Even in the chin-high piles of roadside rubble, the crumbled cinderblock and the eerily empty streets of this neighborhood in western Mosul, America's top military officer sees hope. But he also sees peril and an urgent need to get the economy going — jobs, services, some semblance of regular life.
"The security is there, it's much better, it's going to continue to evolve," Adm. Mike Mullen said Tuesday in an Associated Press interview after a walking tour of this recent combat zone. But if local political reform falters "or the economy doesn't get going — and here the two are linked — then I'm not sure that security makes that much difference."
Indeed, that story of Mosul is, in many respects, the story of Iraq: Will combat successes — gained at enormous cost in U.S. and Iraqi blood and billions in U.S. taxpayer dollars — lead to lasting stability?
Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Iraqis must do here what they have inched toward accomplishing elsewhere in the country: somehow accommodating their ethnic and sectarian differences and getting the economy moving again.
He came here Tuesday for a firsthand look at what had been, until recent weeks, the center of al-Qaida's stronghold in Mosul, the largest city in northern Iraq. The insurgents and terrorists are now gone from the local neighborhood and most of Mosul, but it's unclear who and what will take their place.
They didn't leave quietly. It was obvious from Mullen's visit to Combat Outpost Rabiy that the fighting to reclaim this area took a very heavy toll.
'Built on blood'
The result is a newly cleared compound that will enable the Iraqi Army to station more soldiers in this part of the city. Mullen, with a U.S. security detail in tow, walked through the compound and was told that it had served as a municipal auto repair facility before al-Qaida took it over as a kind of headquarters.
"This place was built on blood," said Col. Muhammed i-Bllal, who escorted Mullen on his visit.
In the AP interview, Mullen said he is encouraged that a neighborhood like this — he called it "the toughest place in town" — can be brought under control, with the Iraqi security forces largely in charge.
"Where we were standing today was essentially a combat zone where nobody could stand before," he said. "There were piles of debris 20 feet high on both sides of where we were standing. It's a process. It takes time."
But it is unclear, he said, whether there is time enough for the Iraqi government to change its ways — to follow up on major security improvements across the country to provide public services and jobs.
"I see it again in Mosul: the inability of the Iraqi government to spend money ... and generate jobs," he said. "And that's got to be done."
Mullen said Lt. Gen. Riyadh Jalal Tawfig, who accompanied him to the outpost, told him in a meeting earlier in the day that he was frustrated at the central government's failure thus far to deliver public services.
"He's lost soldiers, he's provided the security, they've made great progress, (but) he needs those services to flow in behind him," Mullen said.
The U.S. leader is hopeful, in part because he has seen progress not just in Mosul but also out west in Anbar province — once the heart of the Sunni Arab insurgency — as well as Baghdad and the southern city of Basra.
The question is particularly pertinent now as the last of the five U.S. Army "surge" brigades leaves the country and it is increasingly left to the Iraqi security forces, and their political bosses, to build sustainable security.
Violence levels are down in Baghdad, Mosul and other contested areas of the country this year, in part due to the growth in size and capability of the Iraqi army, and in part because the U.S. and Iraqi forces are having success with a strategy that relies on establishing small outposts throughout urban areas.
The combat outpost that Mullen visited on Tuesday is a small urban fortress in the sector of Mosul that lies west of the Tigris River, the waterway that has fed the rise and fall of civilizations in this part of the Middle East for thousands of years. The outpost is mainly operated by the Iraqi army, and Mullen made a point of addressing a few dozen Iraqi soldiers to express thanks for their recent gains.
"We will continue to work with you and be great partners," said the admiral, outfitted in body armor and helmet. "We are greatly dependent on you — and your people are greatly dependent on you — for the future."
Mosul is the capital of Ninevah province, which a year ago was thought by the top American commanders in the region to be ready to be returned to Iraqi provincial control. But last fall it became clear that al-Qaida and other insurgent groups were holding sway in the western section of the city.
What followed was a series of Iraqi and U.S. combat operations to clear the area, capped by an Iraqi-led operation in May that succeeded in driving hostile forces out of the city, to more rural redoubts.