By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 24, 2008
BAGHDAD, April 23 -- U.S. officials said Wednesday that a military campaign in the stronghold of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has succeeded in nearly eliminating the deadly rocket and mortar attacks launched from the area.
U.S. and Iraqi forces have been battling for weeks in the capital's Sadr City neighborhood against Shiite fighters tied to Sadr's Mahdi Army militia. The U.S. military said at least 142 suspected fighters have been killed, including at least 15 Tuesday night.
The military on Wednesday also announced that a U.S. soldier was killed by small-arms fire in eastern Baghdad.
American officials said the mission in Sadr City was to stop attacks on the heavily fortified Green Zone, the center of U.S. military and Iraqi government operations here. The barrages had increased sharply since Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched a campaign against Shiite fighters last month in the southern city of Basra.
"We accomplished what we were trying to do, which was to stop the indirect fire," said Col. Allen Batschelet, chief of staff for Multinational Division-Baghdad. "The manifestation of the violence that you're talking about has pretty much stopped."
At least 697 rockets and mortar rounds have been fired since March 23, mostly from Sadr City, according to U.S. military statistics. The data showed that 292 struck U.S.-led coalition forces, 291 hit Iraqi neighborhoods and 114 fell in the Green Zone.
Those attacks peaked on March 27, when 27 rockets and mortar shells were fired, with 10 striking the Green Zone, the data showed. By early this week, there were eight or so a day, with about three a day recently hitting the Green Zone.
U.S. and Iraqi troops have been operating in the slice of Sadr City south of al-Quds Street, which U.S. officials believe contains about 800,000 of the district's 2 million to 3 million residents. But U.S. forces have not operated north of that street. "We choose not to," Batschelet said.
At the Baghdad division's headquarters at Camp Liberty, U.S. officials emphasized the distinction they see between members of Sadr's Mahdi Army (known in Arabic as Jaish al-Mahdi, or JAM in military parlance) and those who have split from the group, which the military calls "special groups" and "criminals."
According to U.S. military briefing materials, members of the Mahdi Army are obeying a cease-fire declared by Sadr last summer and are working to "avoid future escalations of violence." Members of the "special groups/criminals" are not adhering to the freeze and account for 73 percent of the attacks that kill or wound U.S. soldiers in Baghdad. They represent "the greatest long-term threat to the security of Iraq and its people," the briefing materials said.
At a separate news conference, the No. 2 commander of U.S. troops in Iraq emphasized that he did not blame Sadr or the Mahdi Army for the violence.
"We do not attribute what we've seen in terms of some of this criminal activity to JAM," said Lt. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, who commands day-to-day operations in Iraq. "That is, based upon our assessment, a result of irresponsible activity on the part of special groups criminals. And those special groups elements continue to foment violence and really are interested in progressing their own agenda."
But Batschelet, pressed on whether the two groups are really so distinct, conceded: "They are so amorphous. They go back and forth between each other. It's not like we have the Dallas Cowboys versus the Houston Oilers. It's just not as clear."
Many residents of Sadr City, however, contend that all the Shiite fighters are members of the Mahdi Army. The U.S. campaign, they said, has alienated many residents and pushed them to join the militia.
"Now for me, my first and last enemy is the Americans," said Abu Nidal al-Zaidi, 47, an unemployed Sadr City resident who used to sell vegetables. "The Americans target women and children and are ruining our lives. Now everyone here carries weapons and wants revenge."
The U.S. military has said that its precision-guided weapons target only fighters. And troops are working to win over residents by helping provide humanitarian assistance.
In an effort to solidify gains, U.S. officials are building a wall along al-Quds Street, seeking to create a safe area south of the barrier where redevelopment can occur. But as is often the case, local citizens don't necessarily see things the same way as the U.S. military.
Zaidi said residents are furious about the wall, comparing it to Israeli barriers in and around the Palestinian territories. "It is like they are trying to create a prison for us in this city," he said.