Last Tuesday evening an Apache helicopter crew noticed three criminals loading a mortar into the trunk of their car in Sadr City. After insuring there were no civilians nearby, the American soldiers fired a Hellfire missile which obliterated the front end of the vehicle. The criminals rushed to the mangled auto and grabbed the mortar, tossed it into a second vehicle and sped away.
Events like these have become commonplace as neither American nor Iraqi Security Forces have been patrolling the streets of Sadr City. Even though Muqtada al Sadr has declared a cease-fire, the Sadr City District has been a very dangerous place for Coalition forces. The lower-class neighborhoods of eastern Baghdad (Sadr City) continue to remain an Al Sadr stronghold. So much so, that the area has been cordoned and Iraqi and Coalition forces do not venture into the majority of the eastern Baghdad slums. The area is laced with IEDs and armed criminal elements that will stand and fight, if confronted. So, the majority of the Coalition’s security is facing inward and the city streets are patrolled from the sky. Contrary to some reports, Sadr City is not under siege. There are control points to stem the influx of illegal weapons, but people are free to come and go as they please.
Rest assured, Sadr City is under constant surveillance. High above the attacking Apache, an Unmanned Arial Vehicle (UAV) circled the district. Air Force controllers watched the Apache attack and the enemy speed away in their streaming video broadcast from the drone. They stalked the vehicle as it sped through the streets like a hawk circling its prey. When the thugs finally stopped in an empty field, another Hellfire screamed out of the evening sky. This time both criminals were killed and the vehicle and mortar were destroyed.
There may not be a cop on every corner in Sadr City, but the ISF and American Forces can see what is going on and they can swiftly react to acts of aggression. For some time now, there has been a tense stalemate in Sadr City. Al Sadr’s radical followers continue to conduct violent acts in the form of mortar and rocket attacks, IED attacks on Coalition and Iraqi Security forces, and outright skirmishes with the authorities. More often than not, the fighters are rounded up or killed, but they continue to harass the establishment.
All the while, the vast majority of the civilian population is trying to live a peaceful life amid this small groups’ struggle for power and influence. Security is slowly returning to the other districts of Baghdad and as the streets become safer, overall life is improving for the every-day Iraqi. The streets are being cleaned up, markets, parks and schools are open and there is a glimmer of hope for the future. Bread winners are returning to work and children are returning to school.
But Muqtada and his followers do not want the people of Sadr City to gain hope for their future. Their power comes from the downtrodden, from the poor, from the disadvantaged. They want to have continued chaos in Sadr City, Baghdad and Iraq. Stability is their enemy. So, Sadr’s supporters roam the streets in armed gangs, lob mortar rounds at American facilities, plant IEDs and rocket the International Zone. Recently, after British troops withdrew from the streets of Basra, Sadrist thugs took over Iraq’s second largest city.
Last month, the Iraqi government moved to restore law and order in Basra. Until then, Muqtada al Sadr and his radical followers enjoyed a shaky stalemate with the Coalition forces and the government in Baghdad. Al Sadr, who has been hiding in Iran, has issued a fatwa declaring a cease-fire with the Multi-National Forces in Iraq. He has been literally sitting on the sidelines, waiting for American forces to go home. But, his Mahdi army has seized every opportunity to make trouble. Some – many – of Muqtada Al Sadr’s followers have violated the cease-fire and have quickly been killed or captured.
When the ISF moved to retake Basra, Sadrist thugs throughout the country counterattacked from Basra to Nasiriyah to Sadr City. Last week, Iranian-made 107mm rockets were hurled across the Tigris River into the International Zone from the most southern reaches of Sadr City. Iraqi Security Forces quickly moved into that area with coalition support. They have built a temporary barrier that separates the southern edge of the district from the rest of Sadr City. The rocket teams that have not been killed have been forced out of effective range to be able to hit the International Zone. While the ISF are in the lead, there is a considerable Coalition force supporting the Iraqis, particularly in the air.
With support of the Coalition, Iraqi Security Forces have had great success in neutralizing, killing and destroying the mortar and rocket teams who were firing from within Sadr City. “We have taken out literally dozens of those teams” Rear Admiral Greg Smith, Director of Communications for the Multi-National Force – Iraq, added that some of these criminals were, “in the process of setting up to fire.” These criminals were lobbing rockets across the Tigris River, attempting to hit government and Coalition targets in the International Zone. Most of the rockets fell short, killing and injuring innocent Iraqi civilians.
The burned out vehicles we are seeing in the streets on the nightly news belong to rocket and mortar teams, victims of precision weapons launched from Unmanned Arial Vehicles (UAVs) or Apache helicopters. The enemy cannot escape the watchful eyes of coalition forces. “What you have is a very persistent coverage from the air by US forces.” Smith went on to say, “We spot ‘em, we track ‘em and we kill ‘em.”
Still, the levels of violence today are higher than they were before Easter Sunday. There was a serious peak of violence after the Iraqi government moved to take back the streets of Basra. The number of incidents has recently decreased, but is still elevated in nearly every category.
What is Next?
The next few weeks will be crucial to bringing the citizens of Sadr City into the fold. Today, Muqtada al Sadr has a significant following within the slums of the city named after his martyred father. But, his influence is waning. Extremists want him dead and moderates are considering reconciliation. The Iraq government will be pumping $150,000,000 into the southern extremities of Sadr City. The money will be used to revitalize the areas that are under government control. If the moderates see that the government is making an effort to help the people of Sadr City, they may be inclined to denounce the violent elements that control their neighborhoods.
Even then, the future of the citizens of Eastern Baghdad, and most of southern Iraq, rests in the hands of Muqtada al Sadr and the violent factions within his following. If the government of Iraq can provide some political accommodations to the Sadrists, if Al Sadr can be convinced that he can maintain his power base peacefully, if the extreme shi’a can reconcile with the moderate shi’a, there might be a chance of a peaceful outcome in Sadr City.
Let us all hope that sane minds prevail because if they don’t, a military operation will be needed to clear Sadr City, ala Najaf, Fallujah and Basra. Muqtada Al Sadr needs to realize that we can do this the easy way or the hard way, but the Coalition and Iraqi Security Forces will not be deterred from bringing peace and stability to all the people of Iraq, including those in Sadr City.