A group of Iraq war veterans returned to Iraq last week as civilians to embed as reporters with their former units, to tell the story of recent successes in the war they believe the media is not accurately reporting to the American people.
Led by Pete Hegseth, chairman of Vets for Freedom, the group of eight citizen-soldier-reporters includes Spec. Kate Norley, who served as a medic in Taji and Baghdad during a 16-month deployment, and Vets for Freedom co-founder David Bellavia, author of "House to House: An Epic Memoir of War."
Hegseth told Newsmax by phone from Samarra, where he returned on Friday to embed with the 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry, 101st Airborne, that the idea for the group trip came to him during an earlier tour as a reporter to Iraq this year.
“My experience in February showed me the value of doing a before and after evaluation” of the surge, which he says was “very much a success” and had been “wise policy.”
“The idea was to put vets back into the same places where they had served as soldiers before, to use their unique eye to get a level of nuance that’s badly needed” for the public’s understanding of the war.
In February, Hegseth was embedded in Baghdad, and was able to visit some of the same neighborhoods he had patrolled two years earlier when he was on active duty. The differences were dramatic, he said.
This time, he asked to return to Samarra, where he had served in February 2006 at the time the Golden Dome mosque was blown up by al-Qaida terrorists.
The Golden Dome mosque (also known as the al-Askari mosque), was revered by Shiites because the remains of two of the 12 Shiite imams were buried there.
Samarra is also believed to be the birthplace of the mystical 12th imam, who “disappeared” at the age of 5 in AD 941. Some Shiites, including Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have devoted a cult to the 12th imam, and believe he will return after a period of worldwide strife, to bring about the victory of Islam and usher in a period of Islamic justice.
Ahmadinejad opens all of his speeches and interviews, even with Western reporters such as NBC’s Brian Williams, with a prayer to “hasten the return” of the 12th imam, which can only be done through war.
The February 2006 attack on the Golden Dome mosque was the event that plunged Iraq into full-fledged sectarian strife, pitting the majority Shiites against the Sunnis, who were then supporting al-Qaida and other insurgent groups.
As recently as this April, Samarra remained one of the hotbeds of al-Qaida activity. It was one of the last places in Iraq to benefit from the new counter-insurgency strategy set in motion by Gen. David Petraeus along with the temporary surge in U.S. troop strength.
Out on patrol Saturday, Hegseth told Newsmax that the first thing that struck him was the complete change in the attitude of the Iraqi population.
“The Iraqis now say that they are not fearful of al-Qaida,” he said. “They no longer fear al-Qaida attacks, or that al-Qaida will blow up their stores or markets.”
The change in attitude came as a result of the new counter-insurgency strategy, he said.
“The United States is setting up safe neighborhoods, setting up checkpoints, then handing them over to the Sons of Iraq. So now you have locals patrolling local areas.”
When Hegseth was deployed to Samarra in 2006, things were dramatically different. “Then, we had Iraqi police coming from outside the region. So they were just trying to defend themselves and go home.”
The new counter-insurgency strategy, of building rapport with the local population, cultivating intelligence sources, and helping the Iraqis to establish local militias to maintain security, has been the “linchpin of success,” Hegseth said.
Samarra in general has been “12 to 18 months behind the rest of the country, so the Sons of Iraq are new here,” Hegseth said.
The reconciliation process that has been so successful in Anbar province and in Baghdad has not yet been institutionalized in Samarra, but already the emphasis on the new counter-insurgency strategy has paid off.
“These actions have planted the true seeds of success.”
Over the past few months, the 2-327th battalion has cultivated a new network of sources within the local tribes that have provided intelligence on al-Qaida holdovers and allowed joint U.S. and Iraqi raids to “root out al-Qaida” from the area.
“This was a wise shift in policy and long overdue,” he said.
Still, much work remains to be done in Samarra, which until just recently was considered one of al-Qaida’s last strongholds in Iraq.
Asked the reaction among U.S. troops to the recent visit by Sen. Barack Obama, Hegseth said there was “a level of frustration that he had made up his mind before he came, so the whole thing was just a photo op, not a real fact-finding mission.”
He also noted that Obama “spent no time with line units, with infantry units.”
If he had, Hegseth said he would have seen that “things have gotten much better here. Violence is at an all-time low both this month and last,” he said.
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