Baghdad—“In the last 48 hours our route has not had many IEDs,” Lieutenant Lao explains to his soldiers, a dozen standing next to his humvee. “But there has been a lot of small arms fire and grenades.”

“But,” in Iraq, is never good. The lieutenant’s words were calm, but his facial muscles were tight. Not surprising since we’re headed into one of Baghdad’s most dangerous neighborhoods.

Three years ago—more than one year after the “shock and awe” invasion of Iraq—al-Jazeera reported: “In the crowded and winding streets of al-Adhamiya, a 1000-year-old Sunni locality of Baghdad, explosions from mortars and grenades and long volleys of machine gun fire break out every half hour. U.S. tanks rumble through narrow alleys, helicopters circle and fire on intersections with Gatling guns, and snipers scramble across the rooftops.”

“Let’s roll,” Lieutenant Lao says, and the two humvees and two trucks of the 3rd Platoon, 510th Sapper Company, 20th Engineer Battalion rumble out of Camp Victory and into Baghdad. My first impressions of the city: Children mostly ignore our convoy, adults sneak fleeting glances. Bricks and garbage are scattered about, yet hardly a pothole exists on the almost deserted thoroughfare. Houses with peeling paint hide behind high concrete walls and heavy gates as their elegant palm trees stretch and spread into the clear blue sky. Lots of stores but only a small number are open. Iraqi checkpoints every few miles that the military vehicles roar past while the occasional civilian car yields nervously. Without the heavy thunder of our military vehicles, there would be silence. An ominous lack of sound. Sometimes noise is good.


Yesterday, at his first press conference since becoming the commanding general of foreign forces in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus said sorrowfully: “When I left [Iraq] 17 months ago, there certainly was not the kind of emptiness in some of the neighborhoods of Baghdad.” He added that he was taken aback by what he saw—or did not see—when driving through al-Adhamiya.

We turn onto a narrow side street. The closeness of the buildings is unnerving; the sidewalks are deserted. “Electrical wires!” screams the lieutenant. The driver whips the humvee around three wires hanging from an overhead line. Ahead a lone man limps on crutches. In the distance, a U.S. helicopter flies near a column of thick black smoke. Helicopters travel in pairs, yet I see only one.

Our convoy of four vehicles squeezes into a heavily guarded compound—military vehicles packed tight, construction materials stacked high, American soldiers and Iraqi police walking briskly. It’s the al-Adhamiya police station, home to a Joint Security Station that the U.S. military is building. At the far end of the blocked-off road and beyond the perimeter barricades is a colorful mosque. Its golden roof shimmers in the bright noon sun. The other buildings surrounding the compound are drab gray and pockmarked from gunfire.

Four years after the invasion, little has changed in al al-Adhamiya, except its dangerous streets are no longer crowded. Dangerous does not require crowded. In those same four years, much has changed for the United States: our war has traveled from overwhelming victory to bloody stalemate. Now the U.S. troops surge, about 30,000 with three-quarters headed for the convulsing capital of Baghdad. This is probably America’s last chance in Iraq.

It’s not unheard that stunning success in war leads to dismal failure in the next war. The roots of our national failure in Vietnam were probably laid in our victory in World War II. What is unusual about Iraq is that the next war came immediately—an asymmetrical war with small groups of guerrillas carrying out pinpoint attacks and disappearing into the urban landscape, evading, frustrating the massive firepower and technology of the world’s most powerful military. Seldom has a spectacular battlefield victory evaporated so quickly.

Initially, the Bush administration denied an insurgency existed, blaming common criminals and disgruntled Saddamists for the upswing in violence. When sectarian violence exploded, the administration denied there was a civil war. Its “stay the course” mantra was a plea to continue denying reality. Yet using conventional troops to pursue a burgeoning, elusive insurgency and conventional tactics to battle an infectious civil war are foolhardy. Four years of wrong strategy has Baghdad teetering on the brink of some ghastly Middle Eastern Dante’s Hell.

Inside the bustling compound of the al-Adhamiya police station, Staff Sergeant Cesar Ferrer growls out orders: set up the cots out back under the tin roof, get the tools and the MREs out of the vehicles, eat your chow, and then get to work.

“I got out of the Army,” the stocky sergeant, who was born in Colombia, tells me in a surprising gentle voice. “I had to come back. Why? The guys! I really missed them.” He thinks for a minute then says, “Half of them are from broken families; I’m a father figure to them.”

Sound pulsates throughout the compound. Nails hammering into walls, drills humming, a saw slicing through a sheet of plywood, old desks and filing cabinets banging their way out of the building as a half-dozen bombed and crashed Iraqi police vehicles are towed out of the compound. Smoke from burning trash irritates eyes, itches throats. Amid all the racket and hacking, soldiers attempt to sleep, since they will spend their night erecting the high security walls.

Although trained as combat engineers to clear minefields, dig tank trenches, and blow up bunkers, the soldiers of the 510th Sapper Company are doing basic construction work. “That’s today’s Army,” Sergeant Ferrer cracks. With a smaller military, and one enmeshed in a nasty irregular war, soldiers are being cross-trained, sometimes simply thrown into new jobs. Armor units are performing infantry work, artillery companies are doing civil affairs, and former bunker busters are installing electrical lights. The Sappers work for a few days at a new Joint Security Station wiring fixtures, building walls, doing whatever needs to be done, then they move on to another one.

“This is your project,” Sergeant Ferrer patiently yet firmly tells a young soldier. “I will be here if you have any questions, but it’s your baby.” After the soldier leaves, the sergeant leans toward me and says, “It’s important to help develop them.” His eyes grow intense: “I love teaching these guys.”

A sergeant, a father, a teacher, Cesar Ferrer balances each role naturally, shifting from one to the other quickly —a crucial asset for a military trained for conventional conflict but fighting an unconventional war, a military struggling to overcome four years of wrong strategy as it attempts to forge a new one.

General Petraeus, an early critic of the military’s conventional strategy and now the U.S. commander in Iraq, has a plan that borrows heavily from classical counterinsurgency theory. He wants to shift the primary focus from killing insurgents to winning the support of the people. Defeating an entrenched insurgency requires the active support of the populace. American troops need to live closer to the people, in their neighborhoods. “Iraqi and coalition forces will not just clear neighborhoods,” he says. “They will also hold them to facilitate the build phase of the operation and help Baghdad’s residents realize aspirations beyond survival.” With neighborhoods secure, he hopes government services can be restored, commerce will return, public confidence will grow, and Iraq will evolve into a stable and prosperous country.

Crucial for implementing the plan are the Joint Security Stations. Nearly 40 will be built in Baghdad and will be manned by both Iraqis and Americans. They will have satellite combat outposts, establish neighborhood checkpoints, guard marketplaces, and conduct local patrols.

“We’ve been here only three days,” says Captain Gillman of the al-Adhamiya Joint Security Station. “Our job will be to co-ordinate between Iraqi police and Iraqi army and coalition forces,” he says, adding that each will have a desk in the operations room. The captain invites me back next month, “when we’re fully operational.”

As night descends upon al-Adhamiya, new sounds come out—an exploding grenade, shrapnel peppering the tin roof above our heads. Numerous booms rattle the neighborhood—probably IEDs spreading horror. Small arms fire, cracking single shots and multiple round bursts. Morning reveille is a mortar round crashing on to the edge of the compound. The streets of al-Adhamiya may be empty, but the neighborhood air is full of sounds.

Today will bring more sounds of construction, as General Petraeus’s plan to subdue the insurgents continues to be built. But tonight will bring the sounds of another plan. I will return next month and listen to the sounds. For four years al-Adhamiya has not changed, but maybe it’s not lost. I will let you know what I hear.

Stewart Nusbaumer is embedded with Army and Marine units in Iraq.