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Good signs jostle with doubts in Iraq

Prime Minister Nouri Maliki is capable of frank public discourse but some worry about his ambitions. As U.S. troops pull back, the views from Baqubah and Sadr City may offer clues to the future.

June 30, 2009|Ned Parker and Raheem Salman

Shiite grocer Abu Mariam lost his sons in the conflict, and his daughter, who is in her early 20s, was paralyzed by shrapnel. Although he is glad Iraqi forces will replace Americans on the streets, he said the province is unlikely to overcome its recent history. "We are all relatives," he said. "[But] any explosion can create a problem -- then it becomes this is Shiite, this is Sunni."

U.S. officers say they are hopeful but concerned. "The past couple of years have made an indelible mark on everyone's psyche," said Army Capt. Todd Tatum with the 25th Infantry Division. "There are going to be lingering tensions and issues between tribes and sects . . . for a long time."

Sadr City

Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr's Mahdi Army militia once ruled this district of 2.5 million people. But after fighting in the spring of 2008 in which U.S. air power played a large part, Sadr ordered his fighters to lay down their arms.

The slum is now divided by giant blast walls. Iraqi soldiers and police operate checkpoints, and the Sadr movement is mindful of how quickly it became a shadow of itself.

But with U.S. soldiers moving out of Baghdad, rockets fired from Sadr City have targeted the Green Zone, the walled home of Maliki's government and the U.S. Embassy.

A string of bombings has shaken Sadr City since April. Some people believe they are the result of internal Shiite rifts. Regardless, the strife is a reminder of the intense struggle for power within Iraq's Shiite majority.

Former Mahdi Army fighters insist their days of combat are over. If true, that bodes well for Baghdad's stability. The Maliki government has made some gestures toward Sadr, including the release of two prominent figures. One of them, Laith Khazaali, was a leader of a splinter group implicated in the killing of five U.S. soldiers in January 2007.

Sadr formed a new organization to teach Islam, which is to absorb most former Mahdi Army fighters. A veteran of the militia named Abdul Rahman says he is one of them.

"We have the numbers to defeat the enemy [the Americans] but we don't have the weapons, so we have to find the alternative, which is the education," Rahman said.

Rahman predicted that Iraqi forces would be able to ensure security. Still, he complained that the army was affiliated with other Shiite parties -- a reference to Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party and its ally, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.

"We can depend upon our troops completely as soon as we cleanse them from the bad elements," he said. "I think it will be quiet after the Americans leave."

But others worry that they could become victims of the jockeying for power before national elections next January. On June 17, men in army uniforms grabbed two brothers from their homes in the middle of the night. Within days, their bodies were found in an abandoned building.

Ali Wannan Bedani, 37, said he watched as the men grabbed his brother Hussein, a neighborhood leader. He said one of them shouted: "Do you belong to the Mahdi Army?"

Bedani said the Defense Ministry has detained the army squad that operated on his block. He isn't sure of the motive for the killings, and he wonders whom he can trust. He fears for the future.

"I expect after the withdrawal of the American troops, security will deteriorate," he said.

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ned.parker@latimes.com

Salman is a Times staff writer.

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