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Feature: Sadr City gets new wall

File image of Sadr City in 2006. Courtesy AFP.
by Richard Tomkins
Baghdad (UPI) Aug 28, 2008
A new wall is being erected by the Iraqi army alongside Baghdad's Sadr City to block extremist movement to and from the volatile Shiite enclave, around which U.S. and Iraqi forces battled gunmen of the Mehdi Army and Iranian-influenced Special Groups in April and May.

The barrier consists of 12-foot-high, 3-1/2-foot-wide concrete slabs, each weighing about 12,000 pounds. When completed, it will stretch more than 2 miles along Sadr City's northwest flank and effectively bar entrance from northern Sadr City side streets to a community known as Ur.

Unfiltered entrance and exit from northern Sadr City to southern Sadr City's neighborhoods of Jamilla and Tharwa was blocked in May when U.S. troops erected a similar barrier. That action, completed under heavy extremist gunfire, stopped gunmen from using the two neighborhoods' more open spaces for launching 107mm rockets into Baghdad's International Zone.

"Ur and Sha'ab (to the west of Ur) have been their support areas," said Col. Michael Pemrick, deputy commander of the U.S. Army's 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 4th Infantry Division. "This (wall) would help stop them from going back and forth."

Sadr City, just over 2 square miles and with a population of about 2.2 million, is the Baghdad stronghold of anti-American cleric Moqtada Sadr and his Mehdi Army. Sadr, following a cease-fire with the Iraqi government in May that saw Iraqi forces enter northern Sadr City, ordered his militia to disband and fighters to join a new organization dedicated to social and educational community action, "Momahidoun," or "Pave the way." But he also warned of forming a new, elite fighting force to fight the Americans if they do not adopt a definite timetable for withdrawing from Iraq.

U.S. military sources say many senior Mehdi Army leaders have since fled Iraq for Iran to join Sadr and are expected to return to Iraq after the reorganization is complete.

"We think those guys would be preparing. We know they aren't just going to stop. At some point they're going to try to return," a senior U.S. officer said.

Senior leaders of Special Group cells also have fled to Iran. Although an offshoot from the Mehdi Army, military sources believe many of the senior Mehdi fighters were Special Groups members.

In the meantime, extremists who haven't fled have gone into hiding to try to escape Iraqi mop-up operations in Sadr City. They still engage in sporadic attacks on U.S. and Iraqi security forces when they can, primarily by planting improvised explosive devices or sniping at soldiers on patrol.

The new wall along Sadr City is an Iraqi army initiative. U.S. forces provide the concrete slabs, transport them to the site and help with inner perimeter security. Iraqis muscle the barriers into place and provide outer security.

"Let's go, let's go," Capt. Todd Looney, from Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 68th Infantry Regiment, yelled repeatedly one night along the wall being built. The goal was to place 120 barriers -- there will be more than 2,000 when completed -- that evening, and the Iraqi soldiers were working slowly.

"I think I'm going to lose my voice before this is over," he said. "They're taking an awful lot of time doing it."

Looney, the company commander, was providing inner perimeter security and helping direct U.S. military trucks dropping off barriers for emplacement. In April and May he fought off Mehdi and Special Group gunmen while the American wall was being built.

The downturn in violence in northeastern Baghdad since the April/May battles has enabled U.S. and Iraqi forces to focus heavily on civic action projects in the area to win the "hearts and minds" of the people. That includes restoring, or establishing where necessary, basic infrastructure services, cleaning up roads and neighborhoods, and establishing health clinics. Those projects employ local residents and, it is hoped, engender personal stakes in peace and stability.

In northern Sadr City, that's the responsibility of the Iraqi army, which is reportedly aggressive in hunting down extremist gunmen in hiding. Americans concentrate on southern Sadr City, where they maintain outposts in cooperation with Iraqi security personnel.

U.S. troops are not allowed in northern Sadr City under the cease-fire agreement between Sadr and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

"We're the coach, they're the players," Looney said of the Iraqi army in northern Sadr City. "I think that with the IA that's there now, we have a good shot" of shoring up security and preventing -- or at least hindering -- the return of the Special Groups.

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US forces to transfer control of Anbar to Iraqis
Washington (AFP) Aug 27, 2008
US forces will hand over control of Anbar province to Iraqi troops in the coming days, military officials said Wednesday, touting improved security in the region.

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