The U.S. troop surge in Baghdad reached its peak last summer without establishing a real presence in one of the city's most turbulent districts — the vast Shiite slum of Sadr City.
Across the rest of the capital, U.S. and Iraqi forces have set up joint security stations and established relationships with locals on the ground — everywhere, except Sadr City, which is home to 2.3 million Shiites loyal to the fiery anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Maj. Thomas Cipolla has a folder somewhere in his office at Camp Liberty, headquarters for the 1st Cavalry Division. In it is a plan drafted in 2004 for taking on Sadr City and the militia that controls it, but the plan was shelved when violence flared elsewhere in the country.
At the time, Cipolla says, the U.S. military was still figuring out the fighters in Sadr City, known as Jaish al-Mahdi, or the Mahdi Army.
"I don't necessarily know that anybody knew what Jaish al-Mahdi was back then. It was still in its early stages of development," Cipolla says.
Madhi Army Gains Recognition
Now, three years later, the strength of the Mahdi Army is well known. U.S. military presence in Sadr City is limited to one security station on the western edge of the district. There won't be anything more without an OK from Iraq's Shiite-dominated government, says Brig. Gen. John Campbell.
"It's like anything: If you have a plan and you don't have Iraqi(s) buy in, it has to be their plan," Campbell says. "What we haven't been able to do well in the past is get the Iraqis to engage. They run checkpoints outside Sadr City, and they wouldn't go inside Sadr City, either."
As a result of that, Sadr City's residents have missed out on the benefits other neighborhoods have received because American soldiers are now living among them. Those other places are experiencing an improvement in essential services, including electricity.
The experience of Sadr City residents has been completely different. What they've seen of the U.S. military is mostly nighttime assaults, Special Forces raids and airstrikes against what are described as rogue militiamen. They're now demanding more, says Campbell.
"People are putting pressure on their local officials saying they want the same thing those people have down there. And so, that pressure is going to cause them to engage, not only the coalition, but the Iraqis. We have to get the Iraqis involved and provide essential services," he says.
The demands for change from Sadr City are growing louder. Contacted by telephone, resident Mohammed al-Sudani complains about the piles of trash, the ponds of sewage and the occasional flicker of electricity his street gets.
"I wish the government would give us such things," al-Sudani says. "I wish the government we voted for would help us, not the Americans. The Americans try to help us, and, then, their planes bomb us at night. I don't want anything from the Americans."
U.S. Military Approaches Sadr City
The U.S. military is slowly inching its way into Sadr City's web of dirt roads and squat apartment blocks.
American troops now make regular visits to four of the nine police stations in the district, which is about half the size of Manhattan. U.S. commanders want to establish at least four joint security stations in Sadr City with Iraqi troops, but they acknowledge that will take some time.
Cipolla says the cease fire Muqtada al-Sadr ordered four months ago has helped calm things down. With Sunni insurgents in Baghdad now largely under control, he says it is up to the Shiites to decide if they to want to cooperate or risk a return to the civil war that raged here before the U.S. troop surge.
"I don't have to go through that history lesson, but you had hundreds of people dying every month to vehicle-born improvised explosive devices. It was insane, and I don't know if there's anybody —Shia or otherwise — who wants to go back to those times. It's available. It's an option," he says.
For his part, al-Sadr has kept a decidedly low profile since the surge began. The U.S. military claim he has traveled to Iran, while his aides insist he remains in the holy Shiite city of Najaf, south of Baghdad.
In his most recent statement, al-Sadr praised his followers for abiding by the cease-fire and called on them to be patient.