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Between war and peace, an uneasy calm

Times Staff Writer

The departure this month of the last of the 28,500 extra troops sent in a U.S. military buildup leaves Iraq in a rickety calm, an in-between space that is not quite war and not quite peace where ethnic and sectarian tensions bubble beneath the surface.

Politicians and U.S. officials hail the remarkable turnaround from open civil war that left 3,700 Iraqis dead during the worst month in the fall of 2006, compared with June’s toll of 490, according to Pentagon estimates.

Signs abound that normal life is starting to return. Revelers can idle away the hours at several neighborhood joints in Baghdad where the tables are buried in beers and a man can bring a girlfriend dolled up in a nice dress.

Despite the gains, the political horizon is clouded: Shiite Muslim parties are locked in dangerous rivalries across central and southern Iraq. Kurds and Arabs in the north compete for land with no resolution in sight. U.S.-backed Sunni Arab fighters who turned on the group Al Qaeda in Iraq could return to the insurgency if the government does not deliver jobs and a chance to join the political process.

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Bombings, assassinations and kidnappings still occur almost daily. And those out enjoying Baghdad’s night life feel safe only because they are staying inside their own districts in a city transformed into a patchwork of enclaves after years of sectarian violence.

Whether the quiet endures hinges on many factors, including the results of yet-unscheduled provincial and national elections and whether Iraq’s religious and ethnic factions can find a fair power-sharing formula.

The country is bedeviled by the question: What happens as the U.S. military vacates outposts in Baghdad neighborhoods, where it has stood as a buffer and occasional arbiter between Sunnis and Shiites and even arrested police and army commanders suspected of sectarian agendas?

The same question is being posed in the United States. Barack Obama, the presumed Democratic presidential nominee, acknowledged Sunday that he had failed to anticipate how much violence would decrease this year in Iraq, and stressed the importance of compromise among Iraqi politicians. His likely Republican rival, John McCain, touted his early support for sending extra troops to Iraq.

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Stephen Biddle, a Council on Foreign Relations defense expert who advised Army Gen. David H. Petraeus at the start of the troop buildup early last year, has cautioned that Iraq resembles splintered states such as Bosnia-Herzegovina, where an international force is still in place 13 years after the conflict ended.

In April testimony to the Senate, Biddle warned: “A substantial outside presence will be needed for many years to come to keep such a peace. If U.S. withdrawals leave us unable to provide the needed outside presence, the result would be a rapid return to 2006-scale violence, or worse.”

From Mosul in the north to Basra in the south and Baghdad itself, Iraqis are adjusting to a reality far safer than what came before, but nonetheless a perilous one. People tread carefully. They know no one has been declared victor in the battles that will decide Iraq’s future.

The militias and the cops

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Abdul sits before a checkered red-and-white tablecloth. Even at the height of the civil war, he never shut his Karada restaurant. During religious holidays, he covered wine glasses with napkins, so as not to offend the Shiite militias in the Baghdad neighborhood.

Fighters with the Mahdi Army militia loyal to cleric Muqtada Sadr would come by and threaten Abdul, warning him to close his shop.

Then they offered a second option: Pay us $500 and a case of beer.

But that was nothing compared with the shady policemen who frequented his establishment.

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His troubles started in late August when men dressed in camouflage uniforms drove up in the GMC trucks associated with the Interior Ministry national police, a force seen as a proxy for Shiite militias who ran secret prisons and killed with impunity. They told him he needed to raise $50,000 or deliver them a shipment of handguns.

Abdul was convinced one of his customers, an official at the Interior Ministry, had put them up to it. The officer had always refused to pay for food or drinks.

At first, Abdul -- who, like other Iraqis interviewed for this report, was afraid to give his full name -- went into hiding. By fall, Baghdad was less violent and he thought he could find some elements in the police to support him. He stood up to the men. It worked. Afterward, the Interior Ministry official still came to eat in the restaurant, but he paid his bill.

“He is my enemy, but now he fears me,” Abdul says. The official even tips. Abdul does not dare to throw him out and remains polite. “These men are gangsters. They are dangerous.”

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He has no illusions about the future. “There will be more troubles,” he says and glances at the mirror with its view of the street for unwelcome visitors.

Sadr City

Kadim Mohammed, an employee at the Education Ministry, watches thousands pray on a Friday outside the nondescript stucco offices of Sadr’s movement. He’s living on the front line of the battle among Iraq’s Shiite political factions. The government has erected concrete barriers partitioning Sadr City and sent army officers in to man checkpoints in this Baghdad district of 3 million people.

Mohammed gazes at the Iraqi army trucks just down the road from the prayer gathering. Black flags flutter for the dead. Cars clog up at the checkpoints surrounding the walls. Millions of dollars have been promised to Sadr City, but nothing has materialized since clashes ended in May between the Mahdi Army and the U.S.-backed government forces.

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Mohammed expects the worst with elections to come. He watches the prayer-goers shake their fists and denounce the Americans, and he spots posters of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki in a beret, fashioned after those worn by the late Saddam Hussein.

Sadr has declared a cease-fire for his fighters, but they are volatile.

Death threats have cropped up on walls against those collaborating with the Iraqi government. Some residents have derisively taken to calling the district Rafah -- a city in the Gaza Strip walled off from the world.

Mosul

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In the northern city of Mosul, Khalaf Mahmood doesn’t know who is his enemy and who his friend. He feels trapped between Sunni Arab militants and Kurdish security forces in the contest to shape the boundaries between Iraqi Kurdistan and the rest of the country.

Mahmood, a Sunni Arab professor of fine arts, lost his 14-year-old nephew in June, seven months after his own brother died in a mortar attack. The boy had been playing on the street one night when a group of men grabbed him and shot him 30 times.

“He was just a child. He was even scared of guns,” Mahmood says. Rumors spread that Kurdish fighters were behind the shooting, but Mahmood says he doesn’t know who wanted to kill a teenager obsessed with soccer.

Mahmood says he just wants to paint impressionistic landscapes and portraits of women. But such ambitions seem fanciful in Nineveh province. A ballyhooed campaign launched in May to rout Al Qaeda in Iraq has failed to calm the city, and the province’s population is polarized along ethnic lines.

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“Innocent people are being killed because of false accusations and feuds among young people and some families,” Mahmood says.

The painter defends the Kurds as good people, but then grows angry over the Kurdish-dominated army units and the presence of Kurdish peshmerga fighters throughout Mosul and the surrounding suburbs. “The situation will get better if the Kurds withdraw. Then everything will be settled,” he says.

Sunni paramilitaries

Graffiti in Adhamiya are reminders that the Sunni district of Baghdad was once the lair of Al Qaeda in Iraq. Now, the members of a U.S.-backed Sunni paramilitary group patrol the riverside neighborhood’s winding alleys and 19th century buildings.

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Their leader, Abu Abed, sits in his dark office on a nondescript street. More than a dozen young men, sprawled out in his waiting room, lean Kalashnikovs against the wall. Abu Abed reminds all who listen that he calmed the neighborhood but the government has not rewarded him. He says only 160 of his 800 men have been hired into the national police.

Abu Abed says his group wants to participate in local elections. It has refused to be affiliated with any of the established Sunni political parties in Iraq.

He is honest about his movement’s flaws, that his men are prone to gunfights. U.S. officers have compared them to the Sopranos, and one Iraqi living in Adhamiya has called them “the best of the worst.”

If unemployment continues and his men are not given jobs, he warns, Al Qaeda in Iraq will make a comeback.

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Already, militants are trying to kill his men. Three died in a bombing Thursday. “They are penetrating our base and threatening us. The support from the government is cut, we are weaker,” he says.

“Terrorists and militias depend on poverty,” he says. “If Adhamiya gets no support, they will return.”

Basra

Abu Ali’s barbershop stays open till late in the evening in the southern port of Basra. Four months ago, cutting hair was a treacherous business as the city lived under the rule of armed gangs affiliated with Shiite religious parties. Now, after a spring Iraqi army offensive prompted a return to law and order, Abu Ali cuts hair freely, not worried that fanatics might be on the prowl for barbers with a fondness for Western coiffure.

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“The climate of fear is broken, and people are not afraid of the gunmen any more,” he says.

As Abu Ali labors in his cologne-scented shop, army officers and fighters from the Mahdi Army are not so sure Basra’s worst times are behind it.

They warn that many of the worst militants, from splinter factions of the Mahdi Army, had escaped to Iran and were likely to come back more dangerous.

But Abu Ali is happy. He adorns his shop with pictures of fashionable models. He wants his country to move on. “God,” he says, “has given us the ability to forget.”

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ned.parker@latimes.com

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Times staff writers Saif Hameed, Saif Rasheed, Caesar Ahmed and Said Rifai and a correspondent in Basra contributed to this report.

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