Sadr City Revolves Around Old Ties, Cleric

NPR's Anne Garrels provides a portrait of an Iraqi neighborhood where Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army are killing and expelling Sunnis. The Iraqi Army killed one of the force's commanders in a raid. But afterward, army officials came to the man's funeral, where they handed over weapons from the unit responsible, seeking to avoid a spiral of revenge. The area is under the control of Sheikh Mazen al-Sa'idi, who was arrested by U.S. forces on suspicion of being behind death squads. Prime Minister Maliki ordered his release, much to the fury of some U.S. officials.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

With U.S. support, Iraqi troops raided a district of Baghdad today. They clashed with militiamen loyal to radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. The aim, according to the U.S. military, was to capture a reputed death squad leader. The U.S. also says the raid was authorized by the Iraqi government, but Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, angrily denied that his government was consulted. Moqtada al-Sadr is a key political ally of Maliki.

At his press conference today, President Bush said he hadn't seen the transcript of Maliki's remarks, but he said the prime minister understands militias are a problem that needs to be addressed.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: People who operate outside the law will be dealt with. That's what the prime minister said in his press conference. The idea that, you know, we need to coordinate with him makes sense to me, and there's a lot of operations taking place, which means that sometimes communications may not be as good as they should be, and we'll continue to work very closely with the government to make sure that the communications are solid.

BLOCK: Moqtada al-Sadr's militia holds sway in many parts of Baghdad and is frequently blamed for sectarian killings.

NPR's Anne Garrels has the story of one district of the Iraqi capital.

ANNE GARRELS: Sectarian killings plague the west Baghdad neighborhood of Houria. It's densely populated and poor. Residents blame the local representatives of Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army for targeting the Sunnis in the area. Once a mixed neighborhood, almost all of the Sunni families have now been forced out.

HASSAN: (Through translator) Any Sunni, any Sunni, whoever he might be, must leave. The Mahdi Army has gone through the streets with loudspeakers demanding that Sunni terrorists and Wahabis must leave. At night, they knock on doors to reinforce the message. As far as they are concerned, Sunnis and terrorists are one and the same.

GARRELS: Hassan, a Shiite, grew up here. Many of the men in the local Mahdi units are his childhood friends. But he married a Sunni woman, and his in-laws were among those ordered to leave. Hassan turned to a leading Sadr official, Sayid Hazim al-Araji, for help. He's a member of Parliament and head of the Sadr office in the nearby neighborhood of Kadhamiya.

HASSAN: (Through translator) He is a very good man. In his area, not one single Sunni family has been thrown out.

GARRELS: When Hassan visited Araji's office, it was filled with dozens of people. They were all complaining about Mahdi Army units acting in the name of Moqtada al-Sadr. The people said militia members were behind killings, and it forced people out of their homes to take them for themselves. To many, Araji's office simply said we can't do anything. Hassan was luckier. He got a letter saying his family was not to be touched. The letter turned out to be useless. His local Sadr office ignored it.

HASSAN: (Through translator) They told me they are not subject to Araji, but to a different Sadr office, one neighborhood over, in Shuala(ph).

GARRELS: That office is the one run by Sheik Masan al-Sahadi, who U.S. forces arrested last week on suspicion of being behind death squads. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered him released. Hassan traveled from one Sadr office to another in a fruitless search for someone who would help him.

HASSAN: (Through translator) Each Sadr office just tosses the ball to the next, so you can't resolve anything.

GARRELS: His family fled the neighborhood, but not soon enough. His brother in law made the mistake of returning to his home to pick up some final belongings.

HASSAN: (Through translator) They shot him dead in the street.

GARRELS: The killings of Sunnis isn't happening in a vacuum. In retaliation, Sunni gangs have killed Shiites. Shiites have killed more Sunnis. Now, sectarian killings are the leading cause of death in Baghdad. Hassan tells the story of a recent Shiite funeral in Houria. The victim, a local electrician and a member of the Mahdi Army, was gunned down in the street.

HASSAN: (Through translator) On the first day of his funeral, Mahdi militia members brought two Sunnis and killed them right there. The next day, they brought five. They through them on the ground and put a bullet in each of their heads. The first was under 18 years old. We all knew these militia men, their faces weren't covered.

GARRELS: Hassan says no one did anything to stop them.

HASSAN: (Through translator) The sidewalk was filled with bodies. All the police did was pick them up and remove them. They will join the rest of the unidentified bodies at the morgue.

GARRELS: Abu Kareem is a Shiite tribal leader who came to pay tribute to Wisam(ph), a Mahdi commander who was also recently killed in Houria. He was shot by Iraqi soldiers. The subsequent outrage, pledges of revenge by the family, associated tribes and the Mahdi Army indicate what government forces are up against.

Mr. ABU KAREEM (Shiite Tribal Leader): (Through translator) An army major came to the funeral. He said he was ready to do what we want to resolve the matter. As a first step, he brought five rifles belonging to those who killed Wisam. We handed them over to the Mahdi Army.

GARRELS: Moqtada al-Sadr claims his Mahdi army is not responsible for the ongoing sectarian killings despite all evidence to the contrary. Abu Kareem believes him.

Mr. KAREEM: (Through translator) Not Moqtada. He does not approve of bad things committed in his name. He does not tolerate mistakes.

GARRELS: Abu Kareem dismisses accusations of systematic killings by the Mahdi Army. He says it's just a few bad apples. Abu Kareem says Sadr and his militia are vital for Shiites. The government, he says, can't protect the Shiites, and with the ongoing killings, the Mahdi Army is needed and should not be disarmed.

Mr. KAREEM: (Through translator) If I go to a police station to file a complaint, nobody responds. Worse still, they might accept a bribe from the person I am complaining about so he is still walking the streets. When I go the Sadr offices, they do something.

GARRELS: For all of Sadr's promises, his organization continues with or without his approval to kill Sunnis and engage in heavy fighting with other Shiite militias. Yet even Hassan, whose family was forced to flee their home and whose brother in law was killed by Sadr's militia, does not blame Sadr himself.

HASSAN: (Through translator) He only fights the Americans, and we're with him on that. He has never approved the killing of Sunnis.

GARRELS: Despite his hatred of the American forces and his support of attacks on them, Hassan says he wants the American troops to stay in his neighborhood to protect him. To him, the two ideas do not conflict.

HASSAN: (Through translator) I wish they would stay, so that no one would dare pick up arms in Houria, because if they leave, it will be like Afghanistan, with everybody armed to the teeth.

GARRELS: Yesterday, General George Casey said he's willing for now to give Prime Minister Maliki time to seek a political solution to the militia problem and test Sadr's pledges to reign in his men. But Casey did not say how long he would give Maliki, and Maliki in turn today said he would not pay attention to any U.S.-enforced timetable.

Anne Garrels, NPR News, Baghdad.

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