Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Good News from Iraq: 19 Mar 2008

From AP, General goes shopping to highlight calm.

ISKANDARIYAH, Iraq - The top U.S. commander south of Baghdad stepped across a pile of trash to talk to an Iraqi man. "What do you need?" asked Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch.

Mohammed Ahmed smiled back and gave his wish list: better public services, smoother streets, more electricity.

"And security?" Lynch replied.

"Security is good," the man explained, pointing out that he got his chickens from Hillah, about 30 miles to the south along a highway that was prowled by bandits and killers a year ago.

Lynch's stroll last week through Iskandariyah — once part of the notorious "triangle of death" south of Baghdad — was most noticeable for its nonchalance.

Lynch took off his helmet, smoked a cigar and meandered through a marketplace on a visit intended to showcase the dramatic drop in violence in the former Sunni insurgent belt.

The trip also sought to tap into the same upbeat tone expressed in Baghdad on Monday by Vice President Dick Cheney and Sen. John McCain, the likely Republican presidential nominee. Both cited the drop in attacks — in areas such as Lynch's zone — as evidence that the insurgency is weakened and internal rivalries are being worked out.

But bloodshed in southern Iraq brought a different message. A female suicide bomber attacked a group of Shiite worshippers Monday near a mosque in the holy city Karbala, killing more than three dozen people.

"The enemy is still out there. We never said they left ... But it's not the same," Lynch said on Saturday in Iskandariyah, about 30 miles south of Baghdad. "I'm very comfortable walking down the street. That is how you get a sense of what is going on. You need to get on your feet and you need to move."

Children ran around their legs as chicken vendor waved at Lynch — who lost five soldiers to a suicide bomber last week on a Baghdad street corner within a couple of miles from where Cheney and McCain met with the Iraqi leadership.

"We have a lot less problems than we had even three or four months ago," Iraqi police Col. Ali al-Zahami said.

As recently as Christmas Day, one of the U.S. Army captains accompanying Lynch last week was sitting in a ring of Bradley fighting vehicles a nearby field still smoldering from a fight with insurgents. For a visiting reporter familiar with the area's violent days, the easygoing market scene had a surreal tinge to it — something would have seemed an impossibility.

"It's not OK yet, but it is improving," Lynch said of the security as he examined some cherry red tomatoes.

Earlier, he walked by an intersection where a suicide bomber on Feb. 25 killed at least 40 Shiite pilgrims heading to Karbala.

"We still had almost nine million people walk on that pilgrimage. What does that tell you?" Lynch said.

Violence has dropped nearly 80 percent from a year ago in the area Lynch controls, about the size of West Virginia. Many of the former insurgents and militiamen are now part of U.S.-funded Sunni and Shiite groups — called the Sons of Iraq or Awakening Councils.

Now, some Iraqis are looking ahead to a day when U.S. forces will scale down their influence.

"We are a rich country and are now selling oil for more than $100 a barrel. We have to get our government to help," Sabbah al-Khaffaji, a city council leader and local plant manager, told a meeting of the group as he pointed to Lynch.

Lynch walked unannounced into the meeting comprising both Shiite and Sunni leaders. Their main topic of discussion: repairing a local Sunni mosque.