NEWS & OPINION: Sadr’s shift; surge to nowhere; war comes home

The great Moqtada makeover

In the West Baghdad neighborhood of Hurriya, 25-year-old Saif Awad was known as “the Assassin.” He didn’t look like a killer. Handsome and well groomed, Awad made a show of attending prayers and Shiite religious celebrations. But, locals say, he also ran a brutal kidnapping ring linked to Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army and shook down newcomers to Hurriya—even other Shiites—for protection money. In recent months he’d taken to wearing flashier clothes and flaunting his two new cars. He was driving one of them to the shop last November when three men on motorcycles roared up and riddled the Toyota with bullets, killing Awad. An eyewitness, who asked to remain anonymous for his own safety, says the killers were fellow members of the Mahdi Army. “Death is the punishment for those who disobey the Mahdi Army,” says Bassim Abdul Zahra, a Hurriya resident close to the militia. “By killing these dissenters, the leadership sends a warning.” [complete article]

Surge to nowhere

As the fifth anniversary of Operation Iraqi Freedom nears, the fabulists are again trying to weave their own version of the war. The latest myth is that the “surge” is working.

In President Bush’s pithy formulation, the United States is now “kicking ass” in Iraq. The gallant Gen. David Petraeus, having been given the right tools, has performed miracles, redeeming a situation that once appeared hopeless. Sen. John McCain has gone so far as to declare that “we are winning in Iraq.” While few others express themselves quite so categorically, McCain’s remark captures the essence of the emerging story line: Events have (yet again) reached a turning point. There, at the far end of the tunnel, light flickers. Despite the hand-wringing of the defeatists and naysayers, victory beckons.

From the hallowed halls of the American Enterprise Institute waft facile assurances that all will come out well. AEI’s Reuel Marc Gerecht assures us that the moment to acknowledge “democracy’s success in Iraq” has arrived. To his colleague Michael Ledeen, the explanation for the turnaround couldn’t be clearer: “We were the stronger horse, and the Iraqis recognized it.” In an essay entitled “Mission Accomplished” that is being touted by the AEI crowd, Bartle Bull, the foreign editor of the British magazine Prospect, instructs us that “Iraq’s biggest questions have been resolved.” Violence there “has ceased being political.” As a result, whatever mayhem still lingers is “no longer nearly as important as it was.” Meanwhile, Frederick W. Kagan, an AEI resident scholar and the arch-advocate of the surge, announces that the “credibility of the prophets of doom” has reached “a low ebb.” [complete article]

An Iraq veteran’s descent; a prosecutor’s choice

Not long after Lance Cpl. Walter Rollo Smith returned from Iraq, the Marines dispatched him to Quantico, Va., for a marksmanship instructor course.

Mr. Smith, then a 21-year-old Marine Corps reservist from Utah, had been shaken to the core by the intensity of his experience during the invasion of Iraq. Once a squeaky-clean Mormon boy who aspired to serve a mission abroad, he had come home a smoker and drinker, unsure if he believed in God.

In Quantico, he reported to the firing range with a friend from Fox Company, the combined Salt Lake City-Las Vegas battalion nicknamed the Saints and Sinners. Raising his rifle, he stared through the scope and started shaking. What he saw were not the inanimate targets before him but vivid, hallucinatory images of Iraq: “the cars coming at us, the chaos, the dust, the women and children, the bodies we left behind,” he said. [complete article]

Scenes from a marriage in Baghdad

A soldier screamed out a warning. And as we began to walk slowly in each other’s footsteps, leaving a safe distance between us, I started to think about Diana. I needed to contact her, to keep her out of the fields.

Safely on the road, I grabbed a tall soldier with a radio and asked for a favor. “There’s one of our reporters with another squad, and I need to get her out,” I told him.

Sergeant Wisniewski’s unit was heading back to the base, and another squad was preparing to take its place. Humvees and soldiers swirled around us.

“Listen,” I said. “I’m sorry to bother you with this. It’s just that the reporter isn’t just a colleague. She’s also my wife.”

His eyes widened, and he said he’d help. I felt awkward raising the issue. After all, Diana and I had willingly come to Iraq for The New York Times — I’m a reporter, she’s a videographer — and we had agreed to keep our relationship out of our work, especially around soldiers who already had enough to worry about. But I couldn’t help it. [complete article]

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