Monday, September 17, 2007

BAGHDAD — The 2004 cobalt-blue Mitsubishi looked practically new as it headed for the popular Al-Faqma ice cream parlor in the upscale neighborhood of Karrada.

As the driver pulled the four-wheel-drive SUV into a restricted area, Ahmed Salah, the shop’s manager, started to panic.

Nearby, an Iraqi policeman shouted, loaded his AK-47 assault rifle and ran toward the vehicle. But it was too late. Mr. Salah, the policeman and dozens of others could only watch as the vehicle exploded, unleashing an all-too-familiar cocktail of fire, smoke, blood and death.

The attack last month killed 15 persons and was just the latest to hit Karrada, a thriving commercial district and one of Baghdad’s most stable neighborhoods — a place that still plays host to a peaceful mix of religious and ethnic groups.

That violence keeps finding this pocket of Baghdad, residents say, is proof that foreign Islamic extremists have set their sights on good neighborhoods while U.S. and Iraqi forces focus on unstable ones.

“This is a quiet area and [the terrorists] don’t want that,” said Peter Joseph, 45, who runs a barbershop.

When sectarian warfare erupted across much of Iraq in February 2006, Karrada earned a reputation as a haven for any Iraqi family with means to pay the escalating rents.

Though predominantly a Shi’ite quarter, Iraqis from other religions and ethnicities flocked to it. And lifelong residents take pride in having maintained that diversity while sectarianism and fighting consumed most of the city.

“Perhaps this is the only area left in Baghdad where Sunnis, Shi’as, Kurds, Christians and foreigners can live together peacefully,” said Haider Awad, 43, who owns an electrical-supply store.

Lately, however, there has been little peace. The neighborhood was brought to the brink of despair July 27 when a fuel tanker packed with explosives tore through a street lined with tenement buildings, houses and shops, killing at least 105 persons and injuring 193, according to the official tally.

Coupled with a bitterness over increasing U.S. military cooperation with Sunni tribal groups, the attack led to an eruption of frustration.

Crowds began throwing rocks at U.S. soldiers who were trying to cordon off the bomb area, according to Salam Abbas, a 25-year-old policeman who was injured in the fray.

Next, residents armed themselves and formed their own neighborhood watch.

“Security is better now because the people of Karrada are in control,” said Montabar al-Shamari, 38, who is one of the leaders of the Karrada Security Force, a makeshift civilian group that patrols the neighborhood.

The group’s goal is simple, but its task is enormous. “We’re trying to contain the suicide bombers by limiting the number of cars entering the area,” said Mr. al-Shamari, who declined to reveal the security force’s membership.

The armed group works openly alongside Iraqi security forces. On a recent day, several members were seen patrolling a roadblock alongside uniformed traffic police.

But residents are taking no chances. Quiet streets are frequently blocked with palm trunks or garbage barrels. Others are chained, and locals search any vehicle that tries to pass. Drivers who park without permission risk having their vehicles’ smashed or vandalized.

Merchants said business has plummeted as a result, prompting fears that Karrada will fall into disarray like so many other neighborhoods in the capital.

Located on the eastern bank of the Tigris River across from the sprawling Green Zone, Karrada normally bustles with busy shops, markets, merchants and traders.

Along one stretch of a hectic two-lane road, shops offer sporting goods, refrigerators from South Korea, generators from China, water coolers from Iran and ice chests from Syria.

Nearby, vendors set out racks of discount clothes and shoes along the sidewalk, while the small shops behind them display precious gems and $600 mobile phones. But no one, it seems, is selling much.

“People are afraid,” said Basil Jassam, 48, a salesman at the Oxen Al-Mandrene furniture store. “The fear is driving them all away — customers, traders, delivery drivers, everyone.”

At Al-Faqma ice cream shop, the staff are defiantly preparing to reopen. But Khalid al-Elisia, 41, who has worked at the shop for a decade, said he has little hope left for his city.

“The Iraqi government and U.S. military are responsible for not preventing these attacks,” said Mr. al-Elisia, who still wears bandages over the injuries on his arm and neck. “Now only the people here can provide protection.”

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