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Can Petraeus Pull It Off?

Author: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
04/30/2007, Volume 012, Issue 31
Weekly Standard

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The news from Iraq is, as usual, grim. Bombings, more bombings, and yet more bombings—that’s all the world notices. It’s easy to conclude that all is chaos. That’s not true. Some parts of Iraq are in bad shape, but others are improving. I spent the first two weeks of April in Baghdad, with side trips to Baqubah, Ramadi, and Falluja. Along the way I talked to everyone from privates to generals, both American and Iraqi. I found that, while we may not yet be winning the war, our prospects are at least not deteriorating precipitously, as they were last year. When General David Petraeus took command in February, he called the situation “hard” but not “hopeless.” Today there are some glimmers of hope in the unlikeliest of places.

Until recently Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, was the most dangerous city in Iraq if not the world. It was run by al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which had declared it the capital of its Islamic State of Iraq. The Iraqi police presence was limited to one police station, which the police were afraid to leave. Soldiers and Marines engaged in heavy combat every day, losing hundreds of men since 2003, simply to avoid having insurgents overrun the government center and close down Route Michigan, the main street.

That began to change last year when the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Armored Division expanded the U.S. troop presence on the west side of town, losing almost 90 soldiers in the process. The 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 3rd Infantry Division, which took over the city earlier this year, expanded the offensive toward the al Qaeda strongholds on the west side of town. From mid-February to the end of March, some 2,000 soldiers and Marines, along with their Iraqi allies, fought to gain control of the city. The principal operations were codenamed Murfreesboro (February 10-March 10), Okinawa (March 9-20), and Call to Freedom (March 17-30). Collectively, they deserve to take their place in the annals of this long war alongside such notable clashes as the taking of Tal Afar in 2005, the two battles of Falluja in 2004, and the thunder runs through Baghdad in 2003.

Each of the Ramadi offensives began with troops staging raids into the targeted area to eliminate “high value individuals”—local al Qaeda leaders. Then the troops would place three-foot-high concrete blocks known as Jersey barriers around the targeted neighborhood to prevent insurgents from “squirting out.” This would be followed by a clearing operation, with U.S. and Iraqi troops advancing from multiple directions to root out the enemy. Combat was intense. Insurgents fought back with everything from homemade bombs to AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades, and heavy machine guns. Ten American soldiers were killed and another 40 wounded.

“The price was heavy but worth it,” says Colonel John W. Charlton, the burly commander of the 1st Brigade who directed the operations. “The enemy lost massively.”

To illustrate the point, he shows me a page of closely printed type listing all the arms caches seized by his men. These included 10,250 pounds of homemade explosives, 2,347 pounds of high explosives, 2,265 feet of detonation cord, and 6,000 gallons of chlorine. U.S. troops discovered and dismantled entire factories devoted to the production of IEDs, and they killed hundreds of insurgents.

The results of these epic battles—and those that preceded them over the past four years—are clearly visible when Colonel Charlton takes me on a tour of Ramadi. Route Michigan resembles pictures of Berlin in 1945. Buildings are either entirely destroyed or badly damaged. Twisted girders jut into the sky. Piles of rubble are everywhere. Water sits in the streets; the water mains have been broken by countless explosions of buried IEDs. There are crater holes from roadside bombs every few feet.

It is a horrific scene but also a hopeful one. “A few weeks ago you couldn’t drive down this street without being attacked. When I went down this street in February, I was hit three times with small-arms fire and IEDs,” Colonel Charlton tells me over the intercom system of his up-armored Humvee. Even though this is an unlucky day—Friday the 13th—we do not experience a single attack on our convoy. The only violence the entire day occurs when a rocket lands on the other side of the Euphrates River without hurting anyone. The previous week, Ramadi saw a much-publicized attack—a suicide bomber drove a truck filled with explosives and chlorine gas into a police checkpoint, killing 12 people (not the 27 or more cited in most news accounts). But such violence has become the exception; it used to be the norm. Ramadi, which used to see 20 to 25 attacks a day, now sees an average of 2 to 4 a day—and falling. Entire days go by without a single attack. By the time I visited, no U.S. soldier had been killed in the town for weeks.

This is a testament to the success of Colonel Charlton’s men not only in the “clearing” phase but, just as important, in holding onto their gains. In the past, U.S. troops would follow up a successful offensive by retreating to their remote, heavily fortified Forwarding Operating Base, and insurgents would slink back into the area just liberated at a heavy price in blood. To avoid that happening this time, Colonel Charlton and his battalion commanders have moved many of their men off the main base, Camp Ramadi, and sent them to live in the city. U.S. troops have established four bases in Ramadi itself along with more than 40 Joint Security Stations and Observation Posts where they work alongside Iraqi soldiers and police. There are also 23 police stations in the city and surrounding area. Those mini-forts are located within eyeball range of one another, as I saw for myself when I went to a rooftop Observation Post at one Joint Security Station and was able to discern close by another Coalition outpost. Surveillance capacity is increased with the deployment of computer-controlled cameras on 100-foot poles. U.S. and Iraqi forces have spun such a tight web in town that insurgents are having a hard time crawling back in.

Having completed clearing operations, the American forces are now in the “build” phase of their campaign, trying to repair the damage and win over the populace. An integral part of this effort is the Voice of Ramadi, a daily show broadcast over public address speakers located atop the Joint Security Stations that provides everything from European soccer scores to local news. The stars of the show aren’t Americans. They’re local Iraqi officials who record messages for broadcast.

Charlton knows it will take more than words to consolidate his success so far. The locals have to see concrete gains from cooperating with the Coalition. Literally. They need to see their town, devastated by war, rebuilt. The roads need to be resurfaced, the water mains repaired. This may be the most challenging part of the American task because it requires money that is not readily forthcoming. Charlton is tapping CERP (Commander’s Emergency Response Program) funding at his disposal to pay for $4.4 million worth of projects, but he estimates the entire cost of cleanup will be at least $10 million. He is hoping that someone—perhaps the U.S. Agency for International Development—will foot the bill. Ideally the cost should be borne by the government of Iraq, but whether through incapacity or unwillingness, the Shiite-dominated government is not at the moment sending much money to Sunni-dominated Anbar province.

Yet, for all the shortcomings of their government, Iraqi forces have begun to play a key role in Coalition operations, and nowhere more than in Ramadi. Key to the success of this undertaking has been the recent decision by most of the major Anbar tribes to turn against al Qaeda. From 2003 to 2006, the sheikhs who traditionally dominate life in this rural province were happy to fight alongside al Qaeda against the American “crusaders” and the “Persians” (Shiites) who now run Baghdad. But al Qaeda went too far for their taste. Its indiscriminate violence against civilians, its attempts to impose fundamentalist sharia law (banning even smoking), and, perhaps as important, its attempts to muscle in on the smuggling networks controlled by the tribes—all this alienated the people of Anbar. A coalition of sheikhs based in Ramadi, led by Sheikh Abdul Sattar, has decided to throw in their lot with the Coalition in the fight against al Qaeda. Twenty-two of the Ramadi-area tribes are now cooperating with the Coalition; only two are still standoffish. In some parts of Anbar, fighting has erupted between al Qaeda and more nationalist, less fanatical “resistance” movements such as the 1920 Revolution Brigades.

The tribal forces are still too weak to defeat al Qaeda’s ruthless fighters on their own (and probably always will be), but they have been of critical help in generating tips that aid Coalition forces. They are also now encouraging their sons to join the Iraqi police and army. Last year, few if any Sunnis were signing up. Now so many are eager to join that training facilities are swamped and there is a waiting list of recruits. Sunnis are also willing to serve in local governments. Ramadi has just installed a new mayor and city council.

Colonel Charlton and his battalion commanders have taken advantage of this newfound willingness to cooperate on the part of the sheikhs. Ramadi now has some 4,000 police officers as well as an irregular militia that is being integrated into the police force. It also has effective Iraqi army units, which are integrating more Sunnis into their ranks. But even the largely Shiite soldiers of the two brigades already in Ramadi have shown their mettle alongside American troops. One of the most encouraging sights I saw in Ramadi was an Iraqi army sergeant-major, a Shiite from Baghdad, supervising the rebuilding of a Sunni neighborhood and chatting amiably with the residents. This is the kind of intercommunal cooperation that was once the norm in Iraq and can be again if Shiite and Sunni extremists are defeated at gunpoint.

Ramadi is not an isolated example. There is progress across Anbar province, especially in such towns as Qaim and Hit, which have become remarkably calm after years of violence. General Petraeus was able to stroll through Hit on March 10 while eating an ice cream cone. Offsetting these positive trends have been setbacks in Falluja, conquered at great cost by American troops in 2004 and prematurely passed to Iraqi control in 2006. Marines fear it is reverting to insurgent control. The surrounding countryside, where a mere 200 Marines are deployed to cover a population of 130,000, is even worse. In the village of Saqlawiyah near Falluja, which I visited in the company of the local Marine garrison commander, Captain George E. Hasseltine, the city council is afraid to meet in the open and the mayor and a prominent local sheikh have fled to Jordan. There are 21 police officers, but they lack a commander and they seldom venture into the marketplace located next to their station. When they do go out, they wear ski masks to hide their identity—a clear sign that insurgents control the neighborhood.

Yet, for all the difficulties that remain (and it would be a serious mistake to underestimate them), the overall trend in Anbar is positive. Startlingly so. According to briefings I received at Multi-National Division-West in Camp Falluja, attacks in the province are at a two-year low. More than 13,000 police officers have been deployed, and more are on the way. Tips to Coalition forces are soaring. Whereas U.S. troops used to find only 50 percent of IEDs, they are now defusing 80 percent before they detonate. Al Qaeda in Iraq has responded with chlorine gas bombs, in other words using chemical weapons against Sunni civilians—not a tactic likely to win over the populace.

The big question now is whether Coalition forces can have similar success in the country’s epicenter. As part of Operation Fardh al-Qanoon (“Enforcing the Law”), they are now applying the same “clear, hold, and build” strategy in Baghdad that worked so well in Ramadi and, before, in Tal Afar and Qaim. But the situation in the capital is considerably more complex, because the fight is not just between Sunni moderates and Sunni extremists but also between Shiite moderates and extremists as well as between Shiites and Sunnis of all stripes. And, of course, the capital is much bigger. All of Anbar has 1.25 million residents. Baghdad has some 6 million. Each of its security districts has more people than Ramadi. Even when the “surge” is completed in June, U.S. and Iraqi troops will not have as heavy a presence on a per capita basis in Baghdad as they have now in Ramadi.

Nevertheless, with only three of five extra brigade combat teams on the ground, the situation in the capital has already shown signs of improvement since Fardh al-Qanoon started in February. The murder rate fell 75 percent in February. March saw a slight increase, but by the beginning of April the number of murders in the capital was still down 50 percent since the start of the year. Last year it was not uncommon to find dozens of corpses a night dumped in the capital, many of them tortured by Shiite death squads using power tools. This type of ethnic cleansing still goes on but at a much reduced level. Now it is common to find only one or two victims a night. To be sure, some of this decrease in violence is due to the fact that there are fewer mixed neighborhoods—Shiite militias have succeeded in ethnically cleansing most of northern Baghdad, thus reducing areas of conflict. But a large part of the explanation also lies in the fact that there are now more American troops in the city, and they are for the first time in years focused on improving the security situation, not simply on handing off control to the Iraqis.

More U.S. soldiers now live in the neighborhoods they patrol, in Joint Security Stations such as the one that I visited in Hurriya in western Baghdad. Here soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division sleep and work alongside men from the Iraqi army and National Police. They lack the normal comforts of life on a big base: Instead of getting to choose from multiple flavors of ice cream at a large DFAC (Dining Facility), they have to be content with one hot meal a day. The rest of the time they make do with field rations—MREs (Meals Ready to Eat). But what such outposts lack in amenities they make up for in effectiveness. As they have established their presence, soldiers have found the number of tips from residents appreciably increasing. This makes U.S. soldiers safer. They are no longer simply speeding down streets in their armored Humvees hoping not to hit an IED. They are now conducting targeted raids and foot patrols, the basis of any effective counterinsurgency.

I went along on one such stroll on the evening of Monday, April 9, in the heavily Shiite neighborhood of Kadhamiya in northwestern Baghdad. This was the fourth anniversary of the liberation of Iraq, a day that Shiite cleric and militia leader Moktada al-Sadr had designated a day of protest, but things were pretty quiet when Captain David Brunais led a dozen men from the 82nd Airborne Division out of Forward Operating Base Justice into the warm spring air. His soldiers spread out on both sides of the street, keeping a vigilant eye for trouble using their night-vision goggles.

The only major problem we encountered was a serious car crash (a taxi flipped upside down), but the Iraqi army had the situation well in hand. As we were standing there, a dozen Iraqi Humvees screeched up, sirens blaring. We kept on walking, pausing only to sit down and share cans of Pepsi with some men smoking hookah pipes at an outdoor cafť. Brunais joked around with them, having come to know them since his arrival in the area in February in the first wave of the surge. Through an interpreter, he asked what their concerns were and explained why the government had decided to impose a ban on vehicular traffic that day. It is through such amicable encounters that soldiers gain the intelligence necessary to wage a successful campaign against an unseen foe.

While this patrol was undertaken by American forces alone, more and more patrols in Baghdad are now joint endeavors. One of the great achievements of recent months has been the willingness of Iraqi army formations to deploy to Baghdad with more than 85 percent of their strength. Many of these units, especially those composed primarily of Kurdish troops, have already proven highly effective.

Although Iraqi and American troops report to separate chains of command, great efforts are being made to coordinate their work—to achieve unity of effort if not unity of command. I attended one of the daily meetings between Colonel J.B. Burton, commander of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Infantry Division, and General Abdul Ameer, deputy commander of the Karkh Security District encompassing most of west Baghdad. The subject was Arrowhead Strike 9, the codename for the ongoing operations to clear western Baghdad. For two hours, the two commanders and their senior subordinates carefully went over the details of operations planned or in progress. A major focus of their discussion was the emplacement of concrete barriers and entry checkpoints around embattled neighborhoods. The creation of “gated communities” has become a critical part of the effort to deny insurgents the ability to reinfiltrate cleared-out areas. Every night another 500 meters of concrete is planted by Coalition forces in Baghdad—the “concrete caterpillar,” some commanders call it.

Once completed, such barriers should make it impossible to drive cars packed with explosives into crowded marketplaces—one of al Qaeda’s favorite tactics—though it will remain difficult to stop suicide bombers wearing explosive vests. Not even the Green Zone is entirely safe, as the recent attack on the Iraqi parliament showed. But suicide vests are a lot less deadly than vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices—what the U.S. military calls “vee-beds” (VBIEDs).

Sunni and Shiite extremist groups have not taken this challenge to their reign of terror lying down. Although initially cowed by Coalition efforts, they have begun fighting back with a vengeance. Al Qaeda terrorists are suspected of responsibility for the April 12 bombings that killed at least one Iraqi member of parliament and destroyed one of Baghdad’s bridges, as well as the April 18 blast in the Sadriya market that killed more than 100. Moktada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army is suspected of responsibility for a series of rocket strikes on the U.S. embassy compound in the Green Zone. (I happened to be inside the embassy during one such attack—talking with a general, ironically enough, about improvements in security. We were interrupted by a loud thump outside and an ominous voice on the public address system telling us to “duck and cover—get away from the windows.” “You were saying . . . “ I said.)

But the bulk of terrorist activity has been moving outside the capital. That is not a bad thing: Controlling Baghdad, home to a fourth of the country’s population and to its most important business, media, and cultural entities, is more critical than controlling the hinterland. But instability in the “Baghdad Belt” stretching from Salman Pak and Iskandariyah in the south to Falluja in the west and Baqubah and Taji in the north exacts a heavy toll. The mass-casualty attacks that are happening with greater frequency in these places obscure some of the progress being made in the capital.

The situation in Baqubah is particularly depressing. When I visited the capital of Diyala province last year, Coalition forces were ramping down their operations in the expectation that Iraqi forces could pick up the slack. When I visited this year I found a hotbed of insurgent activity, with American casualties high, food and fuel deliveries interrupted, and the streets nearly deserted. U.S. generals now say that Baqubah has displaced Ramadi as the worst place in the entire country.

Such reverses are not only demoralizing in their own right but also have the potential to subvert attempts to pacify Baghdad, 35 miles to the south. Insurgent strongholds around the capital can be used as staging areas to export violence back into Baghdad. For this reason, some of the newly arriving American troops are being deployed not to the capital itself but to the “belt” around it. Their goal is not so much to pacify these areas—there are not enough troops to do that—but to disrupt insurgent activities and so keep the heat off Baghdad.

An important aspect of this campaign has been waged largely out of the limelight by Coalition and Iraqi Special Forces. Every night, these “operators” stage precision raids based on accurate intelligence that capture or kill Shiite and Sunni extremists at scant cost to themselves. The most valuable targets are “serviced” by a Joint Special Operations Command task force known as OCF-I, commanded by Lieutenant General Stan McChrystal. OCF-I stands for Other Coalition Forces-Iraq, a counterpoint to the common military euphemism for the CIA: OGA, or Other Government Agency. OCF-I is made up of “Tier 1” Special Forces—the best “direct action” specialists from such elite outfits as Delta Force, the Navy SEALs, the Air Force “Night Stalkers,” and the British SAS. It was through their efforts that Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, was killed last year. (In the current Atlantic Monthly, Mark Bowden offers a revealing—perhaps overly revealing—behind-the-scenes reconstruction of how this operation worked.) Their efforts are complemented by the larger Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force made up primarily of Army Special Forces (Green Berets) working closely with the Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF) Brigade.

With more than 2,000 soldiers, ISOF has proven itself to be the most tactically skilled and politically reliable unit in the entire Iraqi Security Forces. I got to meet some of its personnel at their heavily guarded compound near Baghdad airport. Many senior officers live on base with their families for fear of being killed if they go back to their old neighborhoods. Indeed, last year a number of ISOF soldiers were kidnapped and killed while off duty. If this has discouraged the remainder, I saw no sign of it.

The Iraqis showed off their equipment, which is every bit as good as that of their American Special Forces counterparts. They demonstrated their skills in a state-of-the-art “shoot house,” followed by a mock hostage rescue mission in a cavernous training facility. (My ears are still ringing from all the C2 explosives used to blow open a wooden door.) Their American liaisons, all veteran Green Berets, proudly told me that the Iraqis are capable of planning and executing their own missions. The Americans mainly help with intelligence, logistics, and air support. The ISOF soldiers are already the most experienced and probably the most skilled special operators in the entire Arab world. And, although composed primarily of Shiites, these operatives are willing to take down Shiite extremists as well as Sunni ones.

Their work is part of a delicate campaign on the part of Coalition forces designed to kill or capture “irreconcilable” insurgents while winning over the “reconcilable.” The man directing both sides of this effort, political and military, is General David Petraeus, who in February assumed command of Multi-National Forces-Iraq, making him the senior U.S. commander in the country. Lieutenant General Ray Odierno, a bald-headed bull of a man, heads Multi-National Corps Iraq, with direct operational responsibility for Coalition forces. Petraeus’s job is to focus on the big picture—to try to translate some of the success Coalition troops have been having at the tactical level into strategic success.

It is hard to imagine anyone better qualified for this exceedingly difficult assignment—what Petraeus calls “the postgraduate level of warfare.” The 54-year-old four-star has already spent more than two and a half years in Iraq, first as commander of the 101st Airborne Division, then as head of Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq, with responsibility for training Iraqi Security Forces. Following these stints, he oversaw the production of Field Manual 3-24, the bible of counterinsurgency warfare for the U.S. armed forces.

Petraeus is that rare combination, a man of intellect who is also a man of action. He looks slight and bookish and has a Ph.D. in international relations from Princeton (he wrote his dissertation on how the Vietnam war affected military thinking). But he is also a physical fitness fanatic who is famous for challenging and beating soldiers half his age at push-up contests. His toughness is legendary—he bounced back from a training accident in 1991 when he took an M-16 round right in the chest (his life was saved by surgeon and future senator Bill Frist) and from a sky-diving accident nine years later in which he broke his pelvis.

Having known him since 2003, when I visited him at the 101st Division headquarters in Mosul, I was already impressed by Petraeus. My respect only grew when I got to spend a week by his side, sitting in on his morning Battle Update and Assessment meetings, commuting with him via Blackhawk helicopter from Camp Victory near Baghdad airport to the Green Zone, and visiting troops in the field with him. His low-key manner—he is not given to profane tirades in the Patton tradition—belies a quiet intensity and a driving ambition. A number of officers I spoke with said they were working harder than ever under Petraeus but that they also felt reenergized to tackle the tough tasks ahead.

With the support of President Bush (with whom he talks once a week via secure video-teleconference), Petraeus has adopted a fundamentally different strategy from that of his predecessor (and current army chief of staff) General George Casey. Casey’s philosophy, shared by his boss, General John Abizaid, the former Central Command chief, was that U.S. forces were an “antibody” in Iraqi society. The faster we left, the better. That resulted in a pell-mell scramble to turn over responsibility to Iraqi Security Forces that weren’t ready for the challenge. The result was a precipitous increase in violence following the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra in February 2006, bringing the country to the brink of all-out civil war. Petraeus’s priority, by contrast, is to reengage with the population in order to improve security. Only then will it be possible, he reckons, to turn over responsibility to the Iraqis.

Besides pushing more troops out of their Forward Operating Bases (a soldier who never leaves his FOB is known as a fobbit), Petraeus has emphasized information operations. Casey was very much a traditional soldier who shunned publicity and thought that results should speak for themselves. This had the inadvertent result of ceding the “information battlespace” to adversaries like Moktada al-Sadr and the late Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who proved skillful in exploiting the Internet and satellite television in particular. Petraeus, who has sometimes been derided behind his back as a “glory-seeker,” has tried to fight back by opening up his command to the news media. He often takes journalists along on his regular visits to troops in the field. When he went to Baqubah on April 7, he took a reporter from the San Antonio Express-News (as well as two WEEKLY STANDARD contributing editors, Fred Kagan and me). He is also trying to push authority to conduct “information operations” down to lower levels of his force.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. U.S. commanders report that, whatever the case before the war, Iraq has now become the central front of al Qaeda operations, drawing jihadists from all over the world. It is also a central front in Iran’s offensive to become the dominant player in the region. American generals say they have been “shocked” to discover the level of Iranian influence in Iraq. The Iranians are supporting not only the Mahdi Army, Badr Brigades, and other Shiite militias, but also, the generals believe, al Qaeda—the very group killing Shiites en masse.

Petraeus feels that he is making slow, steady progress against the myriad enemies that Coalition forces confront, but he is keenly aware that results may not come fast enough to please antiwar politicians back home who are eager to pull all U.S. troops out of Iraq, and damn the consequences. “The Washington clock is ticking faster than the Baghdad clock,” Petraeus often says. His goal is to speed up the Baghdad clock by pressing for more reconciliation between Sunnis and Shiites, and to slow down the Washington clock by showing gains on the ground that can reverse public pressure to pull U.S. troops out prematurely. The former is hard to do because of the mutual suspicions that grip this country. The latter is equally hard, because a few high-profile insurgent atrocities can obscure the progress being made by Coalition forces in stopping ethnic cleansing in Baghdad, which Petraeus views as his most important immediate goal.

Petraeus’s ultimate objective, he told me over lunch at his embassy office, is to “achieve an outcome sustainable by the Iraqis.” Upon his assessment of Iraqi capabilities will rest his recommendation for when, how far, and how fast to draw down U.S. forces. Under consideration are various plans. The lower the number of American troops, the easier it is to sustain, politically and materially—but the greater the risk that the security situation will once again slide out of control as it did in 2006.

To avoid that, Petraeus is working, along with the new U.S. ambassador, Ryan Crocker, to make Iraq’s government more effective and less sectarian. One of his biggest successes to date was convincing Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to visit Anbar province on March 13. This visit highlighted both the difficulties that Petraeus faces and the possibility for progress: It was great that Maliki went, but staggering to learn that he had not visited this area as prime minister and had no plans to do so until the American general forced the issue.

Petraeus and his circle are fairly happy with Maliki. They say he has begun to think and act more like a national, not just a Shiite, leader. “I’ve been hearing a different tone,” says one Arabic-speaking American official who works closely with the prime minister. As evidence, he points to Maliki’s willingness to support an oil law that gives Sunnis a fair share and to agree to bring back some Baathists who had been purged from government. But the limits of Maliki’s power are evident in the fact that neither measure has yet been adopted by parliament. Although he is prime minister, Maliki does not command the loyalty of most members of parliament or even of most of his own cabinet, which was chosen by sectarian party bosses. Some major ministries, such as the Departments of Transportation and Health, had been under the control of Moktada al-Sadr’s allies until they announced their resignation last week. Others have better ministers at the top but are heavily infiltrated by Shiite extremists down below.

Petraeus argues, reasonably enough, that it’s unfair to expect the Shiite-dominated government to make too many concessions too quickly to the Sunnis who had oppressed them for decades. He frequently says that all the legislation being demanded of the Iraqi government—an oil law, a de-Baathification law, a provincial election law, and much else besides—is akin to getting the U.S. government to pass a civil rights act in 1866 or to pass Social Security reform and a comprehensive health care plan today. He hopes that success in pacifying Baghdad, if that is achieved, will provide breathing space for politicians to make the compromises necessary to foster effective governance.

Beyond the question of will lies the equally troubling question of competence. The Iraqis in charge of the government today, primarily exiles who spent years plotting against Saddam Hussein, have little experience of administration, much less of democratic administration. And they have to develop such a capacity in the midst of numbing violence—a challenge some American officers liken to building an airplane in flight. Widespread, corrosive corruption and deep-rooted mutual suspicion stand in the way. Most of the important factions in Iraq are willing to engage in politics but not to forgo the option of achieving their objectives at gunpoint.

The Iraqi Security Forces reflect this tension, with some dedicated soldiers and police officers willing to go after extremists of any stripe but many others hedging their bets for fear of offending powerful militia leaders. The Ministry of Defense is coming along, but one U.S. general who deals closely with the crucial Ministry of Interior, which controls the police, says it “is not a functional ministry right now and may never be.” Mistrust between the Iraqi army, which is more representative of the entire country, and the National Police, which is seen as a preserve of Shiite militias, remains high. Iraqi soldiers I met constantly asked me and other Americans to use our influence (imagined influence in my case) to get them the equipment and supplies that their own government has not provided.

Can Iraqis come together quickly enough to save their country before domestic politics forces American troops to begin pulling out? That is the great unknown that Petraeus grapples with. During my visit I found cause for both optimism and despair.

The contradictory impulses of a complex country were neatly encapsulated by Captain Rob McNellis, the lanky commander of the 57th Military Police Company, as he took me on a tour of some of the 15 Iraqi police stations he oversees in west Baghdad. Since he arrived in June 2006, he has seen some “major improvements.” When he first got here, most of the policemen were not even wearing uniforms, much less patrolling. Most of their vehicles were broken. They often did little beyond collecting a paycheck, and what they did tended to be destructive—Shiite policemen either turned a blind eye to, or actually participated in, terrible attacks on innocent Sunnis.

On Tuesday, April 10, when we visited police stations in his AOR (Area of Responsibility), we found most of the cops in uniform and most of their vehicles in operation. At one station, almost all the squad cars were gone because the cops were on the streets patrolling—a good sign. But McNellis also confided his frustration that “a lot” of policemen “are still involved in militia-type activity.”

“Some of the people we were training were trying to kill us,” he told me. A powerful EFP (Explosively Formed Penetrator) that killed one of his MPs was planted within a few feet of an Iraqi police checkpoint, suggesting complicity on the part of the Iraqi cops. McNellis told me that “nonsectarian police commanders don’t last long because of pressure from militias, Shiite or Sunni.” Corrupt police commanders, on the other hand, are tough to get rid of. Even when a culprit is removed from one job he often turns up in another security post, sometimes even a higher-ranking post. Other American officers in the area told me they suspected some Iraqi National Policemen of running extortion rackets—arresting Sunnis and then threatening their families that they will be beaten or even killed unless a handsome ransom is paid for their release.

“The situation has come a long way, but there’s still a long way to go,” McNellis says. That sums up not only his own area but the entire country.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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