One year ago, the neighborhood of Doura in southeast Baghdad was al-Qaeda’s headquarters in the capital city, and the daily dumping ground for dozens of victims of sectarian violence. Public association with Americans or Iraqi leaders, in any form, meant death for its residents. If Americans entered a neighborhood, Iraqis slowly slipped away and refused to talk — even behind closed doors, let alone on a busy market street.
Today, the streets of Doura are safe and bustling, as I witnessed firsthand during a trip three weeks ago. I can still smell the briny scent of fish on sale in busy markets, my boots sliding over the dust, and the muezzin’s afternoon call to prayer echoing in the distance. I saw Baghdad alive again.
However, during my time on the street, it was difficult to shake memories of the past — after all, 4,000 Americans have been killed in action in Iraq. The violence of 2006 and early 2007 is still fresh in America’s mind — helped in no small part by a public debate fixated on past failure instead of current success.
On a street in Doura three weeks ago, it seemed I was about to relive those bad memories, as I spotted a black sedan speeding toward our foot patrol. The vehicle was driving much faster than other traffic, and occupied by a single male. My heart raced faster when I realized it was an Opel, the car bomb of choice during my time in Iraq as a platoon leader. My anxiety clashed with the calm of the soldiers around me; they lowered their weapons as the car barreled toward us.
The vehicle screeched to a halt five feet away, and out popped a middle-aged Iraqi man, dressed casually and wearing a jovial grin. Omar is a Doura resident and a member of the neighborhood council. Following eager pleasantries, Omar spoke with the unit commander about a range of issues, from small-business grants and the local vocational school, to the newly opened farmers’ market down the road. The two sparred like old friends, discussing the nuances of political bargaining and reconciliation.
When their conversation ended, I asked Omar about the security situation. “Thanks to the Americans, we are finally free to live our lives.” he said, “You have made very many mistakes, but now you are making security better.” His words mirrored my experience — in five days on the streets of formerly violent neighborhoods, I heard not a single shot fired or a single explosion.
That day, local young men still brandished weapons on street corners, but now they wore tan uniforms bearing the Iraqi flag. Many of these “Sons of Iraq” used to fight American and Iraqi forces; but an extensive American and Iraqi vetting process ensures their ranks are purged of hard-core fighters, foreign fighters, and insurgent leaders. These young Iraqis — Sunni and Shia alike — are not extremists: The ones I met were realists, who covet safe streets and a paycheck.
Al-Qaeda’s sheer brutality, and America’s shift to a counterinsurgency strategy, caused the sympathies of local leaders and legions of young men to shift. As one Son of Iraq told me, “A few of my friends joined al-Qaeda, and now they are dead or captured. I never did, and this gives me a chance to keep al-Qaeda from coming back.” Young men like this — over 91,000 of them throughout Iraq — guard their own neighborhoods, and are not involved in offensive operations. They’re beat cops.
Omar acknowledges the importance of these local forces, but speaks candidly, “The national government will not allow them all to become police, and some have already quit because they know this. We need to ensure that those who don’t become police have jobs.” His comments frame the tenuous opportunity facing Iraq today.
The streets of Baghdad — and throughout most of Iraq — have been transformed, providing a significant window of opportunity to national and local Iraqi leaders. Local citizens protect neighborhoods on the U.S. dime, but won’t indefinitely. The Iraqi parliament has passed important legislation, but Baghdad’s Sunnis have yet to benefit. Muqtada al Sadr’s ceasefire continues, but it may not forever. While the gains are real, they remain fragile.
As our conversation shifts to next steps, Omar emphasizes that “we need to keep the young men busy, and can’t allow their minds to wander in bad directions.” Pushed for specifics, he responds: “Jobs, jobs, jobs.” Public jobs, private jobs, security jobs, and construction jobs; the young men have stopped fighting, and now must find an honorable way to earn a living.
Last year, al-Qaeda fighters exploited young men like these, paying them large sums of money to plant roadside bombs or transport munitions. For local young men, the choice was stark: Resist and face execution, or feed your family. The Americans, rarely in the neighborhood except when speeding through in humvees, offered no alternative.
Today, U.S. military units in southeast Baghdad are working with Iraqi leaders to create jobs in stable vocations, sometimes through business grants to stimulate private enterprise. And for the first time in years, the streets are quiet enough for the State Department and NGOs to work alongside Iraqis to rebuild war-torn neighborhoods.
The months ahead will significantly shape the fate of the Iraq war. Al-Qaeda remains potent, but is in retreat, with the sea of tacit Sunni support drying up. But every infantryman knows that determined enemies will always counterattack. The question is: When they do, will jobless masses be ripe for recruitment — or will al-Qaeda’s appeals fall on deaf ears?
We have expended much blood and treasure in Iraq. But neighborhoods in Al Anbar, Baghdad, and throughout Iraq today provide a glimpse of what the long-elusive victory in Iraq might look like. A Muslim world in which al-Qaeda’s ideology of submission and suicide has been heaved onto the ash heap of history — not through U.S. force of arms alone, but through a genuine partnership between Iraq’s Muslims and America’s men and women in uniform.
— Captain Pete Hegseth, executive director of Vets for Freedom, recently made a return trip to Baghdad, where he served with the 101st Airborne in 2005.