A violent street finds calm

Iraqi forces, backed by US, now keep order in the once-infamous insurgent stronghold of Haifa St.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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."

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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.

"We appreciate all that the Americans have done - they made the big hits in Haifa Street, and we'll never forget that," says Lt. Col. Abdulwahid Refaat. "[But] Iraqis are afraid to talk to Americans.... If insurgents see anyone speaking to them, they are seen as a spy. But if they speak to an Iraqi, it could be about water, or whatever. We are Iraqis, and we know our streets."

Tension, but not hostility

And they are getting to know them better as soldiers. Some people glower as they pass by, but others wave. Tensions are a little higher with the presence of US troops, but not hostile.

"Before they came, there was no safety, no work, nothing good," says Mohammed Mehdi, an electrical engineer who left the country with his family. He came back with his children a month ago, after calling his neighbor and learning that the Iraqi Army had control. "He said: 'No problem,' and we are so very, very happy," says Mr. Mehdi.

To 1st Lt. Hady Fadhil, the patrol leader, the explanation is simple. "It's because we are here all the time," he says, noting that the unit hands out cards with emergency phone numbers and tip-line details. "If there are any strange moves, we trust people will be calling us."

Tips have poured in about everything from hidden weapons to instances of domestic violence. The first joint patrol with Iraqi police took place on Monday.

"Iraqis have begun to wake up, after the big shock" of the war, says Raad Saleh, a professor waiting for the electricity in his high-rise to kick in so he can take the elevator to his 10th-floor apartment.

"When [Iraqi troops] came, it began to get quiet," says Professor Saleh, motioning to the score of sweating Iraqi and US troops taking refuge in the shady building entrance. "In the last month, it was very quiet - almost normal."

Iraqis describe constant gun battles and explosions when insurgents controlled these streets. A lot near the reed-thick banks of the Tigris was used to fire mortars and Katyusha rockets south, into the Green Zone.

Last July, Iraqis and US armored units were targeted from a mosque at the north end of Haifa Street, sparking a major battle that some Americans compared to the "Black Hawk Down" 1993 battle in Somalia.

Later, a US armored vehicle was knocked out by insurgents. US helicopters trying to destroy it killed a number of Iraqis celebrating the insurgent strike.

But change began last January, during the pre-election security clampdown that stopped all car traffic in the capital for three days. Voting day was tough: Four people caught in Haifa Street with tell-tale purple ink on their fingers - proof they had voted - were reportedly killed with grenades.

So US and Iraqi troops kept their grip on the street, set up rooftop snipers, and began to clear the area - sometimes using tough measures that reportedly included abuse of detainees.

The Iraqi Delta Company moved into the palace of Mr. Hussein's daughter Hala and renamed it "Predator Palace."

A good patrol

"They were pretty good out there, their distance and spacing," Sgt. Garland Deramus, from Lake Charles, La., told his fellow US soldiers after returning from the joint US-Iraqi patrol.

Wednesday, Delta Company was back on the street, confident on their own. Iraqis were visibly more relaxed without the US presence, and the soldiers wound along narrow slum passages, followed by children and complaints about mountains of trash.

The graffiti on the breezeblock walls illustrates the power shift here. Soldiers have been through Haifa with cans of paint, trying to cover up insurgent commentary.

Still visible Wednesday were the words: "Death to the [Iraqi army] spies," and "Long live the Mujahideen." Left untouched: "Long live Iraq!"

It was a sentiment echoed in the cramped alleyways, as older women told the passing Iraqi troops: "God protect you, and God bless you for being here."

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