A US patrol gains trust in a Baghdad district
In two neighborhoods, both Sunnis and Shiites are turning to US forces for protection - from each other.
In the crucible heat of the Iraqi summer, Lt. Jim Waters's Humvees make their way down the packed streets of southern Baghdad. At the crowded intersections, Iraqi drivers slam on their brakes, trying to keep their distance from the US convoy. The turret gunners yell at cars to stop. It's a series of confusing moves that passes for standard traffic-control in Baghdad.
When the patrol passes a busy street, Lieutenant Waters, a sheriff from Sacramento, Calif., who commands a company of California National Guard soldiers in the 184th Infantry, tells his men to get out and start walking. As the foot patrol makes its way through the streets, an old Shiite woman in a black hejab invites Waters into her house. At the threshold, Waters politely waits.
"I don't want to track the dirt from the street into your house," he tells her.
After beckoning him inside, the woman explains to Waters that she wants him to help her son, Wasim Majid Latif, who had joined the Iraqi police but had been robbed of his uniform and gun on his way to work. The incident cost the young man his job. Waters listens, carefully writing down the boy's information before moving on.
As Iraqis increasingly turn to US forces out of fear of rival groups, a shift is taking place in southern Baghdad. Both Shiites and Sunnis in the mixed neighborhoods around Dora and Abu Dschir are asking US forces to protect them from a wave of sectarian reprisal killings, abductions, and mass detentions.
Over the past 30 days, there have been a number of killings in the area immediately surrounding the patrol's route. A tailor was murdered in his shop by armed men in a Mercedes; a tire salesman near 60th Street was shot and seriously injured; a barber was executed.
Waters is trying to gain the trust of this tense district, where the US has previously been regarded with hatred and suspicion. Although most citizens still fear to be seen cooperating with US troops during the daytime, a growing number of people in Waters's sector are willing to talk to his soldiers, often approaching at night when the streets are empty to give valuable information.
On a recent evening, one older man comes forward to say he believes the barber was killed by extremists because he was cutting beards - an act some Muslim fundamentalists believe is apostasy. A group of men describe attacks on local Internet cafes by roving bands of insurgents looking for targets in Shiite neighborhoods. Finally, a young Shiite man asks Waters for more frequent patrols on his block, saying they need protection from Sunnis; Waters promises to come by more often.
Many of the Sunnis fear the mass sweeps of the Iraqi police, while Shiites are afraid of extremist Sunni groups and jihadists who execute anyone who cooperates with the new government.
Although the presence of US forces unnerves some residents of Abu Dschir, many of them are more worried about what their neighbors are doing, and are often afraid to speak to Iraqi US military interpreters out of fear that they will pass information back to armed groups.
"The best bet for the insurgents is to get a full-blown civil war going," observes Sgt. Doug Thomas, of Kern Valley, Calif., who has patrolled the Rasheed district since the 184th Infantry was moved to southern Baghdad.
"We are legitimately trying to help people here and they are scared because of reprisals," he says.
After long months in this sector of Baghdad, Waters's company has not killed anyone nor has it lost a single soldier.
"We are not killing machines; we are men," Waters explains. "I think if we can deal with the separation from our families, and not become hardhearted, we might just be able to leave here changed in a positive way.
"It's just like the Hippocratic oath," he says. " 'First, do no harm.' "