By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 26, 2006
PATROL BASE SWAMP, Iraq -- Here, in a half-ruined house bristling with dull black machine guns and surrounded by green sandbags, shin-deep mudholes, and shadowy palm groves, lies the leading edge of the U.S. war in Iraq.
This remote outpost, manned by Bravo Company of a unit in the 101st Airborne Division, is the forwardmost American position in the so-called Triangle of Death southwest of Baghdad. Some U.S. commanders say the region is now the focal point in their campaign against Iraq's stubborn insurgency. It's a tough fight: Just getting U.S. troops established here in the canal-laced fields of the Euphrates River Valley meant running a gantlet of roadside bombs, with one platoon encountering 14 in a three-hour stretch.
Interviews with U.S. soldiers -- from top generals to front-line grunts in Tall Afar, Mosul, Ramadi, Balad and throughout Baghdad -- as well as briefings at the U.S. military headquarters for the Middle East in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, reveal a markedly different war from that seen in 2003 and 2004, or even last year.
Current U.S. military commanders say they have come to understand that they are fighting within a political context, which means the results must first be judged politically. The pace and shape of the war also have changed, with U.S. forces trying to exercise tactical patience and shift responsibilities to Iraqi forces, even as they worry that the American public's patience may be dwindling.
The war also has changed geographically. Over the last three years, it has developed a pattern of moving around the country, from Fallujah to Najaf to Mosul and Samarra and back to Fallujah. Last summer and fall it was focused in Tall Afar, in the northwest, and in the upper Euphrates, in the remote western part of Anbar province near Syria.
This year the war seems to hinge on the battle for Baghdad. Inside the capital, that promises to be primarily a political fight over the makeup of the future government of Iraq -- and whether it can prevent a civil war, a threat that appeared much more likely this week with the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra and retaliatory attacks on Sunni mosques and clerics.
U.S. officials don't talk much about the prospects of civil war. It is unclear what role the United States would play if such a war broke out, but military strategists said American forces would be used to try to minimize violence but not to actually intervene between warring groups.
On Baghdad's outskirts, the war remains very much a military campaign. The flat agricultural plain south and southwest of the capital "is what I would call the most lethal area in Baghdad," said Col. Todd Ebel, the brigade commander there.
This is the war of the Iyahs, as American troops call the cluster of hard-bitten towns named Mahmudiyah, Yusufiyah, Latifiyah and Iskandariyah that over the last two years became insurgent strongholds. Not coincidentally, these towns, between Baghdad and Karbala, also are on the fault line between Sunni Iraq and Shiite Iraq and likely would be a flash point for a civil war.
"The insurgency belongs to the 4 ID and the Marines -- it's Baghdad and the west," said a senior U.S. military intelligence official in Qatar who declined to be identified by name because of his line of work. (Ebel's 101st Division brigade running Patrol Base Swamp and operating southwest of Baghdad is attached to the 4th Infantry Division, which has responsibility for the Baghdad area.) Senior military officials describe the Marine Corps' fight in western Anbar province more as an effort to contain an insurgency they expect to remain chronic in that area.
Here in the area south and west of Baghdad, the push by the Army's 4th Infantry was launched in recent months to give the capital some breathing space. "My job, above all things, is to keep them out of Baghdad," said Capt. Andre Rivier, the Swiss-American commander of Patrol Base Swamp. "The important thing is to keep them fighting here. That's really the crux of the fight." By taking the battle to rural-based insurgents, the Army hopes to gain the initiative, pressuring the enemy at a time and place of the Americans' choosing, rather than simply trying to catch suicide bombers as they drive into the capital.
Despite its proximity to the city, this area was visited surprisingly sporadically by U.S. troops over the last three years. Even now there are pockets where no American faces have been seen, and there still are no-go areas for U.S. troops where the roads are heavily seeded with bombs. Following counterinsurgency doctrine, Ebel doesn't want to take areas and then leave them. So he moves his forces slowly, first establishing a checkpoint, then conducting patrols to study the area and its people, and then, after a pause, pushing his front line half a mile forward and putting up another checkpoint.
It is a difficult way to wage war. On one typical day this month, there were 24 "significant acts" -- small-arms attacks, bombings and other noteworthy events -- recorded in one relatively small part of Ebel's area of operations. "We got ambushed all over" but didn't suffer any casualties, said Maj. Daniel Morgan, operations officer in a 101st battalion southwest of Baghdad. "We've been pushing into the west," into insurgent havens along the Euphrates River southeast of Fallujah, "and they don't like it."
A drawback in this slow-motion war is that some soldiers find it frustrating. At the medic's station in Patrol Base Swamp -- which with its bare cots and hanging light bulbs feels like a scene from World War II -- three soldiers of the 101st said they loathe their time here, especially since the death of a beloved squad leader a week earlier.
"It's like trying to track down a bunch of ghosts," said Sgt. Chad Wendel, sitting on an Army cot under a window frame shielded by a blanket.
"I think it's the way we're losing more soldiers" that is most bothersome, added Spec. Frank Moore, a medic from Lynchburg, Va. "It makes you wonder, what do you gain by sticking around?"
"I don't like anything about being here," agreed Spec. Matthew Ness.
Pursuing this sort of slow-moving campaign also raises the question of whether the political clock will run out on the effort, either here in Iraq or back in the United States, before the American military and its Iraqi allies can become militarily effective in large parts of the country. "That's what I worry about," said Army Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the No. 2 U.S. commander here.Round Three
The war here has gone through three distinct phases, each with its own feel and style of operation.
The first period, from May 2003 to July 2004, was characterized by drift and wishful thinking, military insiders say, with top U.S. officials at first refusing to recognize they were facing an insurgency and then committing a series of policy and tactical blunders that appear to have enflamed opposition to the U.S. occupation.
The second phase began in the summer of 2004, when Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr. replaced Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez as the top U.S. commander in Iraq and developed -- for the first time -- a U.S. campaign plan. That plan, which looked forward from August 2004 to December 2005, gave U.S. operations a new coherence, directing a series of actions intended to clear the way for Iraqi voters to establish a new government.
Now, after parliamentary elections held in December, the U.S. effort has entered a third stage. The current emphasis is on reducing the U.S. role in the war, putting Iraq army and police forces in the forefront as much as possible -- but not so fast that it breaks them, as it did in April 2004, when a battalion ordered to Fallujah mutinied. Eventually, Casey said, the hope is that U.S. forces will be able to focus on foreign fighters, while Iraqi security forces take on the native insurgency. But that hasn't happened yet. The hardest fighting, especially in rural areas, still is being done by U.S. troops.
Several aspects make this third phase different from the war of a year or two ago:
· The U.S. effort now is characterized by a more careful, purposeful style that extends even to how Humvees are driven in the streets. For years, "the standard was to haul ass," noted Lt. Col. Gian P. Gentile, commander of the 8th Squadron of the 10th Cavalry Regiment, which is based near a bomb-infested highway south of Baghdad. Now his convoy drivers are ordered to move at 15 mph. "I'm a firm believer in slow, deliberate movement," he said. "You can observe better, if there's IEDs [improvised explosive devices] on the road." It also is less disruptive to Iraqis and sends a message of calm control, he noted.
· 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?"