Anger follows the fight with Sadr's militia

Residents of Sadr City, Moqtada al-Sadr's Baghdad stronghold, said they felt 'caught in the middle' of the battle between Sadr's Mahdi Army and US and Iraqi forces.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    War Ruins: A resident of Sadr City, Moqtada al-Sadr's Shiite stronghold in Baghdad, stood in a house damaged by a US airstrike Monday.
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"The Charge of the Sadrs" is spray painted in black all over the numerous Iraqi Army and police checkpoints now abandoned in eastern Baghdad's Shiite neighborhoods.

The graffiti mocks Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's security operation – "The Charge of the Knights" – launched in Basra, the southern Iraqi oil city, last week that put Iraqi and US forces in direct confrontation with Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army in the capital and across the south.

On Monday, one day after the Shiite cleric's call for a truce following the battle that killed hundreds of people and wounded scores of others, several conclusions are clear.

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Mr. Sadr has demonstrated his power, despite the blows dealt to his movement over the past few years. The government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, thanked him profusely on Monday for his decision, but vowed that the fight would continue in Basra, where militiamen have now largely melted away from the streets, but remain very much in control of their strongholds.

"It's the same old ending," says Juliana Dawood, a Basra resident, referring to previous battles with Sadr's Mahdi Army in 2004 that have finished with similar truces.

In August 2004, US and Iraqi forces battled Sadr's militias in Najaf, Iraq. It was billed as a crucial test of then-Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's ability to extend authority over a key city in Iraq that was controlled by armed militias. The Najaf showdown ended in much the same way this one did: a Sadr negotiated truce.

But this time, analysts say, the widespread instances of surrender among the Iraqi forces and the seizure of their equipment and vehicles by the Mahdi Army shows that despite all the funding and training from the US, Iraq's soldiers remain greatly swayed by their sectarian and party loyalties and are incapable of standing up in a fight without US backing.

The fighting has also firmly wedged the US in an intra-Shiite struggle that has been bubbling for some time and will probably only intensify. The battle has also spawned more popular anger and frustration, especially in places like eastern Baghdad, toward both US forces and Mr. Maliki's government, which already had been teetering on the verge of collapse.

This popular anger is like an adrenaline rush for the Sadrist movement, which, in contrast to other Shiite parties, particularly the one led by rival Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, is seen as being on the side of the young, poor, and downtrodden.

Already Sadr is gearing up to capitalize on this comeback with a huge anti-American rally planned in Baghdad on April 9, the day Saddam Hussein's statue was brought down in the capital five years ago.

In Baghdad, the government lifted a three-day curfew but US and Iraqi forces maintained a siege of sorts on Mahdi strongholds in eastern Baghdad, such as Sadr City and Shaab and Shuala on the northwest side. All vehicles were banned from going in and out except for authorized food and medicine deliveries.

Everyone going in was searched by Iraqi forces. US troops kept a close eye from a distance. A US Abrams tank, a Bradley fighting vehicle, and an armored truck stood guard at Mudhafar Square on the edge of Sadr City. US soldiers have also moved into the main municipal building off the square.

"They killed him here, look," recounts Salem Dhiab, pointing to the bullet-riddled gate where he says his neighbor, Ahmed Bayrouzi, was shot by a US sniper after venturing out Sunday in violation of the curfew to check on his sister who lives close by.

Nearby, two lone policemen sat outside and simply smiled when asked how they fared in the fight. The street was charred from the remains of burning tires that militiamen set ablaze.

Down Khairallah Street, US Stryker combat vehicles have taken up positions.

On this reporter's visit Monday, an explosion went off, sending smoke and dust in the air. Men and women carrying bags of food scurried for cover. Someone said it was one of the roadside bombs planted by the Mahdi Army.

Just one street down, on Alwat Jamila, deeper into Sadr City, the scene changed completely. No police or Army were seen anywhere. A police station looked abandoned and a section of the Jamila food market was completely destroyed in the violence. Stall owners used shovels to scoop up oranges and smashed bottles of soda.

A man who gave his name as Abu Mustafa described how he ferried the dead and wounded civilians and militiamen on his blue tricycle that he has christened the "The Sadrist Tricycle."

"We voted for a government to help us, not to do this to us," says an angry woman, who gave her name as Umm Jasem. She sold fresh eggs at the market. Her stall was reduced to a heap of charred metal. "Enough! Tell America enough."

Another stall owner, Balasem Mahdi, was busy cleaning up and repainting his shop. "We just want to get on with our lives," he said.

One side of the street was riddled with roadside bombs planted by the militia and covered up with heaps of garbage and barrels.

A trail of wires led to detonation boxes inside the alleyways manned by Mahdi Army foot soldiers.

One of those boxes was at the front gate of Amir Rahim's home. Some of the rockets aimed at the Green Zone over the past week were also fired from outside his home. "They will not be able to finish off the Mahdi Army," he says. "But it's us, the civilians, who are caught in the middle and just keep paying the price."

He asked how he can be expected to confront these foot soldiers if hundreds of policemen and soldiers in Sadr City simply abandoned their posts or handed their weapons to the militia over the past week. He says that most of those in the police and Army have great sympathy for Sadr.

Militiamen also paraded in newly issued Humvees, which were taken from the Army in several neighborhoods, according to witnesses.

In Basra, the situation was relatively calm Monday, although sporadic gunfire could still be heard in the streets and Associated Press Television showed Iraqi troops searching house to house, apparently targeting militants.

Some supermarkets and stores were open but residents said few people were venturing out.

• Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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