BAGHDAD — Many U.S. soldiers on the ground in Baghdad caution that improved security in the capital city will last only as long as the surge. If American troops were to leave, they say, the insurgents could be back within hours.
U.S. forces broke up insurgent networks and curtailed the ability of terrorists to strike, said Sgt. Gregory Rayho, 30, of the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment, Stryker Brigade Combat Team, the recipient of three Purple Hearts during his time in Iraq.
His overall assessment is upbeat: "It is my opinion that the surge is working."
But he also said continued success in the Dora neighborhood of Baghdad, where his fellow soldiers patrol, depends on the continued presence of American troops. Should they be withdrawn, the future could be deadly.
"If [the insurgents] really, really wanted it really bad, they could take it back in a day. They could occupy it within hours, but it would take weeks to regain some of the terrain we have denied them," he said.
When Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, testifies on Capitol Hill today, some lawmakers and many Americans will look beyond statistics for a street-level view of the daily ordeal faced by surging U.S. troops.
Working around the clock, seven days a week, the Stryker team raids suspected insurgent hide-outs and detains suspected terrorists. To boost security, the team set up about eight miles of concrete walls to protect the predominantly Sunni Dora neighborhood, home to about 38,000 Iraqis.
Other tactics, such as incorporating Sunnis into so-called volunteer forces, which are sanctioned by the U.S. troops to police their own areas, and awarding local sheiks cash grants and loans for reconstruction projects also helped tone down attacks.
One soldier, who has taken part in the distribution of hundred-thousand-dollar contracts in the Sunni area south of Baghdad, once known as the Triangle of Death, said he was basically buying a cease-fire.
"I can't believe we are paying these people not to blow us up," he said, asking that his name not be used.
Whether the incentives are financial or security-related, American forces are making an all-out effort to pull both Sunnis and Shi'ites away from extremist, sectarian or ideological elements and create conditions on the ground for a national identity to re-emerge.
"My little world consists of my little area, and I've watched it go from absolute chaos to relative quiet. Is it fragile? Yeah, but it's working," said Sgt. 1st Class David Richardson, of the 1-89 Cavalry Regiment, 10th Mountain Division, who works a 16-square-mile area south of Baghdad.
"Your insurgents are probably still insurgents, but people placing the bombs are not so secure. Now their neighbors are watching," said Sgt. 1st Class Richardson, who has spent 28 months in Iraq.
U.S. military reports say that the overall number of attacks on coalition forces and sectarian deaths are down. Still, levels are nowhere near as low as they were before the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samara in February 2006.
And although the number of attacks are down, neighborhoods remain far from safe.
In the East Rasheed and Dora neighborhoods, daytime gunbattles, sniper attacks and roadside bombs being detonated or unearthed are common.
Death toll down
The Iraqi civilian death toll for August is at least 1,809, according to the Associated Press, just above the 1,760 who died in July. Prior to the surge, monthly tolls reported by the AP regularly exceeded 3,000.
"U.S. troops, wherever they have been, have been able to change the tactical conditions," said Lt. Col. Barry Huggins, Battalion Commander for the 2-3 Stryker Brigade Combat Team, which is finishing up a 15 month tour in Iraq.
"As for a fundamental change in the social fabric, a change in attitudes, we have not brought that about, Col Huggins said. "But we have set the conditions that will allow this to take place."
"There are local effects, tactical in nature and not strategic, and it's possible that they will evaporate over time.
"When the surge ends and we go back to base-line force levels, it will be a good test of whether fundamental change has in fact taken place. I think we are all aware we are all working against the clock to a certain extent."
Baghdad looks and feels nothing like it did three years ago, when Westerners and Iraqis could eat in restaurants, stroll through shopping districts and drink fruit smoothies at sidewalk cafes as families walked by.
Now, entire neighborhoods are walled in. Burned-out store fronts and piles of trash line the streets. Millions of Iraqis have fled, leaving behind empty houses that insurgents can take over as hide-outs or use as bases from which to attack.
In Dora last year, the streets were dangerous for Shi'ites, but there was plenty of traffic. The Christian market was thriving, stores were open.
Today, roughly 20 percent of the houses are abandoned. Sewage floods some of the roads, and the market — while making a comeback — is said to be about a third of its former size.
From the liberators of 2003, U.S. troops have become law-enforcement officers in a city that slid quickly into physical, sectarian and criminal chaos.
"My job is infantry; it is to target, kill or arrest insurgents. But the way we go about doing it is police-department policy. And I am not a cop — that is not my job," said one U.S. soldier, who asked that his comments remain anonymous.
Rounding up suspects
Men found to be attacking American forces are taken blindfolded from their houses, leaving households of women and children behind.
"Who will bring the money for living? And who is going to take care of the three kids?" asked the wife of one man who was taken away, detained on suspicion of being a sniper. Soldiers had two sworn statements to help identify the suspect.
The wife, her mother-in-law, sister-in-law, aunt-in-law, three children and a neighbor's wife with three children were all sitting outside on the grass in their small walled-in garden, waving the flies off their babies as the soldiers questioned the men in the house.
They winced as repeated volleys of gunfire echoed from somewhere nearby.
Inside the house, soldiers had three men — on whom the troops had several matching intelligence reports — flex-cuffed, standing and facing the walls in different rooms. After several hours, they were allowed to sit in chairs. Looking for information, the soldiers searched through closets and tested the men for residue from explosives.
Then they took one of the men, dressed in a long white tunic and trousers, into the kitchen, encircled him and starting firing off questions, sometimes shouting and slamming the counters.
By early morning, the three were taken to the local Iraqi army patrol base, which consists of a group of three dilapidated houses, shored up with sandbags. Other detainees already arrested in the night raid squatted against dusty concrete barriers, their eyes blindfolded and feet wedged in plastic sandals on the hard dirt ground.
Nighttime raids — based on intelligence — are followed by daytime attempts to fix the destroyed infrastructure.
According to U.S. officers, Iraqi army units working in two neighborhoods are doing well, despite being predominantly Shi'ite.
They are Shi'ite soldiers who were part of Saddam's old army — an institution respected by Sunnis — and their families are safe from reprisals because they live in Shi'ite-dominated southern Iraq.
Too early to leave
"Some [units] are squared away, and some need work," said Spc. Andres Solis, of the Stryker combat team.
"We could lend a hand for a couple more years, but the Iraqi forces need to start prepping themselves for our departure. We can only do so much."
Maj. Alfred Williams, who has been in Iraq twice for a total of 27 months, said the nation is at a crossroads. To achieve success, a military must boost control, legitimize local Sunni security forces and bring the Shi'ite militias under control, he said. Given the weakness of the current Iraqi government, the only force capable of doing that is the U.S. military and that resource is finite.
"We're here looking for the magic pill — but the only thing that works is more soldiers. But eventually, that's got to end," said Maj. Williams, clearly tired as his unit's 15 month tour comes to a close.
"That is why this piece needs working [on] now," he said, referring to the urgency of establishing trust between local security forces, their communities and ultimately the government
"They don't like us but at least they are talking to us to fill the al Qaeda in Iraq vacuum. I think this is the Battle of the Bulge, this is the last ditch try to get something like this in place, and I think we can do it."
Lt. Mohammed, a former platoon sergeant in Saddam's army, lives in one of the Iraqi army outposts around Dora. Sitting in a plain room with purple plaster circles on the ceiling, worn-out chairs, a wooden box for an ashtray and Arabic music videos on the TV in the corner, he talked about life in the neighborhood.
The Iraqi army, he said, does a foot patrol for about four square blocks every two to three days. They also perform three mounted patrols a day, one with the Americans. He said electricity in the area is still mainly from private generators, as there is no city electricity and the large neighborhood generators keep getting hit by the insurgents.
"The priority," Lt. Mohammed said, "is electricity, water and sewage, and providing jobs for the people." He said that with the constant presence of the Stryker teams, people on the street are beginning to provide information to help secure the arrest of insurgents and find bombs.
"People in the neighborhood know who are doing the bad things, they know everything, but they are scared because al Qaeda kills their families," the Iraqi officer said.
Asked if al Qaeda would return to the streets if the Americans were to leave, he just nodded.
Civilians still fearful
Om Sha'ata, a Christian grandmother with a Muslim-style head scarf barely covering her short, gray hair, said her house has no water, no electricity and sewage flooding the floor. Most of her family left for Syria, but she stayed behind to help her one son still working in Baghdad.
Om Sha'ata, literally "mother of Sha'ata," said she had lived in the same Sunni neighborhood for 26 years, but is now too scared to go out and buy groceries.
Even when her husband died in April, the burial service was held in a different neighborhood, and she has not been able to visit the grave because the route is too dangerous.
"I never thought Baghdad would become like this. I never thought the day would come that I would move out," she said, tears in her eyes, her thick hands pulling on the scarf or resting on her knees. "I don't want to leave the place where I was born."
In another Iraqi patrol post, located in a filthy, burned-out former shopping arcade, Iraqi army soldiers and U.S. counterparts sat on the third floor, in front of a fan, while studying maps of the area.
A former platoon sergeant in Saddam's army, Lt. Mohammed said the concrete barriers are helping block insurgents from coming into the neighborhood, but that there are a number of insurgents "on the inside" as well.
He said there are still areas in the neighborhood where he — as a Shi'ite — did not feel safe.
As he spoke, a rocket landed about 150 yards away. No one flinched. Explosions are so common, the soldiers barely noticed.
The missing piece, said Sgt. 1st Class Richardson, is the Iraqi government:
"There has to be a government the majority of the Shi'ites and the Sunnis can trust. If that were to happen, I think Iraq would be OK."