BAGHDAD, Iraq — The fight with renegade Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is not over, and the U.S. military must retake his stronghold in Baghdad’s Sadr City slum, a top U.S. commander said Thursday.
Maj. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, commander of the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division, said action is necessary before the volatile cleric has a chance to rebuild his Mahdi militia, which was devastated in recent fighting.
“He’s decided the best thing for him to do is to go underground and regroup,” Chiarelli told The Associated Press. “We’re not going to allow that to happen.”
The Mahdi Army hasn’t launched a significant attack on U.S. troops in two days, Chiarelli said. The rebel leader has not made a public appearance since the remnants of his militia departed Najaf’s Imam Ali Shrine after a peace agreement last week.
U.S. military officials believe thousands of al-Sadr’s inexperienced fighters were killed in two bouts of battles in Shiite cities in south-central Iraq, as well as in streets of Sadr City in east Baghdad, a district named after the cleric’s father. That fighting began in April and flared again last month.
But militiamen remain heavily armed and in control of the northern half of Sadr City, a densely populated district of small alleys filled with booby traps and hidden bombs, he said.
Job to take weeks
Now, Chiarelli said, his Texas-based division needs to re-establish control over that area before al-Sadr’s forces can regroup. The job will take a matter of weeks, Chiarelli said, giving no timetable for the start of an operation.
“We're going to go in and first, make Sadr City safe for the residents. We’re going to make it very, very possible for the militia to disarm,” Chiarelli said. “As long as there’s a militia of any kind working at counter purposes to the government, we have a problem.”
On Thursday, U.S. troops in Humvees and Bradley Fighting Vehicles used loudspeakers to call on militants in the slum to turn in their heavy weapons.
“All armed members of the Mahdi Army militia should hand over their heavy weapons as soon as possible, starting tomorrow,” the troops said, designating a soccer stadium and the local U.S. headquarters as the drop-off points.
Sadr City holy sites to be targeted?
If it comes to a showdown with the U.S. military in Sadr City, no ultra-sensitive Muslim holy places will get in the Army’s way, Chiarelli said, harking to how sensitivities over damaging the revered Imam Ali Shrine prevented a full-bore attack on al-Sadr’s militia in Najaf.
“We feel very strongly that Sadr City is not Najaf,” Chiarelli said. “You have a totally different set of parameters in Sadr City.”
Avoiding civilian casualties in the crowded neighborhood, however, poses a difficulty. Some observers contend that U.S. assaults on al-Sadr’s forces have only increased his popularity, particularly because he has twice emerged with his militia intact.
Despite a peace deal that ended three weeks of fighting in Najaf last week, many members of al-Sadr’s militia are thought to have returned to Sadr City with their weapons.
Chiarelli said the group has laid bomb traps throughout the northern part of the district.
“There’s a tremendous amount. I don’t even want to venture a guess as to how many are there,” Chiarelli said of the makeshift bombs, often fashioned from large artillery shells pilfered from old Iraqi military depots. “We’ve got to get rid of these, so that people aren’t endangered by a 155 mm shell, daisy chained, three or four of them in a row, that blows up.”
82 bombs in five days
In a five-day stretch last month, U.S. troops disarmed or were hit by 82 hidden bombs in Sadr City, Chiarelli said. “They either blew up or we disarmed them,” he said.
Soldiers painstakingly removed hidden bombs from the neighborhood’s southern section and now patrol the area in armored Humvees, said Chiarelli. But U.S. troops can only enter the north side in Abrams tanks or Bradleys, the general said.
The 1st Cavalry had to lay off most of the 15,000 Iraqis it hired to repair electrical, sewer and water infrastructure in Sadr City, with work stalled until the Army regains control, Chiarelli said.
Meanwhile, U.S. military and the government of interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi have balked at al-Sadr’s cease-fire overtures that call for U.S. troops to pull out of the neighborhood.
“That allows a very small group of very, very well-armed individuals to intimidate the population. We’re not going to let that happen,” the general said, commending Allawi’s stand against al-Sadr and private militias.
“So far the pronouncements of the government have all been in line with what we think needs to be done in Sadr City,” he said.
Associated Press driver killed
Gunmen ambushed an Associated Press driver Thursday, riddling his car with bullets and killing him near his home in Baghdad. Ismail Taher Mohsin, an Iraqi, was attacked about 7:15 a.m. at a crossroads in the Ghazaliya district — an area where residents had supported the regime of Saddam Hussein, according to police and relatives.
More than 20 empty bullet casings littered the street, his relatives said. Relatives said Mohsin had received no threats or warnings. The attackers’ identity or motives were not known.
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