Success of Iraq surge rests on ability to suspend cycle of violence

Determining whether U.S. forces are buying enough time and security to allow for longer-term stability is more an art than a science.

BAGHDAD -- The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Blood is thicker than mortar. Tribe and sect trump nation. Look for enemies and you will find them everywhere. Army Lt. Col. Steve Miska knew all of those maxims for negotiating the byzantine maze of Baghdad politics as he interrupted a late-night meeting between a prominent Shiite politician and a senior Iraqi army commander. Miska's troops were engaged in a deadly firefight nearby with the Shiite militia, Jaish al-Mahdi, and he wasn't getting the help he wanted from Iraqi army units in the neighborhood. He also knew that he, an uninvited presence at the meeting, represented the most timeworn cliche of all: the proverbial stranger in a strange land.

Seeing Iraqi legislator Baha al-Araji, an influential spokesman for anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr and his Jaish al-Mahdi militia -- which people here call JAM, or the Mahdi Army -- Miska immediately understood why the Iraqi had so far ignored urgent U.S. requests for backup.

American troops had cornered a renegade death squad from the militia in the nearby Khadamiya Shrine and were taking intense fire from the mosque. But they did not risk approaching one of the holiest sites in the Shiite religion. Al-Araji knew that Jaish al-Mahdi headquarters in the southern city of Najaf had already sent a delegation to discipline the renegade Baghdad cell, and he dared not let the Americans usurp Iraqi tribal justice.

Meanwhile, as the Iraqi army commander in the overwhelmingly Shiite district of Khadamiya, Col. Fallah Hassan Kinbar knew he could not openly oppose the Sadrists; nor could he break faith with the U.S.-led coalition.

So the three men exchanged pointed pleasantries instead. All lamented the deteriorating security situation in Khadamiya. Al-Araji politely promised to pass along Miska's request for a meeting with his brother, an influential Shiite imam aligned with Sadr, although later Al-Araji publicly accused U.S. forces of overstepping their bounds and disrespecting the shrine. Fallah proposed, and later pulled off, a reconciliation meeting between district elders and military leaders to avoid such clashes and, by avoiding a direct confrontation with a powerful politician, kept his job.

Miska, deputy commander of the Dagger Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, left the meeting, and U.S. troops eventually withdrew after a firefight that killed eight militiamen, some of whom turned out to be Iraqi army soldiers who were out of uniform. And in subsequent days, members of the renegade militia cell disappeared from the streets of Khadamiya. Everyone left the meeting with something, but how do these pieces of the story fit into the larger picture?

In old Khadamiya and elsewhere in Baghdad, artisans still practice a carpet-weaving craft that traces its history back to the earliest Persian and Mesopotamian civilizations. In the past, a single master weaver might work more than a month on one large rug, but most of those highly skilled artisans have already fled Iraq. Those who remain typically oversee the toil of many hurried apprentices.

Just by studying the intricate design on an unfinished carpet, a master weaver can spot a potential masterpiece in the making, or identify the imperfections in the pattern that reveal too many hands and the lack of a unifying artistic vision.

To fairly judge President Bush's troop surge and this latest campaign to secure Iraq's capital -- the center of gravity in the long Iraq war -- consider Miska's late-night meeting, with its subtle weave of accommodation and treachery. A single weft in the intricate Baghdad tapestry, that session was one of countless life-and-death transactions that unspool each day in Iraq's capital, like the brightly colored threads in the rugs sold in the markets here: the blood red, the golden honor, the black retribution.

Study the fabric closely and then stand back and try to understand the full image: Will the finished tapestry depict victory, or the outlines of a tragedy for the ages?

Tied in Knots

In a couple of months, Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, will report to Congress on the Bush administration's Baghdad security plan, and America will face another crossroads in its epic nation- and democracy-building experiment.

The core of the surge is now complete -- an additional five U.S. brigades and nearly 30,000 extra U.S. troops are conducting a counterinsurgency campaign to "clear, hold, and build" the city's many districts, neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block. Simultaneously, U.S. and Iraqi forces are taking the fight to the suicide bombers and saboteurs of Al Qaeda in Iraq in the capital city's suburbs.

According to sources familiar with his thinking, Petraeus will not argue in September that the United States has turned the corner in Iraq, but he will point to progress in reducing the sectarian killing in Baghdad associated with Shiite death squads linked to the Jaish al-Mahdi. He will note gains in the ongoing campaign to oust Al Qaeda from the regions surrounding Baghdad, and he'll tout groundbreaking alliances between U.S. commanders and Sunni sheiks and militias to oppose the extreme Islamists in such places as Anbar and Diyala provinces.

Petraeus will again concede the linkage between classic counterinsurgency tactics and higher U.S. casualties, and the success of enemy roadside bombs that have claimed more American lives in the past three months than during any similar period since the 2003 invasion. He will reiterate that, historically, such campaigns are measured in years and even decades rather than in weeks and months.

Meanwhile, the task of explaining why the Iraqi government has not met most of the political benchmarks laid out by Congress will fall to Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq.

If Iraq's government is ultimately unable to reach a national reconciliation that tempers the violence and forestalls all-out civil war, or if Iraq's nascent security forces cannot stand on their own when U.S. forces begin standing aside some time in the next 12 to 18 months, then the unitary Iraqi state will almost certainly fail.

The surge in U.S. forces was designed to create breathing space in a paralyzing cycle of violence threatening to engulf the country and prevent national reconciliation. The military push was meant to slow that cycle sufficiently to stand up a stronger Iraqi army.

U.S. commanders in Iraq will tell you that determining whether the surge is buying enough time and security is more an art than a science. Commanders are left deciphering and analyzing the details of that Baghdad tapestry, with needlework that is so subtle that it is often hard to know if the hands behind the knots are more intent on tying or untying them.

Soccer Among the Corpses

For Col. J.B. Burton, Dagger Brigade's commander, Baghdad's descent into sectarian hell bottomed out early this year at the western end of a road the locals call "Sharia al Dagat." The bombing of Samarra's Askariya Golden Dome mosque in February 2006 set off an eye-for-an-eye cycle of attacks and reprisals by Sunni suicide bombers and Shiite death squads that totally convulsed the city by last January; no region was worse than Dagger Brigade's area of operations in northwest Baghdad.

The northern section of that region was overwhelmingly Shiite and dominated by the JAM militia; the southern section was predominately Sunni and thoroughly infiltrated by Al Qaeda. In the middle, once-peaceful mixed neighborhoods had become raging battlegrounds, with more than 10,000 families displaced from their homes in deliberate campaigns of intimidation and sectarian cleansing.

In January, Dagger Brigade's area of operations was averaging 275 murders a week. Many of the victims were bound and killed execution-style and dumped on the side of Sharia al Dagat and other lonely roads.

On the day in question, it wasn't the bound and mutilated bodies lying beside the road that brought Baghdad's tortured soul into unforgettable relief for Burton; dumped bodies had become a sickeningly routine fixture of the city's morning landscape. It was, rather, the Iraqi children blithely playing soccer among the corpses -- harbingers of a dark psychosis that threatens to shadow this land for generations.

In a World Health Organization survey last year of 600 Baghdad children between the ages of 3 and 10, 47 percent said they had been exposed to a major traumatic event in the past two years.

Not long after that day, Dagger Brigade established Combat Outpost Casino in the mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhood of Ghazaliya, constructing the post in a driving rain that flooded raw sewage through the streets and buckled one of the construction cranes. When local officials eventually came calling at Outpost Casino, a compound of 45 houses protected by blast walls that shelters a battalion of U.S. soldiers, the locals complained to their new American neighbors about the sewage. The U.S. commander nodded his head in agreement. "Yeah, we hate it too! What are we going to do about it?"

Before long, a battalion of the 6th Iraqi army joined the Americans at Casino to conduct joint patrols and operations, and U.S. commanders immediately sensed the benefits that accrued from living among and working with the Iraqis around the clock. That was the end, in Dagger Brigade vernacular, of "commuting to work from 'mondo-FOBS' [giant forward-operating bases], driving urban submarines."

Living and working constantly with Iraqi Security Forces also gave the Americans insight into which Iraqi commanders were trustworthy, and which were in league with the militias and insurgents, or were simply corrupt. The joint patrols and operations pulled Iraqi army troops and police off their own major installations and helped give them increased visibility and legitimacy in the eyes of local Iraqis.

Signs of Normalcy

Combat Outpost Casino became the first of 12 so-called joint security sites that Dagger Brigade established in the neighborhoods of northwest Baghdad. Almost immediately, death-squad murders dropped dramatically to fewer than five a week. Locals began giving U.S. commanders increased -- and more accurate -- intelligence on insurgent and militia activity, helping the security forces to identify and destroy several bomb-making cells.

Although the second Qaeda-linked attack on the Golden Dome recently triggered a renewed cycle of mosque bombings and a rise in the sectarian death toll, U.S. commanders in Baghdad say that the murder rate remains far below the level of earlier this year.

The Iraqi government released figures showing that monthly civilian casualties dipped in June to the lowest level this year, although accurate casualty statistics are considered notoriously hard to come by in Iraq. In general, observers credit the joint security sites with curbing the runaway cycle of sectarian violence, and the hands-on counterinsurgency approach they represent has come to characterize coalition operations in Baghdad.

"Casino became the model for all the joint security sites we established," Burton said in an interview at his Baghdad headquarters, "because by putting it on a fault line of Shiite-versus-Sunni friction, we saw a dramatic decrease in sectarian murders, and soon after, commerce started flourishing again. I remember this little pink schoolhouse near the compound that had hardly any kids in it, and suddenly we stop by and there are more than 350 children back in school. I asked why, and the parents said because the terrorists had fled. When you drive through that neighborhood today, there are kids playing soccer in a field that used to be a drop site for dead bodies. To me, that is a success story."

Although senior U.S. commanders in Iraq have conceded that the Baghdad plan has so far secured only a third to a half of the city's neighborhoods, the surge has only recently gotten to full strength, and Ghazaliya remains an important panel in the developing Baghdad tapestry. The pattern of Joint Security Site Casino has been repeated enough times -- 68 by last count -- that Gen. Petraeus told USA Today in June that large swaths of Baghdad showed "astonishing signs of normalcy."

Controversial in Washington, that assessment makes perfect sense to Burton, who has spent considerable time in Iraq and who early this year glimpsed the apocalypse at the end of the Sharia al Dagat roadway. Today the kids are still playing soccer there. But the bodies are gone. In Iraq everything is relative, violence and normalcy most of all.

"The Worst Place in Iraq"

Consider the case of "Kareem," a young educated Iraqi who clerked in a downtown hotel here before it was bombed so many times that it had to close. He now acts as an interpreter for the Americans and thus cannot give his real name.

"I live in an area totally controlled by Sadr's militia, and for a while, the U.S. military was raiding them every night and making scores of arrests. So the Mahdi Army has been shut down at least for a while, and that's been an improvement," he said. "The JAM are still afraid to start attacking again, for a lack of manpower."

On June 30, U.S. troops raided Baghdad's Sadr City slum, sparking a firefight that left 26 suspected JAM militia members dead. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who once counted Moktada al-Sadr as an important ally and is still beholden to his political bloc, publicly condemned the American raid. It's unclear whether his protests were heartfelt or intended primarily for local political cover and consumption.

When a reporter asked Kareem about his country's long-term prospects, he turned pensive. "I think electing Maliki and this present Iraqi government was a potentially fatal mistake, because they all have sectarian agendas," he said. "But if we find a loyal Iraqi leader who is willing to be fair to everyone, and the people can start thinking of themselves first as Iraqis, then there is still a chance for Iraq."

Like many Iraqis, Kareem noted that the northern Kurdistan region and much of southern Iraq -- 11 of Iraq's 18 provinces -- are relatively calm. "Even the Sunni sheiks in Anbar and Baquba have turned against Al Qaeda and its allies," he said. "But in Baghdad people remain very frustrated and pessimistic. That's why so many have left, Sunni and Shiite alike. Because there is no real life here now. There's no way to survive without picking one side against the other. Really, Baghdad is the worst place in Iraq right now."

Enemy of My Enemy

The outreach to Dagger Brigade came from an unexpected quarter. The Sunni stronghold of Ameriya, just north of the Baghdad airport, is home to many of Saddam Hussein's former military commanders, and U.S. military leaders suspected local militias there of attacking their forces. Yet a local Sunni leader and his followers approached the brigade in late May with an unusual proposition.

Operatives with Al Qaeda had apparently kidnapped members of the man's family to ensure his compliance, and he wanted the Americans to help his "freedom fighters" oust the terrorist group from Ameriya. Once again, U.S. commanders had to ask themselves the question that underscores Iraq's complex and changing mesh of tactical alliances: Is the enemy of my enemy truly my friend?

Certainly such an alliance was not without precedent. Ever since a group of Sunni sheiks banded together to form the Anbar Salvation Council earlier this year, splitting with Al Qaeda and finding common cause with U.S. forces in their fight against the terrorist group, Anbar has been transformed from the most dangerous area in the country to one of the calmest. Before reaching the tactical accommodation with the sheiks, U.S. forces were suffering an average of 30 deaths a month in Anbar, Iraq's westernmost province. In June, three Americans were killed in Anbar, according to the website Iraq Coalition Casualty Count.

A suicide bomber assassinated four Sunni sheiks in a Baghdad hotel on June 25, all of whom were helping to target Al Qaeda in Anbar; the attack proved how seriously Al Qaeda takes a fragile coalition that U.S. commanders consider one of the most hopeful developments of the Iraq war.

Fully aware of the risks involved in supporting armed militias outside the purview of legitimate Iraqi security forces, Dagger Brigade commanders decided that trying to repeat the Anbar precedent was a chance worth taking and they established a joint operations center with the Ameriya militia. When the militia turned on Al Qaeda and a series of fierce firefights erupted, U.S. forces ran medical evacuation operations in support. As promised, the group killed and detained a number of known Qaeda operatives and seized caches of weapons and improvised explosives in the area.

"We knew this Sunni militia wasn't pro-American," Miska said, "but whatever their long-term motives, there seems to be a growing realization among all the militias that Al Qaeda doesn't really have Iraq's interest at heart."

Is Anbar Repeatable?

With the Shiites in JAM at least temporarily subdued, U.S. military officials view stanching Al Qaeda's Sunni suicide "spectaculars" launched against Shiite holy places and civilians as the next critical step in reversing the cycle of sectarian violence ripping the fabric of Iraqi society.

"Al Qaeda empowers other militias, because the Jaish al-Mahdi gets its legitimacy by protecting innocent civilians from its suicide bombers," Miska said. "So if we can stop Al Qaeda, it will take the wind out of the sails of all militias, and whenever the security situation settles down, we've seen economic activity restart in neighborhoods that were once the site of bloodbaths."

After the Ameriya militia helped to drive Al Qaeda out of the district, Dagger Brigade began putting the group on its payroll as a contracted security force and is working hard to persuade the Iraqi government to "deputize" it as a local police force with full transparency of operations and official coalition oversight. That tactic too echoes the Anbar model. In that overwhelmingly Sunni region, the U.S. alliance with Sunni sheiks allowed the coalition to fold militias into local police forces, countering the Shiite domination of Iraq's security forces.

U.S. commanders continue to study Anbar for applications elsewhere in the country, although the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government remains deeply suspicious of the effort. In a heavily mixed Sunni-Shiite area such as Baghdad, the risks are so much greater than they were in Anbar that helping Sunni militias to fight Qaeda terrorists could one day enable them to fight Shiites -- and reignite last year's sectarian maelstrom.

U.S. commanders fully recognize the irony that it was just such "enemy of my enemy" expediency that created Al Qaeda in the first place; the terrorist group formed out of the remnants of the mujahedeen that the United States supported in their fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

"A lot of staff action is taking place to explore the Anbar model, but with the understanding that in Iraq one size never fits all, and what works in one part of the country might not work in another," said a senior U.S. commander in Baghdad. "Everyone realizes that when you arm any faction in a situation as volatile and complex as this, you never have full control over how those arms are used. So while there is some support for the idea that the Anbar model can be exported, there is not universal agreement that this will work for the rest of the country."

Carpet Weavers Revived

Inside a sweltering Khadamiya rug factory on a recent afternoon, women sat hunched before rows of looms, their hands a blur of practiced motion. Infants peeked out from beneath some of the weavers' robes, and shafts of light from overhead windows punctured the interior gloom and illuminated the cloud of wool dust in the stifling air. As a group of Americans toured the dilapidated factory, the proprietor explained the traditions of carpet weaving in Mesopotamia and traced it all the way to the present.

Under Saddam, the state ran the Khadamiya rug factory. As part of a plan that the U.S. coalition outlined earlier this year, the rug factory and other enterprises are being reopened to create jobs and boost production of local Iraqi goods. The initiative is a direct repudiation of the early years of the U.S. occupation, when the former Coalition Provisional Authority's "privatization" campaign shuttered most state-owned factories and spent the vast majority of U.S. reconstruction funds and energy on mega-scale projects awarded to foreign contractors who employed relatively few Iraqis.

Now, after nearly all of the $20 billion the U.S. appropriated for Iraqi reconstruction projects has been spent (with only $805 million devoted to jump-starting the private sector), Iraq confronts a joblessness epidemic. Although the Iraqi government estimates nationwide unemployment at 17.6 percent, with 38.1 percent "underemployment," a recent report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies put the combined figure at about 60 percent for troubled areas such as Baghdad.

In taking leave of the carpet factory, the Americans praise the beautiful rugs, and the Iraqi manager accompanies the group to the door, seemingly reluctant to let them leave. He may be risking his life by being seen with U.S. soldiers in broad daylight, but he doesn't seem to care. In the squalor that is modern Baghdad, someone had borne witness to his life's work and its ties to bygone splendor.

"Our focus here in Kadamiya is on trying to reopen state-run businesses like this, because the bottom line is getting locals employed, especially young men who otherwise will almost certainly find employment with the Jaish al-Mahdi," said Maj. Henry Delacruz, a civil-affairs officer with Dagger Brigade. Often the Iraqi industries need only a little help, he explained, such as business and marketing plans and a seed investment for supplies -- things they never had to worry about as state-run enterprises.

"You take this carpet factory. We're going to need to help him look outside of Iraq for new markets," Delacruz said. "Right now, there just aren't too many Iraqis interested in buying luxury items like fine carpets."

Clear, Hold, Punt

In the new U.S. counterinsurgency strategy of clearing, holding, and building Baghdad's neighborhoods, the "building" is by far the wobbliest leg of the stool because of Iraq's moribund economy and the abiding weakness of the Iraqi government. Almost no one believes that Iraq's overwhelmingly youthful population, for instance, will turn away from the militias and violence without some other means of earning a living. And after 30-plus years of over-centralization and state-run cronyism, a decade of United Nations sanctions, and four years of paralyzing violence and sabotage, almost no one has faith that Iraq's economy can create enough jobs.

Just take the matter of Iraq's "brain drain" and the ripple effect it has on the country's economy. Among the 2 million Iraqis who have fled the country are an estimated 40 percent of Iraq's professional class, the skilled technocrats capable of running government bureaucracies, national infrastructure, and successful businesses. Many other technocrats were low-level Baath Party functionaries in the Saddam era who have been denied government jobs by an overly aggressive de-Baathification purge. Efforts to reform de-Baathification have stalled, along with most other reconciliation reforms.

Partly as a result, the Energy Ministry is unable to muster and protect enough repair teams to work on the frequently attacked transmission grid. As a consequence, Baghdad enjoys an average of only 8.4 hours of electricity a day, and less during the sweltering summer months. For similar reasons, the Oil Ministry was able to spend only $90 million of its $3.5 billion capital expenditure budget in 2006, and Iraq's oil production remains below paltry pre-war levels, despite the billions of U.S. dollars invested in infrastructure.

Across all ministries, the Iraqi government managed to spend only about 20 percent of its $6 billion capital investment budget last year; the flow of government services dried to a trickle.

"Our clear, hold, and build strategy will not work if people in the affected neighborhoods don't see government services, jobs, economic opportunity, and their quality of life improving as part of the process," said a senior U.S. officer who asked not to be named. Although the Iraqi government bears much of the blame, he says, U.S. government agencies have also failed to supply the robust support, mentoring, and oversight to other Iraqi ministries that the Pentagon has given to the ministries of Defense and Interior, probably the two highest functioning in Iraq's government.

"So once again we are seeing a synchronization problem. The U.S. military has surged forces into Baghdad and slowed the cycle of violence, but we can't keep these force levels up indefinitely," the senior officer said. "If we don't see political and economic initiatives fall in behind the surge and take advantage of that increased security, we will have missed another key opportunity in Iraq."

The U.S. coalition's short-term answer to the economic woes was to double the number of Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Iraq from 10 to 20 as part of the surge, increasing the number of personnel from 290 to more than 600. These multi-agency teams are designed to help local and municipal governments and community leaders deliver services to the people. The PRTs have also been embedded directly into Brigade Combat Teams for the first time, improving security and coordination with U.S. military civil-affairs operations.

Dagger Brigade commanders discovered firsthand, however, that even those efforts to jump-start economic activity can be derailed by the incompetence and hidden sectarian agendas of the central Iraqi government. The brigade went to great lengths to reopen a bank in the Sunni neighborhood of Ameriya, for instance, spending $180,000 to put in security barriers, train Iraqi security guards, and vet tellers so that businesses could safely protect payrolls and local workers could be paid.

"And up until now there has never been a deposit of cash into that local bank from the Ministry of Finance that I know of that would allow it to operate," Col. Burton said. "The locals ask me what I'm going to do about it, but that's above my pay grade. I can tell you that there continues to be a campaign of exhaustion waged against the Sunni population in west Baghdad, both by Shiite militias and an Iraqi government policy that chokes off essential services to Sunni neighborhoods."

Memorial Days

Each day when they go "outside the wire" of their urban combat outposts, U.S. soldiers look for small signs that the fabric of the Baghdad tapestry is holding together -- any patch of goodness to justify another uncertain day. No one expects a quick or decisive finish; that's not the pattern of a counterinsurgency war where the lines delineating good guys and bad constantly shift and blur. Small signs will do, like a competent Iraqi policeman, a shopkeeper reopening a market stall, or children playing soccer.

For soldiers, risking life and limb to stitch together a tattered city, through countless Groundhog Days of repetitive patrolling and multiple tours stretching out over years, it's just important to find something to feel good about when you turn in for the night.

This was not going to be one of those days.

Memorial Day has come again for Dagger Brigade. The honoree on this day was Spc. Nicholas Hartge, a small-town kid from Rome City, Ind., a 20-year-old whose buddies ribbed him good-naturedly for being so damnably straitlaced and upright. After trying and failing to follow his stepbrother into West Point, Hartge enlisted in the infantry instead. He decided to stay with his buddies and finish the combat tour even when a West Point prep school offered him a slot that could have led him to the military academy. One of the photos flashed on a screen behind the boots-and-bayonet memorial showed a handsome young soldier with close-cropped red hair, smiling amid a group of playful Iraqi children.

"He was a daring, fun kid with a heart of gold," said Capt. Cecil Strickland, his company commander. "He always stood up for the underdog."

Hartge was so proud of his Army dog tags that he wore them outside his shirt when he was in civilian clothes, and Strickland broke down when he recalled finding those dog tags in the wreckage of the roadside bomb that killed Hartge. Four of his fellow soldiers maimed in the blast were clinging to life in a Texas burn center.

After Hartge's silence answered the final "missing man" roll call, soldiers fired a three-gun salute and a bugler sounded taps. Members of his unit approached the memorial two by two, paid their respects with personal gestures of love and remembrance, and then slowly saluted and wheeled away.

Forming a line shoulder to shoulder, they received hugs and slaps on the back from a roomful of other Dagger Brigade soldiers, the slapping sound a discordant beat of brothers in arms once again keeping time to their shared sorrow. And then, like those of so many others before and since, Nicholas S. Hartge's story ended in Iraq almost before it had begun.

"I've been to a lot of these," Col. Miska said after the ceremony. "And they never get easier."

Back at headquarters, Miska and Burton sat reminiscing with a reporter until past midnight, recalling the good friends among the many Dagger Brigade soldiers who have been killed or wounded in Iraq. There was the soldier who fell on a grenade to save his friends, the senior officer badly maimed and still struggling to reclaim a diminished life, the sergeant who died scouting a Joint Security Site location. The stories went on and on, the conversation underscoring the grave toll that the new counterinsurgency campaign has exacted on U.S. forces.

In the first six months of this year, 575 U.S. troops died in Iraq, a 62 percent increase over the same period in 2006. According to Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, the deaths of 331 U.S. service members in the past three months have made this the most lethal quarter yet for the American military in Iraq.

Memorial Days come often for Dagger Brigade. The next one arrived days later after six more U.S. soldiers and an Iraqi interpreter were killed by a single roadside bomb in Ameriya, one of a seemingly endless variety of improvised devices fashioned to rip Baghdad asunder.

On July 3, soldiers raided a site in Ameriya where a massive 750-pound homemade bomb was being assembled. Their discovery probably averted another catastrophic attack. Pointing on a map to the street where the six soldiers died, Burton refers to the neighborhood and the men lost, but he might as well be speaking for everyone -- Americans and Iraqis alike -- risking their lives each day to hold Baghdad together.

"We paid dearly for this dirt," Burton said, stubbing his finger on the map. "So now we're going to keep it."