Back from Iraq

I went to Iraq for one simple reason. I wanted to see for myself, and be able to convey to the American people, the real story from the battlefront in the Middle East. Equally important, though, was that I do everything I could to serve as a “voice for the voiceless,” providing those who are a part of this war, day in and day out — both Iraqi and American — with a platform from which to tell their story. Having been a part of the initial invasion in 2003, and having a vested interest in American success in Iraq, I wanted to employ my experience in investigating and reporting these things in a way which may not have been done before.

On this trip, I had the distinct honor of being embedded with a brand new Army unit. The 1st Squadron of the 1st Infantry Division’s 4th US Cavalry Brigade, from Fort Riley, Kansas, was created in January of 2006, and arrived in Iraq for this, its first combat tour, in February of 2007. As a result, the unit contains a disproportionately high number of soldiers (officer and enlisted) who are on their first combat tour of any kind; in fact, though they seem like seasoned professionals at this point, Privates with fewer than eighteen months in the Army abound in the unit’s platoons. They are operating on the front lines in Baghdad, and I felt in the mere days I was there like I saw them grow up even more right in front of me.

The soldiers of the 1-4 Cav (or “Quarter Cav,” as they are known) were generous enough to allow me to live with them at their Forward Operating Base (FOB) and at their Coalition Outpost (COP). I accompanied them around the clock on such missions as insurgent clearing operations, mounted and dismounted patrols, counter-IED missions, searches, raids, collaborative operations with the local sherda (Iraqi national police, or NPs), and seizures of High Value Individuals (HVIs). Just being back out in the field with the troops was remarkably motivating, and an altogether amazing experience. These young men truly are America’s finest, and it was an honor to be around them again for the all-too-brief period of time that I was there.

The squadron’s inexperienced nature has caused it to endure some bumps in the road while learning “on the fly” – especially from its mistakes. More difficult times doubtless lie ahead; however, the Squadron has also had numerous successes. The platoons work efficiently as a team, and carry out even such complex operations as raids and HVI seizures, which have in the past been almost solely the purview of extremely experienced Special Operations units, with such a degree of efficiency that they seem as though they have been doing it for years.

The Quarter Cav’s area of operations, a region of southwestern Baghdad known as East Rashid, is a microcosm of Iraq as a whole. Its diverse population includes Sunni, Shi’a, and Christians, and a good portion of its eastern neighborhoods are mixtures of at least two of the three. The western part of the district, though, is clearly defined along sectarian lines. The people in the north, predominantly Sunni, live in filth, fear, and squalor, and are suffering from a brutal influx of al Qaeda (AQI) terrorists. The people in the south, almost exclusively Shi’a, live in relative peace, security, and cleanliness. This area, known as Abu Dischir, though heavily populated by members of Muqtada al Sadr’s “Mahdi Army” (the Jaish al Mahdi, or JAM), is currently a model of coexistence between sectarians and coalition forces. The people there have decided not to allow their neighborhoods be home to the violence seen so many other places in Baghdad.

Fifty-plus insurgent and sectarian cells exist in Quarter Cav’s area of operations, and the unit has done very good work against them to this point. But given the ongoing incursion of AQI and JAM hardliners in the area, a very large flashpoint between these two western neighborhoods exists, and could be ignited at virtually any time. If and when that happens, the only question in Rashid – as it currently is in some other areas of Iraq – may be whether to put our soldiers in the middle of the fight to protect the civilians who are growing to trust, or to let these two sects, both of which are capable of extreme violence and brutality, wage war on each other in hopes that one or both will be fatally wounded.

The troops’ opinions on this situation, as well as on the war as a whole, are as varied as those of Americans at home. Views range from overt pessimism to a sincere desire to help the Iraqi people have a better life than before. “There’s not a single one of my soldiers,” an infantry captain told me, “who doesn’t look at the neighborhood we’re in, look at the children there, and not want to do whatever they can to give these kids as bright a future as possible. We want to finish this job, and we know we can do it.” Spending time in Iraqi neighborhoods with the Quarter Cav, I had a chance to be around many Iraqi families, both Shi’a and Sunni, and I saw firsthand how happy they were to see American soldiers on their streets, and to welcome them into their homes.

The American military is doing amazing work in many different areas in Iraq, both in rebuilding the country and in fighting the insurgency. The knowledge that we can win this fight appears to be shared by the vast majority of the soldiers in Iraq (and it was expressed by every one that I talked to). That is not to say that they take personal enjoyment in being there. As one soldier told me, “This place sucks. I’m exhausted, and I miss home.” Though such negative sentiments are common — especially abject displeasure at the fifteen-month tours recently foisted upon them — they should be taken at face value, not twisted to suit an anti-war agenda.

I arrived in Baghdad hoping to see many positive unreported stories, and I saw just that. This is not to say that everything is going well; for every two steps forward, the coalition seems to be taking one if not two steps backward in another area. On balance, I was encouraged, both by our soldiers, who are the best in the world, and by the Iraqi people I met, many of whom desperately long for freedom and safety, but know that they need our help at least in the near term. There are two real obstacles to this success, as seen both by myself and by the troops with whom I was privileged to speak. The first is the American and Iraqi governments, which must work within themselves and with each other to provide a positive, unified front, giving the troops what they need to accomplish the mission, and not giving the enemy the tools and propaganda to continue its fight against a far greater power. The second obstacle to success is the Iraqi people as a whole. “It’s easy to live as a coward,” one noncommissioned officer told me. “What has to happen here is that the Iraqi people have to take a chance, risk their lives, and stand up against al Qaeda and everybody else. Once they decide that they want freedom and peace, and want to work with us, then it will all be over.”

That is happening in Anbar Province, an area whose turnaround in the past six months has been nothing short of remarkable. It is happening in a somewhat different way in the Quarter Cav’s AO, in the district of Abu Dischir. Once the example set by these areas is followed by regular Iraqis in all of the other boroughs, quarters, and districts — once the Iraqi people, who are accustomed to being under the thumb of a tyrant, decide once and for all to stand up for themselves — then this war will be won, and al Qaeda, the JAM hardliners, and the other violent sectarians can be driven out. What the Iraqi people need more than anything else to push them toward making that decision, though, is a consistent, unified message, both from America and from their government, that they will be supported, with whatever it takes, and with no threats of early withdrawal.

Both the soldiers and the Iraqis have spoken loud and clear: the political games must stop. A commitment must be made, either to victory or to withdrawal, and both sides will have to live with the consequences if the wrong choice is made. At the end of the day, Americans can, in the short term, simply click off their television sets and forget about the situation in Iraq. For those families, for those children, who are living there, no such option is possible. They have to live forever with the consequences of our actions and decisions. For their sake, let us make the right ones.