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."

The CLCs and Economic Reconstruction

This same pattern of improved security leading to demands for government services has been evident even in areas that seemed implacably opposed to an American presence. Colonel Dominic Carraclio commands the Third Brigade of the 101st Air Assault Division in the Triangle of Death, a few miles southwest of Arab Jabour. The brigade that preceded him, from the 10th Mountain Division, lost 69 men, but it did such a thorough job of eradicating the insurgents that Carraclio has lost only one soldier since taking over in November. On his third tour in Iraq, Carraclio dispersed his brigade in 24 battle positions across 300 square kilometers holding half a million Sunnis.

Along a road next to the Euphrates where the prior battalion encountered an IED every day and lost 29 soldiers, Carraclio set up two patrol bases. One base, called Dragon, was in the hamlet of Owesat, where three American soldiers were kidnapped in May. Dragon is manned by 50 Americans and 500 CLC volunteers.

"I’m trying to get the CLCs paid," Captain Wendall Stevens, Dragon’s commander, told me. "They stand their posts every night. They’d make good village policemen, but I doubt that will happen."

The Ministry of Interior authorized the hiring of 600 policemen for the district of Yusufiah. American soldiers recorded biometric and background data on 3,000 CLCs and submitted them as candidates in July. To date, not one has been approved by Baghdad.

With security greatly improved, Colonel Carraclio’s soldiers have been trying to jump-start the economy. Wherever a local CLC unit has been formed and paid, local grocery stands pop up alongside the road. Carraclio’s rifle companies have processed 2,500 micro-grants, each with a ceiling of $2,500, for residents requesting seed, fertilizer, and start-up goods for tiny stores. Frustrated that a frozen chicken from Argentina cost less than a local chicken, Carraclio has been studying the economics of poultry farming.

All 11 brigades we visited were heavily involved in development projects, advised by Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Teams, made up of contractors and civilian officials from the State Department and other U.S. government agencies. The military has complained for years that it has been carrying the burden unassisted, and the EPRTs are a relatively new concept, created to redress the imbalance.

The counterinsurgency field manual calls for all American brigades to “clear, hold, and build.” There is no equivalent manual to guide economic doctrine. Some EPRTs emphasize micro-loans, while others favor micro-grants. Larger projects depended on local conditions. In theory, the Americans, civilian and military alike, should have pressed Iraqi government officials into undertaking the task. Knowing the government would fail or not even try, the Americans chose to take its place. But this has come at a cost.

"The fundamental problem," Carraclio told me, "is that districts like Yusufiah have no connection to the provincial government. No representative from the ground level down here can complain to the national level about the lack of services."

The Sunni Awakening

The pattern inside Baghdad has been much the same. In the Sunni districts, volunteers slowly came forward when we began to patrol the streets daily from outposts in some of the most violent neighborhoods. In the Dora district, Dr. Mouyad al-Jubourihad, a cardiologist, proposed a list of projects and was given funds from the military’s Commanders’ Emergency Response Program. Students painted the gloomy concrete barriers with bright colors; trash trucks hauled away the garbage; backhoes leveled the dirt for small parks; entrepreneurs opened shops and brought in generators to sell power. Outsiders were quickly reported to the CLC, who called the Americans. Rental prices in the neighborhood tripled.

The economic resurgence in one part of Dora illustrates what a dynamic local leader can do when provided with security and funds. This is precisely what the Iraqi government has not been doing.

"We Sunnis had what we call sahwa, an awakening," Dr. Mouyad said. "An American soldier was blown up outside my windows. My children were screaming. I said, ‘Enough!’ You Americans had your own awakening. No more rough stuff. It’s good here now. We’re together—American soldiers and my neighbors. It’s the government that needs an awakening."

The Sunni Awakening has spread to the most hard-core districts. Al-Qaeda in Iraq held Amariah in a vise until a local insurgent leader, Abu Abid, turned against them in west Baghdad, after they killed his uncle and held his cousin for ransom. Over the summer, Abid fought al-Qaeda in the streets, backed by American patrols. In the course of a few weeks ,we found 40 bodies—strangers unclaimed by any families. Abid joined the CLC movement, bringing 300 fighters with him, and the insurgents fled the district.

In the fall, an Iraqi army battalion moved inside the district. The CLC was forbidden from patrolling; Abid’s men were told to stand watch with Iraqi soldiers at checkpoints. With police scheduled to arrive in the district, Abid feared that his CLC would be shoved out and abandoned. His house had been attacked twice, and he was fatalistic about his chances of surviving.

"With Americans, things improved," he said. "We are a victory for the Iraqi government, but they won’t support us. We don’t want to be left out. If the Americans leave us, it will be a disaster."

Abid neatly summarized the dilemma we face. How can we effectively transition the 80,000 CLCs that have come into being over the course of the last year from American sponsorship to Iraqi ownership? The sahwa, or awakening, among the Sunnis delivered a crushing blow to al-Qaeda and to the larger insurgent movement. The tribes are no longer fighting the Americans, and neither are tough city gangs like Abid’s. Instead, they have come over to our side— but this does not mean they are loyal to the Prime Minister, Nouri al Maliki.

Senior American officials have proposed to the Ministry of the Interior that 20 percent of the CLC join the police. The rest would be temporarily employed in public works, like the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression. Maliki has been loath to offer police jobs, and the CLC has been loath to turn in their guns for shovels—if funding for such jobs were available, which has not been the case. Maliki, who has done little to curb the Shiite militias, views the CLC as a nascent Sunni militia. Reluctant to include Sunnis in the police force, he has kept them outside the government, running the risk of engendering the very militia he wants to avoid.

"CLC is the top story of 2007," Colonel P. J. Dermer, a key adviser, told me. Field commanders are concerned that they will be cut loose by summer. Although senior generals assured us this would not occur, they had agreed with Maliki not to extend the sahwa into the south, where Shiite tribes offered to band together in opposition to the extortionist Shiite militias. Maliki adamantly opposes any Shiite awakening. It might lead to demands for local representation, and weaken the power of his Dawa Party in future elections.

What Ever Happened to the Mahdi Army?

Although the CLCs have cooperated closely with American troops in Baghdad, the much larger Jesh al Mahdi, Sadr’s Mahdi Army, has kept its distance. In two years, Baghdad has been transformed from a city of predominantly mixed districts to one in which some 70 percent are purely Shiite. The CLCs have emerged as the protectors of the remaining impoverished Sunni neighborhoods, with an American presence in outposts providing a quick reaction to any marauding shiite death squads. But in Khadamiya, in northwest Baghdad, and in Sadr City to the east, JAM operates as a shadow government, extorting money while sneering at the Maliki clique that accommodates them.

"JAM itself isn’t bad or good," Captain Burroughs, a company commander who has been stationed in Sadr City and the adjoining district of Adamiyah for a year, told me. "People don’t trust the police, who have to be JAM to get a job. The average Shiite is exploited by the extreme Shiite. They’re criminals. We’ve arrested three JAM brigade commanders. We’ve told the fourth, ‘Play by our rules or go to Bucca,’” he said, referring to an American prison.

Efforts have been made to recruit Shiites to stand up to the JAM, along the lines of the CLC. But unlike al-Qaeda in Iraq, JAM is well organized and has managed to intimidate opposition. We paid 600 Shiites in Adamiyah to set up neighborhood checkpoints. After JAM members paid a visit, 14 of the 16 checkpoints closed down. Lacking instructions to the contrary, American paratroopers have had no choice but to see JAM’s challenges as matters of internal Iraqi politics.

"No one has told us the end state for Sadr City and JAM influence," Staff Sergeant Byrd, a squad leader on his third tour, told me. " We’re paratroopers. We’re fighters. We’ve done our job."

With an unstable Sadr providing quixotic leadership, most JAM members are ambivalent about, rather than hostile to, the American presence. Knowing that coalition special forces are tracking down rogue gang members, at the start of 2008 the rank and file of the JAM militia decided not to pose a threat. The nightly prowls of death squads decreased dramatically. And although a single car bomb would change the numbers significantly, the murder rate in Baghdad has dropped precipitously.

Mosul and the Syria Question

In recent months, the military campaign has shifted north of Baghdad. Driven from the city, the insurgents have tried to regroup in the thick vegetation of Diyala province. The coalition corps commander, Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno, anticipated this and sent forces from Anbar and Baghdad to root them out. Farther north, Mosul has become the final urban redoubt for al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq elements have converged on battle-torn west Mosul, a 36-square-kilometer cluster of shattered houses and roads pockmarked by IED blasts. In early December 2007 Third Squadron of the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment was told to hold west Mosul. The squadron sends out 25 armored patrols a day. In one month, 300 IEDs were found or detonated, in addition to 260 small arms engagements. The odds of a patrol encountering hostile fire are one in three.

Humvee just after being hit in Mosul

Two weeks ago, the squadron commander, Lieutenant Colonel Keith Barclay, took us into the city to meet with the local Iraqi commanders. Along the way, a radio report came in about a blue van driving erratically down a street parallel to ours. Its occupants had fired at an Iraqi checkpoint. After a helicopter put a Hellfire missile into the van, two survivors hopped out and ran toward a bombed-out house. One was cut down outside and seemed to be wearing a suicide vest. The soldiers had taken cover and called for a tank and an explosive ordnance team.

As Barclay drove over to assess the scene, the streets were empty, except for a few men hurrying across the road in front of us. Right after that, our small convoy of four humvees hit an IED that blew the front off the lead vehicle. The soldiers inside were shaken but not seriously injured. A chunk from the engine hit an Iraqi civilian hiding in a store and he ran into the street screaming, his left arm ripped off. A burst of fire came from our left and Barclay ordered his humvee forward to protect the crumpled lead vehicle.

Severely wounded civilian in IED attack

"Do you have positive ID?" Barclay asked his machine-gunner as rounds snapped overhead.

"Negative," said the gunner, who did not return fire.

A tank cut around in front of us and hit a second IED, put in by the Iraqis who had just crossed the street. With the tank out of action (it had a stripped tread) Iraqi soldiers from an outpost 100 meters away rushed forward to protect it. Soon afterward, a sharp explosion came from the next street, where the suicide vest had exploded. A second tank rolled up and put a 120mm round into the house, killing the other insurgent. He too was wearing a suicide vest.

Every day in Iraq, there are about two such shoot-outs between American forces and extremists. They typify the nature of the fighting in this, the fifth year of the war. We turn to technology—electronic intercepts of conversations, airborne sensors, Hellfire missiles—to detect and box in the enemy. A soldier with a rifle then makes the arrests or double-taps the chests of insurgents with three-round bursts, as Barclay’s soldiers did. Based on what we have overheard of their conversations, what the extremists fear most is not our technology; it is our grunts, who close in and kill them. The press likes to depict our soldiers as victims, or as nice guys handing out candy and repairing schools. First and foremost, though, our infantrymen are hunters. And that scares the shit out of the al-Qaeda types.

The defining signature of al-Qaeda in Iraq has been the suicide vest. Suicide murderers propelled, sustained, and transformed the Iraqi insurgency. They also dealt its death knell. The extent and impact of suicide bombers distinguishes Iraq from all prior insurgencies. Without the mass murder of Shiites, al-Qaeda in Iraq could not have provoked the civil war in Baghdad in 2006. And without the mass murder of Sunnis, the tribes would not have turned against the extremists. Like Robespierre, consumed by his own Reign of Terror, al-Qaeda in Iraq was eventually locked into a death struggle with the Sunni population it had set out to liberate by the lash and by decapitation.

Al-Qaeda has a firm hold in west Mosul, where the stark, bombed-out landscape resembles Ramadi in late 2005. It will take months for dismounted infantry to clear each city block and hold the streets with Iraqi soldiers. If the provincial government were to provide the residents with any kind of services and win their support, the campaign would go much faster. The Iraqi battalion commander working with Barclay doubted that would happen. "The Sunni people get zero support from this governor," said Colonel Hamid, a burly officer who had been wounded twice. "The governor fires anyone who talks for the Sunnis. He says the coalition broke the city and they can fix it, not him."

Last Thursday, on January 24, police in Mosul were lured to an apartment building that al-Qaeda operatives then blew sky-high, killing several policemen and more than 30 civilians. The next day, Mosul’s police chief came to inspect the damage and was blown up by a suicide murderer. Rumors about an influx of foreign fighters from Syria swirled around the city. On January 28, five American soldiers were killed by a powerful roadside bomb.
It is in west Mosul that al-Qaeda has formed its last visible stronghold, almost taunting the coalition to send sufficient troops to break its hold. That battle will come, possibly sooner than al-Qaeda expects.

Left unresolved is how to pressure Syria into choking off the pipeline of foreign fighters, suicide bombers, and insurgent leaders passing through Damascus airport and on into Iraq. The U.S. military proposed that Petraeus deliver a tough démarche in person to Assad, pointing out the routes and safe houses and naming the Syrian officials with Swiss bank accounts who are being paid off by the jihadists. The State Department was concerned that Assad would want a quid pro quo, like shelving the investigation into the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. I was told by one official that there were other equities involved beyond Iraq.

After leaving west Mosul, we visited the dreary city of Beji, home of an oil refinery generating billions of dollars. Yet Beji was depressed, bereft of home heating fuel, electricity, and jobs. In the empty market, our queries were greeted with cynical pessimism and a few pot shots. The police refused to go into the market with us, because they had lost two men on their last two forays. The most popular figure was the American company commander, Captain Tim Meadors, who had recruited a small band of Concerned Local Citizens, generating some stability and a little cash in a bleak neighborhood.

A few days later, the 13-year-old son of a local al-Qaeda leader walked into a hall filled with CLC supporters and blew himself up, killing 17. Over the course of January, suicide murderers struck at CLC leaders in Ramadi, Fallujah, Beji, and two districts inside Baghdad. These weren’t foreigners; they were fellow Iraqis known by the locals who had no idea the assassins had embraced al-Qaeda. Whether al-Qaeda in Iraq—90 percent of whom are Iraqis—can continue to recruit Iraqis willing to commit suicide remains to be seen. So far, they have succeeded.

These murders have not changed the course of the military campaign. They have further torn the fabric of trust and stirred hatred toward al-Qaeda inside Sunni communities. Given the biases of Al-Jazeera and other Arab news outlets, it will be years before the experience of the Iraqi Sunnis affects attitudes in neighboring countries like Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Al-Qaeda as a transnational pathology will be eradicated only when Islamic political and religious leaders publicly label suicide bombers as murderers who will go to hell rather than martyrs who will be rewarded in heaven.

Maliki and the Prison Problem

While hard fighting lies ahead in west Mosul, the noose is tightening. Anbar has advanced the most, with local police replacing the army in the cities. In the belts outside Baghdad, the Americans have allied with CLCs that perform the duties of local police. The same is true inside Baghdad, where the Iraqi commander, Lietenant General Aboud Ganbar, has gained the popularity of a rock star by frequently visiting his units in the districts.

At the same time, Maliki has emerged as a truculent and divisive figure, setting up ad hoc committees to solidify Shiite dominance while bypassing the ministries. The prime minister’s office is hard-line sectarian and an impediment to reconciliation. Distrusting the army, Maliki has installed a vulpine general inside his own office in the so-called Office of the Commander-in-Chief, so that he can counter orders of the Ministry of Defense.

The Kurds recently warned Maliki that he could either share power with the three other senior elected leaders—the president (a Kurd) and two vice presidents (a Shiite and a Sunni)—or face a vote of no confidence in the National Assembly. Maliki reluctantly agreed to share power, while allegedly bragging that he had the confidence of President Bush and was thus irreplaceable.

Senior Americans in Iraq are frustrated, lacking options. If Maliki is voted out, there could be months of paralysis before another prime minister is selected. The leading candidate, Vice President Adil al Mahdi, is a likeable politician who represents the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. ISCI is suspect because of the strength of its Badr Corps militia and its close relations with Iran.

The Iraqi government needs to show significant progress before Petraeus testifies again in Washington in March or April. Maliki has held up passage of legislation providing for provincial elections that will result in losses to his Dawa Party. He may permit that legislation to keep the White House’s support, or persist in sectarian obfuscations, gambling that Bush doesn’t have the nerve to withdraw his support and absorb the fire of the Democrats.

Overlooked thus far in most accounts of the Iraq War is the remarkable imbalance between insurgents killed versus captured. In Vietnam, about nine Viet Cong guerrillas were killed for each one captured. In Iraq, about one insurgent is killed for every three captured. Most insurgents surrender, contrary to what one might think from press accounts that emphasize the minority who fight to the death. Fewer than one in 10 is an al-Qaeda fanatic. Most are poor young men paid a pittance to risk their lives, or they are resisting the American occupation and the new balance of power in Iraq. The result is a double-barreled problem for the coalition: a large prison population, where the majority are probably not a long-term threat but do require individual assessments before being released.

Currently, the U.S. is holding about 25,000 Iraqis, charged with being "imperative risks," meaning that our soldiers arrested them with sufficient evidence to withstand the three levels of review by lawyers required before imprisoning them for more than six months. Since 2003, the coalition has imprisoned 77,000 and released 53,000. With the average prison term being less than a year, recidivism is a highly controversial issue. Field commanders complain that they are fighting the same insurgents twice, while staffs in Baghdad point to astonishingly low rates of re-arrest—3 percent to 9 percent—as an indicator of the shallow roots of the insurgency, rather than police incompetence.

Eighty percent of the detainees are Sunni. The government of Iraq, with neither the prison space nor the desire to accept a whole-scale transfer, is apt to release the wrong prisoners or abuse them. It is possible that, thanks to the Sunni awakening, many now in prison would not attack American or Iraqi forces a second time if released. In the past year, a task force under Major General Douglas Stone has sorted out and isolated the hard core—about 5,000—and initiated short classes to reeducate most of the other prisoners. The task force will recommend who should be released, totaling about 16,000 prisoners in 2008. This would reduce the prison population to about17,000, assuming 8,000 "new" insurgents are imprisoned during the year.

Commanders in the field have expressed skepticism. In a conventional war those captured are held until the war is over. Last year, there was an uproar in the ranks about the “catch and release” system. This year, each week the brigades are sending about 140 "new" insurgents to prison, while being required to release 450. To set up a probation system— a new task for our military—in the midst of a war demands substantial time of the field commanders, while running the risks that some returnees will kill Americans or attack the Iraqi residents who informed on them in the first place.

Given that there are tens of thousands of violent criminals—murderers, rapists, kidnappers, and robbers—and thousands of al-Qaeda followers running loose in Iraq, it’s hard to see how we can work our way out of being a prison warden. The Bush administration proclaimed that the U.S. was not the world’s jailer. But not having established a systematic means of transferring penal responsibilities years ago, the U.S. must now remain a jailer in Iraq for years to come.

Also see:

Slideshow: Life at Guantánamo

View more images of the detention center, along with audio commentary by photographer Louie Palu.

Imprisonment is a problem without any fast or good solution. It’s doubtful, though, that Iraq will succeed Guantánamo as a talisman for those in the States who believe the worst about the American military and the war on terror. There will soon be a new administration, and any group advocating a mass, indiscriminate release would invoke the political wrath of all who have served in Iraq.

Midway through our trip, we visited Kirkuk, where the market was thriving and people were jamming the streets. Colonel Malik Khder, the commander of a brigade in the Fourth Iraqi Division, explained how he had recently employed Iraqi air power in an operation, an indicator of how much the Iraqi army has improved tactically.

"Cooperation with the coalition," Colonel Malik said, "is responsible for the development of my brigade."

He described how, when his brigade was first formed in 2004, its nine officers and 200 soldiers who were taken under the wing of a battalion commander by the name of Carraclio.

I went back through notes scribbled inside an obscure patrol base in Yusufiah the previous week. Carraclio had brought us to the base to meet the Iraqi units he was training to take over the Triangle of Death. In the course of the meeting, the Iraqi battalion commander, Major Kais, had spoken without embarrassment or flourish.

The Author in market in Kirkuk

"The American soldiers and my soldiers have given their blood to feed these fields," Kais said, "and now we harvest the good crops."

What is startling about Iraq is not our internal political divisiveness on the issue, but rather how our soldiers have adapted to quell an insurgency and prevent a civil war. Tens of thousands like Carraclio have carried out Petraeus’s strategy of protecting the population and developing the Iraqi army. It is not an exaggeration to compare Petraeus with General Matthew Ridgeway, who turned around our army in Korea in 1950.

Petraeus called his campaign "the Anaconda Strategy," a reference to General Ulysses S. Grant’s strategy in the closing stages of the Civil War. Similarly, Iraq will take years to sort out and settle down, requiring American steadfastness with progressively fewer American troops.

From 2003 through 2006, the insurgency drew its sustenance from the support of an embittered and disenfranchised Sunni population. Having antagonized the Sunni population, al-Qaeda in Iraq has become the common enemy and is now being slowly crushed. Although interminable bargaining goes on with expatriate resistance leaders who want to cut separate deals, most of the mainline resistance has stopped fighting. The battleground has shifted.

Once Mosul is secured—most likely by this summer—the major components of Petraeus’s Anaconda campaign will be in place. By August, five of the 20 American brigades will depart Iraq. Petraeus may then pause to assess things before proceeding with more reductions. While it is an exaggeration to assert that the counterinsurgency is "only 20 percent military and 80 percent political," the time is fast approaching when politics in America and in Iraq will determine the outcome of the war.

The military success is tinged with irony, because the ally placed in power by American and British force has become more recalcitrant as its enemies have become more reasonable. The odds are that the Sunni CLC, vital to stability, will still be an American appendage resisted by the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government. Negotiations with Maliki during the summer about the legal status of the coalition promise to be vexatious. Despite his sectarian incompetence, Maliki wants to directly control both the Iraqi army and American operations, including the detention of prisoners. If Maliki tries to assume overweening military command or if he cannot put aside his sectarian bias and provide for all of his people, he should be replaced.

Because of the military momentum, Iraq has faded as a hot-button issue in the presidential campaign. Any public tussle about Maliki, though, is likely to be played for partisan advantage and to reignite fevered pledges of an abrupt withdrawal that would destroy our recent gains. For that reason, Maliki is likely to remain prime minister. But he is walking a very fine line.