DEBORAH AMOS, Host:
NPR's Mike Shuster reports from the contested neighborhoods in southern Baghdad.
MIKE SHUSTER: This is combat outpost attack established by soldiers of the 1st Battalion 28th Infantry. They were deployed here a month ago to stop the Shiite Mahdi Army, or Jaysh al-Mahdi, from pushing all the Sunni residents out of the area. Lieutenant Colonel Pat Frank(ph) briefed the visiting U.S. general earlier this week.
PAT FRANK: Those areas seem to be dramatically Sunni along to the airport road. That is the extent of the cleansing that is taking place by Jaysh al-Mahdi by the time we arrived here.
SHUSTER: The Americans paired with the unit of the Iraqi National Police, who told them which streets were defensible and which weren't in case of attack. It was good intelligence says Major Will Cotty when the militia hit the Americans.
WILL COTTY: Basically, what 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.
SHUSTER: Throughout April, the militia has attacked this outpost regularly and other spots where, says Major Cotty, the company had positioned troops.
COTTY: Their main effort came the other night when they attacked our safe house on Route Menga(ph). They hit it with three RPGs, five to seven guys. They then attacked it again the next night with the same amount.
SHUSTER: The ultimate goal is to improve security for the Iraqis, especially for the few Sunni families who remained here says Brigadier General Dana Pittard.
DANA PITTARD: And the best way that you can secure neighborhoods is by living there, by being there. We're seeing more and more combat outposts and joint security stations throughout Baghdad. And what it's doing is it's getting our soldiers out with Iraqi security forces, as opposed to just being on a couple of bases and then going out.
SHUSTER: Unidentified Man: Sir.
PITTARD: Unidentified Man: I'm doing awesome, sir.
PITTARD: Unidentified Man: (unintelligible).
PITTARD: All right.
SHUSTER: This is the main Doura police station, and American trainers are here as well. They met with General Pittard along with the Iraqi police commander General Gazwan Arawi(ph), who acknowledged how difficult it's been to gain control of the area.
GASWAN ARAWI: (Through translation) Actually, it's yes. It's a lot worse, but it's more clear than before. Right now, I think, it's their last phases in their attacks here.
SHUSTER: After a little prodding, Gen. Gaswan concedes the scope of the problem he's facing. Of his 2,000-strong police force, he's lost 67 killed, nearly 400 wounded. He can put only a thousand police on the streets.
ARAWI: (Through translation) I need 3,000 active on ground. Actively, I have only 1,000, so it makes it three times what we have right now.
SHUSTER: Colonel Douglas Medcalf commands the team of American trainers working with Gen. Gaswan here at the Doura main police station.
DOUGLAS MEDCALF: There has been some issues with the reputation of the national police, stemming from when they formed, a perception that perhaps they were militia-influenced. And as we try to overcome that stigma, the population knows that they're with coalition forces, they're legitimate. That is not a rogue group of people or impersonators that are in trying to terrorize the neighborhood.
SHUSTER: Twenty police checkpoints in the neighborhood have slowed traffic to a trickle as the U.S. convoy passes, Iraqis stare blankly through their automobile windows. Back at combat outpost attack, Major Alex Stevenson says the presence of the police in his neighborhood isn't always a positive force either.
ALEX STEVENSON: (Unintelligible) issues, with the Colonel Yusef, the battalion commander. I suppose it's in the works that he'll be changed out; it's trickled down back once we switch him out. It's kind of really come along; we can do a lot of positive stuff within that area.
SHUSTER: The Americans here have also lost an ally mysteriously. The previous Iraqi police commander here, a Sunni, was arrested not long ago. He was removed by someone, an Iraqi in the ministry of the interior, and is now in jail. General Pittard suspects he proves too effective at fighting the Mahdi army.
PITTARD: If you're fighting in Sunnis, no one seems to have a problem with it here. But if you're fighting against Jaysh al-Mahdi or Shia militias, it is looked on differently. That whole way of thinking has got to change.
SHUSTER: General Pittard believes combat outpost attack and others like it have initiated the process of taking back the neighborhoods of south Baghdad from armed groups on both sides of Iraq's sectarian divide.
PITTARD: By putting combat outpost attack where it's at, it has now gotten in the way of Jaysh al-Mahdi's plans to move the last Sunni enclaves out of that neighborhood.
SHUSTER: Mike Shuster, NPR News, Baghdad.
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