Iraq's new gated communities: safer, mixed, walled-in

Residents are moving back to Saidiyah, a neighborhood once racked by sectarian violence that is now guarded by a 12-foot-high wall.

Howard Lafranchi
Transformer: Workers installed a transformer in Saidiyah last week. For more than a year, part of the area has not been connected to Baghdad's power grid.
Howard Lafranchi
Relocated: Feras Ibrahim, a Sunni, bought a market in Saidiyah from a Shiite who fled the area's sectarian violence.
Rich Clabaugh

There is big excitement on al-Marifah Street. City workers are installing a new transformer to bring power to a part of the southern Baghdad neighborhood of Saidiyah that hasn't been on the city's electrical grid for more than a year.

"A year ago, dead bodies lay on this street for days; no one dared to pick them up. But now we are getting lights and shops have opened back up," says Mahdi Jabbar Falah, a 40-year resident who has just moved himself and his family of nine back to their house. They fled last year after Mr. Jabbar received a bullet in an envelope, a sure sign he was on someone's hit list.

"Last year, this was a ghost town," he says, "but now I feel we are alive again."

Saidiyah is one of the many neighborhoods and towns in and around Baghdad that residents abandoned during the worst of the sectarian violence. Officials there estimate that more than half the area's 60,000 people moved out. Now, many are moving back and the trucks overflowing with household goods coming through al-Marifah Street attest to that.

But there has been a price to pay: Saidiyah is now surrounded by a 12-foot-tall concrete wall, a barrier that the US military completed four months ago. Long lines of cars await inspection by the Iraqi Army at the town's one public entrance, while pedestrians submit to a pat-down.

The US Army maintains two camps here and the Iraqi Army is a substantial presence. Local young people, part of the "Awakening" or "Sons of Iraq" movement the US military developed and financed to draw locals into the battle with Al Qaeda in Iraq extremists, also patrol the streets.

Many families have also returned to find themselves in the middle of property disputes. In some cases, after the families left Saidiyah, they rented out their house and now some tenants refuse to leave. In other houses, squatters have simply made themselves at home.

"There are problems. We have to sort out all these cases of whose house is really whose and who has taken advantage of the situation to move in," says Ali al-Amari, director of the Saidiyah Support Council, a committee formed to foster reconciliation and settle property disputes.

Displaying a hand-printed log of the more than 370 cases of squatting and other claims registered since February, Mr. Amari says, "The important thing is we have our security back. It's amazing," he adds, "You could say it's safer than Michigan."

Baghdad's new walled communities

Most residents seem to prefer the security wall and the body searches to the conditions of last year. "Some of our visitors say, 'How can you live here, it feels like a prison,' " says Amer Mohsen, a retired gym teacher. "I tell them I can't see the wall from my house, but I can see its benefits."

Still, Saidiyah bears the scars of many months of sectarian violence. A mostly upper-middle-class neighborhood of distinct Shiite and Sunni blocks, Saidiyah witnessed acts of terror that hit all communities, but targeted Shiites most.

Feras Ibrahim is a Sunni who moved to Saidiyah 18 months ago from another Baghdad neighborhood where conditions were worse for him. Two months ago he bought a wholesale grocery business on al-Marifah Street that was abandoned by a Shiite owner who was threatened with death if he didn't leave. "They left a bomb outside the door one night, they strafed the façade with gunfire. The bullet holes are still there as a reminder," says Mr. Ibrahim.

Some critics of the American military's construction of walled communities say it has reinforced Iraq's sectarian divides and turned Baghdad's many mixed neighborhoods increasingly into distinct enclaves.

But officials at the Saidiyah Support Council say both Shiite and Sunni are returning to the neighborhood. And they insist they are careful in their deliberations on property disputes to favor the law and no particular sect.

"We are a council of 24 – 12 Sunnis and 12 Shiites – we know very well how important it is we show we are working together," says Amari.

A Shiite, Amari moved from Saidiyah to the Shiite city of Karbala last year after his two brothers were killed. His deputy on the council, Haj Alawi al-Obeidi, a Sunni sheikh, also moved to the mainly Sunni city of Fallujah last year during the worst of the violence. But both men are back, determined to rebuild Saidiyah as a home for all communities.

"We said from our first meeting that we cannot place blame with one sect or the other, it is like the old question of whether the chicken or the egg came first," says Amari.

The neighborhood "continues to grow each day," said Lt. Ryan Olsen, assistance coordinator to the Iraqi Resettlement Plan for the US Baghdad Command, in an e-mail response to questions. "[It] has been quite peaceful over the past few months."

Still, many residents say Saidiyah has not completely healed from the sectarian trauma and isn't trouble free.

'There are still terrorists here'

In the past month, two members of families that moved back were killed. The local Sahwa, or "Sons of Iraq," patrol was attacked and four members were injured, and the Support Council's building was fired on at night. Since the Iraqi Army battalion assigned here arrived in October, 12 of its soldiers have been killed. And acting on tips from residents, US and Iraqi soldiers recently discovered a cache of weapons and explosive vests.

"You can't say there's perfect safety here now, but it's much better than before when you didn't dare go out on the street," says Ali Latif, a young Shiite who returned to Saidiyah in January after leaving for six months. "There are still terrorists here, but now they stay more hidden," adds the unemployed security guard, who says his job now is "bodyguard for my mom when she wants to go to the market."

It is also clear that the US military still holds sway over Saidiyah – and that is causing tensions with local authorities who say it's time the Americans left more responsibility to the Iraqis.

At the Support Council, Amari complains that the Americans intervened to stop a decision to evict families that the council determined had moved in to take advantage of Saidiyah's turmoil. "These are families that moved here from [Sunni neighborhoods] simply to get a better house, and we decided they should be moved back. But the Americans stopped us from carrying this out," he adds.

"The Americans say they are here as friends and not occupiers, and the United Nations has said Iraq is again a sovereign nation," Amari says, "but sometimes the reality on the ground suggests something different."

And at Saidiyah's Iraqi Army base, an intelligence officer says the six suspects arrested when the weapons cache was found were taken away by the US military, when local residents wanted them tried locally. "They said the explosive vests made them of interest to the American higher-ups," says the officer, whose line of work prevented him from giving his name. "But we do have an Iraqi justice system, you know, and there are families here who would have claims against those criminals."

Some locals were also critical of the US military for initially creating a Sahwa patrol that was all Sunni, when other new groups like the Support Council are making efforts to reduce the sectarian divide. The local Sahwa is now mixed and funded by the Iraqis, though smaller than when under American direction.

Major Saad Abbas, who commands Iraqi operations in Saidiyah, lauds the "cooperative relationship" he has with his American counterparts. He is particularly proud of how the two forces worked together to sweep Saidiyah "from top to bottom" to make it the safer neighborhood it has become.

But he says the US role is increasingly one of backup and oversight, and he can foresee the day when their presence will no longer be necessary. "If they left today," he says, "we're ready to control Saidiyah."

Not everyone agrees. Back on al-Marifah Street, grocery merchant Ibrahim says the people – and the Iraqi Army – are not ready for the Americans to go.

"The Americans are testing the Iraqi troops, and our sense of security is still very new so the people would be very nervous if the Americans left," he says. "No, their presence is still 100 percent necessary."

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