Reporter's Notebook: Iraq ... Surging Through the Years

I’ve lost count how often I’ve come to Iraq for FOX News since the fall of Saddam Hussein. I think this is my ninth time. So, I figure I’m in as good a position as any to comment on the upcoming plan by President Bush to deal with Iraq.

My central observation is this: Never has a plan been needed more than now. Never has the situation been so critical as it is now.

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I’ve seen a lot of ups and downs in the last few years here. I think back to the rush of the initial invasion in 2003. And then the quickly unsettling chaos in liberated Baghdad. Within a few months, a deadly and crafty insurgency started to emerge. Along with important political and social gains, the months of 2004 and then of 2005 became a struggle to stay ahead of destructive threats all around.

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Most telling to what’s happening now, I think, is the summer of 2005. I was working on a documentary for FOX News. I toured on foot the Haifa Street area in west Baghdad for several hours with an Iraqi Army general.

I browsed around an open-air appliance market in the east Baghdad area of Karrada. And I drove out to spend time with American soldiers manning a camp next to the home base of a rebel cleric in Sadr City.

I met with Gen. George Casey then, the man in charge of running the war. He was full of hope he could “stand up” the Iraqi army and other local security forces and by so doing draw down U.S. forces.

And I met with the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, too.

He was confident he could bring a large section of the Sunni contingent on board, diffusing the insurgency enough to get Iraq moving.

This time around, you can’t go the two miles to that Sadr City camp unless it’s by helicopter. Clearly it’s too dangerous. Karrada is now a Shiite militia-run open-air “target” for Sunni attacks. And Haifa Street? They just found 27 tortured bodies dumped there Saturday.

As for Casey and Khalilzad, they’re both being dispatched to new jobs. After some well-documented foul-ups by us, I think their strategy was correct. They were just tripped up by circumstances out of their control. The Sunni insurgents hung in and the Shiites “broke out.” The sectarian violence that roared up in 2006 blew everything out of whack.

U.S. military officials now openly admit to me efforts in 2006 to quell that violence in Baghdad missed the mark. Additional U.S. and Iraqi forces were supposed to clear and hold tough neighborhoods.

The problem is: Baghdad is too big, U.S. forces were over-taxed, the Iraqi troops were too unreliable and thin on the ground and the bad guys were too tenacious.

This brings us to President Bush’s plan.

Everyone would wish it well but it sounds a bit like more of the same, just on a bigger scale. It counts on a “surge” of U.S. troops to bulk up our side, and on the Iraqi security pulling its weight. It adds to the economic goodies to be doled out and expects the Iraqi government to finally get even-handed about this country.

Let’s go through the “bullet” points:

U.S. Troops

My latest visit here only underscores my respect for the young men and women of the armed services who risk their lives everyday.

I was with the soldiers of 2nd Infantry Division 3rd Brigade as they dangerously searched a Shia area of Baghdad for signs of lethal militia. It was professionally done with little griping, even though it went on for hours.

But how many months can they keep this up? I kept feeling it was déjà vu … all over again. How many times had I accompanied troops as they went into homes, rustled through hay stacks, searched cars — from Tikrit to Baqouba — for insurgents now militia.

And the soldiers mean well and try hard, but the cultural divide is large, and their footprint is huge. As one officer confided to me as they made the rounds: “They [the bad guys] see our vehicles, know we’re here and just wait and go somewhere else.”

Iraqi Security

The last time I was with the Iraqi army, I was going into Fallujah with the Marines in 2004. Then, they left something to be desired — not clearing areas, crossing lines of demarcation, even stealing from homes. I’m told they still have a way to go but, they’ve gotten significantly better.

But I am also told, though, that they’re still plagued by huge logistical problems — among them, keeping the troops stocked with ammunition and supplies; even paychecks are lagging.

And while loyalty, I’m told, is improving in the Army, many in the Iraqi Special Police and Police forces have a serious “allegiance” deficiency.

Economic Help

Jobs are key to getting Iraq functioning again.

This is the way one officer explained the current hopeful scenario: Offer a fellow $500 a month to be an insurgent versus $400 for a regular job and he’ll take the regular job. But that’s counting on the job being around long enough to be attractive.

We’ve spent billions in Iraq trying to boost the economy only to have insecurity put the kibosh on progress. If the last three-plus years have taught us anything, it’s that no business can survive without security.

Iraqi Government

The people I’ve talked to now pulled a fair amount of punches, but everyone let me have it on this one. The current government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is broken.

Its riddled with sectarian allegiances. That means majority Shiites benefiting to the exclusion of Sunnis. One official complained: “They have the money; they just don’t spend it on the people.”

The most dangerous wheeler-dealer, I’m told, is rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. He runs important government departments like mafia fiefdoms. His colleagues hold sway in the parliament. His murderous militia runs loose on the streets. And Maliki is beholden to him.

So what do I think President Bush should say and do this week?

Put simply: Go Iraqi and go hard.

Bush has to get very tough with Maliki. He has to say: The U.S. troops go, the U.S. money goes, unless he falls into line.

Call the government’s bluff. The risk of funding spigots running dry and the security lifelines yanked and they could come to their senses … or look for the exits!

And don’t put American troops out there alone. Get the Iraqis into the mix as much as their ability allows, and mix the U.S. even further with Iraqis.

Our guys can help Iraqis fight, keep them stocked, can help them eat, help them get paychecks home, even make sure their allegiances remain with Iraq and the task at hand.

President Bush is right: It is “double-down” time. And it’s more than policy being gambled … it’s lives.

I talk to the brave Iraqis who have hung in with FOX News as employees over these last few years. They tell me tales that would horrify anyone — about a husband not being able to go to the market without regularly calling in to his wife, about folks being afraid to go to jobs, kids not being able to go to school, whole neighborhoods being emptied of people.

It might not be civil war yet but it is hell of a way to live … and die.

And I chat with those U.S. soldiers. Much of their time is spent talking about football and home leave.

But I also hear them discuss brushes with deadly roadside bombs so strong they can flip a Humvee in the air or rip through an armored vehicle and kill and maim.

As one very wise young man told me, “Get in the way of that much explosive … and anything or anyone is destroyed."

For those young American service members, for Iraqis of all ages, let’s choose the right plan and let’s pray it works.

Click here to visit's Iraq center.

Greg Palkot serves as a FOX News Channel foreign correspondent based in Paris. Click here to read his full bio.

Greg Palkot currently serves as a London-based senior foreign affairs correspondent for Fox News Channel (FNC). He joined the network in 1998 as a correspondent. Follow him on Twitter@GregPalkot.