In the heart of Dora's main market, amid the smashed-up and bullet- riddled facades of the Juburi butchery, the Nineva pickle shop, and the Saudi poultry store, and inside what was once the Hope X-ray clinic, lies combat outpost Gator.
The word "swamp" is scrawled in green and black marker on the window of the outpost's command room.
"Alligators live in swamps," jokes Sgt. Maj. Doug Maddi of the 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment.
Swamp may not be a far-fetched metaphor for Dora. The predominantly Sunni Arab district in southern Baghdad has, over the past few years, become a byword for lawlessness and mayhem for Baghdadis.
The US military touts its success in reducing the level of violence in the area, which is home to the capital's main oil refinery and power plant and sits at the crossroads of several major highways. Given how bad the situation was before US intervention in Dora, some of the soldiers could be forgiven for being optimistic. Since troops began aggressively patrolling the Dora market in December and setting up several garrisons, including Gator, two weeks ago, some merchants have returned to the market.
But all signs indicate that it may be too late to reverse the dynamic on the ground and bring peace to this troubled, yet strategic, corner of Baghdad.
Dora, which was traditionally popular with government employees during Saddam Hussein's regime, began its descent in early 2004 as attacks escalated on police stations and public infrastructure. Two churches were bombed in August 2004, driving out most of the tiny, but once thriving, Christian community.
The following year saw the start of a local campaign to drive out the Shiites. Sunni militants stepped up attacks against Shiite pilgrims passing through Dora on their way to shrines in Najaf and Karbala further south. Sectarian killing reached an apex last year, and now most Shiites have been squeezed into the Abu Dsheir neighborhood south of Dora.
Sunni residents who hold government or municipal functions, or who are believed to be assisting Iraqi and US forces, have not been spared from the killings and kidnappings. Most have fled to Jordan and Syria.
A no-go neighborhood
"I am here to work with you to clean up the takfeer in the area," Col. Ricky Gibbs, commander of the 4th Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, to which Sergeant Major Maddi's unit is attached, tells his Iraqi counterparts at a joint security station not far from the Gator outpost. The Iraqis smile.
Takfeer is the generic Arabic word for a hard-line brand of Sunni Islam whose followers excommunicate all those they deem to be nonbelievers.
A representative of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is visiting Dora, begins a litany of complaints by Iraqi forces.
"I need your timely cooperation ... many officers complain about delays in backup. Please do not be stingy with your support, the enemy is targeting you and us, no exception," Brig. Gen. Khalid Hamoud tells Colonel Gibbs.
Gibbs, who took official command of Dora in early March as part of the surge in US troops, shoots back and tells him that the main obstacle to security is the fact that at least 30 percent of the national police in Dora are on leave at all times. The government, says Gibbs, has yet to send enough forces to the area to help pacify the neighborhoods.
Several sections of Dora continue to be no-go zones for government forces. Most of the battle-hardened residents reject government authority and are enraged with the predominantly Shiite national police. They accuse it of committing innumerable atrocities over the past year of sectarian bloodletting.
Several US Army officers say the prime enemy in Dora now is angry and increasingly militant young Sunnis seeking revenge. Some are swayed by Al Qaeda and takfeeri ideology, they say.
The most extreme of the fighters are believed to be holed up a few miles away in the orchards of Abu Aitha and Arab Jubur along the bend of the Tigris.
In a further twist, residents now look to the US military as a buffer between them and Iraqi forces, something that has infuriated many in the national police, even prompting accusations that the US sides with the Sunni militants.
The volatility of Dora was underscored last weekend when a suicide bomber driving an explosives-packed truck struck an Iraqi police station, a few hundred meters from the Gator outpost, killing 20. A US military officer stationed in Dora also said on Thursday that there was an uptick in the number of bodies being found in the area after a brief decline that coincided with the start of the US-Iraq security crackdown last month.
'Full spectrum operations'
Back at the Gator outpost, Maddi talks about his plans to erect a wire fence around the Dora market at a cost of $1.1 million to protect it from insurgent attacks. "This is the little island of hope," says the native of San Bernardino, Calif.
He beams with pride about the fact that some 100 shops out of an estimated 700 have reopened in the market. He hopes more merchants will be encouraged to return once the fence is built.
Economic activity will dissuade residents, especially young men, he says, from becoming "part-time insurgents."
Maddi's outpost also acts as a municipality of sorts in Dora, given the complete absence of municipal services. He has contracted a company to pick up the trash, but workers don't show up regularly for fear of being targeted by insurgents if seen collaborating with US forces.
On a stroll in the market, Maddi is greeted with smiles. Vendors are hawking everything from heaps of minced meat and fresh vegetables to colorful plastic slippers and wedding gowns. Almost everyone pleads with him to rein in the national police.
"You have a moral duty," says a man, who did not wish to give his name, recounting how children had been killed and wounded the day before at the Al Amal (Hope) school by indiscriminate gunfire from the national police. The Iraqi Army confirms that one child was killed and two others wounded in the incident.
Maddi gets word on his radio that men from his company were engaging gunmen in Toama, a particularly violent section of Dora.
On his arrival in the area, a soldier explains to Maddi that their patrol encountered six young men on the street with AK-47s. US soldiers weren't taking any chances.
"We saw six guys with AKs, our gunner lit them up," says the soldier. One man was killed, another wounded.
Maddi and his men advance cautiously. The risk of sniper fire is high. A pair of leather slippers lie next to an overturned motorbike. They follow a trail of blood that leads them to the blood-stained metal gate of one the homes. Other US soldiers are already inside.
The blood trail continues to the roof. There they find the unit's medic wearing blue latex gloves and treating the gunshot wounds of a waif-like man turned on his side with an AK-47 at his feet. He is moaning from pain. Maddi says the wounded gunman will be an invaluable source of intelligence on insurgent activities in the area.
Back at the outpost, a military translator goes through what was found in the dead man's pockets – Syrian business cards and a folded handwritten piece of paper that lists "10 reasons for excommunication" which include being a Shiite and collaborating with non-Muslims.
"This is what I call full spectrum operations," says Maddi.