"If they find out I told you, they will kill me"

In a Baghdad neighborhood pacified by the surge, the locals fear the day the U.S. military departs, because they don't trust their own government to keep them safe.

Published August 5, 2008 10:30AM (EDT)

The middle-aged man in brown cutoff gym pants and a matching T-shirt approached as soon as U.S. Army Lt. Nelson Orona's patrol pulled into the garbage-strewn street in southern Baghdad's upscale Dora neighborhood. He made sure his neighbors were out of earshot, and leaned close to Orona's interpreter, who goes by the nickname "Ice," to report, in an urgent whisper, a problem: The night before, when he was looking for his rental agreement in his decrepit coffee shop's basement, he found instead two large hand grenades.

The man's eyes darted nervously up and down the street, making sure the young Iraqi man smoking idly by a gate strafed with bullet holes wasn't listening.

"If they find out I told you, they will kill me," the man told Orona. But the people he feared were not just the absent owners of the grenades. He was also afraid to be spotted by any of the Iraqi authorities to whom he might have been expected to report the grenades, meaning those Iraqis who will be responsible for preventing violence when the Americans finally leave.

Just a year ago, sectarian war still raged in Western Dora. At the time of the U.S. invasion, Dora was a largely Sunni neighborhood that had been home to many employees of the Sunni-dominated Saddam Hussein government. Following the invasion, Dora became one of the more violent precincts of the city. Many of the Sunnis associated with Saddam's regime fled to Syria and Jordan in 2004. That same year the neighborhood's Christian minority fled following the bombing of two churches. In 2005, many of the local Shiites followed. More recently, however, since the surge, many residents have returned, and Western Dora has become one of the safest areas in Baghdad.

It is now patrolled by Lt. Orona's 2-4 Infantry Battalion of the 4th Brigade, 10th Mountain Division. Since Orona's company arrived here eight months ago, only four roadside bombs targeting American troops have gone off; no one was hurt. A few blocks away from the street where the man found grenades in his coffee shop's basement, the crowded Dora Market, one of the largest in Baghdad, bustles with restaurants and traders peddling produce, clothes, stationery and shoes from several hundred stalls. Just around the corner from the coffee shop, a steady stream of men and women enters the neighborhood in an orderly fashion through a checkpoint manned, cooperatively, by armed men from Iraq's two main (and rival) religious faiths. The Shias are represented by the mostly Shia Iraqi National Police -- an organization trained by the Americans and resembling a mega-version of an American police SWAT team -- and the Sunnis are represented by armed neighborhood guards called Sons of Iraq, many drawn from the Sunni militias that were responsible for the area's pre-surge violence.

For now, the police and the Sons of Iraq are working together to keep Dora free of violence. But the coffee shop owner said telling either the police or the Sons of Iraq about his deadly find of grenades was out of the question.

"If I tell the Iraqi police or the Sons of Iraq they will tell the wrong people, and I will be killed. I don't trust them," explained the man, whose name is not published to protect his identity for security reasons. "If I tell the Americans, they'll tell no one how they found out about the grenades."

The level of violence in Baghdad has hit its lowest point since 2004, and random acts of sectarian violence are, for the most part, things of the past. Iraqi security forces proved their mettle in successful recent battles against armed militias in Basra, Sadr City and Mosul, and have taken over security in swaths of Baghdad -- including several sections of Dora, where American troops no longer patrol.

But as the debate over whether American combat troops should pull out in the next two years or stay in Iraq for years takes center stage in the presidential campaigns of Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain, Iraqis grapple with a fundamental deficiency that may be harder to fix than bullet-strafed streets or leaking sewage: a lack of trust between citizens and their government, Sunnis and Shias, civilians and their own security forces that are supposed to protect them. Some of this wariness was born of post-invasion instability, caused by the vicious sectarian killings that swept through the country in the last three years; some dates from Saddam Hussein's rule, when secret police infiltrated every office, college and late-night party, and when any carelessly uttered criticism of the regime could spell a prison term, or a death sentence. But the distrust persists in the relative peace of the surge, meaning that even in a neighborhood that is one of Baghdad's success stories, the locals still lack faith in the institutions of the Iraqi government that will be responsible for their safety when the U.S. departs.

Lt. Orona thinks that if the Americans pulled out, Iraqis would be forced to forge trust within their communities faster than if they knew they could always seek help from U.S. forces. As he waited in front of the coffee shop for a U.S. explosive ordnance disposal unit to arrive and take the grenades, following a U.S. military rule that specially trained sappers remove or demolish all explosives found by the troops, he told me he believes that the U.S. can't always hold the Iraqis' hands, and that now might be the time to let go.

"If there's ever been a time" to withdraw American troops, at least from Dora, "now's the time," Orona said. "Since I've been here nobody has shot at me and I haven't shot at anybody, so why not capitalize on this?"

But the neighborhood where he spoke is now separated from the rest of the city by 12-foot concrete barriers, erected by U.S. forces to contain sectarian and anti-American violence. There are only a few ways into the neighborhood, and Iraqi security forces and Sons of Iraq members guard each gate around the clock. Such walls have segregated most of Baghdad, and Americans say they are efficient in hindering the activities of insurgents and Shiite militias. They have proved efficient in keeping militias out of many neighborhoods -- but it is unclear what happens if and when the walls go down and Iraqis are allowed to travel unimpaired to any part of Baghdad at any time. Despite the walls, violence occurs, like the bombing that killed 12 people on Sunday in central Baghdad. And somebody must have sneaked into the coffee shop basement in Western Dora to hide the two hand grenades.

"If we don't put security walls around the mahallas [neighborhoods], we don't know where terrorists are coming from," said Lt. Greg Garhart, from Manchester, N.J., who was on patrol with Orona. "If we leave soon, then the terrorists will take over the places where we have made it safe, and we'll have to come back and make it safe again, and there will be more violence."

"There's still more AQI activity in Dora district," said Sgt. Anthony Montalvo, a native of Ocala, Fla., using the military acronym for al-Qaida in Iraq. "AQI, JAM" -- the Mahdi army of the anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr -- "they're all here."

To bring reconciliation to a city torn by deadly sectarian strife, American forces, in coordination with the Iraqi government, have come up with the idea of releasing some prisoners who had been detained for attacking U.S. and Iraqi troops and civilians to their home neighborhoods. After public rituals at local community centers, the prisoners are released in exchange for vows to renounce violence and written guarantees from upstanding members of their neighborhood communities. Since the program began this year, the U.S. military has released more than 10,000 detainees (it is still holding about 21,000 people in two giant detention facilities), and says that fewer than 1 percent of those it has released have been detained again.

"If they were bad before, the Iraqi government says they have changed, we're giving you a new chance," explained U.S. Army Lt. Justin Chabalko, who has been patrolling the Dora Market.

But none of this is convincing enough for Iraqis like Mohammed Abbas, who works for a local contractor on a $900,000, U.S.-funded project to fix sewage, water, roads and facades in the market.

"They are still enemies, bad people," Abbas told Chabalko. "How will it be safe? We trust no one."

"I don't trust in the government. A lot of parties, a lot of gangs," he said. "We'd like [the Americans] to stay until it's better than now. If they leave now ... we'll be in real danger as the Iraqi people. We need them to stay longer."

At an Iraqi government-run clinic not far from the Dora Market, chief doctor Mohammed Jasem praised the American and Iraqi forces for improving security in his neighborhood.

"We receive about 300 to 400 visitors per day. A year ago, [we had] maybe a quarter as many patients," Jasem said. "This is an indicator for improvement."

His clinic, refurbished with the help of a U.S. grant, is now running on its own, and the 70 members of its staff receive regular paychecks from the Iraqi government. Scores of mothers with infants and children sit on benches in a large waiting room; adult patients wait for their appointments in clean hallways. At the gate, clients have to pass through a small booth where two Iraqi security guards, a male and a female, search every visitor for weapons and explosives. To direct clients to the booth, clinic personnel have sealed off the gate with yellow police tape that reads, in English, "crime scene."

Jasem credits both American and Iraqi forces with the success of his clinic. Now that it is up and running, and the neighborhood seems to prosper, can Americans leave? No, said Jasem. "We don't have a mature government yet. The Iraqi forces need more time."

What would happen if the Americans were to pull out?

Jasem thought for a second. Then he said: "Maybe chaos."

By Anna Badkhen

Anna Badkhen has reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Somalia, the West Bank and Gaza. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, David Filipov, and their two sons.

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