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Following a death trail to Sadr City

U.S. forces think the kidnap-and-kill forays haunting Iraq originate in the insular Shiite stronghold of Baghdad.

October 24, 2006|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Where are the killers coming from?

That was the question U.S. officers pondered at a cramped command post called Apache. They examined a map showing where scores of corpses had turned up in recent weeks.

A rectangular swath of northeast Baghdad stood out. Not for the bodies found in the district, but for the clusters of corpses discovered along its tattered outskirts.

"Sadr City," said Capt. Will Wade of the 1st Battalion, 77th Armored Regiment. "That's the nucleus."

The sprawling, densely populated Shiite Muslim stronghold known as Sadr City has always been a place apart. To some, it's a den of thieves, con men and fanatics; to others, an incubator of athletes, artists and clerics.

Two years ago it was a battleground where fervent but outmatched militiamen led by Muqtada Sadr, the militantly anti-U.S. cleric, made suicidal stands against American tanks and helicopter gunships.

These days, many U.S. commanders view the neighborhood as something akin to Cambodia during the Vietnam War -- a sanctuary for the militia known as the Al Mahdi army, whose zealous volunteers are dispatched elsewhere in pogroms against their Sunni Arab countrymen.

"They're in the export business, so a lot of their force is outside Sadr City," said Maj. Charles St.Clair, who served as a military advisor in Sadr City with the 506th Regimental Combat Team. "The fact that the Corleones or the Gottis may live in my neighborhood doesn't mean they do all their business there."

The teeming district of more than 2 million people -- no one knows the population with any certainty -- operates as a kind of autonomous city-state in a shaky, informal truce with U.S. troops. Although it suffers regular car bomb attacks, Sadr City is among the safest districts in a fearful capital.

Markets still bustle here with a vibrancy drained from much of Baghdad. A citywide curfew that extinguishes most night life is largely ignored here. Many police eschew body armor. Men still play dominoes and sip tea at smoky cafes.

Yet the very source of the stability, Al Mahdi militiamen who enforce security and rigid Islamic codes of dress and behavior, evokes dread elsewhere in Baghdad, where turf is fast being carved up along sectarian lines.

The Al Mahdi army was born in Sadr City three years ago, the urban disenfranchised answering the call of clerics who sought enthusiastic legions to shield holy places and oust the "occupier."

"People here do not like the Americans, but they are exercising restraint," said Fatah Sheik, a prominent leader in Sadr City. "In my personal opinion, the earth beneath the occupiers should be jolted and shaken so that they don't get the idea they are standing on solid ground and decide to stay longer."

Many have likened the Al Mahdi army, with its messianic fervor, to Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim militant group in Lebanon dubbed a terrorist organization by Washington but lionized here. A four-story portrait of Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader, greets motorists at one of the main entrances to Sadr City.

Like Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Shiite organization here runs an extensive social service network and controls patronage-rich government ministries including health and agriculture. Like Hezbollah, it makes payments to slain militants, which it dubs martyrs. And it helps deliver rations of water and food.

U.S. and allied forces are worried that Sadr City is becoming an Iraqi version of the Hezbollah bastions of southern Beirut and the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon.

"If we are to avoid a descent into civil war and anarchy, then preventing the [Al Mahdi army] from developing into a state within a state, as Hezbollah has done in Lebanon, will be a priority," William Patey, Britain's former ambassador to Iraq, wrote recently in a confidential memo leaked to the media.

After U.S. forces raided Sadr City in August, the Shiite-dominated administration of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki made it clear the district was virtually untouchable.

"This won't happen again," he said.

Postwar U.S. administrators at first dismissed the Sadr movement as little more than a marginal nuisance. They opted instead to deal with more established Shiite leaders, despite their close ties to Iran.

Today, few doubt that the Al Mahdi army is a formidable and permanent national force, whether viewed as thugs or saints. The destruction of a major Shiite shrine in the Sunni-dominated city of Samarra in February galvanized the group into sectarian warriors reaching well beyond Sadr City.

U.S. forces appear to have settled for a kind of containment that generally avoids direct clashes in Sadr City. They worry more about the kidnap-and-kill forays that many think originate here.

"They'll send out an exporter, a gang, half a dozen cars of people in the middle of the night, all armed with AKs," Maj. St.Clair said.

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