Friday, September 14, 2007
The end of a journey
We are leaving Iraq after a week; seven days that my photographers -- Jerry Simonson and Damir Loretic -- and I will not and cannot forget.

This past Monday, we covered the story of a U.S. Air Force squadron that helps train Iraqi police in proper police techniques. I thought it was an interesting story in itself. But what I ended-up finding more compelling was the squadron's dangerous quest to get to Iraq's police stations.

The 14-member group travels five days a week through some of the most hostile regions of Iraq. They travel in armored humvees, and there is good reason they are armored. Over the four months this group has been in the Tikrit area (where Saddam Hussein was born and raised), they have been hit by improvised explosive devices five times. On four of the occasions, they were scared; only their vehicles suffered damage. But on the fifth one, one of their own -- Senior Airman Jason Nathan -- was killed.

Jason was one of the gunners, the person who stands up through the turret and operates the huge machine gun that rotates 360 degrees. Jason was doing his job when an IED came his way and cut him down. His horrified colleagues could not save his life. They went back to the Balad Air Base, took a couple of days off, and then went back to work.

They told us this story as we joined them on a 35-mile journey to a small town police station. We drove through neighborhoods known to be full of insurgents and their supporters. We passed by dozens of cars -- any of which could hold bombs -- parked along the roads. The police station had one way in and one way out, so anybody with a bad thought in their head would know exactly where the four-humvee convoy was going.

The driver of my humvee told me before the trip that if she was hit by an explosive and incapacitated or killed, I was to climb forward from the back seat, move her body, take her foot off the accelerator, put the humvee in neutral, and bring it under control. It took me a few seconds to realize she was serious, and only a few more seconds to realize how brave and selfless these Airmen are. Some of them told me they were scared to do this job, but considered it a patriotic duty.

The following day, we paid a visit to the largest U.S. military hospital in Iraq. Between my videographers and me, we have seven children. But we weren't prepared for what we saw in this hospital: a 14-month-old toddler burned over 45 percent of his body; a beautiful six-year-old girl with a burned face and an amputated leg; a little boy with a gunshot wound in his arm. Two of the children we saw in the hospital were by themselves. The staff at the Air Force Theatre Hospital had no idea what happened to their families. Despite all this, the children smiled and laughed with us just like our own kids. But we take it for granted that we can shelter our own kids from this kind of violence.

People always talk about numbers: the number of troops killed, the number of civilians hurt. But traveling alongside these troops and meeting these children has affected us more profoundly than any number ever could.

-- By Gary Tuchman, CNN Correspondent
Posted By CNN: 3:43 PM ET
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Thursday, September 13, 2007
In the eye of 'The Decider'
Is it progress or propaganda? Spin or sincere?

Tonight, President Bush will say good things are happening in Iraq. Just days after General Petraeus' positive report on the results from the so-called "surge," President Bush is expected to tell you that political progress is being made, reconciliation is beginning, and thousands of U.S. troops may be coming home.

It's all good. At least from the White House' perspective.

Others disagree.

Many Democrats and most Americans are skeptical, both of the prospects for success in Iraq and the president. In fact, a new poll shows 61 percent of the public is unhappy with the president's performance.

We'll hear politicians sound off on President Bush's speech this evening and in the days ahead. But we want to know your opinion. So send comments and V-Mails. We'll put some on the show tonight.

See you later.

-- By Gabe Falcon, "360" Writer
Posted By CNN: 4:48 PM ET
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Wednesday, September 12, 2007
Some notes from Iraq...
I'm sorry I didn't blog yesterday. I spent most of the day with the U.S. Army's 2nd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division south of Baghdad. It's one of the areas where local Sunnis have turned against al Qaeda in Iraq and now are getting paid by the U.S. to man checkpoints. (Editor's note: Scroll down to read Anderson's report on this transformation)

The person in charge -- U.S. Colonel Michael Kershaw -- is a student of history, a smart, hard-charging West Point grad who is working hard to capitalize on the Sunni switch. The question of course is what happens when the U.S. leaves? Do these armed Sunni groups become insurgents once again, attacking the Shiite dominated central government we are now trying to support?

The 2nd Brigade has taken hard losses; 53 troops have been killed in their area of operations. So the drop in violence there over the last couple months is very welcome.

Yesterday, there was an attack on Camp Victory, the U.S. base where we had been staying. One person was killed and 11 others wounded.

It's strange: Camp Victory is a sprawling U.S. base near the Baghdad airport, and the previous day I went for a run on the grounds. I could occasionally hear shots in the distance, but for the most part I could have been on any base in any part of the world. The base gets attacked with rockets and mortars with some regularity, but I was still shocked to hear of the losses.

We've since moved to the CNN compound. That was our plan all along: two nights with the military; two nights on our own.

Today, I interviewed Iraq Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, as well as General David Petraeus, who is still in Washington. Both interviews will be on the program tonight. Prime Minister al-Maliki surprised me. I expected him to disagree with Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who called his government "dysfunctional." But al-Maliki actually agreed with him.

Anyway, I've been up for two days straight and have to finish editing the al-Maliki interview, but I hope to see you later tonight on the broadcast. By the way, I am curious to hear what you all thought of Petreaus' testimony this week: Was it what you expected? Did it change anyone's mind? Let us know.

-- By Anderson Cooper
Posted By CNN: 6:58 PM ET
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U.S. military makes new friends in Iraq
U.S. Col. Michael Kershaw meets with Sunni leaders in Yusufiyah, formerly a hot spot for insurgent activity.
YUSUFIYAH, Iraq (CNN) -- Until recently, Yusufiyah was among the most dangerous places in Iraq.

Located in the so-called "triangle of death," a violent area south of Baghdad, it was the site of frequent clashes between coalition forces and Sunni fighters. In May, two U.S. soldiers went missing in Yusufiyah and were never found, despite a massive search.

But today, Sunni tribal leaders in this town cooperate with U.S. forces in their battle against foreign fighters and al Qaeda in Iraq.

"It's all the roll of the dice. It's people and politics all intertwined down here," said Col. Michael Kershaw, commander of the Second Brigade, 10th Mountain Division.

Kershaw now greets his former enemies with kisses, hears their grievances, spends time in their homes and even shares meals with them. He is surprised at how far relations have progressed.

Click here to read more

-- From Anderson Cooper and Pierre Bairin
Posted By CNN: 12:06 PM ET
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Tuesday, September 11, 2007
Raw Politics: Iraq report card
The presidential candidates speak out about MoveOn.org's controversial ad and General Petraeus' Iraq report card. (Click image at left to play video)
Posted By CNN: 10:36 AM ET
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Monday, September 10, 2007
Back in Iraq: Prison population surges
Iraqi prisoners arrive at Camp Cropper, a U.S.-run prison home to more than 4,000 detainees.
It's a bit surreal to be sitting in a U.S. military trailer in Baghdad as I watch General Petreaus and Ambassador Crocker testify back in Washington, DC. Outside, a Blackhawk helicopter just whizzed by, momentarily drowning out the sound from the TV.

I spent all day at Camp Cropper, a U.S.-managed detention center where more than 4,000 Iraqi detainees are being held. It's run by Major General Douglas Stone, a hard-charging Marine. He is now responsible for all detainees in Iraq -- more than 24,000 of them -- a population which has surged because of the so-called surge.

In past years, detention centers were prime recruiting grounds for extremists. In fact, if you know anything about the history of Islamic extremism, you will know that prisons have always been places where radical ideologies were born and spread. (For a great history of al Aqaeda you should read "The Looming Tower" by Lawrence Wright.)

Anyway, Major General Stone says he is waging a "battle of the mind" inside the detention centers. He is trying to separate moderate Iraqis from the influence of extremist detainees. We'll show you how he is doing that tonight, and you can judge for yourself how successful you think it will be. He is certainly motivated, and the troops working under him are dedicated and impressive.

Tonight, of course, Iraq will be our main focus. We have a number of reporters stationed throughout the region. Michael Ware will join us, as always. So will Gary Tuchman, who is reporting on efforts to train Iraqi police. Also, Nic Robertson is reporting from Saudi Arabia on a reformed jihadist who now tries to convince others not to join al Qaeda.

It's good to be back in Iraq. It's only my fourth trip here, but I'm looking forward to going out on patrols the next couple days. One thing I hope to see is how U.S. troops are working with Sunni tribal groups against al Qaeda in Iraq. Of course, the attempt to work with former Sunni insurgents raises lots of questions; we'll examine some of them tonight and all this week.

This time last year, we were in Afghanistan. We will also have reports from there this week.

I hope you join us tonight, as we report live from Baghdad. See you then.

-- By Anderson Cooper
Posted By CNN: 4:04 PM ET
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Bargain flight to Baghdad
We flew into Baghad this past weekend on a Royal Jordanian flight from Amman, Jordan. The one-way fare for the 90-minute flight is a bargain -- $85.

The flight was packed, but bargain fair or not, I did not see any tourists. The flight had some journalists, and lots of American security types going to jobs that in their line of work are very plentiful in today's Iraq. Of the 63 passengers on the plane, 61 were men. The two women were journalists.

The flight was not a routine one, at least compared to what I'm used to. As we approached Baghdad, the pilots started doing spirals with the plane as they went into a steep descent. The idea is to make it harder for insurgents to hit the aircraft with their weapons.

Once in the airport, it was easy to forget we'd entered a war-zone. They have a fully staffed duty-free shop inside, and the terminal is actually gleaming and quite clean.

But when we got in an armored car to leave the airport, we quickly realized where we were. The road leaving the airport has become legendary for its danger. Insurgent attacks, whether from IEDs or suicide bombings or other methods, have been frequent and deadly. Even veteran travelers to Iraq hold their breath as they barrel down that highway. I was here in Iraq for several weeks in March of 2003 at the very beginning of the war, but this was my first time on the airport highway. I can unequivocally state it is an unnerving experience.

I am here now to cover military activity at the Balad Air Base, which is the U.S. Air Force's largest facility in Iraq. We had to take an Army helicopter to get to the base, which is about 45 miles north of Baghdad. We were warned that rockets are often fired by the insurgents at the choppers. Supposedly it would take a stroke of luck for them to hit us. Those words aren't necessarily comforting, especially when 15 minutes after we took off into the night sky we saw what our crew believed to be a rocket fired at us.

The helicopter automatically emitted flares in order to draw the heat-seeking ammunition toward the flares, rather than the chopper. The rocket and the flares turned the nighttime into daylight out the right window of the chopper for about ten seconds. Nothing hit us, and we are doing fine. But our first hours in this country initiate us into the reality of today's Iraq.

-- By Gary Tuchman, CNN Correspondent
Posted By CNN: 10:22 AM ET
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