Sectarian Killings Divide Integrated Baghdad Suburb

Sectarian violence continues in Iraq after last week's bombing of a Shiite holy site north of Baghdad. In Doura — a mixed suburb of Baghdad — Sunni-Shiite killings over the past year have redrawn boundaries and marked residents by their sectarian affiliation.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The Iraqi government has lifted the daytime curfew in Baghdad and surrounding provinces. The ban was imposed after last week's bombing of a Shiite holy site north of the capital. That attack sparked a wave of sectarian violence that left more than 200 Iraqis dead and prompted fears of a civil war between the Shiites and Iraq's Sunni minority.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Today we're going to visit a Baghdad suburb where some of last week's killing took place. It's called Dura and it's a stronghold of Iraq's insurgents. NPR Pentagon correspondent John Hendren spent a few days with American troops in one of Iraq's tensest areas.

JOHN HENDREN reporting:

If you were to design a factional powder keg in central Iraq, it would look like Dura, a village within Baghdad with a Sunni majority and a large Shiite minority. The periodic pops and booms of small arms fire and explosions in the distance are audio wallpaper here; they bear only passing notice.

Unidentified Speaker #1: That was big. Did you hear that?

Unidentified Speaker #2: Yeah, is that what I thought it was?

Unidentified Speaker #1: Yeah, I think so.

HENDREN: Dura is home to nearly a million Iraqis and two of the deadliest roads for American troops in all of Iraq.

(Soundbite of siren)

HENDREN: Route Irish and Route Redwings, the military's names for the airport and another thoroughfare, are pockmarked with craters from roadside bombs.

(Soundbite of vehicle)

Unidentified Speaker: We're on Route Irish now.

HENDREN: Soldiers call them IED's or improvised explosive devices. On nearby River Road, a massive bomb blew the turret off an Abrams tank, killing a crew member inside. Lieutenant Colonel Greg Butts(ph), a battalion commander for the 101st Airborne Division, gives a driving tour.

(Soundbite of vehicle)

Lieutenant Colonel GREG BUTTS (101st Airborne Division): That was another IED hole back there that's been filled in with cement. There's another one right there.

HENDREN: So this is a pretty nasty strip right here?

Lieutenant Colonel BUTTS: Yes, it is.

HENDREN: It's a daunting ride. What's perhaps more intimidating are the overnight patrols on which soldiers climb out of their Humvees and go looking for bombs. As more than a dozen young soldiers prepare for a road clearing mission, a young sergeant gives them the latest. In the aftermath of last week's bombing of a Shiite holy site north of Baghdad, tensions between Dura's Sunnis and Shiites have peaked and there have been many sectarian killings here.

American patrols won't enter residential neighborhoods. They are leaving the sectarian conflict to the Iraqi police and focusing on the insurgency. They'll have to stick to main routes, including the ones soldiers call IED magnets. It gets worse. The roads they're about to travel are hot spots for insurgents, or AIF in military parlance, an acronym for anti-Iraqi forces.

Unidentified Man: Just so you know, 545, checkpoint of Irish and Sonic(ph), received small air fire, probably about 50, 60, almost an hour ago now, and then in A22(ph), the school there is being held right now by AIF, probably about 10 to 15 men.

(Soundbite of engine)

HENDREN: On the road, much of the work involves taking a sledgehammer to broken bits of curb that could be used to camouflage bombs, and moving them off the road. It's careful work. The latest threat is shape charges, bombs that direct their force with enough power to penetrate a tank. First Sergeant Gabra Dobos, who fought in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and has twice returned in this war, says soldiers call them EFP's or explosively formed penetrators.

First Sergeant GABRA DOBOS (U.S. Soldier): See those rocks right over there off to the left-hand side, John?

HENDREN: Yeah.

First Sergeant DOBOS: The EFP's, with the Hezbollah, have really perfected, that's about what they look like when they camouflage them, because they use Styrofoam and then they'll paint 'em and everything else.

HENDREN: There's no way to tell, is there?

First Sergeant DOBOS: I mean, other than gettin' out and takin' it and, you know, those have been already checked.

HENDREN: As the Americans clear the roads, it's the Iraqi Public Order Brigade that mans the streets. On this night the police commanders are everywhere along the road enforcing curfew, but they don't always inspire confidence. In one frigid, pre-dawn checkpoint, a Kurdish police officer greets the Americans enthusiastically, gratefully palming the cigarette he's offered. An American officer asks if he understands that the curfew on this day allows Iraqis to leave their homes only from 4:00 to 8:00 PM. A translator relates his answer.

Unidentified Man #2 (Police Officer): (Through translator) If they see anybody in this period from 16 hundred to 20 hundred, they will shoot them.

Unidentified Man #3: No, no, that's...

Unidentified Man: No, no, no, no that's when they're...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Speaker #4: They can be on the road.

Unidentified Speaker #5: Yeah, they can 'em to go back to their houses. They don't need to shoot 'em. Tell him to go back inside.

HENDREN: Colonel Mike Beach, commander of the 4th Infantry Division's 4th Brigade here, acknowledges that some of the Iraqi security forces need seasoning, but, he says, Iraqis are increasingly taking over policing.

Colonel MIKE BEACH (4th Infantry Division): They really have the lead in operations, and I have three Iraqi security force brigades operating with me in this area and I will tell you that the amount, tempo and scope of their operations is far exceeding my own brigade's operations.

HENDREN: Beach knows first hand how badly insurgents have infiltrated Southeast Baghdad. He's just recovered from a broken arm after a roadside bomb upturned his Humvee. To stop insurgents from blowing up convoys, he's lined the roads here with American troops. That has meant putting soldiers on rural outposts along the Tigris River on the southernmost tip of Baghdad where until recently insurgents had launched mortars and placed roadside bombs with relative freedom.

Unidentified Speaker #1: Three families?

Unidentified Speaker #2: Yeah.

Unidentified Speaker #1: What are the names?

Unidentified Speaker #3: (Foreign spoken)

HENDREN: It also means going door-to-door for information. On a recent morning, one resident of rural southern Baghdad tells soldiers from a nearby outpost that his neighbor is doing, in his words, something bad. But he's worried that his neighbors see him talking to the Americans. He asks them to arrest him for cover.

Unidentified Speaker #1: Hey, (unintelligible), you got a blindfold, something to put over his head?

HENDREN: So as one group of soldiers walks the elderly man down the street in handcuffs and a blindfold, a second group raids the suspected insurgent house.

(Soundbite of banging)

HENDREN: The soldiers find nothing incriminating in the Spartan home. The man of the house appears. He's 17 and he tells a translator the Americans came to raid his father's house once before.

TRANSLATOR: So he shot at American so they killed his dad and then they took him and his brothers.

HENDREN: The boy says he was briefly detained after a minor scuffle with the soldiers. His brother, he says, has remained in an American military jail for 18 months. His mother died 10 days ago of diabetes. Like so much else in Iraq, the search leaves more questions than answers. It is clear that the Dura area is among the most active insurgent havens in Baghdad, but who the insurgents are and whether the boy is among them, remains largely a mystery.

(Soundbite of explosion)

HENDREN: From a nearby rooftop American soldiers watch as outgoing mortar strikes target a suspected insurgent site nearby. Someone, it is said, is about to strike U.S. forces. The Americans decide to strike first.

(Soundbite of explosion)

HENDREN: John Hendren, NPR News, Baghdad.

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