19 Tense Hours in Sadr City Alongside the Mahdi Army

After Calm Year, Fighting Engulfs Shiite Enclave

Days of intense fighting in Baghdad and southern Iraq slowed after the U.S.-backed government of Nouri al-Maliki launched an offensive against rival Shiite militias and powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called for his followers to cease violence.
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 29, 2008; Page A01

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.

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