U.S. Soldiers Try to Bridge a Sectarian Gap in Iraq

U.S. soldiers in one Baghdad district are caught in the middle — trying to heal the divisions between Sunni and Shia factions. Members of the 12th Cavalry, which has an outpost north of the Gazalia district, have seen violence there drop substantially.

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

U.S. forces deployed across Baghdad are often serving as a buffer between Shiite and Sunni communities. Four months ago, Captain Eric Peterson, who's with the 2nd Battalion 12th Cavalry, set up an outpost in the district of north Gazalia - it's a fault line between Shiite and Sunni extremists. Violence in the area has dropped substantially, and now, Captain Peterson is trying to bring the two communities together again in one small neighborhood.

NPR's Anne Garrels has this report.

ANNE GARRELS: Sunnis and Shiites once lived together in Gazalia. It was a pleasant, leafy area populated by professionals. It's a slum now. In the past couple of years, Sunni extremists have terrorized Shiites. Shiite militias, in turn, have threatened and killed Sunnis.

Now blocks, even streets, are defined by sect, as people have moved, sometimes just a few yards to be with their own. And many houses are abandoned as families fled the area altogether.

Twenty-nine-year-old Captain Eric Peterson is trying an experiment. He's called a meeting of local Sunni and Shiite leaders. Up to the last minute, it's not clear if they will turn up, or, when they do, if they'll sit in the same room.

Unidentified Man: (Arabic Spoken).

GARRELS: One of Peterson's lieutenants checks on the Shiite leaders. The signals are less than auspicious.

Unidentified Man: (Arabic Spoken).

GARRELS: From their perspective, the Sunnis are the problem. Most denied the Shiite militias have done anything but protect people. On the Sunni side, Captain Peterson has enlisted the help of Sheikh Hamed(ph).

Captain ERIC PETERSON (U.S. Army): He was a part of a crowd that pretty much said, hey, about 12 months ago we were actively trying to kill Americans. I mean, he does not hide that fact.

GARRELS: Hamed now looks to the Americans for help.

Sheikh HAMED (Gazalia, Iraq): (Through translator) Before the Americans came here, we did not have anyone to take care of us, to support us. The Shiites have their militias and the backing of the Iraqi army. Now that the Americans are here, I feel better.

GARRELS: He says talks with the Shiites were all very well and good, but first, he says, Peterson has to do something about the Iraqi army.

Sheikh HAMED: (Through translator) You've got to clean them up before we take another step.

GARRELS: He claims one Iraqi major is selling weapons to the Shiite militias. He says other officers in the area extort money from Sunnis.

Sheikh HAMED: (Through translator) I have witnesses.

GARRELS: Hamed brings in a young man who claims the Iraqi army stopped him on the street, dragged him into a Humvee and beat him. His eye is cut and badly bruised.

For all their mutual suspicions, the Sunni and Shiite community leaders turn up at the appointed hour at Peterson's combat outpost. Like anywhere that has power in Baghdad, the low rumble of a generator is a constant backdrop.

At first, each talks about how he was abused by the other side. Captain Peterson interrupts. Speaking through an interpreter, he says the point is to move forward.

Capt. PETERSON: The purpose for the day is to actually make your community better, and we're looking for ways to do that.

GARRELS: Despite the inauspicious beginning and a certain amount of posturing, these men got down to business quickly, surprisingly quickly. They agreed they should choose one small area - maybe just a couple of streets - to show that with Peterson's protection, people can return to their homes and that Shiites and Sunnis can live together again.

Abu Assama is a Sunni.

Mr. ABU ASSAMA (Sunni Resident, Gazalia): (Through translator) Let us start with a square block and make it a model for the rest of the blocks. We, the three to four good men, cannot clean up a neighborhood. It is impossible. But we can start with a square block.

GARRELS: This means that refuges from other areas who moved in to abandoned houses here will have to move again to make room for those returning. It means new checkpoints. It's a lot to ask. Abu Nasser(ph), a respected Shiite, supports the proposal.

Mr. ABU NASSER: (Through translator) We are not the only people who have suffered. All of Iraq has suffered, but we hoped to be a model for others.

GARRELS: Peterson brings in a map and the leaders eventually agree on an area emptied of both Sunnis and Shiites. Peterson urges them on, telling them how honored he is they have met. An Iraqi army major sitting in on the meeting shakes his head.

Major JASSEB (Iraqi Army): I think they will - can't make a deal. They can't.

GARRELS: Major Jasseb(ph) says these are good men, but he says they don't represent the street or the terrorists who still threaten the neighborhood. He says extremists from both sides will pick them off.

Maj. JASSEB: It is still too soon. Maybe before one, two years, maybe we can. And now, we can't.

GARRELS: But even though these men know the risks, the local leaders keep on with their talks. They agree to weekly meetings. It's a first step.

Anne Garrels, NPR News, Baghdad.

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