Mahmoudiya, Iraq — The helicopter flies low over flat farmland dotted with palm trees, just south of Baghdad. This is an area that looks bucolic but used to be called the Triangle of Death.
Until recently this region was known for the most brutal al-Qaida atrocities, including the beheading of corpses in Shiite funeral convoys. Al-Qaida in Iraq controlled the rural, Sunni areas while Shiite extremists infiltrated the mostly Shiite town and drove out Sunni families.
I flew down here to look at a stunning transformation. Al-Qaida has been badly hit (but not finished); Sunni tribesmen now work with U.S. troops.
Shiite extremists are standing down, for now. Sunni and Shiite sheikhs are holding reconciliation meetings, some organized by the U.S. Institute of Peace, an American think tank. The Rasheed outdoor market in Mahmoudiya is busy selling piles of tomatoes, grapefruits, oranges, clothing, machine parts and sundries; not so long ago it was a burnt-out eyesore. An Iraqi army unit is working in strong partnership with U.S. forces.
These gains could be reversed, but this tortured town is enjoying a tentative peace. It provides a textbook case of the Army's new counterinsurgency doctrine, which emphasizes protecting the civilian population as much as fighting.
The best way I can give a sense of the situation is to provide some snapshots of some of the Americans and Iraqis involved in the transformation.
¢ The colonel. Lt. Col. William Zemp, commander of the 3d Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, is a man with a plan. In his bare-bones headquarters, he is focused on "peace enforcement" rather than fighting. With only a 400-man combat team, his goal is "to utilize all assets and address the conditions that make the violence exist."
That means partnering closely with an Iraqi army unit and building relationships with Sunni sheikhs. It means helping the local mayor rebuild the town, with a team of U.S. civilian experts embedded in his unit.
"In September we were fighting, and less than 24 hours later we were doing a humanitarian mission, identifying needs," he says. "A military commander has to work with the people who have fought his soldiers, and mediate with political officials."
¢ The tribal leaders. Sheikh Mizer Hamdani and his brothers are eager to welcome Zemp to their huge diwan, lined with brocaded couches. Hamdani wears a traditional black cloak and checkered headdress, but he has a doctorate from Utah State in civil engineering. He admits he was opposing the Americans only months ago.
"The Americans changed in the last year," he says. "Now they are trying to listen. They choose the right people."
Hamdani is a Shiite, but his tribe - like many others in Iraq - also includes Sunnis. He leads one of the new Sunni paramilitary groups fighting al-Qaida, and his brother Hassan participates in USIP reconciliation efforts.
As the Americans leave, Hamdani huddles with Steve Jones, a civilian city planner on Zemp's provincial reconstruction team, to discuss building a water-treatment plant.
¢ Mayor Moayed Fadhel Al Ameri. With a brush of gray hair and wire-rimmed glasses perched on his nose, the mayor talks of the need for reconciliation. A participant in the U.S. Institute of Peace effort, he relates how Shiite sheikhs recently renovated a Sunni mosque while Sunnis rebuilt a Shiite shrine.
But he is nervous about radical Shiites who still hide in the town and fears the new Sunni paramilitaries could be a problem in the future if the government doesn't give them jobs. "The extreme right and the extreme left only want power," he says.
¢ Gen. Ali Jassem. The commander of the 4th Brigade, 6th Iraqi Army Division is a professional soldier who fought the Americans during the invasion of Iraq.
In his headquarters, with large area maps on the walls and a historic painting of Arab horsemen fighting in the desert, the tall, straightforward commander dismisses the idea of loyalty to sect or ethnic group. He says sternly: "We must put Iraq first before tribe, political parties, families." He is a Shiite married to a Sunni who gave one son the Shiite name Hussein and a second the Sunni name Omar.
In a new military accused of sectarianism, this is the kind of Iraqi soldier who gives hope that the army may yet jell. He wants to re-establish order and lawfulness in his country. He enjoys the trust of the tribes.
Once opposed to the Americans, he says emotionally of Zemp's troops: "These guys support us."
These portraits can't tell us what's in Mahmoudiya's future, but they do explain some of the positive changes going on - in army doctrine, in the tribal turn against al-Qaida, and in the improvements in the Iraqi army. They also reveal an Iraqi public tired of violence and eager for an alternative.
Things could go sour, but Mahmoudiya shows the possibilities for an outcome that could permit Americans to go home. I came away from my visit convinced there's at least a chance to consolidate recent gains.