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Iraqis and American Soldiers Anxious Over U.S. Withdrawal From Sadr City

Sadr City, the bastion of the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia commanded by cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, became one of the deadliest battlefields for U.S. soldiers, who at times fought in Sadr City in tanks.

Last May, after a spate of heavy fighting in Sadr City, Sadr ordered his militia to stand down and allowed the Iraqi army to assume control of the northern sector. U.S. troops remained in control of the lower quadrant.

After months of being shunned by local leaders, the Americans, with $100 million to spend on reconstruction projects in Sadr City last year, soon began making friends. They employed 1,500 men as unarmed neighborhood guards. Local businessmen and other leaders who secured U.S. contracts now drive around in Mercedes-Benzes; one recently indulged in the latest fad in Baghdad: a Hummer.

'It's Too Early'

Lt. Col. Timothy M. Karcher, the battalion commander based in Sadr City, said he is more optimistic about the transition. The Iraqi army unit based in Sadr City has come a long way, he said. The June 30 deadline, he said, will not mark the overnight departure of U.S. forces from urban areas. Instead, it will force the Americans to adhere to a concept they have, to varying degrees, paid lip service to over the past three years: putting the Iraqis in charge.

"It's hard for a Type A-personality kind of guy to have someone else in the driver's seat," said Karcher, 42, of Harker Heights, Tex., commander of the 2nd Battalion of the 5th Cavalry Regiment. "But it's the right thing to do."

Iraqi soldiers in Sadr City are showing more initiative and competence than they ever have, Karcher said. They identify and pursue targets, sometimes without U.S. input or help. But like the rest of the country's security forces, they struggle with long-term planning and corruption within their ranks, and remain heavily dependent on the Americans for intelligence, basic supplies and logistical support.

Envisioning the future without Americans next door, some soldiers admit they have no faith in their leadership.

"My government doesn't support us," said 1st Lt. Ahmed Shaker Mahmoud Dulaimy, sitting behind his desk and chain-smoking. "Not like the American Army."

At his side was a long-range radio he got from U.S. soldiers. He asked a visiting American platoon leader, 1st Lt. Matthew Morgan, 30, of Shreveport, La., whether he could help with batteries and parts for the radio.

And he needed a helmet, the Iraqi officer said.

In recent remarks, Maliki has said the deadlines are not flexible. Some view his stance as predictable for an incumbent head of state eager to shake off the perception that his government is beholden to the United States.

"This is an election year, and this is a show for the Iraqi street," Kurdish lawmaker Tanya Gilly said. "Personally, I'm very concerned. I don't think the troops should leave. It's too early."

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