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June 28, 2004

As Violence Rises, an Unexpected Ceasefire

by Jim Lobe

BAGHDAD – The daily mortar attacks on Camp War Eagle of the U.S. First Cavalry at the edge of the seething Shia Muslim Sadr City tapered off over the weekend. Just a few dry pops of exploding mortar grenades could be heard in the late afternoons. During the week the attacks had been so intense that two soldiers were seriously wounded and evacuated to Germany.

In other parts of Iraq, notably the Kurdish north and in the Sunni towns of Baquba and Fallujah, violence is escalating in the run-up to the formal handover of sovereignty from the coalition forces, mainly the United States and Britain, to the new Iraqi government.

But in Sadr City the Mehdi army, a ragtag militia that follows the youngest scion of the venerated al-Sadr family, Muqtada al-Sadr, has indicated that it will observe a cease-fire. Their young leader, a cleric who has acquired a reputation as a firebrand, has been backing down over the last couple of weeks from a confrontation with the U.S. forces.

The fighting started in early April and engulfed not only Sadr City but also the holy Shia cities of Karbala and Najaf and other places in the south of the country.

The U.S. forces in Sadr City, mainly the 2-5 battalion of the 1st Cavalry, are breathing a guarded sigh of relief. "We have been in continued combat for more than 10 weeks," their commander, Lt. Colonel Gary Volesky said in his operations room at camp War Eagle. "Because we reach out to the community leaders and because we have taken a firm stand, it seems that they have now decided to stop the fighting."

Sadr City is a huge Shia shantytown in the south of Baghdad. Estimates of the number of people living here vary from 1.5 million to 2.5 million.

It was one of the least regulated places under the old regime of Saddam Hussein. It came into being in the 1970s and 1980s as poor Shias from the south flocked to the capital in search of work. Sadr City, then known as Saddam City, became a hotbed of Shia discontent with the regime, especially after Saddam Hussein mercilessly put down the Shia uprising in the wake of the Gulf War of 1991.

It is not very surprising that the inhabitants of Sadr City have now turned against the Americans. The intense poverty and an ingrained hostility toward authorities have conspired to make the neighborhood a wellspring of gangs and criminals going back to the days of the former regime. Add religious fervor and cultural differences, and it is not hard to see why people here do not take kindly to anybody, especially outsiders, trying to impose order.

To the American soldiers this often translates into an unbridgeable divide. While most Iraqis seem to think that the Americans came for their own reasons and are here to stay, the soldiers in the 2-5 battalion in Sadr City sound genuinely convinced that they were sent to Iraq to help the people, and they are stunned when the assistance is not welcome.

"It is very hard to empathize with those people," said staff sergeant Jason Boaz as he set out on a patrol with Bradley fighting vehicles into Sadr City. "We are trying to help them with specific projects, such as electricity, water, sewage. Okay, if they don't want our help that's up to them, but why should they also try to kill us?"

Boaz is one of the few U.S. soldiers who seem to come into direct contact with the people of Sadr City. Most soldiers see the sewage-filled and dirt-poor streets through the window of a speeding Humvee or in the green glow of the screen in the belly of a Bradley.

When the Bradley stops it is Boaz who goes on so-called "dismounts," when the heavily armored vehicle topped with a small caliber rapid-fire canon opens its back hatch and the soldiers carry out a mission on foot.

Accompanied by a translator, who will only give his name as George, Boaz is supposed to talk to a wide variety of people; managers of power stations and water pump stations, Iraqi police officers, and owners of gas pumps about the problems they face and to see if they need any assistance. That is, if the patrol can actually find what it is looking for and if the person in charge of the facility is present, which is not often, judging by one patrol.

On this occasion the patrol of five Bradleys also carried out a number of "snap checkpoints" when they cut off a civilian car and searched it for weapons and contraband. After each dismount, Boaz hands out plastic bags filled with food, coloring books and American "propaganda," in his own words, to the people who happen to be around, or to those who have been searched or visited in an apparent attempt to win "hearts and minds."

In a sign of the approaching handover of sovereignty to the new Iraqi government, soldiers of the newly formed Iraqi National Guard (ING) are taken along in one of the Bradleys. They are the ones carrying out the searches, showing the flag in their brand new, somehow always baggy looking uniforms.

Lieutenant Derek Johnson who was in charge of the patrol explained that the strategy now is to put the ING out in the field. "With the approaching handover we think it is a good idea that the people here see that it is their soldiers who are providing security and that it is not only us."

George the translator was quite skeptical. He pointed at some of the ING soldiers who wear masks as they exit the Bradley. George does the same, even though he does not live in Sadr City. Every Iraqi cooperating with the U.S. forces, as translators or in the ING, runs the risk of being killed as a collaborator.

"In one month time they have killed four translators," said George, who took off his mask, which made him sweat profusely, every time he stepped back into the Bradley.

He doubted that the new Iraqi government would be able to change the situation. "At least for five, six months, things will only get worse."

Some U.S. soldiers at War Eagle estimate that thousands of Iraqis have been killed in Sadr City since the start of hostilities on April 4. On one type of missions, the so-called "movements to contact," the soldiers take their vehicles into a violent part of Sadr City. Then they just sit there and wait for the attacks to start. Last week on one mission alone, a lieutenant said his platoon killed 18 armed men.

The insurgents in Sadr City sometimes manage to retaliate, apart from the mortars. Last week they managed to detonate an anti-tank mine under a Bradley and blow it apart. Since then the "movements to contact" have at least temporarily, and unofficially, been suspended.

On the patrol with Sergeant Boaz and Lieutenant Johnson only one explosion took place; a 25mm round exploded inside the Bradley because of the almost unbearable heat inside the vehicle.

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  • Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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