- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 29, 2008

BAGHDAD — Mortar barrages and gunbattles in Sadr City forced the U.S. military yesterday to delay one of its most ambitious “hearts and minds” campaigns in the vast Shi’ite slum northeast of central Baghdad.

U.S. forces battled to push Shi’ite fighters farther from the Green Zone in central Baghdad, a day after at fierce gunbattles left at least 38 militants dead. Four U.S. soldiers were killed in fighting yesterday.

U.S. officials were encouraged by a decrease in rocket fire compared with Sunday, when a sandstorm provided cover for Shi’ite fighters to send volleys of rockets at U.S. and Iraqi targets.

“It was kind of a mixed day today,” said a U.S. intelligence official at Camp Taji, located on the outskirts of Baghdad.

“There were some rockets fired today” but the level of violence was far less than Sunday, the official said.

U.S. forces are erecting a 10-ft high concrete barrier to control access into and out of southern neighborhoods of Sadr City.

The barrier, which when finished will stretch 3 miles, has come under fire from the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and from anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army militia controls much of Baghdad.

But U.S. military officials say the controlled access that it will afford is essential to security.

“Getting this wall in is our biggest effort right now,” Army Col. John Hort, who commands U.S. troops in the southern part of Sadr City, said during a visit to Sadr City last week.

“We’re putting in a wall that will degrade the enemy’s ability to conduct operations south of Route Gold. That allows us to conduct significant reconstruction.”

Chinese-made 107 mm Katyushas have a range of about five miles, while 82 mm mortars can exceed three miles. Much of the Green Zone is more than five miles from firing positions beyond the new wall.

If the fighting subsides, U.S. and Iraqi forces plan to set up a medical clinic in Sadr City later this week, a sequel to a three-hour effort Wednesday, when doctors from the 42nd Brigade, 11th Iraqi Army treated 318 men, women and children.

The clinic was announced by loudspeakers just an hour before it began.

Before the latest fighting, U.S. engineers were also setting up a new civil military operations center, where locals could meet with Iraqi officials about issues such as sanitation, reconstruction and electrical power.

“I think the people here are scared of [the Mahdi Army] and the special groups, and have had enough of this fighting,” said Army Capt. Ryan Williams.

“Since it started, we’ve gotten a steady stream of tips on weapons caches and the hide-outs — and they’ve proved accurate,” he said.

A cease-fire called by Sheik al-Sadr in August effectively ended when Mr. al-Maliki, his political rival, sent troops into the southern city of Basra last month to stamp out violence by Shi’ite militias, including so-called rogue Mahdi Army cells.

The fighting quickly spread to Baghdad’s Sadr City.

“We are not just dealing with rogue elements, we are dealing with mainstream [Mahdi Army] in this current fight, Col. Hort said.

“This was an organized effort. This wasn’t just a bunch of guys who one day decided to take potshots at the Iraqi army.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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