Under normal circumstances, an invitation to join a U.S. Army patrol into Sadr City is an occasion for a serious case of trepidation.
But these are not normal times, and when the invitation is so obviously part of a PR campaign, it's hard to resist. The decision to go is made even easier by the fact that having been telegraphed so far in advance, the operation on offer has pretty much ensured there won't be trouble.
The six-square-mile impoverished Baghdad suburb of Sadr City is the focal point of the latest chapter in the ongoing story of "the surge" — the effort to pacify Baghdad, and, by extension, Iraq, by putting another 20,000 pairs of U.S. boots on the ground.
Sadr City is home to more than 2 million people, all of them Shiites, with no love for the American military.
The new plan is to talk to civic leaders, get them, if not onboard, at least in a state of acquiescence, and then go in with Iraqi forces taking the lead role.
At the drop-off point on the southeast corner of the suburb, the higher-income end, there is much kissing of cheeks between American and Iraqi officers, a custom is such an essential PR gesture the Americans have had to learn to do it.
The long lead time and ballyhoo is what made sure it was safe. The forces of the Mehdi army, the formidable street fighters loyal to hard-line cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, would have had plenty of time to hide their weaponry and slip into the shadows.
Maj. Jesse Pearson, a cheerful fellow from Dupont, Wash., is Battalion Operations Officer with the 82nd Airborne, which has responsibility for the Sadr City operation. He said the lack of "enemy forces" was "to a certain degree, irrelevant."
"In a counterinsurgency, you focus on the populace, not the enemy forces," he said. "So really the enemy are here or not, it doesn't really matter; the primary focus is on the local populace, developing relationships with them, and increasing security."
The Iraqis are the key component as far as the Americans are concerned.
"What we're seeing," Pearson said, "is the Iraqi forces are demonstrating their capability, and coming in really strong and showing their strength. That is a huge part of warfare, (the) psychological component of showing your strength decreases the enemy's will to fight."
Certainly the Iraqis were aware that the operation was based on a "softly-softly" approach. Whether because there was a camera crew with them, or because they really did buy the new tactic, they were the souls of politeness, knocking on gates before entering, making only cursory searches, and even going away if no one answered the door. The normal procedure would be to kick the door down.
American troops stayed outside in the streets, providing security and trying to make friends with the locals. Certainly, the kids liked them. They were all around, unafraid and asking the same questions over and over: "What's your name?" "How are you?" and "Speak Arabic?"
Some local residents came out with tea and cakes. But in a small incident that was hard to make sense of, two Iraqi soldiers and three kids standing beside them refused to shake an American soldier's proffered hand.
"Man," he said ruefully to a colleague who was watching, "that was intense. Never happened to me before."
Both on and off the record, however, the American troops say their Iraqi counterparts are improving.
Sgt. Nick Gummersall, who's on his third Iraq deployment — with an Afghanistan tour thrown in the middle for good measure — put it this way: "It takes us a while to mix in, get along well. They're improving pretty quick. When we first got here, we were leading all the searches and taking them into houses; (now), we're just hanging out they're doing all the searches. They've improved a lot."
Just how much the American soldiers need them to do so was evident when we climbed back into a Stryker armored vehicle to head to our next stop. There was the usual military delay that lasted an hour. While cameraman Mark LaGanga and I squirmed about trying to find a position that was even marginally comfortable on the low, hard bench in a space jammed with guns, rucksacks and assorted other pieces of gear while breathing hot, dusty air, the soldiers who didn't have to watch electronic monitors or man gun positions fell instantly asleep.
If you have no choice but to be in Sadr City, it's undoubtedly the best way to deal with the place whenever you get the chance.