As Fighting Eases, Sadr City Returns to Routine
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Iraq is generally quieter today after almost a week of heavy fighting in Basra, Baghdad and other cities. U.S.-backed government forces have been clashing with Shiite militiamen loyal to radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. After negotiations in Iran, Sadr ordered his Mahdi army to stand-down yesterday.
Just ahead, two views of what the fighting means for all the parties involved. First, to NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro. She visited Sadr's main stronghold in Baghdad today, and she filed this report.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hundreds of people walked in and out of Sadr City today past the American and Iraqi army tanks and armored personnel carriers that encircle the Shiite slum and Mahdi army stronghold. No cars are allowed to cross a one-mile stretch of no-man's land that was a scene of fierce fighting.
Sajda Abdul Wahab(ph) was going to see a relative injured in clashes in another part of town. She says she's happy that the cease-fire is now in place. It's always the poor and unarmed who pay the price in the end, she says.
Ms. SAJDA ABDUL WAHAB (Resident, Iraq): (Speaking in foreign language)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The two sides were fighting with one another, and we were caught in the middle. The road is still blocked, as you can see; I have to walk. The prices for food are high at the markets, too, and we have trouble getting supplies in or out.
Other than Sajda, few people want to stop and talk here, though. The American soldiers seem jumpy; the gun turret of a tank swivels, following groups of Iraqis who watch it wearily. Suddenly, there is a large explosion that sends everyone running for cover.
(Soundbite of explosion)
Nearby, an Iraqi army major says it was probably a roadside bomb targeting the Americans. Major Ahmed, who declines to give his last name, says that the militants they've been fighting in Sadr City outgunned the Iraqi army. He says bitterly that the Iraqi police didn't fight the Mahdi army inside Sadr City. They abandoned their stations and let the militia take over the streets.
Once on the other side of the no-man's land, cars move around freely. We have an appointment at the Sadr headquarters in the heart of Sadr City. They have sent a police car to come and get us. As we're driving, we asked the policeman about the recently explosion and whether the Mahdi army will target them with a roadside bomb.
They laugh. One of the policemen says that the police know where the roadside bombs are. He says the Mahdi army doesn't see the police here as targets. Moqtada al-Sadr's cease-fire declaration came out yesterday afternoon and there were no Mahdi army fighters on the streets that we drive through. Sadr City seems to be functioning much as it always has. The offensive launched by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has seemingly achieved very little here. The Mahdi army has melted back into the population, keeping their weapons and Sadr City under their control.
At the Sadr headquarters, they are celebrating what they say is a victory. At the entrance, receptionists hand out small, wrapped candy, saying it is the candy of jubilation. They want to press home what they see as their advantage. The head of the Sadr office in Sadr City, Sheikh Salman al-Freiji, says Maliki should be removed from office.
Mr. SHEIKH SALMAN AL-FREIJI (Chief, Sadr City Headquarters): (Through translator) We have a parliament and the Iraqi government is an elected government supervised by that parliament. We demand that it undertake its responsibilities and use its powers to replace Maliki.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says Maliki is a tool of the Americans trying to divide the country. He says the Americans at first tried to make Sunni fight Shiite. Now they are trying to make Shiites fight each other. That fighting carried a heavy price for hundreds in Sadr City.
At one of the hospitals, a mother soothes her young son. Fatima Ahbud's(ph) face is covered in scabbed claw marks where she scratched herself in grief after an explosion hurt members of her family.
Ms. FATIMA AHBUD (Resident, Iraq): (Through translator) We were inside the house when we were hit by a rocket. My husband was hit with shrapnel in his thigh and my other son underwent surgery, too. My neighbor was killed.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Officials say at this hospital, they tended 318 wounded during the fighting, most of them men. They say Fatima's son was one of 35 children who were injured.
As we leave Sadr City, shooting breaks out near the no-man's land we have to cross again. It's not clear if it's the Americans, the Iraqi military or the Mahdi army firing the shots - and it doesn't seem to matter. The people next to me stare at the ground and quickly keep walking.
Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Baghdad.