Al Doura, Baghdad — As I step out of the humvee into the street, I have two facts in mind: I’ve been here before; and this time, I don’t have a weapon.
Recalling the tension of my first patrol in this neighborhood as a platoon leader, my five senses are sharp. The dusty road below greets my boots, some of the smells are eerily familiar, and the sound of idling humvees is my only comfort. My head swivels to scan the street. My hands are naked without an M-4, so I find the nearest soldier.
Soon — as a young child approaches — the wary familiarity gives way to fascination. I may be in the same geographic location, but I’m not in the same neighborhood. This is not Al Doura, at least not as I knew it. Where did all these people and shops come from? Where is all the trash, and the open sewage? Where is the fear — the deep-seated fear?
Children approach, as they usually do — but today it’s not just children. Young men walk up, initiating conversation. Women cross the street between our humvees, seemingly unaware of the GIs. The people are friendly, but not assertively so. Our presence is natural, almost routine. My inner tension clashes with the calm scene unfolding around me.
I take a few steps into the middle of an intersection with a clear view in all directions. Along the main thoroughfare, my immediate surroundings are replicated: block after block of shops and bustling residents. The side streets that I remember as sewage-clogged gutters are clean and teeming with construction and activity.
This is not Al Doura. The Al Doura I knew was the heart of sectarian violence, with daily body counts in the dozens. As I keep walking, I pass a busy car wash, and then a fitness center where young men pump iron and tear-outs of Muscle Fitness adorn the walls. We pass two new playgrounds, where boys clamber up and down slides and beautiful little girls play with dolls. A cart vendor offers me a bag of freshly popped popcorn — but I decline and have some falafel instead.
Increasingly relaxed and curious, I duck into side streets. One leads me to a buzzing recreation center, where soldiers are challenged to a game of pool. In the next room, teenage boys fight it out in the computer game “Medal of Honor” (which my little brother plays constantly). The World War II battle simulator heats up as we enter: the “German” I’m watching turns a virtual corner and lobs a grenade at an “American.” We all burst out laughing. That’s as much hostility as my patrol would face this day.
The entire time, we have only nominal security. It was disconcerting at first — I would never have come here unarmed two years ago — but the commander I’m walking with eases my concerns: the people are our security. The neighborhood residents trust the Americans, as well as the “Sons of Iraq” (or CLCs, as the Army calls them: Concerned Local Citizens) — local residents who provide security for the neighborhood. In a place where al-Qaeda dominated just eight months ago, today they couldn’t buy a bag of popcorn.
The unit’s commander — Lieutenant Colonel James Crider — clarifies the new situation in Doura, “We made a deliberate attempt to engage the people and soon enough, when they realized we weren’t going anywhere, that’s when they started talking to us.”
Beginning in June, while bullets were still flying, Crider’s squadron held sit-down meetings with every family in Doura, walking house-to-house over the course of several months to forge personal relationships. This approach — combined with a 24/7 presence in the neighborhoods — eventually crippled al-Qaeda. LTC Crider notes, “Al-Qaeda had no idea who was ratting them out, because we went into every house.” The relationships they fostered from these meetings provided intelligence that allowed the unit to detain al-Qaeda members who were thriving on American ignorance and hiding in plain sight. One of Crider’s lieutenants adds, “It was a battle of intel — and we won.”
These gains, however, were costly. In their first 30 days in Doura, the unit was attacked over 50 times. On the very streets we’re walking today, LTC Crider has lost nine good men, with dozens more injured. But the unit persisted — honoring the sacrifices of their brethren — and has not been attacked in their sector since September 27. As compelling testimony to the unit’s dedication to the task, LTC Crider’s squadron had the highest reenlistment rate in all of Baghdad in 2007, exceeding their goal by over 500 percent.
As we walk, we see scars of the neighborhood’s violent recent past — bombed-out homes pepper the area and bullet-sprayed walls are everywhere. Some power wires dangle out of place. All is not perfect — but signs of life keep finding us. As we reach the end of the block, three young males approach, all looking for work and eager to join the “Sons of Iraq.” This is typical, Crider informs me, and the unit jots down their names.
LTC Crider and his soldiers understand that the security gains, though real, are still tenuous — if alternatives to insurgency are not soon in place. The unit has given out hundreds of business micro-loans, many of which were used for street-front stores. They fund only local contractors, who hire local workers to pick up trash, fix sewage pipes, and provide electricity. The people of Doura themselves are rebuilding Doura — with the U.S. Army’s help.
Before going to lunch with a local leader, I stop and talk with Omar, the owner of a small grocery. He’s clean-shaven, well dressed, and roughly my age. He moved to Doura about two years ago (when my unit was here), after being displaced from his town by the Mahdi Army.
I ask him why hadn’t he joined al-Qaeda either to expel Americans or retaliate against the Shia. He replied, “Because al-Qaeda kills civilians, including my aunt and three cousins.” His uncle was a local contractor — an offense to al-Qaeda, punishable by the killing of his wife and daughters. Omar speaks candidly of the U.S. presence here: “Americans have made many mistakes, but now they are fixing them. . . . If Americans leave now, it will be a disaster.”
The most telling aspect of our conversation is where it takes place — on the street, out in the open, and among Omar’s fellow residents. He is not afraid, and vows to fight al-Qaeda if they ever return. I ask him why, of all places, he decided to move to Doura at the height of the violence here. “Because they are good people,” he answers.
It was then that I realized I had never really been to this place — I just thought I had. This is the real Al Doura, a neighborhood and a people reborn — thanks to the bravery and sacrifice of LTC Crider and his men. Today, I saw Al Doura for the first time.
– Captain Pete Hegseth, who served in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division from 2005 to 2006, is executive director of Vets for Freedom. He’s back in Iraq for the next week to cover the surge for NRO.