A 'surge' unit sees change, but questions its permanence
As the US Army soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 64th Armor Regiment prepare to return home this month, many question whether the sacrifices they made will have been worth it in the end.
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"They tell us we are doing something for our country, but I do not see it," says one soldier, who did not want to have his name published. "It seems more like the real fight is in Afghanistan … instead they get us into this [area of operation], which is more like Mr. Rogers' neighborhood."Skip to next paragraph
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Adel, a once-prosperous middle-class area, is now almost all Sunni and poor. Shiites fled the sectarian violence of 2006 and their homes have been occupied by Sunnis displaced from neighboring Hurriya. That shift is just one example of the new sectarian segregation throughout Baghdad.
Many average Iraqis in Adel, as well as in the areas of Jamiaa, Iskan, Khadra, Washash, and parts of Mansour, where the 1/64 operated, give credit to the US for the turnaround in their western Baghdad neighborhoods. But they fear a return to the not-so-distant days of lawlessness should US troops leave soon. The 1/64 is being replaced with another unit.
On a recent house-to-house search in Adel by members of the 1/64, accompanying Iraqi soldiers seemed more interested in chatting and texting on their cellphones than the mission at hand.
"It's tiring. It has been five years. Now it's called knock-and-search instead of raids. A lot of the [Iraqi] soldiers do not want to do their jobs," grumbles Staff Sgt. Jose Benavides from Miami. "If the Americans leave, the sectarian violence will flare up."
In one stately Adel villa, Iman Marouf says she's "guarding" the house for its absent Shiite owners. No Shiites have dared return to the neighborhood since a bombing last month targeted some who had come back.
"Fear consumes people. Hearts are still filled with fear," says Mrs. Marouf, gesturing emotionally.
Her sister, Jinan Marouf, adds: "All this calm is temporary, trust me. If we get someone like Saddam Hussein back, Iraq will be itself again. We need someone with his control."
From the Adel outpost, the soldiers served as cop, community benefactor, and mentor to Iraq's fledgling security forces.
On a recent drive with Lt. Col. Edward Chesney, the 1/64's commander, through his area of operation, he recounted how the local Iraqi police unit was rebuilt from scratch in many of the mainly Sunni neighborhoods he oversees. It's now staffed with men, some ex-insurgents, mostly on the US payroll.
He spoke of how commercial thoroughfares are being slowly revitalized with US grants to shop owners and of the public-works projects initiated and paid for by the US military.
He described with enthusiasm how US funds are being spent on creating municipal outposts, known as public-works substations, in many of these once no-go neighborhoods to encourage the Shiite-led Baghdad municipal authorities to pitch in.