U.S. and Iraqi forces have moved aggressively in the last week to combat Sunni Arab insurgents in neighborhoods across the capital and to establish a stronger presence in religiously mixed districts long plagued by sectarian violence.
But as the new security crackdown enters a second week, they face their most sensitive challenge: whether, when and how to move into the Shiite-dominated slum of Sadr City, stronghold of the Al Mahdi militia.
Political pressure has mounted to crack down on the Baghdad neighborhood that harbors the militia loyal to radical anti-American cleric Muqtada Sadr. Sunni Arabs, who make up the backbone of the insurgency, have long accused Shiite Prime Minister Nouri Maliki of allowing Sadr City to remain a haven for the militia to keep the support of Sadr’s followers.
“We think that much of the ... violence that comes as a 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 political organization.
U.S. and Iraqi military commanders setting out the next steps of the Baghdad security plan are concerned about stirring up a hornet’s nest in a neighborhood of more than 2 million Shiites.
They worry that by moving too aggressively they could sabotage one of the few success stories in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
The teeming streets of Sadr City are thriving while the rest of the violence-racked capital wilts. The district pulses with commerce and youth, even as huge stretches of Baghdad fade into ghost towns.
Sadr City may shelter troublemakers, but they’re lying low for the most part now. Moreover, Sadr’s deputies have endorsed the security crackdown.
Even amid the bloodshed across Baghdad, customers fill Sadr City’s shops. 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 a quarter long one of Iraq’s most deprived.
“Sadr City has always been safe, with the exception of the suicide and roadside bomb attacks,” said Talib Saad, a barber along the district’s main thoroughfare.
U.S. troops took heavy casualties when they tried to storm Sadr City in the spring and summer of 2004. For the Americans, the grueling street fights with black-clad teens holding AK-47s while running down the streets represented a nadir few want to relive.
Rather than crush the Al Mahdi, the U.S. wound up bolstering Sadr’s street credibility and undermining the popularity of then-Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who was pro-American.
Any new move into Sadr City remains controversial among military experts. Army Gen. Jack Keane, a former 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 now-splintered Shiite leadership.
“Attempting to clear Sadr City would almost certainly force the [Al Mahdi militia] 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 [Maliki’s] political base and would probably lead to the collapse of the Iraqi government.”
But now at least one of the authors questions that view. In an interview Tuesday, Kagan adjusted his position and said some early signs of success, including Sadr’s recent disappearance from public view 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 taken 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 Army Lt. Col. Avanulas Smiley, a battalion commander with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, which has been sweeping parts of north and east Baghdad as part of the crackdown that began Feb. 13.
But Sunnis insist on action. After years of watching their communities be targeted aggressively by local security forces and U.S. troops, Sunni leaders and officials insist that the success or failure of the security plan and 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,” Wajuih, the Sunni politician, said.
Wajuih’s party boss, Vice President Tariq Hashemi, recently raised the stakes by calling on authorities to classify the Al Mahdi militia as a terrorist organization and treat it as harshly as they do Sunni insurgent groups.
U.S. military officials acknowledge that Sadr City’s political clout has heightened sensitivities about moving in forcefully. In the past, Iraqi politicians have pulled Iraqi security forces off joint operations.
“We would have members of the [parliament] who would call directly down to Iraqi commanders, police, army, and give them directions that they would not conduct operations in certain areas,” Army Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV said at a recent news briefing.
U.S. military officials said they had since received guarantees from Maliki government officials that they wouldn’t interfere in security matters.
Sadr supporters themselves say U.S. troops have already begun a new crackdown on their group, and they fear a large-scale sweep of Sadr City is imminent. Police at the main entries to Sadr City have established checkpoints that have annoyed residents.
U.S. forces raided a Sadr organization office Tuesday in the northwest Baghdad neighborhood of Shuala, according to an official of the group. Also Tuesday, Iraqi police in the southern city of Samawah rounded up dozens of alleged members of the Al Mahdi and Sadr’s organization.
“U.S. troops start their raids at night during the curfew hours in a way that is against human rights and international standards,” said Nasser Saidi, one of at least 30 pro-Sadr members of parliament. “They often lead raids on the wrong houses.”
Several U.S. soldiers, some of whom have grappled repeatedly with the question of Sadr during their second or third tours in Iraq, blamed politics for the failure to enter Sadr City full-force and said it had been a mistake not to move against Sadr previously.
“I think if we grabbed Sadr, all this ... would die down,” one U.S. soldier said.
“He’s the problem,” Army Pfc. Nathan Bratager added. “Until he’s dead or captured or in prison, this will keep happening.”
While it was unclear whether the U.S. would arrest Sadr if the opportunity arose, many say that any plan to squelch the Al Mahdi has already 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, 30, a Sadr City resident.
The whereabouts of Sadr himself are also unclear, with U.S. and Iraqi officials saying he left for Iran before the crackdown began but Sadr’s aides denying it.
Times staff writers Peter Spiegel in Washington and Tina Susman, Said Rifai and Zeena Kareem in Baghdad and special correspondents in Baghdad and Samawah contributed to this report.