May 12: Mornings are usually slow at COP 821, the combat outpost in Baghdad's southwestern neighborhood of Saidiyah that houses the Apache Company of the 4-64 Armor Battalion of the 4th Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division. Soldiers walk to the plywood shower shacks in their flip-flops and military-issue T-shirts and shorts, then put on their uniforms and go to the spacious mess hall, where 1st Sgt. James Braet, Capt. Andrew Betson and 2nd Lt. Chris Allen are enjoying a leisurely breakfast of cereal, defrosted and reheated steak, scrambled eggs made from powder and prefabricated French toast. No one is carrying a weapon, and even the knives in the mess hall are plastic. The only soldiers wearing body armor are the ones returning from the guard towers, or from patrol missions.
"What is stopping somebody from attacking this COP?" I ask the 1st sergeant. "From driving up in a cement truck or two filled with C4 and blowing them up?"
"Apart from the physical barriers," Braet responds, carefully cutting his steak into neat squares with plastic fork and knife, "not a whole lot. There is the wall, of course, so it's harder to drive a VBIED" -- a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device, military parlance for a car or truck bomb -- "into Saidiyah. But they can produce it in Saidiyah; we're ignorant if we think they can't produce a VBIED right under our noses.
"What I worry about is 12, 15 guys in suicide vests running up to the checkpoint up front," he says.
Up front is a long, wide stretch of street lined with sprawling villas of merchants who used to live in Saidiyah. Most of the merchants fled the sectarian violence that peaked in the area last year, and most of the villas now stand abandoned, their once manicured gardens overgrown with vines and weeds.
"There are bushes in front that could definitely mask 12 to 15 guys," Braet says.
So, in other words, this outpost can pretty easily be overrun?
"I don't know about overrun," he says. "They could inflict some casualties, certainly."
Capt. Betson tells me that some combat outposts have been attacked, including COP Guerrero, a few miles west of us, where another 4-64 unit is stationed.
"When Guerrero was first set up they saw a significant amount of small-arms fire," Betson says. "When they occupied the land it was literally occupying enemy territory that they had to stand up and hold."
A combat outpost in Sadr City, a Shiite enclave in northern Baghdad, was attacked during the recent fighting there, but no U.S. troops were killed, Betson says. He feels secure enough inside COP 821 not to require his troops to wear body armor: "The enemy is looking for means to attack any military base, but we have specifically designed our COP to mitigate the threat no matter what it is."
The main mitigating force, says Braet, is the amount of money American troops constantly pump into Saidiyah.
"There's a lot of influence on people who would attack us to not, and that has to do with how much money we're giving out around here, and that's also why Saidiyah is so peaceful," he says. "Because if the money ran out, we'd have some problems."
In addition to distributing $2,400 micro-grants to businesses that want to reopen inside Saidiyah, and occasionally handing out goodies such as school backpacks and soccer balls to the neighborhood children, the U.S. military here pays a monthly salary of approximately $300 to about 300 people, Braet says. Some of them work on the neighborhood council, and some of them are members of a pro-government Sunni militia called Sons of Iraq.
"I'd say 80 percent of these people we pay don't do anything," Braet said. "It's just free money."
"So, in other words, you are buying security," I say.
"Pretty much," he responds, and goes back to his steak.
May 11: For three hours, Hadi al-Athawi has listened patiently to fellow members of the neighborhood council discussing the slow reconstruction of a local school, the erratic electricity supply, the problems with clogged sewage pipes, the lagging trash pickup and the politically sensitive question of which of the mosques damaged in sectarian battles that raged in the area last year should be rebuilt first: Sunni or Shia.
The meeting is almost over when Hadi al-Athawi drops the bomb.
His long dishdasha robe flowing, his kuffiyeh folded perfectly around his bearded face, al-Athawi rises from his chair, points a long, manicured finger in the general direction of American Army Capt. Andrew Betson, Iraqi police Gen. Baha al-Azzawi and council secretary Faras al-Qabi, and says in a clear, loud voice, "Why are you accusing me of being a member of al-Qaida?"
Suddenly, everyone is up on their feet, shouting.
"Please!" al-Azzawi bellows, rolling his eyes. "Let us put these differences behind us. It's over. Let's forgive. It's forgotten. Get over it."
"We never said any such thing about you," yells al-Qabi. "Why do you accuse us of accusing you?"
"Al-Qaida!" al-Athawi roars. "I am told that you spread rumors that I am al-Qaida!"
"Enough, enough!" shout fellow council members, grabbing each other's hands.
"Stop! Please!" implores al-Azzawi.
"No one is accusing you of anything!" screams al-Qabi.
Betson remains in his seat, watching the meeting of a council created to foster reconciliation in the war-torn neighborhood descend into a 10-minute shouting match.
Then everyone gets up and goes to a burger joint to lunch together.
"They like to show their concerns and frustrations," Betson says after I inquire whether the argument suggested that the neighborhood council needs to focus on reconciliation among its own members. He stresses the word "show.""When something bothers them, they make it very visible. And very audible, for that matter."