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19 Tense Hours in Sadr City Alongside the Mahdi Army
After Calm Year, Fighting Engulfs Shiite Enclave

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 29, 2008

BAGHDAD, March 28 -- The gunfire struck like thunderclaps, building to a steady rhythm. American soldiers in a Stryker armored vehicle fired away from one end of the block. At the other end, two groups of Shiite militiamen pounded back with heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. American helicopters circled above in the blue afternoon sky.

As a heavy barrage erupted outside his parents' house, Abu Mustafa al-Thahabi, a political and military adviser to the Mahdi Army of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, rushed through the purple gate and took shelter behind the thick walls. He had just spoken with a fighter by cellphone. "I told him not to use that weapon. It's not effective," he said, referring to a rocket-propelled grenade. "I told him to use the IED, the Iranian one," he added, using the shorthand for an improvised explosive device. "This is more effective."

After nearly a year of relative calm, U.S. troops and Shiite militiamen engaged in pitched battles this week, underscoring how quickly order can give way to chaos in Iraq. On this block in Sadr City, the cleric's sprawling stronghold, men and boys came out from nearly every house to fight, using powerful IEDs and rockets.

From Thursday afternoon to Friday morning, this correspondent spent 19 hours on the block, including hours trapped by intense crossfire inside the house of Thahabi's parents.

During this time, the fighters engaged U.S. forces for seven hours. They lost a comrade. They launched rockets into the Green Zone. At approximately the same time, rockets killed a U.S. government employee, the second American killed there this week.

In between battles, fighters spoke about politics and war. There was no sign of dread, or grief, or fear. Death was a matter of honor, a shortcut to some divine place.

As the two sides exchanged fire, Thahabi's mother, Um Falah, clutched a Koran and began to recite a prayer to Imam Ali, Shiite Islam's most revered saint. Her eldest son, Abu Hassan, a Mahdi Army commander, was fighting this day.

"May Ali be with you," said Um Falah, who wore a black abaya and round eyeglasses. "I pray that all the bullets will not affect you."

Shiite Against Shiite

Earlier that morning, Sadr City had been eerily quiet. Cars moved slowly. Residents carried food and water, preparing for the worst. Piles of trash littered the streets, which was charred in patches from burning tires. On one road, two olive-green Stryker vehicles were parked. Other roads were lined with roadside bombs, fighters reported.

Outside Um Falah's house, Mahdi Army fighters gathered at both ends of the block. They stood against the walls, peering down the street. Clashes were unfolding on an adjacent road. One group joined the fighting, but the others remained in place. Their job was to protect their end of the block.

Um Falah stood in the courtyard, her face lined with anxiety. But she continued her chores calmly. "I have gotten used to war, to all the battles in our lives," she said. It was not the first time her son had gone to battle U.S. troops, and in her heart, she said, she knew it would not be the last. "I have sent my son on the right path," she said.

In their living room, her husband and Abu Mustafa sat on red carpets set with colorful pillows. The room was prepared for battle, with plastic windowpanes and drawn curtains. On the wall hung tapestries depicting Imam Ali and other Shiite saints.

Thahabi, slim and gaunt-faced, said that this time the Mahdi Army was not fighting only the Americans. The militiamen were also fighting their Shiite rivals -- the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and the Dawa party, which run Iraq's government.

Thahabi said he believes the government launched an offensive in the southern port city of Basra last Monday to weaken the Sadrist forces ahead of provincial elections scheduled for this year. He added that he thought Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who leads the Dawa party, was taking advantage of a cease-fire imposed by Sadr last August.

Iraq's government said it began the offensive to wipe out Shiite militias and criminal gangs in Basra. In recent days, however, the fighting has spread to other parts of Iraq.

"They know the Sadrists will win the elections," Thahabi said of the government. "So they are using the Americans against the Mahdi Army. People have reached a point that they will sell their refrigerator to buy a rocket launcher to shoot and kill the Americans."

'If We Die, We Win'

Three solemn-faced Mahdi Army fighters entered the living room at around 2 p.m., fresh from battle. "Akeel, son of Riad, just got killed," said Abu Zainab al-Kabi. The room fell silent.

Kabi, 34, said Akeel had been planting a roadside bomb when he was shot multiple times by an American soldier. Akeel was 22 and had followed his father and uncle into the Mahdi Army when he was 17. The fighters took his body to the hospital morgue. If they could break away from the battle, they planned to carry Akeel's body on Friday to the southern holy city of Najaf, where the Mahdi Army has built a cemetery for their dead, whom they call martyrs.

"We are proud that he died," said Abu Moussa al-Sadr, 31, another militiaman. "Whenever one of us dies, it raises our morale. It intensifies our fighting."

"If we defeat them, we win," Kabi said. "And if we die, we win."

Any sorrow they felt for Akeel soon appeared to vanish. They wanted to eat lunch. Over a spare meal of bread, tomato paste and vegetables, they said they had woken before dawn to make sure all their fighters were in position. They ordered their men to check all the IEDs they had set and shared intelligence with commanders in other sections of Sadr City.

Suddenly, they heard mortar rounds being launched outside with a boom like the sound of a wrecking ball.

"This is to the Green Zone," said Kabi. "These are gifts to Maliki's government."

He and Abu Moussa al-Sadr both work for Iraq's Ministry of Interior, which runs the police and is widely viewed as infiltrated by the Mahdi Army. They said that many police officers had defected from the government and were now fighting with the Mahdi Army.

The fighters also said they received neither support nor training from Iran, as U.S. military commanders allege. Their Iranian weapons, they said, were bought from smugglers. They said they had been fighting only American soldiers and had not yet engaged with any Iraqi forces inside Sadr City.

They insisted that they were still obeying Sadr's cease-fire and would stop fighting if he gave the order.

"We are allowed to defend ourselves," said Abu Nargis, another fighter.

Around 3 p.m., it was time to leave the house. "We're going to the hospital to see Akeel's body," Abu Moussa al-Sadr said. "Then we are going back to fight."

A Larger Strategy

On the street, shortly after 4 p.m., another group of fighters were battling American troops. Militiamen jumped into the street, then quickly vanished.

The quick movements were a tactic. Thahabi, standing outside his parents' house, explained that one group of fighters would direct a barrage of bullets at the Stryker to distract the soldiers while another group tried to slip a powerful roadside bomb under the vehicle and then detonate it.

A father of four who studied psychology in college, Thahabi wore olive pants and a blue sweater, looking more like a professor than a militia adviser. He spoke in a slow, measured voice and clutched three cellphones, each using a different network. When the Americans drive by, they usually jam the signals of the main cellphone provider, to neutralize use of the phones as bomb detonators.

The fighters' larger strategy, Thahabi said, was to draw pressure away from the Mahdi Army in Basra. He said that many Iraqi soldiers fighting in Basra had families in Sadr City. "They will be worried for their families. They will fear what will happen to them. It's about reducing their morale."

Moments later, Thahabi received a phone call. "The whole block has been surrounded by the Americans," he said, stepping back inside the house.

Firing on the Green Zone

At 5:25 p.m., the Mahdi Army fired at least 10 rockets from near the house, each with a loud swish. Within 20 minutes, four more were launched.

At approximately the same time, U.S. officials said, 12 rockets landed inside the Green Zone, killing the U.S. government employee.

The rocket launches were followed by heavy gunfire directed at the Stryker.

"We have to keep the Americans nervous, on their edge," Thahabi said. "We can't make it easy for them."

Soon, fighters informed him that there was an American sniper on a nearby roof. After a silent pause, fighters sprayed a burst of gunfire at the roof of a house; bullets tore into the wall. Silence again. A few minutes later, more gunfire headed in the direction of the fighters.

The Americans were still around.

"They are facing heavy resistance," said Abu Nargis, who was staying at the house. He carried his baby daughter. "They will raid the area tonight."

But by 7 p.m., the Stryker had left.

Dead and Injured

At 9:05 p.m., Abu Nargis received a phone call. He said he had been told that a police commander with 500 policemen would stop working with the government and join the Mahdi Army.

At 9:09 p.m., screams tore through the street. A woman in a black abaya was walking toward the hospital, wailing: "My mother! My mother!" Her house had been hit, but it was not clear by whom. Seconds later, ambulances and police vehicles drove past the house as an unmanned U.S. drone flew by. The ambulances and police vehicles drove back, carrying dead and injured.

There was more gunfire. At 10:35 p.m., Abu Nargis received another phone call.

"The Americans are gone. Even the snipers," he said.

He headed to his bedroom. "I have to go and check on my daughter," he said. "She's afraid of the gunfire."

The next morning, Kabi was standing on a nearby street with a group of fighters, including two boys who looked no older than 13. They were getting instructions from an older fighter, who clutched an AK-47 assault rifle. They looked weary, as if they had stayed up all night.

At the edge of Sadr City, four Strykers rolled by. A white car waited patiently for the convoy to pass, then drove out. A wooden coffin was strapped to the top.

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