Saving Baghdad's mixed neighborhoods

Saving Baghdad's mixed neighborhoods
September 13th, 2006  
Team Infidel

Topic: Saving Baghdad's mixed neighborhoods

Saving Baghdad's mixed neighborhoods
Media: AFP
Byline: Paul Schemm
Date: 13 September 2006

BAGHDAD - The piles of trash and barricades in the streets of southwest
Baghdad's Risalah neighborhood are grimly similar to the rest of the city,
but Risalah maintains an important difference: here Sunnis and Shiites still
live side by side.

It is to preserve this increasingly rare mixed population that US and Iraqi
forces have targeted Risalah as the latest neighborhood in Operation
Together Forward, the three-month old, increasingly fraught attempt to halt
Baghdad's fratricidal sectarian bloodshed.

"This is a chance to be preventative and go into an area before it gets out
of control, before it becomes a Dura," said Lieutenant Colonel James Danna
of the 2nd Battalion 6th Infantry regiment conducting the operation.

Dura, a mixed but mostly Sunni neighborhood just to the east of Risalah was
"pacified" in mid-August after it became one of the most violent places in
the city. It is much more peaceful now, but its Shiite inhabitants were long
ago driven out.

Since the destruction of a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra in February, the
parts of Iraq with mixed population have been beset by a sectarian killings
claiming up to a 100 lives a day across the country.

"The average person in the neighborhood does not want this ethnic
cleansing," said Danna, an assertion that seemed to be borne out by the
fairly friendly reception US troops and Iraqi National Police received as
they moved through the area searching houses.

"I am very happy to see the US army and police searching the area," said one
man as the soldiers walked by. "I want them to take the weapons away from
the militias," he added, declining to give his name.

"They understand and support the operation because they see coalition forces
and Iraqis working together," said Lieutenant Colonel Salah Nasr Hussein of
the 8th brigade, 2nd division of the Iraqi National Police.

The "clear, hold and build" strategy of the operation is to surround each
neighborhood and search through it house by house, removing illegal weapons
and registering legal ones before initiating reconstruction plans.

After that, however, the US forces, already quite stretched in this part of
the city, will move on to the next neighborhood in need, leaving security in
the hands of the Iraqi forces.

At this point, the plan runs into a bit of a rocky area, not the least
because many people in this mixed neighborhood don't trust the National
Police and suspect they have ties to the Shiite militias.

"There is a great mistrust between the Sunni population and the Iraqi
national police in the area for their involvement in extra-judicial
killings," said Danna referring to the death squads that roam the city.

Risalah neighborhood is bordered on the south by rural agricultural fields
that often bring Sunni insurgents into the city, while to the east and west
are districts rife with Shiite militias.

The area is one of the tenuous faultlines of the
neighborhood-by-neighborhood battle taking place between extremists in both
communities for control of the capital.

Until recently, however, this was what the US military called an "economy of
force" area, meaning they did not have enough soldiers to patrol it

Just to the north is the Jihad neighborhood, another such area, where Shiite
militias went on a revenge-fueled rampage in July that killed dozens of

The unassuming Turki Talal Sunni mosque in the middle of Risalah has been a
local flashpoint. Twice national police units were badly bloodied when they
tried to carry out nighttime raids, in which the Sunnis said they were just
trying to defend themselves.

A sweep through the mosque by US forces during the operation encountered no
resistance, but did turn up a 120mm artillery shell wired to a detonator as
well as other bomb-making materials, mobile phones and plenty of ammunition.

The soldiers worked their way methodically through the neighborhood
searching every structure, knocking down doors when they were locked and
leaving compensation claims with the neighbors.

In one area, residents claimed that the National Police going through the
house stole gold jewelry, but when the US soldiers searched the Iraqi
police, they couldn't find anything.

The accusations may have been fabricated but were indicative of the deep
suspicion many people hold for the police here -- feelings that are

"Everyone living here is a terrorist, just last week we took fire from there
and there," said a young policeman in sleek sunglasses and gelled hair as he
stood guard on the neighborhood's main commercial street.

One concern for US forces during the operation is that their National Police
allies don't take the operation as a chance to settle scores.

"Umm, should we be concerned about all these National Police running around
unescorted?" crackled the voice of a US soldier over the radio as a flotilla
of the police's distinctive blue and white pickup trucks went racing by.

The Americans kept a close eye on their Iraqi allies during the operation
and joint patrols through the neighborhood will continue for quite some

During that period, however, perhaps the hardest phase of the "clear, hold
and build" strategy will take place as the US forces try to put in money to
get trash cleared, infrastructure fixed up and somehow keep the neighborhood
from succumbing to the ugly cleansing that has swept so much of the city.

"It's putting a Band-Aid on something that already has a lot of bandaids on
it," said Major David Taylor, the unit's operation officer as he surveyed
yet another trash-filled open area in the neighborhood.

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