Baghdad's Karada neighborhood hints of a better future
Stars and Stripes June 6, 2007
BAGHDAD — When Capt. Joseph Peppers rides through the streets of the Karada Peninsula, east of the Green Zone in Baghdad, he catches glimpses of the future. In the crowded commercial district, where merchants stack televisions, air conditioners and refrigerators in front of their busy shops, Peppers sees a hint of the prosperity that is possible in Iraq.
“Think of the peninsula as what Iraq will look like 10 years from now; security is good and people are making money,” Peppers said.
Karada, long one of Baghdad’s safest neighborhoods, has been made more so by the recent security push, military officials in the area say. Having achieved a measure of public safety, troops have shifted more of their focus to building up essential services and coaching local leaders.
But even as the improved security in Karada provides hope, it also underscores just how much is left to be done once the violence settles down. Electricity and fuel shortages have hounded residents for years, infrastructure improvements are sorely needed and the nascent democratic institutions of the area are far from mature.
“If we can get the area fixed it could be a pilot program,” Peppers said. “If we can get electricity and sewage fixed we would be heroes. The opportunity is there. It’s going to take a lot of time and effort, but it’s doable.”
Karada was one of Baghdad’s premier neighborhoods under the regime of Saddam Hussein, and it still is. The area, with roughly 250,000 predominantly Shiite residents, is marked by a relative affluence and is home to many government officials as well as Baghdad University.
Peppers, a Chicago native with the 2nd Battalion, 69th Artillery Regiment, on loan from the 3rd Infantry Division out of Fort Benning, Ga., helps coordinate civic improvement projects.
Last week, there was a rally at the southern tip of the peninsula where residents protested the lack of dependable electricity service, Peppers said. Military officials estimate that it will take more than six years before the region’s power woes can be completely solved.
“Electricity is a big, big issue, and we have made it a priority,” he said.
Other concerns are antiquated sewer systems and the lack of gas stations in the area, Pepper said.
“People wait six hours in line for fuel.”
Unemployment is high in the area, as in Iraq as a whole. Military officials, along with Provincial Reconstruction Teams, are helping build local industry through a mixture of grants and government loans.
“We need to get the economy going,” Maj. Dean Bushnell said. “If you can employ military-aged males, they are less susceptible to terrorists.”
Though the commercial district is busy, most of what’s sold is imported and industry native to the area is sorely lacking, Peppers said.
“There’s no Iraqi-made cars, no Iraqi Wal-Mart. So we’re really trying to foster large businesses to employ military-aged people,” he said.
After being under a totalitarian system, local leaders will need more time to grow into the responsibilities of democratic governance, Peppers said.
“All decisions were made by one person or few people just a few years ago,” Peppers said. “Now you have different councils and groups; that dichotomy brings about some issues.”
Being able to tackle concerns other than public safety means the security plan has begun to pay dividends, Peppers said.
“Once [the plan] is done you can focus on quality of life issues and not just on where to place barriers and planning raids. That’s how you can tell you are making a difference,” Peppers said.
It is not clear where other neighborhoods in Baghdad have experienced the same benefits of the security push that Peppers has seen in Karada.
On Monday, the New York Times reported that a military assessment of the security plan has shown slow progress. The assessment, which was completed in late May, said coalition forces had control of 146 of the 457 Baghdad neighborhoods, according to the newspaper.
In Karada, Peppers said, the future is close.
“Iraqis didn’t progress at all for about 20 years, so now we are taking a whole society and throwing them into the millennium,” he said. “It’s going to take time. What do you expect? The risks are high but so are the rewards.”