- The Washington Times - Friday, August 13, 2004

BAGHDAD — In the vast Baghdad slum of Sadr City, Shi’ite militiamen direct traffic, search cars, set up roadblocks and even claim to make arrests.

On Wednesday, there were no police in sight as the fighters set tires ablaze to melt the road’s asphalt, apparently to plant bombs meant for U.S. patrols. No one intervened as the militiamen directed traffic in their unique way — once a fighter fired two shots into the air as a warning to a car driving on the wrong side of the road.

The fighters are from Mahdi’s Army, followers of radical cleric Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr. They have fought U.S. and Iraqi forces across the country for a week, and now appear almost entirely in control in parts of this neighborhood of 2 million people in the Iraqi capital.

“Sadr City has almost fallen into our hands now,” boasted Ayad Ali, a 25-year-old Mahdi’s Army fighter. “If a police car came here, we would attack it right away.”

Fighting has persisted here for more than a week, sparked by clashes between the heart of Sheik al-Sadr’s militia and U.S. forces in the city of Najaf. Although U.S. and Iraqi officials deny the militants have control, one fighter, Odai Sada, boasts that his cohorts do everything from clear trash to detain thieves.

The Shi’ite militia have long had support here. Sadr City, once known as Saddam City, was renamed last year for Sheik al-Sadr’s father, a senior Shi’ite cleric killed by suspected agents of Saddam Hussein in 1999.

Residents and fighters say police rarely emerge from their stations — because of either fear or sympathy. Some residents say militiamen have blown up stores selling alcohol or compact discs deemed pornographic, which would violate their strict interpretation of Islam.

U.S. and Iraqi officials contend that these displays of force by the militia are inconsistent and will be short-lived.

Capt. Brian O’Malley of the 1st Brigade Combat Team in charge of the area said police still patrol the neighborhood. He argued that Mahdi’s Army shows more power than it actually has. “They try and take control, but it doesn’t always work,” he said.

Interior Ministry spokesman Sabah Kadhim agreed.

“They control a street or an area and then they leave,” he said. “This happens sometimes when there’s a security vacuum.”

Sheik al-Sadr’s followers rose up against the Americans in April after the U.S.-led occupation authority closed his newspaper and announced a warrant for his arrest in the April 2003 murder of a moderate cleric.

In response to the violence, the government imposed a 4 p.m. curfew on the neighborhood. Apparently not wanting to be outdone, Mahdi’s Army announced its own 1 p.m. curfew.

With the violence and the new restrictions, many in Sadr City feel squeezed between an armed militia that has turned their neighborhood into a battlefield and a government that has failed to bring any measure of normalcy or security to their lives.

No matter the militants’ claims of performing some of the neighborhood’s services, cars and passers-by maneuver around pools of greenish sewage water and mounds of trash and debris. Power outages leave residents sweltering in Baghdad’s oppressive heat. Families share tiny apartments, and the neighborhood’s squat and dilapidated houses are coated with the drabness of poverty and neglect.

Venturing out is often too risky. Many have shut down their stores and live off meager savings. Almost every night is punctuated by the thuds of explosions and the crackle of gunfire.

“The Mahdi Army is forcing a siege on us as if it’s an imposed government,” said Ismail Ibrahim, who sells CDs. “The Americans cannot bring security.”

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