Will the Real Dora Market Please Stand Up?

The commander of U.S. troops in Baghdad had frank words Thursday about past failures of Baghdad security plans. "They don't have any lasting effect," said Maj. Gen. Joseph Fil Jr., head of the First Cavalry Division and Multinational Division - Baghdad, "because if you don't control that area afterwards to keep insurgents out, our experience was sometimes it comes back worse than before. Frequently it does. The cycle is about six weeks." This time it'll be different, he says. "This one, the pace of the operation is deliberately measured by the ability to stand up security forces that can control the area afterwards. Go into these neighborhoods, get established, conduct clearing operation, as these control operations continue, that's when the other lines of operation, the economic line, the infrastructure line, the government line, repair the sewer systems, get businesses open again, that all becomes very important. I think it will be slower but it will be much more long lasting. The big spectacular operations before have caused the Iraqi people to be very suspicious of this," he said. "There is a sense of suspense in the air now, a sense of anticipation and expectation with the Iraqi people." The results, he said, won't be seen right away, but a month and even three months from now.

Doing this will take a lot of time, and a lot more troops, and the surge is starting to sound longer term every time another general talks about it. While most of the troops are still en route, Fil said, the change in approach is already having an effect in places like Baghdad's Dora neighborhood. "The Dora market right now has been cleaned out. It was run by thugs and insurgents, but it's coming back to life, it's cleaned up and its vibrant. I'd invite you all to go there. You'll see shopowners that are excited, shopowners that are pleased."

NEWSWEEK's Iraqi reporters went there the same day as Fil' remarks, and saw something entirely different, as happens so often in this war. The main Dora market now opens for only three hours in the morning, only a handful of food stalls and shops in what once was one of the city's busiest market places. It's forcibly been made a pedestrian mall, and everyone who enters is body-searched, to protect against suicide bombers. It's in what is now a Sunni area, and ID cards are checked by men in civilian dress, whenever police or military patrols are not at hand. Said Omar Taha, a civil engineer working for an American construction company, who fled Dora but still has relatives there, most of the shopkeepers are afraid to open except when troops are present in force. "One of the owners of those shops got kidnapped, ransomed and released and when he got out he said the kidnappers were asking about the rest of the shop owners. Another shop owner had an IED in front of his shop and now he closed it and moved, another was kidnapped and ransomed and then kidnapped again four days ago. I still can't understand how this happened with all the checkpoints in our neighborhood and all around it."

What General Fil may have had in mind is the Abu Disheer market in Dora, which is bustling and thriving--in what is now a segregated Shia quarter at the other end of Dora--although from time to time Sunni extremists lob mortars that way. That market is close to one of the headquarters of the extremist Shia militia, the Mahdi Army, and in weedy lots nearby, executed victims have long been a common find.

The implementation of this plan is dramatically different than the approach in recent years. General Casey's goal was to train up Iraqi forces as quickly as possible so U.S. forces could draw down; whenever possible, the American troops were concentrated in large rear bases, known as Forward Operating Bases, sallying forth as needed. Last year's wave of sectarian killing and an uncivil war changed all that. "I think there was a recognition that progress was not being made in a way and at a pace that was satisfactory," Fil said. The Bush administration turned to the architect of the military's troubled training program for Iraqi troops, General David Petraeus, bringing him back to replace Casey, just in time for the surge, and the Baghdad Security Plan, which the Iraqi government calls Fardh al Qanoon, "Enforce the Law".

To implement it, the military is quickly setting up a series of small bases throughout Baghdad--an approach it tried and then abandoned in 2003 when insurgent violence intensified. Now known as Joint Security Stations, these are typically company-sized bases with Iraqi army, police and American troops based together. Already there are 23 or 24 of them in the city, Fil said, along with another 50 combat outposts (COPs), fighting posts of varying sizes, and Gen. Fil says there will eventually be a hundred JSSs and COPs in Baghdad. "Soldiers will be out there in much smaller facilities among the people, this is what it's about, protecting and controlling populations, and you have to be among the people to do that," he said. "That's a major initiative, to establish these joint security stations and these combat outposts throughout the town, smaller -- is there a risk in that? Of course there is, anytime we're out in a neighborhood, the risk is greater, [but eventually] the risk is reduced because you're always there, instead of coming through every four hours after a long road march from your FOB, you're there 24/7. Some of these stations have been challenged, there's no doubt about it but they've been able to fight off these attacks, I've been very impressed, it is a concern and we are watching it closely, but so far the indicators are that they're going to do really well."

It might be what you'd call a radically old approach. General Petraeus himself has tried to set the tone of boots in the potholes, by highly publicized walks around Baghdad--with a phalanx of guards, of course--and even Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has done a couple walkabouts, in restive Ramadi in Anbar province, and in Baghdad -- though he stuck to a Shia neighborhood there. But how long can U.S. forces maintain such an intense presence? Even a few months will be a long time for U.S. troops to be scattered in small numbers at dozens of difficult places, a lot of opportunities for ambushes and roadside bombs, mortar strikes and suicide bombs. So far American casualties have stayed more or less constant, but if that changes, it may be hard for the military to stick to its guns. And Dora market may yet see its few working shops shuttered once again.