- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 8, 2004

BAGHDAD — Shi’ite militants declared a unilateral cease-fire in their Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City yesterday, bringing an uneasy calm to the streets and an opportunity for anti-American fighters to prepare for the next battle.

“We’re planting mines,” said 21-year-old Mahmoud as his six enthusiastic friends, ages 8 to 25, nodded in unison.

“We dig up the ground. We put in the explosive head of a rocket [propelled grenade]. We attach a silk cord to a remote control.” Mahmoud said. “This is resistance.”

On Tuesday, two Americans died during fierce fighting in this Shi’ite neighborhood that, according to some estimates, houses nearly half of Baghdad’s 5 million people.

Yesterday, the neighborhood was quiet amid patrols by American tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles, and behind-the-scenes preparations by militants loyal to rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to fight again.

Elsewhere in Iraq, U.S. warplanes hammered suspected militant strongholds in the Sunni Muslim city of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, after a suicide bombing on Monday that killed seven U.S. Marines.

In other violence yesterday, gunmen kidnapped the Anbar province’s deputy governor in the latest assault on officials connected to Iraq’s interim government, the Interior Ministry said.

Officials said this week’s fighting in Sadr City killed dozens of Iraqis.

Staff at Sadr General Hospital near the scene of the battles struggled to cope as bodies and the wounded were ferried to their door.

This week’s fighting, on top of weeks of fighting in April and sporadic clashes last month, has further alienated even working, middle-class Sadr City residents from the U.S.-backed political and reconstruction processes.

Because of security woes, millions of dollars earmarked to rebuild the neighborhood’s long-neglected and overburdened sewage, water and power systems lay unspent.

Many Iraqis had hoped that a peace deal brokered last month by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani between Sheik al-Sadr’s Mahdi’s Army militiamen and the Americans would end the fighting here.

Aides to Sheik al-Sadr, scion of a famous clerical family, had hinted that the 30-something preacher might enter politics. But the new fighting has dashed hopes of a lasting peace.

Most residents interviewed Tuesday evening on the streets of Sadr City blamed the Americans for the latest fighting.

“Someone fired at the Americans and they started shooting back at anything,” said Raed Wael, a merchant among the residents gathered around a car that they said had been crushed by an oncoming U.S. tank. “They were confused and started driving very fast.”

Though Sheik al-Sadr and his followers suffered a crushing military defeat in Najaf, the militant cleric and his followers apparently have emerged from the bloodshed more politically powerful than before.

Some evoked the blood-tinged mysticism of the Shi’ite faith to explain Sheik al-Sadr’s growing popularity here.

“The Sadr line now has been wronged twice, once by Saddam and another time by the Americans,” Fattah al-Sheikhi, editor in chief of Sadr’s Ishriqat al-Sadr newspaper.

“This only confirms the legitimacy of this line. And this will confirm that this line is connected to the people and to the society,” he said.

The angry young sheik’s ubiquitous face now adorns nearly every block in Sadr City, his likeness even more prominent than his famous and respected uncle and father, both ayatollahs killed by dictator Saddam Hussein.

Religiously tinged music hailing “Muqtada, Muqtada, Muqtada,” wails from car cassette players and sells briskly at shops.

Inch by inch, Sheik al-Sadr’s militia has taken control of Sadr City.

“For now, the Mahdi Army is providing security,” said Rasmia Jassem, a 65-year-old grandmother. “I feel secure that when I go out and walk, they’ll protect me.”

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