This week, the U.S. announced that military deaths in Iraq had fallen dramatically, to the lowest levels since March 2006, a sign that the surge of troops is working. Officers say increased cooperation from Iraqi civilians - who are tired of the terrorism and violence - has helped stem attacks.
This comes as no surprise to Michael Yon, a writer who has blogged from Iraq since 2005. Yon, who is supported by donations to his Web site (michaelyon-online.com), writes about his own observations on the ground this year, embedded with U.S. troops.
Statistics in reports about faraway places can blunt the reality of what those numbers mean. But when it is a bomb in a road you are about to drive on, it takes on a whole new cast, as I found yet again when I spent most of May in Anbar Province.
I visited a former labor camp nicknamed “Coolie Village," or what remained of it, after a truck bomb locals attributed to al Qaeda had flattened it. Not surprisingly, the anger and frustration in response to this mass murder helped the villagers overcome their fear of the thugs who had taken hold of their community.
In mid-May, 2007, the Iraqi Army and Police had conducted a “Combined Medical Exercise" in the village of Falahat, and Iraqi doctors saw about 200 villagers. Two days later, the Iraqi Police opened an outpost at the old Falahat train station. That was just about the same time I was driving out to stay with a small team of Marines who were assigned as “MiTT 8" (Military Training Team 8.)
The men of MiTT 8 were living with their Iraqi protégées in filthy shipping containers on a highway. Several months ago they were attacked by a car bomb. But at about 9 a.m., while I was traveling to their location with Marines in a Humvee, some Falahat villagers went to the new police station to report the presence of a culprit they knew was placing bombs on the road.
It happened that quickly.
Within mere days of opening the station, people spoke up. The Iraqi Police (some of whom freely admitted to having been recent insurgents) called the tip into the Iraqi Army living with the Marines of MiTT 8. Our Humvee pulled up to the small MiTT 8 compound, where we met Staff Sergeant Rakene Lee, who was dressed for combat, and who was to take the Humvees and lead the mission to the suspected bomb site. The Iraqi Army was already blocking the road.
The patrol I was with had nearly run into an IED, except for a tip from Iraqis in another village, making what could have been my last dispatch.
JUSTICE TO POWER
All across Iraq, people are fed up with the abuse of power, even when it wears the badge of a police officer, even when it's a local hero.
When I was in the city of Hit this May, I saw firsthand a dramatic example. Many people in Hit directly attribute the resurrection of their city in large part to the courage of Iraqi Police General Ibrahim Hamid Jaza, who took an aggressive stand against the al Qaeda Iraq (AQI) terrorists who had brazenly made Anbar province a home base and slaughterhouse with their marketplace car bombs, beheadings and reputation for hiding bombs intended to kill parents in the corpses of dead children they'd gutted.
Between shooting people for using the Internet, watching television or other “moral transgressions" such as smoking in public, AQI's claim of fundamentalist piety proved to be a thin veneer, quickly eroded by blatant drug, alcohol and prostitute use. The people of Anbar rejected AQI, but AQI was still strong and well-armed, so rejection was only a first step.
General Hamid was one of the brave souls who took an early stand and went for their throats. In doing so, he demonstrated that the terrorists were also vulnerable. Some soldiers began to jokingly refer to the general as “Bufford Pusser" because Hamid literally carried a big stick. But AQI wasn't laughing; they beheaded Hamid's son on a soccer field in the center of Hit in 2005.
About a year ago Coalition forces selected Hamid to be the district chief of police, confirming his status as a true hero to many Americans and Iraqis.
But recent signs suggested that Hamid might have flown too close to the sun. Details of his corruption began to accumulate. It was a stunning development when, without warning or notice, the U.S. military arrested and detained the general.
They had no choice, the evidence was clear. Furthermore, the people of Anbar had risked reaching out to the Americans, expressing a concern about Hamid and sharing intelligence to support it. They expected U.S. soldiers to help solve the problem. And although some feared the arrest would cause the city to erupt in violent clashes, what happened next is powerful testimony for how much the area has changed. The next day, Hamid's supporters, and there were many, gathered in the market square and held an organized and peaceful protest demonstration, after which they all went back home.
STENCH OF EVIL
From Anbar, I traveled back to Baghdad then to Diyala, where al Qaeda had announced to the world it would base its caliphate in the provincial capital Baqubah. I was embedded with soldiers who formed the spear point of the largest offensive operation since the invasion of Iraq, and I watched as people from all walks of life came forward to share information that saved the lives of American and Iraq soldiers and cleared the streets of the al Qaeda operatives.
In one of my first reports from the still unfolding Operation Arrowhead Ripper, I wrote:
Locals, who are increasingly helpful in pointing out and celebrating the downfall of AQI here, said that during the initial Arrowhead Ripper attack the morning of June 19th, AQI murdered five men. [U.S. soldiers] found the buried corpses behind an AQI prison, exactly where they'd been told to look for the group grave. Locals also directed [soldiers] to a torture house. Peering through the window, American soldiers saw knives, swords, bindings and drills. AQI is well-known for its macabre eagerness to drill into kneecaps, elbows ribs, skulls and other parts of victims.
During the operation's initial phase, U.S. soldiers encountered about 130 serious IEDs on the way in, but suffered only one fatality in the attack; Iraqis were pointing to the bombs before they could detonate.
Over many embeds, stretching out over the course of three years, I've seen massacres occur before my eyes, and I've heard more stories about the brutality (and inanity) of al Qaeda than I can or want to remember.
But one stands out, from June of this year, when I was with U.S. and Iraqi forces in a small abandoned village near Baqubah. There, in a series of shallow graves, were the remains of murdered people, among them the discarded bodies of little children whose heads had been cut off. The stench was horrific. Even the stock animals were killed and left to rot in the sun. There was no human or animal left alive in the village.
Captain Baker, Scorpion Company Commander (5th Iraqi Army), whose men had the gruesome task of digging up all the graves, told me al Qaeda had taken the village of al Hamira, which had the apparent misfortune of being located near a main road, making it ideal for launching attacks on soldiers. Days after, an Iraqi man told me in a room full of American and Iraqi military officers, that al Qaeda had “invited" parents they wanted to “influence" to lunch, and then brought in the body of their baked son. I do not know if the stories were true, and no proof was offered, but other Iraqis in the area told similar stories and all seemed to believe it. And, of course, I had just seen the decapitated heads of children in al Hamira village and smelled their rotting bodies. The stench of al Qaeda will forever remain with me.
The level of brutality against ordinary Iraqis throughout Diyala, often directed against women and children, is what prompted many Sunni insurgent militia groups to come forward and work with Coalition forces. Some groups, such as the 1920 Revolution Brigades, were formerly allied with al Qaeda, or at least willing to facilitate or ignore their attacks against Shia or Coalition forces.
The 1920s are deadly, and they had been worthy adversaries for us, but when al Qaeda control turned to indiscriminate murder of innocent civilians, the 1920s joined forces with the U.S. and Iraqi Armies and together they practically mopped the streets of AQI in Baqubah.
Before heading to Anbar in May, I'd spent some time with the soldiers of the 1-4 Cavalry as they converted an abandoned seminary in a dangerous Baghdad neighborhood into their new home and headquarters as COP (Combat Outpost) Amanche. I wrote about some early encouraging signs of how the neighbors might respond to the presence of American and Iraqi soldiers so close by. I ended an April dispatch with a photograph of LTC James Crider, commander of the 1-4 CAV, with this caption: “And so we find it here, in the Garden of Eden, in God's hands through the 1-4 Cavalry from Kansas: the last hope against genocide in the land between two rivers."
In late September I received an e-mail update from LTC Crider, which he allowed me to publish on my Web site. In it, he wrote: “One other example, recently we had seven IEDs discovered or detonated in a single seven day span. On every one, we got a phone call from a local national telling us exactly where it was or we were called immediately after and told who placed it. For the record, not one IED was effective."
Today, I'm staying at a small outpost called JSS (Joint Security Station) “Black Lions" with the 1-18th Infantry battalion. Al Qaeda are so diminished in this area, according to the commander here, LTC Patrick Frank, that they are maybe 3 percent of the problem. But JAM (the Madhi Army created by cleric Muqtada al-Sadr) is the big problem around JSS Black Lion.
A soldier was blown up and killed about 400 meters away on Thursday evening. LTC Frank told me the other day that his best weapon system is his cell phone. Calls come to him (through his interpreter) every day and into the night, with information from locals about the whereabouts of wanted JAM members. Many local people are clearly fed up with the violence. Some even send e-mails with Google Earth maps showing exactly where suspects are, and they are doing it in real time.
We'll be sitting there in the TOC (tactical operations center or HQ) and an e-mail comes in and it's literally a map (or a photo of one) with detailed descriptions of wanted men and/or caches. And the information is turning out to be true. I have never seen anything like this before,
It's becoming almost bizarre how specific the informants are becoming. Informants have called up saying they are with bad guys right now and giving their location. Our guys show up and arrest everyone. Hours later, the U.S. soldiers let the informants go. JAM and AQI are getting slammed in many areas because local people are sick of the violence and local people trust Americans to help them end it.
Where all this can end was suggested to me on Wednesday, when I was at a large Sunni-Shia reconciliation meeting where more than 80 local leaders attended and signed an agreement.
Whether it can be sustained here, or spread to other areas, is in question. But the resolve of Iraqi people to end the scourge of sectarian violence that has stalled and scarred their country is not.