US gradually moves into Sadr City
Area controlled by militiamen a security risk
BAGHDAD -- The US military is engaged in delicate negotiations inside Sadr City to clear the way for a gradual push in coming weeks by more American and Iraqi forces into the volatile Shi'ite enclave of more than 2 million people, one of the most daunting challenges of the campaign to stabilize Baghdad.
So sensitive is the problem of the sprawling slum -- heavily controlled by militiamen loyal to anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr -- that General David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, personally approves all targets for raids inside the Baghdad district, military officers said.
Currently lacking sufficient troops to move deeper into Sadr City, the military has cautiously edged into the southern part, conducting searches and patrols, handing out supplies, and using offers of economic aid to try to overcome resistance. Meanwhile, US Special Operations forces and other US and Iraqi troops have detained militia leaders in an effort to weaken their organization.
As additional US forces flow into Baghdad this month and next, the plan is to step up the presence of US and Iraqi troops in Sadr City, US commanders said in interviews over the past three weeks. "More US forces are needed in Sadr City to establish greater control, with Iraqi forces. We have to be matched," Colonel Billy Don Farris, commander of the 82d Airborne Division's Second Brigade and senior US officer for the area.
Commanders say they intend to use political negotiations to gain peaceful entry into the district, bringing with them Iraqi forces and reconstruction projects. US officials hope "to take Sadr City without a shot fired," said Major General Joseph Fil, the senior US general overseeing Baghdad.
But negotiations have had setbacks, with key players shot or intimidated. Farris, the lead American officer in the talks, was evacuated from Iraq and is recovering after being shot in the leg May 3 in a different part of Baghdad, his spokesman said last week.
If political avenues are exhausted, the US military has formulated other options, including plans for a wholesale clearing operation in Sadr City that would require a much larger force, but commanders emphasize that this is a last resort.
"A second Fallujah plan exists, but we don't want to execute it," a military officer in Baghdad said, referring to the US military offensive in November 2004 to retake the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah in Iraq's western Anbar Province. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with reporters.
Today, the small US units patrolling Sadr City do not venture far into its teeming neighborhoods. Posters bear the frowning visage of Sadr and flags symbolize his militia, the Mahdi Army, whose influence reaches into every alley.
"Sadr City is like a spider web," said Lieutenant Colonel Richard Kim, the US battalion commander in the area.
One recent morning, a convoy pulled up to a girls school, and US troops and Iraqi police officers piled out, heavily armed but with a benign mission: assessing classroom supplies.
Yet the school's somber-faced headmistress, sitting in her office with a poster of Sadr above her on the wall, confided her fears. "We are receiving threats for taking school supplies from you," Ataf Abas Hamid al-Bayati told US troops through an interpreter. In search of refuge, she said, she had asked the United Nations to help relocate her.
Negotiations with local officials by US officers, stalled off and on by assassination attempts and other threats, this month achieved incremental progress with a project to put protective barriers around a main Sadr City market. Iraqi police and contractors are now carrying out the project, which will take about three weeks to complete, said Lieutenant Colonel David Oclander, of the 82d Airborne.
Commanders say that the "soft" approach to Sadr City does not apply to violent militia cells, which are targeted throughout the area by US Special Operations troops and other forces.
"More often than not, we're successful," said Staff Sergeant Dan Moss, of the Second Battalion, Third Stryker Brigade, as he returned from a recent night raid in which his team broke into a house and captured an Iraqi suspected of bombing the security station in Sadr City.
In the absence of Sadr and other leaders of his movement, who left Baghdad early this year before the new security plan began, the raids have weakened some militia factions, US officers said. US forces "pretty much wiped out a whole layer of middle people," said Captain Douglas Hess, who helps advise Iraqi national police.
There is now "a degree of chaos," in Sadr's movement, said a senior military official in Baghdad. Sadr's aides maintain that the cleric still has control over his movement and that his militia has lain low in Sadr City in deference to his orders.
Attacks on the US-Iraqi security station in Sadr City are a reminder that the entrenched Shi'ite militia is a force to contend with. "This is where they launch mortars from. It's a straight shot" to the security station, said Lieutenant Dylan Montgomery, leading a recent counter-mortar mission at dusk through a deserted market area. A white
American officers readily acknowledge militia infiltration of the police. "Everyone is affiliated" with the Mahdi Army in Sadr City, said police Captain Frank Fisher.