Eric Westervelt, NPR
U.S. and Iraqi soldiers detain suspected Mehdi Army militiamen after an attack on a checkpoint in the Washash neighborhood in West Baghdad.
U.S. and Iraqi soldiers detain suspected Mehdi Army militiamen after an attack on a checkpoint in the Washash neighborhood in West Baghdad. Eric Westervelt, NPR
Eric Westervelt, NPR
Sandbags sit in the window of a former high-end home — now a joint security station — in West Baghdad.
Sandbags sit in the window of a former high-end home — now a joint security station — in West Baghdad. Eric Westervelt, NPR
In Washash, American and Iraqi forces are facing a challenge: Rogue members of the Mehdi Army, a Shiite militia, are vying for power and influence.
Soldiers with Delta company battalion 1-64 have turned a formerly grand residence in Washash into a mini-fortress. A giant abstract sculpture in the square outside contrasts with the massive concrete blast walls that now surround the house.
Officially, it's called a joint security station or JSS. Shiite militiamen often call it a target.
This combat outpost sits on a fault line between Shiite Washash and a Sunni neighborhood. Shiite militiamen are active to the north, while Sunni insurgents, including members of Al-Qaida in Iraq, operate to the south.
In August, radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who leads the Mehdi Army, ordered his fighters to stop attacking U.S. and Iraqi forces. The majority of his gunmen have heeded the call. But some have not.
U.S. First Lt. Jeremy McCool says cells of rogue Mehdi Army fighters are trying to expand southward. But after today's gunbattle, where McCool maneuvered some of his men to support the Iraqi army in repelling an attack by suspected members of the Mehdi Army, the Shiite fighters are retreating back into their densely packed neighborhood.
An Iraqi army unit arrives at the joint security station with 17 Mehdi Army suspects, all of them bound and blindfolded.
Because Washash is so densely packed and tough to operate in, the United States relies on a network of local informants.
Several of the detained fighters have leaflets stuffed in their pockets from so-called "punishment committees" warning locals that they'll be killed if any "cooperate with the infidels." U.S. soldiers begin drawing big black numbers on the detainees' foreheads, just above the blindfold, with a felt pen.
Nearby, a chubby, barefoot 16-year-old in a black T-shirt and sweatpants squats in the dirt weeping and shaking uncontrollably as a soldier tries to put a bottle of water in his bound hands.
A group of U.S. soldiers monitors the blindfolded detainees, who are cued up for medical checks. The soldiers swat at flies, drink soda and smoke, while listening to the band Disturbed. In a tent nearby, detainees are given fingerprint and retina scans — information that's fed into the military's database.
Then word comes that the Iraqis have rolled up another suspect. His name is Ali Shihab. On his cell phone, soldiers find what amounts to sectarian snuff films — home-made cell-phone videos of Sunnis being gunned down in the streets during the height of the Iraqi civil war late last year.
Lt. McCool takes aside a commander of the Iraqi forces, who, in this area, are mostly Shia. McCool puts his hand on the Iraqi major's shoulder and points out the detainees he thinks are of value.
McCool calls the grisly video a potential smoking gun against Ali Shihab.
"Mafia style hit, gangland style hit like that. It's self-incriminating. We don't have to do anything else after that," McCool says.
But other officers aren't so sure. First Lt. Andrew Coody, Delta Company's executive officer, thinks the cell-phone video is little more than the kind of propaganda video found on most every Mehdi Army fighter.
"He's quick to jump. Just gotta take it slow. Let's process the guy first," Coody says.
Coody says he doesn't think the Iraqis rolled up any high-value Medhi Army targets today in Washash, but he is pleased with how Iraqi forces responded forcefully to the ambush — something, he says, that would not have happened a few short months ago.
"What I was more pleased with today was the way the Iraqis, when they were attacked, they responded quickly and fought without me or anyone on U.S. Army side of the house having to kinda stick a cattle prod to them," Coody says.
At day's end, the 17 suspected Mehdi Army fighters are hauled away in Iraqi armored vehicles to be questioned and "processed" by the Iraqis. It's not clear whether this kind of joint Iraqi-U.S. effort, in the end, is dampening support for the Shiite militia that, in this neighborhood, continues to try to fight its way to wider power.