BAGHDAD—The men of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 101st Airborne Division tread lightly around "Poo Lake." There are fewer roadside bombs and firefights than there were at this time last year. Fewer butchered Baghdadis stuffed into garbage cans or lined up headless by the side of the road, too. And a few residents are even returning to a neighborhood that was once a posh retirement community for Saddam Hussein's favored generals and technocrats.
The sewage is also seeping inside Joint Security Station Casino, to which the men of the 101st return every night. They are billeted inside a cluster of four large houses that have been repurposed into exactly the type of community outpost that Gen. David Petraeus had in mind when he moved his forces outside their huge forward operating bases last year and back into the neighborhoods.
The idea was to move the military closer to the Iraqis they are trying to protect and have them work more closely with the Iraqi police, Army, so-called Concerned Local Citizens groups, and other military and paramilitary organizations that have, seemingly against all odds, brought a modicum of order to Iraq's largest metropolis. It was also designed to make the military feel like part of the neighborhood. "Being a neighbor here means sometimes having to smell your neighbor's s - - -," says one soldier, ruefully pointing to where brown water is slowly creeping into the base.
Yet, despite the stench, the sewage is not even mentioned by most residents when Lt. Logan Dick, 23, quizzes the locals about what ails them most. "Electricity—we need more than a few hours per day," says Abu Saab Hussein, sitting in his parlor and serving dainty cups of steaming hot chai tea to the soldiers. He has to pay local men for a neighborhood generator, and they've been asking for more and more money. Dick has heard the same thing from several other houses the men have visited during their evening patrol. "Tell him that I've been to the power station a hundred times and they are working on it," he tells his Iraqi interpreter.
One of Dick's missions this evening is to find out who is gouging Ghazaliyans on the price of gasoline, which they need to fuel their cars. He also asks about kerosene prices, trying to figure out who is making the deliveries and if they are also ripping off residents. And he asks about another top concern of the locals, the new faces on their streets.
Ghazaliya was once a mix of Sunnis and Shiites, but the war and ensuing insurgency fractured the narrow streets along sectarian lines, pitting Shiites against their Sunni neighbors and causing many to flee. Now, some Sunnis and Shiites are returning but not always to their former homes. Others have turned temporary homes into permanent abodes. "If they left a crappy house, why would they want to leave the mansion they've been squatting in?" as one American commander explains.
But the Army is not in the eviction business these days and largely doesn't interfere with internally displaced people, as the new additions to the neighborhood are called.
As the patrol moves on, the soldiers point out where the Sunni residents have moved out and Shiites have moved in, often with the aid of militia fighters allied with Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Sadr's influence is strong here, and many residents have pictures of the cleric hanging on their walls, which explains why attacks against American forces have declined since Sadr in August ordered a six-month cease-fire. That truce is scheduled to end in the coming weeks, though negotiations to extend it continue.
With security slowly returning and the various factions of the Iraqi security forces checking and balancing each other, Dick and his men have turned to hunting small game—the petty criminals and gangsters whose small-time rackets fund some of the lingering violence. That means working a beat like a police officer. "I never wanted to be a cop, but that's what I spend lots of my time doing," confides Dick, as a man he's questioning fetches his identity card. "If someone took a shot at me, I'd know what to do, but I'm not really trained as an FBI agent."