By Ellen Knickmeyer and John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
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.
Kadhumi said he evaded them by pretending he was on an errand, only to find his building already shut down by the Mahdi Army once he reached work.
"Who is the Mahdi Army to decide the future of my daughter and stop the movement of life in the country? Does the government have no power?" demanded Duniya Hilmi, 34, a city government worker whose daughter had been sent home from school by the Mahdi Army on Tuesday.
Before the strike, the U.S. blockade of Sadr City already had become a "hot issue" in daily meetings between U.S. and Iraqi officials, said Hadi al-Amiri, a member of Iraq's governing Shiite alliance. Amiri said he believed it was decided at Monday's meeting between U.S. and Iraqi officials that the operation must end.
"We became convinced that going further with this blockade would increase tensions," he said.
However, Maliki's order appeared to take at least some American officials by surprise.
Shortly after it was issued, a U.S. military spokesman, Lt. Col. Christopher C. Garver, said that U.S. commanders "are now determining how coalition forces can best address the prime minister's concerns about checkpoint operations in regards to the search for our missing soldier." He would not elaborate.
In Sadr City, U.S. military police and Iraqi soldiers gave way to Iraqi police on the bridges across the canal that separates the neighborhood from central Baghdad. In minutes, militiamen in civilian clothes, with hidden guns lumping up their shirts at their waistbands, appeared and began screening traffic within the district.
Sadr City residents celebrated both the flexing of the Shiite government's clout and what they saw as a concession by the United States.
Children cheered. Drivers honked horns as they bounced into Sadr City on newly cleared streets. Pickup trucks full of young men sped down the district's main roads. The men waved red and green banners of Sadr's movement.
"We are very happy they lifted the barriers by the orders of Maliki the prime minister," said Ali Saedi, selling falafel at a storefront as crowds celebrated into the night.
"It's a good stand, to give orders to the Americans and the Iraqi army," Saedi said.
Withington said the lifting of the blockade "does not stop our search for the soldier. We're dead serious about getting him back, and that won't stop because of these checkpoints." He said at least seven U.S. troops had been injured in the search for the missing American.
A senior member of the Shiite governing alliance, Jalal al-Din al-Saghir, said it was inexplicable that such a large-scale operation had been undertaken for one man "at a time when no such measures are being taken when hundreds of Iraqis are being killed all over Baghdad."
In Najaf, a Shiite city in the south where Sadr makes his base, a Sadr official said Maliki's order had corrected "a mistake of the occupation."
"Our own opinion is that Iraqi sovereignty is still not complete and is lacking until the occupying forces leave the country," said the official, Sahib al-Amiri, who runs a charitable institute for veterans and families of the Mahdi Army.
"At the same time, we consider this a step forward for the government," Amiri said.
Meanwhile Tuesday, a car bomb exploded just outside Sadr City, killing four people, the Interior Ministry said. A day earlier, a bombing inside the Shiite neighborhood killed at least 33 people.
Elsewhere in Baghdad, a suicide car bomber struck a Shiite wedding party, killing 11 people.
October ended with the death toll for U.S. service members at 103 -- including 98 killed in action, the third-highest monthly combat total of the war. And in Washington, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said he was inclined to approve proposals by the Iraqi government and the top U.S. commander in Baghdad to increase the size of the Iraqi security forces. He did not say how big an increase had been proposed.
Special correspondents Naseer Mehdawi, Naseer Nouri and Saad al-Izzi in Baghdad and Saad Sarhan in Najaf contributed to this report.