BAGHDAD — U.S. operations around Sadr City met with increased resistance this weekend, as soldiers from the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team continued clearing operations in the poor, restive neighborhoods around the Shiite mega-slum.
But rather than resist with bullets and bombs, residents took a decidedly grass-roots approach, hurling rocks and shouting obscenities.
The movement’s unlikely foot soldiers, a rowdy band of little boys and adolescents, slung insults and rocks with impunity as adult Iraqi soldiers and policemen stood by and watched.
Early Friday afternoon, one group of Strykers was “ambushed” by a group of about 30 rock-throwing boys and teens, who set up an impromptu roadblock to stop the vehicles. No one was seriously hurt in the incident, which occurred at the edge of Sadr City, but soldiers were visibly taken aback by the degree of sophistication. Children in other areas were sighted with slingshots and oil-filled bottles.
The day’s events put a definite strain on relations between American and Iraqi security forces, whose joint participation in the clearing operation is called Operation Together Forward.
“You’ve got rocks being thrown at us and your men aren’t doing a thing about it,” Maj. Michael Fazio, operations officer for the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment, yelled at a shocked Iraqi army captain on Friday morning.
Some Iraqi soldiers sat beneath a makeshift tent they’d set up off the side of their parked tank.
“We’re supposed to be partners in security,” Fazio continued. “You have a job to do here. You’re supposed to be directing traffic and providing security.”
Across the street, battalion commander Lt. Col. Al Kelly admonished local policemen for not intervening.
“You’ve got to stop these kids throwing rocks over here,” he said. “Someone’s going to die.”
“It’s not my responsibility,” retorted a police officer.
On Saturday, military officials got permission to use nonlethal weapons, such as rubber bullets, against the rock throwers.
Why the ongoing resistance?
Sadr City and the areas around it are known to be faithful to anti-American Shiite firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr, whose followers, U.S. and Iraqi officials say, include a large chunk of the Iraqi army and police forces. Around Sadr City, which houses up to 3 million Shiites, military officials say anti-American propaganda has popped up on walls in recent days, telling soldiers from the Fort Wainwright, Alaska-based brigade to “go back to Alaska on a mule.”
Brigade commander Col. Michael Shields said it was too soon to assess whether the clearing operation was successful.
“Is it making a difference?” he said. “It’s too soon to tell.”
However, he said that many residents had been welcoming to the U.S. soldiers.
“We’re working really closely with the people,” he said. “We’re not targeting any political group. We’re just here to provide safety and security.”
So far, Shields said, while the operation has yielded “a (weapons) cache here and there. … What’s more important is the perception of security.”