BAGHDAD — We have brought the broadcast back to Iraq for the next several days to see, up close and once again, the conflict that is quickly becoming the story of our times.
And the story here — as we found on a mission to a normally dangerous area Monday — is changing before our very eyes. I was invited to ride along on an inspection of the new policy in action in the cities of Ramadi and Hit, where the goal is getting Iraqi and American troops — Army and Marines — into smaller outposts to fight the war block-by-block.
If you are looking, as we were, for the safest possible passage into a dangerous place in a dangerous country — this is it.
With attack jets overhead, Apache helicopter gunships alongside his Black Hawk and heavy armor and weapons on the ground, Gen. Ray Odierno allowed us to ride along on an inspection trip to two notorious hotspots in Anbar province: the cities of Hit and Ramadi — where the general says a big change has quietly taken place.
"Systematically over the last six months, we have slowly taken control of the entire city," he says.
He is a three-star general and the No. 2 man here for the U.S. — in charge of the day-to-day war effort. Odierno is a New Jersey native, a West Point graduate with two master's degrees. He is a tall, bald and bold presence in the field in the roles of warrior and a kind of Daddy Warbucks — the U.S. has been handing out cash to certain tribes — moving toward rebuilding structures and relationships.
The American general gets briefed all day. He also meets with an Iraqi general who served under Saddam Hussein and now fights alongside the Americans. While a more peaceful Ramadi is news — watch what happens when the local commander describes the past few days.
"It's not a really nice neighborhood," U.S. Army Lt. Col. Charles Ferry says. "It wasn't until five days ago — real bad neighborhood — we would not be standing down here the way you are."
Just then we're told it's still too dangerous to stand there, and we're hustled inside, where life at these outposts is rough, and where the command room looks like it's right out of World War II, except for the laser pointer on the map.
This kinder, gentler form of warfare — forming social ties — is a new role for Odierno: He's known as a take-no-prisoners general whose reputation was damaged at the start of the war for taking too many prisoners. The division under his command forcibly rounded up hundreds of Iraqi men, overloading Abu Ghraib prison. On the upside, it was his group that captured Saddam.
And this is what the general heard Monday about how warmly the locals now view the Americans.
"They do not want us to leave. They want to see the police come through," says U.S. Army Col. John Charlton.
"The people here are very glad to see us — very hesitant for us to go. They want us to stay and to keep beating down the insurgents," U.S. Army Lt. Col. Charles Ferry says.
Brian Williams (to Col. Charlton): You just said, “They don't want us to leave.” That's the 10th time today I've heard that. I've got to go back to the States and do a newscast that every night has another politician or 12 of them saying, “We have got to get out of that godforsaken place.”
"They can talk about policy, OK, and that's what they have to do back there," says Odierno. "My mission right now is to provide protection for the Iraqi people so this government can grow."
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