BAGHDAD — Residents and U.S. commanders agree that the streets of the al Doura neighborhood in southern Baghdad are safer than at any time in months, but the progress has come at a price.
As lucrative contracts are issued for Iraqi residents to begin repairing the neighborhood’s dilapidated infrastructure, the Americans cannot be sure that some of the money isn’t going straight to the enemy.
“It”s a choice between not trusting anybody and progress being unacceptably slow,” said Lt. Col. Barry Huggins, battalion commander for the 2-3/3-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team whose job it is to turn around the troubled Sunni neighborhood.
For months, Shi’ite militias and the foreign-backed militants of al Qaeda in Iraq had fought for control of the area, creating a relentless cycle of violence in which reconstruction was almost impossible.
Bombs were placed in the roads, in water pipes and in sewage pipes, causing floods and water shortages. Sectarian shootings and mortar attacks left homes crumbling and lopsided.
To slow the violence, the U.S. soldiers have encircled parts of the neighborhood with concrete barriers, hired Iraqi contractors to fix the infrastructure, and handed out small loans so that residents can restart businesses.
Capt. John Fursman of Alpha Company told reporters this week that attacks in the area had dropped by 70 percent since the Styker Brigade took control last month.
A number of al Qaeda leaders have left the neighborhood, he said, while conceding the respite may be temporary.
“If you take [the U.S. presence] away, some of that will come back,” said Capt. Fursman, who spends his days meeting with Iraqi army troops and hearing the complaints of residents who — despite improved security — still must deal with constant blackouts, broken water mains and streets full of trash rotting in the 120-degree heat.
Al Qaeda in Iraq at first tried to block the reconstruction work, the U.S. soldiers say, putting out word that anybody accepting a contract or working with the Americans would be killed.
But the terrorists then reversed themselves, the soldiers said, apparently because they realized they could extort some of the profits from the contractors. Some contracts may even be going directly to al Qaeda activists or sympathizers.
“It is accepting reality on the ground. The more realistic of us have always known it, that this is not a black and white place,” said Col. Huggins.
He said he was worried about money getting into the wrong hands but, considering that terrorists, militias and gangs have infiltrated all levels of society, that is true of all the money in Iraq.
“We can’t create a bubble of absolute security, it’s not possible,” the colonel said. “We have to weigh the risks versus the rewards, and you can”t refuse to move forward.”
The strategy appears to be working. Residents of what had been one of the most violent areas of Baghdad told soldiers and reporters that the security situation has improved in the past month.
Even so, during a two-day visit to the neighborhood, reporters heard small arms fire a couple of streets away, then ducked as a gunshot snapped close by. Minutes earlier a soldier had reported finding a pressure-detonated bomb in a manhole one street away.
Seen as strategic ground in the fight to neutralize al Qaeda and the extremists of the Mahdi Army Shi’ite militia, the U.S. troops have made an intense effort to stabilize al Doura, maintaining a constant presence in the area.
They are also trying to replicate achievements in the western province of Anbar, where Sunni tribal leaders who once attacked Americans recently allied themselves with the U.S. to fight al Qaeda.
“Some of these are people we’ve actually been fighting,” said Maj. Gen. Joseph Fil Jr., commanding general of the Multinational Division Baghdad, who dropped by the neighborhood yesterday to check on the progress.
But working with those Iraqis who changed their minds provides a huge payoff, he said.
Capt. Fursman agreed, saying that bringing security to the area “is like a miracle drug.”
Most residents agree their streets are safer, but they remain frustrated by the slow pace of political change and reconstruction, especially after four years of power outages, sewage overflows, rising fuel prices and daily violence.
Many, having lost faith in the Iraqi government to solve local problems, turn first to the U.S. military, often with impossible demands:
• Ahmed Mohammed, an Iraqi in his late 40s, walked through the dust and mud-covered road to talk to the soldiers about conditions at a local hospital, where doctors had been unable to help number of children who had been wounded in a crossfire.
• A teacher dressed in an ankle-length white shirt-dress and clutching his identification papers approached Capt. Fursman to find out how to apply for a small loan.
• A man waded through knee-deep water in the street, repeatedly asking the U.S. soldiers to come and repair the flooding in his house.
One older man, who asked that his name not be used, told reporters who sat in his darkened house that the concrete barriers surrounding his home were good for security but had split the neighborhood, separating people from their mosques, schools and markets.
And, he said, the terrorists — both al Qaeda and Shi’ite extremists — are still operating in the neighborhood. His son-in-law was tortured and killed, and his son disappeared just weeks ago.
“The Americans are trying to do something, but it is hopeless,” he said in despair.