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The Iraqi government crackdown on Shiite militias has raised new doubts about the readiness and fitness of some Iraqi security forces. Earlier this week, a company of Iraqi soldiers abandoned their frontline position in Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood despite pleas from American soldiers nearby to stay at their posts.
Residents of the Shiite slum meantime are frustrated by the ongoing fighting and deteriorating conditions on the ground. From Baghdad, NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.
ERIC WESTERVELT: At an improvised combat outpost in Sadr City, until a few weeks ago a functioning elementary school, desks are piled against windows to deter snipers. Soldiers clean their weapons next to walls adorned with dancing Winnie the Pooh posters. Down the street in the distance, an American psychological operations team broadcasts, in Arabic word, of an upcoming free medical clinic in the area.
But few Iraqis are venturing outside their homes to even hear the message. Black flags of Shia Islam wave from unlit lampposts. Electricity is spotty at best here. And pictures of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr adorn deserted street corners. Garbage piles burn in the streets. Up the road a few hundred yards an Iraqi army unit is hold up in an old school house. The local Iraqi commander, Major Sattar with the First Brigade, Eleventh Army Division, looks nervous. His unit's been receiving sporadic small arms and sniper fire all day from militia loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr. Asked by NPR how the fight is going, Major Sattar seems dejected.
Major SATTAR (Iraqi Army Commander, First Brigade, Eleventh Army Division): (Through Translator) It's a very difficult fight here in Sadr City. Almost every house has a son who's a member of the Mahdi Army, so it's hard to convince people here to believe in the Iraqi Army.
WESTERVELT: Outside there's the occasional crackle of gunfire. Asked if there's a military solution to the fight in Sadr's militia, Major Sattar is emphatic. The battle can't be solved by force of arms.
Major SATTAR: (Through Translator): The fight with the Mahdi Army is more political than military. One word from the politicians could end everything here. And it's the politicians who've raised the tension to this point.
WESTERVELT: The next day, Major Sattar's attitude hardened into outright despair, complaining that he was low on ammunition and lacked proper communications gear, Major Sattar packed up and fled his post with his company of about 80 Iraqi soldiers. Lieutenant Colonel Dan Barnett leads the American Stryker Battalion in charge of the stretch of Sadr City where Major Sattar's unit was posted. We reached him on his cell phone at the Battalion's combat headquarters.
Lieutenant Colonel DAN BARNETT (Commander of 1st Squadron, 2nd Stryker Calvary Regiment): It was a setback in terms of, you know, the enemy had the opportunity to recede some IDs and to regain some ground that we'd held for a number of days or so. It was a setback; I wouldn't say it was a huge setback...
WESTERVELT: Lieutenant Colonel Barnett says the Iraqi army had to rush a commando unit into the area. In just a few hours, the Mahdi fighters had already placed new roadside bombs on the approach way. But by dawn yesterday, the Iraqi unit, with American help had retaken the abandon position. It's hardly the first time an Iraqi unit has fled during combat. More than 1000 Iraqi security forces gave up or fled during the battles in Basra last month. The U.S. company commander here in Southern Sadr City, Captain Logan Veath, tried unsuccessfully to persuade Major Sattar's unit not to run. The defection underscores the fundamental weakness of the Iraqi officer core. The Iraqi's, Captain Veath says, have nothing like the Americans non-commissioned officer corps of experienced sergeants.
Captain LOGAN VEATH (U.S. Company Commander in Southern Sadr City): The American army has this great NCO corps, it's the backbone, and that's where all the experience, that's where the young officers learn the science of warfare, they learn from their NCOs how to properly be a warrior.
WESTERVELT: For some civilians in Southern Sadr City, the fighting has only intensified and daily life gotten harder over the last week. Ali Korene Lafta(ph) lives next to the front line of the battle. He says he was demoralized when he heard word of the Iraqi army unit's desertion.
Mr. ALI KORENE LAFTA (Civilian in Sadr City): (Through Translator) I felt sorrow, because if the sons of our country can not protect us, who will do it? We have done nothing to deserve this madness. We don't know who's doing the fighting half the time. The Mahdi Army places roadside bombs and you cannot mess with them. If you utter one word, they will shoot you dead at once.
(Soundbite of explosion)
WESTERVELT: Did you hear that? Did you? Ali asks. It's another explosion right outside his front door.
Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Baghdad.
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