Relative Calm Fragile in Baghdad Neighborhoods

Neighborhoods have begun to spring back to life in Baghdad. But in some areas, there are warning signs that things could fall apart when U.S. forces begin to withdraw.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In Baghdad, thanks in part to the surge in American troops, many neighborhoods are springing back to life. But Iraqis are already worrying about what the city will look like when those extra troops leave. The U.S. military is committed to bringing them home by mid-summer.

NPR's Peter Kenyon takes us to two Baghdad neighborhoods now. The army boasts that one is much safer and the other still waiting for the benefits of the surge.

PETER KENYON: Eastern Baghdad is very much a Shiite part of the capital these days after years of sectarian violence and intimidation forced Sunni families to move out. But Moshtah(ph) remains mixed, known as home to a number of high-ranking officers from Saddam Hussein's army.

This week an Iraqi member of the NPR Baghdad staff visited Moshtah. Thirty-six-year-old taxi driver Hossa Mohammed(ph) said security was better than last year, but warning signs that things could fall apart were everywhere. Driving past unmanned checkpoints, he said most of the security volunteers, known to locals as either awakening forces or sons of Iraq, had vanished after being threatened by the Shiite Mehdi Army.

Living and working amid Sunnis surrounded on all sides by Shiites, Mohammed's biggest fear is that the Mehdi Army's six-month ceasefire, announced last August, will expire this month.

Mr. HOSSA MOHAMMED (Taxi Driver): (Through translator) The sons of Iraq and the awakening are in danger. There is graffiti on the walls declaring they will be killed. If the Mehdi Army returns to fighting, we will face big problems.

KENYON: Several Mashtal residents confirmed that other neighborhoods seem to be much safer, and the contrast reminded them that this fragile calm could shatter once the extra U.S. forces return home by mid-summer.

Unidentified Man: Okay, Roger.

KENYON: A few hundred yards away, families in the predominately Shiite Kamsara neighborhood are out on the streets in force. Iraqi army, police and local security men are everywhere. Only a stray dog seems to care as an American Army patrol clatters to a stop.

(Soundbite of dog barking)

KENYON: Charlie Company, part of the 3rd Brigade 3rd Infantry Division out of Fort Benning, Georgia is here to deliver medical supplies to a brand-new primary care facility. The rooms are mostly bare of medical equipment, but the clinic is spotless, and the staff is obviously proud to work here. Dr. Mohammed Talub(ph), director of the four-month-old clinic, is grateful for the basic supplies brought by the soldiers - bandages, gauze, a few dressings - but when asked what he really needs, he lists a series of big-ticket items.

Dr. MOHAMMED TALUB (Clinic Director): Most important is the X-ray. The second is the (unintelligible) (Arabic spoken)

KENYON: Lapsing into Arabic, Dr. Talub says his lab has almost no equipment. They can take X-rays, but they can't develop them, there is no ultrasound for expectant mothers, the Internet doesn't work, and the electricity is generally on for one hour out of 12. Platoon leader Lieutenant Daniel Rosario(ph), fresh out of college and about a year into his first tour of duty in Iraq, gently reports that U.S. military funds for projects like this have dried up. Rosario displays a nuanced understanding of the successes and the threats in the neighborhoods he patrols, and he's clearly forged a bond with these Iraqis.

One female staffer says no one else is helping them, and she doesn't think people realize what a daily struggle it is to keep on of this neighborhood's most-visible success stories a going concern.

Unidentified Woman (Clinic Staffer): (Through Translator) We fight for this place every day. We fix everything. We keep it very, very clean and try our best, but we have a very big need for your help so we can make this place stand up and work every day to help the community.

KENYON: At a nearby U.S. military combat outpost, part of the new strategy to bring U.S. forces closer to the neighborhoods, Captain Mark Snakenburg(ph) says they're finally seeing an upward spiral of trust and security instead of a downward spiral of suspicion and violence. Snakenburg says one hopeful sign is the Iraqi army's new sophistication in untangling the web of rogue elements and cells out there.

Captain MARK SNAKENBURG (U.S. Army): Well, what they couldn't do six month ago was they could not effectively identify individuals and how they fit into the grand scheme of things. Now you will see the Iraqi army unit do their own targeting and conduct their own operations independently without American help, which is a huge success.

(Soundbite of traffic)

KENYON: Back in the less-safe mixed neighborhood of Mashtal, 56-year-old Sayid Mahai(ph) runs a generator for power-starved residents and says he hopes that things can somehow stabilize here before the U.S. surge forces leave, but he has his doubts.

Mr. SAYID MAHAI: (Through translator) But if the Americans leave, I think the situation will be worse. People will steal from each other and kill each other again.

KENYON: Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Baghdad.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The southern city of Basra may not be as safe as authorities have hoped. Two journalists for CBS News were seized from there on Sunday. Today, police said one of the two, an Iraqi interpreter, was freed, but they haven't confirmed that the other, a British journalist, has been set free.

And a young Iraqi journalist also disappeared on Sunday. His body, riddled with bullets, was found on Tuesday.

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