Whenever I am trying to get a glimpse of what’s happening at street level in Baghdad, I call my friend Abbas.
He is a driver and businessman, and a member of a large Shiite clan from a Baghdad neighborhood called Hay Salaam. A man of wide girth and robust laugh, he comes from a family in which Shiites have intermarried with Sunnis. He is shrewd and tough, with a sharp sense of humor that has survived events Americans can’t even imagine.
His uncle was hanged by Saddam Hussein, and a close relative was killed by militiamen after Hussein fell. He has been receiving written death threats. When I asked if he was scared, he replied: “When I get through every day I say al-hamdulillah (thanks to God), I am OK.”
Yet, in three recent phone conversations, he sounded more hopeful about Iraq’s future than I’d heard him in a long time.
Why hopeful? Because he finally sees some order returning to Baghdad. The Mahdi Army, the militia of the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, has been expelled from his neighborhood. “The Iraqi people are waking up from the Mahdi Army,” he told me. “Iraqis know now that they are criminals.”
The story of Hay Salaam offers a microcosm of the positive changes in Baghdad recently and the dangers that remain.
Hay Salaam is a small, predominantly Shiite neighborhood that was fairly stable after the fall of Baghdad. But, after al-Qaida in Iraq blew up a sacred Shiite shrine in February 2006, the Mahdi Army began taking revenge on Sunnis. The militia expelled tens of thousands from swaths of Baghdad; it tortured and murdered additional thousands. Members of the group shook down merchants and even controlled the sale of gasoline and cooking gas.
In Hay Salaam, Mahdi Army thugs from outside the neighborhood killed 19 Sunnis and two Shiite women who protested the slayings. Abbas was furious and looking for a way to fight back.
His opportunity came when Gen. David H. Petraeus shifted the U.S. strategy for securing Baghdad and Iraq. As Sunni attacks on Shiites lessened, the Shiites felt less need for protection from the Mahdi Army and began to chafe at its shakedowns.
Abbas and his neighbors began tipping off U.S. soldiers to the location of Mahdi Army killers. That’s when Abbas started getting threats. He never leaves home without being surrounded by armed relatives.
Another turning point came in April. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sent the Iraqi army to attack Shiite militias who controlled Iraq’s second-largest city, Basra. Although the attack initially foundered, U.S. and British support enabled Maliki to recover, and Sadr’s forces faded away. “After the battle of Basra, everything is changed,” Abbas told me. “Now Iraqi citizens believe in the Iraqi army, not like before.”
But despite Basra, Hay Salaam was still in danger. So, in May, Abbas organized 300 people in his neighborhood, 70 percent Sunnis and 30 percent Shiites, who asked the government if they could form a neighborhood militia. Instead, Abbas was introduced to Maj. Gen. Mizher al-Azawi, commander of the 11th Iraqi Army Division, which had just pushed the Mahdi Army out of much of its stronghold in Sadr City, a huge Shiite slum in Baghdad.
“Azawi sent 100 men to our neighborhood,” Abbas told me. Tipped by locals, the Iraqi soldiers arrested many Mahdi Army members and seized thousands of guns. The price of cooking gas dropped from $22 to $2 a tank.
This week, Iraqi army soldiers have visited houses in Hay Salaam from which Sunnis had been driven out; they gave Shiite squatters a week to vacate. Sunni families will be invited to return.
It is important not to get carried away by this good news.
Hay Salaam may be special, a tight neighborhood where a local leader like Abbas has made good things happen. The Mahdi Army retains support among the poor. In an adjacent Shiite neighborhood called Hurriyah, Shiite militiamen last week exploded a car bomb and tried to blame Sunnis for the carnage; their aim was to prevent expelled Sunnis from returning home.
The Iraqi government may not be capable of building on its new popularity. It has no overall plan to resettle 4 million Iraqis displaced by sectarian violence. Abbas is still in danger; he wanted me to use his full name, but I wouldn’t dare.
Yet the Hay Salaam story does reflect the weariness of Baghdadis – both Sunnis and Shiites – with militia violence. Perhaps the civil war is almost over. “People have woken up,” Abbas told me. Let’s hope.
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