One month after US forces established a joint American-Iraqi security station on the outskirts the sprawling Shiite slum known as Sadr City, a truck loaded with explosives rammed its outer perimeter Wednesday. The blast reduced massive concrete slabs around the building to rubble and sent a strong message to both US and Iraqi forces stationed there that a fight may be waiting within the vast corridors of this ghetto, a haven for the anti-American Mahdi Army.
The explosion just outside the bright blue, three-story building that houses both elements of the Iraqi National Police and the US Army struck like a thunderbolt – wounding two Iraqis and rattling the police and employees inside – just one day after an unprecedented visit by Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, commander of Multinational Corps-Iraq.
He visited under the tightest of security conditions – helicopters hovered above as he met with Iraqi National Police commanders – to tell them there has been a "misunderstanding" between US troops and people of the Shiite district.
"We don't mean them harm; we want to help them," the general told Iraqi National Police Col. Abdul-Zahra Hamid, the chief of the Sadr City station.
Convincing the largely poor and traditionally hostile residents of this bastion of support for the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr – who recently renewed calls for the "occupiers" to leave Iraq – will be a difficult challenge for US forces, but one they realize is vital to the success of the Baghdad security plan.
General Odierno says that it's crucial that the Americans and Iraqis proceed cautiously to build a level of support within this community.
But he admitted that the military would have to confront the elements within Sadr City that will challenge the Americans at every turn, regardless of their stated intentions there.
"As we continue to move forward, there are irreconcilables and reconcilables, and there are nonlethal and lethal ways of going about this, and we've got to take both paths," he says. "There are millions of people that live in Sadr City, and most of those people are reconcilable – they want to be part of the government, and they want to be taken care of."
But as Wednesday's bombing at the Joint Security Station (JSS) shows, they will face resistance from irreconcilables – elements of Sadr's Mahdi Army militia that will strike US forces, perhaps regardless of what Sadr himself orders – and they will be forced to confront them.
"Those that are not willing to be reconcilable, we will deal with in other ways," Odierno says. "I don't want to talk too much about that, because I don't want to talk about future operations."
In the fall of 2004, American forces were locked in a bloody fight with Sadrists within the mazes of the streets there. In concert with the implementation of the Baghdad security plan, this is the US forces' first major foray into the area since then. This time, though, the US came to the area without sparking a fight.
Nonetheless, the US may be trying to provoke pockets of militants.
On Tuesday night, some 20 Stryker vehicles – with helicopters and F-16s above – went into the northwest tip of Sadr City, an industrial area of junkyards and garages.
They were looking for a warehouse where militants were supposedly building explosively formed penetrators (EFPs), deadly bombs that the US says are being constructed in Iraq with technology from Iran. Nothing was found, and no fighters were drawn into a battle.
"Right now we are just tiptoeing around, trying to figure out exactly the composition of the enemy forces in Sadr City," says US Army Capt. Steve Phillips of the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment.
Odierno says that there are ways around a confrontation on the streets.
"I think ... we can avoid that, by taking care of some of the key leadership, by working with the people of the [Mahdi Army], and letting them know that we are willing to work with them and that there is a better way ahead," he says.
A factor that he says continues to hamper US success is support and interference from neighboring Iran.
"What's concerning is that they are in fact providing arms. They are providing money, they are providing training, and they are trying to subvert what's going on here in Iraq. And I think that's dangerous. I think it's dangerous for the future of Iraq and peace and stability within Iraq," he says.
On the streets of Sadr City, the dire needs of its residents and the deep opposition to the American presence are both apparent. Outside a school where the headmistress asked the Americans for help with fixing the sewage system and even food for the students, children threw rocks at the US soldiers, telling them to leave.
One American soldier told an Iraqi security guard to tell the children to stop or he would shoot.
But, as one guard at the school pointed out, threats of violence may mean little to a generation being raised in such poverty and reared with a hatred for the US.
People in Sadr City "exist between life and death; that's why they fight," he says. "They have nothing to lose."