Baghdad — The Rashid district of Baghdad is one of the most dangerous areas of the country. Violence has plummeted in Rashid over the past months but the area remains dangerous. Meanwhile, reconciliation is occurring and I have been able to witness meetings and results first-hand. Certain areas of Rashid that were previously war-zones already are nearly free of violence. This is a direct result of American-led reconciliation and follow-on. There are immediate consequences for those areas that settle down; they begin receiving support in the form of micro-grants, civil projects, and easy dialogue with the government, and so these neighborhoods are getting a head start on those who lag. On a larger scale this has happened at provincial level: The examples of Kurds up north, and the citizens of Anbar more recently out West, are causing Iraqis to pay attention.
The neighborhoods around Rashid are so fractured along sectarian lines that the map looks more like a shattered window that did not completely crumble. The “frontlines” between neighborhoods tend to be a single street, and so the operating environment here is complex. Nevertheless, the years of trial and error in Iraq are yielding results as American battalion commanders truly are operating like tribal leaders. I saw an American battalion commander, LTC Patrick Frank, in a meeting yesterday with 19 local Iraqi leaders. Often the Iraqis would break down into conversations among themselves, but each time the LTC Frank spoke, the room went silent. I have seen this repeated over and over and over in different areas of Iraq. Our battalion commanders are operating in a capacity of local leaders. They get serious respect. Even from enemies. (Perhaps especially from enemies, which clearly is part of the reason so many people are coming to the table.) The battalion commanders are the quarterbacks who are pulling this place together. Their words carry great clout.
The Iraqis know we want to leave and this is working in our favor, and in their favor.
On October 23, representatives from five Iraqi ministries visited various areas of the Rashid district that need attention; a hospital, for instance. The inspector general for the ministry of health accompanied us. Dr. Adel Abdullah talked about the many problems they face, but when I asked him specifically about the violence, the doctor was very happy to report that during September of 2006, about 1,400 bodies were brought to the morgue. This September, on the other hand, only 290 were delivered to the morgue — and the numbers continue to decrease. He told me this month there have been about 4-6 bodies per day, with a “maximum [of] 10.” (This is consistent with many other reports I’ve received from American and Iraqi military and Iraqi police. All are reporting sharp decreases in violence.)
Given the amount of violence I have witnessed in Iraq in 2005 and early 2007, it’s strange to think that under Saddam — since the year 1980, at least – there might have been an average of perhaps twice as many people killed per year. (The victims were just different people, such as Kurds, Iranians, and Iraqis who mostly were not in cities like Baghdad. And there was the invasion of Kuwaiti — and the burning of the oilfields.) It’s difficult to imagine with this war that Iraq might be more “peaceful” today than during Saddam’s reign.
Violence is plummeting. But much of Iraq is a complete mess, a horrible mess. Now is the time to put the foot on the gas. The battalion commanders are not “fishing” for the Iraqi leaders, nor are they “teaching the fisherman to fish.” Iraqis can run their own country again. We only must facilitate the fishermen by helping them with the reconciliation, the infrastructure and economy. But it is imperative that we not stop now; it’s clearly starting to work.
LTG Ray Odierno was out there today and I had the opportunity to speak with him. I asked him about something that has been nagging at me since 2005: reports of large amounts of weapons coming in from Syria and Iran. Specifically, I asked him about Iran. I have been up and down the Iraq-Iran border in 2005 and now in 2007 just returned from the border. I have asked innumerable Iraqi, American, and more recently British commanders if they have ever caught weapons coming in from Iran. No. Not a single commander has ever caught the weapons. “Do you know anyone who has caught them?” The response has always been “no.” It is a fact that we capture weapons in Iraq that clearly appear to have come from Iran, but why is it they we do not catch them coming in? Yes, the border is long and rugged, but we have excellent sources of intelligence and common smugglers are unlikely to be James Bond material. I asked LTG Odierno if we have caught any. He gave me a straight answer: No. (Caveat: LTG Odierno says we have been finding weapons that already are in Iraq.) I have no explanation for the fact that we are not capturing weapons being smuggled in from Iran.
I asked LTG Odierno about the current state of Iraq and went down the list in my head of the important places: Anbar, Baghdad, Diyala, and Nineveh. Parts of Diyala are still problematic, and I predict serious fighting in Nineveh in the upcoming months. Odierno didn’t try to lipstick the pig. Clearly al Qaeda is in trouble, but they are not done yet, and there is still much work to do in Nineveh. Fortunately, the Iraqi Army and Police there are the best I have seen in Iraq.
— Michael Yon is an independent reporter whose work is reader-supported. To make the investment in his future work, contribute here.