DORA MARKET….Sudarsan Raghavan produces a devastating story about the surge in the Washington Post today. The setting for his piece is one of the showcase neighborhoods that the military routinely shuttles its visitors through, and for the first time (that I’ve seen, anyway), he calls them what they almost certainly are: Potemkin villages.

Nearly every week, American generals and politicians visit Combat Outpost Gator, nestled behind a towering blast wall in the Dora market. They arrive in convoys of armored Humvees, sometimes accompanied by helicopter gunships, to see what U.S. commanders display as proof of the effectiveness of a seven-month-long security offensive, fueled by 30,000 U.S. reinforcements. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. military leader in Iraq, frequently cites the market as a sign of progress.

“This is General Petraeus’s baby,” said Staff Sgt. Josh Campbell, 24, of Winfield, Kan., as he set out on a patrol near the market on a hot evening in mid-August.

….[But] visits to key U.S. bases and neighborhoods in and around Baghdad show that recent improvements are sometimes tenuous, temporary, even illusory….Even U.S. soldiers assigned to protect Petraeus’s showcase remain skeptical. “Personally, I think it’s a false representation,” Campbell said, referring to the portrayal of the Dora market as an emblem of the surge’s success. “But what can I say? I’m just doing my job and don’t ask questions.”

….After the delegation left, Maj. Ron Minty , 36, said that the generals had wanted 300 shops open for business by July 1. By the day of the delegation’s visit, 303 had opened….Still, the Dora market is a Potemkin village of sorts. The U.S. military hands out $2,500 grants to shop owners to open or improve their businesses. The military has fixed windows and doors and even helped rebuild shops that had burned down, soldiers and others said….”The Americans are giving money, so they’re opening up stores,” said Falah Hassan Fadhil, 27, who sells cosmetics.

1st Lt. Jose Molina, who is in charge of monitoring and disbursing the grant money, said the U.S. military includes barely operating stores in its tally. “Although they sell dust, they are open for business,” said Molina, 35, from Dallas. “They intend to sell goods or they may just have a handful of goods. But they are still counted.”

With enough time, money, and manpower you can secure any single neighborhood. No argument there. But how many of these showcase neighborhoods are there? Visitors could come to Iraq by the planeload and all report back that they were individually impressed with what they saw, but how meaningful is this if it turns out they all saw the same few places? Are there thousands of Dora markets around Iraq? Hundreds? A couple of dozen? My guess is the latter, but we really don’t know, do we? Maybe all those visitors ought to think about getting together and comparing notes. They might discover something interesting.

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