Dispatch January 2008

A Report From Iraq

Ambushed in Mosul, Bing West visits the last urban redoubt of al Qaeda in Iraq and sees a calmer battlefield—but political troubles ahead

Photographs by Bing West

Baghdad. A year ago, in a piece for The Atlantic titled “Streetwise,” I described how a tough police chief named Colonel Sheban was fighting to control the obscure town of Baghdadi in the upper Euphrates Valley, 100 miles west of Baghdad. His men and their families were barricaded inside a complex surrounded by concrete walls and barbed wire. When a teenager ventured alone from their fort into the town market, al-Qaeda thugs grabbed him and slit his throat in front of the other shoppers. After that, the Marines ran a weekly food convoy to the besieged police.

Also see:

Debating Iraq
A collection of articles and dispatches by Atlantic authors.

In a briefing a few days ago, Major General Mastin Robeson, the chief planner on General David Petraeus’s staff, casually mentioned Baghdadi. The Marines and the Iraqi army have pulled out of the town, he said, because the police no longer need help. They are patrolling the streets and the marketplace by themselves.

In January of 2007, as five new American brigades surged into Iraq, the national gloom was pervasive. Senator Harry Reid, the majority leader, declared that the war was lost, and a complaisant press permitted this defeatism to pass without comment. There was good reason for this. Baghdad, the political heart of Iraq, was falling apart. Sunni extremists had succeeded in slaughtering enough Shiites to provoke a murderous backlash. Subjected to nightly raids by Shiite death squads, the Sunnis were being driven from the city. The U.S. military was reporting an average of 30 murders a day in Baghdad. Now, a year later, that number is two or three. Baghdad is not safe, but it is not disintegrating in a vortex of violence.

Earlier this month, at the invitation of General Petraeus, Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and I visited 11 of our brigades operating throughout the Sunni Triangle. After returning to areas I had been to repeatedly since 2003, the dominant impression I drew was that of a military campaign systematically breaking al-Qaeda in Iraq’s hold on the Sunni population and driving the extremists into smaller and smaller pockets.

"Two years ago, the insurgents could take any checkpoint," Lieutenant General Ali Majeed, the commander of the Iraqi ground forces, told me. "They don’t have power anymore, because most Iraqi people who supported them turned against them. The people saw they had no future with terrorists who killed them."

Sunni local guards in Bayji

Over the past year, three factors converged to turn the tide of the war. First, the Sunnis revolted against the harsh rule of the homegrown al-Qaeda in Iraq extremists. (In September of 2006, months before the surge began, the Sunni tribes turned against al-Qaeda in Anbar Province, the insurgent stronghold that accounted for 40 percent of American casualties.) Second, Petraeus came in with 30,000 American soldiers, enough to bring security to the population of Baghdad and the surrounding belts of farmland where al-Qaeda rested and manufactured its dreadful car bombs. Third, fearing for his life, Moqtada al-Sadr ordered his Jesh al Mahdi to suspend attacks against the coalition and the Sunnis. The JAM splintered, with those leaders who persisted in their attacks subjected to constant raids and arrests.

American casualties increased in the first half of 2007 because units went into areas not touched in years, while al-Qaeda fought back to hold onto its redoubts in and around Baghdad. South of Baghdad, the First Battalion of the 30th Infantry drove the extremists from the villages of Arab Jabour, a farming community where hundreds of irrigation ditches and palm groves limits vehicles to a few dirt roads. The battalion has lost 14 men and seen 82 wounded since June, most due to IEDs.

"Terrain dictates all we do," Lieutenant Colonel Ken Adgie, the battalion commander, told me. "We’ve found 270 IEDs, many buried years ago. Not even the insurgents or the locals know where they are."

The Pentagon has spent $10 billion to field 20,000 MRAPs, or mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles. This has been its highest-priority program. The first destruction of an MRAP occurred in Adgie’s zone. (He estimated the mine had been buried more than a year earlier.) The loss was a warning that even if all combat were to stop tomorrow, mines would continue to take a toll.

Adgie’s battalion steadily expanded its reach by recruiting Sunni farmers to serve in neighborhood watches called Concerned Local Citizens. There were no Iraqi police or soldiers in Arab Jabour; instead, Adgie employed 1,200 CLCs, whom he paid $300 a month. They provided tips on insurgent leaders operating up to 12 kilometers from his small base. Adgie called in special operations forces when the targets were too remote for him to reach.

With the locals eager to inform on them, the insurgents fled the Arab Jabour farmlands. Adgie then turned his attention to farming, repairing the pumps along the Tigris that diverted water into 400 square kilometers of irrigation ditches. Whenever Iraqi supplies of fuel ran low, he compensated from American stocks.

"The Maliki government does nothing for us," Kamil Mustafa, the commander of the CLCs, said. "To get our schools open, we went to Colonel Adgie. We knew he would put pressure on the government."

Presented by

Bing West

F. J. "Bing" West, who served as a marine in Vietnam and as an assistant secretary of defense under President Reagan, is the author of The Village and No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah.

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