It was May 29, 2006, and the U.S. military was scrambling to come up with a new strategy to stem Shiite-on-Sunni violence (and vice versa) that was sliding the country into near-civil war, leavened by al Qaeda attacks that hit Iraqi and U.S. targets with equal opportunity, just to keep the malevolence going.
This time, we arrived with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, admittedly under heavy security, to Camp Victory outside Baghdad. I saw purposeful troops, but it didn't have the same sense of the barely controlled frenzy I saw during the three years I spent there – with soldiers, civilian contractors and Iraqi tradesmen rushing back and forth, a steady stream of helicopters buzzing in and out, the roads choked with humvees and supply vehicles rushing to their next task.
Now, Camp Victory has the hum of a well-oiled machine—like they've got this down. The phrase that kept coming back to me was "on a glidepath." Admittedly, one still studded by the occasional bout of horrific violence, but momentum for now seems to be in their favor.
Rolling down the once-infamous Baghdad Airport Road, it almost seemed paranoid to have so much security with us, from the armored vehicles we were riding in, to the gun truck escort. "Route Irish" as the U.S. military calls it, is now patrolled by Iraqi troops. The walls on either side, which used to offer shelter to Sunni insurgents who launched attacks with everything from sniper rifles to mortars, are painted a Lifesaver-roll multi-colored stripe. No one's out picnicking yet on the airport road median strip, as I used to watch them do during Saddam's time (talk about surreal—that they'd spread out food, drink and scampering kids between lines of traffic, as the median was the nearest strip of green to their homes.) Then again, they haven't replanted any grass there yet after so many years of the dirt being dug up to hide IED's, or dug up as humvees or tanks tore across to get to a crisis on the other side.
When we arrived at the U.S. embassy compound, which was still under construction when I was last here, it had a university-campus feel, almost sleepy and quiet, as if everyone was studying for exams in the library. Ambassador Chris Hill in his rimmed glasses and crisp grey suit had the look of the college president. (And the ice cream bar in the gourmet dining facility is guaranteed to pile on a "freshman ten," for incoming diplomats and contractors.)
Yet the final proof for me that things had changed came when Mullen, the highest ranking American in uniform, sat down with the governor of Ramadi – a town once considered one of the most dangerous parts of Iraq.
So what did the governor ask for? More security? More guns or ammo or trucks for his guys, as I had heard in similar meetings with U.S. commanders almost four years ago? No.
He hit the admiral up a loan.
Seriously. He asked the chairman of the joint chiefs to write a letter from the U.S. Navy guaranteeing investments in Anbar province for up to $100 million dollars, so he could get a loan from a risk-averse Middle East bank to start up some more businesses. (He all but offered Mullen 15 percent off the top, too, if he could make it happen.)
Mullen politely explained that this issue was a little bit out of his lane, but he promised to share it back in Washington.
There were a couple of grim "underground" themes to the trip, invisible but much spoken of – the continuing threat of al Qaeda spectaculars, as the multiple-car bomb attacks that result in dozens of casualties are known. That led to some pretty incredible security laid on for the chairman. For Mullen's walk through a once-dangerous market in Abu Ghreib, there were more than 160 troops in a double ring of security - snipers, Apache attack helicopters, a couple of jets and a drone watching over. (Then again, would you want to lose the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs on your watch? In that context, perhaps security overkill makes sense).
But the security threat al Qaeda and other militant groups present reminded me of Northern Ireland, pre-peace process, when I'd rush across from my then-post in London to cover the Omagh bombing or similar events. The bombers could plunge a whole town into a brief bloody nightmare – and they could keep the whole country on tenterhooks, going through security to get into a shopping mall, or checkpoints to drive into a sensitive area.
But you never got a sense that the IRA would ever have the power to take the government down. It felt a bit like that right now in Iraq. At present, if the Iraqi government keeps it together and, most importantly, keeps its security forces from targeting Sunnis to avenge al Qaeda attacks against Shiite neighborhoods and the elections proceed relatively safely in March, that bloody sectarian momentum will be stopped, or at least, channeled into a political outlet.
The other grim undercurrent haunting the visit, however, was Iran.
The anti-Iranian litany started at our first stop in Basra—a bit of a head trip, as Basra is in the Shiite heartland, and many business and families have close ties to their eastern neighbor. Yet after the initial pleasantries, a local Shiite sheikh complained to Mullen about the Iranians using water to pressure them – cutting off the flow down the river. He said the people feared Iran was trying to interfere.
At our next stop in Talil, near the Iranian border, it came up again. We'd arrived just hours after Iranian troops had . Again, Iraqi officials who are part of the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government complained about their Shiite neighbor. It was a bit surreal considering the usual fare of conspiracy theories that Iraq's government would walk in lockstep with its neighbor. It seems this time around, Iran overplayed their hand and woke Iraq's sense of national pride, and indignation.
We're told the subject came up again in Baghdad at the Ministry of Defense. We weren't allowed in to the meeting between the Minister of Defense and Mullen in Baghdad, but we were later told Iran was a topic of conversation.
And finally, we heard about it from the Sunni governor in Ramadi, who complained "We have a bad neighbor. We have the U.S. military here and yet they [Iran] interfere. What would they do if you leave?"
And he said he was also okay with the Iraqi response – he said the Iraqis called the Iranians up, protested, and the Iranian troops withdrew, all within a roughly 36 hour period. He said from what he'd seen, "the political leadership … stand up to Iran more starkly than they have in the past."
And that was the overall theme of the visit, especially as compared to Afghanistan - the Iraqis were now so clearly in the lead. "It's this theme of, 'It's over to you guys,'" Mullen said. "It's not 'We're walking away,' but 'You're going to have to figure this out for your own country in many ways.'"
He described it as "an ownership piece that is vastly different than what I saw before, and a lack of dependency on the U.S."
Mullen said his guys on the ground, led by General Ray Odierno, told him the June 30 deadline the U.S. had agreed to, when they turned over Iraqi cities to Iraqi security control, turned out to be the turning point, or as he put it, "a blessing in disguise that we didn't understand fully."
"It really did motivate and incentivize the Iraqis and they show that in ways that we had not anticipated, or at a pace we had not anticipated," Mullen said. His takeaway from that? If a deadline worked to put the fire under the Iraqis to take back their country, maybe July 2011 will do the same thing for the Afghans.
"It's kind of interesting to tie that thought into the recent decision on Afghanistan that says 'Hey okay we're committed. Here's the strategy…but come July 2011 you're going to start taking the lead," he said. "To me, that's pretty powerful, and Iraq is an example of that."