U.S. Forces See Opportunity as Sadr Regroups
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
It has been a month since radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called on his militia to cease fire for six months. His reason: to give the Mahdi Army time to reorganize and clean up its ranks. It was a tacit acknowledgement that Sadr had lost control and that the actions of extremists and criminals were undercutting the movement's public support. Since the call for a cease-fire, there's been a drop in violence.
NPR's Anne Garrels reports that the U.S. military sees that as an opportunity.
ANNE GARRELS: This was the turning point.
(Soundbite of gunfire)
GARRELS: When Sadr's militiamen took on Iraqi police in Karbala a little over a month ago, pilgrims in this Shiite holy city were caught in the crossfire. More than 50 were killed, hundreds more wounded. Sadr's forces had gone too far. The police stood their ground. Poor Shiites, who at once felt protected by the movement, stepped up complaints that it turned into gangs of thugs. Hundreds of militiamen have since been arrested.
The Sadr Movement and its armed wing, the Jaish al-Mahdi, is fractured. Confirming this, Captain Sean Lyons has seen tips he believes are coming from within the movement itself. Lyons is based in a combat outpost known as a CoP in southwest Baghdad.
Captain SEAN LYONS (U.S. Army): You'll never see someone come over to the CoP and say, hey, I'll jump in your vehicles with you and I'll show you exactly where X, Y and Z bad guys are. But they do throw you a couple of tips and let you go out and find them, whereas before they would never even call in with tips. You know, they're trying to clean up a portion of their organization.
GARRELS: Three men, handcuffed and blindfolded are taking to waiting Humvees for processing. Captain Lyons says they were part of a cell laying particularly deadly roadside bombs, which killed two American soldiers.
Capt. LYONS: Pretty good catch. We've been developing these guys for about three weeks now after an initial tip from another Jaish al-Mahdi member, possibly due to the split.
GARRELS: There's another informant who has called about 10 times, and each time the information has been spot on. For the battalion, that's at least 10 roadside bombs that didn't go off. The battalion hasn't had a death in a month since Sadr announced his cease-fire, the longest stretch since they were deployed eight months ago. With the decrease in violence, the military is trying to exploit rifts within a Sadr movement, making a distinction between good Sadrists and bad ones.
Captain Brian Ducote describes the approach.
Captain BRIAN DUCOTE (U.S. Army): I don't want to make any more arrests if I don't have to. But you kill my soldier, you hurt the Iraqi army, you hurt the police, and I'm coming after you with an absolute vengeance.
GARRELS: Members of Sadrist movement will not meet openly with U.S. officials, but there have been contacts. Lieutenant Colonel Pat Frank(ph) held a reconciliation meeting in early September with Sunni and Shiite community and tribal leaders. He's sure some of the participants had ties to Sadr. Frank laid out four points the assembled community leaders agreed on.
Lieutenant Colonel PAT FRANK (U.S. Army): No attacks on American army or Iraqi army; pull attacks against Sunni citizens and their neighborhoods; Jaish al-Mahdi was a social organization meant to serve the people and not support terrorism or criminal activities; and that we would like all weapons to be turned into the coalition forces.
GARRELS: At a follow-up meeting later last month, there was some progress, but Frank says there's still a long way to go.
Abu Jalal(ph), a neighborhood council chairman, says it's risky to stick your neck out.
Mr. ABU JALAL (Chairman, Neighborhood Council): (Through translator) I know some people don't like this. It might kill us. But we've got a chance. We need to find peace in our area.
GARRELS: Franks says he needs more local leaders like Abu Jalal. While it may be dangerous to move too fast, time is not on Frank's side. He has to show progress to gain momentum. One reason he's been successful so far is the surge. Three times as many American troops are operating in his area than before, but that can't be sustained.
So are the achievements sustainable? Major Eric Overby.
Major ERIC OVERBY (U.S. Army): That's the big question.
Unidentified Man #1: It was like a road attached to the bridge.
GARRELS: Patrols in the neighborhoods still watch out for deadly roadside bombs placed by Sadr extremists.
Unidentified Man #2: Come in Black Two, it's Black One. That was back up by the bridge, acknowledge, over?
Unidentified Man #3: Yeah, roger.
GARRELS: And even though Lieutenant Colonel Frank expresses optimism, he is building yet another layer of blast walls around his security outpost, just in case.
Anne Garrels, NPR News, Baghdad.