Saturday, June 24, 2006

Baghdad oasis 'falling to terrorists'

Baghdad oasis 'falling to terrorists'
By Sabrina Tavernise
Copyright by The New York Times
Published: June 23, 2006

BAGHDAD Mansour is Baghdad's well-to-do oasis. It has fancy pastry shops, jewelry stores, a designer furniture boutique and an elite social club. But it is no longer the address everyone wants.

In the past two months, insurgents have gunned down a city councilman, kidnapped four Russian Embassy workers, shot and killed a tailor in his shop and bombed a pastry shop.
"It's falling to the terrorists," said Hasaneen Mualla, director of the Hunting Club, a social club in the affluent area that lies just five kilometers, or three miles, from the Green Zone. "They are coming nearer to us now. No one is stopping them."
For most of the past six months, Iraq has drifted without a government and its security forces have largely stood by and watched at most crucial moments, like the one in February, when Shiite militias killed Sunnis after the bombing of a sacred shrine.

Now, as Iraqi leaders in the Green Zone savor their recent successes - the naming of the first permanent government since the fall of Saddam Hussein and the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Iraq's most-wanted guerrilla leader - Iraqis outside its walls are more frightened than ever.

Neighborhood after neighborhood in western Baghdad has fallen to insurgents, with some areas bordering on anarchy: Bodies lie on the streets for hours. Trash is no longer collected. Children are schooled at home.

The paralysis that shut down life in west Baghdad is creeping ever closer to the heart of the city, and Iraqis in still livable areas are frantic for the government to halt its advance, something it pledged to do when it unveiled a new security plan for Baghdad last week.

"It's like a cancer, spreading from area to area," said a guard at Delta Communications, a Mansour cellphone shop that is now shuttered after a bomb blast last month.

Mansour is an area of stately homes, elaborately trimmed hedges and people who can afford guards. But in recent weeks, that has not mattered.

Home-made bombs have struck two sport utility vehicles belonging to the former exile Ahmad Chalabi, a Mansour resident, in the past month. Gangs have kidnapped the ambassador from the United Arab Emirates and the four Russian Embassy workers. Wedding arrangements at the Hunting Club now require the couple to provide their own guards for the festivities.
"These middle- and upper-class families, these guys are not willing to fight," said one affluent resident. "It's like cutting into butter."

The neighborhood has long been tormented by kidnappings. Criminal gangs know where the city's affluent live. But the violence in the past two months feels more organized and, in many ways, more relentless, aimed broadly at businesses and neighborhood mainstays.

One victim was Khassaki Sweet Shop, an icon on Mansour Street since the 1980s, famous for its plump baklava, candied almonds and crème-filled honey rolls displayed behind a sparkling glass storefront.

On May 28, a teenager placed a bag in front of the shop and moments later it exploded, shattering glass, scattering pastries and sending a large chunk of shrapnel flying over the head of the cashier.

Last week, workers were building an ugly brick protective wall in front of the shop. A small piece of cloth that read "Open" hung above the gaping entrance.

"Ruined! Destroyed!" the owner said angrily. "It's not a first-class shop anymore."

The owner, who refused to give his name, blamed the Americans for the security troubles, an opinion expressed by many in Mansour - Shiite and Sunni alike.

"If the Americans want to destroy Iraq, they are on the right path," said the owner, a Shiite, who stood scowling behind a candy counter. He displayed a pistol jammed in his waistband. "If they can't improve things, they should just leave us alone."
A man waiting in line for Turkish delight disagreed: "But not now, we're still in a mess."

The owner shook his head in disgust.

The wave of insurgent crime lapping at Mansour's borders has already sunk other neighborhoods in west Baghdad into anarchy.

In Dora, it is impossible to collect the bodies of murdered loved ones because of sniper fire. Trash collection has all but stopped.

Ali Aziz, a Shiite, had to hastily load the body of his friend into the back of a pickup truck in late April, after the police refused to respond to the pleas of the man's widow.

He waited until he had reached the safety of a police station to put the body in a coffin.

"There is no government there," said a computer programmer who moved out of Ameriya two weeks ago, after four murders on his block. "I want to go to my home, to bring some clothes, but I can't go there. My own country, my own home, and I can't go there."

In Mansour, life has not shut down entirely, but slowed from a bustle to a trickle. An internal American Embassy security document leaked to The Washington Post quoted an Iraqi employee who said that Mansour was "an unrecognizable ghost town."

Threats have closed a number of shops on Mansour Street, and the emptiness in the early afternoon is palpable. Last week, two jewelry shop owners were sitting in the back room of a house in the afternoon, watching a Word Cup soccer game. They shut their shops when they received telephone calls from a man threatening to bomb them if they did not pay money. It was the day, coincidentally, that Iraq's most wanted terrorist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was killed.

"I thought it was one of my friends joking," said one owner, Omar, who declined to give his last name. He later checked the phone number with a friend, who said he had received three phone calls from the same number. Omar never considered going to the police.

Now he barely recognizes his life. He washes his car and goes shopping. He naps in the middle of the day. He is losing about $500 every day he keeps the store closed.

Some shop owners said insurgents told Shiite merchants to take down pictures of Shiite saints, but Omar scoffed at the idea that the threats have mostly sectarian motives. "It's all about money," he said, images of the World Cup game flashing on the screen behind him. "The pictures are just an excuse."

Fatalism and dark humor infuse conversations around dinner tables and among friends in Mansour.

"Someone was wearing shorts, and someone else said, 'Well, at least we know that when Zarqawi's people arrive, you'll be the first one they grab,'" said a foreign resident.

Even so, Iraqis expressed hope that a new security regime that took effect would produce meaningful results. Last week, a smiling Iraqi Army soldier stood waving cars by a makeshift checkpoint near Chalabi's compound, across from the Hunting Club. Mualla, the club's director, said the area had been quiet since the regime began.

A major problem is the state itself. With the central government weak, powerful Iraqis - rich men, political leaders, tribal sheiks - manipulate it with ease, using their influence to enlist police officers and soldiers to do their bidding. Smaller-time criminals buy uniforms. As a result, it can be all but impossible to differentiate between criminals and the official forces.

Consider the case of Iraqna, one of the country's largest cellphone providers, whose shop in Mansour was raided by about 10 Iraqis in army uniforms in early April. The soldiers - or criminals, depending on your point of view - locked 60 employees on two floors in a room, rummaged through drawers and took phones and wallets. Two people were killed.

Company executives are still puzzling over whether the forces were legitimate government ones (none have admitted to it) or thieves dressed as soldiers. Alain Sainte-Marie, the company's chief executive officer, said he had filed a legal case in court to force the state to get to the bottom of what happened.

"Witnesses said it was a raid done by official troops," Sainte-Marie said in the company's elegant headquarters with a spiral staircase in a fortified area of Mansour. "To tell you frankly, the way that it happened, I still have doubts."

The branch is now closed, and Sainte-Marie is reviewing security plans. In an attempt at preserving aesthetic, he has balked at suggestions for giant chunks of concrete. "It has to stay friendly," he said. "I won't accept it to look like a bunker."

Mualla sips ice-cold water in his renovated office in the back of the Hunting Club and worries. Business - receptions and banquets - is down by about half over the past two months. Weddings are now booked just a week in advance, not a month. "They are coming nearer to us now," he said, slumping slightly in a high-backed chair. "I'm tired. I'm very tired of controlling the situation. Nobody is helping me."


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