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.
The Iraqi army is seen by many Sunni residents as sympathetic to Shiite militias, such as the Mahdi Army, linked to radical anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Ayad recalled an attack last month when gunmen ambushed a bus in Amiriyah and killed six passengers and the driver, then set the vehicle ablaze. Like many in his neighborhood, he believed that the Mahdi Army orchestrated the attack -- and that the Iraqi soldiers there to protect the neighborhood looked the other way.
"The burned bus is still there," said Ayad. "The Iraqi army had two checkpoints, but they didn't stop" the gunmen. "On the contrary, they were cooperating with the Mahdi Army and allowed them to enter our neighborhood. I didn't trust the Iraqi army then."
Brig. Gen. Abdul Jaleel Kahlaiaf, commander of the Iraqi army's 1st Brigade, 6th Division, said he was determined to erase such perceptions. Iraq's Defense Ministry, he told reporters in Amiriyah, is now requiring all recruits to sign a pledge that "they should be loyal to Iraq, not a sect."
"Those soldiers who have a sectarian bias will not stay with us," he said in a room at Amiriyah's municipal office.
On the wall behind him was a poster promoting Operation Forward Together, the official name for the current U.S.-Iraqi efforts to bring order and security to Baghdad. The photos included an Iraqi soldier in brown camouflage holding the hand of a trusting, smiling boy on a Baghdad street.
U.S. and Iraqi commanders tried to spread that image in Amiriyah. The four-day operation began on Sunday with U.S. and Iraqi troops conducting door-to-door searches; the Iraqis were often given the lead role.
Doors to empty houses were pried open while a U.S. soldier took photos. Any damage to the door or house would be reimbursed.
"The intent was to do it with dignity and respect for families," said Scurlock. Several "problem" mosques, where insurgents allegedly had stockpiled weapons, were taken over and "now we've posted guards and returned them back to the people," he added. They also registered guns and created a census of the residents.
The impact on the violence was immediate. Residents said they didn't hear a single gunshot or mortar explosion, and by Wednesday they were experiencing a rare calm.
A drive that day through the streets, in a heavily armed U.S. military convoy, revealed a neighborhood of silent streets blocked with razor coil and shuttered shops. The few souls outside stared blankly at U.S. Humvees cruising by slowly.
"Since we began the operation, not one person from Amiriyah has died, not one act of violence has occurred," Scurlock said.
Many residents wonder how long the peace will last. The U.S. military will soon give the Iraqi troops full responsibility again for the security of Amiriyah.
Already, the mistrust is creeping back.
Sheik Mohammed Faiz, the imam of the Sunni al-Abbas mosque, said he was wary of what he viewed as a U.S. military takeover of the mosques.
"The American forces kicked out the local guards from the five local mosques in Amiriyah and replaced them with fixed Iraqi soldiers in order to protect it," said Faiz. "We think they have those soldiers as eyes on the mosques, not to protect it but to monitor those who are getting in and out of the mosques."
Others are convinced that most of the insurgents had fled before the security clampdown and are planning a return as soon as the U.S. military pulls out.
"Amiriyah has become more quiet and more secure after the presence of the American forces, but once they leave, the area will return as it used to be," said Abdul Aziz al-Kubaissi, 55, another resident. "Al-Qaeda and the other insurgents fled with their weapons one day before the beginning of the operation."
On Thursday, the U.S. military was hiring residents to clean up the streets, as U.S. snipers stared down from tall buildings, witnesses said. The streets seemed busier, and more shops had reopened.
Hamid Ayad stepped outside his home and said he liked what he saw -- a butcher bringing fuel to his shop, people strolling out of their homes. "Life has started to come back to normal," he said. "All I want now is security."
Will the peace last?
"The police in Britain cannot give you a 100 percent guarantee, or in Egypt or in America," said Kahlaiaf. "But Amiriyah will be secured if people cooperate."