HAMADAH, IRAQ -- This small,
rural village in the Diyala Province north of Baghdad experienced a revolution a month ago. It had been controlled by al Qaeda and its band of
teen killers who terrorized the place. The mayor of the nearby city of
Muqdadiya lived here - until al Qaeda blew up his house and he fled.
The village became a ghost town.
Then, for the first time in
five years of war, US troops showed up. They captured key al Qaeda
leaders, and the rest ran away. Local citizens formed a makeshift
security force, and people returned to the streets. Suddenly, it was a
"I told everyone this is a golden opportunity," says
Hassen Nssaif Jasim, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Iraq army who
leads the local security volunteers. "Don't lose it."
towns like this one, with a population of 750 and a dirt road as the
main thoroughfare, are highly vulnerable to al Qaeda. "It's easy to
intimidate them," explains an American officer. "They get up in the
morning, and there are a bunch of heads in the soccer field."
At this village level, the War on Terror is less a grand ideological
struggle than an elemental fight to replace men with guns who want to
prey on the local population (al Qaeda) with men with guns who want to
help it (us). It doesn't take a romanticism about human nature to
realize most people will prefer the latter.
Hertling, who commands US forces in the north, recalls being introduced
in the village of Himbus to a 12-year- old girl who had pointed out
where the al Qaeda thugs were hiding. "I asked her why she had done
that," Gen. Hertling says, "and she said, 'They killed my two brothers,
my father couldn't farm, and I couldn't go to school.'"
It would still be that way without US forces. Iraq is a
mind-bogglingly complex country that defies generalizations, except
this one - where US troops have a substantial presence, there is more
security, more grass-roots political ferment and more economic
This swath of Iraq north of Baghdad has long been an
"economy of force" operation - in other words, undermanned. Even as the
biggest city, Mosul, sank into chaos in 2005, the American force wasn't
increased. At the start of the surge, it lost troops to the fight to
secure Baghdad. One battalion (600 troops) had responsibility for a
city of nearly 2 million.
Increasingly squeezed out of Baghdad
and Anbar province to the West, al Qaeda naturally has been fleeing in
this direction. But added US troops also have flowed north, and they're
denying al Qaeda the population centers (a battle looms for Mosul).
The foremost question for the United States in Iraq is if we will deny
ourselves the most important instrument to influence the outcome - our
troops. Already, drawing down from the surge means a 25 percent
reduction in US combat power in six months. US commanders think they
can avoid backsliding by thinning out their forces on the ground rather
than pulling them out of areas entirely.
Back home, pressure
for a bigger draw-down comes from opponents of the war, as well as
forces within the Pentagon who say the Army is "broken."
one denies the strain on the Army, or the inspiring, heart-wrenching
sacrifices made by our men and women. But a broken Army couldn't
possibly have accomplished what our troops have in Iraq in the past
year. And it is hard to imagine what the military is for if not to kill
al Qaeda (through "lead poisoning," as an officer puts it colorfully).
Before he lets his American visitors leave his front yard, Hassen
Nssaif Jasim insists that they take home a message: "We are very
serious, and we are going to go all the way to the end of the path. We
don't want you to leave." And we shouldn't.