Unable to stop mortar fire from hostile forces in Baghdad’s Sadr City district, the U.S. last May erected a 15-foot high wall. The concrete slabs separate the U.S.-patrolled southern section from the northern sector, a stronghold of the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia loyal to anti-American cleric Moqtada Al- Sadr.
While the wall has solidified the cease-fire that ended a two-month battle pitting U.S. and Iraqi forces against the Mahdi Army, it has also come to represent a military stalemate. Mahdi Army members, renegade factions and units of Iraqis trained and equipped by Iran continue trying to penetrate the wall to attack U.S. troops and allies, U.S. commanders say.
“The bad guys still try to get in and create problems,” said Capt. Andrew Slack, who commands a U.S. Army company that patrols the area south of the wall.
Sadr City, where 40 percent of the capital’s 5 million people live, remains one of many pieces of unfinished business in Iraq, underscoring the challenge facing President-elect Barack Obama as he seeks to redirect forces to the war in Afghanistan.
Under an agreement reached with the U.S. and approved by the Iraq parliament two weeks ago, U.S. troops, currently numbering 146,000, will pull back into bases next June. A full withdrawal from the country is scheduled no later than the end of 2011.
That may leave Sadr City as a continuing front in the proxy war between the U.S. and Iran.
“The U.S. will still be a player, but Iran will try to maintain its influence, too, including through its allies,” said Matthew Sherman, a former State Department adviser to the Iraqi Interior Ministry and now head of Virginia-based Sherman Consulting International, in a telephone interview.
In the past two years, violence in Iraq has declined as a variety of U.S. enemies suffered setbacks.
Al-Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden’s global terror network, ran afoul of its erstwhile allies, Iraq’s Sunni Muslim minority. Sunnis, who earlier spearheaded resistance to the U.S.-led occupation, objected to al-Qaeda’s rampant car and suicide-bomb campaign. Many Sunnis now are more allied with U.S. forces after seeking protection from Iraq’s Shiite Muslim majority.
Meanwhile, anti-U.S. Shiite factions came under sustained attack by U.S. and Iraqi Army troops loyal to the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
Yet signs of potential turbulence are everywhere.
On Nov. 15, Al-Sadr called on his Shiite followers to “resist” any effort by the U.S. to remain in Iraq. In a Nov. 3 press conference in Baghdad, Iraq’s vice chief of staff, Gen. Nasier Abadi, said Sunni insurgents were resisting a yearlong U.S. offensive in and around northern town of Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city. “This is the main area of military operations,” he said.
A suicide car bomber in Mosul killed eight civilians and wounded four U.S. soldiers in a Dec. 1 attack on a joint U.S.- Iraqi convoy.
Kurds, the other major Iraqi minority, are battling Sunnis and other Iraqi sectarian groups to control Kirkuk, an oil-rich northern city.
“Al-Qaeda in Iraq remains a significant threat, as do Iranian surrogates” and the Mahdi Army, Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told the U.N. Security Council on Nov. 14. “All retain the intent and capability of carrying out lethal attacks against the Iraqi people.”
About 80 percent of Sadr City residents live on the Mahdi Army side of the wall. U.S. troops occasionally raid the north side looking for weapons. Between Oct. 20 and Oct. 30, they found material for making roadside bombs in three warehouses. They have also made 11 arrests of Iraqis they suspected belonged to Iranian-trained units.
After the wall was built to put Mahdi Army mortars out of range of Baghdad’s Green Zone, site of al-Maliki’s residence and the U.S. Embassy, it became a barrier to militia members who had previously descended on Jamilla Market, a food wholesale and retail center, to shake down merchants for money, said Capt. Slack, 31.
American troops patrol south of the wall along with Iraqi soldiers, who also occupy posts north of the wall. The Iraqi National Police force was disbanded in Sadr City because it contained Mahdi Army infiltrators.
Slack, who is from Cincinnati, said his forces are on the lookout for two new Mahdi Army offshoots, the Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Al-Haq, both containing Iraqis who fled to Iran during last spring’s fighting and then returned to Sadr City.
One night, Slack led a knock-and-search mission through part of Sadr City, going door-to-door in a four-block area just south of the wall.
Soldiers rousted inhabitants from bed and searched cabinets for rifles. “Open up!” soldiers called out in Arabic as they rushed into courtyards. “Hurry,” they added in English, hoping not to give the residents time to hide weapons.
The troops found 17 weapons, mostly AK-47s and old hunting rifles. A masked interpreter checked documents to see if the owners had permits. The presence of U.S. soldiers has given confidence to residents to inform on troublemakers, Slack said.
“That’s the real value of the wall. It helps people feel they can come forward with information, at least to us. They know we’re in charge here,” Slack said.