Signs of hope in a former Baghdad killing field

For residents of Azamiyah, once one of Baghdad's most violent neighborhoods, the opening of a department store selling party dresses, imported men's suits and designer label perfumes is a sign that a better future could lie ahead.

Just five years ago, Azamiyah was a terrifying place. Bodies of Shiites and Sunnis butchered in sectarian killings turned up almost daily, dumped on sidewalks or in trash piles, earning one street the name "Street of Death." Fearful residents huddled at home. A U.S. infantry company on patrol here lost 13 men to snipers and roadside bombs during the bloodiest period of 2006 and 2007.

Now the glass-fronted five-story MaxiMall department store stays open as late as midnight, and Sunnis and Shiites shop side by side. Azamiyah is overwhelmingly Sunni, but salespeople say they get many customers from surrounding Shiite areas, drawn by colorful displays and air conditioning that offers a welcome relief from Baghdad's dusty heat.

Multilevel shopping centers are still rare in Baghdad, and the $3 million investment by the Turkish owners of MaxiMall, which opened in April, is seen as a show of confidence in Azamiyah's future.

"The terrorists have failed, and Baghdad is turning into a city of life instead of being a city of death," said Umm Zaid, 45, browsing through the store with three children in tow. "It is no longer a risk to take my kids to the streets and shops."

But many fear the calm won't last.

Sunnis, though a minority in Iraq, were the dominant group under toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, a Sunni. Now they feel vulnerable to the whims of the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has been accused of stoking sectarian tensions by sidelining Sunni and Kurdish coalition partners.

As a former stronghold of support for Saddam and a center of Sunni pride, Azamiyah feels particularly exposed, said Daoud Mohammed, a local member of the Sunni local council. "Azamiyah will be a target and will move backward" if sectarian violence resumes, he said. "But if the political problem is solved, Azamiyah will witness a quick development."

The heavy presence of the Iraqi army is seen as a particular provocation in Azamiyah. The neighborhood is cut off from the rest of Baghdad by a loop of the Tigris River and a 12-foot-high (4-meter) wall of cement slabs erected by U.S. troops in 2007.

Five years later, army checkpoints control movement in and out of the neighborhood, with lines of cars backing up even in off-hours. Coils of barbed wire and large cement blocs close some streets. Soldiers in Humvees monitor potential hotspots, such as the Abu Hanifa mosque, perhaps the most important Sunni shrine in Iraq and a past hub for insurgents.

During Saddam's rule, middle-class Azamiyah was famous for its barbecue restaurants that drew Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds alike for late-night feasts of skewered lamb. The Abu Hanifa mosque was a regionally renowned center of Sunni learning and holds the remains of a revered Sunni scholar. Members of the Hashemite dynasty that briefly ruled Iraq are buried in a mausoleum on the edge of Azamiyah.

On April 9, 2003, when most of Baghdad had already fallen to American troops, Saddam chose Azamiyah for his last public appearance, climbing on top of a car to exhort dozens of supporters to keep fighting the invaders before he slipped into hiding. The neighborhood fell quickly, but only after a fierce battle, and eventually turned into a base for al-Qaida-led insurgents.

During the sectarian fighting of 2005-2007, the Sunni enclave and its outskirts became one of the main battle grounds for Sunni and Shiite death squads.

Ashreen Street in Azamiyah, close to the center, soon earned the nickname "Street of Death" because of the large number of bodies found there — most shot in the head execution-style, but others with signs of torture, such as nails driven through victims' limbs. Shops opened only for a couple of hours a day, and frightened residents sought refuge in their homes well before nightfall.

Maj. Michael Baka, who commanded Charlie Company, an infantry unit assigned to Azamiyah, said that on his very first patrol in August 2006, he found a dead man in a trash pile. On a U.S. military map that tracked where bodies were found, "my sector just blew up like a light," he said by phone from Afghanistan, his current posting. "There were dots everywhere."

Mohammed, the local council member, said about 1,000 Azamiyah residents have been killed since 2003 and that some 5,000 fled, including 2,000 Shiites and 3,000 Sunnis. About half the Shiites have since returned, while the vast majority of Sunni refugees — generally those who were better off and settled in other countries — remain in exile.

Ahmed Mohammed, a 39-year-old real estate agent, fled with his wife and three children to Egypt in 2006, after he was threatened by insurgents for business ties with Americans. A Sunni, he returned to Azamiyah for work in 2009 after he ran out of money, but keeps his family in Egypt.

"There is not a single reason that makes me optimistic about the future," he said. "There are no services and risks are high.

Amer Hasnawi, a Shiite, left Azamiyah in 2006, afraid to get caught by militiamen, even though he protectively carried both Shiite and Sunni IDs. "My Sunni neighbors were urging me not to leave," said the 39-year-old furniture salesman and father of two. "I told them, 'You are not going to protect me when the gunmen come to me at night or if I am arrested while walking in the street.' "

He returned in late 2007, to a warm welcome from his Sunni neighbors, and said the situation has improved dramatically. "Now there is a kind of coexistence," he said. "People discovered in the end that killings will not solve their problems."

Across Baghdad, the level of violence has dropped considerably in recent years, though insurgents from time to time still target religious sites, government officials and members of the security forces in bombings and shootings. Earlier this week, 23 people were killed in a suicide bombing outside the Shiite Endowment, the office running Iraq's Shiite religious and cultural sites.

Azamiyah residents complain that security forces conduct frequent arrest sweeps. They believe Sunni applicants are not given a fair chance in public sector hiring and that municipal services are even worse in their neighborhood than elsewhere in Baghdad.

"I want to stay in my country, but the future is uncertain because we cannot see a ray of hope," said Hamid al-Azami, 45, a doctoral student in Islamic studies who also works as a barber in a narrow stall in the open-air market outside the Abu Hanifa mosque.

Lt. Gen. Hassan Baidani, a top Baghdad security official, denied that troops are singling out Azamiyah and said about half the checkpoints would be removed later this month, after an important Shiite religious holiday. Mohammed Hashim, a city spokesman, said services are bad all over Baghdad, not just in Sunni areas. Since the U.S.-led invasion, Iraqis have endured daily power cuts.

Azamiyah residents reserve some of their greatest bitterness for the United States.

Mohammed, the local council member, said he bluntly told U.S. officials during a trip by an Azamiyah delegation to Washington in 2008 that "you have destroyed the country and people hate you."

Still, residents said American soldiers generally made an effort to spare neighborhood's civilians, could be reasoned with and contributed to the gradual security improvement since 2008. U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq in December.

Maj. Cecil Strickland, who took command of Charlie Company in March 2007, said he believes the unit, which lost 13 soldiers over 15 months, served as a catalyst for the turnaround.

"I think we did not waste our time," he said in a phone interview from Colorado Springs, Colorado. Even then, he said, Azamiyah was not without hope. "I would like to think that some of that hope has come to fruition," he said.


Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad and Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara, Turkey contributed reporting.