Tenuous Cease-Fire Takes Hold in Sadr City

A truce is in place in Baghdad's Sadr City, where more than 1,000 people have been killed in fighting that has waged for the last six weeks. NPR's Ivan Watson talks about the pause in the violence and his visit to the main checkpoint between the Shiite slum and the rest of Baghdad.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

There's a new ceasefire in Baghdad today between government troops and the militias of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Weeks of fighting in the slums known as Sadr City have left more than 1,000 people dead and more than 2,000 injured. Those numbers according to the Iraqi government.

NPR's Ivan Watson is following the story in Baghdad. And, Ivan, let's start with what's been happening in Sadr City these past few weeks.

IVAN WATSON: Andrea, to give you a sense of what it's been like in there, we had a resident make a recording of some of the clashes yesterday outside his window.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

WATSON: And as you can hear, steady bursts of automatic weapons fire. This has been an intense battle where well-armed insurgents have been using roadside bombs, rocket propelled grenades. They've actually been taking out American tanks. The U.S. military has been retaliating, firing missiles every day, every night, at insurgent targets from remote control war planes. We've been hearing about helicopters hitting some targets inside this densely populated neighborhood.

Even as the U.S. has been constructing a 12-foot-high concrete wall to wall off the bottom third of this neighborhood that is home to some two million people.

SEABROOK: Ivan, has this ceasefire made a difference?

WATSON: It was quieter today. Spokesman for Sadr's movement, they said they were observing the ceasefire and fighting only in self-defense. But there were sporadic gun battles throughout the day, and our colleague, Tom Bowman, he was at the edge of the city around midday today and heard explosions and actually saw two civilian young men who were being carted off wounded after a blast.

SEABROOK: What did you see when you traveled to the edge of Sadr City?

WATSON: It's been quieter. We went to a checkpoint, the main way in and out of this densely-packed community, which has actually been nicknamed Gaza by the residents of the neighborhood. They compare it to the Gaza Strip, which is walled off by Israel.

This morning, though, many bus drivers had gathered around this checkpoint leading out of the neighborhood, and they were offering rides to the thousands of residents who have to come out by foot because vehicles are not allowed to drive in and out of the community.

(Soundbite of men yelling)

WATSON: Of course overhead you have apache helicopters wielding around. There are trucks that are allowed to come through bringing food and other supplies into the neighborhood. The U.S. military says these precautions are made to stop weapons from being able to be transferred into the insurgents inside.

SEABROOK: So, Ivan, I guess the big question is can the ceasefire hold?

WATSON: There's a lot of skepticism from some of the residents that I spoke with, saying we've heard about ceasefires like this before and they've collapsed. One man, who was a Sadr City resident and fiercely opposed to Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, he said, no, I don't want a ceasefire. I want the government to keep going. I want them to wipe out the gunmen in the streets.

We're getting reports while this is going on that the wall is still being constructed and reports of troop buildups around the edges of Sadr City. Iraqi army troops. So if this does collapse after four days or less time, it does fear that the Iraqi army, backed by the U.S. military, is ready to continue its campaign against these insurgents.

SEABROOK: NPR's Ivan Watson from our bureau in Baghdad. Ivan, thanks very much.

WATSON: You're welcome, Andrea.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: Coming up, the best way to save endangered species - eat them?

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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