He Came, He Cut Deals, He (May) Conquer

By Linda Robinson
Sunday, September 14, 2008

Iraq still divides Democrats and Republicans like no other issue, as the campaign rhetoric of both parties makes abundantly clear. Liberals and conservatives can now more or less agree that Iraq is a much, much safer country than it was 18 months ago. But each side is peddling its own story about Iraq's extraordinary turnaround -- and both are wrong.

Many conservatives believe that the 2007 "surge" in U.S. troop levels directly produced the decline in Iraqi violence. Meanwhile, liberals argue that Iraq's warring Shiites and Sunnis spontaneously decided -- for their own internal reasons, unrelated to the surge -- to stop fighting. As is so often true of Washington debates, these arguments bear little relation to the reality of how Iraq actually pulled out of its death spiral, which is far more interesting than either partisan yarn. There was no single silver bullet, but rather a multifaceted strategy crafted and carried out by those in Baghdad -- not, despite recent claims, in Washington.

I came to this conclusion after reporting in Iraq for a total of 10 months since 2003 and after extensive interviews with Iraqi and U.S. leaders, as well as with troops in the most violent neighborhoods of greater Baghdad, the epicenter of the conflict. My biggest question was my simplest: How did Gen. David H. Petraeus do it?

My answer? Bottom line, for the first time since the war began, a U.S. leader decided to address the political motivations of the Iraqi combatants. Petraeus convened a study group that shrewdly analyzed the raging sectarian conflict, then came up with what he called "the Anaconda strategy" to address the underlying dynamic.

Petraeus and his diplomatic partner, Ambassador Ryan Crocker, realized that the first disastrous steps taken by the U.S. occupation authority led by L. Paul Bremer -- disbanding Saddam Hussein's Baath Party and the old regime's security services -- had helped create the Sunni insurgency. They produced a critical mass of angry men worried that the Sunnis who had run the old Iraq would wind up on the bottom in the new one. Those fears were soon realized: Bremer's occupation government pushed for a sequence of poorly planned elections that wound up entrenching the power of a Shiite-dominated coalition, which began a "sectarian cleansing" campaign against Iraq's minority Sunnis -- and tilted the country into a full-on civil war.

While policymakers back in Washington continued to be duped by sectarian-minded Shiite politicians, Petraeus and Crocker set about using all available levers -- including thinking about Iraqi politics -- to rectify the earlier, catastrophic U.S. blunders.

The extra surge brigades certainly helped, but the number of U.S. troops was far less important than the new ways in which they were used. The most important new tactical move still gets scant Beltway attention: Petraeus's initiative to reach out to the Sunni insurgency and its base. "We cannot kill our way to victory," he said.

On June 2, 2007, Petraeus gathered his commanders and told them to engage with influential Sunnis and insurgents and persuade them to stop fighting. "Tribal engagement and local reconciliation work!" he said. "Encourage it!"

The policy was carried out on the battalion level, using troops deployed in U.S. outposts and in joint security stations alongside freshly trained Iraqi forces. "Don't let our bureaucracy stop you, and don't let the Iraqi government stop you," Petraeus urged his young lieutenant colonels, whom he often invited to join him for five-mile fitness -- and advice-dispensing -- runs around Camp Victory, the main U.S. base.

He was right to turn to his battalion commanders. Baghdad was being engulfed in growing mayhem: ever-larger car bombs, lethal copper projectiles, homemade explosives packed into sewer pipes that burned U.S. soldiers alive. But the U.S. troops persisted. Over the summer of 2007, the Sunnis responded en masse to the new approach: By September, according to U.S. officials and my own reporting, 15,000 Sunnis had signed up to become checkpoint guards and neighborhood watchmen, paid and monitored by the U.S. battalions that were being so carefully coached by Petraeus. The Shiite government was not amused; the last thing it wanted was its former Sunni foes back inside the fold. Still, by year's end, 70,000 Sunnis -- comprising the vast majority of the insurgents and their support base -- had joined the new U.S.-backed effort. This policy -- battled by bureaucrats both in Baghdad and inside the Beltway -- changed the tide of the war.

As the Sunni insurgents switched sides, they passed vital intelligence to their U.S. partners and paymasters, which enabled Petraeus's forces to target Sunni holdouts, including diehards affiliated with al-Qaeda in Iraq. U.S. soldiers also employed new techniques to control the Iraqi population and provide for its safety and to identify fighters hidden among the civilians. For the first time since the war began in 2003, a shareable, computerized biometric registry of military-age males was created. This led to the detention of fewer innocents and more bad guys. Meanwhile, car bombings fell off dramatically after U.S. forces erected concrete barrier walls along sectarian fault lines, including the markets that had been the scenes of some of the ghastliest atrocities.

Why were so many Sunnis -- insurgents and civilians alike -- ready to respond to the U.S. overture? Because they were getting desperate and saw Petraeus's outstretched hand as their best chance of surviving a campaign of sectarian violence and ethnic cleansing led by the Shiites and fueled by neighboring Iran. The secular Sunnis' alliance with the jihadist insurgents had always been an uneasy marriage of convenience, and it broke up when Petraeus made a better offer.

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