Media: The Associated Press
Byline: By ANTONIO CASTANEDA
Date: 25 September 2006
BAGHDAD, Iraq_U.S. soldiers trying to calm Baghdad say the sprawling Sadr
City slum has once again become a haven for anti-American militants _ and
the source of most of the gunfire and mortars directed at them.
In the last two weeks, U.S. forces have suffered several casualties from
dozens of shootings, mortar attacks and roadside bombings that American
troops believe originated from Sadr City.
Yet the Americans have been restrained in their response, as U.S. and Iraqi
leaders strive to avoid a third confrontation in two years with firebrand
cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army _ the biggest and most dangerous
Shiite militia in Iraq.
Instead of venturing into Sadr City in strength, U.S. troops are
concentrating instead on the mostly Shiite neighborhoods that surround the
militia stronghold. All the while they are drawing fire from Sadr City.
As a result, some American soldiers believe the only way _ in the end _ to
curb Shiite militias and halt the sectarian violence will be to confront the
militia fighters in their sanctuary.
"I just want to see something done about Sadr City," said Staff Sgt. Brian
Beem, 29, of Poughkeepsie, N.Y. "Send in the Iraqi army, the U.S. Army _
send everyone in. ... They're going to need it. ... Something's going to
have to be done about that place."
That won't be easy.
Al-Sadr and his followers managed to rebound from defeats suffered at the
hands of the U.S. military during two previous uprisings in 2004 _ and have
now emerged as a major political force.
Al-Sadr's followers hold 30 of the 275 seats in the national parliament and
five posts in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Cabinet and are a major
pillar of the prime minister's political support.
In August, al-Maliki, a Shiite, publicly berated the Americans for a raid on
With Americans facing political pressure to lay off al-Sadr, it appears
unlikely the U.S. command will order a major operation against his base,
home to an estimated 2.5 million people, without al-Maliki's approval.
"We notify the prime minister if we've got sensitive targets and we let the
prime minister know," Maj. Gen. James D. Thurman, the commander of U.S.
forces in Baghdad, told The Associated Press in a recent interview.
"We let him have a say, and we notify people. But if somebody is committing
an act of violence, we're going to go deal with it," Thurman said.
In name, Sadr City is under the control of Iraqi forces, not the militia.
When U.S. troops formally handed over the area to Iraqi soldiers in March,
one Iraqi colonel promised, "We can handle the security inside Sadr City."
But in reality, al-Sadr and his Mahdi militiamen call the shots in Sadr
City. Few U.S. troops saw Iraqi troops, most of whom are also Shiites, on
the major avenues where they were repeatedly attacked.
All that is frustrating to American soldiers, who believe the militias have
a virtual sanctuary in Sadr City.
The Mahdi Army "claims they control Sadr City, and all the attacks are
coming from Sadr City. Then (either) the (Mahdi Army) is doing the attacking
or allowing others to," said Capt. Chris L'Heureux, 30, of Woonsocket, R.I.,
a troop commander in the 4th Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment.
Over the past two weeks, L'Heureux's own soldiers have been regularly
targeted by snipers and mortarmen operating from Sadr City.
The inability to fight back frustrates many.
"It's tough for a brigade like us that's been (winning) ... and here it's
all touchy-feely and paws off," said 1st Lt. Bernard Gardner, 25, of
Last week, al-Sadr delivered a speech urging his followers to take part in
nonviolent resistance, possibly a gesture to divert attention away from Sadr
But U.S. troops on the ground say they _ along with Iraqi troops _ have been
increasingly targeted by the Mahdi Army, which is growing more aggressive.
"We're seeing more instances, more indications that we have religious
militias interfering with the Iraqi army and Iraqi police affairs," said
Col. Greg Watt, the chief U.S. trainer for one of two Iraqi divisions in the
Some soldiers said they hope another fight could be avoided.
"I'll be honest with you. I hope for a political solution. Sadr can
influence more through the mechanism of government than flexing his militia
might," L'Heureux said.
But if the order comes to control Sadr City, "We are absolutely prepared to
do it," he added. "There's no question about that."