A man suspected of Mahdi Army activity is detained during a recent raid in Baghdad. General David Petraeus has singled out Ghazaliya,a mostly Sunni district in the western part of the city, as an area where the military has made progress. Photograph by Johan Spanner
by Jon Lee Anderson
Joint Security Station Thrasher, in the western Baghdad suburb of Ghazaliya, is housed in a Saddam-era mansion with twenty-foot columns and a fountain, now dry, that looks like a layer cake of concrete and limestone. The mansion and two adjacent houses have been surrounded by blast walls. J.S.S. Thrasher was set up last March, and is part of the surge in troops engineered by General David Petraeus, the American commander in Iraq. Moving units out of large bases and into Joint Security Stations—small outposts in Baghdad’s most dangerous districts—has been crucial to Petraeus’s counterinsurgency strategy, and Thrasher is now home to a hundred American soldiers and a few hundred Iraqis. This fall, on the roof of the mansion, amid sandbags, communications gear, and exercise equipment protected by a sniper awning, Captain Jon Brooks, Thrasher’s commander, pointed out some of the local landmarks. “This site was selected because it was the main body drop in Ghazaliya,” he said, indicating a grassy area nearby. “There were up to eleven bodies a week. Most were brutally mutilated.”
The Mother of All Battles Mosque, with its unmistakable phalanx of minarets shaped like Scud missiles, is nearby. Saddam Hussein hid in Ghazaliya during the American bombing in the first Gulf War, and built the mosque to show his gratitude to the neighborhood. (“Ghazaliya used to have—still does—a lot of retired Saddam military people,” Brooks said.) In April, 2004, wounded gunmen taking part in the battle for Falluja took refuge in the mosque. Ghazaliya borders the eastern edge of Anbar province, the center of the Sunni insurgency, and it became a strategic gateway to Baghdad for insurgents and foreign jihadis. On a previous visit to Ghazaliya, in December, 2003, I had met insurgents at a safe house in the neighborhood. They told me that they were intent on killing Americans. Since those days, with few exceptions, Ghazaliya had been a no-go area for Westerners, including journalists, who ran the risk of being kidnapped and killed. American patrols in Ghazaliya were regularly ambushed.
Captain Brooks is twenty-eight, of medium height and a stocky build, with close-cropped brown hair. From the roof, he pointed to where Sergeant Robert Thrasher, for whom the J.S.S. was named, had been killed by a sniper, last February. At the time, the company was working out of Camp Victory, the American base encompassing a large swath of Baghdad, including the airport. Thrasher was twenty-three; he had joined the Army out of high school.
Despite the insurgency’s influence, Ghazaliya remained, at first, what it had been for decades—a middle-class Baghdad neighborhood in which sectarian tensions were more or less held in check. The vast majority of the estimated hundred thousand residents were Sunni, but, Brooks said, “there were a lot of professionals, college-educated Sunnis, and Shias, too, and mosques for both.” The neighborhood changed after February, 2006, when Sunni militants bombed the ninth-century Askariya shrine, in Samarra, one of the Shiites’ holiest sites, and sectarian violence flared up across Iraq. Shiite militias, foremost among them the Mahdi Army, pushed deeper into Ghazaliya from Shulla, a poor, sprawling Shiite neighborhood just to the north. The Sunnis responded by turning to hard-line insurgents and to the foreign jihadis of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, whom the U.S. Army called Al Qaeda in Iraq.
“You had Sunni extremists in the area before Samarra. After Samarra, though, Al Qaeda in Iraq came on strong,” Captain Brooks said. “They had death squads. They systematically selected people because of the locations of their houses, or their relationships. They brutally tortured them, killed them, and dumped their bodies.” Shia families, and many Sunnis—those who had the financial means—fled the neighborhood. By the beginning of this year, southern Ghazaliya was under the de-facto control of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, while the northern part of the neighborhood was besieged by Shiite militiamen. “Twenty dollars and a phone card could get you an I.E.D. placed,” Captain Brooks said, referring to the improvised explosive devices that have caused the majority of American military deaths in Iraq. “The people realized they had let something in that they couldn’t control.”
President Bush, after securing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation, in November, gave his new war team—Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and General Petraeus—an opportunity to change the strategy in Iraq, and in February the surge began. The plan called for thirty thousand extra troops; estimates of the actual number run as high as fifty thousand. Thirty-four Joint Security Stations were opened in Baghdad, three of them in Ghazaliya: the first, J.S.S. Casino, in northern Ghazaliya; next, in the southwest, J.S.S. Thrasher; and, last May, J.S.S. Maverick, in the southeast.
Brooks pointed to a large house with broken windows across from the base. His men called it the Cannister-Round House, because when they were first moving in snipers had fired on them from inside, and they responded by lobbing tank shells into the house. “We don’t get shot at anymore,” he said. Brooks’s men began the manpower-intensive work of conducting systematic patrols by day and aggressive raids at night; William Bushnell, a sergeant in Brooks’s company, was killed on one of those patrols in April. Previously, Brooks’s men had headed back to the heavily fortified Camp Victory after roving through Ghazaliya. With the surge, the Americans became a permanent presence in the neighborhood. After they moved in, the U.S. Army erected twenty miles of concrete walls in Ghazaliya, both to separate Shiite and Sunni residents from each other and to establish secure perimeters. Brooks said that his unit’s success had been made possible by his colleagues at J.S.S. Casino, who kept Shiite militiamen from Shulla out of the neighborhood.
By midsummer, Ghazaliya’s violence had abated significantly. This fall, when I stood on the roof of J.S.S. Thrasher at night, I occasionally saw explosions in the distance, fireballs flaring up in the sky. One night, a large blast shook the building, followed by automatic-weapons fire that momentarily illuminated the streets. But most of the explosions were so far away from Ghazaliya that they could not even be heard. The number of bodies found in the neighborhood had fallen steeply, “to practically zero, to pre-Samarra levels,” Brooks said. His company had not lost any more men. When Petraeus spoke before Congress in September, he cited Ghazaliya as an example of the progress the military was making in Iraq.
The new strategy is also meant to prepare the ground for Iraqi security forces to replace the Americans, and all the Joint Security Stations, as the name suggests, involve Americans and Iraqis. But the Iraqis do not all belong to the official, government forces. With American assistance, several hundred armed Sunni volunteers called the Ghazaliya Guardians were gradually assuming police duties. Such U.S.-approved Sunni forces had begun to sprout up everywhere. Many of them, to the dismay of some Shiites, included former insurgents. An official with one of the major Shiite political parties told me, “Some of these armed groups were, until yesterday, hostile forces that attacked the Iraqi government, Coalition forces, and anyone who was involved in the government. They were considered terrorists. What happened?”
It was a question I heard often in Iraq. Colonel J. B. Burton is a good-natured bull of a man who commands the First Infantry’s Dagger Brigade, covering most of northwest Baghdad, with fourteen J.S.S.s, including the three in Ghazaliya. “We began by asking ourselves the question: What is facilitating the entry of Al Qaeda into an area populated by moderate secular Arabs?” Colonel Burton said. The answer, he said, was fear of Shiite militias. “I think we’re in a time of increasing opportunity to bring in people who want to be part of the solution. It’s done by talking to people. Hell, it’s no different than Tullahoma, Tennessee, where I’m from. It’s sitting on the back porch, drinking tea, listening to the crickets, and talking.” Colonel Burton went on, “You’re talking with people who’ve pulled a trigger against American forces? Hell, yeah! Because we’re fighting a common enemy—Al Qaeda.”
His brigade’s mission, Burton said, was “to defeat Al Qaeda and effect the transition to Iraqi authorities, and that’s full-spectrum operations, which means everything from fighting terrorism to fixing sewage lines.” Whether those goals could be accomplished ultimately hinged on political progress toward national reconciliation among Iraqis, Burton said. “We’re in a window that’s very narrow, and we have some important decisions to make. Which way Iraq goes will depend on what we do.”
At Thrasher, Captain Brooks told me, “The new buzzword is ‘sustainability.’ We’ve learned from our experiences—for sustainable development here we need security. If they can have a local security force that can do the job, then that allows us to return home.”
Ghazaliya is not the only area of Iraq in which the landscape has changed. On my previous visit to the country, ten months before, the violence seemed uncontrollable, with mass abductions and killings taking place in broad daylight. Most of the Iraqis I knew spoke bitterly about how the Americans and Iraq’s political leaders were safely ensconced in the Green Zone, while mayhem raged around them. According to the Pentagon, in February the war took the lives of nearly two thousand Iraqi civilians; by October, that number had dropped to under a thousand. As with all body-count statistics in Iraq, these figures are disputed, but no one denies that the violence has waned considerably. The deaths of American soldiers have also fallen sharply, from a high of a hundred and twenty-six last May, as the surge intensified, to thirty-eight last month. For the moment, at least, it looked as if the surge might be working.
In a sense, the surge was belated emergency triage. Some of Baghdad’s most dangerous Sunni neighborhoods, like Ghazaliya and Amiriya, have been tackled, but much of Diyala province, stretching from Baghdad northeast to the Iranian border, and Kirkuk, which has become a flashpoint because of Kurdish claims to the city and its oil resources, remain horrific battlegrounds. On October 29th, the same day that the decapitated bodies of twenty men were found outside Baquba, in Diyala, a suicide bomber on a bicycle killed twenty-nine policemen in the city.
And there has yet to be any significant U.S. troop presence in Baghdad’s Shiite slums, such as Sadr City and Shulla, which are controlled by Shiite militiamen. Many of them claim to be members of the Mahdi Army, led by Moqtada al-Sadr, whose political brinkmanship and tactical use of violence have been an enduring source of bewilderment to the Pentagon’s war planners. Indeed, analysts credit much of the recent drop in Iraqi civilian deaths not to the surge but to Sadr’s decision, in August, to order the Mahdi Army, which is believed to have been responsible for much of the Shiite-on-Sunni sectarian killing in and around Baghdad, to “freeze” its activities for six months. Sadr’s apparent aim was to ward off an escalation of a two-day gun battle between the Mahdi and another Shiite militia, and to reassert his control over his men.
The surge also coincided with the so-called Sunni Awakening, the decision by some Anbar tribesmen to ally themselves with the Americans and to fight against Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia—a shift that was not foreseen in Petraeus’s plan. Sunnis in other areas have since joined them, though many have not; Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia is still active, and foreign jihadis remain in the country. On September 13th, Abu Risha, the Sunni tribal leader regarded as the catalyst of the alliance, whom President Bush had met in Anbar ten days before, was assassinated. Abu Risha was an influential and charismatic figure, and although his brother stepped in to take his place, most of the Iraqis I spoke to viewed his death as a serious loss and wondered how long his brother would survive. Still, there was hope that Al Qaeda might eventually be neutralized, thus removing at least one vicious aspect of the multifaceted war.
Some combination of the surge, the Sunni Awakening, and Sadr’s freeze has helped to stabilize troubled areas of the capital and Anbar; it is unclear whether the gains can be expanded upon—or even sustained—with fewer troops, but further increases alone will not win the war. And no more troop additions are planned; instead, President Bush has promised to withdraw, by next July, almost as many troops as were brought in for the surge. Iraq’s future, for the moment, is in limbo. The best one can say, perhaps, is that the U.S. has bought or borrowed a little space to work with. But there have been costs, some more obvious than others.
A few days before General Petraeus testified before Congress, I met with Sheikh Zaidan al-Awad, a prominent Sunni tribal leader from Anbar. The last time I had seen him, in 2004, he was full of hostile bluster about the U.S., and made no secret of his identification with the “resistance,” as he described the hard-line Sunni insurgents. Sheikh Zaidan was a fugitive, suspected by the Americans of being a sponsor of the insurgency, and he was living in voluntary exile in Jordan. But when we spoke this fall, in an apartment in Amman, Zaidan told me that he had recently met for informal talks with American military and intelligence officials, because he approved of what they were now doing—allowing Sunni tribesmen to police themselves.
I asked Zaidan what sort of deal had led to the Sunni Awakening. “It’s not a deal,” he said, bristling. “People have come to realize that our fate is tied to the Americans’, and theirs to ours. If they are successful in Iraq, it will depend on Anbar. We always said this. Time was lost. America was lost, but now it’s woken up; it now holds a thread in its hand. For the first time, they’re doing something right.”
Zaidan said that Anbar’s Sunni tribes no longer had any need to exact blood vengeance on U.S. forces. “We’ve already taken our revenge,” he said. “We’re the ones who’ve made them crawl on their stomachs, and now we’re the ones to pick them up.” He added, “Once Anbar is settled, we must take control of Baghdad, and we will.” There would have to be a lot more fighting before the capital was taken back from the Shiites, he said. “The Anbaris will take charge of the purge. What the whole world failed to do in Anbar, we have done overnight. Baghdad will be a lot easier.”
Many of the players in Iraq seemed, like Zaidan, to be positioning themselves for the next battle. While the Shiites issued warnings about the Sunnis’ intentions, nearly all the talk among the Americans was of the Mahdi Army and its reputed sponsor, Iran, which Petraeus accused of waging a “proxy war” in Iraq; there were dismissive references to Al Qaeda as a spent force.
Colonel Burton said, “Al Qaeda is relatively easy to fight. You just fight them, deny them access.” The Mahdi Army, he said, “was harder.” By all accounts, the Mahdi Army and other Shiite militias had penetrated the Iraqi security forces, and Sadr’s political party was an on-again, off-again partner in Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated coalition government. “We began investigating the Iraqi security forces and began to target them, their leaders, and members of the Iraqi government,” Burton said. (One notorious case of official involvement in sectarian killings concerns the former deputy health minister and the ministry’s security chief. In February, the men, who are Shiites and loyalists of Moqtada al-Sadr, were arrested on charges of organizing the murders of hundreds of Sunnis in Baghdad’s hospitals—including patients, their relatives, and medical staff.)
Referring to the Mahdi Army by the acronym of its Arabic name, Jaish al- Mahdi, Colonel Burton said, “I talk to some of these JAM guys, you know. I have e-mail contact with some of them. Recently, a JAM sheikh in Khadamiya told me that if I released three of his guys there’d be no more attacks on U.S. forces there.” He raised his eyebrows.
The Shiite authorities’ control over many government services meant that there was a great deal of institutional discrimination against Sunni communities. When I was there, for example, Ghazaliya residents complained of receiving half as much electricity a day as a neighboring Shiite area. The Americans were doing a lot of politicking to alleviate the situation, but it hadn’t been easy. “On the Shia side, there’s lots of money moving around, and essential services are doing really well,” Burton said. “But on the Sunni side—not so well.”
The new strategy, like most of the previous strategies employed in Iraq, had the drawback of having been imposed by the Americans. Many of the Shiite politicians in Iraq’s government were angry about the U.S. decision to wall off Baghdad neighborhoods and to recruit and arm Sunni volunteer organizations without consulting them. There were fears that the U.S. was simply arming a new set of militias—undermining the authority of the fragile coalition government. This may have been part of the goal. Iraq, with a hundred and seventy thousand U.S. troops on its soil, is not a sovereign country, and the U.S. uses its military power to shape the Iraqi political scene. By strengthening the hand of the Sunnis, the U.S. effectively forced the Maliki government to incorporate more Sunnis into the security forces—a step toward national reconciliation.
Shiite political parties and militias are so interwoven that a Shiite equivalent of the Sunni Awakening seems unlikely—it would probably require a split within the Shiite community, a civil war within a civil war. Iran would also be a major factor. Given Sadr’s alleged close links to Iranian hard-liners, and the growing hostility between Iran and the United States, his future moves are virtually impossible to predict. A largely covert conflict is already taking place between Iran and the United States. Iran has intervened in Iraq by providing financial and military support for Shiite militia groups, and, more directly, by sending agents and officials there. Iraq’s Shiite leaders have long had close ties to Iran, where many of them lived in exile during Saddam’s rule, and they and the Kurds have, without visible success, sought greater coöperation between Iran and the U.S. over security in Iraq. Many Sunnis, meanwhile, are distrustful of any dealings with Iran, and are unabashed about their hostility.
Sheikh Zaidan offered a vision of how the conflict in Iraq could escalate to the advantage of the Sunnis: “I think America will be able to start a Shia-Shia civil war in the south—with the Arab Shia, the tribes, being supported by the U.S., and the Persian Shiites supported by Iran.” He said that this would be an opportunity for the Americans to “cut off the head of Iran’s government and its militias in Iraq.” The Sunnis could help in this fight, he suggested.
The likelihood of Zaidan’s scenario being played out depends, to a large extent, on how the Iranians, the Americans, and the Iraqi Shiites choose to shape their ongoing competition for influence. Political moderates may broker a settlement. But Zaidan’s views are shared by many in the Sunni community, where extremist positions still have a hold. At one roadblock in Ghazaliya, I spoke with a Ghazaliya Guardian, a twenty-six-year-old Sunni who identified himself as Officer Ahmed. He told me that he thought a purge of Shiites from power in Baghdad, such as that proposed by Zaidan, was a good idea. When I asked Officer Ahmed how his neighborhood had gone from being a bastion of the insurgency to a model of coöperation, his response was vague. “When the Ghazaliya Guardians started, the terrorists disappeared,” he said. “We don’t know where they are now.” He had been elsewhere during the fighting, he said, and returned only when it was over.
I found the young Guardian’s story of the recent past—in which he had merely tried to keep his head down until things blew over—unconvincing. In most of my conversations with the Iraqis working with the Americans, their true motivations struck me as unknowable. The Americans, no doubt driven by an urgent need to establish greater security, to be able to draw down troops, seemed all too willing to take their new allies at face value.
At J.S.S. Thrasher, Brooks and his men conducted raids several times a week, usually after dark. The raids were generally the result of tips from residents who called in to a hot line manned twenty-four hours a day by Iraqi interpreters, known as Terps; during daily patrols, Brooks’s men passed out flyers with the phone number. “We say, ‘If anyone threatens you, give a call.’ The foot patrols are key: when you see someone walking down your street, when you see a face—it’s different,” Brooks said. “As a tank commander, I found it funny—the first thing I had to do was tell my tankers to get out and walk.”
Brooks said that he had wanted to be a tank commander ever since he was a boy (“I love tanks”). After high school, in Springdale, Arkansas, he had gone to the New Mexico Military Institute, in Roswell, and afterward joined the Kansas Army National Guard. He was in the U.S. Armor Officer Basic Course during the attacks of September 11th, and in 2003 was sent to Iraq. He was eleven months into his second fifteen-month deployment. Brooks and his men had been told that they might be home for Christmas, but nobody was getting his hopes up too much yet.
One night, I went along on a raid, which Brooks designated Operation Muttonchops, because the main target was a man with a lot of facial hair. We drove from Thrasher in a Bradley Fighting Vehicle. The Americans had superimposed their own lexicon on the neighborhood’s geography, to make it comprehensible to themselves. Just as Ghazaliya had been divided into three areas—Casino, Thrasher, and Maverick—all the major road arteries were referred to in Pentagonese: Red Falcon, Caradine, Vernon, Cecil, R.P.G. Alley, High Tension Road, and so forth. Few of the American soldiers knew how the locals referred to those same streets.