BAGHDAD, Iraq – The nightlife is zero and most shops are shut, but U.S. and Iraqi forces said Wednesday that a three-day security sweep has cleaned up — at least for now — a mostly Sunni neighborhood in west Baghdad, notorious for kidnappings, murders and bombings.
U.S. and Iraqi military commanders said the operation in Amariyah is a small step in an uphill campaign to halt the wave of sectarian and insurgent violence in the capital — neighborhood by neighborhood.
Some 12,000 Iraqi and U.S. troop reinforcements are pouring into Baghdad as part of the new security crackdown that began this month amid a surge in Sunni-Shiite violence and fears of a civil war.
On Sunday night, it was Amariyah's turn to be sealed up in a cordon-and-search operation.
"Since we began the operation, not one person from Amariyah has died, not one act of violence has occurred. We have demonstrated that it can be done," Col. Robert Scurlock Jr., commander of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, told reporters.
"The purpose is to eliminate terrorists and deaths squads," he said.
About 1,500 violent deaths were reported in the Baghdad area alone in July, most of them in the wave of sectarian killings between Shiites and Sunnis. Deputy Health Minister Adel Muhsin said about 3,500 Iraqis died violently last month nationwide — the highest monthly tally of the war.
Nonetheless, U.S. and Iraqi officers expressed confidence they can stem the tide of sectarian violence, which accelerated after the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra.
"All across Baghdad, we're seeing progress," U.S. spokesman Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell said. "Operations like the one in ... Amariyah ... will progress into other districts around the capital."
He said the neighborhoods were selected for security operations were the ones "that have shown propensity for the most violence."
Amariyah is one of them. Once known for modern houses built on land given by Saddam Hussein to middle-ranking government officials, Amariyah wears a tired look today like most of the capital.
Reporters driven to the area by the U.S. Army in an armored bus saw shuttered shops, their glass fronts marked by "Xs" with duct tape.
Dilapidated sofas — musty foam spilling out of torn covers — were dumped on the sidewalk. Razor wire coils blocked entrances to streets. Sand walls hid the facade of many homes. Checkpoints manned by U.S. and Iraqi soldiers in armored vehicles circled the neighborhood.
Shootings and kidnappings have been common. Many of the victims were Iraqi security personnel gunned down at checkpoints and civilians considered as U.S. collaborators. Scurlock said many of the killings in the area are aimed at intimidating people — Shiites and Sunnis alike who support the government.
The killings are carried out with impunity. Earlier this year a pair of killers walked into the office of a businessman who supplied construction material to the U.S. military, told him to rest his forehead on the desk and shot him in the back of the head before driving away.
Being on the western outskirts of Baghdad, it is easy for Sunni insurgents to slip away and take refuge in cities to the west like Ramadi and Fallujah, where support for the insurgency runs high.
The cleaning-up of Amariyah was done methodically. The area was cordoned off by troops and a curfew imposed. Iraqi soldiers searched every house while U.S. troops kept guard outside, Scurlock said.
By Wednesday, 6,000 homes and buildings were searched.
Such sweeps and searches elsewhere in the country have produced mixed results. Troops often move through areas, seize weapons and violence subsides — only to have trouble flare up again weeks later.
Some Amariyah residents said they believed the operation had been successful in reducing violence, at least temporarily.
"I think the security situation has improved. We haven't seen corpses on the streets, which were a daily scene," said Saad Jawad al-Azawi, a 45-year-old taxi driver. "I hope our area will have a permanent patrols of joint U.S-Iraqi forces."
U.S. and Iraqi soldiers also took a census to register residents of Amariyah. Authorized weapons — every household is allowed one rifle for protection — were also recorded, as were cars. Unauthorized weapons were confiscated — 28 guns and 47 hand grenades. Eight suspects arrested.
"It doesn't matter how many guns we found. It gave people the confidence in the Iraqi army and security forces," Scurlock said.
Brig. Gen. Abdul Jaleel Kahlaiaf, commander of the Iraqi army's 1st Brigade, 6th Division, acknowledged there is no guarantee that violence will not flare-up again in Amariyah.
"The police in Britain cannot give you a 100 percent guarantee, or in Egypt or in America," he said. "But Amariyah will be secured if people cooperate."