Cover Story

The battle for Baghdad

Fighting the insurgency has commander John Campbell manning two offices, two new brigades, an outsized dose of optimism, and one plea: more time

Issue: "Street warfare," April 7, 2007

His update book and coffee greet him each morning in an office situated in a heavily guarded complex in western Baghdad, but U.S. Army Brig. Gen. John F. Campbell, deputy commanding general for operations in Baghdad, likes to think of the streets as his real office. And from his vantage point, that office is starting to show signs of improvement.

Prior to the influx of forces and new counterinsurgency efforts announced by President Bush in January, Campbell encountered ghost-like stares and empty streets in areas where militias ruled. Now, he says, "The streets are bustling with people, markets are opening, the kids are waving at you, and people are welcoming you into their homes."

Campbell says it's not unusual to be invited in for tea on his now regular street walks. "They're welcoming not only Iraqi security forces but also coalition forces."

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The street savvy of commanding officers like Campbell, who once hunkered behind the concrete barriers delineating the Green Zone in downtown Baghdad, is one sign that U.S. forces are serious about the new strategy.

In an interview with WORLD from Baghdad, Campbell is cautious but optimistic: He believes U.S. forces can and should succeed in Iraq-but he stresses that it won't happen unless U.S. forces can "be here for the long haul."

As the Democratic leadership pushes separate bills in the House and Senate-with both binding and non-binding troop withdrawal deadlines- Campbell and his Iraqi counterparts pound pavement. Already he can attest to promising tactical adjustments, a change in attitude among Iraqi military leaders, and a growing trust among civilians. The biggest obstacle to success in Iraq, he says, is not insurgents. It is that the United States won't stay long enough to see if the new plan works.

For a war-weary American public, there are numerous reasons to leave. Now entering its fifth year, the conflict has claimed the lives of more than 3,000 American soldiers. And seemingly endless sectarian violence is the primary factor behind an estimated 59,000 to 65,000 Iraqi deaths. The power struggle between Sunni and Shiite militias-funded by neighboring countries-has drifted into what some call civil war. At the very least, this is not what the Bush administration-or top brass like Campbell-planned.

But as the surge of forces, which began in February, unfolds, military leaders are changing tactics and laying a foundation for continuing stability. Past strategy entailed bursts of activity by U.S. forces that would then pass the baton to the Iraqis, only to have the insurgents move back in and set up camp again. The new mantra is "clear, control, and retain" by moving U.S. battalions into the neighborhoods and pairing them with Iraqi units.

"The control piece is what's different. That means we're in the cities, we're living with Iraqi counterparts, and we're a 24/7 presence every single day out there so the people in the neighborhoods see the coalition forces working with the Iraqi security forces," Campbell said.

Iraqis see a difference, too. Blogger Omar Fadhil attests to Baghdad's recent transformation not reported in most U.S. news outlets: "A lot more troops, Iraqi and American, are available and visible in Baghdad than there were a couple months ago. Checkpoints are more abundant and security measures are by far stricter than before. And yes, civilian activity is much better now than before."

The new offensive includes sending 21,500 troops and 7,000 support units to Baghdad and the Anbar Province, eventually bringing the U.S. troop presence in Iraq to 160,000. Two of the five brigades committed are already in place, and by June all should be in place. "If you visited Baghdad in December," Fadhil, reached by email, noted wryly, "and come again now for another visit, you'll see an obvious difference."

The surge into the Baghdad area includes Iraqi troops and police. Campbell says the government of Iraq has "gotten serious"-sending army battalions into Baghdad for 90-day rotations and taking ownership of the new strategy. The Iraqi police also have stepped up, addressing a rampant problem of mistrust apparent not only in the streets but at the national level.

Campbell now meets daily with National Police Maj. Gen. Hussein Jassim Al-Awadi, who took the reins last November. Campbell claims the Iraqi general has personally changed out "about 75 percent of the leadership in the last four or five months"-firing those suspected of militia involvement.

In addition, every national police brigade is being sent to a four-week retraining program with coalition advisors that emphasizes values, ethical treatment, and tactical skills. Close to half of the units have been through the program thus far, but Campbell acknowledges that it will take time to build trust among wary Iraqi civilians. Creating a joint presence in the neighborhoods is the first step. Baghdad has been divided into 10 security districts with an Iraqi brigade commander in charge of each one. The commanders are paired with a coalition unit, typically a battalion.


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