AC: "They know that they cannot return home unless Iraq can make peace with itself."
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOHN MCCAIN: I would do a lot of things, but the first and most important and vital element is to continue this surge, which is succeeding. And we are winning the war in Iraq.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
MCCAIN: That's the first thing I would do.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ANDERSON COOPER: Well, it doesn't get any clearer than that -- John McCain telling you last night the U.S. is winning the war in Iraq.
He's not alone. You heard the applause that followed. Senator Fred Thompson also said progress was being made. And close to half of Americans agree. In a new Pew Research poll, 48 percent say things are getting better. The number is a sharp increase from the 30 percent back in February.
Also, also the U.S. death toll from November is 36. It hasn't been that low since March of 2006. The surge is working militarily. The question is politically, what happens next, the next step? Is any progress being made on the political front?
We're "Keeping Them Honest" tonight.
Here's CNN's Michael Ware.
MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): For the condemned, those singled out by al Qaeda, walking these narrow alleyways to the makeshift torture chamber behind these doors was the last act of their lives.
Al Qaeda dumped mutilated bodies in rubbish heaps or left them in this fetid water -- all of this happening right in the heart of Baghdad, in this small Sunni neighborhood called Fadhil. Al Qaeda marked the homes of families to be punished, the men to be killed, the houses burned.
(on camera): So, like, from al Qaeda, this is like a mark of death?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: His family not good here.
(voice-over): This man is a Sunni commander here in Fadhil.
(on camera): What would have happened to me on these streets when al Qaeda was here?
(voice-over): My body would have been fed into a meat grinder, the commander tells me. Then al Qaeda would have asked CNN and my country for millions of dollars.
The murders and torture continued until only a few weeks ago, when these men rose up, making Fadhil the latest neighborhood to drive out al Qaeda.
(on camera): But look at all the bullet holes even in the school.
(voice-over): They are Sunni insurgents now allied with the U.S.
(on camera): This is all from the fighting, yes?
(voice-over): Across the country, the American military has recruited 72,000 former Sunni insurgents, of whom 45,000 are temporarily on the U.S. government payroll.
(on camera): They have been a huge part of a stunning American success. Insurgent attacks are back to levels not seen for almost two years. And, in Baghdad, civilian deaths have dropped by a remarkable 75 percent.
(voice-over): The one thing America now needs most of all in Iraq is reconciliation between the Sunni and Shia religious sects. Without it, U.S. commanders say, the military victory will have been wasted, as the country keeps tearing itself apart.
So, we traveled to Fadhil, the scene of this most recent success...
(on camera): Is this Haifa Street?
(voice-over): ... to gauge what hope reconciliation might have.
(on camera): This neighborhood has had many wars wash through it, hasn't it, I mean, fighting with the Americans, fighting with the Shia militias, fighting with government forces, fighting with al Qaeda? And, I mean, all that you wonder now is, what's the next battle to come?
Do you think this government will ever be able to embrace the Sunni groups?
(voice-over): The government is not loyal to its country, says this U.S.-backed commander. They are supported by the intelligence service of a neighboring country. This, he says, is the abyss.
(on camera): Who will you be fighting when the Americans leave?
(voice-over): He already knows who his next battle will be against.
(on camera): We're talking about this government.
It's this government, he answers.
The other commander believes reconciliation has little chance. "Everybody knows militia and Iranian agents are inside the government and inside the security forces," he says. "They cannot work with us."
Suddenly, we have to hide our camera, put it down.
(on camera): A convoy.
(voice-over): Because a military convoy is coming. Tension is high.
(on camera): It's an American convoy or Iraqi?
(voice-over): Who is it?
(on camera): It's American? Then we can film.
(voice-over): And can they be trusted?
(on camera) Is it Jaish American or Jaish Iraqi?
Get out of the way. If it's American, we should be fine.
How does he feel? Nervous?
(voice-over): It is the Iraqi army carrying a brigadier general.
"With orders from the government," the general says, "we're asking these Sunni elements to join the police and army, because we don't want the security institutions owned by one sect."
WARE: And those words from the Iraqi general did not comfort America's Sunni commander. As we quickly jumped in our car to leave that area, he leaned in my window to say he did not trust the general's offer.
This mistrust is shared on all sides and deeply troubles U.S. commanders, for they know that they cannot return home unless Iraq can make peace with itself -- Anderson.
COOPER: Michael, when I was last there a couple months ago, the Sunni groups it talked to, like the Sunni group you're talking to, I mean, they don't trust the government, and they say that the government has been slow to accept them, slow to give them money, slow to incorporate them in the police.
How do you bridge that trust? How do you make that reconciliation happen?
WARE: In one sense, Anderson, it's not going to happen.
This government, this power structure, these militia blocs who run the government, these political parties who front those militias, they have no interest in seeing this American-Sunni program develop. They don't want to share power. They don't want anything to do with the Sunnis.
So, American commanders are saying, we believe we can keep this violence down hopefully until next summer. But, if they haven't reconciled by then -- and, to be honest, no one really thinks they will -- we're going to have to completely rethink U.S. strategy yet again -- Anderson.
COOPER: Political reconciliation the key, as always.
Michael Ware, appreciate it. Thank you, Michael.