War Behind a Wall: Fighting in Sadr City

Why the U.S. strategy to let Iraqis oversee Sadr City may be working.

ByABC News
January 8, 2009, 1:10 AM

May 29, 2008 — -- If the U.S. military is going be successful in Iraq, it's going to have to help people like Alaa Abdulhussein.

Abdulhussein walked into the Civil Military Operations Center in Sadr City and handed the American soldier sitting behind the desk two photos.

In the first, Abdulhussein smiled in front of the shampoo bottles that filled his Jamila Market drugstore, along with unopened boxes of cosmetics piled up next to him.

In the second photo, he sat in the same spot, but this time surrounded by the ashes of his store, burned down during fighting between the U.S. military and the Shiite's militia, the Mahdi Army.

"I'm here to ask for compensation," he told ABC News while walking into the center, which opened late last month and is located just a few miles from the Jamila market. "I'm here because the Americans are helping us."

During the fighting that destroyed Abdulhussein's shop, the U.S. military cordoned off southern Sadr City, clearing the area of militants and building a wall that soldiers stayed south of.

They patrol and staff the center where Iraqis appeal for assistance. North of the wall the Iraqi military patrols without American help, trying to convince about 2 million people that the Shiite government -- and not the Shiite militia that usually patrols these streets -- is their greatest ally who can provide services long missing.

"If we develop our intelligence and then keep a large number of units in Sadr City for a long time, it is possible to finish the militia for good," 1st Lt. Hmood Abbas Safi, an Iraqi army officer patrolling north of the wall, told ABC News.

"We want security, services, help for the people of the city," Ridha Yassen, a Sadr City resident, said to ABC News. The Iraqi security forces, he added, "are here to help the people."

The operation is a model for how the United States is now fighting in Iraq: create a front line and train an increasingly proficient Iraqi military to take over beyond it.

"It's more than just Sadr City itself. I think that is just a microcosm of what we're looking for in Iraq in general," Lt. Col. David Mount, the commanding officer of the Military Transition Team that trained the soldiers inside Sadr City, told ABC News.

A few months ago, he said, Iraqi soldiers were reluctant "to move forward unless they had a coalition force soldier either right there beside him or right behind him."