popping noises of rifle and pistol fire, periodically interrupted by minutes of silence before resuming again. But little of the gunfire they heard was directed against the Americans. Instead, what Mycue and his men were hearing was the ordinary sound of house-to-house combat that has become a daily occurrence in areas like this, where factions, small groups and cells fight for control of Baghdad.
Mycue, dripping with sweat, carrying 60 pounds of equipment in the 95-degree Fahrenheit (35-degree Celsius) nighttime heat, talks about his dreams of escaping this bleak environment, about German beer and German open-faced cheese sandwiches, about pork knuckles, about what a nice time he had serving on a US base in Germany, about Berchtesgaden and the mountains. He finally says, in German: "You know, I think I have some Bavarian in me."
Half a day later, with Route Senators bathed in pale sunlight, the fresh crime scene is lightly cleaned up and then abandoned. Hair-covered body parts lie on the ground between bridge supports. The first casualty assessments are vague: perhaps eight or 10 police officers died, and perhaps five or 10 civilians were also killed. The silence here is eerie. A small crater is visible in the middle of the eastbound lane -- it's about one meter deep (about 3 feet) and four meters wide, suggesting it was a big bomb.
The powerful blast punctured a thick slab of concrete on the ground, and its shock waves pushed entire cars and pickups 30 to 40 meters down the road. The explosives were hidden in a large red SUV. The driver, who committed suicide in the attack, drove the vehicle backwards across the road from the shoulder. He pressed the detonator when the truck reached a busy checkpoint where pedestrians were walking back and forth across the road and being searched by Iraqi police. The only remaining evidence of the bomb and the large vehicle are coin-sized pieces scattered 50 to 60 meters (165-200 feet) from the explosion site by the blast -- red bits of metal, shredded like paper.
Incredibly detailed maps of the area, satellite images labeled "SECRET" in red letters, hang on the walls in Mycue's office in FOB (Forward Operating Base) Falcon. The legend identifies mosques, churches, checkpoints, water towers and transformer stations, while the residential areas of the various religious groups are shaded. When Mycue explains his territory, he talks about it in terms of where the Shiites are and where the Sunnis live, interspersing his account with wild stories about this war.
The War's Epicenter
To soften the asphalt, the terrorists burn truck tires in places where they want to bury explosives, and then they lay cable "ready to go" -- that is, they leave the contacts for the trigger cable sticking out of the ground along the side of a road, ready for future use. They have developed flat bombs with magnetic plates that adhere to vehicles as they pass by overhead. And they plant grenades with remote-controlled detonators in trees, hoping to hit low-flying helicopters with the devices.
"The energy of these people is incredible," says Mycue. His territory is at about the lowest point in the new Iraq, one of the inner chambers in its heart of darkness. A group calling itself the "Islamic State of Iraq" has formed its first virtual government in the district north of Route Senators. Far from Ramadi, there is no peace here. This is an all-out war zone.
But it's not a war between Iraqis and Americans, as some might think. It's a war between everyone and everyone else -- a war of Shiites against Sunnis, Sunnis against Christians, competing terrorist cells fighting for territory, private militias against the Iraqi police, drug gangs, apolitical criminal kidnappers interested purely in ransom money and Iraqi mafiosos.
Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that in this southern part of Baghdad, a few kilometers as the crow flies from the Green Zone's fortresses, civil order has vanished entirely. The mob rules here in this area of major and minor warlords, who do their utmost to sabotage the work of city officials desperately trying to rebuild the infrastructure. They cut power lines, destroy water pipes and blow up sewage canals. The Americans are no longer the main enemy here, but only one of many parties. Although their mission is to smoke out the terrorists, they also play the contradictory role of peacekeepers.
The Americans are now building walls and roadblocks to separate the warring parties. Private contractors build the walls at night, using precast concrete sections, working without floodlights on ghostly construction sites, where cranes and bulldozers dig blindly into the dark and workers wear black clothing and night-vision devices to avoid being shot by snipers.
The same approach is now being used to wall in entire sections of the city along religious boundaries, turning them into so-called "gated communities." Only residents known to the authorities are permitted to enter or exit the walled-off neighborhoods. "We're not trying to solve problems here at the moment," says Mycue, "we're trying to establish a goddamn status quo."
A Neighborhood in Lockdown
For his own area of operations, Mycue has devised a system of restricted areas, walls and checkpoints. He calls it "Operation Airport Security." People without tickets are not permitted to check in, and anyone coming from the market carrying groceries; in fact, anyone at all who shows up at the gates, with or without luggage -- is thoroughly searched. Local residents are treated like passengers about to board a plane, each of them considered a potential terrorist. Cars are no longer allowed to pass through the gates.
"What can you do?" asks Mycue. "These people are a little crazy." He eats Oreo cookies, thinking about how best to secure the site of that morning's car bombing, wondering whether he'll be able to build a new checkpoint or whether he should simply cordon off the area and ban all traffic, which is in fact an unrealistic option.
The northern stretch of the road passes the Daura market. There used to be about 700 shops and stalls here, but today fewer than 100 are still open. The remaining shop owners have shuttered their businesses, capitulating in the face of all the bombs, terrorism and violence. Nevertheless, says Mycue, "people still have to get there somehow, we can't just lock them out."
Mycue leaves his office, a glorified shack, and walks across Camp Falcon to meet with the brigade commando. Falcon is a dusty outpost. Brown gusts of wind lash across the ground, a sign that a sandstorm is brewing. The outskirts of Baghdad here already feel like a desert. From the vantage point of a helicopter, the view to the south sweeps across fields and a vast, empty landscape, while the north is a dense hodge-podge of residential districts -- Rasheed and Doura -- poor neighborhoods bordering on once-affluent areas, once-mixed Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods now carefully delineated.
Mycue's brigade commander, nicknamed "the old guy," is Colonel Rick Gibbs, an overbearing, very white man. An inflatable set of antlers hangs over one of the doors in his office. He's not nearly as laid-back as the T-shirt he is wearing would suggest. He asks Mycue what he wants, and Mycue immediately starts talking about the car bomb, the checkpoint and the market. Gibbs asks: "What is it you want me to decide?"
"Well," says Mycue, "the issue is whether or not we should block off the road and how the checkpoint ..." Gibbs interrupts him: "What do you want me to decide?" Mycue launches back into his description of the car bomb and the checkpoint, but Gibbs interrupts him again: "What, goddamn it, do you want me to decide? What do you want to hear?"
It's a frosty conversation. Mycue fumbles with his glasses and repeats himself, wanting to know whether or not to block off the road. "But if we do block it off we'll have a problem, because people have to get to the market." Gibbs says: "And that's the way it should be! We just block off the bad guys. What I want you to do is keep al-Qaida off my back in the north. That was decided a long time ago." Mycue says: "Good, then that's settled." Gibbs responds: "I decided that we should block it off a long time ago." Mycue nods.
Gibbs commands seven battalions here in the south of Baghdad, in an area the size of San Francisco with 700,000 residents. His entire brigade, part of the troop surge, has been stationed here since March. In the months since then, the colonel has learned what the issues are here. He says: "We need mass plus time." In other words, US troops should unquestionably remain in Iraq. If it were Gibbs' decision to make, they would remain here for years to come. It is unacceptable, he says, to allow sadists to shoot at women and children from rooftops, or to allow a bunch of punks to lay bombs whenever they feel like it.
A terrorist emir, it has been said, has to have killed 600 Americans. The terrorists pay $10,000 for a bombed-out Humvee and $15,000 to anyone who destroys a tank. "We've found torture chambers here and shut them down," says Gibbs. "We've found enough weapons for an entire army. But we'll get them all. We'll kill them. We'll win."
Gibbs is very convincing when he says this, and he even has numbers to back up his claims, like all military commanders. He says: "We brought down the religiously motivated murders from 553 to 204 a month between January and June, and we'll cut them in half again in July. You know," says Gibbs, "we're really dealing with just 300 to 500 real bad guys here. The rest of them are just along for the ride. If you take away their leaders you've got the whole thing wrapped up."
Night comes suddenly to Iraq, where sunsets are quick. Mycue's "Strykers" are gearing up for the next nighttime patrol. There is no rhyme or reason to these soldiers' days anymore. Sometimes they start at 3 a.m. and sometimes at 7 a.m. Their patrols can last until midnight and sometimes until sunrise. No one gets enough sleep. The music they play on their iPods, hooked up to small stereo systems in their offices, is heavy metal -- groups like Iron Maiden, music to stay awake by. The sergeants and majors spit streams of chewing tobacco into empty water bottles filled with slimy saliva the color of coffee.
'An Enemy That's always Been Hard to Beat'
At night only the latrines and the showers remain brightly lit at FOB Falcon. On the otherwise dark base, in concrete shelters built to protect them against daily mortar fire, the soldiers sit around and smoke. Sometimes Doug Brown, a heavy-set military chaplain, stops by "to burn up a cigar."
Without skipping a beat, he jumps to a discussion of the Koran, which he says he has read five times, studied in detail. "But I didn't find much grace in it," he says. "It's a tough book. They're all fighting for God here, and that's the kind of enemy that's always been hard to beat."
Father Brown is a strong supporter of the war. He believes it is justified and necessary, even though he has little to say about its outcome. "I was just reading the Bible last night," he says, "does that interest you? I found a very interesting passage, Jeremiah 51, Verse 9 or 10 or 8, I'm not sure exactly which one it was." He puffs on his cigar like an actor, takes a deep breath and quotes the entire Biblical verse from memory, raising his voice to drown out the noise of giant air-conditioners and the rattle of a convoy of semi-trailers passing by. "Wail for Babylon. Take balm for her pain; perhaps she may be healed. We would have healed Babylon, but she is not healed. Forsake her, and let us go everyone to his own country."
Whether Babylon can be healed is indeed beyond the powers of the United States. Its military machine can at best prepare the ground for the country's politicians and perhaps, with great effort, it can restore security, but the Iraqis must govern themselves. It is not unfair to say, at the moment at least, that this effort is failing on almost every front. The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been unable to bring together the country's deeply divided religious and ethnic groups, nor has it managed to enact the necessary laws in the parliament.
In the cold light of day, everything revolves around the question of how the country's real and presumed oil wealth can be fairly distributed. All it takes to understand the sensitivity of the issue is a look at a map showing Iraq's known oil reserves. The large, productive fields are in the Kurdish north and in the Shiite-controlled regions in the south. There is no oil where the Sunnis live, in the country's vast western regions. These conditions do not bode well for compromise.
The Kurds, oppressed by Baghdad and other powers for decades, if not centuries, are strongly opposed to any national control over oil, fearing that this could put them at a disadvantage. The Sunnis, a minority that became the country's powerful, tyrannical ruling class under Saddam, hate the idea of being turned into supplicants. Their strategy is to expand the territory under their control, with force if necessary, to areas where there is oil to be found.
The Shiites might have been prepared to negotiate, but the atmosphere in the parliament and government has become toxic. The Americans are applying pressure, which only increases the stress, and the role of the short but powerful Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr remains unclear. At times it seems as if he wants to take control over the entire country, while at others he comes across as little more than an extremely difficult negotiator eager to further his own interests. He plays the prominent agitator against the US presence, and he has Sadr City on his side and is backed by his Mahdi militia, although no one is currently quite sure whether it remains loyal to al-Sadr.
The Americans have yet to find the one charismatic leader who could pacify and control the situation. Ryan Crocker, the new US ambassador to Baghdad, knows exactly how important charisma and the strong personality of a born leader are in a country like Iraq.
Crocker is considered a prominent authority on the Middle East. He grew up in Morocco and Turkey, he has served as ambassador to Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait and Lebanon, he has participated in diplomatic missions in Iran, Qatar and Egypt and he speaks the languages of the region. If anyone knows his way around this part of the world, it is this elegant man, who favors perfectly tailored, light-colored suits. Crocker says: "We need time."
He has a small, windowless office in a large, former Saddam palace in the Green Zone, where the US administration has all of its key offices. During meal times, the building's huge cafeterias are like a miniature version of Washington, complete with chandeliers and Italian marble floors. It's easy to get lost wandering around the building, wondering where Saddam may have slept, where he dined, where he governed and where he had his enemies tortured.
Crocker defends Maliki's government, at least on the surface. A seasoned diplomat, he brings his point across with rhetorical questions: "Is Maliki personally at fault? Or is it his government? Or is it simply the unbelievably difficult circumstances under which people are working here?"
He then argues for more patience, saying: "We had the most brutal of Baath regimes here for 35 years, and now we have a few years of turmoil. It isn't really all that much." But what about Maliki? Can he lead the country to success? Crocker doesn't like these kinds of questions, but he is constantly called upon to answer them. He says: "Even a more talented politician than Maliki would have big problems under these circumstances."
The Enemies of Success
However complicated it may be, Crocker has to keep the big picture in mind. It consists of the diagrams and charts General Petraeus uses and a map of the Middle East covered with arrows and shaded areas -- the big plan. The situation is such that Iraq's problems are not just Iraqi problems.
There is no doubt that the greatest enemies of success in Iraq are in Tehran and Damascus. Many of the jihadists enter the country through Syria, and Iran supports the terrorists with weapons and money. During their operations, US troops often find brand-new mines and grenades produced in Iranian weapons factories, sometime still in their original packaging. Fighters from the Iranian Al-Quds Brigades are active on Iraqi soil, and there are terrorist training camps across the border in Iran. "Iran," says Crocker, "wants to defeat the West on more than one front, and it also wants to make sure that Iraq will never pose a threat to it again."
The ambassador has already taken part in three-way talks involving Iranian, Iraqi and American delegates, and the next round is about to begin. At these meetings, Crocker says, it is obvious that Maliki, though a Shiite, is truly not in Iran's pocket. "The atmosphere at these meetings is frosty," he explains, "I mean, really frosty." But how do the Iranians explain their activities? "They don't explain them. It's very frustrating. There is a sort of total denial of reality on that issue."
Petraeus will not be the only one presenting his view of the situation in Iraq to Congress this September. Crocker, too, will be called to account before the representatives of the American people. He knows that there will be tremendous pressure, and he is fully aware that everyone is hoping for a speedy withdrawal. But, he says, "I'm not going to be there to deliver some sort of agenda. I'll be there to describe reality."
'We all Need More Time'
According to Crocker's reality, Iraq's politicians will need another two to three years to complete important tasks. To do so they will require the presence of the US military. "Of course the surge can't go on forever," says Crocker, "and of course Iraq will have to participate in the costs of this operation at some point. But one thing is certain: We all need more time."
When asked about critics of the war in the United States who are demanding an immediate withdrawal of US troops or a pull out by next April, Crocker can only shake his head in quiet disgust. Aside from the fact that the withdrawal of such a large combat force would take at least a year, logistically speaking, everything about these sorts of demands is unrealistic, he says.
"We Americans consider ourselves to be a moral nation, no matter how the rest of world might feel about it," says Crocker. It is clear, from his expression, that what he says next is very important to him. "How will we feel if the movie doesn't stop, even though we've pressed the 'stop' button? What if the movie just goes on? And gets even uglier? And even uglier after that?" Crocker makes a dramatic pause, clearly already practicing his best sentences for his appearance in Washington. "We're talking here about the possibility of thousands of deaths, about religious cleansing operations, we're talking here about the possibility that there could be no Sunnis left in Baghdad because they'll all have been murdered, driven out or expelled. Is this what we want? And who will explain that to Americans?"
The key to Iraq's future lies in Baghdad. If things go completely wrong in the capital, the rest of the country will be pulled down with it, and even peaceful Ramadi will tip the other way again. Violence will erupt once again in the deserts of Anbar Province, and weapons will return to the villages and towns that are now free of terrorists. A race is underway. Each day on the Iraqi calendar is now an historic day. The situation is tense and dramatic, even if the world has already decided not to look too closely anymore, preferring to spend its time arguing over who was right.
But anyone who travels in Iraq is moving through a world far away from Washington, Berlin, Paris or Brussels, a world where having the last word is irrelevant. Anyone who experiences the country will find himself despairing in one place and feeling hopeful in another, and in no city are the two extremes closer together than in Mosul. These two parallel worlds, the dark and the bright, coexist in Iraq's second-largest city, 370 kilometers (230 miles) north of Baghdad.
Mosul has all of the problems that are in evidence elsewhere in Iraq, but it also has all of the positive developments visible in other parts of the country. Acts of violence are on the rise, but the number of victims is declining. The number of weapons caches being found is rising, as is the police force's success rate. Besides all this, the city enjoys a decisive advantage over the rest of Iraq.
As of May 16, Mosul has its own legend to help it emerge into a new era.
Every child in the city knows the story of how, on May 16, 2007, terrorists attempted to stage a massive attack. Using four car bombs, they first blew up two bridges across the Tigris River in the city's northwest. A short time later, three other car bombs exploded in front of the headquarters of the district police. They, too, were packed with explosives, ripping craters into the ground the size of swimming pools. An eighth bomb struck a police station in the southeast. The attackers followed each of the bombings with an assault with rockets, machine guns and Kalashnikovs. It was clear, on that May 15, that the terrorists were intent on scoring a major coup. But they failed, and in doing so they lost their war.
The Iraqi police officers and soldiers, who until then had not been expected to perform well in combat, threw themselves into battle. Even the wounded refused to be carried off the battlefield, continuing to fight as best they could. Heroes were born on that day in May, the kind of heroes that the entire country sorely needs -- not Sunni, not Shiite, not Kurdish or Assyrian or Turkmen heroes, but Iraqi heroes.
You run into these heroes in the streets, when you're tagging along with 2nd Battalion of the 7th Cavalry Regiment. Its commander is Lieutenant Colonel Eric Welsh, who looks like a skinhead but is a true idealist at heart. He speaks freely of values, patriotism and freedom. He says: "Yes, it hurts, and yes, it's tough, and of course everything's dangerous here. But we're not doing this for fun. We have a purpose. We want to give the people here a chance, that's the truth, and let's be honest about it: It will take decades for us to find out what is really going to happen here."
Brothers in Arms
Welsh, 42, gets together with Mosul's police and military commanders almost every day. He says he is actually the "let's go" type, not one to miss a battle, but the visits with the Iraqis are an important part of his job. He says he takes them just as seriously as combat missions and that the Iraqis have become his brothers in arms. They greet each other in the traditional Iraqi manner, with kisses and hugs, "and I even drink their coffee," says Welsh, "which is saying something." The lineup of men he visits is impressive.
He goes to the office of Mohammed Sahr al-Din, a police colonel who heads the police force in northeastern Mosul. Sahr al-Din has been walking with wooden crutches since a roadside bomb tore off his leg. He is a prickly officer, sharply critical of the bureaucrats in Baghdad's Interior Ministry who impede his work, forcing him to order boots one pair at a time. The people in Baghdad have even told him to stop recruiting officers, claiming that they have other plans. Sahr al-Din calls the Baghdad bureaucrats "those political scoundrels," and praises the laid-back Americans and the help they provide. He says: "It'll be very clean here in Mosul very soon, and everyone will live in peace."
Welsh pays a visit to Lieutenant Colonel Ahmed Khalid, the head of the counterterrorism department, a fine-featured man and a thoughtful chain-smoker. He smokes a brand called "Miami." There are several telephones on his desk, and every few minutes one of them rings with loud Arab melodies.
Khalid is apparently very effective. He casually tells the story of a visit he received from a killer on the previous evening. It was the third attempt on his life, he says. This time the terrorists had sent a man with nine sticks of dynamite inside his vest, but the would-be assassin was apparently none too bright. He asked around for Khalid, who wasn't home, but Khalid's brother and father were and they heard the man outside. When the suicide bomber climbed across the garden wall and ran towards the house, Khalid's brother shot him. Khalid shows pictures of the corpse, smiles, and says: "We will never allow these illiterates to govern our country."
As Welsh makes his rounds, he meets with many other commanders of the same caliber, men of the new Iraq who want to pacify and develop their country, and who are grateful to the Americans for their sacrifices, for their commitment and for their help. They still need America's support for a while longer -- possibly years -- but the number of US troops has been steadily declining for some time now. In early 2004 there were 23,000 US troops here in northern Iraq. Their number has since dipped to about 3,000, but that, too. is evidence of progress. "In Mosul," says Eric Welsh, the quixotic battalion commander, "we've arrived at a point where we can say: We can do it."
After his visits he returns to Camp Marez, yet another dusty outpost next to an airfield called "Diamondback" on the southern outskirts of Mosul. When he stops at the gate, where the men unload and secure their weapons, one of them, Seargent Joe Brown, jumps up on the hood of a Humvee and bellows triumphantly: "Everybody who complains and is alive needs a fist right in the face."
Back in his office, Welsh is sitting and gulping down a bottle of Gatorade, watching a news report on TV showing archive images of a failed terrorist attack in Glasgow, Scotland. It's July 4th, Independence Day in America. That morning Welsh assembled his battalion and spoke a few words to mark the occasion. He talked about patriotism, freedom and their great mission. Then the soldiers prayed, in Nineveh, in the dust of ancient Babylon, their heads bowed and the Iraqi sun blazing down on the backs of their heads.
Welsh is eager to talk about the big picture once again. He asks: "Have you seen the movie 'The Patriot?'" But then the conversation ends abruptly when the door opens and a staff officer nervously pokes his head into the room.
"We had a helicopter crash," he says, "we have one confirmed dead and one wounded." Welsh rubs his hands across his face. "There you have it," he says, "the good and the bad, they constantly go hand-in-hand here." That's the situation in Iraq. A race is underway. Now every day on the calendar is historic. The future can be won or it can be gambled away.