War Behind a Wall: Fighting in Sadr City

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

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."

Today, "their confidence level has gone up, they're able to complete 90 percent of the missions on their own with very little coaching," Mount said. "They can show the rest of the nation … that hey, we're not here to come in and completely destroy a city to save a city. We're here to try and help you save yourselves."

Sadr City, the poor, overpopulated slum that is home to nearly half of Baghdad's residents, has been the stronghold of the Mahdi Army, the 60,000-strong militia that sparked the Shiite insurgency here and helped kill and threaten countless Sunni Iraqis.

On March 23, the Iraqi military entered the southern port town of Basra, also a Mahdi Army stronghold. It was part of a intra-Shiite power struggle, with the anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr on one side and the embattled Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on the other.

Sadr's fighters retaliated for the Basra operation by increasing their rocket attacks on the Green Zone from Sadr City. The United States built a wall far enough into the Sadr City slum so that the militia's rockets couldn't reach the seat of the U.S.-backed government and the U.S. Embassy.

The largest Shiite bloc in government then signed a peace treaty with the Mahdi militia, and the army rolled into the northern portion of Sadr City -- through the U.S.-built wall -- completely uncontested.

Today, the Iraqi military patrols the heart of Sadr City, its first significant presence in the area since the U.S. invasion.

"The people of Sadr City are happy for the agreement between us and the government and support it," Sheik Salman Al-Furaiji, the head of Sadr's bloc inside Sadr City, told ABC News while sitting in his office. "They are happy that the governmental forces are here to bring security."

But the government's forces need to bring more than security. The operation is in part designed to convince Sadr City residents that the soldiers -- and the government that sent them in -- are on their side and are more reliable than the Mahdi Army.

"They are our people and our countrymen and our relatives," Abu Abdullah, an Iraqi officer, told ABC News while patrolling in Sadr City. "We are here to serve the people -- to provide them with services and target the outlaws."

That may be the goal, but some residents haven't had electricity in a week, and it is nearly impossible to quickly fix a grid that is dilapidated.

The operation is also designed to reduce the capabilities of the Mahdi Army for good. The peace treaty allows the Iraqi army to arrest senior Mahdi Army officials and confiscate their heavy weapons.

So far, the Iraqi army has collected 88 roadside bombs; 45 explosively formed penetrators, which have been known to pierce the thickest American armor; and about 200 mortar, artillery and tank rounds. The caches of weapons are routinely shown on Iraqiya television here.

But most of the heavy weapons and the senior leadership are no longer in the city, raising questions about whether the military is able and willing to do any lasting damage to the Mahdi Army.

"A lot of the bad guys, the JAM folks have actually cleared out of the area, taken a lot of their larger weapons most likely and relocated them to wherever," Mount said, referring to the Mahdi Army with an abbreviation of its Arabic name.

And throughout the city, Sadr's influence is always on stark display. His and his father's faces are on every street.

South of the wall, the United States patrols the Jamila market, the second largest in the country and the source of much of Baghdad's fruit, rice, flour and oil.

ABC News walked through the market with soldiers from the Charlie company, 1st battalion of the 6th infantry division this week. A dust storm had settled over the shops, which were all shuttered during the hottest part of the day. The stench of sewage filled the market and sludge was caked into the sidewalks. The military had already hauled out dozens of trucks' worth of garbage, but the market was nowhere near functioning.

"If we can revitalize this area, it will affect more than just Sadr City, more than just the Jamila market, but all of Baghdad," Second Lt. Nathaniel Sparks, walking through the wholesale section of the market, told ABC News.

Behind him three trucks had brought in hundreds of bags of onions and vegetables, the first delivery to the market in weeks. But, mostly, the delivery area was empty.

"We've been coming out here daily doing combat patrols with the Iraqi army, just to let them know we're here, we're not afraid to interact with them," he said.

Each day, he and his team hands out loan applications to shopkeepers whose stores were destroyed in the fighting between the Mahdi Army and the United States.

"We're showing them that it wasn't us that was actually us causing all the damage."

Sparks' troops arrived in late April and immediately were deployed to help build the wall.

"It's unprecedented -- to have to build a wall on the front line of a war," he said riding along the wall in a recently delivered MRAP, the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected truck that protects soldiers from improvised explosive devices.

The soldiers were under constant sniper fire and mortar attack while they built, but in the last week, they haven't used their weapons once.

"You're in combat operations one minute and then you're in counterinsurgency the next," Sparks said. "We need to provide the security here for the local shops so they're allowed to open and do their business freely."

Shops like Abdulhussein's.

At the Civil Military Operations Center where Abdulhussein applied for money, Maj.Michael Bailey spends his days meeting with local Iraqi leaders.

"We're here to be their friends and we're here to help them with whatever they need," he told ABC News. "And this may be trying to get food rations in, trying to get transportation into the Jamila market, trying to help with the traffic flow, addressing the issues with sewers. Sewers and electricity are the probably the two biggest problems in this area. Electricity is a monster."

Hassan Musa, the head of the provincial council in the area, works with Bailey on an almost daily basis. He says the United States is trying to help, but he also says the job is massive.

"The people who are in charge should start rehabilitation," he said. "We need to rehabilitate the whole city from the beginning."

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