By Army 2nd Lt. Clayton Merkly
Special to American Forces Press Service
BAGHDAD, Dec. 3, 2008 - In the not-too-distant past, Baghdad's Sadr City district was considered by many to be one of the worst places to live in Iraq. Violence riddled the district, sewage-filled gutters overflowed onto the roads, and children played on trash piles containing concertina wire and rubble from houses -- the remnants of the violent fighting that drove Iranian-backed criminal elements out of the area.
Now, when soldiers with the 1st Armored Division's Company C, 1st Battalion, 35th Armor Regiment, Task Force 1-6, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, -- currently attached in Multinational Division Baghdad to the 3rd Infantry Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team -- go on patrol, they see a radically different landscape.
Parks have emerged from previously vacant lots; children run rampant, enjoying themselves on previously prohibited playgrounds. Trash piles disappeared seemingly overnight, and concertina wire no longer blocks sidewalks and passageways. The streets are clean. Functioning sewers eliminate not only an offensive odor, but also a pressing health hazard to the citizens of Sadr City's Tharwa 1 neighborhood.
Buildings are freshly painted in bright colors, and storefronts are redone to present a welcoming appearance. While some of this work has been done by private business, much of it has been completed due to the efforts of Iraqis volunteering to clean their own sectors and neighborhoods. They're taking pride in their communities, and it is beginning to show.
A recent push removed trash from the main streets and collected it into designated areas where public services workers could pick it up and take it away. U.S. forces have noticed and appreciated this effort.
"It is good to see the Iraqis cleaning their neighborhoods," Army Spc. Richard Parr, a native of Nebraska who serves with Company C, said. "After being here for almost eight months, I am beginning to see a real change in attitudes of the people. The people are friendlier, and while security is still our primary mission, I am able to enjoy both an educational and cultural experience each time I go out on patrol. We are definitely seeing results of our hard work during this deployment."
The volunteer efforts make the neighborhood cleaner and safer. Removing trash and painting buildings means it is harder to hide roadside bombs in trash piles, and snipers cannot lurk in the bombed-out shells of buildings. The people also benefit from a more hygienic environment.
"I feel safer out in sector," Army Pfc. David Beveridge, a Virginia native who serves in Company C, said. "The clean streets make it easier to see obstacles and means that we can spot suspicious objects faster, saving both our own lives and any innocent bystanders."
A member of the district advisory council, a mid-level government official and a local sheik supported the effort by providing tools and labor for the many projects. Their participation, officials said, is a clear signal to the people that it is time to unshackle themselves from the grip of enemies and instead enjoy the opportunity to better themselves and their communities.
(Army 2nd Lt. Clayton Merkly serves in Multinational Division Baghdad with the 4th Infantry Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team.)