Scenes in Iraq focus on gains, challenges ahead

BAGHDAD - I saw many contradictory things on this visit to Iraq - too many to declare a definitive trend. So let me share three scenes that had an effect on me:

Scene 1: I went on a patrol that visited a U.S. Army platoon based in the Ameriya neighborhood of Baghdad, alongside the "Ameriya Knights," who, as Gen. David Petraeus put it to me, "are not a rugby team."

Ameriya is a Sunni neighborhood that had been home to doctors, lawyers and other professionals. Today it is a ghost town. This neighborhood first came under assault from Shiite militias, then from pro-al-Qaida Iraqi Sunnis, who moved in on the pretext of protecting the Sunnis from the Shiites and then imposed a reign of Islamist terror on them.

The Ameriya Knights are predominantly secular Sunni boys from the neighborhood, who banded together to both drive out the pro-

al-Qaida forces - which took root here more deeply than I realized - and to protect their homes from Shiite death squads. They decided to work with the Americans because we threaten them - today - less than either the pro-al-Qaida Iraqi Sunnis or the Shiites. Many looked like former Baathist army vets to me. They mostly wore jeans, each brandishing a different kind of weapon.

When I asked one of them, Omar Nassif, 32, why he had gone from shooting at Americans to working with them, he said, "I saw an al-Qaida man behead an 8-year-old girl with my own eyes. ... We want American support because we fought the most vicious organization in the world here. ... I would rather work with the Americans than the Iraqi army. The Americans are not sectarian people."

Scene 2 : On my way into Iraq, I had a private chat with an Arab Gulf leader. He said something that still rings in my ear: "Thomas, everyone is keeping you busy in Iraq. The Russians are keeping you busy. The Chinese are keeping you busy. The Iranians are keeping you busy. The Saudis are keeping you busy. Egypt is keeping you busy. The Syrians are keeping you busy."

He's right. Everyone loves seeing us tied down here. One need only observe how Vladimir Putin is throwing his weight around Europe and how China is growing more influential by the day.

Scene 3 : I'm visiting the new U.S. field hospital in Balad, in central Iraq. The full madness that is Iraq is on display here: U.S. soldiers with blast wounds, insurgents with gunshots to the stomach and a 2-month-old baby with shrapnel wounds from an insurgent-planted IED

scattered over her face. The hospital commander, Brig. Gen. Burt Field, looks at her and says to me: "There isn't a 2-month-old on the planet who knows how to hate anybody. It's all taught."

Visiting Centcom commander Adm. William Fallon chats with the hospital staff, who are all here on different rotations - 30 days, 60 days, 180 days. He asks how they coordinate everyone. A voice from the back, an U.S. nurse, says: "We're all on the same team, sir." I look around the room. I see African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Asian-Americans - the whole melting pot that is the United States - working together. Half are women, including mothers who have left their families for long stretches to serve here.

We don't deserve such good people - neither do Iraqis if they continue to hate each other more than they love their own kids ...

Thomas L. Friedman, a columnist for The New York Times, can be reached at: New York Times, editorial department, 229 W. 43rd St., New York, NY 10036.