Hamilton, Madison, and Jay

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Saturday, April 5, 2008

Time reporter in Baghdad

Bobby Ghosh went to Baghdad to "find" the New Baghdad. He admits his skepticism that the gains made with the Surge was true. But he also admits that colleagues had come back with glowing stories. Allah picked up this story for one reason and I'll get to that in a moment. First, Mr. Ghosh's impression of Baghdad:

Andalus Abdel-Rahim Hammadi, a Baghdad school-bus driver, has this much in common with John McCain: both men gambled on the U.S. military's "surge" in Iraq long before it looked like a sure thing. If the Arizona Senator risked his presidential ambitions on it, the stakes for Hammadi were higher: his life and the lives of his wife and two young children. Last summer, as the final batch of 30,000 additional American troops requisitioned by General David Petraeus was arriving in Iraq, the bus driver and his family left their refuge in Syria to return home. It had been nearly two years since they fled their neighborhood, al-Dora, after al-Qaeda in Iraq terrorists killed the wife and son of Hammadi's brother. His friends and fellow refugees in Damascus warned him that Baghdad was still too dangerous, with dozens being killed daily in sectarian tit-for-tat attacks. But Hammadi, 46, was counting on the increased U.S. troop presence to calm things down. "Nobody can stand against the power of the American military," he says. "I thought that once they increased their forces, the [terrorists] would not stand a chance."

Going back to al-Dora was out of the question: it would be six months before al-Qaeda in Iraq would be driven from the neighborhood. But in nearby Saydiyah, Hammadi found a family heading in the opposite direction--to Syria--and offered to live in their house as an unpaid caretaker. He borrowed some money to buy a dilapidated minibus. Ferrying kids to and from school brought him a meager $10 a day, but it was better than living off handouts from cousins in Damascus. His wife Shada, 30, supplemented the family income by baking bread and selling it in the neighborhood. The couple were happy their children Ibrahim, 5, and Sajda, 4, would be able to grow up "as Iraqis, not as refugees," Shada says.

The Hammadis were settling into their new life when I left Baghdad last fall after spending the best part of five years covering Iraq. Unlike the bus driver, I was far from sanguine about the surge; I had seen too many military plans promise much and deliver little. But by the end of the year, Hammadi's optimism was looking prescient. Sunni insurgents I had known for years--men who had sworn blood oaths to fight the "occupier" until their dying breath--were joining forces with the Americans to fight al-Qaeda in Iraq. The vehemently anti-American Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr had agreed to a cease-fire with the U.S. military, and his ill-disciplined militia, the Mahdi Army, seemed to be keeping its end of the bargain. ...

The first sign of change comes when I board the Royal Jordanian Airlines flight from Amman. It's an Airbus A320, and that is good news. It means the flight will not end with the heart-stopping corkscrew landing that characterized all my previous arrivals in smaller, more nimble aircraft. If Royal Jordanian is willing to use a large jetliner, it can only mean that the likelihood of a missile attack has greatly diminished.

Driving into Baghdad from the airport, I see other changes. In commercial districts, more shops and businesses are open than there were a year ago. Shoppers are taking the time to haggle with vegetable vendors--a contrast to the furtive, hurried transactions I remember. There are no queues at the gas stations. Baghdad even sounds different. In my first two days, I hear no explosions or gunfire. At the TIME bureau in the Jadriyah district, we get four to six hours of electricity a day, up from just two hours. This means there are long spells when you can hear the sounds of the city--traffic, the calls to prayer--instead of the constant roar of generators.

And the city looks different too. In our neighborhood, there are several new restaurants and kebab stands. Here and there, apartment buildings have received a fresh coat of paint. Even the concrete walls that crisscross much of Baghdad, erected by the U.S. military to protect neighborhoods from sectarian militias, have been prettified. The government has paid artists to paint huge, brightly colored murals on the walls, so a drive now takes you past bucolic scenes of farmers planting rice, fishermen in the marshes, peasants dancing in verdant valleys. The walls give Baghdad a somewhat disjointed feel, making it less a city than a series of contiguous fortresses.

He can see the differences, and it speaks volumes. The people are out and about again. They're running their businesses, opening new ones, kids are going to school -- as are women -- and children are playing. That's a stark contrast compared to 2004, 2005, or 2006. No one can dispute the fact that the Surge has succeeded beyond anyone's expectations. The Left just doesn't get it. We can expect General Petraeus to receive a chilly reception when he testifies before Congress. And here's the part Allah focused on:

For Sunnis, al-Sadr's continued clout is a warning and a provocation. In the district of Adhamiyah, a Sahwa fighter named Mahmoud (like his Mahdi Army counterpart, he gave only his first name) tells me there can be no reconciliation between the sects "as long as Muqtada is alive." Then he makes a grim prediction: "Right now, the Americans want us to fight against al-Qaeda, and that's fine. But we know the real fight will be in the future, with the Mahdi Army. We are getting ready for it." Fattah, in Sadr City, is preparing for the same fight. "The Americans protect the [Sahwa] for the moment, but we know who they are; we have lists," he says. "When the time comes, we will know what to do with them."

The Baghdadis caught between these extremes know that the only thing standing in the way of another sectarian conflagration is the U.S. military. This may explain why every Iraqi who offers me a view on American politics seems to be praying for a McCain victory. A 100-year American military presence, of which McCain once spoke, may seem a bit much; I suspect most Iraqis would be happy with five.

As I leave Baghdad, I reflect that for all the success of the surge, it has not exorcized Iraq's sectarian demons. Behind the painted walls, the murderous rage I saw in 2006 and '07 continues to fester. The Mahdi Army may have ceased fire, and Sunni insurgents may pose as friends of America, but both are just waiting. Unless Americans have a major change of heart about maintaining a substantial and aggressive military presence in Iraq, all the gains of the past year will amount to nothing.

If the Left disavows that the Iraqis are watching our election cycle with serious interest, they're idiots. Of course the Iraqis are watching our election because the two Democrats have stated they will begin a pull-out from day one. The Iraqis know if we begin a pull-out, the Mahdi Army, AQI, and the sectarian militias will bide their time. They'll lie in wait until there's a skeleton force left, and they'll strike. They'll unleash a campaign of terror and ethnic cleansing the likes of which we've never seen before. What happened in the aftermath of our withdrawal from Vietnam will be dwarfed by the radicals that are still in Iraq.

No one is saying that Iraq is all peaches and cream, tea and crumpets, but it's vastly better than what it was two years ago. The Left can claim that General Petraeus is "lying" or that his report is smoke and mirrors, but who listens to those dolts anyway? Not us, and not anyone that has been paying attention to the Iraqi theater of operations. The Left still thinks that Iraq is a separate war rather than an operation in the overall War on Terror.

Mr. Ghosh has seen the gains made, and while he seems somewhat skeptical, he knows now that his fellow journalists that have traveled recently to Iraq aren't lying. Things are getting better there, and they will continue to do so so long as we are there to secure the peace.

Publius II


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