Business Booms Behind Baghdad's Security Walls

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Brian Bennett for TIME

A dress market in Baghdad's Saidiyah market reopened after walls were built around the neighborhood.

When U.S. and Iraqi forces built concrete barriers around the five square miles of his Baghdad neighborhood 10 months ago, Farooq al-Timimi saw a business opportunity. Clashes between Sunni and Shi'ite militias had turned the Saidiyah's commercial strip into a bullet-riddled no man's land, and the favorite local eatery, Sun City, had been shuttered for over a year. Al-Timimi, in Syria when the walls went up, gambled that they would bring security, and he decided to return. He approached the owners of Sun City, offering to replace the shattered glass and tile and refurbish the abandoned kitchen in exchange for a share of the profits. The restaurant reopened in March, and during last month's Eid festivities, it had to turn families away for lack of space.

Over the past year, the U.S. military and Iraqi Army have walled in over six neighborhoods across Baghdad. Some, like Saidiyah in south Baghdad, had been caught in the crossfire between Al Qaeda in Iraq-backed Sunni fighters and Iranian-backed militia. Other locales, like Bayaa in west Baghdad, had become safe havens for cells manufacturing deadly armor-piercing explosive devices to attack U.S. troops. But the security walls have brought calm, and prompted many families who had fled the gunfights and murders to return to their homes.

Today, 95% of Saidyah's residents have moved back into their homes, according to Lieut. Col. Johnny Johnson, commander of the 4-64 U.S. Armored Regiment that patrols the area. Only residents and their escorted guests are allowed into the neighborhood. To reduce the threat of car bombs, no cars can park on the main commercial street. The U.S. military has been handing out cash grants of about $2,500 to shopkeepers to help them renovate stores and restock shelves. On Sunday night, the multicolored lights at Sun City were on, but only a handful of customers sat inside. Business has slowed down since the holiday rush, and it's obviously difficult for diners from outside the neighborhood to get here. Still, the tight security measures are "an acceptable trade-off," says Al-Timimi who employs 20 waiters, cooks and dishwashers, "but we are losing a bit."

In the nearby Bayaa market, to the west, nearly every shop was open and overflowing with inventory — generators, shoes, robes, sandals — but only a trickle of customers passed through the stalls. The Iraqi National Police and the U.S. military had walled in the neighborhood in August, after discovering a local network of bomb-making cells. Now, there is only one entrance for foot traffic, one for cars, and another for commercial trucks. Not even these measures have been foolproof: Two weeks ago, a woman drove a car packed with explosives into Bayaa, parked and walked away before detonating the blast, killing nine. The local brigade commander for the National Police which operates the checkpoints was furious at the security lapse. Brigadier General Bahaa Noori has been trying to convince shoppers outside the neighborhood that the 20th street market, one of the largest in Baghdad, is open for business again. As he enters the market on Saturday, one shopkeeper called out to General Bahaa, asking when he was going to open another entrance to the market. "Just wait," says Bahaa. "Just wait."