TAJI, Iraq — Screaming Iraqis and mangled body parts still dominate Americans' nightly two minutes of news from Iraq. And, indeed, Iraq is still a scary place within the Sunni Triangle.
Opposition politicians in the United States charge that our troops don't have enough body protection or heavily armored Humvees — suggesting that our fighters have been almost criminally ignored. On CNN, a journalist laments that a prominent news colleague severely wounded near Taji is emblematic of the mess of the entire American effort.
But Iraq, like all wars, is not static. What was supposedly true on the ground in Iraq in 2003 is not necessarily so in 2006 — in the way that the situation in Europe in 1943 hardly resembled that of May 1945.
Yet while things have changed radically in Iraq, the pessimistic tone of our reporting remains calcified. Little is written about the new Iraqi government, the emergence of the Iraqi security forces or the radically changing role of the American military.
I recently listened to members of the newly elected Iraqi provincial council in strife-torn Kirkuk. All were enthusiastic about their new responsibilities. They were unabashedly argumentative with one another over security, electricity and oil production — but still confident that they could govern their own affairs. As the meeting broke up, a female council member whispered, "Tell the Americans thanks, but ask them to have patience with us."
She's right: Patience, more than anything, is now needed in Iraq. There are now 10 Iraqi divisions. The newest is the 9th Mechanized Division, at Taji, of Maj. Gen. Bashar Ayoub, trained under the auspices of Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey's officers of the Multinational Security Transition Command.
A Patton-like veteran of three bloody wars, Gen. Bashar Ayoub has fashioned ex nihilo a new division replete with refurbished Soviet T-72 tanks and scores of veteran officers from the old Iraqi army. He plans to take over most of the security of Taji, and was out on the streets with his men even before his division fully materialized.
Two years ago, the conventional wisdom was that we wrongly disbanded the Iraqi army and dumped shoddy equipment on what little we rounded up. Soon the new complaint will no doubt emerge that we have redeployed too many officers from the old corps, and that their brigades appear too lethal in new uniforms, body armor and mechanized vehicles.
At the enormous Balad U.S. Air Base — with almost as much traffic as at Chicago's O'Hare — nearly 75 percent of the emergency surgeries conducted under its vast tents are on Iraqi casualties who receive the identical care as wounded Americans. Everything there is in constant flux, as Predator drones now monitor roads, highways and pipelines. U.S. Air Force officers prepare radar grids to craft a new air traffic control system that someday will accommodate the emergence of Iraqi civilian airplanes.
In 2003, Americans saw L. Paul Bremer, then the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, daily on television. In contrast, few even know what Zalmay Khalilzad, the current American ambassador to Iraq, or the top echelon of the American officer corps — Gens. George Casey, Martin Dempsey and Peter Chiarelli — looks like. Reconstruction, Iraqization, drawdown and diplomatic finesse are the new themes, not telling Iraqis what to do or building new permanent bases in the desert.
Almost every media stereotype about the American military vanishes when visiting frontline bases. The world still sees dated Abu Ghraib photos, not Iraqi civilians receiving topflight care in the emergency room in the American-run hospital in Baghdad.
We hear that the U.S. Army is worn out — propped up by national guardsmen and reserves. Yet young enlistees differ. They claim instead that more mature reservists are a godsend for reconstruction efforts since so many back home were successful contractors, businessmen, teachers and mechanics. Complaints circulate about the weight, not the dearth, of body and truck armor. I saw hundreds of Humvees on the roads, but not one
was unarmored. I shot AK-47s with professional Iraqi soldiers and felt far safer amid their professional live fire than back at home at the local municipal range.
Critics dub our military a "mercenary" force and sometimes call for renewal of the draft. But it is hardly a late-imperial Roman legion filled with foreigners and malcontents, but rather a true volunteer force, whose diversity in age, gender, race and religion would shame a university faculty or newsroom. Most of the colonels I met are as well educated as academics, but far more willing to debate and question their own beliefs.
Saddam Hussein destroyed Iraq — butchering, traumatizing and dividing 25 million. His baleful legacy is clear from helicopter rides over the sewers of Baghdad or a visit to one of his repugnant palaces where non-potable water pours out of his gold faucets.
It was nearly an impossible task to remove Saddam Hussein, foster democracy in the heart of the ancient caliphate and restore on a relatively short timetable what took the Husseins three decades to destroy. Meanwhile, all this must be done surrounded by Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia; in the midst of a larger war against Islamic fundamentalism; and while under global scrutiny from a largely hostile audience.
Yet what amazes is not so much the audacity of even thinking the United States could attempt such a thing, but rather that it may just pull it off after all — if only we remain patient.