In May, Iraqis flocked to the Happy House Mall, the first Western-style mall in Baghdad. But a recent increase in violence in the Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiya, where the mall is located, has kept many customers away.
In May, Iraqis flocked to the Happy House Mall, the first Western-style mall in Baghdad. But a recent increase in violence in the Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiya, where the mall is located, has kept many customers away. Jonathan Blakley/NPR
The weeks since U.S. troops withdrew from Iraqi urban centers have been marked by a spike in violent attacks, prompting authorities to replace some of the giant blast walls that had recently been taken down. In Baghdad, the Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiya is an example of how positive elements can change quickly to the negative.
Antar Square is a well-known spot in Adhamiya. During Saddam Hussein's time, Sunnis lived there while Shiites were actively discouraged from moving there. After 2003, Adhamiya, like many Baghdad neighborhoods, was wracked by sectarian violence.
In 2007, miles of concrete blast walls encircled the neighborhood. Sunni awakening forces, armed men recruited and paid by the U.S. military, shouldered their guns and manned checkpoints. The Iraqi army and police improved their capabilities, and slowly the situation improved. By the spring of this year, investors held their breath and plunged into the neighborhood.
Sheik Abdel-Qader al-Dulaimi, 51, from one of the largest Sunni tribes in Iraq, is one of the partners in the Adhamiya Mall project.
He spoke with NPR at the end of May, two weeks after the opening, and one month before U.S. forces were due to withdraw from urban centers in Iraq.
He was proud of the mall's amenities: from the fans that spray a cooling mist into the air to Adhamiya's only automatic teller machine.
The large generator was a major plus, allowing the mall to stay open during Baghdad's frequent power cuts.
Dulaimi said he was seeing close to 1,000 people a day visit the mall — showing that Iraqis were starved for signs of normal life.
"People would be more than happy just to be here," Dulaimi says. "Even without shopping, especially in comparison with the past, when dead bodies were thrown in the streets. The people were suffering and the city was completely closed. The Iraqi army helped us, plus the American Army also helped us, so this great building is like a flower in the Adhamiya area — Adhamiya — which we consider the flower of Baghdad. "
A scant three months later, Dulaimi's "Flower of Baghdad" is once again the scene of deadly explosions and a terrorized population.
The Iraqi army has resumed raiding houses, provoking cries of abuse from families who complained of heavy-handed tactics. That in turn, prompted the army to close the neighborhood even tighter.
A return visit to the Adhamiya Mall this month found it almost deserted.
This was partly due to the time of day — late afternoon during Ramadan, when people were getting ready to break their daylong fast.
But weary shop owners like Yahya Abdel, 35, said traffic was down dramatically because Adhamiya is no longer considered a safe neighborhood.
"Once we leave our houses," Abdel says, "we do not know if we would come back."
Salam Hamad, who owns a women's clothing shop, says a friend of his was working a checkpoint at one of the entrances to the neighborhood recently, when a car that had been stopped suddenly exploded.
He says when they checked the ID of the slain driver, they found he was with the Iraqi police commandos.
Such stories, though impossible to confirm independently, are fueling fears that efforts to reignite sectarian warfare in Iraq may be having an effect.
Most attacks until now have been against Shiite targets, but the attacks in mostly Sunni Adhamiya have people wondering if tit-for-tat violence is returning.
Shop owner Hamad says he remembers the bad times in Adhamiya all too well, and for many people, the old fears are starting to return.
"When the awakening checkpoints came, Adhamiya's conditions changed 180 degrees," Hamad says. "Things were quiet and people felt secure. But when the army and police came in, we started seeing things on a daily basis — every day someone gets assassinated, a bomb goes off daily, to the point that Adhamiya's security has been shaken."
The U.S. military, Iraqi army and Iraqi police point out that the overall level of violence is down compared with previous years.
The numbers, however, aren't assuaging the fears of Iraqis in this neighborhood, who had just begin to believe that they might, at long last, have put sectarian bloodshed behind them.
Now they aren't so sure.