ANTHONY BROOKS, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. Alex Chadwick is away. I'm Anthony Brooks.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand. Coming up, New York City sees a dramatic decrease in smoking in just a few years. We'll find out why.

BROOKS: But first, this week U.S. forces in Iraq have begun a major offensive north of Baghdad in Baqubah to rout out al-Qaida militants. U.S. officials say more than three-quarters of the city's al-Qaida leadership fled before the Americans arrived, but they say a few hundred remain hidden in the city.

Phil Carter is an attorney here in Los Angeles and a contributor to the online magazine Slate. He's also a former army captain who served in Baqubah for about a year. And he joins us now. Phil, thanks for being here.

Mr. PHIL CARTER (Slate): Thanks for having me.

BROOKS: I wanted to talk to you because you can sort of set the scene about what's going on in Baqubah. Tell us what the challenge is there and what it's like.

Mr. CARTER: The challenge is that you've got a fairly large Iraqi city about five miles across by three miles deep, and it's densely populated. You have lots of two and some three-storey buildings tightly packed together with alleys and thoroughfares that are very difficult to navigate as a military unit. And so within this maze you have insurgents and militias, which are hiding.

BROOKS: Now, when you were there, can you tell me what it was like? I understand you were based at an Iraqi police station essentially. You were sort of blending in to the city in a way.

Mr. CARTER: That's right. We live downtown on a small Iraqi compound and things were relatively calm. This was last year, last summer. We weren't sure whether we had actually improved the situation or whether we just had too few forces in Baqubah to really stir things up and provide security.

BROOKS: General David Petraeus, now the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, he was known as the American in Iraq who advocated the small footprint for the U.S. military, which seemed to sort of describe what you were doing there, blending in with the population, if you will. Now this offensive in Baqubah involves thousands of U.S. troops, seems to be going exactly the other way. What do you think of that? Will it work?

Mr. CARTER: Well, I don't know that I'd paint it as such a dichotomy. What General Petraeus advocates is forward engaged counterinsurgency where you live with the people, you walk their streets, you engage in security on a daily basis in their neighborhoods. To do that, the first thing you have to do is to sort of clear out the area to provide that initial first burst of security. And so even in Baghdad they had to do something like this in the early days of 2007, where they went in to some very nasty neighborhoods along Haifa Street and cleared them out. And then they were able to put those types of bases up that sort of resembled community policing substations. And that's what we're seeing now in Baqubah.

BROOKS: Let me ask you about something else, Phil; related, of course. This week in and around Baghdad 14 American GIs were killed in 48 hours, most of them in roadside bombs. And there's talk now of getting the soldiers out of the Humvees and back on foot patrol primarily because of this growing danger of explosives that can penetrate armor with devastating affect. As someone who was there, a good idea? What do you think of that?

Mr. CARTER: It's a risky idea. The theory is that you get more intelligence by being out on foot. You interact with the people better. You don't antagonize the people as much as barreling through town in an armored convoy. But it doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that you're a lot more vulnerable to an IED when you're on foot than if you're in a multi-ton armored Humvee. So we may see more casualties as the near-term result of this policy and as a result of the larger policy of pushing troops out into these smaller counterinsurgency outposts.

BROOKS: Okay. Phil, many thanks for joining us today.

Mr. CARTER: You bet.

BROOKS: That's Phil Carter, a former army captain who served in Baqubah for about a year. He's an attorney here in Los Angeles and a contributor to the online magazine Slate.

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