A violent street finds calm
Iraqi forces, backed by US, now keep order in the once-infamous insurgent stronghold of Haifa St.
The insurgent grip on Baghdad's Haifa Street once struck fear in the hearts of residents. But today, even a scrawny 4-year-old, clad only in bright shorts, recognizes that change has come.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
When a joint foot patrol of Iraqi and US soldiers passes his front door, the boy steps out and flexes his spindly muscles. His family laughs. The soldiers laugh.
"Before, you couldn't see your hand in front of your face, for all the bullets flying," says a woman sitting nearby. "Now," she adds, with a nod to the Iraqi troops, "God is truly great."
For most of 2004, Haifa Street was a no-go battleground for US and Iraqi forces. Insurgents set up checkpoints and instilled fear that kept children from school and spurred families to move. Any suspected link to the US occupation or the new Iraqi government was a death sentence.
But today, the street is becoming a high-profile example of how Iraqi National Guard troops - trained, supported, and let loose by US advisers - can claw back territory from insurgents.
US and Iraqi officers hope "Haifa" will serve as a template for spreading government control across Iraq and undercutting the insurgency. But they say it will take years to bring enough Iraqi troops up to the level of Delta Company, 1st Battalion 1st Iraqi Army Brigade, that now walks freely in Haifa.
In a bid to stem violence that has spiked this month, US and Iraqi forces began an offensive against insurgents in the Abu Ghraib district Sunday. About 1,000 US and Iraqi troops also fanned out in western Iraq Wednesday, searching homes and detaining suspects, according the US military, which believes fighters linked to terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi are operating there.
Wednesday, a website used by Mr. Zarqawi's group, Al Qaeda in Iraq, posted a statement - treated with caution by US officials - that he had been wounded. Iraqi officials also announced that a senior Zarqawi aide was killed in northern Iraq Wednesday.
Capt. Haitham Salman, a former Hussein-era soldier wounded during the Iran and Kuwait wars, says that Iraqi troops are gaining strength. "[W]e had to pay a high price, [and we] had to pay in blood," he says of the 26 battalion members who have died here. Captain Salman himself was struck in Haifa by shrapnel.
"We are like a baby leaving its mother," he says, noting that Iraqi forces have reclaimed Haifa's high-rise housing units, once handed out as patronage by Saddam Hussein, and the gritty, graffiti-choked slums behind them.
"We do our job alone, but when we have a big operation, their [US] tanks follow," says Salman. "The Americans teach us, but the big point now is my soldiers are different. At the beginning they were afraid. Now they are confident in many things."
American officers say they, too, have been impressed with the progress in battle-scarred Haifa.
"We are succeeding, but there are some major challenges," says US Army Col. Ronnie Johnson, deputy commander of the 256th Brigade Combat Team. It provides some of the US advisers for Iraqi units that he estimates now control one-fifth of all Baghdad.
"Ultimately, the longterm is for the Iraqis to do it themselves - they've got the ability to know what's going on, to get an early intelligence lead," says Colonel Johnson, from Baton Rouge, La.
Haifa Street, he says, is "as secure as anything around here," but the Ministry of Defense is having a hard time providing food and fuel and other support. The widow and 12 children of one Iraqi soldier killed a year ago, met by chance during a patrol, says they have yet to get compensation.
Before Iraqis take over, American forces first have "got to get the level of violence down," says Johnson, noting that insurgents - armed with rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, and heavy machine guns - often outgun the new Iraqi forces. "If they take them on head to head, the best [Iraqi units] will do is draw; more likely, they will lose."
Still, of the dozens of patrols mounted every week around Haifa, US advisers now participate only in two to four. Coordination is constant, but all work is done and written in Arabic, and Iraqi officers plot their missions.