RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Deadly bombings in Iraq have spiked in the weeks since U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq cities. Some of those giant blast walls that were taken down have now gone back up. One neighborhood in Baghdad is a dramatic example of how positive things seemed just a few months ago and how quickly they can change. NPR's Peter Kenyon has this story from the Sunni Muslim neighborhood of Adhamiya.
PETER KENYON: This is Antar Square, a well-known spot in Adhamiya. During Saddam Hussein's time, Sunnis lived here and Shiites were actively discouraged from moving here. After 2003, Adhamiya was, like many Baghdad neighborhoods, wracked by sectarian violence.
In 2007, miles of concrete blast walls encircled the neighborhood. Sunni Awakening Forces, armed men recruited and paid by the U.S. military, shouldered their guns and manned checkpoints. The Iraqi army and police improved their capabilities, and slowly the situation improved. By the spring of this year, investors held their breath and plunged into the neighborhood.
Fifty-one-year-old Sheikh Abdel-Qader al-Dulaimi, from one of the largest Sunni tribes in Iraq, is one of the partners in the Adhamiya Mall project.
He spoke with NPR at the end of May, two weeks after the opening, and one month before U.S. forces were due to withdraw from urban centers in Iraq.
Sheikh ABDEL-QADER AL-DULAIMI (Partner, Adhamiya Mall Project): (foreign language spoken)
KENYON: He was proud of the mall's amenities: from the fans that spray a cooling mist into the air to Adhamiya's only automatic teller machine.
The large generator was a major plus, allowing the mall to stay open during Baghdad's frequent power cuts.
Dulaimi said he was seeing close to a thousand people a day visit the mall — showing that Iraqis were starved for signs of normal life.
Mr. DULAIMI: (Through Translator): People would be more than happy just to be here. Even without shopping, especially in comparison with the past, when dead bodies were thrown in the streets. The people were suffering and the city was completely closed. The Iraqi army helped us, plus the American army also helped us, so this great building is like a flower in the Adhamiya area — Adhamiya — which we consider the flower of Baghdad.
KENYON: A scant three months later, Sheikh Dulaimi's Flower of Baghdad is once again the scene of deadly explosions and a terrorized population.
The Iraqi army has resumed raiding houses, provoking cries of abuse from families who complained of heavy-handed tactics. That, in turn, prompted the army to close the neighborhood even tighter.
A return visit to the Adhamiya Mall this month found it almost deserted.
This was partly due to the time of day — late afternoon during Ramadan, when people were getting ready to break their day-long fast.
But weary shop-owners like 35-year-old Yahya Abdel said traffic was down dramatically because Adhamiya is no longer considered a safe neighborhood.
Mr. YAHYA ABDEL (Shop owner): (Through Translator) We are among the people who once we leave our houses, we do not know if we would come back. Once I leave my house, I don't know if I will make it back or not.
KENYON: Salam Hamad, who owns a women's clothing shop, says a friend of his was working a checkpoint at one of the entrances to the neighborhood recently, when a car that had been stopped suddenly exploded.
He says when they checked the ID of the slain driver, they found he was with the Iraqi police commandos.
Such stories, though impossible to confirm independently, are fueling fears that efforts to reignite sectarian warfare in Iraq may be having an effect. Most attacks until now have been against Shiite targets, but the recent rash of attacks in mostly-Sunni Adhamiya has people wondering if tit-for-tat violence is returning.
Hamad says he remembers the bad times in Adhamiya all too well, and for many people, the old fears are starting to return.
Mr. SALAM HAMAD (Shop Owner): (Through Translator) When the Awakening checkpoints came, Adhamiya's conditions changed 180 degrees. Things were quiet and people felt secure. But when the army and police came in, we started seeing things on a daily basis — every day someone gets assassinated, a bomb goes off daily, to the point that Adhamiya's security has been shaken.
KENYON: The U.S. military, the Iraqi army and Iraqi police rightly point out that the overall level of violence is down compared with previous years. But the numbers aren't assuaging the fears of Iraqis here, who had just begun to believe that they might, at long last, have put sectarian bloodshed behind them.
Now they're not so sure.
Peter Kenyon, NPR News, in Adhamiya.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.