For U.S. and Sadr, Wary Cooperation
Friday, March 16, 2007
BAGHDAD -- U.S. troops are conducting security sweeps in the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City for the first time in three years, part of a revamped plan to pacify the capital. Yet the Mahdi Army militia of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has not risen up to fight them, despite U.S. raids on militia members' homes and growing Sunni attacks on Shiites.
"Until now, our leader has ordered us to keep quiet," explained Ayad al-Khaby, a local official in Sadr's organization. "This is in order for the security plan to succeed."
After four years of hostility, Sadr and the Americans are cooperating uneasily as the United States and Iraq attempt to tame Baghdad's sectarian violence. American officials, who in recent months described Sadr's Mahdi Army and other Shiite militias as the biggest threat to Iraq's stability, now praise the Shiite cleric.
The collaboration represents a remarkable shift for two adversaries who control the largest armies in Iraq and who fought some of the fiercest battles since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
For Sadr, it is the latest stage in an evolution from populist cleric to guerrilla fighter to political kingmaker and now to power broker. In the early months of the occupation, U.S. officials dismissed Sadr as irrelevant to Iraq's future. Today, they view him as a political catalyst who can help keep Iraq together -- or implode it.
"We're very encouraged by what we're seeing on the ground right now in Sadr City," said Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell, the U.S. military's chief spokesman in Baghdad. "There is a tremendous amount of cooperation and dialogue ongoing. It's proven to be very beneficial to both sides."
It is a tenuous cooperation that could collapse at any moment. U.S. troops walk a thin line between peace and war in Sadr City, a sprawling jumble of narrow streets, tan buildings and crowded markets. Each day tests the tolerance of Sadr and his fighters, who are widely believed to operate death squads. U.S. commanders concede that their troops may face isolated attacks.
"They are an occupation force. We refuse their presence totally," said Mohammad Abu Haider, a Mahdi Army commander who has battled Americans. "Their ultimate goal is to destroy the Sadr trend."
On Thursday, gunmen ambushed the convoy of Sadr City's mayor, Rahim al-Darraji, seriously wounding him and killing two of his bodyguards. Darraji, a Sadr appointee, has been negotiating with U.S. and Iraqi government officials over the role of U.S. troops in the security clampdown.
A few hours earlier, at a luncheon with Western journalists, Maj. Gen. Joseph F. Fil Jr., the U.S. commander in charge of Baghdad, spoke about Darraji.
"We're in Sadr City, working closely with the mayor and it's been completely permissive. It's a collaboration," he said.
Publicly, Sadr has criticized the U.S. presence inside his stronghold. He is a fierce nationalist who has long demanded a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, and his authority derives in large part from his opposition to the occupation. But privately, he has ordered his militiamen to lie low no matter how much they are provoked by U.S. forces, according to interviews with Sadr representatives and fighters.