In a bid to control sectarian violence spiraling in Baghdad, US and Iraqi forces moved months ago into one of the toughest Sunni insurgent neighborhoods, Amiriyah.
At first, change was palpable. The Americans paid a Sunni contractor to clear streets and pick up trash. Checkpoints targeted insurgents, though few were netted.
But "ethnic cleansing" of the few remaining Shiites continued. The contractor was murdered, ending that program. And Sunday, the threat came to Mohamed al-Baghdadi's door when two young men left a note: Move out in two days or die.
"What is the benefit of US and Iraqi troops, if the killing continues, and bombs and IEDs, and they are forcing people to leave?" asks Mr. Baghdadi, a pseudonym for a Shiite pharmacist with a Sunni wife, who secretly serves as a medic for the Iraqi Army. "The American Army does not control Amiriyah."
US forces have enjoyed some tactical successes – for a time in Amiriyah, and in the insurgent stronghold of Doura, where residents have praised US moves. Elsewhere, Iraqis have approvingly noted US soldiers, shovels in hand, clearing blocked sewers.
The renewed US military attention to Baghdad has sometimes been welcomed. But it is often not deemed sustainable by Iraqi units when US forces eventually leave. And in other areas, such as the Shiite suburb of Sadr City, an increased US presence over the past week has deepened antioccupation sentiment, and threatened renewed conflict.
The US says the success of the step-by-step approach must be measured over time. "A lump of clay can become a sculpture, blobs of paint become paintings which inspire," Maj. Gen. William Caldwell said Thursday. "The final test of our efforts will not be the isolated incidents reported daily but the country that the Iraqis build."
US commanders recently termed the results of "Operation Forward Together," launched last June, as "disheartening." A secret Central Command briefing slide from Oct. 18, published Wednesday in The New York Times, assessed the situation as heading toward "chaos." It noted "urban areas experiencing 'ethnic cleansing' campaigns to consolidate control ... violence at all-time high, spreading geographically."
The Baghdadi family knows how that feels, as they succumbed to the threatening letter. A Shiite friend who owned a clothes shop had recently been murdered; insurgents even shot at that family the next day, forcing them to seek US and Iraqi military help as they loaded a moving truck.
Within hours of receiving the computer-printed threat, Baghdadi drove his two Shiite brothers to an uncle's house in a safer area. Early the next morning, with just the clothes on their backs, money, and a few valuables – so they would appear not to be moving – Baghdadi's family ended their 25-year residence in Amiriyah.
The district, on the north side of the road to the airport, and seeded by Saddam Hussein with military and intelligence loyalists, was always going to be tough for US forces to crack. It is riven with Sunni insurgents, who have easy access to western hotbeds like Fallujah and Ramadi.
"The population supports the insurgents because they hate the Americans, and the Iraqi Army and police, and everyone who is against their extremist ideas," says Baghdadi. But, he says: "If you catch and kill the terrorists in Amiriyah, it would end it."
That task has not been easy anywhere in this vast capital, home to more than 5 million Iraqis. The city's patchwork of neighborhoods, many of them ethnically mixed, are being systematically cleansed by shadowy sectarian death squads linked to Shiite parties as well as to Sunni insurgents; both sides claiming revenge.
Still, US forces have found some success in recent weeks in the unlikely quarter of Doura, where insurgent control has hardened sectarian lines and forced an exodus. Abu Mina owns two large generators, and sells power by the ampere. In the past two months, he has seen his client list shrink from 200 households to below 50. Electric capacity nationwide passed prewar levels in recent months, according to an Oct. 30 federal audit, but Baghdad still lags behind.
Security has improved, with US and Iraqi checkpoints disrupting insurgent movement. They have also snarled traffic, however, and caused anger among those trying to get to work.
"The Americans came to the neighborhoods, and the situation is quieter," says Abu Mina, a Sunni married to a Shiite, who would only permit the use of his nickname. "When the Americans come, the insurgents leave, so the killing is less, and there are checkpoints and fewer IEDs."
Doura residents say that US forces began paying youths $5 a day to clean up neighborhoods during at least the past week, and that insurgents have been unable to stop the program, which many there welcome. "In general, the Americans do a good thing when they divide [Doura] into blocks and [set checkpoints]," says Abu Mina, as his brother nods. "But they can't be in every house. Insurgents come from outside, do their work, and then leave."
Will insurgents return when US troops depart? "Yes," says Abu Mina.
There have also been problems with Iraqi forces, which are majority Shiite, says Abu Mina. Americans have searched police cars, and forced police to return goods stolen from abandoned houses. During the Friday curfew around midday prayers, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., he says police in police cars have shot at Sunni mosques and people in the streets.
US forces earlier this week handed out phone numbers to call if police cars entered Sunni areas with misbehaving cops, says Abu Mina. But the issue undermines the broader US strategy of eventually pulling out, as Iraqi units take over.
And threat letters keep coming, thrown onto the streets. Abu Mina pulls one out of his pocket that is signed by the Mujahideen Shura Council, the umbrella group of Sunni insurgents linked to Al Qaeda.
The letter calls on fellow Sunnis to "know the identity of their enemy." "The energy and power should focus on support for jihad and the Mujahideen," the letter reads, then calls for avenging "blood that is spilled, and the honor that is raped...."
"Many people left their homes because of these," says Abu Mina. "After these, [insurgents] start to kill."
The ease of such ethnic cleansing, despite months of effort by US commanders who have portrayed pacifying Baghdad as a minimum requirement for success, frightens many Iraqis.
"On the ground I expect worse," says Baghdadi. "But I do not want to be pessimistic, so I am keeping this small point in my mind, just to go forward. We will be dead people if we always say everything is bad. But surely, it is dark."