U.S. pushes utilities to counter Moqtada al-Sadr
US general in Baghdad says bringing basic services to Sadr City to weaken Sadr and his militia can work this time.
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"Tell the mayor – the mayor of Baghdad, the big mayor – tell him we'll be here tomorrow morning at 9 o'clock, and we'll be very disappointed if he's not here. The prime minister needs this to happen," he said during a Friday trip to Sadr City. "We gotta get going."
General Hammond is pushing for services – trash pickup, medical care, water, electricity – for a southern slice of the volatile district. It's part of a US plan to win Iraqis away from Moqtada al-Sadr's sway. And they see a window of opportunity as fighting in Mr. Sadr's Baghdad stronghold shows signs of quieting.
While sporadic fighting continued Sunday, clashes with the Mahdi Army calmed after Sadr issued a statement Friday calling for the "patience" of his followers and for an end to bloodshed among Iraqis. He stepped back from his earlier threat of "open war until liberation," saying it was only directed at Iraq's "occupiers."
In the assault on the Shiite enclave, the Americans' original goal was to push Mahdi Army gunmen out of the southernmost section of Sadr City, from where a barrage of rockets and mortars was launched on the Green Zone, home of US and Iraqi offices. The firings from this part of the district have mostly stopped.
As part of the US and Iraqi campaign against the cleric and his Mahdi Army militiamen, the Americans have walled off one southern part of it from the rest of this vast quarter of 2 million Shiites.
Now, Hammond wants the residents there to see the benefits in helping keep the fighters from returning. And he's in a hurry to do so. Sadr City is certainly on edge. While fighting has tapered off since the Iraqi government's campaign against Shiite militias in Basra sparked new violence in Baghdad, it could easily erupt again.
The idea here is to replicate successes in other Baghdad neighborhoods where security walls and controlled entrances have delivered significant drops in violence.
The Americans have tried to win over Sadr supporters through civic projects before, only to see fierce bouts of fighting return. And Hammond is no stranger to the earlier attempts that the US made at turning things around in Sadr City – efforts that began within months of the US invasion in March 2003. There have been programs for working with the locals and trumpeted infrastructure projects before.
But, he says, he sees "three elements that make me believe we can achieve it this time."
One is the Iraqi government. "You have a government with the will now and the resources to get something done." Two, the Iraqi Army and police. "They now have security forces that have performed and proved they can operate under fire."