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Down with Barriers, Up with Iraq

It's difficult to convey the level of violence that happened in South Baghdad during the period in 2007 when General Petraeus emailed to me those prophetic words. The Dragon Brigade in South Baghdad lost 100 soldiers who were killed in action (KIA) and more than 800 were wounded during their 14 months of fighting. And that was the least of it. Iraqi forces were taking heavier casualties and bodies of civilians littered the roads just about every day. Each day brought its car bombs, rockets, snipers, EFPs (very deadly bombs apparently from Iran), giant Humvee-shattering bombs, bodies found with hands bound behind their backs with bullet holes in their heads or throats slit, headless bodies, and bodiless heads. It was not uncommon to see dogs cleaning flesh off of freshly killed skulls. Mosques and churches were flattened. Market places were leveled. Neighborhoods were abandoned. One morning our soldiers were greeted by a human head, carefully placed in the middle of the road. Yet the Iraqis never quit, and neither did our people.

Last week, in this November of 2008, I was in a Humvee with a fine group of men, including: SGT Jason McInerney from Connecticut, who is on his second Iraq tour; Specialist Jason Cooper, a medic on his second Iraq tour hailing from "Central Texas"; and Specialist Mack Pinson from Lincoln Park, Michigan. Mack is on his first tour.

Sometimes folks get upset when these pages don't mention the exact unit, but there is a reason for the shorthand: many readers are international or have little knowledge of the military, and many do not know the difference between the Army and the Marines, much less the various special operations forces. Since readers from dozens of countries visit this site each day -- and I thank you for that! -- I try to keep it straightforward. But out of respect for the soldiers, here goes the unit name: this mission was with Troop C, 7th Squadron, 10th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, Multi-National Division Baghdad.

As we rolled out from dusty Forward Operating Base (FOB) Falcon, I asked how many casualties the unit had taken since they had arrived, from Fort Hood (Texas), in March 2008. The soldiers told me that one Humvee had taken an EFP strike, but that a Private Rafael Martinez had received only a ruptured eardrum.

It represents vast progress to observe that the current rotation in 2008 has lost only two soldiers to an EFP strike. As sad as those losses are, the extreme distinction over the 100 lost in the Dragon Brigade from the previous year is immense and exultant. The area has fallen nearly completely silent. The war has ended. The canary in the mineshaft survived. It is starting to chirp and it is just a matter of time before it begins to sing.

One battalion in the Dragon Brigade was the 2-12 Infantry, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Michael. His right hand man, Command Sergeant Major Charles Sasser, was open to and confident with the press and provided more than just combat expertise. I went on missions with his men, who spent important time educating me about their area when they could have been sleeping. LTC Michael is a native of Guyana in South America. The Guyanese are famously soft-spoken. In fact, Major Kirk Luedeke said of LTC Michael, "Soft spoken guy, but an extremely bright and tenacious fighter." It was true. The commander seemed gentle and grandfatherly, but he commanded his units with great expertise in what must have been one of the most complicated areas in Iraq. LTC Michael's battalion took 18 KIAs and more than 150 wounded, mostly during the surge. (2-12 was one of the battalions in the Dragon Brigade.) The 2-12's old area has fallen quiet now. The soldiers accomplished their mission, though I doubt anyone will ever know how hard they worked.

For the record, out of respect it's important to mention the battalions who fought the last tour and tamed South Baghdad. I asked Major Kirk Luedeke, who was there, working as the public affairs officer in this troubled area. Major Luedeke wrote:

Our organic maneuver units were: 1-28 IN (LTC Pat Frank), 1-4 CAV (LTC Jim Crider). Our 2-16 IN and 2-32 FA were in East Baghdad and Mansour with other BCTs. Attached to us were: 1-18 IN (LTC George Glaze), 2-12 IN (LTC Stephen Michael), 4-64 AR (LTC Johnnie Johnson -- they replaced 1-18 IN in Nov), 2-4 IN (LTC Tim Watson who replaced 2-12 IN on Christmas eve), and a Stryker Cav Squadron 2-2 SCR (LTC Myron Reineke). We also had the following Stryker battalions attached to us during clearing ops in W. Rashid and Dora: 1-23 IN, 2-3 IN (from the 3/2 SBCT), and 2-23 IN (from 4/2 SBCT).

Later in the day, I rode around South Baghdad and saw Martinez, the soldier whose eardrum was ruptured in a bomb strike. Martinez was smiling. I asked if he could hear me, as I chuckled, and Martinez just laughed and started cracking jokes. The other soldiers joked with him about the EFP strike. In short, morale remains high in this rotation, despite the fact that there is no fighting going on. (Realize that a workhorse is mostly happy when it's allowed to do its job, and the same goes for a soldier.) They talked about another casualty in which a power cable snapped off from a large power structure and crashed down, whacking a soldier on the head. Luckily he was wearing a helmet. The soldiers said that it knocked him for a loop, but he returned to duty. Chalk one up for Murphy's Law. Murphy's Law is about the only constant in Iraq and Afghanistan -- but even that seems to be operating at slighter levels now.

Today's mission -- observing the progress of the peace -- makes for boring journalism, but it made me very happy. I was smiling all day. This victory, like all real triumphs, is monumental and historic -- though our military will not be allowed to express their feelings of pride and sense of well-earned glory.

When the war was on full-steam there was so much to report that it was impossible to keep track. And now that peace is breaking out, it's equally impossible to keep track of all the progress. There's still focus on the attacks, most of which are directed against Iraqis, not us. And so this "mission" was more like an armed errand to remove some concrete barriers between neighborhoods.

When it comes to creating the conditions for peace in Iraq, details matter. Of course the surge and change of tactics were central to the change that flipped the situation, and the Anbar Awakening was critical. But it is important to understand the role of smaller, tactical improvements. Though they were heavily criticized at the time by observers, the installation of thousands of barriers around Baghdad is one of the most unrecognized tools of success in the restoration of peace in Iraq. In 2006, bombs were killing thousands of people. Al-Qaeda, in particular, was trying to foment civil war and they were succeeding. When they murdered large numbers of Shia, for instance, other Shia would pour out of their neighborhood and murder large numbers of Sunnis in a flash of revenge. The barriers thwarted these flows of vengeance and baffled the violence.

Installing the miles of ugly concrete barriers was like patching up the internal bleeding of Baghdad -- the heart of Iraq. The barriers did not "solve" the problem any more than a bandage cures a bullet wound, yet bandages saved lives. Removing these concrete barriers will be like removing the bandages to allow real healing to take place. We are only starting now, and it may take years before they are all gone.

There are many untold details contributing to the growing success on the ground -- including the United States' decision to put the "Sons of Iraq" (SOI) on our payroll until they could be handled by the Iraqi government, which just this month began to pay the SOIs. This program, criticized for creating "militias," gave former enemies a sense of purpose and allowed them to assist in the progress. Where are those who screamed about "America's militias" now that Iraq has hired those same people and is absorbing many into the police and army?

Chalk another one up for the military leaders for standing their ground. When the barriers went up, it was a sign that we were trying to get a grip on the civil war, and it was "exciting news" to some in the "further evidence of failure" camp. But when I stood and watched some of the barriers being taken down, the only camera there was mine.

Along the way on the morning of this November 13 mission, an eagle-eyed soldier in a different Humvee spotted a suspected IED, a cinder block placed atop a T-barrier. The EOD bomb experts were dispatched. Traditionally it would take hours for the bomb squad to show up, but they don't have as much to do these days, and so the 752nd EOD company from Fort Hood arrived in about 45 minutes. While we waited for EOD, the two veterans in the Humvee were candid the way veterans tend to be. Both of them admitted to not caring about Iraqis on their first combat tour, because all they saw were attacks. But now they don't have to fight with Iraqis and have gotten to know many by name. The soldiers realize that the Iraqis are a lot like we are, and they wish the Iraqis the best.

After EOD arrived, I talked with one of the MP escorts, SGT Jeremiah Norton, who today is serving a second Iraq tour. SGT Norton said that as late as March 2008, they were getting 10 to 15 EOD calls per day in the area, and many or most were real bombs. But now, EOD personnel sometimes don't get a single call all day, and most calls end up having no bombs at all. Every sign I see, every little spot report like this, indicates the same thing: the war is over.

The words from General Petraeus about Southwest Baghdad will always stick with me: "It will be the canary in the mineshaft; if they can pull it off, this will be doable."

The general was right ... and the canary to sing for another day.