The Battle for Baghdad

Tuesday's World Events   —   Posted on April 3, 2007

(by Jill Nelson, – His update book and coffee greet him each morning in an office situated in a heavily guarded complex in western Baghdad, but U.S. Army Brig. Gen. John F. Campbell, deputy commanding general for operations in Baghdad, likes to think of the streets as his real office. And from his vantage point, that office is starting to show signs of improvement.

Prior to the influx of forces and new counterinsurgency efforts announced by President Bush in January, Campbell encountered ghost-like stares and empty streets in areas where militias ruled. Now, he says, “The streets are bustling with people, markets are opening, the kids are waving at you, and people are welcoming you into their homes.”

Campbell says it’s not unusual to be invited in for tea on his now regular street walks. “They’re welcoming not only Iraqi security forces but also coalition forces.”

The street savvy of commanding officers like Campbell, who once hunkered behind the concrete barriers delineating the Green Zone in downtown Baghdad, is one sign that U.S. forces are serious about the new strategy.

In an interview with WORLD from Baghdad, Campbell is cautious but optimistic: He believes U.S. forces can and should succeed in Iraq–but he stresses that it won’t happen unless U.S. forces can “be here for the long haul.”

As the Democratic leadership pushes separate bills in the House and Senate–with both binding and non-binding troop withdrawal deadlines– Campbell and his Iraqi counterparts pound pavement. Already he can attest to promising tactical adjustments, a change in attitude among Iraqi military leaders, and a growing trust among civilians. The biggest obstacle to success in Iraq, he says, is not insurgents. It is that the United States won’t stay long enough to see if the new plan works.

For a war-weary American public, there are numerous reasons to leave. Now entering its fifth year, the conflict has claimed the lives of more than 3,000 American soldiers. And seemingly endless sectarian violence is the primary factor behind an estimated 59,000 to 65,000 Iraqi deaths. The power struggle between Sunni and Shiite militias–funded by neighboring countries–has drifted into what some call civil war. At the very least, this is not what the Bush administration–or top brass like Campbell–planned.

But as the surge of forces, which began in February, unfolds, military leaders are changing tactics and laying a foundation for continuing stability. Past strategy entailed bursts of activity by U.S. forces that would then pass the baton to the Iraqis, only to have the insurgents move back in and set up camp again. The new mantra is “clear, control, and retain” by moving U.S. battalions into the neighborhoods and pairing them with Iraqi units.

“The control piece is what’s different. That means we’re in the cities, we’re living with Iraqi counterparts, and we’re a 24/7 presence every single day out there so the people in the neighborhoods see the coalition forces working with the Iraqi security forces,” Campbell said.

Iraqis see a difference, too. Blogger Omar Fadhil attests to Baghdad’s recent transformation not reported in most U.S. news outlets: “A lot more troops, Iraqi and American, are available and visible in Baghdad than there were a couple months ago. Checkpoints are more abundant and security measures are by far stricter than before. And yes, civilian activity is much better now than before.”

The new offensive includes sending 21,500 troops and 7,000 support units to Baghdad and the Anbar Province, eventually bringing the U.S. troop presence in Iraq to 160,000. Two of the five brigades committed are already in place, and by June all should be in place. “If you visited Baghdad in December,” Fadhil, reached by email, noted wryly, “and come again now for another visit, you’ll see an obvious difference.”

The surge into the Baghdad area includes Iraqi troops and police. Campbell says the government of Iraq has “gotten serious”–sending army battalions into Baghdad for 90-day rotations and taking ownership of the new strategy. The Iraqi police also have stepped up, addressing a rampant problem of mistrust apparent not only in the streets but at the national level.

Campbell now meets daily with National Police Maj. Gen. Hussein Jassim Al-Awadi, who took the reins last November. Campbell claims the Iraqi general has personally changed out “about 75 percent of the leadership in the last four or five months”–firing those suspected of militia involvement.

In addition, every national police brigade is being sent to a four-week retraining program with coalition advisors that emphasizes values, ethical treatment, and tactical skills. Close to half of the units have been through the program thus far, but Campbell acknowledges that it will take time to build trust among wary Iraqi civilians. Creating a joint presence in the neighborhoods is the first step. Baghdad has been divided into 10 security districts with an Iraqi brigade commander in charge of each one. The commanders are paired with a coalition unit, typically a battalion.

Prior to his transfer from Afghanistan to Iraq last August, Campbell was planning to work on his Arabic skills. But a sooner-than-expected call to Iraq meant the Arabic CDs and phrase book (revised and expanded edition) remain unopened on his desk. So when he walks the streets of his “other office,” he greets Iraqis with the standard salaam alaykum, and a linguist translates the rest.

But Campbell says it doesn’t take much Arabic to observe the transformation that has taken place among the senior Iraqi leadership since the new offensive began to take shape: “They’ve taken this on as their own, and I didn’t see that during the first piece of this.” Campbell said improved attitude and commitment are evident on his regular street patrols. “They’re engaged and they’re leading from the front.”

Trickles of civilians are also showing signs of a psychological shift since Operation Imposing Law commenced in Baghdad on Feb 14. Fadhil, a Sunni Arab and a Baghdad dentist who began his blog “Iraq the Model” with his brother at the beginning of the war “not for any purpose, but to relieve the pressure in my chest,” says he’s seeing families returning to their homes and shops reopening.

But he too is cautious in his optimism. “The commanders didn’t claim [the results would be magical] when the operation began. Still these latest results are certainly promising. And let’s not forget what has been achieved so far was achieved when many thousands of the new troops assigned to Baghdad are yet to arrive,” Fadhil wrote last month.

At the beginning of March Iraqi police and coalition forces embarked on their first concerted effort in Sadr City, plagued with squalid conditions and the influence of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi army. Pressured, al-Sadr went into hiding in February, and his army has maintained a low profile. Joint security stations have now been established in the city and execution-style killings have dropped dramatically. Deaths in Sadr City fell from more than 200 in December and January to less than 20 during the first 30 days of the Baghdad surge.

With an increased sense of security, Campbell now witnesses flocks of children surrounding his soldiers as they patrol the streets and a noticeable shift in attitude among Sadr City civilians. Residents are offering security tips, leading to hidden caches of weapons and insurgent hideouts. One such tip led to a March 24 raid in Sadr City where soldiers found 470 anti-tank mines. A raid the day prior in a region south of Baghdad produced a separate cache and the detention of 31 insurgents.

But Islamic extremists have countered the new offensive with high-profile bombings. More than 20 Iraqi civilians died when a March 5 car bomb struck Baghdad’s historic “book market,” a haven for Iraqi intellectuals. And in an apparent stepped-up offensive of insurgents attacking fellow Sunnis seen as collaborating with U.S. forces, a suicide bomber attacked a Baghdad police station March 24, killing 33 police officers and putting the day’s casualty total at 87.

And while the focus is primarily on Baghdad, violence has escalated in the Diyala Province just east of the capital. Col. David Sutherland says Sunni insurgents and al-Qaeda remain vigilant in their attempts to overturn counterinsurgency attempts in the area. “I can kill and kill all day long and it won’t do anything other than create more terrorists,” Sutherland said. “The Iraqi government in Baghdad needs to start providing for these people.” In some parts of Diyala, U.S. troop strength has dropped by half over the course of the war, and the surge plan to combat violence in central Iraq does not address those pockets.

The day Campbell spoke with WORLD, he had two memorials to attend for three soldiers killed by IEDs, or improvised explosive devices. Mourning the loss of fallen soldiers renews his commitment to make sure these soldiers have not died in vain: “We have less than half of what is coming over on the surge. We have 10 brigades on the ground, and as we apply these additional forces, I think it’s only going to get better.”

With pressure mounting back home, there may be a time squeeze to demonstrate that things can improve in Iraq. U.S. House members, led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), on March 23 narrowly approved the first legislation calling for an end to the war. The bill mandates a withdrawal from Iraq by Aug. 31, 2008, regardless of what takes place during the next 17 months. The Senate planned to pass a less sweeping measure to end the war, with legislation calling for troop withdrawal to begin within 120 days of passage and a non-binding deadline of March 31, 2008, for complete withdrawal. President Bush has threatened to veto both measures.

“We’ve got to have time,” Campbell said. “Our concept of time and the culture’s sense of time here are two different things. We’re from a society that’s about fast food and getting it done. Over here it’s much slower.” Campbell points out that rebuilding Germany and Japan took 10 years, and they were not rebuilt while fighting a war.

Campbell doesn’t watch the news every day, but many of his soldiers do and are troubled by the negative focus of the American media. “What I don’t think people are seeing are all the great things that are happening each day and all the victories that are happening.” Campbell rattles off a list of accomplishments: schools opening, businesses created, employment on the rise, and neighborhood advisory councils growing across the region. “All they see is the bad stuff,” Campbell said. “For every explosive device that goes off, there are four or five that are stopped. For every person you find murdered, you don’t hear about the four or five kidnap victims that were recovered.”

Campbell has missed four of the past five Christmas holidays with his family. With a wife of 23 years and two kids–ages 18 and 20–back home in Ft. Hood, Texas, he longs to return like other soldiers and their families–just not the easy way.

Copyright ©2007 WORLD Magazine, April 7, 2007 issue.  Reprinted here April 3rd with permission from World Magazine. Visit the website at