A Tenuous Peace in Sadr City

An anti-American cleric called a truce that has held for two weeks in the Shiite area of Baghdad. The relative calm elicits disbelief among troops.

By Patrick J. McDonnell

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

July 8, 2004

BAGHDAD — After 10 weeks of fierce combat, an odd sense of normality has returned to this capital's most battle-scarred neighborhood.

The break in running clashes between U.S. troops and Shiite Muslim militiamen loyal to outspoken cleric Muqtada Sadr has brought a tenuous peace to the sprawling district known as Sadr City. By most accounts, Sadr's declaration of a truce two weeks ago was a collateral benefit of Iraq's return to a semblance of self-rule.

The militantly anti-U.S. cleric has expressed a strong desire that his popular movement be represented in national elections scheduled for January. Sadr wants a place at the bargaining table as a political leader, not a warlord.

"We are not terrorists as some are describing us," said Sheik Abdul-Hadi Darraji, the manager of Sadr's compound in Sadr City. "We are serving our country."

The compound was twice destroyed in U.S. attacks in the spring — and twice rebuilt. On the outside wall, black and green flags memoriali ze young "martyrs" lost in fighting against the "infidels" from Najaf to Karbala to Baghdad.

In one-sided battles, U.S. troops have killed as many as 900 militiamen in Sadr City since April. There are no accurate figures for civilian casualties. Eight U.S. soldiers also were killed, all but one on the first day of the fighting.

U.S. troops who have resumed regular foot patrols in the community of about 2.5 million have hardly been shot at in recent days.

Some express a sense of disbelief. Until recently, said one soldier, "a patrol here was more like a rolling firefight."

Masked gunmen outfitted in black no longer roam the streets or peer from alleys, weapons at the ready.

The U.S.-backed district council held its first meeting in more than three months Wednesday.

The sessions were suspended after the slaying of the council's president, one of two neighborhood representatives found beaten to death and strung from street lamps.

A crude sign attached to a slain councilman's chest proclaimed: "This is the fate of collaborators and spies."

Sadr's representatives cited the "public interest" when they declared a truce last month.

By the U.S. Army's account, influential Shiite tribal sheiks pressured Sadr to urge his fighters to lay down their arms.

"There is a clear groundswell here that says, 'Calm down the violence,' " said Lt. Col. Gary Volesky, who heads the 1st Cavalry battalion that patrols Sadr City. "We know we're not going to win this thing by fighting, by pulling the trigger."

Though virulently anti-American, Sadr's faction is separate from the largely Sunni Muslim insurgency against U.S. troops and their allies that began a year ago. Former loyalists of ousted President Saddam Hussein, who favored the minority Sunni Arab population, are thought to be ringleaders of that armed insurgency, along with anti-U.S. nationalists and religious militants, both Iraqi and foreign.

The Sunni-led insurgency wants the new int erim government to fail. By contrast, Shiite activists — including Sadr's movement — back the idea of a new government that is representative of the majority Shiite population.

Many in Sadr City and other Shiite enclaves fear that the current turmoil in Iraq could result in the return of Hussein's Baath Party apparatus, which repressed Shiites throughout Iraq.

"We know the Baathists are plotting," Darraji said.

Polls show that Sadr's popularity among Iraqis rose dramatically during the spring uprising.

Sadr City was set up a generation ago as an urban renewal project to house migrant laborers from Iraq's Shiite south. It was the base of Sadr's father, Mohammed Sadeq Sadr, a revered Shiite cleric who was killed along with two of his sons in a hail of bullets during Hussein's rule — an assassination widely attributed to the dictator's secret police.

Today, Sadr City is a densely populated warren of residential quarters, factories, shops and bumpy roads. The district is chronically short of proper sewage facilities, running water and other vital services.

The neighborhood, long called Saddam City, was renamed Sadr City after U.S.-led troops toppled Hussein. Many Shiites, including those in Sadr City, greeted U.S. troops as liberators. But relations soured amid deteriorating public services and a series of U.S. missteps — including the death of a Shiite cleric who was killed here when an American tank ran over his vehicle.

Seizing on his father's popularity, Muqtada Sadr emerged as the spiritual leader of the Al Mahdi militia, a lightly trained but zealous force composed of thousands of mostly disadvantaged young men.

Despite constant tensions between Sadr supporters and occupying U.S. troops, Sadr City remained relatively peaceful — until April.

That was after U.S. forces shut down Sadr's newspaper and arrested a top aide. With Sadr's arrest in connection with a murder case seemingly imminent, Al Mahdi fighters seiz ed control of the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala and launched coordinated attacks on American troops in Sadr City on April 4. Hundreds of militiamen blocked streets, fired at U.S. convoys and seized eight police stations. So began 82 consecutive days of varying degrees of combat that ended only with last month's truce.

"For a while there," said Lt. Peter East of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, "it seemed like it was us against all of Sadr City."

Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, former commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, famously declared his forces' intention to "kill or capture" Sadr — a statement that incensed the cleric's followers.

Since the truce, Al Mahdi fighters have stashed away their weapons and are out sweeping the streets and directing traffic. Like all private militias here, the Al Mahdi militia is technically illegal. Sadr has rebuffed U.S. calls to disband it.

"Everybody wants the situation here to return to normal," said Jassim Mohammed, a 33-year -old shopkeeper and Al Mahdi militiaman, who pointed to bullet holes on the wall above his storefront — from a U.S. machine gun, he explained.

But there is no moderation in one of Sadr's principal goals: the departure of U.S. and other foreign forces from Iraqi soil.

"Each Iraqi refuses the presence of a single American soldier on our territories," Darraji said. "If we want to enjoy true sovereignty, there should be no interference from Americans or other outsiders."

The Sadr movement would like to see its militia integrated with U.S.-trained Iraqi police — a proposal American military officials view as a power grab.

In a country where arms can mean influence, analysts say that Sadr is hesitant to disband his militia without some guarantees that he will hold some political power in Iraq. After months of fighting, mainstream Shiite leaders long hostile to Sadr now reluctantly recognize him as part of a broader Shiite front vying for power.

How the interim Ir aqi government plans to treat Sadr remains to be seen, though there already has been talk of an amnesty for him in the slaying of a rival cleric. U.S. commanders on the ground, however, see no role for the Al Mahdi militia.

As Charlie Company patrolled a sweltering Sadr City the other day, Lt. Nicholas Auletta approached an energetic young man directing traffic at a busy intersection and told him that he would have to remove the green armband signifying his allegiance to Sadr.

"We appreciate your help," Auletta informed the volunteer, "but you've got to take that off."

The man promised to comply, though half an hour later he still wore the armband as he waved snarled traffic along on a main drag.

During a morning patrol, it was clear that some tensions had lifted in Sadr City. Eager children gathered around U.S. soldiers, who were passing out plastic Iraqi flags. A few residents flashed smiles. Many seemed stunned to see troops again walking the crowded streets, away from their armored vehicles and vulnerable to ambush.

As the temperature soared above 110 degrees, troops with their 50 pounds of body armor and equipment trudged along a highway median littered with rotting vegetables, sheep entrails and other waste dumped from nearby markets. The soldiers eyed passing cars warily and continued on their way.

Accompanying the U.S. forces were several Iraqi National Guardsmen and an interpreter who worried about being recognized as working alongside U.S. forces. Several pulled scarves over their faces. At least three interpreters working with the U.S. Army in Sadr City have been killed and scores have quit their jobs in fear of retaliation.

At two official buildings — a police station and a power facility — the managers appealed to the U.S. military for more security. Both facilities are in urgent need of blast walls to guard against car-bomb attacks, the officials said.

Commanders are hopeful that the relative peace will last and permit the c ompletion of about $100 million in U.S.-funded sewage and water projects planned for Sadr City, utilizing local labor. Contractors face threats, however, slowing the work.

"It's no wonder the people in Sadr City get a little irritated — they've waited a year" for long-promised improvements, said Col. Robert B. Abrams, commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Cavalry. "We did not come here to spill Iraqi blood…. There's been far too much bloodshed here already than anyone wants to discuss. And that's why it needs to stop."