U.S. Troops in Baghdad Caught Between Sunnis, Shia

U.S. Army soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division prepare to raid a house in Baghdad. i i

U.S. Army soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division prepare to raid a house in Baghdad. Joe Raedle/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Joe Raedle/Getty Images
U.S. Army soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division prepare to raid a house in Baghdad.

U.S. Army soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division prepare to raid a house in Baghdad.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

American soldiers are increasingly caught in the middle of the violent sectarian struggle for Baghdad, at times facing resistance from the very government they are in Iraq to defend.

Despite the addition of more United States troops to Baghdad in a security push over the last two months, soldiers have increasingly become the target of both Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias in the Iraqi capital.

Initially, both Sunnis and Shia refrained from directly confronting the growing number of American troops as they took up posts across the city. But the pause in attacks was brief, as several hundred U.S. combat troops have learned at their post on the south side of Baghdad.

The Americans have taken over an abandoned judo academy in the Ummal neighborhood of southwest Baghdad, renaming it Combat Outpost Attack. There they sleep on cots in the gymnasium, eat food trucked in from a nearby U.S. base, bathe in cold water, and on most days, fight the militia men of the Shiite Mahdi Army.

Combat Outpost Attack was established in mid-March by soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry. They were deployed here a month ago to stop the Shiite Mahdi army, or Jaish al-Mahdi, from pushing Sunni residents out of the area.

Lt. Col. Pat Frank briefed a visiting U.S. general earlier this week on the situation.

"Those areas used to be dramatically Sunni, all along the airport road. That is the extent of the cleansing that has taken place by Jaish al-Mahdi by the time we arrived here," Frank said.

When thousands of additional U.S. troops began their deployment into Baghdad's troubled neighborhoods in February, the conventional wisdom had it that the Mahdi Army chose not to confront them. The Mahdi Army is led by the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and it is anti-American in the extreme. But Sadr and other militia leaders, it was said, were reluctant to challenge the American-led security crackdown.

The conventional wisdom turned out to be true in the dense Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City in northeast Baghdad, but not so true in the south of Baghdad.

When the Americans arrived at Combat Outpost Attack they were paired with a unit of the Iraqi National Police, who told them which streets were safe and which weren't. It was good intelligence, according to Maj. Will Cotty.

"Basically once we set up in sector, and the assessment phase was over, they launched a simultaneous attack of five different outposts all on the same day" Cotty said.

Throughout April, the militia has attacked the outpost regularly, and other spots where Cotty said the company has positioned troops.

The ultimate goal is to improve security for the Iraqis, especially for the few Sunni families who remain in the area, says Brig. Gen. Dana Pittard, who commands the Iraqi Assistance Group.

"And the best way that you can secure neighborhoods is by living there, by being there," Pittard said. "We're seeing more and more combat outposts and joint security stations throughout Baghdad, and what it's doing is getting our soldiers out with Iraqi security forces."

Pittard also places American trainers with Iraqi army and police units across the country.

A mile southeast of Combat Outpost Attack is south Baghdad's Doura neighborhood, a Sunni insurgent stronghold in the past. Since last year, the insurgents have hit this area continually, especially its markets, virtually paralyzing the community.

American trainers are at the main Doura police station. They met with Gen. Pittard along and the Iraqi police commander, Gen. Ghazwan ar-Rawi, who acknowledged how difficult it has been to gain control of the area.

"Right now, I think it's the last phases in their attacks here," he said through an Arabic translator.

But after a little prodding, Gen. Ghazwan concedes the scope of the problem he's facing. His police force of 2,000 has suffered 67 deaths and nearly 400 wounded. He can put only 1,000 police on the streets.

"I need 3,000 active on ground," he Ghazwan said.

The Shiite militias have been active in this area as well, at times with the complicity of the police, who work for the Ministry of the Interior, which is controlled by members of the Shiite-led government.

This is another murky problem for U.S. forces stationed in southern Baghdad — fighting gunmen who may in fact have the support of key figures in the Iraqi government.

Col. Douglas Medcalf commands the team of American trainers working with Gen. Ghazwan at the main Doura police station.

"There has been some issues with the reputation of the national police, stemming from when they were formed, a perception that perhaps they were militia-influenced," Medcalf said. "And as we try to overcome that stigma, the population knows that they're with coalition forces, they're legitimate, that it's not a rogue group of people or impersonators that are in trying to terrorize the neighborhood."

The damage from fighting in south Baghdad is obvious on the streets, as is the fear instilled in those who still live here. There's rubble and garbage everywhere, concrete blast walls separate street from street. Hundreds of shops and stalls in the Doura market are shuttered. Razor wire is strewn everywhere. The buildings and streets are scorched from multiple bombings.

Twenty police checkpoints in the neighborhood have slowed traffic to a trickle. As a U.S. convoy passes, Iraqis stare blankly through their automobile windows.

Back at Combat Outpost Attack, Maj. Alex Stephenson says the presence of the police in his neighborhood isn't always a positive force.

"We're having some leadership issues with Col. Yusuf, the battalion commander," Stephenson said. "Supposedly it's in the works that he'll be changed out. It's a trickle down affect. Once we switch him out it'll kind of really come along. We can do a lot more positive stuff in our area."

The Americans here have also mysteriously lost an ally. The previous Iraqi police commander here — a Sunni — was arrested not long ago. He was removed by someone in the Ministry of the Interior and is now in jail. Gen. Pittard suspects he proved too effective at fighting the Mahdi army.

"If you're fighting against Sunnis, no one seems to have a problem with it here. But if you're fighting against Jaish al-Mahdi, or the Shia militias, it is looked on differently. That whole way of thinking's got to change," Pittard said.

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