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In the struggle for Iraq, tug of war over one Baghdad neighborhood

By , Awadh al-Taee / June 1, 2006


Harith says the insurgents began arriving in Amariyah after the deadly US assault on Fallujah in April 2004. The first jihadis sought haven with relatives, many of them former senior officers in Saddam Hussein's Army.

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The new neighbors roamed the streets at night with rifles and heavy machine guns, planting bombs targeting US patrols. "We'd peer through the blinds and watch them firing mortars at the Americans from my street,'' recalls Harith, a Shiite Arab from Amariyah who asked that his full name not be used. "We decided it was safest to ignore them. They were leaving us alone."

But that didn't last. Not content with having found a haven, the militants set about transforming the demographics and social mores of the area.

"At first it was just the outsiders, but some of the young men - surrounded by these people telling stories about what the Americans did in Fallujah and these preachers telling them it was their duty to fight - joined up,'' says Aqeel, a former resident of Amariyah who fled in February.

Soon, graffiti praising Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and promising death to traitors proliferated; new prayer leaders took over mosques, issuing strident demands for jihad over their loudspeakers every Friday; leaflets were distributed warning women not to work and to cover their hair, men not to trim their beards or wear shorts; then bodies started to appear on street corners.

Amariyah, a wealthy Baghdad district that butts up against the US military's sprawling Camp Victory, which includes the Baghdad airport, is a testament to the ease with which Sunni Arab extremists can take over an established neighborhood and use it as a base of operations.

And over the past six months, the Baghdad neighborhood of shaded gardens and hulking villas once popular with Mr. Hussein's entourage has become synonymous with gruesome, anonymous death, as have other Sunni neighborhoods like Dora and Adhamiya. They are all examples of the ongoing battle occurring throughout Iraq to loosen the grip of the insurgency - and the tough fight facing the Iraqi Army and US forces to dislodge them.

The Americans return

The situation in Amariyah had grown so bad that in March, the US Army's 10th Mountain Division out of Fort Drum, N.Y., retook partial responsibility for a neighborhood that had been handed to the Iraqi military in late 2005.

Since then, the Iraqi military has set up fixed checkpoints at the two main entrances to this isolated neighborhood, and occupied abandoned villas while combined US and Iraqi forces have made dozens of arrests. Violence has ebbed.

But residents say hundreds have been killed here this year by Sunni extremists aligned with Al Qaeda. Shiites mostly, but Sunni shopkeepers, bus drivers, and former Baathists, too. For a while, bound and mutilated corpses were dumped frequently outside the popular Honey Sweets Shop on once-bustling Public Works Street. Most of the shops there are now closed.

Amariyah's pain demonstrates the evolution of Iraq's war, from one in which faceless Sunni Arab insurgents targeted mostly US and Iraqi forces with roadside bombs and suicide attacks to one in which killing squads - both Shiite and Sunni - are focused on unarmed fellow citizens. And they are seeking to transform neighborhoods into enclaves of fear. Baghdad's civilian death toll in the past three months is roughly 3,000, more than the US loses during three years of war.

The district, home to the secular administrators of Hussein's Iraq, also rests within the country's maze of fault lines. It rests between Sunni insurgents who have moved in from strongholds to the west and Shiite militias who venture out of Baghdad's eastern suburbs.

The death toll declines

Over the past few weeks, however, conditions in the area have improved.

"Iraqi security forces are doing a good job restricting freedom of movement and attacks have dropped off significantly,'' says Lt. Col. Bill Burleson, commander of the 10th Mountain Division's 1st Battalion, 87th Infantry.

"I think it's been two to three [civilians] killed a week for the past few weeks. Back in March, they were finding minibus loads, 15 victims at a time," he says.

But whether the improvements will hold is far from certain. Shiite families who fled Amariyah, which they say had been taken over by supporters of Mr. Zarqawi, say they have no intention of returning any time soon. Violence in Baghdad more generally has continued unabated. Wednesday, Reuters reported that at least 100 people, mostly in Baghdad, were killed over the past week. It reported that, "Police said they had found 42 bodies over the last 24 hours in different parts of the capital - bound, tortured and shot."

Sunni Arabs still living in Amariyah say they fear reprisals - both from jihadis and also from Shiite police forces if US troops pull out. It's as much a measure as anything of the way the conflict here has shifted.