Shiites taxing thin US forces

Until now, the US-led coalition plan for securing transitional Iraq had hinged on training new Iraqi forces. The coalition says it has 70,000 Iraqi police officers and 20,000 members of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps equipped and on duty.

In February, Gen. Martin Dempsey, who is in charge of coalition troops in Baghdad, decided that Iraqis were ready to take over some security operations in the city. He began moving US troops from forward positions in Baghdad to bases on the outskirts of the city.

But reports are coming in from around the country that Iraqi security forces are refusing to confront the new challenges head on. Analysts now say the best military solution to the rising tide of Sunni and Shiite attacks - and unexpected alliances - is a major increase in US forces.

"We have to live here, so we're not going to go up against the Mahdi army [the militia loyal to the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr],'' says a detective at the Habibiya police station in Sadr City, who would only identify himself as Abu Kassem. "We're in an incredibly dangerous and difficult position."

The Habibya station was one of at least seven in Sadr City that surrendered to the Mahdi army last Sunday, and its stockpile of 80 AK-47 assault rifles was confiscated by Mr. Sadr's men. Now the Iraqi cops are unarmed, out of uniform, and determined to stay out of harm's way. "The Americans came here so they'll have to deal with it,'' says Abu Kassem.

Neither Iraqis nor the US appear prepared to take on Sadr's militia.

Fighting Shiites "was probably the last thing the coalition wanted to deal with,'' says M.J. Gohel, president of the Asia Pacific Foundation in London, a security think tank. "The [coalition] forces are only a fraction of the figure needed if one wants to turn the situation there around."

The two-front war has coalition forces engaging Sunni militants in the center of the country and armed supporters of Sadr further south, frequently in cities where the US had been hoping to draw down its military presence.

ON Wednesday, the Mahdi army moved freely about the streets of Sadr City. Abdel Ahmed Hussein, who runs a fruit stand up the street from Sadr's office there, says the Mahdi have been too "extreme" but that he has some sympathy for their position. "This was bound to happen,'' he says. "The American troops shot randomly and killed a lot of innocent people. Of course people will turn on them."

But without Iraqi forces, the US is likely to continue being tested by the insurgents.

"Saddam had an army of 400,000, plus his [personal militia] and a vast intelligence service just to keep the lid on this country,'' says Mr. Gohel. "With current troop levels it will be impossible to provide the security required, and the violence will only serve to inspire the global jihad movement."

Indeed, the rising number of Iraqi casualties, many civilians, highlights the dangers for an occupying army when it seeks to put down an insurrection. Broader Iraqi anger is being created by civilian deaths, which are almost inevitable in the street-to-street fighting being seen in cities like Fallujah. There, on Wednesday, witnesses said 40 Iraqis were killed in a mosque after it was struck by a US missile, the Associated Press reported.

The fighting in Fallujah has also severed commerce along the main western road between Amman, Jordan, and Baghdad. Marines have taken up positions on the highway, effectively severing one of the three main routes out of the country at a time when the coalition has been trying to focus on economic development. Coalition officials say Islamist militants from neighboring Syria and Jordan have used the road in the past to hook up with insurgents in Fallujah.

The deadliest fighting of the occupation continued for a fourth day Wednesday, with US marines fighting pitched battles against Sunni insurgents in Fallujah. The mosques of Ramadi, west of Baghdad, rang out with calls for "jihad" against US forces a day after about 12 US marines died in fierce battle for control of the governor's palace in that town. And Sadr loyalists seized control of the southern city of Kut after pushing out Ukrainian forces. At least 22 coalition soldiers and over 150 Iraqis have died since Sunday.

Though the groups' specific motivations are poles apart - Sunni hotspots like Fallujah hope to protect the privileges they enjoyed under Saddam Hussein while Sadr seems to be making a grab for power to create a Shiite- controlled Islamic state - both sides are fighting to wrest control of Iraq's future from the US-led coalition.

For now, hatred of the American-led occupation is giving them a common cause. Clerics close to Sadr are distributing letters they say were sent by militants in the town of Fallujah praising the Shiite cleric, and wire services reported Sunni militants paraded with Sadr's picture in the Sunni town of Ramadi, west of Fallujah.

"We're all going to rise up against the Americans, the Sunnis are with us,'' says Ahmed Saber, wearing the headband and black T-shirt of the Mahdi army. He stood a short distance from a US tank in Sadr City, the Baghdad neighborhood of 2 million that's named after Sadr's father and home to most of his militants. "We should never have let them take control of Iraq, and now there will be a lot of blood."

Some Iraqi analysts say there's still hope for behind-the-scenes negotiations with Sadr, promising to drop US plans to have him prosecuted for murder in turn for ordering his forces to stand down. But the US seems to have rejected that approach - worried that leaving his Mahdi army intact will simply give him the means to intimidate domestic political opponents in the run-up to elections here next year.

On Wednesday, the coalition promised swift action against Sadr's followers. Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the coalition's senior military spokesman, promised "powerful offensive operations to destroy the al-Mahdi army throughout Iraq."

Sadr also appears to be digging in. Emissaries from the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a moderate, and Iraq's most respected cleric, sought to meet with Sadr at his small office in Najaf, where's he said to be holed up, earlier Wednesday, but Sadr refused to meet with them.

An aide to Mohammad Bahr al-Uloum, a member of the Iraqi Governing Council, told Reuters that "We asked Moqtada [al-Sadr] to stop resorting to violence, occupying public buildings, and other actions that make him an outlaw. He insists on staying on the same course that could destroy the nation."

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