Making Perfunctory Preparations For Combat In Anti-American Cleric's Stronghold

Making Perfunctory Preparations For Combat In Anti-American Cleric's Stronghold
April 11th, 2008  
Team Infidel

Topic: Making Perfunctory Preparations For Combat In Anti-American Cleric's Stronghold

Making Perfunctory Preparations For Combat In Anti-American Cleric's Stronghold
New York Times
April 11, 2008
Pg. 14
By Stephen Farrell
BAGHDAD — The two Mahdi Army fighters shuffled across the sidewalk, dragging two heavy artillery shells that they laid horizontally in the middle of the Sadr City highway, placing them tip to end like rusting batteries in a pocket flashlight.
A trench, 4 feet long and 2 feet deep, had been dug in advance, taking up half the width of the main street.
It was halfheartedly concealed by an advertising sandwich board, although none of the hundreds of shoppers and passing drivers paid any attention to the two unmasked, casually dressed militiamen carrying out what is a relatively mundane activity for Sadr City, the Baghdad neighborhood that has been the focus of fighting between government forces and the Mahdi Army.
A few hundred yards along the road another roadside bomb was being laid, also in broad daylight. Again nobody blinked, and there were no government or American troops anywhere nearby to hinder the militia’s leisurely preparations.
This was the scene here on Thursday in the center of Moktada al-Sadr’s east Baghdad stronghold, where the Mahdi Army, led by Mr. Sadr, an anti-American cleric, remains in control of much of the district. In other areas there was heavy fighting with American and Iraqi forces, which continued into Thursday night.
Hundreds of portraits of Mr. Sadr and his white-bearded father adorn streetlights and are plastered on walls every 25 yards in some areas.
Iraqi government forces have closed many of the main roads into Sadr City, creating a snarl of traffic at roadblocks near the city center, where one flak-jacketed Iraqi soldier fired live ammunition into the air to direct traffic.
Deep in Sadr City, a few minutes’ drive past the final government checkpoints, Mahdi fighters in recent days had been openly laying electrical command wires across streets and sitting guard on street corners beside caches of assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
However, Iraqis who knew the back routes were able to get in and out, easily eluding the government cordon. On Thursday afternoon a steady stream of cars, trucks, donkey carts and shepherds leading their garbage-munching flocks slipped through gaps in the cordon after taking circuitous routes around the government checkpoints whose soldiers were either unaware of, unwilling to or not under orders to enforce a total closing.
While Sadr City residents complain of a government and American “siege” of the district, much of the neighborhood was calm. Food and vegetables were still available at roadside stalls, although shortages have pushed such necessities out of the reach of some.
Qusay, a merchant on the edge of the district selling cucumbers, eggplant, potatoes, tomatoes and onions from the back of a blue pickup truck, said he had raised his prices by 25 percent. “The traffic jams cause problems, but food is still available,” he said. “I went to Jamila market today at 7 a.m. and managed to get what I needed. There was shooting there yesterday, but today it was all right.”
Like many in the city, Qusay, 30, complained of American or government “snipers” creating hazards for men, women and children in the dangerous front-line areas of town, although he could offer no evidence of who was shooting, and at whom.
In one part of Sadr City, residents on Thursday pointed to a shattered motorbike, electricity generator and roof balustrade. All were destroyed three days earlier in a helicopter missile strike that killed the two young men on the scooter and an elderly man sitting in the road, they said.
But beyond the wreckage, a hole in the road and walls pockmarked by shrapnel, there was, again, no evidence to determine whether the damage had been caused by American aerial fire, errant Mahdi Army mortar shells or some other cause.
“Sadr City is now under attack from the air, from snipers and from the joint American and Iraqi forces,” said Sheik Salman Lafraiji, who runs the Sadrist office in east Baghdad. “They are trying to enter the city, so they are starting by raiding the outer areas. They have tried to get in from many entrances, in the north and south. The Sadr followers and the Mahdi Army and all the people of Sadr City from all sects are defending themselves and their city.”
In Congressional testimony this week, the two most senior American officials in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus and the United States ambassador, Ryan C. Crocker, said that Iranian-trained “special groups” were fighting alongside Mahdi Army units in recent clashes. But Sheik Lafraiji refused to comment specifically on Iran, confining himself to general remarks about neighboring countries.
“We say that Iraq is an open area for anyone, and that there are groups of Al Qaeda organization and there are other groups working for external countries’ agendas, Arab and non-Arab,” he said. “They have their own interests in Iraq and they are carrying out destructive and criminal activities. This is the responsibility of the government. It should follow these kinds of groups and not target normal Iraqis and civilians of this country.”
The American military in Baghdad said it killed 13 people suspected of being “criminals” around the capital on Wednesday, including four killed in an airstrike after they attacked soldiers erecting concrete barriers in northeast Baghdad, the district around Sadr City, and one who opened fire from a rooftop at a joint Iraqi and American checkpoint nearby.

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