In South Baghdad, an Uneasy Truce

The U.S. troop surge brought a tentative halt to the sectarian warfare in the the south Baghdad neighborhood of Saydeeya. But it's an uneasy calm, and the Iraqi government has done little to build on it.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Now to Baghdad Saydeeya District, that sits on a Sunni-Shiite fault line along the city's southern edge and it has long been one of Baghdad's most violent areas.

The fight between Shiite and Sunni extremists forced many locals to flee. One hundred fifty thousand people once called Saydeeya home. Today, there are fewer than 50,000. As part of the U.S. troop surge, a company of 170 American soldiers moved in.

Saydeeya is now quieter, but as NPR's Anne Garrels reports, it's a fragile, uneasy calm, and one the Iraqi government has done little to encourage.

Captain BEN FIELDING (U.S. Army): Make sure you watch around the alleyways and the other areas out, because we got to (unintelligible) roads. You just got to watch the alleyways and everything for me because I can't see the Baghdad.

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking in foreign language)

GARRELS: In his small patch of Baghdad, Captain Ben Fielding credits U.S.-sponsored local Sunni volunteers, now known as the Sons of Iraq, with taking on al-Qaida. And he says the district's new Iraqi army commander, Colonel Jaber, is evenhanded and a vast improvement over his predecessors who ran Shiite death squads.

Colonel Jaber is also a Shiite, but he calls the leader of the Sunni volunteer force an invaluable asset.

Colonel JABER (Commander, Iraq Army, Baghdad): I was thinking of them one of my leaders.

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking in a foreign language).

Col. ALI NAIM JABER (Iraqi Army District Commander): Are you going to record this? You're going to record this fellow, you're going to get me detained.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GARRELS: Jaber's not entirely joking. His superiors in the Shiite-led government do not agree with his support for the Sunni volunteers. According to Captain Fielding, the government has repeatedly undermined them, as well as local efforts of reconciliation.

Capt. FIELDING: The government tried to get rid of them all and they hired their own.

GARRELS: The government is paying for its own competing Sons of Iraq force, manned by Shiites from outside Saydeeya. Fielding arrested one government hire for detonating a roadside bomb which severely injured two of his soldiers.

Fielding asked why, overwhelmingly, Sunni Saydeeya needs more Shiite forces when it already has predominantly Shiite army and police here.

Capt. FIELDING: You know, it has created animosity between both sects.

GARRELS: His efforts to balance the sectarian divide and get the Sunni Sons of Iraq incorporated into a proposed local police force have gone nowhere.

Capt. FIELDING: At least 428 names that we received back were none of the ones we recruited through our recruiting process in (unintelligible).

GARRELS: To keep the lid on Saydeeya, U.S. forces have walled-in the entire area. There are only two access points. Al-Qaida is no longer a major problem here, but Fielding says Shiite militias can still threaten the tenuous peace.

Capt. FIELDING: You know the Iraqi army, in a lot of cases, their leadership is very neutral, but the soldiers are more Shia-Sunni from (unintelligible). So sometimes that creates a problem where they'd let in some concerns.

Unidentified Man #3: (Speaking in a Foreign Language)

GARRELS: A recent street festival to promote reconciliation here was tense. Sunni officials sat on one side, Shiites on the other.

(Soundbite of siren blaring)

GARRELS: There were more bodyguards than there were guests. Fearing violence, few residents turned up. A roadside bomb in the nearby side street was found by the Sunni volunteers, luckily, before it could explode.

For all of the talk of reconciliation, including a much publicized return of families who fled, Captain Fielding says no more than 200 have actually moved back in recent months.

And once again, he says the government has undermined the process. A local support council brokered by the Americans and split equally between Sunnis and Shiites vetted all those wishing to return. But at the last minute, the government tried to introduce more than a hundred Shiite families who weren't from the area.

Capt. FIELDING: We couldn't verify 104 of those names. A hundred and four of those names essentially have not come from Saydeeya. We told them that that would probably set off, you know, some violence if you did that, and they shouldn't be allowed to do that.

(Soundbite of a Humvee passing)

GARRELS: In Saydeeya's Sunni neighborhoods, Fielding's Humvee struggles through a vast lake of raw sewage. Despite repeated requests, no government workers have been sent here.

But municipal workers are busy elsewhere in what had been a Sunni area. They're now building a housing complex for officials from the government.

Capt. FIELDING: That's why, you know, that's why I wanted to show you that they can put in and they can build this.

GARRELS: As his voice drops off, Fielding's frustration is clear. He sees this as another example of the government undercutting his efforts to build trust. He feels like he's fighting a rearguard action to change the demographics in this strategically positioned community.

Anne Garrels, NPR News.

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