Politics & Policy

Potemkin Story

Understanding the Dora market.

It was inevitable that the flood of reporters into Iraq this summer to “evaluate” the results of the surge would produce a certain number of irresponsible stories aimed at dismissing progress, alongside the more numerous accurate depictions of successes and setbacks in a complex environment. Even so, Washington Post reporter Sudarsan Raghavan reaches a low point when describing the Dora market as a “Potemkin village,” implying that it is a false showcase of progress concealing real failure. In reality, the Dora market is an amazing success story in its own right, paid for by the blood of American and Iraqi soldiers, and it represents a small part of the critically important success that U.S. forces have achieved in the heart of a neighborhood that had been one of al Qaeda in Iraq’s strongest fortresses.

Dora was one of Baghdad’s most dangerous neighborhoods in November 2006. The area once housed a robust mixture of Sunni, Shia, and Christian families in its large homes, making it a prime target for sectarian cleansing by militias — and for reciprocal bombings and vigilante attacks by Sunni inhabitants. Dora’s location on Baghdad’s main highways made it easy for death squads to move in and out. As early as July 2006, the New York Times reported that Dora’s inhabitants could not recover corpses of victims executed in the neighborhood for burial – because the risks of sniper fire were so high that residents could not walk the streets.

Violence in Dora dropped there briefly during Operation Together Forward II in September, when U.S. forces cleared the area. But only a single U.S. battalion remained in the neighborhood after the “clear” phase. As Iraqi Security Forces backfilled U.S. troops in the “hold” phase, sectarian violence and vigilantism increased in Dora. Sunni vigilante groups in Dora re-armed and re-organized, as Solomon Moore described in the Los Angeles Times last November: “‘We have zero trust in the Iraqi army and minus-zero trust in the police,’” said Ahmed Suheil Juburi, 33, a Sunni Arab who has thrown in his lot with a group of former military officers in Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime patrolling the Baghdad neighborhood of Dora…..’” The Juburis have enormous clout in Dora, and were long associated with Baathist insurgents. They also had connections with other Sunni groups — such as al Qaeda in Iraq — which ultimately moved into a few sub-districts of the neighborhood, established a radical religious and political program, and fortified a defensive position there with IEDs, deep buried IEDs, and other explosives.

In November 2006, as Americans celebrated Thanksgiving weekend, al Qaeda-linked terrorists detonated a huge vehicle bomb in Sadr City, killing two-hundred and fifteen people. Militias retaliated generally throughout Baghdad, instigating a string of executions, mortar attacks, and drive-by shootings in Sunni neighborhoods. Three days of reciprocal violence left several hundred Baghdadis dead and injured.

So November is when Dora, already troublesome because of militia-infiltrated police units and sparse U.S. presence, went from extremely bad to dramatically worse. By December, a third of all killings in Baghdad had occurred in Dora.

Terry McCarthy, of ABC News, reported on the difference between Dora in August 2006 and Dora in January 2007:

“When we visited Dora in August, a unit from the 4th Infantry Division had managed to bring relative peace to the area. Stores were opening and people were coming to shop in the market. As soon as the U.S. troops left Dora in October, handing it over to the Iraqis, carnage. This was a bakery. Insurgents and militiamen rushed back in, the murder rate soared. They even blew up a nearby U.S. ammunition depot. We spoke to a family in Dora by phone tonight. Gunfire and mortars have kept them indoors for the past two days. Going to the market is out of the question.”

The Dora Market

It’s difficult to identify the most dangerous place within a neighborhood like Dora, where no one was safe in 2006. But the Dora market certainly deserved consideration for that status in December 2006. The large market was a safe haven for terrorists. They used its facilities as a dumping ground for corpses. For several weeks in December, U.S. soldiers with the 2-12 Infantry Battalion, reconnoitered the Dora market. They encountered 20 IEDs and 15 corpses in that brief time.

Two days before Christmas, the 2-12 Infantry cleared the Dora market. They proceeded building by building; it might take a company several hours to clear a block. The operation took twelve hours. They then occupied the site 24-7.

In January, CBS’s Lara Logan, embedded with the 2-12, reported: “Since U.S. forces took the market back just before Christmas, Sergeant Maddi says they haven’t found a single body here. That’s helped breathe a little life back into the place with the return of simple pleasures, shoppers seeking some semblance of normal life, as a small number of stores begin to open their doors once again. The market is the lifeblood of this community. So any improvement resonates. But 90 percent of the businesses remain closed. Their owners have seen U.S. efforts fail twice here in the last six months. Three marks on every door, evidence of the number of times American soldiers have cleared these very streets.”

Insurgents did not approve of even this slight rebuilding plan. On January 18, three car bombs devastated a section of the market.

The “surge” of U.S. troops came gradually and deliberately to Dora. U.S. forces persevered, reopening the market as much as possible, while al Qaeda-linked terrorists and Shia militias continued their fight. Because the enemy controlled Dora, clearing operations did not begin in its vicinity until May 2007, when enough surge troops had arrived to reconnoiter the area in force. The 2-12 consolidated its position. By June, nine battalions had arrived to clear just a few small neighborhoods of Dora, which al Qaeda had fortified with deep-buried IEDs. U.S. forces cleared Dora in July 2007 — just six to ten weeks ago.

Three hundred shops had opened in the Dora market by August 2007, and it is bustling with Iraqis.

In Wednesday’s Washington Post, Sudarsan Raghavan, criticized the Dora market in an article called Weighing the ‘Surge’: The U.S. War in Iraq Hinges on the Counterinsurgency Strategy Of Gen. Petraeus. The Results Have Been Tenuous. The Dora market is a frequent stop for visitors to Iraq assessing the progress of “the surge.” Raghavan criticizes the market, and the frequent visits it receives from distinguished guests of General Petraeus: “[T]he Dora market is a Potemkin village of sorts. The U.S. military hands out $2,500 grants to shop owners to open or improve their businesses. The military has fixed windows and doors and even helped rebuild shops that had burned down, soldiers and others said.”

Yet when one considers the 300 shops reopened in the Dora market in the context of the past year, rather than in pre-2003 terms (more than 800 shops then, according to Raghavan), it is easy to understand why General Petraeus might think it worthwhile for visitors to see the Dora market. What had once been a burial pit and an insurgent stronghold is now a place of business. Yes, American funds have been used. And no, the opening of the Dora market did not secure Dora. But the clearing of Dora has made possible the reopening of the Dora market — which is now fair evidence of the value of the new strategy and tactics that General Petraeus brought to Iraq. It may seem like a “Potemkin village” to those ignorant of the changes in that neighborhood over the past 12 months — or to those determined to cast doubt on the possibility of American success in Iraq. But to anyone who visited Dora — as I did in May (on two battlefield circulations through the neighborhood, not the market) — while American forces were embarking on the extremely dangerous and difficult task of dismantling the al Qaeda stronghold and fending off JAM fighters, the Dora market is indeed a symbol. It is a symbol of the success that is possible when we persevere in the right approach in Iraq.

– Kimberly Kagan is president of the Institute for the Study of War.

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