Inside one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces, now in the American-controlled Green Zone in Baghdad, Iraqi Lt. Gen. Abboud Gambar is preparing for a monumental task: taking control of a war-torn capital that has become one of the most dangerous places in the world.
The Iraqi general, of course, isn't alone. Gen. David Petraeus, the newly appointed commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, arrived in Baghdad last week, and thousands of additional U.S. soldiers have poured into the country as part of President Bush's troop surge to bolster the Iraqi military for one of the most critical operations of the war.
Less than a month after the president announced his plan to send an additional 21,500 troops to Iraq to quell the sectarian violence dominating Baghdad, signs of an impending security crackdown showed: Early this month, U.S. and Iraqi soldiers set up additional checkpoints around the city and beefed up patrols in insurgent strongholds.
On Feb. 6, U.S. and Iraqi forces conducted raids in northeast Baghdad to clear neighborhoods of insurgent activity. The U.S. military reported capturing 20 suspected terrorists and a weapons cache.
But Col. Douglas Heckman, the U.S. military's senior advisor to the 9th Iraqi Army Division, said Iraqis will know when the operation is in full-tilt: "It's going to be much more than this city has ever seen, and it's going to be a rolling surge."
While congressmen in Washington, D.C., haggled over non-binding resolutions to voice opposition to the president's troop surge, U.S. troops in Baghdad hammered out the details of the military's new plan: Additional Iraqi troops are streaming into the city, and instead of working separately, Iraqi army and police will now fall under one command, led by Iraq's Gen. Gambar. Meanwhile, American troops are setting up joint security stations with Iraqi forces to work side-by-side and maximize control of the city.
American troops are also implementing another key portion of the new strategy: moving into neighborhoods to live and work among Iraqis. Late last month, soldiers from the Army's 12th Cavalry Regiment set up Combat Outpost Casino in the capital's Ghazaliya area, one of the first military outposts in a Baghdad neighborhood.
After spending two nights clearing mounds of debris and trash from neighborhood streets, soldiers set up the outpost in six houses behind concrete barriers. Three houses belong to Iraqi forces, and three belong to U.S. troops.
According to Lt. Mike Daschel of the regiment's 2nd Battalion, living conditions in the outpost are Spartan at the moment: Soldiers sleep in cramped rooms with no heat, no running water, and no sewage system. But Daschel reported that living in the neighborhood has already proven advantageous. During a recent routine patrol, Spc. John Laweryson confronted a group of suspicious men in a vehicle. The men fled on foot, but Laweryson discovered a bound kidnap victim in the trunk. Soldiers cared for the man at the outpost, and two days later his father arrived for an emotional reunion.
But as soldiers began clamping down in Baghdad, insurgents responded with a series of vicious attacks that killed nearly 1,000 people across the country in one week. On Feb. 3, a huge truck bomb ripped into the bustling Sadriyah market in central Baghdad, killing 137 people. Two days later, 67 people were killed or found dead around the city, with 15 slaughtered in back-to-back car bombings at gas stations in a southwest Baghdad neighborhood.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki complained that the new security operation was off to a slow start, and urged his military commanders to move quickly: "Our slogan should be, 'rest is prohibited,' especially for military men." U.S. Gen. Petraeus said the operation would be an escalating process, and that it may be late summer before success can be gauged, especially if insurgent militias go temporarily underground.
Back in Washington, some lawmakers complained that the operation was underway at all, but Republicans blocked Senate debate on a non-binding resolution to express disapproval of the president's troop buildup. Republicans said Democrats refused to give equal consideration to an alternative GOP measure that would protect funding for troops in combat.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) promised Democrats that the House would vote on its own version of a resolution opposing the president's plan within a week. House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio said he would prepare an alternative measure calling for a bipartisan committee to oversee the war effort and establish standards of progress for the Iraqi government.
Boehner told the Associated Press that the consequences of failure in Iraq are "immense. . . . I think it destabilizes the entire Middle East, encourages Iran, and on top of that, it's pretty clear that the terrorists will just follow us home."
Senate Democrats on Feb. 5 used Senate Armed Services Committee hearings on the president's proposed defense budget to grill Defense Secretary Robert Gates about the direction of the war. Gates candidly told the committee that he is considering what steps to take if the plan fails: "I would be irresponsible if I weren't thinking about what the alternatives would be." But the secretary emphasized that the military is "planning for success," and said if the clamp-down in Baghdad is successful, some troops could come home by the end of the year.
One day later, Gates addressed the House Armed Services Committee, supporting the president's defense budget that includes $142 billion for war costs for the next budget year. Gates acknowledged the "sticker shock" of the massive amount of money, but said military spending is consuming a smaller percentage of the nation's wealth than during the Vietnam and Korean Wars and after the Cold War.
Even after a National Intelligence Estimate report that warned of disastrous consequences of a rapid troop withdrawal, some Senate Democrats say they want to attach conditions to approving the president's defense spending: Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) supports legislation that would cap the number of troops in Iraq. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) says he'll propose legislation that orders troops out of Iraq by March 2008.
Baker Spring of the Heritage Foundation told WORLD he doesn't think Democrats will ultimately use the congressional purse strings to cut funding in Iraq. But he does fear that the debate over Iraq may muddle the importance of defense funding beyond the current war: "Iraq certainly doesn't represent the whole of the terror threat."
Gates echoed that sentiment, telling the House Armed Services Committee that the Army and Marine Corps need to be larger to deal with future wars and give troops rest: "We don't know what's going to develop in places like Russia and China, in North Korea, in Iran, and elsewhere."
In the meantime, U.S forces continue to capture terrorists and uncover large weapons caches in Iraq. On Feb. 3, troops seized more than 1,100 explosive mortar rounds stashed near a highway leading into Baghdad. Two days earlier, coalition forces captured a suspected death squad leader accused of running a terror cell of 20 people. Forces say the leader and his cell are responsible for multiple murders and crimes, including kidnapping three Iraqi civilians in December 2006 and burning them alive.
Coalition forces also continue to distribute much-needed aid to Iraqis: Late last month members of the Army's 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team helped Iraqi soldiers distribute supplies to some 1,000 displaced families in Baghdad. The aid included blankets, heaters, food and cooking oil, and small toys for children.