An NBC News crew and I are spending a couple days in one of Iraq's most dangerous cities, Samarra.
In the heart of the Sunni triangle, just south of Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikirt, Samarra has long been a safe haven for insurgents. In a critical test of U.S. efforts to improve the combat performance of Iraqi security forces, an entire battalion of Iraqi Special police (about 800 commandos), was sent into Samarra two months ago to take over for the incompetent, and some say corrupt, regular police force.
But those commandos are not alone. A 10-man team of U.S. military trainers known as a Special Police Training Team, or SPTTS (pronounced SPITS), is embedded with the commandos to provide training, logistical support, even airstrikes if necessary. The program is considered the key to improving Iraqi security forces and allowing U.S. troops to start coming home in larger numbers.
How's it going? The local police chief was fired Sunday.
On the drive here in a military convoy we were reminded of the most dangerous weapon facing U.S. troops -- improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.
On Iraq's well-traveled Highway 1, we were stopped as a U.S. military explosives team examined what was thought to be an IED. It was a false alarm. But just south of Samarra we drove up on a U.S. military convoy struck by an IED, smoke still rising from the damaged Humvee. Two soldiers were hurt and rushed to the nearby military field hospital at Balad. Medics declared their injuries were not life-threatening. The Humvee was heavily damaged, but the up-armor saved the soldiers' lives. The two-inch thick bullet-proof glass held, but was so spider-webbed the windows looked as if they were covered with heavy frost. The blast pattern from the bomb indicated it was one of the more sophisticated "shaped charges," which intensifies the effect of the blast in a single direction.
In short order the military cleared the road, and traffic, backed up for miles, proceeded as if this happened every day. Unfortunately, on Highway 1 north of Baghdad, it pretty much does.