As soldiers fill Sadr City, Mahdi Army members wait
Iraqi Col. Qassim Abdul-Wahab appeared relaxed as he cruised down rutted streets in an unarmored pickup truck, Arabic pop tunes pouring from the speakers and the air conditioner cranked up as high as it would go.
For the first time since U.S.-led forces invaded the country in March 2003, Iraqi soldiers blanket Sadr City, the heavily populated Baghdad district that is the bastion of firebrand Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia. Tanks painted with the Iraqi flag are positioned at major intersections, and soldiers scan vehicles for weapons and fighters at newly erected checkpoints.
“You see, the Iraqi army is everywhere. Nobody is targeting them,” Abdul-Wahab said with obvious pride. “The Iraqi army is in control of Sadr City.”
But the posters plastered across bullet-sprayed walls tell a different story. Sadr’s face and that of his revered father, the slain Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq Sadr -- for whom the district is named -- are everywhere. Menacing black graffiti proclaims: “The state of Sadr: It is forbidden to be entered by the Americans and the forces of [Prime Minister Nouri] Maliki.”
The cleric’s fighters did not challenge the Iraqi soldiers when they deployed throughout Sadr City last week, under an agreement by the major Shiite political parties to end weeks of deadly clashes.
Iraqi officers say many senior militia leaders slipped away while the deal was being hammered out. But thousands of foot soldiers remain. Some are cooperating with the Iraqi troops, pointing out bombs and the occasional weapons cache. Others are watching and waiting.
“See those men?” Abdul-Wahab said, nodding toward a group standing sullenly among the ruins of a blown-out shop. “Mahdi Army.”
At another intersection, a portly man in a crisp black-and-white uniform was trying to control an unruly flow of rattletrap cars and horse-drawn carts.
“This traffic officer is from the neighborhood,” Abdul-Wahab said. “He’s probably more loyal to the Mahdi Army than to the government.”
Some Iraqi soldiers pull scarves over their faces as they move through the district, fearful that they will be recognized and killed.
“The Mahdi Army still control the city,” boasted Qassim Atta, an angry teen in dusty trousers and plastic sandals. “They are everywhere.”
Fighting erupted in Sadr City and much of southern Iraq after Maliki sent troops to assert control over the lawless southern oil hub of Basra in late March. Sadr’s followers accused factions within Maliki’s governing Shiite alliance of using the crackdown to weaken the cleric’s movement before provincial elections in the fall.
U.S. and Iraqi forces fought their way last month into the southern tier of Sadr City, and erected a 3-mile concrete wall to keep out militants who were using the area to pound targets including the fortified Green Zone. But Sadr’s fighters remained in control of two-thirds of the district, launching daily attacks against the troops defending the wall.
U.S. and Iraqi forces responded by calling in earth-shuddering airstrikes and firing tank rounds at the buildings from which they took fire. More than 1,000 people were killed in the fighting, many of them civilians caught in the crossfire.
“Look at the destruction,” Abdul-Wahab said as he drove past piles of twisted metal, ripped canvas and charred planks -- all that remains of a major wholesale market. “They brought this on themselves.”
The streets are mostly quiet now. A few shops have opened amid mountains of rubble, and residents chat with Iraqi soldiers in the shade of their tanks.
Critical to the success of the cease-fire was the willingness of Iraqi troops to move into the rest of Sadr City without American ground forces, but U.S. attack helicopters are a constant presence overhead.
“If Americans come back here, there will be trouble,” warned Faisel Hassan, an unemployed college dropout.
Iraqi commanders say they will request U.S. firepower only if they come under attack. Their troops have moved carefully to avoid provoking the wary residents, many of whom remain committed to Sadr, even if patience is running thin with some of his fighters.
A few weapons caches have been recovered, but officers say they are taking their time before launching raids to detain fighters on their wanted list. Their focus is on winning over the populace by fixing the district’s decrepit electricity and sanitation services and by providing humanitarian assistance.
The mission Friday was to deliver food and water in some of the worst-hit sections. Within minutes of pulling into a gutted street, the convoy was surrounded by jostling men and women clamoring for the bags of rice, lentils, sugar and tea being passed out.
“Line up. Line up,” barked an officer, to little avail.
A wizened woman wrapped in black robes staggered away triumphantly, lugging a bag of food and bottles of water.
“We welcome you,” she told a soldier as she sat down heavily on the curb to catch her breath. “You make our faces brighter with your existence.”
But for others, the help wasn’t nearly enough.
“My house was destroyed,” a slight man with a hint of a beard told the soldiers. “There is no glass left, there are bullet holes everywhere, the walls are burned, the roof is gone. . . . Who is going to compensate me for that?”
Sgt. Maj. Salah Sabir tried to assuage the man’s anger as a crowd gathered. “I am one of you,” he said. “I am here to protect you. Things will get better. . . . Just give us a chance.”
When several shots sounded in the distance, it was time to move on to the next stop.
Back in the car, Abdul-Wahab fell silent for a while.
“This agreement is only temporary,” he eventually said. “Most of the Mahdi Army isn’t happy with it. They need chaos so they can take money from people.”
Although Sadr’s movement has won loyalty by providing food, shelter and other services that the district lacks, some of his fighters have funded themselves by extorting from local businesses, smuggling fuel and kidnapping for ransom. Eventually, Abdul-Wahab predicted, they will fight back.
“The only way we will fix this,” he said, “is through power and force.”
Times staff writers Caesar Ahmed and Raheem Salman contributed to this report.