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IRAQ: A few hours in the life

November 8, 2008 |  9:03 am

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TinasusmanBy Tina Susman in Baghdad

"What's it like there?"

It's the question we get asked most often by people who haven't been to Baghdad, followed closely by, "Do you live in the Green Zone?" The answer to that one: No. The answer to the first is more difficult.

Baghdad, like any huge city, is a porridge of ugliness, beauty, charm, humor, scowls, color and grayness, but with a twist: It is under military occupation, and there are signs of the U.S. and Iraqi army presence everywhere. There are armed men in uniform, concrete walls erected to control movement of cars and people and checkpoints that don't let down their guard for anyone -- not even a man rushing to get married, as we saw on a recent day on the streets.

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Somehow, life burbles on around these jarring barriers. Sheep graze as U.S. armored vehicles idle nearby; markets hum as a group of American troops resembling action hero toys in their battle gear and guns tramp through in muddy boots; children swarm a pickup truck as Iraqi soldiers, trying to prevent a stampede, haphazardly hurl food packs and backpacks donated by the United States into the crowd.

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U.S. forces sometimes come through the neighborhoods, park their vehicles, and get out and ask the locals what they think of the way things are going. The reactions vary and are by no means the way to measure Iraqi sentiments after nearly six years of war. Iraqis often offer different views when not speaking in the presence of U.S. forces. Take some of the opinions expressed recently when American troops were not in earshot:

"America is like the dirty water we should drink, because we are thirsty," said Hassan Raheem, an Iraqi barber, explaining that as much as he dislikes the U.S. presence, he believes it is preventing Iraq's rival factions from returning to all-out war. Hussein Ali, the owner of an electronics shop in Najaf, south of Baghdad, shared Raheem's dislike for the American troops but disagreed with the idea that they should stay to keep things under control. "The presence of the occupation is like a disease in our body," said Ali.

The Iraqis who spoke to Army Lt. Col. Michael Pemrick on a recent spin through northeastern Baghdad appeared far more accepting of the foreign troops. Pemrick, the deputy commander of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 4th Infantry Division, toured parts of Shiite-dominated Sadr City, generally a hotbed of anti-U.S. sentiment, and neighboring Adhamiya, which is largely Sunni. Pemrick spent much of the time inside an MRAP (a mine resistant ambush protected vehicle) trundling along at about 15 mph -- the better to spot roadside bombs before they go off. But every so often the convoy would stop, and Pemrick would get out and start chatting with locals and with Iraqi police and military.

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His visit with a shopkeeper on the outskirts of Sadr City was typical of the reactions these visits often produce. The Iraqi man was gracious and said security was far better since the spring, when U.S. and Iraqi forces were battling Shiite militiamen in the area. But he complained that the concrete wall running along the street on which his shop is situation, which separates the main drag from the service road, was killing his real estate business. The troops explained that without the wall there to prevent cars from coming into the area off the main street, and to slow pedestrian movements, it would be difficult to keep things safe.

It was the kind of circular argument heard time and time again here. The walls and checkpoints improve security but make Iraqis' already difficult lives even more so. But if the walls and checkpoints come down, violence might go up.

Couldn't the military take down a couple of chunks of it just outside his business, so people could easily come and go, the shopkeeper asked Pemrick. "There's no bad people here," the man insisted when someone pointed out that allowing unfettered access to the neighborhood could undermine safety.

Then, he complained that he still was waiting to be reimbursed for damages suffered to his store during the war. His appeals to the U.S. military had gone unanswered, he said. Pemrick summoned an Army civil affairs officer, whose job is to tackle such issues.

"When exactly was your shop damaged?" Pemrick asked the man. "It wasn't really damaged," he replied somewhat sheepishly. It's just that because of the wall, his business has suffered, so he wanted compensation. Pemrick said he might be eligible for a micro-grant of up to $2,500.

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Pemrick left him in the hands of the civil affairs officer, a huge and burly man who towered over the small Iraqi businessman. Pemrick then visited a nearby house, where a ministry of interior employee was at home with his young daughter at the end of the work day. The man waited patiently in the home's dark, crowded entryway while Pemrick's advance team of soldiers checked his weapons permit and then returned the gun they had taken off of him.

As in the shop, this man said security here was much better than in the past. Pemrick handed him some pamphlets explaining how to spot "sticky bombs," the small explosives being attached to vehicles and targeting mainly government employees such as this worker. The patrol then headed toward the nearest opening in the wall, where Iraqi security forces have a checkpoint and don't let vehicles pass without searching them. A man in a crisp suit, maroon shirt and wide tie approached. His forehead was sweating. He clearly was in a rush.

On the other side of the barrier, his shiny blue sedan, festooned with lavender and white flowers, was sitting. The man needed to get through so he could make it to his wedding.

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In a land where car bombs and bombers come in all shapes and sizes -- one male insurgent was caught while trying to escape Baghdad dressed in a bridal gown last year -- everything comes under scrutiny. In this case, it probably helped that the U.S. forces were there. They urged the Iraqi military to quickly search the man's vehicle. Then, the barrier lifted and, after handshakes from various soldiers, the man headed off to get married.

By the time Pemrick made it to the Jamila market in the section of Sadr City where U.S. troops have a presence, most of the scores of stalls were closing for the evening. This is the area where, in March and April, fierce fighting raged after Prime Minister Nouri Maliki launched an offensive on militiamen loyal to anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada Sadr. Over time, the U.S. erected a wall separating this part of Sadr City from the majority of the sprawling district that is home to some 2 million people.

The U.S. forces don't cross to the other side of the wall, situated along a street that they call Route Gold but that locals know as Al Quds street. The agreement to remain on one side of the wall was part of the cease-fire hammered out between the Iraqi government and Sadr's forces. The idea was that once people on the other side of the wall saw how well things were going on this side of the wall, they would turn away from the militias.

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It's impossible to say if that has happened. When asked, people in the center of Sadr City invariably rant against the United States and often the Iraqi government, and they say Sadr's Mahdi Army is their true protector. They also complain about the wall, saying it has hurt their businesses by making it difficult for people to get into central Sadr City.

In the Jamila market, there wasn't time enough on the ground to have political discussions with the shopkeepers. Pemrick asked a few if they had experienced any extortion or bribery attempts -- things the Mahdi Army was long accused of practicing against businesspeople in Sadr City. They shook their heads no.

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It was time to move on. The convoy slowly pulled away, past the man with his flock of sheep, the shopkeepers, the Iraqi police stationed at the checkpoint where they live 24/7, and into the far more posh area of Adhamiya. Once home to many of ex-leader Saddam Hussein's associates, the neighborhood has its own wall, separating its mainly Sunni residents from the mainly Shiite areas surrounding it.

Embed_016Along the way, flashes of normalcy appeared through the dirty windows of the MRAP. Chickens roasted in tantalizing rows on spits rotating in front of cafes; parks with slides, swing sets and sandboxes lured families out during the early evening; barbers trimmed hair in their shops. But elsewhere in Baghdad, at least four people had been killed in a string of bombings that went off across the city that day. And the next day, one of those sticky bombs Pemrick had warned about would go off in a taxi in southern Baghdad and kill two people. In a Sunni neighborhood, a Shiite father who had just moved back to his home after having fled sectarian violence would be killed by a bomb planted outside the house.

Baghdad may be safer, but it wasn't safe enough for the people in the taxi, or for Haider Hasoon Salman Saadi, the 45-year-old father killed by the bomb planted outside the house he had just moved back into.

And it still isn't a place where a convoy of U.S. troops is willing to go faster than a crawl as they scan the road ahead for bombs.

Photos from top: A U.S. mine resistant vehicle sits alongside the wall erected by the U.S. military last spring to carve off a section of Sadr City; Iraqi troops search the car of a man driving to his wedding; Iraqi troops toss donated book bags and small sacks of food out to clamoring locals near Sadr City; Army Lt. Col. Michael Pemrick chats with shopkeepers in the Jamila market; a man tends his sheep in the streets of Sadr City; Onlookers join soldiers to search the groom's car; locals leave the section of Sadr City that is off-limits to U.S. forces and pass through the wall to the other side; vendors watch as an American patrol passes; the view from inside the slow-moving MRAP. Credits: Tina Susman

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