How fragile is Baghdad's calm?
An arc of tough districts stands as a test of whether peace can hold.
Walid Mahmoud reopened his Napoli Pizzeria last week after shuttering it for more than three years. Situated next to the Green Zone, his restaurant was one of several popular eateries lining a central street that had been a constant target for suicide bombers.Skip to next paragraph
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Like many Baghdadis, Mr. Mahmoud says he is heartened by a recent decline in violence. In October, attacks across Iraq dropped 55 percent; civilian fatalities in Baghdad alone have dropped 75 percent compared with June, according to the US military.
But two bombings in the capital since Friday, which killed at least 24 and wounded dozens, were a reminder that the new calm is fragile. In many parts of the city, residents are still arrested by fear, polarized by sectarian divisions, or altogether absent.
Even as life reasserts itself in a few upscale areas such as Karrada and Jadriyah, wide swaths of middle-class western Baghdad remain locked down amid uncertainty over whether progress is lasting or is the result of a brief cease-fire between sectarian militias. An arc of neighborhoods there – Furat, Atibaa, Jihad, Amel, Bayiaa, and Saidiyah – will be forever linked to some of the war's worst turmoil. These areas, some of which the Monitor recently visited, will also offer the truest test of the durability of improving security, say American and Iraqi officials.
US Ambassador Ryan Crocker said last month that what ultimately happens in places like Jihad and other traditionally Sunni-Shiite – but currently segregated – neighborhoods is "critical" for the trend to "continue and solidify."
While violence is down, true peace seems conditional on resolution of a number of explosive issues. Tens of thousands of displaced families hope to return to their homes, and families expect to receive compensation for members who were killed and for damage to property. Yet the Iraqi government has made no meaningful initiatives to push the process ahead.
In some areas, hundreds of ex-Sunni insurgents and even a few Al Qaeda-linked fighters are on the US military's payroll as neighborhood guards. Shiite fighters with the Mahdi Army are also present, to a much smaller extent, in others, but are standing down for now, ordered by radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to freeze their activities.
More than a dozen fighters and residents interviewed in these neighborhoods say the new dynamic in Baghdad is at least partially due to a cease-fire between rival groups. They are skeptical of truly bridging the divides that have solidified over years of conflict.
Accusations in Amel
One Shiite resident of Amel, Walid Abdul-Jawad, sums up the slightly surreal atmosphere: "It feels like everyone has been tranquilized."
Two other men, both members of a group of Sunni fighters, have their own views of the situation. "It's a cease-fire … and then the two sides will sit down. They will say that we are all wanted terrorists, and we will say the same about them. Ultimately, it will be, 'you live alone and we live alone and no more fighting,' " says Abu Saleh, a fighter in Amel who wears a tan uniform with an arm patch reading "AG," which stands for Amel Guard.
Khalaf, another fighter who gives only his first name, quickly raises problematic issues, though. "The return of the displaced families is one huge bundle of knots," he noted.
The group of fighters is accused by Shiites of planting roadside bombs aimed at both US and Iraqi forces. They are also thought to be responsible for displacing Shiite families from the block known as the "Janabat" – historically, most of the residents there are from the Sunni Janabi tribe – and killing many Shiite residents in the rest of Amel by sniper fire.