- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 4, 2007

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

SALMAN PAK, Iraq.

The region to the south and east of Baghdad — home to the Tigris River Valley, to the former terrorist training center and resort town of Salman Pak and to the long-since defunct Iraqi nuclear reactor — has seen little of the Coalition since the initial invasion of 2003. One of several areas the military quickly transited, killing off Saddam Hussein’s army before abandoning it entirely, this strategically important region of Shi’a farmers and former Sunni aristocrats with the snaking Tigris is one of the most fertile in central Iraq. It has long since become home to rival factions of various insurgent and sectarian groups. From al Qaeda in Iraq to Muqtada al Sadr’s “Mahdi army” (the Jaish al Mahdi, or JAM), insurgents in the area have now spent months and years fighting among themselves and against each other, in the process terrorizing a cowed civilian population which had all but given up on achieving something better.

This was the situation facing the 3rd Brigade of Georgia’s 3rd Infantry Division when it arrived this spring in Iraq. The third of the five “surge” brigades, the 3-3 Infantry, also known as “Sledgehammer,” was asked to accomplish a great deal in a brief period of time: from hunting down al Qaeda, JAM and others in the area to “interdict[ing] accelerants” — terrorists or materiel — before they can reach Baghdad, plus other tasks such as building rapport with the civilian community and bolstering the Iraqi National Police.

Though undermanned for the scope of their mission and the amount of territory to cover, the 3-3 has made an immediate and notable impact. Many of the effects of their presence are already clear. Al Qaeda, JAM and their ilk have been forced not only to rethink their strategy in an area once theirs for the taking, but now they must do so on the fly, as Coalition-mounted offensive operations target them from the air and from the ground in places they once thought to be secure.

The presence of Coalition forces in the area has lifted the spirits of some of the villagers and tribesmen in the area, who had once all but given up on prospects for improvement. Barely three weeks ago, the first tribal leaders in the southern part of the region contacted a 3-3 unit (Baker Company 1-15, from the 3-3’s 1st Battalion) — meeting its commander, a captain and prior enlisted Ranger named Rich Thompson — to discuss establishing their own “Concerned Citizens” brigade. Concerned Citizens, an attempt to sanction the process which led to last year’s amazing turnaround in Anbar Province, is a formal program allowing individual tribes, with Coalition blessing, to take up arms and defend themselves against terrorists who threaten them.

The surge brigade, just by being there, has made possible events and benefits that could not happen without the American presence. A prime example is medical care. Only days ago, Coalition forces held a free medical clinic, one of several staged in the area, in the small village of Wuerdiya, which is just north of Salman Pak. It had recently been attacked by JAM terrorists. Clinic attendees were not limited to victims of insurgent attack, however. People with everyday ailments like strep throat, high blood pressure and asthma were able to receive care and much-needed prescription drugs to which they had no access prior to the arrival of the surge brigade. To top things off, soccer balls, school bags and replica Iraqi soccer uniforms were given to the children who came for care. Both the children and their parents left very happy with the Coalition, at least for that day.

As has been the case throughout the conflict in Iraq, the enemy has adapted to the Coalition’s increased presence and tactics (new presence and tactics, in this case), mostly by avoiding direct confrontation when at all possible. The enemy familiarly chooses to target soldiers with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and snipers while saving their more aggressive attacks for softer targets like the Iraqi National Police and surrounding civilian populations.

“It’s very clear that they want nothing to do with us directly,” said Capt. Thompson of Baker Company 1-15. Lt. Col. Jack Marr, the 3-3’s 1st Battalion commander, concurred, observing that “They will go out of their way to avoid targeting us with their big operations, and to focus them on the [Iraqi National Police] or another target they perceive to be weaker.” An absence of terrorist activity is not — and cannot be — a requirement for the outcome in Iraq (or, for that matter, in the larger war on terror) to be considered something other than a failure. While the Coalition’s smart, flexible, adaptive and extremely brutal enemies in Iraq will persist in putting up a fight for as long as their individual cells have members, the continuation of any level of resistance by those who have dedicated their lives (and deaths) should not be the sole factor to evaluate the effectiveness of the surge, as well as of Gen. Petraeus’s counterinsurgency strategy.

Contrary to what the nightly news often seems to suggest, there is more to Iraq and to the Coalition’s efforts there than an endless cycle of violence and bloodshed. When evaluating the United States’ performance in this conflict, it is vital not only to recognize this fact, but to take those other events and factors into full account — lest an observer with only a partial knowledge of the facts cast an erroneous judgment on the whole.

“People ask me, ‘Is the surge working?’” Col. Wayne Grigsby, commander of the 3 ID’s 3rd Brigade, said to me. “I say, ‘How can it not be?’ We’re in these areas that no soldiers have been for months and years. Seven of our eight companies are living out in sector [at coalition outposts], among the people that they are working with. Our soldiers are conducting operations and patrols in their sectors daily. We’ve got al Qaeda JAM and JAI [Jaisch al Islam] discombobulated, and we’re showing the people there — people who might not have seen an American soldier in years — a sustained presence, catching bad guys, building checkpoints, providing medical care, and making life safer and better for them.

“Again, I say, ‘How can it not be working?’ ”

Jeff Emanuel, a special operations veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, is a columnist and director of the conservative Web log RedState.com. He is currently embedded with the military on the front lines in Iraq.

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