The Insurgency, a Frontline documentary that airs tonight at 9 on PBS (MPT, Channels 22 and 67), is a detailed and brave piece of down-the-middle journalism that tackles the most important part of the most important news story in the world.
With help from Time magazine Baghdad bureau chief Michael Ware, the Frontline team sets out to find who is behind the Iraqi insurgency, what their goals are and how quickly the U.S. military is preparing Iraqi security forces to take over the fight.
Ware has spent considerable time with U.S. forces in the field, and has gained access to insurgents. He has the doggedness of a top-notch reporter on the cop beat.
As Ware sees it, the United States was wrong from the start about the insurgency. At the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, the generals were insisting that Iraqis who were still fighting were only rag-tag "dead-enders."
In truth, the insurgency had military structure and was gaining strength and funding -- "the very thing that the American military was saying didn't exist," Ware said.
The interviews with insurgent fighters, their faces covered, are the definition of chilling. "We have humiliated the most mighty army in the world," says one. "This [Iraqi] constitution was written by Jews and Americans. Why should we follow it?" says another.
An insurgent recruiting film has a man talking about his first use of a roadside bomb. "It was a simple device but -- thanks be to God -- it worked," he says.
Three years after the fall of Baghdad, the insurgency is thought to have 15,000 to 20,000 active fighters and has developed expertise in remote-controlled explosives.
There are factions with different views about the killing of Iraqi civilians but all agree that the top goal is killing Americans. The capture of Saddam Hussein did nothing to stem the growth of the insurgency, dashing American hopes to the contrary.
The Insurgency does not lean on two questionable assertions that have become glib explanations for the U.S. military's inability to quickly subdue the insurgency: lack of prewar planning and the decision to disband the Iraqi army.
Rather, the documentarians look at the battle for Tal Afar near the Syrian border to explain the insurgency's brutal grip on much of the population.
A resident tells how his brother was murdered by insurgents: "They cut his stomach open and put bombs inside. My father wanted to go and pick his body up. They blew up my father."
The Insurgency has no political ax to grind.
It does not suggest the push to depose Hussein was ill-fated from the beginning, but neither does it suggest that an exit date for U.S. forces is close.
Army Col. H.R. McMaster, who led the joint U.S.-Iraqi assault on Tal Afar, says it will take a long time before Iraqi forces are ready. In the meantime, the burden falls on Americans in uniform.
"We have to provide real security to protect people from an enemy who has no scruples," McMaster says.
Tony Perry writes for the Los Angeles Times.