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U.S. military hits a wall in Iraqi militia stronghold

Soldiers try to build a barrier to violence without escalating it.

May 11, 2008|Tina Susman | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — In the glow of a full moon, a U.S. military convoy inched toward a strategic road in Sadr City. The goal: to add to a wall being built to carve out a haven in the Shiite Muslim militia stronghold.

But the mission ended before it began. Machine gun fire blasted out from the third floor of a building along the route. A Bradley fighting vehicle fired back, sending a thunderous roar through the neighborhood of middle-class homes and businesses. Then, the lead tank hit a roadside bomb.

As gunshots and grenade blasts raged in the night, the two Iraqi construction workers accompanying the troops quit.

Army Capt. Alan Boyes wasn't worried. None of his men were injured, and at $500 a day, he knew that the contractors hired to operate a crane to install 6,000-pound slabs of the wall would be back or that others could be found to replace them. But the violence that night and several attacks since highlight the hurdles American troops face as they try to take on fighters loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr without plunging into the heart of his stronghold and sparking an all-out uprising of his heavily armed followers.

"Everyone knows we won't go past Route Gold," Boyes said, referring to the street along which the wall is being built, separating more than two-thirds of Sadr City from a rectangle where U.S. forces occupy a smattering of small bases. "It's a political thing."

It is also the same position the U.S. faced 15 months ago, when the first of 28,500 additional American troops arrived in Baghdad to help quell violence. At the time, commanders opted to not pour troops into Sadr City as they had done in other trouble spots, fearful that it would spark a bloody backlash from Sadr's Mahdi Army militia.

Little has changed in the 11-square-mile corner of northeast Baghdad, but the stakes are higher now. An Iraqi military offensive launched against Shiite militias in late March has drawn in U.S. troops and has led to near-constant fighting in Sadr City. Sadr has threatened "open war" if the offensive does not end. U.S. troop deaths have climbed to their highest level in seven months, mainly because of the clashes in and around Sadr City, and the additional American troops will be gone by July. On Saturday, the Iraqi government said it had struck a deal with Sadr's aides to halt the fighting, but the two sides disagreed on its terms and it was unclear what it would yield.

For Boyes' team, each attempt to add to the wall, which is designed to run the 3-mile length of Route Gold, is a combat mission. But the military has made it clear it won't cross the road, whose formal name is Al Quds Street, even as the Pentagon stepped up accusations that Iranian-backed fighters were using the area beyond as a base to launch attacks that have killed scores of U.S. and Iraqi forces and civilians in the last month. U.S. and Iraqi officials say they have uncovered evidence of Iranian involvement in training and supplying fighters in Shiite militia strongholds.

"There's always a danger in giving an insurgent force a safe haven, but you always have to look at the strategic consequences," Army Lt. Col. Mike Pappal said.

By building the wall, which will be about 12 feet high, Pappal said, the military will protect people on its side of Route Gold and limit escape routes for insurgents. It also will push back the Shiite fighters who launch mortar rounds and rockets at the Green Zone, which includes the U.S. Embassy and most Iraqi government offices. From the far side of Route Gold, it will be much more difficult for them to hit their targets.

Once the wall is completed, the military says, it plans to lavish streetlights on the neighborhoods it occupies and install other improvements in hopes of encouraging residents to reject extremism. Construction began April 15, but it will not be completed for several more weeks in part because of the delays caused by combat.

The United States' predicament is a sign of Sadr's status as a political power broker. He controls 30 seats in parliament, and his weekly messages read out in mosques across Iraq have a huge effect on violence in Sadr City and other Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad.

"When he says stop shooting, they do as he says," Boyes said, citing Sadr's March 30 call to halt violence. It brought an immediate end to the shower of rockets and mortar shells that had been pummeling the Green Zone. Rocket fire resumed two weeks later and has remained relatively consistent since Sadr rejected Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's demands that he disarm the Mahdi Army militia.

The streets surrounding Boyes' base, a former butcher shop, were prime rocket-launching terrain before the troops moved in. Sandbags and concrete walls surround the structure. Cots cover virtually every inch of the floor inside except for makeshift footpaths. More cots are outside beneath the trees. Day and night, most are occupied by troops sleeping, reading or watching movies on their laptops.

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