Babylon & Beyond

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IRAQ: Five years on, two views of Baghdad

March 19, 2008 |  8:17 am


When you walk the streets of Baghdad, the results of five years of war are inescapable.

U.S. airstrikes and insurgent bombers have ripped huge, gaping holes out of office blocks. Miles of concrete blast walls separate Sunni from Shiite neighborhoods and encase markets, police stations and government offices. Convoys of armored SUVs with machine guns at the ready careen down streets choked with traffic. Iraqi soldiers armed with AK-47s stop you at every turn to check your ID or search your car for bombs. And U.S. military helicopters roar overhead.

But step into one of those helicopters and another side of the city emerges. The dust and grime soften in the pink glow of the sun as it sets over the Tigris River, and signs of normalcy appear amid the debris.

Rowdy soccer games are played on the edge of Sadr City, the vast Shiite Muslim slum where a major uprising was fought in 2004. The maze of narrow shopping streets that wind around the glittering Kadhimiya shrine are teeming with people. Cars buzz down Haifa Street, scene of endless gun battles between Sunni insurgents and U.S. soldiers. And sheep graze under an overpass, waiting to be sold for slaughter.

A couple of times a week, Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, will ask his pilots to give him a bird's-eye tour of the city. If you happen to be riding in the helicopter behind him, you can tell that something has caught the general’s eye when the pilot suddenly banks hard to the right to come in for a closer look.

A year ago, the view was very different, Petraeus’ spokesman, Col. Steven Boylan, said after a recent tour. Plumes of smoke billowed into the sky from the latest car bombing. The markets were empty, and horrendous lines snaked around the gas stations.

"What it does for him, when we have had a rough day, on the way back ... he will take a tour and remind himself of what we are about and what we are doing," Boylan said. "It doesn’t always look that pretty on the ground, but when you get up above everything, you can see the bigger picture.... You can see that the city is alive."

A few hours earlier, Petraeus had been discussing with journalists the loss of eight U.S. soldiers in a single day March 10 after a period of diminished violence. Five of them were killed by a suicide bomber as they chatted with shopkeepers in Baghdad’s upscale Mansour district, something they do every day to forge closer ties with the communities they protect.

"That was really heartbreaking," Petraeus said. But pulling soldiers off the streets is not an option any more.

"To secure the people," he said, "you have to live with them."

— Alexandra Zavis in Baghdad

Photo: A view of Kadhimiya shrine from a U.S. military helicopter. Credit: Col. Steven Boylan/MNF-I