Baghdad's New Normal

A calmer Iraqi capital is tested by an attack on Shiite pilgrims.

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A 10th Mountain Division soldier in Baghdad's Dora neighborhood.

By SHARE

BAGHDAD—As recently as a few months ago, Samir Ali Hussein, a former mechanical engineer, rarely left home because of the perils outside. Hussein, a Shiite, and his Sunni wife considered fleeing, but as a mixed couple couldn't count on finding safety in a Shiite neighborhood. So they stayed put in their small house where Samir's calculator and rulers, covered with a thin layer of dust, are arranged at perfect right angles on his living room side table.

Now, life seems a bit better. He leaves home on occasion, at least for a little while, since violence is down sharply. "The Mahdi Army and the al Qaeda guys are just sleeping now," he tells the American soldiers conducting a census of local residents. "They haven't gone anywhere—they just put their guns in the closet for a while, or you're paying them to stand at checkpoints. For my street, that's peace."

Baghdad remains a divided and still frighteningly dangerous city where essential services like electricity, water, and sewage treatment are scarce. Reconciliation at the national level is still uncertain. Last week, Shiites marching south for an annual pilgrimage on one of the city's main thoroughfares were attacked with hand grenades and small-arms fire from Sunnis, killing three and wounding dozens. In the deadliest attack, a suicide bomber targeting the pilgrims killed 56 people in a town about 30 miles to the south; four more were killed by a roadside bombing a day later.

"The Awakening." But at the neighborhood level, within the confines of the 12-foot-tall concrete blast barriers ringing many districts, a fragile truce exists among the largely Shiite-led Iraqi Army, the national and local police, and the Sunni-dominated quasi-militia groups on the American payroll loosely called "the Awakening."

The cease-fire extension announced last month by the leader of the country's largest Shiite militia, firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, was met with relief by U.S. forces. One excited soldier from the 1-28 Infantry in Baghdad E-mailed home: "Thank God, Dad. Looks like my last three months in country may stay quiet—knock on wood." Maybe. But Sadr's cease-fire extends only to militia members under his control, and other factions still plant bombs, lob mortars and rockets at American bases, and continue sectarian cleansing and killing.

Networking. Violence has fallen by two important measures: attacks against American forces and sectarian murders of Iraqi civilians. In Baghdad's West Rasheed area, for example, murders fell from 553 in January 2007 to 20 in January 2008; attacks using improvised explosive devices (IEDs) fell from 178 in February 2007 to five last month. "Now it's time to win this, not just make it more stable," said Lt. Col. Pat Frank, commander of the 1-28 Infantry, moments after hearing the news of the al-Sadr cease-fire.

One element that has changed in the past year is that many officers as junior as lieutenants and captains now have developed extensive networks of Iraqi informants, who provide tips about ieds and kidnappings. Capt. Brian Ducote of the 1-28 Infantry, whose combat outpost sits on a Shiite-Sunni fault line in the Dora neighborhood, has more than 400 Iraqi contacts in his cellphone (it rings frequently) and can converse in passable Arabic with his sources.

For the U.S. military, the current stability has required a reconciliation of sorts with former Sunni insurgent and Mahdi Army enemies—which includes promising to set free thousands of jailed Iraqis. "We had to make peace with the Mahdi Army, recognize the needs of the people that it was trying to serve and recognize its, in many ways honorable, roots," says Frank. At meetings with local Shiites in the capital's Aamel district, Frank's PowerPoint presentation includes a slide that acknowledges that the militia has "defended Shiites from attacks, provided essential services, and encouraged participation in elections."

And it has worked: Frank now has contact with brigade-level commanders in the Mahdi Army, and Ducote recently took some of his men to a Mahdi Army street celebration. "The moderates within the Mahdi Army were delivering essential services, so why not partner with them," says Ducote. And the Americans also have reconciled with one-time members of the Sunni insurgency and of the terrorist group Al Qaeda in Iraq. Col. Ali Raad is keen on talking about his new job as commander of the local Sons of Iraq unit, a neighborhood Sunni militia. He's less keen on talking about his résumé between the time he left as an instructor at an Iraqi Army Special Forces academy in 2003 and the time he was tossed into Abu Ghraib prison shortly after the U.S. invasion. He smiles coyly—refusing to even acknowledge the existence of a Sunni insurgency—and says he was driving a taxi and was picked up for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Raad spent eight months in the prison, where he says that he learned the value of forgiveness, including forgiving the American troops who invaded his country.