How one soldier's strategy turned tide in Iraq

Army Capt. Travis Patriquin devised a strategy that trained the Sunni tribes to fight al Qaeda
CBS News

The end of the war in Iraq was made possible by a strategy called the awakening. The idea was to convince Sunni Muslims -- who were fighting the U.S. -- to join in a common battle against extremists. That was the turning point and CBS News correspondent David Martin explains the first glimmerings of the awakening can be traced to one American soldier.

Army Capt. Travis Patriquin. Remember the name.

"Travis Patriquin has as much to do with the success that the Americans and the Iraqi government has as anyone else," said Col. Joe Harrington, who is currently the executive assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

But in the summer of 2006, he and Patriquin were part of an armored brigade sent to take back the city of Ramadi from al Qaeda.

"Three straight brigades had lost about 100 soldiers each," said Harrington. "Ramadi was the most dangerous place in the world."

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With a background in the Special Forces, an Iraqi-style moustache and passable Arabic, Patriquin bonded with a local sheik, the flamboyant and slightly shady Sattar Abu Risha, who was fed up with al Qaeda and its murderous ways.

"Sheik Sattar was able to rally the other tribes to fight al Qaeda," said Harrington, "and that's where Travis had such an influence in working with Sheik Sattar.

Convincing the tribes their future lay with the American side marked the beginning of what became known as the Sunni awakening. It involved arming and training the tribes to fight al Qaeda -- a risky idea since the militias might some day turn against the U.S.

To sell it, Patriquin created what is perhaps the most famous military document of the Iraq war -- of all things, a PowerPoint briefing featuring stick figure drawings. It reads like "Iraq for Dummies": "Everyone wins, except terrorists -- which is ok because terrorists suck." Exactly the opposite of the typical military briefing stuffed with statistics and charts.

"I think we have a tendency to sort of overthink things, over-strategize things and sometimes the easiest answers are right in front of us," said Maj. Chad Pillai, who worked with Patriquin.

One month later, Patriquin, Maj. Megan McClung and Specialist Vincent Pomante were killed by a roadside bomb on their way from a meeting with Sheik Sattar.

It would remain for Gen. Petraeus to embrace the Sunni awakening throughout Iraq, but it started with a 32-year-old Army captain from St. Louis, Missouri .

"You think he changed the course of the war?" Martin asked Pillai.

"I think he dramatically changed our mindset and our understanding of what we needed to do," he responded.

Even as the last American troops pull out, it is too early to claim success in the form of a lasting democracy in Iraq. But there's no denying this simple fact.

"We lost 96 soldiers in the 10 months we were at Ramadi," said Harrington."The unit that followed us lost 3 or 4, so the effectiveness of how that worked was tremendous if you measure it in lost American lives.

Travis Patriquin. Remember the name.

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.