One year ago, the neighborhood of Doura in southeast Baghdad was al-Qaeda’s headquarters in the capital city, and the daily dumping ground for dozens of victims of sectarian violence. Public association with Americans or Iraqi leaders, in any form, meant death for its residents. If Americans entered a neighborhood, Iraqis slowly slipped away and refused to talk — even behind closed doors, let alone on a busy market street.
Today, the streets of Doura are safe and bustling, as I witnessed firsthand during a trip three weeks ago. I can still smell the briny scent of fish on sale in busy markets, my boots sliding over the dust, and the muezzin’s afternoon call to prayer echoing in the distance. I saw Baghdad alive again.
However, during my time on the street, it was difficult to shake memories of the past — after all, 4,000 Americans have been killed in action in Iraq. The violence of 2006 and early 2007 is still fresh in America’s mind — helped in no small part by a public debate fixated on past failure instead of current success.
On a street in Doura three weeks ago, it seemed I was about to relive those bad memories, as I spotted a black sedan speeding toward our foot patrol. The vehicle was driving much faster than other traffic, and occupied by a single male. My heart raced faster when I realized it was an Opel, the car bomb of choice during my time in Iraq as a platoon leader. My anxiety clashed with the calm of the soldiers around me; they lowered their weapons as the car barreled toward us.
The vehicle screeched to a halt five feet away, and out popped a middle-aged Iraqi man, dressed casually and wearing a jovial grin. Omar is a Doura resident and a member of the neighborhood council. Following eager pleasantries, Omar spoke with the unit commander about a range of issues, from small-business grants and the local vocational school, to the newly opened farmers’ market down the road. The two sparred like old friends, discussing the nuances of political bargaining and reconciliation.
When their conversation ended, I asked Omar about the security situation. “Thanks to the Americans, we are finally free to live our lives.” he said, “You have made very many mistakes, but now you are making security better.” His words mirrored my experience — in five days on the streets of formerly violent neighborhoods, I heard not a single shot fired or a single explosion.
That day, local young men still brandished weapons on street corners, but now they wore tan uniforms bearing the Iraqi flag. Many of these “Sons of Iraq” used to fight American and Iraqi forces; but an extensive American and Iraqi vetting process ensures their ranks are purged of hard-core fighters, foreign fighters, and insurgent leaders. These young Iraqis — Sunni and Shia alike — are not extremists: The ones I met were realists, who covet safe streets and a paycheck.
Al-Qaeda’s sheer brutality, and America’s shift to a counterinsurgency strategy, caused the sympathies of local leaders and legions of young men to shift. As one Son of Iraq told me, “A few of my friends joined al-Qaeda, and now they are dead or captured. I never did, and this gives me a chance to keep al-Qaeda from coming back.” Young men like this — over 91,000 of them throughout Iraq — guard their own neighborhoods, and are not involved in offensive operations. They’re beat cops.
Omar acknowledges the importance of these local forces, but speaks candidly, “The national government will not allow them all to become police, and some have already quit because they know this. We need to ensure that those who don’t become police have jobs.” His comments frame the tenuous opportunity facing Iraq today.