Yes, we’re open -- may I take your gun?
Faruq Tamimi looked with satisfaction at the crowd of customers filling his restaurant. They were all there, the ones suspected of ties to Shiite militias and the ones suspected of links to Al Qaeda in Iraq. They dug into burgers dripping mayo. All of them knew people who had been involved in the killings that had destroyed his west Baghdad neighborhood in the last two years.
It didn’t bother Tamimi. For a moment, he could dream big: He wanted to add an ice cream parlor and cappuccino bar to Sun City Foods, with its jaunty postmodern-Flintstones exterior, its fish tank, shiny red chairs and tangerine-and-lime-striped walls. His waiters wore matching orange shirts and zigzagged through the maze of tables, balancing trays of Pepsi.
But Tamimi grew nervous when pondering a future without the U.S. soldiers who have enforced the tentative peace in the neighborhood, one of the last two Sunni-majority districts on the highway to the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.
“Only God knows what will happen if the Americans leave,” Tamimi said.
The death and rebirth of Sun City Foods is very much a story of Baghdad’s civil war. The restaurant opened in January 2006, a month before militants blew up the venerated Shiite mosque in Samarra, an attack that set off a torrent of sectarian violence. A year later, the restaurant closed because of the Sunni-Shiite conflict.
With the Saidiya neighborhood one of the beneficiaries of last year’s U.S. troop buildup, the restaurant recently unbolted its curvaceous swinging doors for a reopening that had the pomp of a state ceremony.
Tamimi wants to believe in the newfound calm, but he knows his fate is tied to whether powerful Sunni and Shiite parties decide to pick up guns once more.
It is a key question and one with no easy answer: In testimony before Congress last week, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker called for a pause in American troop withdrawals this summer to determine if the reduction in Baghdad’s violence can indeed be lasting.
Tamimi, who dresses in dark gray suits, white shirts and loafers, remembers the early days of Sun City Foods two years ago as a golden time. The restaurant’s name just came to him. Sun City Foods. He liked the ring of it.
He bought a fryer to cook “Kentucky,” the term Iraqis use for fried chicken. His menu offered burgers, steaks, chicken steaks, French fries, shawarma, juices and 15 types of salads. He plastered ads in newspapers, handed out fliers and offered free food at his opening. His kitchen had the finest beef and two of the best chefs in Baghdad. He bragged about his variety of dishes, asking what other restaurant offered up a breaded steak. “Thank God, it was a hit,” he remembers.
But Saidiya, like the rest of Baghdad, was overrun by violence after the bombing in Samarra. Tamimi dug in and bet the fighting would subside. Besides, everyone loved good food.
Instead, his block on a once-thriving commercial street was targeted by car bombers and gunmen. The national police, a force heavily infiltrated by Shiite militia members, set up a checkpoint right outside the restaurant.
Gunmen often fired on the police. Stray bullets whizzed through the restaurant. Car bombs shattered windows and the police started bursting inside. They broke furniture, smashed dishes and fired warning shots. They cursed in front of his customers, searched his waiters and demanded their IDs to check religious affiliations.
Once they detained a waiter who had the Sunni-sounding name Omar. They dragged him out the door as customers watched. Tamimi sought out a friend who had good contacts with the Americans. He guessed they had 10 days to save Omar or his body would show up on a street somewhere. Through the military, they tracked him down and he was released, but he refused to come back to work.
By January 2007, daily sandwich sales at the restaurant had dropped from 200 to 100, and Tamimi decided to close. Even then, he hoped the situation would turn around, and he kept his top two chefs on his payroll.
By last April, the Wolf Brigade, a notorious national police unit, had entered Saidiya. They set up checkpoints by Sunni mosques. Residents accused them of blocking off streets for Mahdi Army militia operations and providing the fighters with police uniforms. In response to the Shiite militia infiltration, support grew for the Sunni insurgent group Al Qaeda in Iraq.
The neighborhood was caught up in a turf war: The Mahdi Army took over a warehouse and apartments in the center of Saidiya. Al Qaeda in Iraq overran blocks of mansions that today, months later, are virtually deserted, with giant pools of sewage in the road and graffiti cursing the Shiite militia loyal to cleric Muqtada Sadr.
Slowly, however, the situation improved. The U.S. military reached out to key Sunni and Shiites from Saidiya and began holding meetings with them about ending the violence. By late December, the Americans had sent a company to live in central Saidiya and proceeded to seal the district off with concrete blast walls. The troops searched every block for fighters.
By late January, word spread that Saidiya was settling down.
Tamimi, who had fled to Syria, debated whether to return. His brother headed back first and assured him it was safe. Tamimi visited and saw dozens of villas charred by car bombings, bullet-pocked storefronts and a Shiite mosque with a partially blown-off minaret.
His restaurant had been gutted. Cooking equipment had been stolen, the furniture looted, but he decided to gamble on the drop in violence. He invested nearly $50,000 in renovations. He worked up a new menu, this time with additions such as pizza. He called back his chefs and applied for a $2,500 loan from the Americans, as a cushion against hard times. Tamimi was convinced he could persuade old friends to come back if he reopened.
“When I tell them it’s nice here, they don’t believe it. When they hear the restaurant is back, then they will feel safe,” he said. “They will see this is real and not just talk.”
Sun City Foods’ reopening March 20 was a festive affair attended by U.S. and Iraqi military commanders, local Sunni and Shiite leaders. Two young girls, their faces heavily powdered, carried roses beneath the restaurant’s shiny yellow sign. An Iraqi army commander cut the violet ribbon and the crowd filed in.
Upstairs in the dining room, Sheik Ilaiwi Issa Obeidi, one of 13 Sunnis on the new Saidiya district council, balanced his small son on his lap and forked bits of salad into his mouth. He and some of his council members didn’t mind admitting they had either fought or supported gunmen in the recent wars with the Wolf Brigade. Obeidi’s Shiite colleague Ali Amery, who leads the 26-member council, sat at a neighboring table. They smiled at each other.
There was an unspoken history between the council’s Sunnis and Shiites. The sides had pledged to work together in November to rebuild the neighborhood, but the Sunnis were convinced the national government wanted the Shiites to run things. As if to confirm their suspicions, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, a Shiite, sent representatives to observe the meeting when the council chose Amery, who was considered close to members of the Badr Organization, a partner in the national government.
Despite the tensions, the Sunni council members made it clear they considered Amery a decent man. They know Al Qaeda in Iraq killed two of his brothers. One of them disappeared outside his home last summer.
“I’m taking my revenge through peace and politics,” Amery said.
A slight man with gray hair, he said he just wanted to keep the proper religious balance in the neighborhood.
“We need sectarian equilibrium,” Amery said. “This is Saidiya.”
On a recent weekday, one customer sat at a table with friends downing beef shawarma and crispy fries. He remembered eating here nervously in 2006 and said he expected a quick deterioration if the Americans pulled out of the neighborhood.
“If they leave, in the morning some group will bomb the restaurant,” he said, alluding to the various Shiite and Sunni parties and government security forces.
The district, thanks to its concrete walls, escaped the recent fighting involving the Mahdi Army in Baghdad.
Still, the violence has hurt Tamimi’s business and proved a disturbing reminder of reality. His sales took a dive during a government-imposed curfew, but he doesn’t want to think about it. He is too busy testing his first batch of fried chicken. Families have started coming out again.
“I must keep going,” he said on a recent weeknight. He planned on staying open late.