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Al Rasheed, Baghdad

by Geraldo Rivera | Nov 29, 2007

The predominantly Sunni area around the Doura market has been Al Queda’s last stronghold in Southeast Baghdad, a grim and dusty enclave where in February, 553 sectarian murders were carried out, the bodies dumped sometimes among the few remaining open air stalls or the train tracks and road that runs through it. By November, the total number of homicides for this entire community of over a million was down to 30, a lower rate per capita than say Philadelphia.

As in the rest of this battle-scared capital the principal difference has been the imposition of U.S. Army law and governance, and an unprecedented battle for the hearts and minds and pocket books of the Iraqi people on a scale not seen since the Marshal Plan poured millions of U.S. dollars in to rebuild post World War II Europe.

As in Karkh and Ameriyah, our forces have essentially become the national government for neighborhoods distrusting of and mistrusted by their own. “Money is also a weapon,” said Colonel Ricky Gibbs, the commanding officer of the 4th “Dragon” Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division, the Big Red One, which owns this part of town. As the 2nd Brigade Blackjack Combat Team of the First Cavalry is doing along Haifa Street, Colonel Gibbs has been spending to rebuild this shattered community, reopen churches, schools, make micro-grants to local business owners and bring essential services on line in an even-handed way the sectarian government of Iraq, such as it is, is incapable or unwilling to do.

As in the other areas of post-surge Baghdad, our commanders have become the de facto mayors of these communities, brilliantly forging relationships with the local people, processing grant requests and resurrecting communities that were war blasted hulks a few months ago. In this area where Assyrian Christians were 5% of the pre-war population, Colonel Gibbs and his GI’s have made it safe enough for their return, and he’s helped reopen St. John’s Church, which stand improbably adjacent to what was the notorious Doura killing ground.

In Doura as in other surrounding communities in Al Rasheed, Colonel Gibbs and his troopers are using locals to help them hunt down the remnants of Al Queda. They had a celebrated triumph about six weeks ago when local informants led them to the two leaders of AQI in the area, Hyrath Obyed, a 20-year old thought responsible for at least 200 murders, who was captured, and his associate Sayd “the Butcher” Nazzar, the beheading specialist who was killed while resisting arrest.  

In what was a fairly well to do community of retired military officers and university types down the road from Doura, a mixed Sunni/Shiite neighborhood called Khawarnaq, Gibbs has worked magic in the form of a security wall that shelters the community from the persistent snipers along the adjacent highway. At first resisted by the locals because they felt it cut them off from the rest of the area, now it is celebrated as the reason for the neighborhood’s renaissance. Where there were seven IED attacks during six days in August, there have been zero since. The wall is being painted so that it has the same positive aspect that similar noise and traffic blockers do in communities across the United States. And the sense of security has allowed the five opened stores to swell to 110. Now streets are being cleaned, kids are going to school, and the last attack of any sort of anybody was two months ago.

Colonel Gibbs and his troops are also performing the delicate task of national reconciliation between paranoid Sunnis and the former underdog Shiites whose roles have been reversed with the overthrow of Saddam. While making a point that they are all one nation and one people, the charismatic Texan hugged his African American battalion commander LTC Johnny Johnson of the 4-64 Armored Regiment and said, “see we’re one team, one country, we’re in this together you have to be to.” The Shiite Army officer and the Sunni volunteer mimicked their embrace. It was really touching. Hopefully, the Iraq government will get the message.

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