Baghdad, Iraq -- I just got back from a stroll through the IZ (as the Green Zone is now known), while waiting for my flight back out to the front this evening. I was accompanied by Dr. Urs Gehriger -- a Swiss journalist who writes for the German-language magazine Die Weltwoche, and who was kidnapped by Taliban last year in Afghanistan in a preplanned-interview-gone-awry. He's a pretty big guy, so I'm surprised that they messed with him at all, but they did -- and this is his first trip back to the middle east since then. He's headed up to Baqubah tonight, which is where I'll be in a week or so.
We walked a few miles in what used to be the heart of the thriving metropolis of Baghdad, past some palaces, the 14th of July Bridge, the al Rashid Hotel, the Crossed Swords monument, and past the spiral tower that serves as the Iraqi tomb to the unknown soldier. Aside from a few cars, the IZ area of the city was completely dead -- we perhaps spotted half a dozen people en toto, and had our ids checked and were searched by the Peruvian guards far more times than expected. As an outsider who doesn't spend much time in the Green Zone -- this week between assignments has topped my previous entire total time in the IZ -- it would appear that the key to keeping this place so "secure," as it is referred to, is simply keeping all people out. Effective, if not necessarily efficient in the long-term, especially once the coalition leaves.
This is the biggest detraction I see at this point: long-term stability and effectiveness. While the 'Surge' is almost inarguably working militarily in many different areas of the country, the fact is, this is still a very broken country, with a great deal of instability, unrest, and upheaval -- and, were we to leave at any point in the near-term future, the vacuum that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke of earlier this week -- that Iran would love to fill -- would most certainly become a reality. While social, governmental, and security services are being developed and (hopefully) improved here (albeit at a pace that would make even a snail seem quick), the fact of the matter is that, as you know, the coalition - led, of course, by the US - is the glue holding this humpty-dumpty together (better that analogy, I suppose, than to call us the Little Dutch Boy with his finger in the dike ;-). A situation resembling stability and security is achieved only as long as US units make their daily and nightly trips outside the wire; should our forces depart -- or even pull back to any of the handful of obscenely big "Super FOBs," as they did under General Petraeus's predecessor, General Casey (who, after overseeing a stagnant and ineffective policy in Iraq, was made the current Army Chief of Staff) -- then I fear that the fragile bit of security and stability which we have achieved will simply crumble with little or no lag time or resistance.
For the short term, things are looking up, from what I've seen, and are heading in the right direction. Given more months or years, it is entirely possible that this country could be in a state resembling that of security and stability -- if still home to a very prominent US presence. If the US were to leave, even a year or two from now, though, I cannot see there being anything remotely resembling a positive outcome in the region.
Re-fighting 2003 (or even 2002), while great fun for some, is pretty close to the least productive thing that can be done. Though history is an extremely important learning tool, the situation here is what it is -- and, for the sake of Iraq (and its people), and of the US, we need to focus on where to go from here, not on things that simply cannot be changed.
The future will be difficult enough, without dwelling on the past.
The 'talk of the town,' as it were, here is the announcement made earlier this week by Muqtada al Sadr (through an aide) that the Mahdi Army (Jaish al Mahdi, or JAM) would be ordered to stand down for six months -- including stopping attacks on the coalition -- in order to be "rehabilitated." After their clash with their fellow Shi'a in the Badr Brigade (a rival, but one which happened to be wearing police uniforms at the time) in Karbala this last weekend -- resulting in a days-long battle that left many religious pilgrims dead and wounded -- the organization simply has too much of a black eye to accomplish, in its current form, what al Sadr wants -- which is, quite simply, more power and influence in the government and over the people.
Though Sadr has called for such cease-fires before, this one should be even more interesting, and should show us just how unified or, more likely, splintered the organization that once made up a cohesive JAM has become. Each time Sadr tries to exert his authority in such a high-profile way as this, he risks being shown as a powerless blowhard -- and, in my opinion, that reality will be clearly demonstrated this time, if it has not before. The son and grandson of iconic Shi'a figures, Sadr -- who lacks the educational and religious background (not to mention the intelligence) to be a true clerical leader here -- has long traded on his family name, while making inept move after inept move, and while losing more and more of his followers to splinter groups with more narrowly (and locally) focused aims.
Like I said, it should be interesting.
Keep checking in at http://www.jeffemanuel.com for updates. Jeff will be in Samarra and Baqubah next, with the 82nd Airborne and with the 3-1 Cavalry from the 25th Infantry Division. As always, these missions cannot happen without your support, so please help spread the word about these reports from Iraq to people you know who might be interested. Also, donations -- which serve to fund these operations 100% -- can be made at http://www.jeffemanuel.com.