Iraq Tells U.S. to Quit Checkpoints
Wednesday, November 1, 2006
BAGHDAD, Oct. 31 -- American soldiers rolled up their barbed-wire barricades and lifted a near siege of the largest Shiite Muslim enclave in Baghdad on Tuesday, heeding the orders of a Shiite-led Iraqi government whose assertion of sovereignty had Shiites celebrating in the streets.
The order by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to lift the week-old blockade of Sadr City was one of the most overt expressions of self-determination by Iraqi leaders in the 3 1/2 -year-old U.S. occupation. It followed two weeks of increasingly pointed exchanges between Iraqi and U.S. officials, as well as a video conference between Maliki and President Bush on Saturday.
Maliki's decision exposed the growing divergence between the U.S. and Iraqi administrations on some of the most critical issues facing the country, especially the burgeoning strength of Shiite militias. The militias are allied with the Shiite religious parties that form Maliki's coalition government, and they are accused by Sunni Arab Iraqis and by Americans of kidnapping and killing countless Sunnis in the soaring violence between Iraq's Shiite majority and Sunni minority.
Sadr City is the base of the country's most feared militia, the Mahdi Army, which answers to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Sadr's strongly anti-American bloc is the largest in the Shiite governing coalition and was instrumental in making Maliki prime minister five months ago.
At midday Tuesday, Maliki issued an order giving a 5 p.m. deadline for removal of the U.S. checkpoints. A senior U.S. Embassy official said later that Maliki told U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top U.S. commander in Iraq, in a meeting Tuesday that the checkpoints should be lifted.
A U.S. military spokesman, Lt. Col. Jonathan Withington, said American soldiers removed the checkpoints at the order of their commanders. "We take military orders," Withington said.
The move lifted a near siege that had stood at least since last Wednesday. U.S. military police imposed the blockade after the kidnapping of an American soldier of Iraqi descent. The soldier's Iraqi in-laws said they believed he had been abducted by the Mahdi Army as he visited his wife at her home in the Karrada area of Baghdad, where U.S. military checkpoints were also removed as a result of Maliki's action.
The crackdown on Sadr City had a second motive, U.S. officers said: the search for Abu Deraa, a man considered one of the most notorious death squad leaders. The soldier and Abu Deraa both were believed by the U.S. military to be in Sadr City.
U.S. soldiers in Humvees had used concertina wire and sandbags to close off all bridges and other routes into Sadr City, home to 2.5 million Shiites, from the rest of Baghdad. The U.S. troops, backed by Iraqi soldiers, admitted vehicles only one at a time after searches. The blockade caused hours-long backups, and Sadr City's largely working-class residents complained that the cost of food and fuel was soaring.
Sadr's aides held a rally of about 1,000 people against the blockade on Sunday and called a strike, starting Monday, in what they described as the spirit of civil disobedience.
Residents said armed Mahdi Army members moved early Tuesday into what quickly became deserted streets across Sadr City, enforcing the protest. Even in surrounding Sunni neighborhoods, teachers described Mahdi Army fighters entering schools to order students home for the protest. Government workers were driven out of their offices in some neighborhoods, and shops were shuttered.
The militiamen stopped one worker, Sameer Kadhumi, as he walked to his job at the Culture Ministry. "They told me not to go to work, otherwise I will be in trouble," Kadhumi said.