BAGHDAD — The Amariya neighborhood has won a reputation as the most fearsome quarter of the capital, with car bombs, snipers and frequent clashes between U.S. forces and hardened Sunni Arab fighters.
But over the last few weeks, U.S. officials and Iraqi residents say, life has improved markedly in the notorious district, thanks to an American-led effort to improve security and services.
On a tour of the largely Sunni Arab district with U.S. soldiers Tuesday, a day on which at least 60 mutilated bodies were found elsewhere in Baghdad and violence left an additional 23 dead across Iraq, schoolchildren walked home gingerly along streets recently cleared of rotting garbage mounds. Young men emerged from newly reopened shops on main thoroughfares. Women shopped for vegetables at outdoor produce stands.
"Electricity is a problem, jobs are a problem, there's no gas, but thank God," said one woman as she gestured toward a group of U.S. soldiers, "security has gotten better."
The improvement in Amariya has come at a price, however.
Lt. Col. Gian Gentile, the 4th Infantry Division squadron commander in charge, acknowledged in an interview that he had to move troops from nearby neighborhoods under his command to bolster security in Amariya, risking rising peril in those districts.
He has also had to close off the western Baghdad neighborhood at all but two gateways in an effort to stanch the flow in and out of Sunni Arab insurgents and Shiite militia members. And he has watched helplessly as the district's Shiite Muslim population has plummeted. Once 15%, it is now less than 2%, he said, part of a displacement crisis that has disrupted lives but made neighborhoods such as Amariya less prone to sectarian violence.
He has also had to readjust his views, coming to grips with the hardened opinions of the people he must protect as well as occasionally fight.
"They see the [Sunni Arab] insurgents as their final source of protection," says Gentile, a Danville, Calif., native. "When we leave and they're left with this [Shiite-dominated] sectarian government, who else are they going to be left with?"
Amariya is to Sunni insurgents what Camp Victory -- the nearby U.S. military headquarters -- is to the Americans, Gentile says. An affluent and leafy suburban enclave teeming with out-of-work officers of toppled President Saddam Hussein's military and security apparatus, Amariya has been a stronghold of anti-American, anti-government and religiously radical groups since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. American and Iraqi forces are frequently the targets of car bombs and snipers, including one who wounded an Iraqi soldier in Amariya on Tuesday.
"Down, down U.S.A.!" say the fading graffiti on an Amariya side street.
But though Sunni Arab militants continue to use Amariya as a haven, the general mood toward Americans has shifted since Iraq's Shiite-led elected government began to exert its muscle. In the wake of anti-Sunni reprisals that followed the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, many Sunni Muslims in Amariya came to see the Americans they detest as occupiers as the only force capable of protecting them from a Shiite hunger for revenge.
Until March and April, there was little U.S. presence in Amariya, Gentile said. Once Gentile took over the district, he said, he made strenuous efforts to build goodwill. Drawing lessons from previous commanders, he softened his tactical approach, ordering his troops to drive slowly and not brandish weapons at passing motor vehicles.
"We started off with our gunners showing their weapons and being very aggressive," Gentile said. "But we've moved away from that. As much time as we've spent out there, we've learned that the traffic is just traffic."
Sometimes his men complain about their peacekeeping posture.
"I'm a soldier," said Spc. Justin Cook, 26, an affable former bartender from Titusville, Fla. "They didn't train me to do this."
But during a drive through the district, Cook frequently yielded to oncoming Iraqi drivers. Gentile took other practical steps to improve the area's quality of life. After more than a dozen suicide bombs hit a pair of checkpoints along a main street in June and July, Gentile simply removed the checkpoints. As many as 60% of the businesses that were shut down along the street have reopened.
Gentile's armored reconnaissance squadron, formally part of the 4th Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division but currently attached to the 1st Armored Division, launched an effort to clean up the garbage-strewn district as part of an operation aimed at securing several volatile Baghdad neighborhoods. U.S. patrols increased about 50%, Gentile said.
"All they saw before was American patrols ... up and down the main streets," Gentile said. "Now we've got American patrols out there with the Iraqi army. And we've got garbage trucks out here and workers from Amariya picking up garbage. It gave them a sense of security that things are a little better."