Keeping on Top of the Surge

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David Josek / AP

A U.S. soldier on patrol.

All had been quiet until dawn on Sunday. As the sun began to rise, Lieutenant-Colonel Jeffrey Sauer's soldiers in eastern Baghdad, based in the shadow of the Shi'ite milita stronghold of Sadr City, were hit with a series of rockets. The attacks were well-coordinated and sophisticated; they were also the first heavy shelling of U.S. bases in the area in several months.

The difference between now and that period several months ago is that Sauer and his men feel they have the initiative. The Americans, Sauer says, could have responded with house-to-house searches and other heavy-handed tactics. But, he says, "That would be the exact example of what [the attackers] want me to do so they can turn the population back in their favor." Now, U.S. troops, not local Shi'ite militiamen, have the initiative and set the tone in this area of Baghdad. Sauer and his men have set to work pursuing leads to track down the militants behind the attack — a process more focused on analyzing evidence and gathering intelligence than on overt displays of force.

After a difficult and deadly year American troops now operate with relative freedom in what were once exceptionally treacherous neighborhoods. As the surge began in earnest in the spring, American troops suffered some of their heaviest losses of the war; this has been the deadliest year of the war for U.S. soldiers and Marines, and 126 were killed in May. But the number of troops killed in action dropped to 38 in October. As of Sunday, November's death toll was 27. There were half as many roadside bomb attacks in October as there were in March.

Iraqi civilian casualties have also declined dramatically. According to the Associated Press 750 civilians were killed in October — still a high number, but down well over 50% from late last year. Much of that decline reflects the declining influence of the Sunni terrorist group al-Qaeda in Iraq, and a reduction in sectarian violence. But the tactics of choice for Shi'ite militia groups — rocket and mortar attacks and sophisticated roadside bombings — have also waned.

Those trends are reflected in the experience of Sauer's battalion, which operates in an area of Baghdad called 9 Nisan. "It was extraordinarily violent when I first got here," said Maj. David C. Freeman, on of the battalion's staff officers. "They really were able to do a number on us."

As American troops attempted to establish a constant presence in Baghdad's neighborhoods, local insurgents and militia groups pushed back. In 9 Nisan, Sauer's troops sought to demonstrate to residents that they and the Iraqi government, not the militia, controlled the streets. But local militants loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army would not give up their turf without a fight. "It was a contest of wills," Freeman says. "We just kept coming at them, and going out there, and getting into the neighborhood."

Late in the summer the tide began to turn. Take rocket and mortar attacks: In June, U.S. bases in the area were hit with 69 separate attacks; in October that number was down to six, and even after Sunday's strikes (in which no U.S. personnel were killed) the tally for November is just seven. In June there were 129 roadside bombs planted in the battalion's area. That number had been cut in half by August. So far this month there have been only 16 roadside bombs found or detonated in the area.

The long-term consequences of this drop in violence are still unclear. The militia's recent stand-down may be just an attempt to wait out the U.S. military, which will begin drawing down its numbers in the next few months. After suffering heavy losses in pitched battles in 2004, the militia has sought to avoid open confrontations with U.S. forces. The Americans must eventually leave and the Mahdi Army will remain in some form. Still, says Sauer, "Every day that goes by without violence is a win" — a window of opportunity for American troops and their Iraqi allies to weaken the militia's grip on Baghdad's neighborhoods.