The Magazine

Can Petraeus Pull It Off?

A report on the progress of our arms in Baghdad, Baqubah, Ramadi, and Falluja.

Apr 30, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 31 • By MAX BOOT
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The news from Iraq is, as usual, grim. Bombings, more bombings, and yet more bombings--that's all the world notices. It's easy to conclude that all is chaos. That's not true. Some parts of Iraq are in bad shape, but others are improving. I spent the first two weeks of April in Baghdad, with side trips to Baqubah, Ramadi, and Falluja. Along the way I talked to everyone from privates to generals, both American and Iraqi. I found that, while we may not yet be winning the war, our prospects are at least not deteriorating precipitously, as they were last year. When General David Petraeus took command in February, he called the situation "hard" but not "hopeless." Today there are some glimmers of hope in the unlikeliest of places.

Until recently Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, was the most dangerous city in Iraq if not the world. It was run by al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which had declared it the capital of its Islamic State of Iraq. The Iraqi police presence was limited to one police station, which the police were afraid to leave. Soldiers and Marines engaged in heavy combat every day, losing hundreds of men since 2003, simply to avoid having insurgents overrun the government center and close down Route Michigan, the main street.

That began to change last year when the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Armored Division expanded the U.S. troop presence on the west side of town, losing almost 90 soldiers in the process. The 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 3rd Infantry Division, which took over the city earlier this year, expanded the offensive toward the al Qaeda strongholds on the west side of town. From mid-February to the end of March, some 2,000 soldiers and Marines, along with their Iraqi allies, fought to gain control of the city. The principal operations were codenamed Murfreesboro (February 10-March 10), Okinawa (March 9-20), and Call to Freedom (March 17-30). Collectively, they deserve to take their place in the annals of this long war alongside such notable clashes as the taking of Tal Afar in 2005, the two battles of Falluja in 2004, and the thunder runs through Baghdad in 2003.

Each of the Ramadi offensives began with troops staging raids into the targeted area to eliminate "high value individuals"--local al Qaeda leaders. Then the troops would place three-foot-high concrete blocks known as Jersey barriers around the targeted neighborhood to prevent insurgents from "squirting out." This would be followed by a clearing operation, with U.S. and Iraqi troops advancing from multiple directions to root out the enemy. Combat was intense. Insurgents fought back with everything from homemade bombs to AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades, and heavy machine guns. Ten American soldiers were killed and another 40 wounded.

"The price was heavy but worth it," says Colonel John W. Charlton, the burly commander of the 1st Brigade who directed the operations. "The enemy lost massively."

To illustrate the point, he shows me a page of closely printed type listing all the arms caches seized by his men. These included 10,250 pounds of homemade explosives, 2,347 pounds of high explosives, 2,265 feet of detonation cord, and 6,000 gallons of chlorine. U.S. troops discovered and dismantled entire factories devoted to the production of IEDs, and they killed hundreds of insurgents.

The results of these epic battles--and those that preceded them over the past four years--are clearly visible when Colonel Charlton takes me on a tour of Ramadi. Route Michigan resembles pictures of Berlin in 1945. Buildings are either entirely destroyed or badly damaged. Twisted girders jut into the sky. Piles of rubble are everywhere. Water sits in the streets; the water mains have been broken by countless explosions of buried IEDs. There are crater holes from roadside bombs every few feet.

It is a horrific scene but also a hopeful one. "A few weeks ago you couldn't drive down this street without being attacked. When I went down this street in February, I was hit three times with small-arms fire and IEDs," Colonel Charlton tells me over the intercom system of his up-armored Humvee. Even though this is an unlucky day--Friday the 13th--we do not experience a single attack on our convoy. The only violence the entire day occurs when a rocket lands on the other side of the Euphrates River without hurting anyone. The previous week, Ramadi saw a much-publicized attack--a suicide bomber drove a truck filled with explosives and chlorine gas into a police checkpoint, killing 12 people (not the 27 or more cited in most news accounts). But such violence has become the exception; it used to be the norm. Ramadi, which used to see 20 to 25 attacks a day, now sees an average of 2 to 4 a day--and falling. Entire days go by without a single attack. By the time I visited, no U.S. soldier had been killed in the town for weeks.