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Iraq: RFE/RL Correspondents Describe Local Security Conditions

Some aspects of daily life continue uninterrupted -- depending on the security situation (file photo) (AFP) September 11, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- What does the security situation in Iraq look like through Iraqi eyes? We posed the question to RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq correspondents in several cities, as top U.S. officials brief Congress this week on how well the troop surge strategy is working in Baghdad and central Iraq.

Hassan Nassir in Al-Khadimiyah, Baghdad

The security situation in my neighborhood in northwest Baghdad is more or less stable, but there are situations when we have gunfire, mortar fire, and confrontations.

It is a working-class neighborhood; the standard of living here is average. There used to be a mixture in this neighborhood of Shi'a, Sunnis, Kurds, and even Christians, but many people have left. Now it is basically Shi'ite.

About four months ago, U.S. forces began to build a small, simple base in the area. They are active during the night. After midnight, they begin patrols, or walk along the street, or they may target particular houses or individuals.

The militias are also present; they call themselves "popular committees" but we can call them militias. They don't appear constantly; they are in contact with each another and withdraw when the Americans move in, but they are here.

The militiamen do not have formal checkpoints, but there are points where they observe the cars entering the area, though they don't stop and search cars. When you go to talk to them, they say that they are there to protect the area. There have been many bombings, with cars infiltrating the markets and the neighborhoods, and there have been assassinations.

I can move around my neighborhood, but a sense of anxiety accompanies me everywhere. There is no guarantee there will be calm, because it can be transformed by confrontations, or a sudden explosion.

There are only particular neighborhoods I can go to, and not those that are far away; I don't go for hours over long distances, or ride more than one public-transport car. I can go to some nearby neighborhoods, and even then, only to particular neighborhoods, despite their being nearby.

Expulsions took place in my neighborhood during a specific period prior to the U.S. forces coming, and prior to the "imposition of law" plan. Almost all the homes now are Shi'ite, with the exception of some Sunni homes that are here, of course, with the permission of the people here.

There have been no expulsions since the law, and since the Americans arrived. Such actions have stopped. I think that the neighborhood has been "purified" -- there are no Sunnis left.

Those who can get to work are continuing to work. Those who can bring their work to their own neighborhoods have done so. Those who cannot remain at home, and the majority are sitting at home.

School hours are not regular. The children have also been affected by the events in the neighborhood, so that they are terrified by the sounds of gunfire, the police cars, and by U.S. forces. On such days, they may not go to school. So their attendance is irregular; they might attend or they might not. It's all tied to the security situation, of course.

People have practically forgotten there is such a thing as electricity; it's unavailable except for an hour or two per day, and even then it is sporadic. But recently, electricity has somewhat stabilized, so people are relieved: they no longer set aside money for fuel and generators.

The subject of water is important, because water is scarce. If you try to use a pump, you might get contaminated water. People have also become preoccupied with water: they may buy bottled water, or they may boil their water.

As an Iraqi, I have stayed in my country so far. I hope -- and optimism is inevitable -- for something simple: an improvement or a change in the situation, an increase in forces, more movement of forces deployed in the streets.

We hope not only for the American forces; why not Iraqi forces? We don't see Iraqi forces deployed in all the streets; even when they're present, it's only at the checkpoints where they only wave to stop you or to let you move on; nothing more, nothing less. The areas around the checkpoints are crowded, but there are areas where there are neither Iraqi nor U.S. forces. One cannot go there, even now.

Zainab Hasan in Al-Jamil, Baghdad

My neighborhood, Al-Jamil, close to Al-Sadr City, is primarily Shi'ite, but there are a number of Sunni and Christian homes, because the neighborhood residents have prevented their expulsion. It's a neighborhood with an above-average standard of living.

U.S. forces have taken over a site to use as a camp or a base about 200-300 meters from where I live. The truth is that since the Americans have been stationed here, we have been aware of a number of operations, but I don't think that there is any link between the Americans and this neighborhood. We see them three or four times a day in their vehicles and Hummers, but they have never stopped to talk with the neighbors or other people.

Girls in Baghdad take advantage of a quiet moment

There are no militia checkpoints in my neighborhood, and frankly I don't see the presence of such forces. Our neighborhood is maybe quieter than other neighborhoods. We can move freely around our neighborhood. I see girls and women who go out shopping normally.

As for going to other neighborhoods, I only go to particular neighborhoods. For example, there are areas I cannot reach; I used to buy my clothes in Al-Adhamiyah or in the "Camp" neighborhood, but I am now forced to keep out of these areas. However, I can do my shopping on Palestine Street, which is crowded with shoppers, both male and female, even girls wearing trousers and without hijabs.

I don't feel that the situation has improved specifically with the surge of U.S. forces, but I do see a relative improvement in the security situation in general. I feel comfortable when I go somewhere and see security checkpoints separated by 100 or less meters, and this makes me feel safe. I don't see so many operations taking place anymore; I'm not seeing many bombings or hearing about them, even the car bombings that used to take place four or five times a month.

There is a college nearby, and in the morning you can see the students and other people, in their cars and walking, very normally. The children play in the playgrounds. The situation is very normal.

But there are problems, for example, with electricity. There are many generators in the neighborhood, and we share one of them. They are noisy and annoying, but they generate electricity for us.

And there is the problem of water; my neighborhood is known for its water shortage. At the start of summer, they dug up the ground and laid new pipes, and this has increased the water supply. The problem is that the streets they excavate to lay water or sewage pipes are left as they are. Most of the streets are dug up and unpaved, and when winter comes we will suffer.

In truth, I am always optimistic and I always hope that what is coming is better than what we have now. For example, the U.S. forces came and there has been a greater presence, but now they are talking about a reduction. I wonder if there is an alternative plan: is there going to be an alternative to the vacuum they will leave behind?

Samir Abd al-Rahman in Babylon

The neighborhood where I live is not really mixed in terms of Shi'a and Sunnis. There are very few Sunnis.

We find that some of those with a limited education are anxious to carry guns at night, and sometimes hand grenades. We sometimes hear gunfire for a particular reason or for no reason at all. At the same time, we see that culture survives -- artists and writers are also living here.

We have not seen any U.S. forces. I haven't seen any Americans in the neighborhood, but some time ago there was an attack on the house of someone who was working as a contractor for the Americans. His house was attacked, and we then saw an American presence, but only for a very brief period.

There are no militia checkpoints in this area, because our neighborhood is within the city, and because the security agencies are somewhat alert and they spread out after 11 at night. But how do we know if there are any armed elements around? Any minor incident is accompanied by concentrated gunfire; this shows that people have weapons.

I can move around in complete freedom; I can move around in all the areas that I can see. But it is hard to measure the security situation accurately. For example, you can see that there are no incidents for 10 days or so and then suddenly you can see an abnormal change: streets being closed, one or two explosions in one day, assassinations. So in fact, there is no standard of measurement.

Still, I can see activity in the streets -- people going to work or about their business -- from the time when the call to prayer comes in the morning, and up to 11 at night, the curfew deadline. The children go to school completely normally.

As individuals in just one neighborhood, we hope that services will improve. And we see a large number of unemployed graduates in the coffee shops. You see them there in the morning when you go out to work, and again at noon and at night. They kill their time playing dominoes and backgammon.

We also hope that the administrative corruption that exists now -- it is the talk of the streets -- lessens. It is eating into the heart of society even more than the car bombs. The citizens of Iraq long for change, for recreation sites, even tourist attractions in the neighborhoods. Now we have empty spaces that have become trash dumps. They could be converted into parks where our children can go to play.

I look at the security situation and don't see it as requiring additional forces, but rather a cure for all the internal conditions. We now need a revision of the security operations; we need a revised map, we need to replace officials, we need to replace the security forces that include militias and political parties, and which do not have a sense of national loyalty.

Sa'id Mustafa in Tikrit

With regard to the security situation, we cannot call it good or bad. There is a police presence, and there is control over security, and there have not been any incidents in our actual neighborhood. But we hear that incidents do occur in the market and in the crowded areas, incidents involving explosions, assassinations at night.

U.S. soldiers on patrol in Tikrit

My neighborhood's standard of living is low to medium. Most people are government employees. It does include the various sects: there are Shi'a, Sunnis, etc., but there is no differentiation here.

The U.S. forces are not present in our neighborhood, but they do pass by on the main street. They have fixed bases where they are centered. Nobody is involved with them, nor does anybody go near them, except for those who work at their bases -- they are distant from us and people do not mix with them.

There are no checkpoints here manned by militias, and the control of the streets is in the hands of the police and army. We sometimes hear about armed elements, but not in our neighborhood. The armed elements are at the governorate level, and on the main roads and highways.

In general, the security situation is good, thank God. This is a working-class neighborhood. Everybody moves around -- they go to the market and it's safe. But of course, freedom of movement depends on the security situation at the moment; if there is an explosion, the streets and roads will of course be closed, and there will be confrontations.

On the question of whether the security situation has improved since the U.S. surge began -- no, on the contrary, it gets worse day by day. We haven't felt any change... The U.S. forces protect themselves in their bases and go on patrols. They actually increase tensions rather than the opposite. We have not observed anything positive.

One thing that has not happened here, as unfortunately happens in Baghdad, are sectarian-based evictions. There have been some people who, out of fear...for example there are Shi'a who have said that they won't stay in a Sunni area, they prefer to leave. But they did that on their own, no one approached them. So, on the contrary, we have coexistence, and evictions have not happened here.

People go to work normally, each according to his type of work. If there is an explosion, everyone will of course close his shop and stay at home. When the security situation is calm, people will go to work.

And the children move around normally. They do not go to distant schools; in a working-class area, every neighborhood has a school.

Beyond security, the other problems -- like water, jobs, prices -- they are beyond count. We have problems with water pollution and unemployment; cronyism and favoritism have become standard in the government offices. A kilogram of tomatoes now costs 1,000 dinars ($.81) and the high taxi fares are taking their toll. All of this affects one's income; even if one is earning 400 or 500 dinars ($.32-$.41) a day, it is still not enough.

I am not optimistic, whether the U.S. forces stay or not. In any case, if they stay or leave, they neither add anything nor are they useful. What I say is that if we had Iraqi forces, or if they reorganize and bring back the former security agencies, the situation would stabilize like before. Our dependence is ultimately on the Iraqis, and that is a million times better than relying on foreign forces, whether they are Americans or others.

Jabbar Musa in Al-Najaf

In general, the situation where I live is quiet up to a point, but we often hear about "the calm" before the storm. My neighborhood has as an above-average or good standard of living. The people there are mostly educated employees with government offices.

There is no presence at all of U.S. forces, but there are two checkpoints manned by the local police in our area.

Markets are open in Najaf, but public services are badly lacking

Sometimes when there are political activities, the militias appear and take control of the street, exhibiting all of their capabilities, to an amazing level. They have wireless communications devices, and they keep in contact. But they do not have a daily presence.

In our area, freedom of movement is practically total; there are no inconveniences or security pestering, except occasionally. But there are rumors that there are in fact assassinations, and they are aimed at political people, or those who had relations with the previous regime.

In reality, there is fear, because the assassinations that are taking place are random. This may be on purpose, in order to "mix the cards." Actually this is the only issue people talk about in our neighborhood.

The U.S. forces have not entered our neighborhood. But surely, when additional U.S. forces enter and carry out military and security operations in other neighborhoods, their presence, when added to the local police and army, creates additional security in our areas. That's for sure.

We top the list of all of Iraq's cities with regard to the problems of services. Cleaning is virtually nonexistent, electricity is like a transient visitor, and there are constant water shortages. There is also a real fuel crisis; some of the generator owners are declining to provide power, because there is no fuel available.

I am neither pessimistic nor optimistic; I am in the middle ground, and I make no secret of the fact that it is very strange for a person to say that he wants to change his country. It is a bitter pill to swallow; promises are plentiful and we are now in our fifth year of waiting, while the bloodshed continues, and the killings continue, and the poor quality of services continues. These things have begun to make us weary.

(Translated by Ayad al-Gailani)

RFE/RL Iraq Report

RFE/RL Iraq Report

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