BAGHDAD—Rolling through Baghdad in a convoy of five heavily armed Humvees, we pass buildings pulverized into useless rubble. An Apache helicopter hovers on the horizon. Turning onto a narrow road, we proceed cautiously through low buildings pockmarked by small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades. A U.S. military jet screeches by overhead.
The Haifa Street neighborhood of Baghdad hosts a strong Iraqi troop and police presence. Checkpoints mark nearly every corner, stacked sandbags replace windows, side roads are closed by makeshift road blocks. There are few remaining residents but much unnerving silence—suddenly broken by the rat-tat-tat of a large-caliber machine gun.
“That’s from the other side of the river,” Capt. Christopher Dawson reassures me.
White sparkling flares shoot out of the helicopter and thick black smoke rises from the ground—on the other side of the river. Nowhere in Iraq does it feel more like full-blown war than in Baghdad. And nowhere in Iraq does it feel more normal than in Baghdad.
Driving to the Haifa Street neighborhood, our convoy was enmeshed in a massive traffic jam. On one side, a large construction project banged away. On the other, a group of modest storefronts—auto supply, restaurant, office supplies, barbershop—were open for business. Billboards advertised Kent Cigarettes, The Commercial Bank, and Digital Generators. Workers painted an iron fence surrounding a grove of palm trees.
This tight juxtaposition of war and peace jars the mind, upsetting expectations. Peering out of the port-like window of the Humvee in central Baghdad—a city of six million—I see a flock of sheep crowding the sidewalk. Yes, the American mind has problems handling Baghdad. But the war is always close, cocked to clarify. Comes the crack of small arms fire…
“No problem,” a soldier reassures me.
“Yes, I know. It’s on the other side of the river.”
Three years ago, one year after the invasion of Iraq, the war was raging on this side of the river. U.S. troops called Haifa Street “Grenade Alley.” When a single Army battalion had 160 wounded and killed, they called it “Purple Heart Boulevard.” For others, it was simply “Death Street.” One of the most heavily contested neighborhoods in the capital’s vicious sectarian battle, and one of the city’s strongholds against occupation, Haifa remains a nasty powder keg.
With long rows of high rises—the apartments once handed out as patronage by Saddam Hussein—providing ideal perches for snipers; with a maze of narrow alleys and rundown mud-brick buildings furnishing superb nooks for ambushes; with some of Baghdad’s worst criminals, disgruntled former Ba’athists, and al-Qaeda fanatics; with a volatile Shia and Sunni ethnic fault line, Haifa Street is a perfect home for the bloody infamous. It’s a breeding ground for suicide bombers and hardened insurgents armed with rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns, vicious separatists attacking their neighbors and outraged nationalists firing mortars and Katyusha rockets into the Green Zone.
By 2005, however, the spasms of violence had diminished, the decapitated bodies were fewer, and the insurgents’ checkpoints were gone. Iraqi troops with U.S. military advisers and the 1st Cavalry Division were in control. There was speculation that Haifa might be a template for defeating the insurgency, a model for saving Iraq. Then time circled back, and the war returned. At first slowly, then building up to feverish engagements, finally as a bloody backdrop to President Bush’s announcement of a troop surge to save Baghdad. Nearly a thousand U.S. and Iraqi troops with
F-15 jets and Apache helicopters were thrown into what the media dubbed “The Battle for Haifa Street.”
“Today our focus is essential services and helping local residents,” says Captain Dawson, B Company Commander of 4th Battalion, 9th Cavalry. The street we stand on is nearly deserted, except for a few old men sipping tea in front of the block’s only open store. A herd of neighborhood kids appears from seemingly no where, screaming for chocolate, for footballs, for a sheet of paper from my writing pad, for a pen. “We do limited target operations [of insurgents],” the lanky captain says, patting the shoulder of a dirty-faced, barefoot boy, “but mostly we’re here to help the Iraqis.”
“Take picture me?” a little boy pleads. It’s a curious request, to merely glance at his image on a digital camera. Having little their entire young lives, when Americans appear they ask for everything. And with rising intensity: “Give me water!” another boy demands.
“While we have a chance here,” the captain’s light blue eyes are sharp yet gentle, his posture is relaxed but professional,“we have to seize the opportunity. The situation is improving, there is momentum, but we need to invest in the people so if it turns bad again, then they will resist.”
When President Bush’s four-year “stay the course” finally went bust, the last election being the hammer, he appointed Gen. David Petraeus, a respected counter-insurgency warrior-scholar, to command U.S. forces in Iraq and to create a new strategy, one focused on Baghdad’s faltering security. There are three essential elements in his Baghdad Security Plan: “clear” the city’s most volatile neighborhoods of anti-government forces, “hold” with troops stationed in the neighborhoods, and “build” local infrastructure.
In the Haifa Street district, there has been a large increase in the number of troops, police, checkpoints, and patrols, and security has improved vastly. Now comes the “build” phase. I ask, “What are these people’s main problems?”
A smile spreads across Captain Dawson’s face, “Oh, they have many problems. They need jobs, health care, sewer, water, electricity.” He playfully ruffles the hair of a boy, saying a short phrase in Arabic. “The people are unsure,” he continues, “so we need to deliver something for them to have a vested interest in their government.”
“Yeah, but that’s going to take a long time, right?”
“I say to Iraqis, three months ago your greatest concern was security. Now what is your greatest concern? Economic. That is progress.” The captain walks down the street and talks to an Iraqi man, showing him a piece of paper listing the area’s infrastructure projects, promising neighborhood improvements, requesting patience. He credits the Iraqi government for present progress and future development. The kids continue to plea for chocolate and footballs. A sweet little girl with a chipped tooth asks, “Money?”
“This is bad neighborhood,” says an Iraqi interpreter, his face covered so he can’t be identified for retribution. “The children tell me at nighttime Shias drive through here shooting. This not safe place.” A heavy boom. The ground rattles.
“I know,” I say quickly, “it’s across the river.”
“Not safe there either.”
Just a few minutes east, on the other side of Haifa Street, the Humvees stop in front of a low building hidden behind a wall. “It’s been open only three days,” a doctor says about the public health clinic. “We had closed. Security situation bad before. No one come.”
With the assistance of the 1st Cavalry Division, four Iraqi doctors, and medicine furnished by the U.S. military, the clinic treated 168 patients in less than four hours. They came because of stomach pain, hip pain, chest pain, back pain—lots of pain in Baghdad—breathing problems, eating problems, chest problems.
“Oh, I’m optimistic” the captain says standing outside the clinic. “You have to be optimistic, otherwise the Iraqis pick up on it.”
“The doctors seem somewhat optimistic, too,” I say. A boom rips through the air, rattling windows.
“No problem,” Captain Dawson says in his calm, confident voice.
All day the fighting raged across the Tigris River, close enough to hear, yet far enough away to be safe. Haifa Street remained quiet—tense yet quiet. The children took their candy booty and promised themselves to get more tomorrow. The old men drinking tea said they will wait and see what happens tomorrow. The doctors at the clinic said they would be back tomorrow. Captain Dawson was pleased that Haifa Street was quiet and hopeful the same will happen tomorrow, demonstrating to Iraqis that they have a future.
But time in Iraq tends to proceed in circles—the war of yesterday becomes the war of tomorrow, the other side of the river becomes your side of the river, their 20 war dead become your 20 war dead. It’s change without really changing.
When tomorrow actually arrived, it shook me awake with a humongous explosion, pushing back the curtains and shaking the door. The bridge at Haifa that spans the Tigris was bombed, sections collapsing into the water.
Regardless of the good intentions of our soldiers and their valiant efforts, regardless of the determination of every Captain Dawson in Iraq, the new plan to save the country will fail. I admire optimism, but $8 billion a month after more than four years says American time is running out. Iraqi time says that the war is moving closer to this side of the river—closer to Grenade Alley, to Purple Heart Boulevard, to Death Street.
Stewart Nusbaumer is embedded with various Marine and Army units in Iraq.