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.

Howard Lafranchi
Hammond's Way: Maj. Gen. Jeffery Hammond talked on Friday about operations in Sadr City aimed at driving Mahdi Army fighters out and winning support among average Iraqis living there.

Maj. Gen. Jeffery Hammond, US commander in Baghdad, patted the hand of the Iraqi general who oversees government forces in Sadr City. He smiled, but delivered a firm message.

"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."

And three, the people have changed, he says. "Maybe the most important thing is that the people are just tired. They're tired of the bad guys hurting good people, it's as simple as that."

Hammond admits to disappointment at the pace of government engagement in Sadr City so far, but reserves judgment for the moment. "I'm a little disappointed we haven't got the government in here yet, but give it a few more days," he says. "We'll see how well they've kicked in the resources."

American and Iraqi officials also point to several recent developments to support the idea that now is the time to plant a sustained government presence inside Sadr City.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met with Iraq's Sunni vice president to address ways to reintegrate Sunni parties back into the Shiite-led government. Iraq's largest Sunni bloc said over the weekend that it would soon rejoin Maliki's cabinet, a development attributed to Maliki's crackdown on Shiite militias.

Added to that is Maliki's commitment to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during her recent visit to Baghdad that the government would spend $300 million to improve living conditions in the Shiite neighborhood.

But perhaps the best sign, some US military officials say, is evidence that local residents are ready for things to change in the neighborhood.

"The people tell us they are sick of the fighting, they want a positive life," says Lt. Col. Frank Curtis, commander of the 4th Infantry Division's 302nd Civil Affairs Battalion.

During Hammond's Sadr City foray on Friday, the streets were quiet. It was the Muslim Sabbath, so even those businesses that have remained open despite the fighting are closed. And it was oppressively hot. But few vehicles moved, some streets near the military installations were completely closed to traffic, and the few young men walking or hanging out at intersections failed to give the neighborhood a sense of life.

Hammond's visit to the walled-off neighborhood included stops at the US military outpost where a civil affairs officer worked with an embedded civilian reconstruction team, and at a joint US-Iraqi outpost that had come under fire just the day before.

Colonel Curtis says a drop-in medical clinic that his unit organized the day before was "overwhelmed" with 300 residents. The original trickle of locals coming to file compensation claims for property damage during the heaviest fighting has grown to a steady stream.

For Hammond to get anywhere in Sadr City he needs the participation of an Iraqi government and key ministries that so far have shown little initiative in taking their services into areas like Sadr City.

That is why this general from the 4th Infantry Division on his third tour in Iraq this time finds his agenda filled with meeting Iraqi civilian government officials, local leaders, and influential sheikhs, and his time with military officers increasingly focused on delivering services.

"I didn't think I'd find myself doing this," Hammond says. "But we need the people to see they have security forces that are making their neighborhoods safe, and to see they have a government that can deliver a better quality of life."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of 5 free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.