In the struggle for Iraq, tug of war over one Baghdad neighborhood
BAGHDAD — 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.
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 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.
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.
Two years ago, many Sunnis saw the US as their principle enemy. Now, with a police force packed with Shiite militiamen who have dispatched assassination squads against Sunnis, US forces are often seen as protectors.
And while the neighborhood - with limited ways in and out and just three miles from the more than 5,000 US soldiers at Camp Victory - may well become manageable again, the insurgents remain strong in nearby Dora and in the warrenlike allies of Adhamiya in central Baghdad. In nearby Sadiyah, national tennis team coach Hussein Rashid was murdered Saturday along with two of his players. Local residents believe the men were murdered because one of them was wearing shorts, something deemed un-Islamic by Sunni militants.
Former resident Aqeel says once the insurgents moved in, his neighbors began joining their ranks.
0ne Sunni Arab neighbor had joined the insurgents, and explained their choices of targets, he says. "This guy told me that 'if we focus on the Americans they grind us into dust,' " says Aqeel. "So they prefer to hit the Iraqi police, Shiites, translators, people they think are too secular. That's easy for them."
Aqeel decided to move his family to a Shiite district after going to buy groceries on Public Works Street one afternoon in early February. While there, a white Opel with four gunmen screamed to a halt at that corner, pulled a bound man from the trunk, shot him twice in the head and sped off.
And, more often than not, Shiites were the ones targeted.
"They started killing Shiites, just one every couple of days, in November 2004,'' says Harith, who remembers his first neighbor killed was Umm Saad. The 70-year-old widow ran the small grocery that he and his classmates used to crowd into after school when they were kids.
"Then this year it expanded. You'd see bodies on the streets all the time. A policeman was left dead in his car on my street for 24 hours, until I went to the National Guard and told them to collect the body."
"I now see that, little by little, Amariyah was falling under takfiri control,'' he says, using the popular pejorative term for Sunnis who share Al Qaeda's vision of an intolerant and violent Islam.
In late April, the neighbors to the right of his home, also Shiites, made the mistake of bringing a moving truck when they decided to abandon the neighborhood, and were gunned down before they reached the highway.
In early May, his neighbor in a small house to the left - a divorced mother of two and a Sunni who worked as a maid, was gunned down. "She had been warned to stop working." Harith and his family fled soon after - leaving all their possessions behind.
Colonel Burleson says he thinks the wave of violence in the area is past its crest. In the past month, he says his men and a battalion from the Iraqi Army's 6th Division have killed six insurgents and arrested at least 12 fighters.
"Last fall, if we got in my truck and rolled down there, I guarantee you we'd be in contact,'' he says. "Last week, the Iraqi Army was out picking up trash in the area until midnight to develop goodwill."
One break in early May came when a group of men in a van opened fire on a joint US-Iraqi patrol. They fled to a nearby mosque. After surrounding the area and arranging for a local sheikh to watch the proceedings - "his presence helps to control rumor and innuendo," says Burleson - the soldiers moved in and arrested five insurgents in the mosque.
They also found what Burleson describes as a "weapons garden": Mortars, sniper rifles, and even laser-guided bombs designed to be dropped from airplanes, all concealed in shallow holes in the ground.
Lt. Mohammed, a young Iraqi officer managing the checkpoint to Amariyah who asked that his last name not be used, agrees with Burleson's assessment of recent improvements, but frets that it will be easy for insurgents to move back in.
"We've shut off most of the branch streets and are funneling the traffic through our checkpoints, so we've got a lot more control,'' he says, saying his unit has only found seven bodies in the past 10 days - compared to an average of three to four bodies a day in April.
"But if we don't maintain this type of control, what happens then? What I'd like to see us do is station about 10 soldiers in each of the mosques - that's where the criminals usually base themselves," he says.
Former residents say they might move back - when the killings stop completely.
"Shiites used to make up 25 percent of the neighborhood - I doubt there's more than a handful left,'' says Harith. "When the Americans first came to Iraq, I thought we'd be kings. We hated Saddam and now I'm nostalgic for those days. It makes me sick."