Rocks and tomatoes, but no bombs yet for US in Sadr City

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
Media: AFP
Byline: Patrick Fort
Date: 07 August 2006

BAGHDAD, Aug 7, 2006 (AFP) - "Christ! Why does he always have to choose the
suckiest road?" mutters Sergeant First Class Daniel Odom, as his shuddering
Humvee follows the lead vehicle of his patrol over trash and potholes and
into Sadr City, the teeming stronghold of Baghdad's Shiite militias.

Above, the pitiless summer sun beats down on the imposing American jeep's
armoured carapace, heating the fetid air in the street to 45 degrees. Below,
an odour of decay rises from the market trash and goat droppings crushed
under its wheels as it negotiates the narrow alleyways.

"Damn. **** this place!" The shout comes from above, where roof gunner
Specialist Marcus Bedell has just taken a ripe tomato full in the face. He
swivels his gun, remaining alert to the danger that the next attack might be
more deadly; an ambush, a sniper or a suicide bomber.

Sadr City, a sprawling warren of rundown apartment blocks, is home to more
than two million Iraqi Shiites. It is also the heartland of the radical
Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose movement's core support comes from the
legions of unemployed young men in its streets and mosques.

More than two months after an elected coalition government took over in
Iraq, the black-clad fighters of Sadr's Mehdi Army militia still openly
carry weapons on the streets of their stronghold.

At parades over the weekend its fighters chanted "Death to America" and
trampled on a dusty Stars and Stripes painted on the road. They brandished
Kalashnikovs and rocket launchers and chanted their support for Lebanon's
Hezbollah guerrillas.

Nevertheless, the militia is not in open conflict with the United States.

Sadr has 30 lawmakers in parliament and two ministers in the US-backed
government of national unity run by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a fellow
Shiite. His firebrand speeches keep the political temperature high, but
there is no sign he is preparing a re-run of his 2004 armed revolt in Najaf.

For their part, the Americans are careful to respect Iraq's new politically
correct vocabulary. The black-clad gangs who nightly kidnap Sunni civilians,
torture and kill them, are not Mehdi Army. In US statements they are thugs
and criminals and -- the new buzz term -- "death squads".

But privately, US officers admit that militias like Sadr's are very much
part of the problem in Baghdad and elsewhere, and that some kind of strategy
has to be found to take them out of the equation; either by disarming them
or tying them into a national reconciliation initiative.

Privately also, some Mehdi militiamen expect they will come into conflict
once again with US forces, some of them looking back in nostalgia to their
so-called "intifada" in Najaf.

"If the American army deploys again in Sadr city, it will face attacks and
we're expecting big clashes," one Sadr supporter told AFP this week.

Perhaps it won't come to that. US and government commanders hope that an
increased presence on the streets, better training for Iraqi units and more
economic development can halt what generals have admitted could be a slide
into civil war. In the meantime, Sergeant Odom's men face an uncomfortable

As a Military Transition Team (MiTT) with the 356th Regimental Combat Team,
his unit is responsible for training the Iraqi Army soldiers whom they hope
will one day take the place of US forces on the streets of Sadr city.

Sometimes the team conducts joint patrols with the Iraqis, and sometimes
they roll out on their to own to conduct hair-raising inspection tours of
Iraqi Army checkpoints. The patrol route is dangerous.

"I try to spot any kind of anomaly, a displaced rock, a pile of trash that's
too neat, loose dirt, a strange bump, cars too low looking heavy, people
wearing too many clothes for the weather. And the roof tops. Not so much the
road," says Odom's driver, 26-year-old Specialist Kevin Capazzi.

"If it goes boom it goes boom. If we do everything right and it happens,
then it happens," says Odom, whose 6ft 4in (190 cm) 235lb (110 kilo) frame,
helmet and body armour take up a lot of space in the sweltering confines of
the Humvee.

Sweat runs down his neck and the air-conditioning struggles to cope.

"The AC just cools your left hand up to your left elbow," he jokes, as rocks
thrown by children and teenagers batter the vehicle, clattering harmlessly
off the armour plating.

"Sometimes it sounds like bullets," says Odom. "It's more a game for the
small kids, but the ones who throw rocks today might throw grenades