I came to Iraq to find out what’s going on over here, but even when you’re here—perhaps especially when you’re here—it’s hard to get a complete understanding of the situation. You start to see complexities and nuances that defeat attempts at the sort of generalizations that are so easy to make from thousands of miles away.
Case in point: Tuesday in Baghdad. The newspapers are full of reports about a “fierce gunbattle” that took place that morning in Fadhel, a primarily Sunni neighborhood in east Baghdad. Four Iraqi soldiers were reported killed in a clash with insurgents; some fifteen U.S. soldiers were wounded and at least one U.S. helicopter was damaged by groundfire. It so happens that I was only a few miles away when all this happened, staying at a small U.S. installation called Forward Operating Base Justice located in the Khadamiya neighborhood of northwestern Baghdad, across the Tigris River from Fadhel. Yet the first I knew of this battle, which dominated the news cycle for at least 24 hours, was when I returned to Camp Victory, a much bigger U.S. base near Baghdad International Airport, and logged on to the Internet.
Far from being the scene of fierce fighting, Khadamiya was remarkably quiet during the two days I was there—Monday and Tuesday. On Monday night, April 9, the fourth anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s overthrow, I went with some soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division on a foot patrol of the area. Shops were open, people were in the streets, and there was no threat of any kind. On Tuesday morning, I drove out of the base to attend a security meeting with local Iraqi leaders and security officers. Then I drove around with some American MP’s to visit Iraqi police stations. Again, all was quiet.
At the end of the day I drove in a convoy of Humvees straight across Baghdad, down Route Senators and then Route Irish, from FOB Justice to Camp Victory. We were not attacked on the way. In fact, the soldiers I was with were wondering why the situation was so placid—little realizing that things were not so placid on the other side of the Tigris. But since that’s another brigade’s AOR (area of operations), the soldiers I was with from the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Cavalry Division were oblivious to those events.
What accounts for this tale of two cities—one quiet, one tumultuous? Primarily ethnic composition. Khadamiya is a Shiite stronghold where extensive security, provided primarily by Iraqi forces, prevents Sunni insurgents from penetrating. Iraqi troops and police officers have good relations with the locals. Fadhel is an area with a larger Sunni population where Sunni insurgents have gained a foothold and where residents are suspicious of the Shiite-dominated Iraqi Security Forces.
Simply being on the ground makes you realize how facile and distorting are all attempts to generalize about the situation. Is Baghdad secure or not? It all depends on where you are, and when you are there.