Sadr City Death Toll Hits 1000
ALEX COHEN, host:
This is Day to Day. I'm Alex Cohen.
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
I'm Madeleine Brand. In Iraq, fighting continues today in Sadr City. That's the Shiite slum in Baghdad. More than two million people live there.
COHEN: For more than a month, both U.S. soldiers and Iraqi forces have been trying to quell the violence there. Forces loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have been battling Iraqi government soldiers.
BRAND: Since the fighting began about six weeks ago, 1,000 Iraqis have been killed in Sadr City. NPR's Tom Bowman is in Baghdad. Tom, in the last few days the parliament in Iraq has been talking about how to end this fighting, and grappling with this issue. What are they talking about?
TOM BOWMAN: Well, Jalal Talabani, he's the president of Iraq. He sent a letter to parliament basically saying let's try to come up with a truce here, and one of his suggestions is for the fighters to turn in their medium and heavy weapons. Also he's proposing an amnesty for those who have not killed either Iraqi or American forces.
Now, the Sadrists in parliament, they're really concerned about the loss of civilian life, they say, there. They're saying they also don't have any heavy weapons, and if the Iraqi forces want to come in without the Americans, they'd be happy to have them come in. But they're still debating it, and one of the Sadr members of parliament, Nasser al-Rubaie, during the debate in parliament he basically said the invasion forces, meaning the United States, they're carrying out what he calls aggressive attacks in Sadr City, including air strikes against Sadr City.
And then he asks, could someone tell me how to counter air strikes? Is there any other force to stop the airplanes? Other members of parliament are really worried. They say that Americans are using too much heavy firepower. They're using rocket attacks, unmanned drones firing missiles, tank rounds. Now, the American military will say listen, we're going to do what we have to, to protect our soldiers.
BRAND: Well, until relatively recently, there seemed to be a truce. The fighting was reignited in Basra back in March, and is it just getting heavier and heavier, and spiraling out of control?
BOWMAN: That's a good question. It seems to be in Sadr City. The death toll is increasing, more fighters are taking to the street. I sat down with a Mahdi army commander last week and he told me that he is maintaining the cease-fire, but about 600 of the 2,000 soldiers under his command are joining the fight in Sadr City.
He said they are defending their neighborhoods, defending their families. So, while the truce appears to still be holding, that eight month truce that was set up by Muqtada al-Sadr, the head of the Mahdi army, a lot of his fighters aren't abiding by it, and are joining the fight in Sadr City.
BRAND: Now, how in control is Muqtada al-Sadr? Is he directing this, or are these in fact a separate group?
BOWMAN: Well, the Americans say they are special groups, Iranian trained remnants of the Mahdi army that are fighting here. That's the official line. Some American officers I talk with say it's really amorphous. They kind of go back and forth between these special groups and the Mahdi army. We don't know who really is fighting.
There is a question about control and how much control Sadr has over his Mahdi army. It seems to be splintering, but the other thing we're seeing too is there seems to be even more support now for Sadr, particularly in Sadr City, because of the heavy-handed tactics the civilians say are being used against the fighters in Sadr City. There's growing hatred for Maliki in Sadr City, and growing hatred for the Americans here as well.
BRAND: Is it possible that we're seeing the beginnings of a civil war between various Shiite factions in Iraq?
BOWMAN: We could be seeing that. We're also seeing in other areas of Baghdad elements of the Mahdi army seem to be popping up fighting Iraqi and American forces, so we don't know how far this will go. Will the entire city erupt? What we're seeing now is a lot of families are heading out of Sadr City.
Beforehand, in the last few weeks during the fighting you would see families and people move from one part of Sadr City to another. Now we're seeing hundreds of families actually leaving Sadr City, and the government plans to put them up at a sports stadium just outside of Sadr City. There's a real worry, you know, obviously among the civilians about where this thing is heading, and will it spiral out of control.
BRAND: NPR's Tom Bowman speaking from Baghdad. Thanks, Tom.
BOWMAN: You're welcome.