August 14, 2005

YANKEES, COME HOME:

The Taking, and Keeping, of Purple Heart Boulevard: Now an Iraqi Military Mission (KIRK SEMPLE, 8/14/05, NY Times)

Soldiers called it the "Street of Death" and "Purple Heart Boulevard," a three-mile-long residential corridor in central Baghdad that had become a shooting gallery for insurgents. In 2004 alone, Haifa Street, once a coveted address for the middle class, was the bloody venue for more than 400 attacks on American and Iraqi security forces. Many residents on the most troubled blocks fled their homes, some of which were promptly commandeered as rebel sniper roosts.

An American-Iraqi military campaign begun last year to retake the street seemed to bear fruit as insurgents were captured, killed or driven from the area. On Feb. 6, the American command handed over a cut of north-central Baghdad, including Haifa Street, to the First Brigade, Sixth Division, of the Iraqi Army.

This transfer made the First Brigade the first - and only - Iraqi Army unit to control its own battle space, and put it on the leading edge of the Bush administration's plan to have Iraqi forces take responsibility for the country's security. [...]

"We feel the difference between the two forces," said Alaa Khadem, 41, the owner of a small store on Haifa Street. On a recent afternoon, the sun and heat had turned his store into an oven and he was standing out front seeking a forgiving breeze.

He said that the American forces would rumble down Haifa Street with their enormous firepower and threats of death, while their Iraqi counterparts have adopted a more sensitive and effective approach. "The Iraqi forces have the power of listening and communicating," he said.

For much of last year, he recalled, the violence on the street prevented him from shopping for goods to stock his shelves, and restricted his opening hours. Now, he said, "I can open my shop and use the best hours of the day."

Pro-Iraqi Army graffiti has begun to appear on walls once adorned only with anti-American slogans. Residents now socialize outside their buildings and say they feel safer walking along the street.

People who fled their apartments have started to trickle back, and pedestrian and vehicular traffic, while still thin compared with other major thoroughfares, is slowly returning.

"I think you have heard about Haifa Street," the brigade's commander, Brig. Gen. Jaleel Khalaf Shwayel, said wryly during a recent interview, a smile playing across his face. "The American forces alone could not control that street."

General Shwayel, 54, was recruited out of retirement last year by the American command to lead the brigade, a job he accepted, he said, because he wanted to help rebuild Iraq. "My heart is with my country," he explained.

A slender man with a relaxed public demeanor and an unbending private will, he had been a brigadier general in Saddam Hussein's army until, he said, he was forced to retire in 1993 because he was a Shiite.


It's long past time to let them fight their own battles.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 14, 2005 12:00 AM
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