U.S. BEGINS ERECTING WALL IN SADR CITY
By Michael R. Gordon
New York Times
April 18, 2008
[PHOTO CAPTION: Under the supervision of American forces, workers began building a wall to partition the Sadr City area of Baghdad on Thursday.]
BAGHDAD -- Trying to stem the infiltration of militia fighters, American forces have begun to build a massive concrete wall that will partition Sadr City, the densely populated Shiite neighborhood in the Iraqi capital.
The construction, which began Tuesday night, is intended to turn the southern quarter of Sadr City near the international Green Zone into a protected enclave, secured by Iraqi and American forces, where the Iraqi government can undertake reconstruction efforts.
“You can’t really repair anything that is broken until you establish security,” said Lt. Col. Dan Barnett, commander of the First Squadron, Second Stryker Cavalry Regiment. “A wall that isolates those who would continue to attack the Iraqi Army and coalition forces can create security conditions that they can go in and rebuild.”
On Wednesday night, huge cranes slowly lifted heavy concrete blocks into place under a moonless sky. The barriers were implanted on Al Quds Street, a major thoroughfare that separates the Tharwa and Jamilla districts to the south from the heart of Sadr City to the north.
The avenue was quiet except for the whirring sound of the cranes and thud of the barriers as they touched the ground. Contractors operated the cranes, but American soldiers transported the barriers on trucks and directed their placement.
The team building the barrier was protected by M-1 tanks, Stryker vehicles, and Apache attack helicopters. As the workers labored in silence, there was a burst of fire as an M-1 tank blasted its main gun at a small group of fighters to the west. An Apache helicopter fired a Hellfire missile at a militia team equipped with rocket-propelled grenades, again interrupting the night with a thunderous boom. A cloud of dark smoke was visible in the distance through the Stryker’s night-vision system.
Concrete barriers have been employed in other areas of Baghdad. As the barriers were being erected in other neighborhoods, some residents said they feared being isolated. But walls have often proved to be an effective tool in blunting insurgent attacks.
American and Iraqi forces here say they have been battling Iranian-backed groups and militia fighters who support Moqtada al-Sadr, the anti-American cleric. Much of Sadr City has become a sanctuary for such militias. Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s recent offensive in Basra led to an increase in rocket attacks on the Green Zone.
Many of the Shiite militias that the American and Iraqi forces have been battling in the Tharwa area of Sadr City in the past several weeks have been infiltrating from the north. Al Quds Street has become a porous demarcation line between the American- and Iraqi-protected area to the south and the militia-controlled area to the north.
The avenue has been filled with numerous roadside bombs that American teams in special heavily armored vehicles have sought to clear. The militias have stacked tires on the road and turned them into burning pyres to hamper the American infrared surveillance and targeting systems or to soften the concrete to make it easier to bury bombs.
With a sandstorm hampering reconnaissance drones and grounding helicopters, work on the barrier was suspended Thursday, but the military intends to resume work as the weather improves.
The swirling dust storm, which turned the sky into a gritty beige, proved to be a boon to the militias. Calculating that they would ground the Americans helicopters and interfere with the reconnaissance drones, militias assaulted the northernmost Iraqi Army positions.
Iraqi troops, who are manning strongholds hundreds of yards ahead of the American positions, reported that they had run desperately low on ammunition, according to tactical radio reports.
American commanders were eager to avoid a repeat of the setback Tuesday evening when one Iraqi company abandoned its position to the front of American forces. That area was reclaimed the next day by a different Iraqi unit, but the episode gave militias temporary control of a critical stretch of road and a fresh opportunity to plant roadside bombs.
The militias’ main effort on Thursday was focused on dislodging Iraqi forces from a police station. American advisers took up positions with the Iraqi unit.
As the fighting intensified and there were reports that militia fighters had closed to within 100 yards, Colonel Barnett moved tanks into position so they could rush to the Iraqis’ aid. Stryker vehicles also moved forward.
But two Iraqi T-72s and four other Iraqi armored vehicles arrived on the scene before the American tanks were needed. The Iraqi Army has rushed ammunition to Sadr City, including machine-gun rounds and rocket-propelled grenades to give its units more firepower and address complaints of shortages.
Three Iraqi soldiers were reported killed Thursday when a militia fighter sneaked up close enough to a position they were guarding to lob a grenade, American officers said. There was such a heavy volume of Iraqi Army fire, however, that American commanders were not able to determine the scale of the attacks and whether they were as severe as the Iraqi forces had reported.
While the American military hopes to turn the southern portion of Sadr City into a protected enclave so that reconstruction can proceed, there has been no indication that the Iraqi government has mounted such efforts in recent days.
During a joint patrol conducted by Iraqi Army soldiers and American troops from the First Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division on Tuesday, residents complained vociferously about stagnant pools of water, downed power lines, and piles of garbage.
The Americans sought to persuade the Iraqis that they were just as eager for the Iraqi government to fix the infrastructure and restore water and electricity.
“We are not stopping governmental services from coming in here,” Lt. Matthew Schardt, the commander of First Platoon, Company B, sought to assure one distressed woman. “We want them to come in here.” The American military plans to hire 200 Sadr City residents to clean up trash for a 75-day period. So far, it has hired about 90, Colonel Barnett said. But the program is seen as a stopgap effort.
AL-SADR FOLLOWERS DENOUNCE WALL AMERICANS ARE BUILDING
By Lee Keath
April 18, 2008
BAGHDAD -- Followers of anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr denounced the American military's construction of a concrete wall through their Sadr City stronghold in Baghdad, the scene of renewed clashes Friday between his militiamen and U.S. and Iraqi troops.
The wall -- a concrete barrier of varying height up to about 12 feet -- is being built along a main street dividing the southern portion of Sadr City from the northern, where al-Sadr's Mahdi Army fighters are concentrated.
American commanders hope that construction of the Sadr City wall, which began Tuesday, will effectively cut off insurgents' ability to move freely into the rest of Baghdad and hamper their ability to fire rockets and mortars at the Green Zone, the central Baghdad district where government offices and the U.S. Embassy are located.
Such walls have gone up in many other Baghdad neighborhoods and have been effective in cutting violence as the movement of insurgents was curtailed. But they have also raised some complaints from residents over difficulties in moving in and out through checkpoints.
Sadr City has become a chief battleground between U.S. and Iraqi forces and the Mahdi Army after a trouble-plagued Iraqi crackdown on Shiite militiamen in the southern city of Basra last month.
That crackdown saw some 1,000 Iraqi soldiers refuse to fight the militiamen, and the Mahdi Army was largely able to battle troops to a standstill. The outcome raised questions whether Iraq's Shiite-majority police and army can stand up to Shiite militias despite millions of dollars spent by the U.S. to train and equip government forces.
The relatively small-scale clashes since then have fueled worries over a total breakdown of a truce called last year by al-Sadr, with fears of wider violence.
The Sadrist movement stepped up its rhetoric Friday, denouncing Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government as "just like Saddam Hussein's," and the Mahdi Army called on Iraqi troops to put down their weapons and stop fighting.
At the same time, this week has seen a string of suicide bombings in Sunni regions that have killed 110 people, breaking a reduction in violence blamed on Sunni insurgents and al-Qaida militants.
The U.S. military on Friday issued a rare warning that it had specific intelligence of al-Qaida plans to carry out suicide bombings in Baghdad "in the near future."
An Iraqi army spokesman, Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, told government television that the most likely targets were outdoor markets and other public places.
He urged the public to be on the lookout for abandoned vehicles and people wearing "suspicious clothes" that might conceal explosives and report them to the police.
In Sadr City, Iraqi forces backed by U.S. troops launched raids amid a heavy sandstorm Friday afternoon, police in the district said.
Mortar blasts went off during the fighting, and hospital and Interior Ministry officials reported seven people were killed and dozens wounded, including women and children. Police said a fire broke out in one of the markets of the sprawling slum, home to 2.5 million people.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press. There was no immediate U.S. military comment on the raids.
The raids appeared to be a counterattack after militiamen overnight ambushed an Iraqi position in Sadr City under cover of the sandstorm.
The commander said an Iraqi army company abandoned their positions under the assault, including their command post in al-Nasir police station. The officer did not know exactly how many troops were involved. An Iraqi infantry company normally has 150 men but reports from the field say many are undermanned and have only 80 to 90.
The Iraqi military had no immediate comment, but a U.S. spokesman said the situation remained under control on Friday. "The Iraqi army still hold their positions in Sadr City," said Lt. Col. Steve Stover in an e-mailed statement.
Regarding the wall, Stover said civilians will be allowed to move in and out of Sadr City but that militants have "created this environment where security precautions and protection of the people are paramount."
Hazim al-Araji, a senior aide to al-Sadr in Baghdad, said the wall would turn "the residents to prisoners and the city to a big jail. All Sadr City residents reject this kind of siege on their city."
Al-Maliki's government also put pressure on al-Sadr's followers in Basra, issuing an order that they leave their main headquarters in the city because the compound belonged to the government. Al-Sadr officials said they had been given 48 hours to leave.
Iraqi troops surrounded the building for several hours Friday until withdrawing in the afternoon. Harith al-Idahri, the head of office, said he was waiting for instructions from superiors on how to respond to the order.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military said a roadside bomb killed a U.S. soldier just north of Baghdad on Friday. At least 4,037 members of the U.S. military have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
--Associated Press writer Hamid Ahmed contributed to this report.
IRAQI TROOPS FACE OFF WITH SADR FOLLOWERS
By Noah Barkin
April 18, 2008
BAGHDAD -- Iraqi troops clashed with Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's militia on Friday in what was described as some of the heaviest fighting in Baghdad for weeks.
Amid blinding dust storms, Sadr's Mahdi Army fighters attacked Iraqi army positions in east Baghdad's Sadr City slum, but U.S. forces said Iraqi troops stood their ground.
An Iraqi security source described the fighting as among the heaviest since confrontation erupted there in late March. The source said seven people had died in combat lasting four to five hours. A nearby market was in flames.
Ali Bustan, head of the health directorate for east Baghdad, said 132 wounded were brought to Sadr City's two hospitals by nightfall.
"The Iraqi Army still hold their positions in Sadr City," U.S. military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Steven Stover said, quoting a dispatch from U.S. troops at the front. "They are currently under attack . . . but are organizing a counter-attack."
Sadr City, home to 2 million people, has seen fighting for three weeks that has trapped many residents in their homes.
In the southern city of Basra, where the government launched a botched crackdown on Sadr's militia in March, government troops surrounded the office of the cleric's followers and prevented them from attending weekly prayers.
The battle in Sadr City is being seen as a key test for Iraq's army after the Basra crackdown sparked violent clashes across southern Iraq and in Baghdad. After that crackdown, 1,300 soldiers and police were sacked for refusing to fight.
U.S. military spokesman Stover said an Iraqi army unit in Sadr City had abandoned their post on Tuesday despite an American officer's pleas that they stay and fight.
"There was a company that took themselves out of the line," he said of Tuesday's incident. "They were holding an area that they were responsible for and they left."
Baghdad security spokesman Qassim al-Moussawi said only three soldiers had refused to fight.
The fresh fighting has fuelled concerns that a period of declining violence credited to last year's "surge" in U.S. troop levels is coming to an end, just as the American reinforcements are returning home.
OFFICE SEALED OFF
Friday saw government troops seal off the Sadr office in Basra, located in an old Olympic committee building from the Saddam Hussein-era.
Interior Ministry spokesman Major-General Abdul-Karim Khalaf said Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had ordered troops to take possession of government buildings in Basra within 48 hours.
"Troops from the Iraqi Army prevented us from holding Friday prayers and now they are cordoning off the office. They want to evacuate and storm the office," Harith al-Idhari, the head of Sadr's Basra office, told Reuters.
Sheikh Asad al-Nasiri, an Sadr aide in the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf, called the actions "inhumane."
Although there have been sporadic clashes in Basra since Sadr called his militia there off the streets late last month, the focus of fighting has moved to Sadr City, the tightly-packed east Baghdad slum of two million people.
The Mahdi Army has encouraged desertions by telling Iraqi soldiers they will be forgiven and their safety will be assured if they drop their weapons -- a message it repeated on Friday.
"To all our brothers in the government's army and police forces, we invite you to repent, return to the national line and to the arms of your people," the statement read.
The clashes with Shi'ite militia in the capital come amid signs that Sunni Arab militants are also launching a new campaign of violence. Attacks in Sunni Arab areas killed more than 100 people this week.
The U.S. military said it had intelligence that the group had sent bombers to Baghdad to carry out more suicide attacks.
Six members of a family were killed on Friday when a roadside bomb hit their vehicle in Baquba, northeast of Baghdad, police said. In one of the deadliest attacks in months, a suicide bomber struck a funeral in the same province on Thursday, killing 50 mourners and wounding 55.
(Reporting by Aref Mohammed in Basra and Peter Graff, Khalid al-Ansary and Aws Qusay in Baghdad; Writing by Noah Barkin and Peter Graff; Editing by Richard Balmforth)
AMERICA'S ALLIES IN IRAQ UNDER PRESSURE AS CIVIL WAR BREAKS OUT AMONG SUNNI
By Patrick Cockburn
April 19, 2008
"God is Great," screamed a man seconds before he blew himself up, killing 10 people in a restaurant in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province in western Iraq. A series of suicide bombings have shown over the past week that al-Qa'ida in Iraq, though battered by defections over the past year, is striking back remorselessly at Sunni Arab leaders who ally themselves to the U.S.
In another attack in the village of Albu Mohammed, south of Kirkuk, an elderly man thought by guards to be too old to be a bomber, walked unsearched into a tent filled with mourners attending the funeral of two Sunni tribesmen who had been killed after they joined al-Sahwa, the Awakening Council, as the pro-U.S. Sunni group is called. The man detonated the explosives hidden under his long Arab robes, killing at least 50 people.
A vicious civil war is now being fought within Iraq's Sunni Arab community between al-Qa'ida in Iraq and al-Sahwa while other groups continue to attack American forces. In Baghdad on a single day the head of al-Sahwa in the southern district of Dora was killed in his car by gunmen and seven others died by bombs and bullets in al-Adhamiya district.
U.S. spokesmen speak of a "spike" in violence in recent weeks but in reality security in Sunni and Shia parts of Iraq has been deteriorating since January. The official daily death toll of civilians reached a low of 20 killed a day in that month and has since more than doubled to 41 a day in March. The U.S. and the Iraqi government are now facing a war on two fronts.
The attack in Ramadi shows al-Qa'ida still has support in Anbar province where al-Sahwa was founded and has greater strength in Diyala, Salahudin, and Nineveh provinces. In Sunni parts of Baghdad, al-Sahwa often includes members of al-Qa'ida whose loyalties have not changed or gunmen who think it safest to work for the U.S. and al-Qa'ida. "No officer in al-Sahwa walks home unless he has a relationship with al-Qa'ida," said one al-Sahwa member. "It would be too dangerous for him otherwise."
The American-backed government of Nouri al-Maliki is in the meantime stepping up its campaign against the Mahdi Army militia of the anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Iraqi troops sealed off the Basra office of the Sadrists yesterday. "Troops from the Iraqi army prevented us from holding Friday prayers and now they are cordoning off the office," said Harith al-Idhari, the head of the office. "They want to storm it and clear everybody out of it."
Mr. Maliki is convinced that this is the moment to assert himself against the Sadrists despite military setbacks when he launched his offensive against Basra on 25 March. Two brigades of about 600 men, each from the army's 14th Division whose soldiers come from the city, refused to fight the Mahdi Army as did most of Basra's 11,000 police.
The Iraqi government says that it has purged 1,300 men from its armed forces and police since the Basra operation and is willing to try again against the militiamen. But it has only been able to hold its own in Basra, Baghdad, and other cities because of backing from the U.S.
The Sadrist office in Basra is housed in the building of the old Olympic committee. "We have orders to take back all the government buildings that are occupied by parties and political movements in Basra within 48 hours," said the Interior Ministry spokesman Major-General Abdul Karim-Khalaf.
The greatest stronghold of the Sadrists is Sadr City in Baghdad, which has a population of two million and is virtually a twin city to the capital. U.S. forces have now started building a concrete wall which will seal off the southern part of Sadr City. The U.S. and the Iraqi government are particularly keen to gain control of those parts of Sadr City used to lob rockets and mortars into the Green Zone.
Despite government purges, it is still unclear how far Iraqi army units are willing to fight Shia co-religionists. Yesterday a company of government troops abandoned their positions in al-Nasir police station in Sadr City when they came under attack from militiamen during a sandstorm. Another company had deserted earlier in the week.
Mr. Maliki is eager to show that the Iraqi government is strong enough to overcome its domestic enemies, but the fighting against al-Qa'ida in Iraq in Sunni districts and the Mahdi Army in Shia areas over the past month has proved the opposite. The Iraqi army has appeared as dependent on American support as it ever was in the past.
TROOPS CONSTRUCT WALL TO SECTION OFF SADR CITY
By Joseph Giordono
Stars and Stripes (Mideast edition)
April 19, 2008
American troops have begun construction of a massive concrete blast wall that will section off parts of the Shiite slum of Sadr City, U.S. military officials and news reports said.
Sadr City is the stronghold of Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia, and U.S. officials have said the indirect-fire attacks peppering the Green Zone during the past month have been launched from that part of Baghdad.
Using huge concrete blast walls to cordon off large sections of Baghdad has become one of the U.S. and Iraqi militaries’ favored tactics in the city. The purpose, military officials have said, is to prevent insurgents or criminals from entering and leaving neighborhoods at will. The walls are generally accompanied by checkpoints, manned by anyone from U.S. military to U.S.-funded, armed civilian groups (called “Sons of Iraq” by the military).
The Sadr City wall was first reported by the New York Times, which had a reporter embedded with the unit putting up the walls. The work began Tuesday night, the Times reported.
Once the wall is completed, the area of Sadr City will be flooded with government reconstruction efforts, officials said.
“You can’t really repair anything that is broken until you establish security,” Lt. Col. Dan Barnett, commander of the Vilseck, Germany-based 1st Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment said. “A wall that isolates those who would continue to attack the Iraqi army and coalition forces can create security conditions that they can go in and rebuild.”
The barrier is going in to place on Al Quds Street, which separates the southern Sadr City districts of Tharwa and Jamilla from the rest of the city. It is also a kind of dividing line between the areas coalition forces patrol and the militia strongholds in the northern part of Sadr City, according to the *Times*.
The walls in Baghdad and other parts of the city have become largely accepted by the local residents after a controversial beginning. When one of the first large walls was put into place around the Adhamiyah district, it drew an outcry that reached the prime minister’s office.
Nouri al-Maliki called for that wall’s removal, calling it a reminder of “other walls that we reject,” a reference to Israeli security walls in the West Bank, a long-standing complaint throughout the Arab world.
Though al-Maliki “ordered it to stop and to find other means of protection for the neighborhoods,” the Adhamiyah wall -- and many others since -- have been put into place.
U.S. military officials have credited the walls, in part, with reducing the number of large-scale car bombs and other attacks.