Eric Westervelt, NPR
Women shop on Arabiya Street in the Jammiya district of West Baghdad, a former Sunni insurgent stronghold that's slowly coming back to life thanks, in part, to an American grant program.
Women shop on Arabiya Street in the Jammiya district of West Baghdad, a former Sunni insurgent stronghold that's slowly coming back to life thanks, in part, to an American grant program. Eric Westervelt, NPR
Eric Westervelt, NPR
A bombed-out gym along Arabiya Street has been looted.
A bombed-out gym along Arabiya Street has been looted. Eric Westervelt, NPR
Eric Westervelt, NPR
Iraqi soldiers man a West Baghdad checkpoint.
Iraqi soldiers man a West Baghdad checkpoint. Eric Westervelt, NPR
Security is improving in Baghdad, but it's an uneven picture. The situation can differ from neighborhood to neighborhood, and even from block to block.
American and Iraqi forces now face a murky and complex struggle in the capital — a mix of combat, reconstruction and local politics.
"One thing we wouldn't have done a few months ago: patrolling the street on foot without the Humvees nearby," says Capt. Scott Elliott, 28, with Bravo Company, 1-64 armor, as he leads a foot patrol down Arabiya Street in the Jammiya district of West Baghdad.
Just a few months ago, this mostly Sunni area was a stronghold for insurgents and the militants of Al-Qaida in Iraq. Today, this battle-scared street is slowly returning to life — thanks, in part, to American military cash grants of up to $2,500 to local businesses.
Bravo Company has handed out some 80 grants so far along this street once known for its electronics stores and high-end boutiques.
"I don't see government here," says Laith Azuz, who works in a hardware store. "There is only the American."
Dried, colorful clumps of paint cover part of the store's walls and floor where stray gunfire struck Azuz's inventory. He has applied for a micro grant to restock and to buy a new generator, so he can keep operating when the city power goes dead — which is often. He says the Shiite-dominated government has ignored this Sunni enclave.
"There is no solution in the horizon," Azuz says. "I don't see any solution."
There are still big dead zones along the street. Still-shuttered store fronts are scarred with bullets and shrapnel holes.
Some of the businessmen are afraid to take the American money for fear of retaliation from insurgents. Mohammed Noradeen re-opened his small grocery store just a few days ago.
"I don't trust the program, to be frank," Noradeen says. "I'm afraid to apply. We've been warned not to apply. They came to my brother twice and asked him: 'So did you get a U.S. grant or not?' "
While there are mixed views of the U.S. grant program, most people here are behind the new U.S. project to hire local Sunni volunteers as a neighborhood security force. The United States has some 140 soldiers in Jammiya. The Iraqi army has deployed a full battalion here. But there are no functioning Iraqi police in the neighborhood.
The United States hired some 300 locals to be trained in basic security duties. The plan is to slowly get them the full training needed and make them part of the Iraqi police in this neighborhood.
But there is a big problem: The Iraqi army doesn't want the force deployed on the street — at least not yet. After only one day, U.S. Capt. Chris Battjes, the Bravo Company commander, is getting word that the volunteers will be pulled off the street.
"I think that the commanders above me understand how important it is for us not to take any steps backwards. And, so, them not being out there tomorrow will kind of be a step backward," Battjes says.
On the street, several shopkeepers say they're puzzled and troubled by the volunteers' sudden absence.
"I'm very surprised they're not on the streets," says Farid Abdullah, who owns an appliance store. "They were here yesterday. If they deploy, the security situation would get better, so we hope they get back on the streets soon. Even if there's a dispute with the Iraqi army, they should find a solution and do it quickly."
Apparently, an Iraqi colonel didn't inform his higher-ups about the timing of the volunteers' deployment. But there are clearly other issues, too.
Iraqi First Lt. Faras Fadil claims the volunteers were pulled because leaders of this Sunni force are former terrorists and insurgents.
"We have many people who want to testify on how the commanders of this volunteer force used to be with al-Qaida and used to kill and displace people," Fadil says.
U.S. officers deny this — they say the volunteers have been carefully screened. The real issue, it seems, is that the largely Shiite army is worried about the Americans backing, training and arming local Sunnis.
"Probably a little misunderstanding in the Iraqi government about exactly what they're doing," Capt. Elliot says.
After several meetings, a compromise is reached. Maj. Gen. Abdul Amir, commander of the Iraqi 6th Army Division, agrees to a series of checkpoint training exercises in order to slowly "certify" the volunteers to work with the Iraqi army. It's an imperfect solution, but the U.S. battalion commander called it "an Iraqi solution that will at least get these volunteers back on the street."