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Baghdad's Haifa Still No Easy Street

Violence has ebbed on the road once known as Purple Heart Boulevard since Iraqi soldiers took over, but there is still cause for anxiety.

December 02, 2005|Ashraf Khalil | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — A year ago, Haifa Street was a name that inspired dread.

Automobile carcasses littered the sidewalks -- charred remnants of car bomb attacks on U.S. and Iraqi security patrols. Gouges in the roadway from American rockets and insurgents' rocket-propelled grenades had turned the asphalt into a slalom course.

On Wednesday, President Bush hailed the thoroughfare, a three-mile stretch through central Baghdad packed with tall apartment buildings, as a success story for the much-maligned Iraqi security forces.

The area last year "was so thick with terrorists that it earned the nickname Purple Heart Boulevard," Bush said. "Then Iraqi forces took responsibility for this dangerous neighborhood -- and attacks are now down."

For Iraqi residents, Bush's words appear to ring true, to a large extent.

The potholes have been filled, and the twisted car chasses are gone. On Thursday, Iraqi soldiers drove by in pickup trucks and conducted foot patrols without incident.

But a brief visit to Haifa Street also provides a reminder that "safe" remains a relative concept in Iraq.

Suspicion of outsiders continues to run high. So does antipathy for U.S. forces.

Some residents said the newfound peace has been due less to the presence of Iraqi troops than to the absence of American soldiers to shoot at.

"America, no! We don't need them," said Moustafa Ibrahim, 17, drawing a finger across his throat.

Haifa Street was developed in large part during the reign of Saddam Hussein. He handed out apartments for free to Baath Party cadres, intelligence officers and hundreds of Palestinian and Syrian immigrants -- which meant by definition that almost every resident was a Hussein loyalist.

U.S. and Iraqi patrols here faced daily attacks from an openly hostile population. The apartment blocks, many towering 15 stories over the low-slung capital, turned Haifa Street into a shooting gallery.

In January, the U.S. Army opened a base at the head of the street. A month later, it became one of the first handed over to Iraqi control. The area has since quieted down.

Still, the name carries lasting associations, and a visit by a Western journalist required an even greater-than-usual level of security planning.

Bringing a translator would be too conspicuous, so my flawed Egyptian-accented Arabic would have to do. No English would be spoken anywhere and no mention made of America, but a guard would accompany me.

At first glance, the paranoia seemed undeserved. Haifa Street on Thursday seemed almost preternaturally normal.

A shiny blue car sat on the sidewalk, covered in flowers in preparation for a wedding. Young boys busily hung up dozens of posters for a parliamentary candidate, a remarkable sight in a neighborhood where any support for the U.S.-backed political process would have once been life-threatening.

A year ago, for example, three employees of the country's electoral commission were ambushed on Haifa Street and executed in the middle of morning traffic. And the black flags of Abu Musab Zarqawi's insurgent group fluttered brazenly from palm trees.

Many residents credit the new atmosphere to the hand-over of security responsibilities to Iraqis in January.

At first, relations were tense and the police tactics rough.

"When they first arrived, they would just grab people for questioning. But at least they would let him go when they figured out he was clean," said Haidar Akram, 35, a produce vendor. "Then gradually they started to get to know the residents more."

At the Iraqi army's concrete walled base, Sgt. Nasser Ali, 31, said the initial crackdown was meant to set a tone.

"We identified the heads of the terrorist activity," he said, "then we cut them off."

Now, he boasted, his soldiers can sit in coffee shops without fear.

"The Americans with all their heavy weapons couldn't control this area. It took Iraqi minds and experience," said Ali, who complimented the U.S. training they received.

Akram said Iraqi soldiers and residents had since found their comfort level and that soldiers who used to come to work with their uniforms in a bag now hail taxis from outside the base.

"We understand them and they understand us," he said. "The Americans, you couldn't explain anything to them."

For outsiders, though, the dangers remain real.

During the interview with Akram, he took note of my mongrel Arabic, narrowed his eyes, and said: "He's not Egyptian. That's a lie."

In two years in Iraq, rarely had I felt so exposed. I broke the tension with a joke about how the Iraqi accent is so difficult that I use the guard to translate it into Arabic that I can understand.

The interview ended on a positive note, with Akram giving us apples for the road. But we left the scene quickly after the driver, who had watched with mounting alarm, called our attention to two dubious figures on the edge of the crowd who were pointing at our cars.

Rattled, our two-car mini-convoy sped off, as the neighborhood started to feel like enemy territory.

Total time spent on Haifa Street: maybe 75 minutes. It felt a lot longer.

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