Newsweek: Early report from Iraq surge

If Col. Don Farris hoped to score points on his visit to Charlie Company, he was out of luck. He brought a message from the relative safety of brigade headquarters in At Taji, north of Baghdad, to the troops at Patrol Base Apache in Adhamiya, one of the deadliest neighborhoods in the capital. We have to get out there on foot, he told the grunts—that's how we're going to win over the locals and get to know what's really going on: foot patrols. "F--- that," more than a few of the troops muttered as he spoke. The soldier they call Dragonslayer retreated to his bunk to sit staring at his stuffed toy dragon; he's been carrying it on missions lately, ignoring the worried glances he gets from his buddies. Even one of the most gung-ho men in the unit, a Miamian known affectionately as GI Jew, didn't buy the pep talk. "There's no way that's happening," he said, almost loud enough for the colonel to hear.

Nevertheless, Charlie Company is still obeying orders—after a fashion. Its soldiers have gone out on dismounted patrols, but with the heavy firepower of their gun trucks rumbling along right behind them. They couldn't go unprotected, says Pfc. Daniel Agami: "Walk out of here in the middle of the day without enough firepower and you have to retreat? Guess what, your whole platoon is f---ed."

Yet without old-fashioned, unescorted foot patrols the Baghdad Security Plan—the surge—is almost certainly doomed. It's not enough that body counts are down, at least for now. The plan depends on U.S. and Iraqi troops getting out on the streets to win civilians' trust and cooperation and make the city safe enough for real reconstruction, which in turn would create jobs and give ordinary Iraqis something worth defending against the insurgents and death squads. At present, though, most parts of the capital are still waiting for reinforcements, and some areas won't reach full strength until June. Adhamiya is getting maximum priority, with an entire Iraqi brigade and most of an American battalion already deployed, billets full. This was the part of town where Saddam Hussein last dared to go out in public before he went underground in April 2003, and it has been a hotbed of the Sunni insurgency ever since. The rest of the city won't be secure until places like Adhamiya are under control.

Charlie Company is there to help the Iraqis get it done. Its soldiers may not like doing foot patrols, but they're proud of the unit they belong to. Of seven members who have been killed since this tour began last fall, one is now up for a congressional Medal of Honor. Pfc Ross McGinnis was riding as gunner in a Humvee last December when a grenade landed in the vehicle. He threw himself onto it, giving up his own life for his four crewmates. "Any other outfit would have lost 20 or 30 guys by now instead of seven," says Sergeant Jay—Robert Johnson, a muscular, heavily tattooed 27-year-old from South Boston who volunteered for this tour, his second in Iraq. "That's how switched-on we are." He's a Military Transition Team (MiTT) adviser, training Iraqi troops to take over from U.S. forces, and like most Charlie Company members he believes in the mission. "It's night and day compared to before," he says of the Iraqi Army this time around. "They're still not up to our standards, but it makes you feel a little bit better about getting out of here on time." The Iraqi Police are a different matter. "The IPs, they're all militias," he says. "You can keep them all. But the Army is all right."

The troops he works with belong to the 2nd Brigade, 6th Iraqi Army division. They're rated "combat ready," among the best in the country. "I know if we pulled out now, they could carry on," says the brigade commander's U.S. adviser, Lt. Col. Edward Taylor. The Iraqi brigade maintains 50 checkpoints, most of them at the edge of Adhamiya, to keep Shiite death squads out and Sunni insurgents in. At night they go on joint patrols with the Americans to round up suspected insurgents. Iraqis take the lead knocking on doors now, especially when entering sensitive places like local mosques. As a result of their efforts, Adhamiya's Brigade Internment Facility is filled to overflowing, like practically every other jail in Baghdad.

Not everyone agrees that the brigade deserves such high marks. One high-ranking intelligence officer with the 2/6, a Sunni speaking anonymously because he's not authorized to talk to the press, claims that three of the brigade's four battalions are 60 to 70 percent infiltrated by Mahdi Army militiamen. "Our brigade took 270 prisoners out of Adhamiya so far," he adds. "And how many do you think there was any proof [of insurgent affiliation]? Maybe 20, 25. The others were picked up because they were Sunnis. So how many new enemies have we made so far?" Lt. Col. Taylor says he's heard the militia allegations, but he thinks they're overblown. A lot of Iraqi soldiers may sympathize with the Mahdi Army, he says, but that doesn't make them members.

Nothing seems to be helping Adhamiya yet. Gen. George W. Casey Jr., then the U.S. commander in Iraq, visited the district last September and promised to restore public services. But municipal workers don't dare go anywhere near it, and the Shia-dominated government doesn't seem to care. As a result, Adhamiya's No. 1 job-creation program is the insurgency. One of the best paying jobs in the district is planting IEDs; U.S. and Iraqi intelligence sources say the insurgents give $600 for each placement. A child can earn $100 by successfully lobbing a single grenade into a Humvee. That was how McGinnis died, and it happened to another Charlie Company member just two days into the surge.

No one has yet solved the chicken-and-egg conundrum of security and development. The 2/6 Brigade's civil-affairs officer is Maj. Ali Jabr, a professional soldier who once served in Saddam's Army. Not long ago he spent two weeks trying to set up a meeting with his American counterpart on the 82nd's 2nd Brigade combat team. When they finally got together, as Jabr tells it: "I said, 'What have you done?' He said, 'We painted a school.' I said, 'What else?' He said, 'That's pretty much it.' I said, 'This is no way to fight an insurgency, by painting a school.' I had some ideas. I said, 'Build a sewer, get the Ministry of Finance involved, get the Ministry of Electricity, keep [the locals] busy, keep them away from the insurgency.' He said, 'These are great ideas.' I said, 'Captain, talking is going to get us nowhere. We need to do things'."

Suddenly the major's story was interrupted—his chair collapsed into a dozen pieces for no apparent reason, spilling him on the floor. He picked himself up, saying he's tried in vain to get in touch with the U.S. officer ever since that meeting. "Where can I find this captain?" he asked. "Where can I find this Colonel Farris?" Apparently more than Charlie Company needed the colonel's pep talk.