Across the walls of a neighborhood that has seen better days, Sunni Arab insurgents splash slogans in black Arabic letters: “Death to America” and “Long Live the Resistance.” U.S. and Iraqi forces black out the words and replace them with slogans of their own: “Long Live Iraq” and “No to Sectarianism.”
The graffiti war, with its echo of U.S. ganglands, is a manifestation of a deadly confrontation that has played out for months in the vast southwestern section of Baghdad known as Dora. Sunni militants have chosen to make a concerted stand in Dora against U.S. troops -- their Alamo, as one American military official put it.
The Sunni militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq had claimed the area as its base, and U.S. commanders have spent much of the year trying to pry Dora from its grip. At least 233 U.S. troops have been killed or injured in Dora’s trash-strewn, bullet-scarred streets since January, according to military figures.
When soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment, at Ft. Lewis, Wash., rolled in at the end of June, children as young as 10 tossed grenades at them, and a 13-year-old sprayed them with gunfire. The roads were laced with huge bombs that tore through their Stryker armored vehicles.
This summer the military has walled off entire sections of Dora. Soldiers have gone door-to-door, collecting photographs, fingerprints and retinal scans of every military-age man.
With the district locked down, life has started to return to the streets. Children once confined to their homes are now seen riding their bikes, and a handful of displaced Sunni families have moved back, said Iraqi soldiers in the district. About 300 shops have opened in the once-deserted market, where boarded-up buildings, shattered windows and piles of rubble reveal the ferocity of the fighting that took place in its narrow streets and alleys.
But U.S. soldiers say they fear progress could quickly be reversed if their numbers are reduced. Although residents offer a grudging acceptance of U.S. troops here, the mostly Sunni population remains deeply suspicious of Iraqi government forces, seeing them as allied with Shiite Muslim militias.
Military officials say that most of Al Qaeda in Iraq’s leadership in Dora has fled or been captured, but residents whisper that many insurgents are still hiding among them, waiting for U.S. troops to drop their guard.
At least four major clearing operations have been conducted in the last year, but each time additional combat power was brought in, most insurgents hid their weapons and blended in with the population, officials acknowledge.
Even now, the sweltering summer days are punctuated by occasional bursts of gunfire. Three U.S. soldiers were killed and 11 others wounded Aug. 2 when a bomb exploded near their patrol.
“This whole area, these mahallas [neighborhoods] here, has been a real stronghold for Al Qaeda,” Maj. Gen. Joseph Fil Jr., who commands U.S. forces in the capital, told reporters. “They fought hard to get it, and they fought very tenaciously to keep it, and they are going to fight to get it back again.”
Dora is strategic ground for Sunni militants, who blend in easily among its large Sunni population, said battalion commander Lt. Col. Barry Huggins. Major roads link the district to Shiite areas to the north and east, Sunni-dominated ones to the west, and the airport highway, where a stream of U.S. traffic provides tempting targets.
U.S. commanders believe Sunni fighters based south of Baghdad collect weapons from huge caches buried in the furrows of plowed farmland on the city’s fringes and move into hide-outs in Dora.
The area has been among Baghdad’s worst killing grounds since early 2006, as Iraq’s civil war began to escalate. Shiite militiamen loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, some of them operating under the cover of the Shiite-dominated Iraqi police and commando units, attacked Sunni men. Sunni gunmen responded by forcing uncounted numbers of Shiites from their homes. Christian families were ordered to convert, pay a tax or leave.
Among Sunnis, fear of encroaching Shiite militias, poor services and widespread unemployment fuel disillusionment with the Shiite-led government and make Dora a ripe recruiting ground for Al Qaeda in Iraq and other insurgent groups, Huggins said.
Pressure is now building on the Sunni militants. Sadr’s militiamen are pushing into the neighborhoods west of Dora, and U.S. forces are closing off their supply line from the south, said Maj. Scott Green, the battalion’s executive officer.
“They are encircled with nowhere to go, and they have decided that this is the Alamo,” he said.
Caught in the middle are Dora’s frightened residents.
“We are surrounded here by terrorists and militias,” said one elderly Sunni man, standing in a driveway smeared with the blood of a recently slaughtered sheep. He invited journalists into his bullet-pocked home on condition that his name not be published.
Gunmen in the uniform of the Shiite-dominated national police turned up at his son-in-law’s barbershop six months ago and took him away under the pretext that their commander needed a haircut, he said. The family later found the young man, a father of three, in the morgue with holes from a power drill carved into his flesh. The elderly man’s son disappeared weeks ago on the road to Ramadi, an apparent victim of Sunni militants.
“The Americans are trying, but sometimes they are not here,” he said. “It is hopeless.”
If the national police returned, he said, he would shoot them with his AK-47.
The Sunni militants don’t treat residents any better, said another man, who was handing out water from his private well to neighbors while workmen tried to fix a burst water main that had flooded 12 city blocks and left some homes knee-deep in murky brown water.
“All they do is attack and fire at us,” he said. The words were no sooner out of his mouth than a bullet snapped by, sending him ducking for cover in a neighbor’s yard.
U.S. forces now have the neighborhood locked down 24 hours a day, commanders said. They declined to discuss specific numbers but said they had at least doubled their presence across Dora and tripled it in the neighborhood’s three worst areas.
The Iraqi army has also set up bases establishing a permanent presence in Dora for the first time. The national police run checkpoints along Dora’s outskirts, but U.S. forces won’t allow any unaccompanied police units inside the neighborhood and have banished them from the three focus areas.
Massive concrete walls encircle the main market and will eventually separate and enclose the three areas as authorities seek to control access and prevent movement among them. Residents grumble about the inconvenience, but they also say the barriers keep Shiite militiamen out, though the two sides still occasionally shell each other.
On a patrol through some of Dora’s quieter northern sections, U.S. soldiers stopped to chat with a group of men on a potholed street.
“The only reason we like Americans now is because, if they don’t see a man with a gun, they don’t shoot him,” said Mohammed Salim Hassan, who has been unemployed since he gave up ferrying passengers in his car along the treacherous roads to Jordan and Syria. “But the Iraqi army and police, they shoot everyone.”
An Iraqi army unit sent down from the northern city of Mosul has had success at winning residents’ trust. But the unit is scheduled to go home soon, and it is unclear who will replace it. U.S. commanders have warned that their own troop buildup cannot be maintained at current levels beyond the spring.
Lt. Col. Stephen Michael, commander of the Army’s 2nd Brigade, 12th Infantry Regiment, said, “If that force is equipped, armed and can patrol, but the people view them as the enemy, there is no way that they can be successful.”
Times staff writer Zeena Kareem contributed to this report.