Dora, in Saddamâ€™s time, had it all â€“ a power station and oil refinery provided jobs and its large bungalows hidden in date palm groves drew rich, powerful Sunnis and their families to this southern suburb of Baghdad.
Â But Dora fell on hard times at the start of the war in 2003.
When I visited Dora about 18 months ago, it was with the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division, before the surge of U.S. and Iraqi forces into Baghdad began. The once bustling “gateway to the South” was a ghost town. It smelled of cordite, an explosive powder.
Sunni residents were in hiding; Doraâ€™s Shiites were dead or had fled to other provinces; its many Christians â€“ doctors, architects and other professionals â€“ had also fled to escape the sectarian killing. The insurgent town had become an al-Qaida stronghold. But that wasnâ€™t the only threat: Shiite death squads, masquerading as National Police, had murdered and maimed so many Sunnis that the 1st Cavalry had to force the police out of their precinct and cordon off the area.Â
It was a very different Dora that I saw this past week, once again embedded with U.S. forces â€“ this time with the 4th Infantry Division. Life had returned. Doraâ€™s famous Friday open market was bubbling with people, produce and color. No one looked afraid.
U.S. troops, who now live in an outpost right in the middle of town, were not the only force patrolling the streets. So were the infamous, primarily Shiite, National Police, as well as the so-called “Sons of Iraq” â€“ local volunteers, all Sunni, who were mostly former insurgents. It was something quite remarkable I was seeing for the first time: U.S., Shiite and Sunni armed forces cooperating for the general good.
Sunni residents, who wouldnâ€™t have dared to be seen talking to members of the National Police a year ago, were now complaining to them about rising food and fuel prices in the market or asking for advice.
“Before we all suffered from a triple threat â€“ al-Qaida, the militias, and sectarian kidnappings,” said Alladin Hussein, a former major in Saddamâ€™s Army, who I met in the market. “Now we are living in stability and security. Itâ€™s like a precious gem, something very fragile that you have to take care of.”
Lt. Justin Chalvko could be called “Mr. Dora” as far as Iraqis here are concerned. He is the face of the U.S. presence in the area â€“ he lives in the local U.S. Army outpost and leads daily patrols through the market with his platoon. He knows many residents by their first names, and jokes with them in his broken Arabic.
Chalvko said the changes in Dora since his arrival six months ago are “like night and day.” But heâ€™s no fool.
“Even though itâ€™s good now,” he warned, “itâ€™s only been good for four or five months. People are starting to move back into the area, but itâ€™s like everyoneâ€™s walking on eggshells still. They want to make sure that itâ€™s for real, itâ€™s not just something temporary.”
Sure, the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of 12-foot high, 10-ton blast walls that now surround â€“ and isolate â€“ Dora help keep al-Qaida at bay. But local Dorans donâ€™t seem to care. In fact, most Iraqis I asked about the blast walls said that they actually felt freer these days with the concrete barriers and joint patrols to protect them.
Chalvko walked us past Doraâ€™s reopened parks and replanted gardens, past its new library, its primary care clinic, and high school.
Bank open for biz
He explained that, at first, people just wanted security. Now they want services. He then led us to one service that had just opened last week â€“ the Dora branch of the Rafidain Bank. A bank! I hadnâ€™t been inside a functioning Iraqi bank in years. The last Rafidain Bank branch I was this close to was burning out of control on Baghdadâ€™s Haifa Street during those chaotic days just after the fall of Saddam.
We went inside. There were a dozen or more customers, one in a wheelchair, counting small piles of Iraqi dinars they had just withdrawn or were about to deposit. Tellers, mostly women in head scarves, were busy filling out bank slips and attaching paper clips to deposits. The manager, all the while, was pacing back and forth, smiling nervously, from his office to the tellers and back. I guess that being a bank manager in Dora is not the safest of jobs, no matter how many troops or blast walls surrounded you.
But, it struck me that the very presence of a bank was a symbol of change. Dorans could now avoid traveling through interminable checkpoints, across Baghdad, risking their lives to deposit or withdraw money for loans on houses or cars or new businesses. They could do all their business right here, in their own neighborhood.
“Instead of looking to the Americans to help them out,” said Chalvko, “they can come here. Itâ€™s a sign that things are going in the right direction.”
How many Doras are there?
Covering the war in Iraq is often about analyzing the trend lines. Weâ€™re all looking for the elusive “turning point” â€“ that gauge that ultimately allows us to measure victory or defeat.
One of my Nightly News editors in New York, Robert Dembo, summed it up nicely, “I guess the real question now is: How many Doras are out there?” And Iâ€™ve got my own new question: “I wonder just how long Rafidain Bank will stay open?”
We shall see.
Jim Maceda is an NBC News Correspondent based in London. He has reported on the war in Iraq since the U.S. invasion in 2003 and is currently on assignment in Baghdad.