Thousands Flee Sadr City as Troops, Militants Clash

Iraqi civilians are fleeing Baghdad's embattled Sadr City as U.S.-backed forces are preparing to launch a new push against Shiite militias.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We'll hear in this part of the program about the battle in Congress over the latest spending bill. Once again, it contains funding for the war in Iraq and once again both sides are digging it their heels.

First, to Baghdad's Sadr City, where residents are running from the real fighting there. Thousands are pouring out of this impoverished neighborhood as U.S.-backed Iraqi forces clash again with Shiite militias. It's the same fighting that's been going on for the past month with continuous air and ground strikes.

NPR's Tom Bowman is in Baghdad with a group of refugees from Sadr City and he joins us now to talk about it. And Tom, tell me exactly where you are and the condition of the Iraqis who are there with you.

TOM BOWMAN: Well, I'm in (unintelligible) neighborhood, south of Sadr City (unintelligible) this abandoned old military compound. It's a decrepit sort of decaying cinder block area. It's really sort of a shantytown now. We have a lot of kids running around here barefoot. We have about 40 or 50 people here. There's really no facilities, no food and water. They're depending on charity.

And I talked to a man, Abu Ihab(ph), he's a 46-year-old guy here. He brought his wife and nine children. He said he left because he was afraid of the bombing in Sadr City. Americans are using predator drones with 100-pound missiles. He said many people in this neighborhood, most of the neighborhood, more than 1,000 people have scattered to all sections of Baghdad now.

And the Iraqi Red Crescent organization is growing increasingly worried about the displaced person situation here. They estimate that overall 6,000 have fled Sadr City because of the fighting. But our sources in Sadr City say the number may be as high as 35,000.

MONTAGNE: And what are people there telling you about the civilian casualties? Do they know folks who have been hurt or wounded or died?

BOWMAN: Yes. This man, Abu Ihab, he left his family in Sadr City. He left his mother and father, elderly parents, and also his brother, who he says is blind, and they told him they would rather die in Sadr City than leave. And he has been in touch with them by cell phone over the past couple of weeks and they seem to be doing okay.

But the death toll so far in Sadr City, according to the Iraqi government, is a thousand killed, two thousand wounded. We're not sure how many of those are militia fighters and how many are civilians. It's apparently much worse there now.

MONTAGNE: We spoke about the weapons that the U.S. forces are using in this ground and air fighting. Tell us a little about that.

BOWMAN: Well, the American weaponry is pretty heavy duty. They're using tanks, they're using rocket systems and predator drone aircraft that can drop 100-pound missiles. Now, the Americans say, listen, we're getting shot at in Sadr City by snipers on rooftops, by folks with RPGs - rocket-propelled grenades - and also they're shooting rockets into the Green Zone where, you know, it's killed some Americans and also foreign national workers.

They're saying we have to defend ourselves, we have to take out these people who are killing us and shooting at us, but we're using precision weapons. They keep making that point, but clearly those precision weapons happen to be killing innocent civilians.

MONTAGNE: As you're standing there in what amounts to a refugee camp, what is expected to happen in the coming days?

BOWMAN: Well, they don't know what's going to happen in the coming days. They think the fighting's going to grow worse there and they're worried about their situation there and they have no real food and water here. They're depending on handouts and trying to get food and water in here from Sadr City. And that's why hear the humanitarian organizations, UNICEF, the Iraqi Red Crescent, they're growing more and more worried about this situation that's becoming more dire by the day.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Tom Bowman in Baghdad reporting on the ongoing battle for the control of Sadr City. Thanks, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

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