Is Surge Responsible For A Less Violent Iraq?

The last of the U.S. troop reinforcements have left Iraq, and no one doubts they helped to improve security in Baghdad. But while the surge was given much of the credit for the security gains, Iraqis believe there were other important factors at work.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

We don't yet know whether there will be a presidential debate tonight. But when Senators John McCain and Barack Obama do face off, Iraq is sure to come up, especially the impact of the troop surge. The last of the troop reinforcements left Iraq this summer, and no one doubts that they helped improve security in Baghdad. But Iraqis say there were other things that work as well, as NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports.

Unidentified Man: Bring it in, and we'll go from there, all right?

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's a hot afternoon in the Baghdad neighborhood of Baladiat, and Americans with the 340th military police company walk down a busy street with the Iraqi police they're training. These Americans and Iraqis live together in a joint security station, one of the legacies of the surge. Instead of returning to large bases, American troops moved out into troubled Baghdad neighborhoods in small groups, making their presence felt. It made a difference, but how much is still a lingering question for some here. Across town in the neighborhood of Gazalia, the head of the local Sunni paramilitary group drives a visiting reporter down an empty street.

Mr. WAHAD ALI HASSAN (Leader, Baladiat Sons of Iraq, Baghdad, Iraq): (Arabic spoken).

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Wahad Ali Hassan (ph) points to one side of the street, saying that it's the Shiite side. The other side he says is the Sunni one. This road is kind of green line dividing the two parts of Gazalia. Sectarian violence segregated this area and many others in Baghdad. By mid-2007, when the surge reached its peak, few neighborhoods were still mixed, which meant that there was less inter-communal violence. The second thing that happened in Baghdad in mid-2007 was the creation of the Sunni paramilitary groups now called the Sons of Iraq. Sons of Iraq leader Hassan says instead of fighting against the Americans, they joined them and began to police their own neighborhoods.

Mr. HASSAN: (Through Translator) We played a very important role, but people felt safe because we were from this neighborhood.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Baghdad Sons of Iraq were copied from a movement that began in Sunni Anbar Province. In 2006, a Marine intelligence report concluded that al-Qaeda in Iraq had made such inroads in Anbar that the war was lost there. But then, tribal leaders turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq, allying themselves with the Americans and ultimately pacifying the province. There was no surge of U.S. troops in Anbar, which shows, Hassan says, the Sunni paramilitaries made all the difference. But for other Iraqis in Baghdad, a ceasefire by another powerful faction was the key factor in quelling violence. Salesmen hawk their wares - computers, keyboards, cameras - in the so-called technology market in Baghdad. This place was once terrorized by the Shiite Mahdi army militia loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr. It was responsible for mass abductions, killings and sectarian cleansing. But on August 29, 2007, Sadr declared a ceasefire. Within a month, according to the website Iraqbodycount.com, the number of civilian deaths had been cut nearly in half. Ahmad Salim (ph) is a Sunni shopkeeper in the technology market. He says it felt safer once the Mahdi army curtailed its operations.

Mr. AHMAD SALIM (Sunni Shopkeeper, Baghdad, Iraq): (Through Translator) It gave me a sense of safety. Everyone could head to their work safely.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Still, his hands shake when he talks about the militia. The future is still uncertain, he says.

Mr. SALIM: (Through Translator) It could worsen at any minute. Militias could be back at any minute.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: When asked the question of why security improved in Baghdad, Hassan shrugs and says it's irrelevant. The burning question from many Iraqis now, he says, is, will it last? Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Baghdad.

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