Battles in Baghdad Slum Leave 40 Iraqis and a G.I. Dead

By DEXTER FILKINS

New York Times

September 8, 2004

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Sept. 7 - A weeklong calm that had taken hold of the Shiite ghetto of Sadr City and raised hopes for a peaceful settlement of the armed standoff there dissolved into gun battles Monday night and Tuesday, leaving at least 40 Iraqis and 1 American soldier dead and 202 people wounded.

The fighting ended a unilateral cease-fire declared by the Mahdi Army, the militia led by the rebel cleric Moktada al-Sadr, who has challenged the American presence in the sprawling Baghdad slum. Mr. Sadr, whose men were routed from the Shiite holy city of Najaf late last month, declared the cease-fire on Aug. 30. At the time, his aides said he was making plans to enter politics.

The new combat began when American forces, trying to assert control of the area, came under attack by insurgents using rocket-propelled grenades, homemade bombs and heavy machine guns. Fighters of the Mahdi Army said they had been responding to an American raid carried out Sunday morning on the Jawadain Mosque, where they said seven Iraqis were arrested during morning prayers.

A statement released by the First Cavalry Division of the United States Army, whose troops are operating in the area, listed 11 attacks by the Mahdi Army on Tuesday alone. Among those was an ambush of a team of American soldiers who had been trying to defuse one of the homemade bombs that are hidden in alleys and intersections throughout the area. One American soldier was killed and two were wounded in that attack, which was carried out by a rocket-propelled grenade.

"All night long there was fighting," Abu Abdullah al-Hur, a bleary-eyed Mahdi gunman, said during an afternoon lull. "The Americans went into the mosques. They starting arresting people, arresting women. At that point, we decided to shoot back."

It was impossible to verify Mr. Hur's account. On some streets, militiamen like Mr. Hur roamed freely, setting up barricades and stopping cars. At others, the Americans held sway, with soldiers scanning the streets through the sights of their machine guns. On the streets that were still contested, the fighting went on.

The outbreak of violence here illustrated the seemingly unbridgeable differences between American forces and Mr. Sadr, a 30-year-old cleric who has built a large following in Iraq's downtrodden neighborhoods. Badly bloodied by the American assault on his forces last month in Najaf, where the Mahdi Army had seized the Shrine of Ali, he declared himself willing to negotiate, if not to surrender his guns.

In the last week, aides to Mr. Sadr engaged in on-again-off-again talks with the Iraqi prime minister, Ayad Allawi. At one point, the two sides appeared to reach a deal that would have required the Mahdi Army to surrender its heavy weapons and the Americans to suspend military operations. But the talks collapsed when Dr. Allawi balked at restrictions on American forces.

American commanders, for their part, appear to believe that they have caught Mr. Sadr at a vulnerable moment, and they are insisting that his troops surrender their large weapons - rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns - before talks even begin.

At the same time, by necessity and by design, the Iraqi government has withdrawn many essential city services from the area, including police protection and garbage pickup. As a result, on block after block, the streets are covered in refuse and rotting food, some of it knee-deep, some of it on fire, its putrid smoke lingering in the air. There are no policemen anywhere.

"There are no negotiations," said Col. Robert B. Abrams, the commander of the First Brigade of the First Cavalry Division. "Sadr needs to disband and disarm, and then we can talk."

"If they don't disarm," Colonel Abrams said of the Mahdi Army, "we will be back at this every month, forever."

He and other American commanders said a majority of Iraqis inside Sadr City supported their presence here, and were particularly eager to benefit from the tens of millions of dollars in reconstruction money they control. The Americans added that they believed that Mr. Sadr and his men, by intimidating the local residents, appeared to be far stronger than they really were.

"Ninety-five percent of the people just want a better life for their family," Colonel Abrams said. "The people are tired of Mr. Sadr's antics."

Still, the evidence on the streets of Sadr City suggests that the Americans might be underestimating the support that Mr. Sadr has, or overestimating their own. By many accounts, the armed incursions by American forces appear to be deeply unpopular, serving mainly to strengthen the cleric and his otherwise unloved band of followers.

"Of course the violence is the fault of the Americans; they entered the city," said Haitham Assi, 32, seated on a street corner with a group of his friends. "Just imagine if I came into your home, arrested and killed members of your family. You would protect yourself."

Mr. Assi, one of the area's legion of unemployed, did not count himself a supporter of Mr. Sadr, nor did his friend, Mohanid Abdul Muttalib, seated next to him. But both said they much preferred Mr. Sadr to American soldiers with their guns.

"Even if the people don't support Moktada, they will join him if the Americans come into the city," Mr. Muttalib said.

The fighting of the last 48 hours demonstrated anew the Mahdi Army's ability to spread mayhem at the time and place of its choosing. Colonel Abrams said the Iraqi government had told the Americans that they could neither detain nor kill Mr. Sadr. In Najaf, the peace deal there allowed Mr. Sadr and all of his surviving fighters to leave with their guns. Some of them went home to Sadr City.

Sitting around a room here, five Mahdi Army fighters, most of them young, most of them barefoot, talked about days past and days ahead. They predicted more fighting, but reveled in self-made tales of their exploits.

"We attacked three tanks, and we have a film of it," said Muhammad Abu Sajal. "We film everything. Last night, we shot an Apache helicopter, and we have a piece of it."

Mr. Sajal spoke quickly, and his eyes looked beyond his visitor.

"Please, make it quick," Mr. Sajal said to an American reporter. "The fighting is going to start very soon."

Meanwhile on Tuesday, the United States military said three other American soldiers were killed in separate attacks in or near Baghdad, Reuters reported.

American warplanes attacked the militant-controlled city of Falluja, 35 miles west of Baghdad, and witnesses and hospital officials said at least four people, including an 8-year-old child, had been killed, Reuters reported. The United States military statement said up to 100 insurgents had been killed.

The violence in Falluja followed the deadliest attack on American forces in four months, when seven marines were killed Monday in a car bombing.

Also on Tuesday, insurgents ambushed the convoy of Baghdad's governor, opening fire and then detonating a roadside bomb as the cars passed, Reuters reported. He was not hurt, but an Iraqi in another car was killed.

The son of the governor of the northern city of Mosul was shot dead by guerrillas on Tuesday, Reuters also reported.