Fighting Smarter In Iraq

By David Ignatius
Friday, March 17, 2006

BAGHDAD -- Three years on, the U.S. military is finally becoming adept at fighting a counterinsurgency war in Iraq. Sadly, these are precisely the skills that should have been mastered before America launched its invasion in March 2003. It may prove one of the costliest lessons in the history of modern warfare.

I had a chance to see the new counterinsurgency doctrine in practice here this week. U.S. troops are handing off to the Iraqi army a growing share of the security burden. As the Iraqis step up, the Americans are stepping back into a training and advisory role. This is the way it should have happened from the beginning.

A brutal stress test came on Feb. 22, when Sunni insurgents destroyed a revered Shiite mosque in Samarra. For a moment, Iraq seemed to be slipping toward civil war, but the Iraqi army performed surprisingly well. In many areas Iraqi forces -- backed up by overwhelming U.S. firepower -- helped restore order. "You never know the tipping point until you're past it," says Gen. George Casey, the commander of American forces here. With many other U.S. and Iraqi officials, he hopes Samarra may have been such a tipping point, for the better.

Iraq is still a mess. Traveling over Baghdad by Black Hawk helicopter, you can see piles of fetid trash on nearly every block and pools of raw sewage glinting in the sun. Car bombs and roadside explosions are still a daily feature of life, and the death toll remains horrific, especially for Iraqi civilians. But it would be a mistake to think that nothing is changing. The country is fragile, but it hasn't splintered apart.

I visited two bases where you can see the new U.S. strategy begin to take hold. The first was at Taji, straddling the Tigris River north of Baghdad, where the American 4th Infantry Division is gradually handing off responsibility to Iraqi units. After the Samarra bombing, enraged Shiites killed two Sunni clerics, and there was a danger that the reprisal killings could escalate.

Tensions eased after an Iraqi brigade commander, a Shiite, rolled his armored vehicles into the Sunni stronghold of Tarmiya and told local imams that his men would protect their mosques against Shiite attacks -- and that in return, they must control Sunni militants. "He laid down the law," remembers Col. Jim Pasquarette, who commands U.S. forces in the area. The crisis gradually eased there, with U.S. forces mostly remaining in the background.

"This is the hardest thing I've ever done," Pasquarette says of the new rules of counterinsurgency. "In the old days, it was black and white -- see a guy and shoot him. But counterinsurgency is a thinking man's sport. Every decision you make, you have to step back and say, 'What's the next thing that's going to happen?' " He says he drills his troops to remember the "three P's" of the new Iraqi battlefield: "be polite, be professional, be prepared to kill."

The town of Abu Ghraib, just west of Baghdad, faced a similar test after Samarra. The area is almost entirely Sunni; the Iraqi army unit that has responsibility there is largely Shiite. That sounds like a recipe for disaster, but the Iraqi brigade commander, a feisty Shiite from southern Iraq named Gen. Aziz, is making it work. After the Samarra explosion, Aziz told me, he convened a meeting with local tribal and religious leaders.

"I am responsible for your safety," he admonished them. "The law should protect us all. There are no militias in this area." He told the local leaders they could protect their homes and mosques, but if he found anyone carrying weapons on the streets, he would kill him. The message seemed to work. A fiery local Sunni imam told his worshipers last Friday they should try to live with their neighbors.

Inside his headquarters, Aziz showed me a video of a suicide bomb that nearly killed him and his American adviser, Lt. Col. Mark Samson, two weeks ago. "He has the blood of my soldiers on his uniform," he says respectfully of the American. Outside Aziz's office is what he calls a "martyr tree," listing the names of the 22 men in his brigade who have died. "There can be only one hero in Iraq -- the army," he tells me.

I wouldn't pretend that these two snapshots are an accurate representation of the whole of Iraq. If that were so, the country wouldn't be in such a mess. But this is the way this war is supposed to be going. It's a few years late, but the new U.S. strategy is moving in the right direction.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company