U.S. Soldiers Brace for Their Surge

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Franco Pagetti for TIME

U.S. soldiers search for men that fired on them during a foot patrol in Adhamiya, a Sunni stronghold in Baghdad.

From his seat in the tactical operations center, Army Lieutenant Colonel Edward Taylor can survey a wall-sized black-and-white satellite map of Baghdad. But that bird's-eye view will probably matter less than the two books on the table in front of him, as U.S. troops once again attempt to bring the city under control.

The first, embossed with the Marine Corps' seal, is titled Small-Unit Leader's Guide to Counter-Insurgency. The second is the small green notebook in which he records details of meetings with his Iraq counterpart, General Samir. U.S. commanders plan to employ classic counterinsurgency tactics rediscovered by the U.S. military through a bitter process of trial and error in Iraq. One question they face, though, is whether Washington has learned those lessons too late. Another is whether the Iraqi government and security forces on whom the new strategy crucially depends are actually part of the problem.

Taylor, 39, advises an Iraqi Army brigade that operates out of the old Ministry of Defense complex on the east bank of the Tigris — within sight of Sunni insurgent strongholds in Adhamiya and Haifa Street, and a short drive from Sadr City, where the Shi'ite militia of Moqtada Sadr rules the streets.

As the sun sets, gunfire punctuates the call to prayer ringing out from nearby mosques. Its source is not clear. Adhamiya has long been a center of Sunni insurgent activity, but Taylor says Shi'ite militias have begun to move in, hoping to displace the area's Sunni population. "I think the Shi'a would like to do that, but they don't have enough power," says Taylor. "I think they're at the stage right now where they're trying to establish a foothold."

The previous day, Taylor's men and Samir's Iraqi Army units had cordoned off an area of Adhamiya and conducted house-to-house searches for fighters and weapons. The raid netted some ammunition and four suspected Sunni insurgents. Neighborhood residents, however, feel that they are under attack both from Shi'ite militias and from U.S.-backed government forces. Taylor is confident that General Samir is a good and fair commander, but whether the government as a whole is willing to take down Sadr's Mehdi Army is another matter.

"[Sadr's forces] certainly enjoy political top cover," Taylor says. "There is an undeniable relationship between Moqtada Sadr and Maliki, and that relationship has not been broken."

Any attack on the Mehdi Army would be enormously complicated, both militarily and politically. Sadr City is not patrolled by U.S. troops, and except for the occasional Special Forces raid the militia operates freely there.

"Any militia that's carrying out violence against civilians, I want to get after it," Taylor says. But there's a more personal concern, which Taylor's men share. The U.S. military believes many of the improvised explosive devices targeting American troops in Baghdad are built and planted by Shi'ite militia. "All of us feel that loss personally and would like to prevent that from happening again," says the U.S. commander.

But the military won't simply try to crush the Mahdi Army. Instead, it will put more Americans on Baghdad's streets, working more closely with Iraqi units, and focus on protecting civilians and limiting the ability of insurgents and militiamen to move among them. It's the most difficult kind of warfare, Taylor says — one his men had one year to prepare for between deployments in Iraq. Each U.S. soldier is not simply tasked with hunting down the enemy at all costs. "He's an armed individual, " Taylor says, "who has to practice restraint in order to be successful."

Still, it remains to be seen whether a more restrained but visible U.S. presence alongside Iraqi forces is enough to calm the chaos on the streets of Baghdad.