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In the Battle for Baghdad, U.S. Turns War on Insurgents

· U.S. commanders spend their time differently. Where they once devoted much of their efforts to Iraqi politics and infrastructure, they now focus more on training and supporting the Iraqi police and army. "I spent the last month talking to ISF [Iraqi security force] commanders," noted Gentile, who holds a doctorate in American history from Stanford. "Two years ago I would have spent all my time talking to sheiks."

· Real progress is being made in training Iraqi forces, especially its army, according to every U.S. officer asked about the issue. One of the surprises, they say, has been that an Iraqi soldier, even one who is overweight and undertrained, is more effective standing on an Iraqi street corner than the most disciplined U.S. Army Ranger. "They get intelligence we would never get," noted Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East. "They sense the environment in a way that we never could."

An afternoon spent with one Iraqi army brigade in west Baghdad showed that while it occasionally was poor at communicating, it was capable of carrying out basic military functions. When it set up a checkpoint on a busy thoroughfare in a neighborhood known for its hostility to U.S. forces, it maintained consistent security, with soldiers on the perimeter facing outward, and was able to control civilian movements. Underscoring Abizaid's point, the soldiers checking each automobile engaged in friendly conversation with drivers in a way that Americans can't.

Despite such signs of hope, huge questions hang over the U.S. effort. Foremost is the question of whether Iraq is moving toward civil war, which could cause the situation to spin out of U.S. control. That in turn raises the issue of whether Iraqi forces believe they are training to put down an insurgency or preparing to fight a conflict that pits Shiites against Sunnis. "I can't argue with that," said Col. James Pasquarette, who shares a base at Taji, north of Baghdad, with the Iraqi army's only tank division.

In an ominous sign of the growing rift within Iraqi security forces, the first thing an Iraqi army battalion staff officer did as he briefed a reporter this month was denounce the Iraqi police and its leaders at the Shiite-dominated Interior Ministry. "The army doesn't like the Ministry of Interior," said the officer, who asked that his name not be used for fear of retaliation. "The people don't like the police, either."

Also, there is no question among U.S. military intelligence officers that the insurgency remains robust. No one argues it is spreading, but many say it is intensifying in Baghdad and the Sunni Triangle north and west of the capital, with a steady increase in violence for much of last year. These officers note that there are still about 1,000 roadside bombs detonated a month, with another 500 detected before being exploded.

But the dominant view, especially among senior officers, is that the insurgency committed a key misstep by allowing a foreign terrorist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian, to become its face in Iraq. "They could have done much better," said one Army officer who works on Sunni political issues. "If I was in charge of part of them, I think I could have done better."

Off the Radar Screen

The biggest difference in Baghdad from two or three years ago is the nearly total absence of U.S. troops on its streets. In a major gamble, the city largely has been turned over to Iraqi police and army troops. If those Iraqi forces falter, leaving a vacuum, U.S. pressure elsewhere could push the insurgency into the capital. "I think they're going to go to Baghdad" next, worried Morgan. But other U.S. officers argued that such a move is unlikely because it is more difficult to intimidate a city of 5 million than a rural village.

The streets of the capital already feel as unsafe as at any time since the 2003 invasion. As one U.S. major put it, Baghdad now resembles a pure Hobbesian state where all are at war against all others and any security is self-provided.

Army Reserve Capt. A. Heather Coyne, an outspoken former White House counterterrorism official, said, "There is a total lack of security in the streets, partly because of the insurgents, partly because of criminals, and partly because the security forces can be dangerous to Iraqi citizens too." When this reporter was permitted to review an in-depth classified intelligence summary of recent "significant acts" occurring in the capital, it appeared surprisingly incomplete, generally listing only two sorts of events: anything that affected U.S. troops, and the killing of Iraqis. Other actions affecting Iraqis -- kidnappings, rapes, robberies, bombs that don't kill anyone, and a variety of forms of intimidation -- don't appear to be on the U.S. military's radar screen. As one soldier put it, that's all "background noise."

'Too Little Too Late?'

One cloudy evening this month, several hundred 101st Airborne troops gathered in a hangar on their base in Mahmudiyah for a memorial service for four soldiers -- three killed by a massive bomb, the fourth shot dead while fighting insurgents. An Army chaplain, Capt. Primitivo Davis, chose as the theme of his homily the thought that Moses served his God well, yet wasn't allowed to enter the promised land and only saw it from afar before dying. So, too, he preached, did these four dead soldiers serve well and catch "a glimpse of promise" in Iraq.

The mission of their assembled comrades was to achieve the "completed victory" of a free, stable and peaceful Iraq, he said. "Like Joshua, who followed Moses, we must pick up where they left off," Davis concluded.

Then a soldier slowly sang "Amazing Grace," and from the distance came a haunting version of "Taps." The service concluded, soldiers filed out of the hangar, many with tears streaming down their faces, and some crusty old sergeants embraced. It was at once very public, with senior officers present and rank observed, and searingly personal.

But some question whether the U.S. effort here ever will reach the conclusion Davis described. "It seems to be getting better, but you really can't tell," said Cpl. Toby Gilbreath, posted to Patrol Base San Juan, an imposing bunker west of Baghdad.

"I would like to think that there are still possibilities here," Army Reserve Lt. Col. Joe Rice said in the coffee shop of the al-Rashid Hotel in Baghdad's Green Zone. "We are finally getting around to doing the right things," said Rice, who is working on an Army "lessons learned" project here but who was expressing his personal opinion. "I think we're getting better, I do."

But, he continued, "is it too little too late?"

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