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U.S. hopes to counter Mahdi Army's clout in Baghdad

American forces in Iraq announced Monday ambitious public-works plans to win support in Sadr City.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 15, 2008

Sadr City: A member of Iraq's security forces manned a checkpoint on the road to Sadr City, the Mahdi Army militia's Baghdad stronghold.

Karim Kadim/AP

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BAGHDAD

The US military continues to go after Shiite militiamen in an effort to quell the deadly rocket-fire that has been hitting the Iraqi capital's fortified Green Zone with increasing accuracy. On Sunday night it killed six gunmen in eastern Baghdad after American soldiers were attacked with rocket-propelled grenades.

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But while clashes carry on with Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, which the US says is responsible for unleashing the salvo of rockets and mortars targeting American and Iraqi government buildings, US military officials are putting out feelers to Mr. Sadr's associates.

They are reaching out to elements within his militia that they could possibly work with to end the violence and are launching public-works projects designed to win over local hearts and minds inside Sadr City, the Mahdi Army's main Baghdad stronghold.

"At my level, I'm seeking engagement with individuals that are willing to work with us for the purpose of supporting stability and meeting the needs of the people," says Major Gen. Jeffery Hammond, commanding general for Multi-National Forces in Baghdad.

The US says it has been able to reduce the rocket fire that has killed a number of civilian and military workers in the Green Zone to levels experienced before the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched an assault on the Shiite militias in late March that sparked a major battle in Basra that spread to Baghdad.

General Hammond's desire to "reach out" to moderate Sadr supporters – even while forces under Hammond's command take out what he calls the "criminals" loyal to the same leader – reflects sentiments expressed last week by both Gen. David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates. While in Washington to brief Congress on the situation in Iraq, General Petraeus called Sadr's following a "legitimate political movement" and said Sadr should not be "backed into a corner from which there is no alternative."

So far the extended hand is not encountering a reciprocal response, at least not officially. On Sunday, Sadr issued a statement rebuffing US overtures, saying he could never cooperate with the "occupiers" of Iraq.

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