BACK TO IRAQ: Violence gives way to calm

By TOM ROEDER Updated: February 18, 2008 at 12:00 am • Published: February 18, 2008
BAGHDAD — The Baghdad insurgency’s high-water mark can be seen on the Ameriyah neighborhood’s pock-marked walls, Fort Carson soldiers say. Eight months ago, the Sunni enclave of 70,000 was declared Iraq’s capital by al-Qaida’s followers. One open space was nicknamed for the bodies found there, and a park where children now play was known then as a nest of bombs and mines. Scores of people died in gunfire and bombings here on Baghdad’s west side. Attacks are rare now, less than one incident per week. Troops from Fort Carson’s 4th Squadron 10th Cavalry Regiment say their challenge in Ameriyah centers on maintaining calm in the neighborhood and nurturing the locals who are reopening shops and establishing government institutions. Ameriyah is seen as a role model for the rest of the country, making it a target for future attacks. “It would be a huge step backwards if this neighborhood falls,” said Capt. Tom Fournier, an Exeter, N.H., native who commands Comanche Troop, as he patrolled Ameriyah’s streets today. Baghdad remains a dangerous place. Just west of Ameriyah is Camp Liberty, home to the squadron’s headquarters, which was shaken by rocket fire today for the first time in weeks. Soldiers rushed for cover to shield themselves from the 10-minute barrage that shook buildings. But amid the sporadic violence, locals say something special is happening here that could spell the end of the insurgency nationwide. “After the nightmare, the people are happy and ready for peace,” said Imam Hussein, as he ate rice and lamb Sunday night in an Ameriyah mosque with Lt. Col. Monty Willoughby, the squadron’s commander. “I’m excited about the success I’ve seen so far,” Willoughby told the Muslim preacher and a half-dozen other neighborhood leaders. To keep insurgents out of Ameriyah, Comanche Troop has settled in the heart of the neighborhood. Its 85 soldiers rotate through three-day stints in a grim-looking bunker with 4-foot-thick concrete walls that was built to protect Saddam Hussein’s followers from American bombs. Called Joint Security Station Ameriyah, it’s a dark place with fire-blackened walls that’s shared by the Americans, Iraqi troops and members of an American-backed local security group dubbed “Sons of Iraq.” Sharing the building allows the Iraqis and Americans to work together, with the locals offering information while the Americans give guidance, and if needed, firepower. The Americans say the Iraqis know the neighborhood because of their local ties, allowing them to gather information that is out of reach to Westerners. “They are the future that’s going to make this a safe place,” said Comanche Troop’s 1st Sgt. Tim Bolyard of Grafton, W.Va. The Americans have wired the bunker for the Internet and have set up a gym and a game room to offset the submarinelike feel of the place. “You get over it. Just like everything else in the Army,” one passing sergeant said of the bunker’s charms. The bunker contrasts with the colorful neighborhood re-emerging around it. Businesses are opening rapidly. Vegetable stands contend for sidewalk space with vendors hawking everything from imitation Gucci purses to gasoline. Vendors smiled and waved to Comanche Troop soldiers on patrol today. Iraqi flags, unseen during the violent summer, wave from buildings in a sign that residents are starting to shun sectarian rifts. On patrol today, Fournier stopped by a few shops to hand out grant applications that offer money to rebuild. But most of the businesses are growing without aid. “This place is like America,” the captain laughed as he walked through a spotless and well-stocked Ameriyah grocery store that could compete with its American equivalent. It’s not America yet. Soldiers are watchful for danger every day. Insurgents still want to reclaim Ameriyah. But there’s hope in this part of Iraq, three-tour veteran Staff Sgt. Jimmy Higgs of Grand Junction said. With more than two of his past five years spent in Iraq, Higgs is a cautious judge of progress here. “It’s changed,” Higgs said as he ate lunch Monday in the dim bunker. “I think it’s getting better.” Reporter Tom Roeder can be reached by e-mail in Iraq at tom.roeder@gazette.com
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