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Baghdad neighborhood rises up and fights back

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Abu Salah heard the screeching tires and gunfire outside his home in central Baghdad, and cowered. He'd feared this moment. He'd even plotted leaving the city, though he'd never followed through on his plan.

Now invaders had entered his street, and he knew that as the only Sunni on a street filled with Shiites, he was probably their target, whomever the invaders might be—insurgents, kidnappers or sectarian death squads.

"I was shaking; it was the fourth time in three days they'd invaded," he said. "I knew they were coming for me."

Then he heard another sound: the gunfire being returned.

He rushed from his house to see his neighbors—Shiite neighbors—on their roofs, in their windows, in their yards, firing at the attackers. In a trembling voice, he explained that at that moment he felt life change. He realized that his neighbors weren't going to stand by and let the bad guys win.

"I prefer now to die among my friends and neighbors rather than leave my home," he said. "I felt thrilled to see them fighting, all my neighbors standing next to each other guarding the area."

In a country shaken by violence between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, where it's easy to find examples of members of one sect fleeing neighborhoods dominated by the other, Abu Salah's tale is a rare, uplifting respite from stories of sectarian tension. Even so, he, like others quoted in this story, asked that only part of his name be used to ensure his security.

How many similar tales might exist in this city of 6 million is unknown. A Sunni neighborhood across town tried to implement an armed "neighborhood watch" recently but gave up after eight residents were shot to death in the first weekend.

Many Iraqis openly hope that there will be more examples of residents rising up to say they've had enough of sectarian groups trying to split apart Iraqis—Sunni and Shiite—who'd previously lived side by side in peace.

"We have noticed a big difference in violence after people undertook security in their neighborhood," said Lt. Col. Abu Ali, a police officer who patrols the Hai al-Aamel area, where Abu Salah lives.

Officially, the police oppose vigilantes. Ali said his proposals to arm and train civilians had been rejected. But he and others recognize the value of the neighbors' willingness to defend themselves. "Look, we know that almost every house has guns inside, but we overlook this issue because they are actually helping us," he said.

Ansam Yassin knew something had to change. Her children clung tightly to her as she spoke, her eyes red and tired.

"I wish the neighborhood had acted this way before the killers got to my husband; he might have had a chance," she said. Her husband was among nine men who turned up dead after gunmen took them away, before the neighborhood agreed to defend itself.

To the eye, there's nothing unusual about Hai al-Aamel—if you don't dwell on the fact that the main streets into the middle-class neighborhood have been turned into zigzag paths by carefully arranged palm tree trunks and whatever large metal objects that neighbors could drag into the street. Or that at the bakery, a security guard pats down an old man, checking for weapons. Or that every face entering the area is studied. Strangers aren't welcomed.

Sheik Salam, a local tribal leader, said Sunnis and Shiites had agreed to defend the area, night and day, in shifts.

Some residents talked excitedly about the new weapons they'd bought to take part in the defense. Others talked about the military precision of the attackers, and of how difficult it will be to drive them off forever.

But fighting back gives people some sense of being in control, in an out-of-control place.

"They come looking for someone to kill," said Ahmed al-Saedi, 18, who recently helped drive off intruders who were dressed in commando uniforms. "But they want more and more."

Hajj Ali, 70, said he took aim and fired on intruders often.

"They can't shoot at us; we are on the roofs," he said. "But when I got down to the street I was happy to see the whole street carrying weapons."

Neighbor Abu Aadel shared the sentiment.

"We are fed up with the gang attacks coming every day," he said. "It's time to put an end to such attacks, even if it costs our lives."


(Obeid is a Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent.)


(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.