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Last Updated: Saturday, 8 December 2007, 11:58 GMT
Fragile success for US Iraq surge
BBC correspondent Mark Urban has just returned from a second spell embedded with US soldiers on tour in Iraq to assess Washington's claims of an improving security situation.

Lieutenant Jake Carisle, 2nd Platoon commander, talks to an Iraqi youth on his way to school in Doura, southern Baghdad
Winning over local people has been key to reducing violence in Dora
For the American soldiers patrolling Baghdad's southern suburb of Dora these are days of trial by tea.

For in many houses they enter in this largely Sunni part of the city, hot sweet tea is offered and they know that refusal can offend.

It does not stop at tea either. As a goodwill gesture, the soldiers have taken to buying roast chicken, cheese, bread, and the Iraqi delicacy called samoun - bread dipped in sweet syrup - as they make their rounds of Dora.

Next week the men of the 2nd Platoon, Gator company, 2-12 Infantry, will stop their patrols, and head back to Colorado after 15 months in Iraq.

Out of 36 members of the 2nd Platoon who arrived in Baghdad back in autumn 2006, three have been killed and 10 wounded.

The invitations to tea are clearly a recent phenomenon, because back in April - when I was embedded with the same men - they were coming under attack every day.

The platoon commander, Lieutenant Jake Carlisle, was himself shot twice during an incident this summer, but was back on the streets six days later.

Local support

I have padded around this part of Dora for four days with Lt Carlisle and can report that this 25-year-old's job is now largely about dishing out money.

Women shopping in Dora market
Stability has allowed more stalls and shops to open in Dora market
This young officer from Wisconsin is supervising a $200,000 (100,000) school project and numerous other contracts to get the local economy going again.

Nearby Dora market is thriving. Back in April when we visited, about 200 stall or shop owners were risking snipers and bombs to open for business. Now there are more than 1,000.

Several months ago America's commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, made Dora - a key battleground in Sunni-Shia sectarian violence - into a pilot neighbourhood for his new tactics.

His plan involved trying to win over the population through increased security, what we sometimes call "the surge".

Tough times

It fell to 2-12 Infantry to make that happen. The bombs and bullets poisoned some of them.

Nick Mazzarella, a young private from Florida who survived a roadside bomb that killed a colleague, told me back in April that he had no respect for the people of Dora because they turned a blind eye to al-Qaeda's roadside bombs.

A Map of Baghdad showing the southern district of Dora
Now there is a healthy flow of intelligence from the local community, the insurgents have been eliminated or hired as local militia and attacks on the Americans are down sharply.

"Was it worth it?" I ask Mazzarella.

"None of this was worth the life of even one member of our platoon," he replied.

I look at Pt Mazzarella, who has survived so many incidents that the Iraqi soldiers nicknamed him "Abu Machakil", or father of problems, and see in his eyes, his whole demeanour, complete exhaustion. I wonder whether he will become another post-traumatic stress statistic.

Those who have entered into Iraqi life most fully during the daily foot patrols seem to be the ones who are most content with their lot
Dorian Perez, the cerebral platoon first sergeant, tells me that during his long tour of duty in Iraq he and his wife have spoken on the phone about separating.

This will be the fourth out of the last five Christmases that he has been on tour overseas.

Sgt Perez says his squad leaders are good men, but that he has become sick of the sight of them and is constantly having to check his temper over trivial issues. He hopes to find peace when he goes home, and set his marriage back on track.

Several of the youngsters in the platoon are planning to blow off steam at New Orleans Mardi Gras in February. Others have booked trips to Las Vegas or snowboarding. Their focus is shifting from Dora to home-coming.

Fragile success

Those who have entered into Iraqi life most fully during the daily foot patrols seem to be the ones who are most content with their lot, or are least ground down by it.

One of the 2nd Platoon's young sergeants, after 15 months in Baghdad, has even applied to stay.

"That guy speaks the best Arabic," Specialist Benjamin Jones tells me.

BBC's Mark Urban (L) stands next to Specialist Benjamin Jones (C) and members of 2nd Platoon
Mark Urban (L) spent four days with the 2nd Platoon
Spc Jones rates himself as second best Arabic speaker in the platoon and, having seen him in action during our foot patrols, I can testify that he has picked up a remarkable grasp of it.

It is not all Spc Jones has picked up - I tease him that he has grown a little more substantial since our last visit - there are hoots of laughter from his mates.

On his many house calls in Dora, Spc Jones has been filling up on sweet tea and samoun for his country and for the success of the surge.

Everybody in the platoon believes their success is fragile. It could all easily still go wrong.

But if 2007 does prove to be a turning point it will be men like those in 2-12 Infantry who made it possible.

As to what Iraq has done to them, that is a story for the rest of their lifetimes.

BBC Two's Newsnight will be showing Mark Urban's film report about his time with 2nd Platoon on Tuesday, 11 December, 2007 from 2230 GMT.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 8 December, 2007 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: Iraq
03 Aug 07 |  Country profiles


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