Finally, a Focus on Civilians

"Can you tell them to put down their flags?" pleaded the young ophthalmologist, still in his lab coat from his office nearby. I was in the throng of Iraqis--nervous, confused, exultant--as they watched U.S. Marines ride into Baghdad on April 9, 2003. The Stars and Stripes flying from the Humvee antennae were so small I hadn't noticed them. To the Iraqis, though, they were a foreign affront. "We don't want to replace one dictator for another," the doctor said. He stepped into the street to shout toward the Marines, but the engines of the incoming column drowned out his voice.

Most of what we needed to know about this country's onslaught of resistance, terrorism and despair was on display in the Iraqi anxiety of those early days. But the cues were overshadowed by America's focus on symbols, politics or perceived enemies. One early portent came in the rampant--and predictable--looting that began immediately, and which U.S. forces failed to stop. About the only place to maintain order was the Shiite-dominated slum known as Saddam Hussein City, renamed Sadr City within hours. There, legions of organized, friendly gunmen, later known as the Mahdi Army, did everything from direct traffic to show off for reporters the foreign Arabs they had detained for beatings and interrogation--also a shape of things to come. American leaders downplayed the chaos, but much later, a low-level military spokesman, straightening up after a press conference, told me why troops did almost nothing to intervene. Their first priority was to defeat the enemy. Second was protecting themselves. The Iraqis came third.

That's the conventional way to fight a war, but it didn't work. Now American commanders and soldiers, made savvy by repeat tours, have reversed the order and put the Iraqis first. As one of the longest-serving U.S. reporters in Iraq--I've been based here since 2003, first with Cox Newspapers and, since May, with NEWSWEEK--I have witnessed the shifting priorities and can only hope the new strategy has not come too late.

The consequences of the initial approach are stark, bloody and unforgettable. They were apparent in the sad and haunted looks of Iraqis we interviewed for this five-year milestone: A taxi driver so demoralized by the carnage he hopes the Americans leave and an autocrat takes control, and a businessman-turned-refugee recounting how a family haggled for a father's life.

I don't know if we'll ever know how many innocent Iraqis died in the early days, as America pressed its single-minded hunt for Saddam Hussein. There were at least two misguided "decapitation" airstrikes during the invasion that took many civilian lives, including a family whose house was pulverized by multiple 500-pound bombs. In July 2003, troops cordoned off the ritzy Mansour district for yet another mistaken tip on Saddam's whereabouts. They fired at several people doing nothing more than moving about their neighborhood. Seventy-four year old Clementine al-Maktabi was killed with her two sons, one a translator for U.S. troops, as they drove to church--a routine Sunday activity for many Mansour Christians that clearly wasn't considered by the raid planners. The Army took al-Maktabi to a military hospital where she soon died, leaving her brother to spend months fighting to locate and receive her body. He showed me the U.S. death certificate. It identified the elderly matron as "Enemy X15." (In the end of course, they caught Saddam amid great fanfare, and it had almost no long-term positive effect on anything.)

These so-called "escalation of force" incidents--Iraqis killed by nervous troops and contractors on roads, checkpoints or in house raids--seemed ubiquitous. Walking through a park to talk to picnickers, I'd come across a young woman with a deep facial scar who shyly recounted being shot by U.S. troops in traffic. I called the head of the Iraqi basketball league for a light feature (one of those good-news stories), and he would answer from his hospital bed, recovering from U.S. fire on the airport road. The referee in the seat next to him lost a leg.

Mass terrorist bombings caused the greatest death, and by the summer of 2004 the carnage was beyond description. My translator and I would go to a hospital looking for victims of the day's blast, and an orderly would accidentally take us to one of the wounded from the day before. "Sorry," I'd feebly explain, "But we need one from today." I recall, as the mayhem turned routine, interviewing a doctor in the Yarmouk Hospital emergency room while a janitor absent-mindedly squeegeed bloody water over our shoes in his rote effort at cleanliness. I learned how to approach the doors of the refrigerated morgues to count the bodies without drawing hostility from the families shrieking with grief.

Of course, my Iraqi staff and friends lost loved ones so often that, I'm ashamed to say, I began avoiding personal conversations because I felt so helpless trying to console them. I guess caring less was my own act of denial. Fortunately five of my former translators have prevailed, at least by Iraqi standards. They safely fled to California, Kuwait, Canada, Sweden and Syria.

American officials tried to marginalize the Iraqi experience during much of the war. Former administrator Paul Bremer used to acknowledge horrific attacks by saying there would be "good days and bad days." Administration boosters would accuse reporters of focusing too much on the violence. Military spokesmen withheld statistics on attacks and casualties, as if the war were their own private club. Or they told us, absurdly, to ask Iraqi officials because they were in charge (when we did that, U.S. spokesmen sometimes claimed militia quislings in the government were exaggerating the figures). Back home, administration opponents would write off the violence as inevitable, just "Iraqis killing each other." Rather, it was--and still is--mostly armed groups killing noncombatants. It's the Sunni car bomber incinerating Shiite marketgoers, followed by Shiite militias murdering random Sunnis who are unrelated to the bombing.

Iraqis noticed the distance between them and the Americans. One translator, a perceptive man who sympathized with U.S. troops, told me they exuded fear and helplessness in their city-size fortresses. Frequently, Iraqis told me they wanted to notify soldiers about dangers in their neighborhoods but had no way to reach them.

Denial and misunderstanding cost American lives, as well. As the insurgency grew, the wide popular support for the "resistance" was obvious. In that first summer, I could go to Fallujah or western Baghdad and meet with fighters in their apartments and homes while neighbors stopped by and their kids played around us. Still, officials discounted the increasingly deadly attacks as signs of insurgent "desperation." Soldiers rode around vulnerable in their canvas-covered Humvees. Recently, a commander at the Army's counterinsurgency academy reminded me that the school didn't open until late 2005 because the Army spent nearly two years debating whether there even was an insurgency. Now attendance is required for incoming combat officers.

Commanders are turning the priorities around. Led by Gen. David Petraeus--a few others like Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli had emphasized it before from less powerful posts--the military now says that protecting the Iraqis comes first. Many soldiers have left the big bases to live in houses where Iraqis, as I saw recently south of Baghdad, can invite themselves in with little more than a brief pat-down. In Hawija, a longtime incubator of insurgency, troops discussed ways they could safely let motorists closer to their convoys so as to not anger people by tying up traffic. While detentions still pull in too many innocents and sew hatred, last month I watched young soldiers in Arab Jabour break into a spontaneous debate about the evidence they had on a prisoner seated cuffed and quiet before them. They let him go the next morning after running the case past an informant. Their young Iraqi interpreter had touched off the discussion when he told them he hated detaining people "whether he is terrorist or not."

Interpreters are a higher priority these days, too. In the old days, I saw troops trying to warn residents of an impending curfew, unaware that their interpreter was just making small talk because he didn't know what the English word "curfew" meant until he asked me. On the ground, soldiers say they're taking a new approach to local residents because they realize that a happier, safer populace will kill fewer Americans and might stabilize the country. They see that giving safe passage for an enemy to come talk to them can yield more security than conducting sweeping raids.

The violence has dropped to, roughly, early-2005 levels--as a more open military is now willing to show in more timely charts. Mind you, that's down compared to the anarchic butchery of 2006 and early 2007--when gunmen in fleets of SUVs would block streets and kidnap dozens of workers at a time from their offices. And it has come in large part because many militias have chosen ceasefires as a political tactic. But that's part of counterinsurgency, too. Some point out that the troop "surge" hasn't hastened the day when all U.S. forces can go home or fixed the geopolitical mess created by an unstable Iraq. But the decrease translates into several hundred, perhaps a couple thousand, fewer Iraqis dying or maimed each month than before; fewer shrieking families and haunted stares. (For Western reporters, since people ask about that, it means we don't worry as much about our staff getting killed on the way to work, that we'll get stopped by militias posing as police or caught by chance in a large-scale attack on some sectarian target. But kidnappings are still a serious threat.)

The fact that more Iraqis get a chance at life matters in human terms alone and, if there's any moral component to foreign policy, should be factored into whatever decisions are made now. Iraqis, like any people, chafe at occupation and many want a U.S. pullout. But most also say it should not happen until America has provided for their security and prosperity. After all, they didn't ask to be invaded. And some just want a withdrawal because they believe their faction can seize control. Whatever America does, Iraqis say, don't neglect their needs. Don't sacrifice their safety for domestic politics or some power struggle with Iran.

Addressing those Iraqi aspirations and impulses will take clear-eyed realism, starting with recognition that the recent gains face great threats. As American reconstruction money dwindles, basic services like electricity and water are still dismal. An increase in bombings this month has inspired renewed fear. And when an explosion killed five American soldiers walking in Mansour this month, it struck a key tactic of the Petraeus doctrine. Walking lets soldiers talk to Iraqis, learn about their needs and collect tips about who might cause trouble. I'm not sure how to apply American concepts of "success" to the future of Iraq, and I think most people here just hope to salvage some normalcy. But if the bombers chase soldiers back into their armored vehicles to view Iraq through thick bulletproof glass, everyone loses.