Sadr City clashes hit Iraqi civilians hard

US and Iraqi forces have been battling Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army there since March 25.

Karin Kadim/AP
Trapped: On Tuesday, a man carried a boy into a hospital in Baghdad's Sadr City district, where fighting continued Thursday.

A mini Koran and a toy cellphone was lying next to a bandaged Batoul Ahmed, barely 2 years old, as her mother wept by the bed in a Sadr City hospital Thursday, where many of the injured children have been taken during the recent spike in fighting.

In this densely populated Shiite district that has become the latest front in the US and Iraqi campaign against Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, the youngest residents are among those suffering most.

On a visit Thursday to the Imam Ali Hospital in the heart of Sadr City, almost a dozen children sought treatment as their parents and family members waited anxiously nearby. Some of the young patients had been hit by shrapnel, others by stray bullets as they played inside their homes or went outside during a lull in the battles.

Since March 25, when clashes with the Mahdi Army started in Basra, Baghdad, and other parts of southern Iraq, at least 142 people have been killed and 800 wounded in Sadr City alone, according to Qassim al-Suwaidi, the hospital's director. Nearly one-third of the victims have been women and children, he says.

On Thursday, US air strikes continued to hit buildings in Sadr City and at least 15 people were killed in the district, the Mahdi Army's main Baghdad stronghold. The US military says it is targeting "criminals."

Dr. Suwaidi says his biggest challenge is evacuating the casualties fast enough so they can quickly receive proper care – his hospital isn't able to perform complicated procedures on the more critically wounded victims.

Because of the cordon imposed by US and Iraqi forces on Sadr City and the ban on all vehicles from leaving the area, he says his ambulances are usually met by other ambulances outside the district's checkpoints.

Although fighting was tense at times, moments of calm descended on Sadr City Thursday. People walked to work or shopped in the few open markets.

US forces remained entrenched – in tanks and armored vehicles – all around the enclave. More American forces were seen streaming in Thursday.

Inside Sadr City, it's exclusively the domain of Mr. Sadr's militia. Not a single Iraqi policeman or soldier was in sight Thursday. Fresh graffiti disparaging the government and the militia's main rival, the Badr organization that is allied to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, is everywhere. While Mr. Maliki has demanded that the Mahdi Army disarm, Sadr has threatened an escalation.

But as previous standoffs in Sadr City have shown in the past four years, military action here that has killed countless civilians seems only to strengthen support for the Mahdi Army.

"Our politicians promised us paradise, but look what they are still doing to us five years later," says Mahdi Muhammad, who stood next to his son, Sajjad, stretched out on a hospital bed.

The boy was wounded when a projectile exploded next to the spot where he was playing soccer outside his house. Mr. Mahdi, out of work since the fighting started, may have to sell his family's possessions to pay his hospital bill.

Nearby was Tajia Kharbeet, who lost her husband and one daughter in an explosion during the fighting Wednesday. She sat between two beds occupied by her young daughters, Zahraa and Fatima, who survived.

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