Cover Story

The battle for Baghdad

"The battle for Baghdad" Continued...

Issue: "Street warfare," April 7, 2007

Prior to his transfer from Afghanistan to Iraq last August, Campbell was planning to work on his Arabic skills. But a sooner-than-expected call to Iraq meant the Arabic CDs and phrase book (revised and expanded edition) remain unopened on his desk. So when he walks the streets of his "other office," he greets Iraqis with the standard salaam alaykum, and a linguist translates the rest.

But Campbell says it doesn't take much Arabic to observe the transformation that has taken place among the senior Iraqi leadership since the new offensive began to take shape: "They've taken this on as their own, and I didn't see that during the first piece of this." Campbell said improved attitude and commitment are evident on his regular street patrols. "They're engaged and they're leading from the front."

Trickles of civilians are also showing signs of a psychological shift since Operation Imposing Law commenced in Baghdad on Feb 14. Fadhil, a Sunni Arab and a Baghdad dentist who began his blog "Iraq the Model" with his brother at the beginning of the war "not for any purpose, but to relieve the pressure in my chest," says he's seeing families returning to their homes and shops reopening.

But he too is cautious in his optimism. "The commanders didn't claim [the results would be magical] when the operation began. Still these latest results are certainly promising. And let's not forget what has been achieved so far was achieved when many thousands of the new troops assigned to Baghdad are yet to arrive," Fadhil wrote last month.

At the beginning of March Iraqi police and coalition forces embarked on their first concerted effort in Sadr City, plagued with squalid conditions and the influence of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi army. Pressured, al-Sadr went into hiding in February, and his army has maintained a low profile. Joint security stations have now been established in the city and execution-style killings have dropped dramatically. Deaths in Sadr City fell from more than 200 in December and January to less than 20 during the first 30 days of the Baghdad surge.

With an increased sense of security, Campbell now witnesses flocks of children surrounding his soldiers as they patrol the streets and a noticeable shift in attitude among Sadr City civilians. Residents are offering security tips, leading to hidden caches of weapons and insurgent hideouts. One such tip led to a March 24 raid in Sadr City where soldiers found 470 anti-tank mines. A raid the day prior in a region south of Baghdad produced a separate cache and the detention of 31 insurgents.

But Islamic extremists have countered the new offensive with high-profile bombings. More than 20 Iraqi civilians died when a March 5 car bomb struck Baghdad's historic "book market," a haven for Iraqi intellectuals. And in an apparent stepped-up offensive of insurgents attacking fellow Sunnis seen as collaborating with U.S. forces, a suicide bomber attacked a Baghdad police station March 24, killing 33 police officers and putting the day's casualty total at 87.

And while the focus is primarily on Baghdad, violence has escalated in the Diyala Province just east of the capital. Col. David Sutherland says Sunni insurgents and al-Qaeda remain vigilant in their attempts to overturn counterinsurgency attempts in the area. "I can kill and kill all day long and it won't do anything other than create more terrorists," Sutherland said. "The Iraqi government in Baghdad needs to start providing for these people." In some parts of Diyala, U.S. troop strength has dropped by half over the course of the war, and the surge plan to combat violence in central Iraq does not address those pockets.

The day Campbell spoke with WORLD, he had two memorials to attend for three soldiers killed by IEDs, or improvised explosive devices. Mourning the loss of fallen soldiers renews his commitment to make sure these soldiers have not died in vain: "We have less than half of what is coming over on the surge. We have 10 brigades on the ground, and as we apply these additional forces, I think it's only going to get better."

With pressure mounting back home, there may be a time squeeze to demonstrate that things can improve in Iraq. U.S. House members, led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), on March 23 narrowly approved the first legislation calling for an end to the war. The bill mandates a withdrawal from Iraq by Aug. 31, 2008, regardless of what takes place during the next 17 months. The Senate planned to pass a less sweeping measure to end the war, with legislation calling for troop withdrawal to begin within 120 days of passage and a non-binding deadline of March 31, 2008, for complete withdrawal. President Bush has threatened to veto both measures.

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