U.S. Troops See Sadr City Slums, Despair
Wednesday, March 14, 2007; 1:43 PM
BAGHDAD -- Heavily armed soldiers trudge through the fetid streets of Sadr City, gagging from the stench of open sewage, eyes warily scanning ahead for trouble. Suddenly, a middle-aged man approaches _ and begs for a job.
"We are a peaceful people," the man tells the interpreter. "We only want to work and feed our families. Now is the time for people to come and offer us jobs."
The Americans shrug helplessly _ they've heard these complaints before _ but tell him help is on its way.
U.S. soldiers rolled into Sadr City on March 4 primed and pumped for a fight with the notorious Mahdi Army militia of radical anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Instead of snipers and roadside bombs, the Americans found an even bigger problem _ a vast, crowded slum where years of misery and government neglect have created conditions for the militias to thrive.
U.S. soldiers worry that unless things improve _ and soon _ the people of Sadr City will quickly tire of the foreigners' presence.
"There are a lot of days when I'm like, 'It's going to take a miracle to make this work,'" said 1st Lt. Jacob Czekanski of the 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment as he stared at a soccer field surrounded by trash. "We will always be viewed as outsiders here."
In a capital where public services barely function and five straight hours of electricity is cause for celebration, Sadr City stands out.
An estimated 2.5 million people, nearly all of them Shiites, live in the northeastern Baghdad community. Many of them lack running water and proper sewerage. Hundreds of thousands have no jobs and subsist on monthly government food rations, a holdover from the international sanctions of the Saddam Hussein era.
Streets in some parts of Sadr City run black with sludge. Damaged power lines provide at best only four hours of electricity a day.
Many U.S. soldiers were unprepared for what they found.
During a patrol last week, American troops brushed flies from their faces as they drove through rotting heaps of refuse and excrement piled outside houses. One soldier opened the door to his Humvee and vomited.