BAGHDAD (Reuters) - At last it is safe enough for Hajj Dawood to sit outside his shop waiting for customers. Unfortunately, there are none.
“People are unemployed so they do not have money to spend on shopping,” the 65-year-old shopkeeper told Reuters, seated among boxes of home appliances and wooden desks he offers for sale in the Jisr Diyala district on Baghdad’s southeastern outskirts.
Five months ago, Sunni Arab al Qaeda fighters and Shi‘ite militants fought over control of the area. Kidnappings were not uncommon and shops and businesses were shut. The trip to the market was dangerous.
Now, it is quiet and shops are reopening. But local officials complain that unemployment is as high as 60 percent and that basic services are dismal. Children play football next to piles of garbage left on the streets to rot.
The mainly Shi‘ite district, near where the Diyala river flows into the Tigris on the southeast outskirts of the capital, is an example of a developing pattern in Iraq.
With violence dropping across much of the country, Iraqis are drawing up a new list of demands: instead of asking Iraqi and U.S. forces for protection, they want jobs and improvements to basic services.
District council head Haidar Abdul-Razzaq said that apart from a 900-million Iraqi dinar ($720,000) project to upgrade the water network, the Iraqi government “has not spent a single dinar in the Jisr district since 2003.”
“We have a list of demands that totals around 20 billion dinars,” he told visiting U.S. Major-General Rick Lynch, commander of the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division responsible for security in the provinces south of Baghdad.
U.S. forces say attacks in Iraq have fallen by more than 55 percent since the United States deployed 30,000 additional troops this year.
Military commanders also credit the reduced violence on the growth of informal neighborhood patrols and a ceasefire by the Mehdi Army militia of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Lynch, who spent around an hour talking to shop owners and local officials, said he was encouraged that security was no longer a top priority in the area.
“It is a different conversation now,” he told Reuters. “Before it was ‘There are bad people. I am afraid for my family, help me General’. We have passed that,” he said.
Five months ago, walking down the streets of Jisr Diyala was a risky venture, said Captain Brian Gilbert, commander of the company of U.S. troops that patrols the area.
“When we first got here the sectarian violence was a huge threat for the locals,” he said. “There was a lot of Mehdi Army and a lot of al Qaeda that were infighting and they used kidnapping as a tool to facilitate that.”
Now, unemployment is one of the biggest problems in the district. Prior to the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein, many people in the area enrolled in the Iraqi army and worked in military-related industries. The United States disbanded the army, throwing many men out of work.
Others worked in brick factories in the nearby town of Nahrawan, which are now still shut.
Abdul-Razzak, wearing a light brown suit and a dark tie, asked Lynch to help rehabilitate the brick factories and use a large area he said was used by “militias for killing” to build a market and new factories.
“We are here to help, and I will be glad to spend whatever money is necessary to help you realize what you want,” Lynch told the local officials.
“Now the security situation is such that I can walk down the street and you can walk with me and we are not worried. So now we’ve got to focus on the economy and the government.”
But at a nearby car dealership, 19-year-old Hamdi Abd Wadi complained to Lynch that the U.S. and Iraqi forces were not doing enough to help in the neighborhood.
He said Iraqi forces block traffic on the only bridge linking the district to central Baghdad where he studies French at a university. He then gave the general the numbers of a U.S. Humvee vehicle he said shot the tires of a car “for no reason.”
“If there was a medical emergency at night, no one can cross the bridge,” he said. “There is no hospital here.”
“You are the future of Iraq,” Lynch replied. “I love your passion. We have to work together.”
Editing by Peter Graff