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Al Doura revisited

Posted by Richard on March 3, 2008

Pete Hegseth fought with the 101st Airborne in the Al Doura neighborhood of Baghdad during 2005-2006. Now he's returned as a civilian, and he's amazed by the changes:

Recalling the tension of my first patrol in this neighborhood as a platoon leader, my five senses are sharp. The dusty road below greets my boots, some of the smells are eerily familiar, and the sound of idling humvees is my only comfort. My head swivels to scan the street. My hands are naked without an M-4, so I find the nearest soldier.

Soon – as a young child approaches – the wary familiarity gives way to fascination. I may be in the same geographic location, but I'm not in the same neighborhood. This is not Al Doura, at least not as I knew it. Where did all these people and shops come from? Where is all the trash, and the open sewage? Where is the fear – the deep-seated fear?

I take a few steps into the middle of an intersection with a clear view in all directions. Along the main thoroughfare, my immediate surroundings are replicated: block after block of shops and bustling residents. The side streets that I remember as sewage-clogged gutters are clean and teeming with construction and activity

This is not Al Doura. The Al Doura I knew was the heart of sectarian violence, with daily body counts in the dozens. As I keep walking, I pass a busy car wash, and then a fitness center where young men pump iron and tear-outs of Muscle Fitness adorn the walls. We pass two new playgrounds, where boys clamber up and down slides and beautiful little girls play with dolls. A cart vendor offers me a bag of freshly popped popcorn – but I decline and have some falafel instead.

Increasingly relaxed and curious, I duck into side streets. One leads me to a buzzing recreation center, where soldiers are challenged to a game of pool. In the next room, teenage boys fight it out in the computer game "Medal of Honor" (which my little brother plays constantly). …

The entire time, we have only nominal security. It was disconcerting at first – I would never have come here unarmed two years ago – but the commander I'm walking with eases my concerns: the people are our security. The neighborhood residents trust the Americans, as well as the "Sons of Iraq" (or CLCs, as the Army calls them: Concerned Local Citizens) – local residents who provide security for the neighborhood. In a place where al-Qaeda dominated just eight months ago, today they couldn't buy a bag of popcorn.

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