In Baghdad, a Push to Alter Perceptions

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 18, 2006

BAGHDAD, Aug. 17 -- Hamid Ayad could not forget the last time U.S. soldiers came to his door two years ago. They tossed smoke bombs and burst into his home, then arrested his four brothers, he said. They were later jailed at Abu Ghraib prison.

Three days ago, another group of U.S. soldiers came to his home in the volatile western Baghdad neighborhood of Amiriyah, this time accompanied by Iraqi troops. The U.S. soldiers politely asked if they could enter his large home. They asked to register his family's eight cars, and they did not confiscate the family's AK-47 rifle, their only means of protection.

That made Ayad, 24, feel more confident about the Iraqi soldiers. Only two months ago, Shiite Iraqi soldiers on patrols in Amiriyah taunted Sunnis like him, he said. They did little to shield residents from the sectarian clashes strangling their lives. But on this day, the Iraqi soldiers he met were courteous and seemed genuinely concerned.

"Their image has changed," said Ayad, who holds a business degree but is unemployed. "Now, you feel like they are there to protect you. They are not acting or faking. The Americans have them on a tight leash."

In their struggle to quell the sectarian violence gripping the capital, thousands of U.S. troops and their Iraqi counterparts are fanning out into Baghdad's most violent neighborhoods, a mission that is part security sweep, part public relations.

Even as they hunt for insurgents and weapons, they are cleaning streets, reopening shops, medical clinics and gas stations, and fixing electricity lines. In areas like Amiriyah, where insurgents melt easily into the population and sectarian distrust runs deep, success is measured not in arrests or arms confiscated, but in perceptions.

U.S. and Iraqi troops this week cordoned off this neighborhood of oatmeal-colored houses and trash-strewn streets that the Americans have nicknamed the "second Fallujah," after the town about 35 miles west of Baghdad where insurgents have fought pitched battles against U.S. and Iraqi forces.

After searching more than 6,000 homes and buildings, the soldiers confiscated only 28 unauthorized guns and 47 hand grenades and arrested eight suspects.

"It doesn't matter how many guns we found," Col. Robert Scurlock Jr., commander of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, told reporters Wednesday. "It gave people the confidence in the Iraqi army and security forces. And we will continue to build that trust."

In the U.S. military's calculus of when to depart Iraq, that trust is vital. The more Iraqis there are who believe that Iraq's security forces can protect them, the sooner American troops can leave, U.S. military officials have often said. And nowhere is building such trust more crucial than in Baghdad, where sectarian violence poses the biggest threat to Iraq's stability.

In Amiriyah this week, U.S. and Iraqi troops walked together door to door, mosque to mosque. Rebuilding trust in the Iraqi army is not an easy task in a place where murders go unpunished, where only last month an Iraqi soldier was killed when a suicide bomber rammed an army checkpoint.

Once a mixed Shiite-Sunni neighborhood, Amiriyah is now predominantly Sunni, as hundreds of Shiite families have fled to avoid being targeted by Sunni insurgents who moved into the area. It is widely believed to be a haven for insurgents from the group al-Qaeda in Iraq, which was led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi before he was killed in June.

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