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In Sadr City, gratitude mixed with distrust

Nearly two years on, many Iraqis say, the American occupation has become more than a simple ledger of tasks completed. The American experience has become like the three-inch bulletproof windshield of a Humvee -- the U.S. military can gaze through the glass while not always hearing what's being said in the streets.
A woman walks past a man fixing his car in a flooded street in Baghdad's Shiite enclave of Sadr City last month.
A woman walks past a man fixing his car in a flooded street in Baghdad's Shiite enclave of Sadr City last month.Karim Kadim / AP file
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Lt. Col. Lawrence "Barrett" Holmes, a tall, lanky commander, bundled out of his cream-colored, armor-plated Humvee in flak jacket, helmet and protective eyewear, held his M-16 rifle at the ready and barked what goes for a command these days in Baghdad's toughest neighborhood, what he calls his "slice of the pie."

"Salaam aleikum!" he belted out, Arabic for "Peace be upon you," inflected with a South Carolina drawl.

With those words at a sewage station, he got down to business, overseeing $138 million that is being spent in Sadr City, a vast warren of 2.5 million people that, twice this year, was the scene of some of the most intense fighting the American military has faced in Iraq. A cease-fire is now in place, and Holmes can talk like an engineer (his education) rather than a soldier (his training) -- waxing on about the grade of roads, water runoff, sewage intake, trash disposal and dedicated power lines to pump stations.

"We have two kinds of folks," he said, "the haves and have-nots. Sadr City is pretty much the have-nots."

In scope, Holmes's task is among the most ambitious in Iraq: to reverse the fortunes of a ghetto with a lavishly funded, labor-intensive reconstruction program employing thousands. Yet the project opens a window on the enormous difficulties encountered in the American experience across this troubled country.

The U.S. military touts Holmes's work as an example for battle-scarred cities like Fallujah, and the altruism of the reconstruction is beyond reproach. Barring another eruption of fighting, by March the men will have demonstrated to the slum what many Iraqis expected from the beginning of the occupation: rehabilitating a sewer system built for one-sixth the people it serves, overhauling water distribution for 240,000 people, providing electricity for 180,000 people, and renovating a hospital and building health clinics.

But nearly two years on, many Iraqis say, the occupation has become more than a simple ledger of tasks completed. The American experience has become like the three-inch bulletproof windshield of a Humvee -- the U.S. military can gaze through the glass while not always hearing what's being said in the streets. In Sadr City, even in neighborhoods clouded with the acrid haze of newly laid asphalt, words of appreciation are often clouded with lingering suspicions. The disenchantment is so deep in some places that it leaves a question most U.S. officials prefer not to address: Is the battle for hearts and minds already lost?

"The Americans came as soldiers, and they're here to serve their interests," said Ziad Khalaf, a 25-year-old mechanic who talks less about reconstruction and more about the lack of electricity and fuel for a heater to keep his newborn son warm.

Holmes has his answer to the question. "They're tired of fighting, they want to move forward, and they want a better life, and that's what we want to give them," he said as the day drew to a close over his base, near a gas station snarled with waiting lines.

His chief operations officer, Maj. Pete Andrysiak, offered another perspective. "Things could have been done quicker," he acknowledged, standing next to his parked Humvee. "Had we come in and been a little bit more prepared, it would have had an impact. I like to think that. They didn't necessarily know conditions were going to be the way they were."

"It's a lesson learned," he added.

Specter of more fighting
The motto for Holmes's 20th Engineer Battalion is "build and fight."

"We want to do less fighting and more building," Holmes said, smiling.

The fighting erupted in the slum in April and August between U.S. forces and the Mahdi Army, a militia run by Moqtada Sadr, a stridently anti-American Shiite Muslim cleric whose popular father, assassinated by Iraqi government agents in 1999, is the slum's namesake. While clashes in Fallujah and Najaf overshadowed the battles in Sadr City, the fighting in dense urban quarters was no less ferocious, and each time it ended inconclusively with a lopsided toll: dozens of U.S. soldiers killed, hundreds of militiamen dead.

The slum remains Sadr's stronghold, and his clerics still serve as the acknowledged authority in town. On any day, from 2 to 4 p.m., Ibrahim Jabri, a handsome man in black turban, fields requests from scores of supplicants gathered in the courtyard at the Sadr office, along one of the slum's main streets: a few dollars for rent or food, help in cracking down on car thieves, action against renegade militiamen. Sometimes he boisterously jokes with them; other times he whispers in an ear. Few in the slum doubt that the militia -- even with a lower profile, its weapons now hidden -- would answer another call to arms from him or the other clerics.

"In an ideal world, that's where we want to get to -- that the hope for the future will outweigh the desire to fight," said Andrysiak, a tall, sturdily built environmental engineer from Austin.

Arriving in March, Holmes, Andrysiak and the battalion felt they were making tangible gains by July, before the second round of fighting broke out. They didn't begin working in earnest again on the slum's 30-year-old infrastructure until Nov. 7 -- a three-month interruption. As frustrating as that was, Holmes now exudes an exuberant optimism and insists they have progressed past July's mark.

"As long as we're not fighting, we'll keep going," he said.

Of the $138 million, most is being spent on what the battalion calls "swet" -- $29 million on sewage, $49 million on water, $22 million on electricity and $12.5 million on trash disposal. Even with that investment, the battalion sees a need for $214 million more, nearly all of it for electricity and water systems for more than 1.2 million people.

So far, the money has put to work 16,000 people, digging trenches along medians cleared of gray, soggy trash. Boys push wheelbarrows past twisted and now-rusted carcasses of cars destroyed in the fighting. Heavy machinery rumbles down streets laying asphalt, bordered with new curbstones and graced by black banners marking the anniversary of the death of Sadr's father.

On a tour this week, Holmes and Andrysiak surveyed the work of the past month with a sense of accomplishment.

"Is this your first time here, Pete?" Holmes asked his chief operations officer as they toured a spotless, sprawling $52 million utility that, when completed, will have the capacity to distribute half the country's electricity.

"Yes," Andrysiak answered, shaking his head in appreciation.

"What do you think?" Holmes excitedly asked.

And on they went -- a bridge being built across the Diyala River, a new complex for local government, power lines to 750 homes, the renovated Habibiya pumping station, and 15 overhauled sewage lift stations, powered by usually uninterrupted electricity.

"Any problems or concerns here?" Holmes asked Haifa Zamil, who manages one of the stations.

Zamil, carrying her year-old daughter, Rotana, pointed out that electricity was interrupted for seven hours the day before.

"Other than that?" Holmes asked, steering the conversation, as rifle-toting soldiers surrounded the two.

"It's good, very good," the mother of four said. "We knew you all were going to do something for us."

Then she hit him up for a new home or, at the least, a raise in her $67-a-month salary.

"I need some wasta," she said -- an in, connections. "I need help. I'm begging you -- not for me, but for my children."

Holmes promised that a city official would visit soon. Then the colonel returned to message, words that he reiterated at each stop, in between Arabic salutations that he and the other soldiers in the unit had picked up in a cultural awareness course.

"As long as the fighting has stopped," he said, "we're going to continue to move forward and build throughout Sadr City."

Judging the 'amospherics'
Holmes and Andrysiak have a word for sentiments in the streets of Sadr City. They call it "atmospherics" -- their sense of the place from what they see and what they hear. From inside a Humvee, the atmospherics seem better -- the cold, hard stares are fewer than they were a few months ago, and smiling children sprint toward the vehicles, shouting, waving or flashing a thumbs up.

""Everyone's tired of the fighting, and they just want it to stop," Holmes said. Inside his hole-in-the-wall workshop, his hands blackened with grease, Ziad Khalaf is among those tired of the war and weary of a life that he believes holds little promise. The mechanic stood over a trunk-size generator that he was repairing and looked out at Urfuli Street, a main thoroughfare in the neighborhood being newly paved by Iraqi crews at American expense.

"We've suffered for a lot of years," Khalaf said, "and we cannot endure any more suffering."

On his wall were representations of Shiite saints, a poster of Mecca and six portraits of Moqtada Sadr and his father.

"Until now," he added grimly, "we haven't seen anything from the Americans."

If he works "morning to night," he said, he makes 5,000 dinars a day (about $3). With an ongoing fuel shortage, and persistent blackouts, he spends 3,500 of that for kerosene to heat his home. That price is more than double what it was a few months ago. A small can of powdered milk for his 3-month-old son, Nur, costs 4,000 dinars, 20 times its price before the war.

"He likes to drink a lot of milk," Khalaf said with a laugh.

Over the course of the occupation, the perception of American ability has taken more twists than the Hollywood B-movies popular on pirated CDs in Baghdad: from awe at technological prowess, to frustration at unanswered promises, to suspicion of U.S. intentions, to conspiracies meant to explain a life that has remained so bleak. The fuel shortage in Baghdad is the latest crisis with too few answers. The government blames persistent sabotage by insurgents and corruption so systemic as to be routine.

But to men like Khalaf, even that falls short of explanation.

"We're a people with so many resources and we have no heating oil?" Khalaf asked. "How can this be?"

"The Americans are responsible for this," he went on. Like others in Sadr City, he suspects that crisis after crisis gives the Americans a justification to remain in Iraq. "They could end the chaos in one month," he said, "but they want to stay a long time."

"We won't accept it," Khalaf said.

Vying wth Sadr for credit
In Sadr City, there is much visible from the street.

For the first time since the fall of Saddam Hussein in April 2003, the sidewalks of potholed asphalt and buckling cement are cleared of trash. Orange dumpsters are spaced every so often along the neighborhood's main thoroughfare, with a painted message scrawled by hand on their side: "Please leave them as they are." Along streets usually flooded with green sewage in which barefoot children play, the resurrected pumps have drained away the refuse, directing it to a station newly cleared of debris with U.S. funds.

And then there is much that is less visible to U.S. forces.

Graffiti celebrates the fight of Sadr's militia. "Congratulations on the victory of the army of Imam Mahdi," read one. Others, in a similar vein: "Yes, yes, Moqtada" and "Long live the brave resistance." Over three days this week, the Sadr office distributed 13,000 posters to mark the anniversary of the death of Sadr's father, adorning utility poles, storefronts and walls.

Holmes and Andrysiak acknowledge that it is sometimes difficult to get their message out. They want to bolster the local government and encourage officials to share in the credit for reconstruction. No project can carry too great an American footprint, they say, for fear of attracting insurgent attacks. They still vie with Sadr's office, which has tried to claim credit for the work in the past.

"If you talk to local people on the ground, they know who is spearheading the effort and making it happen," Holmes said.

"People understand," Andrysiak insisted.

The tangible improvements in Sadr City have indeed encouraged some, even if their praise is hedged.

"The situation is good," said Lazim Finjan, 60. But he added: "I'd still like them to pave the street. And the lights. There's still no electricity." He paused. "More people should be cleaning the streets, and they should get rid of the thieves."

Along Urfuli Street, where Khalaf worked, men gathered in a grocery store and talked about what was better in their neighborhood. Security had improved dramatically, they said, but they credited the foot patrols at night of the Mahdi Army. In civilian clothes, their weapons hidden, groups of five to 10 militiamen were responsible for every few blocks.

"With the Mahdi Army, we understand their language. If they don't do something for us, we'll complain to the Sadr office," said Karim Abed, a driver and 42-year-old father of six. "How do we complain to the Americans? Whom do we complain to?"

Other men pointed out what the militia was doing: Its workers had jobs on the U.S.-funded projects, and it was providing protection to the engineers, some of whom had been kidnapped by criminal gangs. For months, they said, the militia was organizing lines at the gas stations, stopping price gouging, at times thuggishly. The U.S. military eventually forced the militiamen to leave.

"The Sadr office wants to help us, but the Americans won't let them," said Dhia Ahmed, a 21-year-old whose family owns the store, where a picture of Sadr hung on a refrigerator next to a poster of a Shiite saint. "The Americans don't respect other people."

"The Sadr office is trying to serve the people," said a friend, Abdullah Muhsin. "They work for nothing in return."

They talked of other slights, communicated by Sadr's men in the sermons that draw thousands every Friday and then pass through the neighborhood by word of mouth as a mix of rumor and fact. They suggested the streets were being newly paved so that U.S. tanks could pass over them. They said the Americans had prevented the militia from protecting the city's churches and mosques. They insisted that U.S. troops were here for their own interests. When pressed about what those interests were, Muhsin shot back, "Ask them." Then he and the others settled on an explanation heard often in Baghdad these days: "It is a crusade against a Muslim country."

On the street outside, men hammered battered sheets of metal, collecting them for scrap. Horns blared. A dead rat sat in a pile of trash not yet swept up from the road -- scraps of fetid green lettuce mixing with rotting watermelon rind and orange peels.

Hassan Ali, a 17-year-old sitting with them, volunteered what might be the occupation's best-case scenario these days.

"The Americans don't have anything to do with us," he said with a shrug, "and we don't have anything to do with them."