Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
Lt. Gen. Ricardo S.Sanchez is the commander of allied forces in Iraq.
"They don't want us here, but they don't want us to leave, either,"
he said of the Iraqis. "That's our dilemma; that's the problem we have to solve."
ABU SAIDA, Iraq, Jan. 9 — Aboard a Black Hawk helicopter skimming at 100 feet across a landscape of palm groves and semidesert north of Baghdad, Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez gazed out at lone shepherds and donkey carts and villagers staring back passively at the airborne flotilla hastening northward across Iraq's horizons.
Then the headset crackled, and General Sanchez, 52, who commands the 38-nation alliance of occupation forces in Iraq, summarized his thoughts in a way that encapsulated America's challenge here nine months after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. "They don't want us here, but they don't want us to leave, either," he said. "That's our dilemma; that's the problem we have to solve."
General Sanchez began life at the bottom of the American pyramid, going to work as a dry cleaner's delivery boy at the age of 6 to augment welfare payments that supported his Mexican-American family in Rio Grande City, Tex., a few miles from the border that his paternal grandfather first crossed in the early 1900's. Now, addressing "the problem we have to solve," he is into his eighth month as commander of 125,000 American troops in Iraq, the most coveted and challenging field command for any American officer since the Vietnam War.
A month ago, General Sanchez's troops captured Mr. Hussein, the most auspicious moment in the occupation since the Iraqi dictator's statue was toppled in Baghdad on April 9. The general was in an Army medical clinic about three hours later when Mr. Hussein was brought in by helicopter, manacled and hooded, from his underground spider hole near Tikrit. That, the general said, with the quietness that is one of his trademarks, brought "a certain sense of accomplishment."
A day spent with General Sanchez on Friday was taken up with a trip to Abu Saida, about 60 miles northwest of Baghdad, to visit 90 men in a tank company of the Fourth Infantry Division that garrisons the town. The journey showed the patterns of light and dark that American troops endure everywhere across Iraq.
Here in Abu Saida, every rooftop is watched for insurgent spotters who infiltrate the town from the south and wait for a chance to launch a rocket-propelled grenade or stage a sniper attack. In the palm groves beyond the town, insurgents lurk, waiting to strike American tanks. To reach the town, the general's Black Hawk, flying 24 hours after another Black Hawk was brought down by rocket fire near Falluja killing all nine aboard, traveled at an extra-low altitude, following a weaving path.
At Abu Saida, even the base the Americans have set up on the edge of town is called Forward Operating Base Comanche, with echoes of a fort in Indian country. The base commander, Capt. Ralph Overland, 28, from Phoenix, is on his second stint with Company C of the Third Battalion of the division's Second Brigade; he was seriously wounded by rifle bullets to his leg during a raid on an insurgent hideout in Abu Saida last summer and had been evacuated back to the United States.
Captain Overland is at once a soldier hunting insurgents, and a sort of proxy mayor receiving petitions from scores of townspeople every day. The Americans are helping to rebuild schools and clinics and water pumps and roads, restoring electricity and training about 250 men to serve in the new Iraqi police force and the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps. It is a difficult mix, captured in one of his exchanges with General Sanchez at a briefing before the general's helicopter trip.
"When you go out after the enemy, are you shooting to kill or capture?" the general asked at a briefing with officers. Captain Overland replied: "If they have weapons, we shoot to kill, sir. We kill 'em." He repeated, "If they engage us, we kill them, sir."
The brigade commander, Col. David Hogg, 45, of Omaha, moved forward to emphasize the need for harsh soldiering to counter the hazards in Abu Saida, and General Sanchez nodded. "That's as it should be," the general said.
But he moved swiftly on to what he calls the key to American success here — on one hand, pushing back the insurgents and relieving the pressures on Iraqis, who are victims of the insurgent attacks in far greater numbers than Americans; on the other, showing the path to a better future for all Iraqis with practical improvements in everyday life. At Abu Saida, the American troops have spent $150,000 on improvements, and have approval to spend at least $535,000 more.
"It's about gaining and retaining the consent of the people," General Sanchez said to the officers who gathered in front of a satellite map of the Abu Saida area in the dim interior of the command post. "That's what we're here for, fighting a war, and building a nation."
It is a task that General Sanchez believes is within grasp. In a conversation at his headquarters in the Republican Palace in Baghdad a few days before the trip to Abu Saida, he said that despite the scale of warfare that has disappointed and even shocked many Americans, allied forces here could fail only if the political will of the United States faltered. "I really believe that the only way we are going to lose here, is if we walk away from it like we did in Vietnam," he said. "If the political will fails, and the support of the American public fails, that's the only way we can lose."
Flight Over the Desert
On the flight to Abu Saida, General Sanchez's Black Hawk was flanked by two Apache attack helicopters bristling with Hellfire missiles on outriggers, infrared sensors rotating in the aircrafts' noses for any sign of insurgents below. Heading east out of Baghdad, then northeast, on a path calculated to lessen the risk of ground fire, the cluster of helicopters flew over a landscape that is a monument to what American troops have accomplished, and failed to accomplish, in Iraq.
Below, stark in their ruins, stood the National Olympic Committee headquarters, used by Uday Saddam Hussein, the dictator's oldest son, who was killed by American troops in July, as a center for torture, rape and murder; the complex of buildings that make up the General Security Directorate, command center for the most brutal of Mr. Hussein's secret police agencies, taken over now as an American base; and the Baghdad headquarters of the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross, obliterated in August and October by suicide bombers who succeeded in driving both organizations from Baghdad.
Other buildings visible from the helicopter were ministries and clinics and warehouses looted and burned when American troops failed to stop the rampage that followed the capture of Baghdad. This was the Iraq that General Sanchez and L. Paul Bremer III, the chief American civilian administrator, inherited. Last summer was a low point of the American experience here, when Iraqis who cheered the toppling of Mr. Hussein's statue began to say they might have been better off if the Americans had never come.
Out into open country, the helicopter passed over villages bustling with commerce, booming here under the occupation, even as most Iraqi men remain out of work; over green fields of spring wheat and chimney-high above mud-walled homes smoking from the clay ovens Iraqis use to bake bread. General Sanchez, chatting on the headset with a fellow officer about their sons' college graduations in June, paused. On the helicopter's flank, workmen were stringing cables from utility towers, restoring electricity that collapsed during the April looting. "That's the first time I've seen that; that's great," he said.
The conversation with the general in Baghdad suggested that much that informs his approach to the challenges here went back to his childhood, growing up among the poorest of the poor in south Texas. His father, a welder, was divorced from his mother when the son was still in elementary school; she worked as a hospital caretaker to support five children. The general, as a boy, commuted among odd jobs, helping to pay the family bills.
In time, the boy became the first in his family to graduate from high school. While his older brother went to Vietnam as a staff sergeant with the Air Force, he won an R.O.T.C. scholarship to Texas A & I University in Kingsville, and went on to join the Army. He speaks with no trace of bitterness about his origins.
"I guess I never realized then that I was that poor," he said in the conversation before the trip to Abu Saida. "Pretty well everybody else in the Hispanic community was on welfare, too. We just thought we were fortunate because we were in America."
In Rio Grande City, high school counselors advised him to follow his father into welding, but General Sanchez said he learned as an R.O.T.C. cadet at school that the Army offered an escalator out of poverty. Still, because he was a Hispanic-American who had not been to West Point, his early Army career was a struggle at times, he said.
"It was a totally different military then," he said. "It was the aftermath of Vietnam, and there was a lot of racial stuff within the ranks."
One year, when he was a lieutenant, a senior officer preparing his efficiency report told him he would get 15 points less than fellow officers who were West Point graduates, General Sanchez said. "But I accepted that, and told myself, `I'll just have to work harder.' " Asked if any of the West Pointers in that group became generals, he paused, then replied: "I don't know of any others who made it to general officer. I think one of them made it to colonel."
An Advancing Career
An important chance in his more recent career came when he served in Kosovo in the late 1990's with Gen. John P. Abizaid, now the chief of Central Command based in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, with overall responsibility for the effort in Iraq. General Sanchez arrived in Iraq after Mr. Hussein's overthrow as a major general commanding the First Armored Division, responsible for the war in Baghdad. Within weeks, he was promoted to lieutenant general and given command of the American-led alliance.
Among the low points since then was the loss of 81 American soldiers killed by insurgent attacks in November. The high point, unquestionably, was the capture of Mr. Hussein on Dec. 13. General Sanchez, following the operation from a command center at Baghdad airport, said he and other officers approached the operation that night as routine, because American troops had been close to Mr. Hussein "many times" without snaring him.
He said a radio call from Maj. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, commander of the Fourth Infantry Division, had brought news that Mr. Hussein had been captured. "General Odierno said, `Sir, I think we've got Saddam; now we're looking for his tattoo,' " General Sanchez recalled. The issue proved inconclusive, other officers said, since the Americans found a surgical scar, not the defiant eagle that was the tattoo worn by senior Baath Party officials.
Then, the general flew to another military facility — where, he would not say — and waited for Mr. Hussein to be brought in. "It seemed like forever," he said. After three hours, he found himself in a military clinic watching the now-identified Mr. Hussein being processed. "As I stood and watched him, it was a feeling of disbelief, that a man could be as evil as Saddam was and reduced to that," he said. "Along with that, there was a certain sense of accomplishment at what our soldiers had achieved."
Mr. Hussein, he said, was "talkative" in the clinic, but General Sanchez chose to say nothing. "I'm not sure he even knew who I was, since I had my flak jacket on, and that covered my name," the general said. "I felt that it was inappropriate for me as the senior officer in the country to engage in a discussion."
Meeting G.I.'s and Iraqis
As the sun went down in Abu Saida, General Sanchez set off for a walk. The town lies on the eastern edge of the Sunni Triangle, which runs north and west of Baghdad and is the center for 90 percent of all attacks on American troops. But unlike most settlements nearby, Abu Saida has a large Shiite Muslim majority. Captain Overland, briefing General Sanchez, said most of the insurgents who had attacked American forces in the town were Sunni Muslim groups infiltrating from the south.
Outside the American headquarters, the general clambered on a tank to chat with crewmen who, like others in the American garrison at Abu Saida, have been retrained as infantrymen for patrols and firefights. As he talked with the crewmen, one, Specialist Hector Quijada, 20, from the Bronx, stepped forward and spoke in Spanish. The two, the general and the specialist, then spoke quietly for several minutes.
Afterward, Specialist Quijada said he and his family migrated to the United States four years ago, settling in New York, where his father worked in a plastics factory. What he wanted the general to know, he said, was that he was a hero among Mexican-Americans and among the specialist's friends in his hometown of Cancún. "I told him that the people of Mexico always talk about General Sanchez — everybody gets excited about him," he said.
With the muezzin at a nearby mosque calling the faithful to evening prayers, General Sanchez began his tour of the town, setting out past kebab stands, generator repair shops and bazaar stalls piled high with oranges and lentils and spring onions. People in the street watched uneasily, uncertain who the visitor was. A few applauded. "America good!" they said.
At the end of the main street, a man in a black cloak and a kaffiyeh, the red checked headdress favored by many men in the Iraqi countryside, stepped forward speaking a pidgin English. "Mister!" he said. "I want talk to you, mister!" The man was Muhammad Hussein, a 60-year-old retired headmaster, and he launched into a litany of Abu Saida's expectations of America: more money for schools, the repair of roads torn up by tanks, an improvement in his own pension of a penny a month.
Then Mr. Hussein paused, in the gathering darkness, and asked courteously who the visitor was. "We don't know you, sir," he said.
"My name is General Sanchez, and I have come to Abu Saida to say hello," the general replied. Mr. Hussein seemed momentarily taken aback, then pressed ahead. "Then you take me to Baghdad, I talk to you in Baghdad, I want to speak only to you, we settle problems of Iraq," Mr. Hussein said.
General Sanchez, anxious American bodyguards urging him to move on, replied with a rolling laugh. "I'm not sure I could take you in my helicopter; that's against regulations," he said. Mr. Hussein, smiling broadly, shook the general's hand, and the American party moved on.