BAGHDAD – Michael J. Totten is an independent journalist reporting on the war in Iraq. Here is a portion of his latest journal entry provided exclusively for FOXNews.com.
82nd Airborne Lieutenant William H. Lord from Foxborough, Massachusetts, prepared his company for a dismounted foot patrol in the Graya’at neighborhood of Baghdad’s predominantly Sunni Arab district of Adhamiyah.
“While we’re out here saying hi to the locals and everyone seems to be getting along great, remember to keep up your military bearing," he said. "Someone could try to kill you at any moment.”
I donned my helmet and vest, hopped into the backseat of a Humvee, and headed into the city with two dozen of the first soldiers deployed to Iraq for the troop surge. The 82nd Airborne Division is famous for being ready to roll within 24 hours of call up, so they were sent first.
The surge started with these guys. Its progress here is therefore more measurable than it is anywhere else.
Darkness fell almost immediately after sunset. Microscopic dust particles hung in the air like a fog and trapped the day’s savage heat in the atmosphere.
Our convoy of Humvees passed through a dense jungle-like grove of palm trees between Forward Operating Base War Eagle and the market district of Graya’at. The drivers switched off their headlights so insurgents and terrorists could not see us coming. They drove using night vision goggles as eyes.
Just to the right of my knees were the feet of the gunner. He stood in the middle of the Humvee and manned a machine gun in a turret sticking out of the top. I could hear him swiveling his cannon from side to side and pointing it into the trees as we approached the urban sector in their area of operations.
This was all purely defensive. The battalion I’m embedded with here in Baghdad hasn’t suffered a single casualty — not even one soldier wounded — since they arrived in the Red Zone in January. The surge in this part of the city could not be going better than it is. Most of Graya’at’s insurgents and terrorists who haven’t yet fled are either captured, dormant, or dead.
A car approached our Humvee with its lights on.
“I can’t see, I can’t see,” said the driver. Bright lights are blinding with night vision goggles. “Flash him with the laser,” he said to the gunner. “Flash him with the laser!”
A green laser beam shot out from the gunner’s turret toward the windshield of the oncoming car. The headlights went out.
“What was that about?” I said.
“It’s part of our rules of engagement,” the driver said. “They all know that. The green laser is a warning, and it’s a little bit scary because it looks like a weapon is being pointed at them.”
We slowly rolled into the market area. Smiling children ran up to and alongside the convoy and excitedly waved hello. It felt like I was riding with a liberating army.
Graya’at’s streets are quiet and safe. The neighborhood doesn’t look or feel like war zone at all. American soldiers just a few miles away are engaged in almost daily firefights with insurgents and terrorists, but this part of the city has been cleared by the surge.
Before the surge started the neighborhood was extremely dangerous.
“We were on base at Camp Taji [north of the city] and commuting to work,” Major Jazdyk told me earlier. “The problem with that was that the only space we dominated was inside our Humvees. So we moved into the neighborhoods and live there now with the locals. We know them and they know us.”
Lieutenant Lawrence Pitts from Fayetteville, North Carolina, elaborated. “We patrol the streets of this neighborhood 24/7,” he said. “We knock on doors, ask people what they need help with. We really do what we can to help them out. We let them know that we’re here to work with them to make their city safe in the hopes that they’ll give us the intel we need on the bad guys. And it worked.”