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An Iraq Success Story Is Haunted By Losses

Corey Flintoff/NPR
Sheik Abdul Wahab and Lt. Col. Bob McCarthy brought calm to the Iraqi village of Bechigan, but the sheik saw four men killed in the process; the colonel lost five.

When I met 1st Lt. Tim Cunningham in Iraq in January, he and his fellow soldiers were mourning the loss of three of their men in a firefight. When I came back in June, Cunningham's comrades were mourning him.

A young husband and father had become part of the cost of quelling the violence in an obscure stretch of farm country along the Tigris River north of Baghdad.

Cunningham's fellow soldiers from the Army's 101st Airborne say that, overall, the story has been one of success. They say the operation that cost three lives in January showed the Sunni population that the Americans were willing to shed their blood to back up local people who had turned against al-Qaida.


One of those people was a tribal leader named Sheik Abdul Wahab. In January, he promised the Americans that he could muster the 50 men needed to establish a local guard unit, known as the Sons of Iraq. Even though the U.S. military was willing to pay the guardsmen $300 or more a month, fewer than a dozen showed up. Most people simply couldn't believe that the Americans would be there to stand by them when al-Qaida came back for revenge.

Besides, Abdul Wahab had a problem of his own: His brother was an al-Qaida leader, a link that tested the sheik's loyalties and his trustworthiness in the eyes of the Americans.

Through the winter and into the spring, Lt. Col. Bob McCarthy, the commander of the 1-32 CAV, developed a carrot-and-stick approach. His squadron and the local Iraqi army forces kept up military pressure on the insurgents, while also offering what almost amounted to amnesty for fighters who turned themselves in.

Cunningham lost his life during an operation in late April, when the unit pushed into another farming area known as the Golden Hills. The squadron's executive officer, Maj. Tim Brumfiel, says the target was an al-Qaida cell that had been responsible for suicide bombings and attacks on the local Sons of Iraq.

Cunningham's armored truck rolled into a canal, killing him and another soldier, John Bishop, a 22-year-old private first class from Gaylord, Mich. Brumfiel says four other soldiers in the truck were able to scramble out and survive.


Both Cunningham and Bishop came from small towns in farm country; Cunningham grew up in Rusk, Texas, where his father was a minister. He married his high school sweetheart, Samantha, and they had a 1-year-old daughter, Abigail.

Hometown newspaper reports say Cunningham wanted to follow his brother into the Army. He went to Texas A&M for a year or so, then got an appointment to West Point. A graduation photo taken in 2006 shows Cadet Cunningham waving beside the commencement speaker, President Bush.

Abdul Wahab still presides over his own small farming town. The guard unit that he was unable to muster in January now has 67 men. After being hunted by the Americans for months, the sheik's brother turned himself in.

Capt. Tony Keller, the U.S. officer who works most directly with Abdul Wahab, says things looked good for a while. The Iraqi government charged the sheik's brother, but he faced the provincial high court in Tikrit, which released him for lack of evidence.

Shortly after the brother returned home, four leaders of Abdul Wahab's Sons of Iraq unit were assassinated. Keller says he doesn't think the killings were related to the insurgency.

"Now it's more criminal, thug-based; it's almost a turf war, and I think it came down to money, personally," he says.

Abdul Wahab's brother was among six men arrested by Iraqi police in connection with the murders. Once again, he's awaiting trial in Tikrit, this time on what Keller says is "hard, concrete evidence."

Today, the farm country around the city of Balad is remarkably quiet. Hundreds of former insurgents have turned themselves in and returned to their homes. U.S. commanders deployed in other parts of Iraq are looking into adapting the reconciliation program to their areas.

No one on the U.S. or the Iraqi side seems to want to test fate by saying outright that the war — among the orange groves and vineyards — has been won. Too many factors could still whip up fresh violence, including revenge attacks for past injuries and struggles for power within the new order.

But for now, the peace is as hopeful and unsettling as the silence in the moments after gunfire stops. Even those who aren't ready to call it a success say it's a good thing, and only a few people, in farm towns in Iraq and Michigan and Texas, know what it really cost.

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