The Magazine

Don't Abandon the Iraqis

The high stakes of the war.

May 28, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 35 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
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In Iskandariyah, I met Major General Qais, the commander of the Babil Province police forces. I asked him the same question, What is your greatest challenge. Without hesitation, he, too, said: Shia militias. The Iraqi police are known to be infiltrated by Shia militia fighters, but General Qais has molded a force that he uses against those very militias on a daily basis. He has survived attempts on his life, and he and his family are under constant threat. They, too, rely on America to help them fight the agents of Iran who seek to defeat us. Across Iraq today, decent people are standing up and identifying themselves. They are reaching out to us, working with us, and fighting alongside us against our enemies, even against the powerful Shia militias. If we abandon them now, they will be tortured and killed, along with their families, by the militias. We will have exposed every decent person in the country to destruction.

For the fact is that the democratic government of Iraq is an ally--and a strong ally--against al Qaeda. Against al Qaeda, Iraqi leaders from government, civil society, the military, and the police are implacable. Even the Sunni Arabs, who once provided al Qaeda safe haven and support, have turned against the terrorists. Thousands of Sunni Arabs in Anbar, Salahaddin, Diyala, Babil, and even Baghdad have reached out to the Coalition and the Iraqi government, offering to fight the takfiris, as they call al Qaeda. Anbar Province, whose Marine intelligence officers had virtually given it up only last year, is now lost to al Qaeda. Thousands of Iraqis have died fighting al Qaeda. When al Qaeda attacks recruiting centers, health clinics, government buildings, and military and police outposts, the Iraqis do not run home. They run back into the battle, to fight harder. But they continue to need our help. If we abandon them, al Qaeda terrorists will barbarically punish those who have opposed them. They may even so terrorize the people that they are able to establish a home in part of Iraq. That is certainly their aim. We cannot allow them to succeed.

But the stakes are even higher than these. I had the chance to walk through the market near Haifa Street the other day. Only in January, the streets of this mixed Sunni-Shia neighborhood featured day-long gun fights between al Qaeda terrorists and U.S. and Iraqi soldiers. American forces have not yet finished clearing the neighborhood. Nevertheless, I walked through the market with Lieutenant General Ray Odierno, commander of Multi-National Corps-Iraq, retired General Jack Keane, Colonel Bryan Roberts, the local brigade commander, my wife, Kimberly Kagan, Colonel H.R. McMaster, and several other American soldiers and civilians. With a handful of armed soldiers as escort, and attack helicopters circling overhead to guard against snipers known to be in the area, we walked through the meandering market. The American brigade commander was well known to the locals, who greeted us all, "Salaam aleikum, wa aleikum es-salaam." Smiling children darted through our group, surrounding us, begging for candy, for my wife's sunglasses, for one of General Odierno's stars ("Just one, please--you have three"). We walked through a crowded pool hall and past tables of men playing dominoes. Pool players patiently tried to make their shots despite our interruption; old men slammed dominoes on the table triumphantly and tried to get us to play with them.

But the most moving scenes were in some of the worst neighborhoods of the city. Our uparmored Humvees rolled through Ghazaliyah and Dora, two Sunni neighborhoods heavily infiltrated with al Qaeda and under pressure from Shia militias. There are few services in these neighborhoods, and IED attacks and killings had been regular features until very recently. We walked through raw sewage in the streets and saw bullet and bomb holes in the buildings. But to my amazement, we also saw children in those streets who did not glare or run or stand dourly as the occupiers passed. Instead they smiled and waved, asking for candy or just saying hello. Even in the worst places in Iraq, we have not lost the children. They still look to us with hope. They still expect us to deliver them from death and violence. They still believe that we will honor our commitments to their parents.