Shiite district serves as dress rehearsal for Sadr City

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
Media: AFP
Byline: Paul Schemm
Date: 18 September 2006

BAGHDAD, Sept 18, 2006 (AFP) - Shuhada mosque in Baghdad's Shiite district
of Shaab is covered in banners singing the praises of radical cleric Moqtada
al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, in a building which intelligence reports claim is a
center of militia activities.

But when no one answered the polite knock of US soldiers and Iraqi National
Police conducting searches in the neighborhood, the decision was made to
move on.

"We cannot get in without their permission," said Lieutenant Colonel Khaled
Burhan, commanding the National Police detachment paired with the US forces.

"If I entered a mosque and there was no one there, there would be problems
for me."

Even as US and Iraqi forces searched every house in this neighborhood as
part of the operation, Together Forward, to restore stability to Iraq's
war-torn capital, entry to mosques would be "passive", meaning they would
only enter if invited.

As the operation expands across the capital to include the militia-dominated
eastern Shiite neighborhoods, security forces are very careful in how they
conduct their searches -- especially with an eventual search of the
sprawling Shiite slum of Sadr City looming in the future.

"We talked to the guys before we came in here because it is so close to Sadr
City," said platoon leader Captain James Kwon. "We are not going to go in
there with guns blazing."

"We moved into (Shaab and Ur) first to show that we're not all about kicking
the door in," he added. "We want to show we're respectful, that we're

Battalion commander Lieutant Colonel Charles Webster would not discuss his
unit's future operations, but he did ask his company commanders to ask
people they met how they thought residents of neighboring Sadr City would
react to such searches.

"I think you need to show both Sunni and Shia that coalition forces and
Iraqi forces are going to conduct searches all over the city to get a handle
on these death squads," said Webster about the week-long operation that
started Thursday.

With many of those death squads believed to have close ties to the militias
that run Sadr City and other Shiite neighborhoods, many fear a massive
showdown between US forces and well-armed militias with substantial popular

Initial forays by American units into Sadr City have been greeted by
stone-throwing and angry locals making it clear they are not wanted here.

As they operate in Baghdad, the soldiers of 2nd Battalion, 1st Regiment of
the Stryker Brigade find themselves under a great deal more scrutiny than
they did during their year in Mosul.

The brigade was transferred from the northern city of Mosul to Baghdad in

With much of the Western and Iraqi media based in Baghdad and many members
of the Shiite-dominated government with strong militia ties, any move is
watched carefully -- and it can be on television within minutes.

"It's a much more politicized city," acknowledged Webster.

Rocks thrown by children plink against the heavily-armored skin of the
massive Strykers' armored vehicles as they roll through Shaab, but the
children are soon scolded into stopping by the National Police accompanying
the Americans.

In some cases, a handful of candy from the American soldiers' pocket goes a
long way to win over the area's youngest residents.

It will take a bit more to win over the older residents, however, and the
plan here, like in the rest of the city's neighborhoods, is to use the
security created by a week's worth of searches to address some of the
persistent woes like electricity and trash collection.

"These are immediate fixes to give the government breathing room to
negotiate with the militias and everyone else causing problems," said

Residents of Shaab and Ur lament the total lack of services and some say
that the only people providing help of any kind are the militias.

"They are heroes," said a teenager about the militias as he stood under a
palm tree with his friends in a raw new area smelling rankly of sewage.
"They bring all the energy, gasoline and propane."

Most of the older residents shake their heads, however, when asked about the
militias, maintaining that there were no such groups around here, though
perhaps some local "popular committees" helped with security.

"They are not militias, they are people from the neighborhood who get
together and defend it," said Kadhim al-Baydani to the US soldiers on the

"The government, police and army know about this situation and allow it --
everyone except the US forces."

In the midst of the worsening sectarian violence many Shiite clerics have
called for the formation of armed "popular committees" to protect

"The popular committees are the militias," said an old university professor
at one house, after shooing away a few children listening in to his
conversation with a journalist.

"If I talk bad about the militias here, those kids would go to them and two
hours later they would come for me," he said. "The truth is, the National
Police are part of the militias, too."

The militia presence is a kind of dark side to an otherwise fairly bustling
area that sees a lot of new construction and busy marketplaces -- and a
dwindling Sunni population.

In one street a funeral tent is set up by a Sunni family for their son, a
photographer for the local Al-Watan newspaper. He was kidnapped by six men
waving Glock pistols, usually just issued to the security services.

An hour later the police called the family to pick up the body.

"Can you do something to stop these armed men killing us?" spits an angry
young man at the family house when a US officer asks if there is anything
they can do.

For his part, Baydani tells the Americans that he doesn't think their
door-knocking and mosque searching will be welcome in Sadr City, just a few
minutes drive away.

"They feel they can protect their own neighborhood fine and don't feel they
need to be searched," he said.