Almost every night in Baghdad, American artillery units blast shells the size of engine blocks into the date and citrus orchards of Dora Farms, targeting insurgent mortar teams. The concussion of the big guns can be felt even in the Green Zone, which lies nearly two miles away as a Blackhawk flies. U.S. warplanes regularly bomb the area; M1-A1 Abrams tanks hover at its edges and fire away with their deadly 120mm cannons at insurgents burying IEDs in the road. Some evenings, the sky over this part of southern Baghdad glows orange.
The carnage in Dora Farms commenced on a night four years ago this week—a night on which, some Pentagon planners hoped, the war in Iraq might both begin and end. On March 19, 2003, a pair of 2,000-pound bombs landed in Dora Farms, on the south bank of the Tigris River, just across from downtown Baghdad. A CIA informant had said Saddam would be sleeping in an underground bunker there. The "decapitation strike," as it was called, was aimed at achieving George W. Bush's main goal before the formal invasion even got underway. But Saddam escaped, and the war that began that night never really ended.
That Dora Farms is still being bombed by Americans four years later—though for very different reasons—is an inescapable symbol of how much has gone wrong in Iraq. More than two American soldiers have died, on average, on each of the war's first 1,460 days—at least 43 so far this month. And in Dora Farms and adjoining city neighborhoods, there is little to show for it. Al Qaeda rules the rural enclave at night, killing even marginally cooperative Sunnis. The orchards are largely untended, says farmer Jasim al Jubouri, because "there are no more young people in the area; most of them are either in Iraqi or American jails." The adjoining Dora neighborhood itself—once a patchwork of Sunni, Shia and Christian families—has almost completely segregated itself now in response to sectarian killings.
Back in Washington, the Bush administration is pleading with the newly Democratic-controlled Congress for more time to wage war. The administration is "surging" some 30,000 additional troops into Iraq, taking the total up to 160,000 or so by summer. With the widely admired Gen. David Petraeus in command of multinational forces in Iraq, President Bush says he's got both the right team and formula this time. But to a large extent Petraeus's plan is a do-over, with U.S. troops setting up small "joint security stations" and "combat outposts" in neighborhoods the U.S. Army once controlled but abandoned in 2003-04.
Residents of Dora in particular have heard much of this before. Three times since 2003, Dora has been pronounced under control—most recently last September, when it was the first area to benefit from a concerted new U.S. campaign to "clear, hold and build" neighborhoods in Baghdad one by one. The one difference is that, with more troops involved in Petraeus's Baghdad Security Plan, authorities say they'll "hold" a lot longer. "That was the problem—whenever we left, the terrorists just came back," says Brig. Qasim Atta, the Iraqi spokesman for the Petraeus plan. "This time they will stay until full stability is restored."
It's not clear that either the Iraqi or the American people have the stomach for what's ahead. Politicians on Capitol Hill—and the campaign trail—tend to talk of success in terms of weeks and months, while Petraeus and his officers are already discussing an extension of the surge to 2008. Iraqi residents of Dora know how long it could take. "Every now and then the Americans tell people it's OK to go back to the market, and when a couple shopkeepers go there, they get killed by snipers," says a Christian woman who lives near the main Dora market, and who was afraid to give her name. Dora Farms' main crop is no longer dates but "car bombs," adds Atta. And that isn't going to change any time soon.