How fragile is Baghdad's calm?
An arc of tough districts stands as a test of whether peace can hold.
Baghdad — 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.
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.
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.
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.
On the edge of Amel near the main gasoline station, which is controlled by the Mahdi Army, black-shirted men could be seen standing at the entrance of a block of homes known as Jamiyat, just a few hundred meters from an Iraqi Army checkpoint.
Deep divisions in Jihad neighborhood
As the Monitor drove westward toward Jihad, the extent of sectarian segregation started to emerge. Knee-high concrete barriers have been erected by the US military at the entrances of several neighborhood blocks.
Hay Saddam, a collection of apartment blocks commissioned by Saddam Hussein in the late 1970s and awarded to intelligence officers, sports figures, and artists, is split now between mixed Sunni-Shiite areas and all-Shiite. Next door to Hay Saddam, a block of homes known as Dhubat and Mukhabarat are all Sunni. Beyond that, there is a swampy no-man's land dubbed "Chechnya" by locals.
Sunni guards from the US-funded program could be seen manning a barricaded position on the rooftop of a building in Dhubat. Directly opposite from them, across the Jihad highway, Shiite guards in the same program stand on a rooftop in Rifaq 1, a block built by Mr. Hussein for his Baath Party members that has become almost all Shiite.
Down Al-Amen al-Qawmi [National Security] Street is a house that has been converted into the headquarters of the Jihad reconciliation council, started just two months ago when its 35 or so council members signed a 13-point reconciliation "pledge." Its activities are largely supported and funded by the local US military unit.
The house sits along a street that was the scene of one of the most brutal episodes of sectarian killing in Baghdad in 2006, during which both Sunnis and Shiites were dragged out of their vehicles and shot following tit-for-tat mosque bombings in the area.
At a meeting of the council, which the Monitor attended, Cpt. Brian Ducote tells the assembled notables and tribal figures that he wants to give them more "legitimacy" and "leverage" among the people of Jihad by releasing detainees and securing funds for projects.
"The reconciliation council has done an extremely effective job in making it not just a cease-fire but a commitment to peace … the spark will become a fire," says Captain Ducote, a native of Atlanta. He says the guard program will be transferred to the Iraqi government next month.
But the council's chief, Taleb al-Rubaie, voices concerns about the tepid financial support so far from the government, itself enmeshed in an internal Sunni-Shiite struggle. He asks Ducote for funds for a public-relations program to promote reconciliation among residents.
While the council has convened for several weeks now, the explosive issue of repatriating families in now segregated areas of Jihad has yet to be tackled.
'Flawed logic' in reconciliation
Ahmed al-Adeeb, owner of one of a handful of stores open on Jihad's once-bustling market street, says there is something "flawed" with the logic of reconciliation being advanced by US troops. He points to homes in the adjacent neighborhood of Atibaa, from which, he says, Sunnis launched attacks on Shiites in Jihad earlier this year and were repulsed by residents and the Mahdi Army.
He says most of the homeowners in upscale Atibaa have long gone and are not even in Iraq. He adds that most of the spacious homes have been occupied by insurgents from the Sunni town of Abu Ghraib further west.
"I told the Americans, bring me the true residents of Atibaa back, and I will reconcile with them," says Mr. Adeeb.
His neighbor, a Shiite who has been displaced from Atibaa, says his wife went back to check on their home last week and found two bullets tied to a string and dangling from the front door.
The Sunni guards in Atibaa, once a mixed area, accuse his son of being with the Mahdi Army. The son is also in the same US-funded guard program, but on the Shiite side.