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MONDAY, MARCH 19, 2007

Parts of Baghdad returning to normal

BAGHDAD (AP)— Black-clad women shuffle past sidewalk clothing racks in front of shops in a commercial district of Central Baghdad. Elsewhere, black flags flutter from lampposts — marking areas of Shiite control.

A two-hour drive by Western journalists through the center of Baghdad this weekend showed parts of the capital are slowly recovering from the trauma of sectarian slaughter that paralyzed this city of 6 million before the start of the security crackdown last month.

But gone is the heady religious mixture of many neighborhoods, in which Sunnis, Shiites and some Christians lived side by side.

Shiites dominate the eastern side of the Tigris River, which bisects the city, except for the Azamiyah district and a small enclave near the commercial center. Sunnis are concentrated in neighborhoods to the west of the river and districts on the cityís southern rim.

Concrete barriers block streets leading into Waziriyah, a mostly Sunni enclave on the Shiite eastern side.

A police checkpoint marks the northern boundary of Haifa Street — beyond which Shiites and foreigners venture at risk of losing their lives to Sunni gunmen in high-rise apartment buildings.

Blast walls, concrete barriers and police checkpoints enforce a relative peace, separating Sunnis and Shiites until the bitterness can ease after months of massacres and sectarian cleansing. Many of the concrete walls are adorned by neighborhood artists with paintings of daily life, some quite professionally.

At the Buratha mosque, a Shiite shrine, huge blast walls ring the grounds. Last April, suicide bombers killed 85 people there. Two months later, another suicide attacker with explosives in his shoes killed a dozen more.

Itís not difficult to tell which group is in charge. Large posters of bearded Shiite clerics stand in traffic circles of Shiite areas, along with black flags. The absence of those symbols indicates Sunnis are still in control.

Within the sectarian bastions, commerce is beginning to rebound, along with other signs of normalcy — though many shops remain padlocked.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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