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Baghdad neighborhood tests US, Iraqis

Sunni insurgents in Dora threaten residents, troops

An Army photo showed US soldiers rushing toward the sound of an explosion while patroling the Dora area last month. An Army photo showed US soldiers rushing toward the sound of an explosion while patroling the Dora area last month. (MASTER SEARGEANT JONATHAN DOTI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

BAGHDAD -- 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." US and Iraqi forces black out the words and replace them with such slogans as "Long Live Iraq" and "No to Sectarianism."

The graffiti war, with its echo of US ganglands, is a manifestation of a deadly showdown that has played out for months in the southwestern section of Baghdad known as Dora. Sunni militants have chosen to make a concerted stand in Dora against US 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 US commanders have spent much of the year trying to pry the region from their grip. At least 233 US troops have been injured or killed in Dora's trash-strewn, bullet-scarred streets since January, according to military figures.

When soldiers from the Second Battalion, Third Infantry Regiment out of Fort 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 bombs that tore through their armored Stryker 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-aged 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, according to 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.

But US soldiers say they fear progress could be reversed if they reduce forces. Although residents offer a grudging acceptance of US troops here, the mostly Sunni population remains deeply suspicious of Iraqi government forces, seeing them as allied to Shi'ite 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 remain hidden among them, waiting for US troops to drop their guard.

Even now, the sweltering summer days are punctuated by occasional bursts of gunfire. Three US soldiers were killed and 11 others wounded Aug. 2 when a huge bomb exploded near their patrol.

"This whole area, these mahallas [neighborhoods] here, has been a real stronghold for Al Qaeda," Major General Joseph Fil, who commands US 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 Lieutenant Colonel Barry Huggins. Major roads link the district to Shi'ite areas to the north and east, Sunni-dominated ones to the west and the airport highway, where a stream of US traffic provides tempting targets.

US commanders believe Sunni fighters based south of Baghdad collect weapons from caches buried in the furrows of plowed farmland on the city's fringes and move into safe houses in Dora.

The area has been among Baghdad's worst killing grounds since early last year, as Iraq's civil war began to escalate. Shi'ite militiamen loyal to radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, some of them operating under the cover of the Shi'ite-dominated Iraqi police and commando units, attacked Sunni men. Sunni gunmen responded by forcing uncounted numbers of Shi'ites from their homes. Christian families were ordered to convert, pay a tax, or leave.

Among Sunnis, fear of encroaching Shi'ite militias, poor services, and widespread unemployment fuel disillusionment with the Shi'ite-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 US forces are closing off their supply line from the south, said Major Scott Green, the battalion's executive officer. "They are encircled with nowhere to go," he said.

Caught in the middle are Dora's 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 home on condition that his name not be published.

Gunmen in the uniform of the Shi'ite-dominated National Police turned up at his son-in-law's barber shop 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."

The Sunni militants don't treat residents any better, said another man, who was handing out water from his private well to neighbors, while workers battled to fix a 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.

On a patrol through some of Dora's quieter northern sections, soldiers from 2-12 IN's Delta company stopped to chat with a group of men in 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 roads to Jordan and Syria. "But the Iraqi army and police, they shoot everyone."

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