Up close, Iraq gets blurry

MAX BOOT is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

ARE WE WINNING or losing in Iraq? Liberals and conservatives safe at home have no trouble formulating glib answers to that fundamental question. The former can always point to setbacks, the latter to successes. The picture becomes blurrier, the future murkier when you spend time in Iraq, as I did last week.

After traveling from Qatar to Baghdad on a C-17 transport aircraft, I jumped off a Blackhawk helicopter on Feb. 22 at Forward Operating Base Warhorse near the city of Baqubah, 30 miles north of the capital. Here, Col. Brian Jones, commander of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 4th Infantry Division, gave me a mostly upbeat briefing on his area of operations, which includes all of Diyala province (population 1.4 million) as well as part of a neighboring province.

The insurgents are so weak in Diyala, he suggested, that his main focus now is on “the nonkinetic problem set” -- increasing electricity production, creating jobs, fighting corruption. The responsibility for keeping law and order is increasingly being turned over to Iraqi soldiers and police officers who work closely with their American counterparts.

Sounds good, but that very day the Askariya mosque -- the Golden Mosque -- was blown up in Samarra, 50 miles to the north. The repercussions rippled out to this province where the population is 55% Sunni, 25% Shiite and 15% Kurd. Shiite protesters took to the streets, followed by two shocking acts of violence probably perpetrated by Sunni terrorists: First, a bomb went off in a Baqubah marketplace, killing more than a dozen people, including the popular commander of the local Iraqi army battalion; then, insurgents (known to U.S. troops as anti-Iraqi forces) set up a roadblock outside of town, pulled 47 men out of their cars and murdered them.


Lt. Col. Thomas Fisher, who commands the Army battalion stationed in Baqubah, a city of 450,000, was forced to deal with the fallout. I spent a day riding in his armored Humvee as he moved around town trying to figure out what was going on (Why were the 47 men killed?) and how he should respond (Should he step up his raids or let Iraqi security forces step forward?).

Trying to calm things, Fisher sought to dispel bizarre rumors that a U.S. bomb, not explosives planted by terrorists, had blown up the Samarra mosque. He told his soldiers not to get in the way of demonstrations but to stand by in case they turned violent. (They didn’t.) Then he drove to the heavily barricaded government center to confer with the mayor about what he could do as a “good neighbor” to assist the Iraqis. The answer was that the locals had everything under control.

Given the growing competence of Iraqi security forces, this may not have been sheer bravado. As we drove through town, I saw Iraqi army and police checkpoints everywhere. Not only are more security personnel in the field, but they are also not running away from a fight, as they did in 2004. Fisher told me that when insurgents recently attacked a police checkpoint, the cops chased them down and arrested them. This combination of toughness (withstanding attack) and restraint (bringing back the attackers alive) augurs well for the future of Iraq.

Nor is this an isolated example. A few days later, while visiting the Green Zone in Baghdad, I was briefed on the progress being made in standing up Iraqi forces. A year ago, only three Iraqi battalions controlled their own “battle- space.” Today, the total is up to 40 battalions and counting. Those units have achieved impressive results in some rough neighborhoods. As I discovered firsthand, it is now safe to travel down Route Irish between the Green Zone and Baghdad airport -- once the most dangerous road in the world. Yet there are well-justified concerns about sectarian divisions and human rights abuses within the security forces.

Worst of all, just when the situation seems to be improving, a spectacular act of violence such as the mosque bombing will bring the country to the edge of the abyss. As Jones noted ruefully during a 30-minute ride between his base and the giant U.S. logistics hub near Balad, “You can go days without anything bad happening, and then you find 47 dead bodies.” Which is more important -- the signs of progress that mostly pass unheralded, or the continuing woes splashed across newspaper front pages? I left Iraq more uncertain than when I arrived.