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Worldview: Healing begins in a former Iraqi hellhole

Violence once was rampant in Ameriyah. Now, Sunnis and Shiites have begun to reconcile.

Reconciliation is now the order of the day between Americans and local Iraqis - and, tentatively, among Iraqis themselves. (Karim Kadim/AP)
Reconciliation is now the order of the day between Americans and local Iraqis - and, tentatively, among Iraqis themselves. (Karim Kadim/AP)Read more

BAGHDAD - Christmas week is an appropriate time to write about a district here called Ameriyah.

Eighteen months ago, Ameriyah was a hellhole where al-Qaeda in Iraq ran rampant, assisted by local resistance groups and criminal gangs. It was a predominantly Sunni Arab neighborhood, where Shiites were expelled or murdered, along with Sunnis who didn't cooperate with the killers. Shops were shuttered, and families were afraid to leave their houses.

Suicide car bombers would propel their vehicles out of Ameriyah and target U.S. convoys on the adjacent airport road, which came to be known as the Highway of Death.

That was then. On Monday, I walked the busy main street of Ameriyah, lined with one-story, open-front stores selling fabric, furniture and clothing; small restaurants and kabob kiosks; a Bluetooth center; and two shops displaying pink, white and orange wedding gowns. On some days, the stores stay open until midnight. The high cement wall that U.S. forces built to cut Ameriyah off from the airport highway has been replaced by a lower wall painted with colorful stripes.

More important, reconciliation is now the order of the day between Americans and local Iraqis - and, tentatively, among Iraqis themselves.

Ameriyah is home to many former Iraqi military and government workers who felt threatened by the U.S. invasion, which left them jobless. They also feared the new Shiite-led government. Many of them joined with Sunni insurgent groups that looked to al-Qaeda in Iraq for assistance.

Ultimately, they learned that al-Qaeda in Iraq was a vicious taskmaster, provoking a civil war with Shiites that the Sunnis couldn't win.

The Sunni insurgents switched sides 18 months ago, forming armed bands known as Sons of Iraq, or SOIs, that received U.S. stipends. The SOIs defeated al-Qaeda in Ameriyah and elsewhere.

Many Iraqis worried about what would come next. Would these Sunni fighters take up arms again when the Americans stopped paying their stipends? Would the Shiite-led government throw them in jail?

In Ameriyah, at least, the answer to both questions is no. "The Sons of Iraq are transitioning to [Iraqi] government control," said Lt. Col. Monty Willoughby, commander of the Fourth Squadron of the 10th Cavalry Regiment, based in Ameriyah inside a fortified former Saddam Hussein bunker. "We thought there would be wholesale quitting. That didn't happen."

At U.S. insistence, the Iraqi government now pays the stipends for Sons of Iraq in Baghdad. The government also is hiring around 20 percent of the fighters into the Iraqi security forces. The absorption of SOIs is going on in phases around the country, and it has been rocky in some cases. In Ameriyah, however, 222 of the original 500 fighters have been invited to apply to the police force, and only a handful have been arrested. Others have received training for construction jobs or micro-loans.

The Ameriyah transition has gone smoothly partly because the former insurgents now trust the Americans - more than their own police and army. Abu Ibrahim, the chunky, khaki-clad leader of Ameriyah's Sons of Iraq group, worries about his future if the group is completely disbanded.

"I feel my fate is unknown," he said. He added that the former insurgents would not return to violence. But he doesn't want the Americans to leave yet.

Willoughby's team is trying to build up public trust in Iraqi army and police units, which will take control of Ameriyah at the end of June, when U.S. combat troops will leave. The U.S. team works jointly with Iraqi security officials at every level.

"We are mediators and facilitators," said Capt. Jose Reyes, whose platoon is partnered with an Iraqi police unit. "We all do reconciliation." That may include helping Sons of Iraq find new jobs or handling disputes between locals and Iraqi security. It also means easing the return to their homes of Iraqis who fled the violence.

Reyes said the public was getting more comfortable with Iraq's security forces. "We've reached a point where they are more confident with each other. We're not needed as before."

The comfort level is rising partly because the local police force is now made up completely of former Sons of Iraq. Such a force is more motivated to protect the area, said Maj. Qasim Hassan, the trim, professional-looking Iraqi police commander in Ameriyah. But Hassan would like the Americans to pull out gradually and remain ready to help.

Hassan shares his building with a Neighborhood Advisory Council, headed by a nervous-looking Ala Fakry. Once, this voluntary position could have been lethal; the head of Ameriyah's District Council was assassinated. Now, with American help, Fakry conveys citizen complaints to government officials and police.

The most passionate advocate of reconciliation I met was Fawaz Kashmoola, a lawyer who was hired by Willoughby to help integrate Iraqi detainees being let out of U.S. military prisons. Kashmoola, a tall man with dark, bushy hair who wears a blue suit jacket, organizes a welcome home for the detainees and tries to find them jobs. He believes the best way to win over former insurgents is to make them feel safe and secure.

Kashmoola voiced the fear I've heard from others - that, when the Americans go, mediation efforts will end. "This program is my whole life," he said. "When [former] detainees hug their families, they are joyful. We Iraqis suffered a lot, and I need this kind of happiness."

Willoughby and Reyes believe the Iraqis will be able to continue the kind of mediation that is healing Ameriyah. Let's hope they are right.