In a sign of the Iraqi government’s growing optimism following the military defeat of ISIS, President Barham Salih visited a Baghdad neighbourhood on Monday that was until recently considered a “no go" area for officials.
Mr Salih, a Kurd who has served as prime minister of the autonomous Kurdistan Region and as deputy prime minister in the federal government, visited the Abu Hanifa Mosque in the northern Baghdad neighbourhood of Adhamiyah to commemorate the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday on Monday evening.
Following the toppling of former Saddam Hussein in 2003, Adhamiyah – today a Sunni enclave a short drive from the Shiite slum of Sadr City – became notorious as an insurgent hotbed.
Mr Salih’s visit to Adhamiyah – which until recently was considered too dangerous for a senior official to visit – aimed to send a message that Iraq was putting its past behind it after the war against ISIS, which itself followed a decade of violence on the heels of the US invasion.
“The Prophet’s birthday coincides with a new start in our country, inspiring us to double down on efforts to unite our ranks and to boost our hard work in reconstruction and rehabilitation,” the president wrote on Twitter.
Before Adhamiyah gained infamy as one of Baghdad’s most dangerous neighbourhoods, the middle class suburb was an intellectual hub. But following the US invasion, the neighbourhood became a centre of resistance.
Like most districts in the capital at that time, it had a mixed Sunni and Shiite population. But starting in 2005, sectarian violence caused the ethnic cleansing of most Baghdad neighbourhoods, which became separated by sect – and by walls erected by the Americans to try and quell the killings.
The bodies of young Sunni men, suspected to have been killed by Shiite militias, became a daily sight in the streets of Adhamiyah. Shiite residents fled as Al Qaeda entrenched itself in the enclave.
During the height of the sectarian violence in 2006 and 2007, US troops wouldn’t leave their vehicles to inspect the corpses dumped in Adhamiyah for fear of booby traps and lurking snipers. Distrustful of local police, and unwilling to cooperate with US troops for fear of reprisals, local residents hunkered down, unwilling to venture out after dark for fear of kidnap.
By 2008, the worst of the violence had passed. “People used to be scared to come to large meetings in Adhamiyah,” local police commander Hussein Mutlaq Saleh Al Dleme told the American Forces Press Service at a meeting of tribal sheikhs in the neighbourhood.
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But anti-government protests continued in Adhamiyah into 2013 and following the 2104 rise of ISIS, Shiite militias – fearful of sleeper cells gaining a toehold at the gates of the capital – targeted the young men of Adhamiyah in a campaign of extrajudicial detentions.
Since the military defeat of ISIS in Mosul last year, violent deaths in Iraq have declined steeply. But a worrying resurgence of insurgent attacks means there is little room for complacency.
The president’s gesture was however seen as a positive step by many Iraqis.
“Unlike his predecessors, he is not content with just sleeping and receiving his presidential salary,” wrote Ilmam Mourtada, a Twitter user in Iraq. “He is trying to use his position to work at a grassroots level to familiarise himself with the different components of society.”