RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

One year ago, violence in Iraq appeared to be spiraling out of control. It prompted President Bush to come up with a new strategy. He ordered 30,000 additional troops to Iraq. One year on, supporters and even some detractors have hailed the surge as a success. Violence is down to levels not seen since 2004, and Iraqis are back on the streets.

NPR's Guy Raz reports on how that happened as part of our series assessing the new White House strategy of the surge.

GUY RAZ: The surge wasn't so much a strategy as it was a Hail Mary, a prayer. By the end of 2006, the situation in Iraq was so bad that even supporters of the administration, like the editors of the neoconservative magazine The Weekly Standard, even they acknowledged that failure was just around the corner.

And the magazine's key military writer, Frederick Kagan, was clearly distressed when he appeared on C-SPAN.

(Soundbite of C-SPAN interview)

Mr. FREDERICK KAGAN (The Weekly Standard): The American people have become very frustrated with the course of this war. They should be frustrated. We're losing.

RAZ: So Kagan, who also works at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, along with retired Army General Jack Keane, presented the White House with a plan to change its strategy in Iraq. It called for a surge of troops. The two men also pushed for a change in leadership, and Keane suggested his protege, General David Petraeus, an ambitious officer with a Princeton pedigree to boot.

The White House listened and agreed to roll the dice. But during the first six months of the surge, violence in Iraq reached an all-time high. Retired Army Colonel Douglas Macgregor was following events closely.

Colonel DOUGLAS MACGREGROR (Retired, U.S. Army): Up until that point, the surge was simply providing more targets for the insurgents to shoot at.

RAZ: But then around June, almost too fast for anyone to absorb, the violence began to plummet - a decline that continues up to this moment and has turned one-time Iraq skeptics like former General Barry McCaffrey into believers.

General BARRY McCAFFREY (Retired, U.S. Army): The real debate in my mind - and I think the issue at stake is not whether things are better in Iraq; they are unquestionably like night and day change in the level of violence. The real question is what caused it.

RAZ: What caused it is open to debate. General Petraeus credits the surge.

General DAVID PETRAEUS (U.S. Army): The improvements in security are a result of the greater number of coalition in Iraqi security forces and the strategy that guides the operations we conduct.

RAZ: But some current and former military officers I spoke with disagree, including Virginia Senator Jim Webb, whose own son, a Marine, served in Iraq before the surge was implemented.

Senator JIM WEBB (Democrat, Virginia): My son was there fighting in Ramadi when the situation began to turn around, and I don't believe that it would be appropriate for people to say that that was even a part of the surge.

RAZ: Barry McCaffrey and other former officers explained that a surge of 30,000 more troops into a country of 30 million could never have enough of an impact alone to turn things around.

Gen. McCAFFREY: The least important aspect of the so-called change in strategy was the surge.

RAZ: So if it wasn't just the surge, how did it happen? Well, part of it was exhaustion among Sunnis, tired of fighting and dying. Another part was a ceasefire declared by the largest Shiite militia. But the other part, possibly the most significant, can be traced to the end of last May. That month, 126 U.S. troops died, the second deadliest month for U.S. forces during the war. General Petraeus was under pressure to reduce those casualties.

Col. MACGREGOR: And Petraeus seems to have concluded that it was essential to cut deals with the Sunni insurgents if he was going to succeed in reducing U.S. casualties.

RAZ: The deals Colonel Macgregor is talking about is what the military now calls the Concerned Local Citizens program, or simply CLCs. It's a somewhat abstract euphemism. The CLC program turns groups of former insurgents, including fighters for al-Qaida in Iraq, into paid, temporary allies of the U.S. military.

Barry McCaffrey is just back from a five-day trip to Iraq, where...

Gen. McCAFFREY: I went to a couple of these CLCs; you know, it's five awkward-looking guys with their own AKs standing in a road junction with two magazines of ammunition, and they're there as early warning to protect their families in that village. I think that's good.

RAZ: Some 70,000 former insurgents are now being paid $10 a day by the U.S. military. It costs about a quarter billion dollars a year. It's a controversial strategy, and Colonel Macgregor warns that it's creating a parallel military force in Iraq - one made up almost entirely of Sunni Muslims.

Col. MACGREGOR: We need to understand that buying off your enemy is a good short-term solution to gain a respite from violence. But it's not a long-term solution to creating a legitimate political order inside a country that quite frankly is recovering from the worst sort of civil war.

RAZ: That civil war has subsided - for now. It's diminished because of massive internal migration, a movement of populations that has created de facto ethnic cantons.

Col. MACGREGOR: Segregation works, is effectively what the U.S. military is telling you. We've facilitated, whether on purpose or inadvertently, the division of the country. We're capitalizing on that right now, and we are creating new militias out of Sunni insurgents. We're calling them concerned citizens and guardians. These people are not our friends. They do not like us. They don not want us in the country. Their goal is unchanged.

RAZ: Macgregor, himself a decorated combat veteran and a former administration adviser, articulates a view that is privately shared by several former and current officers. It's not that they believe a plan isn't working. It's that they see it as a dangerous one, one with potentially destructive consequences.

But General Barry McCaffrey argues the gamble is worth taking.

Gen. McCAFFREY: Ten dollars a day, we could pay them that for 10 years if we had to. Better we provide an infusion of cash where we're keeping a local night watchman for us on duty than we conduct combat operations. The money isn't a factor we ought to even take into account.

Col. MACGREGOR: People desperately want to see success.

RAZ: Again, Colonel Douglas Macgregor.

Col. MACGREGOR: They want to believe that we have done something positive for the population of Iraq, that we are helping them to become something positive. The thing that worries me most of all is what happens over the next 12 to 24 months in Iraq. Could we not have actually made matters worse in the long term? Are we not actually setting Iraq up for a worse civil war than the one we've already seen?

RAZ: Iraq can be seen as a conflict temporarily frozen. The largest Shiite militia group has, for the time being, sworn off attacking both the U.S. military and Sunni Muslims. Sunni groups are for now allying themselves with the United States for a fee. And in the north, Kurdish militants are focused on Turkey rather than Iraq. It is a waiting game.

And still, quietly each group builds its own armory. They are all preparing for the inevitability of fighting another day.

Guy Raz, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow we'll hear about the growing disillusionment in Iraq over a political impasse that has paralyzed the government and the parliament.

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