Pastor's Page
By Fr. George Welzbacher
September 28, 2008

   Last Sunday's New York Times offered a detailed updating on the success, the astonishing success, of "The SURGE', General David H. Petraeus' and General Jack Keane's bold new plan for victory, a plan opposed by almost everyone of prominence in our government but decisively backed by President Bush. That the Petraeus-Keane plan has worked is attested by many, including Dexter Flkins, a veteran reporter for the Times who recently returned to Iraq after an absence of two years. His depiction of the contrast between the Iraq of 2006 and the Iraq that is emerging, albeit precariously, today is striking.   Extensively abridged to accommodate our restrictions of space, here is his report, providing a lengthy "footnote," if you will, to last week's Pastor's Page.
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Back in Iraq, Jarred by The Calm
   By: Dexter Filkins
   From: The New York Times
   Date: September 21, 2008

    At first, I didn't recognize the place.
    On Karada Mariam, a street that runs over the Tigris River toward the Green Zone .... two kebab places blown up by suicide bombers in 2006 were crammed with customers. Farther up the street was Pizza Napoli, the Italian place shut down in 2006; it, too, was open for business.       And I'd forgotten altogether Abu Nashwan's Wine Shop boarded up when the black-suited militiamen of the Mahdi Army had threatened to kill its owners. There it was, flung open to the world. 
   Two years ago, when I last stayed in Baghdad, Karada Mariam was like the whole of the city; shuttered, shattered, broken and dead.
   Abu Nwas Park-I didn't recognize that, either. By the time I had left the country in August, 2006, the two-mile stretch of riverside park was a grim, spooky, deserted place, a symbol for the dying city that Baghdad had become.
   These days the same park is filled with people: families with children, women in jeans, women walking alone. Even the nighttime, when Iraqis used to cower inside their homes, no longer scares them. I can hear their laughter wafting from the park. At sundown the other day I had to weave my way through perhaps 2,000 people. It was an astonishing, beautiful scene-impossible, incomprehensible, only months ago.
   When I left Baghdad two years ago, the nation's social fabric seemed too shredded to ever come together again. The very worst had lost its power to shock. To return now is to be jarred in the oddest way possible: by the normal, by the pleasant, even by hope....
   There are plenty of reasons why this peace may only amount to a cease-fire, fragile and reversible.    The "surge" of American troops is over. The Iraqis are moving to take their country back; yet they wonder what might happen when the Americans' restraining presence is gone....
   Politics in Iraq remains frozen in sectarian stalemate, the country's leaders cannot even agree to set a date for provincial elections, which might hand power to groups that never had it before. The mountain of oil money, piled ever higher by record oil prices, may become another reason to spill blood.
   But if this is not peace, it is not war, either-at least not the war I knew. When I left Iraq in the summer of 2006, after living three and a half years here following the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime, I believed that evil had triumphed, and that it would be many years before it might b estopped. Iraq, filled with so many people living so close together, nuturing dark and unknowable grievances, seemed destinedfor a ghastly unraveling.
   And now, in the late summer of 2008, comes the calm. Violence has dropped by as much as 90 percent. A handful of the five million Iraqis who fled their homes-one sixth of all Iraqis-are beginning to return. The mornings, once punctuated by the sounds of exploding bombs, are still. Is it possible that the rage, the thirst for revenge, the sectarian furies, have begun to fade? That Iraqis have been exhausted and frightened by what they have seen?
   "We are normal people, ordinary people, like people everywhere," Aziz at-Sajedi said to me the other day, as we sat on a park bench in Sadr City, only recently freed from thegrip of the Mahdi Army. The park was just a small patch of bare ground with a couple of swing sets; it didn't even have a name, yet it was filled to the bursting. " We want what everyone else wants in this world," he said.
   Everything here seems to be standing on its head. Propaganda posters, which used to celebrate the deaths of American soldiers, now call on Iraqis to turn over the triggermen of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and the Mahdi Army.  "THERE IS NOWHERE FOR YOU TO HIDE," a billboard warns in Arabic, displaying a set of peering, knowing eyes. I saw one such poster in Adamiyah, a Sunni neighborhood that two years ago was under the complete control of Al Qaeda. Sunni insurgents-guys who were willing to take on the Qaeda gunmen-are now on the American payroll, keeping the peace at ragtag little checkpointsvfor $300 a month....
   As for the Americans, they are still here, of course, but standing ever more in the background. Early this month, I joined a convoy carrying Tariq al-Ha-shemi, one of Iraq's vice presidents. Hurtling through Baghdad at high speed, we came upon a caravan of American Humvees. I waited for Mr. Hashemi and his men to slow down, but the Iraqis-guns bristling, sirens wailing-barreled past. The Americans hurriedly pulled over and made way. Never in three and a half years in Iraq did I see anything like that.
   The other day I rode in a helicopter to Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, the Wyoming-size slice of desert west of Bagitdad. Two years ago, 30 marines and soldiers were dying there every month. In 2005, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia declared Anbar the seat of its "caliphate." Since then violence in Anbar has plummeted. Al Qaeda has been decimated. I was coming in for a ceremony unimaginable until recently, to mark the handover of responsibility for security to the Iraqi Army and police.
   Standing in the middle of the downtown, I found myself disoriented. I had been here before-I was certain-but still I couldn't recognize the place Two summers ago, when I'd last been in Ramadi, the downtown lay in ruins. Only one building stood then, Anbar provincial government center, and the Americans were holding onto it at all costs. For hundreds of yards in every direction, everything was destroyed, streets, buildings, cars, even the rubble had been ground to dust. Ramadi looked like Dresden, or Grozny, or some other obliterated city. Insurgents attacked every day.
   And then, suddenly, I realized: I was standing in front of the government center itself. It was sporting a fresh concrete facade, which had been painted off-white with brownish trim. Over the entrance hung a giant official seal of Anbar Province. The road where I stood had been recently paved; it was black and smooth. The rubble had been cleared away. American marines were walking about, WITHOUT helmets or flak jackets or even guns.
   In the crowd, I saw a face I recognized. It was Mowaffak al-Rubaie, Iraq's national security advisor. It had been a long time since I'd seen him. Mr. Rubaie is a warm, garrulous man, a neurologist who spent years in London before returning to Iraq. But he is also a Shiite, and a member of Iraqs Shiite-led government....
   Anbar Province is almost entirely Sunni.
   As Mr. Rubaie made his way through the crowd, I noticed he was with..... Brig. Gen. Murdi Moshhen al-Dulalmi, the Iraqi Army officer taking control of the province - a Sunni. The sun was blinding, but Mr. Rubaie was wearing sunglasses, and finally he spotted me.
   "What on earth are you doing here?" he asked over the crowd.
   I might have asked him the same thing....
   In Iraq, the calm is very fragile. The arrangements that keep the peace here are, by their nature, extremely tentative. They could come apart overnight. You don't have to be a pessimist to recognize that.
   I got a good sense of the fragility the other night in Adamiyah, the big Sunni neighborhood in northern Baghdad. I was standing on Al Camp Street as a wedding procession, made up of perhaps 25 cars, suddenly turned my way.
   An Iraqi bride and groom sat in the back seat of the lead sedan, a black Mercedes-Benz, while a mass of revelers danced and tooted their homs. Two years ago, like the scene in Abu Nawas park, such a sight was inconceivable.
   Spotting me, an American in ordinary clothes, the wedding train halted, with the music and the dancing carrying on. The groom, dressed in a dark suit, climbed out of the Mercedes, leaving his bride in flowing whites and heavy rouge, inside.
   "It's wonderful, wonderful," said the groom, Yassin Razzaq, 25, shaking my hand. And then Mr. Razzaq pointed to a group of plainclothes Iraqi gunmen who had gathered at the roadside to watch. "It's all thanks to them."
   The "them" Mr. Razzaq was referring to were the members of the local Awakening Council, the name given to the Sunnis, many of them former insurgents, who now keep the peace in Iraq's Sunni neighborhoods.
    "Did you hear that--did you hear what he said?" asked Abu Safa Al-Tikriti, a mustachioed former officer in Saddam Hussein's army and a member of the tribe that dominates the dictator's hometown. "Without us, there would be chaos. "
   Chaos, indeed. Prime Minister Nuri Kamat at-Maliki has expressed an intention to dismantle the Awakening Councils, which employ about 100,000 men, most of them Sunnis. Mr. Maliki doesn't like the idea of paying people who used to be shooting at him. But many American and Iraqi officials worry that firring these men would drive them underground, and back to the gun....
   For obvious reasons, almost no one in Baghdad seems willing to predict the future anymore. Ask anyone, and you are likely to get to the all-purpose Arabic expression, "Insha'Allah" -"God willing." Everyone, it seems, is trying to enjoy the calm while it lasts.
   But if people here do not want to talk about the future, they still have to plan for it.
   Sadiya Salman's four sons and their families, for instance, returned home to Adamiyah recently after two years away. I found them crowded into their small, dimly-lit home in Zhrawaya, Adamiyah's only Shiite neighborhood.
   Like so many other of Baghdad's mixed neighborhoods, Zhrawaya was the scene of terrifying sectarian violence in 2006 and 2007. As Shiites in predominantly Sunni Adamiyah, the Salman brothers-Wajdi, Luay, Rushdi and Feraz----considered themselves likely targets.
   Then came the men in black masks one day, who spray-painted a warning on the wall: "Rafida," Arabic for "rejectionist." It is a derogatory word that some militant Sunnis use for Shiites.
   And so the brothers left, taking their wives and children with them, 13 in all. Ms. Salman, an intense and energetic woman of 68 years, stayed behind with her four daughters; as a female, she felt safe....
    Every other Shiite family also fled Zhrawaya; it is still largely empty. To slow the death squads, the Americans built a two-mile-long cement wall around the outskirts of her neighborhood. It's 20 feet high and painted baby blue. It gives the neighborhood a bleak and claustrophobic feel.
   In the 24 months that her sons were gone, Ms. Saiman said that she rarely ventured outside. The exception, she said, was when she saw American soldiers.
   "Oh I love THEM," Ms. Saiman said, brightening in her darkened house, "I always knew I was safe with THEM!"
   With life returning to normal in Adamiyah, the Salman brothers and their families recently returned.
   "We are the first Shia to come back," Feraz said. "The rest of the families are still too afraid."
   Life is difficult; during the day, the temperature soars well above 120 degrees. For most of the day there is no electricity. When the sun goes down, the interior of the Salman house goes dark.
   Yet for all the hardship endured by the Salmans, they appear to have lost neither their generosity nor their sense of grace. As I sat in their darkened apartment, Zaineb, one of Ms. Saiman's daughters, served me tea. Her son Luay shone a flashlight over my shoulder for well over an hour while I took notes. As I talked and scribbled, another son, Rushdi, stood behind me, waving a fan to keep me cool....
   In August 2008, before I came back to Iraq, I visited General Ray Odierno in his office at the Pentagon. As the deputy commander in Iraq from late 2006 to early 2008, General Odierno had helped execute the buildup of American troops that has helped quell the violence.   When we met, he was preparing to assume command of the American forces here taking over for General David H. Petraeus....
   When he returned to Iraq in late 2006, General Odierno concluded that the American project in Iraq was headed for defeat. The American officers whom he was replacing had reached the same conclusion. "I knew that IF we continued the way that we were, then we were NOT going to be successful," he said.
   Hence the troop increase. At its most basic level, General Odierno explained, the premise of this "surge" was that ordinary Iraqis didn't want the violence. That is, that the chaos in Iraq was being driven by small groups of killers, principally those of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, who, by murdering Shiite civilians in huge car and suicide bomb attacks, were driving ordinary Iraqis into the arms of Shiite death squads and the Mahdi Army.  If that dynamic could be broken, ordinary Iraqis would stop relying on militias to protect them. Something approaching normalcy might return.
   "We believed that the majority of the Iraqi people wanted to move forward, but you had these small groups that didn't," General Odierno said. "So we had to protect the people, and go after these groups."
   And so they did, with a series of offensives against the Qaeda insurgents in and around Baghdad in 2007 and then, earlier this year, in Basra and in Baghdad against the Mahdi Army. Along the way, the Americans got a huge break: the leaders of Iraqs large Sunni tribes, which had included many insurgents, decided to stop opposing the Americans and join them against Al Qaeda. The Americans, seizing the opportunities, agreed to put many of the tribesmen, including many former insurgents, on the payroll
   The Sunni Awakening, as it is called, cascaded through Sunni areas across Iraq.
   But for how long?
   By any measure, General Odierno faces a huge challenge in the coming months: consolidating the gains the American military has achieved with possibly fewer troops, depending on the decisions made by Iraqs leaders and America's next president. Second, in all likelihood, General Odierno will have to oversee a potentially chaotic transition from one Iraqi government to another, assuming that Iraqi leaders hold nationwide elections in 2009 or 201 0.
   For reasons that are obvious--as a soldier, he takes orders from America's civilian leaders--the general was less than precise on how he saw it all unfolding.
   "IF THE NEXT PRESIDENT CHANGES THE MISSION, then I have to figure out," General Odierno said, stopping himself. "You know, whoever that may be.... "