BAGHDAD, Iraq—First Lt. Yarub Altawee, 26, wandered in and out of the stores along bustling Palestine Street, the upscale shopping area in east Baghdad, asking, “How’s business?” In the late afternoon, the street was jammed with cars and people, many of the women dressed in chic, Western-style clothes. The small stalls displayed brightly colored goods and trinkets.
Palestine Street bisects Baghdad south of Sadr City, and it was up and down this boulevard that the Shiite militia had raced in cars and pickup trucks at the end of February, generating fears of a civil war. But there was little sense of apprehension in early May as I accompanied a patrol of Iraqi and American soldiers walking down the crowded sidewalk, politely sharing the space with shoppers.
Leading the patrol was Maj. Orestees “Bo” Davenport, 38, of Fayettville, N.C. Davenport, a burly former football player, commanded a mobile transition team stationed with an Iraqi battalion in the center of east Baghdad where Shiite militias and death squads have rampaged, terrorizing Sunni neighborhoods. Davenport doesn’t believe, though, that this violence is a “civil war.”
“I’m a military history buff. To me, a civil war means heavy fighting. That’s not what we have here,” he said. “When [Muqtada] Sadr’s militia poured into our area in February, there were killings on both sides. But it didn’t escalate. Sadr’s guys and the Iraqi army faced off, but neither wanted a real battle.”
Still, the absence of sustained combat does not signal normalcy. In shop after shop, the soldiers received the same voluble response. The economy is OK, but security is terrible. Shoppers rush home before the sun sets. Everyone closes in the early evening, which is prime shopping time. People don’t know where a bomb will go off. And robbers are walking into shops, pointing guns, and walking out with cash or kidnapping the owner for ransom. Some robbers wear police uniforms. Although anyone could buy a uniform, distrust of the police was mentioned in shop after shop.
For hours, the patrol meandered through the city, from fashionable Palestine Street to the Sunni suburb of Adhamiya, through the mixed districts of Babnal and Abdul Qadr, and into hardscrabble Al Fadhal, where raw sewage runs down mud alleyways too narrow for vehicles.
Lt. Altawee stopped before a long table that blocked half the street. Sitting on stools and broken chairs were a dozen men with weathered faces, too poor to afford coffee or tea, sitting idly, staring at the soldiers.
“Iraqi soldiers, yes! American soldiers, yes!” an older man burst out in English. “Police, no!”
“Fadhal has a mean reputation,” Davenport said. “You don’t come down here if they don’t want you here. They fought the police the other night. They don’t trust them.”
The patrol continued past a large mosque guarded by soldiers.
“Sadr’s militia tried to take it over,” Capt. Muhamed Eba, 28, explained. “We got here first. They drove up, shouting and honking horns. Then they drove away. They knew they’d lose. We have the Americans.”
He pointed his finger toward Davenport. As the twilight darkened, the traffic thinned out, and the shopkeepers began pulling down the aluminum siding that protected their storefronts.
“The Iraqi * army can block off large movements of Shiite militia from Sadr City,” Davenport said as we walked down the street. “Place two tanks at four intersections. Saddam designed the streets with that in mind. It’s a matter of will, not of RPGs.”
While Davenport was with the Iraqi soldiers in the heart of the city, most of his battalion was working in the suburbs two miles to the south. The next morning, Davenport met for breakfast with his commanding officer, Lt. Col. Brian E. Winski, who was leading the 1-61 Cavalry Squadron, 506th Regimental Combat Team, 101st Air Assault Division. Like Davenport, Winski, 39, of Milwaukee, is on his second tour.
After swapping notes with Davenport, Winski hopped into his Humvee and headed for the local market. The Humvee, heavy with slabs of armor on its doors, rolled slowly down a rutted macadam road next to the tranquil Diyala River in southeast Baghdad. Winski passed by a string of farms nestled under palm trees. Ahead was the trestle bridge leading from the shantytown of Jisr Diyala into Baghdad. Three years earlier, a platoon of Marines had seized the bridge under fire, the beginning of the final push that took them to Firdos Square, where they hauled down Saddam’s statue as TV viewers around the world watched.
Winski stopped in a dusty field filled with taxis waiting for fares from the nearby market. He called out, and a crowd of men and boys gathered around.
“Another IED went off on the river road last night,” he said through an interpreter. “You keep telling me it’s outsiders. I keep telling you they’re not invisible. Someone saw something. My Humvees are armored. Your children are the ones who get hurt.”
Men started out-shouting one another. The translator, Muhamed Ayanda (a pseudonym), yelled until he restored order. The Shiite crowd demanded lights on the road. That would fix it. Most blamed Sunni villagers who lived up the road. A few suggested Sadr’s militia had placed the IEDs. Winski offered cash for information. The men laughed, making slicing motions across their necks.
Both sides waited for the conclusion of the discussion: soccer balls. Winski always had some for the kids. Sure enough, Sgt. Maj. Fields selected half a dozen of the smallest children and gave them backpacks and soccer balls. Winski had a final word before he left.
“A kid up the river road had his right leg blown off at the knee. You’ve all seen him. That’ll be your kid one of these days.”
Winski drove back along the road, stopping when he bumped into one of his platoon commanders and an explosive-ordnance team. A few hundred feet ahead, a small green robot with a long claw was snipping the wires from an artillery shell hidden in the grass.
On a video feed, Winski watched for a minute, then he congratulated his men.
It wasn’t us, they replied. A farmer pointed out the location, saying his kids almost stepped on it.
Winski drove back to the base, explaining his strategy to me.
“That IED was found outside a Sunni village. I’ll pay a call on the sheik, and he’ll tell me a rival set it to make him look bad. That’s probably the truth, but I’ll put him through daily searches until he stops the guy who’s doing this,” Winski said. “We’re not in a kinetic war here in south Baghdad. We’re detectives. We get to know the community and make arrests, just like police. We don’t take sides. We’ve arrested Shiites for murdering a Sunni and Sunnis for planting IEDs. We have to give both Sunnis and Shiites a stake in the future.”
Correction, May 22, 2006: Due to an editing error, this article originally said that “The Iranian army can block off large movements of Shiite militia from Sadr City.” Maj. Davenport was referring to the Iraqi army. (Return to the corrected sentence.)