CALM BEFORE THE... It was a good day for the 57th Military Police Company. The call came as the company commander, Captain Rob McNellis, was leaving a routine check of an Iraqi Police station off of Haifa Street in western Baghdad: residents in this run-down and heavily Shiite area had spotted a car they hadn't noticed parked here anytime recently. As they perhaps wouldn't have done in the past, they called the local cops, who in turn contacted a unit of the 1st Cavalry Division, which is the "landowner" division here. The 1st Cav unit contacted "EOD" -- Explosive Ordnance DIvision -- and within an hour, it was clear: the car was rigged to detonate. U.S. and Iraqi troops cleared civilians out of the area and blew the car up themselves. McNellis and his company can be forgiven a certain pride: as they're mentoring, training, and equipping the police, they basically got two benefits in one: First, they got to a Vehicle-Born Improvised Explosive Device before it detonated in a congested civilian area; and second, the cops did the right thing. If you want to tack on a third, McNellis says, the fact that the community trusted the police enough to call the threat in shows that the police are increasingly gaining the trust of the community.
There is, however, another way of looking at it, and another word to use in describing the community's residents: desperation. This week is the Shiite holiday of Ashura, and as long as the war has ground on, Ashura has been a bloodbath, as suicide bombers find the most densely packed areas to spread sectarian destruction. Throughout the 15 square kilometer area in western Baghdad patrolled by the 57th, the streets were nearly desolate owing to Friday prayers -- except for Haifa, where vendors sold produce, sheep munched on trash in the gutters to the apathy of their shepherds, and the occasional soccer game broke out. (I saw a number of children, by the way, waving and smiling at our convoy.) The Shiites of Haifa know they're a target, and they'll take protection wherever they can find it: portraits of Moqtada al-Sadr and, to a lesser extent, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim are visible along the avenue. But the Shiite militias have laid low throughout the surge over the last several weeks, while the Iraqi cops, National Police, and Army are out in force. The Iraqi security forces have put up dense checkpoints along Route Irish, which leads from Baghdad International AIrport to the Green Zone, in advance of the upcoming diplomatic parley between the U.S., Iran, Iraq and Syria. Civilian vehicles generally steered clear and kept out of the way.
Tomorrow I'll accompany a platoon of the 57th to Kadhimiya, the heavily Shiite neighborhood surrounding one of the holiest Shiite shrines in the country. Especially after today's close call with the VBIED, the 57th is calm but alert. There hasn't been an Ashura for four years that's gone free of attacks. And everyone -- Iraqi and American -- is bracing themselves to see if this year the pattern will be broken.