I WENT TO IRAQ in August, the day after a bomb had ripped through the United Nations compound in Baghdad, killing 23 people including the U.N. special envoy. I came home the day after another massive car bomb exploded at a mosque in Najaf, taking more than 95 lives including that of a leading cleric. Yet I returned more optimistic than when I went.
Understandably, these attacks have caused apprehension, verging on panic, among U.S.-based commentators and politicians. A chorus of critics is already attacking the Bush administration for losing Iraq. During my trip I, too, saw plenty of room for improvement, especially by the civilian-run Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad. For that matter, I was almost a casualty of a roadside bomb myself. Nevertheless, after 10 days traveling with soldiers and Marines in both the north and south, I am encouraged by the resourcefulness of our troops and struck by how different things look when seen firsthand. From afar, chaos seems to reign in Iraq; up close, distinct signs of progress emerge.
Air travel isn't one of the more positive signs. There still is no commercial air service to Iraq. I went in with Bing West, a former assistant secretary of defense and a Marine veteran of Vietnam, on a Marine Lear jet from Kuwait to Al Kut in central Iraq. From there, an old CH-46 helicopter whisked us to the 1st Marine Division headquarters at Camp Babylon. Yes, that Babylon. The former home of Nebuchadnezzar now houses rulers clad in khaki camouflage.
The headquarters of the 1st Marine Division was on the grounds of one of Saddam Hussein's numerous palaces. A guest house had been turned into a Combat Operations Center where officers and enlisted personnel sat at laptop computers monitoring everything from enemy attacks to electricity flows. A tent city around the building was full to overflowing when we arrived. The Marines were in the process of transitioning out, while Poles, Romanians, Bulgarians, Hungarians, Spaniards, and numerous other coalition troops had already arrived to take their place. The formal handoff to the coalition forces occurred on September 3, except in Najaf, where the recent bombing has delayed it.
For Marines who went through the war sleeping in the dirt and eating MREs (Meals Ready to Eat), life at Camp Babylon had gotten relatively civilized by the end of their tour. Most of the tents had cots and air conditioning, "head" calls could be taken in the privacy of a port-o-potty, and food came from a "chow hall" run by Indian contract employees. Things will be positively luxurious for the allied troops, who are having built for them, at U.S. expense, air-conditioned shower and laundry facilities. The food wasn't bad--we had lobster my first night and excellent cakes--but everyone from buck private to three-star general waited in a long line before getting fed.
From here the 1st Marine Division directed battalions that ran all of south-central Iraq--up to 11 million people in the Shiite heartland. Major General James Mattis laughingly called it the Blue Diamond Republic of Iraq, after the 1st Division's nickname. If so, he was president of the republic, or, more accurately, its benevolent dictator. Mattis is a legend inside the Marine Corps, having led the Marines into both Afghanistan and Iraq. He was so hell-bent on reaching Baghdad that he fired one of his brigade commanders for not going fast enough. It was his men who toppled the statue of Saddam Hussein in central Baghdad on April 9, signaling the end of the war.
Relatively short and trim, with a silver crewcut and owlish spectacles, Mattis doesn't look particularly imposing. But when he opens his mouth it becomes apparent that he's cut from the George S. Patton mold. Funny, blunt, erudite, inspiring, and profane, he takes no guff and tolerates no inefficiency. At nightly briefings with his staff, he dissected PowerPoint presentations with laser-like questions that got to the heart of every problem. The issues he dealt with were more appropriate to an imperial proconsul than to a general: how to combat Islamic extremists, win over ordinary people, distribute fuel, enforce law and order, and a thousand other matters. Mattis was not the least bit fazed by the challenge.
And he had made substantial progress. While Baghdad and the Sunni Triangle were still plagued by anti-American terrorism, life in the Blue Diamond Republic was pretty calm. It might not seem that way in the wake of the August 29 car bombing in Najaf. But despite that event, a substantial degree of normality had returned to Najaf and neighboring towns. The streets I saw were bustling, and the Marines enjoyed excellent relations with local leaders.
Not the least of their achievement is that no Marine has been killed by hostile fire since May 1, when President Bush proclaimed "major hostilities" at an end. Almost 70 Army soldiers have been slain in that period. This success isn't a result of flooding south-central Iraq with soldiers. Mattis never deployed more than 8,000 Marines, along with some Army civil affairs, psychological operations, and military police units, to control an area the size of Missouri.
There is no doubt that the Marines' task was made easier by the fact that the Shiites suffered under the old regime and welcomed their liberation. But few analysts predicted in May that Shiite holy cities like Najaf and Karbala would emerge as strongholds of pro-American sentiment. Much of the talk back then was of Iranian infiltration and Lebanese-style terrorism. That hasn't happened, at least not against Americans, and every single Marine I met was convinced that the reason had to do with their approach to peacekeeping, which they believe superior to the more heavy-handed methods employed, at least initially, by Army units that occupied Baghdad and the Sunni area to the immediate north and west.
The Marine strategy was based on three principles. First, do no harm. That meant not alienating Iraqis by violating their religious or social customs. Women, for instance, should not be subject to intrusive searches. When talking to Iraqis, Marines were instructed to point their firearms away and take off their sunglasses. Above all, it meant using as little firepower as possible. As Mattis put it: "If someone needs shooting, shoot him. If someone doesn't need shooting, protect him."
The Marines showed restraint when dealing with hostile crowds. They did not have a single incident like the one that occurred in Fallujah in late April, when the 82nd Airborne opened fire on a crowd of demonstrators, killing at least 12. Marines were more likely to greet hostile crowds with free bottles of water than with bullets, on the assumption that someone can't be too angry with you if he's just accepted some water from you.
The Marines' second guiding principle was to win hearts and minds. The Marines repaired schools, distributed candy, handed out free medical supplies, set up Rotary clubs, and undertook myriad other charitable tasks. This earned them goodwill among the community leading to increased intelligence about troublemakers.
Their third principle was to be ready to win a 10-second gunfight. While wanting to be as open and friendly as possible, all Marines were told to be ready to open fire at a moment's notice. When Army supply convoys get attacked by fedayeen, they speed away, I was told. When Marine convoys got hit, they were supposed to stop immediately and disgorge infantrymen to pursue the attackers. Mattis insisted that even convoys carrying the Marines out of Iraq retain a robust offensive capability.
It all adds up to Mattis's widely publicized slogan: "No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy" than a U.S. Marine. To see how this yin-yang policy was carried out, we toured some Marine units just before they headed home.
OUR FIRST STOP was in the desert southwest of Baghdad, home to a giant Army logistics base called Dogwood. This area is different from the rest of the Blue Diamond Republic because it's primarily Sunni, not Shiite, and it's experienced some of the same security woes that have plagued the Sunni Triangle. In May and June, Army convoys operating here suffered nonstop guerrilla attacks. During one two-week period in May there were 51 ambushes.
Although this was an Army base, it was in the Marines' area of operations, so Mattis set up Task Force Scorpion to clean up the mess. Composed of the 4th Force Reconnaissance (the closest the egalitarian Marines come to having Special Forces), the 4th Light Armored Regiment, some Army civil affairs soldiers, and a couple of Marine infantry platoons, the task force never totaled more than 1,000 soldiers.
But with aggressive patrolling, it managed to capture a number of terrorists and reduce the number of attacks. Just before we arrived they had nabbed a Republican Guard general and a four-man team that had been mortaring Dogwood. The successful operations impressed the local people, who flooded them with unsolicited tips. Based on that information they staged surgical raids that usually involved no gunfire and resulted in the surrender of a suspect. While aggressive against suspected terrorists, the task force's commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Pappas, regularly met with local sheikhs.
As we were being briefed on Scorpion's operations, an officer volunteered that they were planning a raid that very night. Would we like to go along? Sure, I said, little suspecting what I was getting myself into.
Reveille came in total darkness at 4:30 A.M. on Friday, August 22, though the crump of a mortar shell landing several hundred meters from our barracks already had me wide awake. By 5:30 we were on the move. Our target was a suspected Baathist leader who had escaped a previous raid by jumping into the Euphrates and swimming away in his underwear. We were headed once again to his posh riverside home about an hour and a half from Dogwood.
Force Recon Marines, riding in two Humvees, were supposed to conduct the raid. Three light armored vehicles went along to "sanitize" the perimeter and deal with any "squirters," or fleeing suspects. Dressed in a heavy flak vest and Kevlar helmet, I was squished into the back of one of these tinpots. Without enough room to sit up straight or stretch out my legs, and with virtually no portholes, I was left to stare for hours on end at pictures of a soldier's girlfriend and a pinup of Pamela Anderson, both attached by magnets to the vehicle hull. Soon the temperature would soar over 120 degrees. Dust wafted through two open hatches manned by Marines with M-16s.
At about 6 A.M., our journey took an unexpected twist. As we were driving by some fields, three remote-controlled bombs exploded by the side of the road. Each was made from a 155 mm shell packed with explosives. Two more unexploded bombs were later discovered by the roadside, one of them full of white phosphorus. Had they all gone off when intended, hundreds of pounds of explosives would have ripped into our column, almost certainly causing serious casualties. Luckily the mission commander, Major Joe Cabell, insisted on proper dispersion and the explosions passed harmlessly between our vehicles.
As soon as the attack occurred, the column pulled over to the side of the road and Marines jumped out to hunt for the perpetrators. A gunner saw what he thought were men fleeing through the fields and fired warning shots. It's a good thing he didn't hit anyone: It later turned out they were innocent farmers. As two Huey helicopters buzzed some nearby palm trees, it started to look like a scene from a Vietnam War movie.
With the help of an interpreter, the Marines interviewed local farmers and found out that a suspicious blue van had been seen in the neighborhood. We set off to find it and eventually ran down a blue Volkswagen van. Its sole occupant, a defiant young man in a track suit, tested positive for gunpowder residue on his hands. The Marines handcuffed him with plexicuffs and tossed him into the back of the light armored vehicle right next to your correspondent. The corporal asked me to "cover" the suspect. I held the 9 mm pistol a bit nervously (I'm more comfortable in think tanks than battle tanks) but did as I was told. In a few minutes, the suspect, his head covered in a T-shirt, was transferred to a Humvee for transportation back to base.
We pressed on with the raid, but it turned out the target wasn't home. We tried a couple of nearby locations-- no dice. By 1:30 P.M. we were back at base, hot, filthy, and exhausted. What was supposed to be a four-hour raid had turned into an eight-hour trek across the countryside. I was whipped, but the Marines weren't too discouraged. "It was a good day," said Corporal Daiman Benney, a 26-year-old infantryman with a blond mustache. Reflecting on his impending departure for home, he sighed, "I'll miss chasing bad guys."
THIS IS THE SHARP END of the Marine occupation. The next day we saw the warriors' soft side during a visit to Karbala, site of the second-holiest Shiite shrine. Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Lopez, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, was preparing to turn over command to a Bulgarian contingent, but before he did so, he had some errands to run. He piled into an SUV accompanied by a sergeant and Bing and me. None of us was wearing a flak vest or helmet. The Marines were in their "soft covers," aka cloth hats. Crammed into the back were dozens of silver soccer balls donated by Nike. The Marines were planning to hand out 15,000 balls to the children of Iraq, and Lopez wanted to make a start today.
As we crawled through the crowded city streets, we tossed soccer balls to any kids we saw. As soon as the first ball came bouncing out, a tremendous excitement seized the urchins. They ran after the SUV, arms outstretched, shouting "Mistah! Mistah!" The kids were ecstatic and so was Lopez. With a big smile on his face, he said, "I wish I could take all of them home with me."
When the ball supply was exhausted, we headed to city hall for Lopez's last meeting with the provincial governor and city council. They were as happy to see him as the kids. A consummate diplomat, Lopez exchanged flowery courtesies with a long line of sheikhs and other local officials, and then got down to business. Speaking through his interpreter (a Marine private born in Kuwait), he spent 45 minutes wheeling and dealing over a variety of public works projects. A Bulgarian colonel who will soon replace Lopez looked on to learn how it's done. "You will be missed a lot," a local worthy told Lopez, but the Marine is confident that the people of Karbala are well on the way to self-government. "Democracy is embedded here," he said.
That may be a stretch, but there is no question that the U.S. occupation has made tremendous strides among the Shiites, who comprise 60 percent of Iraq's population. Driving through towns like Karbala and Najaf you see shops overflowing with goods and Iraqi cops in blue uniforms directing traffic. Violence hasn't entirely disappeared, as witness the August 29 car-bomb murder of Ayatollah Hakim and scores of his followers, but little animosity is directed toward the Americans, who are generally seen as liberators.
Every drive through Iraq in a U.S. military vehicle becomes a referendum on the occupation. Do the people smile or frown as you pass? In the Sunni Triangle, U.S. army patrols are often met with sullen stares. In central Iraq, smiles and thumbs up are commonplace. Little kids are especially enthusiastic. I felt like the queen of England waving regally at Iraqis as we drove by in our three-Humvee convoy.
Support for the occupation isn't universal, of course. There are still some clerics who want a theocracy, and they have received support from Iran and other sources. But they have gained little traction among Iraqis. The most prominent troublemaker, Moqtada al-Sadr, scion of a family of prominent ayatollahs, appears to be rapidly losing support, as judged by the sparse attendance at his sermons in Najaf. The attack on Ayatollah Hakim was the extremists' attempt to win through violence what they could not achieve by peaceful means--an attempt that will almost surely backfire by uniting the Shiites against the barbarians who desecrated their holiest shrine.
There was pressure from some U.S. officials in the Coalition Provisional Authority to arrest Sadr because of widespread rumors that he was involved in the murder of a pro-American imam back in April. But in the absence of hard evidence, the Marines refused to move against him. In their view, arresting him would only have turned him into a martyr. Better to let his rival clerics steal away his support--which seems to be happening.
THIS IS ONLY ONE EXAMPLE of the rifts that divide the military from the CPA, led by Ambassador L. Paul Bremer. It was apparent during our visit that the CPA has done little to help the men and women in uniform; some joked that the agency's initials stand for "Can't Provide Anything." Even well-intentioned CPA initiatives have been badly bungled.
For instance, there was a plan to put 300,000 unemployed Iraqis to work clearing agricultural canals. A good idea, but the Iraqi managers failed to pay the workers for three weeks. In Diwaniyah, a major town in central Iraq, the unhappy ditch diggers rioted in protest and destroyed a government building. The Marines, who had not been involved in setting up this program, were called in to deal with the resulting chaos. They dispersed the rioters and paid the agricultural workers out of their own funds. Now they have set up a system to ensure that the payments are made. One can only hope that the coalition forces who are replacing the Marines will prove equally adept at covering for the CPA's missteps.
Much of the problem, no doubt, is that the CPA lacks the readymade infrastructure available to a military division. Starting from scratch, it has a hard time recruiting qualified candidates to come to Iraq. And those it hires are likely to leave after a few months. Former New York City police chief Bernard Kerik, for instance, arrived at the beginning of the summer to run the justice ministry, and he's already going home. But despite having a small organization, Bremer appears to be centralizing many operations in Baghdad. This is an odd choice given the vast differences between the Kurdish and Arab north, Sunni center, and Shiite south. Running everything from the capital seems a big mistake.
Complaints about over-centralization are echoed by the 101st Airborne Division. Like the Marines, the "Screaming Eagles" fought in the war, then were called upon to garrison a large chunk of the country--the north--that is moving toward peace and prosperity. The division is headquartered in Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, with a population of 1.2 million. The 101st's entire area of operations encompasses 6 million people, including Arabs, Kurds, Turkomen, and other ethnic groups.
Like the Marines, the 101st is living in one of Saddam's palaces. Its accommodations are slightly more posh; the troops have access to running water, the Internet, satellite TV, even two swimming pools. But only a sadist would begrudge them a few creature comforts. The Marines are heading home in September; the 101st will be here until February 2004, a whole year. One of its brigades, the 3rd, came here after spending most of 2002 in Afghanistan; now the "Rakkasans," as they're called, are deployed in the wasteland between Mosul and the Syrian border.
The 101st faces many thorny problems unique to its area, such as land disputes between Arabs and Kurds, and a porous border with Syria. But its approach is similar to that of the Marines. In their combat operations center, the division commander, Major General David Petraeus, has posted a sign that proclaims, "We are in a race to win over the people. What have you and your element done to contribute to that goal today?"
They have done a good deal--almost all of it without the help of the CPA. On his own initiative, General Petraeus decided to open the Syrian border to increase trade, and to strike deals with Turkey and Syria to swap Iraqi oil for badly needed electricity. The division has also restored telephone service and is taking bids for cellular service.
Like Mattis, Petraeus preaches respect for Iraqis. Politeness and restraint are the order of the day. And when his troops do have to use strongarm tactics, they take pains not to leave hurt feelings behind. After they killed Uday and Qusay Hussein on July 22, the division spent more than $100,000 to repair damage to the neighborhood where the intense firefight occurred.
One of the 101st's brigade commanders, Colonel Joe Anderson, hopped in a humvee to take Bing West and me on a whirlwind tour of Mosul. Projects underway range from training the Iraqi police to providing medicine for a local hospital to painting schools to refurbishing an Olympic-size swimming pool to building houses for refugees. The list seems endless--and the 101st is doing all of it with its commanders' own discretionary fund, much of which comes from seized assets of the old regime.
Aside from providing money for the military to spend, Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority has as little presence in the north as it has in the south. Its TV station, the Iraqi Media Network, is not received here, thus ceding the propaganda war to anti-American outlets like Al Jazeera. And it has failed to remedy the electricity and fuel problems that plague the entire country. The northern region has less power now than it did a few weeks ago because the central government in Baghdad is siphoning its power to the center, much as Saddam used to.
After visiting both northern and southern Iraq, one gets the clear sense that the CPA needs to take a different tack. The same might be said of the army units that garrison Baghdad and the Sunni areas to the immediate north and west--the 4th Infantry Division, 1st Armored Division, and 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. All are armor units less attuned to the demands of peacekeeping than light infantry outfits like the 1st Marine Division and the 101st Airborne. One officer of the 101st suggested that the situation in Baghdad would be much better if his division, with its more nuanced approach, had garrisoned the capital. The Marines, too, are convinced they could do a better job there, which makes it all the more unfortunate that they are now heading home.
In the view of numerous 101st Airborne and 1st Marine officers I talked to, sending more troops to Iraq isn't the answer. Smarter policing tactics and better intelligence are what's required, and training more Iraqi cops should be the top priority. They could use more funding for such training and other reconstruction projects, since, as Petraeus says, "money is ammunition."
In spite of continuing attacks and various other frustrations, both the 101st Division and the 1st Marine Division display a fundamental optimism about Iraq and its future. As General Petraeus put it, "I think we're winning up here. We have very good momentum." General Mattis delivered the message in an earthier style: "We've got the bastards on the run."
Yet the world press, which lavished such attention on Iraqi looting back in May, seems largely indifferent to the successful work of rebuilding that has gone on since. The media naturally focus on bombings and shootings, not on the reopening of schools or training of police officers. There is a real danger of another Tet Offensive--an American military victory turned into a public relations disaster back home.
As we flew back to Kuwait on a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter, my thoughts were not on such cosmic strategic questions. Rather, I thought of the American men and women who are serving in Iraq. They have performed their work with incredible fortitude, humanity, ingenuity, and skill under difficult and often dangerous circumstances. For me, visiting Iraq was a 10-day adventure; for them, it is a 24/7 occupation.
I asked my Marine driver, a wispy-thin 22-year-old lance corporal named William Eberly, why he'd enlisted. "I wanted to feel like I actually did something for my country," he told me, "so I could call myself a true American." It strikes me that Lance Corporal Eberly has done a lot for two countries--the United States and Iraq--whether his countrymen appreciate it or not.
Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard. He is author of "The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power."