BAGHDAD -- "What do you do when Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson offer to put down their arms?"
That's the rhetorical question posed by an officer of the 2nd Brigade 1st Infantry Division prior to a morning Humvee patrol here. He is analogizing Sunnis who have abandoned the insurgency to the famous rebels Lee and Jackson, and directing his question to the Shia-led central government.
Inspired tactics by our troops, coupled with a Sunni turn against al-Qaida, have -- in a microcosm of what's happening throughout Iraq -- transformed the northwest part of Baghdad controlled by this brigade. "People ask me if we're at a tipping point," says the brigade's leader, Col. J.B. Burton. "I say, 'No, we have a window of opportunity.'"
The opportunity is knocking at, among other places, an intersection on one of the main roads in the Sunni neighborhood of Ghazaliya. Once, Americans couldn't come here without getting hit. Now, they stop and get out to shake hands with some of the same people who had been shooting at them.
They are the "Ghazaliya Guards," local Sunnis who volunteered to police their neighborhood and man a checkpoint controlling access in and out. They don't look like much. One American soldier jokes that their plain tan uniforms could have been bought at JCPenney. But they have been a game-changer.
Ghazaliya had been a middle-class area with lots of retirees from Saddam Hussein's army, but became the focus of what Col. Burton calls a "no-kidding sectarian war." The road was the fault line between Moqtada al Sadr's Shia militia, the Jaish al Mahdi (JAM), which terrorized the Sunnis from one direction, and the Sunni terror group al-Qaida in Iraq, which infiltrated from the other.
Col. Burton points out a vacant lot that had been piled high with trash and was a dumping ground for dead bodies. Now, it is empty (but for a green pool of raw sewage). The neighborhood is still trashed, with garbage strewn everywhere, but people are walking the streets, and a kind of blighted normalcy prevails.
There were two keys to this turnaround. First, the U.S. pushed back against JAM, whose depredations had driven Sunnis into the arms of al-Qaida. Two, it instituted population-control measures that squeezed al-Qaida. This created the opening for what American troops call "the honorable resistance" -- Sunni insurgents who weren't Islamist terrorists -- to reject al-Qaida and basically switch sides in the war.