May 15: "Saidiyah is paradise," Capt. Sean Chase told me, in lieu of introduction. "This is a shithole."
Saidiyah, the mixed Sunni-Shia neighborhood next door, is an experiment in building a gated community in war-torn Iraq: after the area was decimated by sectarian fighting last year, US forces built a wall around it, swept every street for militia members and weapons, and, having established a relative calm, are now trying to facilitate the return of the residents who had fled the fighting by resurrecting the basic -- and I mean, truly basic -- services: four hours of electricity and running water a day, sewage that doesn't spill out into people's backyards in putrid pools, and garbage cleanup that keeps the streets sort of clean.
The shithole is Risala, where Captain Chase is stationed. Like Saidiyah, the neighborhood once housed Sunnis and Shias, then succumbed to a spate of block-by-block sectarian fighting. But unlike Saidiyah, Risala has never fully recovered from the fighting.
"That sectarian cleansing is almost done with, but there is still a taste," Chase said when I arrived at his combat outpost in the middle of Risala this afternoon. "Sunnis don't really trust Shiites, Shiites don't really trust Sunnis. We had a Sunni guy who was afraid of going into a hospital to check on a sick relative because he was afraid of being executed at the hospital."
The northern part of Risala used to be home to Sunni and Shia, but now is all Sunni. The southern part, which was mostly Shia, is entirely Shia now, and is believed to be a safe haven for Shiite militants -- some of them members of Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, others members of groups that have splintered from the militia and now pursue their own agenda. Chase said the militants use this part of Risala to lob mortars and rockets into US Forward Operating Base Falcon, to the east of here, and the sprawling military base that surrounds Baghdad International Airport and houses upward of 50,000 troops.
When the night falls, I go on patrol in southern Risala with Chase's soldiers. We walk on trash that has been walked on so many times it has become an integral part of the road. Sewage seeps through the dirt and pools underfoot. Stray dogs bark at us as we walk past. Soldiers bang on metal gates, painted blue to ward off evil spirits, search houses for weapons, question some men. Black Shiite flags fly from many houses; inside, there are portraits of Muqtada al-Sadr's father and uncle, famous for their resistance of Saddam Hussein's regime. A woman in one house whispers to me, through an interpreter, that she is Sunni and has not been outside for almost two months -- she is afraid she might get killed.
We go to another house, stumbling through the trash, and soldiers talk about the food they will eat when they finally go home: giant burgers, sushi, milkshakes.
They are not going home until next winter.
"Another day in paradise," a soldier says.