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Embedded in Iraq

1.

0900: Link up with 2-4 IN patrol at Cross Sabers in IZ,” read the message from the press center of the Multi-National Force–Iraq. That meant that at nine the next morning I should show up at the crossed-sabers monument— the giant pair of arched swords erected by Saddam Hussein on his military parade ground—in the International Zone (aka the Green Zone) to meet a convoy from the 2nd Battalion of the 4th Infantry Regiment of the 10th Mountain Division. The convoy was to take me to a neighborhood in southern Baghdad, where I was to spend the day embedded with the US military.

The embed had proved surprisingly easy to arrange. No one had objected to the three New York Review articles I had sent in as samples of my work. On the application form, I had written that I wanted to visit a typical Baghdad neighborhood to see how the surge was working and to get a sense of what more had to be done before the US could begin to draw down its forces in any significant number.

Though I didn’t say it, I also wanted to see what the embedding process itself was like. This was introduced by the Pentagon at the start of the war to allow journalists to attach themselves to invading military units and see the fighting up close. As Iraq grew steadily more violent, embedding became one of the main ways journalists could get out into the field. Baghdad continues to be a very dangerous place for journalists, with kidnapping an ever-present concern. (Whenever I traveled outside the CBS News compound where I stayed, I had to go in three cars, two of them armored, accompanied by eight armed guards.) Embedding thus remains an important means of seeing the country.

The neighborhood I was going to see was Dora. Once a solidly middle-class district full of ex-Baathists, Dora had gradually been taken over by al-Qaeda in Iraq, which had imposed an Islamic reign of terror. Fighting back, Shiite militiamen had waged their own bloody war on the population, with mutilated bodies regularly turning up on the street. More than two hundred US soldiers had died there in the first half of 2007 alone.1 But with the Sunni backlash against al-Qaeda and the parallel adoption of counterinsurgency tactics by the US military, the neighborhood had lately become pacified, and it was now a showcase for visiting journalists and pundits.

At precisely nine o’clock, a convoy of four US military vehicles pulled into the asphalt lot near the crossed sabers. From one of them emerged a trim, fair-haired man in camouflage fatigues who introduced himself as Lieutenant Colonel Timothy Watson, the commanding officer of the unit I was joining. “We’re going in an MRAP, OK?” he said, gesturing toward a bulky, bristling Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle. A sort of armored truck with heavy metal plates along its bottom, the MRAP was designed to provide extra protection against roadside bombs, but since being introduced last year, it has already proved vulnerable to a new generation of powerful explosives.

Inside, it was surprisingly comfortable, with two seats on either side facing in toward one another, plus room for a gunner standing upright in the center. I took a seat opposite Watson and Captain Brett Walker, the public affairs officer (PAO) assigned to me. How closely, I wondered, would he watch over me? With three Humvees in tow, we rumbled out of the Green Zone and south toward Dora, which was just a few miles away. A year ago, Watson told me above the roar of the engine, Dora was “the most hotly contested area in Baghdad.” Now it was one of the safest. The Dora marketplace, which a year earlier had been all but shuttered, was now home to some eight hundred shops and stalls. “The surge has had a huge impact,” Watson said; hundreds of the 30,000 additional troops sent to Iraq had been assigned to this one neighborhood. There, he went on, they had worked closely with both the Iraqi Security Forces and the Sons of Iraq, the mix of Sunni tribesmen and former insurgents who, as part of the Sunni “Awakening,” had turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq. With al-Qaeda and other insurgent groups now on the run, the Americans were trying to consolidate the gains by joining with local residents to improve services and repair infrastructure.

That’s what it’s all about—interacting with the population,” Watson said. One of the most difficult things, he went on, was figuring out how the government worked. “What’s that book by Gladwell?” he asked. “The Tipping Point? Iraqis lack connectors. They’re not willing to go out to look for people to coordinate with.” I was a bit startled; was Malcolm Gladwell helping to shape US military strategy in Iraq? Watson expressed pride at how the local beladiya (municipality) had cleared the marketplace of trash. “We put the squeeze on them,” he said. “We consider it a huge success when we get the Iraqis to do the job themselves.”

With that, we arrived in the marketplace. The MRAP’s back door sprung open and, descending, I found myself surrounded by the members of the infantry patrol that was to show me around the market. All I could see for the moment, however, was a palisade of concrete walls extending far down the road—the famous blast walls that the US military had erected throughout Baghdad to keep warring Sunnis and Shiites apart. Nearby, however, there was an opening in the wall, and passing through it I found myself amid a gritty jumble of shops and stalls. Spread out on mottled wooden tables were clumps of tomatoes and cucumbers, onions and potatoes. As we walked along the steamy streets and the humble shops lining them, I was told about the microgrants (ranging up to $5,000) that the battalion was handing out to storeowners to help them get started. Iraqi kids kept running up to us and shouting “Meester, meester!” The adults, however, held back, looking sullen. What, I wondered, was going through their minds?

At one point, Captain Walker, the PAO, gestured toward some sewer-repair work being done in the street. “This isn’t being staged,” he assured me. “The beladiya is fixing this on their own.” His comment, though, put the thought in my mind. Was all this somehow being put on for my benefit? While on patrol, for instance, we ran into a middle-aged man wearing a keffiyah and flowing robe. He was introduced as Sheikh Ahmed, a central figure in the local Awakening group. With the help of an Army interpreter, he effusively praised the Coalition. “We want to give them thanks from our side for how much they have helped to defeat al-Qaeda,” he said, touching his heart.

From the market we drove a short distance to Joint Security Station Masafi. Located in a half-finished, rough-hewn shopping complex, this was a joint outpost for US and Iraqi forces. Here soldiers came to rest and sleep between patrols as well as to collect intelligence and plan operations. Lieutenant Colonel Watson reappeared for some final questions before he moved on to other business. What more had to be done, I asked, before the troops could begin to go home? Improving the Iraqi security forces and providing essential services, he said—a formula I’d heard many, many times. “Do you want to bring up our time in Taji?” said PAO Walker, who was listening in. Thus prompted, Watson described the training his men had received at a counterinsurgency academy located on an air base north of Baghdad. At another point, as Watson was discussing the importance of working with the community, Walker again intervened, ticking off the many cases of state-building the battalion had studied, from the school-building campaign in the Philippines to the CORDS program in Vietnam.

Walker’s intrusiveness surprised me. In our conversations, he had seemed smart and affable. As he had told me, he had grown up in the Bay Area, the son of ex-hippies who were opposed to the war. He had gone to West Point as an act of rebellion. His father, a lawyer and writer, was a reader of The New York Review. But now he was becoming heavy-handed, and I couldn’t help but frown.

Soon we were back on patrol, and the show continued. At a local school the US had helped refurbish, the headmaster described her students’ great progress. At an intersection guarded by three Sons of Iraq, an interpreter relayed to me their gratitude for all the US had done. I was beginning to feel as if I were in my own version of The Truman Show, with some hidden hand directing the action.

2.

But then something unexpected happened. Captain Walker asked if I would like to see a house that US soldiers had blown up a few days earlier after discovering bomb-making materials inside a fake wall. When we got to the site, we found two women and two girls standing on a pile of bricks that had once been their home, looking dazed. As the captain who had carried out the operation began describing it, some residents from the neighborhood gathered around. The explosion had gone off with such force that several adjoining houses had been damaged, and their occupants were now standing glumly around. “Tell them I’ll be back tomorrow to listen to everyone’s story,” the captain told the interpreter, but after he relayed this, the locals began complaining loudly. As we headed back to our vehicles, the interpreter explained that the people were upset at the damage their homes had suffered and were demanding compensation. It was a reminder that counterinsurgency is not all about microgrants and trash removal—that it also involves aggressive actions like nighttime house raids, mass roundups of young men, and the blowing up of houses.

Soon after, there was another unscripted moment. While waiting with a group of soldiers to board some Humvees that were to take us to Forward Operating Base Falcon, one of the main US bases in southern Baghdad, I was waved over by one of them. “Do you know Chris Hedges?” he asked. When I said I did, the soldier, a captain and West Point graduate, told me that he had met Hedges at a conference in the United States and admired his book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, which explores the way soldiers—and journalists—become hooked on the danger and romance of war. Another captain with whom he’d been chatting began telling me how much he wanted to leave the Army but couldn’t because he’d been “stop-lossed,” i.e., forced to remain in uniform under a contractual clause that allows the military to keep soldiers from leaving for up to eight years after the date of their initial sign-up. Before I could learn more, another captain came over to say how eager he was to roll up some more insurgents, and the other captains fell silent.

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    Alexandra Zavis, “Iraq’s ‘Alamo’ Simmers,” Los Angeles Times, August 22, 2007.

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