Haifa Street goes from terrorized to tranquil
June 10, 2005
BAGHDAD — A year ago, terror reigned on Haifa Street, a boulevard in western Baghdad just south of the Tigris River.
In one battle early last summer, insurgents took a wounded Iraqi soldier, tied him to a motorcycle and dragged him through the streets, said Lt. Add Al-Kharlim, an Iraqi platoon leader who was there that day.
“The terrorists were powerful,” he said through an interpreter, as he and his soldiers walked the same neighborhood Monday afternoon.
“When I’m walking now, I don’t believe I’m walking on Haifa Street.”
The lieutenant isn’t the only one. Women walk home with groceries. Kids ride bicycles and run from one alley to the next, chasing soldiers and anything else that catches their interest. Men sit at cafés, drinking tea, chatting and reading the newspaper.
A few months ago, insurgents ruled the area, American and Iraqi soldiers say. Snipers sat atop apartment buildings to pick off soldiers and pedestrians. Car bombs and rocket-propelled grenades exploded often. A nearby cemetery and mosque each served as weapons hideouts for “the bad guys,” as the Americans and Iraqis call the insurgents. Few people ventured into the streets.
But about three months ago, two things changed: The Iraqi army raided houses near Haifa and caught three men they say were behind much of the violence. Then, the Iraqi army’s 1st Battalion of the 1st Brigade began walking the streets.
They put their own snipers on the tops of buildings. They began getting more information — and trust — from the neighbors and business owners. And they were able to make the streets safer, said Maj. Fuad Issa Salih, a company commander within the battalion.
“We get to this result because of the patrols,” he said Tuesday during an interview in his office, a palace that once housed one of Saddam Hussein’s daughters.
“Now, people are out in the streets till midnight.”
Squads of Iraqi soldiers patrol the area at least 10 times a day, Fuad said. They go out for two hours at a time during the day and night.
Throughout Baghdad, most Iraqi squads patrol on foot to save fuel and to avoid getting stuck with an overheated vehicle. What makes the 1st Battalion’s patrols different is its members’ experience and their knowledge of the neighborhood, say U.S. soldiers who have been working with the Iraqis to help manage their patrols.
Many of the battalion’s members live in the Haifa Street area. They know when a stranger tries to move in.
The 1st Battalion also has started doing things the Americans once did. It holds health clinics for the neighbors. Its soldiers give away coloring books to the children.
“So the kids, if they see a grenade, they tell us and we go get it,” Fuad said.
The actions have paid off.
“We call this grenade alley,” said Lt. Mark St. Romain, 23, of Baton Rouge, La., on Monday afternoon as he followed an Iraqi patrol. The alley weaved through houses in a space so narrow, it would be hard for three men to walk abreast.
St. Romain came to the end of the alley to a larger side street. “This was Purple Heart Lane,” he said.
On Monday afternoon, the only activity was the women and children peeking out to see who was walking down the lane. Prayers from a nearby mosque echoed in the distance.
On Tuesday morning, Lt. Raad Abud Gasin took a squad of soldiers out for a two-hour patrol. They walked around Haifa to a nearby street that serves as an industrial route near the river’s edge. Car and boat mechanics’ shops lined the streets. The morning traffic — buses, donkey carts, cars, garbage trucks and an occasional motorcycle — clogged the streets.
Raad marched through the traffic and ordered his soldiers to try to clear out some of the congestion. He directed traffic and shouted directions without touching his gun. When the traffic calmed, only slightly, he walked the sidewalks and talked to shop owners. He looked more like a cop walking his beat than a soldier fighting a war.
At a café, a group of men read their newspapers and watched Raad direct the chaos.
“In the last three months, nothing much,” said one man when asked about the last time gunfire hit the neighborhood. “Now it is good,” he said through an interpreter.
But the men had other concerns they wanted heard. The electricity runs two hours on, six hours off. Raw sewage still seeps into the streets.
“In America, Canada, we hear [blackouts are] fixed in 24 hours,” another man said. “Here, two years. We get no electricity.”
The question remains: Why haven’t the Iraqis and the Americans been as successful in other parts of the city, where car bombings and other attacks kill dozens each week?
The Americans say the success in Haifa is because of the Iraqi battalion’s experience, and that it will take time for other units of the Iraqi army to become as skilled and confident.
Fuad, the company commander, said he doesn’t know, but offered one simple guess.
“I can’t talk about other people” patrolling other parts of the city, he said. “In my sector, I treat people good. In other sectors, I don’t know.”