By Land and Air: A General's Tour

When you're the top American commander in Iraq, you have the clout to end a day trip with a long, looping helicopter tour of Baghdad, if that's what you feel like doing. And that's what Gen. David Petraeus felt like on Wednesday as a couple reporters tagged along in a second helicopter in his airborne entourage. Flying low as a defense against attacks, the city is just close enough to show some vibrancy and just distant enough to hide some of its deficiencies.

Soccer leagues are plentiful, and you see men in fluorescent uniform tops scrambling for the ball across bare dirt fields. You're close enough to see a few families still strolling around one of the capital's dilapidated amusement parks. The roads are busy, though not clogged, with motorists heading home at dinnertime. You can see green sewage covering some streets and trash and damaged buildings are apparent but the city--a great metropolis of millions of people and resplendent turquoise mosque domes--looks haggard but alive.

An aide says such flights are a frequent pick-me-up for the general at the end of a day, a chance to remind himself and others of the daily life that goes on despite war. It's a war that Petraeus is remaking according to his doctrine of counterinsurgency, and in the hours before the scenic trip back, he visited two dusty, fairly primitive Army bases where the theory is meeting reality. Close up, it's a more mixed and complicated picture of a hard fight, making some progress but facing shortfalls and the all-too-usual threats.

At Combat Outpost Cleary, just a few miles into the farmland southeast of Baghdad, Petraeus praises the soldiers for "carrying out counterinsurgency the way it's supposed to be." That means living in a small base close to the people instead of the town-size fortifications that U.S. forces have preferred since 2003. "You can't commute" to this duty, Petraeus booms to the enlisted men. It's about trying to build trust with locals, which in this area could translate into helping these farmers overcome a severe water shortage, as well as keeping Sunni vs. Shiite friction points quiet. Huddled over a map table in one of the base's old squat, stucco buildings, Petraeus and the local commanders repeatedly work two Iraqi officers into the conversation and stress to them their critical role--a living embodiment of a page right out of the doctrine.

Petraeus bounds about, touring the small rooms with holes for wiring chopped through the walls in a base set up just a few weeks ago. He awards soldiers with medallion coins, souvenirs that commanders use to reward troops and, near a couple flags outside the building, he swears in a soldier for his re-enlistment.

But he is also told of shortcomings in this unit in the Third Brigade Combat Team of the Third Infantry Division, one of the "surge" brigades sent in to boost troop levels. Their job is to intercept insurgents attempting to foster violence in Baghdad. But they do not have enough translators to talk to the locals. In some areas, Col. Wayne Grigsby Jr. tells Petraeus, they only have enough troops to disrupt the insurgents and not enough to control the area. Petraeus explains later that the "surge" is still getting into place. They only have about 65 percent of the needed translators and the additional troops won't all be in position for about another month.

With the local Iraqi commanders, he urges them to appeal to their own government for the equipment and soldiers they are supposed to be allotted.

After a short helicopter flight, Petraeus lands at Forward Operating Base Hammer. It was little more than bombed-out Iraqi military buildings and dirt before U.S. troops started building there two months ago. At this point, it's a tent city. Some of the insulated and ventilated tents link together for a puffy "Habitrail," as soldiers call them. Here Petraeus reviews maps on a large video screen and over another map table while officers review the battle space, the places where Sunnis are threatening Shiites and Shiites are relying on militias for protection. They describe bloodshed and threats to troops. Petraeus asks the reporters not to report on the main meeting, which covers specific locations and tactics. His demeanor is like a teacher taking his pupils through a set of problems. He asks questions about what they're hearing from local leaders and advises them of things they might look for in the future.

After a dinner in the tent dining hall--where soldiers get a hearty cafeteria selection of burgers, roast chicken, pasta and several flavors of ice cream for dessert--Petraeus heads out to the helicopters. He warns that the mission may well "get harder before it gets easier" and says the troops and equipment at bases like these are still building up. "The surge is not the surge yet," he says. The helicopters rev up and he climbs in for the flight over the capital and its millions or residents living their lives while Petraeus's strategy unfolds around them.