Shiite district serves as dress rehearsal for Sadr City

BAGHDAD — Shuhada Mosque in Baghdad’s Shiite district of Shaab is covered in banners singing the praises of cleric Moqtada Sadr’s Mehdi Army, in a building which intelligence reports claim is a centre of factional activities.

But when no one answered the polite knock of US soldiers and Iraqi National Police conducting searches in the neighbourhood, the decision was made to move on.

“We cannot get in without their permission,” said Lieutenant Colonel Khaled Burhan, commanding the National Police detachment paired with the US forces.

“If I entered a mosque and there was no one there, there would be problems for me.” Even as US and Iraqi forces searched every house in this neighbourhood as part of the operation, Together Forward, to restore stability to Iraq’s war-torn capital, entry to mosques would be “passive”, meaning they would only enter if invited.

As the operation expands across the capital to include the eastern Shiite neighbourhoods, security forces are very careful in how they conduct their searches — especially with an eventual search of the sprawling Shiite slum of Sadr City looming in the future.

“We talked to the guys before we came in here because it is so close to Sadr City,” said platoon leader Captain James Kwon. “We are not going to go in there with guns blazing.” “We moved into [Shaab and Ur] first to show that we’re not all about kicking the door in,” he added. “We want to show we’re respectful, that we’re human.” Battalion commander Lieutant Colonel Charles Webster would not discuss his unit’s future operations, but he did ask his company commanders to ask people they met how they thought residents of neighbouring Sadr City would react to such searches.

“I think you need to show both Sunni and Shia that coalition forces and Iraqi forces are going to conduct searches all over the city to get a handle on these death squads,” said Webster about the weeklong operation that started Thursday.

With many of those death squads believed to have close ties to the factions that run Sadr City and other Shiite neighbourhoods, many fear a massive showdown between US forces and well-armed fighters with substantial popular backing.

Initial forays by American units into Sadr City have been greeted by stone-throwing and angry locals making it clear they are not wanted here.

As they operate in Baghdad, the soldiers of 2nd Battalion, 1st Regiment of the Stryker Brigade find themselves under a great deal more scrutiny than they did during their year in Mosul.

The brigade was transferred from the northern city of Mosul to Baghdad in August.

With much of the Western and Iraqi media based in Baghdad and many members of the Shiite-dominated government with strong ties with the factions, any move is watched carefully — and it can be on television within minutes.

“It’s a much more politicised city,” acknowledged Webster.

Rocks thrown by children plink against the heavily-armoured skin of the massive Strykers’ armoured vehicles as they roll through Shaab, but the children are soon scolded into stopping by the National Police accompanying the Americans.

In some cases, a handful of candy from the American soldiers’ pocket goes a long way to win over the area’s youngest residents.

It will take a bit more to win over the older residents, however, and the plan here, like in the rest of the city’s neighborhoods, is to use the security created by a week’s worth of searches to address some of the persistent woes like electricity and trash collection.

“These are immediate fixes to give the government breathing room to negotiate with the militias and everyone else causing problems,” said Webster.

Residents of Shaab and Ur lament the total lack of services and some say that the only people providing help of any kind are armed groups.

“They are heroes,” said a teenager about the militias as he stood under a palm tree with his friends in a raw new area smelling rankly of sewage. “They bring all the energy, gasoline and propane.” Most of the older residents shake their heads, however, when asked about the armed factions, maintaining that there were no such groups around here, though perhaps some local “popular committees” helped with security.

“They are not militias, they are people from the neighbourhood who get together and defend it,” said Kadhim Baydani to the US soldiers on the street.

“The government, police and army know about this situation and allow it — everyone except the US forces.” In the midst of the worsening sectarian violence many Shiite clerics have called for the formation of armed “popular committees” to protect neighbourhoods.

“The popular committees are the militias,” said an old university professor at one house, after shooing away a few children listening in to his conversation with a journalist.

“If I talk bad about the militias here, those kids would go to them and two hours later they would come for me,” he said. “The truth is, the National Police are part of the militias, too.” Their presence is a kind of dark side to an otherwise fairly bustling area that sees a lot of new construction and busy marketplaces — and a dwindling Sunni population.

In one street a funeral tent is set up by a Sunni family for their son, a photographer for the local Watan newspaper. He was kidnapped by six men waving Glock pistols, usually just issued to the security services.

An hour later the police called the family to pick up the body.

“Can you do something to stop these armed men killing us?” spits an angry young man at the family house when a US officer asks if there is anything they can do.

For his part, Baydani tells the Americans that he doesn’t think their door-knocking and mosque searching will be welcome in Sadr City, just a few minutes drive away.

“They feel they can protect their own neighbourhood fine and don’t feel they need to be searched,” he said.

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