MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
The U.S. military says the latest American and Iraqi effort to improve security in Baghdad has officially begun. There are reports that some new checkpoints have been set up, and more soldiers are on the streets, guarding bridges and intersections. But American General William Caldwell warns that the operation will take shape gradually and that new forces will be put in place as they arrive.
NORRIS: Joint security stations are a key feature of the new security plan. These will be outposts in neighborhoods where U.S. and Iraqi security forces worked together. Eventually, there are supposed to be more than 20 across Baghdad. One of the first have been set up in the dangerous neighborhood of Gazalia. It sits on fault line between Shiite and Sunni enclaves.
NPR's Anne Garrels has this report.
ANNE GARRELS: The gunner swivels in his turret, keeping an eye out for snipers. There are constant threats for the American soldiers who now live and work in Gazalia.
Unidentified Man #1: Pot shot, left.
Unidentified Man #2: Hey, I got some pot shot in the left right now.
Unidentified Man: All right. Keep your heads out.
Unidentified Man #3: It's done, sir.
GARRELS: Twenty-nine year old Captain Eric Peterson moved Charlie Company 2nd Battalion, 12th Cavalry out here a couple of weeks ago. Once a middle class area, sectarian violence has reduced Gazalia to a wasteland. The streets are awash in sewage. Trash is everywhere. There are only two hours of electricity a day. It's like a ghost town. Many residents have fled; those still here hide. But Peterson says as bad as it looks, there have already been improvements.
Captain ERIC PETERSON (2nd Battalion, 12th Cavalry): At least we got shops open though; kind of crappy but it didn't exist.
GARRELS: Two months ago, the school all but closed down after a teacher was raped, mutilated, and strung up by her feet outside the building. It's unclear whether the killing was conducted by Shiites or Sunnis, both of whom are attacking the local population. Students are now reappearing.
Capt. PETERSON: Right now, they have 150 kids in the morning and 150 kids in the afternoon. Before we moved in, it was too dangerous to go there.
(Soundbite of radio traffic)
GARRELS: Peterson's headquarters is a cluster of abandoned houses. The conditions are primitive to put it mildly. There's no running water and no heat. The generator is a little dicey. Dozens of soldiers sleep cheek by jowl.
Unidentified Man #4: Please, no pun intended.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Unidentified Man #5: (Unintelligible)
GARRELS: A welcome hot meal arrives at midnight, delivered by armed convoy from the main base, a few miles and a world away. Despite thousands of sandbags and concrete blast walls surrounding the compound, the company is exposed, a stationary target for warring militias.
(Soundbite of gunfire)
GARRELS: Gunshots constantly ring out. And Captain Paterson has received personal threats.
Capt. PETERSON: That's the rumor going in the street right now, that one of the militias has bounty on my head. I target, you know, their commanders, I'm sure they target me.
GARRELS: But he says the risks are worth it. He describes a sense of helplessness when his company was back at the base.
Capt. PETERSON: This one guy called up, and he was saying please help me. And I heard the RPG hit his house when he was asking for help. And it was a horrible feeling of, you know, I got my company out at the gates and into Gazalia in less than an hour. I mean, that was fast, but that was too long for the community. Now I'm seconds away.
GARRELS: Charlie Company is linked up with an Iraqi army unit, which is located in the next-door building. The Iraqi police should be part of the mix but so far there's no cooperation with them. Peterson's soldiers don't trust the predominantly Shiite-Iraqi troops. Privately, they complain they're arrogant to the locals, and the American soldiers worry about militia infiltration. They watched as Iraqi forces deliberately skipped houses they were supposed to search. Suspicious, Charlie Company went in afterwards; they found 12 kidnap victims.
Iraqi Sergeant Arkon(ph) openly supports radical Moqtada al-Sadr, whose militia is attacking the area.
Sergeant ARKON (Iraqi Army): (Through translator) Moqtada is very good. Yeah. Moqtada is very good.
GARRELS: Peterson says he's developing a good relationship with the Iraqi officers, but he acknowledges Iraqi forces manning checkpoints sometimes turn to blind-eye the gunmen because of threats or bribes.
Capt. PETERSON: If a guy comes and offers you, 100, 200, 300, 500 bucks, you know, that's a lot of money to a junior in the Iraqi army. So I think the Iraqi army realizes there's a problem. I mean this is something they want to fix. They've been pretty aggressively snooping up to see what's going on.
GARRELS: The local Sunni community hates the predominantly Shiite troops, so Peterson is trying to build bridges between them. Peterson's immediate task is securing the Sunni mosque in the center of Gazalia. The pockmarks on the walls testify to repeated attacks by Shiite militias loyal to cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. The militias want to destroy it and drive all the Sunnis out. Peterson listens to the mosque guards.
Capt. PETERSON: The mosque doesn't trust the local Iraqi security forces. They don't trust the mosque.
Unidentified Man #6: (Speaking foreign language)
GARRELS: The mosque guards want the U.S. to protect them, not the Iraqi army. But Peterson doesn't have enough troops to surround the complex 24/7.
Capt. PETERSON: I'm going to have a one-on-one meeting with the Iraqi army, and we're going to discuss a mosque security plan.
(Soundbite of crowd noise)
GARRELS: Peterson is swarmed by local Sunni residents. They're frantic after a visit from the Iraqi army. They say officers have ordered Sunni refugees to move out of the house where they're now squatting.
Unidentified Man #7: (Speaking foreign language)
Unidentified Man #8: This guy says how can they leave the houses. They took the houses because the militia forced them from their own houses in the other areas, and they came here because they didn't have any choice.
Capt. PETERSON: I will talk to the Iraqi army tonight.
Unidentified Man #9: (Speaking foreign language)
GARRELS: An hour after Peterson and his men left, the mosque was hit repeatedly by rocket-propelled grenades, an annex caught fire. Peterson raced back his bullets whilst around him.
(Soundbite of gunshot)
Unidentified Man #10: Where did that come from? That was right beside us.
Unidentified Man #11: What the hell was that?
Unidentified Man #12: What are you shooting at?
(Soundbite of gunfire)
(Soundbite of crowd noise)
GARRELS: At the mosque, thick black smoke billowed out of the complex. Young Sunni men scrambling to get the blaze under control screamed at the Iraqi army they were responsible for the fire. They accused them of allowing gunmen to reach the mosque. Their rage grew by the minute.
(Soundbite of crowd noise)
Unidentified Man #13: (Unintelligible)
GARRELS: Peterson backed out, waiting for emotions to calm down. He patrolled the surrounding area to make sure the angry young men did not attack Shiite houses in revenge. Later, Sunni elders appeared joining the chorus of those begging Petersen for help.
Unidentified Man #11: We all hope they protect the area because the national guard are not here. Everybody touch it. They say you are Sunni. You are dogs. You are - we'll kill you. The police is worse than that national guard.
GARRELS: Capt. Eric Peterson, the only one who can mediate here now, once again says he'll do everything he can. He says he could use more troops.
Anne Garrels, NPR News, Baghdad.