For Haifa Street, a Welcome Calm

U.S. troops begin a quiet drawdown, hoping that locals don't notice.

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A U.S. soldier plays with Iraqi children on Haifa Street.

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BAGHDAD—One year ago, Haifa Street's high-rise apartments were the scene of some of the Iraqi capital's heaviest fighting. Today, the downtown buildings remain pockmarked from the snipers who shot down at U.S. and Iraqi troops whenever they came to clear the neighborhood. But there are many encouraging signs of the tentative peace that has come to much of Baghdad. Workers reinstall floor-to-ceiling windows in the modern Finance Ministry building; many damaged high-rise apartments have been refurbished; commerce in several markets is resuming.

In the Alawi market, a teahouse is still missing part of its roof, but locals are back playing dominoes and billiards. Three elderly men, their heads swathed in traditional red-checked scarves, sit drinking chai and discussing the day's news. One of them says he feels "100 percent safe" in his neighborhood but is not yet ready to visit his sons, who live scattered around Baghdad. Asked what would make him feel safe enough to do that, he says, "We need to make sure the Iraqi forces are loyal. And we need the Americans to stay to make sure the terrorists do not come back."

But already, the first of the additional U.S. troops that were part of the Bush administration's one-year-old surge plan have left. One battalion has even been quietly pulled out of Haifa Street. The first of the five U.S. brigades scheduled to go home by July left last month, and some of the remaining troops have been moved north, where 60 percent of the attacks in Iraq are now occurring. The U.S. military has launched a new offensive—dubbed Phantom Phoenix—against the remaining al Qaeda-linked Sunni insurgent sanctuaries there.

Melting away. Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, who is in charge of daily U.S. military operations in Iraq, says, "We are not giving up anything we have secured." But the recurring theme of the Iraq war has been one of local progress that consistently dissolves when U.S. troops move elsewhere. To avoid repeating history, Odierno and Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, have recently revised the joint campaign plan to make the drawdown as gradual and invisible as possible. "We'll take a little out of here, a little out of there," says Odierno. "You'll see that through the spring." The one exception, he adds, will be Anbar, the western province dominated until recently by Sunni insurgents. There, local groups have turned against al Qaeda in Iraq, allowing the U.S. military to plan to reduce its presence from a peak of 16 battalions in September down to six by May. "That's because violence is the lowest there of anywhere in the country," says Odierno. "More importantly, the Army and police levels are growing very well out there—which nobody would've predicted a year and a half ago."

In Haifa Street, Khalid Ismael, the local "mukhtar" or unofficial mayor of the Alawi market, is pleased by the sight of a vegetable stand stacked with gleaming eggplants, beets, and cauliflower. He encouraged vendors to reopen and argued with city hall to resume deliveries of rationed food and propane. "We see progress here every day," Ismael says. "Things are going so well that I went out drinking the other day." One particularly good sign was the recent arrest of the local Shiite militia commander, Hussein Hany. Even though the city's Sunni insurgents have largely left or stopped fighting, many neighborhoods remain under the sway of extremist Shiite gangs loyal to firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

Despite the relative calm, serious obstacles remain. A reduced U.S. troop presence will make it more difficult to maintain the visible security deterrent that has been so crucial. Lt. Col. Tony Aguto, the local U.S. commander, strolls the streets daily with his Iraqi Army counterpart, Lt. Col. Mahde Kadoom, a genial officer who first joined Saddam Hussein's Army in 1989. "We are trying to make people feel safe," says Kadoom. Electricity also remains in short supply. Aguto's unit is installing nine generators to boost the daily supply from eight hours to 12. "What we need now," Ismael says, "is jobs, especially for the college-educated youth."