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Iraq: Violence On Downturn In Southern Al-Sadr City

By Richard Tomkins An Iraqi soldier in southern Al-Sadr City (photo by Richard Tomkins) (RFE/RL) BAGHDAD -- The wave of violence that roiled southern Al-Sadr City over the past several weeks has ebbed amid a concerted push by U.S. and Iraqi security forces against Shi'ite militia gunmen linked to the Imam Al-Mahdi Army of anti-coalition cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Gunmen used open spaces in southern Al-Sadr city to fire rockets on Baghdad's International Zone, where U.S. and Iraqi government offices are located, and at Iraqi and U.S. military positions elsewhere. U.S. military officials say they have now, in the main, retreated back into the northern part of the neighborhood, which is in the northeast corner of Baghdad.

"They are not winning, and the continued offensive operations we are doing, in the confines of the areas where we are now, will continue to degrade the militia's influence on the population," said Colonel John Hort, commander of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team responsible for U.S. operations in southern Al-Sadr City.

About 700 rockets and mortars in all were fired at the International Zone and at coalition forces in Baghdad, according to U.S. military statistics.

Muqtada al-Sadr is a political rival to Iraq's Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and wants the withdrawal of U.S. and coalition forces from the country. A cease-fire with his Al-Mahdi Army went into effect in August and contributed to the downturn in violence in Baghdad during last fall's "surge" of U.S. forces, which was intended to give the al-Maliki government a more secure environment in the capital to implement sectarian reconciliation and infrastructure-rebuilding efforts. But that cease-fire ended in March when Iraqi security forces were sent into the southern Shi'ite city of Al-Basrah to crack down on various Shi'ite militias -- including elements of the Al-Mahdi Army -- and criminal groups terrorizing the city and undermining government authority.

That action coincided with a government demand for al-Sadr, believed to be in Iran attending seminary, to disband his armed force.

The eruption of violence spread to Al-Sadr City, Al-Sadr's stronghold in the northeast portion of Baghdad.

"Since the 25th of March, the [Al-Mahdi Army] did lift the cease-fire, and all these [government] checkpoints on my side [of Al-Sadr City] were attacked and half of them were overrun," Hort said. "We came in and reseeded them and then assisted the [Iraqi security forces] to get back in there.

"This [militia offensive] was an organized effort," Hort said. "This wasn't just a bunch of guys who one day decided to take pot shots at the Iraqi army."

Hort said U.S. troops had "engaged, killed, or wounded probably over 400" gunmen in recent weeks, and lost about six U.S. troops. Official figures put the militia and criminal-element death toll at 146. U.S. forces, paired up with Iraqi counterparts, are now in about one-third of southern Al-Sadr City. Before the violence, they were only located on the outer fringe.

"It was kind of fun spotting them and shooting at them the other night, until I realized we were practically surrounded," a soldier with Comanche Troop said from the roof of a house taken over near Tharwa and made into an operations post. "Then it got heavy."

The soldier was looking for a sniper in a building about two blocks away who would periodically fire upon U.S. and Iraqi troops manning an outpost at a "named area of interest." Across from the checkpoint was an open field that militiamen used to fire rockets into the international zone.

Comanche Troop was one of a number of units "thunder-rushed" into the district to stop the attacks and reestablish abandoned Iraqi army checkpoints. They were later joined by new Iraqi army units -- not from the Baghdad area -- who joined in the fight.

The outpost still receives occasional sniper fire, but the intensity of late last month and earlier this month has waned. In mid-April, an Iraqi soldier firing a machine gun took out two other snipers up the road that were targeting them.

The U.S. military is careful to blame the violence on rogue "special groups" affiliated with the Al-Mahdi Army. Hort, however, said he believes some regular Al-Mahdi Army units influenced by the special groups were also involved.

"I think it's mainly the special groups with the Iranian influence that are promoting the current state of violence," he said. "I can't speak for what [al-Sadr] does, but I will say the mainstream [Al-Mahdi Army] is fighting us in this fight right now.

"We are not just dealing with rogue elements; we are dealing with mainstream [Al-Mahdi Army] in this current fight we are in. And what we've seen is that these [Al-Mahdi Army] members are influenced by these special groups and become sympathetic to the cause -- fight the coalition forces to the last man or kick the [Iraqi security forces] out of Sadr City."

Hort said that in the latest round of fighting, the gunmen used battle tactics "you don't just pick up on the Internet."

The gunmen who used southern Al-Sadr City have mainly crossed back into northern Al-Sadr City across a main road known as "Route Gold" (Al-Quds street), where U.S. forces are erecting a 3-meter-high concrete barrier to control access into and out of southern neighborhoods.

The barrier, which when finished will stretch three miles, has come under fire from the al-Maliki government as well as from al-Sadr, but U.S. military officials say the controlled access it will afford is essential to security.

"Getting this wall in is our biggest effort right now," Hort said. "We're putting in a wall that will degrade the enemy's ability to conduct operations south of Route Gold. That allows us to conduct significant reconstruction in Jamilla [neighborhood] and Tharwa down into Old Adamiya."

"It is a fight to put that wall in every night," Hort said. "It's a minefield down that road. There have been 115 IEDs [improvised explosive devices] along it in the last three weeks."

Social and outreach projects by the Iraqi government and military were disrupted temporarily by the eruption of violence but have again been put into motion.

Doctors from the 4th Brigade, 11th Iraqi Army, last week held a three-hour Medical Civil Action Program (MEDCAP) in the Tharwa district, treating 318 men, women, and children who came in off the street for the clinic, which was announced by loudspeakers just an hour before it began. A second MEDCAP is in the works.

U.S. troops provided security for the event, standing watch, patrolling nearby streets and security screening patients for weapons or bombs as they entered an abandoned school building where the clinic was held.

At nearby Joint Security Station Sadr City, U.S. engineers are continuing work on a new civil military operations center (CMOC), where district residents can meet with Iraqi officials over issues such as sanitation, reconstruction, and electrical power.

Meanwhile, throughout the district U.S. and Iraq troops are visiting homes and surveying residents while also hunting down Al-Mahdi Army gunmen and their weapons caches.

"I think the people here are scared of [the Al-Mahdi Army] and the special groups and have had enough of this fighting," said Captain Ryan Williams, of Comanche Troop, 1st Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, attached to the 3rd Brigade. "Since it started we've gotten a steady stream of tips on weapons caches and the hideouts -- and they've proved accurate."

How long violence remains on the downturn remains to be seen. But for now, violence in southern Al-Sadr City is limited primarily to sporadic rifts of gunfire and IED explosions.