Samarra, Iraq — Our foot patrol approaches the end of the street, where a dozen men seek shade from the midday sun. Some 20 meters away, young men in fluorescent-yellow reflective vests stand enduring the full force of the scorching heat. The local boys look like heavily armed school crossing-guards as they check cars entering the neighborhood. We walk past them and the giant barriers they guard to engage a group sitting around a corner convenience store.
Shop owner Abdul Kadir, a resident of Samarra for 20 years, breaks from the group to greet us. “Fogun Nouhal,” he says casually. I turn to the interpreter immediately, as this is a greeting I never heard in my eight months in Samarra. He laughs and says it means he is “excellent,” and can “finally breathe the fresh air.” Literally, it translates to “up and over the palm tree.”
Abdul Kadir and his neighbors in the Dubout district of Samarra, have not always been “up and over,” but instead have spent most of the past five years down and out. Dubout, which translates to “Officer,” was home to most of Saddam’s loyal military officers in Samarra and became a pocket of resistance in the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Three years later, it was Al Qaeda’s top hideout in Samarra. The blocks we walk today were daily battlefields in 2007, and sketchy at best when I was here in 2006.
Not so today. Dubout is now one of the safest neighborhoods in Samarra. In fact, it lies at the heart of a transformed city, freed from the grip of fear and poised for lasting stability. Women walk freely to markets, kids run gaily in the street, and Iraqi Security Forces patrol without masks on — unafraid of their central-government affiliation. One of the primary reasons for this change is the “Safe Neighborhoods” counter-insurgency program implemented by Lieutenant Colonel Joseph McGee’s “No Slack” Infantry Battalion.
In coordination with the up-and-coming Sons of Iraq (SOI) movement, “Safe Neighborhoods” has empowered the local population to expel insurgents without overtly putting their own lives at risk. With the heavy lifting — and trigger-squeezing –left to reinforced U.S. forces and emboldened Iraqi Security Forces, Samarrans soon felt comfortable enough to help Al Qaeda’s encroachment here. Sounds simple enough, right? Think again. Block by block, I heard the relief in their voices, and the relaxation in their faces.
Following months of sustained violence, in November 2007 “No Slack” set the conditions for a neighborhood-by-neighborhood operation by systematically sealing off the city from unauthorized vehicle traffic and beefing up checkpoints into the city. With substantial help from Iraqi Security Forces and the SOI, “No Slack” saturated the city with troops, fighting insurgents block-by-block, eventually pushing Al Qaeda outside the city limits.
This type of operation had been tried before numerous times in Samarra — to great fanfare in the media, but little avail on the ground. Usually — as in 2006 — the lull in violence was short-lived and soon followed by a sustained counterattack by Al Qaeda that re-established their ascendance over the months that followed. We employed what might be called a shampoo policy: We’d lather; they’d rinse; we’d repeat.
However, in March of this year, LTC McGee’s boys — with the help of their Iraqi partners — set out to clean up Samarra once and for all. Faced with tacit resistance from higher-ups, LTC McGee persisted nonetheless. He knew the same old patrols launched from the same old patrol bases would not get the job done. The population must be secured first — something that, tragically, had never been done in five years of American presence in Samarra.