U.S., Iraqi forces puzzle over Sadr City

How to handle pro-al-Maliki area amid crackdown?

February 21, 2007|By Borzou Daragahi | Borzou Daragahi,Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- U.S. and Iraqi forces have moved aggressively in the past week to combat Sunni Arab insurgents in neighborhoods across the capital and to establish a stronger presence in religiously mixed districts troubled by sectarian violence.

But as the new security crackdown enters a second week, the forces face their most sensitive challenge: whether, when and how to move into the Shiite-dominated slum of Sadr City, stronghold of the Mahdi army militia.

Political pressure has mounted to crack down on the Baghdad neighborhood that harbors the militia loyal to radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Sunnis, who make up the backbone of the insurgency, have long accused Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of allowing Sadr City to remain a haven for militias in order to maintain popular support from al-Sadr's followers.

"We think that much of the Sunni violence that comes as result of operations emanating from Sadr City will be remarkably diminished if they crack down," said Ammar Wajuih, a leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the country's main Sunni Arab political organization.

U.S. and Iraqi military commanders planning the next steps of the Baghdad security plan are concerned that if they move too aggressively, they could sabotage one of the few success stories in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion.

Even amid the bloodshed across Baghdad, customers fill Sadr City's shops. Construction workers repair its streets and sewage lines. Children play soccer on its dusty fields and walk to school along newly prettified squares, verdant emblems of progress in one of Iraq's most long-deprived quarters. "Sadr City has always been safe, with the exception of the suicide and roadside bomb attacks," said Talib Saad, a barber along the main thoroughfare through Sadr City.

Americans took heavy casualties when they tried to storm Sadr City in the spring and summer of 2004. For Americans, the street fights with black-clad teens who held AK-47s while running down the streets in slippers represented a nadir few want to relive. Rather than crush the Mahdi Army, the U.S. wound up bolstering al-Sadr's street credibility and undermining the popularity of pro-American Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.

Army Gen. Jack Keane, a former Army vice chief of staff, and military analyst Frederick Kagan, who were among the most influential advocates of the current Bush administration plan to increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq by 21,500, have warned that a push into Sadr City would unnecessarily unite the country's splintered Shiite leadership.

"Attempting to clear Sadr City would almost certainly force the [Mahdi army] into [a direct] confrontation with American troops," they wrote in a January report for the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. "It would also do enormous damage to [al-Maliki's] political base and would probably lead to the collapse of the Iraqi government."

Now at least one of the authors questions that view. In an interview yesterday, Kagan said some early signs of success, including al-Sadr's recent disappearance from the public scene and successful sweeps of other heavily Shiite neighborhoods nearby, suggest that U.S. forces could move into Sadr City earlier than Keane and Kagan had advocated.

"It appears that I overestimated the Sadrists and underestimated Maliki," Kagan said. "Our troops have operated in these neighborhoods, and these neighborhoods are not resisting."

U.S. officials in Iraq have gone to pains not to depict Sadr City as a singular source of trouble.

"Our intent is for people to recognize that we view it as any other place," said Lt. Col Avanulas Smiley, a battalion commander of the 3rd Stryker Brigade, which has been sweeping parts of northern and eastern Baghdad as part of the Operation Enforcing the Law crackdown that began last week.

After years of watching their communities targeted aggressively by local security forces and U.S. troops, Sunnis Arab leaders and officials insist that the success or failure of the security plan and the possible reconciliation between sects hinges on whether Sadr City is treated like the hive of militants they consider it to be.

"This plan needs to arrest the leaders of both sides who are planning and performing operations and violence against both sides," Sunni politician Wajuih said.

Wajuih's party boss, Iraqi vice president Tariq Hashemi, recently called on authorities to classify the Mahdi army a terrorist organization and treat them as harshly as Sunni insurgent groups.

U.S. military officials acknowledge that Sadr City's political influence has heightened sensitivities about moving in forcefully. In the past, Iraqi politicians have pulled Iraqi security forces off joint operations.

U.S. military officials said they have received guarantees from al-Maliki government officials that they'll not interfere in security matters.

Al-Sadr supporters say U.S. troops have begun a new crackdown on their group, and they fear a large-scale sweep of Sadr City is imminent. Police at the main thoroughfares leading into Sadr City have established checkpoints that have annoyed residents.

But many say any plan to squelch the Mahdi army has been compromised by weeks of warnings that a crackdown was coming.

"Most Mahdi army militiamen and Sadr members have left Baghdad for the provinces," said Abdullah Hussein, a 30-year-old Sadr City resident. "We have been informed by our friends in other areas of Baghdad that U.S. and Iraqi forces are only searching selected homes and have lists of wanted individuals from the Sadr movement."

Borzou Daragahi writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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