The battle to save Iraq's 'ink spots'

Posted in Iraq | 04-Sep-06 | Author: Damien Cave| Source: International Herald Tribune

A United States Army soldier, right, stood by last month as Iraqi police officers talked with residents in Dora.
BAGHDAD Three weeks after American and Iraqi troops began searching, fortifying and patrolling Dora, one of Baghdad's bloodiest neighborhoods, the stench of death on the streets has eased. After 126 bodies surfaced in Dora in July, only 18 turned up in August, according to U.S. military figures. Murders, most often Sunni against Shiite or vice versa in this mixed neighborhood, also dropped: 14 were reported last month, down from 73 in July.

But in a country long on disappointment and short on hope, Dora remains a work in progress. It was the first of several violent neighborhoods covered by a new security plan for the capital - which entails creating walled-in sanctuaries, or "ink spots," where economic development can grow in an environment of safety - and American and Iraqi officials are still struggling to make residents feel safe enough to let their children play in the streets.

The past week in Baghdad has been especially violent. Most of the bombings and shootings that killed more than 150 people since Aug. 27 occurred in areas without a reinforced military presence. The challenge for U.S. and Iraqi officials lies in spreading security to additional trouble spots without letting Dora slide back into lawlessness. Even American generals admit that sustainability will be hard to achieve.

"The difficult part is going to be holding these areas with Iraqi security forces," the top U.S. commander, General George Casey Jr., told reporters last week. "And building the relationships between the Iraqi people in the neighborhood and their security forces so they can get on with their economic development."

U.S. forces have frequently targeted violent areas of Iraq and moved on - in part because they lacked enough troops to hold the territory - only to return later when chaos ensued. In Tal Afar for example, a dusty agrarian city northwest of Baghdad, American troops were forced to reassert control in 2005 after a large military offensive a year earlier had failed to yield a lasting peace.

In Dora, local leaders worry that violent gangs are just laying low, scouting for ways to circumvent the additional safeguards while attacking other neighborhoods or waiting for the Americans to leave.

"The calm situation right now is temporary and if the state does not continue to build trust with the people the situation might explode," said Sattar al- Jabouri, a Sunni sheik and member of Dora's municipal council. "We know there are people who do not want this operation to succeed."

Jabouri emphasized that the American presence had made Dora safer. Like others in the area, he raved about being able to sleep again on his roof, away from the sweltering indoor heat. He said that some of the families who fled the violence seemed to be returning, and that the Iraqis and Americans who searched his home were respectful, and seemed sincerely interested in improving the neighborhood.

Colonel Michael Beech, the American commander overseeing Dora, said the second phase of the operation, now in effect, included cutting off all but a few access points, searching every car that enters Dora, and linking American soldiers with Iraqi police officers for joint patrols. Sections of the neighborhood have been assigned to the same squads so that residents and officers become better acquainted.

The U.S. military has also allotted $5 million to Dora and the surrounding area, with much of the current outlay for Iraqis who pick up trash.

On a recent afternoon, the results were hard to miss. Piles of rancid garbage behind the market had been cleared, and workers on various streets tossed more into trucks. Iraqi police cars and American Humvees lined the streets.

Yet even as residents described the progress as encouraging, they acknowledged that life in Dora had not returned to normal. They trust neither neighbors nor the police. They still keep children indoors. They still warn visitors to stay away.

On a block of the main shopping district on a recent morning, half the stores remained shuttered. Anmar al- Mayahi, 23, a Shiite shoe salesman who owns a store that is still closed, described Dora as a place where anxiety holds hope at arm's length. After two roadside bombs exploded recently in the neighborhood, on streets ringed by checkpoints, Mayahi worried that the additional security precautions were beginning to break down. "Where did they get their weapons?" he asked. "How did they get them into the neighborhood with all the extra protection?"

"If the Americans leave, it will go back to killing in the streets," he said. "It will be civil war." Mayahi said his pessimism stems from experience. Over the past year, several attacks at the market pushed panicked women into his store, crying for help. A few months ago, he said, two men waving pistols ran by and fired into the crowd of shoppers.

The police pulled him in for questioning, and beat him after asserting, incorrectly, that he was a Sunni. He recalled their justification as, "all Sunnis are dogs." He said he was thrown into a small, dank room with more than 100 people and a toilet in the center. "One guy next to me said 'I've been a here for a year and a half and no one has let me leave,'" Mayahi said. "I started crying."

His father, a science teacher, managed to buy his son's freedom - paying about $250 for his release. Mayahi's father was also on a bus only a few days before the Americans arrived that was raided by Shiite gunmen who rifled through passengers' cellphones looking for Sunni names like "Omar," a kiss of death even for a fellow Shiite.

The gunmen were only scared off after receiving a tip on their own cellphones about an American patrol approaching the area.

Most people in Dora can recite similar tales of what amounts to sectarian cleansing. Abdul Rahaman Hassan, 25, a Sunni baker who lives on a street just off the main thoroughfare, said he saw his Shiite neighbors threatened a few months ago and told to leave the neighborhood. When the family did not move fast enough, "they planted a bomb in front of his house," he said. "His son was injured, and his daughter was killed."

Given such cases, it was no surprise that people here simply laughed when asked if they were still nervous after a few weeks of relative safety. "Of course we're still nervous," Hassan explained. "People are hidden, doing horrible things. We don't see them. We just see their actions."

Iraqi security forces - who outnumbered Americans more than six to one during the initial search operation - are also struggling with Dora's uncertainties. Even with murders so far down, roadside bombs are still frighteningly common in the broader Rashid District, of which Dora is a part. In August, 81 were found, 56 detonated and 7 caused casualties. A month earlier, the numbers were similar: 89 discovered, 66 detonated and 8 that were effective.