Iraqi Town Slowly Returns to Normal
JOHN YDSTIE, host:
Now to Iraq, another country where the U.S. is exerting its influence. Nine months after the start of the U.S. troop surge in Baghdad, signs of life are slowly returning to some neighborhoods of the Iraqi capital. In the Sunni enclave of Amiriyah on the west side of the city, shops are reopening and the economy is picking up.
NPR's Jamie Tarabay recently returned to Amiriyah and filed this report.
JAMIE TARABAY: An elderly man picks up different sized bolts from grease-smeared boxes on the counter inside Mustaffa Abdul Satar's(ph) mechanical parts shop. There was a time when Abdul Satar was suspected of helping the fighters of al-Qaida in Iraq plot roadside bombs outside his store on one of Amiriya's main streets.
Mr. MUSTAFFA ABDUL SATAR: (Through translator) We used to leave as soon as we saw the men from al-Qaida coming. Otherwise when the bombs exploded the Americans would come after us.
TARABAY: But that was before local Sunni volunteers turned against al-Qaida and forged an alliance with U.S. troops. The al-Qaida militants were expelled from Amiriya. Now Abdul Satar is keeping relatively normal business hours. He opens his shop at 9:00 a.m. and closes at 4:00 p.m. every day. He says he trusts the Iraqi army units that patrol Amiriya.
Mr. SATAR: (Through translator) Of course I feel better around them now. They're really helpful.
TARABAY: Much of Amiriya's main shopping stretch is lined with six-foot-high concrete blast walls designed for protection against car bombs. The barriers irritate local residents, who say they affect business. But these days outdoor cafes are open next door to shops selling wedding dresses. One store has brand-new washing machines for sale. Business is returning to the community. Lieutenant Colonel Dale Kuehl walks alongside his Iraqi counterpart, Lieutenant Colonel Wael Hussein(ph).
Lieutenant Colonel DALE KUEHL (U.S. Army): This is your town now, not mine. I'm here to tag along.
Lieutenant Colonel WAEL HUSSEIN: (Foreign language spoken)
Unidentified Woman: You are the owner.
Lt. Col. KUEHL: No, no, no. This is your town.
TARABAY: A rotund man with a bushy mustache and dark aviator sunglasses, Colonel Wael greets everyone he meets with a firm handshake. His mobile phone doesn't stop ringing.
A shopowner asked if the Iraqi army can provide wheelchairs to help elderly shoppers. Colonel Wael says he'll check with the Iraqi Red Crescent, and the two men shake hands. This sort of friendly relationship between Amiriya's Sunni residents and the largely Shiite Iraqi army was unthinkable months ago. Much of that is due to Colonel Wael himself.
According to American officers here, the man he replaced in August did little to build relationships with either the locals or the district's volunteer force. By contrast, Colonel Wael has spent much of his time working to win the trust of Amiriya's residents. Being Sunni and having been targeted by extremists himself helps.
Lt. Col. HUSSEIN: (Through translator) First and foremost I'm Iraqi. I know what it's like to live in a trouble spot. I have a house and a family; that's why I always talk to the people and see what their problems are.
TARABAY: Back at the army headquarter he shares with the U.S. military, Colonel Wael says the focus now, as in many neighborhoods rebuilding after years of sectarian bloodletting, is to provide essential services to the community.
Lt. Col. HUSSEIN: (Through translator) The biggest part of our job now, the time for military action is over. Now we need to go to the citizens, get close to them, help them, visit them in their houses and schools. It's in our hands to do this now.
TARABAY: But Colonel Wael says the threat from outside the district still exists. There are groups that benefit from violence and don't want to see Amiriya at peace. And the 300 or so Amiriya volunteers have yet to be incorporated into the Iraqi police force. But Colonel Wael says that will happen in time.
Lt. Col. HUSSEIN: (Through translator) The government has promised to reward the citizens who have helped the security situation. This is still new. In the beginning there are always difficulties, but in the end the result is positive.
Jamie Tarabay, NPR News, Baghdad.
YDSTIE: This MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
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