BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Nearly two years after American troops captured Baghdad, Haifa Street is like an arrow at the city's heart. A little more than two miles long, it runs south through a canyon of mostly abandoned high-rises and majestic date palms almost to the Assassin's Gate, the imperial-style arch that is the main portal to the Green Zone compound, the principal seat of American power.
When most roads in central Baghdad are choked with traffic, there is rarely more than a trickle of vehicles on Haifa Street. At the day's height, a handful of pedestrians scurry down empty sidewalks, ducking into covered walkways that serve as sanctuaries from gunfire - and as blinds for insurgent attacks in one of Iraq's most bitterly contested battle zones.
American soldiers call the street Purple Heart Boulevard: the First Battalion of the Ninth Cavalry, patrolling here for the past year before its recent rotation back to base at Fort Hood, Tex., received more than 160 Purple Hearts. Many patrols were on foot, to gather intelligence on neighborhoods that American officers say have been the base for brutal car bombings, kidnappings and assassinations across Baghdad.
In the first 18 months of the fighting, the insurgents mostly outmaneuvered the Americans along Haifa Street, showing they could carry the war to the capital's core with something approaching impunity.
But American officers say there have been signs that the tide may be shifting. On Haifa Street, at least, insurgents are attacking in smaller numbers, and with less intensity; mortar attacks into the Green Zone have diminished sharply; major raids have uncovered large weapons caches; and some rebel leaders have been arrested or killed.
American military engineers, frustrated elsewhere by insurgent attacks, are moving ahead along Haifa Street with a $20 million program to improve electricity, sewer and other utilities. So far, none of the work sites have been attacked, although a local Shiite leader who vocally supported the American projects was assassinated on his doorstep in January.
But the change American commanders see as more promising than any other here is the deployment of large numbers of Iraqi troops. American commanders are eager to shift the fighting in Iraq to the country's own troops, allowing American units to pull back from the cities and, eventually, to begin drawing down their 150,000 troops. Haifa Street has become an early test of that strategy.
Last month, an Iraqi brigade with two battalions garrisoned along Haifa Street became the first homegrown unit to take operational responsibility for any combat zone in Iraq. The two battalions can muster more than 2,000 soldiers, twice the size of the American cavalry battalion that has led most fighting along the street. So far, American officers say, the Iraqis have done well, withstanding insurgent attacks and conducting aggressive patrols and raids, without deserting in large numbers or hunkering down in their garrisons.
If Haifa Street is brought under control, it will be a major step toward restoring order in this city of five million, and will send a wider message: that the insurgents can be matched, and beaten back.
Still, American commanders are wary, saying the changes are a long way from a victory. They note that the insurgents match each tactical change by the Americans and Iraqi government forces with their own.
"We know that we face a learning enemy, just as we learn from him," said Maj. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, who left Baghdad recently after a year commanding the First Cavalry Division, responsible for overall security in Baghdad and for the 800-member task force dedicated to Haifa Street. "But I believe we are gaining the upper hand," he said.
A Downturn in Rebel Fire
For now, the days when rebels could gather in groups as large as 150, pinning down American troops for as long as six hours at a time, have tapered off. American officers say only three Haifa Street mortars have hit the Green Zone in the past six months; in the last two weeks of September alone, 11 Haifa Street mortars hit the sprawling zone.
In recent weeks, with the new Iraqi units on hand, the Americans have sent up to 1,500 men at a time on sweeps, uncovering insurgent weapons caches and arresting insurgent leaders like Ali Mama, the name taken by a gangster who was once a favored hit man for Saddam Hussein.
He is now in Abu Ghraib; others who have become local legends with attacks on the Americans have been killed, including one who used the nom-de-guerre Ra'id the Hunter, American intelligence officers say.
The two Iraqi battalions, backed by a new battalion from the Third Infantry Division, will now bear the main burden of establishing order in the sprawling district around Haifa Street - three miles deep and about half as wide, encompassing about 170,000 people, the city's main railway yards, current and former government buildings, and the Mansour Melia Hotel, favored by many Westerners based in Baghdad.
By any measure, it is a tough patch. When Mr. Hussein ordered Baghdad's old walled city bulldozed in the 1980's, he gave the street at its heart a new name, Haifa, to honor the Israeli port city that many Arabs hope will become part of a Palestinian state. In the forest of new high-rises, Mr. Hussein housed thousands of loyalists: Baath Party stalwarts, middle-class professionals from his favored Sunni minority, migrants from his hometown, Tikrit, and fugitives from other Arab countries, including Egypt, Syria and Sudan.
After Baghdad fell on April 9, 2003, the area was primed to become an insurgent redoubt. Mr. Hussein established his first hide-out somewhere along the alleyways of Sheik Marouf, a neighborhood that is still a rebel stronghold.
In some ways, Haifa Street is a microcosm of Iraq. Behind the apartment blocks lie a patchwork of Shiite communities where residents, repressed like other Shiites under Mr. Hussein, are mostly friendly to the Americans.
Interlaced with these are predominantly Sunni neighborhoods that have been insurgent bases, like Al Sadr; Fahama; Sheik Ali, a district of Sheik Marouf; and the area along the Tigris that Mr. Hussein named for himself, Saddamiya, where he attended school in the 1950's.
The Sunni neighborhoods, along with the area's Arab migrants, proved a bountiful recruiting pool for the two principal groups that form the resistance - pro-Hussein loyalists who believe they can somehow restore Baath Party rule; and militants loyal to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born militant who has spawned a web of terrorist groups and attracted a $25 million bounty as America's most-wanted man in Iraq.
From their Haifa Street hide-outs, the rebels have been remorseless. American units report having found headless bodies in garbage dumps and floating in the river. Twelve-year-old boys have thrown grenades. Six-year-olds have approached American patrols with whispers of insurgent hideouts, then lured them into ambushes. A missing Iraqi soldier's bloodied uniform turned up hanging from a wire near the river, with a sign in Arabic pinned to it saying, "Let this be a warning for spies."
A year ago, the American cavalry division took a major risk in shifting to foot patrols from drive-throughs in Bradley armored troop carriers. The change took its toll: the division's Haifa Street force lost five soldiers, and 25 were seriously wounded, the core of a wider group of injured men who received those Purple Hearts. But the unit estimates that it killed 100 to 200 enemy fighters, and the yield in intelligence was rich.
With the foot patrols, the Americans made friends in the Shiite communities, particularly in Showaka, a poor area where back streets are dotted with carved, Ottoman-era balconies. Ties improved with a special $2 million reconstruction program - part of the wider reconstruction in the district - that has brought 12,500 Showaka families their first indoor toilets, buried sewage pipes and modernized the electricity grid. Gone, for these people, are the centuries when sewage ran down open channels in the alleys into the Tigris.
American morale, for the moment, is high. Lt. Col. Thomas D. Macdonald, the cavalry division officer who commanded the Haifa Street task force, believes that the Iraqis, with an affinity for their own people, can push the rebels farther back.
"I've got the enemy to the point where he can't do large-scale operations anymore, only the small-scale stuff," he said recently, during one of his last patrols, at the head of a company of 120 soldiers. "If we put in more Iraqi garrisons like this, that will be the final nail in the coffin."
Iraqi Units With 'Heart'
When Iraqi units began to serve in combat zones, desertion rates were high. During the first offensive in Falluja, last April, some soldiers refused to fight. But over the past nine months, a $5 billion American-financed effort has bought Iraqi units more than 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles, 100,000 flak jackets, 110,000 pistols, 6,000 cars and pickup trucks, and 230 million rounds of ammunition. In place of the single Iraqi battalion trained last June, there are more than 90 battalions now, totaling about 60,000 army and special police troops. No one is certain how many insurgents they face; the number, including foot soldiers, safe-house operators, organizers and financiers, is estimated to be 12,000 to 20,000.
Iraqi units still complain about unequal equipment, particularly the lack of the heavy armor the Americans use, like Bradley fighting vehicles and Abrams tanks. But the complaints among American officers about "tiny heart syndrome" - a caustic reference to some Iraqi units' unwillingness to expose themselves to combat - have diminished.
"Now, they're ready to fight," said Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the American officer overseeing the retraining effort, in a recent interview at his Green Zone headquarters.
Lethal intimidation of recruits - the suicide bombing of army barracks, police stations and recruiting lines, with scores of volunteers killed - remains the single biggest problem in building the Iraqi forces, the general acknowledged. But an overwhelming majority of new recruits have refused to buckle, he said, and they understand that they are fighting, not for the Americans, but for their own country. "Guys who get blown up in the morning get themselves bandaged up, and they're back in the afternoon," he said.
The uncompromising image is one that Gen. Muhammad al-Samraa, 39, the commander of the Iraqi 303rd Battalion, based on Haifa Street, is eager to push. "My aim is 100 percent clear: all the terrorists living here, they go now," he said, in halting English. He was a major in Mr. Hussein's air defense force, and spent a year as a bodyguard and driver for a Shiite tribal leader in Baghdad before signing up for the new army.
A Shiite himself, commanding a unit composed mostly of Shiites, General Samraa has made his headquarters in the old Sajida Palace, on the riverbank at Haifa Street's northern end, a sad, looted, sandbagged relic of the pleasure dome it was for Mr. Hussein's first wife, Sajida. But the general insisted the new Iraqi forces had history on their side. "Saddam, we've seen the movie, and it's finished," he said. "He's broken. Now is the new Iraq."
Among Shiites, Good Will
In the Shiite neighborhoods of Haifa Street, the good will for Americans is pervasive. A fruit seller, Majid Hussein Hassan, 40, rose from his stall to ask Colonel Macdonald for help getting hospital treatment for an infant nephew with a heart deformity. From a balcony, an old woman appealed for better garbage removal. "We're counting on you Americans," she said. "Iraqi officials do nothing!"
In Showaka and other Shiite neighborhoods, residents clustered around the Americans, offering slivers of information about insurgents. A man in the black cloak of a Shiite religious student gave the names of a brother and sister from a Sunni street who had left in haste after a bombing on the eve of the Jan. 30 elections that killed 17 people, including 6 children, in a Shiite district of Sheik Marouf.
The Sunni neighborhoods are another matter. There, American and Iraqi troops face continuing attacks from a mix of insurgents: the Hussein loyalists, Baath Party irreconcilables dreaming of restoring Sunni rule, Islamic militants under Mr. Zarqawi, and criminal gangs that thrived under Mr. Hussein.
For an overview of the area, Colonel Macdonald led a platoon to the roof of an apartment block roof overlooking Tala'i Square, notorious for a Dec. 19 attack when masked insurgents ambushed Iraqi election officials, hauling them from their car and shooting them in the head.
With helicopters armed with missiles circling overhead, the colonel offered what sounded like a valedictory for the Haifa Street insurgents. "We've gotten to the point where the bad guys really aren't fighting us here anymore," he said. "The battle is all in the back alleys now."
Still, on the streets of Sheik Ali, the insurgents leave plenty of traces. When an American patrol of 120 men passed through the nearly deserted streets at noon, the few residents who glanced through half-opened doors and curtains offered furtive smiles and waves.
But on the walls, the message was one of defiance. "Death to the Americans!" the slogans said, freshly painted after older ones were spray painted over by Iraqi troops. "Victory to the mujahedeen!"
By John F. Burns
New York Times