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

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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."

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.

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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."

Crawford, a Texan, speaks with steely determination about his goal of handing over all responsibilities for planning and executing community projects to his Iraqi counterparts by August.

At the same time he voices "great frustration" over the "inexplicable reasons" why certain projects previously funded by the US military, and which were badly needed by Baghdad residents, failed to become operational after they had been completed.

He says it's either sectarianism or bureaucracy – or in some cases, a combination of both.

He pulls out a photocopy of an internal PowerPoint presentation and points to a generator project that was built with US money two years ago, at a cost of $2 million, to supplement the local power grid in the Haifa Street area.

The project is lying idle in a city where people are fortunate if they receive two hours of state power a day. Crawford says that the Ministry of Electricity rejected it, saying it was not built to its specifications.

The challenges the US faces as it continues to work on rebuilding came into sharp focus on a tour of US-funded projects in Karkh. The first stop was the Qadisiyah water-treatment plant just outside the Green Zone that serves about 300,000 residents.

Manager Issa Rzugi says that the plant is idle most of the time because it is unable to get enough fuel to turn on the generators. When it does operate, half of its output is wasted because of leaks in the distribution network.

A contractor hired by the US military to work on a $175,000 rehabilitation project rarely shows up because his employees, all Shiites from Sadr City, are afraid to cross over to mainly Sunni Karkh, according to Mr. Rzugi.

At the Karkh school board, Maj. Chip Daniels asks the administrator to give him a list of priority projects for the area's 20 schools, some of which were badly damaged in the recent fighting.

She tells him that she has been prohibited by the Ministry of Education, which is headed by a Shiite, from doing just that. She says that he must get it from the ministry himself. Instead, she asks him for money so that she can buy fuel for the in-house generator that powers her office.

"Do something for us, get us fuel. Help us. We spend half the time writing official memos by hand. Make us a gift," says Sajida al-Attar, sitting in the dark in her office with two associates.

On Sheikh Ali's main road, all the shops are shuttered. The moment that US soldiers descend from their Humvees, Sunni residents pour out of their homes to greet them with a barrage of grievances and requests.

They do not trust the Iraqi security forces, they say, because they are infiltrated by Shiite militias. They will not go to the area's hospitals because the Ministry of Health is dominated by Shiites. And they say they will not even shop for food in neighboring Rahmaniyah because it's mainly Shiite and controlled by militia loyal to cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

"Please bring us a Sunni municipal representative to hear our problems," says Khaled Mohammed.

Despite the difficulties, Major Daniels, who is on his first tour in Iraq, is optimistic, and says he sees encouraging signs in the Haifa Street area that could potentially turn it into a success story.

He says that his unit has accomplished more in three weeks in the Karkh neighborhood than it did in four months in Dora, a violence-racked area in southern Baghdad that was also overseen by his brigade. It's now being handed over to another US military unit as part of the ongoing troop surge in Iraq.

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