By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 17, 2009
BAGHDAD -- The unthinkable is happening in Sadr City as the U.S. military begins to shut down its outposts to meet a June 30 deadline to withdraw from Iraqi cities.
Separation anxiety is growing among residents, local leaders and American soldiers in the sprawling, impoverished Shiite district that was once the most dangerous battlefield in Baghdad for U.S. troops.
"When the Americans leave, everything will be looted because no one will be watching," an Iraqi army lieutenant newly deployed there said. "There will be a civil war -- without a doubt," predicted an Iraqi interpreter. Council members have asked about political asylum in the United States.
Mohammed Alami, a local leader who calls himself the U.S. Embassy's unofficial representative in Sadr City, is among those expecting mayhem.
"This is the most dangerous decision being made," he said recently after a meeting at a U.S. outpost in Sadr City. "We will lose the security. The insurgents will come back. I will be the first one targeted."
The deadline, the first of three that chart the withdrawal of U.S. troops, will test Iraqi forces and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's assertion that his government stands ready to assume primary control over security. The Iraqi government insisted on the deadlines last year during the negotiation of a security agreement.
For the Obama administration, the deadline and the months that follow will be a key test of whether a campaign promise to withdraw "responsibly" is feasible. Some U.S. officials have begun to see it as a potentially perilous turning point, if violence surges as the military loses influence, mobility and combat power.
"The bottom line is they are not ready for us to give over the cities," a senior U.S. military official said on the condition of anonymity to speak critically of the Iraqis. "If we do, and all indications are that they will make us leave, we will be in a firefight to get back in and stop the violence. And we will lose soldiers."De Facto Authorities
Several key details about the June 30 deadline remain unresolved. Iraqi leaders have not said how many, if any, mechanized units and outposts they will let the Americans keep in Baghdad and Mosul, a northern city riven by violence. And there is no consensus on the definition of combat troops.
The U.S. military built dozens of small combat outposts and joint security stations in 2007 as part of a strategy that helped turn the tide in a war that many at the time viewed as a lost cause. By injecting tens of thousands of American soldiers into volatile neighborhoods, the then-incoming commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, reversed course on his predecessor's goal of pulling back U.S. forces and leaving the Iraqis in the lead.
The first few months of the campaign were the deadliest in the war for American troops.
The inner-city outposts became the de facto authority in scores of neighborhoods in Baghdad and other largely lawless cities. Soldiers gathered timely street-level intelligence on Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents. They splintered extremist groups by putting thousands of insurgents on the payroll.
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."
American commanders hope that they will be able to hold on to at least one large base in downtown Baghdad and an unspecified number of smaller outposts.
But U.S. officials will defer to the Iraqi government's wishes, said Brig. Gen. Keith C. Walker, who supervises training teams. "If the Iraqis want us out of the cities, we're going to be out of the cities. That's our agreement," he said.A Lot of Buddies Lost Here
The uncertainty has commanders such as Karcher hoping for the best but planning for the worst: a renewed insurgency bent once more on wresting control of Sadr City.
Attacks on U.S. soldiers in his L-shaped sector have increased in recent weeks. Of particular concern is a string of armor-piercing roadside bombs. Insurgents in recent weeks offered a $1 million reward for anyone who kidnaps a U.S. soldier. After the joint security station in Sadr City closes, most of his men move to a small outpost on the outskirts of the city. Karcher said he does not know the extent to which he will be allowed to conduct patrols to root out roadside bombs and gather intelligence about threats to U.S. soldiers. Once he moves, meeting with his Iraqi counterpart will require an hour-long commute.
"I shave my head so I can't pull my hair out," he said.
The company commander, Capt. Christopher Clyde, 34, of Tucson, runs a small outpost near where most rocket attacks were launched. If U.S. military officials have their way, it will be among the few that remain open past the summer.
"It frustrates me that we have to leave," said Clyde, who is on his third deployment to Iraq. "We're on the precipice. We can make this work. We just need a little more time. I've lost a lot of buddies here. I want to see it work."
On a recent afternoon, as Karcher walked out of his outpost for what will probably be one of his last patrols without Iraqis in tow, a young man approached his interpreter. The man's uncle was kidnapped recently, and the abductors were demanding $100,000, he said. Karcher promised to investigate.
"We know you are doing a better job than our guys," the man said. "I'm indebted to you."
"They're doing their best," Karcher assured him. "But the big thing now is finding your uncle."