Mar. 22, 2007 -- Each time I come to Iraq it's different. This time I spent several weeks with soldiers at Camp Victory near Baghdad. The first time was with the newly minted Stryker Brigade, back in 2003. The battalion I was with then was new, nervous and uncertain. They are back. I bunked next to them at Victory. They are part of the "senior" brigade in Iraq, one of the most respected units here and at the pointy end of the spear in the fight for Baghdad.
The last time I was in Baghdad I was in the middle of an almost unimaginable orgy of violence.
Every experience is a mere snapshot in time -- a single picture in the life of a war. No one is an expert on Iraq. Everyone looks at a broad landscape through a keyhole. Each look gives us a piece of a complicated mosaic. No one can see the whole picture, and many of the pieces are missing.
The pieces of the picture come to life when you meet those who live it. Consider combat medic Jeremy Middelsteadt, who had to pick up pieces of his friends after several roadside bombs went off next to their patrol. It was in a Sunni area near Baghdad. It's near the same area where, once a week, he escorts Sunni women through a dangerous area controlled by rival Shias so they can buy food for their families.
Some of the pictures seem surreal, like a group of Stryker soldiers talking about a fire fight while sipping lattes and devouring Cinnabons. "This just ain't right," observed one.
Some pictures are heart-wrenching. Think about a story told by the soldiers of the Kentucky National Guard. They belong to a unit heavy on citizen soldiers who teach school in real life. They made a habit out of passing out school supplies to children. When a sniper attacked one day he didn't target the soldiers. He shot the children.
David Pate is a young blond-haired Army captain from West Virginia. He didn't know much about al Qaeda or the war when he got his assignment to take care of prisoners a year ago. He is now a dedicated warrior. He talked to al Qaeda fighters every day. "They are a breed apart." He can cut through the theology and politics, "this is it for them." They are the last warriors in the long fight to bring God's kingdom on earth. All they have to do is eliminate those who lure Muslims from the righteous path. That means everyone who doesn't think like they do.
I saw Maj.Alvaro Roa kiss a man. He does that a lot. He is the chief of a transition team that lives and works with Iraqi soldiers. It's a traditional Iraqi greeting -- a hug, head to one side and an air kiss -- but, he means it. He may not say it but he loves the men of the Babylon Battalion, 6th Iraqi army. They are his brothers. They'd take a bullet for him. He's probably on his way home now but I know it hurt when he left.
Some of the snapshots go by quickly and have little meaning at the time. But they linger, sometimes for years.
A young Iraqi girl kisses the cheek of an American soldier -- thanks for a bag full of tooth paste, candy and a blanket.
An Iraqi man is reading a flyer that was strewn around his neighborhood. A group of leaders left it for the al Qaeda fighters in the area. It asks for time to clear the bodies off the streets so their children don't have to see them when they walk to school.
It's dawn, and the light on the horizon silhouettes a group of strange bulky vehicles with snouts surrounded by a cage of slat-shaped armor. The IED patrol is heading out to find road bombs. A cloud of dust follows.
Helicopters, always in tandem, roar over head.
Sgt. Jeremy Wolf casts a fly out over the shallows of a man-made lake in the hope of hooking a bass.
An Iraqi soldier staggers then kneels in shock after hearing that his best friend was just killed by a bomb.
Each picture is a piece of the landscape of a country at war. If I combine them with what I hear, read and learn sometimes there are moments of clarity. This time it's the unlikely vision of hope.
The Iraqi army showed up in Baghdad. I saw them. The last operation to save Baghdad they were almost no shows.
"Lieutenant Abbas and Lieutenant Mohammed are awesome guys. I mean awesome." Captain Timothy Lynch told me, "And to be quite honest, every time I get to patrol with these guys I'm pretty happy about it cause we have that kind of friendship."
Everyone I asked said the Iraqi army is getting better, much better.
This time it really is an Iraqi operation to secure the city. How do I know? I heard American officers arguing with Iraqi officers. The Iraqis won.
But it's the reaction of the Iraqis themselves that tells the story. The soldiers say that in the last two weeks there are more people on the streets, more markets open, and children are going to school. Some Iraqis tell us they believe the coalition and the government are finally serious about stopping the violence. Security stations -- eventually over a hundred -- are being built all over Baghdad.
The intelligence is better. It's hard to know whether it's because the Iraqi army is more involved or if people are just tired of the violence. Months ago it was the Americans rounding up people and hoping for the best. Now tips are leading to arrests of suspects involved in specific acts of violence.
The secretary of defense, Robert Gates, is saying the same things I've been hearing from senior commanders for more than a year. That's new. Now they both tell us the military can't win the war. They both say Iraqis have to settle their differences and form a government for all. Says Gates, "We are just buying them time."
The Maliki government is making some decisions. There are few limitations put on the security forces, there's been a shuffle of ministers and an agreement on the framework for sharing oil revenue.
The miserable situation in the Sunni area of al-Anbar could be on the cusp of change. The Anbari tribes appear to have tired of the heavy-handed tactics of al Qaeda in Iraq. Less than a year ago, al Qaeda was in control and now it is being pushed around by a coalition of tribes. Recently, the push back has spread to nearby Diyala.
Even in Baghdad, some residents are tired of al Qaeda. In one neighborhood residents have been told not to smoke or wear short pants. The bodies of al Qaeda victims litter the streets. In the past week the men on the street corners have been whispering, "Let's get rid of them one by one".
According to the U.S. military, a group of al Qaeda in Iraq fighters recently entered a small village east of Baghdad and announced they would be back and would take several houses for their base. When they returned two days later, their convoy was attacked by villagers. The military found out when the villagers told them to come out and pick up bodies and prisoners.
The numbers of civilian deaths are down a little but that's only a small part of the story. It's the little things together that make the difference. It might be too early to tell if this is a tipping point in the war, but it does appear as though the momentum has changed.
There's a long way to go, but there is room for some hope. It depends on your perspective; those snapshots and keyhole views of the broad landscape of what is a living war.
The next time I'm in Iraq there is one thing for certain. It will be much different picture.