That's the New Baghdad Security Plan for you. The MP Company I embedded with this week is almost uniformly enthusiastic about the diminished number of sectarian murders discovered in its west Baghdad sector. Over the last 45 days -- roughly since the time Prime Minister Maliki put the plan into effect -- the number of bodies showing up at the typical dumping grounds have dwindled into the single digits, and for the first time in memory, some days pass without any being discovered at all. Even better, during my ride-alongs and patrols with the company, their Humvees didn't even take small arms fire. Nearly everywhere in western Baghdad is a maze of cement jersey barriers and concertina wire, with Iraqi Army, Police and National Police units manning ubiquitous checkpoints. "Having momentum on your side is important," says Captain Rob McNellis, the commander of the 57th MP Company, "and that's what we feel right now."
And yet the larger bombings persist. East of the Tigris, in Sadr City, the renewed presence of U.S. forces have been as yet unable to stop the sort of car bombs that exploded near Saleh's office this morning. Last week, during the end of the Ashura holiday, 18 Shiites were killed in the volatile neighborhood. As I made my way to the Green Zone press center this afternoon, the chief military spokesman, Major General William Caldwell IV, stated that the persistence of "high-profile car bombs" would receive invigorated U.S. attention. U.S. and Iraqi troops are sparing no precautions -- I witnessed drivers pulled over at numerous checkpoints due to even vague suspicions of potential car bombs; and during one of my ride-alongs, the Iraqi Police discovered and disabled a VBIED thanks to a tip -- but commanders are quick to invoke the military clichÃ© that the enemy has a vote.
How he's exercising it is the biggest question. Some of the frequent IED hot spots that the 57th has encountered in Baghdad have gone suddenly IED-free. That's a more ominous sign than a hopeful one: it suggests not that the insurgents feel sustained pressure, but that they're biding their time, observing new patterns and adapting. "If I was an insurgent commander, I'd be taking my time to lay low and adjust," McNellis says.
For now, at least, the early successes trumpeted by Defense Secretary Bob Gates and other administration officials have some merit to them. But there's also a phony-war feel to them. Over the next few weeks, it'll become clearer as to whether the U.S. and the Iraqi security forces actually have the initiative in Baghdad -- and, perhaps, beyond -- or whether they're living on the insurgents' borrowed time. McNellis's point about the importance of perceived momentum is crucial. Demonstrating control is vital to counterinsurgency. That's why yesterday, General David Petraeus and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki took an unexpected trip to the Sunni stronghold of Ramadi. But a different story was found beneath the veneer: Petraeus walked through the city's downtown, while the Shiite prime minister was content to stay on a U.S. military base. He surely didn't want to hear the sound that Saleh heard this morning.