BAGHDAD -- Gen. John Abizaid made headlines three weeks ago when he told Congress that civil war was a possibility in Iraq. Yesterday he went into two of Baghdad's most dangerous neighborhoods to see whether a new U.S.-led offensive against the death squads and insurgents is making any progress.
Abizaid invited me and a CBS reporter to join him on this journey into the heart of the Baghdad battle zone. In what follows, I want to draw a picture of what we saw.
First, some background: This summer, any chance of success in Iraq seemed to be slipping away. Even Abizaid, who as head of U.S. Central Command has overall responsibility for the troops here, had to admit in his congressional testimony that the trends were going the wrong way. Baghdad was being terrorized by Sunni insurgents and Shiite death squads. More than 1,500 people were murdered in Baghdad in July, a daily average of 52 victims a day. The level of sectarian violence was so high that many wondered whether Iraq wasn't already in a civil war. The new government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki seemed powerless to stop the downward spiral.
Abizaid and his commanders decided to focus on Baghdad, the eye of this hurricane of violence. They crafted a new plan called "Operation Forward Together" in which U.S. troops, backed by Iraqi forces, would wrest back control of the city's most violent areas. This new battle of Baghdad began on Aug. 7, led by Maj. Gen. James D. Thurman, a bristly, rough-hewn Oklahoman who commands the 4th Infantry Division and has been dubbed "the Thurmanator." He was Abizaid's guide yesterday into two of the three neighborhoods that have been cleared so far: Amiriyah in northwest Baghdad and Doura in the southern part of the city.
As we entered Amiriyah in the late afternoon of a 115-degree August day, the streets were almost deserted. When the cleanup began, the area was cordoned off and then searched house to house by U.S. and Iraqi troops. People live behind their gates; through the metal fences, you can see well-tended gardens, despite the trash in the alleys. Surprisingly, perhaps, there was little resistance. People were fed up. In the two weeks since the crackdown began, there has been a 44 percent decline in violent attacks compared with the previous month and an 83 percent drop in murders.
As our convoy of armored Humvees rumbled down Amal al-Shaabi Street, we approached a little store selling toys and knickknacks. Abizaid, a Lebanese American who speaks Arabic well, bounded out of his vehicle and began conversing with the owner, a man named Firas. The shopkeeper seemed amused to meet an American general who asked in Arabic, "How's it going?" His message to Abizaid was repeated many times by others during the afternoon: Sunnis here are glad to see the Americans restore order; they tolerate the Iraqi army, but they distrust the Iraqi police; they want basic services such as water and electricity. As for Maliki's government, "It doesn't do anything," the owner of an ice cream parlor called Afna told Abizaid.
We stopped a few minutes later at Abbas Mosque, a small Sunni shrine. Sheik Khaled Mohammed al-Ubaidi, dressed in a knitted white prayer cap and a long white robe, came out to greet Abizaid. The general asked if security had improved and the sheik answered: "Thank God, yes!" Now that U.S. forces are going after Shiite death squads, he said, Sunnis here "understand the Americans are serious about the rule of law." (In the past three weeks, the U.S. military has killed about 25 death squad leaders and captured more than 200, according to Thurman.)
The cleanup has brought a similar respite to Doura, the second neighborhood we visited. You can still see the pieces of red tape on the front gates of each of the homes that were swept. The murder rate has fallen by 83 percent in August, compared with the 30 days before the crackdown began. For Baghdad overall, the murder rate has dropped 41 percent this month.
What does the new battle of Baghdad tell us? I'm still mulling the answer, but my sense is that it's something we already knew: With enough troops and aggressive tactics, American forces can bring order to even the meanest streets. But it's only the Iraqis themselves who can stabilize these neighborhoods permanently. I'm sure about one thing: Iraqi leaders need to do what Abizaid did yesterday -- escape the artificial world of the Green Zone and get back on these streets, where they can begin to lead by example.