Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Baghdad has changed dramatically

Posted on Tue, Mar. 20, 2007


McClatchy News Service

BAGHDAD - In the four years since U.S. troops marched into Iraq, Baghdad, once a city where Sunni and Shiite Muslims mixed and intermarried, has become a maze of concrete blast walls.

Once-pleasant neighborhoods are now battle-weary front lines often empty of their original residents. And the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia of anti-American cleric Muqtada al Sadr, marches on.

Even as American military officials praise Sadr followers for cooperating with U.S. efforts to patrol Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood, a Shiite stronghold, militia members continue to push into neighborhoods on the western bank of the Tigris River, where Sunnis long have dominated.

American and Iraqi officials have hailed the drop in violence they've seen since the Feb. 15 kickoff of the newest Baghdad security plan, which calls for 17,500 more U.S. troops in Baghdad.

But interviews with residents throughout the capital and a review of police reports shows that while violence may be down overall, the Mahdi Army continues its thrust into western Baghdad in what appears to be a drive to cut off Sunni neighborhoods in the west of the capital from Sunni neighborhoods to the south and southwest.

According to statistics that McClatchy Newspapers gathered from police officials, the number of unidentified bodies found in Baghdad has dropped dramatically, from an average of nearly 32 a day in December and early January to 14.25 since Feb. 15.

Nearly all those bodies were found in the neighborhoods of western Baghdad where residents report the Mahdi Army push.

The U.S. military acknowledges that ''elements of'' the Mahdi Army are still active in parts of Baghdad, even as the militia group allows coalition soldiers into Sadr City. Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl, a spokesman for coalition forces, said it's too early to judge whether the Mahdi Army will lose influence and that events will unfold literally block by block.

''Since the sectarian violence began, [the Mahdi Army] has certainly gained influence in order to protect themselves against the Sunnis,'' he said. He pointed out that Sunni insurgents affiliated with al Qaeda in Iraq continue to set off car bombs in Shiite areas. ''Al Qaeda is here, fueling this sectarian violence,'' Bleichwehl said.

When U.S. forces marched into Iraq in 2003, Baghdad was under Sunni control. Its wealthiest neighborhoods were largely Sunni. Its Shiite population was generally much poorer and lived in the vast area to the northeast now known as Sadr City and in smaller, isolated neighborhoods throughout the city.

But tens of thousands of Sunnis have fled to Sunni-dominated provinces outside the capital. Dr. Nuhad Abbas, a university professor who directs the Organization for the Care of the Displaced and Immigrant Affairs, places the number of Sunni families who've left Baghdad at more than 40,000.

At the end of last year, the Mahdi Army solidified its control in what had been mixed districts in northwest Baghdad, forcing the last 200 Sunni residents -- members of the Batta tribe -- from the Hurriyah neighborhood in early December. Witnesses to that battle say the militiamen burned Sunni homes, sometimes with the men still inside. Video of the final push has played repeatedly on Zawraa TV, a banned Iraqi station affiliated with Sunni insurgents that broadcasts via an Egyptian satellite.

The Mahdi Army now is struggling to take control of the once-mixed Amil neighborhood in the west, where Sunni members of the Janabi tribe are holding out in a small northern sector of the district.

Success there would leave the mostly Sunni neighborhood of Jihad surrounded by Shiite neighborhoods, and cut off from Sunni areas to the east and south.

For Sunnis, the battle for Amil has been a series of failed efforts to defend the area's seven Sunni mosques. The sixth mosque -- just west of the Janabat area, which is named for the Sunni tribe -- fell Feb. 4, according to residents, 11 days before the security plan began.

The mosque was bombed, and the building set ablaze. At least 25 homes around the mosque were burned as Sunnis fled.

The Mahdi Army briefly made a push for the final mosque, Abu Bakr, but fled when U.S. troops entered the area and set up in a school, residents said.

Amil is now grim for Sunnis. The Janabi tribe holdouts have Mahdi militiamen on three sides and only one route out: the dangerous road to the airport. Sadr offices have opened throughout the neighborhood. Only women from displaced Sunni families are allowed in, to take their belongings and go. First they check in with the Sadr offices, residents said.

Abdul Karim Ahmed, a Sunni, scoffs at the idea of returning, something that the government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki is promoting as part of the security plan. According to the Ministry of Migration and Displaced People, more than 1,000 families have returned to their homes throughout Baghdad.

''They want me to go back to my house?'' he said. ``How can I? It's been burned, and even if I go back I go to a neighborhood where the killers are still free.''

Life for Shiites who live in Amil is also rough. Rumors of a Sunni sniper strike fear in Shiites' hearts. ''In spite of all the displacing, Amil is not safe yet,'' said Hussein al Mayahi, 37, a Shiite taxi driver who lost three cousins to a mortar attack two weeks ago. ``We still have the Sunni Janabat area.''

In Jihad, which borders Amil to the west, sectarian killing continues, despite a stepped-up U.S. presence and a decline in violence, residents said.

''Dead bodies are found in the streets every morning, and many families, both Sunni and Shiite, have fled for their lives,'' said Samir Saeed, 26, who's stopped going to college in central Baghdad because of the dangerous trip on the airport road.

''You never know if it's good or bad, but by the afternoon everything is on fire,'' said Mustafa Mohammed, 27. ``The main fear is assassins. Gunmen drive by killing us, and you never know who is killing who.''

Other neighborhoods already have fallen to the Mahdi Army push. Chebab, a once-mixed district in southwest Baghdad, is fully controlled by the Mahdi Army, whose members were manning checkpoints openly last week, carrying weapons and wearing their trademark black uniforms.

Sunnis no longer can get to their mosque, which the Mahdi Army controls, residents reported.

Shiite militias remain active in Risala, a mostly Shiite area south of Amil. Last Tuesday, seven men were killed in a raid on a Sunni mosque that residents blamed on the Mahdi Army.

In Madaen, a mostly Sunni area southeast of the capital, U.S. and Iraqi government troops broke the Mahdi Army's occupation of a Sunni mosque three months ago. But that's been small consolation, residents said; the mosque now is guarded by commandos from the Shiite-dominated Iraqi police force and is off limits to both sects.

In the Sunni district of Ghazaliyah, the trees are gone along Meshajjar street, once known as the street of trees. The road divides the district between its mostly Sunni south and a tiny pocket of Shiites whose residences border a Shiite neighborhood that's been renamed from Shoala to Shoala al Sadrein -- ''the torch of the two Sadrs,'' referring to Muqtada al Sadr's father and a late relative.

Shiite bus drivers stop at the beginning of Meshajjar road, where a Sunni mosque is, and passengers board a bus driven by a Sunni for the rest of their journey, residents said.

U.S. troops have moved into Ghazaliyah, but residents said it had yet to help.

''I still see the insurgents carrying their weapons,'' said Adil al Qaisi, 28, who said Sunni insurgents had nearly killed him for pleading for the release of his Shiite neighbor. ``Ghazaliyah is now a cemetery . . . the streets are empty and we live in our house like dead people.''

Mansour, the main shopping district in central Baghdad, is plagued with gunmen and kidnappers, and while some stores remain open, shoppers prefer those on side streets away from traffic, which may contain a car bomb.

Markets, often the target of Sunni insurgent bombings, now are largely walled off, and only pedestrians are admitted behind the towering concrete walls.

Once, the Garden City Restaurant was jammed with patrons listening to Western music late into the night as they dined. Now it's usually empty.

In Yarmouk, an upper-class Sunni neighborhood known for its wealth and beauty, garbage litters the sidewalks, a stark contrast to the flowers that bloom in the medians. A playground that U.S. troops built was dismantled about four months ago, the slide and swings now used as roadblocks.

Residents have taken to blocking their own streets -- with dirt hills, palm tree trunks and barrels -- to protect themselves from Shiite militias and Sunni car bombs.

Samir Saeed, 26, a Sunni resident of Jihad, expressed the frustration felt by many in Baghdad:

``We used to live. Now we strive to exist. So what if we have freedom of speech. . . . What use is it if no one listens?''

Dulaimy is a McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent. Special correspondents Laith Hammoudi and Sahar Issa contributed to this report.

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