As goes Baghdad, so goes Iraq.
That's the mantra of U.S. commanders as they launch the latest security crackdown in a city so lawless that the nightmarish has almost become the norm.
Baghdad's coroner reported more than 1,800 bodies last month — and said 90 percent of them died violently. For the U.S.-led coalition, making Baghdad safe again over the next couple of months is considered a must.
Baghdad's Dora neighborhood has been one of its most bloody. It's a mostly Sunni neighborhood southeast of downtown Baghdad. Population estimates vary, but somewhere near a quarter-million people live there. Almost all of them are scared — with good reason. Death squads, warring militias, kidnappers and everyday thugs have been on a rampage for months.
One man I talked to had a son kidnapped back in April. He's looked everywhere, including the jails and the morgue. There's no sign of his son. As summer temperatures climb to 120 degrees and above, this father lives on a block in Dora that has gone without power for three months. Local transformers were destroyed.
Dora is where U.S. and Iraqi forces have launched "Phase Two," the latest security crackdown in Baghdad. I say "latest" because nothing so far has stopped the city's bloodbath. I tagged along with troops doing house-to-house searches. Soldiers are hunting for weapons, materials for making bombs and any wanted suspects.
Most residents are extremely cooperative. They gladly let in the soldiers to search because they want the violence to stop. It's a measure of the fright factor here that each home is allowed to keep one AK-47. It's a brutal workday for the soldiers. They're working 14- and 15-hour days in Iraq's summer heat — made worse by all the body armor they have to wear. They can relate to local people who have gone for weeks without air conditioning.
Once these coalition soldiers secure Dora, they'll leave a team in place to keep it safe and move on to do the same thing in a handful of Baghdad's worst neighborhoods. It's supposed to take a couple months. The plan is to offer people here not just a sense of security but a sense of hope. Once a neighborhood is cleared out it will be cleaned up. In some areas, huge mounds of trash are waist-high. But these soldiers know something else: Phase 2 will fail unless Iraqis help themselves. So far, Iraq's government has yet to disarm the militias, create jobs, or produce real results toward its goal of reconciling religious groups. That has to happen.
One moment said it all about what the people here — Iraqis and the Americans trying to help them — are up against. Soldiers doing their searches in Dora came across a frantic young couple. The woman had given birth at home two hours earlier. The baby was having cardiac arrest. A medic was giving the newborn mouth-to-mouth as he ran to a waiting Humvee to rush to the American hospital in Baghdad's International Zone. A separate Humvee took the baby's parents.
Shortly afterward, the baby died. Stories from Iraq still have too many unhappy endings.