U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker is on a mission to find progress -- progress that will demonstrate to Congress and the American public that not only is the surge of U.S. forces here working but that the relative security it is bringing will improve the political situation.
"There is, I think, an improving security situation," said Crocker, who suggested dramatic political progress across Iraq would not be evident anytime soon.
"I don't think you can expect instant political progress," he said, "that all of a sudden the level of violence has dropped and therefore political deals that weren't possible three weeks ago are suddenly possible."
To drive home the point that there are pockets of progress, Crocker choppered into Ramadi, the capital of Al Anbar, a mainly Sunni Muslim province in western Iraq. It's a place that just a few short months ago no Western civilian would have dared step foot in.
Under heavy guard, Crocker walked through downtown Ramadi -- its buildings and streets scared and pitted by years of fierce fighting -- to meet with local shopkeepers.
The turn around in Ramadi is stunning. In June 2006 there were nearly 450 attacks against U.S. forces there. This June there were fewer than 25.
Marine specialist Justin Whited has just 42 days left of a year-long rotation. He saw Anbar at its worst. The new security has increased morale and renewed his hope. He can even walk freely on base with little worry about snipers.
"I feel like we are actually accomplishing something, that we are performing a mission and it's succeeding," he said.
Safer Streets After Violence
The United States said it is capitalizing on a split between Sunni tribes and al Qaeda that started in 2005. The military has sped money and projects to the devastated cities of Anbar, and Crocker is urging Iraq's central government to be more responsive to Anbar's needs.
What was most remarkable about the ambassador's trip is what he chose to wear -- or not to wear. The top U.S. official in Iraq left the flak jacket and helmet behind as he spoke with Iraqis on the streets of Ramadi.
Crocker visited a small photography shop in Ramadi run by Amer Latoofi Hussein Al-Bayati.
The walls of his tiny store still have bullet holes from years of fighting. He pointed to a picture of a young man hanging behind his counter and told the ambassador the insurgents "killed my son because he shook hands with an American." Al-Bayati wants compensation for his son's death.
Crocker, speaking in Arabic, answered Al-Bayati by introducing him to the provincial governor who took down the man's information and promised to speed up his compensation.
As the ambassador's nervous staff tried to get him to move on to his next meeting, a local police officer collared the top American diplomat in Iraq and complained that he hadn't received a paycheck in three months.
He told the ambassador that he had borrowed money and now had no credit left.
They were small but telling complaints for a man who is scheduled to deliver to Congress -- along with Gen. David Patraeus -- an Iraq status report in September.
Crocker downplayed the significance of the report.
"I don't think September can be a defining moment," he said. "I don't think there is a date on the calendar, whether it's in September or any other time in which you can say, 'This is the defining moment. It's all coming together, or it's all falling apart.' It's an enormously complex situation."
Anbar, and much of Iraq, is fractured in ways large and small. It is hoped that the change in security in Anbar Province will help speed political progress locally, and eventually nationally.
Anbar's provincial council, whose members Crocker met, expressed great reservations about Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government's willingness to meet its demands of more local autonomy and increased funding for rebuilding a shattered infrastructure.
When asked if he trusted the central government Ma'amoon Al-Awani, Anbar's governor looked thoughtful, then said "about 50-50." He then let out an enormous laugh.