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Eyewitness Accounts of the Iraq "Surge"

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Update from AIJAC

July 27, 2007
Number 07/07 #10 

This Update features eyewitness accounts of the progress of the troop surge in Iraq, as well as some big-picture analysis of how the strategy, finally now in full effect, is going.

First up is blogger embedded reporter Michael Totten, who offers a fascinating account of how the new strategy is affecting one north Baghdad neighbourhood, called Graya'at. He offers insights into the positive changes occurring, the tactics and behaviour of US forces, the attitude of residents, and the problems that clearly still remain on a day-to-day level. For Totten's highly informative report, CLICK HERE.

Next up, Baghdad blogger Omar Fadhil argues, based on his own experience, that the surge is working. He says both al-Qaeda and the  Shi'ite extremist leader Moqtada al-Sadr have now been reduced to fighting their own former bases of support, which is likely to cripple their efforts to continue sectarian strife. He also says the successes in Baghdad have been "spectacular" and pleads for the troops to be given time to finish their current push. To read his full description of the situation, CLICK HERE.

Finally, retired US army General John M. Keane, who serves as a Pentagon consultant on Iraq, gives his view on the state of the surge in an interview. He says things are actually going better than expected, and predicts that in a year's time, things will be mostly stable. He also answers some tough questions about the prospects of the political compromises that need to be made. For Gen. Keene's assessment, CLICK HERE.


In the Wake of the Surge

By Michael J. Totten

michaeltotten.com, July 24, 2007

BAGHDAD – 82nd Airborne’s Lieutenant William H. Lord from Foxborough, Massachusetts, prepared his company for a dismounted foot patrol in the Graya’at neighborhood of Northern Baghdad’s predominantly Sunni Arab district of Adhamiyah.

“While we’re out here saying hi to the locals and everyone seems to be getting along great,” he said, “remember to keep up your military bearing. Someone could try to kill you at any moment.”

I donned my helmet and vest, hopped into the backseat of a Humvee, and headed into the streets of the city with two dozen of the first infantry soldiers deployed to Iraq for the surge. The 82nd Airborne Division is famous for being ready to roll within 24 hours of call up, so they were sent first.

The surge started with these guys. Its progress here is therefore more measurable than it is anywhere else.

Darkness fell almost immediately after sunset. Microscopic dust particles hung in the air like a fog and trapped the day’s savage heat in the atmosphere.

Our convoy of Humvees passed through a dense jungular grove of palm and deciduous trees between Forward Operating Base War Eagle and the market district of Graya’at. The drivers switched off their headlights so insurgents and terrorists could not see us coming. They drove using night vision goggles as eyes.

Just to the right of my knees were the feet of the gunner. He stood in the middle of the Humvee and manned a machine gun in a turret sticking out of the top. I could hear him swiveling his cannon from side to side and pointing it into the trees as we approached the urban sector in their area of operations.

This was all purely defensive. The battalion I’m embedded with here in Baghdad hasn’t suffered a single casualty – not even one soldier wounded – since they arrived in the Red Zone in January. The surge in this part of the city could not possibly be going better than it already is. Most of Graya’at’s insurgents and terrorists who haven’t yet fled are either captured, dormant, or dead.

A car approached our Humvee with its lights on.

“I can’t see, I can’t see,” said the driver. Bright lights are blinding with night vision goggles. “Flash him with the laser,” he said to the gunner. “Flash him with the laser!”

A green laser beam shot out from the gunner’s turret toward the windshield of the oncoming car. The headlights went out.

“What was that about?” I said.

“It’s part of our rules of engagement,” the driver said. “They all know that. The green laser is a warning, and it’s a little bit scary because it looks like a weapon is being pointed at them.”

We slowly rolled into the market area. Smiling children ran up to and alongside the convoy and excitedly waved hello. It felt like I was riding with a liberating army.

Graya’at’s streets are quiet and safe. It doesn’t look or feel like war zone at all. American soldiers just a few miles away are still engaged in almost daily firefights with insurgents and terrorists, but this part of the city has been cleared by the surge.

Before the surge started the neighborhood was much more dangerous than it is now.

“We were on base at Camp Taji [north of the city] and commuting to work,” Major Jazdyk told me earlier. “The problem with that was that the only space we dominated was inside our Humvees. So we moved into the neighborhoods and live there now with the locals. We know them and they know us.”

Lieutenant Lawrence Pitts from Fayetteville, North Carolina, elaborated. “We patrol the streets of this neighborhood 24/7,” he said. “We knock on doors, ask people what they need help with. We really do what we can to help them out. We let them know that we’re here to work with them to make their city safe in the hopes that they’ll give us the intel we need on the bad guys. And it worked.”

The area of Baghdad just to the south of us, which the locals think of as downtown Adhamiyah, is surrounded by a wall recently built by the Army. It is not like the wall that divides Israel from the West Bank. Pedestrians can cross it at will. Only the roads are blocked off. Vehicles are routed through two very strict checkpoints. Weapons transporters and car bombers can’t get in or out.

The area inside the wall is mostly Sunni. The areas outside the wall are mostly Shia. Violence has been drastically reduced on both sides because Sunni militias – including Al Qaeda – are kept in, and Shia militias – including Moqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army, are kept out.

Graya’at is a mixed Sunni-Shia neighborhood immediately to the north of the wall.

We dismounted our Humvees and set up a vehicle checkpoint on the far side of the market area. Curfew was going into effect. Anyone trying to drive into the area would be searched.

Dozens of Iraqi civilians milled about on the streets.

“Salam Aleikum,” said the soldiers and I as we walked past.

“Aleikum as Salam,” said each in return.

They really did seem happy to see us.

Children ran up to me.

“Mister, mister, mister!” they said and pantomimed the snapping of photos. I lifted my camera to my face and they nodded excitedly.

A large group of men gathered around a juice vendor and greeted us warmly as we approached. A large man in a flowing dishdasha spoke English and, judging by the deference showed to him by the others, seemed to be a community leader of some sort.

Kids pulled on my shirt as Lieutenant Lord spoke to the group about a gas station the Army is helping set up in the neighborhood. Gasoline is more important to Iraqis than it is to even Americans. Baghdad is as much an automobile-based city as Los Angeles. They also need fuel for electric generators. Baghdad’s electrical grid only supplies one hour of electricity every day. It is ancient, overloaded, in severe disrepair, and is sabotaged by the insurgents. The outside temperature rarely drops below 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, even at night. Air conditioners aren’t luxuries here. They are requirements. No gasoline? No air conditioner.

“The gas station on the corner should be opening soon,” the lieutenant said to the group of men. “Do you think the prices are fair?”

The fat man understood the question. Our young interpreter from Beirut, Lebanon, who calls herself “Shine,” translated for everyone else.

Most gasoline in Iraq has to be purchased on the black market for four times the commercial and government rate partly because there is an acute lack of proper places to sell it. A new gas station in this country is actually a big deal.

The men thought the price of gasoline at the station was reasonable. The conversation continued mundanely and I quickly grew bored.

Everyone was friendly. No one shot at us or even looked at us funny. Infrastructure problems, not security, were the biggest concerns at the moment. I felt like I was in Iraqi Kurdistan – where the war is already over – not in Baghdad.

It was an edgy “Kurdistan,” though. Every now and then someone drove down the street in a vehicle. If any military-aged males (MAMs as the Army guys call them) were in the car, the soldiers stopped it and made everybody get out. The vehicle and the men were then searched.

Everyone who was searched took it in stride. Some of the Iraqi men smirked slightly, as if the whole thing were a minor joke and a non-threatening routine annoyance that they had been through before. The procedure looked and felt more like airport security in the United States than, say, the more severe Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank and Gaza.

“What are you guys doing out after curfew?” said Sergeant Lizanne.

“I’m sorry, sorry,” said a young Iraqi man in a striped blue and tan t-shirt.

“There is no sorry,” said Sergeant Lizanne. “I don’t give a shit. The curfew is at the same time every night. I don’t want to have to start arresting you.”

“Why are you stopping these guys,” I said to Lieutenant Wolf, “when there are so many other people milling around on the streets?”

“Because they’re MAMs who are driving,” he said. “We’re going easy on everyone else. We’ve already oppressed these people enough. They have a night culture in the summer, so if they aren’t military aged males driving cars we leave them alone. We were very heavy-handed in 2003. Now we’re trying to move forward together. At least 90 percent of them are normal fun-loving people.”

“Do they ever get pissed off when you search them?” I said.

“Not very often,” he said. “They understand we’re trying to protect them.”

“This is not what I expected in Baghdad,” I said.

“Most of what we’re doing doesn’t get reported in the media,” he said. “We’re not fighting a war here anymore, not in this area. We’ve moved way beyond that stage. We built a soccer field for the kids, bought all kinds of equipment, bought them school books and even chalk. Soon we’re installing 1,500 solar street lamps so they have light at night and can take some of the load off the power grid. The media only covers the gruesome stuff. We go to the sheiks and say hey man, what kind of projects do you want in this area? They give us a list and we submit the paperwork. When the projects get approved, we give them the money and help them buy stuff.”

Not everything they do is humanitarian work, unless you consider counter-terrorism humanitarian work. In my view, you should. Few Westerners think of personal security as a human right, but if you show up in Baghdad I’ll bet you will. Personal security may, in fact, be the most important human right. Without it the others mean little. People aren’t free if they have to hide in their homes from death squads and car bombs.

In another part of Graya’at is an area called the Fish Market. Gates were installed at each entrance so terrorists can’t drive car bombs inside. The people here are extraordinarily grateful for this. Businesses, not cars, are booming now at the market. Residents feel free and safe enough to go out.

“The kids here do seem to like you,” I said to Lieutenant Lord.

“They do,” he said. “In Sadr City, though, they throw rocks and flip us off.”

The American military is staying out of Sadr City for now. The surge hasn’t even begun there, and I don’t know if it will.

I wandered over to the man selling juice at a stand. An American soldier bought a glass from him.

“Have you tried this juice?” the soldier said to me. “It’s really good stuff. Here have a sip.”

He handed me the glass. It was an excellent mixture of freshly squeezed orange juice and something else. Pineapple, I think.

The kids kept pulling my shirt.

“Mister, mister!” they said, wanting me to take their picture.

The same kids kept pestering the soldiers, as well. They seemed to get a big kick out of it.

A small group of soldiers continued talking to the locals about community projects they’re helping out with.

I tried to listen in but the kids wouldn’t leave me alone. Finally one of the adults took mercy on me and shooed the children away so I could listen and talk to the grownups. The conversation, though, was mundane. The soldiers were talking and acting like aid workers, not warriors from the elite 82nd Airborne Division.

“Man, this is boring,” one of them said to me later. “I’m an adrenaline junky. There’s no fight here. It won’t surprise me if we start handing out speeding tickets.” So it goes in at least this part of Baghdad that has been cleared by the surge.

“When we first got here,” said another and laughed, “shit hit the fan.”

It was all a bit boring, but blessedly so. I knew already that not everyone in Baghdad was hostile. But it was slightly surprising to see that entire areas in the Red Zone are not hostile.

Anything can happen in Baghdad, even so. The convulsive, violent, and overtly hostile Sadr City is only a few minutes drive to the southeast.

“Want to walk past your favorite house?” Lieutenant Lord said to Sergeant Lizanne.

“Let’s do it,” said Sergeant Lizanne.

“What’s your favorite house?” I said.

“It’s a house we walked past one night,” said Sergeant Lizanne. “Some guys on the roof locked and loaded on us.”

Gun shots rang out in the far distance. None of the Iraqis paid much attention but the soldiers perked up and stiffened their posture like hunting dogs.

“Gun shots,” Lieutenant Lord said.

“I heard,” I said. “You going to do anything about it?”

“Nah,” he said and shrugged. “They were far away and could be anything, even shots fired in the air at a wedding. A lot of these guys are stereotypical Arabs.”

The gun shots were a part of the general ambience.

We walked along a narrow path along the banks of the Tigris River in darkness. “The house,” as they called it, where someone locked and loaded a rifle, was a quarter mile or so up ahead.

“What will you do when you get to the house?” I asked Lieutenant Wolf.

“We’ll do a soft-knock,” he said. “We’re not going to be dicks about it.”

I couldn’t see well, but I could see. Even my camera could see if I held it steady enough.

The soldiers had night vision goggles. They could see perfectly, if “green” counts as perfect. One of them let me borrow his for a few minutes.

Putting on the goggles was like stepping into another world. The soldiers’ rifles come with a laser that shoots a light visible only to those wearing the goggles. It helps soldiers zero in on their target. It also lets them “point” at things in the terrain when they talk to each other. Some used the green rifle laser to point out locations in the area the way a professor points at a chalk board with a stick.

We walked in silence and darkness toward “the house.” I could just barely make out the silhouettes of the soldiers’ helmets and rifles and body armor in front of me.

“Where should I be when this goes down?” I quietly said to the lieutenant.

“Just stay next to me,” he whispered back.

We stopped in front of the house. It was shrouded in total darkness on the bank of the river.

Lieutenant Wolf quietly signaled for half his platoon to go around to the other side of the house. I scanned the roof looking for snipers or gunmen, but didn’t see anyone. Still, I still decided to step up to the outer wall of the house so no one could shoot me from the roof.

We waited in silence for ten minutes. The area was absolutely quiet and still. The curfew was in effect and we were away from the main market area where pedestrians were allowed out after dark.

Feeling more relaxed, I stepped away from the house and toward the river. Once again I checked the roof for snipers or gun men. This time I saw the black outlines of two soldiers standing up there and motioning to us below.

It was time to walk around to the other side, to the front door, and go in. I stayed close to the lieutenant.

The other side of the house, the front side of the house, was lit by street lights. Children laughed and kicked around a soccer ball.

Gun shots rang out in the night, closer this time.

“Take a knee,” Lieutenant Wolf said to one of his men.

The soldier got down on one knee and pointed his weapon down the street in the direction of the gunfire. The children kept playing soccer as though nothing had happened. I casually leaned against the wall of the house in case something nasty came down the street.

We heard no more shots. It could have been anything.

A soldier pushed open the gate and moved up the stairs toward the front door. I followed cautiously behind the lieutenant to make sure I wouldn’t get hit if something happened.

Up the stairs was an open area in the house that hadn’t yet been finished by the construction workers.

Lieutenant Wolf had gotten far ahead of me. I found him speaking to an old man and his family. He, his military age son, his wife, and some children were herded into a single small room where everyone could be watched at the same time.

“We’re not going to be dicks about it,” he had said, and he lived up to his promise. The family was treated with utmost respect. The old woman blew kisses at us. The children smiled. This was not a raid.

I stepped into the room and noticed a picture of the moderate Shia cleric Ayatollah Sistani on the wall. It suddenly seemed unlikely that this family was hostile. Still, someone in the house had locked and loaded on patrolling American soldiers.

“We have tight relationships with some of the people whose sons are detainees,” Lieutenant Colonel Wilson A. Shoffner had told me earlier. “They don’t approve of their children joining Al Qaeda or the Mahdi Army. The support for these groups really isn’t that high.”

Perhaps the man’s son was the one who had locked and loaded.

The old man handed Lieutenant Wolf an AK-47. The lieutenant pulled out the clip.

“Do you have any more guns,” he said. Our Lebanese interpreter translated.

“I have only one gun,” he said. “I am an old man.”

“I have a pistol,” said the man’s son.

“If you go down into Adhamiyah do you take your pistol with you?” said the lieutenant. Adhamiyah is a Sunni-majority area, and this family was Shia.

“No,” he said. “Of course not.”

“Someone here locked and loaded on me when we did a foot patrol along the river a while ago,” Lieutenant Wolf said. “Who was it?”

The old man laughed. “It was me!” he said and laughed again. He couldn’t stop laughing. He even seemed slightly relieved. “I thought it might have been insurgents! It was dark. I couldn’t see who it was. All Americans are my sons.”

Lieutenant Wolf looked at him dubiously.

“What did you see?” he said. “Tell me the story of what you saw.”

“I heard people walking,” said the old man. “I did not see Americans. I looked over the roof and heard who I guess was your interpreter speaking Arabic.”

“Sergeant Miller,” Lieutenant Wolf said.

“Sir,” Sergeant Miller said.

“Does that sound right to you?”

“Sounds right to me, LT,” he said.

“If this is a nice neighborhood,” Lieutenant Wolf said, “why did you lock and load?”

“I thought maybe there were insurgents down there,” the old man said.

“Are there insurgents here?”

“Maybe. I don’t know. I don’t think here, no.”

“Then why lock and load?”

The old man mumbled something.

“Sergeant Miller, I want to separate the old man from his family,” Lieutenant Wolf said. “Keep an eye on them.”

The lieutenant walked the old man to the roof. I followed.

“I’m very concerned about what you’re telling me,” he said. “Who is making you live in fear?”

“I’m a good guy,” said the old man.

“I’m not saying you aren’t,” said the lieutenant. “I’m just very concerned that you are afraid of somebody here.”

“It was the first time. It was dark. I couldn’t see. I’m very sorry.”

“It’s okay,” said the lieutenant. “You don’t need to be sorry. You have the right to defend yourself and your home. Just be sure if you have to shoot someone that you know who you’re shooting at. Thank you for your help, and I am sorry for waking you up.”

The old man hugged the lieutenant and kissed him on his both cheeks.

The family waved us goodbye.

“Ma Salema,” I said and felt slightly guilty for being there.

We walked back to the Humvees.

“Do you believe him?” I said to the lieutenant. I have no idea how to tell when an Iraqi is lying.

“I do,” he said. “I think he’s a good guy. His story matched what happened.”

“He didn’t want to answer your question, though,” I said, “about who he is afraid of.”

There are terrible stories around here about the masked men of the death squads. Sometimes they break into people’s houses and asking the children who they’re afraid of. If they name the enemies of the death squad, they are spared. If they name the death squad itself, they and their families are killed. It’s a wicked interrogation because it cannot be beaten – the children don’t know which death squad has broken into the house.

“He didn’t want to say who he’s afraid of because he’s afraid,” Lieutenant Wolf said. “If the insurgents find out he gave information to us, or that he helped us, he’s dead.”


------------------------------------------------------------------------

The Surge Is Working

By OMAR FADHIL

Wall Street Journal, July 13, 2007

Baghdad

For nearly three-and-a-half years, the two most dangerous enemies of the American mission in Iraq -- and of the majority of Iraqis who want to build a stable democracy -- had been growing in terms of their capacity to inflict damage. This despite the losses they suffered in battles with Iraqi and American security forces.

Moqtada al-Sadr, on the one hand, grew from a small annoyance as a gang leader in Najaf in April 2003 to become the leader of a monstrous militia that, with the spark al Qaeda provided by bombing the Askari shrine in Samarra, created the sectarian bloodbath we witnessed throughout 2006.

On the other side, al Qaeda's network in Iraq grew from a few dozen infiltrators, supported by disgruntled locals, to an entity that was until recently bragging about establishing Islamic rule on the soil of at least two Iraqi provinces east and west of Baghdad.

And so this country was going through the worst times ever as we moved towards the end of 2006. Iraq was being torn apart by these two terror networks and Iraq was said to be on the verge of "civil war," if it wasn't actually there already.

But the situation looks quite different now.

Last year's crisis made Washington and Baghdad realize that urgent measures needed to be taken to stop the deterioration, and ultimately reverse it. So Washington decided to send in thousands of additional troops. And Baghdad agreed to move its lazy bones and mobilize more Iraqi troops to the capital and coordinate a joint crackdown with the American forces on all outlaw groups, Sunni and Shiite alike.

The big question these days is, did it actually work? Even partially?

First I think we need to remember that states and their traditional armies need to be judged by different metrics than gangs and terror organizations. The latter don't need to win the majority of their battles with American and Iraqi forces. The strength of terrorists and militias is simply their ability to subjugate the civilian populace with fear.

Here is exactly where the American surge and Iraqi plan have proven effective in Baghdad.

The combined use of security walls, the heavy security-force presence in the streets, and an overwhelming number of checkpoints have highly restricted the movement of terrorists and militias inside Baghdad and led to separation. Not a separation of ordinary Sunnis from ordinary Shiites but a separation of both Sunni and Shiite terrorists from their respective priority targets, i.e., civilians of the other sect.

With their movement restricted and their ability to perform operations reduced, they had to look for other targets that are easier to reach. After all, when the goal is to defeat America in Iraq and undermine the democratic political process any target is a good target.

Just look at the difference between the aftermath of the first Samarra bombing in February of 2006 and that of the second bombing in June of 2007. Days after the 2006 bombing more than a hundred Sunni mosques were hit in retaliatory attacks, and thousands of Sunnis were executed by militias in the months that followed. This time only four or five mosques were attacked, none of them in Baghdad proper that I know of.

Sadr's militias have moved the main battlefield south to cities like Samawah, Nasiriyah and Diwaniyah where there's no American surge of troops, and from which many Iraqi troops were recalled to serve in Baghdad. But over there, too, the Iraqi security forces and local administrations did not show the weakness that Sadr was hoping to see. As a result, Sadr's representatives have been forced to accept "truces."

I know this may make things sound as if Sadr has the upper hand, that he can force a truce on the state. But the fact that is missing from news reports is that, with each new eruption of clashes, Sadr's position becomes weaker as tribes and local administrations join forces to confront his outlaw militias.

Al Qaeda hasn't been any luckier than Sadr, and the tide began to turn even before the surge was announced. The change came from the most unlikely city and unlikely people, Ramadi and its Sunni tribes.

In Baghdad the results have been just as spectacular so far. The district where al Qaeda claimed to have established its Islamic emirate is exactly where al Qaeda is losing big now, and at the hands of its former allies who have turned on al Qaeda and are slowly reaching out to the government.

While al Qaeda and Sadr are by no means finished off militarily, what has changed is that both of them are fighting their former public base of support. That course can't lead them to success in fomenting the sectarian war they had bet their money on.

It would be unrealistic to expect political progress to take place along the same timeline as this military progress. The obvious reason is that Iraqi politics tend to be affected by developments on the battlefield. Anyone familiar with the basics of negotiations should understand this.

First things first. Let's allow our troops to finish their job. And when that is done nation-building will follow, and that's where diplomats and politicians will have to do the fighting in their own way while American soldiers can finally enjoy a well-deserved rest.

Backing off now is not an option. The light at the end of the tunnel faded for a whole dark year, but we can see it again now and it's getting brighter. It's our duty to keep walking towards it.

Mr. Fadhil co-writes a blog, IraqTheModel.com, from Baghdad.


------------------------------------------------------------------------

Keane Assessment

A general’s impression.

An NRO Q&A by Rich Lowry

 
National Review online, July 25, 2007 9:45 AM

Editor’s note: The troop surge in Iraq is going “better than we had expected,” reports retired three-star Army general John M. Keane. General Keane is senior managing director and co-founder of Keane Advisors, LLC, and a Defense department adviser on Iraq. In an interview with National Review editor Rich Lowry, General Keane describes some of the military and political progress there.


Rich Lowry:
How’s the surge going?

General Jack Keane: Well I think it’s going better than we had expected, particularly as it pertains to the security operation. The success that the security operation is achieving is, in my judgment, very definable. What I have done is, in my first visit in February since the operation began, I went into neighborhoods in Baghdad and then returned 90 days later to make a comparison. And I will do the same in August.

And remember, flashback to ’06. What happened is the al Qaeda and Sunni insurgents provoked a predictable response from the Shia militia by the Samarra mosque bombing and the assassination plots killing Shias. There was an overpowering response from the Shia militia into the Sunni neighborhoods where hundreds and then thousands of Sunnis and Shia were killed as the result of that. The city was in flames. No schools were operating, no government services were being provided. Marketplaces were shut down and people were shut into their homes, afraid to go out on the street. And this lasted through most of ‘06 and it was at its height in the summer.

Despite two military operations that the United States led, Together Forward One and Together Forward Two, we were not able to stop the level of violence. And then a counter offensive began in earnest in February and finally culminated with all forces in play in June. And what you see is a stark contrast to ‘06 in those neighborhoods.

Because all the schools are open. The markets are teaming with people. Some operating at full capacity; some not quite there because of the level of violence in their neighborhood and some of the construction that was being done, but nonetheless a steady improvement. Government services are being administrated in the neighborhoods and again some of that is uneven because of the nature of the government of itself, but nonetheless there is an attempt to provide essential services to the population where in ‘06 there were none.

And so those atmospherics are real, and I have spoken to hundreds of Iraqis in those neighborhoods and almost to a person they believe the security situation is improving. They want Americans to stay with the Iraqis to help protect them, and in the neighborhoods where the violence took place in ’06. They almost tremble at the thought of that ‘06 violence. You can hear it in their voices when they talk about what that meant to them and their children.

Lowry: How much of a worry is it when you look at the numbers that some of the sectarian killings are bouncing back up somewhat?

Gen. Keane: What has happened is the al Qaeda are trying to provoke the same response in ‘07 that they achieved in ‘06 by killing Shia at unacceptable levels to the Shia and the Shia militias. The fact is that they have been unsuccessful at provoking that kind of response that they got in ‘06, and there are three reasons for that in my view. Number one is we are protecting the Sunni population and to come after that Sunni population from the Shia perspective, they would have to come through us. Two, the Shia themselves summarily reject what al Qaeda is doing and know that it is not in the long term interest of the country. And thirdly, we are successfully protecting millions of Shia with American and Iraqi lives and we are losing our own lives while doing it, and that is not lost on them in terms of what’s taken place in ‘07 compared to ‘06.

Lowry: How about the Sunnis?

Gen. Keane: What offers us so much promise is that the Sunnis themselves have broken, not all of them, but many of them have broken with the al Qaeda and have aligned themselves with us. Not only in Anbar province, essentially almost stable, which is a remarkable story in itself, given the fact that a year ago the Marines that were in charge there believed it was lost and now it’s relatively secure; but what’s instructive is as we move into Diyala province, Ninewa, Saladin and also Babil province, those other four provinces, we now have Sunnis cooperating with us against the al Qaeda. And we also have some Shia tribal leaders cooperating with us against the Shia militia.

This is very significant and some Intel analysts who are looking at this in ‘07 believe that when we look back on ‘07 that not only will it be a turning point in what we did to secure Baghdad and the people. They believe that ‘07 will be looked through the prism of ‘08 or 9 or 10 as the beginning of the defeat of al Qaeda because what is happening to them is they’re losing their Sunni infrastructure support.

Lowry: Why are the Sunnis turning against al Qaeda?

Gen. Keane: Al Qaeda has overplayed their hand. What the al Qaeda do when they go into a town, or village or a neighborhood inside a major city is they get a stranglehold on the people themselves. They force the men to wear beards and the women to be properly costumed and essentially completely covered up. Men cannot smoke or drink, and obviously women can’t do the same. They actually even change their diet, and they force compliance. They change the curricula in the schools to their version of shari’ah law and radical Islamic fundamentalism.

And they get such a strong hold on the day-in, day-out lives of the people that they use power and intimidation to do it. They normally immediately kill a leader or two who is respected in the neighborhood to strike fear and intimation in the hearts of the people. What has happened after four years of this is the people themselves who are under this kind of a formidable net and where all the aspects of their lives are controlled are so repulsed by this — they don’t want their children to grow up in this — that they are willing to take more risk to get rid of it than they were initially. They are fed up with it, and what that did is it moved their leaders. The leaders just didn’t decide by themselves. It came from the people as well, pushing them that “we gotta do something to stop this.”

Lowry: Can the Sunnis and the central government reach an accommodation?

Gen. Keane: Some of the members of the central government always will question the motivations of the Sunnis. Their concern is that as we continue to arm more and more Sunnis and they continue to work with us — in other words, they become policemen, more of them become part of the security forces in general and as they begin to get more authority and power — that the Sunnis long-term motivation is simply returning to power, and this now is the means to do it. They couldn’t by armed violence. They can do it by getting considerably more powerful in terms of their influence both politically and in the region so that at some point they would return to armed violence.

I think that may be in fact, plausible. I think what we have to do is ask what is the reality that we are dealing with on the ground. It’s going to be very hard to get into what people’s motivations are. We have to deal with what their behavior is. And I think we can be cautious in dealing with Sunnis who are turning, flipping to us and are now willing to work with us against the al Qaeda. Take advantage of that, but at the same time be cautious of it in terms of where are they going. To not advantage ourselves from the Sunnis change of heart would be a huge mistake on our part.

Lowry: How do we factor into the Sunnis’ calculations?

Gen. Keane: They are very versed on the fact that the United States right now is in the most powerful situation it’s been since the initial removal of the regime. Because we have the POTUS completely committed to a positive resolution and he’s using military power to help him attain that solution, his level of commitment to it isn’t lost on Iraqis, particularly those who are looking at the political landscape. And what they see is an American president and an American government—and now an Ambassador and a general as their instruments—as having a considerable influence over the Shia-dominated government, as weak as it is. They know that America is really flexing its muscle here and what they want to do while we are in this position of strength — and strength is defined simply by the number of troops we have in Iraq and the influence we have over the Iraqi government — they want to use us to get the best political deal possible from the Shia-dominated government while we have this increased influence over it.

Now, this surge operation, this counter offensive, has really made an impact on them. It wasn’t the catalyst, but it definitely made an impact on the Sunnis flipping to assisting us and seeking political accommodation because it’s from that position of strength. At the end of the day, the Iraqis want to be on the winning side. They see things turning, and they want to make sure that as those things turn they get the best possible deal for their own people — I’m talking about the Sunnis.

Lowry: How important are the political benchmarks everyone is talking about in Washington?

Gen. Keane: I think we make these things far more important than what they truly are. On the surface of it, certainly they all seem very reasonable, but when you get down to the practicality of it, some of them are clearly not executable at this time because this fledging government, 18 months into its existence, is not capable of making some of these major changes. We are asking them to pass five or six major laws that deal with the very survivability of the state, and we are asking them to do that in an almost six-month time frame. That is unrealistic, particularly in view of the political clock that ticks in Baghdad and the fact that none of the people who are operating there are skilled politicians. They do not have the art of compromise as central to their political framework. The truth is their political framework is very weak in terms of supporting a representative democracy. But we are where we are in terms of, there is a fledgling representative democracy, inadequate in the sense that it doesn’t enfranchise the Sunnis, and it’s what we have to deal with.

Lowry: Conventional wisdom is that no matter how well the surge is going by the spring of next year, the president will have to start drawing down.

Gen. Keane: The surge, or the counter offensive as I like to describe it, was recommended to be a temporary operation, and for the people who were implementing it, they knew it was a temporary operation. Those of us who have looked at it quite a bit in the preliminary discussions, we believe that this was always a temporary operation that was going to last 12-18 months. And that sometime in ’08, late ‘08 at the very latest, we would probably be reducing back to pre-surge levels.

As Gen. Petraeus told me on the phone just over the weekend, the speed of which things are moving in terms of achieving more security and stability has surprised him, because of the cumulative affect of the application of military force in all these areas, all at the same time. So as we continue to get this result, what I see happening is that the more successful you are, the sooner you start to leave.

Lowry: How do you think Iraq will looks in a year or two?

Gen. Keane: I think Baghdad will be stable except for an occasional car bomb by the al Qaeda. Anbar province will be stable. Diyala province will be stable and many of the provinces around Baghdad will be almost as stable. And I see us, from a security perspective, having made some very significant gains, particularly in comparison from ‘06 and from a political perspective, I absolutely see the change that is taking place from the grassroots level in the Sunni and Shia wanting change.

I see that having more and more impact on this government and it may be the most successful thing that is happening in this country because the people themselves want the change. They are fed up with the violence. They want their government to start moving toward a form of reconciliation and I think that will push this government in that direction. I truly believe that in a year or so, for sure, we will have taken some very practical steps along the lines of reconciliation with the Sunnis in terms of some of the benchmarks, but even some other things that are equally substantive to them.