At first, I didn’t recognize the place. Read the entire article. There is much more.
NYT reporter, Dexter Filkins, returns to Iraq for the first time since the height of sectarian violence in 2006, the year before General Petraeus implemented the counterinsurgency strategy. He is stunned at what he finds. Ironically, it can be summed up as hope and change.
This from Mr. Filkins writing in the NYT:
On Karada Mariam, a street that runs over the Tigris River toward the Green Zone, the Serwan and the Zamboor, two kebab places blown up by suicide bombers in 2006, were crammed with customers. Farther up the street was Pizza Napoli, the Italian place shut down in 2006; it, too, was open for business. And I’d forgotten altogether about Abu Nashwan’s Wine Shop, boarded up when the black-suited militiamen of the Mahdi Army had threatened to kill its owners. There it was, flung open to the world.
Two years ago, when I last stayed in Baghdad, Karada Mariam was like the whole of the city: shuttered, shattered, broken and dead.
Abu Nawas Park — I didn’t recognize that, either. By the time I had left the country in August 2006, the two-mile stretch of riverside park was a grim, spooky, deserted place, a symbol for the dying city that Baghdad had become.
These days, the same park is filled with people: families with children, women in jeans, women walking alone. Even the nighttime, when Iraqis used to cower inside their homes, no longer scares them. I can hear their laughter wafting from the park. At sundown the other day, I had to weave my way through perhaps 2,000 people. It was an astonishing, beautiful scene — impossible, incomprehensible, only months ago.
When I left Baghdad two years ago, the nation’s social fabric seemed too shredded to ever come together again. The very worst had lost its power to shock. To return now is to be jarred in the oddest way possible: by the normal, by the pleasant, even by hope. The questions are jarring, too. Is it really different now? Is this something like peace or victory? And, if so, for whom: the Americans or the Iraqis?
. . . When I left Iraq in the summer of 2006, after living three and a half years here following the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime, I believed that evil had triumphed, and that it would be many years before it might be stopped. Iraq, filled with so many people living so close together, nurturing dark and unknowable grievances, seemed destined for a ghastly unraveling.
And now, in the late summer of 2008, comes the calm. Violence has dropped by as much as 90 percent. A handful of the five million Iraqis who fled their homes — one-sixth of all Iraqis — are beginning to return. The mornings, once punctuated by the sounds of exploding bombs, are still. Is it possible that the rage, the thirst for revenge, the sectarian furies, have begun to fade? That Iraqis have been exhausted and frightened by what they have seen?
“We are normal people, ordinary people, like people everywhere,” Aziz al-Saiedi said to me the other day, as we sat on a park bench in Sadr City, only recently freed from the grip of the Mahdi Army. The park was just a small patch of bare ground with a couple of swing sets; it didn’t even have a name, yet it was filled to the bursting. “We want what everyone else wants in this world,” he said.
. . . Everything here seems to be standing on its head. Propaganda posters, which used to celebrate the deaths of American soldiers, now call on Iraqis to turn over the triggermen of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and the Mahdi Army. “THERE IS NOWHERE FOR YOU TO HIDE,” a billboard warns in Arabic, displaying a set of peering, knowing eyes. I saw one such poster in Adamiyah, a Sunni neighborhood that two years ago was under the complete control of Al Qaeda. Sunni insurgents — guys who were willing to take on the Qaeda gunmen — are now on the American payroll, keeping the peace at ragtag little checkpoints for $300 a month.
In Sadr City, the small brick building that served as the Mahdi Army’s headquarters still stands. But not 50 feet away, a freshly built Iraqi Army post towers above it now. Next to the army post, perhaps to heighten the insult to the militia, the Iraqi government has begun installing a new sewer network, something this impoverished and overcrowded ghetto sorely needs. “Wanted” posters adorn the blast walls there, too, imploring the locals to turn in the once-powerful militia leaders.
Inside the Sadr Bureau, as it’s called, the ex-militia gunmen speak in chastened tones about moving on, maybe finding other work, maybe even transforming their once ferocious army into a social welfare organization. I didn’t see any guns.
“Please don’t print my name in your newspaper,” one former Mahdi Army commander asked me with a sheepish look. “I’m wanted by the government.”
As for the Americans, they are still here, of course, but standing ever more in the background.
. . . The other day I rode in a helicopter to Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, the Wyoming-size slice of desert west of Baghdad. Two years ago, 30 marines and soldiers were dying there every month. In 2005, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia declared Anbar the seat of its “caliphate.” Since then, violence in Anbar has plummeted. Al Qaeda has been decimated. I was coming in for a ceremony, unimaginable until recently, to mark the handover of responsibility for security to the Iraqi Army and police.
Standing in the middle of the downtown, I found myself disoriented. I had been here before — I was certain — but still I couldn’t recognize the place. Two summers ago, when I’d last been in Ramadi, the downtown lay in ruins. Only one building stood then, the Anbar provincial government center, and the Americans were holding onto it at all cost. For hundreds of yards in every direction, everything was destroyed; streets, buildings, cars, even the rubble had been ground to dust. Ramadi looked like Dresden, or Grozny, or some other obliterated city. Insurgents attacked every day.
And then, suddenly, I realized it: I was standing in front of the government center itself. It was sporting a fresh concrete facade, which had been painted off-white with brownish trim. Over the entrance hung a giant official seal of Anbar Province. The road where I stood had been recently paved; it was black and smooth. The rubble had been cleared away. American marines were walking about, without helmets or flak jackets or even guns.
In the crowd, I saw a face I recognized. It was Mowaffak al-Rubaie, Iraq’s national security advisor. It had been a long time since I’d seen him. Mr. Rubaie is a warm, garrulous man, a neurologist who spent years in London before returning to Iraq. But he is also a Shiite, and a member of Iraq’s Shiite-led government, which, in 2005 and 2006, was accused of carrying out widespread atrocities against Iraq’s Sunnis. Anbar Province is almost entirely Sunni.
As Mr. Rubaie made his way through the crowd, I noticed he was holding hands with another Iraqi man, a traditional Arab gesture of friendship and trust. It was Brig. Gen. Murdi Moshhen al-Dulaimi, the Iraqi Army officer taking control of the province — a Sunni. The sun was blinding, but Mr. Rubaie was wearing sunglasses, and finally he spotted me.
“What on earth are you doing here?” he asked over the crowd.
I might have asked him the same thing.
. . . In August, before I came back to Iraq, I visited Gen. Ray Odierno in his office at the Pentagon. As the deputy commander in Iraq from late 2006 to early 2008, General Odierno had helped execute the buildup of American troops that has helped quell the violence. When we met, he was preparing to assume command of the American forces here, taking over for Gen. David H. Petraeus.
General Odierno, an enormous, imposing man, has come a long way in Iraq.
. . . When he returned to Iraq in late 2006, General Odierno concluded that the American project in Iraq was headed for defeat. The American officers whom he was replacing had reached the same conclusion. “I knew that if we continued the way that we were, then we were not going to be successful,” he said.
Hence the troop increase. At its most basic level, General Odierno explained, the premise of this “surge” was that ordinary Iraqis didn’t want the violence. That is, that the chaos in Iraq was being driven by small groups of killers, principally those of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, who, by murdering Shiite civilians in huge car and suicide bomb attacks, were driving ordinary Iraqis into the arms of Shiite deaths squads and the Mahdi Army. If that dynamic could be broken, ordinary Iraqis would stop relying on militias to protect them. Something approaching normalcy might return.
“We believed that the majority of the Iraqi people wanted to move forward, but you had these small groups that didn’t,” General Odierno said. “So we had to protect the people, and go after these groups.”
And so they did, with a series of offensives against the Qaeda insurgents in and around Baghdad in 2007 and then, earlier this year, in Basra and in Baghdad against the Mahdi Army. Along the way, the Americans got a huge break: The leaders of Iraq’s large Sunni tribes, which had included many insurgents, decided to stop opposing the Americans and join them against Al Qaeda. The Americans, seizing the opportunities, agreed to put many of the tribesmen, including many former insurgents, on the payroll.
The Sunni Awakening, as it is called, cascaded through Sunni areas across Iraq.
The result, now visible in the streets, is a calm unlike any Iraq has known in the five and a half years since the Americans arrived. Iraqi life is flowing back into the streets. The ordinary people, the “normal people,” as Mr. Aziz called them, have the upper hand, at least for now. . . .
The forces arrayed against Iraq are significant. Iran has been beaten back - but only for the moment. Al Qaeda's defeat has been more significant, though it to could theoretically stage a come back. Corruption is endemic. Massive oil wealth is a blessing and a curse, increasing the wealth of the nation even as many eye a way to get their hands on an ill-gotten piece of the wealth. The Kurdish north is doing its best to take control of the oil fields near Kirkuk and to become a defacto separate country, threatening to tear Iraq apart.
Arrayed against those forces are a nation desperate to live in peace. It is a nation of intelligent and hardworking people with a history of intermixing between Sunni, Shia and Kurd. It is a nation that is hopeful of democracy to give it good and fair government. And Iraq still has a U.S. partner committed - for the moment - to seeing Iraq a success. Whatever the future may hold, for now, there is a hardwon peace.
At first, I didn’t recognize the place.
Read the entire article. There is much more.