May 10, 2008
Day Trip to Sadr City
Posted by Bill
I finally made it into Sadr City. Gaining entrance has been difficult, because Army public affairs embedded me with a unit (3-89 Cav) that operates only up to the Shia district's southwestern border. Traveling around Iraq is not as easy as telling military convoys where you'd like to go, and you still can't catch a cab without the (increasingly remote) chance of winding up the lead in a jihadi snuff video. On Thursday, I fortunately caught a ride with a Military Police unit that had plans to liaise with their personnel manning the Sadr City Joint Security Station (JSS), an Iraqi Police station in the southern part of the district.
The southwestern edge of Sadr City is bordered by a major highway dubbed "Route Pluto" by the Americans. Streams of military vehicles periodically turn off of the wide thoroughfare and on to a dusty shoulder, passing staged stacks of concrete T-Walls used in the counterinsurgency barrier being constructed a few blocks north on Al Quds Street. As my convoy took this route and turned into Sadr City, we entered an area held by the 1st Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment and the engineers attached to them. The space looked like a scaled down version of D-Day +2 in Normandy. Clouds of dust rolled over rows of Abrams tanks, MRAPS, Strykers, humvees and odd engineering vehicles entering the district. The stacatto thrum of Apache attack helicopters sounded overhead.
A short walk took me to an old school that serves as the headquarters for the Stryker Cav. The building buzzed with energy. Soldiers were entering and exiting in varying states of battle dress, hanging out, laying communications wire, shaving in a corner, typing on a laptop and carrying messages into a command center, where personnel ran an operation presumably taking place somewhere immediately north. Litters and stacks of medical supplies were prepped in a corner. A furry white and tan puppy wandered into the middle of the orderly commotion, and soldiers petted the dog as it ambled through the building.
A couple of loud, crackling booms echoed through the hallways. Some of the soldiers who were visiting the school jumped and prepared to leave "if that's incoming," while most of the Stryker Cav nonchalantly ignored it. The explosions turned out to be the "outgoing" impact of Hellfire missiles fired from the prowling Apaches. The munitions had landed near enough to closely resemble the sound of incoming mortars.
Eventually we walked over to the Sadr City Joint Security Station (JSS), also known as JSS Al Tharwa. It's a bright blue police station housing a modest number of Iraqi cops and their American advisers. The mission of the cops at the JSS right now is merely "force protection" -- essentially showing up and manning bunkers and towers to defend the building from militia attack. As a war rages near and sometimes at it, the station is considered "unstable." Snipers are active in the area, some skilled and well-equipped enough that the soldiers casually refer to them as "Iranian" (this may or may not be accurate). And on average, the station is hit "once or twice a week ... usually with small arms fire," according to Staff Sergeant Joseph Houle, squad leader of the 3rd squad, 1-91 Military Police Company.
This instability was apparent on April 28th, when insurgents attacked the building with 8-12 rockets. Video of the event is astounding: the rockets successively pounded the side of the building, huge clouds of smoke and debris erupting at each impact. Horrified American onlookers at JSS Al Qanat across the street assumed that the toll in dead and wounded would be significant, but, miraculously, all of the American and Iraqi occupants survived with only a few minor injuries. The word "miracle" seemed appropriate as I examined the portion of the building that bore the attack.
Houle says that the Sadr City cops working at the station are "very friendly," but he doesn't know them particularly well. The American unit has been working at the JSS for only two weeks.
Some of the cops are "eager to learn" but many "won't say" where they live, added 1-91 MP Sergeant Travis Sand. He describes his unit's mission as "trying to build up the local area, to make a better workspace for [the Iraqi Police] and us."
The busy surrounding area is urban residential, with a few shops and other businesses. The streets have been closed to vehicle traffic, spurring interaction between walking citizens and patrolling American units.
"They seem interested to meet you, to get to know us," said Sand. "Not a lot of frowns or anything, a lot of smiles. When I talked to a few of the people, they want peace, and they are more glad we're here and that we're trying to work on a solution."
He said the locals studiously avoid mentioning the Mahdi Army, which continues to take heavy losses in daily conflict with US and Iraqi forces.
The Shia Mahdi militiamen are said to have a stronger instinct for self-preservation than their Sunni extremist equivalents in Al Qaeda, who tend to favor suicide attacks. But after reading engagement reports and witnessing the combat power arrayed against them, I wonder.
UPDATE: Or perhaps they're more realistic than I was beginning to assume ... but do note that the Sadrist politicians merely have titular control over all Mahdi Army footsoldiers. Some thugs will continue to fight to defend their criminal enterprises, and some true believers will ignore the agreement.
Posted by Bill at May 10, 2008 02:52 AM | TrackBack (0)
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Posted by: Steve at May 10, 2008 12:05 PM
Thanks again Bill for another informative dispatch from the area.
Posted by: KnightHawk at May 10, 2008 02:57 PM
That was excellent reporting. Straight facts, Well written, no crackpot agenda.
Keep up your excellent work.
Posted by: Doug Santo at May 10, 2008 03:53 PM
Is there a rationale for Moqtada al-Sadr's continuing to draw breath that actually passes the laugh test? Could we not have been profitably rid of this turbulent priest five years ago? I'm sure there's an argument that having had him whacked would have turned him into a martyr, but martyrs all share one salient and salutary property: they are DEAD.
Posted by: David Gillies at May 10, 2008 04:03 PM
Very well done. Award cookies all around.
Posted by: oldfatsarge at May 10, 2008 05:53 PM
David, don't confuse Sadr the man with the Sadrist movement - which has more factions than anyone can track.
Bill, great report - perhaps historic. I'm not sure if any American reporters have ever been in Sadr City before.
Posted by: Greyhawk at May 10, 2008 06:33 PM
sorry man, i'm an old school inDC blog reader. i read the whole thing with an aussie accent.
glad to see you're living your dream! keep up the fight.
Posted by: mlah at May 10, 2008 11:28 PM
Re: the make-up of the Sadrists -- Talisman Gate has a fine dissection of the situation with them in Basra talisman-gate.blogspot-dot com-/2008/05/what-happened-in-basra.html , which includes:
Different context in S-City, but same recruitment sourcing.
Posted by: Brian H at May 10, 2008 11:37 PM
great reporting. be safe.
Posted by: Marty B at May 11, 2008 08:27 PM
Thank you for the great report.
"When I talked to a few of the people, they want peace, and they are more glad we're here and that we're trying to work on a solution."
Great to hear. How wide spread is this feeling among Iraqis?
Posted by: C. Jordan at May 12, 2008 12:08 PM
Great reporting, keep it up.
Posted by: tom green at May 13, 2008 08:53 PM
Good report! My unit just got home from Iraq, but I was there on the last Monday in April when the building was hit. Definitely the scariest day of my life. Like you said, miraculous that no one was killed. We, icluding myself, all feel very fortunate. Stay safe!
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