Nine months ago, when I was last in Iraq, the conventional wisdom about the war effort was unduly pessimistic. Many politicians, and not only Democrats, had declared the surge a failure when it had barely begun. Today we know that the surge has succeeded: Iraqi and American deaths fell by approximately 80 percent between December 2006 and December 2007, and life is returning to a semblance of normality in much of Baghdad. Now the danger is that public opinion may be turning too optimistic. While Iraq has made near-miraculous progress in the past year, daunting challenges remain, and victory is by no means assured.
I saw many achievements and an equal number of obstacles during 11 days touring the American brigades spread across central and northern Iraq. (I was traveling in the company of my friend and fellow author Bing West at the invitation of General David Petraeus.) In broad strokes, the picture that emerged was of an Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) organization that is on the run but not yet fully eliminated. AQI has been largely chased out of the capital and its southern and northern belts, but the terrorists have taken refuge in the rural areas of Diyala, Salahaddin, and Ninewa provinces, where, as part of a new operation called Phantom Phoenix, American and Iraqi troops are starting to root them out. Likewise, the Jaysh al-Mahdi, the Shiite extremist group headed by Moktada al Sadr, has seen its influence curbed and its ranks splintered, but it remains a threat.
If any city has replaced Baghdad as a hub of AQI operations, it is Mosul, a metropolis of 1.8 million people that, until just a few weeks ago, was garrisoned by only one American battalion--less than a thousand soldiers. In the month preceding my visit on January 15, Mosul had been hit by 153 IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and had 260 incidents of gunfire. The growing security in Baghdad allowed U.S. commanders to move a second battalion up to Mosul to address the threat. Now U.S. forces are pushing into west Mosul, a predominantly Sunni Arab area that has become an al Qaeda stronghold. (Eastern Mosul, with a heavily Kurdish population, is more peaceful.)
As we drove the streets of west Mosul in a Humvee, I saw IED-scarred roads flooded from broken water mains--something I had last seen in Ramadi in April 2007. In many areas, shops were closed and no people were visible on the streets.
While getting a briefing on the security station at Combat Outpost Eagle, a fortified building located in the heart of west Mosul and jointly manned by Iraqi and American troops, we heard an explosion in the distance. It was an OH-58 Kiowa helicopter firing a Hellfire missile at a truck that was stuffed with munitions. Five of the seven men inside the vehicle were killed in the initial strike, but two managed to get out and take refuge in a neighboring building. U.S. troops arrived on the scene, and missiles and tank shells poured into the building. One of the terrorists was shot while trying to sneak out, while the other one blew himself up with a suicide vest.
Our little convoy--four Humvees led by Lieutenant Colonel Keith A. Barclay, commander of the 3rd squadron (the cavalry term for a battalion) of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment--headed over to check out the scene of the fighting. As we were driving through a giant puddle, I heard from inside my armored Humvee a dull roar, and smoke started rising ahead of us. The lead Humvee had hit an IED that sheared off the engine compartment. As soon as the bomb went off, insurgents in a building to our left opened fire with automatic weapons. An Abrams tank coming to our assistance hit another IED that tore off its tracks. The soldiers in our group refrained from shooting because they could not see any targets. As soon as the firing stopped, we got out to assess the damage and to tow the damaged Humvee back to base. Luckily no one in our convoy was injured, but flying shrapnel tore off the arm of an Iraqi man standing nearby, leaving him screaming in agony.
My bleak impressions of northern Iraq were reinforced the next day while visiting Bayji, site of an important oil refinery in Salahaddin province. There are too few American and Iraqi troops stationed here to control a city with a population of 140,000, and it shows.