This September, at the height of Ramadan, I flew north in a US Army helicopter from Baghdad to Samarra, a former sanctuary of the extremist group known as al-Qaeda in Iraq, on the east bank of the Tigris River, known for years by US troops as “the worst city in Iraq.” Between 2005 and early 2008 Sunni extremists imposed a theocracy here, executed “spies” in the central market, and financed their operations through protection rackets and by hijacking fuel trucks. In February 2006 militants with al-Qaeda in Iraq blew up the Golden Dome of the city’s al-Askariya Shrine, a revered Shia pilgrimage site that contains the bodies of two ninth-century imams. The bombing plunged the country into a civil war in which tens of thousands of people died. Sixteen months later, in June 2007, al-Qaeda in Iraq destroyed the shrine’s minarets, and a few weeks before that, a suicide bomber drove a truck into police headquarters, killing the police chief and eleven of his men, and sending the rest of the seven-hundred-man force fleeing for safety across the river.
By the time I arrived in Samarra, however, the al-Qaeda forces had retreated. In February 2008, the US Army’s 101st Airborne Division signed a deal with two powerful Sunni tribes in the city, and two thousand fighters—many of whom had previously been laying improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to kill American troops—were put on the US payroll. The Sons of Iraq, or Concerned Citizens Council, an offshoot of the Sunni Awakening movement that had brought peace to neighboring Anbar province in 2007, started to give intelligence to their new US allies about al-Qaeda in Iraq operations in the city.
This increase in valuable intelligence, combined with US firepower and the improved performance of the Iraqi police and military, sharply reduced the levels of violence in and around Samarra. According to US Army figures, hostile actions against American soldiers dropped from 313 in July 2007 to seventeen in August 2008. “The Sons of Iraq had seen how low the city had sunk, they saw how al-Qaeda had oppressed the population, and they turned against them,” I was told by Captain Nathan Adams of the 101st Airborne, as we sat in an air-conditioned briefing room beside the helicopter landing zone in Samarra. Working together, he said, “we’ve made Samarra an unattractive option for them.”
On a steamy afternoon I traveled with a platoon from the First Brigade Combat Team of the 101st Airborne in Samarra that was escorting Brigadier General James Boozer, deputy commander of the US Army’s First Armored Division, of Task Force Iron, on a tour of the city. In the 120-degree heat, we threaded our way through a maze of Sons of Iraq checkpoints, blast walls, and bombed-out government buildings surrounded by coiled barbed wire.
The First Brigade Combat Team—including several hundred troops based inside the city—had borrowed from the strategies that US troops had used in Anbar province, absorbing the lessons of Fallujah, Ramadi, Hit, Tal Afar, and other…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.