It was midafternoon in this dusty, sandstone-colored town, most stores and houses were padlocked and no cars were on the road. In the town center, a group of young men sat in the shade of a plastic tarpaulin next to a stand with sodas and snacks, and stared phlegmatically at nothing much.
The place was eerily quiet.
A ghost town can be a sad thing, especially when people still live there.
The demise of Saba al Bor is a lesson in how quickly things can change for the worse in Iraq and how difficult it has been to make things better.
This was once a thriving, working-class town with about 50,000 residents, mostly Shiites. Some worked for state-owned factories in Taji, 9.6km to the northeast, while others commuted to Baghdad, 16km southeast.
Under US military leadership, schools and a medical clinic were renovated here last year, and a local police force was recruited and trained. The US military command was so encouraged by the progress that it handed over security responsibility for the town to the Iraqi army last September, and US combat forces withdrew.
But weeks later, Sunni Arab insurgents operating in Sunni-dominated villages to the southwest began a siege, pelting the town with volley upon volley of mortar shells. On some days there were dozens of attacks.
Shiite militias, in response, pulled Sunni residents from their homes and executed them, officials and residents said. Scores of people were killed in the fighting.
Families fled -- in trucks, cars, buses and on foot. Entire neighborhoods, Sunni and Shiite, emptied out. Many people sought refuge in Baghdad. By November, Saba al Bor's population had dropped to 5,000 from 50,000.
US troops were forced to return. They conducted aggressive patrols alongside Iraqi security forces, dispatched sniper teams, conducted surveillance with helicopters and aerial drones, and fired artillery against insurgent mortar positions.
While the latest security plan for Baghdad focuses on saturating the city with Iraqi and US troops, US commanders say another important component involves areas like this, on the capital's periphery, or what they call "the Baghdad belts." The insurgency has been using Sunni towns on the city's outskirts to store munitions, build car bombs, hide fighters and stage attacks.
The insurgents' October offensive in Saba al Bor was part of their strategy to control those belt towns, said Lieutenant Colonel Kevin MacWatters, commander of the 1st Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division, which has oversight of this area.
The increase in the US presence here and improvements to the police force have managed to keep the insurgency at bay. Violence has dropped and families have started to trickle back, the authorities say. The population is now 8,000 to 10,000, with the Sunni-Shiite ratio about the same as before, 70 percent Shiite and 30 percent Sunni, the US military says.
On Thursday, Brigadere General John Campbell, a deputy commanding general of US forces in Baghdad, made a brief surprise visit here. He flew to a base in Taji, received two briefings, then rode to Saba al Bor in a convoy of Humvees.
The Humvees rolled down the dusty main street, passing lifeless blocks of shuttered houses and empty, sun-parched lots flecked with trash and the rusting shells of cars.
"Is it always like this?" someone asked on the convoy's radio system.
They pulled into the secured compound of the two-story municipal building, which has been turned into one of the joint US-Iraqi outposts that have been established around Baghdad as part of the security plan.
The general quickly toured the building, got a 360-degree view of the town from the rooftop, then walked into the office of the police shift commander, Captain Azhar Kudhai Hussein.
"What's going on?" the general drawled, as a way of saying hello. "What do we have to do to get all the people back to Saba al Bor?"
"We have to have security first," Hussein said quietly. "First the security, then second, we need services."
The clinic still had no doctors, he said, and only one nurse. Some of the doctors had been paid by the insurgency not to go to the clinic, MacWatters added.
There were other problems, Hussein continued. Only six of the station's 20 cars were working. All of his men operated under death threats from Sunni insurgents.
The military knows that the potential exists for another sharp rise in violence. A network of insurgent loyalists linked to the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia is operating in a predominantly Sunni enclave in the town. And the Americans are concerned about the influence of Shiite militias in the police force.
US military officials view the recent return of several hundred families as a hopeful sign, though.
"I was here in August and this place was just jampacked with people," MacWatters said. "I think you can find the whole town's population brought back."
But, he cautioned: "This is a long, slow process."
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