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US tries – again – to win support on embattled Baghdad street

By Sam DagherCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 16, 2007


Hussein Hassan Abbas has gone to the Baghdad municipality about 10 times over the past six months for help in removing raw sewage flooding his home's entrance. Each time, he says, he hears the same answer: "Forget it, you live in an area filled with Sunni extremists."

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He explains that the only reason he feels safe even leaving his mostly Sunni neighborhood of Sheikh Ali near Haifa Street in central Baghdad is because of his Shiite-sounding name, despite the fact he's a Sunni Arab. He pulls laminated IDs from his wallet to make the point.

The sectarian and bureaucratic hurdles faced by Mr. Abbas and his neighbors along Haifa Street mirror those the US military must overcome as it once again pours money and resources into such areas to win the "passive support" of Baghdad.

US military leaders say they remain committed to funding essential services and repairing war- damaged schools and hospitals – an effort they see as vital to the Baghdad security plan. But a month into the initiative, the race – as some officers call it – appears fraught with difficulties.

The US military finds itself acting as an arbiter among communities segregated along clear sectarian fault lines and dealing with Iraqi ministries and public institutions that are often run according to sectarian considerations, and bogged down by red tape.

Spending on projects to dissuade residents from sympathizing with insurgents and militias is nothing new. It has been tried on Haifa Street before.

This time, the US hopes it will reap dividends from offering economic incentives to the communities because they will be working closely with local and central governments and the US military will be on the ground to provide security.

Located nearly one mile from the Green Zone, the Haifa Street area has long been a security sore thumb in the heart of the capital, with Iraqi and US officials asserting that it has served as a haven for die-hard loyalists of the former Baath regime as well as Al Qaeda-linked militants.

Following several failed attempts to subdue the area over the past three years, the US says it has succeeded now after pitched battles with insurgents in January.

Iraqi forces now man several checkpoints throughout the area. The US military plans to establish soon at least two joint security stations with the Iraqi Army and police.

On Wednesday, state TV and some Iraqi officials hailed the security plan as a success – evidenced by a drop in the number of car bombs and bodies found on the capital's streets over the past month.

The US military was more cautious, with many officers describing the situation as "a lull."

Eight bodies were found in the Haifa Street area in February, compared with 53 in January, according to the US military.

"Right now it is a lull; what's going to happen in the future, we do not know. We cannot predict it with accuracy; we can be prepared," says Lt. Col. Kenneth Crawford, who heads the Special Troops Battalion of the 2nd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division that oversees Karkh district, which includes the Sheikh Ali neighborhood near Haifa Street.

Colonel Crawford notes that security means that people can go to work, to school, the market, the hospital – in other words, lead more normal lives. "If they can do all of this," he says, "maybe we have our foot in the door."