By Ernesto Londoño
Sunday, November 15, 2009
Samarra, Iraq -- The Shiite pilgrims arrive in crowded buses and are dropped off just outside the shrine's gate. They walk down a narrow path patrolled by security guards and lined with tall cement walls to pray at the al-Askari mosque, the resting place of two of the most revered figures in Shiite Islam.
The mosque, which once had a golden dome that sparkled in this city of gray, looks like a construction site, with piles of debris and scaffolding -- remnants of the February 2006 bombing that unleashed a brutal civil war between Sunnis and Shiites.
The thousands of visitors who come each week, mostly Iranians and Iraqis from southern provinces, don't venture from the tear-shaped exclusion zone. Just outside, stores and hotels that once thrived on tourism make up a battle-scarred ghost town. City leaders, merchants and residents have grown deeply resentful at being cut off from the economic heart of the city. "We feel like we're living in a big prison," said merchant Ghazan Hamid, whose shop lies just beyond the wall protecting the mosque.
Samarra, where the U.S. military closed a key base this fall, in many ways embodies the Iraq that American forces are leaving behind as the troop drawdown begins in earnest. The fighting here, as in much of the country, has ebbed. Iraqi troops are indisputably in charge. Sectarian and ethnic divisions remain deep, but political feuds and fights for power are, by and large, not being waged on the street.
As the American military footprint thins out in places such as Samarra, many U.S. soldiers are returning home making a strong case that they are leaving behind a country with a fighting chance. Just how good Iraq's odds are remains an open question -- one that haunts departing U.S. troops and the Iraqis who grew to depend heavily on them. If a somewhat peaceful, albeit deeply divided, country is the best conceivable outcome after more than six years of war, thousands of Americans dead and billions of dollars spent, was it worth it? Nowhere does that question resonate more loudly than in predominantly Sunni cities such as Samarra. Depending on whom you ask, this phase is the preface of peace -- or a prelude to the fight.
"If it doesn't somehow reach an equilibrium, those who are have-nots could find themselves with no alternative except for violence," said Lt. Col. Samuel Whitehurst, an infantry battalion commander whose unit departed Samarra a month ago. "Some of those we have empowered over time, they understand we're leaving. They're looking for other ways. I do have concerns that there are those out there that don't have that vision."
The Samarra that Whitehurst, 43, and his men left is imperfect and edgy, a place awash in anxiety and conspiracy theories. But it is a remarkable success story compared with what became of it during the war's bloodiest time.
This city, about 60 miles north of Baghdad, was one of the key battlegrounds of the war. As Sunnis were marginalized by the U.S.-led invasion that catapulted the country's Shiite majority to power, a mighty insurgency emerged. What began as a loose coalition of groups motivated to fight U.S. forces became the catalyst for the rise of al-Qaeda in Iraq, an extremist group partly funded and led by non-Iraqi Sunni Arabs.
By 2006, al-Qaeda in Iraq, which sought to create an Islamic state run by dogmatic Sunnis, controlled the eastern part of Samarra. U.S. forces and their poorly equipped and trained Iraqi counterparts were drawn into fierce street battles. The mosque bombing unleashed a wave of sectarian attacks and slayings that left tens of thousands of Iraqis dead, hundreds of thousands displaced and once-diverse cities balkanized.
Whitehurst's unit, the 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, was first deployed to Iraq in the summer of 2006. Rising violence, along with a spike in American combat deaths, had led many to believe the war was lost. U.S. commanders found themselves on the offensive -- not just on battlefields, but also on Capitol Hill, where renewing the lease on the Iraq war seemed like a long shot. In Iraq, U.S. soldiers were widely despised, and they seemed unable to prevent the country from slipping into anarchy.
"We would get a lot of bad looks, rocks thrown," said Staff Sgt. Alex Evans, 26, of Evansville, Ind. "There was definitely hostility in the air."
Instead of retreating, the Bush administration doubled up, sending tens of thousands of additional troops, injecting them deeper into battle and asking them to make the safety of Iraqis their top priority.
In Samarra and across Iraq, the Americans won over erstwhile enemies and crippled cells of extremists they deemed "irreconcilable." They redrew the power structure, injected billions into the economy, and trained and equipped a vast Iraqi security apparatus that, while wobbly and disjointed, has in many ways exceeded expectations.
In crucial cities such as Samarra, the central government set up security centers that reported to Baghdad.
Provincial and municipal authorities, particularly those in heavily Sunni areas ignored by the Shiite-led Baghdad government, grew dependent on U.S. funds and expertise. They remain so today, even as the money and manpower start to dwindle. Samarra's mayor has no public budget, carries a revolver to work and, albeit graciously, punts more questions than he answers when the subject turns to security, politics and life after the American withdrawal. He's happy, though, to talk about how much the Americans have done for his city.
Other leaders are more blunt. "All those top leaders in power now, they each have an army on standby," said Wasim Hamad Hawas, the self-described founder of the first resistance group that fought the Americans in Samarra, only to eventually make amends and get on the U.S. payroll. "They will fight us as soon as the Americans aren't standing in the middle."
As Whitehurst and some of his men walked around the city shortly before leaving, residents flocked over, clamoring for micro grants, bundles of cash the U.S. military has handed out to thousands of Iraqis in recent years to jump-start local economies.
Even though Whitehurst was with one of his Iraqi Army counterparts, residents turned to him and his captains, identifiable by their rank patches, to air grievances.
Iraqi soldiers and police officers are omnipresent in Samarra these days. They respond buoyantly when asked about their readiness to keep things calm after the Americans leave.
"People don't like seeing American soldiers walking in the cities," said Gen. Rashid Muhammed Zahir, head of the Samarra operations command, who has warm relations with the Americans. "They want to see the Americans just stay in one or two bases."
But some U.S. soldiers express skepticism about how well the Iraqis will do when they're on their own. "They have the tools to protect their country. They have the equipment and the training," said 1st Sgt. Jeremiah Conachan, 33, of Milwaukie, Ore. "I just don't know if they have the heart. . . . The sun comes up; it's 8 in the morning. You can get an hour of work from these guys, and then they're done -- done for the day."
Was it worth it?
I posed that question to several of Whitehurst's men in August during a visit to their outpost near Samarra, which is now closed. Many said it was. Children no longer throw rocks at Americans. Attacks against U.S. troops are as low as they've ever been. They were leaving behind schools and clinics and small businesses that the soldiers hope years from now will be the cornerstone of the American legacy in Iraq.
There were skeptics in the crowd, too.
"We're sitting here in the middle of a little revolution between Iraqis, and we're sitting here being security guards," said Spec. Lorenzo Sanchez, 34, of West Covina, Calif. "We should let them do their thing and get out of their way."
I ran into Sanchez one night as he was emptying sandbags. He was being punished, he explained, because he tacked additional days to his two-week home leave to spend time with his 2-year-old daughter. Having been deployed three times to Iraq, he said, he was leaving "a lost man," with no hope for the country.
"How do you tell someone's parents that their kids died in Iraq?" he asked. "For what purpose? I mean, at the beginning, when we first invaded Iraq, it was for our freedoms, for our rights. . . . Well, here we are a few years later, and is it really for our freedoms and our rights?"
He continued, thinking of what a fallen soldier's mother might be told: " 'Your son died for, well we're not sure, but he fought a good fight.' "
Whitehurst had to answer that question from a father who approached him in March 2008 in Hawaii, minutes before he was to address the parents of 19 men who had returned home in coffins.
"I just want to know one thing," the father asked. "Was it worth it?"
There were fewer reasons to be optimistic then, but the colonel knew his answer. It was worth it, he responded, looking the man squarely in the eyes. He will say so again today, when some of the parents of the four soldiers who didn't make it back from this latest deployment attend a welcome-home ball.
"We have lost a lot of great guys; we have lost so much potential," Whitehurst said. "But this country now has that potential. And there are people in this country that are alive today because of the sacrifices made by those soldiers. I do think it was worth it. I can look back, and I think all of us can hold our heads very high."
Ernesto Londoño has reported from Iraq for The Washington Post since 2007.