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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 March 2007, 03:58 GMT
Baghdad diary: Relative lull
Andrew North
By Andrew North
BBC News, Baghdad

CALM BUT STRANGE

It was an incongruous sight - out of kilter with any of the usual images of this place.

An American soldier on his own contentedly munching an ice-cream on a Baghdad street.

US soldier with ice-cream
Some small semblance of normality has returned to Baghdad
He was sitting back in a plastic chair outside the shop where he had just bought his mint chocolate chip cone, looking as relaxed as if he was back home.

We were spending a few days with his unit, one of the "surge" units sent in by US President George W Bush for the new security plan.

But it is one illustration of the strange atmosphere here right now, a month after the security got going.

Much of Baghdad is noticeably calmer, but this is strange, because no-one is quite sure yet what it means and whether they can believe it.

A month ago, we were being woken every morning in the part of the city where we live by mortar and gunfire, which then carried on through the day.

Now I hear those sounds only every few days.

The number of attacks in the city itself is down.

The daily count of corpses retrieved from rubbish tips, roadsides and the river Tigris - most of them victims of sectarian death squads - has more than halved.

"More people are going out," said Jassem, the owner of the shop where the American bought his ice-cream.

"They're still scared, but they feel safer than they did a few weeks ago. We just hope it will last."

That, of course, is the question.

Even though some pro-war commentators in the US are already jumping on these positive signs to attack the anti-war lobby, the reality is that it is far too early to say.

There are plenty of reasons for caution. Many of the insurgents and militia fighters are simply lying low.

While the violence may have dropped off in the city, it has risen in the volatile mixed areas bordering Baghdad.

And as the rash of dreadful bombings aimed at Shia pilgrims last week showed, some groups are as determined as ever to commit mass casualty attacks.

They still see sparking a civil war as one of their best hopes of bringing down the government.

Over the past four years, it is the pessimists who have usually been right here, not the optimists. So Iraqis are hoping for the best, but still in their minds ready for the worst.

'HEARTS AND MINDS' SOLDIERING

The security plan has meant a change of tactics by the Americans.

They are doing more foot patrols and setting up more and smaller bases around Baghdad.

To some extent, they are copying the so-called "ink spot" strategy British forces have tried against the Taleban in southern Afghanistan, although with at times controversial results.

Kneeling US soldier in Baghdad
Patrolling on foot is risky

The idea is that from these bases, security will gradually spread outwards - like an ink spot - and join up other improving areas.

In the British model, the remote bases are known as platoon houses.

The equivalent in Baghdad are "combat outposts" in local neighbourhoods. Iraqi police and army troops are also being deployed there.

But as the British have found, these smaller bases are more vulnerable to attack.

And if in defending them, civilians in the vicinity are killed and injured, any benefits of having the local presence are likely to be cancelled out.

In one sensitive town, where the British base came under constant fire, commanders eventually negotiated a pullout.

One reason for the relative quiet in parts of Baghdad right now may well be because insurgents are simply watching these newly emerging bases and US tactics, working out how to respond.

Patrolling on foot, or dismounted, as the Americans call it, is similarly risky.

But in some parts of Baghdad, US troops are now doing this every day.

We joined a unit from the 82nd Airborne Division as they patrolled through Kadhimiyah, one of the few Shia areas of north-west Baghdad - an area that has often been hit by attacks from Sunni insurgents in the past.

"The best way to establish a rapport with the locals in this area is to walk around and talk to them," said their commander, Capt David Bruais.

"Just driving around, staying in vehicles all the time, really doesn't cut it."

That is what most Iraqis here are used to seeing - Americans peering out at them in dark shades from heavily armoured vehicles, sirens blaring, gunners shouting at traffic to get out of the way - because of fears passing cars may be suicide bombers.

People in Kadhimiyah were still getting used to seeing his men on the streets, he admitted. "The dismounted really is something new for this area."

While there were suspicious and sullen faces, the soldiers also received a welcome from many people as they picked their way through the narrow lanes around the golden-domed mosque complex at the heart of Kadhimiyah, Baghdad's most important Shia shrine.

"It is good to see the Americans," a man selling shoes told me. "We don't want them to stay forever, but if they can bring back security that is good."

US soldier tends to an Iraqi boy's wound
US soldiers are welcome when they go out of their way to help Baghdadis
It went down well when the unit's medic stopped to treat a little boy who had cut his head - with smiles and thank yous from his mother and the crowd that gathered around.

But this kind of "hearts and minds" soldiering does not come naturally to some of the troops.

It was rare to hear them offering simple and easily-learned Arabic greetings such as "asalaam aleikum".

Literally it means "peace be upon you" and it is a commonplace way of addressing someone. Those that did got an immediate response.

The soldier working with the unit's interpreter was engaging people in conversation. But many of his comrades walked on with little acknowledgement of those around them.

TOUR FATIGUE

Something else that has become clear from the time we spent with US troops in recent months is how exhausted many are.

Meeting soldiers or marines on their fourth tour is no longer unusual.

"We've had enough of this place," one soldier said to me wearily. That is something you hear all the time.

But in his case, it was hardly surprising. His unit is one of those that had been "turned round".

Just two weeks after getting home to the US after an eight-month tour, they had been sent back again, as part of Mr Bush's "surge" plan. Now they have no idea when they will be going home.

They will follow their orders. As another soldier said: "We can't complain too much, we signed up for this."

But this is an army that is tired.

'EVERYONE HATES US'

"I was leaving the base to visit my family," the translator said.

"There were men at the gate in a car. They opened fire. I was on a motorbike, so I managed to get away. But I was hit in the leg."

He pulled up a trouser leg to show me the scar as we sat talking with some of his colleagues at an American base.

I don't know where the happy door is
'Ali'
Translator

It is an all too common story. Few people are more at risk here than Iraqis who choose to work with American troops.

Translators are top of the hit list for insurgents and militias alike.

They are seen as collaborators, the communications link between Iraqis and the occupiers.

But they are essential to US operations here - with few soldiers having much Arabic or knowledge of local customs, translators are the ears and even eyes for many units, particularly in urban areas.

The US military employs thousands across the country.

The rewards are salaries far above the Iraqi average - although still well below Western levels - but set against a very high chance of being killed.

Many have been killed by snipers, who pick them out from the American soldiers.

Even though they mostly wear the same uniforms, the masks they wear to cover their faces still give them away.

In the most dangerous parts of Baghdad, they often stay inside vehicles such is the risk.

Many translators now feel trapped in jobs they took on two or three years ago, never expecting the situation to get so bad.

"We can't do anything else now," said Ali, the man who had escaped on his motorbike. "Everybody hates us, the insurgents, the militia, other Iraqis.

"I'm like a thief when I visit my family," said his friend Nuri. "I can only go out at night. No-one knows when I am coming."

He was moved to Baghdad from another base by the Americans, after his face was shown on a local television news report. "The next day I received a death threat. We left the same day."

Some no longer see their families at all, terrified that they will be targeted too.

"We lie to our friends about what we do," Ali continued. "We tell them we are working in the north or south with contractors. But here we are, just a few miles away from our families."

After criticism it was being hard-hearted in restricting the number of visas it was granting to Iraqis, the US government recently announced an increase in the quota to 7,000 per year.

Priority is reportedly being given to people who have worked with the US government.

But they still have to apply. And that is not easy from inside a big, isolated American base, when travelling outside may get them killed.

"I don't know where the happy door is," said a grim-faced Ali.

(NB: Names in this last piece have been changed.)


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Andrew North on night patrol in Baghdad



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