Shiites’ return to Dora sparks tensions, blasts
Stars and Stripes March 15, 2008
BAGHDAD — Saajid Abed Hussein had been gone from his home for 13 months when he heard that it was safe for Shiites like him to return to the Sunni-dominated Dora neighborhood in Baghdad where he had lived for 15 years. When he returned four months ago, his Sunni neighbors welcomed him back, fed him and helped him move back in.
But not everyone was happy to see the Shiites return. A small bomb exploded while his son was working on a car, giving the 23-year-old small cuts from the shrapnel.
In the past two months, U.S. troops have recorded 19 small bombs in Dora, said 1st Lt. Jason Fedish, a 27-year-old platoon leader with 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment.
Leaders don’t think the bombers intend for the explosives to be lethal — just big enough to scare away the returning families. They’re smaller than the bombs that target Americans and often made with a pop bottle. The attackers usually place the bombs against a metal gate outside the home and only blow up the gate. So far, no one has been killed or seriously hurt.
The attacks come in an area that saw heavy sectarian fighting last summer. Yet U.S. soldiers had stabilized Dora enough by the fall to create an ongoing boom in real estate, new businesses and infrastructure, such as street lights and electrical equipment. Roads are clear of trash, schools are open and no one has successfully attacked American troops there since September.
That success, in turn, encouraged Shiites to return home, sparking the current tensions.
Capt. Bret Hamilton, who’s responsible for the northeast corner of Dora, said he suspects that locals fear these returning Shiites are really outside groups trying to insert their own people in the area. Young men talk about these rumors and get themselves worked up enough to take some kind of action.
“So right now, we’re fighting a battle of perceptions and trying to change their minds that that’s not actually going to happen,” Hamilton said Monday at a security meeting.
“It’s like being back in high school — rumors, rumors, rumors,” Fedish said later.
No one on the Dora streets confessed to any worry about returning Shiites — or admitted to having heard about the bombs. At Monday’s security meeting, Dora representatives even pressed the Americans to step up pressure on the bombers.
Much of the security in this neighborhood depends on local young men recruited into the “Sons of Iraq,” the military’s term for armed neighborhood groups paid with U.S. funds. Returning Shiites overwhelmingly said they trust this predominantly Sunni force to keep them safe. Group members have tipped the Americans off about nearly all the bombs before they exploded.
Yet the community didn’t like it when the Americans actually did step up that pressure. The Americans were led to believe that mosque guards had something to do with the bombings, Fedish said. Sheiks, imams and other residents staged a peaceful protest when a couple of the suspected bombers were detained. Lt. Col. Jim Crider, the 1-4 commander, said locals claimed the detainees were “really good boys.” In the end, the accused were released after the sheiks and imams promised to personally vouch for their good behavior.
Prominent local Sunni leaders like Fahid Hamid Kamal, who is married to a Shiite, also walk the returning families around the neighborhood to vouch for them.
“We are a family in this street,” Kamal said in English. “All the forces here, they work very hard to explain about that thing, about the Shia, about the Sunni.”
The Shiite families aren’t yet convinced that those ideas have changed completely, but most think highly of the Sunnis in Dora. Like the Americans, they’ve concluded that a few hotheads are creating the problems.
Col. Samir al-Tamini, commander of the local Iraqi National Police battalion, a Shiite dominated group, summed up that thought at Monday’s meeting. He launched into lofty rhetoric about unity but abruptly concluded through an interpreter, “There’s some retarded people who try to bring back these fights again.”
While Shiite resident Fouid Salah hasn’t been bombed, he has received a threatening letter. Still, this English-speaking man thinks the people he’s met during his 25 years in this neighborhood love his family. During the fierce fighting last summer, a ricochet American bullet wounded Salah’s college-aged daughter, Hipa, in the head. Salah brushes that aside as an accident, though, and is equally quick to say he doesn’t want to see the Americans leave.
“If American soldiers go, we go, too,” he said.