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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 Sam DagherCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 1, 2008

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.

Kareem Raheem/Reuters

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Baghdad

"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.

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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.

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.

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