Violence in Sadr City Embitters Both Sides
Muntahah Shekhawer, who works in the children's ward, broke down in tears as she recalled children carried into the emergency room. "I felt so bad I couldn't save them," she said. "Two, 3 years old. All of them shot in the head. Always in the head.
"Even when Baghdad fell, we didn't see anything like this."
The military outcome of Sunday's battle was clear enough. U.S. troops took control of Sadr City's major streets within seven hours, fighting past three major ambushes before driving militias out of police stations they had occupied in a challenge to U.S.-led forces' dominion over the district.
As a fighting force, Sadr's militia impressed neither U.S. commanders nor the Iraqi officers at one police station they occupied for three hours.
"Mahdi Army! They're not an army!" Officer Haider Raheem said of the unemployed young men who took over one station by brandishing grenades. "They're a bunch of looters." Before running off at the sound of approaching tanks, Raheem said, they scooped up everything from rifles to food for the prisoners. "Can you believe they even stole the water cup from the restroom?" he said.
"It was really a mob," Dempsey said. "A mob with a lot of weapons."
But the battle here is not only military. At Sadr City's main patrol station, Mahdi militiamen were welcomed by Iraqi police, who said the fighters gathered to help protect the property from looting.
"We are all brothers, me and the Mahdi Army," said one uniformed officer, who declined to give his name because he said he was not authorized to speak. "These are our people."
The differing receptions reflect the division of opinions among Sadr City residents. Many of the neighborhood's perhaps 2 million residents have transferred to Sadr, 30, the respect accorded his late father, a senior cleric believed killed by Hussein's government. His militantly anti-occupation rhetoric appeals to the district's many unemployed young men, who in the months following the U.S. invasion were formed into the Mahdi Army.
Many other Shiite residents, however, regard Sadr as an upstart. These people follow more senior -- and more moderate -- clerics, especially Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. But in a showdown between a prominent cleric and U.S. forces, no Shiite cleric can side publicly with Iraq's occupiers, at least to judge by their public statements issued in the wake of the fighting.
The statements did not mention Sadr but condemned civilian casualties, an issue near the heart of the matter for many residents. U.S. commanders, however, place it lower on their list of concerns.
"I'm more concerned about making sure that we've applied combat power wherever it happens to be applied and no place else," Dempsey said. "But we didn't start this fight and had no choice but to finish it, and we did so as carefully as we could.
"You've been to Sadr City. It is a densely populated place."
And it appeared to change overnight. Monday dawned cool and clear. Men loitered on the sidewalk, feeling the rays of the sun and the pulse of the street, finely strung the morning after.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company