In some areas, hundreds of ex-Sunni insurgents and even a few Al Qaeda-linked fighters are on the US military's payroll as neighborhood guards. Shiite fighters with the Mahdi Army are also present, to a much smaller extent, in others, but are standing down for now, ordered by radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to freeze their activities.
More than a dozen fighters and residents interviewed in these neighborhoods say the new dynamic in Baghdad is at least partially due to a cease-fire between rival groups. They are skeptical of truly bridging the divides that have solidified over years of conflict.
Accusations in Amel
One Shiite resident of Amel, Walid Abdul-Jawad, sums up the slightly surreal atmosphere: "It feels like everyone has been tranquilized."
Two other men, both members of a group of Sunni fighters, have their own views of the situation. "It's a cease-fire … and then the two sides will sit down. They will say that we are all wanted terrorists, and we will say the same about them. Ultimately, it will be, 'you live alone and we live alone and no more fighting,' " says Abu Saleh, a fighter in Amel who wears a tan uniform with an arm patch reading "AG," which stands for Amel Guard.
Khalaf, another fighter who gives only his first name, quickly raises problematic issues, though. "The return of the displaced families is one huge bundle of knots," he noted.
The group of fighters is accused by Shiites of planting roadside bombs aimed at both US and Iraqi forces. They are also thought to be responsible for displacing Shiite families from the block known as the "Janabat" – historically, most of the residents there are from the Sunni Janabi tribe – and killing many Shiite residents in the rest of Amel by sniper fire.