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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Forces Change Tack in Battle for Baghdad

BAGHDAD -- "Tell Lieutenant Jacobson to meet us there with a bag of money," Lieutenant Colonel Joe Gandara shouted into his headset as his Humvee rumbled down the highway into Dora, a Baghdad district synonymous with violence.

Gandara, a stocky 42-year-old, was heading there to pay a group of children who had volunteered to pick up some of the rubbish that blights Dora, where constant fighting has kept away the garbage trucks.

The predominantly Sunni district south of the Tigris River has been ravaged by the sectarian bloodshed that pits Sunnis against Shiites, killing scores in Baghdad every week.

Until last week, that is, when thousands of U.S. and Iraqi troops sealed off parts of the district and began searching every house and business, street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood, in a hunt for weapons and militants.

The action is part of a major, months-long push by U.S. and Iraqi forces to help Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's fledgling government regain control of a capital torn apart by communal bloodshed and an unrelenting insurgency.

After Operation Together Forward, an initial crackdown kick-started by Maliki several months ago, failed to stem the violence, the Americans and Iraqis are changing tack.

Rather than focusing only on attacking the militias blamed for much of the sectarian violence, U.S. and Iraqi forces have adopted the classic "inkspot" counter-insurgency strategy of securing an area, offering economic opportunities to residents and then expanding their efforts to other districts.

Since U.S. troops and Iraqi policemen secured Dora, the murder rate has dropped from 20 per day to zero, the military said. But the trick now is how to keep it that way, and that's where Gandara, a 20-year-old army veteran, said he comes in.

"I am the guy who is working on essential services," said the commander of the 4th Brigade's Special Troops Battalion, who is responsible for almost all of Baghdad west of the Tigris.

"The bottom line is that if we cannot provide Joe Mohammad with an improved situation, then he knows that nothing has changed. That fuels support for the insurgency."

While U.S. soldiers patrol jointly with Iraqi police to try to build the trust of Sunni residents, who see the police as an extension of Shiite militias, Gandara is working on cleaning up the trash, fixing water lines and rebuilding the market, one of Dora's main areas of commerce. Gandara insisted his aim was simply to "improve people's lives."

Fixing the sewer is one of his projects and he has hired a contractor who was due to begin work in the morning. Now in the sweltering heat of the afternoon, he is nowhere to be seen.

"I'm going to chase this up," he said, after residents tell him about the no-show. "I'm very frustrated, but the contractor did say yesterday when he came here that he was concerned about his safety. How do you convince someone they are safe?"

When he tried to hire contractors to pick up the tons of garbage that litters Dora's streets, they also told him they were too afraid to go into the district.

So on Sunday, he personally escorted in four trucks to show the drivers it was no longer dangerous and then hired 35 mostly young boys to pick up the rubbish for $5 per day.

As he went to pay them, the streets were largely empty, shops shuttered, many vacant, some burnt out. Most of the vehicles using the roads were either U.S. military or police.

"This morning there were a lot more people out here, some shops were open, but now everyone is indoors because of the afternoon heat," Gandara said.

Sunnis have formed the backbone of the insurgency, but several residents of the Sunni neighborhood interviewed in the presence of U.S. soldiers said they welcomed their return, mainly because they had restored security.

"The militias and the terrorists are gone. Before, there was shooting 24 hours a day," said Abu Ahmed, 36.

 Residents dug through the rubble of pulverized buildings Monday in a predominantly Shiite neighborhood devastated by a series of explosions that killed at least 47 people and injured 100, The Associated Press reported.

The United States said the destruction Sunday night was due to a gas line explosion, but the Iraqi government and residents insisted it was caused by car bombs and a rocket barrage from a neighborhood where U.S. forces operate.

U.S. experts who went to the Zafraniyah neighborhood found no evidence of anything other than a "significant gas explosion," U.S. spokesman Major General William Caldwell said.

Iraqi officials, however, said it was an attack launched from Dora, the mostly Sunni district where the United States has increased the number of its troops to control extremist activities.