Training Police in Sadr City

Learning to Live With the Mahdi Army

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 10, 2007

BAGHDAD -- No, there have been no problems, the police commander was telling the armor-laden American soldiers squeezed into his office in the vast Shiite enclave of Sadr City. Except, he said, for the text-messaged death threats he often received from militia members.

Suddenly the meeting was interrupted by a loud mortar blast, followed by another explosion. A third, thunderous boom rattled the room, sending ripples through the yellow curtains and bringing the U.S. soldiers to their feet.

The soldiers later learned the target was a nearby outpost they had recently established with Iraqi security forces on the edge of Sadr City. The third explosion was a car bomb that upended a blast barrier and punched three neat holes through a concrete wall 50 yards away. The holes, the soldiers said, were telling: The bomb was one of the potent projectile-emitting weapons that the U.S. military says Iran provides to Shiite militias in Iraq.

And in Sadr City, militia means one thing: Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's formidable Mahdi Army.

As part of a nearly eight-week-old plan to temper violence in Baghdad, U.S. forces last month set up a permanent base and resumed security sweeps in the enclave for the first time in three years. Sadr's black-clad fighters -- who battled U.S. forces in the past -- have appeared to stand down, even as Sadr publicly condemns the U.S. presence.

But soldiers with a U.S. military police unit that has provided police training and patrols in Sadr City for most of the past 10 months said the Mahdi Army disrupts their efforts every day. Most of the Iraqi police they train are either affiliated with the militia or intimidated by it, the soldiers said. At worst, they said, militia infiltration in the police might be behind attacks on Americans, even though Iraqi officials offered assurances that the Mahdi Army was lying low.

"I don't really think there is an end or a beginning. I think it's all intermingled," Staff Sgt. Toby Hansen, 30, said about the Mahdi Army's relationship to the police trained by his unit. "Eventually, when we leave, they're going to police their own city. They're going to do it their way."

Soldiers of the 118th Military Police Company, based at Fort Bragg, N.C., had worked in Sadr City from last summer until November, when the security situation was deemed too precarious. The unit has returned to train police officers and back up their checkpoints, patrols and neighborhood outreach efforts. It is a fragile cooperation, but U.S. soldiers said they stay motivated because they know some policemen are good.

The soldiers also help police collaborate with the rest of the Iraqi security forces. That is one idea behind the new so-called joint security station on the edge of Sadr City, one of several that have opened across Baghdad in the past two months.

"I think they've got the concept down. The trick is going to be to get them to continue after we leave," said 1st Lt. Mike Mixon, 32, the platoon's leader. "I'm just trying to make them see that they can all live with each other without killing each other."

Many soldiers said that since the troop buildup in Sadr City, residents seemed happier to see them -- and more willing to deal with Iraqi police.

Still, as the American Humvees patrol dusty streets bearing posters and billboards of a scowling Sadr, their gunners often carry rocks, to defend against the stones they know will be thrown at their vehicles along the way.

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