U.S. finds more acceptance in former insurgent bastion than do Iraqi soldiers

Friday, September 21, 2007
Talaat Salim, left, spoke outside his electrical supplies store Sept. 17 to Sgt. Chhay Mao of the 3rd Infantry Division's B Troop, 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment in Baghdad's Sunni Arab Azamiyah neighborhood. Salim was among seven men detained for three hours by U.S. soldiers in the immediate aftermath of a roadside bombing that took place only meters away from his store. (HAMZA HENDAWI ~ Associated Press)

Editor's note: An Associated Press reporter joined U.S. and Iraqi army troops patrolling Azamiyah to gauge the mood of the walled-off Sunni stronghold.


The Associated Press

BAGHDAD -- As the Americans patrol the Sunni Arab neighborhood of Azamiyah, people keep turning to them for help. One man asks them to bring in a fuel truck stopped by Iraqi troops. Another complains that Iraqi soldiers just beat up his brother.

The Americans used to be loathed in Azamiyah, a longtime stronghold of insurgents and the last place where Saddam Hussein appeared in public. Now the animosity has given way to a grudging acceptance, because the people of this northern neighborhood want American protection from a foe they hate and fear even more: the mainly Shiite Iraqi army.

"We feel safe when the Americans are around," says a computer engineer who gave his name only as Abu Fahd. He stopped going to work because of his fear of militiamen at the Shiite-dominated Health Ministry and now makes a living selling clothes.

"When we see the Iraqi army, we just stay home or close our shops."

The story of Azamiyah, once a favorite with wealthy Sunnis and nationalists, shows once again how difficult it is to measure the success of the latest surge of American troops amid the shifting allegiances in Baghdad.

Major breakthrough

The accommodation between Azamiyah and the Americans represents a major breakthrough for the U.S. military, which had long considered the neighborhood among the city's most dangerous. Yet the success is largely due to a sectarian divide so deep that it has poisoned institutions such as the Iraqi army, jeopardizing the chances of reconciliation and leaving the Americans caught in the middle.

In that sense, the Americans have both won and lost.

Much of the new goodwill in Azamiyah hinges on whether the Americans can prevent perceived excesses by Iraqi troops. It also depends on how far they can ease the economic plight of a once prosperous neighborhood now sealed off from the rest of the capital by a security wall.

Capt. Albert J. Marckwardt, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division's B Troop, 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment, has about 100 soldiers to patrol the old section of Azamiyah, an area less than a half-mile square thought to be infested with insurgents and built around the Abu Hanifa mosque, the country's most revered Sunni shrine.

With so much riding on their mission, the soldiers must play roles as diverse as policemen, economic planners and mediators. Marckwardt personally carries out some of these tasks during daily patrols that take him and his men to busy outdoor markets and alleys less than 9 feet wide. They greet every man with the Arabic "Salamou Aleikom," or "Peace be with you."

Swaggers and taunting

It is not difficult to see why Azamiyah's Sunnis resent the mostly Shiite Iraqi soldiers.

In desert camouflage and matching body armor, the Iraqi soldiers drive their newly acquired Humvees perilously fast, leaving dust storms in their trail. They walk the streets with the swagger of victors and, according to residents, harass motorists and pedestrians at checkpoints and throw out sectarian taunts.

U.S. officers are aware of the problems. They say they conduct joint patrols with the Iraqis in the hope of showing them more balanced tactics. The U.S. military is planning to recruit as many as 1,000 policemen from Azamiyah, of whom 800 would be deployed in the neighborhood so Sunnis will protect Sunnis.

"When we do that, there will be no need for the Iraqi army here," Marckwardt repeatedly tells residents.

With the increased U.S. presence, security is improving in Azamiyah. Lt. Col. Jeffery Broadwater of Radcliff, Ky., the overall U.S. commander in Azamiyah, said attacks on coalition forces were down by nearly 30 percent since July.

"It's getting better every day," Broadwater says. "I cannot give the people of Azamiyah long-term security. What I am trying to give them is irreversible momentum. But long-term security will only come from inside Iraq."

Broadwater says Azamiyah resembled a war zone when his soldiers arrived in July. They reopened the area's only gasoline station, removed trash and tried to fix sewage pipes.

Now many stores have reopened around the Abu Hanifa mosque. However, some parts of Azamiyah, a Tigris-side district known for its kebab eateries, still looked almost deserted this week, with street after street showing no sign of life. Residents say hundreds of families have fled since the U.S. invasion in March 2003.

Freshly painted graffiti on some walls suggest militants are still here.

"Long live the lions of al-Qaida," reads one. "Azamiyah offers its condolences on the death of the holy warrior Saddam Hussein," said another.

The fear of the militants persists in Azamiyah. Many residents, while less hostile toward the Americans, prefer not to get too involved. Abu Fahd, the computer engineer, says masked men threatened him not to pursue an application to join the Interior Ministry's guard force.

"I was not keen on that job, but I do need to earn money," says Abu Fahd.

The challenges of life in Azamiyah became apparent the next day when U.S. and Iraqi soldiers stopped at a street where the Americans had recently come under attack.

Talaat Salim, who runs an electrical supplies store, was among seven men detained by the Americans following the attack.

Sgt. Chhay Mao apologizes to Salim and offers him a $500 loan to expand his business or renovate the store.

"Business is booming," Salim says with a laugh, gesturing to the empty street outside the store. "I am grateful for what you are doing for us in Azamiyah."

As for the loan, he replies in English: "No thank you."

"We don't want to be caught between the two sides," Salim says.

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