- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 23, 2005

BAGHDAD - The Iraqi capital’s Sadr City section was once a hotbed of Shi’ite Muslim unrest, but it has become one of the brightest successes of the U.S. security effort. Only one car bombing has occurred and only one American soldier has been killed in the neighborhood this year.

A year ago, black-clad militiamen armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades roamed the streets in open revolt against the American presence. U.S. troops quelled the uprising and today calmly patrol the district, aided by loyalists of the radical cleric who spurred the violence.

Life in Sadr City, a sprawling slum of 2.5 million people, is dominated by the radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose face is on posters plastered everywhere. At police checkpoints, unarmed men loyal to Sheik al-Sadr wearing yellow shirts and black pants enforce security, keeping out car bombs and foreign fighters.

“They’re hoping they can minimize the coalition’s contribution to security,” said Lt. Col. Gary Luck, whose U.S. Army unit is responsible for security in Sadr City.

After a series of meetings with American and Iraqi army commanders, young men loyal to Sheik al-Sadr carry wooden clubs while patrolling the streets at night. The Americans consider them to be a neighborhood watch.

“The Sadr bureau is providing security, especially during the night,” said Adel Rekan Salman, a guard at a school. “The Sadr bureau prevents the terrorists from coming here.”

When Americans go on patrol, spotters release pigeons into the air, marking their movements through the neighborhood.

“You can do nothing in the quiet here. Within seconds, they know,” said U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Jaime Phillips.

Sheik al-Sadr once advocated open aggression toward Americans. Najaf, the holy Shi’ite city in southern Iraq, as well as Sadr City, swelled with violence. But U.S. and Iraqi troops resoundingly defeated Sheik al-Sadr’s militia, and the cleric toned down his rhetoric.

“Najaf had a huge impact on this population,” Col. Luck said. “That was a very sobering fight for the Shi’ites. There was a huge cost to outward aggression toward the coalition.”

Sadr City used to be called Saddam City. After the U.S.-led invasion ousted Saddam Hussein, the long-repressed district changed its name to Sadr City for Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, a prominent cleric killed in 1999 and the father of the young firebrand who now dominates the district.

American troops patrolling the neighborhood often hand out pencils, candy and bottles of water and are greeted by children shouting, “Mister, mister.” Invariably, though, the youngsters throw rocks when the Humvees pull away. Machine gunners atop the vehicles have taken to wearing plastic face masks.

Despite the lack of terrorist violence, Iraqi and U.S. soldiers constantly find bodies dumped in industrial areas, bound, blindfolded and shoeless.

American commanders say Sheik al-Sadr controls a “punishment committee” that enforces vigilante justice against the cleric’s opponents and violators of religious strictures, such as those who drink alcohol and men who go without beards.

“There’s some intimidation that is ongoing,” Col. Luck said.

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