By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 4, 2007
BAGHDAD -- Nearly every week, American generals and politicians visit Combat Outpost Gator, nestled behind a towering blast wall in the Dora market. They arrive in convoys of armored Humvees, sometimes accompanied by helicopter gunships, to see what U.S. commanders display as proof of the effectiveness of a seven-month-long security offensive, fueled by 30,000 U.S. reinforcements. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. military leader in Iraq, frequently cites the market as a sign of progress.
"This is General Petraeus's baby," said Staff Sgt. Josh Campbell, 24, of Winfield, Kan., as he set out on a patrol near the market on a hot evening in mid-August.
Next week, Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker will deliver to Congress their much-anticipated response to the central question that has dominated U.S. policy in Iraq this year: Is the "surge" working?
For months, top commanders and Bush administration officials have said that sectarian violence is down, although some U.S. agencies disagree, according to a recent draft report by the Government Accountability Office. Commanders and officials say attacks are also down against U.S. troops in once-treacherous regions such as Anbar province. This year, more than 100 joint security stations and smaller combat outposts have been erected in neighborhoods and villages across the country, which generals say is an indicator that U.S. and Iraqi troops maintain control.
If there is one indisputable truth regarding the current offensive, it is this: When large numbers of U.S. troops are funneled into areas, security improves. But the numbers only partly describe the reality on the ground. Visits to key U.S. bases and neighborhoods in and around Baghdad show that recent improvements are sometimes tenuous, temporary, even illusory.
In many areas, U.S. forces are now working at cross-purposes with Iraq's elected Shiite-led government by financing onetime Sunni insurgents who say they now want to work with the Americans. The loyalties of the Iraqi military and police -- widely said to be infiltrated by Shiite militias -- remain in doubt.
Even U.S. soldiers assigned to protect Petraeus's showcase remain skeptical. "Personally, I think it's a false representation," Campbell said, referring to the portrayal of the Dora market as an emblem of the surge's success. "But what can I say? I'm just doing my job and don't ask questions."
While none of 18 benchmarks for progress set by Congress specifically addresses markets, security in neighborhoods such as Dora is viewed as essential for political reconciliation. Under Petraeus's counterinsurgency strategy, U.S. troops have left their fortified bases and moved into the smaller stations and outpost from which they can regularly interact with Iraqis.
Hours before Campbell spoke, a delegation led by an American general, with several reporters in tow, filed through Combat Outpost Gator. Scores of Iraqis were milling inside the fortified market, where shopkeepers were selling clothing, shoes, and other consumer goods. In December, the market was a war zone, but roadside bombings and other attacks there have dropped significantly.
After the delegation left, Maj. Ron Minty, 36, said that the generals had wanted 300 shops open for business by July 1. By the day of the delegation's visit, 303 had opened.
"It took us until August 1st -- not bad," said Minty, the acting commander of the 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment. The goal by Sept. 1 was 500, he said. (By Monday, 349 stores were open. Before the U.S.-led invasion, the market had more than 850 shops.)
Still, the Dora market is a Potemkin village of sorts. The U.S. military hands out $2,500 grants to shop owners to open or improve their businesses. The military has fixed windows and doors and even helped rebuild shops that had burned down, soldiers and others said.
"We helped them a lot. We gave them money, security, even the locks on their doors," said a 36-year-old Iraqi interpreter at the outpost whom U.S. soldiers call Jimmy for security reasons. He asked that his real name not be used. "Everything we gave them. That's why the violence has stopped. That's why they cooperate with us."
Some shopkeepers said they would not do business in the market without U.S. support. "The Americans are giving money, so they're opening up stores," said Falah Hassan Fadhil, 27, who sells cosmetics.
1st Lt. Jose Molina, who is in charge of monitoring and disbursing the grant money, said the U.S. military includes barely operating stores in its tally. "Although they sell dust, they are open for business," said Molina, 35, from Dallas. "They intend to sell goods or they may just have a handful of goods. But they are still counted."
Security measures in the market are rigorous. Vehicles are not allowed inside for fear of car bombs. Customers are body-searched at checkpoints. Humvees constantly patrol the area, which is the sole focus of the 50 or so soldiers of Combat Outpost Gator.
But the Dora market has not regained its former cachet as one of southeastern Baghdad's most vibrant commercial centers. Before the invasion, many of its stores stayed open past midnight. Today, they are open for just a few hours, and by noon the market is mostly deserted. The shopkeepers, who are mostly Sunni, said they rarely see customers from outside Dora because it is too dangerous to travel here.
"If the Americans were not here, we would close earlier, maybe one or two hours," said shopkeeper Alaa Hussein Mahmoud, 32. "I'm always scared about the militias."
Two days earlier, a squad of Iraqi police entered the market. Shoppers left and shopkeepers scurried to shutter their businesses. The police are widely said to be infiltrated by Shiite militias. "We were scared of them. Everybody ran away," said Hussein Ali, 37, another shop owner.
As he spoke, 1st Lt. Chris Bartran, 25, of Fort Carson, Colo., listened in. The West Point graduate tried to reassure Ali that the Americans were there to protect them, even from the police. "We have them on a tight leash," Bartran said. Ali did not seem convinced.
The Dora area is a violent frontline neighborhood. Two battalions of U.S. troops are battling the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq, commanders said. Entire streets are being walled off to form so-called gated communities -- another key tactic of Petraeus's plan. Soldiers at the outpost said the main reason for the drop in violence is the flooding of troops into the area. But many stressed that the Iraqi soldiers were not ready to take over security.
"We can't be holding their hands forever," Campbell said. "I'm worried about what's going to happen to this place when we leave."
Minutes before the delegation arrived, Bartran instructed 1st Lt. Ali Husham Salih, 27, the commander of the Iraqi army's 4th company, 1st Brigade, to have his soldiers put on their uniforms and combat gear.
Salih said later that his men could protect the market on their own but that they depended on the Americans for support and weapons. "If the American soldiers leave, you'll find the Iraqi army destroyed in one month," he said. "We still want and need the Americans to stay for a long time until we are strong."
About 10 a.m., Minty, of Granby, Colo., drove out of the market in a convoy, headed to a meeting. Minutes later, the convoy reached the municipal building, protected by tall blast walls.
Minty met with community leaders who included Ramzi al-Shamary, the head of the Chamber of Commerce for Rashid, the district where the Dora market is located. Minty urged them to encourage people to open more stores, adding that in the past month alone the military had approved 35 grants totaling more than $87,000.
Then Minty invited Shamary to visit the market. Shamary agreed on the condition that the U.S. military escort him. The previous director of the chamber had been murdered. Shamary was not about to enter the Dora market alone.