How fragile is Baghdad's calm?
An arc of tough districts stands as a test of whether peace can hold.
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But now, each member of the group is paid $300 a month and issued a badge by US forces stationed nearby that allows him to carry weapons. The Sunni guards have even turned the home of a displaced Shiite family into their makeshift command center in an enclave that is now framed by Shiites on all sides except for an outlet to the airport road, which is heavily guarded by Iraqi forces.Skip to next paragraph
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Seven Nissan, once a bustling thoroughfare of stores and businesses, has become the demarcation line between Sunnis and Shiites in Amel. Garbage and debris from numerous car bombs have been removed from the road, but all the shops remain closed. On a visit there last week, not a single pedestrian or car was seen, a chilly reminder of the tenuous peace here.
"What we are doing now was impossible before the cease-fire," says Jabr Salman, a lawyer and Shiite resident of Amel involved in the reconciliation effort, as he drives down Seven Nissan shortly after midday.
"These side streets were death because of the snipers," he adds as he points to the bullet-riddled storefronts on the main road.
Mr. Salman says the one-month-old cease-fire has held up for the most part despite some violations, such as a brief firefight that erupted a few days ago when a Sunni woman returning to inspect her home on the Shiite side was cursed by some angry Shiite neighbors and chased out.
He says that since then, families were told to hold off from returning until a reconciliation council made up of notables from both sides is formed to agree on a mechanism that would secure their safe return and compensate victims' families.
"Ninety percent of the people want peace.… If we have lasting peace here it will spread to other areas – Bayiaa, Saidiyah, and Dora. There will be no place for the virus to breed," says Salman.
The Sunnis want 7,000 families displaced from the Shiite side of Amel to be allowed to return and restitution for eight Sunni mosques that were either looted and destroyed or turned into Shiite houses of worship, according to Sarhan al-Janabi, a Sunni prospective member of the council.
But a main point of contention for Shiites is the Sunni guards now on the US military's payroll. Many Shiites refused to join a Shiite version of the US-sponsored guards program, saying it's the job of security forces – not individual former fighters – to keep the peace.
"I find the US military's solution foolish and simplistic … they are putting fuel next to fire," says Alaa Oweid, another lawyer, who has shunned the proposed reconciliation council. "What's the logic of rewarding the criminals by paying them, dressing them in uniforms, and telling them to protect the neighborhood?"
Mr. Oweid blames the Sunni guards for killing his brother Adel by sniper fire on Oct. 22 as he went up to his home's rooftop to check on the water tank.
Guard screening isn't perfect
A spokesman for the US Army's 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment, which commands the area, says all guards are screened and vetted, but that the process is not perfect.
"We are continually seeking to refine and improve the recruiting procedures in order to identify potential criminal elements," says Maj. Kirk Luedeke, adding that there are now 1,500 guards in the arc of neighborhoods from Bayiaa to Furat, of whom 58 percent are Sunni and 42 percent are Shiite. There is a total of about 77,000 neighborhood guards, mostly Sunnis, on the US military's payroll across Iraq.
The Sunnis say they do not have faith in the security forces and accuse them of being in league with Mr. Sadr's Mahdi Army militia. "I do not trust them 1 percent," says Muhanad, a Sunni guard who just gave his first name.
His suspicions may not be unreasonable. In fact, many residents on the Shiite side of Amel have suggested that the Mahdi Army fighters in Amel have simply put away their weapons for now and are streamlining their ranks as they get ready for another battle.