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.
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.
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.
The daily Azzaman newspaper quoted Sadr as saying, "After I heard the statements ... of the US defense minister, I felt compelled to respond to him ... you [the US government] have never been but my enemy and you will remain so until the last drop of blood in me. And I wash my hands from whoever considers you a friend, ruler, a truce – or negotiating-partner."
He also called for a timetable for US withdrawal from Iraq.
At the same time, the three-day mourning period for a recently assassinated senior Sadr aide ends Tuesday, raising concerns that militia violence could flare up again, says a senior American military official in Baghdad.
Riyadh al-Nouri, director of Sadr's office in the southern city of Najaf, was shot and killed Friday while returning from prayers. Initially Sadr accused the US and Iraqi forces of the killing, but on Monday Sardists shifted blame to the Badr organization, a rival Shiite militia.
The US has had a rocky relationship with Sadr, at one point making public a warrant for his arrest after he launched an uprising against US soldiers in April of 2004. Some Iraqi politicians and US analysts argued against actions they said could turn Sadr into a martyr and complicate US goals in Iraq.
A cease-fire Sadr announced last year is seen as having played a key part in the reduction of violence that Iraq has experienced since the surge of US troops a year ago. Some analysts interpret the Petraeus and Gates overtures to Sadr as part of an effort to head off a cancellation of the cease-fire that could lead to new round of violence.
The US has reduced the number of rocket attacks on the Green Zone since a sudden uptick on March 27 by pushing into the southern third of Sadr City and setting up US and Iraqi operating bases there, senior American military officials say.
The aim now is to launch an ambitious plan of 30-day, 60-day, and 90-day public works and services-improvement projects designed to convince the local population that the Iraqi government – and not Sadr's Mahdi Army militia – is best able to improve the quality of life in an impoverished expanse of pot-holed streets, open sewers, and joblessness.
A senior American military official says conditions are different now from when earlier hearts-and-minds programs were launched. US and Iraqi military are now set up and living among the Sadr City residents in the "demonstration" area of the southern third of the sector, he says.
The official, who did not want to be quoted by name on a matter where he said the Iraqis have primary direction, added that the residents are "wearied" by the violence and of living under the control of a militia.
But residents are unlikely to reject the Mahdi Army fighters who control their streets as long as some benefits – jobs, business contacts, and some services such as healthcare – are derived from them, some analysts say.
Correspondent Sam Dagher contributed reporting from Baghdad.