The Magazine

Gas Lines, Garbage, and Closed Banks

Daily life in a Sunni neighborhood.

Jan 29, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 19 • By JONATHAN KARL
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To get an idea of the problems facing American commanders in Iraq, consider the case of the Rafidain Bank in Baghdad's Amiriyah neighborhood. The bank, which has been closed since shortly after Saddam's fall, isn't much more than a storefront on a street lined with small retail businesses, but residents desperately want it reopened. General George Casey visited Amiriyah in mid-December, heard those demands, and ordered his top subordinates to make reopening the bank a priority.

Colonel J.B. Burton, who has responsibility for Amiriyah, snapped into action. Money was spent to install surveillance cameras and teller windows. Concrete barriers were put out front as protection from car bombs. The Sunni management of the bank hired local guards. All the work was done quietly through Iraqi intermediaries so it would not look like an American project and become a target for insurgents. By late December, the bank was open again.

And here is where the story takes an all-too-familiar turn. After three weeks of brisk activity, the bank was no longer doing business, a victim not of insurgent bombs, but of the Iraqi government. The finance ministry, which is controlled by the Shia SCIRI party, ordered the bank closed. It's not secure, ministry officials explained, and therefore must be shut down. Military officials with responsibility for Amiriyah say the claim is bogus. "That bank is secure because these people have a vested interest in keeping it secure," says Major Brynt Parmeter. "We could open it tomorrow." The military suspects the bank was shuttered for another reason: It was injecting economic vibrancy into a Sunni neighborhood that had been slowly dying.

This kind of story is told and retold every day in Baghdad. The Shia-dominated federal and local governments are systematically denying resources to Baghdad's Sunni neighborhoods. You see it in lines that go on for blocks at fuel stations. The Sunni areas don't get much gas or kerosene. You see it in the trash strewn everywhere in once upscale Sunni neighborhoods. Sanitation trucks don't come anymore. "They have the trucks," says Major Parmeter. "They have the people to drive them, but the trash isn't picked up." Fuel lines are much shorter in the Shia neighborhoods, but access to those stations is frequently blocked by Shia militia thugs who stand in front of the stations and, mafia-like, decide who gets fuel and who doesn't.

Several U.S. military officers I spoke to in Baghdad are convinced that the squeezing of Baghdad's Sunni neighborhoods is a deliberate operation carried out primarily by Baghdad's unelected Shia provincial government. The local government, they say, is trying to "soften" the Sunni neighborhoods, so Shia militias can move in and force out Sunni residents. Whether it is government malfeasance or incompetence, the result is the same.

The first thing that hits you in these neighborhoods is the stench of garbage. Picking up trash was part of the mission when the military launched Operation Together Forward back in August. The plan was to kill the bad guys, clean up the streets, and give Iraqis a chance to take their neighborhoods back. In the Sunni Doura neighborhood, the military scored its first success. The insurgents were either killed or chased away, the trash bulldozed, and sure enough, the markets reopened and a sense of normalcy returned. That was August. In September, as soon as U.S. troops left, the trash began to pile up again. Dead bodies piled up too--many of them with holes drilled in their heads. Over the past three months, this has been perhaps Baghdad's deadliest neighborhood.

In late December, U.S. troops moved back into Doura and once again chased the extremists away. I visited Doura's market district. With U.S. troops back in force, it is beginning to show signs of life again. The trash is everywhere and most of the stores shuttered, but a few families are walking the streets and a few stores are reopening. There's a long, long way to go. Since about Christmas, there has been a 24/7 U.S. military presence here. The military plans to wall off the area, limiting access through a few security checkpoints that, theoretically, will be manned by Iraqi forces.

Driving through a section of Amiriyah that borders a Shia neighborhood, I noticed block after block of abandoned homes. Many of these houses had big Xs spraypainted on them. The soldiers tell me the Xs are painted by the Mahdi Army to send a message: Leave your home or be killed. Elsewhere, Sunni extremists are waging their own campaign of sectarian terror, sending thousands of Shiites fleeing their homes to refugee camps on the outskirts of Baghdad. But the Mahdi Army, enabled by the Iraqi government, is more organized, methodical even, as it works to sweep the Sunnis out of Baghdad's mixed neighborhoods.

It's the Mahdi Army's answer to the American strategy of "clear, hold, and build." Once homes are cleared of Sunnis, the Mahdi Army turns to its real-estate wing, which moves Shiites from those refugee camps into the homes recently abandoned by Sunnis who have either been terrorized or murdered.

I walked through the ruins of the Hurriya neighborhood with a squad of soldiers from the Army's 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. The soldiers were responding to reports that abandoned homes were being used by insurgents to store weapons. As soldiers kicked open one door, I followed them inside. There were carpets on the floor, ornate furniture, portraits of religious leaders on the wall, bookcases filled with books. It was a warm, comfortable, middle class home. The residents had simply vanished. Next door the soldiers found one of the few families in the area who have not left. A middle-aged man stood at the door with a little boy of about four clinging to his leg, and his wife and daughter meekly behind them.

"This is a good neighborhood," the man told the soldiers through an interpreter. "There has been so much fighting, people have just left."

Hurriya was a mixed neighborhood. Now almost all of the Sunnis are gone. But many Shiites have been forced out as well. The ruins of a mosque could be seen from the man's back porch. It's a Shiite mosque, the man said. It's been abandoned for three months.

This man wants to protect his family, but refuses to leave his home. He watches as his neighborhood turns into a trash-strewn ghost town. He asks the American soldiers in for a cup of chai, knowing they offer the best chance of saving what's left of his neighborhood, and his way of life.

Jonathan Karl is senior national security correspondent for ABC News.