8/8/08
Baquba, Iraq — Four years ago I was a soldier in the Army’s storied First Infantry Division. Today, I am back standing on that same sun-scorched earth, looking up at the clear Diyala sky. I can once again smell that distinct Diyala fragrance — familiar but never desired — of burning leaves, stale bread, and sewer gas. Blindfolded, I’d know where I was. I battled with every ounce of my spirit on this terrain four years ago, and once you’ve been in that situation, there are few details you forget. But were it not for the familiar odor, I wouldn’t believe I was back.[# More #]

Iraq’s restive Diyala province was the backwash of the war from 2004 to 2005. Today, it grabs headlines with operations like Arrowhead Ripper and Omens of Prosperity. In June of 2006, Baghdad’s al-Qaeda leader and Osama bin Laden disciple Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. airstrike a few kilometers from where I stand. Zarqawi had come to this region to shake American forces off his trail.

Then, Diyala was a microcosm of the troubles of Iraq. Three competing factions — Sunni, Kurd, and Shia — make Diyala one of the most complicated areas to understand to this day. The Sunni here are still reaping what they sowed when they foolishly walked away from the national elections of 2005. It has taken three years for them to begin to work with the provincial government — which is Shia-led, despite the fact that 85 percent of the population here is Sunni. In 2004, Iraqis in this area still had their eyes fixed on the atrocities of an ousted dictator and were hostile to unwanted Western influence.

Those days are over. Although some in Diyala are slow to recognize the new Iraq, they have largely stopped trying to kill it.

I walk through Forward Operating Base (FOB) “Warhorse” located just outside Baquba, the provincial capital of Diyala tucked away northeast of Baghdad. I see theatres named after my beloved Command Sergeant Major Steven Faulkenberg, who was killed in action in 2004. Fitness centers are named after fallen comrades. Streets honoring sacrifice and valor. The group securing Diyala today have never met these men. Personally, they know nothing about these men, or why exactly their names are memorialized.

Yet I am touched beyond words that they use these names in daily rotation. They are no longer just American soldiers. They are icons and landmarks. They are as they should be: eternal.

In a few weeks, I’ll return to the comforts and tranquil peace of home — my plane ticket is already booked. But while my present accommodations are fairly Spartan, I don’t really feel like I’m in a war zone. Yesterday, as I slept in my tin can here at Warhorse, I couldn’t help but think how eerily quiet my surroundings were. It was like Kuwait, only with more Americans.

In 2004, my Task Force used to call FOB Warhorse “MortarHorse,” due to the constant and deadly-accurate artillery fire the enemy would lob in from the many dense palm groves outside the wire. A week wouldn’t go without the Infantry gossip mill churning out a story of one of ours losing life or limb while doing little things like laundry or taking a shower. Even though I lived further out at FOB “Normandy,” I always knew Warhorse to be one thing: a target.

Recently, things have changed. Perhaps it is because one artillery unit fired 11,000 155mm rounds in response to a few mortars a few months back. Like a wrench to a leaky faucet, the continuous incoming from the enemy was shut down. Occasionally, an insurgent is brave or ignorant enough to fire a lone ill-aimed round into FOB Warhorse. This does not happen tonight and the word on the street is that it hasn’t happened in months.

A region carpeted with lush vegetation, known by locals for years as the Breadbasket of Iraq, Diyala is great for farming and even better for terrorists to hide from American soldiers. Diyala is the northern corridor from Sadr City leading out of Baghdad and shares a border with Iran. For this reason, the area has been targeted by coalition forces in recent months. The deep palm groves of the Diyala Breadbasket soak up heat and create an incubated environment that is 20 degrees hotter than the outside temperature. I have had many soldiers receive saline intravenous drips after palm-grove firefights. Not fun. The sultry heat makes the task of hunting and killing terrorists all the more wearying.

As in most of Iraq today, the massive reduction in violence and attacks on American forces is jaw-dropping — but fragile. The Iraqi people I meet today outside the wire are understandably leery. Hopeful for the promise of peace and stability from their Shia-led government, but wary of the ever-present danger that a desperate enemy presents.

For example, Diyala province has seen a dramatic increase in female suicide bombers. The culture of Islam makes male searches of females taboo. Al-Qaeda in Iraq has exploited this and across the country the incidence of female suicide bombers has grown. Diyala province has seen the nastiest losses from this new tactic.

To counter this, local Iraqi police have recruited 28 women who are now training to join the Baquba police department, and some 130 women are set to join the Diyala chapter of the “Daughters of Iraq” — an organization with hopes to achieve success similar to that of the “Sons of Iraq.” The 110,000-strong Sons of Iraq has played a major role in keeping Iranian-backed militias and al-Qaeda foreign terrorists out of neighborhoods previously cleared by Americans throughout the country. Soon in places like Buhritz (known to be the Fallujah of Diyala) and Muqdadiyah (my old area of operation), Sons of Iraq will be placed together with Iraqi Army and Police forces at checkpoints. The Daughters of Iraq will undoubtedly be similarly deployed. Just yesterday, three women were arrested in Diyala for planning to blow themselves up there.

Diyala is benefiting from the success of the surge, as is the majority of Iraq today. The obvious improvements here are promising, but the fight against al-Qaeda and its Islamist sympathizers isn’t over. Tonight we will go out and see how much the Iraqi army is actually doing on the ground and how the local population feels about their military, the enemy, and the American presence in Iraq.

— David Bellavia is co-founder of Vets for Freedom and author of House to House: A Soldier’s Memoir.