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Feature: U.S., Mehdi Army battle over wall

disclaimer: image is for illustration purposes only
by Richard Tomkins
Baghdad (UPI) May 6, 2008
Gun battles between U.S. troops and Shiite extremists are being fought daily along a stretch of road in Baghdad's Sadr City as militants loyal to anti-American cleric Moqtada Sadr try to stop -- or at least delay -- construction of a concrete barrier that will help curb their ability to fire rockets into Baghdad's International Zone, seat of the Iraqi government.

Al-Quds Street, at first glance, appears an unlikely prize over which to fight. But the broad thoroughfare of single- and double-story buildings is a demarcation line between southern Sadr City's Tharwa and Jamilla neighborhoods and the heart of northern Sadr City.

Whoever controls al-Quds controls access through side roads into the southern district, which is within line-of-sight of the International Zone and more importantly, within 107mm and 120mm rocket range.

"This is a mission that has to get done, to stop these thugs from firing their rockets and stuff," said 1st Sgt. Conrad Gonzales of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 68th Armored Regiment. "Every day we get attacked, every day we're putting in barriers. The mission has to go on, it has to be accomplished and we can't let anyone stop us."

A brief battle Saturday along the partially completed wall of 12-foot-high concrete slabs was typical of clashes occurring since April 19, when a thud marked the emplacement of the first 12,000-pound section. It started with several quick rounds of sniper fire from the north and south sides of Route Gold, as U.S. forces call al-Quds. Troops of Red Squad, 1/68, replied with hellacious volleys of rifle and machine-gun fire after taking cover behind and alongside construction cranes. So tight was the cover, soldiers were peppered by the hot, spent shell casings of other soldiers' weapons.

Bradley Armored vehicles joined the fray with their 25mm guns, and for 20 minutes U.S. soldiers and Shiite gunmen tried to kill each other in the twilight from distances as close as 30 meters.

The firefight also ended as most others do: An "angel above" (Apache helicopter) zeroed in on the main locations of enemy gunmen and let loose with Hellfire rockets.

The dust hardly settled before the soldiers were again guiding the lowered barriers into place, interrupted only by several other incidents during the night.

According to company statistics, 118 Shiite gunmen have been confirmed killed in wall battles between April 19 and May 2. Two U.S. soldiers have been wounded -- one shot in the side, another hit in the chest by a piece of shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade.

Eight improvised-explosive devices went off along the unbuilt wall route during the same period, while 48 others were detected.

Seventy percent of attacks on soldiers providing security for construction of the wall come from the north side of al-Quds Street.

The fiercest battles occurred April 27, when bands of gunmen attacked during a blinding dust storm. Still, the men of Charlie Company placed close to 100 barriers craned into place by troops of the 64th Brigade Support Battalion, who normally deliver water, fuel and other supplies.

Sadr City is a large Shiite enclave in the northeastern part of the capital and the stronghold of Sadr and his militia, the Mehdi Army, known by the acronym JAM. The cleric, believed to be in Iran at the moment, is a political rival of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Last August he ordered his militia to observe a cease-fire with U.S. and Iraqi government forces, but he rescinded it in late March after Iraqi army forces moved into the southern port city of Basra to quash criminal activity and violence by various Shiite militias, including the Mehdi Army and so-called special groups, elements of JAM under Iranian influence.

Fighting simultaneously broke out in Sadr City, with extremists firing dozens of 107mm and 120mm rockets on the International Zone from the district's southern area. Gunmen also overran government checkpoints and outposts in the district, resulting in U.S. troops entering the fray at the behest of their Iraqi comrades.

U.S. forces, once confined to the outskirts of southern Sadr City, now are present in about a third of Sadr City, manning joint U.S.-Iraqi outposts, conducting presence patrols and engaging in hearts-and-minds efforts while trying to keep gunmen from slipping into the area from Sadr City's more densely populated northern districts.

The barrier wall, vehemently denounced by Sadr, would effectively cut off infiltration from side streets and channel traffic through three major checkpoints where Iraqi army forces search vehicles for weapons and munitions, U.S. military officials say.

"We're close to half way, about 40-45 percent," Capt. Todd Looney, commander of 1/68's Charlie Company, said of the wall. "We're working as quickly as we can without sacrificing the safety of our soldiers."

Al-Quds Street is a virtual no-man's land at the moment. Shops along its northern side are either partially destroyed or boarded up. Among them is "Bazza of Truthful, the Honest Assemble" appliance store. All bear the marks of bullets. Insurgents creep into them, usually under the cover of darkness, and then wait in their windowed recesses to fire on U.S. troops.

On the south side of al-Quds where the wall is going up are abandoned homes. An occasional resident seeks entry by slowly walking to them from side streets, hands up in the air to show soldiers they are no danger.

But first impressions can be deceiving. On Saturday afternoon a man with a plastic shopping bag was shooed off as he passed too close to men of Blue Squad, 1/68. He dropped his bag and ran amid warning shots. The innocuous-looking bag contained ammunition, which "cooked off" when troops later probed it with gunfire.

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