Next up for 172nd: dealing with Sadr City
BAGHDAD — The American military’s quest to clean up sectarian violence in Baghdad took its first, very tentative steps into Baghdad’s most infamous neighborhood Sunday morning.
Troops from the Fort Wainwright, Alaska-based 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team visited Sadr City, the teeming Shiite slum famous for its densely packed population and as the headquarters for radical Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr. Sadr is the leader of a Shiite militia, known as Jeish al-Mahdi, that is said to be responsible for many of Baghdad’s sectarian killings.
Lt. Col. Al Kelly, commander of 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment, said Sadr City has been high on his priority list since the unit was sent into Baghdad to participate in the joint American-Iraqi cleanup operation dubbed Operation Together Forward.
“When I first got here, I was like, ‘What are we waiting for?’” he said. “Let’s go.”
The battalion also has cleared several contentious neighborhoods, including the western suburbs of Shula and Ghazaliya, and the contentious neighborhoods of Adhamiya and Rusafa, since the operation began in August.
Despite claims by American military officials that the operation has significantly reduced sectarian violence in Baghdad, officials with the Iraqi Health Ministry reported 1,500 violent deaths in August, roughly the same as in July, according to The Associated Press.
While Kelly said he views Sadr City, in northeast Baghdad, as just another neighborhood, he realizes the strategic importance of the area and the risks involved.
“They believe we’re going in to attack,” he said. “I have no doubt about that.”
Sunday morning, Kelly visited the local police station and assured police chief Gen. Hassan Hamoud that he didn’t plan to employ the same tactics in Sadr City as in other neighborhoods. For example, American soldiers will do joint patrols with local Iraqi police and not, as in other neighborhoods, with the Iraqi army. He also said house-to-house searches may not be on the agenda.
“I don’t think we’re treading more lightly,” he said of the plan. “I think it’s easily perceived that way. But we know Sadr City is a critical piece of what’s going on right now.”
Hassan — who lays claim to being the lone Sunni in his 1,200-man police force — said he felt the fate of Sadr City would have wide-ranging implications.
“The weight of Iraq is all on Sadr City,” he said in Arabic, through an interpreter. “This area has its own significance. The provinces down south are all linked to Sadr City. The sheiks there are all dependent on Sadr City.”
The militia, he said, is considered a quasi-governmental entity in the neighborhood. He said militia members help police at checkpoints, clean up the streets, and operate schools and hospitals. He said they do not openly carry weapons, a claim supported by American military police training teams who work in the area.
He said he felt a large number of troops — as many as 7,000, by his estimate — would be necessary to rid the area of its problematic elements.
Even so, he said, “You will not be able to finish Jeish al-Mahdi. It’s just like the Baathists; we’re still finding them.”
And he warned Kelly not to expect a warm welcome from residents.
“These people have no fear of death,” he said.