In Sadr City, U.S. Mission Shifts From Urban Warfare to Reconstruction

Brig. Gen. Mike Milano, left, deputy commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad, and Lt. Col. Brian Eifler in Sadr City near Jamila Market, which is being rebuilt.
Brig. Gen. Mike Milano, left, deputy commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad, and Lt. Col. Brian Eifler in Sadr City near Jamila Market, which is being rebuilt. (By Ernesto Londoño -- The Washington Post)
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By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 1, 2008

BAGHDAD, May 31 -- A little over two weeks ago, U.S. troops in Sadr City were on the front lines of fierce, unrelenting urban warfare. But virtually overnight, their main mission has become one of rebuilding portions of the vast, tattered Shiite district and building trust in neighborhoods where many residents despise Americans.

Reaching that point took a fragile cease-fire agreement that called for a limited U.S. role in military operations in Sadr City, a stronghold of militias loyal to anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr; thousands of Iraqi soldiers; and wads of cash.

"If we get Sadr City right and create irreversible momentum, there's no turning back," Brig. Gen. Mike Milano, deputy commander of U.S. forces responsible for Baghdad, said Saturday during a visit to Sadr City.

Restoring order in Sadr City, home to roughly 2 million people, is the U.S. military's top priority in the Iraqi capital. When thousands of Iraqi troops were deployed to the district two weeks ago, meeting virtually no opposition and prompting scores of militia leaders to leave the city or go underground, U.S. officials saw an opportunity to weaken the influence of Sadr and militia leaders.

In a span of three days last week, U.S. soldiers awarded tens of thousands of dollars to merchants who applied for business grants. Additionally, they have paid nearly $85,000 to Iraqis who filed claims for property damaged during the recent clashes.

The payments have prompted a growing number of Sadr City residents to venture out, often surreptitiously, to the small outpost the U.S. military keeps in Sadr City. The visits have yielded good tips and have given the Americans a chance to encourage residents to question their loyalties, U.S. military officials said.

Sadr City residents have long felt neglected by the Iraqi government, and many are deeply suspicious of -- often outright hostile toward -- U.S. troops.

"Sadr filled that void by giving a voice to people who had no voice," said Staff Sgt. Frank Lugo, 36. "Now we're here, and he left the city."

Gone, too, U.S. military officials say, are leaders of militias that this spring fired dozens of powerful rockets into the fortified Green Zone and attacked American troops with small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades.

"We're trying to capitalize on that," said Lt. Col. Brian Eifler, 39, a battalion commander who was recently deployed to Sadr City.

Eifler said residents and merchants have been extorted for years by militiamen, who were long the closest thing to a security force in Sadr City.

U.S. troops succeeded in pacifying most Baghdad neighborhoods last year by deploying thousands of troops and turning former insurgents into paid allies.

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