A piece published Thursday in the Wall Street Journal touts "small, homogenous, gated communities, each consisting of a two-block square . . . built around a market, a mosque and a generator" being promoted in south Baghdad by a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel as a "success story" in Iraq whose replication the military command is encouraging, despite the fact that it is a reductio ad absurdum of official U.S. policy in Iraq.  --  The man promoting this notion is Lt. Col. Jeff Peterson, "the 42-year-old son of an Army chaplain, [who] has a shy, almost bemused grin, and an informal manner with his troops.  He was working on finishing his doctoral thesis and getting ready to take over the economics department at West Point when he was chosen to command a battalion headed to Iraq."  --  The tragedy, of course, is that from the twisted logic of those in this absurd situation, Lt. Col. Peterson's actions are "justified."  --  But this is because the civil war that opponents of the Iraq war warned against is now in full swing.  --  None of the reaons given for invading Iraq were valid; now a problem that did not exist before the U.S. arrived is being used to justify continued American involvement.  --  A moment's reflection reveals that the "success story" touted here has no prospect of surviving U.S. withdrawal.  --  Far from evidence of "success," it is a compelling demonstration of American failure....


Great divide

By Greg Jaffe

** Col. Peterson Creates A Gated Community; Body Count Declines **

Wall Street Journal
April 5, 2007
Page A1


BAGHDAD -- The lower-middle-class neighborhoods that Lt. Col. Jeff Peterson's troops patrol have been the epicenter of Iraq's civil war for most of the past year. "Every issue facing Baghdad writ large is in our area," he says.

In recent weeks, Col. Peterson has tried a controversial approach to calming his sector. As Sunnis and Shiites have separated into their own neighborhoods, he has resisted the urge to encourage reconciliation or even dialogue. Instead, he has erected massive concrete barriers between the sects.

His vision is for a series of small, homogenous, gated communities, each consisting of a two-block square. Each would be built around a market, a mosque and a generator. "The goal is to provide the neighborhoods with a chance to protect themselves, without having to rely on coalition forces, the Iraqi government or the militias," he says.

How he got to that point -- after months of bloodshed and failed experiments -- illustrates a lot about both the possibilities and limitations of the U.S. vision for Iraq.

Currently, the U.S. strategy for stabilizing Iraq is built around getting Iraqis to reconcile and support the democratically elected, Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. It's a classic approach to fighting an insurgency, in which an outside power works to strengthen a friendly, albeit weak, government. The hope is that with help, the government will eventually win the backing of the people by providing security and meeting essential needs. Once insurgents are cut off from support among the population, they will be relatively easy to crush. That's the premise of President Bush's surge strategy, built around bolstering support for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government.

The problem, say some commanders, is that they aren't fighting an insurgency in Iraq anymore. Today, they are trying to stop a civil war between feuding Sunnis and Shiites. "At times I have been tempted to call it a counter-civil war or counter-sectarian fight," Col. Peterson says.

This isn't just an academic point. In a civil war, building up the government and its security forces may be counterproductive, serving only to ratchet up the killing. Defusing a civil war depends on stopping everyone from fighting.

"If you are given the mission to stop hatred, how do you do that?" asks Brig. Gen. John Campbell, an assistant commander overseeing all U.S. forces in Baghdad.

The difficult mission has led military officials to try some unusual tactics. In an effort to reduce retaliatory attacks on locals, some U.S. commanders say they will hold off raiding a Sunni insurgent cell until they have intelligence on a Shiite cell of equal size in an adjoining neighborhood. U.S. commanders have even coined a new term for this tactic: "balanced targeting."


Senior military officials in Iraq give mid-level commanders, like Col. Peterson, wide latitude in their sectors. They point to Col. Peterson as one of their success stories. "Gating off a Sunni neighborhood is not our idea of a free society," Gen. Campbell says. But in some neighborhoods it may be the only way to stop the killing, he concedes.

Col. Peterson, the 42-year-old son of an Army chaplain, has a shy, almost bemused grin, and an informal manner with his troops. He was working on finishing his doctoral thesis and getting ready to take over the economics department at West Point when he was chosen to command a battalion headed to Iraq.

When Col. Peterson's 500-soldier squadron arrived in Iraq last summer, he was told his top priority was to assist Iraqi troops in restoring order.

His squadron was based in southern Baghdad, where the U.S. military had little presence. In the weeks before his arrival, a radical Sunni group known as the Omar Brigade and the Shiite Mahdi militia had begun to battle for territory, targeting locals. In the typical sectarian murder, masked assassins would speed into a neighborhood, grab a resident, shoot him in the head, and then dump the body in a residential street. "The murders were designed to send a message about which side was dominating and which side was safe in a particular area," Col. Peterson says.

Col. Peterson's unit was partnered with an all-Shiite battalion of about 400 national police commandos. Their area, consisting of about 415,000 residents, is dominated by a large Sunni neighborhood and a densely packed Shiite enclave called Abu Dasheer.

It quickly became clear, he says, that one of his biggest problems was his partner, the national police. Sunni residents "feared the national police," Col. Peterson says. In some cases, he even believed that rogue police troops were helping the radical Shiite Mahdi militia target his unit and local Sunnis.

The animosity between Sunnis and Shiites dates to a seventh-century leadership struggle following the death of the Prophet Muhammad. More recently, the Sunnis, who are a minority in Iraq, dominated the top positions in Saddam Hussein's brutal dictatorship. Today, many Shiites are determined to exact revenge for decades of Sunni oppression.

In early October, the national police began to get into gun battles at the local Sunni mosques. They called for help from the U.S. troops, who initially joined the fight. But the police commanders could never clearly explain how or why the fights started, says Col. Peterson. "The battles were always with a Sunni mosque; never a Shiite mosque," he says. They always began when U.S. forces weren't around.


"What have I gotten myself into?" he recalls thinking. "I felt as though I had been co-opted into their sectarian agenda."

After the third such battle, Col. Peterson decided to take drastic action.

On Oct. 8, he used massive concrete barriers to wall off dozens of streets in the Sunni district, home to about 120,000 people, so there were only two entrances. Col. Peterson then told the national police troops -- whom he was supposed to be mentoring -- that they weren't allowed into the area unless they were accompanied by his soldiers.

"It was a pretty big step backwards in terms of cooperation," he says.

After a few days, violence began to drop. In October, his troops discovered 54 dead bodies in their sector. In November, the number was 43. Locked out of the big Sunni neighborhood, the national police concentrated on patrolling the largely Shiite district of Abu Dasheer -- where they were welcomed by the people as an alternative to the radical Shiite militias that had been providing security. Col. Peterson concentrated his forces inside the Sunni isolation zone.

The lesson: "Self-segregation might be a necessary interim step to reducing sectarian killing," he says.

The U.S. strategy for dealing with sectarian tension is focused on reconciliation and sharing power. Last month, Mr. Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, encouraged Sunnis and Shiites who had been driven from their neighborhoods by sectarian bloodletting to go back to their homes. He is promising cash payments and support from the largely Shiite Iraqi army and police forces to speed the resettlement.

Shortly after Mr. Maliki's televised address, Col. Peterson saw how disruptive such a policy might be in his area. He met with leaders of the now almost exclusively Shiite district of Abu Dasheer. The area had once been home to a sizable number of Sunnis, but most have been driven out by Shiite militias issuing death threats.

At the meeting, Sheikh Sattar, a Shiite leader of the neighborhood council, insisted that only three Sunni families had been driven from Abu Dasheer. His voice brimming with anger, he said that the three families were responsible for the deaths of 400 Shiites, including his son. The other Sunnis left willingly, selling their homes and stores to Shiites, he said.

"They all say that no Sunnis left Abu Dasheer" against their will, Col. Peterson says. "It is a denial of reality. But it is the party line."

After the meeting, Col. Peterson said prospects for any real reconciliation between Sunnis and Shiites were dim because of so much mistrust and hatred. Overcoming differences is probably a "generational undertaking," he said.


There is also little faith among the people in the Iraqi government, which in 2006 spent only $29 billion of its $40 billion annual budget. Most of that went to salaries instead of services, say senior U.S. officials. In Col. Peterson's area, various groups -- including mosques, militias and insurgents -- have rushed to fill the void, offering security or even food and fuel. These groups don't have to do much to win support. "They just have to do better than the government. Anything above zero is a better alternative," Col. Peterson says.

By January, Col. Peterson concluded he couldn't wait for the Iraqi government to provide basic services. Nor was it realistic to think local residents would reconcile and share power any time soon. He began to search for a different approach, relying as much on his education as an economist as his training as a military commander.

"How do we give people control over their neighborhoods so they take responsibility for what happens there?" he recalls thinking.

About the same time, some Shiites asked one of his lieutenants if they could form a neighborhood-watch group to protect themselves. The group members weren't allowed to carry guns. But they did wear badges and when they spotted outsiders in their area, they could notify U.S. or Iraqi forces using cellphones.

At first, the neighborhood watch seemed to work. Then, leadership of the group was taken over by the radical Shiite Mahdi militia. "If we were not sitting in the area, there would be gunfire from sunup to sundown," says Capt. Adam Grim, the company commander in that area. In February, Col. Peterson detained eight of the watch members and charged them with participating in the murder and intimidation of Sunnis.


After the arrest, Col. Peterson analyzed why the watch had failed. He concluded that the neighborhood they were overseeing was too big. He hadn't controlled access to the area. Most important, he felt he hadn't given the neighborhood anything worth defending, such as a better quality of life.

The failure helped give birth to a new approach. He began to refurbish a market in the Sunni district he had blocked off. He noticed that as soon as he installed concrete barriers around the market to prevent car bombs, people flocked to the once-deserted stores. He then walled off a two-block-by-two-block-square area of homes around the market so there was only one way in and out of the neighborhood.

"That seemed to be about the right size that allowed the community to handle its own security and quickly spot outsiders," he says.

Finally, he bought the market manager a 450-kilowatt generator -- enough to power the 29 stores in the market and about 100 houses. Today, the Sunni manager, Khalid Ishmael, sells power to the stores and the houses in the gated community. The Americans help him buy fuel. He handles the maintenance and sets his own rates -- enough to turn a small profit. He has nothing but contempt for the Iraqi government and the national police in the area. "They will kill us without the American forces to stop them," he says.

Many residents feel the same way. But the area is fairly free of insurgent and militia groups, according to Col. Peterson and locals. In contrast to most Iraqi neighborhoods, where trash is piled on median strips, neighbors in the gated community collect their refuse and burn it in an abandoned lot. Mr. Ishmael keeps a handwritten log of his power customers in a small notebook. He and his staff of two take turns sleeping nights on a filthy cot next to the generator, to protect it from thieves. The streets and the market bustle with women and children.

"I want to get to the point where people say, 'When are you going to build one of those gated communities for me?'" says Col. Peterson. "When we leave here, I'd like to have a string of them."

Although life has improved for many Iraqis in Col. Peterson's sector, it is far from safe or stable. In February, his unit discovered 25 bodies, down from 39 in January. In many areas, more than half the houses are abandoned. Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods exchange mortar and rocket fire on an almost daily basis, often wounding and killing innocent locals.

On a recent morning, Capt. Douglas Graham, one of Col. Peterson's company commanders, was heading out on a foot patrol through the gated community when he heard an explosion of gunfire. A national police unit was traveling on the nearby main highway when an insurgent sniper opened fire on them from a neighborhood to the north. The police stopped traffic in both directions, and, for the next hour, blasted away at that neighborhood, as well as Col. Peterson's gated community.

Capt. Graham tried to tell the Iraqi troops to cease fire. When that failed, he had his interpreter call the brigade commander. "Nothing is going to be solved by taking potshots into the neighborhood," he said.

The next day, Sgt. First Class Roger Hunceker led a patrol of about 20 soldiers through the gated community. They were met by Mr. Ishmael, the market manager, who said the gunfire had wounded a woman in the leg and left his home pockmarked with bullet holes. He was convinced the police were targeting the neighborhood on purpose. "They do not want us to succeed. Anything positive that happens in the Sunni areas they will try to destroy it," he said through an interpreter.

Sgt. Hunceker tried to reassure him, telling him that the police who opened fire were from a different area, and that the national police in his neighborhood were improving. But locals can't distinguish one police commando unit from the other. They all wear the same green camouflage uniforms and for the most part, are all feared by Sunnis. "We cannot leave our neighborhood. If we try to pass through one of their checkpoints, they will kill us," Mr. Ishmael said. However, he says he has no plans to turn to the Omar Brigade, the Sunni-based militia force that operates in the area. "We have accepted all this help. The Omar Brigade will kill us for cooperating with the Americans," he said.

For Col. Peterson, the market manager's remarks were encouraging. The gated community offers "an alternative to the militia and it's an alternative he has some control over," he says.

In late March, Col. Peterson's squadron was transferred from southern Baghdad to the Haifa Street area of the capital, the site of a massive gun battle between Sunnis and U.S. forces earlier this year. Senior U.S. officials say they moved the squadron to the area, which has been a persistent problem for U.S. forces, in the hope it will be able to replicate some of the success it has had in southern Baghdad. A new U.S. battalion has been assigned to that area.

"We'll have a fresh start to continue these techniques," Col. Peterson wrote in an email. "Hopefully it won't take as long to get started this time."

--Write to Greg Jaffe at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.